The Story Behind Diary of a Wombat
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She was a sweet looking little wombat when I first met her. Her carers were leaving town. They hated saying goodbye her. She was an affectionate little wombat and had been through a lot, they told me over tea and biscuits while Mothball contentedly butted her way around their kitchen.
Mothball had been found in Canberra, badly mauled by dogs, bleeding, terrified, only just alive.
Her rescuers raced her to a vet, who doubted he could save her. But he worked on her for hours, sewing up the gashes, trying to repair the damage done by the savage teeth of dogs who probably turned back into pets as soon as their victim had been taken away, and padded back to the doggie dinners and owners who had no idea of the secret lives of their pets.
Mothball was a stubborn little thing. Despite her injuries she recovered. But she was badly scarred, and her fur came back in patches, as though she was motheaten. So they called her Mothball - a round little wombat in a coat of grey and white and brown.
I looked at Mothball, burrowing happily into her carers' kitchen cupboards and kicking out the saucepans to enjoy the clatter. She reminded me of Smudge, all those years ago. I bent down and hauled her up onto my lap.
Mothball gave me a friendly nip - a very gentle one, not like the friendly gouges of Rikki or Bad Bart, then cuddled down to enjoy being scratched.
'We'll miss her terribly,' said her carer. 'But at least we know she'll be going somewhere good.'
They gave me her blanket, with its rich familiar wombat smells, and a couple of carrots to keep her occupied, and we put her in the animal carry cage in my car. I drove off to the sound of crunching on the back seat.
I'd just got to the outskirts of Canberra when the crunching stopped. Mothball had finished her carrots.
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh,' said a voice from the back seat.
I ignored her.
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh!' said the voice more loudly.
I waited for her to go to sleep.
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh!!!!!!' The voice was quite emphatic now.
'Look, ' I said 'I don't have any more carrots! I'm sorry. You'll have to wait till we get home.'
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh!!!!!' The cage began to rock back and forward, then tumbled down on to the floor.
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh!'
I screeched the car to a stop on the edge of the highway. I peered into the back seat to check that Mothball was alright.
Hunh hunh hunh hunh hunh! The sound was definitely angry now
I wedged the cage in between the front and back seats where it couldn't rock any further.
'You'll just have to be patient,' I told the wombat. Mothball gave an indignant screech. Patience isn't a wombat concept.
I got back into the front seat and began to drive again. Ten kilometres, twenty.
'Grg, grg, grg.'
I glanced behind. Mothball was chewing the plastic bars of the cage.
I turned back to the steering wheel before we veered off the road. I tried to calculate. If one wombat chews one bar in ten minutes, how long will it take for that wombat to chew six bars, enough to get out of the cage...
Sixty minutes. But it would take at least eighty minutes to get home.
I stopped in Bungendore and bought more carrots. A giant bag of carrots. I shoved them all into the cage.
'Happy now?' I asked.
Mothball sniffed at the carrots, then settled down and began to chew.
Crunch. Crunch. It was a happy sound. The sound of a wombat who is training her carer to provide an infinite supply of carrots.
The Love Life of a Wombat
Mothball loved the wombat hole. She marched in without hesitation, came out with dirt on her nose, raced back in again, then raced out to eat grass.
And more grass.
And more grass still.
Her carers had had a normal suburban garden - or they'd had one till Mothball came to live with them. By the time I saw it, the garden was mostly bare dirt and wombat scratchings. It had been months, perhaps, since Mothball had had a really good feed of grass. The grass was good this year too- long and moist and succulent.
I watched her for a while, then went inside. She should be an easy wombat to care for, I thought happily, too old to need a bottle any more. It was just a matter of providing a half-way house for her for a while, before she went bush.
'Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh!' Something scratched at the back door. Mothball must have smelt my trail inside.
Surely she didn't want more carrots! Probably just needed a cuddle, I decided. I opened the door and a small brown ball hurtled past me, into the bathroom, grabbed the toilet paper, pulled it down, trampled it, trampled the towels, then raced out again - all this had taken perhaps five seconds - and butted me on the ankle.
Yes, please. Mothball did want more carrots.
I carried her down to the garden and pulled some up, and washed them and gave them to her. Mothball crunched them happily. As a carrot connoisseur she appreciated that these were the freshest ,crunchiest carrots she had ever eaten.
I made a note to buy carrots up in town. We grow most of our own veg, but I had a feeling our carrot supply would not be enough for Mothball.
The wombat day divided itself into definite periods now.
8pm, approx.: Sound of garbage bin being bashed up by the back door.
8.05: Sounds of determined wombat digging hole through the back door.
8.06: Human hurriedly serves Mothball her carrots.
8.07- 8.20: Mothball eats her carrots, then eats grass.
8.20 -10.00: Mothball eats grass, humans go to bed.
10.20: Mothball decides she wants more carrots. Humans ignore her.
10.22: Mothball resumes digging through the back door again.
10.36: Mothball breaks through door.
Bomp. Bomp. Bomp. Mothball climbs the steep steps to humans bedroom.
Bomp. Bomp. Mothball falls down the steep stairs to humans bedroom . Wombats don't climb ladder-steep stairs very well.
Howl of rage from wombat - not pain, she has only fallen about thirty centimetres, and wombats are tough.
10.38: Bang, crash, whomp. Mothball bashes up garbage bin again.
10.40: Thudda, thudda, thudda, thudda. Either Mothball has got hold of a sub-machine gun or else she is knocking over all the pot plants.
10.52: Grunch, grunch, grunch. Mothball chews through the garden table.
10.58: I give in, and trudge downstairs to give her more carrots.
11.02: I try to warm my cold toes on Bryan.
'You know, it's just appeasement,' says Bryan. 'It's like Chamberlain before World War Two. If you give in to her she'll just want more.'
'I know,' I say, as the clang, clang, clang begins again. Mothball has finished her carrots. And she does want more.
12.00 midnight: Mothball finishes the extremely large pile of carrots I've put out for her and goes to eat grass again. She is a dedicated eater, Mothball. And a determined one.
9.00 am: Bryan nails a thick sheet of aluminium onto our back door. Even Mothball can't dig through that. I go up to town to buy earplugs. From now on Mothball will get carrots once a day - well, maybe twice. But that is ALL. She is not starving. She isn't even hungry. She just likes carrots... and, yes, I know we should be encouraging her to be independent.
But she IS independent. She just likes carrots.
Mothball got fatter, and fatter still. She was almost totally circular now, with tiny legs and a wombat grin. Her fur had grown back to a rich deep brown.
Then she began to dig.
Her first hole was under the truck in the shed. It wasn't much of a hole. The soil was dry dust and collapsed as soon as it was about twenty centimetres deep. But she kept on trying, night after night. All that grass and carrot energy had to be used up somehow.
Then she began her second hole. It was behind my study, in the bank under my herb garden. Mothball is a good digger. I went to bed one night with a herb garden and woke up the next morning to a metre high pile of dirt, with a few herbs poking limply out and a round black hole where once there'd been a bank and a stone wall.
Bryan shovelled away the dirt - it was blocking the house drains. Mothball kept digging. It took her three nights to have it just the way she liked it. On the fifth day I put the sprinkler on the resurrected herb garden.
Five minutes later water began to seep out of the hole. Two minutes after that Mothball emerged, damp and disgusted. She marched back to the hole behind the bathroom and went back to sleep.
That was the end of her new hole digging, for a while. Instead she renovated the hole behind the bathroom. Every morning there a barrow load of soil and rock for Bryan to cart away. Finally she was ready to furnish it. As I tapped at my computer one day I watched as Mothball padded back and forth between the garden a and her hole, each time carrying a fresh branch of lavender. Mothball's hole, I reckoned, was going to the best furnished in the district and her bed the most fragrant too.
Not even the smell of lavender can compete with the smell of a wombat on heat.
We'd suspected Mothball was on heat when our friend Joan came into the house after planting bulbs down by the car shed. 'I stink,' she said.
She did. It was pure essence of wombat, scarcely diluted by the morning dew. Essence of INTERESTING wombat. On heat wombat.
If we could smell where Mothball had been twelve hours earlier, I imagined that every male wombat in this end of the valley knew exactly what Mothball's condition was.
The first one turned up that dusk. We were having dinner when we saw them out the window - Mothball grazing by the garden table and a larger, suave looking wombat sneaking up to her, began to bite her romantically on the bum.
Mothball snarled. She turned, then leapt, and grabbed for his balls. Bryan winced in sympathy, but she hadn't torn them off, though there was touch of gore as the male fled shrieking down the orchard.
Mothball went back to eating.
He was a persistent suitor. I don't think any human male would have kept courting after his chosen one had tried to rip his balls off.
By the next night they were heavily involved in wombat courtship. For a wombat this remains anywhere from one to five days of galloping about, male after female, with odd bites and nips and tumbles on both parts along the way. Mostly the foreplay though lasts about three nights, with frequent breaks to eat, scratch and ignore each other.
A wombat on heat - or excited by the smell of another on heat - will indulge in sex play with a human too, curling into mating position or wanting to wrestle, which is great fun for the wombat but tiring for the human, and there is always the worry - especially for female humans - as to exactly how far your playful male wombat may want to go. Also human skin is a good deal more tender than wombat hide, and what is a playful love nip for a wombat can leave long lasting scars. (Rikki the Wrestler perhaps should have been more aptly named Rikki the Rapist - those happy wrestles with me were probably sexual - on his part, not mine.).
Two nights, three nights, broken with wombat snarls and shrieks and cavorting outside our window. The next night was quiet. Both parties had lost interest.
Had the mating been successful? Was Mothball pregnant?
I've never seen a baby wombat emerging from the birth canal - I don't think anyone has. I did watch a blacktailed wallaby give birth, back in the years I lived in the shed, licking a track across the fur for the tiny creature to climb up into its pouch. But now we could only watch Mothball's stomach to see if her pouch grew bigger.
One month, two months. Mothball didn't go on heat again. But surely she was too young to have a baby - as far as we could calculate, she wasn't quite two years old. A wombat is mature at two, though they'll keep growing for another couple of years, but other wombats I'd known didn't have babies till they were about three years old.
But most of the wombats I'd kept notes on had either been born or lived through droughts. Despite the trauma of the attack in Canberra Mothball was a healthy- and very fat - wombat. Yes, I thought, there was a good chance she was pregnant.
April passed, and May. Was her pouch getting bigger? Was she just getting fluffier for winter?
For the past two months we had been building a new bedroom. The steep stairs were hell on the knees and Edward was at an age where he needed more privacy. Bryan and I would have the new bedroom, with a wide passageway so I could hang the paintings standing against the wall in my study ever since we ran out of wall space for more. The room would be airy and spacious, with no carpets or books to harbour allergy provoking dust and plenty of glass so we could watch the world from bed.
There was only one place to put it - over the old herb garden, where Mothball had dug her first hole. The rest of the garden sloped too steeply. And, anyway, she had shown no interest in that hole since it had filled up with water - it was swampy every time it rained now too. No, there was no reason why the new room shouldn't go over her old hole.
We built the room first, leaving the wide connecting passageway till last, framework first and then the floor and roof.
Ray, the builder, had just finished laying the last of the flooring when I glanced out my study window. A round brown wombat bum was disappearing into the hole.
Maybe, I thought, she was just investigating the new smells. Surely she wasn't moving back in?
But she was. Somehow Mothball guessed that now the wombat hole had a wide, thick roof - two rooves, the bedroom floor and its roof above - her hole would no longer fill up with water.
The trouble was, that was exactly where the passageway was going to be. We either had to move the house, or move the wombat.
So we moved the house. Already I knew that there was no way on earth we could move Mothball.
Within two months Mothball had the fanciest wombat hole in Australia. It had a concrete path going up to its entrance, courtesy of Bryan, stone walls on either side - Bryan again. It had a flower bed out the front - my work - with a tiny fountain too, for wombat drinking on hot days when the moisture in grass wasn't enough. It also had a giant back veranda and nice front patio. And the best wombat scratching post in the universe.
The scratching post is the floor beam under our bed. The first time she used it I thought it was an earthquake. The whole room seemed to shake. Then I heard the noise, that rhythmic fump, fump, fump, fump of a wombat rubbing its spine back and forth.
Mothball was very happy indeed. She had the perfect hole, the perfect garden to graze in. she also had us trained to feed her carrots on demand.
I was on the phone to a friend, one day, gossiping as you do, and every now and then I'd give her an update on what Mothball was doin.g
'… I can see her eating grass out the study window.
'... she's scratching now…
'Now she's bashing at the back door for her carrots.
'...oops, she's attacking the doormat now.'
Suddenly I realised I was giving the diary of a wombat - and the idea for 'Diary of a Wombat' was born. I scribbled it down - the first draft almost wrote itself.
I sent it to Lisa at Harper Collins. It was more a concept than a story - almost the whole needed to be told in pictures, not in words. But Lisa could see its potential. She began the search for the perfect illustrator.
Which wasn't easy. You can buy kitsch pottery wombats in any gift store now, or furry stuffed ones. But most look more like pigs or bears than wombats, and most people who try to paint wombats work either from photos or, if in real life, from either road kill or the sleeping wombats eking out a bored life in small enclosures at a zoo.
This was a book about a real wombat - and the wombat in it had to be realistic too.
But none of the sketches Lisa gathered in seemed right. The first was charming - too charming. Mothball has never been cute. The second looked like road kill - a static wombat staring into space. The third looked like the Wombat from the Black Lagoon.
And then Bruce Whately came back to Australia from his years in the US. We had known each other for years - his 'Little White Dogs Can't Jump' is one of the most brilliant kids books I have ever seen - but it needed Lisa's genius to put our styles together.
I opened his first rough sketches up at our post box in town. They were so funny - and so perfect - that I laughed so much I lay limply on the car and passers by wondered if I was okay.
And then the real work began. When a book has only a couple of hundred words every word has to be perfect. You only have a tiny window in which to create laughter, a personality, a plot. It is incredibly difficult to build up the tension as the reader turns each page, so every new page is a shock of pleasure and illumination.
I sat with Lisa and we went over and over and over it… and then we both worked on it separately, exchanged drafts, then worked some more. Meanwhile, Bruce worked on the final illustrations, Lore Foye worked on layout, the magic of white space and rough text was perfected.
...and we had a book. And it was still exactly Mothball wombat - I had sent Bruce a pile of photos - but it was more than that too. My story was about a brown wombat in a black night - but Bruce had simplified the outlines, played around with shadings and suddenly there was magic.
We knew it would work before the book came out. We just didn't know how well it would work. 'Diary of a Wombat' is a book that people love - literally. And it is a shock, sometimes, to read it again and feel the magic still works