Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a warm, cosy wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
One day Benson was playing parachutes with his friend, Roly. Roly had found an old termite mound near his own burrow, and he and Benson were taking turns jumping off the top, holding onto a parachute made from one of Nanna’s tea-towels. Benson was much bigger, so he wasn’t that good at floating down to the ground. He didn’t float so much as flump, but Roly was little and light so he was much better.
When they went back to Benson’s place for something to eat, Benson’s mother said, “Roly, I’ve got a nice surprise for you. You’re having visitors this afternoon.”
“Me?” said Roly. “Is it Nanna?” Nanna wasn’t Roly’s Nanna but she didn’t mind him borrowing her since he didn’t have a grandmother of his own.
“No,” said Benson’s mother, “it’s your Aunty Gustavia, and your cousin Neville.”
Benson said, “I didn’t know you had your own aunty?”
Roly said, “I didn’t know either!”
Benson’s mother said, “She’s your grandmother’s cousin’s daughter. I think that makes her your mother’s second cousin, so Neville would be your third cousin.”
“Wow!” said Roly. “I’ve got a family!”
“Everyone’s got a family,” said Benson. “Sometimes you just don’t know who they are.”
Just after lunch there was a knock at the door. When Benson opened it, a large, round echidna came bustling in, with a smaller one just behind her. “I’m Roly’s Aunty Gus,” she said, “and this is his little cousin, Neville.”
Roly said hello shyly. Aunty Gus picked him up and hugged him so tight he could hardly breathe. “You poor, poor thing!” she said. “You poor, poor little thing! Look at your poor little spines! They’re all gone!”
“But they’re growing back,” Roly said. “See? This one and this one.”
Aunty Gus said, “But your poor little feet! They’ll never grow back, will they?”
Roly was embarrassed. His feet got burnt in a bushfire but he hardly thought about them any more.
Benson tried to explain to Aunty Gus. “It doesn’t matter really, because Roly can manage fine anyway.” Auntie Gus just looked sad and tried to hug Roly again, but he stayed out of reach behind Benson.
Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t we sit down and have some cake and orange juice?”
They all sat down and Neville started eating cake as if he was training for a cake-eating competition. Benson took a piece for himself and one for Roly, and then he got a spare piece in case there was none left when he wanted to ask for seconds.
Aunty Gus had a piece of cake and she said to Roly, “I thought it would be nice for you and Neville to share a room. It will be like having a new little brother for him!”
Roly was so surprised he coughed, and cake crumbs came out of his nose. “Am I coming to your place for a visit?” he asked.
“Oh no, not for a visit,” said Aunty Gus, having another piece of cake. “You’re coming to live with us, of course.” She gave Roly a friendly squeeze. “We’re family, you know,” she said.
Roly put his piece of cake down half-eaten. He wasn’t hungry any more. Neville snuffled it up in a flash.
Benson said, “But Roly lives here.” He didn’t want his friend to move a long way away where he couldn’t see him every day.
Aunty Gus said, “Yes, dear, but you’re wombats. Roly belongs with other echidnas.”
“Why?” Benson asked. His mother gave him a look to say he was being rude, so he tried to explain nicely. “We have lots of different animals around here, rabbits and turtles and rock wallabies and possums and everything, and we all belong. Anyway Roly already has his own burrow here.”
“But he can’t possibly live by himself,” Aunty Gus said. “He’s just a little puggle like Neville. He needs looking after.”
Benson thought Neville wasn’t such a little puggle at all. He was nearly as big as his mother. He said, “What if Roly doesn’t want to live with you?”
Everyone turned to look at Roly. Roly didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to leave his friends, but maybe Aunty Gus was right and it would be better if he lived with other echidnas.
Benson said, “Why can’t he stay here with us? Maybe he looks different but he likes the same things as me. He likes digging, and jumping, and he likes stories, and playing games, and he likes custard.”
Roly got down from his chair. He said quietly, “I’m sorry, Benson, I don’t really like custard.” He went outside and went into his burrow.
Aunty Gus said to Benson, “You see? Don’t be sad, dear. Roly will be happier with us. He’s just not like you.”
Benson’s mother said, “It’s very kind of you to take him in.”
Aunty Gus smiled. “It’ll be a bit of a squeeze, but he’s family. What else could we do? Neville will love it, won’t you, Neville?”
Neville had gone to sleep as soon as the cake was all gone. His mother gave him a little shake to wake him up. “Neville, why don’t you go and play with your little cousin?” Neville grumbled a bit, but he went outside to find Roly.
Benson’s mother went into the kitchen to make some sandwiches, with lemon butter and tamarillo. Benson followed her into the kitchen and said, “You can’t let them take Roly away!”
His mother said, “They’re not taking him away, Benson, they’re taking him home. You heard what Roly said.”
Benson said, “But this is his home!”
“This is his home for now, and it will always be home for him, if he needs it. But we have to think about what’s best for Roly,” she said.
Benson was very upset and angry. His mother said, “Why don’t you take some of these sandwiches out for Neville and Roly? And would you mind asking Roly for my butterfly book that he borrowed last week, please?”
Benson took the sandwiches and went outside, grumbling all the way.
Benson’s mother made some more orange juice, and then she took the rest of the sandwiches over to Aunty Gus. Aunty Gus tasted one and her long snout wrinkled up. She said, “These sandwiches are very… unusual.”
“They’re Roly’s favourite,” said Benson’s mother. Just then Neville and Roly and Benson came inside. Neville was looking unhappy.
“What’s the matter, darling?” his mother said to him.
“I don’t want that little echidna to come and live with us,” he said.
“Why? What’s happened? Were Roly and Benson unkind to you?” his mother asked.
Neville nodded. “They just talked to each other the whole time about books and stuff and they gave me these weird sandwiches. And then they tried to make me jump off a giant ant hill!”
“What?” his mother said. “You poor darling!”
Benson tried to explain, “It was just a game!”
Aunty Gus gave Neville a big cuddle and patted his spiny head. She said to Benson’s mother, “I’m sorry, but Roly won’t be able to come home with us after all. We can’t have him teasing and bullying poor little Neville. Neville’s very sensitive, you know.”
Benson’s mother said, “That’s all right, Roly can stay here with us for as long as he wants to. We’re very happy to have him.”
Roly was so happy he couldn’t stop smiling. Benson jumped up and down for joy.
Aunty Gus said, “I don’t like saying this, but this is what I was afraid would happen if he spent too much time with wombats.”
After they were gone, Roly hugged Benson’s mother, and she hugged him back. “You’ll always have a home here with us,” she said.
Benson said, “It looks like you’re going to have to learn to like custard, Roly.”