Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a tidy, comfortable wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
One day when Benson was taking some scraps out to the compost heap he saw a strange animal. It was a kind of lizard with a funny orangey frill around its neck. When it saw Benson, it opened its bright yellow mouth, and the frill around its neck stood right up.
Benson took a step backwards. He wasn’t sure if the lizard was dangerous or not. He decided to try being friendly. “Hi,” he said, “my name’s Benson.”
The lizard closed its mouth and its frill lay down flat again.
“What’s your name?” Benson said. “Do you live around here?”
“My name’s Melrose,” the lizard said. “I don’t live anywhere. I used to live with my family but they didn’t want me any more.”
Benson’s eyes nearly popped of his head. “Your family didn’t want you? Your own mother and father?”
“No, not my mother and father,” Melrose said. “I mean my family, the people who owned me.”
“How can anyone own you?” Benson said.
“I was their pet,” Melrose said. “You know, they keep you in a cage and bring you food and water and give you toys to play with and they take you out and play with you sometimes.”
“Why were you a pet? Was it fun?” Benson asked.
“I wasn’t just an ordinary pet,” Melrose said. “I’m an exotic pet. That means I’m unusual. Interesting. Outstanding.”
“Is it because you’ve got that frill around your neck?” Benson asked. “Why do you keep on licking it?”
“I like to look my best,” Melrose said.
“What’s it for?” Benson asked.
Melrose said, “If I get hot, I can do this.” He flapped one side of his frill like a fan. “Or if I see a friend, I can wave to them like this.” He flapped the other side. “If I want to scare someone away, I can do this,” he said. He frowned fiercely and his frill stood up all around his neck. “See? Scary, huh?”
Benson said, “I think it looks kind of cute.”
Melrose said, “It’s not cute, it’s exotic. Unusual. Special. That’s why I’m an exotic pet. Or I used to be. Until I bit someone.”
“You bit someone?” Benson said.
“Just a little nip, really,” Melrose said. Benson looked at Melrose’s two long, pointy teeth and he thought he wouldn’t want to be nipped by them.
“Anyway, they brought me out here and left me,” Melrose said. “I haven’t got anywhere to live any more, and I’m hungry.”
“I can get you something to eat,” Benson said. “Would you like a sandwich, or a banana? What do you like eating?”
“I don’t know,” Melrose said. “My family always gave me crickets. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, crickets, crickets, crickets. I never want to see another cricket as long as I live.”
“Just wait here,” Benson said. He went inside and asked Aunt Lillibet if he could borrow her lizard book. He took it back outside.
“It says in this book that frill-necked lizards eat ants and termites and spiders and beetles and sometimes small lizards,” Benson said. It also said they eat small animals like dunnarts or sugar-gliders, but Benson didn’t want to put ideas into Melrose’s head.
Melrose said, “Can you get me some ants, or a spider?”
“Sure,” Benson said. He went off straight away and asked his friend Roly to help him catch some ants. He put them in a jar and brought them back to Melrose.
“Yum,” Melrose said. He snapped them up. Then he said, “Some beetles would be nice, or a moth. I’d love a moth.”
Benson found some beetles under a tree and brought them to Melrose too. “Very nice,” said Melrose, licking his lips. “I think it’s time for my nap,” he said. “Where am I going to sleep? My family used to have a special blanket for me, and a lamp to keep me warm.”
“How about a box?” Benson asked. He went inside and brought out an old shoebox.
Melrose looked it over. “It’s not what I’m used to, but it’ll do, I suppose,” he said. He settled himself in and went to sleep.
The next morning, Benson went to see how Melrose was getting on.
“I think I’d like some termites for breakfast,” Melrose said.
Benson went to ask Roly where to find termites. Roly said, “Is it for your pet lizard?”
Benson said, “Melrose isn’t a pet, he’s a friend.”
Roly said, “Oh, I thought he was your pet. You keep him in a box and you feed him.”
Benson opened his mouth and then he shut it again. Roly was right.
“I don’t want a pet,” he said. “How do I un-pet him? He needs me to bring him food. He can’t take care of himself.”
Roly shrugged. “Maybe it says something in your book.”
Benson read the lizard book carefully, and then he went back to Melrose’s box.
Melrose said, “Did you get my termites?”
Benson put a pile of spinach leaves in front of him. “Here you are,” he said, “some nice, fresh spinach.”
“Yuck,” said Melrose. “I’m not going to eat that!”
“It says in the book that you can eat vegetables,” Benson said.
“No way!” Melrose said. “I want termites!”
“Actually, it says in the book that it isn’t good for you to have people bringing you food. You’re supposed to be an ambush feeder,” Benson said.
“I’m supposed to eat ambushes?” Melrose said. “Are they horrible green things like this?”
“No, it means you catch your own food by sneaking up to things and then pouncing on them,” Benson said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
They spent the whole day practising catching bugs and beetles. Melrose was much better at it than Benson. Benson could do the sneaking, but he wasn’t very good at the pouncing.
At bedtime Melrose said, “Aren’t you going to put me back in my box?”
Benson said, “Actually, it says in the book that lizards like you mostly sleep in trees.”
“What?!” Melrose said. “I can’t climb a tree!”
“You never know till you try,” Benson said. He took Melrose over to a big stringy-bark tree.
Melrose looked up at the tree. “You’re not getting me up there!” he said.
Benson said, “BOOO!” very loudly behind him.
Melrose didn’t stop to think. He shot straight up the tree and hung there by his sharp claws, looking down at Benson. “Hey, this is easy!” he said. “There are even some snails up here, if I feel like a snack!”
The next morning when Benson went out, Melrose was gone. There was nobody around except Roly, who was munching on some ants at the bottom of the tree.
Roly said, “Your friend Melrose asked me to tell you that it’s too cold for him around this part of the country so he’s going north where it’s warmer. He said you could have all his spinach.”
Benson felt a bit disappointed, but then he thought about all the dunnarts and the sugar-gliders and the baby possums, and he thought it was probably a good thing after all.