Counting

Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a tidy little wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.

One day it was Benson’s mother’s birthday, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss decided she should have a party, and they invited lots of friends and relations. They spent all morning cooking mushroom pies and parsnip crisps and spinach turnovers and sweet potato chips and rosemary potatoes and roasted vegetable tarts and bean and tomato stew, until Benson was worn out with smelling wonderful things and not being allowed to eat any of them.

All the guests were coming at lunchtime, and everyone decided it was Benson’s job to set the table. His mother said she had to go and get dressed and make herself beautiful, and Lillibet and Moss were flopped on chairs in the kitchen, too tired to move.

Benson started to get out the plates and knives and forks, and then he stopped. “How many people are coming?” he asked.

“Ten,” said Aunt Moss.

“Twenty,” said Aunt Lillibet at the same time.

Benson looked at the table. There was room for eight if nobody minded squashing, and there were three extra chairs they could pull up to the table, but he needed to know how many knives and forks and spoons to get ready. “How many exactly?” he said.

Lillibet sat up. “Well, there’s us, that’s four.”

“And Millicent and Mrs Crook and the two young Crooks,” Aunt Moss said.

“Genevieve and Josie and the twins, and Gulliver and your cousins,” Lillibet said, counting on her fingers.

“No, dear, we already counted the twins,” Aunt Moss said. “That’s Millicent and Mrs Crook – we always call her that but her name is Tip. At least we always called her Tip.”

“So that’s eleven,” said Benson, “not counting the cousins.”

“There are six cousins altogether,” Lillibet said. She closed her eyes to concentrate. “Gulliver had two, not counting your mother, and Josie has her Andrew and Millicent has her Andrew – you can always tell them apart because Millicent’s Andrew is round and tubby, and Josie’s Andrew is short and fuzzy, like Gulliver.”

“No, Lillibet, you’re getting mixed up again. Gulliver has an Andrew but Josie only has girls, Millie and Mickie, and the littlest, I forget her name. Mickie is the grumpy one, so make sure she gets plenty of sweet potato chips or she might get into a miff.”

“Seventeen?” Benson guessed. He picked up some more plates and counted out seventeen forks.

“You forgot that Mrs Crook can’t come, and only one of the young Crooks is coming – Oliver, I think, or is that Josie’s littlest?” Lillibet said.

“Adelaide’s brother is Oliver, but we decided not to invite them, remember, because of the fuss they made last time about there being no turtle soup. We just couldn’t have turtle soup, because of the turtles, of course, but Adelaide has a funny tummy, so we thought it would be best just not to invite them.”

“If Adelaide isn’t coming, then Gulliver won’t come because he always gets lost unless he has Adelaide to tell him exactly where to go, and then he’s so late he’s too embarrassed to come in. It’s very silly, but there you are. So take Gulliver off the list, and if he’s not coming then his two cousins won’t come either, so that makes twelve, or thirteen.”

Benson went and got a piece of paper and started to write down who was coming. He put down Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss, and then he got stuck. “Tell me again who is actually coming?” he asked.

“I wish you’d listen properly,” Aunt Lillibet said. “Write this down: Millicent, Adelaide, Andrew, Gulliver…”

“No, not Gulliver, remember, Lillibet, and not Andrew either,” Aunt Moss said.

“Not that Andrew, I meant the other Andrew,” Lillibet said.

“But didn’t the other Andrew move to the Norway or somewhere?” Aunt Moss asked. “Or am I thinking of Tip and the girls? Did Tip say she was coming?”

“I don’t know,” Lillibet said. “I can’t remember who said they were coming and who didn’t. I’m too tired to think.”

Benson put his pencil away and folded up the piece of paper. He got the biggest picnic blanket and took it outside and spread it out under their favourite picnic tree, and then he got a great big pile of plates and put them at one end of the blanket, and then he got a basket and filled it full of knives and forks and spoons, and put it beside the plates.

His mother came out, in her best dress. “That’s a wonderful idea, Benson,” she said. “Everyone loves picnics, and the weather’s perfect.”

The guests started arriving just then, and Lillibet and Aunt Moss got up, not the least bit tired any more. They carried all the food outside, and everyone sat on the blanket and there was plenty of room for everyone. Gulliver came after all, and Millicent brought two extra cousins that no-one had met and Benson had a great time. Everyone ate and ate, and even after they finished the fruit salad and the banana-leaf tart and they all went home, Benson still had no idea how many people had come.

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