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Authors: Nadia Wheatley

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BOOK: Listening to Mondrian
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‘Are you sure?’ and ‘I couldn’t possibly!’ and so on – we even had an argument about whether or not Mum should send some extra bedding with her, or maybe a few tins of things. ‘I know how hard up you students always are.’

‘Mum, I’ve got money! And I’m not a student – I got the St Paul’s job. My first window!’

Naturally that passed right over her – or she passed over it. ‘Well, if you’re sure, love . . .’

‘Sure I’m sure.’

I can hear the taxi outside now. Maree’s laugh as she tips the driver. The slam as he gets her haversack from the boot. I look back at my phone doodle, my design for the east chapel: the arrival of the Prodigal, seen from the point of view of the jealous sibling. A load of self-indulgent shit.

Ah, but all around the border is the theme for a cheerful parable: for I have drawn, I realise, the lilies of the field, who toiled not, neither did they spin, and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

(Imagine the colours I’ll be able to explore with this!)

The door is open. Maree comes in, her bright face bringing the sense of sunlight that always seems to shine right through her.

‘Thanks, Sis,’ I tell her, lifting the heavy pack off her shoulders: for, extravagant as ever, she has given me my first window. A miracle in deed.


Some of this story is about me, and some of it is about a fictional person. I’m not absolutely sure where the reality stops and the invention starts, so I’ll try to put it down just as it happened.

I am sixteen years old and I live in Katoomba, New South Wales, and my name is Dan Baker. (Or it mostly is. But you’ll see.) It was last winter when this started (it’s the morning of 31 December now) and maybe I should say that last winter was really bad.

I don’t mean the weather (though it gets pretty bliz-zardy up here in the Blue Mountains), but Mum. She was on my back all the time, really getting at me. ‘Clean up your room!’ ‘Turn that music down!’ ‘Don’t leave your skateboard in the passageway!’ ‘Do the washing up!’ ‘Put the peanut butter away after you’ve used it!’ ‘Pick up your skateboard!’ ‘Turn that bloody Jimi Hendrix down!’ ‘Will you clean up your room please, Daniel Baker!’

That was normal. I could cut off from that. But as well as all this usual stuff there was a new track on the record, about how I was in Year 10 and the School Certificate exams were coming up and if I didn’t pull my finger out, I wouldn’t be able to go on to Year 11, and what would happen to me then? ‘It’s your future,’ she kept saying, ‘It’s your future, not mine, that’s at stake.’

One night we had a really bad argument, and I snapped. ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ I yelled. ‘It is
future, not yours.’ I told her that I didn’t want to go on to the HSC anyway.

She got spitting mad then. ‘If you think I’m going to have you hanging about the house doing nothing – and you
be doing nothing, there’s no jobs up here . . .’

No worries, I told her. I’d go to Perth and live with Dad. Then she’d be free of me for good.

I thought she’d hit the roof, tell me I couldn’t, she wouldn’t allow me, etc. etc. She’s always been a bit funny about me even seeing Dad when he comes across to Sydney for a gig, about once every blue moon. (He’s a muso, see, and a bit of a pisspot, and she’s scared it might be catching.) But she just said, ‘Oh well. If that’s what you really want . . .’

After that, she stopped nagging, but things were somehow worse. It was as if I’d already gone, the way she ignored me. She enrolled in this textile design course at TAFE, and I heard her telling Nan over the phone that when I moved out she’d turn my room into a studio. ‘The problem is these bloody pine trees block most of the light from the window. I’m thinking about asking the landlord to put a skylight in. Don’t know how he’ll feel about it . . .’ It was as if me leaving home was the opportunity she’d been waiting for.

Funnily enough, now that Mum had stopped going on all the time about homework, I didn’t seem to mind it so much. Or maybe it was something to do. There was this sort of embarrassed silence between us if I went out into the lounge room to watch TV with her, so I just stayed in my room, most nights. A lot of the time we didn’t even make eye contact.

Anyway, that’s the background. The story really starts one day in June, when Ms Papadopoulos, that’s our History teacher, gave us this assignment. We’d been doing early white settlement, convicts and all that. We’d gone on an excursion out to the old courthouse and jail at Hartley, near the Coxs River, and we’d looked at this sandstone culvert that the road gangs had built on the Victoria Pass. We’d read photocopies of old documents about living conditions and stuff, and now Ms Pap said, ‘I want you to imagine you’re a convict, and you’ve been assigned as a servant to a master in the bush, and all your belongings in the whole world fit in a box the size of a shoebox . . .’

So we had to collect all the things for our own convict box. We had a month to do it in.

That night, over tea, I told Mum about it. I don’t know why – I guess it was just something to say. I could see she was really interested – she loves watching history documentaries – but she just said, ‘Poor things, it must’ve been so hard for them, leaving their homes . . .’ And then she bit her tongue, because since the night of the argument, we’d avoided any mention of ‘going’ or ‘leaving’ or even of ‘home’. (I wondered what it’d be like, living four thousand kilometres away in Perth. I mean, the furthest west I’ve ever been is Dubbo Zoo.)

Of course, with a whole month to collect the convict stuff I put off doing it, but over the next few days I found myself making little lists in my head. I’d be skating with my mates in the car park, and I’d think,
Or I’d be listening to Jimi Hendrix (I do like lots of new stuff too, but he’s the best guitarist ever) and I’d think, A spare bit of boot leather would come in handy . . . And one Saturday, when it was too wet to go out, I went to the garage to oil the bearings on my skateboard, and I found myself picking through the shelf of old stuff that previous tenants had left over the years – bits of wire, all sizes of nails, a huge old bolt, a piece of dog chain, a rusty tobacco tin, three fish hooks . . . If you’d been sent halfway across the world with nothing, then stuff like that would probably seem like treasure.

Mum came in then, to get the axe (we’ve got a fuel stove as well as the electric one). I thought she was going to tell me to split some wood, but she just said, ‘You’d probably have to cook for yourself a lot of the time.’

It took a moment before I figured out that she was talking about Perth. Dad was on the move a lot, the band did country gigs as well as city pubs. I guess I’d kind of imagined that I’d travel round with him, but I suppose (I thought when Mum said that), I suppose he wouldn’t always have room in the van for me, and I’d sometimes have to stay by myself in the flat. ‘No worries,’ I told Mum. ‘I’d just get takeaway or something.’

‘Takeaway!’ Mum said. ‘Do you really think that McDonald’s and Pizza Hut came out with the First Fleet?’

Oh! I realised then that when she’d said ‘you’, she hadn’t meant me, Dan Baker, but me the convict. (What was my name?)

‘You can take some of the camping utensils if you like,’ Mum went on. ‘But make sure they come back, OK?’

‘OK.’ But somehow the thought of it (the bush, the cooking-for-myself, the hard earth, the snakes) had gone sour, and I shoved the wire and stuff back on the shelf. I was me, Daniel John Baker, this was the twenty-first century, and I was a free person, so as the rain had stopped I went down to the takeaway where everyone hangs out. (Somehow I just had to see them. I mean, I knew I’d make new friends in Perth, but still . . .)

It was a couple of nights later when I was watching TV (Mum was out at her design course) that I suddenly thought ‘Seamus’. The name just came into my head and I knew that was me. Seamus Murphy. That meant I was Irish, didn’t it?

That was all at that stage, but it’s funny how, when you become aware of something, it somehow seems to crop up all the time. Over the next week, there was a show on TV about all the fighting between the Irish people and the English landlords that’s been going on for centuries, and in English we did a poem about the Easter Rebellion. And then Mum’s friend Liz who’s overseas sent this postcard of a tiny fallen-down stone cottage on a headland, with the sea on one side and steep green paddocks all around and a little village with a church spire in the distance.

, that’s where I come from, I just knew. I read the caption on the back of the postcard:
Deserted Cottage,
Connemara, Ireland

The next day in library period I found myself looking up Connemara in the atlas, but it seemed to be a whole area. I ran my finger down the jagged coastline, reading the names of the villages – why didn’t the bloody postcard say exactly where I lived? I shut my eyes and kept fingering the map, as if that might help me remember, and then I was aware of everyone laughing and the librarian saying, ‘Daniel! Daniel! You look as if you’re holding a seance!’

If this is all sounding as if I was getting totally obsessed with the history thing, then I’m giving the wrong impression. Most of the time I was just the same as ever (except for the uneasiness with Mum). I went out skating with my mates after school, or if it was too wet I mucked around at Damien’s place. On Friday nights we usually all went to Jason’s (his parents run the video shop and he gets all the latest DVDs for free). On weekends we went down to Penrith and hung out at the mall, and a couple of times I went to the movies with my old friend Tim. Meanwhile I’d rung Dad and told him I wanted to move over to Western Australia at the end of the year, and he said he knew, Mum had already rung him and discussed it. (That pissed me right off. Whose future was it anyway?)

‘OK, but leave it till January,’ Dad said. ‘I’ve got to come to Sydney – the band’s doing a bit of a tour across to the east, finishing up on New Year’s Eve at a pub in Rozelle. Then I guess I could drive up, we could pack your stuff in the van, and you could come back to Perth with me.’ He was quiet, as if he was thinking.

‘There won’t be much room, you know,’ he warned. ‘I’ll have a lot of the band equipment. So keep it down to a couple of bags, OK?’

‘No worries,’ I said. If you’re used to living out of a shoebox (the Seamus bit of me thought) then a couple of bags sounds like heaps of room. All the same, I didn’t find it easy when I started going through sixteen years of accumulated junk, making a big pile to take to the op shop.

Toy trucks and cars from when I was a real little kid; the bulldozer Dad gave me the Christmas after he split; Monopoly and Junior Scrabble and Uno and Gameboy; the farm set (I used to really love that); Little Golden Books and
Thomas the Tank Engine
and the Hardy Boys and Paul Jennings and Roald Dahl; the plastic speedcar raceway and the Lego and my surfa-plane. And then there were all the clothes I’d grown out of, and four brand new pairs of pyjamas (Nan gave me some every birthday and I never wore them).

The other pile was the hardest because I’d have to take it to the tip. Stuff like my three broken skatedecks and all my old Reeboks and Nikes that I’d worn out skating; my first football (that had punctured when Tim and I were playing near the highway and a car went over it); my first cricket bat (that had split down the middle when Damien hit a six right down the back gully and we never found the ball); the two-way radio (that Jason and I had made out of beer cans and clothesline); and Dino, my old green velvet dinosaur, who was sprouting fluff from his earholes. I just had to look at that stuff and I’d remember all the good times . . .

‘I never thought I’d see the day,’ Mum stuck her head around the door, ‘when Daniel Baker voluntarily cleaned his room!’

‘I’m not cleaning. I’m throwing stuff out.’

‘What in heaven’s name for?’

‘Well, you won’t want all my junk,’ I said, ‘when you set up your studio.’

‘Oh . . .’ I’d caught her out, I could see. She hadn’t actually told me about her plans for when she got rid of me. ‘OK, but you don’t have to pack
, do you? Dad won’t be coming to get you till New Year. And we can’t shift all that stuff, without a car.’

‘Just practising,’ I said. ‘Making sure it’ll fit when the time comes.’ I looked at my third pile:
Things to Take
. My skateboard. CD player. CDs. My Swiss Army knife. Two pairs of jeans (besides the pair I had on), four T-shirts, tracksuit pants, jumper, coat. And the hardback set of
The Lord of the Rings
that Mum had given me when I’d started high school. That was Dan Baker’s convict box.

‘Oh, by the way,’ Mum said, real sort of off-hand. ‘I saw this in the op shop and got it for you. I hope you don’t mind.’

She held out something that looked like a tin whistle. What the hell could it be?

‘It’s a tin whistle,’ Mum said. ‘I thought it might cheer you up.’

I stared at her. OK, throwing out all my stuff
making me miserable, but she didn’t know that. And the last thing I needed was more junk.

‘When you’re by yourself at night. In your hut, if you have a hut.’

Oh. It was you-the-convict she meant again. ‘Thank you,’ I said rather stiffly. ‘But I don’t know if Seamus can play it.’


‘Yeah, Seamus Murphy. That’s me . . .’

When I said that, I . . . Look, I’m not trying to make this out to be like a horror movie or something. Nothing spooky happened, such as seeing my hand go all calloused and warty, or hearing moans, or the room going sideways, but I did feel – something. As if someone out in space had a machine like a TV remote control, and they’d flicked for a second from my channel to Seamus Murphy’s channel and then back again.

‘I mean,’ I said quickly, ‘that’s
. The convict that I am.’

‘That’s appropriate,’ Mum said.

‘What is?’

‘That you’re Irish.’

I looked at her.

‘Well, you are,’ Mum explained. ‘On my side. Nan was a MacBride before she married. Not that she’s ever been to Ireland or anything – we’re fifth-generation Aussie. But still. Oh well, if you don’t want this, I suppose I can give it back to the op shop . . .’

BOOK: Listening to Mondrian
5.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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