Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Late February 1964
In the morning when we joined Lili on the bus, she was practically jumping out of her skin with the need to know what was going on. Col and I had talked about this as we walked to the bus and decided that Col would tell her in the playground at their school where there was little chance of them being overheard in the general hubub. Lili frowned when Col told her she had to wait, but I hope she understood why we felt it necessary.
I was a bit distracted at school and received a few frowns from teachers as a result, something they were not used to giving me. Mr Pollock, my Maths teacher, queried me on this at the end of his class. I told him I had a few things on my mind and he offered to help if I felt he could do so. This was a side of him I hadn’t seen before as he’d always come across as a bit of the distant professor in his ivory tower. Fortunately, I didn’t have a German class so I didn’t have to talk to Mr Sturr about the competition.
I wanted to get to my house as soon as possible to see if the letter from the competition had arrived. Perhaps the wording in the letter would offer me a way to turn it down – but I couldn’t think what that might be. Boarding the bus, I sat in my usual seat and Lili leant in from behind.
“Col told me...”
Col frowned at her and Lili stopped. “Of course, sorry.” And we spent the bus trip and the walk to Lili’s house not talking about the elephant in the room.
Once we reached Lili’s house, she again checked the house was empty and, after we spread out our homework, we started rehashing what was happening.
“Like I told you, Lili, Mutti told us to watch out for anything odd or people asking questions about us.” Col gave Lili a grim smile. “But as you’re our friend, they might want to get to us through you, so you need to watch out for your family as well and tell us if anything strikes you as odd no matter how small.”
Lili nodded, her face taking on a serious mien as she realised that her closeness to us might put her and her family at some risk.
Col, as ever, sensed Lili’s concern. She leant across the table. “I know it sounds all a bit farfetched, but I’m afraid it is real.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I’m sorry we got you in to this Lili.”
Lili’s bright blue eyes found ours across the table. She shivered slightly and then shook out her hair as if scattering her fears. “It’s not your fault – and I’m your friend. I’ll help any way I can.” Her voice strengthened as she spoke.
Col smiled at Lili, her voice gentle and filled with gratitude. “Thank you, Lili. I – “she glanced at me, “that is we knew we could count on you.”
Lili blushed slightly and looked down. “I’ll keep my eyes open and certainly let you know if I see or hear anything unusual.”
I could see she was embarrassed at Col’s praise and she quickly changed the subject. “I need some help with conditionals in German, Col.” She picked up her exercise book and flicked it open.
We settled down with our homework. Col and Lili had been a term behind the rest of their class in everything as they had only started at Grammar School in early January. Despite this, they seemed to be caught up in almost everything. They were both bright and I’m sure our homework club was helping, particularly with Lili’s focus and motivation.
Mutti Frida arrived at the same time as Mrs Wiśniewski with Lili’s young brother and the two mothers shared a cup of tea before we walked back to Col’s house. In spite of what was going on – or perhaps in an effort to retain normality because of that – Mutti Frida insisted we talk to her, in Polish, about our day as we walked home. I struggled to explain in Polish Mr Pollock and the ‘ivory tower’ metaphor – to Mutti Frida’s amusement.
When I finally got home later that night, there was no letter waiting for me. But the following morning the postman was a bit early, arriving as I was walking out of the door – and there was a letter for me. I grabbed that one, putting it in my pocket, and left the others for my mother. Once we were on the bus and safely ensconced on the back seat, I pulled it out.
It was from the International Youth Cultural Exchange Program offering me the place turned down by one of the winners on a two-week visit to the DDR during the upcoming Easter school holidays. Col and Lil read it over my shoulders.
“Well, now what am I going to do?” I looked at both Col and Lili and neither had anything to offer.
We sat in silence and after a minute or so, Lili looked at me and said, rather tentatively “Could you just lose the letter? That way your mother wouldn’t know you’d been offered the trip.”
Col huffed, “That’s not going to work – Willi’s school knows he’s being offered the trip and they want the glory of one of their students winning the prize. If Willi says nothing, I expect they would contact his mother.”
“You really think they’d do that?” Lili asked.
I nodded, thinking of Mr Sturr’s interest. “I’m afraid so.”
Silence descended again. I wondered what Mutti Frida’s contact was going to do about all this. Lili’s mind must have been wandering down the same track. “What do you think they will tell Mutti Frida?”
I shook my head, partly in amazement that she had put my thoughts into words. “I’ve got no idea, but I think I’m going to be forced to go to the DDR by the school and my mother.”
“Perhaps if you could convince her that travelling behind the Iron Curtain was dangerous you could get her on your side?” Lili suggested.
“Now, there’s a thought.” I gave Lili a grateful look. “Do you think your family would be able to talk to her about this? I don’t expect that she’d need much convincing. The DDR and other eastern bloc countries don’t have a good reputation in the west – particularly after the way the Russians put down the Hungarians in 1956.”
Col perked up at this. “Oh, please, Lili. Could you get them to help?”
“Well, we can talk to my mother later today and see what she says.”
“OK.” I paused for a moment. “It’ll probably be best if I raise the subject with your mother, Lili. That way it will look as if I am worried about travelling behind the Iron Curtain.”
Col gave me a hard look. “Are you saying you are not worried about it?”
“Yes ... er ... no. Of course I am worried.” I managed not to grab Col’s hand. “I’m just thinking that if Lili’s mum knows how worried I am she might push a bit harder with my mother.”
Col subsided back into her seat. “Oh.”
That afternoon, we sat round the table at Lili’s house working on our homework until Mrs Wiśniewski arrived home. It was Wednesday, early closing day, so Mutti Frida would have gone home at lunchtime and we’d be walking home alone.
After a while, Mrs Wiśniewski came into the kitchen where we were working.
“Would you like a glass of milk and perhaps a biscuit?”
A chorus of “Tak proszę,” ran round the table.
Mrs Wiśniewski smiled. “Twoje lekcje języka idą dobrze.” (Your language lessons are going well.)
Col thought for a moment and then replied, “Tak dziękuję. Twoja córka dobrze nas uczy.” (Yes, thank you. Your daughter is teaching us well.)
Mrs Wiśniewski smiled broadly at Lili and then looked at Col and me. “And she tells me you are helping her in every other class. Thank you.” She whisked about the kitchen, getting glasses of milk and a plate of biscuits.
I glanced at Col and then looked at Lili’s mother as she put the plate of biscuits on the table. “Mrs Wiśniewski, can I ask you something?”
Mrs Wiśniewski gave me a slightly surprised look. Our interactions had always been very superficial up until now. “Yes, of course, Willi.”
“I’ve won a trip to East Germany, the DDR, at Easter and I’m worried about going behind the Iron Curtain.” I paused for a moment, looking into her eyes. “Is it safe?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Col suppressing a slight smile. Had I laid it on a bit too thick?
Mrs Wiśniewski stood thinking for a moment, so I pulled the letter from my satchel and gave it to her. She read through it and then pulled up a chair and sat down.
“First of all, Willi, congratulations on doing so well. You have been learning German for only a year and you win an essay competition.”
“Well, I didn’t win it, as the letter says.”
Mrs Wiśniewski waved my objection aside. “Rubbish. Don’t be so modest. Your essay was so good they offered you the prize.” She reached across and helped herself to a biscuit, nibbling it as she thought.
“You are right to be worried about visiting the Eastern Block as they are not trustworthy and twist the words and actions of others to fit their purposes.” She finished her biscuit, leaning back into her chair. “It would be dangerous for Col or Lili to visit behind the Iron Curtain as they are European and the Russians see them as their slaves – even a West German.” She nodded at Col, clearly thinking that Col and Mutti Frida were from West Germany, the BRD.
“But you are English, and that’s different.”
“How is it different for me?” I asked.
Mrs Wiśniewski gave me a hard look. “Willi, you are English, part of the free west. You are their declared enemy in everything, so they have to treat you carefully.” She paused. “You are not in the military, invading their airspace like Gary Powers or that unfortunate pilot shot down and killed over Cuba during the crisis. You are a child and someone they can, perhaps ... influence. Someone who might help them in their war of ideas with the West.”
I saw Col’s gaze flick towards me when Mrs Wiśniewski called me a child but I managed not to react.
Col covered her reaction. “Yes, Willi, they would take anything you say and twist it so that it seemed you support their world view.”
Mrs Wiśniewski nodded. “Indeed, but I think it is most unlikely that they would arrest you or prevent you from returning home on time. There is too much for them to lose in the propaganda war by throwing a child of the West into gaol.”
This was not headed in the direction I had expected.
“So, you think there is no problem with me going to East Germany?”
Mrs Wiśniewski pursed her lips. “I did not say that. Of course there is some danger. But that danger is more the propaganda value of having an intelligent young Englishman visit their country and say nice things about it.”
She leaned across the table and patted my hand. “But there is a great propaganda risk for them too.”
I gave her an uncomprehending look.
“They will show you the very best of their country and carefully pick the places you go and the people you will meet. But they risk you seeing past all of that to the reality they are trying to hide.”
Mrs Wiśniewski leaned back in her chair, marshalling her thoughts for a few seconds. “I think you have a responsibility to go. You are an intelligent young man and will see beneath the propaganda veil that they draw across their society. You can tell young people here in the west what life is really like there, why we must resist them and strive to bring freedom to the oppressed people of the eastern Europe.”
This was totally unexpected. Mrs Wiśniewski wanted me to go and become a propaganda tool in her fight with the oppressors of her country. It sounded like she would be pushing Mutti Frida and my mother to not just let me go but to send me.
“Umm, thank you. You’ve given me a few things to think about.”
Mrs Wiśniewski stood up, giving me an encouraging smile and left us to our homework. Lili’s eyes were wide, almost shocked at her mother’s vehemence. The three of us sat in silence for about a minute before Col leant forward and took my hand.
“I hope she doesn’t call our mothers. We don’t need that.”
I nodded. Slowly, we returned to the books in front of us.
On the walk up to Col’s house, I turned to Col. “You need to be careful, Col.”
She gave me a puzzled look. “About what?”
“I saw the look you gave me when Mrs Wisniewski called me a child.”
Col tossed her head. “It’s difficult for me, Will. Most of the time you are what you look like. It’s only occasionally that you say something unexpected or react slightly differently that I remember what you are.” She shrugged. “When Mrs Wiśniewski described you as just a child, it struck me as funny.”
“We both have things we don’t want everyone knowing – although I don’t think most people would believe me like you have. They’d probably just lock me away.” I pulled a face at her.
Col nodded. “We both have to be careful not to give our secrets away.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence, pondering the strange reality we both lived in and their dangers.
When we arrived at Col’s house, Mutti Frida sensed our mood and asked what was wrong. I took the letter out of my bag and handed it to her.
Mutti Frida gave me a sympathetic look. “Willi, we knew this was coming. It’s not the end of the world.”
I sighed. “I know, but...” My voice petered out in uncertainty.
“Well,” Mutti Frida smiled encouragingly. “We will just have to convince your mother that it is not safe for you to travel to East Germany.”
Neither Col nor I wanted to tell Mutti Frida what Mrs Wiśniewski thought about this, so I nodded and we got on with setting the table for tea.
What to say to my mother occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my house later that evening. If I could convince her that it was not safe, that would stymie the school’s efforts to use me for their propaganda – and Mrs Wiśniewski efforts too. So I was slightly distracted when I pushed open the back door.
“Hello Will.” My mother looked up from the kitchen table where she was sewing replacement buttons on to a couple of my father’s shirts. “I hear you got the letter confirming your place on the trip to East Germany.”
I was shocked to silence for a moment. “What?”
“Manners, Will.” She chided me softly.
“Sorry. I beg your pardon.”
My mother gave me a nod of acknowledgement. “Mrs Wiśniewski rang earlier. She told me you showed her the letter.”
Good grief. That was fast work; Mrs Wiśniewski must be fired up about this.
“Yes. It arrived this morning just as I was leaving, so I took it with me.”
“May I see it, please?”
I retrieved the letter in its envelope from my satchel.
She carefully lodged her threaded needle in the shirt collar. “Hmm – the trip is during the Easter holidays, so it won’t interfere with your school.” She paused and looked up. “Do you want to go, Col?”
Finally, an adult was asking what I wanted. “No.” I was emphatic.
My mother gave me a surprised look. “I would have thought you’d jump at the chance to go somewhere different – in particular, Germany.” She stopped, looking carefully at my face. “Why don’t you want to go, Will?”
I couldn’t tell her my real reason. “I’m scared of going behind the Iron Curtain. They are not like us and I’m worried they might not let me come back.”
I was slightly worried that my mother might not take me seriously, but she did.
Her face hardened. “You’re right, Will. The governments of those countries are not like us and they will use people to suit their own ends. But I think the people in those countries are just like us in the West.” She paused thoughtfully. “Frau Schmidt showed me that not all Germans were Nazis and I’m sure that the ordinary people in East Germany have concerns about their governments, even if they cannot speak about them. I think it would be good for you to visit and learn this for yourself.”
This was terrible: even my mother wanted me to go.
She could see I was unconvinced. “Anyhow Will, we don’t have to decide yet.” She glanced at the letter. “You don’t have to let them know for a week, so have a good think about it and come and talk to me some more about your concerns if you need to.”
My sleep that night was a bit disturbed as all this rolled around in my head.
I updated Col and Lili on the bus to school in the morning.
“Willi, I’m so sorry.” I could see that Lili was very embarrassed at what her mother had done. “I heard her on the phone to your mother but I could not stop her.”
“It’s not your fault, Lili.” I gave her a sympathetic look. “Your mother must feel very strongly about this.”
“Oh, she does, she certainly does.” Lili sighed. “After she phoned your mother, I heard her talking to some of her friends that came over to play Bridge last night and they all agreed that it was important for the English to learn what Russia was like.” She paused, reaching back to what she had overheard the previous evening.
“They said they are worried that the alliance with Russia during the war still colours British thinking about the Soviets and their global intentions. Educating young English people about the reality of the Soviet Empire is important to them.”
Col could see me getting increasingly worried. “Come on Willi, don’t let this bother you.” She winked at me and chuckled. “After all, what can a bunch of Polish ladies do about it?”
I smiled, a measure of relief washing through me. “Thank you, Col, I don’t suppose that they can do very much.”
The rest of the trip to Canterbury passed with Lili and Col discussing various boys and their suitability as boyfriends for Lili. It seemed that none of them passed muster for a variety of different reasons – and the discussion continued on the bus trip home. By the time we got off the bus at the Herne Bay bus station, I was starting to form the impression that there was a standard against which boys were being judged and that perhaps that standard related to Col-as-a-boy and perhaps me in some way, which was a very uncomfortable thought as I was far from being a ‘normal’ boy, nor was Col.
As we turned into Lili’s street, we passed a man leaning against the wall. We had gone a few steps further on when he called out.
Reflexively, I turned round and was almost blinded by a flashbulb going off in my face. He had taken my photograph.
“What?” I was rooted to the spot in confusion.
The man just turned and walked swiftly away into town.
This was so strange that we just stood there for a short while, looking at one another.
“What was that about?” Lili asked as we finally walked the few yards to her front gate.
Col glanced at me, a frightened look on her face and I was thinking the same thing – was this part of her father looking for her? But if so, why take a photo of me?
When Mutti Frida arrived from the shop, Mrs Wiśniewski buttonholed her, pushing her view that I should go on the trip. Mutti Frida was clearly surprised at her vehemence and quietly suggested that it was up to me – and my mother.
“Yes, of course,” Mrs Wiśniewski agreed. “But it’s such an opportunity for Willi and through him for his friends to discover the truth about the Russians and their lackeys. We should be encouraging him to go and his mother to let him.”
The incongruity of Mrs Wiśniewski talking to an East German about ‘Russian lackeys’ struck me and I had to suppress a grim smile.
I could see Lili fidgeting in her chair. She was very uncomfortable with her mother about this, so I leant close to her and whispered, “Remember, this is not your fault – but you can’t let on the real reason I cannot go.”
Lili gave me a grateful smile.
On the walk home, we started telling Mutti Frida about the photographer, but she stopped us. “When we get home, children.”
Instead, Col started telling her about the boys at school showing interest in Lili.
Once the door was closed behind us, Mutti Frida sat us down and asked us to go through the incident in detail.