Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a warm, happy wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.
It was a beautiful day and everyone was at the playground. Benson was in the sandpit, making a sand angel. He lay on his back and waved his arms up and down in the sand, and moved his legs from side to side. Twiss came over to see what he was doing
“What are you doing?” she said.
“You’re being inquisitive, aren’t you?” Benson said. ‘Inquisitive’ was a new word he had learnt from Aunt Lillibet. She used it when she meant ‘sticky-beak’ but she was too polite to say so.
Twiss went back to her sister Arlette, who was on the swings. “Benson called me a name,” she said.
“What did he call you?” Arlette said.
“In… I can’t remember, but it was mean,” Twiss said.
“Boys are always mean, especially Benson,” Arlette told her. “Let’s follow him and see if we can get him into trouble.”
On the way home from the playground, Benson stopped at Mr Fenn’s orange tree, to see how the oranges were getting on. Benson loved oranges. The ones on Mr Fenn’s tree were just turning from green to orange. Benson put his face up to them and smelled their orangey smell. He started dreaming about orange cake and orange jelly, and fresh oranges with the juice dribbling down his chin. Then he noticed a slug making its way up the trunk of the tree. He lifted it off carefully.
“What are you doing?” Arlette said, suddenly stepping out from behind a bush.
Benson jumped, and dropped the slug. “Nothing,” he said.
“Were you going to eat that slug? Eeyuwww!” she said.
“No, of course I wasn’t!” Benson said indignantly.
“You were!” Twiss said. “We saw you! You were going to eat a live slug! That’s disgusting!”
Arlette said, “We’re going to tell everyone that you eat slugs!”
“I don’t! I didn’t!” Benson protested, but Arlette and Twiss ran off down the track, giggling.
At dinner-time, Benson was eating his eggplant and raisin stew and thinking about whether camels have one hump or two, or three if they’re lucky, when Aunt Lillibet said, “What’s this I hear about you catching slugs and eating them, Benson?”
“What?” his mother said.
Benson went all red.
Aunt Moss said, “I’m sure it’s just a very silly rumour. That’s what I told everyone at my book club.”
Aunt Lillibet said, “Rumours can do a lot of damage, you know. Gordon and Fenella were talking about it at folk-dancing this afternoon. I told them it wasn’t true, but I don’t know if they believed me.”
“It’s not true!” Benson said. “I’d never eat a slug! Yucckkk!”
Benson’s mother said, “How could a rumour like that even get started?”
Benson said, “I was just looking at Mr Fenn’s oranges, and there was a slug climbing up the tree and I picked it off, that’s all. Arlette said I was going to eat it, and they said they’d tell everyone.” He felt upset and angry all at the same time. He didn’t want people to think that he’d eat a slug.
He said, “I’m going to tell everyone something terrible about Arlette, to get her back. I’ll tell everyone she eats spiders. “
“Benson!” his mother said sharply. “That would be a very bad thing to do. First of all, it would be saying something that isn’t true, and besides that, it would be mean and unkind. Do you want to be a wombat who does mean, nasty things to other people?”
“No,” he said, although he did kind of want to, to Arlette and Twiss. “What am I going to do, then?”
His mother said, “Do what you always do. Be yourself. Everyone will soon realise it’s all a made-up story, and they’ll forget about it in no time.”
Aunt Lillibet said darkly, “I don’t know. People will believe all sorts of things, even if they’re not true.”
His mother said, “Just give them time. The truth will come out. Everyone who knows you, knows you wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
Benson tried, but it was hard. The next day at the playground, no-one would play with him. Rodney ran off and wouldn’t play with him, and Elmer looked the other way and pretended he wasn’t there. Alejandro got on his bike and rode off, and the girls stood together and whispered to each other about him. Only Zali treated him the same as she always did. Benson went home in tears.
On the way home, he stopped at the orange tree again. Just the smell of the oranges made him feel better. “It’s all your fault,” he said to the tree.
Then he heard Arlette behind him. “See? He’s doing it again! He’s come to get some more yummy slugs!” This time it wasn’t just Twiss with her, but Rodney and Ada, and Elmer.
Benson’s face went very red. “I’m not!” he said. “I don’t eat slugs!”
“Well, what are you doing here then?” Arlette smirked.
“I was just talking to the tree,” Benson said. It sounded silly when he said it out loud.
Arlette laughed. “No-one’s going to believe that!” she said.
Mr Fenn came out of his front door. “Why not?” he said. “I talk to it all the time. And I pick slugs off it if I see them, just like I saw Benson doing the other day. You know, people who tell stories about other people better make sure they’re telling the truth, Arlette, otherwise they could get in big trouble.”
Arlette went red this time. “Come on, Twiss, let’s go,” she said. “Wait till we tell everyone that Benson talks to trees!”
Benson watched them go, feeling even worse than before. Mr Fenn said to him, “Now, young Benson, have you ever thought about growing your own orange tree?”
“Me? My own orange tree?” Benson said. He imagined oranges hanging off a tree in his own back yard. “Could I?”
“I think you’d be good at it,” Mr Fenn said. “I’ve got a young seedling you can have, if you think you could look after it.”
“Yes, please!” Benson said happily. All of a sudden he didn’t care what Arlette or Twiss said about him. “If they want to tell people that I talk to trees, well, let them,” he said.
Mr Fenn grinned. “There are a lot worse things than talking to trees,” he said. “Like spreading nasty rumours about other people.”
They took the seedling back to Benson’s place and Mr Fenn helped him plant it in the ground. Benson watered it, and looked after it, and he talked to it every day.