Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
26th December 1962 - early April 1963
The weather after Christmas continued wet, cold and miserable. There wasn’t even a decent storm we could watch crash on to the beach from the cliffs, listening to the roar of the shingle as the retreating waves sucked the pebbles back down the beach. It was dark until about 8 o’clock in the morning and was dark again by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Col and I spent much time reading to each other from the same book, snuggled under blankets. Mutti Frida somehow acquired a copy of a slim book of short stories by Heinrich Böll about a soldier’s knapsack in the first and second World Wars, but acquiring books in German was difficult, beyond what I had found in the library. Col was loving The Hobbit and I had Narnia and my otter books to follow.
In my world, the weather had changed on New Year’s Eve and we had started the coldest winter for decades. Would that happen here?
On New Year’s Eve, it was still raining but in the afternoon the temperature started to drop and as dusk fell, the rain became snow with a driving wind. I was doubly happy: I loved snow and the weather matching my memories reassured me about this world. Mutti Frida refused to let me go home in such appalling weather, so once again I spent the night on the sofa in the lounge room after phoning my mother.
Come morning, the storm had largely blown itself out, leaving a dramatically changed world. After an early breakfast, Col and I rugged up and walked round to my house. My mother helped us get the toboggan out of the garage from underneath a pile of old potato sacks. We took turns pulling each other along the road to the top of the Downs, where there were already quite a few toboggans racing down the hill. We piled on to ours, with me in front at Col’s insistence as it was my toboggan and set off down the slope, our feet splayed out either side. By the time we reached the bottom, we were laughing from pure joy. As we came to a stop, Col pulled me so we both fell off into the snow. We lay there, still laughing until we realised there were people hurtling down the hill at us and we needed to get out of the way. We walked back up the hill and started to work out how to get the best speed out of our wooden steed. Half a dozen trips down and back and we’d had enough.
Col pointed to the beach – it was covered with what I thought at first was snow, but when we went to look it turned out to be green-tinged ice crystals, formed when spume was blown off the waves in the storm. The sea surface was also grainy – there were ice crystals covering the surface. On the breakwaters, a few dejected seagulls perched, wondering what was happening to their world. I picked up a pebble from the beach and tossed it into the water – its splash was subdued as it splatted through the half-frozen surface. In my world, the sea had quickly frozen, which had been truly amazing. After a few more tosses of stones, we decided to head back to Col’s house for some lunch.
We took it in turns to pull the toboggan up the hill and then to pull each other along the snow-covered pavement. The council had gritter trucks out, putting a mix of salt and grit on the roads, but the few cars we saw were still sliding around. We helped push a couple of cars that were spinning their wheels and arrived back at the house quite warm from our exertions.
Mutti Frida had made a beautiful beef and vegetable stew, which we ate with homemade German noodles rather than the English mashed potato or dumplings. It was delicious and both Col and I came back for seconds, prompting another “Wachsende Kinder“ chuckle from Mutti Frida. As we were eating, the day grew steadily more grey and it started snowing again, so we decided to stay inside and play cards. I taught them ‘Hearts’, which they did not know. We spent a laughter-filled afternoon trying to dodge or offload the Queen of Spades, with Mutti Frida losing very graciously.
It was getting dark early, because of the thickly falling snow, so with candles ready in case of power cuts, Col and I snuggled under a blanket to continue reading.
“Do you think the public library can order books in German, Willi?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps. Maybe when Col starts at school in a week the school will have some.”
“That’s a good idea. Both of you must read in German – Col so he does not forget how to and you to strengthen your language skills.” Mutti Frida thought for a moment and then looked at me. “When you go to senior school, will you study German, Willi?”
That seemed a lifetime away for my ‘young brain’ but also incredibly close for my ‘old brain’. I was still somewhat bemused by these two very different perspectives.
“I don’t know. I would like to. I don’t even know if the school offers German.”
“Perhaps you should find out what you can do,” Mutti Frida smiled. “You seem very good at most things. Do you know what you want to do after you leave school?”
“I want to fly,” I said without having to think – and then looked away. My old brain knew that was not going to be possible because of my eyesight, but that was all my young brain wanted. There would be tears before bedtime, in this life as in the last, over this problem and I did not want to talk about it.
“What about you Col, when you leave school?” I asked, to deflect the conversation.
“I have no idea. I’ll just have to wait and see what I’m good at ... and where we are, I suppose.”
I hadn’t thought about that. My young brain just assumed that the way things are was the way they would be, yet my old brain knew that change was the only constant in life. The idea that Col might not be here, that I might lose my friend sent a shiver down my spine. He was the best thing that had happened to me, just as his namesake had been in my other life. But that Col had slipped away during our teens as we both moved around the country and I had never been able to find him again later in life when I went looking. I made a silent promise to myself that was not going to happen with this Col, in this life.
“ ... Willi? Willi?” Col punched me gently on the bicep. I turned and looked at him.
“Oh, so there is someone in there. Where did you go?” he smiled.
“Sorry – I was just thinking.”
“Right – your turn to read out loud.” We settled back into The Hobbit, laughing at Bilbo rushing out of the door without even a pocket-handkerchief. Eventually, Mutti Frida pushed me out of the house to go home. In truth, I felt more at home with Col and Mutti Frida.
The following days before we started at school were very similar. One day, the three of us walked through the snow along the cliff top as a storm built in the Channel. The wind whipped around us, growing stronger after we turned for home. It was clear the ice was forming more thickly as the waves at the foot of the cliffs surged but did not really break, due to the layer of ice crystals on top. We could also see great billows of grey-green ice crystals starting to fill the beaches below the sea wall, piled up there by the wind and waves. By the time we arrived back at Col’s house, it was snowing increasingly heavily: we were having another blizzard. I hoped that Mutti Frida would let me stay the night rather than have me walk home in such bad weather – and that did indeed happen.
Mutti Frida decided it was time we cooked her a meal. She sat on the sofa and gave cooking instructions through the open door. Fortunately, it was a simple meal of ham, cheese and Gürkchen, pickled baby cucumbers, on toasted slices of the thick rye bread Mutti Frida loved. She had been delighted to find at a bakery in town that produced something like the Schwarzbrot she so loved.
After we finished eating, we again played Hearts, and this time it was me that crashed out. I spent the night sleeping on the sofa as before, swaddled in blankets. That night the sea did freeze – according to the news up to a mile out from the shore – and there were worries that the ice could damage the pier.
A few days later, the holidays ended and it was back to school. After school on the first day, I hurried back to Col’s house eager to find out how he was going.
Col was there in his school uniform, looking glum.
“How was school?” I asked.
Col looked at me. “I hate it.” His face screwed up with emotion. “Apparently, I am a Nazi, a hun, a kraut and various other bad names used by you English during the war.” He paused, eyes rolling. “Some of them are calling me Adolf. I hate England. I hate you English.” I could see the hurt in his eyes and hear the anger in his voice.
“There is one Polish girl who insists on calling me Szkop, which is probably something rude in Polish.”
“Col, I’m so sorry. Have you told them you are not a Nazi – that your mother was in a concentration camp? Surely that would make a difference?”
“I can’t tell them. I can’t tell them anything because we need to stay hidden.” Col shouted, then turned and ran into his bedroom, slamming the door closed.
I had never seen Col so hurt and angry and I was unsure what to do. I also realised that I had never been inside Col’s bedroom and entering now felt strangely like a violation of his space, but I still knocked.
“Col? Col? Can I come in?”
Through the door, I could faintly hear sobs and I stood there trying to decide what to do. Eventually, I decided that Col was hurting and I needed to comfort him.
I softly opened the door and looked in. Col was lying face down, his head buried under a pillow. I walked rather timorously towards the bed and reached out, touching his shoulder.
There was no reaction. I sat beside him on his bed. “Col, I’m sorry about what was said to you. Please don’t hate the English – at least not all of us.”
I felt Col stir and pull the pillow off his head, gusting out a stuttering sigh. “Willi, nein, ich hasse dich nicht. I could not hate you.” He turned to look at me, eyes a bit red but with a hint of a smile on his face. “Even if you are English.”
He got up and we went out into the kitchen. I stood watching as he filled a glass with water and sipped it.
Could my old brain help Col, I wondered? “Col, part of my problem is being bullied at school. I’ve discovered that ignoring it seems the best way. It doesn’t stop but it does get less. I’m hoping this term that it will mostly go away.”
Col joined me at the table and closed his eyes for a few seconds, gave me a grimace and sighed.
“I’ve always been alone at school. In Leipzig, all the other children knew my father was Stasi, so even the children of party members were very careful around me.”
“Staatssicherheitsdienst – the State Security Ministry that has its tentacles everywhere. The rulers of the DDR do not trust the population. After all, the people gave their loyalty to the Nazis – and some of the leaders, like my father, were Nazis too. At least that’s what Mutti thinks. No-one trusts anyone very much and no trust is given to those with connections to the Stasi.”
Even my old brain didn’t really know much about the DDR – they were hangers-on in the Cold War whilst the Russians, the Soviets, were the real enemy.
“Didn’t you have any friends?”
“Not really. Everyone feared the Stasi and I was seen as part of that. I wasn’t bullied and called names like I was today, because they feared my father, the Stasi, but I was mostly alone. People were very careful not to offend me, but no-one wanted to be my friend.” He sat at the table, toying with his glass of water, so I joined him. Eventually, he looked up.
“You are the closest friend I have ever had ... I’ve never been able to be this close, to share so much with anyone my own age.” Col looked up, slightly embarrassed at what he was revealing. I leaned forward.
“Col, I’ve never had such a close friend as you. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”
Col looked even more embarrassed. “Do you have any homework?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Not on the first day of term.” I laughed.
“Neither do I.” Col joined me in laughter. “Let’s go and read.”
Mutti Frida found us in our usual winter cocoon of blankets on the sofa when she arrived home from work. She hung her coat up and came in to sit opposite us.
“How was school?” she asked Col.
Col took a deep breath, trying to control his feelings, but the hurt showed in his voice. “They all hate me because I am German. The English kids call me all sorts of rude names I do understand and a Polish girl calls me Szkop which I don’t understand but is probably rude too.”