Ali was the fifteenth reader at Story Shop 2015, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Sat 29th August 2015 at 4 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.

In 2011 Ali George completed a project to draft 12 books in 12 months after a successful NaNoWriMo gave her delusions of grandeur. You can find her work in Dactyl, Beyond the Horizon (from Bamboccioni Books) and all over the internet. She tweets @periwinklewine and blogs at 12books12months.com

You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
 

 

The Boy Who Whistled Like A Bird
a short story by Ali George

The boy’s name was Xan Teh, and people always knew where he was, and whether he was happy or sad, because they could hear him whistling long before they saw him. Some of the children at school teased Xan about his whistling, but mostly they just asked him to teach them how to do it too. He tried to give lessons, but the truth was he didn’t know quite how the songs came out – it just happened. It always had.

One day, Xan asked his Granny Teh why it was that he could sing like a bird and the other children couldn’t. She was the oldest person he knew, it stood to reason she would be the wisest. Xan didn’t know exactly how old she was, but from her white hair and the 87 wrinkles in her face he knew she must be ancient. Wrinkles on faces are the human equivalent of rings inside a tree.

When Xan asked Granny Teh his question, she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, then stared silently at him for a very long time. Initially he stared back, assuming it was some kind of test he had to pass – but after several minutes he began to have doubts. He was on the verge of giving up when she finally spoke.

‘Ask your Granny MacGregor,’ she said. Then she put on her scratchy wool scarf and her plastic beige mac and left the house without another word.

‘Where did Granny Teh go?’ asked Xan’s mum, wobbling into the room laden with mugs of tea and packets of biscuits.

‘I-ono,’ Xan shrugged, stuffing his mouth with chocolate digestives. ‘When are we seeing Granny MacGregor again?’

‘She’s coming for tea tomorrow,’ Xan’s mum said.

The next evening Xan waited until mum and dad were in the kitchen washing up, then he asked Granny MacGregor why he could sing like a bird and other children could not.

The old lady looked at him very seriously, something she had never done before. She was generally the granny with a twinkle in her eye and a two-pound coin to slip into your palm before she left for the evening, whereas Granny Teh was always very somber and serious. If you wanted a two-pound coin from her you had to earn it, by taking the bin out or sweeping the stairs.

‘Xan,’ said this new, serious Granny MacGregor, ‘why would you ask that? Isn’t it a wonderful talent, being able to sing like a bird?’

Xan felt she was avoiding the question.

‘Of course it is,’ he said, ‘I was just curious. And Granny Teh said you would know.’

‘Did she, now.’ Granny MacGregor looked annoyed. This was not how Xan had anticipated this conversation going, so he tried to think of a way out. He loved his grannies and would never want to upset them, yet here he was having angry staring contests with both in the same 24 hours.

‘You shouldn’t question these gifts,’ she continued eventually. ‘Sometimes people are just born with a special talent, and that’s a wonderful thing. If you start to overthink it, you lose it.’

‘Oh,’ Xan said, ‘I see.’ He didn’t see, but he wasn’t sure what else to say.

‘So you’ll stop asking silly questions?’

‘OK Gran,’ he said quietly. ‘I won’t ask again. Sorry I upset you.’

‘Don’t you worry about it.’

Of course, when someone tells you not to worry about something, you can’t help doing the opposite. Xan spent the next week worrying, which meant he spent much less time whistling. He didn’t really notice, because he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts. But other people did.

‘Xan,’ his mother said after seven days without a birdlike sound, ‘you haven’t been whistling much lately. What’s the matter?’

But he merely smiled and gave a little trill to show he was fine, and she gave him some space because he was nearly ten now and she didn’t want him to think she was mollycoddling.

Another week went by and Xan still did not seem like himself, so then it was the turn of his teacher to take him aside.

‘You’ve been very quiet this past fortnight,’ Mr Ellis said, ‘everything OK? You’re not being bullied, are you? The school takes bullying very seriously.’

Xan smiled. Bullying was indeed one of the worst things you could do in school – right after not wearing uniform, dying your hair, or running in the dining hall. But he didn’t say this to Mr Ellis who, after all, was only trying to help. Instead Xan explained that he just hadn’t felt much like whistling lately, and that his mum thought it was probably hormones.

‘Well,’ Mr Ellis said, ‘if you ever want to talk about it, my door is always open.’

Back in the staff room he chalked it up to growing pains. The teachers all agreed that whilst it was a shame their little nightingale was growing up, it was probably for the best. If Xan continued his whistling into adulthood, he would rapidly become the kind of weirdo people go to great lengths to avoid on public transportation.

In the playground, Xan felt the birdsong building up in his throat, reaching towards his lips and tongue. He gritted his teeth and scrunched his fists, aching with the effort to swallow the sound. He was sure there was something strange and frightening about his gift, and he couldn’t use it again until he found out the secret.

After the third week, Xan’s father came and sat awkwardly on the end of the bed with a cup of weak tea. He handed it over with an awkward mumble, ‘listen, is something bothering you?’

Xan began to say again that just didn’t feel like whistling at the moment, but found he couldn’t lie convincingly to his father, who only spoke to him on special occasions. He rarely sat on the edge of Xan’s bed, and never made him a cup of tea, so he knew things were serious and that The Grownups Had Been Talking.

‘If you don’t want to sing anymore that’s OK,’ dad continued, ‘but we’re getting the impression – your mum and me – that isn’t quite it?’

Xan sipped the tea, trying to think how best to approach this, and burned the roof of his mouth.

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ dad said. ‘But maybe I can help.’

This was the final straw.

‘I promised Granny I wouldn’t ask again,’ he blurted out. Dad would surely understand that he couldn’t break a promise to her – you have to respect your elders, after all. But actually this confession seemed to annoy him.

‘Was the question about your whistling?’

‘Yes,’ Xan said. ‘I asked how come I could do it and nobody else can, and her face went dark, and then she said I should just be happy and not ask any questions.’

‘Huh.’ Xan’s father sat for a few moments, digesting this information. ‘Huh,’ he said again. ‘Well that’s just great.’

Xan put the tea to one side and awaited elaboration.

‘There’s a reason you can sing like a bird and other people can’t,’ Xan’s dad said, ‘but it’s pretty strange.’

He stood up and started to pace up and down. ‘When your mother was pregnant,’ he began, eyes darting nervously around the room, ‘your Granny MacGregor was excited. Terrifically excited. She made such a fuss, knitting tiny clothes, coming round to do all the cooking and cleaning, and… researching lots of good luck charms.’

‘What do you mean?’ Xan asked, ‘lucky heather and stuff?’

‘Sort of.’ Dad paused to examine his cuticles. ‘She started looking up ways to help the baby on the internet, things that would make you come out healthy and strong. But she turned up a lot of nonsense along the way.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like, if a woman suffers heartburn during pregnancy, the baby will have really thick hair. So Granny started cooking lots of spicy foods that gave your mum heartburn. But sure enough, you came out with a thick head of hair.’

‘Right.’

‘She also read that if a pregnant woman goes outside during an eclipse, the baby will be born with a deformity. She wanted to keep your mum inside the whole time, just in case there was a surprise eclipse.’

‘OK,’ Xan said. ‘But what about my singing?’

Xan’s dad stopped pacing long enough to briefly make eye contact. ‘One of the myths was if you eat enough of certain things, the baby gains the strength or skill of those things.’

‘So?’

‘So… your gran started slipping bird tongues into your mum’s food. I know-‘ he looked at Xan’s horrified face, ‘it’s horrible. We didn’t know she was doing it, and she still hasn’t told us how many it was or… where she got them. But there must have been lots, because you know so many different tunes.’

Xan felt the back of his neck prickle with heat, and a familiar metal tang rose in the back of his throat as though he was about to be sick. All at once a torrent of angry bird-calls spilled out of his mouth, and he found himself running to the window to let them out. As he threw open the shutter with a crack, a dark shadow rose up from behind the house across the street – only as he looked closer he saw it was not one shadow, but hundreds of tiny feathered bodies ducking and diving together. A swarm.

‘They’ve answered your call,’ Xan’s dad said sadly as first one, then two, then five swallows swooped into the room and perched in a line along the headboard of the bed. ‘Don’t be afraid of them, Xan.’

The swallows were followed by swifts, blackbirds, magpies and crows – all the birds Xan could name and hundreds more besides. They perched on his wardrobe, his desk, and one chaffinch even sat on his dad’s shoulder; carpeting the whole room in a rustling layer of gleaming feathers.

‘I’m sorry about what happened,’ Xan told them. ‘I didn’t know.’

At that, a small brown bird on the windowsill blinked her eyes and started to sing. Xan thought she looked like a nightingale, although he couldn’t work out what had brought her to Dundee.

One by one the others joined in with the nightingale’s song, their voices swelling in a sad harmony that made Xan’s stomach feel strange. Quite suddenly he felt as if his head was too small, then he was itchy all over, then he was ravenously hungry and then – ‘Dad?’ he tried to say, but it came out wrong, nothing more than an excited chirrup of birdsong.

‘Look after my son,’ Xan’s dad said to the bird on the sill, his voice heavy.

The nightingale flapped her wings in reply and took off into the twilight. The other birds followed in quick succession, looping and diving out into the night air. Caught in the moment Xan flew too, delightedly swooping amongst them with the breeze in his feathers, already forgetting who he had once been in the excitement of being able to soar through the lavender sky.

Xan’s father watched the flock until they were nothing but specks on the horizon.

And the boy who whistled like a bird was not heard in Dundee anymore.

(c) Ali George, 2015