Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
26th November - late November 1963
Our house was empty when I arrived, so I went up to my room, got out my schoolbooks and stared at them, lost in tortuous, circling thoughts that reached no conclusion. Col had believed my story – but her reaction had twisted in a completely unexpected and very scary direction.
Eventually, I heard someone moving around downstairs and my mother put her head round my door.
“Will! You’re back early. Is everything all right?”
It definitely wasn’t, but I couldn’t talk about it with my mother.
“Yes – Col and Mutti Frida are doing something this evening, so I had to come home early.”
“OK. Supper is a bit of a scratch tonight. Come on down in about half an hour – or you could come down and talk to me as I get it ready.”
I needed to spend more time with my mother, but I couldn’t do it tonight. I looked down at my desk. Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” was lying open in front of me. It’s brooding darkness and twisted relationships had seemed to suit my mood when I had picked it up, but I hadn’t really been reading it.
“I need to get through this chapter of Les Enfants Terribles. I’ll be down in a bit.”
I could see my mother was disappointed. “OK.”
I returned to the deeply disturbed world created by Cocteau, but quickly put it down again. I could sense it would take me to places I did not want to visit tonight, so I just sat.
After about ten minutes I heard the phone ring. My heart leapt. Could that be Col already? Then I realised if it was, it might just as easily not be what I wanted to hear. I could hear my mother talking on the phone at the foot of the stairs, but not what she was saying. After a while, she came up the stairs.
“Col, that was Frau Schmidt. Something’s happened and she asked if Col could stay here tonight as she has to go out and could well be very late – and I said, of course, he could.”
“She wouldn’t say.” My mother paused. “It must be something important, though, for her to have to deal with it at this time of night. Anyway, Col is walking here in a few minutes. You might want to go and meet him and help him as he has everything for school tomorrow with him.”
I grabbed my coat and headed back towards Col’s house. After I turned the corner into Sea View Avenue, I saw Col emerge from her house carrying her school bag and a bulging duffel bag. I walked towards her. When we met, I could not see her face in the poor light of the streetlamps, so I was none the wiser about how she felt. I reached out and lifted the duffel bag off her shoulder.
“Willi, I am still thinking, so please don’t push me.”
I nodded; I could see the tension in her body.
“I don’t know what’s happening with Mutti, but she’s already gone, walking back into town to meet someone who phoned. I’m really worried that it’s something to do with my father.”
I could hear the tears hiding behind her voice and desperately wanted to comfort her with a hug, but that could be seen as pushing her, so I just stood there.
She hitched her school bag strap higher on her shoulder, gave me a hard look and set off purposefully towards my house. I had to scurry to catch up with her.
We walked in silence. Unexpectedly, my father was sitting at the kitchen table as we came in through the back door. He sat, glowering at me in silence as my mother welcomed Col.
“We’ll set up the camp bed in Will’s room after supper, Col,” my mother announced. I saw Col’s eyes flare for a second and she gave me a frown.
“Take Col upstairs, Will, so he can leave his bags in your room. Come straight back down as supper’s ready.”
When we reached my room, Col turned towards me and let fly in German, but keeping her voice low.
“I can’t sleep in here with you,” she spat. “What would Mutti think?”
I knew Mutti Frida would not like this. “I don’t know what we can do about it – unless you want to tell everyone that you are a girl?”
“Of course not. Be sensible.” The sting went out of her voice and she gave me a pleading look. “What are we going to do?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”
“Why can’t I sleep on the sofa downstairs, as you do at my house?”
“My mother will think that’s strange. I expect she thinks I sleep in your room when I’m there.”
Col closed her eyes and sat heavily on my bed. “We’ll have to tell Mutti I slept in your room on a camp bed.”
“What? I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
“Willi, think about it. It would be a problem if our mothers talked and it came out then. Mutti might be so shocked that she’d let the secret out.”
I looked doubtful.
“Don’t worry. I’ll remind Mutti about our promise and that we are keeping it. I’m sure she will understand, given the circumstances.” She didn’t sound very convincing.
I gave her a wry half-smile. Given what lay between us, I was certainly not expecting any sort of physical contact and I did not want Mutti Frida thinking we had broken our promise.
“Come on, we’d better get downstairs. We don’t want to annoy your father.” We traipsed back downstairs in silence and sat down to tea.
I could see Col eyeing off her plate of bubble and squeak with beef fritters with some suspicion.
“Es ist gebratene Kartoffelpüree und Gemüse.” (It’s fried mashed potato and vegetables)
“Stop that!” My father’s voice whipped across the table. “Speak English!”
I saw Col cringe and my mother gave my father a fierce look.
I turned to my mother. “I’m sorry. I was just telling Col what we were eating. We don’t really stop to think what language we are using. I wasn’t being rude.”
My mother nodded and the incident passed, but I could see Col was very uncomfortable.
The conversation around the supper table was strained and desultory, stretching across long, agonised silences broken mostly by my mother asking about how our days had gone. I could feel my father’s baleful eye on me all the time and with the question marks hanging over my relationship with Col, I didn’t feel very hungry – a shame, as I like bubble and squeak with beef fritters.
Somehow, I managed to eat my plateful as did Col and then we helped my sister with the clean-up, to her apparent disgust with having to associate with us boys. I wondered if she’d relate differently to Col if she knew Col was a girl. As we finished, my mother came back into the kitchen.
“Will, you and Col can get the camp bed out of the shed and take it up to your room. Do you remember how to put it together?”
“I think so.”
The camp bed was primitive by the modern standards I was used to – basically, canvas stretched tightly across a wooden frame on a set of six legs. There was no mattress, you just put a couple of blankets on top of the canvas to soften it slightly. It took us a while to work out how to put it together, despite my previous experience with it, and as we worked together I could feel Col’s mood thawing, to the point of giving me a tentative smile at one point as we struggled with the wretched device.
“Do you think you’ll be comfortable on this?” I asked, eyeing off the camp bed when we finally had it assembled.
“I expect so.” She gave me a full smile. “Even if I’m not, I’m not getting in with you,” she laughed softly and then reached across to take my hands.
“I’m sorry about earlier – I can see that you are just you, not a pervert. But I do want to try to understand what has happened to you. It must be weird living in your head.”
My relief at hearing this was enormous and I gusted out a huge sigh.
“Thank you for believing me – inside my head is pretty odd at times when my young brain’s emotions war with my old brain. But mostly I’m just me – what you see is what you get.” I pretty much didn’t understand what had happened to me, so I didn’t know what else I could tell her. “Ask whatever you want and I’ll try to give you an answer if I have one.”
I squeezed her hand – and my mother appeared with blankets, sheets and a pillow. For a fraction of a second she froze, looking at the tableau before her, then she shook herself out of it.
“Here you go Col. Spread a couple of these thick, woollen blankets on the camp bed and then just make up a normal bed on top of that. There’s plenty of blankets so you can put more on if you start to feel cold.” She dropped the bedding on the camp bed.
We started making up the bed under her watchful eye as she tried to fathom Col’s and my relationship. I could almost hear the questions bouncing around in her head.
“Do you want a bath before bed, Col?” she asked.
I saw Col tense slightly. “No thank you, Frau Doktor Johnstone. Mutti made me have one before I left so I would not be a problem for you.”
My mother gave Col a gentle smile. “You are not a problem, Col. It’s a pleasure to have you here as Will spends so much time at your house.” Her questing look flicked across me. I had no idea how I was going to deal with this scrutiny of our relationship.
“Tomorrow is a school day for both of you, so I want you to get ready for bed in half an hour – and when the lights go out, I want you to sleep. No chatting to all hours of the night. Understood?”
“Yes, Frau Doktor!”
Col watched my mother leave and then looked at me and asked, “Wenn wir auf Deutsch sprechen, wird deine Mutter es nicht verstehen?“ (If we talk in German, your mother will not understand?)
“I don’t think so. I’ve spoken to her about her German and she told me she only had a smattering and that was from when she was at school before the war.” I gave Col a sad look. “Learning German was not something that was very popular once the war started.”
Col gave me a wry smile and then sat on the camp bed, giving a few tentative bounces to test it. Then she settled, slipped her shoes off, perched her feet on the edge of the camp bed and wrapped her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees.
“Willi, I think your mother is worried about how close we are.”
I nodded in agreement. “I think you’re right. But I don’t know what to do about it.”
Col paused. “Does she think we are homosexual?”
I gave her a wry smile. “Possibly. But I don’t think she will say anything. That subject is just so taboo I think we are safe unless she catches us in bed together.”
Col chuckled. “If she did, she would know we weren’t homosexual.” I could see a faint blush on her face at what she had suggested.
I gave her a smile and raised an eyebrow.
Col shook her head and changed the subject. “Willi, you know the future?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean, you’re not sure? You lived through it.”
I sighed. “Col, I lived through a future – and mostly this world has been the same as the one I know ... knew... ?” I shook my head in frustration at a language incapable of expressing my situation clearly. “ ... in my other life ... but there are differences.”
I smiled at Col. “You and Mutti Frida are here rather than my Col and his mother. That’s a small difference, I suppose, and there have been quite a few other small differences.”
I took a deep, calming breath. “But the failed assassination of Kennedy is a really big one. I can see that you being here might just be irrelevant to the future but I can’t see how Kennedy living won’t change the future.”
“Does it really matter, Willi, if the future is not the one you know?”
“Yes, it really might. You see, in my world, in spite of continuous confrontation and sabre-rattling between east and west, the cold war never exploded into a real, all-out nuclear war.” I was silent for a moment recalling that there had been occasions when it had been a perilously close call, even after the Cuban missile crisis.
I saw Col wondering where I had gone to this time and smiled an apology. “Then in twenty-five years, the Eastern Bloc collapses, Germany is reunified and all the Warsaw pact countries gain their independence. Then the Soviet Union collapses too and many of the republics declare their independence from Russia.”
Col’s eyes flared. “Oh Willi, it sounds wonderful.”
“It was a magic time, but Kennedy’s assassination must have had a huge impact on what went on behind the scenes with the KGB and CIA – and all that is going to be different now. So now I’m back living through an uncertain, dark future again.”
Col leaned across and took my hands. “Oh, Willi. But you managed last time, you can do it again.” She stopped and took a sharp breath in realisation. “Was that ... did that ... you said before that there were ... other times. Was this darkness part of that?”
I looked past her over her shoulder, tasting my memories of that time. The constant threat of nuclear annihilation was part of the rotten, acrid flavour of my teens and early twenties – but only as a grimy, roiling background for the canvas on which the rest of my life was chaotically splashed.
“It didn’t help, but it was so omnipresent that it became part of the background. And then I moved to Australia, the other side of the world where the threat was very distant.”
Col looked at me, her voice soft. “Can you tell me why you ... tried again?”
My breathing sped up as I looked into my past which was again my future. “I never really fitted in anywhere. I knew I couldn’t be a pilot, but I tried and, of course, I failed. My doubts about my worth in every job I did would get reinforced by something going wrong in my life. I would despair at putting myself in that place of pain yet again and that would push me towards ... that solution.”
Col glanced at the closed bedroom door and then leaned forward, taking my hands back in hers. “Willi, you do fit in – you fit with me and Mutti and now Lili. You must learn to trust yourself – if you don’t fit in somewhere, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”
I sighed. “Col, I’m worried that this time I am even more different because of what has happened to me.”
“But you have seventy years of experience to help. Seventy years where you ... didn’t do that, however close you came at times.”
I had my head down, so Col leaned forward and peered up at me.
“Already that experience has helped you change things with your father and the bullies at school. You even helped me understand what was happening to me and helped turn Lili into a friend.”
I just looked at her, my breath catching slightly as emotion crushed my chest.
“And you are so good at everything at school.” I could see her eyes gifting me her support and ... love?
“Yes – but remember, I’ve done it all before.”
“Don’t put yourself down. Were you ever this good at French and German before?”
I shrugged. “No, but I had only learned things once then – and I wasn’t motivated by a German boy ... girl...” I smiled at the confusion of Col’s disguise, “ ... I wanted as a friend.”
I took a breath, wanting to change the subject. “I’ve just remembered something interesting. When the DDR collapsed and Germany was reunified, all the Stasi files were thrown open – and it turned out that almost everyone had been spying on their own family and friends, whilst they, in turn, spied on them.”
“That’s terrible!” Col cried.
I laughed, ironically. “Not really. You see, as almost no one was doing anything bad. Most of the reports were completely boring – what people wore, what they ate, where they went, their ordinary everyday conversations: buildings full of filing cabinets of the details of normal people living normal, ordinary lives. All that work and effort writing reports, cross-referencing them and filing them was for no benefit at all.”
“That doesn’t sound like the rumours circulating about the Stasi I’ve heard – or what Mutti thinks.” Col looked questioningly at me.
“Perhaps not right now, as I suppose people might still be settling scores from the war and its aftermath. But that’s what was in the files when they were opened in the late 1980s: just reams of quotidian detail.”
Col laughed in disbelief. Clearly, in her time the Stasi was a feared organisation. “Anyway, as to the future and you knowing it, we’ll just have to see what happens. You need to sit down and write a list of things you do remember, that way we can see what changes are occurring.”
I nodded in agreement – I should have thought of doing that, but I would need somewhere very secure for that list.
A moment later. my mother put her head around the door. “Time for bed, boys. Go and clean your teeth, please.”
We got back to my bedroom and I could sense tension in Col. “Are you going to change into pyjamas?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s all right, I’ll go and change in the loo.”
“No, Willi. I’ll change there, no one will walk in on me there, but they might here.” She grabbed her PJs and headed out and I changed and got into bed. A minute later, Col slipped back in and clambered gingerly into the cot.
“All tucked in?” My mother asked as she looked into the room, seeing us both in our beds. “Sleep well, boys.” My mother clicked off the light and pulled the door closed.
“Schlaf gut, Col.”
I woke in the grey, predawn to find Col sitting, fully dressed, on the cot. “Get up and get dressed, Willi, whilst I am in the toilet.” She gave me a smile and slipped quietly out of the room. I was dressed for school when she came back.
“Let’s get the camp bed pulled apart,” she suggested and we folded up the blankets and battled with the frame, finally getting it apart and into its bag.