Roly’s Story

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

Benson’s friend, Pascoe the story-teller, had been very sick and she was staying with them while she was getting better. The days were cold, but there was a warm sunny spot just outside Benson’s front door, and Pascoe sat there in the sun with Benson, telling stories. No matter what Benson told her, about bush turkeys scratching up Aunt Lillibet’s garden or Uncle Elton making a music stand, she could straighten it out into a beginning and an end and an interesting middle.

“Do you know all the stories there are?” Benson asked her.

“Definitely not,” she said. “There are millions of stories, and that doesn’t even count the ones I haven’t made up yet.”

Benson’s friend Roly came over to sit in the sun with them. He had something he wanted to ask Pascoe, but it was hard to think of how to say it.

Pascoe said, “Is there a particular story you’d like to hear, Roly?”

Roly looked very shy, but he said, “Could you tell me my story?”

“The Story of the Brave Little Echidna?” she said. “That’s one of my favourites!”

“No,” Roly said, “I mean, the story of me and my mother. I was just little when she died, and I thought maybe you knew the story of where I came from.”

Pascoe was quiet for a moment, putting the story into the right shape in her head. Then she said, “Some of my stories are made up stories, because an idea comes into my head and I love to make it into a story, but most of the stories I know are not my stories. They belong to everyone. This is the story everyone tells about you and your mother.”

And she told him the story. “Your mother wished for you long before you were born. All the other mother echidnas had little puggles, and your mother longed for a puggle of her own, so when you were born she was very very happy. She called you Roly because she said you looked so cute when you were all curled up.

“You were small and clever and interested in things. She wanted to teach you everything she thought you would need to know. She taught you to be kind and to listen, to be patient, and to be strong when you needed to be. Nothing made her happier than being with you.

“The day the bushfires came, they were the biggest, hottest, fastest fires anyone had ever seen. There was nowhere to run, so your mother pushed you into an old dead tree lying on the ground, and climbed in after you, covering your body with hers. Then the fires came, and burned, everything. Your mother died, and you nearly died.

“When the fires passed there was nothing left but a little half-burned echidna. You couldn’t walk but you dragged yourself along by your paws, looking everywhere for your mother.”

By now, tears were running all down Roly’s little nose onto the ground. Benson picked him up and held him tight.

Pascoe said, “Everyone remembers the little echidna who wouldn’t give up looking for his mother. You travelled a long way, for days and days, and then you came here.”

Roly said, “Benson’s mother took care of me. She was the one who told me my mother was dead.”

No-one talked for a little while. Then Pascoe said, “But that’s not the end of the story.”

“Isn’t it?” said Roly.

“No,” said Pascoe. “After that you made friends with Benson, the Bold and Brave and Intrepid, and you went on adventures together.”

“The Adventure of the Tawny Frogmouth, and the Attack of the Angry Orangutan!” said Benson.

“The what?” Roly said. “I don’t remember that one.”

Benson said, “That one hasn’t exactly happened yet, but it might.”

Roly grinned. “What about the story of the Wombat Who Ate Ant Soup?” he said.

“Like that’s ever going to happen,” said Benson.

Pascoe yawned and said, “I think that’s a story for another day.”

Roly said, “I think I’d like to go back to where my mother died, sometime, and say goodbye.”

Benson said, “I’ll come with you, if you want. We can all go.”

Pascoe said, “That’s definitely a story for another day. I told you that wasn’t the end of the story, didn’t I?”

Benson started to wonder what his story would be like, when Pascoe told it, but he didn’t want to hear it just now. Right now his tummy was telling him it was time for something to eat, so he went inside and made sultana sandwiches for everyone and they sat in the sun and ate them together.

Making Stories

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

Aunt Moss was in the kitchen, boiling up a big pot of onion skins.

“Are you making soup, Aunt Moss?” Benson asked. If she was, he was pretty sure he didn’t want any.

“No, I’m dyeing this possum fur that Nella’s mother gave me,” Aunt Moss said. “It’s always falling out or getting caught on things, and she collects it for me.”

“Why are you killing the possum fur?” Benson asked.

“Not killing it, dyeing it,” Aunt Moss said. “I’m making it a different colour.” She strained the onion skins out of the water, and then she put a big pile of possum fur into the water in the pot and pushed it down carefully with a stick. In a little while she pulled it out again and it was a nice yellow colour.

“I’m dyeing some of it yellow with these onion skins, and then I’ll dye some of it in different reds and some of it brown and green with these gum leaves and banksia cones,” Aunt Moss said. “Then I’m going to take it my friend Shelley, and she’s going to spin it on her spinning wheel and make it into yarn, and then we’re going to weave a wonderful story.”

Benson said, “Did you say you were going to weave a story?” He thought Aunt Moss must have gotten distracted and forgotten what she was talking about. She did that sometimes, like when she forgot she was washing up and started filling up the kitchen with giant bubbles, or when she started hula-dancing right in the middle of ukulele practice.

“Yes, that’s right,” she said, “we’re going to weave a story.”

“You tell stories, or you read them, you don’t weave them,” Benson said kindly. He knew Aunt Moss was getting very old. Sometimes she got her plate and Aunt Lillibet’s plate mixed up and ate two desserts by mistake.

Aunt Moss said, “There are lots of ways of telling stories. Bees tells stories just by dancing in the air.”

“Bees?” said Benson. “I thought they were just buzzing around.”

“Oh no, they’re telling each other about where they’ve been, which flowers they’ve visited and how delicious the nectar is,” Aunt Moss said. “Magpies tell stories by singing.”

“Singing?” said Benson.

Aunt Moss nodded while she was stirring. “They sing to each other all the time and tell each other about how many beetles they’re going to catch, or if somebody’s seen a fox. They talk about their visitors, and who’s moving in and who’s getting married, all sorts of things.”

It was funny to think of birds telling each other things, when he thought it was just noise. Benson thought about it. He said, “Nanna told me that a tree can tell you about the droughts and the fires and the floods it’s been through if you look at the rings inside its trunk.”

“That’s right,” said Aunt Moss. She carefully lifted the fur out of the pot and put in a big bowl to cool down. It was a lovely bright golden yellow. “Shelley and I are going to weave a story about the bush near her place, with all the plants and trees in greens and browns, and the wild-flowers in all their beautiful colours, and the animals that live there.”

Benson thought about the bush, and he remembered the stories about the bushfires that Pascoe, the story-teller, had told him. He thought of the bright red flames in jagged leaping lines, and the wavy grey smoke hanging over everything. He said to Aunt Moss, “Do you think drawing could be a kind of story-telling?”

“Of course,” said Aunt Moss. “I think all the best drawings tell a story.”

Benson went and got the biggest piece of paper he could find, and all his coloured pencils. He drew trees and fire and wombats hiding underground, and bushes and trees and even the ground on fire, and echidnas and wallabies and koalas trying to get away, and smoke everywhere. He drew and drew until there wasn’t one space left on the paper.

His mother came and looked at what he was drawing. She said, “That’s the story of the bushfire, isn’t it?” She could see red flames, and the orange sky covered in brown and grey smoke.

Benson nodded. “But that’s not all the story,” he said. He went and got another piece of paper and drew blue skies and black trees with fuzzy green around the bottom, coming to life again. He drew green grass growing again and hungry animals coming out to eat the grass, and wombats peeping out of their holes looking for something to eat. He drew lost animals like Roly, and sad animals with no homes, like the koalas. He drew ants and beetles and grasshoppers, and he drew lots of birds sitting in the black branches of the trees, looking down at the beetles and grasshoppers and thinking how delicious they looked.

“This is the next part of the story,” he said.

“And then what happens next?” asked his mother.

“I’m not sure yet,” Benson said. “I think I’ll just keep drawing and see what happens.”

A Story for Pascoe

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

One rainy, windy evening, Benson was snuggled under a blanket with his warmest socks on, reading a story about a princess and a gardener, when there was a knock at the door. When Benson’s mother opened it, a wet bedraggled pademelon tumbled inside.

“Pascoe!” Benson’s mother said. “What’s wrong?” She called Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss quickly. “It’s Pascoe,” she said. “I think she’s hurt her leg.”

Pascoe was a story-teller. Usually she travelled with her mob, gathering stories and telling them to people everywhere she went. Benson hadn’t seen her for a long time.

Aunt Lillibet brought a soft towel and they washed her and dried her gently and wrapped her in a blanket and put her to bed in Benson’s mother’s room.

“What’s wrong with Pascoe?” Benson asked his mother.

“Her leg is hurt – I think it’s broken,” his mother said. “She’s got a fever and she’s been out in the rain too long. She’s frozen through.”

Benson could see his mother was very worried. “Will she be okay?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said his mother. “She’s very sick. We’ve given her some willow and camomile tea, and Aunt Lillibet has bandaged her leg with comfrey ointment, and now she needs to sleep. We’ll keep very quiet so we don’t disturb her.”

Benson kept as quiet as he could. He read quietly and he drew quietly and he cleaned his teeth very quietly before he went to bed.

The next day and the next day, Pascoe was still very sick. Benson was finding it hard to keep quiet so his mother sent him over to Zali’s place to be as noisy as he liked. When he got back, Pascoe was still in bed and still no better.

Benson’s mother was so worried that she sent for Nanna.

Nanna came with lavender and tea-tree oil for Pascoe’s leg, and eucalyptus ointment to rub on her chest, and some nourishing tomato and lentil soup for everyone. She went in to see Pascoe, but when she came out again, she was as worried as Benson’s mother.

“She doesn’t want to eat,” Nanna said. “She’s doing very poorly.” She considered for a while, then she said, “Benson, I think you should go and sit with Pascoe and keep her company.”

“And be very very quiet?” Benson asked.

“No, just talk to her quietly. It would be good if you could tell her a story,” Nanna said.

Benson said, “I can’t tell stories!”

“Read to her, then,” Nanna said.

Benson took his book in and sat beside Pascoe’s bed. She had her eyes closed, and he thought she must be asleep. Everything smelled like tea-tree and lavender oil.

He started reading. “Once in a country far away, a tree grew in a beautiful garden beside a palace. The king who lived in the palace used to visit the tree every day and eat one of the pears that grew on the tree, because they were the sweetest, most delicious pears in the whole kingdom.”

The more he read, the more he forgot where he was and his voice got louder and more excited. “Carlo began to climb the tree. The trunk of the tree was completely smooth and straight, with not a single branch. It took all of Carlo’s strength to climb it. He had passed halfway when he slipped and began to fall. Annabelinda screamed.”

In the bed, Pascoe stirred and sighed and opened her eyes.

Benson whispered, “Sorry, was I being too noisy?”

“No,” said Pascoe, “it’s good. Don’t stop.”

Benson kept reading to the very end where the princess puts on her beautiful white dress with blue ribbons and Carlo gives her the snowflower he had promised and she takes his hand. Benson closed the book.

Pascoe was looking better. She said, “Thank you, Benson.”

Benson said, “Are you a bit better?”

Pascoe said, “Yes, I think so.” Then she said, “It was a good story.”

Benson said, “What happened to you?”

Pascoe said, “Boys. With sticks and rocks.” She thought quietly for a minute, gathering her strength. “We were in a big clearing, not far from a big dam. There’s a new campsite with lots of tents and barbecues. Some boys came and threw rocks at us. The rest of the mob scattered, but they hit my leg and I couldn’t run fast, and then they started to hit me with sticks. But I managed to get away and I ran.

“Then it got dark and I rested for a bit, but my leg was hurting a lot. The next day it rained and rained and I got so cold I nearly couldn’t go on. But I knew your place was close so I kept going. Just a bit further, I kept saying to myself, just a bit further, and then I was here!” She smiled at Benson. “Now tell me the rest of the story!”

Benson said, “You knocked on the door and everyone looked after you and washed you and put all sorts of ointment on you and wrapped you in a blanket, but you didn’t get better so Nanna came and she brought some really good soup.” Benson started to feel hungry again just thinking about it. “She said I should tell you a story, but I can’t tell stories like you can, so I read you one instead.”

“Your Nanna is very wise,” Pascoe said.

“She makes extremely good soup,” Benson said.

“You know, I think I’m hungry after all,” Pascoe smiled. Benson went and got a big bowl of soup for her and one for himself. They sat eating soup together, and Pascoe told him stories about where she’d been since the last time he saw her, and Benson told her all about Aunt Moss’s kayaking lesson, and the landslide, and his mother’s cleaning rampage.

They talked and laughed and talked until Pascoe drifted off to sleep again, and Benson went to sleep right beside her, holding tightly onto his book.

Socks

(or The Third Drawer )

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

It was a cold, rainy day and Benson was drawing an octopus. His green pencil needed sharpening, so he went to ask Aunt Lillibet if he could borrow her pencil sharpener. She was in her room, pushing something into a drawer that was already overflowing. When Benson came in, she jumped, and shoved the drawer closed and stood in front of it.

“What are you doing?” Benson said. “What’s in that drawer?”

“Nothing,” said Aunt Lillibet. “What drawer?”

“The one that won’t shut properly because it’s too full of something,” Benson said. He pointed. “That one.”

“Oh, that one,” Aunt Lillibet said airily. “It’s just full of odds and ends. Junk, mainly. Nothing really.”

“Can I see?” asked Benson.

“No!” said Aunt Lillibet.

There was the tip of a brown stripy sock hanging out of the drawer where it wouldn’t shut properly. “It’s socks, isn’t it?” said Benson. “Have you got a drawer full of dirty socks?”

“Certainly not!” said Aunt Lillibet, outraged. Then she said, “They’re socks that aren’t socks. Socks I knitted that aren’t quite right. Socks with mistakes, if you must know!”

Benson said, “Everyone makes mistakes. Aunt Moss says that mistakes are just finding out what to do next time you try.”

“She would,” said Aunt Lillibet.

Benson reached around Aunt Lillibet and pulled on the drawer handle. The drawer sprang open and socks of all colours and shapes and sizes sprang out and scattered themselves all over the floor.

Aunt Lillibet looked embarrassed. “I made them all a long time ago when I was trying to learn how to make socks but it was too hard. I could never get them perfect. It was hopeless, so I gave up.”

“You gave up?!” Benson said. “If you made this many mistakes, you must have been just about to get it right!”

He picked up a pair of black socks with red dragon teeth on them. “These are great!” he said.

“I made a mistake in the pattern, here.” Aunt Lillibet pointed to a spot where two teeth were too close together.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Benson. “You can hardly see it.” He pulled the socks on his feet. They were lovely and warm. He started thinking Viking thoughts straight away.

There was another pair that were yellow with brown fuzzy stripes on them. “These ones look like honeybees. You should give them to your friend, Shelley,” he said.

“One of the stripes is too fat, and some of the others are too skinny,” Aunt Lillibet said.

“But they look more like real bees like that,” Benson said.

Benson pulled out more and more odd socks, some pairs with one longer than the other, some with one shorter than the other, and three socks knitted in all different rainbow stripes. “These are really good,” he said.

“They don’t match, and besides, who has three feet?” Aunt Lillibet said.

“They would be perfect for Uncle Elmer,” Benson said. “He’s always losing one sock.”

He found a long pink sock with no toe. “This one isn’t really a sock, is it?” he said.

“I ran out of wool before I got to the end,” Lillibet said. “I was going to throw it away.”

“You know what it looks like?” Benson said. “A tail-warmer for a brush-tailed possum. I bet Nella would love it.”

Benson pulled out a pair of bright purple socks.

Aunt Lillibet grabbed them and hid them behind her back. “Don’t look!” she said, embarrassed. “They’re a complete failure. I made them before I knew how to make heels.”

“They can’t be that bad,” Benson said.

Aunt Lillibet brought them out from behind her back and they both looked at them.

“You’re right,” Benson said. “They’re terrible.” They had big lumpy bits on the front, and big holes in the back, and one had a great big wart at the bottom.

Aunt Lillibet looked at them sadly, and then Benson saw a little spark spring up in her eyes. “You know,” she said, “if I joined these together along here, and glued on some feathers and a big red flower, it would make an adorable hat.”

Benson didn’t think so at all, but Aunt Lillibet was so pleased, he didn’t want to say anything to spoil it for her.

Aunt Lillibet took one last pair out of the drawer. They were soft and green and very very small. “These were my first try,” she said. “I counted the stitches all wrong, and they came out too small. They’re no good for anything.”

“They’d be perfect for someone with small feet,” Benson said. He thought for a minute.

“Roly!” they both said together.

The drawer was completely empty. “I’m glad all those socks are gone,” Aunt Lillibet said.

“Why?” said Benson. “Because they’re going to make lots of people happy?”

“No,” said Aunt Lillibet. She dragged a big heavy bag out from under the bed. “Now I’ve got a place to put all these terrible gloves I made!”

Water Buffaloes

(Seeing and Noticing)

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

Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were going to visit their good friend, Shelley. Aunt Lillibet had made a pumpkin and prune cake, and Aunt Moss was taking caramel pecan tarts. Benson said thoughtfully, “Would you like me to come and help carry the tarts?”

Aunt Lillibet looked hard at Benson and said she thought Aunt Moss could manage, but Aunt Moss said, “Oh yes, that would be lovely, Benson. Shelley would love to see you.”

Benson got his hat and his water-bottle and they all set out. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny but not too hot. The track along to Shelley’s place was overgrown with long grass. It was so long that Benson could hardly see over the top of it. It was like being at the bottom of a deep green river.

“Benson, where are you?” Aunt Lillibet called. She got a long stick, and swooshed the grass away to make a path. Benson walked along the path, with walls of green grass on each side of him. It made him think of water-buffaloes wading through green, wavy water.

Before long, Aunt Moss was lagging behind.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Benson, go back and see what’s holding her up.”

Aunt Moss was picking some flowers that were growing wild in the grass. “Aren’t these freesias beautiful? I thought it would be nice to take some to Shelley.” A butterfly floated down and settled on the bunch of flowers she was holding, and then another one and another one, until there was a whole cloud of butterflies hovering over them.

Aunt Lillibet called impatiently, “Come on, you two, you’re so slow!”

Benson took the basket of tarts so that Aunt Moss could carry the flowers and they hurried up to catch up with Aunt Lillibet. Before long, Aunt Moss was lagging behind again.

Benson went back to see what was slowing her down. She was standing very still, watching a very small black bee that was buzzing around an old banksia tree.

“Shhh,” she said to Benson. “See that little native bee? I think there must be a hive nearby.”

They stood very still and watched the bee until it disappeared into an old dead tree.

“There!” said Aunt Moss. “Shelley has been worried that there are no bees around to pollinate her macadamia tree. She’ll be so pleased.”

Aunt Lillibet yelled from way in front, “Come on, you two! We’re going to be late!”

Benson and Aunt Moss hurried up and caught up to her, struggling through the long grass. The tarts were starting to melt in the sunshine.

Before long, Aunt Moss was lagging behind again. Aunt Lillibet shouted, “Moss! Hurry up!” She sighed. “Benson,” she said, “please go and tell Moss to hurry up!”

Benson went back along the track and found Aunt Moss looking at some feathers that were caught in the long grass beside the track. “These are currawong feathers,” she said, “and I think these belong to a noisy miner. It looks like they’ve been fighting over something.” She looked around and found a bush covered in berries. “Midgen berries!” she said. “So this is what they were fighting over!”

Aunt Lillibet shouted, “Can’t you two go any faster? You’re slower than snails!” Benson and Aunt Moss hurried up and caught up with her. “Now, no more dawdling!” she said. She strode on, swishing through the long grass, with Aunt Moss just behind her and Benson scampering along at the back.

Shelley was very happy to see them. “Did you have an interesting walk?” she asked.

“Not very,” Aunt Lillibet said. “The grass is very long, so Moss was very slow, and Benson isn’t any better. He always walks along as if he’s in a dream.”

Aunt Moss said, “We had a lovely walk. The freesias are blooming, and we found a big midgen berry bush covered in berries.” She took handfuls of midgen berries out of her pockets and gave them to Shelley. Benson gave Shelley the flowers.

“These are lovely!” Shelley said.

“And we have very good news: we found a nest of native bees right beside the big yellow banksia,” Aunt Moss said.

“Wonderful!” said Shelley. “I haven’t seen any bees in the garden for such a long time.”

They ate the midgen berries with the melted tarts and Aunt Lillibet’s pumpkin and prune cake. When Benson had eaten all he could possibly eat, he asked for some pencils and paper so he could do some drawing while the grown-ups kept talking about the things grown-ups talk about.

He drew a long green river with three water-buffaloes wading in it. The first water-buffalo was wearing a hat that looked like a crow had landed on her head, and she was carrying a sword. The second water-buffalo was covered all over with butterflies. The third one was much smaller. He was swimming in the river with a mask and a snorkel.

Shelley came over to look at what he was drawing. “You’ve got such an imagination, Benson!” she said. “Where do you get your ideas from?”

Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss came to look too. Aunt Lillibet looked hard at Benson, but she didn’t say anything. Aunt Moss looked at the drawing, and she and Benson smiled at each other.


Nugent

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.

Becoming a Superhero

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

One morning after breakfast, Benson went out to play in the back yard, and he found a red cape lying on the ground. He picked it up and tied it around his shoulders. Straight away he felt different. He had a kind of tingling up and down his body. He felt taller, and braver.

He had an idea. He went inside and got the toilet brush and waved it in the air like a sword. Perfect. He noticed the lid of the laundry basket, nice and round with a handle in the middle. That would make a really good shield, he thought. He tried it out. Even perfecter.

He wondered what he should call himself. Wonder Wombat? Bat-Wombat? Super-Marsupial?

“Maybe just Benson the Brave,” he said, and he set off to have adventures.

A fair way down the track he found his friend Roly, who was sitting beside an ant-hill, eating ants.

“Avast there, ye dastardly varlet!” he said to Roly. “Unhand those ants!”

Roly snorted an ant up into his nose in surprise. “What?” he said, snuffing and sneezing. “What’s a varlet?”

“I’m not sure,” said Benson. “It’s a kind of baddie, anyway.”

“I’m just eating some ants,” Roly said. “That’s not being a baddie.”

Benson waved his toilet brush and said, “I am the defender of the small and weak, like ants. Halt and desist!”

“But I’m hungry,” said Roly.

Benson sighed. He took out the peanut butter sandwich he carried in his pocket in case of emergencies and gave it to Roly. “Have this instead,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Roly. “It looks delicious.” He brushed off the pocket fluff and gave Benson back a whistle that was stuck in the peanut butter and started eating. “What are you doing with the toilet brush?” he asked.

“I’m just righting some wrongs and rescuing stuff,” Benson said modestly.

“Can I help?” Roly asked excitedly.

“If you want,” Benson said. “You can be Sir Roly the Rescuer. Maybe you can rescue some fair damsels.”

“What’s a damsel?” Roly asked.

“I don’t know, but I think it’s a kind of fly,” Benson said. He lifted Roly up and gave him a piggy back, and they started off.

After a while Roly said, “What’s that noise?”

Benson said, “I can’t hear anything.”

Roly, who had special superpowers of his own, said, “I think it’s someone crying.”

Benson said, “I think that might be me.” One of Roly’s spines was poking him in the eye and it was watering like anything. Plus the smell of an anteater full of ants right up next to your nose can really make your eyes sting.

“No, it’s someone in the bush,” Roly said. He slid off Benson’s back and stood listening. “Over this way,” he said. He led the way into a patch of deep bush.

Benson could hear a strange noise like ‘boop-boop-sniff-boop’. He followed Roly into the bush until they found what was making the noise.

“It’s a tawny frogmouth!” he said. There was a little tawny frogmouth sitting on a low branch, crying.

“I thought they only came out at night,” Benson said.

Roly said, “Look! His feet are all tangled up.” The little bird’s feet were caught in an old plastic bag that had blown into the bush. He was struggling and trying to pull them free but the plastic wrapped itself tight around his wing. The more he struggled, the worse it got.

Benson put down his toilet brush sword and his laundry-basket-lid shield, and went up to the tawny frogmouth very quietly. The bird was frightened and flapped harder to try and get away.

“Don’t worry, little bird,” Benson said. “I’m just going to get the plastic off. I’m a superhero, you know. We do this sort of stuff every day.”

The little bird was so tired he could hardly flap. Benson had an idea. He carefully put his red cape over the little bird’s head. “There,” he said. “Now you can’t see the big scary wombat any more, can you? It’s nice and dark in there. “

The tawny frogmouth sat very quietly. Benson used his strong claws to rip the plastic away from its feet and wings. Then he lifted his cape off, and the bird flew away.

Benson watched him go. “Another good deed done!” he said. “Why don’t they ever say thank you?”

Roly picked up the pieces of plastic and they set off for home.

“Doing good deeds makes you hungry, doesn’t it?” Benson said.

Roly said, “Do you want the rest of your sandwich? It might have some bits of ant on it.”

“No, thanks, you have it,” Benson said nobly. He had accidentally tasted ants before and he didn’t want to try it again.

When they got back to Benson’s place, Aunt Lillibet was bringing in the washing from the clothes-line. She looked at Benson. “I see you found my red singlet,” she said.

Benson untied his cape and gave it back to her.

“And your mother is wondering where the toilet brush has got to,” she said.

Benson went inside and put the toilet brush and the laundry basket lid back. He made some cheese and celery sandwiches and took them outside to share with Roly.

“Are we going to do some more good deeds after lunch?” Roly asked.

“Maybe,” said Benson. “It doesn’t feel the same without the cape, somehow.” He felt a bit sad.

Just then Aunt Lillibet came out. “I thought you might be needing a new cape,” she said, “so I made this for you.” It was a new red cape, a proper one with a big ‘B’ on the back.

“And this is for you,” she said to Roly. She had made a smaller one with an ‘R’ on the back for Roly. “Off you go then, go and do your good deeds.”

Benson gave Aunt Lillibet a big hug to say thankyou, and they went.

The Cleaning Rampage

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

Benson’s mother liked to have things clean and tidy, the washing up done, the floor swept, the beds tidy. But one day she went crazy. She washed the dishes, and then she washed the sink. Then she took all the dishes out of the cupboard and washed them and then she washed the cupboard. She washed the walls in the kitchen, she washed the inside of the fridge and then she washed every single thing in the fridge. She washed the jars and the bottles, she washed the eggs and the tomatoes, she washed the spinach and the celery. But when she took the gherkins out of the jar and started washing them, everyone knew something was wrong.

“Are you okay?” Benson asked her.

His mother was washing the table and the chairs, the tops and underneath. “Hmm?” she said. “Yes, I’m fine.” She looked at Benson and wiped his face and his ears. She dusted his buttons and polished his fingernails. Then she lifted up each one of his feet and washed underneath them.

Benson went in to Aunt Moss’s room where she and Aunt Lillibet were showing each other their favourite string games. “I think there’s something wrong,” he said.

“Is it your mother?” Aunt Moss said. “I thought there was something bothering her.”

Benson said, “She’s on a Cleaning Rampage.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “How bad is it?”

“She’s washed all my pencils and scrubbed all my toys, and now she’s washing the light-bulbs,” Benson said.

“Oh dear,” said Aunt Moss. “I’ll go and talk to her.”

Aunt Moss went out to the lounge room. Benson’s mother was vacuuming the cushions and the chairs and the ceiling. As soon as she saw Aunt Moss, she turned the vacuum cleaner on her and vacuumed all over her. She stopped and polished Aunt Moss’s glasses. Then she kept on vacuuming over the floor and up the walls, sucking in all Benson’s paintings that were pinned to the wall. The vacuum cleaner made a clucking sound and kept on going.

Aunt Moss went back to her room. “I think you’d better try, Lillibet,” she said. “She didn’t even see me.”

Aunt Lillibet went out to the lounge room, but Benson’s mother had moved on to the bathroom. She vacuumed up the toothpaste and the soap, and the bottle of shampoo. Bubbles started to come out of the back of the vacuum cleaner.

Aunt Lillibet tapped her on the shoulder. Benson’s mother turned and started vacuuming over Aunt Lillibet’s face. She vacuumed Aunt Lillibet’s hat, feathers and plastic grapes and all, swukkk! into the mouth of the vacuum cleaner.

Aunt Lillibet shouted, “Stop!” She stamped on the switch of the vacuum cleaner and it went suddenly quiet.

Benson’s mother looked at Aunt Lillibet as if she’d just woken up from a long sleep. “What?” she said.

“You need to stop,” Aunt Lillibet said to her. She took her hand and led her back to the lounge, and made her sit down.

“Now, what’s going on?” Aunt Lillibet asked.

“What do you mean?” Benson’s mother said.

Aunt Lillibet pointed. The lounge cushions were gone, the lamp shade was gone, the pictures and the rugs were gone.

“Oh,” said Benson’s mother. She sat back and put her hands on her head. “I think I got carried away,” she said.

Aunt Moss and Benson came in, holding on to each other just in case. Aunt Moss put her arm around Benson’s mother, and Benson took her hand and patted it gently. Aunt Lillibet went to the kitchen and put the kettle on for a cup of tea.

Aunt Moss said, “Is there something on your mind, dear?”

Benson’s mother was quiet for a while. Then she said, “It’s silly, really. I was just washing up, and I started thinking about how precious the water is and how it hasn’t rained for so long, and then I was thinking about the bushfires, and the koalas, and little Roly and all the other animals like him, and how the bush is disappearing all the time and then I started thinking about Benson and what it will be like when he grows up, with no bush and no water and the animals dying out and no-one to take care of them, and who will look after him when I’m gone? Then Lillibet was standing there, yelling at me to stop. I think I just got carried away.”

“There, there, I know just how you feel,” said Aunt Moss. Aunt Lillibet came back with the teapot and a plate of muffins, and a glass of milk for Benson.

Benson patted his mother’s hand and said, “Don’t worry, we’ve got the Bushcare group, remember? And when I grow up I’m going to plant heaps of trees and we’re going to look after the koalas. Elmer is learning to knit so that he can make little pouches for the baby animals whose mothers die, and Bonnie Lou wants to be a vet, so she can make the sick ones better. Alejandro is going to be a famous dancer so he can make lots of money and make sure nobody digs up the bush or bulldozes it.”

His mother gathered him up onto her lap and hugged him close. “I should have known you would know how to take care of things,” she said.

Benson said, “Of course. I know you grown-ups love the bush and do everything you can to take care of it, but it’s my bush too, remember.”

“You’re right,” said his mother. “It’s your bush too.” They all sat there eating muffins and talking about what the new cushions and lampshades would look like.

Feeding the Spirit

(A Visit to the Art Gallery)

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

At breakfast time, Aunt Moss said, “I’m going to visit the art gallery tomorrow.”

Benson said, “What’s an art gallery?”

“It’s a place where there are lots of paintings and beautiful things people have made,” Aunt Moss said, “and everyone can go and look at them.”

“Why would anyone want to go and look at paintings?” Benson asked.

“Well, for some people, it’s a kind of food for the spirit,” Aunt Moss said.

“You can get a hungry spirit?” Benson said.

Aunt Moss said, “You know how Nanna sometimes shuts all her doors and windows and turns the music up loud and sings along, and afterwards she feels calm and happy? That’s feeding her spirit. When I look at lots of beautiful things, it makes me feel happy, and peaceful.”

“So for some people, music feeds their spirits and for some people it’s paintings?” Benson asked.

Aunt Moss nodded. “For other people it’s spending time with nature, walking in the bush or climbing mountains. You know when Aunt Lillibet gets into one of her moods, and she goes outside and talks to her flowers and feels better?”

“I do not talk to the flowers,” Aunt Lillibet growled from her bedroom.

“Can I come to the art gallery with you?” Benson asked.

“Of course, if you want to,” Aunt Moss said.

They had to leave very early the next morning, and walk a long way through the bush. After a while they came to a road, and they followed that until they came to a train station. They caught a train that went such a long way that Benson fell asleep, but that’s a story for another day. When it was time to get off the train, they had to catch another train and finally they were there.

Aunt Moss’s friend, Imelda, was meeting them to take them to the art gallery. “Imelda is a painter herself,” said Aunt Moss.

Imelda was like Aunt Moss except that she talked and laughed and smiled all the time without stopping. It was like she really enjoyed every single thing she did. Benson wondered if being a painter made her spirit well-fed.

The art gallery was an enormous building with huge pillars and great big steps at the front, but Imelda took them around to the special entrance for wombats. She knocked at the door and the guard came and opened it for them. He said, “Good afternoon,” politely to Imelda and let them in.

The art gallery was made of giant rooms with nothing in them except paintings hanging on the walls. In some of the rooms there were sculptures made out of stone or metal, but mostly it was just paintings. Benson wandered around looking and looking and looking. There were paintings of everything he could think of: people and horses and the sea and fruit and the bush, and lots of splotchy paintings of nothing at all. Some of the paintings were so big that he had to go over to the other side of the room to see them, and some were so small that he couldn’t see them unless he jumped up.

After a while he found a bench in the middle of one room and he went and lay down on it and shut his eyes.

“Benson, what are you doing?” Aunt Moss asked him.

“My eyes are full,” he said. “I can’t look at anything else.”

“Imelda is taking us downstairs on the escalator,” Aunt Moss said.

Benson got up. “Excavator?” he said.

“No, escalator,” said Aunt Moss. “Come and see.”

The escalator was metal steps like giant teeth that went down all by themselves. Benson stood on one step and it went down and down. At the bottom it spread out flat so that he could walk off. He looked back up the escalator where Aunt Moss and her friend Imelda were coming down. “How do we get back up again?” he asked.

“There’s another escalator that goes upwards,” Imelda said.

She took them into another room full of paintings. Benson sighed. He thought his spirit was pretty full by now, but his tummy was getting very empty.

The paintings in this room were all made of dots, red dots and black dots and white dots and yellow dots. They made nice patterns, and Benson could imagine himself dipping his fingers into different puddles of paint and going dab-dab, dab-dab-dab, to make paintings like this.

Aunt Moss said, “This is one that Imelda painted.”

Benson didn’t know what to say. It just looked like more dots, arranged in circles and lines.

Imelda said, “I painted my place. This is the bush, and these are my friends gathered around the waterhole.”

Benson looked, and all of a sudden he could understand what he was looking at. “These are the tracks they used to get there, aren’t they? And these are the hills, and the trees.” It was a bit like the maps he liked to draw sometimes.

“That’s right,” Imelda said. She pointed to some brown blotches at the bottom of the painting. “These are the yams they’re going to have for dinner.” She pointed to some black circles around the waterhole. “These are the wombats sitting around while the yams are cooking, talking about where they’re going for their holidays.”

Benson nodded. “It’s a very good picture,” he said. He looked at all the other paintings, and he thought about all the other stories people had painted about their own places, and he started thinking about what he would paint if he painted his place.

He thought about it all the way home on the train, and he even did some dab-dab-dabbing in the dust on the window of the train. When they got home, Benson’s mother had dinner waiting for them, and after dinner he and his mother sat outside in the moonlight and he told her about everything he had seen.

“Aunt Moss was humming while she was doing the dishes tonight,” his mother said.

“I expect that’s because her spirit is happy,” Benson said. He snuggled against his mother and asked her, “What makes your spirit happy?”

“This,” she said, giving him a hug.

“Me too,” he said.

Butterfingers

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

Aunt Lillibet was washing the dishes after dinner. Benson’s mother had made two kinds of pasta, one with tomatoes and eggplants and mushrooms, and one with fried zucchini, and Benson had helped Aunt Moss make a lemon butter raspberry cake for dessert, so there was a lot of washing up.

Aunt Lillibet called Benson to come and help her and Aunt Moss. “I’ll wash the dishes and you two dry them and put them away,” she said.

Benson had had both kinds of pasta and two pieces of cake, and he felt like sitting down and never moving again, but he got up and went and got the tea towel. He picked up the very biggest saucepan to dry it, but it slipped out of his fingers and clanged onto the floor.

“Butterfingers!” said Aunt Lillibet.

“Did you say butter fingers?” Benson said. He giggled so much he had to sit down on the floor. “Butter fingers?”

He looked at his short brown fingers with their strong claws for digging and tried to imagine they were made out of butter. “That would never work,” he said. “You couldn’t have a bath, because your fingers would melt away. You couldn’t dig because they’d squoosh up in the dirt. You couldn’t do your buttons up. You couldn’t even tie your shoelaces.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “I just meant that you should take more care with the dishes and not let them slip through your fingers.”

Aunt Moss said, “It’s not very nice to call people names, Lillibet dear. You know sometimes the name sticks! What if Benson’s fingers really did turn into butter?”

Benson imagined having soft yellow fingers that he could nibble on any time he was hungry.

Aunt Lillibet banged the frying pan into the sink. “Really, Moss, it’s nothing to do with you! Don’t be such a sticky-beak!”

Aunt Moss said, “That wasn’t a nice thing to say, Lillibet! Now look what you’ve done!”

Aunt Lillibet looked around at Aunt Moss. There was a piece of cake sticking to the end of her nose.

Aunt Lillibet started to get cross. “Take that off at once, Moss! You’re just a greedy pig!”

Aunt Moss’s nose twitched and she started to snuffle and grunt. “Oink, oink! Oink, oink!” she said, trotting around the kitchen with cake on the end of her nose.

Benson rolled around the kitchen floor laughing.

Aunt Lillibet said loudly, “That’s enough! Stop it, both of you!” She pulled the plug out with an angry pop.

“Oh, you’re such a silly sausage, Lillibet,” Aunt Moss laughed.

Aunt Lillibet wasn’t listening. She was pulling at something in the sink.

“What’s the matter?” asked Aunt Moss.

“My finger!” said Aunt Lillibet. “It’s stuck in the plughole! I can’t get it out!”

Benson and Aunt Moss peered into the sink. Aunt Lillibet’s finger was stuck in one of the holes in the plughole.

“Here, let me help,” Aunt Moss said. She grabbed Aunt Lillibet’s hand and pulled hard.

“Ow! Stop – that hurts!” said Aunt Lillibet.

Aunt Moss stopped pulling. Benson stopped laughing. Aunt Lillibet was getting quite upset.

“You know,” Benson said, “if your finger was really made of butter, it would just slide right out.”

Aunt Moss said, “Benson, this is no time for being silly.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “No, Moss, I think he’s right. Get the butter.”

Aunt Moss smeared butter all over Lillibet’s finger, until it was so slippery it slid right out of the hole.

Aunt Lillibet held her finger up, and wriggled it a bit and bent it over. “It seems fine,” she said.

Aunt Moss said, “Thank goodness! How did you come to get your finger stuck, Lillibet?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “I don’t know. My finger just seemed a bit fatter than usual, and it got stuck in the hole.”

Aunt Moss put her hand over her mouth. “Was that after I called you a silly sausage? I’m so sorry, Lillibet! “ Her eyes filled with tears.

Aunt Lillibet said, “That had nothing to do with it, Moss. Don’t be such a silly goose!”

Aunt Moss took out her handkerchief and blew her nose with a loud, “Hooonk!”

Benson’s mother came into the kitchen. “Oh, you’ve finished all those dishes!” she said. “You’re all angels!”

Aunt Moss and Aunt Lillibet beamed. Benson peeped around behind them to see if any of them had grown wings. They hadn’t, but he had hopes.

Visiting the Manger

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.

Benson knew that Christmas was a special time. His mother and Aunt Lillibet always cooked mountains of food, and Aunt Moss and Benson made presents for everyone, little toys made out of clay or gumnuts and felt, and paper fans and bookmarks, and plants in pots decorated with potato stamps, and cards that said, ‘Happy Christmas’.

Pascoe the story teller came to stay for a few days to help eat all the food. Benson told her everything that had happened since last time they saw her, about the landslide and Aunt Moss being sick, and the quoll, and Pascoe listened so that she could make them into stories to tell other people. And she told Benson and his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss all the stories she had heard.

Benson wanted to know why Christmas was so special, so Pascoe told him all about baby Jesus being born, how his mother and his father had to travel a long long way with a donkey to another town, and then when they got there it was time for the baby to be born but the only place that had room for them to stay was a stable filled with animals.

“What sort of animals?” Benson wanted to know.

“Oh, just cows and donkeys, maybe an ox,” Pascoe said.

“No wombats?” Benson asked,

“No, no wombats,” Pascoe said. Then she told him the rest of the story, about shepherds coming to visit the baby, and angels singing and everyone being happy and excited.

“What are angels?” Benson asked.

“Sort of flying messengers,” Pascoe said. “Angels announce things, and tell people what’s happened.”

“Like you,” Benson said.

“A bit,” Pascoe said. “But with white dresses and wings, and lots of gold sparkles. I can show you one if you like.”

“You’ve got an angel?” Benson gasped.

“No, but there’s a manger outside a church, not too far from here, with statues of angels and shepherds and baby Jesus and his mother and father,” Pascoe said.

“Can we go?” Benson asked his mother breathlessly.

Benson’s mother said of course they could go.

Pascoe said, “The people in the church don’t like animals like us getting too close, but if we go at night there’ll be no-one around so it should be okay.”

It was the night before Christmas. Aunt Lillibet packed lots of fruit cake in case they got hungry, and they set off as soon as it got dark. As they went along, other animals heard about where they were going and they came along too, Benson’s friends Roly, and Nils and Nella, and Whipple the sugar-glider, and Zali and her mum and little Zip.

It was a long walk, but everyone was so busy talking and being excited they didn’t notice.

The manger was in the middle of a yard next to a big church. They all came up very quietly and stood looking. The statue of the baby was in a little box full of straw, with his mother and father beside it. Next to it there were big statues of a cow and an ox and a donkey. There were even some shepherds, with sheep and a lamb. It was so beautiful that everyone just stood there staring.

Then Nils and Nella noticed a shining white angel on the roof of the stable and they climbed up to see it. After that all the animals crowded in to get a better look at the baby and the giant animals. Roly ate some ants that were walking on the ox’s feet, and Whipple swooped between the horns on the cow and the shepherd’s stick. Zali picked up the lamb and was giving it a cuddle.

Suddenly Pascoe said, “Listen!”

Everyone listened. They heard the sound of a car driving up.

“There are people coming!” Pascoe said “Quick, hide!”

Zali’s mother said, “Where’s Zip? I can’t find her anywhere.”

They could already hear the car doors opening and people getting out. There was no time to hide. Benson’s mother hissed, “Everyone freeze!”

All the animals stood as still as statues.

The people who had gotten out of the car came up to the manger. There was a father and a mother, and a big boy and a smaller girl. The father had a big torch and he turned it on.

“See?” he said to his children. “I told you it would be more beautiful at night.”

The children said, “Look at all the animals! There’s an echidna and possums and wombats and everything!”

The mother said, “It’s nice to see some native animals for a change.”

The girl said, “They look as if they’re alive!”

“It’s amazing what they can do with computer graphics,” the father said.

The boy said, “I think they are alive. That possum just blinked.”

“No,” said the father, “it’s just clever robotics.”

The girl said, “Look, there’s a baby wombat sleeping next to baby Jesus!”

“That’s so sweet,” the mother said. “Is that a wallaby, next to the donkey?”

“I think it’s a kangaroo,” the father said.

“Are you sure?” the mother said. She reached out a hand towards Pascoe, who was starting to wobble with the strain of standing so still.

Benson had to do something. The boy was standing right beside him. Benson said softly, “Pssst!”

The boy jumped, and then he looked down at Benson. Benson pointed to a sign that said, Do Not Touch.

The boy nodded and said to his mother, “The sign says, Do Not Touch!”

The mother pulled her hand back. “You’re right,” she said.

The boy gave Benson a little smile. Benson winked back.

The father said, “It’s time to go, anyway.” They turned to go back to the car.

Benson breathed a sigh of relief, and the straw dust got into his nose. He sneezed.

The whole family turned around.

“Achooo!” said the boy loudly.

The mother said, “Oh, it was you! For a minute I thought it was that little wombat that sneezed!”

The family got back in the car and drove off. The boy waved to Benson and Benson gave him a wave back.

“Finally!” said Nils, swinging down from the angel’s wing. “I thought they were never going.”

Everyone started talking at once. Zali’s mum got little Zip out of the manger, and Benson’s mother unpacked the fruit cake, and they ate and talked and laughed until it was time to go home.

The Portal

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

Towards the end of August, when the weather was starting to warm up and the birds were starting to get noisier, Aunt Lillibet stopped in the middle of weeding the garden and snuffed the air. She said to Benson’s mother, “I think it’s time.”

Benson’s mother snuffed the air too, and nodded. “Let’s go and see Nanna.”

Benson’s mother packed food for everyone, and she and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss and Benson set off for Nanna’s.

When they got there, she was waiting for them. “It’s time!” she said. “I’ve made you a big pile of sandwiches and I’ve got everything ready. “

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Benson asked.

Nanna shook her head. “Not this time,” she said. “I get tired too quickly these days.” Nanna hadn’t been well lately.

“But what about the notebook?” Benson asked.

Nanna already had a small backpack ready. It was very old but the worn parts were carefully patched over.

Nanna held it out to Benson. “I think it’s your turn, Benson,” she said.

“Me?” he said. He took the backpack and put it on. He suddenly felt a lot more grown up.

Aunt Lillibet said to Nanna, “I was thinking of taking Bonnie Lou with us this time.”

“Bonnie Lou?” said Benson. “She’s just a baby.”

“She’s older than you were when you started coming,” Aunt Lillibet said. “She’s very good with her hands and she has a good eye for colour. I think she’ll do very well.”

Aunt Moss said, “I think so, too.”

Nanna thought about it and nodded. “All right then, take her with you and see how she goes,” she said. “Off you go, everyone. Have a good time! I’ll have the cake ready when you get back!”

They went to Bonnie Lou’s place first and asked her mother if she could come and then they all set off together. They walked along the main track at first, and then they turned off onto a smaller track, and then a smaller track after that. After a long walk they took a much narrower path that was hardly a track at all, and before long they were pushing their way through thick bush.

Suddenly Benson said, “There!” and pointed.

Bonnie Lou looked around and said, “What? Where?” She was already hot and tired. She really didn’t understand what they were going on this long walk for.

Benson pointed again and said, “There! That’s the portal!”

Up ahead of them was a blue gum with two trunks that curved away from each other and then mysteriously curved back again until they crossed over each other at the top, making a big circle like a round doorway.

“Ooh, a portal!” said Bonnie Lou. “Is it magic?”

“You’ll see,” Benson said. “Come on.” Leading the way, he went up and stepped through the middle of the circle. Bonnie Lou stepped through after him, holding her breath.

“But there’s nothing here!” she said. “It’s just more bush!”

“Wait till you see,” Benson said. His mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss followed them through, and started to spread out through the bush.

Aunt Moss sighed with happiness. “It’s just as beautiful as it always was!” she said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “I’ve found some silky purple flags, and some smokebush.”

“Look at this woolly tea-tree, and here’s a beautiful pink boronia,” Benson’s mother said.

“What are they talking about?” Bonnie Lou asked Benson. He was opening up the backpack and getting out a very old notebook.

“Why don’t you go and see?” he said. “I’ve got to write these down.” He took out a pencil and opened to a new page and carefully wrote the date at the top of the page.

Bonnie Lou went over to Aunt Lillibet. “Where’s the purple flag?” she asked. “All I can see is flowers.”

Aunt Lillibet pointed to a bright purple flower with three triangular petals. “This is a silky flag,” she said, “and this one with white flowers is smokebush.”

“We came all this way just to pick flowers?” Bonnie Lou said.

“Absolutely not!” Aunt Lillibet said. “We don’t touch anything. We look to see what’s here, what’s growing well and what isn’t. We look for anything that’s new, and anything unusual. Benson will write it all down in the notebook.”

“But why?” Bonnie Lou asked.

Aunt Lillibet explained slowly. “For a long long time, Nanna has been coming to this place every season, watching over it, and keeping a record in the notebook of all the flowers and plants that are growing here. This is a special place. No-one comes here, so the flowers and plants grow wild without anyone disturbing them. You can tell by looking at them how healthy all the bush is, and whether it’s a good season or a bad season.”

Bonnie Lou said, “But I can’t write yet, and I don’t know what any of the flowers are.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “You’ll learn. Now go and see if you can find any more silky flags, and any of this. It’s a coral pea. It’s very hard to find.”

Bonnie Lou scampered off and before long she found all sorts of different flowers. It seemed the more she looked, the more she found. A lot of the wildflowers were so tiny that she’d never noticed them before, but once she started really looking, they were everywhere. After a while, it seemed like the whole gully was filled with flowers of all sizes, pink and red and white and cream and yellow and purple, springing out everywhere.

When she was tired, she went and sat down beside Benson, who was busy writing down the names of flowers in the notebook that his mother or Aunt Moss or Aunt Lillibet called out to him.

“Why did you say it was a portal?” Bonnie Lou asked.

“Because this gully has the most flowers and more different kinds than anywhere in the whole of the rest of the bush,” he said. “It’s like this place is magic.”

Aunt Lillibet called, “Benson, you’d better come over here. I think I’ve found something.”

Benson gathered up the backpack and the notebook. “Come on,” he said to Bonnie Lou.

Everyone gathered around the flower that Aunt Lillibet had found. “It’s beautiful!” Aunt Moss breathed.

“I’ve never seen a pink one like this before,” Benson’s mother said. “I think you may be right, Lillibet.”

Benson opened a new page in the notebook and very carefully drew a picture of the flower and its leaves and some tiny buds. Then he got some coloured pencils out of the backpack and a little bottle of water. He coloured in his drawing, trying to make sure it was exactly the same colour as the flower.

“I think it’s a bit pinker than that,” Bonnie Lou said, looking over his shoulder with her head on one side.

“I haven’t finished yet!” Benson said. He wet one of his pencils and very, very carefully added some more colour. “There!” he said.

Everyone looked at the drawing, and at the flower, and they nodded. “Good job, Benson,” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson could feel his heart swelling up. This was always Nanna’s job. He’d never done it by himself before.

Bonnie Lou said, “Why did you draw this one and not any of the others?”

“Aunt Lillibet thinks this is a flower no-one has ever seen before,” Benson said. “Isn’t that amazing? We’ll show Nanna when we get back, and she’ll check in her big book.”

“That’s pretty special, isn’t it?” Bonnie Lou said. “A flower no-one has ever seen before?”

Benson nodded. “Nanna has found lots of new flowers. One of them was even named after her!”

They stopped for a rest and ate Nanna’s sandwiches, and then went on looking for flowers until late in the afternoon. Bonnie Lou had a nap next to Benson. When she woke up, she asked him, “Were you as young as me when you started coming here?”

Benson said, “A bit younger. I’ve been coming since I was a baby. Nanna used to bring a bag of chocolate sultanas, and every time I found a flower, she’d give me one.”

“Chocolate sultanas?” Bonnie Lou said, brightening up.

Benson nodded. “But when I got bigger, I got better at finding flowers until I was so full of chocolate sultanas I could hardly walk home. So now Nanna just makes a big chocolate cake instead.”

“Cake?” Bonnie Lou said. “Chocolate cake?”

“Yep,” Benson said. “She’s probably putting the icing on it right now.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Bonnie Lou said. She jumped to her feet. “Here’s a cup of tea bush…”

“Tea-tree,” said Benson.

“And a flannelette flower…” she said.

“Flannel flower,” he said.

“And some gravy flowers, red ones and pink ones, and a banksy over here,” she said.

Benson sighed and wrote down ‘grevillea’ and ‘banksia’.

When it was time to go, Benson packed up the notebook carefully with his drawings to show Nanna, and they all went back through the portal. It was a long walk back to Nanna’s place, but she had made them the most enormous chocolate cake Bonnie Lou had ever seen, and extra chocolate sultanas just for Bonnie Lou.

The Bath Plug

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

Benson was playing with his friends, Nils and Nella, when they found something unusual. On the ground in the middle of a patch of dirt in the bush, was a bath plug.

“Come over here and look at this,” Nils called to the others.

“It looks like a bath plug,” Benson said. It looked exactly like an ordinary bath plug.

Nils went to pick it up, but Nella said, “Don’t!”

“Why not?” said Nils.

“Because you don’t know what it’s there for,” she said. “It could be covered with poison to trap foxes or orangutans.”

“I’m fairly sure foxes and orangutans don’t eat bath plugs,” Benson said.

“You never know,” said Nils.

Nella said suddenly, “I know what it’s for! It’s for a dust-bath!”

“Oh, a dust-bath,” Benson said. Then he remembered that he didn’t know what a dust-bath was. “Who takes a bath in dust?” he said. “Isn’t that the opposite of what a bath is for?”

Nils said, “Some animals like to roll around in the dust, like horses, and pigs, and chickens and stuff. It looks like they’re having a bath.”

They all looked at the dust-bath. Then Benson said, “But why does it have a plug?”

Nella said, “Because that’s what baths have, to keep what’s inside them inside.”

Nils said, “That can’t be right. The dirt isn’t going to disappear down the plughole.”

Benson imagined pulling out the plug and all the dirt pouring down a big hole in the ground, and then the grass and the bush sliding in too, and then all the trees, until there was nothing left but hard ground and a hole.

He said, “Maybe it was a real bath and someone pulled the plug out and all the water ran down the plug-hole.”

“Then why is the plug still in?” said Nella.

“Besides, if it was water, it would have turned the dirt into mud,” Nils said.

“Then we could have had a mud-bath,” Benson said. He imagined rolling in a pool of mud, throwing handfuls at Nils, and blowing mud bubbles. He imagined what his mother would say when he got home. “I think it’s just a plug that someone dropped when they were out for a walk,” he said.

“Why would you take a bath plug with you when you were going for a walk?” Nella said.

“In case you wanted to stop somewhere and have a bath,” Nils said.

Benson said, “Maybe someone like my uncle Elton was inventing something to pull the plug out of their bath, like a fishing rod that hooked onto the plug and flung it out, but the fishing rod was too bouncy and it flung the bath-plug way over here.”

Nils and Nella thought about it. “Why didn’t he just pull the plug out of the bath with his hand?” Nils said.

“Because he doesn’t like putting his hand in when the water is cold?” Benson suggested.

“Then why didn’t he pull it out while the water was still warm?” Nella said.

Benson couldn’t think of any reason. “I’m going to pick it up,” he said. The other two looked serious, as if they thought just about anything might happen.

Benson reached out and picked up the bath plug.

Three things happened at once.

A grasshopper that had been hiding under the plug jumped out.

A kookaburra that had been sitting on a branch waiting for the grasshopper to jump out swooped in, low and fast.

Benson caught the grasshopper in one hand, put it up to his mouth and swallowed.

The kookaburra landed on the dirt and looked at Benson with a mean yellow eye. Then it flew off, angry and disappointed.

That very moment, Benson’s friend Philip came running up, shouting, “Mirabelle! Mirabelle!”

He came up to them panting. “Have you seen Mirabelle?” he said. “She’s a grasshopper. I left her here under this bath plug…” He noticed the bath plug in Benson’s hand and he went very pale.

“What was she doing under a bath plug?” Nella asked.

“She was hiding so the kookaburra didn’t get her,” Philip said.

“But why was there a bath plug here, anyway?” Nils asked.

“I always take a bath plug with me,” Philip said, “in case there are kookaburras.”

Nella looked serious. “There’s something very sad we have to tell you,” she said to Philip.

Philip looked as if he was going to be really upset. “Did the kookaburra get her?” he asked.

“No,” said Nella. “Benson ate her.”

Philip went completely white. “Benson ate Mirabelle?” he said, horrified.

Benson said, “I didn’t eat her! I only pretended to, so the kookaburra would go away. She’s fine.” He unfolded his hand, and a small, green grasshopper peered out.

Philip took her very gently. “Don’t worry, Mirabelle, it’s all right now. The nasty old wombat isn’t going to eat you,” he said, stroking her head.

Benson said, “I wasn’t going to eat her!”

Philip didn’t look convinced. “Can I have my bath plug back?”

Benson gave him the plug and he put it in his pocket.

“What do you want the plug for?” Nils asked. “The kookaburra’s gone now.”

Philip said, “Sometimes Mirabelle likes to have a dust-bath under it. She likes a little privacy,” he explained.

“See? I told you so!” said Nella.

Bonnie Lou’s Gumnuts

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

Benson’s friend, Mick, and his little sister, Bonnie Lou, came to Benson’s place to play. Aunt Lillibet was looking them while Mick’s mother went to a conference with Benson’s mother.

The weather was perfect so Benson and Mick spent all morning outside digging and playing submarines. Bonnie Lou played with them a bit but she didn’t like submarines and the others kept all the fun parts for themselves, like firing the torpedoes, and yelling ‘Dive! Dive! Dive!’, so she got bored and wandered off to play by herself.

She found some big gumnuts under an old woollybutt tree. She pretended they were babies and played tea-parties for a while, and when that got boring, she found some casuarina seeds and decided to tie them all together and make a necklace. The trouble was the tying part.

She tried winding grass around them, but that didn’t work. She tried poking a hole in them with a stick but that didn’t work. She tried gluing them together with mud but that didn’t work. She got so frustrated that she threw them on the ground and stamped and screamed.

Aunt Lillibet came rushing out. “What’s the matter? Is there a snake?” she said.

“I want to make a necklace but it won’t work!” Bonnie Lou said, starting to cry.

“Don’t cry!” Aunt Lillibet said. “Wait here.”

Aunt Lillibet went inside and got out her box of beads and a needle and some thin elastic. She threaded red and pink and green beads on the elastic and tied it in a circle. It made a very pretty necklace.

She took it outside and said to Bonnie Lou, “Here you are.”

Bonnie Lou didn’t even look at it. She was jumping on her gumnuts and yelling.

Benson and Mick came up to see if it was time for lunch yet and if Aunt Lillibet had brought some food out.

“Lunch is in two hours,” Aunt Lillibet said. “If you’re hungry, you can have some fruit.”

Mick said, “Did you make that for Bonnie Lou?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “I don’t think she likes it.”

Mick said, “She always wants to make things herself, but the things she makes never work out. She’s just a baby. She can’t do anything.”

Aunt Lillibet suddenly looked very fierce. Mick and Benson both ran for the shelter of the submarine, shouting, “Dive! Dive! Dive!”

Aunt Lillibet said to Bonnie Lou, “I can help you make a necklace if you like. Bring all those gumnuts inside.”

They went inside, and Aunt Lillibet got out a very tiny drill. She drilled a hole right through each of the gumnuts, and she showed Bonnie Lou how to thread elastic through them. It made a beautiful necklace.

Bonnie Lou put it on, and smiled very happily.

Aunt Lillibet said, “You know, we could paint them different colours.” She got out her paints, and they painted the gumnuts all different colours and made beautiful bracelets out of them. Bonnie Lou put them all up her arms, and Aunt Lillibet put one on too.

Bonnie Lou said, “I found some interesting seeds before. Maybe we could use them too.” She showed Aunt Lillibet the seeds she had found, some shiny and some spiky and some that looked like stripy wood. They polished them with some of Aunt Lillibet’s sandpaper to make them smoother and shinier. Aunt Lillibet drilled holes in them and Bonnie Lou threaded them together in patterns, and made beautiful necklaces and bracelets until they ran out of elastic.

There were still some gumnuts left over. Aunt Lillibet said, “You know, if you glued on a little piece of felt, and painted a little face on it, it would look like a little person.”

Aunt Lillibet got out her scrap box and they glued little hats and pants and dresses on the gumnuts, and made them hair with little bits of wool. They made gumnut babies and gumnut mothers and fathers and aunties, and bank-robber gumnuts and astronaut gumnuts and pilot gumnuts. At lunchtime they were still busy, so Benson made sandwiches for everybody. They glued and painted and snipped and made things all day.

When Benson’s mother and Mick’s mother came home, Bonnie Lou and Aunt Lillibet were surrounded by gumnut people. Bonnie Lou was wearing three necklaces and Aunt Lillibet was wearing two. “I made this necklace for you,” Bonnie Lou said to her mother, “and I made this one for you,” she said to Benson’s mother.

“They’re absolutely beautiful!” said Benson’s mother. “You’re so clever, Bonnie Lou! And what did you boys do today?” she asked Mick.

“Um, we dug, and we played,” Mick said.

Mick’s mother thanked Aunt Lillibet for looking after them. Aunt Lillibet said, “It was no trouble at all. Bonnie Lou is very good with her hands, and very creative. I had the most fun I’ve had for ages!”

Bonnie Lou smiled and gave Aunt Lillibet a big hug.

Benson said, “You know, these astronauts are great. It would be really good if you could make a kind of rocket for them, and a space station.”

Bonnie Lou smiled. “No problem,” she said. “Leave it with me.”

Making Pies

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

Aunt Lillibet decided to make a pie.

“What kind of pie are you going to make?” Benson asked.

“I was thinking of making an apple pie,” she said.

Benson’s tummy started to feel warm and happy.

“Would you like some help?” Benson’s mother said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “No, thank you. You know that you and I don’t make pies the same way.”

Benson said, “How can there be more than one way to make a pie? It’s just pastry with apple in between.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “That’s what you think. When I make a pie, I do it the same way my mother did, and her mother and her mother. It’s a traditional recipe, tried and tested. Your mother just makes a pie.”

Benson started to get an idea. An apple pie would be great. Two apple pies would be even better.

“Which one tastes better?” he asked craftily.

Aunt Lillibet said, “The traditional way, of course.”

Benson’s mother said, “Of course, your pies are always delicious, Lillibet, but there’s nothing wrong with the way I make pies. In the end, a pie is just a pie.”

Benson said, “We can’t really tell, can we, unless we compare them.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “All right, we’ll both make a pie and then we’ll have a taste-testing and we’ll see whose pie is better.”

Benson smiled very widely and his mother looked hard at him. She opened her mouth to say something, but then she shut it again and just nodded.

Benson started to imagine himself sitting in front of two pies, with a big spoon in his hand.

Aunt Lillibet got out the big bowl and she measured flour into it. She rubbed butter into the flour and added some sugar and an egg, and just a little water. She mixed them together until she had a ball of yellow pastry. She rolled out the pastry until it was smooth and even, and then she lifted it carefully into the pie dish and patted it down. She cut off the spare pastry and made a pretty edge all around the edge of the dish.

Benson’s mother got a sheet of frozen pastry out of the freezer. When it was soft, she cut out a circle and dropped it into the pie dish. “Done,” she said.

Aunt Lillibet chose the best apples, two green, three red and one yellow. She peeled them and sliced them and put them in a saucepan with some water. “Don’t look!” she said. “The mixture of spices is a secret handed down from mother to daughter for generations.” She sprinkled some spices in, and stirred it around. When the apple was cooked, she arranged it evenly in the pastry in the pie dish.

Benson’s mother got some apples from the fruit bowl and took the seeds and cores out. Then she chopped them up with her big chopper and piled them into the pie dish. She sprinkled in a bit of cinnamon. “Done,” she said.

Aunt Lillibet rolled out the rest of her pastry and carefully lifted it on top of the apple in the pie dish. She trimmed around the edges and then she made little leaves out of the trimmings, and arranged them beautifully on top of the pie. Then she popped it into the oven.

Benson’s mother got another sheet of pastry from the freezer and cut it into a circle and put it on top of her pie. She painted the top of the pie with some milk, and sprinkled some sugar on top. “Done,” she said. She popped it into the oven.

“Benson,” she said, “would you help Aunt Lillibet wash the dishes, please? I’m just going out for a minute.”

Benson didn’t mind washing up, because the kitchen was warm and filled with the smell of baking pies.

His mother came back just when it was time to take the pies out of the oven. They both looked absolutely perfect. One was brown and golden, and the other was golden brown.

Benson couldn’t wait to start pie-tasting. He got a big spoon and sat down at the table.

“Just a minute, Benson,” his mother said. “I was worried that if you liked my pie better, you might not want to say so in case it was rude to Aunt Lillibet, and if you liked Aunt Lillibet’s pie better, you might not want to say so in case it hurt my feelings. So I asked some friends along to help you.”

She opened the door and Mr Fenn and Uncle Elton and Benson’s cousin Elmer walked in. Aunt Moss was there too, with her friend Shelley.

Benson’s face fell. Two pies and one wombat would have been a lot better than two pies and eight wombats. But then he cheered up. It was a lot better than one wombat and no pies.

Aunt Lillibet and Benson’s mother gave everyone a piece of both pies and they set to work tasting.

“This one’s delicious,” Uncle Elmer said, “but I like the pastry on the other one better.”

“The apple in this one is too mushy,” Mr Fenn said. “I like my apple a bit crunchier than this.”

Shelley said, “I love the apple in this one. Did you put in cloves or cinnamon?”

In no time at all, both pies were gone and everyone was sitting with empty plates, looking content.

Aunt Lillibet looked hard at Benson and said, “Well, Benson, which pie would you say was the best?”

Benson stood up and cleared his throat. “They were both very nice,” he said, and everyone nodded and agreed. “In fact, they were both extremely delicious. But I think…” He looked at Aunt Lillibet and he looked at his mother. “The best one was…” he thought hard and said, “…the first one I tried.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Which one was that?”

Benson looked at the empty plates and the happy faces around the table. “Umm, I’m not sure,” he said. “Do you think we could start again?”

The Pink and Green Pencil

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

Benson asked his mother one day, “Why do people cry?”

His mother said, “I wish I knew! It’s a mystery to me.”

Aunt Moss said, “People cry when they get emotional.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “That’s no help. When people say they get emotional, they just mean they cry. It doesn’t explain why they cry.”

Benson’s mother said, “Some people never cry, and some people are always crying, for no reason at all.”

Aunt Moss said, “I think it’s a bit like a dam. All your feelings build up and up, and then they overflow in tears, like water flows over a dam wall.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Some people have a very low dam wall, then.”

“People cry for different reasons,” Benson’s mother said. “People cry when they’re sad or upset, or even when they’re happy, sometimes.”

“Tears of joy,” Aunt Moss agreed.

“You can be bored to tears,” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson said, “I think I made Bonnie Lou cry.”

“Did you hurt her?” Aunt Lillibet said. “Did you hit her or pull her hair?”

“No,” said Benson, “of course not.”

His mother said, “Tell me what happened.”

Benson said, “Well, when I was over at Mick’s place, Mick took Bonnie Lou’s favourite pencil. It had two colours together in one pencil, pink on one side and green on the other side, so she thought it was pretty special. Mick grabbed it and he wouldn’t give it back.”

“Did Bonnie Lou cry because she was angry?” Aunt Lillibet asked.

“No,” Benson said, “she yelled at him and hit him with her teddy-bear. I tried to get the pencil back, and it kind of snapped in half.”

“Did Bonnie Lou cry because she was upset?” Benson’s mother asked.

“No,” Benson said, “she yelled at me instead. So I got a pink pencil and a green pencil and sticky-taped them together so it was like a pink and green pencil, but it didn’t really work.”

“Did Bonnie Lou cry because she was disappointed?” Aunt Moss asked.

“No,” Benson said, “she just looked kind of sad. So I put Mick’s furry gloves on and pretended I was a gorilla, and jumped up and down and went ‘Ooh-ooh-ah-ah’ like a gorilla, to make her laugh.”

“Did she laugh until she cried?” Aunt Lillibet asked.

“No,” Benson said, “she just laughed a lot.”

“So then what happened?” his mother said.

“We all had some apple and blackberry juice and cookies and then it was time to go home. When I was saying goodbye, I gave her a little pat, just gently, and said I was sorry about her pencil, and she burst into tears! Why would she do that?”

No-one said anything. Benson looked at his mother. Her eyes were full of tears, and so were Aunt Moss’s. Even Aunt Lillibet was sniffling. Benson shrugged and went outside to dig.

How Old is Old?

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

Benson was helping his Nanna make lunch. She was kneading the dough for the pizza, folding and pushing and turning it, and Benson was cutting the capsicum up very carefully into flower shapes.

Benson asked, “How old are you, Nanna?”

Nanna laughed. “Sometimes I feel as old as the hills,” she said.

“But how old are you?” Benson said.

“I’m older than you and your mother put together,” Nanna said.

“That must be really really old,” Benson said.

Nanna said, “It depends what you mean by old.” She shaped the pizza dough into a soft round ball, gave it a pat and put it in a warm place with a tea towel over it. “Let’s go for a walk while we’re waiting for the dough to rise,” she said to Benson. “I want to show you something.”

They went down to the creek that ran down the back of Nanna’s place. Nanna picked up a little brown pebble and put it in Benson’s hand. Then she picked up some warm dry sand from the bank of the creek, and poured it into his other hand.

“Did you know that all those grains of sand were once pebbles like this one?” she said. “It takes years and years of being rubbed and tumbled over and over by the water in the creek to turn it into sand.” Benson felt how hard the pebble was in his hand. He tried to imagine how long it would take to wear it down into sand.

Nanna said, “And once, this pebble was a bigger stone, and before that it was a bigger rock. Think about how old that pebble must be.”

She took the pebble and put it back in the creek, Benson poured the sand back onto the bank.

They walked on a little further, till they got to a place where there was an old tree stump. “See this tree stump?” Nanna said. “Long, long ago, people came and sawed this tree down and took it away, but they left the stump behind.” It was so big that they could both climb onto it.

“See all these rings?” Nanna said, pointing at the top of the stump. “These rings tell the story of the tree’s life. You can see the good years, where there was plenty of water and the tree grew well, and hard years when there was no rain.”

She took Benson’s hand and put his finger on one of the rings in the tree’s trunk. “From here to here is about one wombat’s life-time,” she said.

Benson measured the distance between the rings with his fingers, and tried to imagine how long it would take a tree to grow that much. Just as long as it would take a baby wombat to grow up. He tried to count how many rings there were. “That many wombats!” he said.

Nanna said, “You can see this tree has been here for a long, long time. Just imagine how old it must be.”

She took him further along the creek, to where they could see the hillside beyond the trees. “You see the rocks that the hill is made of? Once a long time ago – a really long time ago – this whole land was under the sea. Sometimes you can even find the prints of shells and sea creatures inside the rocks. All these rocks were just sand at the bottom of the sea. Then as time went on, the sand was pressed down and compressed and gradually got harder and turned into rock. Can you imagine how old these rocks must be?”

Benson’s imagination had run out. He flopped down on the ground and stared at the sky. “My mind is tired,” he said.

Nanna smiled. She said, “Let’s go home. It’s time to roll out the dough and make the pizza.”

They went back to Nanna’s place and made pizza. The dough was perfectly risen, soft and spongy. Nanna rolled it out into a flat circle while Benson cut up the tomatoes. Nanna picked spinach and basil from the garden and they put everything on the pizza with the capsicum, and put it in the oven.

They ate the pizza as soon as it came out of the oven. Benson couldn’t remember anything ever tasting as good.

When his mother came to pick him up, she said, “I hope you didn’t tire Nanna out. She’s not as young as she used to be.”

Benson said, “Nanna’s not old.” He thought of trees and rocks and sand. “She’s not old at all.”

Scottish Dancing

(Each to their own)

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

Benson went to play at his friend Mick’s place. His mother came too, to talk to Mick’s mother, Delia, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss came too, because Delia’s sister Flora was visiting. Flora was very good at Scottish dancing. Nobody knew what Scottish dancing was, so Flora showed them. It was a kind of dancing with lots of kicking and jumping and hopping. Mick’s uncle Charlie played the bagpipes, and Flora jumped and hopped and danced around very fast, with her hands in the air.

Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were very impressed. “That was so wonderful,” Aunt Moss said, clapping her hands. “I would love to be able to do that!”

Flora said that she would teach them, if they liked. She showed them how to hop and kick at the same time. Aunt Lillibet could kick, but if she tried to hop at the same time, her legs got tangled together and she fell over. Aunt Moss could hop, but if she tried to kick, she lost her balance and sat down on the floor, plomp.

“We need proper lessons,” Aunt Lillibet said. Flora said she thought that was a good idea, so they decided to come for lessons every day.

After a week, Benson’s mother said to Aunt Lillibet, “How are the Scottish dancing lessons going?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “The lessons are going very well. Flora says I have a natural sense of rhythm.”

Aunt Moss said, “I’m even taking up the bagpipes, so that I can play when Lillibet dances.”

Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t you show us what you’ve learnt?”

Benson and his mother sat down and got ready.

Aunt Lillibet put on her Scottish dancing slippers and her Scottish socks and her frilly Scottish dancing shirt. Aunt Moss got the bagpipes. There was a bag part that went under her arm, and long sticks that went over her shoulder, and a kind of pipe that she blew into.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Ready, Moss? One-two, one-two!”

Aunt Moss took a breath and blew. The bagpipes went “EeyAAhhhhh” and Aunt Lillibet started dancing. She stood very straight with her knees and elbows going everywhere. Aunt Moss ran out of breath and the bagpipes went “Yahhoooommmmmm.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Come on, Moss, take a good deep breath, not lots of little puffs. Now, one-two, one-two!”

Aunt Moss started blowing and Aunt Lillibet leapt into action. She jumped up and kicked the table with one foot and knocked over a vase with her elbow.

The bagpipes died away again. “Moss, you’re not trying!” Aunt Lillibet said.

“I’m sorry, Lillibet,” Aunt Moss said. “It’s very tiring. It’s certainly not as easy as it looks.”

“No excuses! Let’s start again,” Aunt Lillibet said. She put her hands in the air and lifted up her pointy knee, ready to start again.

Benson’s mother gave a sort of wriggle with one of her feet and Aunt Lillibet tipped over and went crash on her bottom.

“You tripped me!” she said, pointing her finger at Benson’s mother.

“Oh, did I?” said Benson’s mother. “I’m sorry. I hope you’re not hurt.” She helped Aunt Lillibet get up.

“My knee is a bit sore,” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t you sit down and have a rest? You could have a turn with the bagpipes, and let Aunt Moss dance.”

Aunt Lillibet considered. “Well, I couldn’t do any worse than Moss did,” she said. “Give them to me, Moss.”

Aunt Lillibet took the bagpipes and put the bag part under her arm and took a mighty breath. The bagpipes went, “Ooohhwheeeeeeeennnn!!” very loudly.

Aunt Moss started dancing. Her feet skipped up and down as lightly as a feather and she held her arms gracefully above her head. She danced and danced with a very happy smile on her face.

Aunt Lillibet stopped to take a breath. “You play very well, Lillibet,” Benson’s mother said.

Aunt Lillibet nodded. “Flora says I have a fine wind,” she said. She took another enormous breath and started playing again. The sound of the bagpipes filled the whole house and made the cups and plates in the kitchen rattle.

Benson jammed his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help.

His mother shouted, “I think I’ll go down to the Quiet room for a while!”

Benson shouted back, “I’m going outside to dig a hole and put my head in it and cover it up!”

They both sneaked away. Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were having such a good time they didn’t even notice them going.

A Good Listener

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

Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss had a friend called Shelley, who lived with her mother and looked after her. When Shelley’s mother got very old and died, Shelley was very sad.

Aunt Moss said, “Poor Shelley! I feel so sad for her! She loved her mother so much, she must miss her very much.”

Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t we ask Shelley to come over and have lunch with us? It might make her feel a bit better.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “That’s a very good idea. I’ll make a potato bake and some fennel cutlets – Shelley likes those. And some tomato and lentil soup, that will be nice and warming.”

“I can make a cake,” Benson’s mother said.

“No, I’ll do it,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I’ll make a pineapple upside-down cake – real comfort food.”

Benson said, “What’s comfort food?” Nearly all food made him feel comfortable, except chokoes, which were just disappointing.

His mother said, “Food that people find comforting. Some people have favourite foods that always make them feel good. Sometimes it’s food that reminds them of home.”

Benson started to think of all the foods that reminded him of home. He started to feel very hungry.

Aunt Lillibet put her apron on and started cooking. She chopped and she stirred and she fried and she boiled and she baked. The kitchen and the whole house smelled wonderful.

She set the table with the best table-cloth and put out the best plates and bowls, and polished the forks and spoons until they shone. She got Benson to pick some fresh carrots, and she made carrot and apple juice. She had everything ready when Shelley came.

Shelley was so sad her whole body looked sad. She didn’t smile when she came in, and when Aunt Moss hugged her and said she was sorry about her mother dying, Shelley started to cry so hard that Benson wanted to cry too.

Aunt Moss sat next to Shelley and they talked and talked about Shelley’s mum and how sad it was. Shelley cried some more, and Aunt Moss cried too and held her hand. Benson ate his lunch really fast and went outside to play so the grown-ups could cry as much as they wanted.

He dug a nice big hole and thought about how you would make a pineapple upside-down cake the right way up, and why you would put the pineapple in upside-down anyway. After a while he started to feel hungry again and he went inside to see if there was any more cake.

Shelley and Aunt Moss were still talking. Aunt Lillibet was in the kitchen washing up piles of dishes. “Benson, you can come and give me a hand,” she said. “I’ve done all the cooking, and now I’ve got to do all the washing up too,” she grumbled.

Benson said, “I thought you liked cooking!”

“That’s not the point,” Aunt Lillibet said, banging the pots in the sink. “After all that, Shelley hardly ate a thing.”

“Don’t worry, Aunt Lillibet,” said Benson, “I ate heaps and heaps.”

Benson’s mother came out to see if Aunt Lillibet needed any help.

“Why are they still talking?” Benson asked.

His mother said, “When someone is sad, it helps to be able to talk about it. Aunt Moss is a good listener.”

Shelley and Aunt Moss came out when all the dishes were done and everything was put away. Shelley said, “Thank you for asking me to come. I really feel much better. Moss is so kind.”

Benson’s mother gave her a hug. “I’m glad,” she said.

When Shelley was gone, Aunt Moss said, “Lillibet, I’m so sorry I left you to do all the dishes. You had to do all the cooking, and then the dishes too. I was no help at all.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Don’t worry about it, Moss.” She gave her a kiss on the head. “You’re a darling.”

Roly’s Family

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

One day Benson was playing parachutes with his friend, Roly. Roly had found an old termite mound near his own burrow, and he and Benson were taking turns jumping off the top, holding onto a parachute made from one of Nanna’s tea-towels. Benson was much bigger, so he wasn’t that good at floating down to the ground. He didn’t float so much as flump, but Roly was little and light so he was much better.

When they went back to Benson’s place for something to eat, Benson’s mother said, “Roly, I’ve got a nice surprise for you. You’re having visitors this afternoon.”

“Me?” said Roly. “Is it Nanna?” Nanna wasn’t Roly’s Nanna but she didn’t mind him borrowing her since he didn’t have a grandmother of his own.

“No,” said Benson’s mother, “it’s your Aunty Gustavia, and your cousin Neville.”

Benson said, “I didn’t know you had your own aunty?”

Roly said, “I didn’t know either!”

Benson’s mother said, “She’s your grandmother’s cousin’s daughter. I think that makes her your mother’s second cousin, so Neville would be your third cousin.”

“Wow!” said Roly. “I’ve got a family!”

“Everyone’s got a family,” said Benson. “Sometimes you just don’t know who they are.”

Just after lunch there was a knock at the door. When Benson opened it, a large, round echidna came bustling in, with a smaller one just behind her. “I’m Roly’s Aunty Gus,” she said, “and this is his little cousin, Neville.”

Roly said hello shyly. Aunty Gus picked him up and hugged him so tight he could hardly breathe. “You poor, poor thing!” she said. “You poor, poor little thing! Look at your poor little spines! They’re all gone!”

“But they’re growing back,” Roly said. “See? This one and this one.”

Aunty Gus said, “But your poor little feet! They’ll never grow back, will they?”

Roly was embarrassed. His feet got burnt in a bushfire but he hardly thought about them any more.

Benson tried to explain to Aunty Gus. “It doesn’t matter really, because Roly can manage fine anyway.” Auntie Gus just looked sad and tried to hug Roly again, but he stayed out of reach behind Benson.

Benson’s mother said, “Why don’t we sit down and have some cake and orange juice?”

They all sat down and Neville started eating cake as if he was training for a cake-eating competition. Benson took a piece for himself and one for Roly, and then he got a spare piece in case there was none left when he wanted to ask for seconds.

Aunty Gus had a piece of cake and she said to Roly, “I thought it would be nice for you and Neville to share a room. It will be like having a new little brother for him!”

Roly was so surprised he coughed, and cake crumbs came out of his nose. “Am I coming to your place for a visit?” he asked.

“Oh no, not for a visit,” said Aunty Gus, having another piece of cake. “You’re coming to live with us, of course.” She gave Roly a friendly squeeze. “We’re family, you know,” she said.

Roly put his piece of cake down half-eaten. He wasn’t hungry any more. Neville snuffled it up in a flash.

Benson said, “But Roly lives here.” He didn’t want his friend to move a long way away where he couldn’t see him every day.

Aunty Gus said, “Yes, dear, but you’re wombats. Roly belongs with other echidnas.”

“Why?” Benson asked. His mother gave him a look to say he was being rude, so he tried to explain nicely. “We have lots of different animals around here, rabbits and turtles and rock wallabies and possums and everything, and we all belong. Anyway Roly already has his own burrow here.”

“But he can’t possibly live by himself,” Aunty Gus said. “He’s just a little puggle like Neville. He needs looking after.”

Benson thought Neville wasn’t such a little puggle at all. He was nearly as big as his mother. He said, “What if Roly doesn’t want to live with you?”

Everyone turned to look at Roly. Roly didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to leave his friends, but maybe Aunty Gus was right and it would be better if he lived with other echidnas.

Benson said, “Why can’t he stay here with us? Maybe he looks different but he likes the same things as me. He likes digging, and jumping, and he likes stories, and playing games, and he likes custard.”

Roly got down from his chair. He said quietly, “I’m sorry, Benson, I don’t really like custard.” He went outside and went into his burrow.

Aunty Gus said to Benson, “You see? Don’t be sad, dear. Roly will be happier with us. He’s just not like you.”

Benson’s mother said, “It’s very kind of you to take him in.”

Aunty Gus smiled. “It’ll be a bit of a squeeze, but he’s family. What else could we do? Neville will love it, won’t you, Neville?”

Neville had gone to sleep as soon as the cake was all gone. His mother gave him a little shake to wake him up. “Neville, why don’t you go and play with your little cousin?” Neville grumbled a bit, but he went outside to find Roly.

Benson’s mother went into the kitchen to make some sandwiches, with lemon butter and tamarillo. Benson followed her into the kitchen and said, “You can’t let them take Roly away!”

His mother said, “They’re not taking him away, Benson, they’re taking him home. You heard what Roly said.”

Benson said, “But this is his home!”

“This is his home for now, and it will always be home for him, if he needs it. But we have to think about what’s best for Roly,” she said.

Benson was very upset and angry. His mother said, “Why don’t you take some of these sandwiches out for Neville and Roly? And would you mind asking Roly for my butterfly book that he borrowed last week, please?”

Benson took the sandwiches and went outside, grumbling all the way.

Benson’s mother made some more orange juice, and then she took the rest of the sandwiches over to Aunty Gus. Aunty Gus tasted one and her long snout wrinkled up. She said, “These sandwiches are very… unusual.”

“They’re Roly’s favourite,” said Benson’s mother. Just then Neville and Roly and Benson came inside. Neville was looking unhappy.

“What’s the matter, darling?” his mother said to him.

“I don’t want that little echidna to come and live with us,” he said.

“Why? What’s happened? Were Roly and Benson unkind to you?” his mother asked.

Neville nodded. “They just talked to each other the whole time about books and stuff and they gave me these weird sandwiches. And then they tried to make me jump off a giant ant hill!”

“What?” his mother said. “You poor darling!”

Benson tried to explain, “It was just a game!”

Aunty Gus gave Neville a big cuddle and patted his spiny head. She said to Benson’s mother, “I’m sorry, but Roly won’t be able to come home with us after all. We can’t have him teasing and bullying poor little Neville. Neville’s very sensitive, you know.”

Benson’s mother said, “That’s all right, Roly can stay here with us for as long as he wants to. We’re very happy to have him.”

Roly was so happy he couldn’t stop smiling. Benson jumped up and down for joy.

Aunty Gus said, “I don’t like saying this, but this is what I was afraid would happen if he spent too much time with wombats.”

After they were gone, Roly hugged Benson’s mother, and she hugged him back. “You’ll always have a home here with us,” she said.

Benson said, “It looks like you’re going to have to learn to like custard, Roly.”

The Melon-Baller

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

One day there was a parcel in the mail for Aunt Lillibet. It was from Nanna. There was a note that said, “Have fun! Love from Nanna.” Inside was a long, thin, wooden thing with a tiny scoop on the end.

“What is it?” Benson asked.

“It’s a melon-baller,” Aunt Lillibet said. “You hold it by the handle and put the little scoop into a melon, and you turn it round and it makes a little ball of melon. Why on earth did she send me a melon-baller?”

Benson looked at it. “I think it could be very useful,” he said.

“So do I,” said Benson’s mother.

Aunt Moss said, “Yes, you could do lots of things with it.”

“You mean I could make lots of melon balls with it,” Aunt Lillibet said. She sniffed and went out to the garden, leaving the melon-baller on the bench.

Benson’s mother picked up the melon-baller and set to work.

At lunchtime there were balls of mashed potato, balls of baked pumpkin, boiled carrot balls, and a whole pile of parsnip balls. For dessert there were watermelon balls and rockmelon balls and honeydew melon balls.

Aunt Moss said, “How lovely!”

Aunt Lillibet snorted and went back outside.

After lunch, Benson took the melon-baller into his room and made tiny snowmen and giant caterpillars out of playdough. Then he remembered he was supposed to make a hat for ‘Come As a Monster’ day at the library. He asked Aunt Moss if she would help him, and they made papier mache and made a really scary hat. Benson used the melon-baller to make round, warty lumps and they stuck them all over the hat. He loved it so much he wore it all afternoon and he was still wearing it at dinnertime.

Aunt Lillibet said, “What on earth is that on your head, Benson?”

“It’s my Warty-Hog hat,” he said.

Aunt Lillibet humphed and went to do the washing-up.

The next morning Aunt Moss got some modelling clay in different colours, then she got the melon-baller and made perfectly round beads. She baked them in the oven and then she strung them together on a string. It made a very handsome necklace. When Aunt Lillibet came in for morning tea, she said, “Where did you get your new necklace, Moss?”

“I made it myself!” Aunt Moss said proudly.

Aunt Lillibet looked at the melon-baller. It had modelling clay stuck all over it.

Just then Benson’s mother came in. “Nanna is coming over for lunch today,” she said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “What’s she going to say when she sees what you’ve done to the melon-baller?” She took it away from Aunt Moss and started scrubbing the clay off it.

Nanna was very happy to see everyone. She loved Benson’s hat, and Aunt Moss’s necklace. She asked Aunt Lillibet, “Did you get the present I sent you?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Yes, thank you.” She knew you should always say thank you for a present, even if it was something you didn’t really want.

Nanna said, “I hope you like it. I’ve got one of my own, and I use it all the time. It’s the most useful thing!”

Aunt Lillibet said, “That’s funny, I’ve never seen you make melon balls.”

Nanna said, “Melon balls? Is that what you do with it? Oh no, I use mine in the garden. It’s perfect for making little dents or scooping out nice round holes to plant seeds in. Sometimes I use it like a little cup to sprinkle dirt on the seeds after I’ve planted them.”

Aunt Lillibet picked up the melon-baller and looked at it again. She turned it around, and her eyes started to shine. She went off to the garden with it, humming.

The Book Party

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

It was the middle of summer and it was too hot to do anything. Benson kept complaining that it was too hot to go outside, it was too hot to dig, it was too hot to sleep, it was even too hot to think.

“Why don’t you sit somewhere cool and read a book?” his mother suggested.

“There isn’t anywhere cool to sit!” Benson said. “Besides, I’ve read everything, and it’s too hot to go to the library.”

“I’ve got a great idea,” said his mother. “Why don’t we have a book party? Everyone can bring their favourite book, and we can talk about why they’re our favourites and maybe even borrow each other’s books. How does that sound?”

“It’s too hot,” Benson.

“I’ll make some iced jellies and we’ll have some nice cold apple juice and lots of watermelon,” his mother said. “Then afterwards it might be cool enough to go down to the creek and have a swim.”

Benson thought that was a good idea.

They asked Benson’s friend Mick and his sister Bonnie-Lou, and Uncle Elton and cousin Elmer.

Aunt Lillibet said she didn’t want to come. “I go to my Book Club every week and Gordon always chooses the books we have to read and they’re always extremely dull.”

“This is different,” said Benson’s mother. “Everyone gets to bring their favourite book.”

“Their favourite?” Aunt Lillibet said.

“Their own favourite,” said Benson. “Their very favouritest favourite.” So Aunt Lillibet said she would come.

Benson helped his mother make the jellies and they cut up piles and piles of watermelon.

After lunch, everyone came. Everyone brought a book except Mick. “I don’t like reading,” he said, “so I brought my snorkel and some grapes.”

Benson’s mother said thank you, everyone liked grapes but he should leave his snorkel outside until it was time to go down to the creek because it was so hot that his face mask kept getting fogged up and he kept bumping into people.

Aunt Lillibet said, “I’ll go first. This is my very favourite book of all time. It’s called ‘Common Pests and Diseases in your Back Yard.'”

Mick rolled his eyes and whispered to Benson, “I knew this was going to be boring!”

Aunt Lillibet looked hard at Mick over her glasses. She said, “It has excellent illustrations to help you identify the pests. Like this African black beetle.” She showed everyone a picture of an insect with an armour-plated body, and legs like saw blades. Mick was enthralled. “And the plague locust,” she said, turning the page. There was a huge close-up of a grasshopper with shiny evil eyes and giant jagged mouth parts. Mick climbed onto Aunt Lillibet’s chair to get a better look.

Uncle Elton said, “We don’t have any books like that, do we, Elmer? We don’t have many books at all. But this is my favourite book.” He showed everyone a thick black book with the name written on the front in gold letters that were so faded that you couldn’t read them any more.

Uncle Elton said, “It’s called, ‘Engineering Principles for Hydraulic Systems.’ I don’t know what that means, but it belonged to my grandfather. He gave it to my father, and my father gave it to me. One day I’ll give it to my son.” He smiled at Elmer fondly, and Elmer smiled back. “I’ve never read it,” said Elton, “and I don’t expect Elmer will read it either, but it’s part of our family.”

Aunt Moss said, “That’s exactly how I feel about my favourite book.” She brought out a very old, tattered book with handmade paper falling off the cover and ‘My Diary’ written across the front.

“This was my mother’s diary,” she said. “I love to read the little things she wrote every day, about the weather, and the garden and the children. Listen to this: ‘Lionel was very naughty today. He climbed onto the roof of the neighbours’ hen house and pelted poor little Moss with eggs until Lillibet climbed up after him and hit him with her little trowel. She takes it everywhere with her, and it’s a good thing she does.’ She even made little drawings on some of the pages.”

“That’s wonderful!” Benson’s mother said. She started to read every page out loud until Aunt Lillibet asked loudly, “Whose turn is it next?”

Benson’s mother said, “My favourite book isn’t a reading book at all, it’s a photograph album. It’s got photos of Benson when he was a tiny baby, and all sorts of other things, like Nanna in her costume for the Sound of Music, and Aunt Lillibet with her prize for Biggest Pumpkin Ever. Here’s Benson wearing the little frog jumper Aunt Moss made for him.”

Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss thought it was lovely, but Uncle Elton was going to sleep in his chair, and Mick had taken Aunt Lillibet’s book about pests and he and Elmer were frightening Bonnie Lou with pictures of giant spiders. Benson’s mother closed her book and said, “Bonnie Lou, did you bring your favourite book?”

Bonnie Lou heaved a great big thick book onto the floor in front of her.

Mick said, “What did you bring that for? You know you can’t even read!”

Bonnie Lou sniffed, “I can too read! I can read ‘a’ and ‘cat’ and ‘Bonnie’ and ‘Lou’. Anyway, we were supposed to bring our favourite book and this is my favourite.”

Benson’s mother said, “Why is it your favourite, Bonnie Lou?”

Bonnie Lou said, “Because when I can’t reach something or if I need to climb up somewhere, I can stand on this book and it makes me taller. And if I get tired, it’s just the right size for me to sit on.” She sat down on the book, and her legs just reached the ground. “See?” she said. “It’s perfect.”

“You’re right, it is perfect,” Benson’s mother said. “Benson, did you bring your favourite book?”

Benson shook his head. “I thought we were supposed to bring our favourite story,” he said, “and I have so many favourite stories, I couldn’t decide.” He started to bring out book after book. “There’s the one about the princess and the vacuum-cleaner, the one about the bunyip, the one with the princess on the glass mountain, and the bushranger one, and the one with the magician and the whirlpool, and the Selfish Giant, and Piglet and Roo…”

Everyone started grabbing the books and they all talked at once.

“I love this story!” Aunt Moss said,

“I haven’t read this one for years,” Aunt Lillibet said.

“Elmer, listen to this part,” Uncle Elton said, starting to read out loud from one book.

“Which one is the bushranger one?” Mick asked.

“Read me the princess one!” shouted Bonnie Lou over the top of everyone else.

Benson’s mother clapped her hands. “I’m sorry, everyone, but we haven’t got time for any more. The jellies are melting, and the watermelon is getting warm.”

Aunt Moss said, “Next time, why don’t we have a Story Party?”

Everyone thought that was a brilliant idea. They all ate watermelon and drank apple juice and talked about their favourite story that they were going to bring next time, until it was time to go down to the creek.

Tree Pirates

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.

Aunt Lillibet had a plan. “It’s terrible the way people keep cutting down trees to clear spaces and build other things. The world needs more trees! I’m going to grow my own forest!” she said,

Benson imagined a forest of trees reaching up to the sky, filled with birds and animals. “Where are you going to put it?” he asked.

“Right here, where I can look after it and stop anyone cutting down the trees,” she said. “I’ve collected seeds and cuttings from all the trees in the bush and I’m going to plant them right here, in my back yard.”

She planted the seeds in little pots and watched over them carefully, giving them water when they needed it. After a while the seeds put out tiny shoots. The shoots got bigger and grew little leaves, until they were sturdy little saplings. One day she announced, “It’s time to plant my forest!”

She dug rows of holes across the back yard and carefully transplanted a baby tree into each one. She pressed the earth down around them and gave them plenty of water.

Benson looked at the rows and rows of baby trees stretching all across the yard. He said, “There won’t be any yard left when they grow up. There’ll be nowhere to dig, or have a picnic, or play outside. It will be just a deep, dark forest.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “That’s right, a tall, green forest.” She was very pleased.

The young trees grew strong and tall. Then one morning when Aunt Lillibet went out to water them, and she came rushing back in. “One of my trees is gone!” she said.

“You mean one of them has died?” asked Aunt Moss.

“No, it’s missing! There’s just a hole where the tree used to be,” Aunt Lillibet said.

“You must be mistaken, Lillibet,” Aunt Moss said. “Who would want to steal a tree?”

“Tree pirates!” said Aunt Lillibet. “Plant thieves! Bush burglars!”

The next morning it happened again. “There’s another one missing!” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson’s mother said, “There must be hundreds of trees out there. Does it really matter if two of them are missing?”

“Yes, it matters very much,” said Aunt Lillibet. “They’re my trees. I grew them from little seedlings. What if someone has taken them to turn them into mulch, or to start a fire with? Maybe rats or bandicoots stole them to chew on.”

Benson’s mother said, “I don’t think it was rats or bandicoots. Those holes look like they were made by wombat claws.”

“Wombats?” Aunt Lillibet said. “Who would do such a dastardly thing?”

Benson said, “You should set a trap and catch them, Aunt Lillibet.”

“Good idea,” Aunt Lillibet said. “Tonight I’ll hide in the garden, and if anyone tries to steal one of my trees, I’ll grab them and nab them.”

When it got dark, Aunt Lillibet took her trowel and hid behind the compost heap. But she was too sleepy to stay awake. In the morning, three more trees were missing.

“Those terrible tree thieves have taken three more trees!” she shouted. “Benson, tonight you’ll have to stay up with me, and if the tree pirates come, you can wake me up and I’ll snaffle them!”

As soon as it got dark, she and Benson hid behind the compost heap, but in no time at all they were both asleep. In the morning when they woke up, ten more young trees wee missing. “Ten trees!” shouted Aunt Lillibet. “Some burgling burglar has stolen ten of my tiny trees! Benson, you were no help at all!”

Benson said, “I’ve got an idea. I’ll ask Nils and Nella. Possums are always awake at night. They can help us watch. If they see something, they can wake me up and I’ll wake you up.”

That night Aunt Lillibet and Benson hid behind the compost heap and Nils and Nella hid in the branches of the big gum tree. In the middle of the night, Nils poked Benson and woke him up. “Someone is digging up trees,” he hissed.

Benson woke up Aunt Lillibet. “The tree pirates are here!” he said.

Aunt Lillibet grabbed her trowel and jumped out from behind the compost heap. “Hands up!” she shouted.

There were two wombats digging up a young tree. They stopped and put their hands up. Both of them had black balaclavas over their faces.

“Take off those masks,” Aunt Lillibet said, “or I’ll dong you with my trowel!”

The two wombats took off their balaclavas.

“Mr Fenn!” gasped Aunt Lillibet. “You’re the tree pirate?”

“She made me do it!” Mr Fenn said, pointing at the other wombat.

“Nanna!” gasped Benson. “Why are you stealing Aunt Lillibet’s trees?”

Nanna said, “We’re not stealing, we’re re-locating them.”

“If you’re not stealing, why are you wearing masks?” Aunt Lilibet said.

“It’s cold,” said Nanna. “I didn’t want Mr Fenn to get a frozen nose.”

Mr Fenn said, “You could say they’re not really your trees anyway, Lillibet. You got all the seeds from the bush, so these trees should belong to everyone.”

Benson’s mother heard all the noise and came out. “Why don’t you all come inside and have some hot chocolate?”

They went inside, and when they were all warmed up, she asked Nanna to explain. Nanna said, “Lillibet, you have hundreds of seedlings, and the Bushcare group doesn’t have any. All along the creek the banks are eroding because there are not enough trees. Since the bushfires, there aren’t enough gumtrees to feed the koalas, and there are no homes for the birds.”

Mr Fenn said, “We’ve been planting the seedlings along the creek, and in the burnt-out forest.”

Aunt Lillibet spluttered, “But you can’t just take a person’s trees!”

Benson’s mother said, “Lillibet, didn’t you say the world needs more trees? You loved collecting the seeds and nurturing the young seedlings so that they grew into strong young plants. Aren’t you glad to think that they’ll be growing all over the country, where the birds and the animals need them?”

Aunt Lillibet thought about it. She said to Nanna and Mr Fenn, “Tomorrow, we’ll dig up the baby trees together, and we’ll go and plant them where they’re needed most. But no more stealing!”

Nanna and Mr Fenn said they were sorry. Benson said, “While we’re planting, you can collect lots more seeds and cuttings, and you can grow a whole new baby forest.”

Aunt Lillibet smiled all over.

Birthday Races

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

It was nearly Aunt Lillibet’s birthday, but she wasn’t looking forward to it. “I don’t want another birthday,” she said. “I feel so old!”

Benson was surprised. Aunt Lillibet WAS old. She was very old. Benson wondered if she could actually get any older. Her age would go up, but she would still look the same. He couldn’t imagine her looking any older. Very old looked a lot like very very old.

His mother said, “You’re not feeling old, Lillibet, you’re feeling tired! Remember you spent the morning chasing bush rats out of the garden and repairing the fence, and then you dug up the garden for the new potatoes, and after that you helped Uncle Elton re-build his rock wall. And this afternoon there was your folk-dancing class! No wonder you’re tired!”

But Aunt Lillibet had gone to sleep in her chair and didn’t hear her.

On the day of her birthday, Aunt Lillibet wanted to stay in bed and wait for it to be over. She pulled the covers up over her head and said, “I’m having a sleep-in. I’m going to sleep until tomorrow and then I won’t have a birthday at all.”

Benson said, “Don’t worry, Aunt Lillibet, you don’t look any older than you did yesterday. You still look very old.”

Ant Lillibet groaned and put her head under her pillow.

Benson’s mother said, “You have to get up, Lillibet. We’ve got a surprise for you. All your friends are coming over to help celebrate your birthday.”

Aunt Lillibet just said, “Humph.”

Benson’s mother said, “Aunt Moss has made you a beautiful zucchini and coconut cake.”

Aunt Lillibet grumped again.

Benson’s mother said, “But before we have cake, we’re going to play lots of games.”

Aunt Lillibet said grumpily, “Games, humph! I don’t want to play silly games at my age.”

When all her friends arrived, she was so grumpy she hardly even smiled.

Benson’s mother said to everyone, “We’re very glad you all came. Now we’re going to start with some fun games.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Humph!” very loudly.

Benson’s mother took no notice of her. “The first game,” she said, “is a dibbling race.” She gave everyone a long, pointed stick and said, “You have to make a neat row of holes, plant a seed in each one, and cover it over with dirt. Ready, set, go!”

Everyone fell over each other, poking holes in the dirt and each other’s feet, putting their seeds in upside down and forgetting to cover them with dirt. Aunt Lillibet went ‘dib, dib, dib’ and made ten exact holes in a row, planted ten seeds and covered them up neatly. She won by miles.

The prize was a basket of strawberries, and she ate them all up.

Benson’s mother said, “Now we’re going to have a race to see who can build a wall the fastest. Here are your stones. The person with the highest, straightest wall wins. Ready, set, go!”

Everybody started piling stones on top of each other. Some people dropped stones on their toes, or other people’s toes. Mick and Bonnie Lou made a swimming pool instead of a wall. Uncle Elton’s wall was enormously high, but then Elmer sneezed and it fell down.

Aunt Lillibet went ‘plock, plock, plock, plock, plock,’ and built a perfectly straight wall that was the highest by miles. She won a very handsome pumpkin.

Benson’s mother said, “Next we’re going to have a knitting contest.” She gave everyone some needles and some wool. “Ready, set, go!”

Aunt Lillibet cast on thirty stitches and started knitting. Aunt Moss said, “Oh dear, where are my glasses?” Benson and Mick got so tangled up in the wool they looked like they’d been caught in a giant spider’s web. Mr Fenn knitted very fast, but he didn’t cast on enough stitches so he ended up with a very very long string. When Benson’s mother said it was time to stop, Aunt Lillibet had knitted a very neat pot-holder. She was easily the winner.

The prize was a pair of pineapples. Aunt Lillibet was very pleased.

Benson’s mother said, “Our last game is to see who can make the best pikelets. Ready, set, go!”

Benson held up his hands. “Wait!” he said. “I don’t think this game is fair. Everyone knows that Aunt Lillibet makes the best pikelets.”

Aunt Lillibet started to look grumpy again. She liked winning all the prizes.

Benson kept talking. “I think, for this game, Aunt Lillibet should be the judge instead.”

Aunt Lillibet smiled very happily. “Good idea!” she said.

Everyone set to work making batches of pikelets: caramel pikelets, and apple and cinnamon pikelets, and strawberry ricotta pikelets, and rhubarb and ginger pikelets. Aunt Lillibet sat in the middle and tasted one out of every single batch and told everyone what she thought of them.

In the end she decided that her friend Rebekah’s were the best and she gave her the pumpkin as her prize. Then they all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and ate birthday cake and Aunt Lillibet made a speech and thanked everyone for coming.

Rebekah said, “This was so much fun, Lillibet, we should do it every year!”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Definitely! I can’t wait for my next birthday!”

The Storyteller

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

One morning Aunt Lillibet came in from the garden and said, “I’ve heard there’s a mob of pademelons up by the big hill.”

Benson’s mother said, “Should we go up and visit them, and tell them where the best grass is?”

“No need,” said Aunt Lillibet. “They’ve got their storyteller with them.”

“A storyteller?” said Benson. Benson loved stories. “Can we go and listen to the storyteller, please?”

“We could take them up some plums and some lillypillies,” his mother said. “If you’re lucky, you may hear a story or two.”

They collected some plums and lillypillies and took them up the big hill. From a distance Benson could see five or six stocky animals like small kangaroos, but when they got closer, they all ran off except one. She came up to Benson and his mother. She was not much bigger than Benson, and she was covered in thick brown fur, with shiny black eyes and ears that twitched all the way around.

“You must be Benson!” she said at once. “I know so many stories about you!”

“Me?” said Benson, amazed. “I’ve never even seen you before! How can you know stories about me?”

“My name’s Pascoe. It’s my job to remember stories,” she said. “I know the one about the quokka and the book, and the one about little Zip getting lost, and the time you went to the lake.”

“Really?” Benson said. He felt a bit embarrassed, but he felt kind of pleased at the same time. “Can you tell us a story?” he asked shyly.

“I’d love to, but right now I’m a bit tired. I’m just going to have a sleep and then this afternoon I’m moving on,” she said.

Benson looked so disappointed that his mother said, “Maybe we could travel along with you part of the way? It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good long bush walk.”

Pascoe said, “Sure. We can tell each other stories as we go along.”

Benson and his mother went home and got their hats and their water-bottles, and Benson’s mother packed some food into a backpack. Benson had an idea. “Can Roly come too?” he asked. “Roly loves hearing stories.”

His mother said, “He might have trouble keeping up.”

Benson said, “He can ride on my back, or he can go in the backpack.”

Roly was really happy to be going with them. He climbed into the backpack, and Benson and his mother took turns carrying it.

When Pascoe saw him, she said, “Roly! I’m so excited to meet you!”

Roly said, “How do you know who I am?”

Pascoe said, “Everyone knows about the brave little echidna who lost his mother in the bushfires and kept on looking for her even though he was badly burned himself.” Her eyes filled with tears, and she said, “I’m so sorry about your mother.”

Roly went pink all over. “That’s okay,” he said. Lots of people said they were sorry about his mother, but he didn’t mind when Pascoe said it.

They set off through the bush, talking non-stop. Pascoe knew stories about everything. They went past a bush with long leathery leaves and Pascoe looked around and her ears twitched. “There’s a story about that plant, you know. One day a mob of big kangaroos was passing through a gully and they happened to trample down a bush like this, covered in pink flowers. The owner, old man Oleander, was so angry with them that when they camped for the night, he sneaked up with a twig broken from the plant and stirred it around in their billy tea. Everyone who drank tea from that billy got sick, and one old man kangaroo even died.”

Whenever Pascoe started one of her stories, Benson felt as if he was in a different world. Pictures from the story filled his head and he forgot where he was and what he was doing. When Pascoe finished the story, he woke up with a bump. “Really?” he said. “He made them all sick with just a little twig?”

Benson’s mother said, “Actually the sap inside oleander twigs and leaves is very poisonous. It can easily make you sick.”

Later on, when the sun was going down and they were looking for a good place to camp, Pascoe’s ears started to twitch again. Benson smiled. “That means there’s another story coming,” he thought.

“I’ve heard a story about these hills,” she said. “That big hill shaped like an old wombat’s bum – back when the old Ancestor was younger, he made lots of smooth round hills all the same, and lots of gullies and creeks. Then there was a long, long drought. There was no rain, and all the waterholes dried up , and the creeks ran dry. The animals were dying of thirst, and the grass and plants were all dying. The old Ancestor called all the wombats together and told them to dig. ‘Dig down and look for water,’ he said. The wombats dug down and down and down, until they dug down into an underground spring. Water poured out and filled up the hole they had dug, and all the animals came and drank. The old Ancestor took a big stick and shaped this hill like a wombat’s bum, so everyone would know where the waterhole was.”

“Really?” said Benson. The hill up ahead really did look like a wombat’s bottom.

His mother said, “As a matter of fact, the best waterhole for miles is at the foot of that hill.”

Benson was impressed.

They found an old wombat burrow near the waterhole and built a camp fire just outside it. They baked yams and melted marshmallows. When it was dark, Benson and Roly nestled close to the fire and watched it burn down.

Then Pascoe’s ears twitched. She looked far into the distance. “There’s a story about this gully,” she said. “Long long ago, a bad old goanna lived here and he used to steal everyone’s eggs. So the people got some dogs to chase the old goanna away from their eggs. The goanna got so angry that he couldn’t get the eggs any more that he crept up behind those dogs and bit their tails and made them mad. Ever after that, spirit dogs with red angry eyes have roamed this gully, howling and looking for that old goanna.”

“Dogs?” Benson said. His stomach suddenly went all shaky. Benson was afraid of wild dogs. Roly took his hand.

Benson’s mother said, “I think it’s time for bed, don’t you?” She and Pascoe scooted Benson and Roly down inside the wombat hole, and everyone settled down to sleep. Not long after that they heard a long howl and angry barking just outside the wombat hole.

Benson opened a sleepy eye. “It’s a good thing you remembered that story,” he said.

Pascoe leaned over and whispered to Benson’s mother, “Actually, I didn’t remember that story, I made it up. I could hear those dogs coming from a long way off, but I didn’t want to frighten the little ones.”

Benson’s mother said, “I heard them too. You did well, Pascoe.”

Garlic Swedes

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

Benson’s cousin Lance sent invitations to all the family to come for lunch. Lance loved to cook, and he loved to cook for people even more.

Benson’s mother looked worried. “Lance wants us to bring our favourite food to share, but I can’t make something ordinary like blueberry muffins or roasted turnips. Lance would be disappointed.”

“You could make fried watermelon like we had last week,” Benson suggested.

“Absolutely not!” his mother said with a shudder. “You know that wasn’t supposed to happen. I was going to put the watermelon in the fruit salad and fry the potatoes but somebody swapped the bowls over when I wasn’t looking.” She looked hard at Benson, but he looked at the ceiling and hummed as if he didn’t know anything about it.

“We should invent something,” said Benson. “Cousin Lance loves trying new things.” He screwed up his eyes and tried to think like a cooking inventor. “We could have beetroot banana cheese burgers.”

His mother smiled. “Or magpie pie and rosella jelly.”

“Toasted toadstools and monkey feather stew,” Benson said.

His mother sighed. “You know what I’d really like?” she said. “Just something simple and delicious.”

“I know exactly what we should take,” Benson said. He told her.

“That’s a great idea,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

The next day everyone went to Lance’s for the special lunch. Benson’s mother brought a big basket. Aunt Lillibet had something on a plate with a tea towel over it, and Aunt Moss had a box that she was carrying very carefully.

When they got there, Benson’s cousin Elmer and his Uncle Elton were just arriving. Uncle Elton had a big bowl full of something green.

Cousin Lance was in the kitchen, looking unhappy. He said, “I’m so embarrassed. I wanted to make something special for you all. I have a new recipe for garlic swedes but when I made them this morning something went wrong and they were awful! Disgusting! Revolting! Yuck! I had to throw the whole lot out!” He looked very disappointed. Everyone else was disappointed too.

“All I have is some freshly-baked brown bread,” Lance said.

Uncle Elton coughed. “I was going to make cranberry mango foam salad, but the mango wouldn’t foam, and Elmer ate all the cranberries on his porridge, so all I brought is the lettuce,” he said, holding out the big bowl.

Aunt Moss said, “It looks delicious, Elton, so fresh and crisp.” She sighed. “I was going to make a pickled butter souffle, but somehow I got the pages of the recipe mixed up and I boiled all the eggs, so I couldn’t make the souffle. But I brought the boiled eggs along anyway.” She opened the box, full of brown eggs.

Aunt Lillibet said stonily, “I was going to make my famous raspberry upside cake – ” Everyone looked very cheerful for a minute. “But there were no eggs left.” She glared at Aunt Moss. Everyone stopped being excited. “So I just brought the raspberries,” she said, taking the tea towel off the plate.

Benson’s mother said, “We thought everyone would bring exciting, interesting, complicated things, so we decided to bring something plain and simple.” She opened the basket. Inside were some freshly-picked red tomatoes, still warm from the sun.

Cousin Lance looked at the things everyone had brought, and he smiled and smiled until his face was beaming. “Do you know what? My absolutely favourite lunch of all time is lettuce and tomato sandwiches with fresh brown bread and butter. They’re perfect with boiled eggs, and we can have fresh raspberries for dessert.”

Lance and Benson’s mother made the sandwiches, and Aunt Moss let Benson peel the boiled eggs. They sat outside under the old ironbark tree and had a picnic, and everyone agreed it was the most delicious lunch they’d had for ages.

Pruning

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

Aunt Lillibet put on her gardening gloves and collected her pruning saw and her snippers. “Come on, Benson, we’ve got some pruning to do,” she said. “The wisteria needs cutting back.”

“Can I have a go this time?” Benson said, hoping he could talk Aunt Lillibet into letting him have a go of the snippers.

“You can collect up all the pieces I prune off,” said Aunt Lillibet. This wasn’t Benson’s plan, but he was prepared to be patient.

The wisteria was growing all over the side fence. In spring time it had bunches and bunches of purple flowers, but right now all the leaves had fallen off and the branches were bare. It had wound itself all over the fence in big tangles. It had even climbed up one of the trees near the fence and wound itself so tightly around the branches that it was pulling the tree down.

Aunt Lillibet went straight to the middle of the vine and started cutting. “Here,” she said to Benson, “grab this and pull!” Benson took hold of the end of the vine she had cut and pulled and pulled. A long viney strand came twisting and curling out of the tree and tangled itself around Benson.

“Don’t play with it,” Aunt Lillibet said. “Coil it up tidily.”

Benson did the best he could to roll the long strand up while it tried to poke him in the eye and tickle him under the arms. After a struggle he managed to wind it up like an untidy hose. It was like fighting a giant wiry worm.

He heard voices behind him and he turned around. His cousin Elmer and his uncle Elton were standing by the gate, chanting, “Two-four-six-eight, chopping trees is what we hate!” Elmer was holding a sign that said, “Green is Great” and Uncle Elton had a sign that said, “Don’t Chop – Stop! Stop! Stop!”

Uncle Elton waved his sign and shouted, “Stop cutting down our native forest! You’re damaging the environment!”

“What are you talking about?” Aunt Lillibet said. “Wisteria isn’t a native species!”

“It’s green, but,” said Elmer. “You can’t just chop up plants because they’re in the way. Plants have rights too, you know.”

Benson could see Aunt Lillibet turning red, and he was afraid something extremely rude was going to come out of her mouth. He said quickly, “We’re not chopping it down, we’re pruning it.”

“It’s the same thing!” yelled Uncle Elton.

“It’s nothing like the same thing,” Aunt Lillibet yelled back, “which you would know, if you knew anything at all about the environment.”

“Yeah!” shouted Benson. Then he said, “Isn’t it?” to Aunt Lillibet.

“Of course not,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Plants like wisteria die back in the winter. They need pruning to get rid of all the old wood and make room for the new growth.”

Uncle Elton said, “I saw you pulling branches off that poor little tea-tree there.”

“That was a length of wisteria that had climbed into the tea-tree and was pulling it down and strangling it,” Lillibet said “Show them, Benson.”

Benson showed them the coil of wisteria vine that they had pulled down. The little tea-tree was standing up straight again, waving its branches happily.

“Oh,” said Uncle Elton. He put his sign down. Elmer put his sign down too.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Are you just going to stand there or are you going to help?”

Elton and Elmer looked at each other and decided to help.

Aunt Lillibet cut heaps off the old vine and tidied it up, so it had plenty of light and air and room to grow back. The boys collected all the bits she pruned off and rolled them up and tied each other up with them and played sword fights with the straight bits.

Elton said, “Are you sure that cutting all this off won’t kill it?”

“No, it will grow back stronger and healthier in the spring,” said Lillibet.

Elton said, “We’ll drag all this over to the compost heap for you.”

Lillibet said, “Hold on.”

She went to the door and called, and Aunt Moss came out. She clapped her hands. “Wisteria vine! Wonderful!” she said,

Aunt Lillibet said, “Why don’t you show them what you do with the old vines, Moss?”

Aunt Moss sat on the grass with some of the shorter, stronger pieces of vine. She crossed them over each other like a star, and then she asked Benson to bring her a long winding strand of vine. She wove the longer piece over and under the star pieces, round and round in a circle.

“What are you doing?” asked Uncle Elton.

“I’m making a basket,” said Aunt moss. “Wisteria is very good for basket-weaving. Would you like to try?”

Elmer and Uncle Elton both sat down and had a go. Uncle Elton enjoyed it very much, although his basket had big holes in one side and was wonky on the other side. Elmer got a bit tired of it and he and Benson pretended they were fishing instead, and then they made a giant birds’ nest and pretended one of them was a baby chick and one of them was an eagle and then they were a snake trying to eat the baby chick and the mother eagle chasing it away.

Uncle Elton asked if he could take some wisteria home with him to do some more basket-weaving. Aunt Lillibet gave him heaps and heaps to take home.

“Maybe I could try growing my own,” Uncle Elton said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “You could do that. So long as you remember to prune it every year.”

Hector Protector

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

One morning Aunt Lillibet said to Benson’s mother, “My cousin Ruby wants to know if her grandson, Hector, can come and stay with us while she goes on holidays.”

Benson’s mother said, “Yes, of course. He’ll be good company for Benson.”

Three days later, Ruby knocked on the door. “I’ve brought Hector,” she said. “He’s just outside. He’s very quiet and well-behaved.”

Benson’s mother said, “I’m sure he’ll be fine. How long will you be away for?”

Ruby said, “I’m not sure. I just need a break. I’ve brought his lunch, and a few snacks.” She gave Aunt Lillibet a big box and two very large bags. “Goodbye!” she said, and ran off.

Hector came in. He was the tallest wombat Benson had ever seen.

He was taller than even Mr Fenn, and Mr Fenn was the biggest, strongest wombat in the whole country. Hector was not just tall, his arms and legs were long, and his body was long. Even his ears were long. He stood there with his shoulders bent and his head tucked in as if he was afraid of hitting the ceiling.

Benson’s mother went up to him and gave him a kiss. “It’s nice to have you here, Hector,” she said.

Hector smiled and went pink.

Benson’s mother said, “Would you like something to eat, Hector? You must be hungry after your trip.”

Hector nodded. The box that Ruby had left was full of sandwiches and cakes, and the two bags were full of oranges and apples and bananas. Aunt Lillibet unpacked the sandwiches and Hector ate them. Aunt Lillibet unpacked the cakes, and Hector ate them too as soon as she put them down. The box was empty. Benson couldn’t believe his eyes. It was like Hector was a magician who could make food disappear into thin air.

Hector looked embarrassed. He said, “I’m sorry, I was really hungry.”

“That’s all right,” Benson’s mother smiled. “I’m glad you enjoyed them.”

They had dinner early, because Hector was still hungry. While he was waiting for dinner, Hector ate one bag of fruit, and after dinner he ate the other bag. Benson’s mother smiled and said, “It’s good to see you eating such healthy food, Hector.”

In the morning Benson got up to make some porridge for breakfast. When he opened the cupboard, it was empty. It was so empty, it didn’t even smell like food any more. Benson went to the fridge and looked inside. It was even emptier. Benson said to his mother, “There’s no food left.”

Hector looked embarrassed. “I got hungry during the night,” he said.

Benson snickered. “Hector, the food detector,” he said.

“Benson!” said his mother. “That’s not very kind.”

“But it’s funny!” Benson said.

His mother said, “Benson, I think you should take Hector to the playground while Aunt Lillibet and I do some shopping.”

Benson said, “He can’t go on the swing because his feet will drag on the ground, and he can’t go on the slippery slide because his feet will be at the bottom while his bottom is still at the top!”

“Benson!” his mother said sharply.

“What?” said Benson. “It’s true!”

Hector went outside. They could hear him crying.

“Benson, that was very unkind,” said his mother.

“Well, he ate all the breakfast,” said Benson. “That wasn’t very kind.”

He went outside and said to Hector, “Come on, let’s go to the playground.”

Hector walked along slowly behind Benson, dragging his feet. Mr Fenn was leaning over his fence, chewing a long piece of grass.

“Who’s your new friend, Benson?” he asked.

“He’s Hector, the giant food collector,” said Benson.

Hector put his head down and kept on walking. Mr Fenn gave Benson a look that made him feel very uncomfortable. Then he said, “Hector reminds me of myself when I was a young wombat.”

Later on Mr Fenn came over and talked to Benson’s mother. “I’m thinking of taking a trip up to the plains for a couple of weeks. I was wondering if Hector would like to come with me.”

Benson said, “What about me? Can I come?”

Mr Fenn said, “No, it was just Hector I was thinking of.”

Hector looked up.

Aunt Lillibet said, “But there’s nothing up there, nothing at all.”

Mr Fenn said, “There’s plenty of grass, and that’s all we need. I’ve heard there was a lot of bush fire damage up there, and they’re looking for help cleaning up the place. I thought a big, strong young wombat like Hector might be useful.”

Hector went pink.

They set off the next day. Aunt Lillibet made them two carrot cakes and three loaves of parsnip bread, and Benson’s mother filled Hector’s backpack with apples and mandarins. She gave him a kiss goodbye and said, “If you’re unhappy, there’s always a bed for you here.”

Benson expected that Hector would eat all the cakes and bread and fruit before they got to the end of the street and come straight back, but he didn’t. Hector and Mr Fenn walked along slowly, chatting about different things.

It was three weeks before they came back. Hector looked completely different. He was more solid than he used to be, and he stood up straight and tall. He smiled at Benson’s mother.

“I just came back to say thankyou,” he said. “I’ve decided to go and live up on the plains. There’s a lot of work to do up there.”

Benson gave a huge sigh of relief. He had hidden a whole loaf of bread under his bed, just in case.

Mr Fenn said, “Hector has been clearing away dead trees and helping build shelters for homeless animals up there. Everyone’s very glad he’s coming to live there. The little ones call him Hector Protector.”

Benson’s mother gave Hector a kiss and said, “We’ll miss you, but I’m glad you’re happy there.”

As he was leaving, Hector stopped under the big gum tree and called Benson. When Benson went over, Hector picked him up, and lifted him up over his head, and put him in the branches of tree.

“Hey!” shouted Benson. “I can’t get down! That’s not very kind!”

“I know,” said Hector, “but it’s funny.” He smiled to himself and set off.

The Crossroads

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

Benson’s friend Mick came over to play, and his sister, Bonnie Lou, came too. It was hot, so Benson asked his mother if he and Mick and Bonnie Lou could go down to the creek.

His mother said, “Yes, but be careful. There are a lot of snakes around just now. I’ve heard there’s a big brown snake along the main track to the creek, so don’t go that way. Take the long way around, along the old bush track.”

Benson said he would remember. He got his hat and his water bottle and he and Mick and Bonnie Lou set off. His mother called after them, “Remember what I said – don’t go down the main track. Use the bush track!”

Benson called back, “I will!” and off they went.

After a while they came to the crossroads, where the main track went straight ahead and the old bush track crossed over it. Then the trouble started.

Bonnie Lou was hot and she’d drunk all her water. “I want to go this way, ” she said. “It will be faster.”

Benson said, “We can’t go that way. There’s supposed to be a snake down that way.”

Bonnie Lou said, “If there is a snake, it’s probably asleep in the shade by now. Anyway, if we see it, we can run past it.”

Mick said, “Snakes can go faster than you can. It’d catch you and bite you and you’d be dead in two seconds. We’re not going that way. “

Bonnie Lou said, “I don’t have to do what you say. You’re not the boss of me. “

Mick said, “I’m the oldest and you have to do what I say!”

Bonnie Lou stuck out her chin and said, “I’m going and you can’t stop me!” and she went off down the main track.

Benson shouted, “Come back, Bonnie Lou! Don’t be stupid!”

Mick shouted too, but Bonnie Lou kept going round the corner out of sight.

Mick said to Benson, “We have to go and get her.”

Benson said, “No, we can’t! Maybe she’ll come back when she sees we’re not following her.”

Mick said, “But what if the snake gets her?”

Benson didn’t know what to do. His mother had said not to go down there, but then what if something happened to Bonnie Lou?

Exactly at that moment, Bonnie Lou started screaming.

Mick didn’t stop to argue. He set off running as fast as he could towards Bonnie Lou’s voice.

Benson didn’t know what to do. His feet wanted to run after Mick and help Bonnie Lou but his body kept pulling him back.

Then he heard Mick shouting for help.

Benson didn’t wait any longer. He turned around and ran home as fast as he could. He came running in the door, panting so hard he couldn’t get any words out.

“What’s happened?” his mother said sharply.

“The snake’s getting Bonnie Lou!” he panted. “Bonnie Lou screamed and Mick went after her. I tried to stop them but I couldn’t.”

His mother grabbed the compression bandage out of the first aid box and then she ran. Benson ran too, but she was much faster than he was, especially since he was already tired. When she got to the crossroads she kept going straight ahead, and Benson ran after her. When he ran round the corner, he found his mother holding Bonnie Lou up off the ground, and Mick hiding behind her. In front of them was the biggest snake Benson had ever seen.

It was dark brown all down its back and its front part was lifted off the ground, waving at them. Its mouth was open and you could see its fangs.

Bonnie Lou was sobbing and crying, and even Mick was crying a bit.

“Benson,” his mother said very quietly, “stay where you are. Don’t come any closer.”

Benson stayed.

“Bonnie Lou, hush,” she said. “We need to be very still and be as quiet as we can.”

Bonnie Lou was still sobbing and hiccuping. Benson’s mother started to hum very quietly and gently. Bonnie Lou stopped crying, and so did Mick. Benson stayed as still as a rock.

The snake swayed a little from side to side, but everyone stayed very still and quiet, and it gradually sank its body back down onto the ground. After another minute it slithered away into the bush.

Benson’s mother waited until she was sure it was gone, and then she scooped Mick up in her other arm and hurried them all back to the crossroads as fast as they could go. Then she put them down.

Mick said in a very angry, frightened voice, “It was all her fault. I told her not to go down there!”

Bonnie Lou started to cry again, and Benson’s mother said, “That’s enough, Mick. Everyone’s all right, that’s the main thing. I think I’d better take you both home.” Benson walked home by himself, while she took Bonnie Lou and Mick back to their place.

When she got back, Benson was curled up in a corner of the lounge. “I didn’t know what do to,” he said. “I was so frightened.” And he started to cry.

His mother gathered him up into her arms. “It was really scary, but we’re all safe now. You made a very good decision. If you had gone after Mick, the three of you would have been in danger.”

“Mick was shouting for me to help him,” Benson said.

His mother said, “You did the best thing you could do: you ran and got help.”

“What if the snake had bitten Mick and I wasn’t there to help him?” Benson said.

“What could you have done to help him?” his mother asked.

He stopped crying and shivered a bit. “I did get help, didn’t I?” he said.

“You did what I told you to do,” she said, “and that was exactly right.”

Staying in Touch

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

Benson’s mother had to go and help a friend who had a new baby, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were both at their astronomy class, so Benson was going to Nanna’s, so they could babysit each other.

Benson was looking forward to it. They were going to play Pass the Parcel, and What’s the Time, Mr Wolf, and make toffee apples.

Nanna was overjoyed to see him, and she gave him an enormous hug. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be an octopus?” she said. “Then I would have eight arms to hug you with.”

Benson’s mother kissed them both goodbye. “Look after each other now,” she said.

Nanna had made chocolate-orange muffins and orange juice, and they ate them sitting on the lounge, reading a story about an elephant in a green suit. Right in the middle of the story, Nanna stopped turning the pages.

“Benson,” she said, “hold my hand.”

Benson took her hand and held it tight. Nanna looked worried. “Benson,” she said, “I can’t feel you.”

Benson squeezed her hand, and patted her arm, but she shook her head. “I can’t feel anything,” she said, very worried. Her voice sounded strange, and her face didn’t look right.

Benson was frightened. “Nanna!” he said. “Nanna!”

Her lips moved, but no words came out. Benson was really frightened. He remembered his mother always said, “If anything happens, you know what to do. Ring the number for Emergency, tell them your name and where you are and they’ll tell you what to do.” He was very afraid that this was the kind of ‘anything’ she meant.

He got up and ran to the phone. He pressed the number for emergencies and waited. A voice at the other end answered and said, “What is your emergency?”

Benson said, “My name is Benson and I’m at my Nanna’s house and there’s something wrong with her.”

The voice said, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with your Nanna? Is she breathing?”

Benson said, “I think so, but she can’t talk, and she can’t feel me!”

The voice said, “Is your mother there? Or another grown-up?”

“No, it’s just me,” Benson said.

“All right, Benson, it sounds like you need an ambulance straight away,” the voice said. “Can you tell me where you are?”

“I’m at my Nanna’s,” Benson said.

“Do you know the address?” asked the Emergency voice. “The name of the street, or the number?”

Benson had no idea what Nanna’s address was. He just went there with his mother. He thought of Nanna sitting on the lounge, her eyes so frightened, and he started to cry.

The Emergency voice said, “Benson, you’re doing very well, just hold on a bit longer. Is there anything near the phone with your Nanna’s address on it? A letter or something?”

Benson looked. There was a photo on the wall next to the phone, of Nanna and Benson and his mother, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss. Aunt Lillibet looked as if she was looking right at him, saying, “Pull yourself together, young man! This is no time for crying!” Aunt Moss was looking as if she knew just how he felt and wanted to give him a cuddle. His mother looked the way she always looked, as if she loved him more than anything in the world.

He stopped crying and looked for something with an address on it. “There’s a painting on the wall of Nanna’s house that Nanna painted and it says ‘The Green House’ underneath. It’s past the big willow tree near the bridge across the creek, where the track to the Blue Gum forest starts.”

“That’s good, Benson, I know exactly where that is. The ambulance will be on its way right now,” the Emergency voice said. “Now I want you to go and sit with your Nanna and talk to her, can you do that? You won’t be scared?”

Benson was never scared of talking to Nanna. He nodded, and then he said, “Okay. What should I talk about?”

“Anything,” she said. “What you had for breakfast, what games you like to play, anything you can think of.”

He ran back to the lounge-room. Nanna was lying on her side on the lounge now, with her eyes closed. All of a sudden Benson was so scared he couldn’t speak. Then Nanna’s eyes fluttered open and she looked at him as if she wanted to pick him up and hug him as tightly as a joey in a pouch.

Benson sat down beside her and took her hand. “I called the Emergency lady and the ambulance is coming soon. She says I should talk to you.” Nanna’s hand was very cold, and he rubbed it hard. He told her everything he had told the lady. He told her about Aunt Lillibet staring at him, and Aunt Moss smiling at him, and his mother looking as if she knew he could do anything. He talked about what he had put on his porridge for breakfast, and what his friend Mick had done when he ran over a giant caterpillar on his bike, and what Aunt Moss was going to do with the jumper she was knitting that she had accidentally made with three arms. He held Nanna’s hand and he talked.

Every now and then he looked to see if she was listening, and every time she was looking at him as if he was talking about the most interesting things in the world. Finally the ambulance came and they wrapped Nanna up in warm blankets and took her to the hospital. Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss came and took him home and they all had hot chocolate and then Benson’s mother came home from the hospital and told them that the hospital people said that Nanna was going to be okay. They had given her some medicine and she was asleep, but she was going to be okay.

When it was time for bed, Benson’s mother said to him, “You did very well today, looking after Nanna.”

Benson was so tired he could hardly stay awake. “I did what you told me to do. You said I would know what to do, and that’s what I did. But it was hard.”

His mother wrapped him up and held him tight until he went to sleep.

The next day and for days and days after that they went to see Nanna in the hospital every day, and Benson held her hand and talked to her. He made sure he did something interesting every day so he would have something interesting to talk to her about. Before very long, Nanna could hug him again, and after a few weeks she started talking back to Benson, and before long she was talking and laughing just like her old self again.

Superpowers

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

Benson’s friends came over to celebrate Hairy Nose Day. They sat under the big gum tree and had special pink lemonade that Benson’s mother made, and so many different kinds of fruit they couldn’t count them. Benson ate figs and guavas and strawberries and watermelon until he was so full he couldn’t move. Nils and Nella climbed up and down the tree, eating plums and spitting the seeds at each other.

Benson watched them leaping from branch to branch, hanging on by their tails, and he started to think. “You know,” he said, “you two are so good at climbing, it’s like a superpower.”

“Huh?” said Alejandro. “What do you mean, a superpower?”

“It’s something amazing that normal people can’t do, that makes them really special. And they can use it to save people and stuff like that,” Benson said.

“Like my perfect pirouettes,” said Alejandro. Alejandro was an excellent dancer. He had been practising his pirouettes all afternoon until he could spin around on one leg while he balanced a cup of lemonade on his head.

“You can’t rescue people spinning around in a circle on one leg,” Nils objected.

“What if you had a bomb or something smelly that was stinking people to death and you needed to throw it as far away as you could?” said Benson. “He could swing it around and around faster than the speed of sound and then let it go and it would zoom out of the atmosphere and save the world!”

Alejandro got up and did some more practising, this time with two peaches balanced on top of each other on his head.

Nils hung down by his tail for a minute to pick up a nectarine and toss it to Nella. He said, “Mick’s got a superpower too. He can set fire to things with his glasses.”

Everyone looked very impressed. Nils said, “I saw him once. He took his glasses off and held them up so the sun shone through them the right way, and it made some dry grass start to burn. We had to stamp it out really fast before it started a fire.”

“Wow,” said Benson. “That would be amazing. Imagine the people you could save if you could set fire to things. Like if someone was freezing to death, you could start a fire and warm them up.”

Roly stopped nibbling on his feijoa and said, “Mr Fenn is like a superman. He’s really strong.”

Benson nodded. “Not only that, he can burp louder than anyone in the whole country. Sometimes I’ve heard him burp when I’m in bed, all the way from his house.”

“But that’s not really a superpower,” said Nella.

“Sure it is,” said Benson. “You could scare away giant frogs if they were attacking you.”

Everyone nodded, imagining giant frogs. Benson said, “And Roly’s got a superpower, haven’t you, Roly?”

Roly went pink.

“What’s his superpower?” Alejandro said. Roly looked like a funny little echidna to him.

Benson said, “He can find people in the dark.”

“Really?” said Nella. “Show us.”

Roly said, “It’s nothing really.”

Benson said, “Just watch this.” He took off his hat and pulled it right down over Roly’s head. “Now everyone hide, and be really still and don’t make a noise.”

Everyone hid. Alejandro got behind the pile of pawpaws, and Nils and Nella pretended they were a tree-snake stretched out silently along a branch. Benson dug a hole and got into it, and covered himself over with a big bunch of bananas.

When everyone was absolutely quiet, Roly said, “Benson is over there, under some bananas. Nils and Nella are up in the tree, lying on the second branch. Alejandro is behind the pawpaws.” He took the hat off and looked around. “Was I right?” he said.

“Wow! Amazing!” everyone said.

Alejandro said he must have peeked, and wouldn’t believe it until Roly had found him seventeen times in a row, even when he hid under Benson. “That’s amazing,” he said. “That’s an amazing superpower. You could find people at night, or in a big fog, or if they fell into a mudpit and no-one could find them.”

Nils swung down and grabbed some grapes and threw them into the air and caught them in his mouth. He said,”We are so incredible, we should form a club and be superheroes.”

Benson looked uncomfortable. Nella said, “What’s the matter, Benson?”

“I don’t have a superpower,” he said.

“That’s okay,” said Nella. “You can be the normal one. You’re so normal, it’s amazing. You’re super-normal!”

Benson thought about it. “No,” he said, “I don’t think I’m that normal. Maybe I could learn to go invisible.”

He shut his eyes and concentrated on being invisible. When he opened his eyes again, everyone was still looking at him. “Well, I’m really good at digging. I’ll practise a lot and then digging will be my superpower!”

“I can dig faster than you,” said Alejandro, “and Mick can dig faster than both of us.”

“No you can’t,” said Benson. They had digging competitions for the rest of the afternoon, until they’d eaten all the clementines and apples and starfruit and peaches and it was time to go home.

Aunts and Great-Aunts

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

Benson had a friend called Roly, that he suspected of having Magical powers. He could remember everything, and he could find things without even looking for them. One morning Benson made spinach and zucchini pancakes and they were sitting at the table sharing the last one. Roly was being careful not to get maple syrup on the new jumper Aunt Moss had made for him. It had spikes knitted all over the back of it, to make him feel comfortable until his own spines grew back again.

Aunt Moss said, “Now where is my other knitting needle? I had it just a minute ago.” She was making him a matching hat.

Roly said, “It’s under the cushion on your chair.” And it was.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Has anyone seen the big baking dish I cooked the swede toasties in yesterday? I want to try out this recipe for pumpkin casserole with bull-ants.” Aunt Lillibet had been experimenting with lots of recipes with ants in them, but none of them had really been a success, Benson thought.

Roly said, “It’s in Benson’s room. He was licking it out after dinner.” And it was! Benson was amazed.

Roly even found out something Benson had never thought about.

“What’s an aunt?” Roly asked. “How do you get them?”

“It’s your mother’s sister, or your father’s sister,” Benson said.

Roly asked, “Are Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss your mother’s sisters or your father’s sisters?”

“I don’t know,” Benson said. When he thought about it, they were much, much too old to be his mother’s sisters. “Are they?” he asked his mother.

“Actually,” Benson’s mother said, “they’re your father’s aunties. They’re not your aunts, at all, they’re your great-aunts.”

“Then why don’t I call them great-aunts?” Benson asked.

“Sheer modesty,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“Lillibet thinks it would make us sound too old,” Aunt Moss said.

“Pish-tush!” said Aunt Lillibet.

Benson’s mother said, “Actually, sometimes people called older women ‘Aunty’ when they’re no relation at all, to be polite and show their respect.”

“Could I call you Aunty Lillibet?” Roly asked Aunt Lillibet, hopefully.

“No,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Definitely not.” Roly looked down, and a little tear rolled off the end of his snout. “You can call me Aunt Lillibet,” she said.

Roly smiled so hard his whole face beamed.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Now try these ant-and-cheese swirls and tell me what you think.”

Roly and Benson both tried one. Benson said, “I like the cheese part and the swirl part, but not the ant part so much.”

Roly said, “They’re very nice,” but his snout twitched when he tried to eat them.

Aunt Moss said, “Lillibet, I think it’s better for Roly if he just has fresh ants. A lot of the vitamins and minerals are lost when you cook them. Don’t you think, Roly?”

Roly nodded hard.

Aunt Lillibet looked disappointed. “No ant-and-raisin cookies?”

Benson’s mother said, “I don’t think so.”

“Or ant and banana smoothies?” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson made an awful face.

“Or ant ice-cream?” Aunt Lillibet said.

“NO!” everyone said.

Aunt Lillibet took off her apron. She looked disappointed.

Roly said, “The chocolate-covered ants you made are very nice, though.”

Aunt Lillibet beamed. “Do you think so?” she said. “I’ll make some more, if you like them so much.”

Benson tried one. The chocolate was great, but when he got to the ant part, his whole face squinched up. He gave the ant to Roly, and Roly snuffled it up quickly before Aunt Lillibet could see.

Roly whispered, “It doesn’t matter what they say, they really are great aunts.”

Benson and the Brave Little Echidna

(Version 1.2)

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

One morning Benson was looking for his skipping rope to tie two branches together to make a bridge, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. It wasn’t anywhere in his room, or in the kitchen or anywhere else.

His mother said, “Have a look down in the games room.” The games room was a long way down the wombat hole, near the back door. It was where they kept the croquet mallets and the skittles and the flat basketball and the Chinese checkers which they hadn’t played with since Benson ate all the yellow pieces in mistake for cheese when he was little.

Benson wandered along down to the games room, munching on a banana cranberry muffin, and hunted around for the skipping rope. He lifted up the old volleyball net and made a Discovery. There was someone curled up asleep under the net.

“Oh, sorry,” he whispered loudly. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.” He knew that lots of different animals came into the wombat hole from time to time for shelter for a few days, or just a quick rest.

The little animal stirred and unrolled himself and looked up at Benson.

Benson looked back. He hadn’t seen an animal like this before. It was small and pink, with two front paws with long claws, and two kind of stumps at the back. Its face was wrinkled and squished, and it had a long pointy snout.

The little animal said, “I was just having a rest. I’ll go now.”

“That’s okay,” said Benson. “You can stay as long as you like. My name’s Benson. I live here.” Something about the little animal made him ask, “Are you all right?”

The animal said, “Um, I’m a bit hungry.” He was looking at the muffin crumbs that Benson had dropped. Suddenly his little tongue shot out of his long pointy snout and every single one of the crumbs disappeared.

Benson said, “Come up to the kitchen. There are heaps more muffins. My mother’s just made a whole fresh batch.”

The little animal said, “Okay.”

Benson said, “What’s your name?”

The animal said, “My real name’s Tachyglossus Aculeatus, but my mother had a special pet name for me. I just can’t remember it.”

“I don’t think I can call you Tacky… Artist,” Benson said. “Maybe I’ll just call you Roly.”

“Okay,” said the animal.

“You can call me Benson,” Benson said. They set off towards the kitchen. Roly was very slow following him. He had to drag himself along with his front paws.

Benson said, “Can I give you a lift?”

Roly said, “Okay.” He held up his paws, and Benson lifted him onto his back, and gave him a nice ride all the way up to the kitchen. On the way they chatted about their favourite muffin flavours – Roly’s favourite was lemon poppyseed, and Benson’s favourite was chocolate orange.

When they got to the kitchen, Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were there doing the washing up. Aunt Moss gave a tiny scream, and Aunt Lillibet dropped a plate. Benson said, “It’s all right, this is Roly. He was down in the games room having a nap. Can we have a muffin, please?”

Benson’s mother said, “Of course.” She put a muffin on a plate and lifted Roly up to the table. Roly crumbled the muffin into tiny pieces and and gobbled them all up very quickly with his sticky tongue. Benson’s mother got him another muffin, and a drink of water, and sat down to talk to him.

“Have you come from a long way away, Roly?” she asked.

“A fair way,” he said. “I’ve been looking for my mother.”

“What happened to your mother?” she asked.

“We were caught in the bushfires,” he said. “I don’t remember everything, but we hid in a hollow log and went to sleep, and the log caught fire. I got a bit burned, on my feet and my face, and most of my spines got burned off. I don’t know what happened to my mum.”

Benson tried to imagine his new friend with four feet, covered in spines. “Are you an echidna?” he asked, wondering. He’d never seen a real live echidna before, but he knew what they were supposed to look like. They weren’t supposed to be pink and black with puckered skin all over their faces.

Roly nodded. He said, “After the fires were gone, I tried to find my mother, but there was no-one to ask. All the animals had run away or died.”

“You’ve been looking for your mother ever since?” asked Aunt Moss.

Roly nodded.

“Whereabouts was this?” Aunt Lillibet asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” said Roly. “I was a bit lost, and I just kept going. Everything was burned up. There were no animals or trees or bushes. Even the dust had burnt. I found an empty wombat hole one time, and I stayed there for a while, but mostly I’ve just been looking.”

Benson’s mother said, “Do you remember anything about the empty wombat hole? Where it was or anything?”

Roly shook his head. “It had a funny smell, I remember that, like fennel.”

Aunt Lillibet said thoughtfully. “Janda’s place always smelled like fennel,” she said. “The only wombat I’ve ever known who ate practically nothing but fennel.”

“I remember Janda,” said Aunt Moss, “She was mad about shells. She made shell calendars and shell picture frames, and she put them on her fridge and just about everywhere.”

Roly said, “There was a sign made out of shells just inside the front door that said ‘Welcome’.”

“It must have been Janda’s place,” Benson’s mother said. “Lillibet, could you get in touch with Janda and ask her if she knows of any mother echidnas looking for missing puggles?”

“Puddles?” said Benson. “How could a puddle get lost?”

“No, not puddles, puggles,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Baby echidnas.”

“Wombats have joeys, and echidnas have puggles,” Benson’s mother said.

Benson giggled and said, ‘puggle’ to himself a few times. “You’re a puggle,” he said to Roly.

“Not really,” said Roly. “I’m nearly grown up now.”

For the next few days, Roly stayed with them while Aunt Lillibet waited for news from Janda. Benson wanted Roly to sleep in his room, but his mother suggested Roly might be more comfortable sleeping outside.

Roly agreed. “It gives me a bit of a headache being in here,” he said, “especially the kitchen.”

“Is it too hot?” asked Benson.

“No, it’s all the electricity,” said Roly. “My sensors keep buzzing, and it gives me a headache after a while.”

“Your what?” asked Benson. “You can detect electricity?”

“Of course,” said Roly. “Can’t everyone? How do you find your food under the ground, or know where anyone is in the dark if you don’t have any sensors?”

“You can find food underground?” said Benson. “Cool! Show me?”

“Okay,” said Roly. They went outside and Roly put his long nose on the ground and listened. “Over this way,” he said and set off, pulling himself along. After a while he stopped, next to the big peppermint gum. “Here,” he said.

Benson got really excited. “There’s food under here? What is it, turnips? Bananas? Muffins?”

“It’s ants, of course,” said Roly. He dug a hole with his front feet and started zotting ants with his long sticky tongue. “Mmmm, delicious.”

Benson tried one, but it was so sour it made his tongue buzz.

“I think I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind,” said Roly. “It’s nice and quiet, and the ants are excellent.”

“Okay, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow,” Benson said.

At the end of the week, Aunt Lillibet got a sad message from her friend Janda. Benson and his mother went to see Roly. Benson’s mother lifted Roly onto her lap and said, “I have some bad news for you, Roly. Your mother was killed in the bushfires. I’m very sorry.”

She held Roly wrapped up in her arms for a long time until he stopped crying. Benson crept back to his room. For a minute he imagined what it would be like if his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss and Nanna all died and he had no family left, but it was so terrible he stopped thinking about it and started drawing instead.

After a little while, his mother came in and sat on the bed beside him.

“I’ve asked Roly if he’d like to stay here with us for a while,” she said.

Benson showed her what he had been drawing. It was a picture of himself, with his mother and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss, all together, with Roly right in the middle of them. “I think that’s a really good idea,” he said.

Keeping in Touch

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

Benson’s mother had to go and help a friend who had a new baby, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were both at their astronomy class, so Benson was going to Nanna’s, so they could babysit each other.

Benson was looking forward to it. They were going to play Pass the Parcel, and What’s the Time, Mr Wolf, and make toffee apples.

Nanna was overjoyed to see him, and she gave him an enormous hug. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be an octopus?” she said. “Then I would have eight arms to hug you with.”

Benson’s mother kissed them both goodbye. “Look after each other now,” she said.

Nanna had made chocolate-orange muffins and orange juice, and they ate them sitting on the lounge, reading a story about an elephant in a green suit. Right in the middle of the story, Nanna stopped turning the pages.

“Benson,” she said, “hold my hand.”

Benson took her hand and held it tight. Nanna looked worried. “Benson,” she said, “I can’t feel you.”

Benson squeezed her hand, and patted her arm, but she shook her head. “I can’t feel anything,” she said, very worried. Her voice sounded strange, and her face didn’t look right.

Benson was frightened. “Nanna!” he said. “Nanna!”

Her lips moved, but no words came out. Benson was really frightened. He remembered his mother always said, “If anything happens, you know what to do. Ring the number for Emergency, tell them your name and where you are and they’ll tell you what to do.” He was very afraid that this was the kind of ‘anything’ she meant.

He got up and ran to the phone. He pressed the number for emergencies and waited. A voice at the other end answered and said, “What is your emergency?”

Benson said, “My name is Benson and I’m at my Nanna’s house and there’s something wrong with her.”

The voice said, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with your Nanna? Is she breathing?”

Benson said, “I think so, but she can’t talk, and she can’t feel me!”

The voice said, “Is your mother there? Or another grown-up?”

“No, it’s just me,” Benson said.

“All right, Benson, it sounds like you need an ambulance straight away,” the voice said. “Can you tell me where you are?”

“I’m at my Nanna’s,” Benson said.

“Do you know the address?” asked the Emergency voice. “The name of the street, or the number?”

Benson had no idea what Nanna’s address was. He just went there with his mother. He thought of Nanna sitting on the lounge, her eyes so frightened, and he started to cry.

The Emergency voice said, “Benson, you’re doing very well, just hold on a bit longer. Is there anything near the phone with your Nanna’s address on it? A letter or something?”

Benson looked. There was a photo on the wall next to the phone, of Nanna and Benson and his mother, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss. Aunt Lillibet looked as if she was looking right at him, saying, “Pull yourself together, young man! This is no time for crying!” Aunt Moss was looking as if she knew just how he felt and wanted to give him a cuddle. His mother looked the way she always looked, as if she loved him more than anything in the world.

He stopped crying and looked for something with an address on it. “There’s a painting on the wall of Nanna’s house that Nanna painted and it says ‘The Green House’ underneath. It’s past the big willow tree near the bridge across the creek, where the track to the Blue Gum forest starts.”

“That’s good, Benson, I know exactly where that is. The ambulance will be on its way right now,” the Emergency voice said. “Now I want you to go and sit with your Nanna and talk to her, can you do that? You won’t be scared?”

Benson was never scared of talking to Nanna. He nodded, and then he said, “Okay. What should I talk about?”

“Anything,” she said. “What you had for breakfast, what games you like to play, anything you can think of.”

He ran back to the lounge-room. Nanna was lying on her side on the lounge now, with her eyes closed. All of a sudden Benson was so scared he couldn’t speak. Then Nanna’s eyes fluttered open and she looked at him as if she wanted to pick him up and hug him as tightly as a joey in a pouch.

Benson sat down beside her and took her hand. “I called the Emergency lady and the ambulance is coming soon. She says I should talk to you.” Nanna’s hand was very cold, and he rubbed it hard. He told her everything he had told the lady. He told her about Aunt Lillibet staring at him, and Aunt Moss smiling at him, and his mother looking as if she knew he could do anything. He talked about what he had put on his porridge for breakfast, and what his friend Mick had done when he ran over a giant caterpillar on his bike, and what Aunt Moss was going to do with the jumper she was knitting that she had accidentally made with three arms. He held Nanna’s hand and he talked.

Every now and then he looked to see if she was listening, and every time she was looking at him as if he was talking about the most interesting things in the world. Finally the ambulance came and they wrapped Nanna up in warm blankets and took her to the hospital. Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss came and took him home and they all had hot chocolate and then Benson’s mother came home from the hospital and told them that the hospital people said that Nanna was going to be okay. They had given her some medicine and she was asleep, but she was going to be okay.

When it was time for bed, Benson’s mother said to him, “You did very well today, looking after Nanna.”

Benson was so tired he could hardly stay awake. “I did what you told me to do. You said I would know what to do, and that’s what I did. But it was hard.”

His mother wrapped him up and held him tight until he went to sleep.

The next day and for days and days after that they went to see Nanna in the hospital every day, and Benson held her hand and talked to her. He made sure he did something interesting every day so he would have something interesting to talk to her about. Before very long, Nanna could hug him again, and after a few weeks she started talking back to Benson, and before long she was talking and laughing just like her old self again.

Digging in the Same Hole

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.

Wednesday was Bushcare day. Everyone gathered to do weeding or planting to help take care of the bush they all lived in. Malcolm, who was in charge, decided that it was time to cut down the old ironbark tree on the edge of the clearing where everyone liked to go for picnics and to play cricket in the summer. It was rotten and full of termites. Its big branches tended to fall off suddenly, so it was getting dangerous.

Malcolm brought his bush saw and Benson’s Uncle Elton brought his axe and two tomahawks and a big sledge hammer. Uncle Elton went first. He swung his axe and struck the tree. The axe bounced back without making the slightest chip in the bark. Malcolm said, “Step out of the way, Elton.” He brought up his big saw and started sawing on the tree trunk. After ten minutes there was a tiny cut in the bark, and Malcolm was exhausted.

The other big, strong wombats had a go with their axes and their saws and tomahawks, chopping and sawing and whacking but they hardly made a dent on the tree. Malcolm said, “What we need to do is chop it up higher, where the trunk is skinnier.”

Uncle Elton sent Elmer home to get the ladder, and Gordon went and got his biggest axe and another ladder and some rope, and they set to work, climbing up the ladders and chopping and sawing as hard as they could.

Mr Fenn sat under another tree, chewing a long blade of grass. He said to Benson, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I don’t know,” said Benson. “If you tell me what you’re thinking, then I’ll know.”

Mr Fenn said, “Let me tell you a story. Once there was a fine, strong young wombat who was married to a beautiful young wombat. They were going to have a baby, so he decided to dig a nice new hole for them all to live in. He looked around and found a great big gum tree, close to a creek, and he said to himself, ‘This is the place. Good shade, water close by, perfect for a wombat hole.’ And he started to dig.

“Well, before long he ran into the biggest root you have ever seen. He dug and he dug, but this root just went on forever. He kept digging and digging, getting tireder and dirtier, but he wasn’t going to give up.

“His wife said, ‘Fenn – ‘

“It was you!” said Benson.

Mr Fenn nodded. “‘Fenn,’ she said, ‘it won’t be long before we have this baby. Maybe you should try digging the other way.’ But I was determined that root wasn’t going to beat me. I dug and dug for days, until I finally got past that root. But you know, under that root, there were five more roots nearly as big as the first one.

“By now I was nearly worn out, but I wasn’t going to give up. I kept digging and digging, day after day, getting nowhere, until finally Mrs Fenn said, ‘This is ridiculous, Fenn, I’m not going to wait any longer.’ She went over to a spot in the middle of a hill side, far away from the tree, and started to dig. In a couple of hours she had a beautiful little wombat hole dug, warm and snug, just big enough for the three of us, just in time for the little joey to be born.”

Benson said, “Is that the end of the story?”

Mr Fenn nodded and chewed on his piece of grass. He pointed to the wombats halfway up the tree with saws and axes and ladders and ropes. “Do you see what I mean?” he said. “Sometimes if you’re not getting anywhere, it’s because you need to stop digging in the same hole.”

Benson looked at the old ironbark tree, and Uncle Elton and Malcolm and Gordon working their hardest, and he looked at the small cut they had made in the tree so far. “Oh,” he said, “I think I see what you mean.”

Just then Aunt Moss and Benson’s mother turned up with baskets of sandwiches and rolls and fruit, and everyone stopped trying to chop the tree down and wiped the sweat off their faces and sat down to eat. Mr Fenn and Benson went over to the tree. Mr Fenn walked all around it, looked at the other trees nearby and the clearing and the gully, and nodded. “Right, let’s get to work,” he said to Benson.

They both started to dig around the roots of the tree, under the biggest roots and all around the smaller ones. They kept on digging while everyone else was having lunch. After lunch, Malcolm announced, “Thankyou for the lunch, ladies. Now we’d better get back to work. I’m sure we’ll have this tree down by dinner time, or at the latest, by dinner-time tomorrow.”

Mr Fenn said, “Malcolm, if you don’t mind, I’d like to try something different.”

“Oh?” said Malcolm. “What were you thinking of?”

“I think if we all got together, we could push this tree over in no time,” Mr Fenn said.

Gordon laughed, and then pretended he hadn’t so as not to hurt Mr Fenn’s feelings. “I don’t think that’s possible,” he said, “unless anyone here is Superman?” He looked around at everyone else, and they all laughed.

Mr Fenn said, “How about we give it a try anyway?”

Everyone got up and came over to the tree. Mr Fenn told everyone where to stand, and he got himself into position. “Ready?” he said. “Now, PUSHHHH!”

Everyone pushed as hard as they could. The tree started to lean, and they pushed harder. The roots that Mr Fenn and Benson had undermined all came out of the ground, and the tree fell over with a huge thud. Everyone was amazed. They packed up all the ladders and the saws and the axes and the tomahawks and everyone shook each other’s hands and went home.

On the way home, Benson said to Mr Fenn, “What happened to Mrs Fenn?”

Mr Fenn said, “Sometimes people are happier living apart. I’m more of a solitary wombat.”

“What about the baby wombat?” Benson asked.

“I still see him from time to time,” Mr Fenn said. “He’s growing up into a fine young wombat.”

“Is he big and strong, like you?” Benson asked.

“It’s not always about being big and strong,” said Mr Fenn. “Being kind and looking after other people is more important. Did you see young Elmer today, running back and forth with saws and water bottles and things for his father? And little Bonnie Lou? She spent the whole morning playing with Zip and Zali and keeping them happy. That was very kind.”

Benson thought about it. Not everyone could be big and strong, but anyone could be kind.

“It was good when everyone helped push the tree down together, wasn’t it?” he asked.

Mr Fenn nodded. “Very good,” he said. “Everyone helped, in their own way. Sometimes the first way you try to do something isn’t the best way. Then it’s good to listen to each other and try someone else’s way.”