Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Late November – early December 1963
The essay competition was still on my mind as I awoke. On the bus, I started jotting down some ideas and that continued through the school day. If I were to enter the competition, I had to finish the essay in the next couple of days. When I arrived at Col’s house, I told her that I had some ideas for the essay I wanted to talk through with her after we had finished our homework. We sat at the kitchen table, me with some Physics and Col with her history. Glancing over, I saw an illustration of a Roman soldier.
“What era of Rome are you studying?” I asked.
“We’re not studying Rome; we’re looking at Empires and my history teacher wants us to think about them from the perspective of the conquered people.” Col looked up.
I nodded for her to go on.
“I decided that as we had read De Bello Gallico, I would study the Roman Empire here in Britain and its effect on the native peoples of Britain.”
“That should be interesting. Will you be able to find enough material in the school library?”
Col gave me a slightly wry smile. “I went and had a look today at lunchtime, but there’s very little there. I’m going to the town library tomorrow afternoon.”
“I could meet you there if you like. I could do my homework and work on the essay whilst you did your research.”
Col smiled. “That would be nice. I think Lili is coming with me as she wants to study the Russian empire, in particular its colonisation of Poland.”
“Oh.” I paused for a moment. “But that’s still going on really, isn’t it?”
Col looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “I suppose so, but Lili wants to look back several centuries as far as I understood what she was saying.”
“I don’t know very much about the history of central Europe.” I mused.
“Well, it’s important to Lili so I expect we’ll learn a bit more from her.” Col gave me a knowing smile. Lili had proved to be quite a talker when she got going with people she liked.
We settled back to our work. Thermal Physics only required a quick read to refresh my knowledge, in spite of the appalling Imperial units and conversion factors, so I pulled out my notes for the essay. I realised that hiding underneath my current ideas was the assumption that there was a shared cultural language across Europe – for without that there was unlikely to be any sort of understanding. It was a truism that we are alike beneath the skin, but within Europe, for all the different languages and subtleties of Weltanschauung between countries, our similarities greatly exceeded our differences. Perhaps that explained why European wars had always been so bitter – they were almost civil wars.
We worked quietly together for an hour or so before Col pushed back her chair and stretched. “That’s enough for today. Let’s get supper cooking.”
I chopped carrots, swedes and turnips and Col cubed some skirt beef and quickly browned it. Then it got dusted in seasoned flour and into the pressure cooker with beef stock. We’d add the vegetables later. Col pulled three decent-sized potatoes out of the sack in the larder and carefully washed them.
“Aren’t you going to peel them?” I asked
“What can you do with unpeeled potatoes?” She arched her eyebrows.
I thought for a moment. “Baked potatoes. Yum.”
“Yes indeed, but with a German twist, as you’ll see,” Col said enigmatically as she set a clockwork timer for forty minutes, turning the oven on to warm up for the potatoes. She took my hand and led me into the lounge room to the sofa.
“Can you think of something we can do to keep us occupied for forty minutes?”
Did they run secret classes for girls where they teach them how to look from under their eyelashes, I wondered? I gave her a half-smile and picked up our book from the side table. That earned me a frown and a slap on the arm.
“You had something else in mind, my essay perhaps?” I asked, innocently, returning the book to the table.
“Stop teasing and come here.” Col’s frown disappeared as she grabbed my arm and pulled us together.
After quite some time spent sharing kisses, Col turned round, sitting in my lap and leaning back, her head on my shoulder, relaxing back into me with a contented sigh.
We sat in intimate and gentle silence for a few minutes.
“You know, we are going to break our promise to Mutti sometime in the future.” Col murmured.
Oh, my. I thought for a moment. “I don’t think we should do that.”
Col stirred and twisted round to look at me.
“You don’t want to have sex with me?” Astonishment and a touch of anger vied with an embarrassed blush.
“Shh.” I placed a finger on her lips. “That’s not what I said – and no, I don’t want to have sex with you.”
Col frowned, tensing slightly and I sighed. Even though we now spoke each other’s languages well, communication between the sexes still had its problems, whatever the language.
“I want to make love with you, not have sex with you.”
Col relaxed and I gave her a slightly wry smile.
“But I don’t think we should break our promise to Mutti Frida. When the time comes, we should tell her that we are moving in that direction.”
“What? You want to tell my mother that we’re going to have sex ... er ... make love?” Col scrambled to the other end of the sofa, a look of mixed fear, anger and accusation on her face. “She’d lock me in my room and never let you in the house – or me out.”
I leaned towards her and took her hand. “If we spoke to her, I don’t think she would do that.”
Col gave me a disbelieving look. I tried a different tack.
“What would happen if we just went ahead and broke our promise?” I asked. “What would that do to your relationship with your mother?” Col’s look became pensive. “What would it do to my relationship with her?” By now, Col was frowning. “And what would all that do to our relationship?”
Col’s eyes held real pain. She was about to speak and then closed her mouth and thought some more. She looked as if she were about to say something more when the kitchen timer pinged.
“Rats.” She got up and went into the kitchen and I followed her. She carefully reduced the pressure in the pressure cooker and opened it. Rich, beefy smells wafted through the kitchen.
“All right then, put in the vegetables.” As I did that and returned the pressure cooker to the stove, Col, cut a deep cross into each of the potatoes, arranged them on an oven tray and slid them into the hot oven, setting the timer for another forty minutes. She turned to me.
“You think my mother would be less disturbed by us telling her we were going to be... , “ she paused for a moment and I could see a faint blush. “Ummm ... intimate than by finding out later?”
“It’s also about how we feel about her. I do not wish to lie to your mother, even by omission.”
Col sighed. “This is going to be more difficult than I thought.”
“Big decisions are always difficult.” I took her hand and we went back and sat side by side on the sofa.
“Our promise to Mutti Frida was not to do something stupid – which I think meant something that could end up with you pregnant.”
Col thought about that for a minute. “Yes, I suppose so.” Col’s voice had an edge of frustration to it.
“Well, there are things we can do that can’t end up with you getting pregnant.” Col stayed silent, her dark eyes wide pools, filled with unspoken questions. “When you’re ready to try something more, you can ask me to show you.”
Col looked at me, pondering what that meant, holding me at arm’s length. After a moment, she snuggled up to me and gave me a gentle kiss and then leaned back, letting out an explosive breath.
“It’s so difficult for me. I can see the other girls get together and talk about boys ... and things. But I’m not part of that. And I can’t be one of the boys – but they seem mostly to just boast about what they say they’ve done.” Her hand smacked down on to the chair in frustration. “I don’t even know what I don’t know.”
“You can ask me,” I said gently. Her head turned and our eyes locked for several long seconds.
Col looked up over my shoulder, to contemplate our present and future – and my past with all that implied. “I need to think about that.” Her voice was laced with uncertainty.
I gently squeezed her shoulder. “When you’re ready, just ask. But I’m in no hurry, nor should you be.”
Col sighed and snuggled into me and we sat that way until we heard Mutti Frida arrive home.
She greeted us, putting a full shopping bag down beside the kitchen table. Smiling at us, she sniffed the aromas permeating the kitchen. “Something smells good.”
Col laughed. “Well, you know what it is as you gave us the recipe and pointed out the ingredients yesterday.”
Mutti Frida smiled and we started setting the table. It turned out that the German twist to baked potatoes was yoghurt with a mixture of herbs, rather than butter, which gave the potatoes a refreshingly sharp flavour.
“Of course, it should really be Sauerrahm – sour cream, not yoghurt.” Mutti Frida sighed. How difficult must it be to hide away from all the normal things in your life – and it was small things like having to substitute yoghurt for sour cream that highlighted this.
After tea, I went over some of the ideas I had for the essay as we sat round the table. We also talked about the communist party in DDR and other Eastern Bloc countries. Mutti Frida was more nuanced than Col, suggesting that picking up the pieces of a shattered society after the war was difficult and some central control of the populace was necessary.
“Do you think your position is influenced by your being part of the ruling elite?” I asked, playing the devil’s advocate.
Mutti Frida’s head swivelled towards me and she gave me quite a hard look. She was about to speak when she stopped herself and thought for a couple of seconds and nodded, a rueful look on her face. “I suppose I was part of the ruling elite ... in a way.” Shaking her head, she went on. “Of course, I had no power, but at first because of who I was, who my parents were, and then because of my husband, I was around the leaders of the Party in Leipzig.”
She gave me a nod of acknowledgement. “So, my ideas are probably influenced by that.” She paused again, while sadness seeped into her face and her voice grew softer. “But the camps influenced me more. There we had no control and only one decision to make: to work together or to die alone.”
I could see the deep sorrow in her eyes.
“And even when we worked together, many of us still died.”
Col’s hand crept across the table to hold her mother’s.
“I understand what you are saying,” Col said, gently. “But that central control hasn’t been needed in West Germany, has it? And they seem more successful than the East, from what I have seen and read.”
“Perhaps...” Mutti Frida nodded, deep in thought. “. perhaps it depends on how you measure success.”
That night I lay in bed thinking about our discussion and what it might mean. There were clear, some would say irreconcilable, differences between east and west, but could I justify the central argument of my essay? It was to be centred around the shared cultural language of Europe and the power of the various arts in that shared culture to speak to our emotions and so increase international understanding. I was going to focus particularly on music as that seemed to speak directly to our emotions. With no Google to quickly find quotations to support my thesis, I would have to see if the library had a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations – a once well-used book, known in my family as the ODQ, that had sat on a shelf in my old life, although unopened for several decades, thanks to Google.
I hurried to the bus stop after school and caught a number 6 that would take me into the Herne Bay town centre. When I arrived at the library, I spotted Col and Lili at a table and went over to join them.
“Hello, Lili.” She looked up and gave me a brief smile and returned to her book
“How is the Roman research going, Col?”
She leaned back, stretching in her chair. “There’s not much information about the society that existed before the Romans arrived.” She gazed, contemplatively, into the distance. “Perhaps it’s because none of the Celts’ few writings survived. There’s more information about them in De Bello Gallico than any books here.” Col gestured at a couple of books on the table. “Anyway, it seems from what I’ve read so far that in many ways, the Celtic people may have conquered themselves.”
“What?” That was completely paradoxical, but I could see Lili looking up and smiling: it seemed they had already talked about this.
Col smiled, pleased to have surprised me. “What I’ve read suggests that the Celts adopted the new Roman ways without much pressure from the Romans.”
“What about Boudicca and the other revolts?”
“Well, the entire military campaign in England only lasted about the first forty years out of the four hundred the Romans were here. And even during the military campaign, the rulers of the Celtic tribes seemed to adopt the Roman way and that set the tone for everyone else.”
I considered this for a moment. “Hmm, I think I see what you mean.” I looked at Lili. “How are you going?”
She looked up, shaking her head in frustration. “There’s almost nothing here about central European history. I’ve found a little bit in the encyclopaedia but that’s all, so I’m going to have to ask my parents if they can help me find some books.”
I left them to it and went over to the library desk. Unfortunately, the younger librarian was on duty – and she clearly recognised me as the boy wanting books in German.
“Yes?” I could hear the disdain in her voice.
I pushed down on the annoyance surging up from my young brain.
“Do you have an Oxford Dictionary of Quotations here?”
“What?” She hadn’t even looked up.
I stopped my eye-roll before it started and repeated my question. I could hear a bit of an edge in my voice none-the-less.
“Oh, yes,” she said, indifferently. “Look in the reference collection.” She waved her hand vaguely towards the library stacks.
I could stand here and argue with her for more detailed directions, which would gain me nothing, or I could go and explore the reference collection. I walked down towards the end of the stacks, watching as the Dewy Decimal labels counted down towards zero and the reference section.
“Can I help you?” The older librarian appeared from the stacks, leaving a trolley piled high with books.
“Thank you, I’m looking for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.”
“That’s just down here. Follow me.” She started off and then stopped, turning back towards me. “You’re the boy that wanted books in German, aren’t you?”
She looked me over and then glanced towards the main desk. “I’m sorry Mrs Price was so unhelpful. She has never really got over losing her husband to the Nazis in 1945. They’d only been married a few months...” Her voice trailed off.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. After a moment, the librarian turned and walked between two stacks. She ran her finger along a shelf, stopping to pull out a familiar, fat volume.
“Here you go,” she smiled. “Do you know how to use it?”
“Yes, thank you.”
She gave me a slightly disbelieving look, then handed me the book and walked back to her trolley.
I took the ODQ back to the table where Col and Lili were working.
Lili looked up when I plonked the book on the table. “What’s the book, Willi?”
“It’s a book of quotations. I’m looking for material for an essay on art and culture’s benefit to society.”
Lili raised her eyebrows. “That sounds a bit deep.”
Col looked up from a map she was poring over. “It’s for an essay competition – in German.”
“Oh.” Lili glanced at me and went back to her homework.
I started searching for quotable quotes, noting down ones I thought useful. After a while, I had a dozen or so. Including one by Goethe that I thought might be useful to place beneath the essay title.
Nichts kann mit dem neuen Leben verglichen werden, das die Entdeckung eines anderen Landes für einen nachdenklichen Menschen bietet.
Nothing can be compared to the new life that the discovery of another country provides for a thoughtful person.
I would be suggesting that art and music, through our shared European culture, was able to help take us to another country – Europe, a country we shared. It occurred to my old brain that this was a bit paradoxical, given Britain’s exit from the European community in 2020.
Eventually, Col roused me. “Come on Willi, we must head home to get tea ready. I’ll see you in school tomorrow, Lili.”
“OK. I’m not finding much here for my project.” I could hear Lili’s frustration. “Mumia is asking around her friends to see if they have any Polish history books.” She gave the library a look full of frustration. “I may have to change the topic of my project.”
I gave her a sympathetic look as we packed up our stuff. On the way out I returned the ODQ to the loans desk. The older librarian was there.
“I hope that was useful.” She sounded a bit sceptical.
I smiled. “Thank you, yes. I have a dozen or so quotations for my essay on European art and culture.” From her look, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of me.
Outside, we split up, Lili heading for her home, Col and I for hers. It was about a twenty-minute walk through the town and up the Downs. We chatted about Col’s project and my essay. We started getting tea ready as soon as we arrived home and Mutti Frida arrived not long afterwards.
When we had cleared the table after tea, I pulled out my essay notes.
“If I’m going to get this essay written in time, I need to work on it tonight.” I looked at Col, hoping she would understand.
“OK, Willi. I can work on my project.” She retrieved her school bag from her room and we worked opposite one another, with Mutti Frida’s radio playing a concert in the background.
After about an hour Col stretched and looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. “You’ll have to go soon.” She looked back down at a map she must have traced in the library.
“What’s the map?”
“It’s the Roman road network across England and Wales. There’s a road called Watling Street that linked Londinium to the ports of Dubris and Rutupiae.” Col smiled at her ability to flaunt these Roman names at me
I raised a questioning eyebrow, in return.
“All right – London, Dover and Richborough. Watling Street also went here to Reculver ... umm,” she looked down at the map, “Regulbium, that is.”
She looked up again. “It’s really interesting though because the Roman road was constructed on top of an ancient track that had been used for thousands of years. Most of the other Roman roads were also built on ancient tracks. It’s just one example of the way the Romans absorbed a country into their culture.”
I could see Col was getting deeply into her project.
“Did you know that the Romans adopted many of the Celtic gods into their pantheon? The Romans called Bath Aquae Sulis – the springs of Sulis – after the Celtic god of the hot springs. I’m starting to feel that the cultural adoption was not just the Celts adopting Roman ways.”
Now that’s an interesting idea.
“So, empires are not just the oppression of the conquered, but also the adoption of some of the culture into the conqueror’s?” I smiled, recalling how worked up Lili was about the Russians in Poland.
Col paused for thought. “I think it probably works more or less like that in all empires.”
“I think you’re probably right, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the conquered.” Col gave a slightly distracted nod, looking back down at her papers.
I started packing up my stuff. Col’s head was still down looking at her papers again. “I’d better get going, Col.”
She smiled and helped me into my coat. “Where’s your torch, Willi?”
I pulled the torch Col had given me for Christmas out of my school bag with a flourish and turned it on.
“It looks like you need a new battery – it’s not very bright.”
She was right, I’d have to pick up a new one from the shops, but even with a new battery, the torch was like a glow-worm compared to the LED torches from my old life: just one more thing I missed.