Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Early to mid-December 1963
Gradually, December accelerated towards Christmas and school finished for the year. Col brought her school report home on the last day and she gave it to Mutti Frida that evening. When Mutti Frida opened it, there was an accompanying letter. After reading the report and smiling at Col, she unfolded the letter. After a while, she looked up.
“You are doing so well, Col, that they want you to move to the grammar school, in Canterbury.”
Col was astounded.
I smiled. “Well done, Col.” I knew from working with her that she was bright.
Col gave me a worried glance. “Can we afford it, Mutti?”
Mutti Frida looked through the letter again. “It doesn’t say what the fees are.”
I leaned across the table. “I think it’s free – apart from books and uniform, which you pay for at the secondary modern school here.”
Mutti Frida looked at me. “Are you sure?”
I shook my head. “No, but I’m sure they want to speak to you about this.”
Mutti Frida looked at the letter again. “Yes, you’re right. They want me to phone on Monday.”
I looked at Col. “We could travel to Canterbury on the same bus.” Col smiled and then another thought occurred to me. “Mutti Frida, perhaps Col could become a girl at her new school.”
Two heads snapped round to look at me, Col’s eyes flaring with hope and Mutti Frida’s with fear. Neither said a word.
“It’s worth thinking about as a possibility, isn’t it?” I looked at Col and her mother in turn.
Mutti Frida found her voice. “No, it is too dangerous.”
“But, Mutti...” Col’s voice ached with hope.
“No, Col. It’s too dangerous.”
Col opened her mouth, but Mutti Frida gave her a stern look. “Enough.”
She then turned to me, a deep frown creasing her forehead. Col and I shared a look. The conversation at tea was a bit subdued. I silently chided myself for spouting the idea without first talking it over with Col. Together, we might have come up with a way to lead Mutti Frida gently to support Col becoming a girl again.
Now that school was over, I had time for Christmas shopping. This was a bit easier as I had my Premium Bond winnings to fall back on and I ended up using a very small part of that to buy Col a delicate gold chain necklace and Mutti Frida a new umbrella as hers was falling apart.
Lili’s party would run late, so I was to sleep at Col’s house that night. We wore coats, hats and gloves over our smart clothes and walked through the chill, blustery darkness down to Lili’s house – it felt like a storm was developing.
The party started out as great fun. Lili’s younger brother was in bed and so mostly Lili, Col and I spent time together chatting, drinking lemonade and snacking from the buffet, which had a mix of English and Polish food. At one point Lili dragged us off to meet someone. She pulled Col and me through the crowd until we stood close to a group of people in one corner of the lounge room.
A large bear of a man turned round when Lili spoke to him. He had a scar across his face: it was the car salesman.
“To mój przyjaciel Willi, który chciałby być pilotem myśliwca.”
“Thank you, Lili. Please speak English in front of your English friends.” He turned towards us. “So, please call me Uncle Brian – which is what Liliana just called me, in Polish.”
He looked at us more closely. “Ah.” A smile of recognition lit up his face. “One likes fast cars but the other prefers fast planes?” His smile was slightly distorted by the pull of his scar.
I nodded, slightly embarrassed that Lili was pushing the fighter pilot thing when she had told us her relative wanted to put that behind him. Given the scar on his face, I could understand why that might be so.
Uncle Brian looked at Col. “Perhaps I can arrange for you to go for a drive in an E-type sometime?”
Col’s eyes widened with excitement and she nodded. “Yes, please.”
The smile faded as he turned to me and his voice darkened. “Being a fighter pilot is not so glorious as you might think. Perhaps one day you and I will sit down and talk about that.” He gave me a sombre look and then took a breath.
“But not today.” His voice lightened and he smiled at the three of us, lifting Lili by the waist and twirling her round. “Today is for smiling and dancing with pretty girls, enjoying friendship and wódka.”
He placed Lili daintily back on her feet, her face flushed. “Off you go, enjoy yourselves. I need to refill my glass.” As he turned away, I had the feeling he was escaping from us because we had stirred up memories that he wished to stay buried.
We went back to our corner and replenished our glasses with lemonade. Mutti Frida emerged smiling and slightly flushed from the throng. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”
We nodded and she slipped back into the crowd.
Lili smiled. “I’m sure your mother is speaking Polish to my family and friends and that is delighting them.” Her smile broadened. “Perhaps also she is enjoying the vodka.”
I excused myself and headed off to the toilet. When I came out into the shadowy corridor, I saw Lili and Col standing in the hallway, where a bunch of mistletoe was hanging. It’s an English tradition that you may kiss anyone under a bunch of mistletoe at Christmas – and clearly, Lili’s family had adopted this decoration and knew its significance.
Lili put her hands on Col’s shoulders and leaned forward only to have Col gently push her away. I walked out of the shadows and when Lili saw me, she turned and disappeared back into the party, obviously flustered and hurt by Col’s rejection.
“What was that about?” Col was very confused. There was a window seat in the half-lit hallway and I pulled Col across to sit there and explained about mistletoe.
Col looked worried. “So Lili was caught up in that and decided to push along the relationship with me as a boy?”
I nodded and sighed – life was complicated. “We need to find a way to let her know you are still friends – just not that sort of friend.”
Col gave me a distraught look. “I want Lili as a friend, but I don’t know what to do now.” Her voice acquired an edge of frustration. “I told Mutti that this was a problem, but she didn’t listen.” Col dissolved into tears and without thinking I drew her into a hug, holding her as tears wet my neck.
After a minute or so, Col’s tears slowly faded. “What are we going to do, Willi?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Col, but we’ll need to talk to her.” I leaned in and gave her a gentle kiss, trying to lend her some emotional strength.
The voice startled me and I looked up to see Lili standing in the hallway, a look of shock on her face.
“Now I know why you pushed me away, Col.” A shudder passed through her. “I knew the two of you were very close, but I didn’t realise just how close or in what way.” And she swept away, leaving Col and me sitting there, minds in turmoil: we had just made a difficult situation so very much worse.
We sat there for a minute or so, silenced by the enormity of the problem we had just created.
Col started to talk but had to clear her throat and start again. “Please Willi, go and find Mutti and ask her to come out here. We need her help.”
As I had no idea what to do, asking Mutti Frida seemed like a good idea. I went back into the party throng looking for her. Before I found her, I caught sight of Lili, who gave me a baleful look and turned away. I found Mutti Frida deep in conversation with some of Lili’s parents’ Polish friends. I was able to catch her eye and told her, in German, that Col needed her urgently.
Mutti Frida’s eyes widened and she quickly excused herself, grabbing my hand. “Where is Col? What’s wrong?”
I didn’t answer but guided her out into the dimly lit hallway. She saw Col and rushed to her side. “What’s wrong, Col?”
Col looked at me, pleading.
“Lili tried to kiss Col under the mistletoe and she pushed her away, which upset Lili. Col told you that Lili had a crush on her ... er ... him.”
Col looked over at me, again. Mutti Frida caught the look. “There’s more?”
I took a deep breath. “Col was upset too and was crying, so I gave her a hug and then ... well, Lili saw us kissing.”
Mutti Frida closed her eyes and sat for a few seconds.
“Well, I don’t think we can talk to Lili in the midst of this party. Stay here for a minute or two children and then I’ll come and find you so we can thank our hosts for their hospitality before we leave.” She stood up, caressing Col’s cheek and squeezing my shoulder. “I’m sure we can find a way out of this, but not today.”
After Mutti Frida disappeared back into the party, Col and I sat dejectedly in silence. My mind trying to find a way through this that would see Lili remain our friend and not end up with the two of us being branded as homosexuals.
Mutti Frida appeared in the doorway, with Mrs Wiśniewski beside her.
“I told Mrs Wiśniewski that you were feeling a bit unwell, Col and we had to leave the party a bit early.”
Mrs Wiśniewski looked us over. “Col’s certainly looking a bit flushed. I hope he’s feeling better in the morning.”
Mutti Frida nodded. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. Come along.” She looked at us both, pointedly. “I said your goodbyes and thanks to Lili, so we can leave straight away.”
“Will you be OK to walk home, I could drive you.” Mrs Wiśniewski offered, kindly.
“Thank you, Daria. I’m sure the walk and some fresh sea air will help Col. Come along children, coats, hats and gloves.”
Mutti Frida hustled us out of the house. Col started to say something as the door closed but Mutti Frida hushed her with a look and a squeeze of the hand, so we walked in silence for a few minutes through the cold and windy streets before Mutti Frida started talking.
“I managed to find Lili and tell her that what she thought she saw was not what was really happening.” Mutti Frida drew us along for a dozen more silent steps, allowing that to sink in.
“She clearly likes you both a great deal and is prepared to come tomorrow and listen to what we have to say. Until then, she has assured me she won’t talk about this to anyone.”
A few more steps – and Mutti Frida let out a sigh, her breath a cloud in the streetlights, whipped away by the cold, east wind. “We just need to decide what it is we are going to tell her.”
We walked on in silence thinking about that.
When we arrived back at Col’s house, Mutti Frida warmed some milk and made us all hot chocolate. We sat at the kitchen table, looking at one another.
Col took a deep breath. “We have to tell her I’m a girl.” She gave Mutti Frida a pleading look.
Mutti Frida closed her eyes. “Col, we can’t. What if she tells someone? Remember what MI6 told me: your father is looking for us and I am sure there are Eastern Bloc agents here in England.”
Col collapsed back into her chair. “But we have to tell her. What she thinks is terrible.”
I gave Col a reassuring look and then turned to Mutti Frida. “But you’ve half told Lili already.”
Mutti Frida frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, didn’t you tell her that what she thought she saw wasn’t the reality or something like that.”
Mutti Frida’s face paled slightly as she realised what I was getting at.
I leaned across and took her hand where it was resting beside her mug. “Lili’s an intelligent girl and I am sure she’s thinking about what you said to her.” Col looked up and leaned into the conversation again. “She probably won’t guess that Col’s a girl, but she might.” I gave Mutti Frida’s hand a gentle squeeze of encouragement. “But I am certain that she will be worrying at your words overnight and will expect an explanation in the morning.”
Mutti Frida’s eyes closed and she shook her head. “But it’s too dangerous to tell her the truth.”
Col picked up Mutti Frida’s other hand. “I don’t think it is.” Col looked across at me, clearly wanting me to back her up. “Lili is Polish and she and her family hate the Russians and all the Eastern Bloc governments. If we told her the truth I think – no, I’m certain – she would understand the need for absolute secrecy.”
I gave Mutti Frida’s hand another encouraging squeeze. “Col’s right, you know. Lili and her family hate the Russians and the Warsaw pact. She would not betray you.”
Mutti Frida nodded in silent agreement: she had been speaking to Lili’s family and Polish friends and must have picked up on their hatred of Russia and the Eastern Bloc.
“But she’s so young.” I could hear the fear and tension in Mutti Frida’s voice.
I squeezed her hand until she turned to look at me. “But so am I – and so is Col.”
Mutti Frida pulled her hands from us and picked up her mug. Taking a sip, she looked at us both and then shook her head. “Yes, you are both young and you have kept our secret – up until today when you did something that may have exposed us.”
I gave Col a chagrined look. She frowned back and turned to Mutti Frida.
“Yes – and we’ve learned a lesson through that mistake. We’ll be more guarded in future.” She gave me a meaningful look. “But what Willi said is true. Lili will not rest until she gets to the truth behind your words.”
Mutti Frida sighed. “I should not have said what I did, that is clear, but I felt I needed to say something to stop Lili from explaining to her parents why she was so upset.” She picked up her mug and took another sip of chocolate. “What this needs,” she paused, savouring the chocolate, “is some Schnapps.”
She rose and went to the dresser, retrieving a bottle from one of its cupboards. Returning to the table she lifted the bottle to gauge its content and then poured a generous tot into her chocolate. She recorked the bottle, swirled the mug and took a sip, letting out a sigh of contentment.
Col leaned forward and sniffed Mutti Frida’s mug. “Oof. That’s quite strong.”
Mutti Frida chuckled.
“Perhaps, but what’s the English?” She looked up, thinking. “Ah yes. It warms the cockles of my heart.”
Col looked at me. “That’s a very odd saying; we dug up cockles on the beach and pickled them in vinegar. How can a heart have cockles – shellfish?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. English is a strange language.”
Col gave me a friendly frown and then turned to Mutti Frida. “Anyway, back to Lili. When she comes tomorrow, we have to swear her to secrecy and then tell her I’m a girl.”
Mutti Frida shook her head.
I took Mutti Frida’s hand. “I think we have to. I can’t see what else we can do without it causing more problems.” I stopped, thinking. “It won’t matter to me if Lili thinks Col and I are homosexual as I don’t mix with the local kids apart from Col and Lili.”
I looked at Mutti Frida. “But think about how it would affect Col if Lili told her friends at school that Col was homosexual. The bullying would start up again only much, much worse.”
Mutti Frida’s eyes were almost boring into me. “I don’t think you want that happening to Col.”
Seconds of silence followed. Eventually, Mutti Frida almost muttered. “Would that be better or worse than being thrown into gaol in East Germany?”
I looked over at Col. “I don’t know about that. But I do know that if you stay here and don’t explain things to Lili, life will be awful for Col.”
Mutti Frida was silent again before standing up. “Well, I need to sleep on this and so do both of you. Come on, we need to make up the sofa for Willi.?”
Col and I went through the now-familiar ritual of setting up my bed on the lounge room sofa. Later, I lay huddled under the blankets in the dark. I was certain that we could trust Lili as she would understand Col’s situation. As I drifted towards sleep, I half decided to tell Lili myself if Mutti Frida would not. Whilst that would make life difficult between Mutti Frida and me, it seemed the best option for Col.
I awoke early, stomach churning as rain slashed against the house: the storm had arrived. My old brain must have been gnawing away at the problem during the night and now my young brain was reacting to the stress. Could I go against Mutti Frida’s leadership on this? It had seemed so possible last night, but in the cold light of day, I was far less certain.
Eventually, Mutti Frida stirred and I got up to help with breakfast. The three of us were all feeling tense and we sat in silence around the breakfast table. After a while, Mutti Frida put down her coffee cup and looked at Col.
“You are prepared to trust Lili with our safety?”
Col swallowed and glanced across the table to me. I gave her an encouraging look. Col cleared her throat. “Yes.”
Mutti Frida looked at me. “What do you think, Willi?”
“I don’t think we have any other options.”
“Hmph. It’s not ‘we’ in this situation, Willi. It’s just Col and I who are at risk.” There was a sharpness to Mutti Frida’s voice, the tension creating an edge. I looked down at my half-eaten toast, somewhat shamefaced at including myself in their danger.
“Mutti, that’s not fair.” Col leaned forward, her voice intense. “You know Willi would do anything for us.”
Mutti Frida looked at Col, who held her gaze until Mutti Frida let out an explosive breath. “You’re right, Col.” She looked across at me. “I’m sorry, Willi, that was uncalled for.”
Just then the phone rang. Mutti Frida got up and answered it. The conversation was short and mostly one-sided. When Mutti Frida put down the phone, she looked at us both. “Lili will be here in an hour. Her mother is dropping her off because of the storm.”
We sat, silent, at the table, looking at one another.
Mutti Frida stood, clapping her hands. “Don’t just sit there, we have the breakfast things to clean up, your bed to unmake, Willi.” She opened the pantry door. “Oh, and I’d like you to pop up to the corner shop and buy one of those nice fruit cakes so we have something to offer Lili. Eating together helps strengthen bonds of friendship.”
We got busy cleaning up the house and then Col and I donned hats and coats and grabbed a shopping bag. We would share Mutti Frida’s rather tatty umbrella to walk up to Mr Searle’s corner shop. Once out of the house, Col turned to me, wrestling with the umbrella in the wind.
“So, do you think Mutti is going to tell Lili the truth.?”
“I’m not sure, Col. But I do think she is leaning that way.” I took a deep breath. “If she doesn’t, I’ve been thinking that we – that is – I should tell her.”
Suddenly Col was no longer beside me and I was getting wet. I turned and she was standing a couple of paces behind me, a look of consternation on her face. I quickly walked back to her and ducked under the umbrella. I wanted to take her hand, but we were in public.
Col’s mouth worked a couple of times before she almost stuttered out, “You’d go against Mutti?”
I nodded. “I could not bear to see you being bullied if Lili told everyone you were a poofter.” I tried to send waves of love and confidence through my eyes. “Besides, you think we can trust Lili to keep your secret, don’t you?”
We started walking again. “Yes, yes I do. But...” I could see Col struggling. “But we’ve seen how easy it is to make a mistake. Do you think Lili can manage not to do that?”
I thought for a moment. “You know her much more deeply than I do, what do you think?”
We walked on for a bit in silence and, just before we got to the corner shop, Col turned to me.
“I think Lili is no more likely to make a mistake than we are. We will need to talk with her about our mistakes so she can see just how careful she will need to be.”
Col looked a bit sheepish. “Well, we’ve made one together, yesterday and I made one right at the beginning, telling you we came from Leipzig.”
I had forgotten about that.
Mr Searle was his usual bright self. “Good morning, boys – quite a storm, isn’t it? What can I get you?”
Col pointed to the square fruit cakes in the display cabinet. “A fruit cake please, Mr Searle.”
“Right ho.” He carefully put a cake into a paper bag and passed it to Col. “That’ll be three and sixpence, please.”
Col counted out the money and put the cake in the shopping bag.
We shook our heads. “Right ho. Have a good day then. Don’t let the wind under that brolly or you’ll get airborne, like Mary Poppins,” he chuckled.
We walked in silence back towards the house. About half-way there, Col stopped and turned to me. I could see her gather her internal strength. “I can’t let you tell Lili.”
“I can’t let you tell Lili. I have to tell her. It’s not right that you should be the one to tell Lili if Mutti won’t. It might wreck your relationship with Mutti.” I was stunned into silence.
“I’m her daughter and if I tell Lili, Mutti will be angry but she won’t stop being my mother nor will I stop being her daughter.”
Once again, we were standing on the street and I could not hug her. I had thought for a moment she was about to risk serious bullying, but she wanted to protect my relationship with Mutti Frida.
I smiled at Col, shaking my head. “You have hidden strengths.”
She smiled back, with a glimmer of coyness. “I hope so. After this, we still have to tell Mutti we are going to break our promise to her not to do something stupid.”
It was my turn to stop walking, allowing the rain to smack me in the neck. Col turned and walked backwards a couple of steps, smiling broadly. “Come on, slowcoach or Lili will be there before we are – and you will be drenched.”
As I caught up to her, she swung round and we walked side by side in silence under the umbrella, knowing what we were going to do if we had to.
We were in plenty of time as Lili did not arrive for a while. Mutti Frida saw the car pull up. “She’s here children. I’ll go and let her in. You stay here.” She shut the kitchen door behind her.
We heard Mutti Frida open the front door and then muffled conversation. Col and I looked at one another, worry clear on our faces.
The kitchen door opened and Lili stood for a moment in the doorway, tension visible in her stance.
“Have a seat at the table, children. I’ll just get the cake.”
The three of us sat, eyeing one another in silence whilst Mutti Frida put the cake and a knife on the table and placed four plates at her seat.
“A glass of milk, Lili?”
Lili looked surprised and nodded. I think the banally domestic atmosphere was not what she expected.
“Col, reach three glasses from the shelf there please.”
Mutti Frida poured milk onto our glasses and returned the bottle to the fridge returning with her coffee cup, sat down and cut the cake passing a slice to each of us. Then she sat back.
“Try the cake, Lili,” Mutti Frida suggested.
Lili looked down at her plate, picked up her slice and tried a nibble.