Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Mid - late November 1963
I arrived at Col’s house as large snowflakes started to drift down in the still air. I could catch them on my coat-sleeve and see the individual crystals glisten in the streetlights, showing their six-pointed star structure. I knocked on the door. Col answered it and I grabbed his hand.
“Look. It’s snowing.” I laughed. “Grab your coat and come outside.”
Whilst he was getting his coat, I dropped my school satchel in the hall and then we were off outside. Those first few enormous flakes had now been joined by billions of fellows. Already the pavement had a light dusting. We stood watching the thickly falling snow, catching large flakes on our tongues until suddenly the streetlights went out and all the windows darkened: a power cut.
The darkness was intense, deepened by the snowstorm. Col grabbed my arm.
“Let’s go back inside.”
Inside, we quickly lit candles and placed one carefully in the hall, for Mutti Frida when she got back from work. We lit a couple in the lounge where we sat on the couch. Col grabbed several blankets and we soon made a nest, cuddled together for mutual warmth, relaxing in the dim candlelight as we had last winter. We chatted about the snowstorm and power cut for a while, before I asked, “Do you wonder where your life is headed?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, my mother is a doctor and I expect there will be some pressure to follow in her footsteps. But I’m not sure I want that, but I don’t know what I do want.”
“You’ll be a pilot, surely that’s what you are most interested in?”
I sighed, softly but deeply. “I’d love to be but I don’t think so – my eyes are a problem that doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I need to think of something else.” I was, once again, confronting what had seemed to be the great tragedy of my youth. I sighed again, staring off into the distance of an impossible future. “Flying is the one thing I want to do and the one thing I’m absolutely stopped from doing.”
Col looked at me and I felt his hand find mine, squeezing gently.
“Oh, Willi. I’m sorry, I did not understand that. But there’s more to flying than being a pilot.”
“I know, but I don’t know that I could be in aviation and not be a pilot. I’m frightened I might not be able to stand it.” I could feel moisture in my eyes and was glad of the dim light. Col snuggled a bit closer.
“I suppose ... it would be like working in a chocolate shop and never being allowed to even nibble some.”
“You and your chocolate,” I chuckled, glad to be moving away from a troubling subject. “What about you?”
“Oh! I don’t know – I haven’t really thought about it.”
“You must have some sort of idea?”
Col paused, turning to look at me. “What I do doesn’t seem to be as important as who I do it with.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s very complicated – I want to be with people I like, people I love and doing things with them.” Col paused and looked away. “People like you,” he added softly.
I wanted to be Col’s friend for life, but there was something deeper here. Something a bit scary.
“Col, what do you mean?”
He turned back towards me, a softness to his lips and a yearning in his eyes I had perhaps seen hints of before. Then his face hardened again.
“I don’t know what I meant.” He looked away, trying to hide the emotions playing out behind his eyes.
After a second or so, a terrifying thought occurred to me. At school, about the worst insult you could throw at someone was that they were a fag, a poofter. Was Col saying he had feelings for me like that?
I grabbed his elbows and for a moment we wrestled under the blankets as I turned him to face me.
“We’re boys – you can’t have feelings like that for me!”
Col sagged back into the cushions.
His eyes held a look of ... desperation? “Yes, I can. I do. But...”
I cut him off, struggling to fight my way out of the cocooning blankets. It was confusing and very scary for my young brain as I did feel strongly attracted to him, but not that way – not physically, surely.
“No! We’re not like that. I’m not like that!”
Col grabbed my elbows and threw me against the back of the sofa, pinning me.
He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment and then looked at me, holding me with his eyes.
“You’re right, we’re not like that, because...” he paused, taking a deep breath and squeezing his eyes closed again. After a long pause, his eyes opened and he practically whispered: “ ... because I am not a boy.”
What? My brain seemed to have taken time out, all thought frozen.
Softly, with infinite gentleness, he said, “Willi, I am Colette – a girl.”
I had no words. I think my mouth opened and closed a few times, but I could not speak as my entire world shifted around me.
Col leaned closer still, placing a tiny, gentle kiss at the corner of my mouth and then pulled back to look into my eyes, her hands sliding down my arms to my hands, turning the palms face up and rubbing her thumbs gently over them.
“I’m so sorry, Willi. I ... well, Mutti and I, we’ve been deceiving you but we really didn’t have a choice.” Tears started down her cheeks. “But I couldn’t keep doing it. I know we can trust you – you’ve shown we can trust you and you and I have grown closer and closer, but we can’t grow any closer with this ... this deceit between us.”
She took a deep breath and batted away the tears. “Anyway, I couldn’t keep on pretending to be a boy. Things are happening to my body and it will be very difficult to pretend for much longer.”
“You’re a g ... girl?” I stuttered.
“Yes, Willi. You have to believe me, I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.”
I sat, completely nonplussed. I tried to speak, but I could find no words. She must have seen the disbelief on my face. She closed her eyes for several seconds, before coming to a decision.
“All right, I’ll prove it to you.”
She let go of my hands and rearranged herself under the blanket. Then she grabbed my hand and slid it slowly down inside her jeans and knickers. I encountered smooth skin, soft hair and a growing warmth. Her eyes flared at my touch and she inhaled, sharply.
She held my hand in place. “Does that feel like a boy?”
I shook my head, dumbfounded. She pulled my hand out, slowly, causing her to take another half-gasp. I saw her rearranging her clothing under the blanket.
She shook her head, freeing herself of ... something. “Right – that never happened, OK?” She looked coyly under eyelashes that must have doubled in length in the last few seconds.
I swallowed convulsively, nodded and then managed a whisper. “Wow!”
“Wow? Wow, what? Wow, that I’m a girl? Wow at what you just felt?”
I inhaled a breath that was long overdue. “Every one of those!” My brain was still trying to catch up and I leaned back into the sofa. Col straddled my legs and held me by the shoulders, searching my face, aching to understand how I felt.
“Willi, I know this is terribly confusing for you. Please tell me we can still be friends!”
I looked at this face I had grown to know so well over the last year, this person who had befriended me and unknowingly helped me cope with the strange circumstances I found myself in.
This person who had saved my life under the cedar tree.
“Oh Col! Of course, we’re still friends. You are a huge part of my world. I can’t imagine you not being a part of it.”
“The same for me!” She said softly and leaned in slowly, placing a soft kiss fully on my lips.
My confusion peaked. I was being kissed by a boy – and then the memory of what I had just discovered asserted itself: the world finished shifting around me. Without conscious thought, my hands slid up her back and pulled her closer to me and our first real kiss was amazing.
Col must have felt the effect she had on me. She swivelled her hips against me and giggled. “Well, the evidence is that you are a boy!”
I could feel myself blushing.
“It’s all right Willi, we both have bodies, I like your reaction to mine as it tells me you know I’m a girl and one you find attractive.” How could she feel so self-confident and unembarrassed? Then I noticed a slight, uncertain smile and a faint blush. Perhaps not so self-confident but pushing her boundaries all the same.
Col moved again, to cuddle up beside me, pulling the blankets back into order around us and carefully draping my arm around her shoulders.
“Shhh.” She placed an index finger on my lips. “Let’s just cuddle and allow our minds to catch up, hmm?”
I kissed her finger and squeezed her shoulder. “OK”. And we sat there in the softly flickering candlelight and warmth of the blankets as the geometry of our friendship rearranged itself like the shifting patterns in a kaleidoscope, settling into something new, exciting but also a bit scary.
“Hello, sleepy heads. I’m glad you’ve been keeping warm.” Mutti Frida’s smiling voice woke us. “I had to walk home as the buses are in chaos because of the snow. The electricity is still out so I’ll light the oil heater and we can warm some soup for tea on that.”
She busied herself, hanging up her coat and hat. “Have you tried to ring home, Willi?”
“Not yet. We went to sleep!” Mutti Frida laughed.
We stretched and shifted out from under the blankets. The room was very cold.
Col took her mother’s hand. “Mutti, there’s something I have to tell you.”
Something in her daughter’s voice alerted her. Mutti Frida stopped fiddling with the oil heater and looked at Col and then at me. Col saw the look.
“Willi knows, Mutti.”
I could see the tension arrive in Mutti Frida’s shoulders. “Knows what?” Her voice had an edge to it as if poised and ready to run.
“He knows that I am Colette, a girl, not Col, a boy. I know we can trust him and I wasn’t going to be able to hide it from him much longer.”
Mutti Frida pulled a chair out from the table and sat heavily. “Oh, Col!”
I came up beside Col and took her hand in mine.
Mutti Frida looked at the two of us and sighed. “No, I suppose not.” She closed her eyes. “Now what are we going to do?”
I looked at Col and turned to Mutti Frida. “It doesn’t really change things – at least not yet. Col can still be a boy for the outside world, but she can be who she is here, safe in this house, can’t she?”
“For the moment, yes.” Mutti Frida’s voice was slumped, like her shoulders. “I knew keeping you as a boy was going to cause problems, but it seemed the best way to hide.”
Mutti Frida closed her eyes in thought. “Well, we don’t have to decide anything yet.” She got up from the chair.
“Now, Willi, you must phone home and let your family know you’re are safe here and find out what they want you to do.”
I rang home, but there was no reply.
“No one is home!” I announced.
“Ah well, I expect they are having problems because of the snow. It was giving everything quite a covering by the time I got here.”
She lit the oil stove and opened some tins of beef and vegetable soup.
“This is left over from the supplies I got in last winter when it looked like we could be snowed in for days at a time. I hope we are not going to have another winter like that!”
The warmth from the heater spread slowly through the room and warmed the saucepan of soup sitting on top.
“Willi set the table, please. Col, what bread do we have in the larder? I think there are still some crusty rolls that will go well with the soup. Perhaps some cheese also?”
By the time we had eaten, the room was warm. “Willi, try ringing your home again.”
This time my mother answered, back from her evening surgery. My sister was staying at Lucy’s house – again – and my father was staying in London. We agreed the snow and blackout would not be a problem as I was walking. I agreed to be home by eight o’clock as tomorrow was a school day and I hung up.
That gave me nearly another hour with Col. We helped Mutti Frida with the dishes and then sat close together on the sofa and picked up our current English book – Gavin Lyall’s The Wrong Side of the Sky, which I had picked as it was a thriller with much flying. Tomorrow we would be back to Das Versprechen by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, which I was finding a bit dark.
We had been reading for about thirty minutes when Mutti Frida stopped pottering in the kitchen and interrupted us.
“Col, Willi – we need to have a talk.”
We put down the book. I wondered what this was about, but Col, it seemed, knew exactly what was coming. She picked up my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“No, Col. Please let me speak. I saw how you were cuddled up together when I arrived home and how you are now. I know you are friends, but now that friendship is no longer of two boys, but a young woman and a young man.”
She looked at Col. “Col, we have spoken about what is happening to your body and what it means.” Col nodded and gave me a sideways glance. How had I not noticed her long eyelashes before?
Mutti Frida turned to me. “Willi, has your mother spoken to you about what happens to boys and girls as they grow into men and women?” I was embarrassed at where this conversation was headed but also scared that Mutti Frida was going to force us apart.
“My mother explained a bit when my sister ... my sister got grumpy once a month.”
Mutti Frida nodded. “So, you know that once a girl reaches,” She paused, searching for a word. “auf Deutsch sagt man erste Regel ... I don’t know the English word ... when she starts bleeding every month, she can become pregnant?”
I nodded. In a house with a doctor, there was no shortage of medical texts.
“I know you two are very close friends and I can see your friendship has now taken a very different direction. I need the two of you to promise me that you will not do anything stupid.” She stopped, giving both of us a penetrating look. “Col is far too young to have a baby – and I am too young to be a grandmother.”
Col gasped, “Mutti.” a faint blush limning her face, as she gave me a sidelong glance.
Mutti Frida silenced her with a look. “You may be embarrassed, but that’s a small price to pay for both of you promising me that you will not do something stupid.” Her voice softened. “I do not want you to rush into things that have serious consequences.”
She looked between the two of us. “Promise me that you will not be stupid about your relationship.”
Col laced her fingers into mine and looked questioningly at me. I nodded – I was not going to risk Mutti Frida restricting when we could see one another. Col gave me a thin smile and turned back to her mother. “We promise.”
Mutti Frida sighed and looked softly at us. “There will be times when keeping this promise is going to be very difficult. Please, both of you, remember it and help one another to keep it.” Was that coming from her personal history?
Col and I looked at one another, each of us seeing a glimmer of what she meant in the other’s eyes.
Mutti Frida took my free hand. “Willi, Col is all I have and I need you to take care of her.” She shivered slightly. “At her age, I was in Ravensbrück surrounded by death. She is named Collette in memory of one of those brave English girls. I know the dangers here are not as fierce or as obvious as they were for me then, but they are still very real.”
I looked at her and nodded, swallowing. It was so easy, here in quiet Kent, to forget that Col and Mutti Frida were being sought by Col’s father who had the resources of the Stasi at his disposal.
“So, Willi, perhaps it is time for you to go home now?”
I looked at Col and she pulled a face. I sensed that Mutti Frida needed some time to come to terms with this new dynamic – and I did not want to cause any friction, so I stood up, with Col’s hand still in mine.
Col used my arm to pull herself up and walked with me into the hall to help me dress for the snow outside. As she buttoned up my coat, she leaned in and whispered, “Finish your homework at school or on the bus, OK?”
I looked at her with incomprehension.
Her annoyance came through in the whisper. “Just do it, OK?” Still not understanding what was going on, I nodded.
Mutti Frida came out into the hall. “Please ring us when you get home so we know you are safe.”
“Yes, Mutti Frida.”
“Colette, you may see your friend out. Don’t get cold out there...”. Col looked at her mother and gave her a slight smile and Mutti Frida walked into the lounge room and quietly, but firmly, shut the door.
Col turned back to me and gently took hold of my coat lapels, pulling me slowly towards her. We managed not to bash our noses together, but I was unprepared for the intensity I felt as our lips came together. My arms went around her slim body of their own accord. The kiss deepened and then I pulled back slightly and nipped her lips with mine. She pulled her face back and took a deep breath, our eyes locked together.
“Wow!” She smiled softly and leant in to give me a quick soft kiss. “You had better go now or we might have problems with that promise!” She pulled out of my arms and opened the front door. It had stopped snowing and there was no wind, but the cold poured into the room. Col shuddered at the rapid drop in temperature, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Go! Before I freeze to death!”
I gently pulled her to me and brushed a soft kiss on to her lips, then walked out of the door. At the gate, I turned and she was standing there. I gave her a wave and received a blown kiss in return and then she quickly went inside and shut the door.