"The trouble with Lovelace Court is nothing interesting ever happens," Gert complained through her toast.
"Yeah," grumbled her twin, Phil. "Why can't we have natural disasters. Anywhere else, all this rain would've flooded the school, so we couldn't go!"
Doggo, skulking under the table crunching on Phil's toast, wagged his short plume of tail in agreement.
"Too bad," said their mother. "But school is still there, so get moving." She realized the dog was in the kitchen. "And put that animal out before you leave."
"Poor Doggo might get pneumonia," Gert protested.
"He can shelter on the porch," their mother said briskly. She glanced at the clock. "Get a move on, the pair of you."
Despite the rain, the twins dawdled their way to school. Neither of them was in a hurry. The first day back after holidays was always hard to take.
The day dragged its slow way through, and the endless rain closed the classrooms in like grey prison cells. It seemed an eternity before the school day ended, and they could escape.
On the way home, they stopped on the bridge to admire the creek. Their new neighbour, a thin dark boy named George was with them.
The creek was flooded, swirling past the blackberries and rubbish that lined the steep banks. A large branch floated along, turning sluggishly. A sodden satchel was tangled in it, and the current bobbed it up and down as if it had a life of its own.
Gert stiffened. Her sharp eyes noticed that the satchel had both buckles fastened, an unbroken strap and no holes. She looked down at the bag at her feet. It gaped at the corners, where pens, rubbers and other small objects dropped through. The zip was broken and the top was held together with a large safety pin.
"Go and get it," she ordered.
"What?" Phil protested.
"Never mind, I'll get it myself," Gert snapped.
She slithered down the muddy bank and scrambled past the scratchy blackberries. The boys looked at each other, shrugged but followed her.
The branch caught on a blackberry bramble. Phil elbowed Gert out of the way and pulled the satchel clear. Gert pounced, disentangled all the twigs, and tipped it upside-down.
"It's full of water," Gert complained.
"What did you expect?" Phil jeered.
Suddenly, Gert dropped the satchel as if it were red hot. The wet satchel pulsated and heaved, moving slowly up and down as if it were breathing.
Phil and Gert looked at each other and squatted on the wet ground to tug at the straps, keeping their hands well clear as they lifted the flap. It was too late in the season for snakes, but it didn't hurt to be careful.
"Ooh," came the gasped chorus.
Three pairs of blue eyes blinked up at them, and three tiny kittens mewed their distress. They were so wet that they looked more like rats than kittens, small ears flat to tiny heads, wet fur sleeked against skinny bodies and tails.
Three pairs of hands reached forward, impelled by a common instinct, and placed them under three jumpers. Phil and Gert looked at George with approval. He flushed, and scrambled up the bank to the road.
Gert paused to pick up the wet satchel on her way. Soon the cold sodden lumps hidden under their jumpers dried and radiated warmth, vibrating their pleasure with loud rumbling purrs.
"What's your family like about strays?" Gert asked.
"My little brother is allergic to animals." George stroked at the lump under his jumper. "Mum won't let me have any pets."
"We've got a dog, two budgies, two cats and four guinea pigs," Gert said."But Mum is unreasonable about strays."
The thoughtful silence lasted until the three turned into Lovelace Court. This was all the time it had taken for the warm purring lumps under their jumpers to become sacred trusts.
"We can hide them in the back shed," Phil suggested.
It was the perfect solution. The shed was a storeroom for old newspapers, rags, boxes of bottles and jars, and broken garden furniture. Their parents never went near it.
Arriving home, Doggo greeted them at their front gate. He could smell the kittens. He jumped up and barked, broadcasting excitement and curiosity all over the district.
"Is that a dog?" George asked, hitching his kitten higher under his jumper.
George's surprise was understandable. Doggo looked like a white animated sheepskin wrapped around a four-legged sausage. It was difficult to distinguish which was his front or back end.
"Yeah, that's Doggo. Acting just as dumb as ever," Gert said with a sigh.
"Shut up, stupid. It's us," Phil ordered.
Doggo cringed and made low whining sounds. He wagged his tail, shook his fur clear of his eyes, and then barked even louder.
"Does he bite?" George asked as he followed the twins down to the old shed in their neat backyard.
"Not really," Gert explained. "He's not very bright. Dad said he might get more sense as he gets older, but we think he's just plain retarded."
"You're lucky to have any type of dog," George said as he patted what he hoped was the front end. "My Mum won't let us have any sort of pet."
"Probably because you used to live in a flat," Gert suggested, as she removed broken vacuum cleaner parts from a deep box.
"You'll be allowed to have pets now you have shifted into a house with a proper yard," Phil said, as he folded newspapers to fit the box and dropped his kitten in.
"She's already said no," George said with a sigh, as he placed his kitten with the others.
Doggo peered over the edge of the box and sniffed.
"Get away," Gert scolded.
Doggo's tufts of fur drooped and he slunk away. The box was hidden behind the broken wheelbarrow, and Phil ran into the house for milk and food for the kittens.
"Mum said to set the table if she's not back in time," Phil reported when he returned.
"Wonder where she's off to?" Gert mused.
"Do you think the kittens are old enough to eat meat if we mush it through the milk?" Phil asked.
He was busy shredding meat. The result looked a mess, but the kittens didn't seem to mind. After they had finished eating, they carried the kittens outside to behind the woodshed to be inspected properly. Their fur had dried out and fluffed up around them. They were all an identical ginger with white markings.
"Two boys and a girl," Gert announced. "I reckon about three maybe four weeks old."
"Whatya doing?" asked a voice.
An eye watched them through the broken gap in the paling fence. The kittens were immediately whisked up under jumpers.
"Minding our own business, Nosy Parker," Gert retorted.
A well-aimed stone shot through the gap in the fence and stung Gert on the shin.
"Ow!You little brat," Gert shrieked, as she flung the stone back.
"Yah, yah, yah, missed," jeered the infuriating voice.
"You'll get put in prison for trespassing," Gert threatened as she scrambled up on to the back fence. "Old Mr Jones doesn't like people mucking up his garden."
"We live here now, so just get off our fence," another voice retorted.
An older boy was beside the boy whom had thrown the stone. He was about the same age as the twins and wore a khaki jacket over ragged jeans. Like the smaller boy, a mop of brown hair almost obscured his face.
Phil and George joined Gert on the fence. Mr Jones' neat backyard was an untidy mess of old furniture, trailers, rugs, sodden boxes and bulging plastic bags. A rusty Holden car was parked across the lawn.
"That girl threw a stone at me," the smaller boy accused.
"You touch my little brother and I'll thump you," the older boy warned Gert.
Phil pushed his kitten into Gert's hands and was over the fence in a quick jump.
"You thump my sister and I'll thump you," Phil stammered, his freckles standing out in temper and his face deepening to red.
The boy kicked Phil in the shin and pushed at him. Phil staggered, swung a punch, and the next instant both boys were rolling on the wet ground, punching and kicking each other.
"Go 'im, belt 'im, hit 'im, Robbie," yelled the small boy, dancing around and aiming kicks at Phil, whose nose had started to bleed.
Gert stuffed both kittens into George's hands and jumped over the fence, dragging off the loose paling. Doggo squeezed through the gap after her, barking loudly.
Gert swung. She caught the little boy around the legs. He howled and fled towards the house. Gert swung again, hitting the boy named Robbie every time he rolled uppermost. The paling was jerked from her hand and thrown away, and a taller boy dragged both boys apart. The smaller boy stood beside him.
"Fighting again, Robbie?" the older boy said.
"He started it," Robbie accused. One of his eyes was discolouring and swelling.
"He threatened to hit my sister." Phil wiped the blood from his streaming nose with his sleeve.
"I bet your sister can look after herself," drawled the teenager, glancing at Gert, who grabbed for the paling again.
"You bet I can," Gert dared, swinging the paling up.
"Good thinking," approved the older boy. "I like a girl who can look after herself." He shook Robbie by the shirt. "What about your promise?"
"They were throwing stones at Albie," Robbie muttered.
"That little brat threw them first," Gert retorted.
"I'll bet he did." The older boy let go of Phil and Robbie, and gave Albie a good-natured cuff. Gert dropped the paling. The fight seemed to be over.
"I'm Norm Morris, and these are some of my brothers, Robbie and Albie. Don't hold it against Robbie - he has to look out for Albie. After all, you look out for your sister."
Phil's freckles faded and his skin lightened to its normal colour. Gert gave him her hanky to hold under his nose.
"I'm Gert Hildersen. This is my twin brother, Phil, and that's George Brentwood. Sorry we trespassed."
"That's okay," Norm said.
"Yeah," Robbie agreed. He looked at Gert with respect. "Wish I had a sister who could fight."
"Norm, Norman, where are you?" a voice called from the house. "I need you, Norm, and where's Robbie?Albie, Albert, come here at once."
Robbie and Albie turned and raced up to the house. Norm gave an uncertain smile, and he too followed.
"New neighbours, hey," Phil said thickly, as he climbed the fence holding the handkerchief to his nose. "Things might liven up around here now."
"We could do with some excitement." Gert looked around."Where are the kittens?"
"Back in the box," George said. "I was scared to put them down in case Doggo decided to eat them."
"He won't touch the kittens, but Gert should have taken them," Phil snuffled."Where's Doggo?"
Gert whistled, and Doggo bounded down the Morris's yard, squeezed through the hole in the fence and frisked around, barking.
"Trust him to make our new neighbours welcome," Gert sniffed. "Down, stupid, or you can go in your kennel."
Doggo subsided. Phil returned to his original complaint. "Gert should've held the kittens. It isn't a girl's place to fight."
"I can fight better than you," Gert flared up. "I'm not going to stand by and let you get bashed up by all the idiots in the district. Come inside and get cleaned up before you start selling your papers."
"I have to go," George apologized. "I've got to mind my little brother."
He scrambled over the side fence. Phil followed Gert inside in a sulky silence. His nose stopped bleeding at last, and Gert rinsed out the hanky, jumper and shirt while he changed. Phil then put on his raincoat, mumbled goodbye and rode off on his bike.
Gert fed the kittens more milk, fed the guinea pigs and the two cats and brushed Doggo. As soon as it was six o'clock she set the table and waited for everyone to come home.
Her mother arrived home after her father, and dinner was later than usual. Over the meal, the subject of the new neighbours came up.
"Two sets of new neighbours in one week," their mother remarked."I'll miss old Mr Jones and the Mitchells."
"Where's Mr Jones gone?" Gert knew about the Mitchells moving out to the country. They had talked of nothing else for weeks, but she hadn't known that Mr Jones was gone. He had been a quiet old man, who pottered around in his garden, sometimes passing over home-grown vegetables and bunches of flowers.
"He took sick suddenly, and moved into a nursing home. His house is being rented until his family decide what to do."
"Why would he rent his nice little house to that pack of yahoos?" Gert asked.
"Suppose his family organized it," Gert's mother said. "And watch your language. You mustn't make snap judgments." She looked around the table. "Don't you want to know my news?"
Phil spooned out more sweets for himself, and his father poured himself another cup of tea, one eye on the newspaper propped in front of him. Gert stirred her chocolate milk, and wondered if the kittens were going to be warm enough during the night.
Mrs Hilderson looked quickly around at her disinterested family, took a deep breath, and dropped her bombshell.
"I have a job! I start afternoon shift tomorrow as a supervisor at the local factory."