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Authors: Elizabeth Beresford

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BOOK: The Wombles
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The following morning Bungo got up with a very light heart indeed and straight after breakfast he went round to see Alderney in the kitchen, and even helped her with the washing-up, which made Madame Cholet rather thoughtful.

‘Can I go out now?’ said Alderney, with such an innocent look.

‘But it has snowed again, my little one,’ said Madame Cholet, who didn’t care for the cold weather herself.

‘That’s why,’ said Alderney. ‘Bungo and me want to have a snowball fight.’

‘Very well,’ said Madame Cholet, and shrugged and returned to her cooking. So Bungo and Alderney, giggling and whispering, went off to get some boots and scarves and were soon clattering down the passages to the main door where Orinoco was sitting in for Tomsk.

‘Off sick,’ said Orinoco, who was peeling an orange, ‘crashed or something yesterday while he was skiing. Nothing serious.’

Bungo and Alderney went out into the sunshine, which seemed twice as bright because of the glitter of the blinding white snow, and left a small double trail of pawmarks behind them. The sun was so clear it had melted some of the icicles which hung from the trees and every now and again they would slide downwards or start dripping on the bare branches. But Bungo and Alderney were too wrapped up in their own affairs to notice, and they went sliding and slithering across the snow until they reached the top of the steepest slope.

‘There it is,’ said Bungo, pointing.

‘Isn’t it splendid,’ said Alderney, her head on one side. ‘It must be the best snow Womble in the whole world.’

And it did look very lifelike as it stood at the bottom of the hill, with its white arms spread wide and its two pairs of spectacles and its tartan shawl. There was even a copy of
The Times
propped up beside it.

‘I think the ears have melted a bit,’ said Bungo, studying his masterpiece.

‘And the nose has squashed in,’ said Alderney.

‘Let’s go and build it up again,’ said Bungo, and he set off sliding and slithering down the slope, with Alderney right behind him.

‘Oh, it is good,’ said Bungo, stopping just short of the snow Womble. ‘
I
don’t see what’s wrong with making it. If you ask me the older Wombles are a lot too careful.’

And Bungo scooped up a pawful of soft white snow and was about to add it to his snow Womble when quite suddenly out of the middle of nowhere he got the most awful box on the ears.

‘Who did that?’ cried Bungo, spinning round on his heels.

‘I did,’ said a dreadful voice. ‘So my ears are melting, are they? So my nose is squashed in, is it? So I’m too careful, am I? Take that, young Womble, and that and that and
THAT
!’

And a perfect hail of snowballs shot past the ears of both Bungo and Alderney. For one moment they stood motionless, looking with horrified and staring eyes at their Womble snow figure which had so awfully come to life, and then with one accord they took to their paws and ran. They ran as they had never run before in their lives and they didn’t pause for breath until they were safe and sound inside the burrow again.

‘Dear, dear,’ said Madame Cholet, when Alderney poured out the story to her.


Tsk
,
tsk
,
tsk
,’ said Tobermory, when Bungo stuttered out his tale of the snow Womble which had come to life.

‘Ho-hum,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. ‘Well, well, well. Perhaps this will teach you both to listen to your elders and betters who are a great deal wiser than you are!’ And he wriggled his paws in their fur-lined boots.

Standing about on a snow-covered Common at eight in the morning can be very hard on the paws of an old white Womble . . .

g

Chapter 9

g

Orinoco and the Chocolate Cake

 

Rather to Great Uncle Bulgaria’s surprise it went on snowing day after day, and the fine white flakes drifting down out of a lead-coloured sky turned the Common into an enchanted land of grand beauty. The leaves of the evergreens looked as if they had been frosted with diamond dust. The tiny waterfalls that usually found their trickling way down to the Queen’s Mere were frozen in their tracks and hung suspended in a thousand glass icicles which glittered when the sun sometimes found its way through the grey clouds. Every bare branch was covered in a thick white coat, and when the snow grew too heavy for the trees to carry, there would be a crackling sound and a small avalanche would slither softly to the ground.

The great white blanket covered everything and made it look quite different and feel quite different and sound quite different. The Common grew so quiet the Wombles could hear the ducks skidding and squawking as they tried to land on the Mere, which was now one great snow-speckled mirror, frozen so deep that the fish were trapped in blocks of ice. Every whisper, every snapping of a twig carried through the cold still air.

All the younger Wombles (except for Tomsk who had gone right off skiing) were absolutely delighted with the snow. They had snowball fights and built snow huts, and Tobermory, who had time on his paws at the moment because of the weather, made them some toboggans, and they went careering down the slopes squealing and laughing and quite often falling off and rolling over and over until they looked like fat white snowballs themselves. Tomsk, however, was not very happy. He missed playing golf dreadfully and tobogganing seemed dull after skiing. But on the other hand nothing would ever induce him to ski again. So one way and another Tomsk was rather out of sorts.

‘It gets boring doing exercises all the time,’ he complained in his slow way to Tobermory. Tobermory scratched his ear with his screwdriver and then went off to the Womble library and searched through the books until he found one called
Tarzan of the Apes
. He handed that over to Tomsk and told him very firmly to read it.

‘And no skipping, mind,’ said Tobermory, and returned to his toboggan-making.

Tomsk wasn’t very good at reading, but he was just a little in awe of Tobermory, so he did what he was told, saying each word aloud to himself under his breath as he went along, and as it was a very good story, he quite enjoyed it in spite of the effort involved.

‘Well?’ said Tobermory, when Tomsk returned the book.

‘It’s all about this Human Being who thinks he’s a monkey,’ said Tomsk. ‘He has lots of adventures and he swings through the trees by his paws. He’s terribly good at it. I wish
I
could do it.’

‘Why don’t you try, then?’ said Tobermory patiently. Tomsk thought it over for several minutes and then nodded and went off leaving Tobermory chuckling to himself. Tomsk was a very good tree climber – he always won when they played Wombles and Ladders – but he wasn’t much good at pretending to be a monkey. However, it was wonderful exercise and although he fell down more times than he swung from branch to branch he didn’t hurt himself, because he always landed in a soft bed of snow; and his temper improved no end.

Orinoco enjoyed the snow for quite a different reason. It meant that there was very little work to be done, so he carefully built himself a kind of snow sofa with curves and bumps in just the right places to fit his figure. Then he lined it with dried bracken from one of the store cupboards, borrowed a pair of sunglasses from Tobermory’s collection – and a very wide selection there was from which to choose, as Human Beings are better at losing sunglasses than practically anything else except perhaps gloves – and settled himself down for a really long rest with his favourite book from the library. It was called:

g

FORTUNE & BASON

SPLENDID CHRISTMAS CATALOGUE, 1932

g

And Bungo and Alderney, of course, were having the time of their lives, although neither of them ever mentioned the idea of building another snow Womble. So all the young ones were extremely happy and contented with this wonderful weather. But with the older Wombles it was quite a different story.

‘How much is left in the larders?’ asked Great Uncle Bulgaria, when Madame Cholet brought him his mid-morning hot drink. Alderney was out building an igloo, so Madame Cholet was on trolley duty.

‘Alas,’ said Madame Cholet, ‘we are getting low on food.’

‘How low?’ asked Great Uncle Bulgaria, giving her a sharp look. ‘I want the truth now, my good Womble.’

Madame Cholet twisted her apron between her paws and said in a low voice, ‘There is enough to last for another ten days. That is all.’

Great Uncle Bulgaria grunted and went over to the barometer which Tobermory had hung on the wall during the Great Rains. He tapped the glass, but the needle stayed firmly at ‘Snow’.


Tsk
,
tsk
,
tsk
,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria, and pushed aside the plans for the great Midsummer outing on which he had been working. The party seemed a long way off at the moment, and his instinct told him that a danger even worse than the floods lay ahead.

A really long hard winter makes life a difficult business for all wild creatures, and the Wombles were no exception, although they were more efficient than most at surviving because they are by nature so thrifty. While the squirrels only stored nuts, the Wombles packed away everything they possibly could. All through the spring, summer and autumn months Madame Cholet was bottling, drying and stacking everything on which she could lay her paws. Nothing was wasted in her kitchen, not a blade of grass or a single berry, not a mushroom stalk or half a bar of chocolate.

Many of the Human Beings who picnicked on the Common would have been astonished to know that what they left behind so untidily was carefully taken back to Madame Cholet, cleaned by washing or boiling, and turned into some delicious dish. Orinoco had been known to track a likely looking picnic party from one side of the Common to the other and no Womble would ever forget the time when he had returned in triumph with a whole bag of perfectly good bananas. Rolled and coated in grass-seed dough they had been baked very slowly and served with thick, creamy rowan berry sauce. It had been one of Madame Cholet’s greatest triumphs.

All this went through Great Uncle Bulgaria’s mind now, and it made his mouth water. He pushed the memory to one side and said, ‘I’d better come and have a look.’

‘Very well,’ said Madame Cholet rather crossly, for like all good cooks she didn’t care for anybody inspecting her kitchens and larders.

Great Uncle Bulgaria’s heart sank as they moved through the storerooms. There were all too few full jars, sacks and packets left.

‘There’s only one thing for it,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to start rationing food. We did it in the bad winter of ’46 to ’47 and we’ll have to do it again. Please fetch Tobermory and we’ll work out a scheme together.’

And so the three Wombles sat down at the scrubbed wooden table made from orange boxes, and with papers and pencils and much ‘ho-humming’ from Great Uncle Bulgaria and sniffs from Madame Cholet they drew up a list of food and a list of Wombles and divided one with the other.

‘Perhaps the younger ones should have a little more,’ suggested Madame Cholet, who in that family of kindly creatures probably had the warmest heart of all.

That meant a lot more adding and dividing and subtracting and even so it was plain that there would be only enough food to last three weeks and Great Uncle Bulgaria, who could remember one winter when the snow and frost had stayed on the ground for two months, shook his white head, but kept his thoughts to himself.

‘If only there was some better way of keeping food,’ said Tobermory, sharpening their pencils with the small knife attached to his screwdriver – it was his own invention and a very useful one.

‘I’m sure I do my best,’ said Madame Cholet, sitting up very straight.

‘Yes, yes, of course,’ said Tobermory hastily, ‘only there are times such as September when we have a glut of blackberries and mushrooms . . .’

‘. . . and toadstools,’ put in Great Uncle Bulgaria, who had a weakness for this delicacy, which is poisonous to Human Beings but much enjoyed by Wombles, some of whom are convinced that it prevents falling fur.

‘Yes,’ agreed Madame Cholet reluctantly, ‘but I bottle all I can, and mushrooms and toadstools just
will
not keep. They go wormy.’

‘Exactly what I mean,’ said Tobermory. ‘Just think how splendid it would be if we had some
now
.’

All three Wombles licked their lips and sighed and then pulled themselves together.


If wishes were wings then Wombles would fly
,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria, quoting an old proverb. ‘Rationing must start immediately, Madame Cholet. I shall make an announcement in the Common Room
before
lunch.’

The news was greeted by the Wombles in shocked silence, and several of the younger ones wished that they had stopped to eat a larger breakfast instead of rushing off to play in the snow. When they saw their plates their faces fell more than ever, and a kind of gloomy shiver ran through their fur.

‘This is simply
dreadful
,’ whispered Orinoco, who had worked up a nice appetite from lying in the pale sunlight.

‘I don’t understand it,’ said Alderney, thinking sadly of her little trolley which Madame Cholet had told her would not be used until after the thaw. She did so enjoy pushing it along the corridors and ringing the bell.

‘It’s quite simple,’ said Bungo, who had been listening to the older Wombles and who was getting a little more grown-up every day. ‘There are two reasons really. First, Human Beings don’t come on to the Common at all when the weather’s like this, except if they are exercising their dogs and then, of course, they don’t bring any food with them. And second, we can’t get at anything that’s growing – not that there is much in the winter – because of the snow.’

‘Then how do the birds manage?’ asked Alderney.

‘Quite often they don’t,’ said Tobermory, who had overheard this question and who felt that the three young Wombles were now old enough to learn some of the harsher facts of existence. ‘They die.’

At this a really dreadful gloom settled on the table and Alderney began to sniff, so to cheer her up Bungo suggested a game of Wombles and Ladders. Alderney soon perked up a bit, but Orinoco became steadily more and more upset. He knew he was greedy, he was perfectly aware that he thought too much about food, and ever since he had got stuck in the rabbit hole he had tried to be better. But now, faced with a real shortage, his whole tubby little body longed and yearned and ached for food. He made matters worse for himself by imagining all his favourite menus, from bracken and berry pie to chocolate and orange-skin cake. Every night he had wonderful dreams in which by some miracle Madame Cholet suddenly discovered a forgotten larder and dished up the most enormous high tea.

Poor Orinoco would wake up groaning and with his tongue hanging out, and in spite of all Great Uncle Bulgaria’s instructions he would slip along the silent passages, past the other slumbering Wombles and down to the small back door near the road to see if it had stopped snowing yet.

But each time all he saw were the soft, shining flakes filtering slowly on to the Common and the rooftops. It had even hardened on the road so that the traffic moved far more slowly than usual, and at all times of the day and night there were Human Beings throwing shovel-loads of yellow sand on it to make it less slippery. The sand made Orinoco think of lovely fine yellow sugar, and he groaned more than ever.

BOOK: The Wombles
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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