Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Mid April 1963
In the morning, I went off to school for that last day of the spring term in a dark mood. I think the bullies must have sensed that I was vulnerable and had at me. I struggled through the day, full of appalling thoughts of what my life would be like without Col’s friendship, without Mutti Frida’s deep well of humanity.
Sitting on the bus I could feel my world falling apart. Without Col’s friendship, I couldn’t face this life. This time I would get a knife.
There was a calmness after that decision and I sat watching the scenery flow by. Even though it hadn’t snowed for nearly a week, there were still patches of snow clinging to the shade under trees and hedges. I knew they would be talking about this winter for over 50 years.
From the bus, I walked home. My mother was still at work but my sister might be home – but not today, it seemed. I scrabbled for the key behind the step of the shed and let myself in. Selecting a sharp knife from the kitchen drawer, I went out, locking the door and putting the key back in its place.
If I wasn’t home, I knew my mother would assume I was at Col’s house, so I would have plenty of time. I walked down the garden, over the fence and into my secret garden.
Under the cedar, the needles were dry and provided a cushion of sorts. I’d been here before, so I knew the drill. I stripped off my coat and slid up the left sleeve of my school jersey. I would only need to do one arm this time.
I pulled the knife out of my school bag and examined my wrist, reminding myself of the location of the artery. When Seneca suicided after the failed plot against Nero, he had sliced along the artery, not across it so as to hasten his end.
So be it.
I poised knife over my wrist, working out how to best do this in a single slice.
“Willi. Willi. Stop.”
Col appeared beside me, grabbing my hands.
“No – leave me alone.” For a moment we struggled, but my emotions surged up and I collapsed in tears, huddled on the bed of needles. I have no idea how long I lay there as the storm of emotion tore through me and receded. Eventually, I felt a hand softly stroking my hair and stirred, sitting up.
Col saw me glance at the knife, still in his hand and he quickly put it behind him.
“What is going on, Willi?”
I closed my eyes, my breath coming in gasps “I can’t go through this again. I can’t do it alone.”
“Willi, you are not alone.” He grasped my hand. “I care for you, Mutti cares for you – your mother cares for you. You are not alone.” With each statement, he squeezed my hand in emphasis.
“But you are leaving me for Lili,” I said softly. “And if you go, so will Mutti Frida, and my mother is not enough.” Tears started down my cheeks, loosed by the ineffable sadness suffusing me.
I saw Col stiffen. “You were going to ... to kill yourself, weren’t you?”
I couldn’t look at him.
“Because I have another friend?”
I could hear the anger building in his voice.
“A person can have more than one friend. How can you be so stupid, so ... so selfish?” He looked at me, his expression changing. “If that’s who you are, I’m not sure that I want you as a friend.” He stood up, anger suffusing his face. “Here’s your knife, then. Get on with it.”
He tossed the knife on the ground at my feet and stormed off towards his house.
I leaned back against the tree, eyes closed and my old brain started berating me. God, I was being unbelievably selfish – and now I had probably destroyed my friendship with Col. I clasped my arms around my calves and bent forward, resting my head on my knees.
I had no idea what to do. I wanted to go after Col, but I was so ashamed that I couldn’t do it. All I could think of was going home and hiding in my room. I opened my eyes – and the knife was lying just in front of me. I reached out for it.
“Willi. No. No.” Col threw himself past me to stop me picking up the knife.
Col just lay there, motionless on the pine needles.
“Col? ... Col?” He wasn’t moving. I scrambled towards him. “Col,” I screamed.
He levered himself up, rubbing his stomach. “Ouch. That hurt.”
“Col. Are you OK?”
He looked down at the needles and pulled the knife out of the ground.
“I’m fine, the handle of the knife just dug into me.” He stopped, giving me a probing look.
“No Col, I wasn’t going to. I was just going to pick it up and go home.”
Col took a deep breath. “But when I first arrived?”
There was a prolonged silence as we looked at one another.
“I’m sorry I said ... what I said. I was very angry with you. I don’t want you to kill yourself. You’re my best, my closest friend.” Col’s voice was cracking towards the end.
He collapsed forward grabbing me and burst into tears. After a while, he looked up, tears running down his face.
“Oh Willi, how could you think of doing such a thing?”
“I’m sorry, Col.”
He sniffed and sat up. Then he grabbed my wrists, inspecting them intently.
“Have you tried before?” he asked, searching my face.
I closed my eyes and nodded.
“Oh, Willi. When?” I could hear the anguish in his voice
“The day I first met you, I was about to ... do it, but something stopped me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know – something ... happened and I found I couldn’t do it. At least not that day.”
Col knelt there, holding my hands and staring off into the distance.
He squeezed my hands to get my attention and locked my eyes with his. “You have to promise me something.”
“Willi, you have to promise me that you won’t do this again.”
I took a deep breath. The desert of my remembered life stretched years-long ahead of me.
“Col, I don’t know that I can promise that.”
“You have to. You have to.” His face screwed up in fear. “I don’t want to lose you but I can’t do...” He looked at the knife and then me. “ ... this again. You must promise me.”
I swallowed, tears starting in my eyes. I knew I had contemplated this in the future and on occasion gone beyond contemplation to preparation. Yet, somehow, I had survived.
“What if I promise to talk to you ... if I ever feel like this again?”
Col walked his eyes across my face. I could almost feel them tracking through my tears.
“You’ll talk to me if you ever feel like doing this again?”
“Yes, I promise.”
Col pulled me into a crushing hug, only letting me go when I grunted with the strain of it. Then he turned leaned back against the trunk beside me. We sat in silence for quite some time as the day faded before he stirred.
“Come on Willi, we need to get to my house. Mutti will be wonder what’s going on if I’m not there when she gets home.”
He stood up – and noticed the knife, still in his hand. He paused; lips pursed. “Here. You’d better put this in your bag so you can put it back when you get home.”
Wordlessly, I took the knife and stored it at the bottom of my bag. “You’ve got pine needles all over you.” I smiled and started brushing Col down.
“So have you.” He laughed.
Once we had removed all the debris, we set off to Col’s house.
As we walked in, Col looked at me. “You need to go and wash your face and hands.” I could see the tear-moistened dirt smeared across my hands and I could see that on Col’s face.
“You, too.” I smiled.
Shortly we were sitting on the sofa, a blanket tucked around us about to start reading. Col stopped as he was about to pick up our current book.
“What did you mean I can’t go through this again?”
When I first arrived and you were ... you said I can’t go through this again. What did you mean – again?”
Had I really said that? I turned and looked at Col, shrugging. “I don’t know.” I paused for a moment. “I wasn’t exactly thinking straight at that moment.”
Col sensed the tension in me. “OK, I just wondered, that’s all.” He eyed me speculatively, trying to make sense of what he had seen and heard.
Eventually, “Are we going to tell anyone about this?” His voice was soft but tight with underlying tension.
I tensed up, swivelling to look directly into his face. “No.” It was almost a shout of fear. I took a breath to calm myself. “Please, please don’t tell anyone. I don’t know what would happen to me if anyone else found out.”
“I’m scared, Willi. What if you try again?” Col wouldn’t look at me.
“I’ve promised to talk to you if I feel that way again.” I was pleading – what would my mother do if she found out I had tried to kill myself?
Col’s eyes rose to mine. “I know.” There was a long pause. “But what if the problem is between us and we aren’t talking, like today? What happens then?” I could hear the fear in Col’s voice.
“If there’s a problem between us, we need to talk about that so it never gets so we stop talking.”
I could see Col struggling with this. I took his hands in mine. “We must never let it get that far.” I could feel our friendship was in danger of slipping away and I didn’t know what to say to save it. “I’m so sorry. I know it’s very scary and you’re right to be worried. Please tell me if this is too much for you ... if it is, I’ll go.”
Col looked away; his eyes closed. I felt the world shutting down around me. Intent on not showing any emotion, I started untangling myself from the blankets. A hand on my shoulder restrained me.
“Willi, you are one of the most intelligent – no, you are the most intelligent person I know, but you are also the most stupid.” The hand shook me, quite hard. “You’re my best friend and I don’t want you to go.” His eyes searched my face. “But you’ve really scared me – and that you have this still in you scares me even more. But you’ve promised to talk if things are getting too much.” He paused, seeking ... something. “For us though, perhaps we need a special word we can say to each other if a fight starts going too far, something that will make us both stop and think about what is happening.”
I sank back into the sofa, flooded with relief that he didn’t want me to go. I turned towards Col. “What do you mean?”
“A word that won’t happen in normal conversation. If either of us is starting to feel things are getting out of control between us, we can say it and we both have to stop and find out what’s bothering the other person.”
“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “That’s a good idea. What word?”
“Umm ... How about ... Gundagai?” I was surprised that Col knew that Australian place name but managed to hide it.
“It’s a place in Australia – there’s a song about it our geography teacher played us.”
“OK, Gundagai it is.”
Col took my hand. “Tomorrow Liliana is coming for lunch with Mutti and I. Please, will you come and meet her?”
I sensed this was an important test. I looked down at where our hands were clasped. “Thank you, Col. I would like to meet your new friend.”
Col gave my hand a squeeze and picked up our current book – Müller’s poetry – but paused when she sensed me tense slightly as I recalled it’s blighted love and dark, suicidal vision suited my mood.
“Are you OK, Willi?”
I gave him a smile. “I’m fine.” I knew I was going to have a conversation about this with Col.
I arrived at Col’s house before 10 o’clock the following morning, hoping to be there before Liliana arrived. Mutti Frida answered the door.
“Hello, Willi. They are in the lounge room.”
I was a bit taken aback that Liliana was here before me, but as I took off my coat, Col burst out of the lounge room.
“Willi. Come and meet Lili.” Col dragged me into the lounge room, eager to introduce us.
I hadn’t really thought about Lili, except as a rival to Col’s affections, so I was surprised when she wasn’t at all like I had subconsciously expected. Instead of a slight, dark girl, Lili was a blue-eyed girl, whose fair hair was pulled back into a single long plait. She was taller than me, all in all, more how I expected a Scandinavian to be.
“Lili, this is Willi.” Col laughed at the combination of our names.
Lili stood up, very formally. “Hello, Willi.” She said in completely unaccented English but used the German pronunciation.
“Oh. Call me Will. Willi sounds strange coming from you.”
Lili gave me a shy smile. “But that will confuse everyone here who calls you Willi.”
“Oh. All right then.” I shrugged.
Col picked up a pack of cards from the side table. “I thought we could play Hearts?”
We sat on the floor and explained the rules to Lili.
“I have played something like this game with my parents. They call it Czarny Piotruś.” She slipped easily into Polish.
“Do you speak Polish at home?” I asked, wondering how much Polish she knew.
“Oh yes. We speak English too, but my parents want to make sure I don’t forget my heritage.” So, she knew what she was saying when she called Col szkop.
“What does szkop mean?” I asked, archly.
Lili sat up and looked between Col and me, flushing slightly.
“Willi, that’s not very nice.” Col glared at me.
I glared back. Lili deserved this for what she had done to Col.
Lili swallowed. “During the war, the Germans –,” she glanced apologetically at Col. “er, the Nazis – occupied Poland and did terrible things. We Poles had rude names for them and Szkop is one.” She turned to me. “I have apologised to Col for what I said and he accepted my apology.”
She started to stand up. Col leaned across and grabbed her arm, holding her down.
“No, Lili.” Col looked at me, pointedly. “I have accepted her apology and I don’t want to hear any more about this. I want you two to be friends.”
“She hurt you Col. You came home for days in tears,” I said, in German.
“No, Willi. Speaking German to exclude Lili is not right.” I could see Col’s frustration with me growing. “If you can’t be nice to my guest, perhaps you’d better go home.”
No. It was happening just as I feared it would. I started to get up.
“Gundagai.” Col called out. “Oh, Gundagai, Willi.”
I took a deep breath, staring out of the window and sat down.
“Willi, I don’t want you to go home but please, don’t let jealousy wreck our friendship.”
Lili sat there, looking between us with total incomprehension.
“I’m sorry, Col. I feel so alone and I’m scared you’ll desert me for Lili.” I saw Lili’s look of surprise at that.
“Willi, that’s not going to happen. This is not about me choosing between you and Lili; it’s about the three of us sharing a friendship. Please trust me and let us both be friends with Lili.”
With a conscious effort, my old brain clamped down on the fear of abandonment suffusing my young brain. I knew it wasn’t real – but at the same time, the emotion was very raw, almost all consuming. Somehow, I needed to stay in control.
Now that was interesting – the ‘I’ was my old brain. It seemed to be the dominant conscious entity in this weird, shared head. But underneath, my young brain was governing my emotions – and they were quite capable of taking over and wreaking havoc. Something to think about...
“Willi? Willi?” Col reached out and touched my arm. I blinked back into the now.
“Ummm ... OK, Col – and I’m sorry for being rude, Lili.”
Lili looked thoughtfully at myself and Col. “I think we three are very much the same. We’ve been so alone for so long that we’re scared of friendship – scared of finding it and very scared of losing it when we do.” She turned to me. “Willi, I apologise for hurting your friend and I’m glad you were here to help him when I did.” She gave me an appealing look. “Please, can we be friends?”
Col reached out and took one of our hands in each of his, giving them a squeeze. “Lili, I think you may be right about our fear of friendship.” Col looked at me, questioning with his eyes.