A perfect home by Dawn McMillan

At the seaside there stood an old wooden house. The verandah posts were crooked, the paint had peeled, and the windows rattled in the southwest wind. Nobody lived in the house, except for the creatures.

For spider it was the most wonderful home. Where the window met the corner she had spun her web, a net of silver to catch the passing mosquitoes. Hidden behind the window frame was her nursery. There in a safe ball of fibre, woven in and out like a darned sock, she had laid her eggs. Soon she expected a hundred babies to hatch and swing away on silken lines, to find their own place in the house.

Rat was delighted with the property, so close to the summer playground of the slow tidal stream. When the nights cooled he left the slippery banks to enjoy the warmth of the old house. All winter he and his wife had chewed through the wall studs, around the wiring, up to the ceiling, to find the right spot for a nest. Inside and outside they went, up and down the walls, carrying all that they needed to make a warm world of pieces of cloth, soft leaves and grasses for their expected family.

Starling had spent August and September finding her way into the roof. She had seen a crack in the bargeboards along the edge of the gable. Day after day she worked with her beak, widening the gap, until at last she was through under the iron, the warmest safest place for the new babies planned for the spring. There she built her nest, an untidy shambles of grasses and straw gathered from the nearby park. Tired but content she waited for the miracle. Soon four pale blue eggs lay in the softness of her work.

Borer had a long history in the house. His ancestors had all left their marks with the thousands of holes spotting the sap Rimu of long forgotten forests. Each hole told of a new beetle, chewing out from an egg carefully placed deep in a crack of the timber.

Silverfish had found a home in the darkest bedroom. There strips of wallpaper hung from the scrim in folds, taking the shape of the waves seen through the murky window. Paste, from when the paper was new and the patterns clear, tempted Silverfish to feast on the starch.

Downstairs lived Slater and Ant.

Ant and her friends had built their colony under the floorboards. Each day long lines of workers marched along the floor joists and out to the garden. There they risked the dangers of birds and flies in the search for food. Heavily laden with parts of insects and plants the ants returned to the nest, dashing this way and that, testing their memories for the way home.

Slater lived next to a totara pile that held the house off the ground. She liked it there because it was dark and damp. Overhead a rusty pipe dripped a supply of water from the old tank. Nearby was an abundant supply of food. A creeping plant had dared to travel under the house, only to lose its life to the dark. Decaying roots were Slater’s larder.

Around the house everything was overgrown.

A hedge, thick with twisted branches, wrapped itself around the remains of a wire fence. Rubbish blown by the wind, and tossed by careless passers by, lay with the roots.

Fluttering above the hedge was Fantail. She had decided that this was a safe place for her nest. It was well off the ground and she could see the materials that she needed, fibres and bark from the pohutakawa tree and moss from under the tank stand, perfect for the small cup like nest that she had in mind. Shining in the sunlight were the spiders' webs that she could use to put the finishing touches to her work.

Near the old fishpond lay Wild Cat. The garden and the verandah were his territory. Other cats were not welcome here! The fishpond was his favourite spot. No longer was it filled with the goldfish that once teased him with circles of swimming, but enough water collected there for him to drink. The concrete had crumbled and cracked, allowing some of the moisture to seep through to water the long grasses and flaxes that hid him from the rest of the world. Wild Cat was safe here. He curled up, out of the wind, and dreamed of the treats that he would find in the park rubbish bins that night. With the warmer days came the picnics and barbeques, with plenty left over for a hungry cat.

This was the world of the old house and the creatures, until the buyers came!

The day seemed like any other.

Spider watched her nest. Starling was warming her eggs.

Borer was stirring with some instinct for flight.

Silverfish was trailing grey dust in her search for food.

Rat was scurrying for one more bit of cloth.

Slater had eaten. Ant was winged and ready for flight.

Fantail was hovering.

Wild Cat was asleep.

The car pulled up at the front. With a slam of doors the world changed.
"This is it!" the woman shouted in excitement.

"Just what we want!" cried the man.

They walked along the verandah, ran their hands along the bare wood and said in one voice, "Solid Kauri!"

Wild Cat heard them coming to the back garden. His fur stood straight to the sky.

"This place is a mess!" said the woman.

"We could clear it in a week," the man said. "Just a few loads of rubbish for the dump."

Wild Cat squirmed through the hedge. He raced across the park to the shoreline, fear screaming in his head.

Fantail saw the visitors. She was delighted to have an audience to admire her splendid fan of tail feathers, and to watch her welcoming butterfly flight. She darted and chirped above their heads, responding to their voices, at the same time feasting on the insects disturbed in their path.

Slater and Ant never noticed the man crawling under the house.

"I think the house needs re-blocking," the man said to his wife.

"I’m not surprised," she called back. "This corner dips to the ground."

The couple stood tip toe and cupped their hands to peer inside.

"It’s been empty for a long time," she said.

"There is a lot of work to be done!" he thought aloud.

"We must have this place," whispered the woman.

Her husband thought of the sea views and nodded. The house was sold!

For the outdoor creatures disaster struck in October! With a sudden roar a monster appeared, facing the hedge with its long claw. Slowly the machine reached out and tore the roots from the ground. Fantail watched. Her new nest was crushed to the ground as the hedge plants were scooped up onto a waiting truck.

Wild Cat kept his distance that day. When night came, and all was quiet, he slipped back across the park to find his place by the pond. But every thing was different. He could smell newly turned soil, and saw that his flaxes were gone. So was the pond! All that was left were a few pieces of broken concrete lying in the crushed grass. Wild Cat curled up on the verandah and slept with his heart beating loudly and his ears still listening.

Next morning he fled at the sound of voices.

"It looks so much better with that hedge gone," said the woman.

"And thank goodness we managed to clear the yard while the digger was here," said the man. "Now we can start on the new piles in that corner."

Slater lived under that corner of the house. He scuttled for safety as light came into his world, first sunlight as baseboards were ripped off, then torchlight as the man crawled under the house.

"We only need to fix these few on the outside," he called to his wife. "The totara piles are as solid as rocks."

Slater’s home was safe, but he was already gone!

For the creatures in the house nothing changed, until the builders came!

With thoughtful faces and heavy boots the men marched from room to room.

"Best to clear it all out!" they said. And they did!

Chainsaws roared through rotting boards. Pinch bars tore off wall linings.

Out went spider and her nest. Out went Borer.

Out went Silverfish, still clinging to a scrap of paper. Outside, to a rubbish pile near the back fence.

Out raced Rat and his wife, heading for the stream.

Out went Ant, her colony taking flight at just the right time.

Starling stayed. She heard the danger below but she could not leave her eggs. She waited while skill saws whined and hammers banged up new walls. Some time in those weeks her babies hatched. Each day she slipped out in search of their food, not knowing if her nest would be there on her return.

The woman saved Starling’s babies.
"Down comes that old ceiling!" said the builders.

"Better fix the bargeboard'" said the man.

"Not until those birds fly!" said the woman.

It took all summer to make the old house feel like new again. The plumber laid new pipes. The electrician threaded new wires up the walls and along the ceilings. The builders lined the rooms and built new cupboards. Outside the man and the woman coated the kauri boards with soft cream paint.

Sometimes, as her hand moved back and forth with the paintbrush, the woman thought of all the creatures that had lived in the house. She remembered the way that spider had curled up in a ball of fear as she was ripped from her home. She knew of Wild Cat, as she had seen him watching her from the far trees.

"I must make new homes for them," she whispered to herself.

In the autumn she built a garden. She carried rocks from the beach to build a rock garden in the shade of the wattle tree. There she knew that Slater would find the perfect home.

The woman thought of Fantail as she planted new hedge plants along the drive. In a year or two, when the plants were a safe height, she knew that Fantail would be back to build another nest.

She thought of Wild Car as well, and said to her husband, "Let’s make a new fish pond."

Soon there were six goldfish swimming in circles in clean water. The woman and the man planted tall flaxes and waving grasses around the pond.

Gradually the man and the woman cleared the rest of the yard. They cut up the wood and stacked it along the back fence. They built a small wooden shed behind the garage. "Just the place for our junk, and for our old newspapers," said the man.

The woman smiled. "Just the place for Spider and her babies, and for Silverfish," she thought.

They cut and raked the long grass. Often they came across ants hurrying to new homes, this time underground.

"Take care!" the woman called. "Don’t disturb those ants. They need a home, and they are better outside than in the house!"

The man dug his vegetable garden and built a compost box in the corner. Each day the woman emptied the scrap bucket there. The man knew how good the compost would be for the garden. The woman knew that Rat would make his home in the woodpile and feast from the compost box. Borer would share the woodpile with Rat.

By the next spring the gardens had grown and the lawn was soft and new.

A garden bench rested on the cobblestones near the french doors. Here, one sunny morning, the man sat admiring all the work that had been done.

"You know," he called to his wife, "the one thing that this place needs is a bird house. Then, perhaps, that bird that you were so worried about last year might come back to nest. I think I'll make one!"

And he made the perfect place for Starling. There it was, a box just the right size for a nest, with a sloping roof and a small round hole as a front door. He painted it cream with a brown roof, and hammered it high on the side wall.

"Come and look at this," he called to his wife.

They stood close together and looked at Starling’s house. They stepped back and looked at their house. They walked softly around the garden, pleased with all that they had done.

Suddenly they stopped and held hands in silence. There, by the flax bush, was Wild Cat, nervously drinking the milk that the woman had left out in a saucer.

He raised one eye and seemed to say, "Give me some time and I'll be home too!"

© Dawn McMillan

Read our interview with Dawn McMillan.

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