Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a safe, comfortable wombat hole with his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
One morning Aunt Lillibet said, “That ceiling definitely needs painting again.”
Aunt Moss said, “Oh no, Lillibet, you can’t paint the ceiling. Remember how you are with ladders.”
Aunt Lillibet was terrified of being up a ladder.
Benson’s mother said, “We could ask Uncle Elton to come and paint it.”
“No way,” Aunt Lillibet said, “not after what happened last time.” Last time Uncle Elton brought his ladder to help with the high bits, he had spilled the paint twice, the first time on top of Aunt Lillibet’s hat, and the second time on top of a cake she had just made. “That hat has never been the same since,” she said.
Benson’s mother said, “You know the rule about ladders, Aunt Lillibet. After you reach a certain age, no more going up ladders!” They all had to say ‘a certain age’ because no-one knew how old Aunt Lillibet was and no-one dared to ask her.
“Relax, everyone, I’m not going up the ladder,” Aunt Lillibet said.
“Are you going to get a trampoline and jump up and down and paint the ceiling?” Benson asked.
“What do you think?” Aunt Lillibet said.
“Or you could get a cherry-picker,” Benson said. He could already imagine himself going up and down and around and around in a cherry-picker, and all his friends having a turn.
“No,” Aunt Lillibet said firmly. “I’ve got a better idea. Benson can do it.”
“Me?” Benson said.
“You,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I’ll hold the ladder and tell you the bits you’ve missed and you can climb up and do the painting.”
Benson thought about it. He loved going up and down ladders, so long as there was someone holding it safely at the bottom. “Okay,” he said. “What would you like me to paint on it? Clouds? Trees? Fairies and unicorns?”
Aunt Moss clapped her hands and said, “Oh yes, fairies and unicorns!”
“Plain white,” Aunt Lillibet said very firmly. “Ceilings should always be plain white.”
“It’s not white now,” Benson pointed out. The ceiling was a kind of beigey grey.
“That’s why it needs painting,” Aunt Lillibet said.
Benson put his painting shirt on, and Aunt Lillibet and his mother brought the ladder inside and leaned it up against the wall.
“Start over this side,” Aunt Lillibet said, handing Benson the paintbrush. “Be careful not to splash any on the walls.”
Benson started to climb the ladder. It was tricky holding the brush in one hand, but he made it safely to the top and started to paint.
Aunt Lillibet stood at the bottom, holding the ladder and watching. “You missed a bit in the corner,” she said.
Benson couldn’t quite reach the corner, so he tried throwing the brush at it. The brush dropped straight down and landed on Aunt Lillibet’s hat.
“Oops!” he said. “Lucky you’re wearing your painting hat, Aunt Lillibet.” Aunt Lillibet looked very hard at him. He climbed down and fetched the brush and dipped it in the paint bucket. He climbed up the ladder and started painting.
Aunt Lillibet said, “You’ve missed that bit again!” She lost patience completely, and got another paintbrush and started to climb up after Benson.
Benson felt the ladder wobble. “Don’t, Aunt Lillibet!” he said.
She paid no attention. She was only thinking about that spot in the corner that Benson had missed. She climbed up the ladder, right over Benson, and dabbed at the spot. “There! That’s much better!” she said.
Just then Aunt Moss walked in. When she saw Aunt Lillibet on the ladder, she screamed. Aunt Lillibet jumped, and paint splashed all over the ceiling. “Look what you’ve made me do!” she said angrily.
“Lillibet!” Aunt Moss screeched. “You’re on the ladder!”
Aunt Lillibet froze. “I’m what?”
“You climbed up the ladder!” Aunt Moss said.
Aunt Lillibet was so scared, she couldn’t move. Her legs were frozen, even her arm holding the paintbrush in the air was frozen.
Benson said, very quietly so as not to shake the ladder, “Help.”
His mother came into the room to see what the screaming was about. “Benson, did you call?” she said. Then she saw what was happening. “Lillibet, don’t move!” she shouted.
“I don’t think you need to say that,” Benson said.
She rushed over and grabbed the ladder. “Lillibet, come down at once!”
Aunt Lillibet said, “Gngnngmnm.” Even her mouth was frozen. She meant, “I can’t get down!”
Benson’s mother said, “Benson, can you help her? Try to move one of her feet down to the next rung.”
Benson tried, but Aunt Lillibet was stuck to the ladder like cement.
“I can’t,” he said. “She won’t move.”
Benson’s mother said, “Aunt Moss, can you hold the ladder while I try to get her down?” but Aunt Moss had her hands over her eyes so she was no help.
Benson’s mother tried saying calm things like, “It’s only a little ladder, Lillibet, it’s nothing to be afraid of,” and “Just take one step at a time,” but Aunt Lillibet was too frightened to hear her.
Benson was getting squashed, stuck on the ladder with Aunt Lillibet pressing herself against the ladder as if she was afraid she was going to die if she let go. Then he remembered that he still had his paintbrush in his hand. He started painting on the wall behind the ladder. Where each of the rungs of the ladder were, he painted a big step on the wall. It looked like a staircase going down the wall, right behind the ladder.
“Aunt Lillibet, you’re not afraid of steps, are you?” he said.
“Gmgnmgm,” said Aunt Lillibet, which meant, “Of course not.”
Benson said, “You could walk down some steps backwards, easily, couldn’t you?”
Aunt Lillibet would have nodded if her head wasn’t frozen.
“Look,” said Benson. “See these nice steps here? Just walk down the stairs, simple.”
Aunt Lillibet looked. She could see steps instead of a ladder, steps that could get her off that terrifying ladder. Her legs unfroze by themselves and started to move without her even telling them to, step by step down to the ground.
When she got to the bottom, everybody clapped. She sat down on the floor with a bump and fanned herself with her hat. “I’m never, ever going up a ladder again!” she said. “Nasty, horrible, wobbly things!”
Benson said, “What about the ceiling?”
The ceiling was a nice bright white in one corner, with splashes of white all over the rest of it. Aunt Lillibet looked at it and groaned. Benson’s mother said, “You know, I like it. It looks like tiny stars scattered across the ceiling.” And it did, really.
She made them all some warm milk and fennel-seed cookies, but Aunt Lillibet couldn’t stop looking at the ceiling.
That night, Benson was asleep when a noise woke him up. He got up and went out. Aunt Lillibet was standing at the top of the ladder. She reached out with the paintbrush and put one dab on the ceiling, and then she climbed down again slowly and carefully.
Benson waited until she got to the bottom, then he said, “Aunt Lillibet! You went up the ladder!”
“I had to do it,” she said. “I couldn’t live with the ceiling like that, with one star missing, could I?”
Benson looked up, and on the ceiling there was a perfect Southern Cross.