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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother's Day with whistles

"Did you see a woman caught TB from her kitten?" my sister says, as she bustles around the kitchen, rustling up breakfast, the day after she'd flown back from Tenerife.

"How did her kitten get it?" I say.

"A badger bit him," she says.

"Ha!" I say and her cat shoots up from my feet and hurtles through to the living-room. I keep forgetting what a nervous nelly he is and I shouldn't, because I've been looking after him for a week while sis has been sunning herself, way down south. 

"You're only back five minutes and you've been at the Daily Mail already," I say.

"There's a lot of good reading in the Daily Mail," she says. 

"There's a lot of good fertiliser in horseshit," I say. "But you don't want it in the house with you."

"You wouldn't be talking like that if Mum was here. What would she say?"

"Oh, Douuglas," I imitate the lengthy first syllable and falling intonation she always used to convey her disappointment that all that good training she'd given me as a boy had failed to stick, and I was talking uncouth rubbish again.

"Exactly," sis tells me, with a smile. "And this is still her kitchen, so less of it please."

"Point is you should be asking questions, not just parroting stuff people tell you," I say. "Stories often have an agenda and that one's obvious."

"I wasn't parroting stuff," she says, with the tone that's told me to back off since we were kids together. "Where would you like this?" she adds, hovering over me with a heaped frying-pan of eggs, mushrooms and veggie sausages. 

"On the plate?" I suggest and she slaps it there with two quick scoops of a fish slice, then sits down opposite. 

"I'll let you off because you've been looking after my old cat all week," she says, stroking the little bugger, who has padded cautiously back, given me a body swerve and climbed up on her knee. "He seems fine."

"He wasn't eating much the first few days," I tell her. "Seemed listless so I was worried. He perked up after I set the kitchen on fire."

"You didn't?" she says, looking round in alarm.

"Not the whole of it," I say. "Just the grill when I was toasting sugary French bread. Smoke and flames erupted and he came diving through to tell me. Been perky ever since. The adrenalin I guess."

She tickles him behind the ear, while studying the little bunch of daffodils on the window-sill that burst into bloom yesterday, and I know what she's thinking. 

"This was Mum's favourite time of year," she says. "She loved spring flowers. Like a patch of sunshine in the house, she'd say."

"She loved the cat too," I tell her. "Used to sit stroking him on her knee, like you're doing now. Then you'd come into the room and he'd jump down to greet you and a wee shadow would cross her face. She liked to think he was her cat."

"He was her cat," sis says and looks away. "We're going to have to scatter her ashes this year, you know. Hers and Dad's. In that field up the Skares road where he lived as a boy."

"We will," I say. "It's what they both wanted, so we'll force ourselves. What was the most interesting thing you did on your holiday?"

"We took a boat trip to an island called La Gomera, which has deep ravines and no roads until the 1950s," she says. "So the natives invented a way of communicating based on whistling, which carries across country for miles. They gave us a demonstration and it was amazing. 

"Let me show you," she says, pressing a button on her mobile that starts a recording.

"That's fantastic," I say, having listened to several seconds of animated whistles. "But it only proves you can't believe everything people tell you, like I've been saying. This is clearly a story made up for gullible tourists and I'll tell you why. That was not the whistling natives of La Gomera. That's bollocks.

"It was Tiny Clanger talking to the Soup Dragon. Which I keep on my mobile because it makes me laugh. Let me show you," I say, pressing a button that starts a recording.

She listens, looks at me sadly, then shakes her head.

"Oh, Douuglas," she says.

The truth about the whistling language of La Gomera.

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