A Trip to the National Gallery

by Vikki Petraitis, Copyright 1995

Today we went to the National Gallery. It was good. We had fun. The picture I liked best was Weeping Woman because she reminds me of my mum. After the National Gallery, we went to the Botanic Gardens for lunch. It was good. Then we caught the bus back to Langwarrin. Troy McKenzie sang songs with rude words in them. It was fun.

So much for homework. Today we went to the National Gallery for what Ms Sposato called a mind extending experience and then for a further mind extending experience, we had to write a paragraph about the gallery for homework. My mind is now fully. That is the thing that I hate most in this world - going on a great excursion and then having to write a paragraph on it when you get back. In fact I'm sure that if I raced into the classroom tomorrow and told Ms Sposato that I had been taken on a journey by aliens in a UFO, she would tell me to write a paragraph about it!

We had been looking forward to the gallery for months. Ms Sposato had told us about lots of different paintings and she would try to tell us how big they were by comparing them to things in the classroom. We knew that Weeping Woman was as big as the art cupboard window and that The Banquet of Cleopatra was bigger than the blackboard - but we had never seen any of them.

This morning, we were all so excited that even Troy McKenzie got to school on time. Troy McKenzie was looking forward to seeing all the nudes even though Ms Sposato had warned us that if she caught anyone embarrassing her at the gallery by laughing at figures with no clothes on, she would make them sit in front of the painting or statue for the whole visit so that all the other gallery visitors would think they were weird. We all made a pact to do our giggling in the gallery toilets so if anyone heard us, they would never guess we were giggling about the paintings.

When the big bus arrived at St Maria Goretti's at ten past nine this morning, we all cheered. We loved excursions. Ms Sposato had told us all to bring our lunches in plastic bags and, for a special treat, we were allowed to bring a can of drink. Everybody piled their lunches into the lunch basket and Ms Sposato picked me and Mitch Mooney to carry the overflowing basket to the bus. As soon as we walked around the corner past the library, Mitch Mooney put down his side of the basket forcing me to put down mine. He began to look in everybody's plastic bag to check out what everybody was having for lunch.

"Er yuk! Bronwyn Bunting's got a hard boiled egg!" yelled Mitch in horrified delight.

"And Troy McKenzie's got fairy cakes!" I yelled joining in the fun.

We quickly looked in everybody's plastic bag and found things like last night's meatloaf and Nicholas Ramsbotthom had a bag of pickled onions. We laughed as we picked up the basket and ran for the bus. Everybody was sitting down and we were the last to hop on. Ms Sposato seated all the dags in the back because she figured that they wouldn't misbehave. But everybody knows that there is something magical about the back seat of a bus that makes even normal children go wild.

Ms Sposato sat up the front in a single seat just behind the bus driver. The bus driver looked like every other bus driver we have had. He was medium height, medium fattness, with medium hair and a medium face and he completely ignored all the children and said nice things to Ms Sposato who sometimes blushed. Bronwyn Bunting's mother, the only parent who had volunteered for the excursion, sat in the middle of the bus next to Bronwyn who was smiling proudly - though I don't know why. Mrs Bunting was no oil painting.

Oh, we loved bus rides. There were so many things you could do to keep yourself occupied. We jumped up out of our seats when we went over the speed bumps in the school driveway. We made rude gestures to truck drivers who made them right back to us and then we told Ms Sposato who gave the truck drivers dirty looks. It was great fun.

We sang songs until our voices hurt and then we kept singing because we knew it made Ms Sposato rub her temples and tell the bus driver that she would rather be anywhere else in the world than on a bus with 31 children. The bus driver nodded sympathetically and said something nice about Ms Sposato's frock and made her blush. We laughed and kept singing.

It took an hour to get from Langwarrin to the National Gallery and we were really glad to get off the bus and stand still stretching our legs - until we saw the glass window at the entrance to the gallery. It had a wall of water running down it. All 31 of us bolted for the window and pressed our faces and hands against the glass and the water trickled over us. I saw Ms Sposato struggling off the bus with the lunch basket which Mitch Mooney and I had forgotten in the excitement. I grabbed Mitch and we both ran back to help her. When the three of us walked back to the entrance, Ms Sposato spied Troy McKenzie with his bottom against the wet window and she roared!

"Troy McKenzie! Get your bottom off that window - RIGHT NOW!" Ms Sposato was red in the face and she suddenly got redder when she remembered that she wasn't in the classroom back at St Maria Goretti's, but she was in public with normal people.

Troy McKenzie removed his behind from the window and we all giggled because it looked like he had wet his pants. Troy McKenzie didn't care, he just laughed too. Gee I admired him.

Ms Sposato walked over to the ticket window and told the man that St Maria Goretti's had arrived. I thought I saw him shudder but it could have been my imagination.

We all had to line up near the door and walk past a man dressed in a guard's uniform. Mitch Mooney and I put the basket of lunches in a locker with a sliding roller door and locked it and gave the key to Ms Sposato. We were ready to check out the gallery.

Everybody assembled in the front foyer and we all snuck over to the information counter and took one of every leaflet which, before we arrived, had been arranged in neat piles underneath a sign that said "Free Information". Ms Sposato spoke to the Educational Officers and we stuffed the leaflets down our school jumpers because we knew Ms Sposato would make us put them all back if she saw how many we took. Two Educational Officers came over to speak to all the grade 5's. While they were telling us the rules of the gallery, I saw Ms Sposato browsing near the free brochures and to my surprise, she took one of each and shoved them into her small handbag.

There were heaps of things you couldn't do at the gallery and as I listened to the Educational Officer called Frank go through all the rules, I hoped Troy McKenzie was listening because he was bound to get into trouble in a place like this. Frank told us that we weren't allowed to touch any of the artworks. We also weren't allowed to run in the gallery or eat or carry a big bag because you might steal something. I wondered if Frank suspected that every grade 5 child's jumper was already stuffed with stolen brochures.

Frank broke us up into two groups. I was in a group with Troy McKenzie, Snotty McFee, Bronwyn Bunting, Emma Vigilante, Mitch Mooney, Jason McWhirter and Sharyn Amott who was the smartest kid in grade 5. Bronwyn Bunting's mother had to go in our group because Bronwyn was in the group. Bronwyn Bunting is the only grade 5 I know that doesn't mind if her mother comes on an excursion. In fact, I suspect she likes having her mother there. How immature!

Bronwyn Bunting's mother is weird. She always smiles and says really positive things to kids and she always explains things really clearly if anyone ever asks her a question - definitely not a woman you could trust. I'm not sure why she doesn't look annoyed and bothered like everybody else's mother. Respectable mothers ignore children most of the time and get annoyed easily. It makes kids feel secure. And now I'd have to put up with Bronwyn Bunting's nice mother all day. How revolting!

Frank the Guide took us to the Australian section first and sat us down in front of Fredrick McCubbin's The Pioneer. It was huge and I wondered how Fredrick McCubbin could have reached the high bits. Frank explained the three panels. The first one had a young couple in it with a wagon. In the second panel, the lady had a baby and was talking to a man sitting on a log. I liked the last panel best. There was a man bending over an old grave. Frank the Guide asked us who we thought was buried there. Bronwyn Bunting put her hand up nicely and said that the man could have been the baby grown up and the graves could have been his parents.

Jason McWhirter said that the man could have been burying his wife or baby. Frank the Guide nodded and then noticed Troy McKenzie sitting scruffily tugging on his shoelaces. Frank asked Troy what he thought had happened. Troy McKenzie looked thoughtfully at the third panel and said, "I reckon that the son went mad with a chainsaw and chopped both his parents into tiny pieces and now he's getting rid of the evidence."

Frank the Guide's face turned a light purple colour but he did his best to ignore Troy McKenzie's answer and moved us on to another painting. As we were sitting down in front of the next painting, Troy McKenzie punched me on the arm and said, "Frank the Guide is a loser. I'm gunna get `im."

"Troy, remember what Ms Sposato said about misbehaving. She said that anyone who misbehaves, she would tie to the ceiling fan and turn them on high."

"Who cares?" Troy McKenzie said bravely.

"That ceiling fan goes really fast," I told him trying to make him see sense but he wouldn't listen.

"Children, who can tell me the name of this painting?" said Frank the Guide.

I knew it so I put up my hand and said that the painting was Shearing the Rams by Tom Roberts. Frank the Guide seemed pleased and even managed to smile weakly at Troy McKenzie.

"Who can tell me what they know about this painting?" he asked and was foolish enough to pick Troy McKenzie whose hand shot up immediately.

"I've seen a picture just like this before," Troy told Frank the Guide. "It was in the newspaper - except the picture was a cartoon and it was called Ramming the Shears, and the bloke behind the front bloke was ramming the shears into the front bloke's bum..."

"Oh, oh," spluttered Frank the Guide, "Well thank you young man." You could tell that Frank the Guide had decided not to pick Troy to answer any more questions.

Frank the Guide walked us through some other sections and finally we sat down in front of a huge painting called The Banquet of Cleopatra. Frank started to tell us about the picture.

"Giovanni Battista Tiepolo began this painting in 1743 and finished it the following year," he began. "As you can see, there are many rich characters in the scene..."

"How rich are they?" Troy McKenzie called out, interrupting Frank the Guide and making him lose his train of thought.

"Er, I... I don't know how rich they are, now where was I? Oh yes, I was going to talk about the dogs. As you can see, there is a big dog on the floor and there is a tiny dog sitting on Cleopatra's lap."

Troy McKenzie wasn't going to be silenced. "My pig, Axl would kill both those stupid dogs," he said and he didn't let up. When Frank the Guide told us that Cleopatra was about to drop a priceless pearl into a glass of vinegar and drink it, Troy McKenzie called out that he'd rather have a Coke.

Bronwyn Bunting's mother finally realised that it was up to her to try to control Troy McKenzie since she was in charge of the group. Troy was in the middle of telling Frank the Guide that the man on the left side of the painting looked like he was scratching his bottom, when Mrs Bunting took him firmly by the arm and led him over by the European portraits.

I edged toward the back of the group to try to listen to what Bronwyn Bunting's perfect mother would say to Troy McKenzie.

She began with, "Troy, why are you being so silly and ruining everybody's enjoyment?"

Troy answered in his smart alec voice, "Because Ms Sposato said there would be nudes and I wanna see `em."

To her credit Mrs Bunting didn't look shocked, she just asked Troy which nudes he especially wanted to see. All of a sudden Troy McKenzie looked embarrassed and didn't answer, so she asked him again. I had never seen Troy McKenzie lost for words before - but he was now. It was as if he suddenly realised that he was talking about naked women with a woman who - except for her clothes - would have been naked too. He looked confused.

I heard Bronwyn Bunting's mother tell Troy McKenzie that if he really wanted to look at nudes, she would personally take him and find some right then and there and let Frank the Guide look after the group. I heard Troy say something about suddenly changing his mind and he walked rather quickly back to our group and sat down next to me.

"That Mrs Bronwyn's mother is a weirdo!" he said to me and I quickly agreed.

When Frank the Guide had shown us six artworks, it was time for us to explore the gallery by ourselves - except of course for Bronwyn Bunting's mother. Frank had left us with a warning. He told us that there were guards in every room and that some of the artworks were protected by individual alarms. He also told us that we weren't allowed to step over the white borders near the artworks otherwise the guards would get cross at us. Our group all nodded seriously. I wondered to myself who would be the first to get into trouble.

Mrs Bunting walked us around to the most boring section of the gallery - the glass section. It had glass cases just full of glass things. Troy McKenzie got told off by the Glass Cases Guard for doing a blowfish on one of the cases.

We walked around the section that has all the really old statues and ornaments from before Jesus was born and boy, did they look old. Mrs Bunting tried to make us enthusiastic by saying things like, "Can you imagine that this horse statue was 1000 years old when Jesus was born?" and I said, "So was my nanna."

Mrs Bunting looked a bit wounded but I didn't care. She was a painful woman and she deserved everything she got. She sniffed a bit but was distracted when Troy McKenzie did another blowfish on the glass case holding the horse that was 1000 years old when Jesus was born and got told off by the Old Statues and Ornaments Guard.

We didn't really like looking at the ornaments. We wanted to see the paintings so Mrs Bunting let us go on the escalator to the ground floor and have a bit of a wander. Nicholas Ramsbotthom had some chewy that he had cleverly hidden on the roof of his mouth. He had sounded like he spoke with a lisp when we went on the tour and I thought it was funny because Frank the Guide spoke with a bit of a lisp too - he must have had his chewy stuck to the roof of his mouth - just like Nicholas!

Anyway, Nicholas Ramsbotthom took out his chewy and stuck it on the handrail of the escalator and we all stood at the bottom waiting for the next person to ride down. There was a sign explaining the Felton Bequest at the bottom of the escalator, so we all pretended to read it - except Bronwyn Bunting and her mother who were really reading it. They didn't know about the chewy.

We all held our breath as people walked up to the escalator and then walked past it to look at other things. Finally a group of old ladies approached the top step. We all laughed as one particularly silly looking old lady wearing a daisy hat and long white gloves stuck her hand right in Nicholas Ramsbotthom's pink chewy. She didn't even notice until she got to the bottom and tried to lift her gloved hand from the rail and it made a big stringy pink line. We all laughed until we cried.

Bronwyn Bunting's mother asked us in a rather suspicious voice what we were laughing at. Snotty McFee said that we were laughing at the old lady's daisy hat. Bronwyn Bunting's mother told us not to be uncharitable and that sometimes old people got a bit out of touch with the latest fashions and that one day we would be old and we wouldn't want young children laughing at us.

Sharyn Amott put up her hand - yes, right in the middle of the gallery foyer. Mrs Bunting asked her what she wanted and she said that she needed to go to the toilet. She said the word "toilet" in a very quiet and respectful voice. Of course, the minute she said it, everybody said they needed to go. Ms Sposato called it the "synchronized bladder syndrome".

We all had great fun in the toilets, in fact, some of our best times at school were in the toilets. At St Maria Goretti's the boys toilets and the girls toilets are connected by a shared brick wall. We throw wet toilet paper at each other and listen for strange noises. Unfortunately, the gallery toilets weren't connected, but going was a real experience. The toilets were much cleaner and newer than the ones at school. The doors were all white and so were the tiles. They even had those excellent soap dispensers that you pull the lever and pink soap squirts onto your hand. They were all empty after we finished with them.

Back in the foyer, we all waited for everyone to emerge from the gallery toilets. Some kids just couldn't get enough of strange toilets - they just kept having to go back for that extra flush. But when Sharyn Amott finally came out of the toilets looking upset, we all put it down to being the last to have a go at the soap dispensers and finding them empty.

Sharyn Amott, the smartest kid in grade 5 didn't usually look upset and when she continued to look worried, I felt compelled to go over to her and ask her what was wrong. She stared at me through her thick jam jar glasses and looked as if she was deciding whether she could trust me or not. She must have decided that she couldn't and she said that there was nothing wrong and wandered into the Great Hall with the coloured ceilings. Bronwyn Bunting's mother was ridiculously excited. She even made us all lie on the floor and stare up at the coloured glass. I must admit that it did make my head spin a bit. I was concentrating so hard on the patterns that I didn't immediately recognise the whispery voice in my ear.

"Can I trust you?" it said.

I turned my head and stared straight into a pair of thick glasses. It was Sharyn Amott.

"Of course, you can trust me," I said.

Sharyn leaned up so close that I could smell the muesli that she had for breakfast.

"I think the gallery is going to be robbed," she said calmly.

"Why would you think a silly thing like that?" I asked, momentarily forgetting that she was the smartest kid in grade 5 and that she was never wrong.

"I overheard a conversation in the toilets," began Sharyn calmly, "and it lead me to believe that two women were planning to steal one of the art works."

I didn't know what to do. Sharyn wasn't panicking, but I was beginning to.

"What did they say?"

"Well," began Sharyn slowly, "I was trying to get some soap out of the soap dispenser, which didn't seem to be working when two women began talking down the other end of the bathroom. They probably didn't even notice I was there."

I thought that it wasn't surprising that people didn't notice Sharyn Amott. She was short and blond with the second thickest pair of glasses that I had ever seen in my whole life.

"One of the women said to the other that she was sick and tired of having no money and the other said that after today she wouldn't have to worry,"

"So, that's no reason to suspect them of stealing anything..."

"Let me finish," she said in a voice that was growing just a little bit impatient. "The first one said that she deserved some good fortune and after Harry had left, she was going to take the weeping woman in her and put it all behind."

"Wow," I said, "it really does sound like they plan to steal Picasso's Weeping Woman."

"Yes," agreed Sharyn, "that's exactly what I thought!"

"When she said that she was going to put it all behind her, I bet she meant that she was going to shove Weeping Woman up her jumper."

"Absolutely," said Sharyn "and I bet that Harry is one of the gallery guards and she is going to wait until he leaves the room and she is going to grab the Weeping Woman."

"What are we going to do?" I cried.

"We have to save the painting," said Sharyn firmly.

Sharyn and I talked in whispers and developed a plan. Sharyn knew what the women looked like and we would have to wander around until we found them. We planned to follow them until they tried to steal the painting and then we would raise the alarm - somehow.

We got up off the floor of the room with the coloured ceilings and asked Bronwyn Bunting's mother if a few of us could go on a wander by ourselves. She looked sort of suspicious but she told us how adults should trust children and that the children had a responsibility to honour that trust. We nodded seriously and then shot off around the corner and put our fingers down our throats and made vomity gestures.

Sharyn Amott and I stood inconspicuously next to the naked statue of Circe. We watched everyone who went past and some people seemed to feel uncomfortable - us watching them watching Circe. I don't know why.

Troy McKenzie sauntered around the corner and he was heading straight for Circe. He didn't notice us standing near by and I heard him say, "Hurly burly, what a girlie! Just look at those..."

"Troy McKenzie!" It was Bronwyn Bunting's mother. She had found him although it wasn't really surprising that she knew where to look.

"Quick," I said, "come with us!"

I grabbed Troy McKenzie's muscley arm and dragged him around the partition and we headed for the escalators. The three of us lost Bronwyn Bunting's mother without much effort and Sharyn Amott and I were forced to explain our mission to Troy McKenzie.

"I'll bash `em," was his response.

Sharyn Amott explained gently and with great patience that physical violence wasn't the answer and with our brains we should be able to out smart the crooks. Troy McKenzie looked confused and Sharyn Amott quickly corrected herself. With HER brains, we should be able to out smart the crooks.

"Then can I bash them?" asked Troy causing Sharyn Amott to utter a really big sigh. She turned her attention to the passers-by, her thick jam jars reflecting the painting opposite which happened to be Andy Warhol's Self Portrait. She looked so funny for that brief moment. The smartest kid in grade 5 having the bright colours of Andy Warhol shinning on her glasses.

"There they are!" whispered Sharyn pointing to two very suspicious women. They both wore floral print knee length dresses, with sensible shoes and boring perm hairstyles like my grandmother. They were obviously two despicable criminals dressed just like ordinary housewives. Luckily we were so clever that we could see through their disguise.

We scampered around so that we were following them and they hardly noticed us - except for when I bumped into the back of one of them. I noticed that Troy McKenzie had already clenched his fists in anticipation.

We followed them around until we came to the hall with Picasso's Weeping Woman. We stood a little way off and watched as the women stood in front of the green and purple crying lady. We watched them point at it but we couldn't hear what they were saying - no doubt though, that they were planning what they would buy with the money they would get when they sold it.

One of the women looked around suspiciously over her shoulder. I gave Sharyn Amott a nudge. They were obviously getting ready to make their move. The other woman took a step forward. This was our chance.

Troy McKenzie let out a WHOOOP and took a running jump towards them. He hit the floor, tripped over and slid all the way over to where the robbers were standing. They weren't standing for long. Troy bowled them over like pins at a bowling alley.

Suddenly the most awful wailing sound filled the air. It was partly the women lying on the floor screaming with Troy McKenzie lying on top of them and partly the siren that had been activated when the alarm for Picasso's famous painting was triggered.

I think we got off pretty lightly considering that Ms Sposato was really furious at us. After the guards had led us away, Ms Sposato made us sit in the front foyer until the rest of the grade 5s had finished their tours. It wasn't really too bad. We filled our jumpers with more brochures, made blowfish on the water window and pretended to pick our noses every time a group of old ladies went past.

It was a really long day and I was almost glad to come home. After I finished my homework and shoved it into my bag, I watched Gummi Bears on TV. When it was over, I thought for a moment and then did something very out of character - I got out my homework book and I wrote one more sentence in large capital letters: