‘What I need,’ said Pearl, as she started to slide off the roof, ‘is a grandmother.’
There weren’t any around, so Pearl grabbed hold of the TV aerial instead.
Then a thought hit her.
She looked anxiously down at the driveway.
If she fell, she didn’t want to fall on Winston.
He was the kindest bravest guinea pig in the whole world, but if he tried to catch her he’d also be the flattest.
Pearl could see him directly below, a fluffy black-and-white blob, peering up at her, nose twitching with concern.
‘Winston,’ she called, ‘shift over there next to the herb tub.’
Winston didn’t move.
He gave her a few encouraging squeaks.
Pearl braced her feet against the tin roof, gripped the aerial as hard as she could and leant out over the guttering so Winston could see her pointing at the clump of basil.
A gust of wind nearly blew her off.
‘Winston,’ she yelled, ‘It’s not safe. Move.’
He hurled himself at the wall and tried to run up the drainpipe, feet scrabbling on the shiny paint.
Then he slowly slid back down.
Pearl couldn’t help grinning, even though her heart was scrabbling inside her chest.
‘Winston,’ she croaked, ‘forget what I said. Stay where you are, OK?’
Only his ears moved, trembling in the wind.
Pearl grinned even wider and felt her guts unclench.
What a dope.
He’d tried to rescue her.
Even though he didn’t have ropes or pulleys or a fire truck with an extension ladder, he’d still tried to rescue her.
She wanted to climb down and hug him.
But first she had a job to do.
Pearl squinted across the roof.
There it was, flapping white against the chimney.
‘Alright you dumb bra,’ said Pearl, ‘here I come.’
Legs trembling, she pushed herself up the sloping tin.
She could hear her shirt buttons scraping on the metal, and the rubber on her shoes squeaking like Winston when he got indignant.
‘If you had a grandma,’ Winston would be squeaking if he was up here now, ‘you wouldn’t have to risk your neck like this.’
Too right, thought Pearl, edging towards the dancing bra. If I had a grandma she’d teach me all sorts of stuff.
How to knit a jumper for a guinea pig.
How to write to Dad when I don’t know where he lives.
How to peg Mum’s bras on the line so they don’t get blown onto the roof
That’s what Grandmas are for.
To teach you all the stuff busy Mums don’t have time to.
Plus make you birthday cakes and help you get the guinea pig poo out of your hair and cuddle you once in a while and ...
Pearl blinked hard.
This was no time to get distracted.
She wrapped an arm round the chimney and leant over as far as she could and grabbed the bra with her fingertips.
Just as well it’s a 14E, thought Pearl.
She pitied kids with skinny mums. Grabbing small bras off windy roofs must be really hard.
She gripped the bra between her teeth and started to climb down.
A sports car that sounded like Mum’s screeched round the corner at the end of the street.
Pearl squinted down.
Yes, it was Mum. There were only three red Capris in the whole town and Mum was the only one whose numberplate said CAR4ME.
Suddenly Pearl’s heart started going scrabbly again.
There was a bloke sitting next to Mum.
It must be Howard.
‘Winston,’ Pearl called down excitedly. ‘She’s brought him home.’
Winston frowned at the approaching car.
‘Don’t be cross with her,’ said Pearl. ‘She had to wait a few weeks for the relationship to develop. New blokes can be put off if they find out there’s a kid and a guinea pig.
Winston’s face softened.
As the car pulled up, Pearl peered at Howard. He didn’t look like he’d be put off too easily. Pearl shivered with excitement and felt for the drainpipe with her feet.
‘So, Pearl,’ said Howard. ‘This must be Winston.’
‘That’s right,’ said Pearl.
Winston waddled across the carpet, sniffed Howard’s squash shoe and gave it a friendly chew.
‘Hello Winston,’ said Howard, taking a step back. ‘Haven’t you got a cage then?’
Pearl left Winston to explain that he was a free-range guinea pig who liked to roam proud and unrestrained, plus when he did flake out it was in a hutch.
While Winston squeaked earnestly, Pearl checked Howard for grey hairs.
None on his head.
None on his legs either, what she could see of them between his squash socks and his shorts.
Excellent, thought Pearl. He can’t be more than thirty-five.
Winston gave an impatient squeak.
OK Winston, calm down, she thought. I’m going to ask him the question now.
She took a deep breath.
Before she could speak, Mum came out of the bathroom in a towel.
‘Pearl, don’t pester Howard,’ she said, rummaging in the washing basket. ‘Let him have a shower. We’re due at the restaurant in half an hour.’
Howard kissed Mum on the cheek and went into the bathroom.
Mum put her face close to Pearl’s.
‘He’s the best thing that’s happened to me since your Dad left,’ she said. ‘Don’t blow it for me, OK?’
Pearl stared at her, puzzled.
Mum held a bra up in front of Pearl’s face. It had sooty streaks on it, and a bit of dribble.
‘Can’t trust you with anything, can I?’ said Mum.
Nibble. Nibble. Nibble.
Pearl opened her eyes.
It was still dark.
Strange, she thought.
Winston hardly ever nibbled her ear in the dark. He usually waited till the sun was up and peeping through the dump trucks on her curtains.
Pearl sat up, straining to hear if the house was burning down.
Then she heard Mum and Howard at the front door, giggling while Mum tried to get the key in the lock.
Pearl gave Winston a grateful kiss on the tummy.
‘Thanks,’ she whispered. ‘I was out like a light. Dunno what I’d do without you Winston.’
Winston squeaked softly in her ear. Something about getting on with asking Howard the question and not wasting time being drippy.
‘Good point,’ Pearl whispered, and listened carefully as Mum and Howard banged the front door shut behind them.
After a bit she heard Mum go into her room and Howard clump into the bathroom.
Pearl slipped out of bed and crept along the hallway.
The bathroom door was open.
She peeped in.
Howard was at the sink, shirt unbuttoned, splashing Mum’s eau de cologne under his arms.
‘Howard,’ said Pearl softly.
Howard jumped and dropped the bottle.
He spun round.
‘Jeez!’ he shouted. ‘Don’t creep up on a bloke like that.’
Pearl opened her mouth to apologise but it was too late. Mum was storming towards her, dress half undone.
‘What are you doing out of bed?’ she demanded.
Pearl started to tell her, then decided not to.
Mum wasn’t even listening anyway, she was doing her speech about how parents who run busy offices for twelve hours a day deserve a couple of hours off at night without kids making them break the zips on their dresses.
Howard crouched down next to Pearl.
‘Did you have a nightmare?’ he asked.
‘She doesn’t have nightmares,’ said Mum. ‘I’m the one who has nightmares. That cologne cost sixty-eight dollars.’
As soon as the toast popped up, Pearl put it on the plates and checked the rest of the tray.
Tomato juice, Coco Pops, scrambled eggs, strawberry milk and toast.
It was her first breakfast tray and she wanted it to be a good one.
‘Shame there’s no bacon,’ she said. ‘Still, this is almost as good, eh?’
Winston sniffed the fish fingers and looked doubtful.
‘OK,’ said Pearl, ‘I know you think they’d prefer frozen peas and sweetcorn, but not everyone likes that as much as you.’
Pearl picked up the tray and carried it carefully to Mum’s room.
She peered in.
Mum and Howard were still asleep.
‘Remember,’ she whispered to Winston, ‘if Mum wakes up we’re just bringing her a breakfast tray, OK?’
Winston squeaked OK.
Good on you Winston, thought Pearl. Winston’d never dob on her, not even if he was being tortured with bulldog clips on his whiskers.
She pushed the door open with her bottom and carried the tray over to where Howard lay on his tummy, face half buried in the pillow.
She knelt down and put her face close to his ear.
‘Howard,’ she whispered, ‘I need to ask you something.’
‘Mmmmmpflbbb,’ moaned Howard.
‘Your mum ... is she still alive?’
‘Ggggnslff,’ groaned Howard.
‘The reason I’m asking,’ continued Pearl, ‘is cause my mum and dad’s parents died before I was born, so I haven’t got an actual real grandma of my own but if your mum’s still alive she’d technically be my grandma, as long as you and Mum are serious about each other.’
Pearl noticed the smudges of lipstick on Howard’s face.
It looked like he and Mum were serious about each other all night.
‘So,’ whispered Pearl urgently, ‘is she dead yet?’
‘Zzzzgnkkk,’ gurgled Howard, and his arm slipped off the edge of the bed and fell into the scrambled eggs.
His eyes snapped open.
‘Ow!’ he yelled.
He pulled his burnt hand off the plate, knocking a glass of tomato juice over Winston.
Pearl watched horrified as Winston gave a loud squeak, leaped off the tray and burrowed under the bedclothes.
‘Arghhh!’ screamed Mum, sitting up wildly. ‘It’s a snake!’
Winston peered out indignantly from the bottom of the sheet.
Pearl grabbed him and held him close to her.
There was a long silence while Mum and Howard stared bleary-eyed around the room.
Finally they focused on Pearl.
‘Breakfast in bed,’ Pearl said weakly, pointing to the tray. ‘Hope you like fish fingers.’
There was another long silence while Mum and Howard stared at the tray.
‘Jeez,’ said Howard at last. ‘Pretty noisy room service. I reckon most of Australia’s awake now. Including my mother and she’s sixty-eight and going deaf.’
Pearl and Winston looked at each other delightedly.
Pearl had a wonderful vision of the delicious breakfast trays they’d soon be sharing in bed with their new grandma.
Homemade cakes, probably.
Maybe even homemade Coco Pops.
And cow weed scones for Winston.
A noise interrupted Pearl’s thoughts.
It was Mum sighing crossly.
‘Next time you get a bright idea like this,’ said Mum, check with me first. And you know I don’t allow that animal in here.’
Winston waddled out of the room.
Pearl followed, trying very hard not to do cartwheels.
Water Wings is available in bookshops and libraries in Australia and New Zealand, and online:
The audio track on this page is an excerpt from the Bolinda Audiobook Water Wings, read by Mary-Anne Fahey. Buy it online: