The New Bridge

Once there was a young wombat named Benson, who lived in a warm, dry wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.

Benson’s friend, Mick, had a new bike. It wasn’t really a new bike. He had found some old handlebars and Hazel had helped him fix them up, and then they had painted the whole bike so that it looked like a new bike, or even better, Mick said.

At breakfast time, Benson said to his mother “Is it okay if I ride my bike down to the creek? We’re going to do time trials over the new bridge. Mick thinks his bike is going to be way faster, now that it’s red.”

“That sounds like fun,” his mother said, collecting all the empty plates. “Do you want to finish Aunt Moss’s rockmelon? Aunt Moss, do you want to eat Benson’s paw-paw?” Benson always left the paw-paw behind when they had fruit salad. It looked like it was going to taste like pumpkin but it never did.

Aunt Lillibet said ominously, “They didn’t build the new bridge high enough. Don’t they remember the Black July floods?”

“I don’t think anyone remembers them, Aunt Lillibet, they were so long ago,” Benson’s mother said.

“Nanna remembers,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I’ve heard her talk about how the creek came up right over the old bridge and hundreds of animals living along the banks were drowned.”

“That was a long time ago,” Aunt Moss said. “It could never happen again, now that they’ve made the dam bigger. Besides, the banks of the creek are much higher now.”

“That’s just because the creek is lower,” Aunt Lillibet insisted. “Never underestimate the power of nature!”

“You’re absolutely right,” Benson’s mother said. “Benson, make sure you wear your hat and drink plenty of water. It’s going to be quite sunny today.”

Benson put on his hat and got his water bottle and sped off on his bike. Alejandro and Elmer were already there, admiring Mick’s bike. It was beautiful.

“Do you think Hazel would help me paint my bike?” Elmer said, wistfully.

“I think it would take more than paint to make your bike go fast,” Alejandro said. They all looked at Elmer’s bike. His dad was always coming up with ways to improve its performance. It had a windsock tied to the handlebars, and an extra-large reversing mirror, and a cushion tied to the seat. Elmer sighed.

Arlette and her sister Twiss came up just then on their roller-skates. “Hey, do you boys want a race?” Arlette called.

Mick just laughed. “Race with us? Roller-skates are for girls. You’d never even make it to the finishing line!”

Arlette stomped up to the beginning of the bridge, as well as she could with her roller-skates. “We’ll see about that!” she said. “Ready, set, go!” and she whizzed off.

“Hey!” yelled Mick. “I wasn’t ready!” He got on his bike and set off after her, but she got to the end of the bridge well ahead of him.

“I won!” she chortled, but Mick whipped his bike around and started back across the bridge at top speed.

“And back again!” he shouted, flying along.

“That’s not fair!” Arlette shouted. She started off after him, but he won easily. All the boys cheered.

Arlette panted up, shouting about how unfair it was. She wasn’t looking where she was going and one of her skates got caught on a rock. She stumbled and started to fall backwards into the creek. Benson and Elmer each grabbed one of her hands. She hung there in space over the water, with the wheels of her skates scrabbling against the bank.

“Just leave her!” said Mick. He and Alejandro lined up at the beginning of the bridge again. “Come on, we’re starting the race. Last one across is a loser!”

Elmer dropped Arlette’s hand and jumped on his bike. Benson felt his arm stretching and stretching, trying to hold Arlette’s weight while her wheels slid and spun helplessly in the dirt.

“Benson, it’s now or never,” Alejandro shouted. “Ready, set – “

Benson said hurriedly, “Sorry, Arlette!” and let go. He got on his bike just as Alejandro said, “- go!” They raced off, over the bridge and down the track on the other side. Benson didn’t even look back, but he heard Arlette splash up to her waist in the muddy water, yelling, “I’ll never trust a boy again!”

The next day and the next day and the day after that it rained. It rained for a whole week without stopping. Most of the time, it didn’t just rain, it poured. Aunt Lillibet started to make dire predictions about floods. “It’s going to be Black July all over again,” she said.

Aunt Moss said, “It’s only a bit of rain, Lillibet. Even the back yard isn’t flooded.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “It isn’t flooded yet! That’s what happened in Black July. The river and the dam filled up and up, then all of a sudden they overflowed and there was a flash flood.”

“What’s a flash flood?” Benson asked. “Too much lightning?”

“It’s when the flooding happens suddenly, like a wall of water out of nowhere,” Aunt Lillibet said. “That’s why all the animals were taken by surprise and why so many of them drowned.”

Benson’s mother was looking worried. “I think I might go down to the bridge and have a look at the water level in the creek, just to be on the safe side,” she said.

“Can I come too?” Benson said. “I haven’t been anywhere for a week.” So they went together. It wasn’t actually raining, and Benson thought it was a bit silly to be looking for a flood when it wasn’t even raining, but he was happy just to be outside.

Once they got to the creek, his mother looked even more worried. The water was running deep and fast, carrying lots of rubbish, sticks and broken branches with it. Benson had seen it like this before, and it was scary. His mother sniffed the air and said, “There’s more rain coming. If Aunt Lillibet’s right, this could be a disaster. I’ll go along the banks of the creek to warn the families living there, and tell them they should move to higher ground.”

Benson’s tummy was turning over. The clouds overhead were getting darker and heavier, and rain was beginning to fall again. His mother said, “Benson, go straight home, and tell Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss they may need to start getting ready for lots of animals who need shelter. Go the long way – don’t go over the bridge.” She set off running along the side of the creek, and was soon out of sight.

Benson set off quickly. He was nearly home when he saw Arlette, going the other way towards the creek. “Where are you going?” he said.

Arlette sniffed and said, “You made me lose my favourite hat in the creek. I’m going to get it back.”

“You can’t go down to the creek,” Benson said. “There may be a flood coming.”

Arlette just ignored him and kept going. He ran after her, trying to explain about Black July, but she wouldn’t listen. They got to the creek and she kept going onto the bridge.

Benson shouted, “Arlette, you’ve got to get off the bridge!”

Arlette stopped in the middle of the bridge with her hands on her hips. “I don’t believe anything you say,” she said. “It’s a perfectly good bridge. You just want to make me look silly again.” She put her nose in the air and stalked the rest of the way over. Then to Benson’s horror, she started to climb down the bank of the creek.

“Don’t go down there!” he shouted at her. “The flood could come any minute!”

“Huh! Floods don’t just come all at once,” she said. “You’re not fooling me. I’m going to find my hat.” She kept on climbing down.

“Arlette, please!” Benson said. “I’m not tricking you, there really might be a flash flood coming.”

Arlette looked up at him scornfully. “I don’t believe you!” she said.

Then they both heard a noise like a deep, thundering roaring from further up the creek. Benson felt a very bad feeling in his stomach.

“We have to get out of here,” he said urgently. “Come on!” He held his hand out to Arlette. She folded her arms and just stood there, refusing to listen. He said desperately, “Look, I’m sorry about dropping you in the water last week, but this is different. You could be drowned!”

She said stubbornly, “Why should I trust you?”

“You just have to!” Benson said. “Come on!”

She climbed up and went back across the bridge. The terrifying sound suddenly got much louder. Benson grabbed her hand and yelled, “Run!”

They both ran, as fast as a pair of young wombats can run. There was a huge, crashing, grinding sound behind them. They looked back over their shoulders, and saw a wall of water like a giant, tumbling, dirty wave, come crashing down the creek. It flooded up the banks of the creek and over the top of the bridge and tore half the planks away, sweeping them along with it.

Benson and Arlette kept on running, and didn’t stop until they were nearly home. Benson said, still panting, “We just made it in time! If you hadn’t listened to me…” He shivered to think about what might have happened.

Arlette said, “Maybe it’s okay to trust boys sometimes. Thanks, Benson.” Then she said, “But you still owe me a new hat!”

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