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Authors: Elizabeth Beresford

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‘What for?’

‘The ball.’

‘But the ball’s here,’ said Bungo, whose sharp eyes had just spotted it lying under some dead leaves.

‘Oh, oh, oh,’ howled Orinoco, kicking more than ever. ‘It’s a judgement on me, that’s what it is. You were quite right, Bungo. I’m a fat, greedy Womble and I’ve got my just deserts.’ And he suddenly went alarmingly limp.

‘Orinoco?’ said Bungo. There was no reply. ‘Orinoco?’ said Bungo more loudly. ‘Orinoco – speak to me.’ But Orinoco didn’t move. Bungo went stiff with fright and then he noticed that one leg was twitching slightly so he picked up a twig and just ran it down the sole of Orinoco’s paw. The paw jumped and Orinoco’s voice said furiously, ‘Don’t tickle, it’s not fair.’

‘Well, at least you’re still alive,’ said Bungo.

‘Only just though,’ Orinoco said feebly.

Fortunately, Tomsk, not in the least out of breath, reappeared at this moment with a spade. He began to dig all round the hole and in a very few moments he had loosened the frosty earth enough to make it crumble.

‘We’ll pull together,’ Bungo said. ‘A leg each and one,
TWO
, THREE!’

And the next second Orinoco came out of the hole with exactly the same noise as a cork makes when it’s taken out of a flask. His head, shoulders and front paws were covered in mud and leaves, and clutched in his arms was a lemonade bottle.

‘You’ve got a secret larder down there,’ Bungo said severely, and Orinoco brushed some of the mud off his face and looked down at his toes.

‘Just one or two quite little things,’ he said in a small voice. ‘A Womble of my build needs a few little extras to keep up his strength.’

‘I’m going to have a look,’ said Bungo, and although he was not slim himself he was nevertheless a great deal less chubby than Orinoco, so he had no trouble in wriggling into the hole and reappearing a few moments later with two chocolate bars, a bag of buns and a packet of chewing gum. Orinoco looked from the food to the other two Wombles and heaved an enormous sigh. Then without a word he got to his paws, dusted the leaves off his coat and set out for the burrow with Tomsk and Bungo following him.

‘I don’t think we’d better tell on him, do you?’ asked Bungo, who had been turning matters over in his mind. He was sure that Orinoco had learnt his lesson, for it must have been extremely nasty to be stuck down a rabbit hole.

‘Tell what?’ asked Tomsk, who had been thinking about golf and the slice he was getting in his swing.

‘Nothing really,’ said Bungo and followed Orinoco into the burrow. Orinoco looked anxiously at his friend and when Bungo shook his head slightly Orinoco blew out his cheeks with relief and went to hand in his food to Tobermory. He stayed in the Workshop for a very long time and when he came out he had a rather smug expression on his round face.

‘Tomorrow morning,’ he said, laying his paw against one side of his nose. ‘Meet me tomorrow morning by Queen’s Mere.’

Bungo hadn’t the faintest idea what he was up to, but Orinoco refused to say another word and went back into the Workshop and shut the door. Bungo stayed outside and heard a lot of banging and hammering and a great deal of whispering which made him more curious than ever, but Tobermory had hung a
DO NOT DISTURB
sign on the door, so he had to swallow his curiosity and go off and have a game of Wombles and Ladders with Alderney instead.

This is really a teaching game for very young Wombles and it was designed by Great Uncle Bulgaria and built by Tobermory. It’s played in a large room where a great many ladders of all shapes and sizes are joined together with bars, planks and branches. You have to start at one end of the room, climb up the first ladder to the top, scramble along a pole and down the next ladder and then up the one next to it and so on. While all this is going on, an older Womble squeezes away at an accordion and the moment he stops you have to stop too. If you’re halfway up a ladder then you have to go right back to the beginning and start again. The first Womble to reach the bottom of the last ladder is the winner.

This is how very young Wombles are taught to climb and although Bungo considered himself rather old for the game he soon joined in and enjoyed himself very much.

Early the next morning he picked up his basket and went off to Queen’s Mere. It was going to be another lovely, clear but cold day and the ducks were out swimming up and down and the sparrows were pecking at the hard ground looking hopefully for worms. And it was then that Bungo saw a very curious sight.

It was Orinoco taking some exercise. But he wasn’t playing golf or running or doing press-ups. He was riding a bicycle. A bicycle with a very low saddle because he had such short fat legs, so he and Tobermory had fitted a special saddle to make pedalling easier.

‘Look at me,’ called out Orinoco. ‘This is the way to take some exercise. Splendid for the muscles. Wonderful for the constitution. Much better than silly old golf.’

And he sailed past Bungo ringing his bell and pedalling with all his might. So if any Human Being should be up on the Common early enough one morning they too might see a very strange sight. A round, not-quite-so-fat-as-before creature seated on a most extraordinary bicycle and riding across the grass for all he’s worth. Orinoco doesn’t do it every day of course, but he does cycle fairly often.

Getting stuck in a rabbit hole can be a very upsetting experience.

g

Chapter 7

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The Christmas Party and Mr D. Smith

 

The Christmas party was an enormous success. Madame Cholet cooked a better dinner than ever before, Great Uncle Bulgaria made a very funny speech, and Tobermory did conjuring tricks that were really quite astounding. How he made a golf ball come out of Tomsk’s ear, how he made Alderney vanish, and how he sawed Bungo in half no Womble could understand. And as if that wasn’t enough excitement there was the present-giving to follow.

For the last few days before Christmas every Womble, however young, had been allowed out on to the Common to find a gift. This is an old, long-established custom and although December is not a good time of year in which to discover things, somehow there never seems to be a shortage. Of course, some Wombles say among themselves that before the great gift hunt starts Tobermory and Great Uncle Bulgaria have been seen to slip out with loaded baskets in their paws on the evening beforehand. But naturally this rumour is kept from the youngest Wombles and the fact remains that they always do find something.

Whatever that something is, it’s always kept a secret and shown only to Tobermory or Madame Cholet – who besides being such a wonderful cook is also very good at sewing and mending – and that something is always turned into a very nice present. All the presents are then packed up in brightly coloured paper and placed in an enormous tub and after the meal and the speech and the conjuring tricks every Womble gathers round and, starting with the youngest, plunges his or her paw into it and pulls out a gift.

And even more astonishing were the gifts which the elderly gentleman found. But then he was feeling very astonished altogether and his story really starts about three days before Christmas on a very bright, crisp afternoon.

The name of the elderly gentleman was Mr D. Smith and he was the same person who had talked to Great Uncle Bulgaria on the night of the Concrete Mixer Expedition. He happened to read in the local paper about the strange way in which the concrete had vanished from the building site and exactly the correct money (plus the fifty pence tip) had been discovered by the site foreman. He was very puzzled by this and as he had plenty of time to spare, being retired from his job, he went along to see the foreman. The foreman listened to what the elderly gentleman had to say and then pushed back his cap and said, ‘Workmen, did you say?’

‘Very small workmen wearing oilskins, boots and sou’westers,’ said the elderly gentleman. ‘One of them spoke to me most politely. He had white whiskers.’


I
see,’ said the foreman in exactly that tone of voice which meant he didn’t see at all. ‘Well, thank you very much, sir . . .’

And he went off winking at all the other workmen, and the elderly gentleman looked rather sad and went for a walk on the Common. He was becoming used to people treating him as though he had to be humoured and that only made him feel sadder than ever. So, although there was a decided nip in the air, he went and sat on the bench where he always went, and looked at the bare bushes and trees and sighed more than ever.

And it was there that, three days before Christmas, Great Uncle Bulgaria met him. It was a lovely, sharp afternoon and Great Uncle Bulgaria had decided to slip out for a short walk before supper. He also wanted to see that all the young working Wombles were doing their jobs properly and, if possible, to catch a glimpse of Orinoco on his bicycle, which, Tobermory had assured him, was a sight not to be missed.

Both Great Uncle Bulgaria and the elderly gentleman arrived at the bench at the same moment. On this occasion the old Womble was wearing a balaclava helmet, an overcoat which reached to his toes, and fur-lined boots, for there was frost in the air and he tended to feel the cold these days.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said the elderly gentleman.

‘No, after you, sir,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. ‘Good gracious me, surely we’ve met before?’

‘Yes indeed,’ said the elderly gentleman, recognising Great Uncle Bulgaria’s white whiskers and round spectacles. ‘It was – er . . .’

‘Exactly,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. ‘Lovely afternoon, isn’t it? Just the right sort of weather for Christmas.’

‘Christmas,’ said the elderly gentleman with a sigh. ‘I remember when I was young it always snowed about now.’

‘So it did, so it did,’ agreed Great Uncle Bulgaria, rubbing his gloves together. ‘Tell me, sir, do you recall the great frost of . . . let me see, was it ’96 or ’97?’

‘’98,’ said the elderly gentleman firmly. ‘Ah, what a winter that was to be sure. Toboggan rides, the Thames was frozen over, and they put straw in the streets to stop the horses from sliding. Why, it seems only yesterday that . . .’

As Great Uncle Bulgaria was the very soul of politeness he listened quietly to the elderly gentleman, nodding and saying ‘Ah, quite’, or ‘Yes indeed’, or ‘How very true’, whenever the occasion arose. The elderly gentleman was absolutely delighted to have such a splendid audience and after a while Great Uncle Bulgaria had to wriggle his feet inside his fur-lined boots to try and keep them warm, because the damp cold was seeping up through the frozen ground.

‘Christmas
WAS
Christmas in those days,’ said the elderly gentleman at last. ‘Tell me, sir, have you any family?’

Great Uncle Bulgaria, whose mind had been wandering to other things, such as clue number three down in
The Times
crossword which had been bothering him all day, replied a little absently.

‘Family? Me? Oh yes, about two hundred and thirty of them.’

‘I
beg
your pardon?’ said the elderly gentleman.

‘Altogether, that is,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria hastily, ‘taking into account Great-Nephews and Nieces and Second Cousins Three Times Removed and so on. Do you not have a family yourself, sir?’

‘No, sir,’ said the elderly gentleman. ‘I had one son, but he went to America many, many years ago to seek his fortune. The last letter I had from him was posted in a town called Butte in the state of Montana. That must have been twenty years ago . . .’

‘Dear me,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. ‘So at Christmas you’ll be – er –?’

‘Oh, I shall be splendid, splendid,’ said the elderly gentleman, suddenly jumping to his feet. ‘Very pleased to have made your acquaintance again Mr –er?’

‘Womble,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria.

Usually he didn’t have much to do with Human Beings. They were too untidy, too noisy, and given to telling lies, but like all Wombles he had a very warm heart and he knew perfectly well that the elderly gentleman had just told a polite fib about being all right. Great Uncle Bulgaria thought fast and came to a decision.

‘Ho-hum,’ he said, stroking his white whiskers, ‘
should
you be free on Christmas evening and
should
you happen to be here I should be most honoured
should
you care to join me and my family for a small party.’

‘Ah, well now,’ said the elderly gentleman turning up his coat collar, for it had begun to sleet, ‘that’s very kind of you, sir, but I am rather fully engaged. However,
should
any of my arrangements fall through – perhaps I might avail myself of your generous invitation?’

‘Quite, quite,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. They said goodbye and the elderly gentleman went off across the Common, and the old Womble looked after him for a time and then shook his head and picked up his stick and went back to the burrow, and was so quiet and so sad for the rest of the evening that Tobermory became quite anxious, and sent Alderney off to the kitchen to make an extra sweet hot blackberry fruit juice. Great Uncle Bulgaria drank it down almost in one gulp and then said gravely, ‘I’m glad
I
’m not a Human Being,’ and stumped off to finish
The Times
* crossword.

* Great Uncle Bulgaria was re-reading
The Times
of July 1935 at this time. It was one of his favourite periods.

 

Of course the elderly gentleman
was
there, exactly as Great Uncle Bulgaria had known he would be. He was carrying a small box done up in brightly coloured paper and he was wearing a high stiff collar with a great deal of starch in it, and a bowler hat which was green round the brim, and a very long overcoat.

g

g

‘I managed to get away,’ he said, not looking Great Uncle Bulgaria in the eye. ‘My friends pleaded with me to stay, but I told them I didn’t want to let you down, Mr Womble.’

‘How very thoughtful,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria. ‘This way, my dear sir,’ and he took hold of the elderly gentleman’s sleeve and gently pulled him through the bushes and down to the main door where Tomsk was waiting for them wearing a paper hat and a very wide grin. The elderly gentleman shook his paw and blinked and then when he saw the other Wombles he very sensibly came to the conclusion that of course it was all a dream, but as it was a very pleasant one he might as well enjoy it. Also the burrow – thanks to Tobermory’s new system of hot pipes – was deliciously warm, and the elderly gentleman couldn’t recall the last time when he hadn’t felt chilled to the bone. So after a few doubtful seconds he handed over his hat and coat to Tomsk and put back his head and made up his mind to have a wonderful time in this delightful dream.

The Wombles, who had all been warned beforehand about Great Uncle Bulgaria’s guest, behaved splendidly and shook the visitor by the hand, being careful to sheathe their claws before they did so, and Alderney fetched him a very beautiful-smelling hot drink, and Orinoco handed him a chocolate bun, and Bungo led him to a seat in the very centre of the long table.

The elderly gentleman ate and ate in a way which earned him Orinoco’s deepest respect, and he roared with laughter at Great Uncle Bulgaria’s speech and clapped like anything at Tobermory’s conjuring tricks. And then came the great moment for the presents to be discovered, and he was made to go first and by some very strange coincidence what should he bring out of the tub but a most beautiful black umbrella!

‘But that’s . . .’ said Orinoco, looking at Bungo.

‘Yes, it is,’ agreed Bungo, grinning from ear to ear.

And it was – the very same umbrella that had carried Orinoco high across the Common and had so nearly drowned him in the Queen’s Mere. Only since those days Tobermory and Madame Cholet had both worked on it and now the spokes were all the right way round and the handle was polished until it shone like the sunrise and the black silk was clean and mended and looked as good as new.


Just
what I wanted,’ said the elderly gentleman. ‘Oh,
exactly
what I really needed.’

BOOK: The Wombles
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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