Diane Shortland

Freelance Writer

Memoir

The Whistle of my Childhood

If I had to sum up my whole childhood in one memory it would be my dad whistling. He whistled from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed. We lived on a farm and early mornings were cold. I’m talking frost on the inside of your bedroom window cold. Toes being bitten by earwigs that had crawled into the warm haven of your slippers during the night, and chilblains, never forget the pain of chilblains. But my dad would bounce out of bed and embrace all that with a whistle in his head and a dance in his step. He’d kiss my mum and ruffle our hair and set off on his tractor over the grass field to work. Sometimes, if he had a few minutes to spare, he’d lift us up on the Fergi and let us steer the wheel. It was the most deafening noise I’d ever heard, being inside that cab, but on my Dad’s knee I felt no fear.

Owning farm land and a small holding, all on his own, was no easy task for my dad. He would work long days and come home covered in dirt. That earthy smell of dust and nature’s fields: harvested onions, fusty corn and overpowering rapeseed in the spring. It all felt so comforting to me.

Many of my memories of days on that farm exist between the whistlings of Dad leaving to and returning from work. Bookends that protected us from afar. We’d run through the fields with the wind in our hair; screams and giggles and laughter could always be heard, and the smell of Mum’s baking as we played in the yard. Our delighted faces as we returned to find swan shaped éclairs. Or tower cakes we were allowed to decorate by sticking a fork up their bottoms and rolling them in jam and coconut shavings, and never forgetting the pièce de résistance: the all important cherry on top. Or the sound of Mum’s ironing music; always Dr Hook or the Carpenters ‘We’ve only just begun...’ would fill the air.

I remember so many things that are snippets travelling through time; a bygone era of happiness that whistles in my mind. The bitterness of our gooseberries, picked from our bushes out the front. How I’d always be shocked by their sour surprise and the involuntary shuddering of my body I couldn’t control from that bite. How we’d psyche ourselves up before running through the stinging nettles on the dusty overgrown narrow path to our next door neighbours house. I’d always shout ‘I’m through’ to my big brother before he’d embark on the same task. I remember the pain if we were attacked by those nettles and how our skin would prickle up in rows of bumps and how they’d itch. My, how they’d itch! We’d laugh because we’d got caught and then later cry because they hurt. We had fresh air, open space and a freedom I couldn’t understand at the time. Possibility in the air and the faint sound of our Dad’s whistling drifting through the wind, or maybe just resonating in our ears...