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A place like home

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Miss Plum closed the back door of her cottage and looked out across the crispy frost of a very brisk morning. The grass dazzled and the sky was blue and remote. She hitched her scarf tighter around her throat and crunched across the grass to the garden shed. She collected her wheelbarrow and stacked it with her favourite secateurs, her loppers, and, after a moment's thought, her pruning saw. The apple at the back of the orchard was starting to shade her new oranges and she might need to remove some of the branches. The shortest day was a perfect day to bring order to her orchard.

She let herself through the little lopsided gate into the orchard, brushing aside a frozen cobweb. Soon her wheelbarrow was full of dull grey wood and she was warm enough to hang her heavy jacket on a nearby branch. This was a good morning, she knew, a good sign of a fruitful season. The trees were all sound, the earth cold enough to guarantee a good blossoming come spring. She would have good fruit, and the garden would be full, and she would win best garden basket at the Gisborne A&P show again. It was colder here than in Wairoa, or up in Gisborne, but she thought the frosts made her fruit all the sweeter. The disgruntled faces of the pretentious townies definitely made winning better.

Dragging the last branch free from the final tree, she stood back and surveyed the pruning carnage around her with satisfaction. Most of the wood had joined the bonfire pile in the little field next door; she had only one load left to go. She'd accomplished all this, from the hulking bonfire pile to the mixed orchard meadow around her feet, the neat garden and the weathered house waiting behind her. She stretched in the thin sunlight. It was a lot, to have shaped with her own hands.

A bump against her boot made her look down, and Scarface Claw looked back up at her with a grumpy expression on his battered black face. Crouching down, she scratched him affectionately behind the ears. He didn't come round every day, but she was always happy to see him; he was her oldest friend in this quiet little town, and he'd seen it change with her. She sometimes thought he was as bemused by it as she was.

"Was it a big night?" she asked. He butted her boot again and she smiled. "Of course it was. Come on, I'll give you some rabbit. Or it might be chicken, today."

Straightening, she collected her wheelbarrow and tools and trundled back over the grass into her garden, Scarface Claw trailing behind her. She left the wheelbarrow by the shed and went inside, shedding layers at the backdoor in a heap. Scarface Claw waited on the front porch in the sun, nosing eagerly at her as she returned with a bowl for him and a cup of tea for herself. As she placed the tea on the railing, gravel crunched in her driveway and an elderly ute clattered over the cattlestop, pulling up beside the house.

"Kathy!" called the tall man in a ripped shearing singlet and an elderly swanndri, as he dragged himself and battered bag out of the front seat. "I mean, the respectable Miss Plum!"

"Cooch! Don't start, or I'll call you Socrates," she replied, striding down the steps and across the driveway in her socks. "You missed the yearly massacre."

"I don't know how you can chop trees, I really don't," he said, catching her up in an awkward hug. She held him close, feeling his strong, weathered frame in her arms. He smelled like Imperial Leather and dogs, and it should have been alien in her orderly garden, but it was as familiar as home to her.

"Come and have a cup of tea," she said. "And you know I don't hurt them, really I don't."

Cooch followed her up onto the porch, where Scarface Claw made an unimpressed noise and inspected Cooch closely before turning back to his food. Cooch scratched behind his ears, earning a half-hearted hiss and a lazy swipe of his paw.

"You've still got the old boy, then," he said. Kathy smiled. Scarface Claw didn't like people in general, but it warmed her heart that he made an exception for Cooch.

"I wouldn't say I've got him," she replied. "He turns up when he wants, after he's finished terrorising all the dogs in town. He keeps the rabbits down, though, so that's good." Cooch scratched him again, earning a more purposeful yowl of disapproval. Kathy smiled and headed inside.

She returned with another cup to find Cooch perched on the rail in the sun with his hat pushed back. He looked so like he had when he was younger that Kathy paused on the doorstep, remembering other bright golden days and cups of tea. Then he turned his head and the vision vanished, but the present was no less good than days gone, not when Cooch smiled like that.

"It's looking good, Kathy," he said. "What's that you've planted in the totara hedge?"

"It's a cultivar called Matapouri Blue," she said. "I had to rip a standard one out in the big storm last winter after the Potts went off the road and took out a chunk of the bank and damaged it. I don't see why they couldn't hit a fence post instead. They've only just moved here from town, and aren't used to the narrow roads yet." The acid note she finished on made Cooch smile.

"Nice. Will you grow me up some cuttings?"

"Yeah, sure," she said. "Do you need to plant a new hedge?"

"I always need more trees, you know that," he said. Kathy laughed quietly. On the foothills of the Urewera, land was always trying to escape into the rivers. Cooch planted all along his water courses and still the land fell. He grazed lightly, but his hills were scarred with slips just the same. Kathy itched to regenerate the bush along the scrub that persisted, but Cooch just smiled and said she could do what she wanted when she lived there.

"Many slips this winter?" she asked.

"Not yet," he said. "Wait for spring."

Kathy took a long drink of her tea and hummed in agreement. She leaned on the railing next to Cooch and soaked up the sun. From Cooch's ute came a long howl of outrage. Scarface Claw immediately hissed and arched in fury, and Cooch looked alarmed. A massive black and white cat exploded from the deck of the ute, landing with an audible thud on the gravel.

"Horse!" exclaimed Kathy, running down the steps as she recognised him. There were a few new rips in his ears, but he was still his ferocious self.

"He's a bit wild, remember," called Cooch, but Kathy ignored him and bent down over Horse and held out her hand for him to sniff.

"Did you come all this way to see me?" she asked. Horse gave a half-growl, half purr and sniffed her hand. She scratched under his chin and he wound himself around her legs. "You must be hungry," she said. "Come on, there's more food."

Scarface Claw made an affronted noise and inflated like a black thundercloud on the porch. Horse strutted forward with his teeth bared and tail up.

"Kathy, not wanting to alarm you, but I don't think this is going to go well," Cooch said.

"Nonsense," said Kathy, bending down and smoothing the fur on Scarface Claw's back down as she petted Horse behind the ear with her other hand. "They'll remember each other, won't you boys?" Horse made a noise that was almost surly in its bad-tempered agreement, and Scarface Claw hissed half-heartedly as they both folded under the command in Kathy's voice. She left them sniffing one another as she fetched some more food, and smiled as they stalked side by side to finish their food.

"See?" she asked. "Just like old times." She laughed as Cooch shuddered theatrically.

"If I remember right, old times weren't always fun either, but you've always been magic with animals."

"You're remembering wrong," she said. She smiled at Cooch as he slowly relaxed on the railing as the two cats settled next to each other. "But I try to keep my hand in with surly males."

>>>>

Kathy brought two cups of tea to the porch and left them on the railing as she climbed up in the last light of the sun. She tipped her head back against the post and enjoyed the late evening light. A shrill mewling interrupted her and she looked around in confusion. Hopping down, she went down the steps to find two snarling puffball kittens and a thin cat curled up the dust under the porch. She held out her hand, scratching the kittens each in turn as they subsided under her fingers. She stroked the cat gently.

"Kathy?" called Cooch from above her.

"Here," she replied.

"Kittens?" he said, coming down the steps to look at the little family. He crouched next to her

"Why not?" she asked. "Uncle has a tree growing through his lounge floor, I think this place can handle a cat."

"A few half-feral kittens?" he said. The little black and white kitten hissed furiously at his intrusion and the dark grey one puffed up as threateningly as possible.

"Play nice," said Kathy, as much to Cooch as the kittens. The kittens subsided suspiciously and Cooch stood up and backed away a little. "Can you find me an old blanket?"

"I guess," said Cooch. She looked at him expectantly as he shuffled his feet. "I'll get one now," he said.

"Thanks," said Kathy. By the time he returned, tattered grey blanket folded over his arm, she'd organised the little family with food and water, both kittens sneezing as they incautiously inhaled the milk. Cooch laughed and they both hissed. He handed Kathy the blanket and retreated to a safe distance.

"That black and white one's going to be as big as a horse," he said.

"I daresay," said Kathy. "He'll be a fine big boy. They both will."

Cooch shook his head and climbed up on the railing as Kathy folded the blanket and settled it on a dry spot. She petted the kittens one last time and returned to her abandoned tea. Climbing up on the rail next to Cooch, she sipped her lukewarm tea and made a face. Cooch laughed softly. She shook her head and took a larger gulp.

"What's Uncle going to say when he sees those kittens?" he asked.

"As long as you didn't take a blanket off his bed, why would he care?" she answered. "You didn't, though, right?" She really hoped not; Uncle Xenocrates had all the natural surliness of a man burdened with a Greek name that her cousin lacked. His blissful indifference to it was just one of the many things Kathy liked about him.

"I have to live here," he said.

"So do I," she said.

"For now. What am I supposed to do when you swan off to Gisborne to learn to chop trees?"

"It's called arboriculture, and I expect you'll just go on doing what you're already doing, like fencing and digging ditches."

"It's called farming, and shows what you know. It's far too dry to dig ditches at the moment."

"Oh, I'm sure it's very complicated," said Kathy.

They lapsed into silence, enjoying the evening stillness, watching the dry grass turn golden the long sunset on the longest day. Kathy thought of the way the day stretched, dry and dusty under a burning blue sky, of the tomatoes growing in the little patch out back, of the way their Uncle looked like he was slowly crumbling into the dry earth. All this would belong to Cooch, one day. She envied him this sense of belonging. All she had was a little house in the suburbs in Gisborne and a father who disapproved of all this wildness, as he called it. She wasn't quite sure where she belonged, but it wasn't in his Keith Hay home up behind Nelson Park, or in the quiet home of any of the respectable boys he approved of.

"Plum Tree Services has a nice ring to it," said Kathy. She tilted her head to look at Cooch. "That's what I'll call my little business, when I get back." She said it as much to herself as to him, an assurance that she'd have something of her own to belong to.

"Are you coming back, then?" asked Cooch. He sounded unguarded, young, and Kathy wasn't sure what to say.

"I don't know," she said. "I think so. Yes, one day. I can't leave you completely alone here."

A scuffle of yowls and hisses broke out from under the porch, and Kathy watched her two half-wild kittens tumble out, dragging an unwary mouse with them. They proceeded to fight over the mangled body and both she and Cooch started to laugh. The sky darkened further and Kathy could hardly see Cooch as she turned and hopped down off the railing.

"Come on," she said, "I made a cake earlier. Another cup of tea before bed and a hard day tomorrow, not digging ditches."

>>>>

Cooch stood proprietorially by the bonfire, poking at it now and then with a handy stick as it died down. Kathy sat in a battered deck chair with a glass of mulled wine and looked at the flames. A yowl from the darkness made her turn her head slightly, but she didn't get up. Wherever the boys were, she hoped they were giving the spoiled and pampered town dogs a hell of a fright. It would do them good. She was getting tired of being dependable Miss Plum, who could fix anything. She felt more wild and rebellious, like she should be terrorising the dogs herself. Like the sensible Miss Plum was getting too small for her.

Cooch folded himself into his deck chair and declined Kathy's offer of wine.

"I'll stick with beer, thanks," he said.

"A more manly drink?" she asked. "And this, coming from the person who made blackberry wine and tried to poison me with it?"

"I was only twenty!" he protested. "Besides, it was my first batch. I got much better at it, and I had to do something with the blackberries."

"And to think, I was at polytech and missed all the experiments." Kathy shook her head in mock sadness. "And, you know, you could chop the blackberries. Eradicate them, even, or try to, at least."

"Sacrilege," said Cooch. "I'm only glad Uncle isn't here to have to listen to such things."

"Nonsense," said Kathy. "He never liked blackberries, except in a crumble."

They were silent for a while, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Kathy thought of the young woman she'd been, of the way she'd been determined to find her own path. Now, she supposed she was, indeed, the respectable Miss Plum that Cooch teasingly called her. She belonged here, in the little cottage she'd lived in forever, driving her truck all over the countryside to tend to trees, but the ordered little kingdom sometimes felt too small. She'd refused Cooch the first time because she wasn't ready to settle, but perhaps she'd reached the end of what Miss Plum could give her. Her orderly little cottage and her business were being swallowed by retired accountants and their hobby farms, and her shabby little village was slowly gentrifying with dogs with surnames and pedigrees.

She reached over and grasped Cooch's hand. He looked at her, the light flickering over his face, lips parted in surprise.

"I'm glad I've got you," she said.

"Kathy," he said, longing plain in his voice.

"No, not now, but soon. I'll move out to your lawless, slip-ridden farm and strike fear into your heart with my ruthless organisation and tree-chopping. I'll bring Scarface Claw, and he and Horse can terrorise those massive pigdogs of those disgusting neighbours. I'm glad I still have you, though."

"Me too," Cooch said. He leaned awkwardly over the side of his deck chair and Kathy moved to meet him. Their kiss was interrupted by a mingled cacophony of yelps and whining barks. Looking up, Kathy saw a stream of dogs hurtle past the fire, tails between their legs. Two triumphant cats followed, tails up, and Kathy laughed delightedly.

"You adorable boys," she said. "Good work. That will show those town-bred upstarts."

"This is what my future is," said Cooch. "Just like my past: constantly interrupted in quality time with my wife by the depredations of sundry animals - and I include my less disgusting neighbour in that -"

"Don't get ahead of yourself, boyo," Kathy said, standing and pulling him to his feet next to her. "I still quite like some parts being Miss Plum."

They left the cats to their triumph and Kathy led Cooch back through the chilly garden to her warm house.

>>>>

Scarface Claw sniffed the wind. It had all the familiar scents on it; pampered dogs and coddled cats, with their tinned food and those odd crunchy little things that never fought back properly, Next to him, Horse made a muffled noise of confusion. Scarface Claw understood. It wasn't the same here, not like at home. Cooch smelled like home, so did Horse, and so did Kathy. They smelled like crumbly soil and woodsmoke. There were times when Scarface Claw was still confused by how he'd ended up here.

They trotted off into the darkness, leaving Cooch and Kathy behind with the fire. Scarface Claw knew that the dogs here weren't up to much, not like those three slavering pigdogs that belonged to the repulsive neighbours at home, but he hoped Horse would understand.

He led Horse through the wild parts of town, leaving the streetlights and manicured gardens for later. There were still places with unkempt pools of water and feral rats to be hunted down and slaughtered. He watched Horse flip one over his head with a savage jerk and made a little yowl of predatory triumph. They hunted the rats through the shadows and darkness, until Scarface Claw heard the scuffle of paws and remembered the rest of his plan for the night.

He led the way through streets that got progressively cleaner and better lit. He was used to this, but Horse blinked and flattened his ears. Scarface Claw nudged him, and they followed a jaunty little dog, tail flying and blissfully unaware of their presence, as he scampered over the low hedge of his house and down the footpath.

They followed, one dark grey shadow and one black and white, as the dog yipped shrilly outside the gates and collected his gang. Next to him, Scarface Claw could feel Horse's indignation growing with each addition. Next thing he knew, he'd have Prince Charles popping his little fat Corgi body out from under a gate!

The parade of dogs trailed on through the little town. There was a hulking great one like a sheep met a haybale, a short one with tiny stubby legs, and one that was more bone than dog. Their two menacing shadows trailed behind.

The dogs nosed through the hedge and into the meadow, Kathy's fire flickering in the distance. There were waves of nervous excitement rolling off them. Scarface Claw waited, Horse beside him, as the dogs poked and pried here and there. Finally, the dogs followed a little path to a patch of grass.

Scarface Claw erupted from the grass, Horse at his side, and the dogs yelped and ran. The cats pursued, tails up and teeth bared, claws ready. The dogs streaked over the grass in terrified desperation. Horse thundered after them, Scarface Claw by his side. They hurtled past the fire, back into the darkness, chasing them back to quiver and shake in their nice little beds, before howling triumphantly and padding home.

Horse nosed gently at Scarface Claw's side and purred like a chainsaw. Scarface Claw made a happy chirp of agreement. They walked side by side down the moonlit street, tails waving like the standards of a victorious army, until they fell asleep in a tangle on Kathy's back porch. It smelled like home.

>>>>

Cooch and Kathy sat on the porch, cups of tea long discarded next to them, the remains of a cake pushed to one side. Kathy stared out at the deep shadows of the evening as the longest day slowly wore away. The house inside was silent and empty, all the mourners long gone. She'd cleaned up behind them and folded away all the linens of the family's faded, nearly forgotten, past. The kitchen table was back to its familiar red formica and the fancy tea cups were put away.

"What will I do now?" asked Cooch, at last. Kathy looked at him, reading the grief and loneliness on his face. "Uncle is gone, you've got another year at 'tech, and I don't know what to do."

"I don't know," said Kathy. "But Uncle choose you for this. He thought you knew what to do without him." And, Kathy thought, he'd been doing it alone for a long time anyway. He just needed to remember. Uncle had been relying on Cooch for a long time now.

"Will you stay?" he asked.

"I'm here for the summer," she reminded him, even though she knew that wasn't exactly what he was asking, and she knew she wasn't ready to answer his real question just yet. She had a job waiting for her, when she finished study, and a life to make of her own. She wasn't ready for life in the folded up hills skirting the Urewera just yet.

Cooch put his arm around her shoulders and she shifted closer so he could press his face into her hair. She felt his shoulders shaking and reached up to touch his neck, stroke over his head. Her own eyes were wet. Uncle had taken them both in, had let her stay every summer once she became too wild for her suburban-bred parents, and she missed him. She missed the way he taught her about trees, the way he saw the world, the way he could smile that slow smile at her restlessness and she would feel that he saw her as she really was. He wasn't much of a talker, like Cooch that way, but he still had managed to tell her many things.

Cooch moved and she shifted, turning further into his body rather than sitting side by side. Cooch tipped back her face and kissed her lips off-centre first, then more firmly, properly, and she clutched his shoulders and kissed him back. Cooch was always there for her, with his understanding smile and sweet heart. He told her more with his hands than anyone else had ever managed with words.

A frightful wail and the thud of paws were the only warning she got before twin shapes hurtled over the grass and up the steps, straight into them both. Cooch rolled away from her with a curse and sat up, cradling his arm where Horse's claws had dug in. Kathy sat up with Scarface Claw in her lap. Three pig dogs shot out of the bushes after them, freezing in mid-stride as they took in the scene on the porch. Turning tail, they ran off again, Cooch's dogs belatedly barking at them as they left.

"And you two ran from that?" asked Kathy.

"There were three of them," said Cooch. Kathy ignored his intervention.

"I suppose you aren't quite fully grown," said Kathy, "but I expect that the two of you should be able to deal with any uppity dogs you come across in future, right?"

Looking almost shamefaced, they both slunk around Kathy's legs apologetically. She patted them both behind the ears in forgiveness. They sat on the bottom step and started cleaning their fur, as if they hadn't just been bolting around the farm like hooligans.

"One day," Kathy said. "One day, I'll stay here." She looked at Cooch as he finished mopping the blood off his arm with a corner of his shirt and smiled at him. He smiled back, a bit unsure, but full of affection.

"Okay," said Cooch. "One day. And no cats, right?"

Kathy shook her head and he sighed theatrically. She got to her feet and offered him a hand up.

"Tomorrow, I'll make pikelets," she said.

>>>>

The winter sun streamed through the kitchen windows and the stove radiated comfortable warmth behind her. Kathy left the pikelet mix to settle and pushed open the back door. Scarface Claw and Horse were curled up in a nest of old gardening gloves, sacks and gumboots. They wore a slumbering aura of virtue, like cats who'd done themselves proud. She smiled and closed the door again.

The shuffle of feet behind her made her turn and Cooch ambled into her kitchen. He pulled her into his arms and sighed happily into her hair as his fingers investigated the hem of her short nightie.

"You look just like I remember," he said.

"Not like sensible Miss Plum?" she asked.

"You've always been terrifyingly competent Miss Plum," he said. "But you're Kathy too, and everyone loves you. Especially me."

She rested her cheek against Cooch's shoulder and looped her arms around his neck. He kissed her hair. This summer, she thought, this summer she'd go home for good.

"Have you got golden syrup for those pikelets?" he asked. She laughed quietly as he shook his head. "Silly question," he said.