Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a tidy, well-made wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
One morning when Benson went to the playground with his mother, there was a wombat Benson had never seen before. He was bigger and older than Benson, with smoother, dark hair. He wasn’t playing on the equipment with the little kids, he was exercising on the grown-up equipment, doing lots of push-ups and riding on a pretend exercise bike.
Benson’s friend Mick was talking to him, so Benson went over.
Mick said, “Benson, this is Nugent. He’s showing me how to do sit-ups.”
“New-jent?” Benson said.
Nugent smiled at him. “That’s right. Nice to meet you, Benson.” He had a lovely smile.
Mick said, “Look what Nugent showed me. It’s a kind of backward reverse sit-up on a balance beam.”
He showed Benson what he could do, and then Benson had a turn, and then Nugent helped them get untangled from each other. Nugent was very calm and friendly. He lifted them up to the high rings that they couldn’t reach by themselves, and he let them use his stopwatch to see who was the fastest at doing push-ups.
Benson had such a good time, he wanted to go to the playground every day and do stuff with Nugent. It was much more fun than playing in the sand-pit with the little ones, or waiting for someone to push him on the swing.
Benson’s mother came over to watch them doing pretend wrestling. “Where do you live, Nugent?” she asked him.
Nugent smiled at her and said, “I’ve just moved out on my own. I haven’t really decided yet where I’m going to settle down.”
Benson said, “We’ve got lots of empty wombat holes around here you could stay in.” He really hoped Nugent would stay.
The next day when Benson and his mother went down to the creek, Nugent was there swimming with Alejandro.
“Hi, Benson,” said Alejandro. “Nugent is teaching me how to float on my back.”
Benson felt a bit strange. Part of him wanted to swim with Alejandro and Nugent, and part of him didn’t want to share Nugent with anyone. He jumped into the creek and splashed around, trying to get Nugent’s attention, until Nugent laughed and splashed him back.
The next day Mick came racing over the Benson’s place. “We’re all going camping with Nugent,” he said. “My mum says that because Nugent is older, we don’t have to have a grown-up with us. Are you going to come? We’re going to build our own camp-fire and put up tents and sleep in sleeping bags, and everything.”
Benson thought he would burst with excitement. “Please, please, please can I go?” he said to his mother.
His mother said, “Who else is going?”
Mick said, “We’re all going, Alejandro and me and everyone.”
“Are any parents going?” she asked.
Benson said, “Nugent is practically a grown-up. He knows all about everything. Please can I go?”
His mother looked very thoughtful. “So long as you all stay together, and nobody goes off by themselves, I suppose you can go. But if you’re frightened or worried even the tiniest bit, come straight home,” she said.
Benson was so happy he started packing his backpack and sleeping bag straight away.
They all met at the edge of the playground just as it was getting dark. Besides Nugent, there was Mick and Alejandro, and Benson’s cousin Elmer and his friend, Zali. Nugent smiled when he saw Benson. He said, “Benson, you’re good at maps. You can be in charge of the map and the compass.”
He hung the compass around Benson’s neck. Benson went pink all over.
Then Nugent said to him quietly, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to take your friend Zali with us. I don’t think she’d enjoy it very much.”
Benson said, “Why not?”
Nugent said, “She wouldn’t be able to keep up, would she? She’d slow everyone else down. Just explain to her that she has to go home now.”
Benson didn’t know what to say. He looked at Zali, who was already munching on her celery sticks. She would be so disappointed not to be going with everyone else.
Just then, Bonnie Lou came running up, with a giant backpack that was much too heavy for her. Her sleeping bag was hanging off one side and her pyjamas were sticking out of the top.
“I’m here, I’m here!” she panted. “Don’t go without me!”
Nugent frowned and looked at Mick.
Mick said, “She’s my little sister. Mum said she could come.”
Nugent said, “Sorry, Mick, not this time. This trip is just for us boys. It’s going to be too hard for little kids to manage.”
Bonnie Lou said, “I’m not a little kid! I’m older than Elmer!”
Mick said, “We don’t want any girls messing things up, do we, Nugent?”
Nugent smiled and said, “Your sister can come another time. She wouldn’t want to be the only girl. She might feel uncomfortable.”
Bonnie Lou started to cry. When Bonnie Lou cried, it was very noisy and very messy.
Mick said, “See? Girls always cry and ruin everything!”
Bonnie Lou stopped crying and looked like she was about to punch Mick.
Benson looked at Zali, who had finished her celery sticks and her carrot sticks and was just starting on her banana sandwiches, and at Bonnie Lou whose face was red and whose nose was running. Then the words just came out of his mouth.
“No, they don’t,” he said.
Nugent frowned. He said, “Benson, this is a special trip just for us mates. The girls can come another time.”
Benson said stubbornly, “Zali and me are mates. And Bonnie Lou isn’t a little kid.” He took a deep breath. “If they can’t go, I’m not going,” he said.
Nugent looked very angry all of a sudden, and then he looked sad. “But you’ve got the compass, Benson. If you don’t go, none of us can.”
Alejandro said, “Come on, Benson, you’ve got to come!”
Mick said, “Yeah!”
Elmer said in a small quavery voice, “I think Benson’s right.”
Benson took off the compass and gave it back to Nugent. “I’m going home,” he said.
He took Zali’s hand and they walked off together. Bonnie Lou trailed after them, complaining loudly that she wanted to go camping and Benson was spoiling everything. Elmer trotted along beside him and took his other hand.
When they got back to Benson’s place, his mother was waiting for them. Benson felt so bad he wanted to cry. He wasn’t going camping, and he had lost his new friend. Even his old friends Mick and Alejandro had left him.
His mother said, “I’ve got some marshmallows. How about we build a camp-fire in the back yard?”
They put some rocks in a circle and made a big, warm fire, and everyone sat around it toasting marshmallows and roasting potatoes and corn. Aunt Lillibet told them stories about when Uncle Lionel used to go camping and there were crocodiles and giant chopper fish, and Elmer sang lots of funny songs. Zali giggled and got marshmallow all over her nose. Bonnie-Lou leaned up against Benson and sighed with happiness.
Benson’s mother asked him, “Do you wish you’d gone camping with the others?”
“A bit,” Benson said. “But if someone is your friend, they’re your friend. You can’t just be sometimes friends.”
His mother said, “Do you still feel sad?”
Benson nodded and a tear ran down his face. He could still feel the pain in his chest that he had felt when Nugent turned away.
Just then Zali came over and gave him a great big hug. She squashed a melted marshmallow in his hair and chuckled and ran away. Benson yelled, “Hey!” and jumped up and ran after her. Bonnie Lou ran after both of them, throwing corn cobs. Benson’s mother put some more wood on the fire and smiled.