Read The Wombles Online

Authors: Elizabeth Beresford

The Wombles (4 page)

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The small tide of mud lapped over the doorstep and when Tomsk put his paw there the mud just went round the sides of it. Tomsk didn’t care for the feeling very much and after thinking about it he decided to go and get a broom from the Workshop.

‘What do you want?’ growled Tobermory, whose fur was now covered with so many mushy pieces of white paper that he looked as if he had been making pastry.

‘A broom,’ said Tomsk.


You
don’t need a broom,’ said Tobermory. ‘There now, you’ve made me lose count of these dratted baskets
and
you’ve left dirty pawmarks right across my floor.’

‘It’s only one paw that’s dirty,’ said Tomsk, holding it up to show Tobermory. ‘And I want a broom to stop the ground moving.’

‘Don’t come here with your nonsense,’ said Tobermory, seizing Tomsk by the shoulders and pushing him towards the door. ‘The ground doesn’t move unless it’s an earthquake, you silly great gormless Womble.’

‘But . . .’ said Tomsk.

However the door had been firmly shut in his face, so Tomsk gave an enormous sigh and went back to his post only to discover that his neat row of boots had all been pushed out of line by the moving mud. And, what was more, the hooks on which he had hung the dripping raincoats were all bulging out from the wall. Tomsk put one of his large paws against the wall and a crack appeared and ran right from the ceiling to the floor.

‘It wasn’t my fault,’ said Tomsk, but there was no one round about to hear him, and Tomsk shifted from paw to paw wondering what on earth to do next. He knew he wasn’t very clever, and everyone had told him that the ground couldn’t move (except in an earthquake), but on the other hand even as he watched it the floor under his feet seemed to shimmer and shake and very slowly and gently Tomsk started to sink. It was such a nasty feeling that Tomsk decided there and then that he had better do something about it. If he couldn’t get hold of a broom then a piece of brushwood would be the next best thing. He knew he wasn’t supposed to desert his post until it was meal time, but the mud sliding down the passage was more important than anything else.

Tomsk put on the nearest hat and edged round the door and out into the driving rain. He had nearly to close his eyes to see properly, and each time he touched a branch or a bush he got another showerbath, but he only shook himself and went on searching for a nice large piece of brushwood. His paws had just closed on a sturdy branch when, as well as the steady roar of the rain, Tomsk heard something else. It was a sound that he had never heard before, even on this day of surprises, and although he was so wet it made his fur stand up in little prickly bunches. It was a deep and terrible sigh.

Tomsk put back his head and looked up, and there above him was a tall, thin tree which was moving too. Not one breath of wind was there and yet, although he had to keep blinking to keep the rain out of his eyes, Tomsk could see that the tree was slowly, but deliberately bending over.

‘Stop, don’t do that,’ shouted Tomsk.

The tree sighed and shivered and creaked and two squirrels ran along its topmost branches and leapt for the safety of a nearby neighbour.

‘Don’t, don’t, don’t!’ implored Tomsk, jumping up and down and banging his paws together.


Whooooo
,’ sighed the tree and leant over even further. Tomsk looked round in a distracted fashion but there wasn’t another Womble in sight, so without stopping to think any more, Tomsk launched himself through the brambles and the bushes and wrapped his strong arms round the trunk of the tree, scrabbling with his back paws to get a firm grip on the muddy ground.

‘Help,’ shouted Tomsk through the roar of the rain. ‘Help! Wombles! Help!’

But there was no answer except from the tree, which sighed yet again, and despite Tomsk’s enormous efforts began to tilt slowly towards the roof of the Womble burrow. Tomsk dug his paws still deeper into the mud, closed his eyes and hung on with all his strength.

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Chapter 4

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Tomsk Hangs On

 

‘I thought Tomsk said it was jelly today,’ said Orinoco, wiping his mouth and pushing back his chair with a contented sigh. ‘But chocolate pudding is even nicer. I don’t believe I could eat another mouthful.’

‘You’ve had three helpings already,’ said Bungo.

‘I need it to keep up my strength,’ said Orinoco. ‘I’ve been working so hard.’

‘That’s what I like to hear,’ said Tobermory, who was just walking past. ‘A Womble who’s keen to work hard.’

‘Oh, I
am
,’ said Orinoco. ‘In fact, I did such a lot this morning that I thought I’d just go and have forty . . .’

‘A Womble who’s keen,’ said Tobermory, taking hold of Orinoco’s arm and propelling him towards the door, ‘should never be discouraged. You can come and help me clear up in the Workshop. And what are you laughing at, young Bungo?’

‘Nothing,’ said Bungo, trying to make his mouth go into a straight line.

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Tobermory in such a quiet, gentle voice that Bungo forgot all about laughing and felt very solemn instead. ‘You can come too. Two pairs of paws are better than one.
Brrr
. . . it’s chilly out here.’

And it was, for Tomsk had left the main door open and now it couldn’t have shut even if it had wanted to, for the mud had wedged it into position and the cold November air was drifting down the passages and into the rooms. A chilly breath of it even slid under Great Uncle Bulgaria’s door and blew round his paws.

‘Getting old,’ muttered Great Uncle Bulgaria to himself, and drew his tartan shawl even closer and dozed off, lulled by the distant pattering of the rain.

Tobermory, still holding very firmly to the scruffs of Bungo and Orinoco, walked them to the Workshop and then gave them a final shake and pointed to a small side store where all that morning’s papers had been piled in one soggy mass.

‘You can clear that up for a start,’ he said, and went off to put on his big blue apron to attend to more important matters such as some of the lights which had most mysteriously gone out.

‘If you hadn’t laughed . . .’ muttered Orinoco.

‘If you hadn’t talked about working so hard . . .’ replied Bungo.

The two Wombles glared at each other, and then began to pick up pawfuls of the horrid sludgy stuff and put it into buckets. Perhaps it was because there was a slight feeling of uneasiness in the air, or perhaps it was that they were both rather bad-tempered, but whatever it was one of them suddenly got the idea that it would be rather funny just to throw a little of the wet paper at the other. This particular Womble did it while the other Womble had his back to him, and it caught him just behind the ear with a wonderful squelching sound. So naturally the Womble who had been hit had to return the compliment, and in no time at all soggy pawfuls of wet and muddy paper were flying backwards and forwards like snowballs.

‘Got you,’ squealed Orinoco, catching Bungo straight between the eyes. Bungo shook his head and plunged both paws into the pile, and hit Orinoco with a left and a right. Orinoco staggered back against the wall and knocked over a bucket. With a speed which was surprising in one so fat he bent down and picked up the whole bucketload and threw that at Bungo. It plopped about his ears and ran down his head and into his eyes and his ears and his nose and even his mouth.

There was only one thing to do and Bungo did it. He picked up a bucket and aimed its contents at Orinoco, who was doubled up with laughter.


Slosh!
’ The bucket of wet paper and mud sailed across the little storeroom just as Tobermory came through the doorway with a box of electric light bulbs, to see what all the noise was about. The wet, sticky, sloppy stuff caught him fair and square, and Tobermory let out a bellow which made the whole room shake.

Orinoco and Bungo moved as one. They leapt towards the door with their heads down, but Tobermory was too quick for them. He dropped the bulbs, caught hold of the Wombles as they raced past him, and slapped their heads together so that for a moment all they could see were coloured lights going round and round.


WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS
?’ roared Tobermory, shaking them so that their mouths flew open and then rattled shut.

‘Wha’ wha’ wha’ . . .’ said Bungo.

‘Woo woo woo . . .’ said Orinoco.


WHO STARTED IT
?’ bellowed Tobermory, whose fur – those bits of it which were not plastered with white, sticky mush – was trying to stand up on end with rage.

Bungo and Orinoco clamped their mouths shut and looked at each other through the coloured lights which were now growing fainter, although their heads were still ringing.

‘Well?’ said Tobermory, more quietly.

Although he was quite old he was still very strong, and he lifted both Wombles clean off the ground so that their paws were kicking and struggling in mid-air. He gave them another shake and both of them closed their eyes and hunched their shoulders up to their ears.

‘If you won’t tell me,’ said Tobermory, kicking one of the buckets out of the way, ‘I shall have to take you to Great Uncle Bulgaria, and as it’s his time for a nap he will not be in the best of tempers.’

Still neither Womble spoke, so Tobermory turned on his heel and with Bungo and Orinoco held at arm’s length he marched down the passage. As all three of them looked very strange, every other Womble that they passed stood still and stared and whispered.

Tobermory knocked on Great Uncle Bulgaria’s door with his knee.

‘Come in,’ said a rather sleepy voice and then, when Great Uncle Bulgaria turned round and saw them he added, ‘Bless me. What in the world does this mean?’

‘You may well ask,’ said Tobermory, giving them another shake before letting them down to the ground. ‘My workshop looks more like a battlefield than anything else.’

‘Ho-hum,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria, taking off one pair of spectacles and carefully replacing them with the pair which made his eyes seem twice as huge as normal. ‘And shut that door, there’s a good Womble. There’s a dreadful draught in here and . . .’

Even as he spoke there was a distant rumbling sound and the lights flickered and went low and the electric fire sparked angrily to itself.

‘What’s that?’ whispered Bungo, and so strange is Womble nature that he forgot he was frightened of Tobermory and moved closer to him for protection.

‘Earthquake?’ Tobermory said in a low voice, looking at Great Uncle Bulgaria, who had gone very still. And Tobermory forgot in his turn to be furious with Bungo, and patted his shoulder where the soggy paper and mud had begun to dry and turn hard.

‘No,’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria, his old head on one side, his ears cocked. ‘It’s – yes – I think it’s a landslide.’

‘Tomsk said the ground was moving this morning,’ said Bungo in a rather shaky voice.

‘Yes, he told me that too,’ put in Orinoco.

‘He happened to mention it to me as well,’ added Tobermory.

Great Uncle Bulgaria pushed his stool away so violently that it toppled over.

‘And why did nobody mention it to
me
?’ he demanded. The three Wombles didn’t reply, and Great Uncle Bulgaria shook his head and got to his paws, pulling his shawl round him.

‘I’ll deal with whatever all this is about later,’ he said. ‘At the moment the landslide is far more important. Go and find Tomsk and bring him here immediately. Do you understand?’

Bungo and Orinoco bundled out of the room, too scared at this new turn of events to feel relieved that they had escaped a lecture and punishment, at least for the moment. They scurried and ran from room to room looking for Tomsk and in every place they found little huddles of scared, whispering Wombles. But of Tomsk there was no sign although they did discover the half open door and the boots, which were now all jumbled together with the raincoats, which had fallen off the wall and become mixed up with pieces of earth and mud. The rain was still thundering down, and they were in too much of a panic to hear a very faint, exhausted voice out in the gathering darkness which was saying ‘Help. Wombles. Help. Wombles’ over and over again.

‘No sign of him?’ said Great Uncle Bulgaria, thumping the ground with his stick. ‘This is ridiculous. Tomsk is not the sort of Womble to run away, even though there are others who are not particularly kind to him.’ This was uttered with a sharp look at Bungo and Orinoco, who swallowed and fidgeted with their paws. Tobermory too looked rather uncomfortable and Great Uncle Bulgaria, who saw a great deal more than a lot of Wombles realised, said, ‘
Tsk
,
tsk
,
tsk
’, and got his own waterproof and boots and an enormous sou’wester and put them on, and led the way down the passage where the lights were now extremely dim.

‘Could be dangerous,’ said Tobermory. ‘I’d better switch them off altogether. Wombles,’ he raised his voice, ‘there’s no cause for alarm, but you’d better light your emergency candles.’

Within minutes all the passages and rooms were plunged into darkness and then little stars of light began to appear, and at every doorway there were groups of Wombles with wide, scared eyes. Whispers flew up and down the burrow, but everybody remained calm as Great Uncle Bulgaria, carrying a storm lantern, led the way to the main door.

He held the lamp up high and Tobermory, Bungo and Orinoco picked their paws up so as not to trip over the boots and the coats and the slow-moving tide of rubbish. It was nearly dark outside by this time, and the rain looked like moving sheets of glass arrows as Great Uncle Bulgaria, helped by the others, pushed the door wide.

‘Tomsk!’ shouted Great Uncle Bulgaria.

‘The walls, the burrow,’ muttered Tobermory, who had noticed the bulges and cracks.

‘A Womble is more important than wood and plaster,’ Great Uncle Bulgaria said sternly.

‘Sorry, I was forgetting,’ said Tobermory. ‘Right, all together, one, two, three, TOMSK!’

‘Tomsk! T
OMSK
! TOMSK!’ The shout echoed through the dripping bushes and round the wet trees, drowning even the persistent hammering of the rain. And Tomsk, who had long ago forgotten almost who he was or what was happening, and who only knew that the most important thing was to hang on to the creaking, sighing tree, stirred and opened his tired eyes.

‘Tomsk! T
OMSK
!
TOMSK!’ came the shout again, and Tomsk cleared his throat and shouted back as best he could in a cracked, thin voice.

‘I’m here.’

He moved as he said it, and his grasp slackened, and the tree gave another of its awful deep groaning sighs, and this time the ground was too muddy for Tomsk’s paws to grip any longer and although he hung on with all his strength it was of no use. For the tree had moved just that inch too much and now its power was greater than that of Tomsk. But of course a Womble, however exhausted he may be, just will not leave go, so Tomsk clung on, and as Great Uncle Bulgaria lifted up the storm lantern against the sheets of rain, the four Wombles in the doorway saw Tomsk slowly rise against the darkness of the black wet sky.

‘Let go,’ shouted Great Uncle Bulgaria.

But Tomsk’s muscles had been gripping that tree for so long that they just could not relax. Tobermory, closely followed by Bungo and Orinoco, lunged through the sopping bushes, but they were too late. For one moment it seemed as if they would just grasp Tomsk’s dangling paws and then with the most tremendous crash the tree toppled sideways and its roots shot up into the air and Tomsk went with them.

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