Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
November 22nd – 24th 1963
As November slowly passed, I became more and more concerned. I couldn’t remember the date of JFK’s assassination, other than late November, but I knew the place was Dallas. I scoured the newspapers at home for information but I had long realised there was nothing I could do and if I tried, I could well attract unwanted attention. I’d found nothing new that conflicted with my memories but Col sensed something bothering me. I passed it off as just my usual family angst, which seemed to leave Col unconvinced.
One day after tea, we were just settling down on the sofa to snuggle and read some more Under Milk Wood when the music Mutti Frida was listening to was interrupted.
“News has just come in that President Kennedy has been shot. There’s no news yet of his condition. It happened as the President was riding with his wife in an open car through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Several shots rang out and the President collapsed into the arms of his wife. One eyewitness said he saw blood on the President’s head. The Governor of Texas, Mr John Connally, who was with him, was also shot down. The President was rushed to hospital, where there’s still no word of his condition.”
Even though I was expecting this, it was still a shock. I looked up when I heard Mutti Frida gasp and saw tears flowing down her cheek.
Col threw off the blankets and was at her mother’s side in a moment. “Mutti! Mutti! Was ist los? What’s wrong?”
I disentangled myself from the blankets and stood at Mutti Frida’s other side.
After a while Mutti Frida sat up, reaching arms round the two of us. “He was a great man and I had such hopes after his Berlin speech.”
I think she meant his Ich bin ein Berliner speech when he firmly planted himself on the side of the encircled half-city of West Berlin and all of western Europe.
“Hopes?” Asked Col.
“That one day east Germany would be free, the Party and the Stasi broken and we could go home.”
I ached to comfort her with the knowledge that in twenty-five years that would happen – at least in my world – but all I could do was hug her. I don’t recall the assassination affecting me much in my previous life until I saw the picture of JFK’s small son saluting his father’s coffin as he stood with Jackie at the funeral.
We stood huddled over Mutti Frida for a minute or so and then she stood up. “I think we all need a cup of hot chocolate.” She busied herself in the kitchen whilst we sat at the table. In the background, the BBC was playing sombre music.
When the hot chocolate was ready, Mutti Frida sighed and chased us back on to the sofa and helped tuck the blankets around us. “Life goes on, children. Read your book.”
We sipped our hot chocolate and read more of Under Milkwood, but the zest had gone out of our reading and, eventually, we stopped. We sat there, just listening to the music and holding hands under the blanket.
After about an hour another announcement came on the Radio.
“The latest news from America is that President Kennedy has only been slightly injured and is recovering in hospital but the bullets meant for him have seriously injured the president’s wife. She is undergoing surgery and we wait for further announcements.”
A jolt ran through me as if I had been electrified – JFK was alive! I felt my stomach heave at the shock and tore myself out of the blankets, reaching the toilet just in time to deposit the hot chocolate and my tea. The solidity of the world I was in had been wrenched from beneath my feet. I grasped the bowl and vomited again as reality swirled around me. I half-heard Col’s anguished cry of “Willi!” before the world greyed out to darkness.
“No!” I tried to sit up but I was held down.
“It’s all right son, settle down.”
My eyes tried to understand the strange, moving environment and the thumping pain in my head. ‘
“You’re in an ambulance on the way to the ‘ospital, son. Seems like you ‘ad a nasty turn and fell down, giving your ‘ead a proper crack. I expect you’ll need some stitches.” The ambulance attendant looked down at a clipboard.
“It’s Will, isn’t it?”
Nodding seemed to be a bad idea, what with the pain in my head and fluttering in my stomach, so I whispered, “Yes.”
“Just lie there, Will. Let me know if you feel sick again.” My stomach twinged slightly as I recognised the acrid taste of vomit in my mouth.
“Could I have a drink of water please?”
“Hmm – just a sip, now and spit it out into this bowl.” He held a bottle with a straw in it to my lips. A small suck brought the sweet, cleansing taste of water. I swirled it round my mouth and swallowed. Before I could suck in some more the straw was withdrawn.
“Hey – I said to spit it out! You’re not supposed to be drinking anything until the doctor sees you!”
I just closed my eyes and let the motion of the ambulance sway me around.
JFK was alive! This was a huge change from my world. Once again, I felt the solidity of my reality sliding and flowing. The ambulance man must have been watching closely as he had a bowl beside me as I retched several times.
“See, I told you not to swallow that water!” He said, gently as he wiped around my face with a moist cloth.
I lay there, trying not to think about anything – and then I realised that my collapse must have been really scary for Col and Mutti Frida.
“How are the people I was with?” I managed to ask.
“Them Germans?” I could hear the dislike in his voice – he was of an age to have experienced the war and all that entailed.
“Dunno,” he said, dismissively, “but the woman said she’d tried to phone your mum but there was no one there. What you doing, hanging around with some damn Jerries?”
The continued swaying of the ambulance was not helping to settle my stomach. I closed my eyes and ignored the question.
“Hey! Don’t you go to sleep on me! We’re just about there.” I felt him pick up my wrist to take my pulse.
The ambulance came to a halt and the rear doors were opened. With great efficiency, my stretcher was pulled out of the ambulance and I was wheeled through doors marked “Emergency”, the aroma of surgical spirit and strong disinfectant swept round me.
A pair of nurses helped transfer me to a curtained bed and I lay there, eyes closed and glad not to be moving. Outside, I heard the ambulance man speaking to the nurse. “He was with a pair of damn Germans and had a turn, fell over and cracked his head on the toilet.”
“Germans – is he German, then? Does he speak English?”
“Oh, he’s English all right, his name’s Will. He was speaking to me OK in the van. According to that German woman, his mum’s at work but she wasn’t able to get hold of ‘er so she rang the ambulance.”
A moment later a nurse bustled through the curtains and placed a plastic bucket by my bed.
“How are we feeling?”
I opened my eyes. “A bit woozy still.”
“Well, there’s a bucket if you feel sick again. We’re going to take a look at that head of yours in a minute when the doctor gets here. Just you lie still for the moment.”
After a few minutes, the doctor came and they unwrapped the bandage on my head, mused over the significant bump and gash and decided the latter needed a few stitches, which were duly applied under a local anaesthetic.
I was lying there quietly when I heard Mutti Frida’s voice. “But I am his friend’s mother – he was at my house when the accident happened. I wish to see him!” A door closed and I could not hear any more. But then the curtain rustled and Col was standing beside me, holding my hand fiercely in hers.
“You scared me, Willi! When I saw you lying on the floor in the toilet with blood all over the floor, I thought you were dead! What happened?” She was speaking softly to avoid alerting the staff she was with me, but I could hear the fear in her voice.
“I don’t know – I must have fainted.”
“You hit your head on the base of the toilet, there was blood everywhere. Oh God, Willi, I thought you were dead, but Mutti bandaged it. We tried to call your mother but there was no reply so we called the ambulance.” That all seemed to come out in a single breath and I could feel her hand fiercely squeezing mine.
“Please, don’t break my hand!”
“Sorry!” She relaxed the squeezing, not letting go. “I’ve been so scared!” She leaned down to kiss me but pulled back when she caught the whiff of vomit still on my breath.
“Ugh – you need to have a drink and clean your teeth!” She whispered, smiling to take the sting out of her words.
Just then a nurse came in with a clipboard. She looked askance at Col. “Are you supposed to be in here?”
“Sh ... Col’s my best friend. Please let him stay with me. I feel safer.” I gave the nurse my best puppy eyes, hoping she hadn’t noticed my near slip.
“Hmmm.” She looked at Col’s hand, which was still holding mine. “I need to take your pulse!” She gave me a pointed stare. I offered her my other hand.
She flounced round to the other side of the bed, produced a thermometer which she stuck under my tongue and then took my pulse, writing up the results on a clipboard at the end of the bed.
At that moment, my mother arrived.
The nurse looked up, clearly becoming annoyed at intrusions into her domain. “And who are you?” she asked, somewhat irritated.
My mother was not someone to be trifled with in a medical environment. “I am Dr Johnstone,” she stressed the doctor part. “This boy’s mother. Please tell me what is happening.”
The nurse deflated rapidly. “He had a turn and fell, hitting his head. He has three stitches and the doctor is worried about a concussion.”
My mother picked up the chart at the foot of the bed and looked at it, then addressed the nurse. “Please let Dr... , “ she looked back down at the clipboard. “ ... Fredericks know I am here so I can talk with him.”
The nurse stood there, unsure of what to do.
“Now, please nurse!” My mother’s voice was curt, used to lesser medical staff doing her bidding without question.
The nurse left and my mother turned to Col.
“What happened, Col?” she asked in a much more friendly voice.
I jumped in, worried that she thought Col had something to do with this. “Col had nothing to do with it – it was an accident! I just felt ill and fainted.”
My mother sat on the side of the bed, opposite Col. She looked at Col’s hand holding mine and then picked up my other one. “It’s all right, Will, rest easy. I just want to try and work out why you fainted all of a sudden.”
She looked across at Col. “Can you tell me what you were doing when this happened?”
Col looked at me and then back at my mother. “We’d had tea and were sitting reading when the news came on that President Kennedy had been shot. We read some more and then the news came that he had only been injured but his wife was in surgery. Suddenly Will got up, rushed into the bathroom and was sick. Mutti and I got there just in time to see him fall and hit his head.”
“What time did you have tea?”
“About six o’clock, I think. We all had the same – Gemütlichkeit – sort of a beef stew with noodles.”
I realised my mother was worried about food poisoning.
My mother leaned forward, looking at Col. “You feel fine?”
“Yes, Frau Doctor Johnstone.”
“Thank you, Col.” My mother looked around. “Where’s your mother?”
“She’s here somewhere. They wouldn’t let us in the ambulance so we walked round here straight away. She was trying to get in to see Willi, but they wouldn’t let her.”
My mother looked at Col, a half-smile playing on her lips. “So, you slipped in here when no-one was looking?”
Col didn’t say anything.
“It’s all right Col.” She leaned across and patted his hand. “You stay here and I’ll go and find Dr Fredericks and your mother.”
I was still feeling a bit woozy and had a splitting headache, so I lay with my eyes closed. I felt the bed shift and realised Col was lying down beside me.
Col’s voice whispered in my ear, “Well, we’re in bed together, but it’s not quite what I was expecting.”
I squeezed her hand. “Wicked girl!” I whispered back, smiling. Then we lay in silence.
After a while, I heard footsteps and the curtain swished back. The doctor and my mother came in, with Mutti Frida and the nurse behind them. My mother looked at Col lying beside me. Col sat up but kept hold of my hand.
“How are we feeling?” The doctor asked.
“My head hurts.”
He gave a wry smile. “I’m sure it does. Seeing as how you have a doctor in the house,” he looked across at my mother with a nod of acknowledgement, “I think we can let you go home.” Having delivered his verdict, he swept out.
“All right, Will, let’s get you out of here.” She looked at Mutti Frida. “Can I give you a lift home?”
“Thank you, Frau Doctor, but just to your house. We can walk from there.”
Supported between Mutti Frida and my mother, I was walked out to the car. I lay in the back with my head in Col’s lap. At home, I was walked up to bed.
Col and Mutti Frida said goodnight and set off for home as soon as I was safely upstairs. My mother fussed around me for a while but eventually left me in peace, leaving the bedroom door open so I could call for help.
I lay there, totally confused by what was happening, the pain in my head thudding with each heartbeat did not help. The world I knew was clearly not this world in a very big way and I had no idea what might happen as a result of this. It would certainly affect politics in the US, but JFK strode the world’s stage. What would this do to the balance of power in the world? Eventually, the painkillers did their stuff and my head calmed down enough and I slept.
I woke up to find my mother leaning over me, a hand on my forehead, morning light pushing through the curtains.
“How are you feeling, Will?”
“Sore – and thirsty.”
“I’ll get you some water.”
She was back in a minute with a glass of water which she put on my bedside table. “Here, let me help you sit up a bit.”
I levered myself up and my mother fluffed up my pillow and put a second one behind me. “How’s that?”
I smiled at her and reached for the water.
“Remember, don’t drink it all at once!”
I had several sips and put the glass down.
My mother was looking at me, trying to summon the right words.
“What’s happening with you, Will?” She sat on the edge of the bed, searching my face. “About a year ago something happened and you ... changed.” She looked at me, silent for several seconds. “I know that things here at home needed to change and I’m so sorry I did nothing until that night with your father. But you aren’t that boy anymore – and you hide yourself from me so I don’t really know who you are now. Sometimes you are so adult I can scarcely believe it, but mostly I just don’t understand you.” She paused looking off to the side, trying to pull her thoughts together.
“Your faint last night doesn’t seem to have any physical cause. Talking to Col last night suggests to me that it was a shock reaction.” A puzzled look on her face, she paused again. “But why would you be shocked that President Kennedy was alive? I could understand it if you had that reaction to his death – but to him being alive? It’s almost as if you expected him to be dead.”
I stayed silent. My mother was a very intelligent lady and she was picking at the fabric close to a thread that she might try to untangle and follow. I was pretty sure, though, that what had happened to me was so inexplicable that even if her sharp mind led her to it, she would not be able to accept it.
“I know you’ve been taking the newspaper to read – and then bringing it back down again, so I know you are interested in what’s happening in the world. Being shocked at JFK’s death I could understand ... was it delayed shock?”
I shrugged, watching her face. “It must have been.”
She paused again and I could sense thoughts and emotions running through her. She took my hand in hers, squeezing gently as if physical contact would help open a deeper channel of communication between us.
“What’s happened to you, Will? Who are you?”
“I don’t know – I’m just me, growing up I suppose.”
My mother sighed, looking deeply into my eyes.
“I’ve had your school on the phone – they aren’t quite sure what to do with you either. The work you are doing is well past ‘O’ level and into the ‘A’ level curriculum. They want to push you up there. Would you like that?”
This was new to me – and probably dangerous in terms making me a target.
“If I’m already doing senior work now, what difference will moving up there make?” I was already sufficiently different, jumping me several more grades would make me stick out even more – and could restart the serious bullying.
My mother mused for a few seconds. “Nothing, I suppose – and the maturity of your reaction is one of the things I find so strange. You’re only 13 years old, Will, but I don’t understand your thinking most of the time.” Just then the phone rang and my mother went to answer it. I took a couple more sips of water and then leaned back and closed my eyes. I had been shutting my mother out, replacing her with Mutti Frida and her reaction to this was understandable. We hadn’t really connected since the Premium Bond incident.
“That was Frau Schmidt asking how you were. I told her you were fine, but a bit sore and would be staying home today.”
I gave her a forlorn look.
“It’s all right, Will.” My mother smiled. “Col is coming round in about an hour.” She paused. “Col is a very close friend, isn’t he?”
“He’s my best friend.”
“I know he is, Will.” She almost murmured and then stopped. “You looked very close in the hospital yesterday.” My mother gave me a long, speculative look and then changed the subject. Homosexuality was not just taboo in 1960’s England, it was still a crime. I was now certain she was worried about the relationship between Col and me. A sudden thought struck me: did Lili think we were gay? Were her subtle attempts to engage Col in a relationship attempts to probe the nature of our friendship?
“Willi, are you OK?”
I realised I had tuned out for a moment, so I smiled at my mother.
“You need to go and have a bath and then come and have some breakfast.” She stood up to let me get out of bed. “Don’t get your head wet though – if you need a hand in the bath, just call out, OK?”
My mother seeing me in the bath was not something I wanted, so I was careful in the bath – something my old brain had been dealing with. Do you know how many accidents there are in baths with old people? As I sat there soaking up the warmth, my mind gnawing at the problem my mother saw with Col’s and my relationship. Did she think that Col and I were gay? Did Lili think that too? I don’t think my mother was homophobic but having that in your family would be challenging in the 1960s. I realised that I was making her life problematical, but for the moment I could not see a way out. I had no idea how to handle Lili, other than just continuing to be friends. I would need to talk with Col about this, but I needed to think more first.
Col arrived shortly after breakfast. Once we were alone in my room, she hugged me tightly and then kissed me gently. “How are you feeling, Willi?” Her hand strayed up and softly stroked my scalp where it was shaved around the stitches.
“I’m mostly OK now, just a bit sore.”
“Good!” Col looked around and sat on the floor. “Your room hasn’t changed much since I was last here when we first met.”
“I suppose not – a few more books, perhaps.” I smiled. “We’d better not tell Mutti Frida that we spent time alone in my room.” Col laughed in agreement.
We spent the morning mostly in my room reading and talking. During the day news came through that JFK had been released from hospital and Jacky Kennedy was out of danger.
The secret service and local police had shot the attempted assassin as he tried to escape – and it was being reported that he was from Eastern Europe, a citizen of the Warsaw Pact countries. Yet another difference from my world. Had Russia just tried to kill JFK? Why would they do that? Were they trying to settle the score from JFK facing them down over the Cuban missile crisis?