Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Late April - September 1963
The following morning, I rang Col and told him I would be a bit late as I had an errand to run. After I packed the necessary books into my duffel bag, I walked into Beltinge and deposited the cheque into my Post Office savings account. The teller gave me a surreptitious smile when they saw it was a Premium Bond winning and advised me that it would take about a week for the cheque to clear before I could access the money. That didn’t bother me as I wasn’t looking to spend it any time soon. I was also pondering who I could – or should – tell about my good fortune. I wanted to tell Col, but it also seemed a bit like boasting, so I decided to leave it for now.
Yesterday’s showers and rain had cleared and the day promised to be fine, with fair weather cumulus clouds dotting the sky and so it was a pleasant walk back to Col’s house. I really needed to talk to him about what I had learned about my family from my mother. I pondered this as I walked and I realised that this would be me trusting Col as he (and Mutti Frida) had trusted me with their story. But that brought its own problems: Mutti Frida and my mother were sharing recipes and so what else were they sharing? Would it be fair to my mother to share what was a family secret with Mutti Frida? I decided that I had to bide my time in talking this over with Col until I had spoken with my mother.
Col greeted me with a smile at the door and we spent a pleasant day together, in part in our cedar tree. A couple of times Col had to call me back to the present as my mind slipped away to think about my family, but as drifting off in thought was not uncommon behaviour from me, he didn’t seem to pick up that the undercurrents tugging at my attention were anything out of the ordinary, at least for me.
I told Col I needed to be home early and arrived home before my mother, so I went up to my room and read. About half an hour later I heard my mother’s car and so I went down.
“Oh, hello Will.” She smiled. “Is everything all right? I didn’t expect you to be here.”
“Yes, everything’s fine, but I need to talk about what you told me last night.”
My mother lost her smile. “OK.”
We sat at the kitchen table and my mother gave me a questioning look. I took a deep breath, unsure how this would go.
“I want to talk about this with Col, but I know that if I do that, I will have to include Mutti Frida too, as she is so involved.”
“Well, I know you and Mutti Frida exchange recipes, but I suspect that there is more to your relationship than that. What I want to talk about is pretty personal and I don’t want to embarrass you.”
My mother nodded but stayed silent for a few seconds.
“Will, thank you for talking to me first. Once again, you are showing maturity beyond your age and I’m proud of you for thinking about this so carefully.” She gave me a brief smile.
“I suppose this all comes down to how much you trust Col and Frau Schmidt. This is the sort of family secret that could make my professional involvement in this community very difficult if it got out. Can you be sure that Col won’t talk about this – even inadvertently at school or with his other friends?”
“If I tell him not to, I know I can trust him.”
“What about Mutti Frida – will she talk about it to her friends?”
My mother gave me a penetrating look. “You seem very sure of yourself about this.”
I tried to imbue my voice with certainty about this. “I am.”
My mother sat looking at me for a while. “Can I ask why you are so sure that they will keep our secrets?”
I wasn’t sure how I could answer this. I certainly couldn’t tell her that they had trusted me with far more important secrets and Col had stayed silent about my suicide attempts. I could see my mother trying to divine my thoughts from my face. I remembered reading that the best way to answer a question you weren’t sure how to answer was to ask a question back.
“How many people do you think Mutti Frida has trusted with her experiences in Ravensbrück?”
My mother gave a sharp intake of breath.
“I didn’t know that!”
“You don’t remember her showing her forearm with the SS number on it to my father that night at Col’s house?”
“No. I was concentrating on getting your father home before something terrible happened, to either or both of you. That look you gave him after glancing at the knife really scared me.”
“Oh. Well, she showed my father the concentration camp tattoo and told him that there was no way he could scare her as she’d had the SS at her for years in Ravensbrück and other camps before that.”
“I do remember that your father did seem a bit shocked by something Frau Schmidt said, but I didn’t know what.”
“Well, after you both left Mutti Frida came back into the kitchen with her sleeve still pushed up and I saw the tattoo. I asked her what it meant and she told us about what had happened to her, how her father was taken away and shot, her mother dying of starvation in the camp and, well, lots more.” I managed to stop myself before talking about the red triangle on her overalls saving her when she was found by the Russians, that would have exposed far too much of their secret.
“Dear God, the poor woman.” I could see the anguish she felt on her face.
“I think Mutti Frida probably thinks that you at least know that she was in a concentration camp.”
My mother nodded, thoughtfully.
“Well, I am also sure that she does not expect you to talk about it with anyone else. She is trusting you on that even though she hasn’t asked you to keep it secret.”
My mother looked down at her hands on the table and then looked back up at me. “There’s more to that story that you are not telling me, isn’t there?”
I returned my mother’s gaze. Once again, I couldn’t answer, so I asked a question in return.
“It’s not my story to tell, is it?”
My mother nodded, slowly. “No, of course, it’s not yours to tell. I’m sorry.”
Another first – knocking on my bedroom door before coming in and now apologising. My relationship with my mother was changing very quickly and I wasn’t sure where it was going.
“So, can I talk to Col and Mutti Frida about what you told me last night?”
Across the table from me, I could see my mother’s reaction as palpably physical. She was shifting in her chair and glancing round the room. She was clearly deeply uncomfortable with the idea of someone outside the family knowing about this.
“You have nothing to be ashamed off, mummy.”
My mother took a deep breath and looked at me. “Ah, but you’re wrong there.”
“But nothing happened between you and your friend, you told me that.” Had she lied to me? Was I really not my father’s son?
“Nothing did happen – that’s not what I’m ashamed of.” I could see tears in her eyes. “I’m ashamed that for so long I did nothing about your father’s violence towards you. I should have stopped it when it started. Before it started.” She slowly toppled forward on to her arms, sobbing. This was a totally different mother to the somewhat distant, intensely intellectual person she had seemed until now.
I reached across and stroked her hair. After a minute or so, she sat up, pulling a hanky from her sleeve to dab her tears and blow her nose. She reached over and took my hand.
“Thank you, Will.”
“You’ve stopped it now, mummy, that’s all that really matters.”
“That’s very kind of you to say that, but I failed to protect you. That’s what mothers are for and I failed you.”
I could see she was winding herself in guilt. I started stroking her hand.
“Please don’t do that, mummy. Please don’t lose yourself in guilt.” I gave her hand a squeeze and she looked at me. “It’s over. You stopped it.”
Our gazes locked. “Thank you, Will.” I gave her hand another squeeze. We stayed like that for several long seconds, then my mother leaned back in her chair and gathered herself together.
“You really need to share this with Col?” I nodded.
“And Frau Schmidt?”
“Yes. If I tell Col, I will have to tell Mutti Frida?”
A long pause.
“You don’t need my permission, Will. This is about you and your life. But thank you again for talking with me first. Once you’ve spoken to Col and Frau Schmidt, please could you also tell Frau Schmidt that I’d like to talk to her as well? But only after you’ve told them. OK?”
I looked at her, trying to understand why she wanted this.
“It’s nothing bad – well nothing bad about you. But I feel I need to speak to her about this as an adult.”
“OK.” I realised I sounded a bit grudging. “If that’s what you want me to do.”
“She’s becoming important in your life, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is.” Was she worried that Mutti Frida would replace her? “But I know you’re my mother.”
She looked at me about to say something – and then we heard my sister at the back door and my mother shot upstairs – to wash her face and reapply her minimal makeup, I suspected.
My sister gave me a vicious look when she saw me sitting at the kitchen table, went into the hall and hung up her coat and then came back into the kitchen. “I don’t know what happened yesterday, mother wouldn’t tell me. But I know you’re at the centre of it – again – and now father is staying in London during the week. Are you trying to destroy this family?” Her voice rose until she was practically shouting in my face.
I leaned back in my chair. Damn, I really didn’t need this.
“This family seems to be doing its best to destroy itself – and you are not helping by yelling at me.” My voice and temper were rising.
“Will! Hilary! That’s enough!”
My sister had been leaning over me, threateningly. She stood back up. “What’s going on? Why is father staying in London during the week.?”
My mother closed her eyes for a moment. “This is between Will, your father and I, so, no, I will not explain that. You know that your father has been ... mistreating Will for some years and it has now stopped. As part of reaching that decision, your father decided that perhaps a little space would let things settle down.”
I could see my sister was not satisfied. She wanted the full story and I’m sure it would then be spread far and wide amongst her catty friends.
There was a lengthy silence as my mother and sister looked at one another, then my sister turned away.
“Thank you, Hilary.” My mother gave her a nod of acknowledgement.
My mother started clattering about in the kitchen, getting supper ready. “Please, Will, set the table.”
My sister was silent during supper, sulking I suspect. My mother and I talked about our day. she seemed very interested in the books we were reading, particularly when I mentioned the Muller poetry that lay behind Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin.
“They are pretty dark and difficult stories, Will. How did you come across them?”
“I heard the Schubert song cycle on the radio at Col’s house, Mutti Frida was listening to them, but I couldn’t get the words because the singing got in the way. Then I found them in a book at the library and we’ve been reading them.”
“The library has books in German?” My mother was clearly surprised.
“Only a couple – the Müller poems and Der schweiserische Robinson – Swiss Family Robinson, which was in the old Gothic script which we had to learn to read. They had a few books in French and Polish, too.”
“Oh, perhaps they were left over from wartime when there were lots of refugees about.”
I shrugged. “I understand what you mean about the poems being dark – but then Shakespeare is pretty dark in places too, isn’t it?”
My sister flounced off at the end of the meal. I stopped my mother from calling her back and we cleaned up together, allowing the emotions of the last couple of evenings to dissipate in shared trivialities.
Later, I lay in bed thinking about these two evenings with my mother. I had wanted to spend some time with her – but I had not imagined that it would be so intense. One good outcome was it seemed that she was starting to see me as something other than a child. The events of the last two evenings had certainly brought us closer together. Tomorrow I would talk with Col and Mutti Frida – and then Mutti Frida and my mother would talk. I was vaguely concerned about this but had nothing concrete on which to base my unease. Sighing, I knew I would have to wait and see what happened.
Yesterday’s sunshine had departed and I walked round to Col’s house in light rain. I was wearing gumboots so we could go for a walk later and had indoor shoes in my bag. Col opened the door when I knocked and I left the gumboots and my coat in the porch.
“Lili’s mum is going to drop her round after lunch. We’ve run out of German books to read and we can’t read The Hobbit until Lili gets here, so what do you want to do?”
“I’ve got something I need to talk with you about before Lili gets here.”
Col looked at me, pensively. “I wondered what was going through your mind yesterday, you seemed a bit distant at times.”
So he had noticed I was a bit distracted.
I went into the lounge room and sat down in our usual place on the couch. Col stood there for a moment and then sat down beside me.
“So – what’s on your mind?” he asked in English with a funny German accent.
“All right, Dr Freud.” I smiled and then sighed. Col’s smile faded rapidly.
“I know now what the problem is between my father and me.” Col half turned towards me. “He doesn’t think I am his son.”
“I’ve always thought I must have done something terribly bad when I was six, but all I can remember is the beating my father gave me. After another row with my father, which my mother sorted out, I finally asked her what I had done that made him hate me so.”
I felt Col’s hand creep into mine. “This is a family secret, Col. I’m trusting you not to tell anyone like you have trusted me with your secrets.”
“You know you can trust me, Willi.”
I nodded. I knew that – he had told no-one, not even his mother about my suicide attempts, but of course I hadn’t been able to use that as an example with my mother.
“This goes back to before I was born. My father was sent overseas and just before he came back my mother met an old friend from medical school, by chance. She had dinner with this friend – a man – at his hotel. Someone saw them and recognised my mother. A couple of days later my father came back and she completely forgot to tell him about the dinner. I was conceived about that time.”
Col gave my hand a gentle squeeze of encouragement.
“Sometime after my sixth birthday, an anonymous letter arrived for my father, telling him about the dinner my mother had and telling him that I wasn’t his son. He completely lost his temper and gave me the beating I remember – and plenty more since then.”
“So – are you his son or is this other man your father?”
“My mother is adamant that all she did with him was have dinner. She insists I am my father’s son.”
Col looked at me. I could see him pondering what to say next. He picked up both my hands and scanned my face, asking softly, “Do you believe her?”
I looked away for a few seconds. This was the question that had been slithering around in my brain since the night before last. Did I believe her?
“Yes Col, I do. I have no evidence other than her word, but I do believe her. She was distraught telling me all about it. I really don’t think she could have been lying.”
“I’m sorry to be the devil’s advocate here, but are you certain?”
Oh, for a DNA test kit and a laboratory.
“No, I can’t be certain. But I do believe her.”