Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Mid - late April 1963
I had breakfast with my mother who sent me off with an admonition not to overstay my welcome at Lili’s house. I packed Ring of Bright Water and Tarka the Otter in my duffel bag, along with Under Milk Wood, which I was hoping we could read out loud together – a third voice would make some scenes much easier. It was a typical English spring day with a stiff breeze and showers about. I could hear my mother’s rhyme in my head: March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers. She had lots of these – including the one for all the kings and queens since William the Conqueror. I always thought it unfair that it didn’t include the Saxon kings.
I paced along the street reciting the monarch rhyme to myself in time with my footfalls “Willy, Willy, Harry, Steve, Harry, Dick, John, Harry three, one, two, three Neds, Richard two, Henry four, five, six then who?” After a couple of repetitions, I arrived at Col’s house, wondering what Col was making of English history. I realised I knew very little of German history – apart from the bitter wars we had fought this century – and I always skirted round those if they came up as I did not want to rub his nose in the defeats Germany had suffered or the horror that was the Nazi regime.
I knocked on the door just as a brisk shower arrived and Col found me sheltering under the eaves when he opened the door.
“Quick, Willi, before you get soaked,” he laughed.
I hung my coat up and we went into the lounge.
“Mutti’s already left for work. It will take about twenty minutes to walk to Lili’s house I think and Mutti told me to make sure we were not early.”
We sat on the lounge at opposite ends.
“What else do you want to do these holidays?” I asked.
“I was wondering about showing Lili our secret garden. What do you think?”
I thought for a moment. Lili lived far enough so she would only be there when we asked her. “OK.”
“I’ve seen the apple trees in the garden are blossoming. Do they have apples?”
“Oh yes. And they’re particularly delicious when you pick them after the sun has warmed one side, leaving the other cool.”
“I’ve never tried that.”
“There are some big cooking apples too. Bramleys I think they’re called. They make great baked apple dessert – take out the core, stuff them with raisins and sprinkle with brown sugar. That melts in the oven and it all goes a bit like a toffee apple.”
“That sounds lovely. Do you know who owns the house? Is it all right to take the apples?”
“Well, I’ve never seen anyone there and the house looks derelict from the road. I suppose someone must own it, but my mother didn’t seem worried last year when I gathered buckets of blackberries there. She used them to make blackberry jam and blackberry and apple pie.”
“OK.” I could see he was slightly perturbed by taking fruit out of a garden we didn’t own. “What books shall we take today?
“Well, we should take The Hobbit. It’s not worth taking a German book as Lili doesn’t speak German. I have my otter books and Under Milk Wood in my duffel bag. I thought we could read that aloud and having Lili’s voice as well as ours would make it easier.”
“Good idea. Shall we take a pack of cards?”
“Perhaps we should, just to be safe – though I expect Lili will have a pack.”
Col pulled a pack from the sideboard drawer and I added them to my bag.
We chatted a bit longer and then Col looked at the clock on the mantlepiece.
“It’s time to go, it’ll take about twenty minutes to walk there. Mutti left me an umbrella but we’ll need our coats too.” He gave me a quirky look. “You’ll have to help me remember the umbrella when we leave.”
I rolled my eyes – I was not the most reliable person even with my own possessions. Col laughed and rolled his eyes back at me.
The weather cooperated for the walk to Lili’s house, although from the top of Mickleburgh hill we could see showers further down the coast to the west.
Lili greeted us at the door almost bouncing with excitement. “Willi, Col. Come in. Mumia is making hot chocolate for us as she thought you might like a warm drink if you got caught in a shower.” Lili’s house was on the seafront and quite large with nice furniture and tasteful decorations. It seemed Lili’s parents were quite well off – which I had suspected from Mrs Wiśniewski new car.
Lili dragged us into the kitchen and Mrs Wiśniewski greeted us with steaming mugs of hot chocolate with frothed milk. I pulled our books out of my bag and showed Lili. The otter books particularly attracted her – possibly the simple sketches of otters caught her interest. I also put in a few encouraging words about the Dylan Thomas play. Lili bounced up and went to her bedroom, returning with The Chrysalids. That was my favourite of John Wyndham’s books and I had to contain my enthusiasm and let Col ask the questions.
After discussion, we decided to read The Hobbit first and then perhaps play cards and try John Wyndham later. We spent a pleasant morning with the Tolkien shared between the three of us on the couch. We started again from the beginning so Lili had the complete story, and I could see she was becoming as enthralled as we were. After lunch, Mrs Wiśniewski pushed us out for a brisk walk onto the pier.
“Off you go, children. You need some fresh air.” I had the impression that she wanted an hour of peace without boisterous teens around her feet. We walked all the way to the end of the pier, crossing the bridges that spanned the gaps torn in the pier in 1940 so it could not be used to land invasion troops.
I had reminded Col about the umbrella and we took it with us, in case. This proved a wise decision as we were caught in a shower on the way home. Three of us didn’t really fit under one umbrella. Lili insisted Col should be in the middle and stay driest as it was his umbrella, so Lili and I arrived back at her house a bit moist, particularly as the wind made control of the umbrella difficult.
We started on the Wyndham after we hung up our coats, taking it in turns to read a few paragraphs and, after a while, Mrs Wiśniewski called us into the kitchen to eat some quartered oranges. Col seemed to be enjoying Chrysalids. I was having to be careful as I loved it and had read the book several times during my old life.
As we ate I talked a bit more about Under Milk Wood and why I liked it so much, explaining that it was a radio play, not a stage play and so the voices carried far more weight – and it was also very Welsh. Col, understandably, had no idea about Wales and Lili really was not much better. They could see I really liked it so we would probably give it a try in the future.
We returned to Wyndham’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Labrador, reading another chapter before Mrs Wiśniewski came and asked us how we were getting home. We had been so engrossed in the book that we hadn’t noticed that the occasional showers had given way to rain.
I looked at Col and shrugged. “We’ll be fine. We have Col’s umbrella.”
Lili looked at her mother. “Mumia, why don’t you drive them back to Col’s house? You could chat with Frau Schmidt for a bit whilst we read some more.”
“Well, I suppose I could. After all, what’s the point of my own car if I don’t use it?” she smiled. “Come on, gather your things and let’s be off.”
We scrambled together our books and stuffed then into my duffel bag, remembering to pick up Col’s umbrella which was drying in the porch. Mrs Wiśniewski reversed her car out of the garage behind the house and Col and I got into the back with Lili in the front. It took less than ten minutes to get to Col’s house where we all piled out and ran through the rain to the front door and into the house as soon as Col unlocked it.
Mutti Frida was not there of course as it was a weekday and she was working. Col and I looked at one another and burst into laughter. We were not used to the holidays yet and had forgotten, thinking that it was a weekend because we were not at school. We apologised to Mrs Wiśniewski and Lili looked a bit forlorn when her mother said they should go home.
“What are you doing tomorrow? Lili asked, hopefully.
“We haven’t really decided anything,” Col said, looking at me.
I shrugged. “We’re probably just going to hang out, read and play games.”
Col smiled at Lil. “Do you want to join us?”
Lili’s face lit up. “Oh. Yes, please.” She turned to her mother. “Is that all right, Mumia?”
“That will be fine tomorrow, but don’t forget we have to go and see your aunt on Thursday and you have your drawing class on Friday morning. Tomorrow, though, you’ll have to walk up and back as I am volunteering at the Red Cross.”
“OK, mumia. If I leave at nine o’clock, I’ll be here by half-past. Is that OK, Col?”
“That’s fine, Lili. See you then.”
We watched them run back to the car through the rain and then returned to our usual position on the sofa.
“If the weather is fine tomorrow, should we show Lili our secret garden?”
I felt a twinge of something at sharing that place with Lili. What was that – jealousy, fear?
I took a deep breath and then let it out, watching Col’s face. “It’s our special place, Col.”
“I know, Willi, but isn’t Lili your friend as well, now? We should trust her enough to let her share that place with us, don’t you think?”
I took another deep breath, my old brain pushing down my young brain’s irrational fears. “You’re right, Col. I should trust her.”
Col looked at me, something showing in his eyes that I couldn’t identify: nothing bad, but ... different. “Thank you, Willi.” He kept his gaze on me a moment longer and then turned away and picked up The Hobbit.
“Perhaps we should keep that for when Lili’s here tomorrow, Col. Why don’t we read more of Müller’s poems as Lili can’t read German?”
Col smiled and I saw another flicker of something in his eyes. “That’s a good idea, Willi.” We drew closer and closer to the very dark ending of the cycle of poems. I was increasingly uncertain how Col would handle that – and how I would handle Col’s reaction.
After we’d read for a while, I stopped reading and looked at Col. “Ummm ... Col. Were you listening to the songs when they were on the radio?”
Col looked at me. “Not really. Why?”
“Do you think this is going to end well for the young miller? Do you think he gets the girl?”
Col gave me a pensive look. “What are you trying to tell me, Willi?”
“Until we read the last few poems, I’m not certain how it ends. But from what I could make out from the songs when we heard them, I think the beautiful miller’s daughter takes up with the hunter, breaking the young miller’s heart... “ I stopped, looking at Col.
Col’s eyes travelled back down to the book for a moment, before returning to mine. “And?”
I could see from his eyes that Col knew what was going to happen to the miller, but he needed me to say it.
“He drowns himself in the stream. The last song is sung by the brook – I think it’s a lullaby for the dead miller.”
Col sat for a moment, his eyes searching my face. “Are you going to be OK if that’s what happens?”
“Can you see a different ending? I don’t think I can.”
I could see concern mounting in Col’s face and he repeated his question. “Are you going to be OK reading this? Do you want to stop?”
“No ... it’s beautiful poetry, but we can stop if you want to.”
Col pulled the bookmark from the back of the book, placed it on our page and closed the book. “Willi, what are you trying to say?”
It was my turn to search his eyes. “We haven’t talked about ... what I nearly did that day. And now we are going to read about the young miller drowning himself...”
“Willi, I trust you. You said you would talk to me if things started to get too much for you and I know you would keep that promise.” He gave a brief shudder. “I don’t like that this is part of you, but I do understand that it is.”
He paused, deep in thought and then smiled wryly. “That day under the cedar tree we shared something that has brought us much closer. It seems that even bad shared experiences can be good in a strange way.”
I smiled back at him.
“Willi, I think that literature is full of ... suicides and characters thinking about it. I want us to read and talk about it, it’s part of you.” He stopped again, trying to crystallise the idea.
“Perhaps if we do that, we might end up understanding that part of you ... and perhaps that will be enough to stop you being pushed in that direction.”
We sat, looking at one another.
Col picked up the book. “I don’t want us to be awkward about it when we come across it.” He gave me an intense look. “OK?”
“So let’s carry on reading.”
We read through to the end, the brook’s lullaby was gentle and beautifully sensitive to the young miller’s anguish. When we closed the book, there were tears in both our eyes.
The following day was fine and quite mild for April and so we made sandwiches from the ham and tomatoes Mutti Frida had left for us and packed a bottle of water and some apples together with The Hobbit and introduced Lili to our secret garden. Fortunately, she was wearing jeans as I don’t think she would have climbed the tree in a skirt. We spent several hours up there, passing the book between us as we read aloud, sitting on our branches and then chatting as we ate our lunch.
I had a sudden vision of Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves sitting in the pine trees surrounded by goblins and wargs. I had to smother a chuckle as we were mimicking them – without the wargs and goblins, of course.
I was getting to know Lili and I enjoyed her enthusiasm for life, which was a contrast to Col, whose situation engendered a more serious outlook and the dark thoughts which swirled inside me.
After we returned to Col’s house, I asked about her drawing classes.
“Well, I enjoy drawing.” She looked at Col. “That was why you found me in the Art room that day, though I haven’t worked out why you were there.”
“Not because I am any good at art.” Col laughed. “It was just a place I thought I could hide away from the bullies for a while.”
“So, Lili, could you show us some of your drawings sometime?” I asked.
Lili looked down, shyly. “Well, alright. I’m just learning but mumia says I have some skills and I should work on improving them.”
“Do you enjoy drawing?” Col asked.
“Oh, yes.” Her face lit up with enthusiasm but then became more serious. “I get frustrated with myself when I can’t get down on paper what I see in my mind’s eye. Mrs Frobisher, my art teacher, says that I need to work on looking more carefully so the picture in my head is clearer and that will come with time.” I could hear the dedication in Lili’s voice.
“I enjoy looking at art, but I don’t think I have any skills as an artist.”
Col huffed. “When do you look at art?”
“At school in art class. Our teacher says we should all know a bit about the great painters and paintings. She has a slide projector and sets of slides. She’s been showing us paintings by the Impressionists.”
“Oh, I love Monet’s paintings.” Lili sighed. “I want to go up to London one of these days and visit the National Gallery. They have a few of his paintings as well as sculpture by Rodin.”
Col looked a bit lost. He clearly didn’t know what we were talking about.
“When we get back to school, Col, I’ll show you some of Monet’s pictures in the books we have in the art room. I think you’ll like them.”
Lili couldn’t join us again until later in the following week, but she brought a voluminous artist’s satchel from which she produced a sketchbook and rather timidly showed us some of her drawings. There several of a fluffy tabby cat that really caught my eye. In particular, there was one where it was clearly caught in mid-leap.
“That’s really good, Lili. You captured that in your mind’s eye very well.”
Lili blushed slightly. “Thank you, Willi. I had to encourage Rupert to jump quite a few times to fix the picture in my head. Mrs Frobisher says that now I am starting to see more clearly, I need to stop trying to be a camera and show myself in my drawings.” She shook her head in frustration. “There’s always something more.”
“But that’s why you like it so much, isn’t it?” Col’s sensitivity to those around him was showing again.
“Yes, you’re right.” Lili thought for a moment and then looked up. “Thank you for asking about my drawings. I’m always a bit scared to show people but showing you two was different. I hate it when mumia makes me get my sketchbook out to show her friends as it feels she’s showing me off. I’m really not that good.”
Col looked softly at her. “We’re your friends, Lili. You weren’t showing off but sharing an important part of your life with us. Thank you.”
“I think you are talented, Lili. There was a drawing of you, wasn’t there?” I asked. “How do you do that? In a mirror?
“Yes,” Lili smiled. “To do it properly, you need two mirrors, to reverse the mirror reversal so you draw what people see rather than what you see in a mirror. I only had one mirror so if you look at the picture,” she flipped the pages in her sketchbook and held up her portrait beside her head, “I’m reversed as I see myself in the mirror.
“Of course,” Col laughed. “Your mole is on the other side.”
“Perhaps I could draw you two one day? I need to practice with lots of different faces and then move on to figures.” Her voice was diffident, unsure how we’d react.
Col and I looked at one another and nodded our agreement.
We spent more time up in the tree that day reading The Hobbit. Things were happening in the wildly overgrown garden, with the daffodils and primroses finishing but the fruit trees blossoming. Spring was definitely here and the bitter winter was receding into history.