Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Mid-December 1963 – late February 1964
My mother did indeed want to speak with Mrs Wiśniewski about Col and I spending time with Lili in her house, possibly alone and unsupervised. There was an unspoken undercurrent of whether it was appropriate for two boys to be alone in a house with a girl. I suppressed a smile: my mother did not know that Col was a girl and I was spending hours each week alone with her. But then she did not know about the promise Mutti Frida had extracted from us or about my re-interpretation of that promise.
“Are you sure that you can cope with adding another language on top of everything else you are doing?” I could hear the concern in my mother’s voice.
“I’m not going to let it interfere with my other studies. After all, it will be just like what Col and I did when he was learning English and I, German. That didn’t seem to cause a problem.” I thought back to how we’d worked together. “In fact, because we had to explain things several times in both languages it really deepened our understanding.”
“Well, we’ll see. I still have to sort things out with Mrs Wiśniewski.”
“OK.” I gave my mother a questioning smile. “Will I be able to take some mince pies to Col’s house on Christmas Eve? Lili will be there too, so I think we might need a dozen this time...”
My mother laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I picked up yesterday’s newspaper and sat at the kitchen table looking through it. The attempted assassination of JFK didn’t seem to have stirred things up – at least not on the surface and there were no indications of increased tensions between the east and west. In fact, the opening of the Berlin Wall for the first time allowing westerners to visit the east suggested that tensions might be easing. International politics was very strange.
An item well back in the newspaper discussed the recently started trial of twenty-one Auschwitz guards in Frankfurt. It seemed the prosecutor was unhappy with the charges brought against the defendants. It appeared that under German law even for the guard responsible for operating the gas chambers, charges of accomplice to murder could only be brought as he was ‘following orders’. I wondered what Mutti Frida through of this. I knew she had stopped hating but had never forgiven those responsible for what had happened to her and her parents – along with millions of others.
Despite the surface seeming calm between east and west, MI6 had been pushing Mutti Frida about her husband. Did they want to use his Nazi past against him, blackmailing him to pass information to them? I wondered if there had been any pressure brought to bear on west Germany to conduct these trials. If so, would it remind those involved in the Nazi regime of what they had done? Would that make Herr Schmidt more biddable?
I pondered this as I lay in bed before drifting off to sleep.
Col and I walked into town the next day and visited the art supplies shop, just off the High Street. They knew Lili well and pointed out the sketchbook Lili liked, so we picked one up. Col asked about the special crayons Lili had been talking about and we looked over the huge colour-sorted array, picking out a dozen with the help of the shop owner.
“We could wrap each crayon separately, you know,” Col smiled. “That would make it all look much more impressive.”
“But that would take lots of paper too.” I countered.
“True.” Col gave me a sideways smile, with a mischievous glint to her eye. “But it would be fun to see her realise what we’d done.”
Smiling, I shook my head.
We wandered along the High Street, looking in shop windows.
“Is your father going to be there for Christmas?”
He had been increasingly absent during the year, staying in London almost every week and some weekends. Memories of last year flared, raising spectres my young brain quailed before. “I suppose so.” Even to me, my voice sounded dead.
Col sensed my sudden tension. “I’m sorry, Willi. I didn’t mean to worry you. I was just thinking of the Christmases we had when I was little, before Mutti learned of my father’s past. It all seemed so magical: Mutti, father and I singing carols in front of the Christmas tree with the glow of the candles flickering gently about us.” We walked on in silence for a few paces.
“I don’t think either of us will have a family Christmas again.” Col’s voice was very flat.
I glanced at her and I could see my pain echoed in her eyes, and then something occurred to me. “No, I think you’re wrong there.”
“Think about it.” I smiled at her. “We are going to have our own families one day.”
Col looked at me. “Or our own family.” And she gave me a slightly coquettish smile.
Once back at Col’s house we wrapped up Lili’s present, with the crayons in one parcel and the sketchbook in another and added them to the pile under the tree. I had my presents for Col and Mutti Frida in my bag and so I added them. I was particularly pleased with finding a collapsing umbrella that Mutti Frida could put her in her bag. It was a bit expensive, but worth it for Mutti Frida.
At home that evening, my school report had arrived. My mother had left it on the kitchen table, unopened.
“I left it for you to open and read it, Will,” my mother said, softly.
I sat at the table, turning the envelope with the school crest on it over in my hands. My mother sat down opposite me.
“You’re not worried about what it says, are you Will?”
I looked up. “No.” Even to me, my voice sounded unconvincing. What had happened the previous Christmas hung silently between us.
I slid a finger under the flap and opened the envelope and folded open the report. I read through it in silence.
I slid the report across the table and my mother picked it up. After a minute or so she folded it carefully and smiled at me.
“Excellent, Will. All your teachers speak very highly of you.” She picked up the report again, re-reading some of the entries. Then she looked up. “You’ve come such a long way in the last twelve months, Will. It’s almost unbelievable really, seeing it laid out here in your report.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, slightly embarrassed. My old brain found the schoolwork very easy, but I couldn’t tell my mother that, so I said nothing and changed the subject.
“Col and Lili may be going to school in Canterbury next term.”
My mother raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yes. Their school has recommended they transfer to the grammar school there.”
“Good for them.” My mother stood up, smiling. “Well, I can’t sit here. There are mince pies to make, after all.” As my sister was not around to chase me out of the kitchen, I was able to spend a cosy hour with my mother, helping make the stuffing and forcemeat balls for the goose as we chatted about this and that.
Both Col and Lili received confirmation of their transfer to the Grammar School in Canterbury before Christmas. When Col got her letter, I had assumed we would travel together on the number 7 bus I had been taking, but with Lili going as well, that wouldn’t work so well. It was easiest for her to take a number 6. We talked about this the next time we met, with Lili pointing out that we would all be travelling back together if we were going to work our language program at her house, but that was not certain yet, as my mother and Mrs Wiśniewski had not spoken.
“I’ll chase her up about this tonight when I get home and let you know tomorrow.”
Col smiled. “OK. I hope she lets us do it. It will be so much fun working together.”
Lili gave Col a tentative smile.
“Come on, Lili. It will be fun – don’t worry. The three of us will work on our homework together in German and Polish.” Col glanced over at me. “Do you think we should do the alternate day thing again?”
I nodded. “Good idea.”
Lil looked a bit lost. “What do you mean?”
Col laughed. “Sorry, Lili. When Willi and I started learning each other’s languages at my house after school, Mutti made us speak only English or German on alternate days.”
Col looked at Lili, smiling. “It will be a bit easier for the three of us as we share English. With Willi at first, there was a lot of fumbling around trying to explain things when we really had very little language in common.”
Col stopped, a look of delight on her face. “Oh, I can’t wait to see your uncle Brian’s face when I turn up at the garage and ask, in Polish, for a drive in an E-type.”
Lili chuckled at that.
As I was leaving, Col told me that she was busy in the morning. “Mutti and I have to go into the school to sign some papers and pick up an information pack.”
“I’ve already got mine,” Lili interjected.
I gathered Col in my arms. “That’s OK. My mother wants me to help her with some stuff anyway. I’ll see you later?”
“Yes, of course. Why don’t you come over about 3 o’clock?”
We shared a kiss, interrupted by a cough from Lili.
I was a bit embarrassed. “Sorry, Lili.”
We broke apart and now Lili looked a bit embarrassed. “No, I’m sorry. I was just joking. It’s fine by me for you to kiss.” Was Lili feeling left out?
Rather than cause further problems, I just gave Col a peck on the cheek and turned to the door, but Lili grabbed my shoulder and spun me gently round. “No, give her a proper kiss.”
She looked into my eyes and nodded, so Col and I kissed and then Lili and I both left, heading home in opposite directions.
In the morning, I helped my mother clean around the house, hoovering through the downstairs and then polishing the parquet floor in the hall. As I worked, I could smell baking aromas wafting in from the kitchen. When I finished and put the hoover and polisher in the cupboard under the stairs, I wandered into the kitchen. Several racks of mince pies were cooling and my mother was finishing off a couple of trays of sausage rolls, brushing them with milk ready to slide them into the oven.
I leant over a rack of mince pies, savouring their rich, fruity aroma. “Mmmmm.”
“Don’t you touch them, Will,” my mother scolded. “They’re for Christmas.” I looked across, questioningly.
My mother smiled. “Yes, there’s a dozen for you to take tomorrow.”
“Thank you.” I gave my mother a smile and then pottered around helping my mother and sister prepare for Christmas day, peeling potatoes to sit in salted water so they did not brown, preparing a pile of Brussel sprouts and breaking up bread for the bread sauce, before walking round to spend the afternoon with Col.
Christmas Eve dawned cloudy, cold and wet – a typical English winter’s day. After breakfast, I was set to polishing the dining room table and sideboard, ready for Christmas dinner. I was to be at Col’s house at four o’clock and the day dragged slowly onwards. I went and got myself ready an hour early and had to wait around trying to read before finally heading to Col’s house as dusk settled the clouds lower over the bare-armed trees.
Mutti Frida answered the door. “The girls are in the loungeroom, waiting for you.” She smiled and cocked an eyebrow. Hmm...
I took off my coat and gloves and opened the door. The Christmas tree lights gave the room a soft glow, but I was stopped in my tracks by two beautiful girls standing beside the tree. Lili’s golden hair caught the lights as it cascaded over her shoulders, setting off her pink floral chiffon dress. Beside her was a dark-haired beauty with shining eyes wearing a dark blue dress, her hair unfashionably short, but tastefully arranged to accent her face.
“Oh, wow. Just look at the two of you.” But my eyes were mostly on Col.
Both girls smiled and then Lili nudged Col towards me and we embraced.
“You’re beautiful, Col,” I whispered and Col leant up and we kissed.
I held her at arms’ length, “I love your dress. Where did you get it?”
Lili came over and fiddled with the material on Col’s right shoulder, readjusting its already perfect fit. “Well, we couldn’t take Col out and buy her a new dress,” Lili smiled at me. “It’s a dress that no longer fits me – I only wore it a couple of times before a growth spurt made me too big for it. We – that is mostly Frau Schmidt, really – adjusted it for Col. What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful.” I looked at Col again. “You are beautiful.” I leant in and planted another gentle kiss on Col’s lips and she snuggled up to my side. Col usually wore somewhat baggy clothes to help disguise her shape, but this dress showed off her figure. She was more svelte than Lili, but had curves in all the right places, which I could clearly see for the first time.
I gave Lili a look full of gratitude. “Lili, thank you for helping Col with this.”
I noticed Mutti Frida standing in the doorway, smiling at us. I caught her eye and smiled back. “You have a beautiful daughter, Mutti Frida.”
She laughed. “Ah, yes. But she’s not my little girl anymore,” she sighed, wistfully, her love for her daughter shining through.
Then she clapped her hands. “Come along, dinner is ready.”
The traditional meal I had first enjoyed a year before was repeated, but the Dresdner Stollen was accompanied by my mother’s mince pies, served warm with clotted cream. After the meal, we sat and exchanged presents. Lili was delighted with the sketchbook and crayons. Apparently, the lady in the art supplies shop remembered exactly which crayons Lili had purchased and had told us to buy the ones that would complement those.
When it came to my present to Col, her face lit up when she opened the box.
“Oh, Willi. It’s beautiful.” I smiled and she lifted it so Lili and her mother could see it.
“Go on, Willi, fasten it around her neck.” Mutti Frida said, softly.
I did that – Col’s short hair making it easy. As I fastened it, a shiver of delight passed through Col. When I stepped back, I saw Lili looking on, a smile on her face but her eyes betraying sadness. I realised that just a week ago, she had hoped Col, as a boy, would have these feelings for her. On an impulse, I gently pulled Col to her feet and beckoned Lili to join us. As she approached, I took her hand and placed it on Col’s far shoulder and then softly gathered both girls into a three-way hug. For a moment, Lili resisted, but then she reached round pulling us tighter together. We held the hug for a few seconds and then almost telepathically disentangled ourselves until we stood, holding hands and smiling at one another in deepening friendship.
As we finally broke apart to sit down, I saw Mutti Frida watching, a sad smile on her face. I could not tell her I knew her juxtaposed joy and sadness: I had watched my son and daughter grow into their teens, become adults and all too soon forge their own path in life. I went over to where she sat and gave her a soft kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you, Mutti Frida.”
She held my eyes for a moment and then nodded, almost imperceptibly.
Christmas day at my house passed in subtle tensions but last year’s sharp edges and gouging points were more rounded – or perhaps just more deeply buried beneath a surface of forced civility. It had none of the love and joy of the previous night. I tried to help my mother as much as I could, but I found my sister glaring at me – she must have felt I was trying to usurp her position. As soon as I could, I retreated to my bedroom with my mother’s Christmas present – a beautiful boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. She had seen my delight in The Hobbit.
After another discussion with Mrs Wiśniewski, my mother agreed that Lili, Col and I could gather at Lili’s house after school to start our Polish language program. Mutti Frida would meet us there when she finished work at the shop so Col and I could walk home with her. After consulting the bus timetables, Lili found that the number 7 bus left from the Herne Bay bus station not far from her house, so she could catch it there. Col and I would join her at our bus stop at the end of my road.
As the holidays drew to a close, Mutti Frida finally decided that Col would have to continue as a boy in public, there were too many problems with becoming a girl again. Col was not happy about this, but at least she had Lili as a friend at school who knew who she really was. They were in all the same classes, so they would be able to support one another if there was any bullying. Lili had no discernible foreign accent and Col’s German accent was almost imperceptible – but their last names were clearly still foreign and that might be a problem.
On the first day of school, Col arrived at my front gate and we walked up to the bus stop together. As the bus pulled into the stop, I could see Lili waving at us. After showing our season tickets to the bus driver, we walked down to join Lili. The single-decker bus was four seats across, two on each side of the aisle. The only wider seat was right at the back – and that was occupied by some other teens, so Col joined Lili and I sat across the aisle. That made conversation difficult.
Col turned and looked at the back of the bus. “We need the back seat so we can talk together.”
Lili turned at looked back as well. “Oh, right. I didn’t think of that. Those kids got on after me so I should be able to get the back seat from now on as I get on at the bus station.”
“We’ll need to do the same on the number 6 on the way home.” Col reminded her.
I gave her a frown. “But there’s no back seat on a double-decker.”
“Of course not, silly me.”
Lili leaned across. “Oh well, we’ll just have to sit like this then.”
That afternoon, as I hauled myself aboard the bus the girls had found a solution. Lili was sitting at one end of the sideways bench seat with Col in the two-seater in front of it. I sat next to Col and with Lili leaning between us we could converse over the noise of the bus. The following morning when we boarded the bus, Lili was in the back seat, smiling broadly. Col and I received a few glares from the kids who had been there the day before as we walked past and sat with Lili.
“Well done, Lili,” I remarked. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
Our after-school homework and language program began that afternoon. Of the three of us, Lili was the least confident. I think she found the fierce rate at which Col and I worked a bit off-putting. At first, Lili would fall back to English far too readily on German days and it took some gentle pushing from Col in particular to change that. Both girls had a bit of catching up to do on academic subjects at their new school, but I was able to help them in almost everything, to Col’s delight and Lili’s surprise. German was not offered at their school, but French was compulsory. Col had a reasonable start on that from studying it with me for a year, but Lili was starting from scratch. Once she applied herself to both languages, she progressed rapidly – her bilingual background probably providing favourable brain wiring. For our walks back from Lili’s house, Mutti Frida insisted on all conversation being carried out in Polish, so Col and I were progressing fairly quickly.
We also realised that there was one language we shared that neither Mutti Frida nor Mrs Wiśniewski spoke – French, so that became our ‘private’ language, which helped us all in that language and annoyed the mothers somewhat, although they took it, mostly, in good spirits.
One evening in early February, I scrambled into my house with a gale and sheets of rain at my back. I’d had tea with Col and Mutti Frida and when I left their house it was blowing but only raining slightly. Within 100 yards, it started to pour down. My legs below the reach of my raincoat were soaked as were my shoes and socks. Water was dripping down my neck underneath my shirt and I was starting to shiver.
“Goodness gracious.” My mother sprang to her feet. “Why didn’t you stay at Col’s house?”
Another convulsive shiver ran through me. “It was only blowing with a bit of rain when I left.”
“Never mind. Take your shoes and socks off here – there’s no point treading water through the house – and get yourself upstairs and have a hot bath.”
“OK.” I struggled out of my shoes and socks, the latter hitting the kitchen floor tiles with a distinct splat.
“I’ll have a hot chocolate waiting for you when you come down.”