Papou's Whistle



We were all packed into the tiny sitting room of my grandparents’ flat, which also used to double as my dad’s bedroom.  The four of us kids were clambering over the sofa bed, launching ourselves at each other and generally creating havoc.  My grandma and mum were in the poky little kitchen preparing the next meal and my dad was taking a nap in his parents’ bedroom, so it had fallen to my granddad to keep an eye on us for an hour or so.  He stood in the doorway, wearing the same grey cardigan, shirt and trousers that he always seemed to wear, the only splash of colour being his faded maroon braces.  Small icons of saints and other holy figures covered the wall next to the doorway like a mosaic, the gold and silver detail contrasting sharply with the dark wood on which they were mounted.  An imposing black painted wood unit comprised of shelves of varying dimensions dominated one side of the room.  These shelves housed books, vases, numerous ornaments, an ageing TV set with wood-effect panels and a multitude of framed pictures of various members of the extended family.  Against the opposite wall was a desk covered with a sheet of glass, underneath which more photos of the family were laid on top of a dark green felt.  Rain pounded on the window pane over the desk.  It was this rain that had kept us indoors almost exclusively for the last two days, and was the reason why we were so raucous, having pretty much exhausted all the options for indoor activities.


Papou was a no-nonsense sort of a man and after a few tolerant minutes he had evidently had enough of our noise and decided to try and distract us with the TV.  There was a noticeable clunk from deep within the recesses of the set as he turned it on, and the screen slowly faded to life to reveal the evening news.  Knowing that this wasn’t going to hold our attention he tried to change the channels, but instead accidentally turned it off again.  He turned it back on and tried again, this time turning the volume up so high that it made us all scream and cover our ears, and caused Yiayia to shout at him from the kitchen, ‘Turn it down, the boy is sleeping!’ He quickly did this and again accidentally turned it off.  I was incapacitated by fits of laughter by this point, but my brother dutifully got up and pointed out which buttons he needed to press.  He surfed through the channels, which didn’t take long as there were only four of them.  One was an old black and white film that we made clear we weren’t interested in, the next was a chat show where some priests were being interviewed.  When he changed the channel again, the image that came up on the screen was of a couple kissing, which sent us into a frenzy of squealing, giggling and making vomiting noises.  Frustrated and losing his patience, he turned the TV off again, but it was too late.  He tried his tactic of fixing his well-rehearsed stern look on us, which usually worked, but the combined effects of boredom and the concept of kissing had hyped us up beyond control.  As we screamed and flapped around him, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath in.  He stood there for a moment, tall and dignified, before slowly bringing his hand up to his face.  With his thumb and forefinger he made a circle.  He then partially put into his mouth lengthways and sharply blew all the air out of his lungs.


Everything was eclipsed by a piercing whistle that made my eyes water.  It felt like it was drilling into my brain through my ears.  I could feel it vibrating my teeth.  This clear, high pitched note lasted several seconds before sliding down a couple of semitones and transforming into a rapid warble.  It stopped abruptly.  The silence that followed it seemed comically incongruous, but only lasted briefly before being drowned out by tinnitus in both my ears.  We stared at him open-mouthed and dumbfounded.  We may have been too shocked to make any more noise, but Yiayia’s remonstrations shook the walls.  It was her shouting at Papou to be quiet that caused my dad to give up on his nap and come lumbering through in a state of semi-conscious confusion.


At the time I thought the whistle was nothing more than a strange noise – just one of Papou’s party tricks, like his proficiency at catching mosquitoes with one hand.  It wasn’t until years later, after he’d passed away, that I found out that in his village the shepherds would talk to each other across the mountains through a language comprised solely of whistles and chirrups.  They’d be able to tell each other grazing conditions where they were, how their flocks were faring, and bits of news and gossip from other villages.  Each shepherd would have their own signature call that they would use to identify each other.  Not only were the whistles for communicating over long distances, but the weather could turn very suddenly around those parts and they were also used to locate shepherds who had got lost in the storms.  My dad said he’d vaguely recognised the noise that Papou made that rainy day as one of the calls he’d heard on the few occasions that he’d visited the village during his own childhood.  But my granddad was a cultured man who had worked and studied extremely hard to create more stability and comfort for himself and his family, and in so doing he had consciously left village life behind.  Although he had spent his childhood training to be a shepherd, he had long since abandoned the trade and he never spoke about it, instead throwing himself head first into the modern, forward-thinking ways of the city, with all its associated perks and problems. We spent hours and hours over the coming years to emulate that sound, but we never came close.  Even if we had, we would never have known what it meant.


© 2015 by Aliki Waller