Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
In the morning I asked about spending Christmas Eve at Col’s house. My mother looked at me. “I think I’d better ring Frau Schmidt. You are spending so much time over at her house that I am worried you might be a nuisance.”
I could hear my mother’s side of the conversation and even from that it was clear that Frau Schmidt did not feel I was a nuisance.
I needed to swap my library books over as we had finished Secret Garden and I had finished King Solomon’s Mines at home. I grabbed my books and caught a bus down into the town.
“Excuse me.” I asked the young librarian, “I am learning German and was wondering if you had books in German?”
She looked up, a pained expression on her face. “Books in German?” Her voice was tinged with derision at the thought of anyone bothering to learn German. Somewhat taken aback, I nodded. She sniffed, giving me a hard look.
“So, do you have any?”
The older librarian had been listening. She gave her younger colleague a disapproving look and moved in front of me.
“I think we have a very small selection of books in foreign languages but I’m not sure if they are for children.” Her voice echoes her doubt. “Come with me and we’ll have a look.” She led me towards the back of the library. There were shelves labelled “French”, “Polish”, “Russian” – and one labelled “German”, with only a handful of books between the bookends.
“There you go – see if you can find anything there.”
One title stood out: “Der schweizerische Robinson” which had an illustration of a group of people standing bedraggled on a beach surrounded by wreckage on the cover: Swiss Family Robinson. I had loved the movie when I saw it in my old life.
It was in the old German Gothic script, which would make reading it a bit difficult, but I decided to take it. One other book that caught my eye – Die schöne Müllerin und Winterreise – the poems by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert had used to construct his two great song cycles: beautiful music but both ending in sadness and death. I had heard them many times in my old life and again recently when Frau Schmidt had listened to them on the radio but I had never read the poems. In the children’s library I came across a book with a picture of a dragon sitting on a hoard of gold: The Hobbit – I was sure Col would love this, so I picked that up too, making my three books.
The younger librarian walked away as she saw me approaching. The older librarian looked at my selections. Opening Der schweizerische Robinson she was startled by the font. “Can you read this?”
“Well, I can read German and I am sure I’ll get used to the old-style writing.”
She pulled the index cards from the books, smiling at the Tolkien. “I think you’ll love this; it’s been very popular.”
I took my selections home and after lunch picked up the books and carefully wrapped presents and went round to Col’s house. Once I had my coat off, I added the presents to the small pile under the little tree in the corner of the lounge room. Col had heard of Der schweizerische Robinson so we started on that, snuggled together under a blanket on the sofa. We both struggled with the font but it became easier as we persevered.
When Frau Schmidt got home, she picked up the Wilhelm Müller poems.
“Why did you bring this book, Willi?” There was a note of disapproval in her voice.
I was a bit surprised at her attitude. “I heard you listening to the songs on the radio and I could see you enjoyed them. But mostly I could not follow the words, so when I saw this, I thought I would give it a try.”
Frau Schmidt frowned. “There is some quite grown-up material in the poems, Willi. Let me think about this.” She put the book on the table.
“More grown-up than what we saw and heard two nights ago?” Col asked.
Frau Schmidt looked at him thoughtfully. “Perhaps not, but I will still think about it.”
As she turned away, an idea came to me. “Frau Schmidt, would you turn off the radio if the songs came on again?” I asked.
Mutti Schmidt looked at me thoughtfully and, giving me a nod of acknowledgement, picked up the book and put it down beside me. “Col, Willi, there are adult ideas here and difficult imagery. So, talk to me about things you are uneasy or unsure about.”
Her eye caught the front cover of The Hobbit, with its red dragon curled over a golden horde. Her face lightened and she smiled. “I have heard about this book and it is very well regarded.”
The following day was Christmas Eve and I could hardly wait to go round to Col’s house for a German Christams. My mother and sister were preparing for our Christmas lunch, with my sister bustling around, full of self-importance as she prepared the bread and apple sauces under my mother’s direction. I was set to cleaning a bag of Brussel sprouts before polishing my mother’s small collection of silver.
The day was really starting to drag when my mother glanced at the kitchen clock. “OK Will, you can go and clean up. Put on your new long pants and that white shirt with the lovely red and blue tie. You must look nice for a special evening with Col and Frau Schmidt.”
Back into the kitchen, my mother and sister were making batches of mince pies. The rich smell of fruit mince filled the kitchen from a tray of cooling pies.
“My, you do look smart, Will.” my mother said. My sister just gave me a dismissive glance. I rugged up, ready for the cold outside.
“Here, take these to Frau Schmidt.” My mother pressed into my hands half a dozen freshly made mince pies dusted with icing sugar in a small cardboard box. “Now, off you go and wish Frau Schmidt Frohe Weihnachten from me.” I smiled at my mother’s German.
Frau Schmidt opened the door when I knocked. “Come in, Willi.”
I offered her the box of mince pies. “Frohe Weihnachten von meiner Mutter, Frau Schmidt.” She looked at the mince pies questioningly.
“These are mince pies – fruit mince, that is. They’re delicious.”
Frau Schmidt smiled. “So, Willi. Please thank your mother. Now, come in and take off your coat.”
In the lounge, the small Christmas tree was now sparkling with tinsel and guarding a small pile of presents beneath its green boughs in the corner of the lounge room. I could see the blue tissue paper wrapping I had used. Col gave me a welcoming hug, pointing to the single candle in front of the tree.
“We should have candles on the tree, but we could not find any candle clips in the shops. So, there is just one big candle instead.”
Frau Schmidt smiled. “Perhaps it’s safer that way. Come and sit down, our Christmas feast is nearly ready.”
Frau Schmidt with Col’s help, had prepared a beautiful meal, centred around a roast duck, followed by Dresdner Stollen – a rich fruit and nut bread that’s almost a cake, thickly dusted with icing sugar.
As we sat back from this sumptuous meal, Col smiled at me, “Now for a mince pie.”
“No Col,” laughed his mother. “Let’s keep them for later. But now, it’s time for presents.”
Col and I ran into the lounge room and sat side by side on the sofa. Frau Schmidt looked at Col. “You can go first.” I was expecting Col to pick up a present to him, but instead, he went to the tree and came back, handing his mother and myself small parcels from him.
I watched as Frau Schmidt opened hers, to reveal a beautiful soap, scented with coconut and frangipani. We all enjoyed this exotic smell – it reminded me of the frangipani trees in my garden so far away in every sense. Smells are so evocative.
Frau Schmidt kissed Col on the forehead. “Thank you, Col, I will enjoy being clean with this.” She went and picked up parcels and handed them to us children.
“Go on Willi, open your presents.”
I opened Frau Schmidt’s present first. It was a German-English pocket dictionary. No longer would Col and I have to wait for Frau Schmidt to come home as we struggled to find the right words.
“Thank you, Frau Schmidt.” I gave her a hug and then opened Col’s present: a small torch. Just what I needed for the walk home on dark winter nights.