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.”

Intolerance

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.

Tuesday was the day for Aunt Lillibet’s knitting circle. They always took turns meeting at each other’s houses, and this week it was Aunt Lillibet’s turn.

“The problem is,” said Aunt Lillibet, “whoever has it at their place has to make morning tea for everyone.”

“That’s not a problem,” said Benson’s mother. “If you’re busy, I can make a cake or some sandwiches.”

“If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be a problem,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Everybody has intolerances.”

“What are intolerances?” Benson asked. “Is something wrong with their feet so they can’t walk properly?”

“It means there are things they won’t eat,” said Aunt Lillibet.

Benson nodded slowly. “I’ve got intolerances,” he said. “I won’t eat worms, or rocks, or other wombats…”

“No, not like that,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Babette won’t eat anything that’s green or red, and Gordon won’t eat anything that grows underground. Fenella won’t eat anything unless it’s round, and Bliss won’t eat anything that’s been cooked on a Tuesday.”

“That makes it hard for you,” said Benson’s mother, “making something different for everyone.”

“Oh, no,” said Aunt Lillibet, “it isn’t that easy. None of them can bear to even be in the same room as food they don’t eat. It has to be something that everyone can eat.”

“Blueberries!” said Benson’s mother.

“We had blueberries last week at Gordon’s, and the week before at Fenella’s, and the week before that at Babette’s. If I see another blueberry, I’m going to turn blue,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“Have you got intolerances, too?” asked Benson.

“Of course not,” said Aunt Lillibet, going red.

“You don’t like ginger pudding,” said Aunt Moss.

“That’s different,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“You only eat tomatoes if they’re just picked straight off the bush,” said Benson.

“That’s because they’re much better that way than cold out of the fridge,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Anyway, it’s not about me. What am I going to give them for morning tea?”

Everybody thought.

“Blackberries,” said Benson.

“Nuts,” said Aunt Moss.

“Bananas!” said Benson’s mother.

“Sounds good to me,” said Aunt Lillibet. She went to the shops and bought blackberries and bananas and macadamias, and arranged them nicely in separate little bowls. She sat down and got her knitting ready.

Then her knitting buddies, Gordon, Babette, Fenella and Bliss arrived.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Shall we have morning tea first?”

She put the pretty bowls on the table in front of them.

“Are they macadamias?” said Fenella. “My grandson hates any food that starts with ‘m’. If he even smells them on someone he has a tantrum. I can’t be in the same room as macadamias.”

Aunt Lillibet said nothing. She took the bowl of nuts outside.

Gordon was looking at the bananas. “Where did you get these bananas?” he said. “They look very curvy to me. I’ve read about shop keepers getting straight bananas and bending them to make them look better. I think these bananas have been bent artificially.”

“Oh no!” said Bliss. “How dreadful!”

“I suggest you put them straight in the bin,” said Gordon. “All these artificially altered foods are no good for you at all.”

Aunt Lillibet said nothing. She took the bananas outside. When she came in again, Babette was poking at the blackberries with her finger.

“I don’t think I can eat these blackberries,” she said.

“But they’re BLACK, Babette. They’re not red or green,” Aunt Lillibet said.

“They smell red,” said Babette. “I’m sorry, I’m just very sensitive.”

Aunt Lillibet said nothing. She took the blackberries outside.

She came back in and went into the kitchen. She got four glasses of water, and put them on the table. “Morning tea,” she said.

The other four looked at the glasses of water.

Fenella said, “Is the water really fresh? I usually only drink fresh creek water.”

Gordon said, “Really, I would rather have hot water, if it’s not too much trouble. Solar-heated, of course.”

Babette said, “I’m sorry but I simply cannot drink water without ice. Dry ice, naturally.”

Bliss said, “I would love a drink of water! But I can’t have it on an empty stomach. Do you have any blueberries?”

Shaving for Tucker

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 was sitting at the table knitting beanies for homeless possums when Aunt Moss came out of her room. Aunt Lillibet dropped her knitting and thirty-seven stitches fell off the needles.

“Moss!” she shouted. “What have you done to your hair?”

Aunt Moss’s hair was a kind of greeny-pink around the ears, and on top of her head it was gone!

She said, “I just shaved it a little because…”

“It’s ridiculous!” said Aunt Lillibet. “I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous in my life.”

Aunt Moss said, “I’m sorry, Lillibet. Everyone is shaving their hair…”

“Just because everyone else is doing it,” Lillibet interrupted, “there’s no need for you to do it too. You’ve done a lot of silly things in your life, Moss, but this is ridiculous! You look like a silly old wombat.”

Aunt Moss started to cry. “I’m sorry, Lillibet,” she said between sobs.

Benson’s mother heard her crying and hurried out. “Moss, what’s the matter?” she said. “What did you say to her, Lillibet?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Only that she’s the silliest wombat on the planet. And you’re not much better! What’s gotten into everyone?” Benson’s mother had long pink zigzags shaved into her tummy.

Benson came out, wondering what all the noise was about. “Didn’t you hear?” he said to Aunt Lillibet. “We’re all shaving or dyeing our hair for Tucker, only I can’t decide.”

“For Tucker?” said Aunt Lillibet. “What do you mean, for Tucker?”

Benson explained. “Tucker is sick and his hair is falling out but he doesn’t like taking his medicine, so everyone decided they’d shave their hair, to try and make him feel better about it.”

Aunt Lillibet went red, and shut her mouth with a snap. She got up and went to her room.

Benson and his mother and Aunt Moss looked at each other.

Aunt Moss said, “It’s my fault. I should have known it would upset Lillibet to see me like this.”

Benson’s mother said, “She has no reason to be upset and she certainly has no reason to say things like that to you.”

Aunt Moss shook her head. “She does. Her mother – our mother – had the same thing as Tucker, with terrible itching and her hair falling out, but there was no medicine in those days and she died of it. It still makes Lillibet upset to remember it.”

“Oh,” said Benson’s mother. She was thinking of how Aunt Lillibet must be feeling, upset and embarrassed, and sad and angry, all at the same time.

Then they heard Aunt Lillibet calling from her room. “Benson,” she said, “could you come in here a minute, please?”

Benson went along to her room. “I need your help,” she said to him.

They were in her room for a long time. Aunt Moss and Benson’s mother waited and waited. “I should go and see if she’s all right,” Aunt Moss said.

“Maybe she needs some time by herself,” Benson’s mother said.

Then Aunt Lillibet and Benson both came out together. Benson had the sides of his body shaved in wavy swirls, and a long ridge down the middle of his back. Lillibet had a great big smiley face shaved on her back. They were both smiling.

Aunt Lillibet said, “I’m sorry I said those things to you, Moss. Will you forgive me?”

“Of course I forgive you,” said Aunt Moss. “You look amazing. I wish I’d thought of that.”

They all went together to visit Tucker. Benson’s mother said quietly to Aunt Lillibet, “Maybe you could knit a beanie for Moss. Her head might get very cold like that.”

“I’d love to,” said Aunt Lillibet.

Scowling Bananas

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 was making a banana sandwich for himself and Aunt Moss.

“Bananas are such a happy fruit,” Aunt Moss said. “They’re always smiling.” She held up a banana, the curvy way up, and smiled.

Aunt Lillibet was in a grumpy mood. “Oh Moss, you’re always so cheerful, for no reason at all!” she said. “What a ridiculous thing to say!”

She took the banana from Aunt Moss and turned it upside down. “There,” she said, “now it’s frowning. Why do you always have to look on the bright side of things?”

“I don’t know, Lillibet,” Aunt Moss said. “I suppose I think there’s enough sadness in the world, so I just want to notice the happy things whenever I see them.”

“You’re just being silly,” Lillibet said. She chopped the banana in half and stamped off to her room.

Aunt Moss said sadly, “Now I’ve upset her. I’m such a silly goose.” She went off to her room too.

Benson ate the sandwich by himself. He thought to himself while he was eating.

He thought about looking at things in a happy way, or in an angry way, or in just an ordinary way. He looked at a painting that he had painted that his mother had put on the fridge, of himself holding his mother’s hand. His mother said it always made her happy to look at it. It was just an ordinary painting, a bit blobby where the brown had run into the green at the bottom. How could a painting make you happy?

He went into his room and looked at his books, and his favourite pillow and his orange gumboots. He always felt happy in his room, or when he put his gumboots on. But now they looked like perfectly ordinary gumboots, next to perfectly ordinary books. He started to feel sad and kind of grey inside.

His mother came in, and said, “Are you okay, Benson? You don’t look happy.”

He said, “Aunt Lillibet says it’s silly to feel happy for no reason.” He told her what Aunt Lillibet had said. His mother sat on the bed beside him.

“What do you think?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That painting on the fridge, why does it make you happy?”

His mother smiled. “It reminds me of you, and how much I love you, and how happy I am that you love me, so every time I see it, it makes me feel warm and happy. It’s not the painting, it’s the remembering.”

Benson thought about it. “That’s not silly,” he said.

“No,” said his mother. “It’s not silly to remember that people love you, and to be glad that you are with people you love.”

Benson looked at his gumboots. “You gave me my gumboots because you know orange is my favourite colour,” he said.

“Yes,” said his mother. “They had grey ones and green ones but I chose the orange ones because I knew it would make you happy.”

Benson smiled. His room felt bright and cheerful again, full of things he loved, and things that people he loved had given him. “I think Aunt Moss needs a hug,” he said.

“I think so too, and I think Aunt Lillibet needs a hug,” his mother said. “Sometimes she just gets like this, kind of … difficult.”

Benson didn’t really want to try hugging Aunt Lillibet when she was being difficult. He had a better idea. He went outside and collected all the gum leaves he could find, and a whole lot of curvy sticks, and some birds’ feathers that were curvy too. He brought them all in and stuck them all over the walls, all curvy way up.

When Aunt Moss saw it, she smiled all over her whole body. “Benson,” she said, “this is like being in the middle of a great big hug.”

When Aunt Lillibet came out, she stopped and looked at the walls covered in smiles. She was surrounded with smiles. She turned around and around, and gradually her face started to crease up. But instead of smiling, she started to cry. “I’m sorry, Moss,” she said, “you’re not silly. You’re perfectly right. I should try not to be such a grumpy old thing.”

Benson said, “You’re not a grumpy old thing, Aunt Lillibet. You’re just a bit…difficult, sometimes.” And he gave her a hug.

The Violin

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.

Aunt Moss was going to visit her friend, Rebekah, and she asked Benson if he would like to come along. “Rebekah’s grandson Ralph lives with her, you know, and I’m sure he would love to have a friend come to visit.”

Benson thought Ralph wasn’t really a friend. He never came to the playground, and they didn’t really know each other. Ralph was kind of quiet, and he was seriously interested in things that Benson wasn’t interested in, like studying clouds, and watching ants.

Benson opened his mouth to say, “No, I think I’ll stay home,” and then he saw that Aunt Moss was making strawberry custard tarts to take to Rebekah’s place and he shut it again.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll come. But I think I’ll bring a book.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Aunt Moss. “I think Ralph would love you to read to him.”

They packed up the strawberry tarts carefully while they were still warm, and Benson put his library book in his backpack and they set off.

Rebekah was very excited to see them. “It’s so lovely to see you!” she said. “And Benson, Ralph will be so happy to see you. Thank you for coming!”

Ralph didn’t seem to be very happy to see Benson. He was in his room with the door shut, making awful noises.

Benson said, “What’s the matter with Ralph? Is he sick or something?” It sounded like Ralph had the worst stomach pains in the world.

“Oh no,” said Rebekah. “He’s learning the violin.” She knocked on the door and called out loudly, “Ralph, we have visitors.”

Ralph came out. He had a violin that was almost as long as his arm, and a long bow with hairs sproinging from it everywhere.

Aunt Moss said, “You’re learning the violin? How wonderful! The violin is such a beautiful instrument. Perhaps you could play for us while we’re eating morning tea?”

Ralph couldn’t wait to play. He put the end of the violin under his chin and played. And played and played.

It was the most horrible thing Benson had ever heard. It was a noise like an ambulance siren and a cockatoo, one in each ear at the same time. He held his breath and jammed his hands over his ears and shut his eyes but the screeching of the violin went on drilling into his head.

Even Aunt Moss was a little taken aback. She did the only thing she could think of and started clapping very loudly. Ralph stopped playing and smiled.

“Thank you for playing for us, Ralph,” she said. “Have you been learning for very long?”

“Two weeks,” said Ralph. He started to play again. It sounded like two chainsaws fighting to see who could be the loudest.

Benson grabbed the plate of strawberry tarts. “Here, have a strawberry custard tart,” he shouted.

Ralph stopped playing and took one of the tarts.

Rebekah said, “He loves playing so much. He hasn’t had a single lesson. His cousin Corlette didn’t want to play any more so she gave the violin to him. He never stops playing.”

Aunt Moss smiled. “I can see that he loves it.”

Ralph finished the tart and started playing again. Rebekah shouted, “Why don’t you boys go outside and play for a while?”

Benson thought that was a great idea. They both went outside. Ralph brought the violin with him. As soon as they got outside, he started to play again. Benson dug a deep tunnel as fast as he could, and stayed there with his hands over his ears until it was time to go home.

On the way home, Aunt Moss said, “The violin is a most beautiful instrument.”

Benson said, “I think it’s the worst thing I ever heard. It was worse than a jackhammer digging up a road. It was worse than a jet plane landing on your head.”

“Now, Benson, Ralph is just learning,” said Aunt Moss. “He’ll get better and better if he keeps practising.”

Benson said, “If I were his grandmother, I would sneak into his room when he’s asleep and get that violin and chop it into tiny pieces and bury them in the compost heap.”

Aunt Moss was very quiet for a while. Then she said, “I think we might go around past Nanna’s place, and see if she’s home.”

Benson loved visiting his grandmother.

“Benson!” she said, when she opened the door. “What a lovely surprise!” She gave him and Aunt Moss enormous hugs.

Aunt Moss said, “I thought you wouldn’t mind if we dropped in. We’ve been to see my friend Rebekah. Her grandson Ralph is learning the violin.”

“Yes,” said Benson, “and I’m never going there again.”

Aunt Moss explained to Nanna about the old violin and how much Ralph loved to play it. “I thought,” she said, “that it would be good if Benson could hear how nice a violin sounds when it’s played well.”

Nanna looked thoughtful. Then she went into her room and brought out a violin, very old but polished and smooth. She took her bow and started to play. Benson put his hands up to his ears, but the sound was like golden syrup flowing warm and thick through his head and all around him. It had bright bits like honeycomb sprinkled here and there, and then it was like the creek at the end of the afternoon, gentle and green, and then it was like the dark velvety sky at night with tiny distant stars. When Nanna stopped playing Benson felt as if someone had woken him up in the middle of a warm, comfortable sleep.

“That was a violin?” he said.

“I told you the violin was a beautiful instrument,” said Aunt Moss. She asked Nanna, “Do you think you might be able to give Ralph a lesson?”

“Yes, of course, though it’s a long time since I gave lessons, Moss,” Nanna said.

“You used to teach people to play the violin?” Benson said. “I didn’t even know you could play.”

“I don’t play much when there are people around,” Nanna said. “Not everyone likes the violin.”

“They would if they could hear you play,” said Benson.

Nanna laughed. “It’s very nice of you to say so, Benson,” she said. “I’m sure I sounded worse than Ralph when I started.”

“No,” Benson said, shaking his head. Even remembering Ralph’s playing made his head buzz. “Nobody could sound worse than Ralph.”

Benson Learns to Dance

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 was invited to his friend Alejandro’s birthday party.

He didn’t want to go.

His mother said, “Why don’t you want to go? Alejandro is a good friend, and lots of your friends will be there.”

“It says ‘dance party’ on the invitation,” Benson said. “I can’t dance.”

Alejandro loved to dance. He was learning ballet and tap-dancing, but he was especially good at ballet. He practised all the time, in his bedroom, at the playground, whenever he was at his friends’ places, no matter where he was. He loved to dance.

“Dancing isn’t hard,” Aunt Moss said. “It’s just moving to music. Everyone can dance.”

“No, they can’t,” Benson said. “I can’t.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “You’re giving up before you’ve even tried.” She stood in front of Benson. “Put your feet like this,” she said, putting her heels together and pointing her toes out.

Benson put his heels together and fell over onto his bottom.

“No, no, not like that,” Aunt Lillibet said. “Put your arms out to help you balance, heels together, head up, keep trying, that’s it!”

Benson put his arms out, his heels together and his head up.

“Now stretch out your right foot,” Lillibet said.

Benson stretched, wobbled, teetered and fell over again.

“See?” he said. “I can’t dance.”

His mother said, “Not everyone is built for ballet. What about tap-dancing?”

“Alejandro tried to show me how to tap-dance, but it didn’t work,” Benson said. “Alejandro says I tap-dance like a rhinoceros stampeding.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “What about belly-dancing? It’s very graceful, and it suits every body shape.” Aunt Lillibet was in charge of the belly-dancing group. “Stand up straight,” she said. “Now put your hips forward and your shoulders back.”

Benson put his shoulders forward and his hips back and toppled over onto his tummy.

“You’re not trying!” Aunt Lillibet said. “I know.” She went into her room and came back with a thing like a scarf with lots and lots of tiny tinkling coins sewn onto it.

“Here, put this on,” she said. “It will put you in the right mental space.”

“Where do I put it?” Benson said.

“You tie it around your waist,” Aunt Lillibet said, “and then you jiggle, like this.” She jiggled. Benson wobbled. The shiny scarf split down the middle and tiny coins went everywhere. Aunt Lillibet sighed.

Benson said, “I don’t think I’m built for belly-dancing either. I’ll just stay home.”

Aunt Moss said, “Benson, you’re giving up too easily. Lillibet is right. You need to find the right mental space. Come with me.”

Benson sighed. “Not folk-dancing?” he said. Aunt Moss’s folk-dancing group did lots of traily scarf-waving. Benson could see himself tripping over scarves and falling flat on his face.

“No, not folk-dancing,” Aunt Moss said.

“Not aerobics?” said Benson. He really didn’t want to wear a leotard like Aunt Moss’s.

“Just come with me,” Aunt Moss said.

They went to see Aunt Moss’s friend, Malcolm, and asked him to help. Malcolm called his friends JJ and Tom. They all gathered under a tree outside Malcolm’s place. Tom had a didgeridoo, and JJ brought clap sticks.

JJ started singing and hitting the clap sticks together, and Aunt Moss clapped her hands against her lap. Then the didgeridoo started its long, heavy drone. As soon as the didgeridoo started playing, Benson felt a weird feeling all through his body. Malcolm stamped in time with the clap sticks, and before long Benson found he was stamping too, big heavy stamps that left dents in the ground. They danced around and around, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, stepping and jumping together.

Tom made the didgeridoo make sounds like a kookaburra, and Benson flapped and laughed like a kookaburra. Malcolm used his hands to make himself look like an emu poking its beak into the air, and Benson made himself into an emu too.

The didgeridoo made a different sound, and Malcolm suddenly started moving just like a wallaby, hopping slowly and bending down as if he was eating grass off the ground. Benson started hopping along like a wallaby too, using his hands to make twitching wallaby ears and scratching his tummy like a wallaby. When the didgeridoo stopped, Benson was having so much fun he didn’t want to stop.

“You’re a good dancer,” Malcolm said.

“Is this dancing?” Benson asked Aunt Moss.

“Yes, of course it is,” she said.

“I can dance!” said Benson.

“Of course you can,” she said. “Everyone can dance.”

People You Can’t Live With

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

Benson’s Nanna had a fall and hurt her ankle. Benson’s mother, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss were very worried.

“She obviously can’t look after herself,” Aunt Lillibet said. “She can’t live by herself any more.”

“I think she should move in with us,” Benson’s mother said. “We’ve got plenty of room, really, and she’d be no trouble.”

“Benson can sleep in my room,” Aunt Moss said, “and Nanna can have his room. I’ll sleep with Lillibet.”

“So long as you don’t snore,” Aunt Lillibet said.

Benson said, “Does Nanna want to live here? I thought she liked her own house.”

“That’s the trouble,” his mother said. “She won’t want to leave her own house.”

“You’d better go and talk to her,” said Aunt Lillibet. “But be tactful.”

“What’s tactful?” asked Benson.

“It means being careful what you say so you don’t hurt the other person’s feelings,” said his mother.

Benson and his mother went to visit Nanna. They took some rose-hip jelly, and some comfrey ointment for her ankle.

Benson loved talking to Nanna. She was funny and interesting and she knew lots of jokes.

“Do you snore, Nanna?” Benson asked her.

“I don’t know,” Nanna said. “I don’t listen when I’m asleep.”

“When you come to live at our place, you can’t sleep in Aunt Lillibet’s room if you snore,” Benson said. “Aunt Lillibet snores, but she doesn’t like other people snoring.”

“Benson!” said his mother.

“What?” said Benson. “I was tactful, wasn’t I?”

“Why would I come and live at your place?” Nanna said. She didn’t look happy.

Benson said, “Because you fell over and you can’t live by yourself any more. You need to come and fall over at our place.”

Nanna said, “I’d rather fall over at my place. That way I can say all the rude words I want.”

“I’m sure Nanna would never say a rude word,” Benson’s mother said.

Nanna said, “Benson, put your hands over your ears and shut your eyes.”

Benson put his hands over his ears, but he peeked a bit. Nanna said something that might have been a rude word.

Benson said, “Nanna, why don’t you want to come and live at my place?”

Nanna looked uncomfortable. She opened her mouth and she shut it again.

Benson said, “Everyone said I should be tactful, but you don’t have to be tactful because you’re old.”

“Thank you, Benson,” said Nanna. “The thing is, there are some people you just can’t live with.”

Benson’s mother said, “I know Lillibet is difficult sometimes, and even Moss is a bit forgetful, but I’m sure we could make you comfortable.”

Nanna said, “I don’t mean Lillibet or Moss.”

Benson’s mother said, “Oh. Well, I suppose Benson isn’t what you’d call quiet, and sometimes he can be a bit naughty.”

“It isn’t Benson!” said Nanna. “It’s me!”

“You?” said Benson’s mother.

“Yes, me! You wouldn’t want to live with me!” said Nanna. “I’ve been living by myself for so long, I’ve gotten used to doing exactly what I like. And most people don’t like the same things I like,” she said.

“What do you like that no-one else likes?” asked Benson. “Is it peppermint-flavoured chips?”

Benson’s mother said, “I’m sure it can’t be anything important. We’ve all got little likes and dislikes, and we just get used to living with each other.”

“Not this one,” Nanna said.

“What is it?” asked Benson. “Spitting? Cartwheels? Stealing other people’s sandwiches?” Benson had lots of friends who had annoying habits. “Biting?” His friend Alejandro’s little brother Quentin was a biter.

Nanna screwed up her eyes and said, “It’s opera!”

“Opera?!” said Benson’s mother.

“Opera?” said Benson. “What’s opera?” he asked his mother.

“It’s a kind of singing and you dress up at the same time, and sometimes the singers wear funny hats,” his mother said.

“It’s wonderful!” said Nanna. “I love to listen to it, and sometimes,” she whispered as if she didn’t want anyone else to hear, “I even sing along.”

“We wouldn’t mind opera,” Benson said.

“You say that, but when it comes down to it, either you love it or you hate it, and everyone else I know hates it,” Nanna said.

Benson sat down and folded his arms. “Try me,” he said.

Nanna looked at him. “Are you sure?” she said.

“Yep, let’s see how bad it can be,” Benson said.

“All right then,” she said. She took a deep breath, spread her arms out wide, looked up at the ceiling and sang. Really really loudly. In a strange voice. In words Benson couldn’t understand. She sounded like a train whistle and a vacuum cleaner and a flock of cockatoos put together. Benson tried very hard to listen, but after a minute he put his hands over his ears and shouted for her to stop.

Nanna stopped. “See?” she said.

Benson’s mother had her hands over her ears as well. She took them off. “Yes, I see,” she said. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to come and live with us. But you could come and stay just for a little while, until your ankle is better.”

“That sounds like a lovely idea,” said Nanna. “Can I bring my opera hat?”

Renovating

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 day Benson’s cousin, Lance, came over. “I’m thinking of renovating one of my old burrows,” he said to Benson, “and I was wondering if you would like to give me hand.”

“Sure,” said Benson. He didn’t know exactly what renovating meant, but generally whatever cousin Lance was doing was interesting.

The old burrow was down by the river, a long way from Benson’s place, in country he had never been to before. It took them a while to find the old burrow, because bushes had grown over the entrance.

“Here it is,” said Lance, finally. The old burrow was dark and inside there were cave-ins in lots of places. “It’s a bit of a mess now,” said Lance, “but once we dig out a couple of new bedrooms and a new bathroom, and re-do the kitchen, it will be a lot better. Then if there’s time, I’d really like to put in a gym. “

“Where is everybody?” asked Benson. He was expecting a team of big, strong wombats with shovels and safety helmets and maybe even a small truck to take all the dirt away.

Lance laughed. “The two of us will get it done in no time,” he said.

They set to work digging and clearing out the old passages. “This is the way to the back door,” Lance said. He dug along an old tunnel and then he stopped suddenly. “Oww!” he said, rubbing his head. There was a great big chunk of concrete in the middle of the tunnel. “Who put this here?” he said. He tried digging under it, but that was no good, so he tried digging over it, but that didn’t work. “We can’t go through it,” he said. “We’ll have to go around it.”

He and Benson dug around the side of the chunk of concrete, and then they followed the tunnel up to the back door and out into the sunshine. Lance said, “I see what’s happened. That lump of concrete is to hold a fence post. Someone’s built a fence right through my tunnel.”

They both looked around. In front of them was a cleared yard, with a clothes-line and a water tank and a very large kennel.

“Uh-oh,” said Lance. “A kennel usually means…”

“Rarrrfff!” A big black-and-white dog sprang towards them, barking at the top of his voice.

“Look out, Benson!” Lance said. He pushed Benson back into the hole and scampered in after him. They heard a human voice shouting at the dog, and then they heard a loud thump and everything went dark.

“What was that?” Benson said.

Lance went closer to where the back door was supposed to be.

“Someone’s pushed a log into my doorway,” Lance said. They both pushed and shoved at it, but it was too heavy for them to shift.

“No problem, my emergency exit is over this way,” Lance said. He led Benson around through another tunnel and they climbed out into the yard again. Lance took a few careful steps and looked around.

There was a galloping rush and then, “Rarrff, rowffff, rufff, rufff!” The dog was right on top of them.

“Quick!” shouted Lance, “get back into the tunnel!” Benson scrambled back into the hole while Lance faced the dog who came charging up, barking loudly. Lance whapped the dog on the nose and then ran into the tunnel.

The dog put its head into the tunnel and barked and yelled, while Lance and Benson huddled inside with their hands over their ears. Lance turned around so his tough, thick rump was facing the dog.

They heard more human shouting, and then another thump.

Everything went quiet. Lance felt around where the emergency exit used to be. “They’ve blocked it up with another log,” he said.

“That’s not fair,” Benson said. “How are we supposed to get out?”

“Just a minute,” Lance said, “let’s think about this. A fence is usually there for a reason, right? Maybe this fence is to keep the dog IN.”

Benson thought. “We don’t really want to go back out into that yard, do we?”

“No, we don’t,” Lance said. “I don’t think this dog likes wombats much. And we don’t want the dog to get into my wombat hole, do we?”

They both thought about the dog squeezing its way into the wombat hole. Definitely a bad idea.

“We’ve got one small problem,” Lance said. “There’s a side door.”

“Why is that a problem?” said Benson.

“It comes out in the yard too, right near the dog’s kennel.”

“Oh,” said Benson. “What if the dog finds it?”

“Exactly,” said Lance. “We need to block it off, and then dig another one somewhere safer. But it’s a lot of work, filling in a hole, especially with a big, unfriendly dog right beside you.”

Benson smiled. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

Lance smiled back. He said, “I think I’m thinking what you’re thinking. Let’s go.”

Lance led the way around through a lot more tunnels until they came to the side door. Benson said, “Can I do it?”

“Let’s do it together,” said Lance. They both went up to the doorway and popped their heads out. The dog was lying in its kennel, licking its sore nose. Benson and Lance went out just a little bit further, and started waggling their ears and pulling faces at the dog.

The dog leapt up, really mad. Benson and Lance scampered back into the hole and hid. The dog ran over, barking and yelling. Lance called out a rude word, and the dog got even angrier. They waited and then they heard the human voice again, and thump! a big heavy lump of wood crashed into the hole, blocking the doorway.

Lance brushed his hands. “Good, that’s done. Let’s go and see where we’ll make the new back door.”

They dug a new tunnel and made a new back door that came out close to the river, and they sat there in the sun and ate their lunch.

“This is a really peaceful place,” Benson said. “I can see why you would want to live here.”

“I’m not planning to live here,” Lance said. “When the bush fires come, a lot of the animals come down to the river to escape the flames, and a wombat hole is a safe place to wait until the fires are gone. That’s why I wanted to make it bigger.”

“Is that what the gym is for?” asked Benson.

“That’s right,” said Lance. “Sometimes families have to stay in here for days.”

Benson imagined being stuck inside the wombat hole while bush fires raged outside. “You know what would be good?” he said. “A big cupboard with extra food in it, and games for everyone to play.”

“Great idea,” Lance said. “I was thinking we could put in a bowling alley.”

“And a ping-pong table, and maybe a cricket pitch,” said Benson.

“We’d better get to work,” said Lance. And they dug and cleared and built for the rest of the day.

A Place of Your Own

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.

One morning Benson said to his mother, “I’m thinking of getting my own place.”

“Oh,” said his mother. “Are you?”

“I think I’m old enough to have a place of my own, don’t you?” Benson asked.

His mother considered. “It’s not really about age,” she said. “It’s more about responsibility. Are you ready for the responsibility?”

Benson said, “I think so.” Then he said, “What is responsibility, again?”

His mother stopped peeling apples and sat down.

“Responsibility is being able to look after yourself and still be able to look after other people. It’s about looking after yourself and your own things, and trusting yourself, and seeing what needs to be done and not leaving it to someone else. Do you understand?”

Benson said, “A bit. Not much.”

She explained some more. “You know when the garbage needs emptying, or the washing needs to be done, or there’s broken glass on the footpath, and you think Someone Else will do it – Someone Else will empty the bin and do the washing and pick up the broken glass or clean the rubbish out of the creek or make the dinner or push little Zip on the swing. Being responsible is being the Someone Else.”

Benson said, “It doesn’t sound like much fun. I thought having my own place would be more fun.”

“What do you want your place to be like?” asked his mother.

Benson had thought about this. He said, “It would have a really big library with comfy chairs, and cushions on the floor for the little ones, and maybe a great big underground terrarium where frogs could come on holidays, and a big bath that’s green with stones in the bottom like the creek, with room for all the turtles. And a kitchen with a big, big, big fridge with room for lots of custard and blueberry yoghurt because that’s Mick’s favourite, and ice cream and lillypillly jelly for Zali. And a compost bin because we would use leaves for plates and giant gum-nuts for cups then we wouldn’t have to wash up. We could just put them in the compost.”

“You know,” said his mother, “that sounds like a place I would like to live in.”

“You can come and visit any time you want,” said Benson, “and Nanna can come because she would like to see the turtles, and talk to the frogs.”

Benson’s mother said, “It sounds like a great idea. When were you thinking of starting?”

“Oh, about now,” Benson said. He got up and went into his room. His mother waited for him to come out and say goodbye, but he didn’t come out.

She went into his room. “Do you need some help packing?” she asked.

Benson was in a corner of the room digging. He stopped for a minute and said, “Packing what?”

His mother said, “I thought you were leaving home to get your own place?”

Benson said, “Oh, no, I’m not leaving home. I’m just going to make more home here, and make it my own place.”

His mother sat down on the bed. “Let me think about this,” she said. Benson went on with his digging.

After a while his mother said, “If I had a place of my own, it would have a kitchen big enough for everyone to cook in at the same time, and a quiet space a long way away from everyone else where I could learn to play the harp or the accordion, and a big pantry with jars and jars of apricot jam and pickles and preserved lemons.”

She kissed Benson on the top of his head, and went into the kitchen to start digging.

Moths

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.

Benson’s mother was sorting out the washing. She held up Benson’s favourite orange jumper. There was a hole right in the middle of the front.

“Look at this big hole,” she said. “I think we’ve got moths.”

“Just sprinkle some lavender among his jumpers,” said Aunt Moss. “That will get rid of them. Moths hate the smell of lavender.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Aunt Lillibet, “if you want your cupboards full of lavender beetles.”

“Lavender beetles?” said Benson’s mother.

“Lavender beetles,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Everywhere. Thousands of them. Once you’ve got lavender beetles, you never get rid of them.”

“You could always put down some bay leaves,” said Aunt Moss.

“Oh yes, sure,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Bay leaves will get rid of the lavender beetles, but then you’re going to get bay bugs.”

“Bay bugs?” said Benson’s mother.

“Bay bugs,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Bay bugs are very quiet. They stay hidden out of sight, and they don’t bother anyone. If you don’t mind the smell.”

“What do they smell like?” asked Benson.

“Like rotten potatoes and rotten broccoli mixed together. Like a lemon that has gone all white and furry in the bottom of the fruit bowl,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“But tansy berries will get rid of the smell,” said Aunt Moss. “You just dry them out in the oven and then you grind them up into a kind of powder and sprinkle it everywhere.”

“Oh, yes, tansy berries are great,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Except for the itch.”

“Do tansy berries make you itch, Aunt Lillibet?” asked Benson.

“Like a million mosquitoes biting you all over,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Every bit of you wants to scratch so much you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t read, you just scratch and itch and scratch and itch until you wish your skin would fall off and go somewhere else.”

“I don’t think we should get any tansy berries,” Benson’s mother said.

“You could always try toadflax,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“Oh, yes, toadflax,” said Aunt Moss. “Such pretty yellow flowers. My mother always used toadflax. It’s a pity about the toad creepers, though.”

“Toad creepers?” said Benson’s mother.

“Yes, they creep out from under the toadflax at night,” Aunt Moss said, “and they – “

“Don’t talk about them please, Aunt Moss,” Benson’s mother said, shuddering all the way down from her head to her feet.

“Actually, the toad creepers aren’t so bad,” said Aunt Lillibet. “It’s when the vipers come to visit them that you really have to watch out.”

Benson’s mother said, “I think I’d rather have the moths.”

Benson said, “Actually, it wasn’t moths that put the hole in my jumper, it was my paintbrush.”

“Your paintbrush put a hole in your jumper?” his mother said.

“Well, me, using my paintbrush,” said Benson. “I kind of got a spot of red paint on it and when I tried to wash it out, it just went a sort of mushy pink, so I painted over it with orange paint but it went a nasty brown colour, so then I got my scissors and cut most of it out and stapled it together again, but the staple fell out and sticky tape wouldn’t work, so now there’s a hole.”

“Darn it,” said Aunt Lillibet.

“Yes, I suppose I’ll have to,” said Benson’s mother. “Anyway, it’s a lot better than tansy berries and toad creepers.”

Decorum

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

Benson’s mother was racing around the kitchen trying do do six things at once. She was making anzac cookies and lemon syrup for Aunt Lillibet’s belly-dancing friends who were coming for afternoon tea, and cooking a date and apple cake for Aunt Moss to take to her friend Rebekah’s place, and she was washing up the breakfast dishes and trying to make a shopping list and writing a speech in her head at the same time.

Benson was carefully chopping up dates for the cake. Aunt Moss came in with two turtles and put them down. “Has anyone seen my glasses?” she said.

Benson’s mother was peeling apples. She said, “They’re here on top of the fridge. The baby dunnarts kept trying them on and scaring each other so I put them up out of the way. Moss, dear, would you take the turtles out of the kitchen, please?”

Aunt Moss put her glasses on. “Yes, but I just have to put some ointment on Fred’s leg first.”

She went off to get the ointment. Benson’s mother quickly rolled out the anzac cookies and put them into the oven, then she measured sugar and butter into the bowl for the cake and started beating.

Aunt Lillibet came in while Benson’s mother was adding the eggs to the bowl and quickly scraping zest off the lemons for the lemon syrup.

“Why are there dunnarts everywhere?” Aunt Lillibet said.

“We’re babysitting while their mother takes the other four to the dentist,” Benson’s mother said, measuring out the flour.

“You look very hot and flustered, racing around and muttering to yourself,” Aunt Lillibet said. “You should have more decorum.”

“Decorum?” said Benson’s mother. She added the apples to the mixture and stirred it up. One of the turtles bumped into her foot and she hopped out of the way.

“Yes,” said Aunt Lillibet. “A woman who is in control is always calm and dignified, not hopping about with bits of lemon zest in her hair. She should have decorum.”

“I’m sorry, Lillibet, I’ve got so much to do, I haven’t got time for decorum,” Benson’s mother said. “I’m supposed to be making a speech at the bushcare council meeting in half an hour and I haven’t written it yet, and I still have to get the cake into the oven with the anzac cookies and make the lemon syrup before I go.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “If you were more organised, there would be plenty of time to get everything done and you wouldn’t always be running late. You can’t make a speech looking like something the cat dragged in. Go and tidy yourself up and get your speech ready. Benson and I will finish up here.”

“I’ll just wash the dishes and finish making the cake,” Benson’s mother said.

Aunt Lillibet flapped her hands. “Just go!”

Benson’s mother went.

Aunt Lillibet looked around the kitchen. “With a little bit of organisation, this will be easy. Benson, give me those dates and start washing the dishes. I’ll finish the cake and then make the lemon syrup.” She mixed in the dates and poured everything into a cake tin, then she took the bowl over to the sink for Benson to wash. When she came back, two of the dunnarts were sitting in the cake mixture, throwing dates at each other.

“You naughty boys!” she said, lifting them out. “Now that will all have to go into the bin.” She tipped the cake mixture into the bin. “Benson, leave the washing up for now and chop some more dates while I peel some more apples,” she said.

Benson chopped and Aunt Lillibet peeled and mixed and stirred. A new date and apple cake went into the oven and it was time to get the cookies out. They were perfect. Just as she lifted the tray out of the oven, she slipped on a turtle, and the cookies went everywhere.

“What are these turtles doing in the kitchen?” she yelled.

Benson got the broom and swept the broken cookies into a corner with the little dunnarts who were nibbling on them. Aunt Lillibet got out some more flour and butter and started making more anzac cookies. “Get me the oats, Benson,” she said.

He got the oats out of the cupboard. He looked at the cookie mixture Aunt Lillibet was making.

“I think there’s something wrong with the cookie mixture,” he said.

“This is a strange recipe,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I can’t make any sense of it.”

“That’s not the recipe,” Benson said, “that’s the shopping list. You don’t put washing powder and shampoo in anzac cookies.”

Aunt Lillibet muttered something to herself, and tipped the mixture out and started again. “Have you got those lemons squeezed yet?” she said.

“Not yet,” said Benson. He started squeezing a lemon slowly and carefully so the juice didn’t squirt up into his eye.

“I’ve run out of bowls and spoons,” Aunt Lillibet said. “Leave those lemons and finish washing up.”

Benson went back to the sink and started to wash up again. “What’s that smell?” he said.

Aunt Lillibet threw the oven open. The date and apple cake was black. She tipped it into the bin.

“We’ve run out of dates and there are no apples left,” she said. “It will have to be a lemon cake for Moss and Rebekah, and the belly-dancing ladies can drink water. It’s better for them anyway.”

She set to work mixing and stirring like a tornado. Bits of cookie mixture flew up into the air and spattered on the cupboards and plopped onto the floor. “Benson, leave the dishes and help me with these cookies.”

They stirred and rolled and finally got a new batch of cookies into the oven. “Now for the lemon cake,” she said. She started stirring and mixing so fast that the flour exploded into her hair and bits of egg splashed onto her glasses. Finally she poured the mixture into the cake tin and put it in the oven.

“There!” she said. “All done!” She looked around the kitchen. It looked as if an earthquake and a hurricane had both happened at the same time. The turtles had left sticky trails all over the floor, and the dunnarts had spread cookie crumbs everywhere.

“Right,” she said, “we’ll soon fix that!” She picked up all the dunnarts and piled them into the big bowl with the spoon to lick, and clapped a plate on top so they couldn’t get out. She put the two turtles into the sink. She piled the dirty bowls and the lemon squeezer and the measuring cups into a huge stack next to the sink. “Broom, Benson!” she said.

Benson passed her the broom and she swept everything off the bench onto the floor, eggshells, cookie crumbs, dirty spoons, apple peel and lemon skins. She made a big, big pile, and Benson opened the bin for her.

At that moment, Benson’s mother walked in. She looked around the kitchen. There were turtles paddling in the washing-up water and sticky dunnarts licking the mixing bowl from the inside. She looked at Aunt Lillibet, who had flour in her hair and egg on her glasses and oats in her ears, and Benson, who was standing in a pile of broken cookies and washing powder. She sniffed.

“What’s that smell?” she said.

Aunt Lillibet leapt towards the oven and pulled the door open. Smoke came billowing out. She shut the door again with a bang. “No problem,” she said very calmly and with great decorum. “I’m sure the belly-dancing ladies would rather have a nice salad.”

A Piece of String

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.

It was a beautiful day and Benson was playing outside with his friend, Philip.

After a while he came in and said to his mother, “I need a piece of string.”

“Do you mean thread or twine or wool or yarn or wire or rope or just plain string?” his mother said.

“Oh, just ordinary string,” Benson said.

She got a ball of string out of the kitchen drawer. “How much do you need?” she said.

Benson thought. “About this long,” he said. He showed her with his hands.

His mother cut off a piece of string about that long and gave it to him and he went outside again.

“I wonder what he wants it for,” his mother said to Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss.

“It could be a hundred different things,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I bet I can think of three things you can do with a piece of string faster than you can.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Benson’s mother said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “I could use it to tie up my tomato bushes when they’re falling over, to tie up a parcel, or to tie between two posts to make a straight line when I’m planting my lettuces.”

“That was quick,” Benson’s mother said. “Let me see. You could knit a string bag – I’ve seen lots of shopping bags made out of string. You could use it to hold up your pants if you haven’t got a belt. And I could use it to re-thread the beads on Aunt Moss’s necklace which has broken again.”

“Oh dear, has it?” said Aunt Moss. She felt around her neck, and sure enough, her necklace had broken and fallen off. “You know, you can make some beautiful artwork with string. If you cover it with paint and lay it inside a fold of paper and pull it out quickly it makes some lovely patterns. Or you can make a holder for a hanging plant if you make lots of knots in patterns. Or you can weave a whole set of place-mats with different coloured strings.”

Benson’s mother said, “I don’t think Benson is making place mats, or planting lettuces.”

Just then Benson came in again, and said, “Do you have a button I can have?”

His mother fetched her button jar where she kept all her odd buttons. “With two holes or four?” she asked.

Benson thought. “Four would be good,” he said.

“What size?” asked his mother. “A big black one like this, or a little white one like this?”

Benson peered into the button jar and pointed. “That green one there,” he said. “That should be just about right.”

He took the button and went outside again.

“A piece of string and a button?” Aunt Lillibet said. “What could he possibly do with them?”

“Maybe he’s going to tie them to a stick and go fishing,” said Benson’s mother.

“What sort of fish do you think he would catch,” Aunt Lillibet said, “a leatherjacket?”

“Maybe they’re making themselves a bull-roarer,” Aunt Moss said.

At lunchtime Philip went home and Benson came inside and washed his hands. His mother said, “What did you need the piece of string for?”

Benson started eating his kale-and-apple sandwich. “Oh, Philip was worried that Kendall might be getting sunburned,” he said between bites.

“Do snails get sunburned?” asked his mother.

“Philip thinks so,” Benson said. “We tried making Kendall a hat out of a leaf tied on with string, but there was no room for his little horns, and he kept trying to nibble on the leaf.”

“So you thought of a button,” said his mother, “with four holes.”

Benson nodded. “Mmhmm,” he said, “two to tie the string through and two for his little horns to poke through.”

“And did Kendall like his hat?” his mother asked.

Benson finished his sandwich. “I think so. Green is his favourite colour, Philip says.”

A Tin of Paint

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.

Aunt Lillibet decided she wanted to paint her cupboard. She measured it carefully so she would know exactly how much paint she would need. “Exactly one tin of paint,” she said.

She went to the paint shop and bought a tin of yellow paint. She took it home, and got her paintbrush and then she was ready to paint. She went to her room to put on her painting clothes.

While she was gone, Aunt Moss came along. “Oh, what a pretty colour!” she said. “I’m sure Lillibet won’t mind if I use just a tiny bit to paint my little table.” She took the tin of paint and the brush into her room and painted her little table. She was back in no time. “It looks lovely,” she said.

Aunt Lillibet came out and started painting her cupboard. She painted the top and the sides and the back and the doors. She was nearly finished the last door when she ran out of paint.

“I’ve run out of paint,” she said. “How annoying! After I measured so carefully!”

Benson said, “You could paint the last bit of the door another colour, like orange.”

“No, it wouldn’t look right,” Aunt Lillibet said. “I’ll just have to buy another tin of paint.”

She went to the paint shop and bought another tin of paint. The assistant in the shop noticed her painting clothes with all the yellow dabs and smears, but he didn’t say anything.

When she got home, she opened the second tin of paint and stirred it carefully and painted the last bit of the cupboard. “There!” she said. “Perfect! But what am I going to do with the rest of the paint? I know, I’ll give the cupboard a second coat. Two coats of paint always look better.”

She painted the cupboard all over again, the top, the back, the sides and the doors. She was nearly finished when she ran out of paint. “Oh! How exasperating!” she said. “I’ve run out of paint.”

Benson said, “It’s only a little bit of the door. No-one will notice.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “I will notice. I’ll have to get another tin of paint.”

She went back to the shop and bought another tin of paint. The nice young shop assistant noticed a lot more yellow splashes on her painting clothes but he didn’t say anything.

She painted the last little bit of the cupboard. “Very nice,” she said. “But what am I going to do with the rest of the paint?”

“You could paint the inside of the cupboard,” Benson suggested.

“That’s a very good idea, Benson,” she said. She painted the inside of the cupboard, the top and the bottom and the sides and the back and the inside of the doors. Just before she finished, she ran out of paint.

“Oh, I’ve run out of paint!” she said. “How irritating!”

Benson said, “It’s on the inside. No-one will notice.”

“I will notice,” said Aunt Lillibet. She went back to the shop and bought another tin of paint. The shop assistant noticed the yellow paint in her hair and on the back of her neck but he didn’t say anything.

She finished painting the inside of the cupboard. “That’s better,” she said. “But what am I going to do with the rest of the paint?”

Benson said, “You could fill in the spaces on your painting clothes, then they’d be yellow all over.”

“Don’t be silly,” Aunt Lillibet said. She set to work and painted the kitchen cupboards yellow. There was still some paint left so she painted the fruit bowl and the fridge and the toaster. There was still a little bit of paint left, so she painted her favourite hat and her gumboots, and then she painted a sign that said, ‘WET PAINT’.

“Perfect!” she said. “There’s not a drop of paint left.”

She went outside to clean her brush. Benson’s mother came home from her bush care group, and said, “Why is everything yellow?”

Aunt Moss said, “I think it’s very pretty. I wonder if it’s still wet.”

Aunt Lillibet finished cleaning her brush and came inside.

Aunt Moss said, “Lillibet, do you have a little bit of that paint left over? I think I’ve accidentally left a tiny mark on your cupboard.”

Aunt Lillibet looked at the cupboard. Right in the middle of the door, there was a big wombat hand-print.

The Chocolate Fairy

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 Easter time everyone got chocolate Easter eggs, but Philip’s mother’s cousin sent him a chocolate fairy. The fairy had fine delicate wings, and a little chocolate dress that stuck out for dancing, and a tiny little chocolate crown. Everyone ate their chocolate Easter eggs straight away, but Philip thought the fairy was so beautiful he couldn’t bear to eat her.

He brought it to the playground and everyone gathered round.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Philip breathed.

“Can I have the legs?” Mick asked.

“No! Don’t touch her!” Philip said. “If you break the legs off, she can’t dance.”

“The legs are all wrong anyway,” said Alejandro. “If she were really doing a pirouette, her hand would be like so.” He put his hands up and did a perfect spin. “Let’s just eat her,” he said.

“No!” said Philip.

“Aren’t you going to share her?” Mick asked.

“I’m never going to eat her,” Philip said. “I’m going to keep her on the shelf in my room.”

“You’ll have to eat her some time,” Benson said. “The use-by date is September.”

Alejandro said, “If she gets too old she’ll go all white and weird. My mother had some chocolate once that she kept in the fridge and it got all white spots on it.”

Mick said, “What if Kendall finds her and slimes all over her?” Kendall was Philip’s friend who was a snail. “I think we should just eat her now,” he said and made a grab for the fairy.

Philip swished it out of the way just in time. He gave her to Zali to hold and gave Mick a smack. Mick hit him back and suddenly they were rolling on the ground fighting. Zali looked at the fairy and opened her mouth to take a big bite. Benson shouted, “No, Zali!”

Philip stopped fighting and looked up. “Don’t do it, Zali!” he shouted and grabbed for the fairy. There was a tussle between Philip and Mick and Zali, and Philip came out on top, holding the fairy out of reach of the others.

“I’m taking my fairy home right now!” he shouted and stamped off. He waited for a minute beside Benson’s bike, and when Benson came up he whispered to him. “I think Mick might try and grab her on the way home. Can you take her to your place, just for a while? I’ll come and get her later on.”

Benson rode home very carefully, carrying the fairy.

Aunt Moss thought she was lovely. “Look at those tiny wings, and those beautiful little dancing slippers!” she said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “You should be very careful holding her like that, Benson. Those legs are very fragile. They could easily break.”

Benson said, “I am being careful,” and at that exact same moment, the fairy’s legs snapped off.

Benson gasped. The fairy’s body was in one hand and her legs were in his other hand.

He thought of how Philip was going to feel when he saw the fairy with its legs snapped off. He would be really upset. He might be really sad. He could be really angry.

“What am I going to do?” he said.

“Write him a letter,” Aunt Lillibet said. “’Dear Philip, I snapped the legs off your fairy. Sorry. Love, Benson.’”

“Maybe I can glue them back on,” Benson said.

“I don’t think so,” his mother said. “I think if he was eating the fairy, he wouldn’t want a mouthful of glue when he was expecting chocolate.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “I’ve got some licorice in my room. We could make some new legs out of that and join them on.”

Benson’s mother looked at her. “Lillibet,” she said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, people who like chocolate, and the other ones, who like licorice. Let’s leave it at that.”

Aunt Moss said, “What if we melted the top of the legs and the bottom of the dress? Then they might stick back together again.”

They decided to try it. Benson’s mother warmed up a bowl over hot water and they melted the top of the legs a little bit and the bottom of the dress a little bit. Then they carefully squooshed them together. The legs squooshed just a little bit too far, and the dress smeared out just a bit too much. The legs stuck on, but they definitely didn’t look right. There was a dip where Benson’s thumb had been.

They all looked at the fairy, who looked like an unusual spoon.

“Maybe Philip won’t notice,” Benson said.

Just then there was a knock at the door. It was Philip.

“Thanks for minding my fairy,” he said. “I’ll take her home now.”

Benson gave Philip the fairy. Philip looked at her and his face fell.

Benson said, “The legs kind of snapped off. Sorry. But we fixed them again, see?”

Philip put the fairy down. He didn’t feel the same about her any more, now that she wasn’t perfect. “You can have her if you want,” he said.

“Really?” Benson said, getting excited. “You mean it?”

“If you want,” Philip said. He felt upset and disappointed and empty all at the same time.

“Which part do you want?” Benson said, getting ready to break the fairy into pieces.

Philip said, “I don’t want any. I don’t really like chocolate, anyway.”

“You don’t like chocolate?” Benson said.

Aunt Lillibet said, “Would you like some of my licorice, Philip?”

“Licorice?” Philip said, brightening up. Suddenly he felt a lot happier. “Yes, please! I love licorice.”

Benson and his mother and Aunt Moss shared out the chocolate fairy together, and kept a piece for Mick and a piece for Zali. Philip and Aunt Lillibet ate licorice together. Everyone was happy.

Mapping

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 was cleaning out a cupboard and she found a pile of old maps.

“These must be your Uncle Lionel’s maps,” she said.

“What are they maps of?” Benson asked. Aunt Lillibet said, “This one is the Great North Walk, and this one is part of the Larapinta Trail, and I think this one is Wilpena Pound. Lionel loved to go bush-walking and camping. He had a lot of maps.”

Benson had a look over her shoulder. The maps were covered with little dotted lines and wavy circles, blue lines and brown lines and green lines, and little numbers everywhere.

“What do all these lines mean?” Benson asked.

“The blue lines are rivers or creeks. These wavy lines and the numbers tell you there is a hill here, and how high it is and how steep it is,” Aunt Lillibet said. “It’s all very complicated, too complicated for a young wombat to understand.”

Benson thought a map would be a very useful thing.

He got a big piece of paper from his room and some coloured pencils.

He drew a line of wombat footprints along the bottom. Then he got his green pencil and drew lots of short lines, and some trees. He got his brown pencil and drew a big hill. Then he made the wombat prints go past the trees and around the hill.

Aunt Lillibet looked over his shoulder. “What are you doing?” she said.

Benson drew a blue circle with a brown frog in it. “I’m drawing a map,” he said. He drew a red box and put some smiling faces in it, then he drew a long orange slopey line. “That’s a slippery slide,” he said.

He got his yellow pencil and put lots of yellow dots beside the orange slopey line. “This is a sandpit,” he said, “and this is a tiger.” He drew a tiger under the sandpit.

Aunt Lillibet said, “You can’t do that. That’s not how a map works. A map draws what is there already, and you follow the map so you know where you are.”

Benson said, “This is a different kind of map. This one says where I want to go.” He drew some more footprints, then he drew some pink blobs and a big red heart at the end. “There,” he said.

Then he said, “Wait – I forgot something.” He drew an enormous smiling sun at the top of the map. “Finished!” he said.

He held up the map. “Do you want to go for a walk and follow my map, Aunt Lillibet?”

Aunt Lillibet huffed and said she’d never heard of anything so silly and it would never work, but she got her hat and her water-bottle. Benson got his hat and his water-bottle and he took the map.

“This is where we start,” he said. “We walk along through the grass, past some trees, until we come to a big hill.”

They walked along through the grass and past some trees. Benson said, “There’s a big hill over there, so we go around it.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “How do you know it’s the right hill?”

Benson said, “It doesn’t have to be the right hill, just a hill.” They went around the hill.

Benson said, “Now we keep on going until we find a pond with a frog in it.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “There are no ponds around here. This map is wrong.”

Benson pointed to a puddle. “There’s a puddle – that’s like a small pond,” he said.

“But what about the frog?” Aunt Lillibet said. Just then they heard, “Crick, crick, crick, crick,” and a small brown frog jumped into the puddle.

Benson smiled. “It’s a good map, isn’t it? The next thing is a house with friends in it, so we should go this way, because that’s where Nils and Nella live.”

They walked along and went past Nils and Nella’s house. Aunt Lillibet said, “I suppose you want to go to the playground next because the slippery-slide and the sandpit are next on the map?”

“That’s a great idea,” Benson said.

They walked along to the playground and Benson went on the slippery-slide and then he played in the sandpit.

Aunt Lillibet said, “This is the wrong sandpit. Where’s the tiger?”

Benson said, “He’s not here today. Aren’t you glad?”

Aunt Lillibet sighed. “I think it’s time to home,” she said.

They walked all the way home. Just before they got there, Benson found a young gum tree that was covered in pink blossom. He picked some and when they got home, he gave them to Aunt Lillibet. “There,” he said. “That’s the end of the map.”

Aunt Lillibet looked at the flowers and she looked at Benson. “That map is all wrong,” she said. She got one of Benson’s pencils and drew another set of wombat footprints beside the ones that Benson had drawn, and at the end beside the big red heart, she drew herself and Benson holding hands.

“Now it’s perfect,” she said.

The Lost Princess

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.

One morning Benson was playing with his snail shell collection and his mother was cleaning out the fridge where the quandong jam had spilled everywhere. Aunt Lillibet was out weeding and planting with her Bush Regeneration group, and Aunt Moss was going to visit her friend Marigold. She packed a basket with some fresh blueberry muffins for Marigold and set off.

A little while later, Benson’s mother said, “Oh no, Aunt Moss has forgotten her hat. She’ll be very hot walking all that way to Marigold’s without her hat. We’d better go after her and take it to her.” She and Benson set out, taking Aunt Moss’s hat with them.

The way to Marigold’s went along by the creek and up the gully. Just by the creek, Benson’s mother noticed something shining on the ground and picked it up. It was a tiny little screw. She said to Benson, “I think we’d better keep our eyes peeled.”

Benson said, “How do we peel our eyes?”

“I mean, look very carefully at everything we see while we’re walking along,” his mother said.

Benson turned on his super-noticing vision and they kept going.

Suddenly Benson said, “Aha!” He picked up something from the grass. It was a short golden chain. “Look!” he said, “a golden chain! Do you think maybe a beautiful princess dropped it here?”

His mother said, “That was very good noticing, Benson. Keep looking hard.”

A bit further on, Benson said, “Aha!” He pounced on a small circle of glass that was lying in the dirt. “I know what this is,” he said. “It’s out of a pirate’s spy-glass. A pirate has been spying on the beautiful princess, and he’s probably chasing her to steal her golden crown and her jewels.”

His mother said, “I think we’d better hurry.”

They hurried on along the track. The bush on each side of the track started to get very thick. Suddenly Benson said, “Aha! Look at all these broken branches.” At the side of the track, some of the bushes had been bent and broken, leaving a gap between them. “I bet the princess ran through here and the pirate chased after her. Come on, we’ve got to hurry before he catches her!”

They pushed through the broken bushes and hurried along between trees and rocks.

Before long they could hear a high voice in the distance shouting, “Stop it! Give that back, you greedy creature!”

Benson said, “Oh no! The pirate is trying to steal the princess’s jewels. Quick, we’ve got to save her!”

They ran towards the shouting voice, and there in a small clearing was Aunt Moss. Her hair was a mess, she had dropped her basket and a big magpie was trying to get the muffins.

“Moss! There you are!” said Benson’s mother. She didn’t seem at all surprised.

Aunt Moss said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! My glasses broke and I must have wandered off the track, and now this nasty magpie is trying to steal the muffins!”

Benson and his mother shooed at the magpie. It looked at them with its yellow eye, then it grabbed a muffin and flew away.

Aunt Moss was very relieved. “How did you find me?” she asked.

Benson’s mother said, “We were just coming to bring you your hat. Then I found the little screw out of your glasses down by the creek, and I thought that if your glasses came apart, you wouldn’t be able to see very well and you might run into trouble.”

Aunt Moss said, “My glasses just seemed to fall apart and I couldn’t see a thing without them, and then that nasty magpie came along! I’m so very glad you found me!”

Benson’s mother said, “It was Benson, really. He found the chain off your glasses, and then he found one of the lenses that must have fallen out, and then he found the place where you had gone off the track, so we followed it and heard you shouting.”

Aunt Moss said, “Thank you, Benson. I don’t know what I would have done without you to rescue me.”

Benson said, “That’s okay. Except I think the muffins might be a bit dusty.”

His mother said, “I think they’ll be okay.” They picked up the rest of the muffins and dusted them off and put them back in the basket. Then Aunt Moss put her hat on and they went home, with Benson’s mother holding onto Aunt Moss’s arm so she didn’t get lost again. They all had some hot milk, and the muffins were perfectly fine.

Fish Footprints and Earth Whales

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

One afternoon after lunch, Benson was bored. He had a bit of a snuffly nose and a kind of a headache, and he didn’t feel like doing anything. He didn’t feel like reading, he didn’t feel like building spaceships or dinosaurs. He didn’t even feel like digging.

He said to his mother, “There’s nothing to do. I’m bored.”

His mother was busy cooking a casserole for dinner. She said, “Why don’t you go and dig?”

“I already did that,” he said.

“Why don’t you ride your bike?” she said.

“I rode my bike yesterday,” Benson said.

She said, “Well, you can give me a hand cooking and cleaning up, then.”

Benson didn’t feel like cooking or cleaning up. He peeled the carrots so badly that his mother had to peel them all over again. He spilled flour all over the floor and his mother had to sweep it up. He almost put chocolate sauce in the the casserole instead of tomato sauce.

His mother said, “I think we’d better stop cooking and go for a walk.” She finished cleaning up and put the casserole in the oven.

Benson didn’t feel like going for a walk either, but he got his hat and his water bottle and they set out.

They walked for a long way through the bush and Benson was bored. His mother kept going slowly but Benson just wanted to hurry up and get it over with.

After a while his mother said, “I think it’s time for a rest.”

Benson had to stop and wait while she sat down and rested. His mother said, “Look at that tree, Benson.”

He looked around and saw how the track had to turn out of its way to go past a huge old red gum that looked like it was growing out of a rock. Its trunk and roots were spread out across the the rock like giant fingers, as if they were trying to open the rock like an enormous jar of pickles.

His mother finished resting and they went on. They came to a gully and went down to a creek at the bottom. Benson scampered over the stepping stones in the creek and went up the other side, but his mother said, “Wait, Benson, it’s time for a rest.” She sat down, and Benson waited impatiently.

Then he noticed that the stepping stones across the creek had big round holes in them, big enough for Benson to sit in. His mother said, “They look like giant prehistoric fish stepped in them while they were still soft, mushy circles of clay.”

“Fish can’t make footprints,” Benson said. “They don’t have feet.”

“Maybe prehistoric fish did,” his mother said.

He sat in the circular holes one at a time and let the water rush past him while he thought about fish with feet, stepping in clay.

His mother finished resting and they went on through a cool forest full of tall blue gums. After a while his mother wanted another rest. She sat down and pointed. “Look at that rock,” she said.

Benson looked around. There was a huge rock covered in green moss poking out of the side of the hill.

His mother said, “It looks like an earth whale poking its head out to see what’s going on.”

Benson said, “What’s an earth whale?”

His mother said, “A whale that swims around in the earth instead of the sea.”

Benson said, “There’s no such thing.” But he imagined great big huge whales swimming slowly around in the earth under their feet, coming up to put their heads out now and then for air, then going down again. He climbed up onto the rock and searched all over it for the whale’s air hole. Then he sat at the very top and looked out over the valley, imagining what a whale would see if it was looking out.

When they got home, the dinner was exactly ready to eat and smelled wonderful. They all sat down at the table to eat it. Aunt Moss said, “Did you have a nice walk?”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Did you see anything interesting?”

Benson said, “It was pretty boring. We didn’t see anything.” Then he thought for a minute, and he said, “Except a tree trying to undo a rock, and fish footprints and an earth whale.” And he told them all about it while they were eating dinner.

Pete the Pirate

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.

Benson had a friend called Pete who wanted to be a pirate. He had a pirate shirt, with red and white stripes on it, and a pirate sword called a cutlass, which was really a stick, and he even had his own green and blue parrot that said, ‘Peet, peet.’

Whenever he came over to Benson’s place, he wanted to play pirates and dig for buried treasure, which was okay with Benson because he would rather dig than do anything else. If it rained and they couldn’t dig, they played pirates inside, and drew treasure maps and had sword fights until Benson’s mother said it was time for covert surveillance which meant they had to see who could be the quietest for the longest.

One day when Pete came over to play, he brought something special that he had made himself. “It’s a pirate flag!” he said. It was a piece of cardboard with a skull and crossbones painted on it. “But I really need a pirate ship to put the flag on,” he said.

Benson started to imagine a pirate ship with sails and decks and masts and ropes and mermaids and huge waves and cannon, and his eyes got bigger and bigger. He said, “We can’t make a pirate ship. We haven’t got any oceans, not even a small sea.”

Pete looked really sad, so Benson said, “We could build a raft on the creek.”

Pete got really excited. “Let’s get some wood!” he said.

They collected up branches and old bits of wood and carried them down to the creek. By lunchtime they had a big pile.

Benson’s mother made them pirate stew with pirate dumplings for lunch that were really just stew and dumplings but she knew that Pete wouldn’t eat them unless he thought they were real pirate food.

When they went back to the creek after lunch, their huge pile of wood was just a little pile of sticks.

“Someone’s stealing our wood!” said Pete. “Let’s hide, and when they come back, we’ll grab them and tie them up and make them walk the plank!”

Benson said they didn’t actually have a plank because someone had taken all their wood, but Pete said that didn’t matter.

They hid behind a tree and waited very, very quietly.

After a while when Benson had nearly gone to sleep, they heard someone at their woodpile. Pete sprang out from behind the tree and yelled, “Got you!”

There was a young rock wallaby picking up the wood. She dropped it with a clatter.

Pete said, “You took our wood!”

“No, I didn’t,” said the wallaby.

Pete said, “What’s that in your pouch, then?”

The wallaby hung her head. She took a piece of wood out of her pouch.

Pete said, “You stole our wood! Give it back!”

Benson noticed something odd about the wallaby’s face. She had a black eye-patch over one eye. He asked her, “What did you want the wood for?”

The wallaby said, “I needed it for my pirate ship. I didn’t know it was anyone’s wood. I thought it was just a pile.”

Pete said, “A pirate ship? Have you got a pirate ship?”

The wallaby said, “It’s not a pirate ship yet, but it will be when I’ve finished making it. It’s not really a ship exactly, it’s more of a rock that looks like a ship, but I made a plank for walking the plank, and there’s a mast and I was going to make a deck with all this wood.”

Pete said, “No way! A real pirate ship! Look what I’ve got!” He showed her his flag.

“Wow!” said the wallaby. “A pirate flag! That would be perfect for my pirate ship.”

She looked at Pete, and Pete looked at her. She said, “Do you want to help me build my pirate ship? We could build it together.”

Pete jumped up and down with excitement. “I know all about pirates. I could build a really great pirate ship,” he said.

Benson said, “He’s got his own cutlass. He’s even got his own parrot that says, ‘Peet, peet.’”

“Wow!” said the wallaby. “I like your cutlass.”

“I can make you one if you want,” said Pete. “My name’s Pete. ”

The wallaby said, “That’s a great name for a pirate: Pete the Pirate. My name’s Apara.”

“That’s a good name for a pirate too,” said Pete. “Apara the Pirate.”

Pete got his flag and his cutlass and Benson gathered up all the rest of the wood and they went off together to build the pirate ship.

Statues

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 a beautiful day to be outside and Benson’s mother invited all the other mothers over to have a cup of tea and they brought all their children to play.

Mick’s mother Delia brought pumpkin cake with wattle sprinkles, and Teresa, who was Zip and Zali’s mother, brought date and oatmeal cookies. Philip’s grandmother brought a bag of mandarins for everyone to share, and Benson’s mother made sassafras tea and carrot sticks, and watermelon smoothies for the children. They all sat on a big picnic blanket under the red gum tree.

Benson and Mick and Philip played chasings, and Mick’s little sister, Bonnie Lou, played tea parties with Zali and little Zip, who was only just big enough to be out of her mother’s pouch.

Then they played hide-and-seek, and Bonnie Lou helped Zip hide. Benson counted up to a hundred while everyone hid, and then he yelled, “Coming, ready or not!” and started looking.

Philip was the easiest to find because he had found a red-triangle slug and he was so busy watching it he forgot he was supposed to be hiding. Benson tipped him and raced back to the red gum. “Philip, you’re in!” he called.

Philip counted as high as he could, which was about forty-one, then he called “Coming, ready or not!” and started looking. Benson and Mick were hiding together behind the big lavender bush, and as soon as they saw Philip go over to the compost heap, they ran home to the big gum tree. Philip kept looking but he couldn’t find anyone. Zali was hiding behind her mother, and Bonnie Lou and Zip were hiding in the washing basket. Then Zip started to go, “huh-huh” calling for her mother, so Philip found them straight away.

Then Zip was in, but Bonnie Lou had to help her because she was too little to count. Bonnie Lou counted up to ten twice because that was as far as she could count. Then she said, “Come on, Zip, say ‘Coming ready or not!’”

Zip said, “Huh-huh,”and they started looking.

The boys were all hiding together on top of each other in a hole Benson had dug extra fast while Bonnie Lou was counting. Zali was still hiding behind her mother, sneaking cookies when no-one was looking. Bonnie Lou held little Zip’s hand and they looked for ages and didn’t find anyone. Bonnie Lou found an old bird’s nest and Zip found a stick.

After a while Benson got tired of being squashed under Philip and Mick so they all crept out and watched Bonnie Lou and Zip looking for them. Then Benson noticed something moving in the grass right where Bonnie Lou and Zip were searching.

“Snake!” he shouted at the top of his voice. There was a brown snake wriggling in the grass right beside Zip.

The mothers all jumped up. Bonnie Lou’s mother, Delia, shouted,“Don’t move!” but Zip was too little to understand. She kept poking the ground with her stick, right beside the snake. Bonnie Lou tried to pull her away but Zip saw the snake and wanted to poke it with her stick. The snake hissed and slithered closer.

Benson’s mother clapped her hands and shouted, “Now we’re going to play Statues! Everybody freeze!”

Benson and the boys stood as still as they possibly could. Bonnie Lou said, “We have to be statues, Zip! Like this!” She stood as still as a statue and didn’t move a muscle. Little Zip saw what Bonnie Lou was doing, and she thought this was a good game, so she stood still too.

The snake, who was in a very bad mood and didn’t like having a stick poked at him, hissed fiercely. Bonnie Lou held her breath and stayed absolutely still, holding Zip’s hand. The snake waited in the grass, and then he decided that no-one wanted to hurt him after all, and he slid away into the bush.

As soon as the snake was gone, Benson’s mother yelled, “Go!” and all the children ran back to the gum tree.

The mothers hugged all the children and asked them if they were all right about a hundred times, and hugged Bonnie Lou and told her that she was wonderful, and hugged little Zip until she got tired and snuggled back into her mother’s pouch and went to sleep. Benson’s mother made some more tea and they ate the rest of the cake and all the cookies that Zali hadn’t eaten, and after that the children played Snakes and Statues for the rest of the afternoon.

Tea-Towels

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.

Aunt Lillibet’s friend Shelley was teaching her how to weave. The first thing Aunt Lillibet made that didn’t fall apart was a tea-towel. She was very proud of it.

“It’s very good for your first try,” said Benson’s mother.

“It’s not really my first try,” said Aunt Lillibet. “It’s my seventh try. The first six things turned out to be just strings with gaps between them. But I’m quite proud of this one. I’m going to give it to Nanna. You know how she loves tea-towels.”

They all went to visit Nanna. When Aunt Lillibet gave her the tea-towel, she said, “Lillibet, it’s beautiful! You’ve done such a good job!”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Aunt Lillibet. “Now make sure you use it. Don’t just put it away in a cupboard.”

“Of course I’ll use it!” said Nanna, “but it may take me a while.” Nanna opened up the bottom drawer in her kitchen to put the tea-towel in. It was stuffed so full of tea-towels that she couldn’t fit Aunt Lillibet’s tea-towel in.

“Nanna!” said Benson. “You’ve got so many tea-towels! How many do you have?”

Nanna said, “Well, there are quite a lot in this drawer.” She opened up another drawer, so full of tea-towels that they leapt out of the drawer as soon as she opened it. “And even more in here,” she said. Then she opened a cupboard next to the sink. More and more tea-towels spilled out. “Most of them are in here. I don’t know how many there are. When I try to count them, I lose count.”

“Nanna!” said Benson’s mother. “That’s far too many tea-towels! Why don’t you use them?”

“I do use them!” Nanna said. “I dry the dishes after breakfast and after lunch and after dinner every day, and sometimes I do an extra washing-up even when everything’s clean, just so I can use my tea-towels! But it takes a very long time to wear out a tea-towel.”

Benson was lifting out some of the tea-towels in the cupboard. “Some of these are really old,” he said. “Here’s one with the Queen on it.”

“My sister gave that to me a long time ago,” Nanna said. “I only use that to dry the dishes on special occasions like the Queen’s birthday.”

“I remember giving you this one,” Benson’s mother said, holding up a tea-towel covered with wild-flowers.

“I love that one so much I use it every Friday. Friday is my favourite day of the week,” Nanna said.

“This one’s really cool,” Benson said. He held up a tea-towel that had pictures of thorny devils and desert frogs and lizards on it.

“That’s the one your Uncle Lionel gave me after his trip to the desert,” Nanna said. “I use it whenever he comes over for afternoon tea. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Benson pulled out more and more tea-towels. There were tea-towels with calendars on them, tea-towels with Christmas songs on them, tea-towels with teddy-bears, tea-towels with birds, tea-towels with smiling wombats, tea-towels with baby wombats, tea-towels with wombats in hats, tea-towels with wombats dressed as teddy-bears, so many tea-towels that Benson started to feel dizzy.

“Why do you have so many tea-towels, Nanna?” he said.

“People give them to me,” she said. “Whenever someone goes away on a trip they bring me a tea-towel, or for my birthday, or Mother’s Day, or Christmas. They say to themselves, ‘Nanna loves tea-towels, let’s get her a tea-towel,’ and I do love them. I love washing them and ironing them nice and straight, and I like the way they make nice stacks in the drawers and in the cupboard, and most of all I love drying the dishes with a tea-towel that someone I love has given me. It’s just that there are quite a lot of them now. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to use them all.”

Benson nodded and said, “Because you’re very old now.”

“Benson!” said Aunt Lillibet. “That’s very rude!”

“I only mean that even if Nanna washed up six times a day for the rest of her life she wouldn’t be able to wear out all these tea-towels,” Benson said.

“Yes, you’re right,” Nanna said. “It makes me sad to think of all these beautiful gifts lying in drawers and cupboards and not getting used.”

Aunt Moss had been thinking. “Nanna, don’t you think your curtains are looking a bit old and worn out?” she said.

“Yes, Moss, a bit like me,” Nanna said.

“No, I mean, why not make some new curtains out of tea-towels?” Aunt Moss said. “Lillibet can sew them together for you. Then whenever you close your curtains, you could see all your beautiful tea-towels spread out.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Nanna said.

They all set to work with Nanna’s old sewing machine and made beautiful new curtains. There were still plenty of tea-towels left so they made curtains for Benson’s room and Aunt Moss’s room too. Benson’s had tea-towels with wild animals on them, and whales and swordfish. Aunt Moss’s had ducks and lizards and turtles.

“There are still so many tea-towels left,” said Benson’s mother. “What about making table-cloths?”

They set to work again and made table-cloths for Uncle Lionel and Uncle Elton, and for Zali’s mum Teresa, and one for Benson’s mother with wombats dressed as Santas on them.

When they were finished, they had scones and carrot cake and crumpets and lavender shortbread, and there was so much washing-up to do, everyone had to help, and they used every last tea-towel in the drawer.

Benson’s mother said, “I never thought I’d say this, but I think you’ve run out of tea-towels, Nanna.”

“Oh no, there’s no fear of that,” Nanna said. She went to the big linen cupboard in the hall and opened it. Inside there were stacks and stacks of neatly-ironed tea-towels.

Wild Dogs

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.

One day Benson and his mother went to visit his Nanna and take her some pumpkin muffins that Benson had made. They had a great time, playing hide and seek and telling stories and eating the muffins, then Benson’s mother said it was getting late so they ‘d better go home.

They walked home along the side of creek so Benson could practise skipping stones. He wasn’t very good at it yet, so it was more like throwing stones into the water.

Suddenly they heard a terrifying sound. Two great big dogs came bounding out of the bush, barking and snarling.

Benson’s mother shouted, “Run, Benson!” but Benson was so frightened he couldn’t move. The dogs leapt towards him, yapping and yowling, with their huge sharp teeth dripping, but Benson’s legs wouldn’t move. He froze into a little, frightened wombat bundle.

His mother threw herself on top of him, gathering him up underneath her. For the first time in a long, long time Benson wished he could crawl back into his mother’s pouch.

The dogs attacked, snarling and biting and scratching. Benson’s mother hissed and growled at them, scratching back at them with her big strong claws, until finally they ran away yelping.

Even after they were gone, Benson’s mother didn’t move. Benson wriggled and crawled out from underneath her little by little, peeping out to make sure the dogs had really gone. His mother was lying still, with her eyes closed. He could see she was bleeding a lot, all down her back and on her nose. He was terrified before, but now he was so frightened, he couldn’t breathe.

Then he heard her say, “Benson?” in a small voice, so quiet he could hardly hear her.

The breath all rushed back into him and he said, “Are you okay?”

She said, “Benson, go home. Now. Run.”

He didn’t want to leave her, and he didn’t want to go in case the dogs were out there. He made a small whimpering noise even though he didn’t mean to.

His mother said, “It will be all right. Run home as fast as you can. Ask Mr Fenn to come.”

Mr Fenn was the biggest, strongest wombat Benson knew. He lived by himself, along the road from Benson’s house.

Benson ran and ran without stopping. When he got to Mr Fenn’s house, he banged on the door.

Mr Fenn opened the door, and Benson said, in between crying and trying to wipe his nose on his arm, “There were dogs, big dogs, and they bit her. She’s bleeding.”

Mr Fenn said, “It’s all right, Benson, you’re all right now. Where did it happen?”

Benson said, “Down by the creek, near the old banksia.” Then he said a very brave thing. “I can show you if you want.”

Mr Fenn said, “I know the place. You go home now and tell your aunties.” He gave Benson a little push towards home, and he set off running.

Benson walked home. He was too tired to run any more. Aunt Lillibet said, “What’s happened? There’s blood all over you.”

Aunt Moss said, “Where’s your mother?”

He told them what had happened. “I told Mr Fenn and he went.”

Aunt Moss and Aunt Lillibet looked at each other. “I’ll go,” Lillibet said.

“Take a blanket, and the ti-tree oil,” said Aunt Moss. “I’ll get some hot water ready, and make some camomile tea, and some willow-bark infusion, in case.”

Benson said, “I can come with you, and show you.”

Aunt Moss said very firmly, “No, Benson, you’re going straight to bed.”

Aunt Lillibet got a blanket and some other things and hurried off. Aunt Moss put Benson in the bath and then she made him some warm milk and tucked him into bed.

He lay awake for a long time, listening and listening, and finally he heard voices in the kitchen.

Mr Fenn was saying, “She’s lost a lot of blood and her front leg is in a bad way, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “Just carry her into her room, and I’ll bring the ti-tree oil and the aloe ointment and some bandages for her leg.”

Then Benson heard his mother’s voice and he felt as if his heart was suddenly so light it could have floated away like a balloon.

“Don’t fuss, Lillibet,” she said. Then she said, “Is Benson all right?”

“He’s fine,” said Aunt Moss. “He’s asleep.”

There was a lot more talking and fussing but Benson slid off to sleep and didn’t hear any more.

In the middle of the night he woke up, dreaming of dogs and big teeth. He crept into his mother’s room and crawled into bed beside her. He could feel a scratchy bandage around her leg, and sticky ointment all down her back, but she was warm and cosy. He snuggled up against her and went straight back to sleep.

The Black Stinker

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.

One morning while Benson was making himself a banana sandwich, his mother came into the kitchen and wrinkled up her nose. “What’s that smell?” she said. “Kind of damp and swampy.”

Aunt Lillibet came into the kitchen and sniffed. “What’s that smell?” she said. “Something dank and nasty.”

Benson’s mother said, “Benson, would you go down to the back door and see if you can find anything down there?”

The wombat hole where Benson lived had lots of extra tunnels and rooms that they never used, like most wombat holes. Some of them were too small, and some of them were overgrown with tree roots and some of them didn’t lead anywhere. At the end of all the tunnels and passages was a back door that they hardly ever used because it came out in a paddock where sometimes there was a horse grazing, and no-one wants to be accidentally stepped on by a horse when they’re going out their own back door.

Benson wandered along the main tunnel and turned into a smaller one, past the old kitchen they stopped using when his mother set fire to the turnip roast one day. A bit further on was the trophy room with all Aunt Lillibet’s old croquet trophies and the trophy Aunt Moss had won for yodelling. A bit past that was the Quiet room where Benson’s mother sometimes went when Aunt Lillibet’s belly-dancing friends came over and turned the music up very loud. Finally he got to the back door.

There was a strange animal there. It smelled like mouldy cabbage.

“Hello,” said Benson. “Are you a wallaby?”

“Swamp wallaby,” said the wallaby. “Wallabia bicolor. You are a common wombat. Vombatus ursinus.”

Benson said, “I’m not common. There’s only one of me.”

The wallaby sniffed. “The common or bare-nosed wombat is a solitary creature.”

“Solitary? What does that mean?” asked Benson.

“It lives alone,” said the wallaby.

“I live with my mother, and Aunt Lillibet and Aunt Moss,” said Benson.

The wallaby sniffed. “The common wombat may sometimes live in a group known as a mob or wisdom. However most wombats are solitary.”

Benson was starting to get ruffled. “What are you doing here?” he said.

The wallaby said, “I have moved in. This is my new home, my place of residence, my abode.”

“I think you’ve come to the wrong place by mistake,” said Benson. “This is our place.”

“I have decided to live here,” said the wallaby. “It is dry and quite cool. I would like you to leave now.”

“Leave?” said Benson. “Why should I leave? This is our place, not yours.”

The wallaby brushed his face with his hands and sniffed. “Wombats are known for their low intelligence. I have decided that this is my new home. Therefore you must leave.” He pushed Benson out the back door with his strong back legs, and slammed it shut.

“Hey!” Benson shouted, banging on the door.

“I do not wish to have any visitors,” the wallaby said through the door. “Go away.”

Benson scampered all the way around to the front door and tumbled into the kitchen where his mother and Aunt Lillibet were. “There’s a wallaby,” he panted. “He came in the back door.”

Just then the wallaby came hopping down the hallway. “Ah,” he said. “More wombats. A mob or wisdom.”

Aunt Lillibet pointed at the wallaby and said, “You’re a stinker!”

The wallaby said, “I prefer to be called a swamp wallaby. Wallabia bicolor.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “You’re a black stinker, that’s what you are. What are you doing here?”

The wallaby sniffed. “I have decided to take up residence here. It is not very roomy and it needs more windows but it is adequate. It will do for now.”

Benson’s mother said, “You may visit and stay for a while if you need to, but please remember that this is our home.”

The wallaby sniffed and pushed past her. He sat down and put his big feet up on the table. Then he took an orange out of the fruit bowl and started eating it. “This food is not very good,” he said. He dropped the orange n the floor.

He went to the fridge and got out a lettuce and started munching. He said, “This is better, but there is only enough for me. You will have to leave now.”

Aunt Lillibet said firmly, “We are not leaving. This is our home. We dug these tunnels, we and the wombats who came before us. We have always lived here, and we will go on living here as long as we want to. We’re not going anywhere.”

Benson’s mother sat down and folded her arms. Benson sat next to her and folded his little arms too. Aunt Lillibet sat down next to them and folded her arms.

The wallaby sniffed. He scratched his face with his hands. He looked up at the ceiling and whistled.

Benson’s mother said, “If you’re staying, maybe you’d like to have lunch with us? We’re having vegemite and mushroom sandwiches and boiled lentils, and rhubarb pie, although the pie may be a little bit burnt.”

Aunt Lillibet said, “And after lunch, my belly-dancing friends are coming over, and we like our music very loud! Benson may even play his saxophone for us.”

Benson said, “I can play it for you now, if you like.”

The wallaby hopped quickly towards the door. “I find this place is not suitable after all. I will now depart.” He hopped out the front door.

Benson watched him hop away into the bush. Then he said to his mother, “Is the rhubarb pie really burnt?”

His mother smiled. “No, I think it’s just about perfect,” she said.

Uncle Elton’s Music Holder

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 day Benson’s Uncle Elton came over for afternoon tea. Uncle Elton really enjoyed making things. He made all sorts of things out of wood and things he found, but he wasn’t very good at it. Mostly the things he made fell down or fell to pieces or wobbled or bits fell off them.

This time he said, “Benson, I’ve made you something.”

Benson looked at the thing Uncle Elton had made for him. It had a long skinny kind of stick in the middle and three different legs, one made of wood and one made from an old saucepan handle and one from a carrot. At the top there was a big flat piece of bark he had sticky-taped onto it.

Benson said, “What is it?”

“It’s a music holder,” said Uncle Elton happily. “When you play the saxophone, you can put the music on here and it holds the music up.”

“Oh,” said Benson, then he remembered his manners. “Thank you, Uncle Elton.”

Benson’s mother said, “You must have put a lot of work into it, Elton. That was very kind of you.”

Uncle Elton beamed. “Do you want to try it out?” he asked.

Benson got a music book from his room. He put it carefully and gently on the music holder. The music holder wobbled a bit, then the legs fell off and it fell down and broke to pieces.

“Oh,” said Benson.

Uncle Elton looked very disappointed. “I mustn’t have used enough sticky-tape,” he said. He looked sadly at the pieces on the ground.

Just then Aunt Lillibet came in from the garden. “What’s this?” she said. Before Benson could explain, she picked up the long skinny stick part from the middle of the music holder. “A dibber!” she said. “It’s perfect! I’ve wanted a dibber for ages! Thank you, Elton.” She took the stick out into the garden.

Uncle Elton beamed. “I made a dibber!” he said. Then he said, “What’s a dibber?”

“I think it’s a kind of pointed stick you use to make nice round holes in the dirt when you’re planting seeds,” said Benson’s mother. “Well done, Elton!”

Just then Aunt Moss came in. “Hello, Elton,” she said. “What’s all this?”

Benson said, “Uncle Elton made me this, but it’s….”

“It’s perfect!” said Aunt Moss. “A nostepinne! I’ve always wanted one of these!” She picked up the wooden leg that had broken off.

Uncle Elton beamed even more widely. “I made a nostepinne!” Then he said, “What’s a nostepinne?”

Aunt Moss said, “You hold it like this, and you wind wool around it and it makes the wool into a nice tidy ball. I would love to have this.”

Uncle Elton said, “It’s for you, Moss.”

“Thank you, Elton,” Aunt Moss said. She carried it away to her room.

Uncle Elton said, “I suppose I should tidy up the rest of this rubbish.”

Benson’s mother said, “Actually, that nice flat piece of bark would make a good fruit bowl, if you’ve finished with it.”

“Of course,” said Uncle Elton happily.

Benson’s mother put the piece of bark in the middle of the table and piled oranges onto it. “It’s perfect. Thank you, Elton.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. He was very happy. “I think I’ll go home and make some more dibbers and nostepinnes and fruit bowls.” He gathered up the other bits that were lying on the ground.

Benson said, “If you’re not going to use that carrot for anything, could I have it?”

“Of course you can,” Uncle Elton said. He gave the carrot to Benson.

Benson took a big bite. “Perfect,” he said.

The Fence

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.

Near where Benson lived there was a creek, and on the other side of the creek, at the top of the hill, there was a fence. Sometimes when Benson went down to the creek, he noticed the fence and wondered what was on the other side of it. One day when he had nothing to do, he climbed all the way up to the top of the hill to have a look.

It was a very tall fence, made of wood palings that overlapped each other so you couldn’t see between them, but a little way up there was a gap where the wood had warped a bit. Benson thought that if he could climb up a bit higher, he could probably see through the gap.

He dragged an old log over, and leaned another log on top of it, and carefully climbed up. He peeped through the hole. There was a brown eye peeping back. Benson was so surprised he fell off his log.

“Hi!” a voice called. “Are you still there?”

Benson carefully got back onto his log and looked through the hole. There was another wombat on the other side of the fence.

“Hi,” said the other wombat. “My name’s Sally. I’m a wombat. My mother used to call me Selaleuca Salamanca, and my brother calls me Stupid, and Nona calls me Sally Sweetheart. What’s your name?”

“It’s Benson,” Benson said.

Sally said, “My mother died in the bushfires ages ago and me and my brother live here with Nona. This is a kind of animal sanctuary, for animals that need taking care of. All sorts of animals come here, like koalas and wombats and heaps of baby possums, but they all get released into the wild again. Me and my brother aren’t going to be released into the wild because we’ve been here so long, we couldn’t take care of ourselves and it would be too dangerous for us, Nona says. Are you a wild animal?”

Benson thought about it. He didn’t really have to think of an answer, because Sally kept on talking. “Why are you on the other side of the fence? Are you lost?”

“No,”said Benson, “I live here.” Then he said quickly before she could start talking again, “Is that a ribbon on your head?”

“Yes, this is my favourite pink ribbon,” Sally said. “I wear it every day except if it gets dirty then I have to wear my blue ribbon until Nona washes it. Do you want to see me do a handstand?”

She climbed down out of the tree she was standing in and did the best handstand Benson had ever seen a wombat do. She put her hands on the ground and lifted her bottom way up in the air. Then she climbed back up the tree and started talking again. “I can do handstands and cartwheels and forward rolls. I’m learning to do a double forward roll. Can you do a forward roll?” she asked.

Benson said, “I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” He knew he certainly couldn’t do a handstand. While Sally was talking, she was pulling apples off the tree, taking a bite and dropping the rest on the ground. While her mouth was full, Benson said, “Aren’t you going to eat that?”

Sally said, “No, I’m not really hungry. Nona’s going to bring me lunch in a minute anyway. Who brings you your lunch? I have a beautiful bowl with roses on it. Do you have a nice cage? I have a beautiful cage, with a box I can curl up in when I want a nap, and a pink blanket with flowers on it.”

Benson said, “I don’t have a cage. I live in a wombat hole with my mother and my two aunties.”

Sally said, “A hole? Like, made of dirt? Yuck! Why don’t you have a nice clean cage? Nona cleans my cage out every Saturday.”

Benson said sturdily, “It’s a really nice wombat hole. We dug it ourselves.”

Sally was shocked. “You dug it? Like with your hands in the dirt? How disgusting!”

Benson said, “But that’s what wombats do! We dig. Don’t you dig?”

Sally said, “No way. I might get my ribbon dirty.” She looked hard at Benson. “Are you sure you’re a real wombat?” she said. “You’re kind of skinny, and your nose isn’t hairy at all. Maybe you’re a nasty wild fox trying to trick me.”

Benson said, “Of course I’m a wombat. My mother’s a wombat, my aunties are wombats, and my Nanna, and my uncle Lionel and all my cousins. Are you sure you’re a real wombat?”

“Of course I am,” said Sally. “I’ve got a wombat song.”

She jumped out of the tree and stood beside it with her hands together and started to sing.

“I’m a little wombat, short and stout.

Here are my paws and here is my snout.

When it’s time for dinner, then I shout:

Chocolate cake! Don’t mess about!”

She stopped singing and asked Benson, “See? Do you have a wombat song?”

The only wombat song Benson could think of was about digging, and he didn’t think Sally would understand. “I’ve got heaps of wombat stories,” he said. He told her a story about Aunt Moss and beetroot and custard.

When he finished, Sally said, “Huh, that’s a silly story. Who ever heard of a wombat making custard? Custard comes in a box and Nona pours it into my bowl for me to eat. If you were a real wombat you’d know that! Go away, you sneaky wild fox!”

Benson said, “I’m not a fox. I don’t look anything like a fox. Foxes are smaller, and they have long tails.” He was thinking it was no wonder her brother called her stupid.

Sally put her fingers in her ears, and sang, “I’m not listening, I’m not listening!”

Then Benson heard a voice calling, “Sally, sweetheart, time for lunch!”

Sally got down and ran off.

Benson got down, too, and went back to the creek. Then just to remind himself how good it was to be a wild wombat, he dug a great big hole.

Baking Clay

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 went over to his friend Mick’s place to play. Mick’s little sister, Bonnie Lou, wanted to play too, but Mick said she was too little. “Go and play with your stupid doll,” he said.

Bonnie Lou said, “She’s not stupid! She’s the most beautiful doll in the world.” Benson thought Bonnie Lou’s doll was pretty stupid too. It had blonde wavy hair and long plastic legs and a plastic head with a plastic smile.

Bonnie Lou said to her doll, “Come on, Valda, we don’t want to play with the stupid boys anyway.”

Mick thought it would be funny to tease Bonnie Lou. He grabbed the doll out of her hands and tossed it up into the air. “Whee!” he said. “Valda can fly!”

He threw the doll to Benson and Benson threw it back.

Bonnie Lou screamed, “Give her back!”

Mick held the doll up out of Bonnie Lou’s reach, then he threw her across to Benson. Benson went to catch it, but he missed. He made a grab and there was a loud crack. Valda’s head snapped off in Benson’s hand.

Bonnie Lou screamed and started to cry. Mick tried to jam the doll’s head back on again, but it was broken right off.

Benson felt terrible. Mick felt even worse. Bonnie Lou was screaming and crying, holding her doll with its head snapped off.

Mick’s mother came in. “Oh dear!” she said.

“It was an accident!” Mick said.

Bonnie Lou cried and cried. Valda was her favourite doll. Benson went home feeling very bad.

He told his mother what had happened.

“Poor Bonnie Lou!” she said. “She really loved that doll. I remember when you were just a little wombat and you had a toy reindeer called Ralph that you loved. You used to take it everywhere. You wouldn’t go to bed without it.”

Benson crept away down to the creek. He tried not to think about poor Bonnie Lou and her best friend with its head snapped off.

He sat down on the bank and thought. While he was thinking, his hands dug lumps of clay out of the side of the bank, and squished them into different shapes. Little by little the clay started to turn into a shape. It had four stumpy legs, a stumpy head, two little ears and a round soft nose.

He looked at what his hands had made. It was a little clay wombat.

It fitted just nicely into his hand. He carried it home and showed his mother.

“Oh, Benson, it’s beautiful! It’s so… wombatty,” she said. She held it in her hand and smiled. “You know, Aunt Moss’s friend Marigold could bake this for you in her kiln.”

Benson said, “Why would you want to bake a piece of clay? We’re not going to eat it.”

His mother said, “No, but the clay is a little bit like bread dough. If you don’t bake it, it dries out and gets all crumbly and breaks easily. If you put it in a kiln – that’s like an oven for clay – then it gets very strong and hard to break.”

They took the little clay wombat to Marigold’s place and she put it in her kiln. When it came out, it wasn’t soft and squishy any more. It was as hard and smooth as a stone.

“It’s beautiful,” said Marigold. “Would you make one for me?”

“And me too,” said Benson’s mother.

“If you like,” Benson said. He knew exactly what he was going to do with his little wombat. He went over to Mick’s house and gave it to Bonnie Lou.

“I’m sorry I broke your doll,” he said. “I made this for you.”

Benson wasn’t sure if she would like it. It didn’t have wavy blonde hair, or long plastic legs or a plastic smile. It was just a stumpy brown wombat with a soft round nose and two little ears.

Bonnie Lou held it in her hand. It fitted exactly.

Her mother said, “You should say thank you to Benson, Bonnie Lou. He made it himself out of clay from the creek. You can even see his thumbprint on its tummy, see?”

Bonnie Lou looked at the little wombat and smiled, and the smile spread over her whole body. “Thank you, Benson,” she said. She held the wombat tightly in her hand and said, “I’m going to call him ‘Benson’, after you.”