Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
Easter – early April 1964
School ended for the three of us on the Wednesday before Easter and we made plans to spend time together over the Easter period. I had to travel up to London on the Tuesday after Easter and my mother insisted that I be home on the Monday evening. I eventually negotiated that I would be home by eight o’clock that evening: Col and Mutti Frida wanted to give me a farewell dinner. It was a rather subdued affair given the emotions everyone had been through in the lead-up to this moment, with conversation a bit muted.
When I arrived, I found the girls had dressed up in the finery they had worn at Christmas and I felt a bit underdressed in slacks and a pullover. As we finished the delicious Strudel mit Schlagsahne Col and Lili had prepared under Mutti Frida’s supervision, Col slid her hand into mine. “What time’s your train?”
“I’m catching the twenty-five to ten train which gets me to Victoria before eleven o’clock. That gives me plenty of time to get to the Victoria Hotel where I’m meeting the rest of the group at noon.”
Col gave me a strained smile. I knew she was going to miss me, but I also knew that lurking underneath was the fear that, despite all the advice, my trip would reveal her location to her father.
I slid my hand into hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Please don’t come to the station to see me off. You never know who may be watching.”
Col frowned at me and I could see she was about to argue.
Mutti Frida leaned across. “Col, Willi is right,” she said, sadly. “We shouldn’t go.”
Lili looked across. “I’ll come and see you off, Willi.”
I saw Col stiffen. Was she jealous? Since the near disaster at Mrs Wisniewski’s Christmas party, our three-way friendship had run very smoothly, something which only now I realised was unusual. I saw Mutti Frida glance between Col and Lili.
“If that’s all right, Col?”
Lili’s gentle question drew a small, self-deprecating sigh from Col. “I’m sorry, Lili. Yes, of course that’s all right.” She looked across at me. “I just wish I could be there too.”
After we cleared the supper table and washed up, Mutti Frida retrieved her bottle of Schnapps and filled a tiny glass.
“Willi. Wir wünschen du eine sichere und glückliche Reise in den Osten,” and she raised the glass to me and took a small sip.
Then she passed the glass to Lili. “Just a sip, Lili.”
“Yes, Will, have a safe trip to East Germany,” and touched the glass to her lips and made a bit of a face. She shuddered slightly at the taste, quickly passing the glass across to Col.
Col picked up the glass, holding my eyes over the rim. “Zwei Wochen sind so lange. Komm sicher zu mir zurück, Liebling.“ (Two weeks is such a long time. Come back to me safely, darling)
She sipped but suppressed the shudder, wanting to put up a brave front to me. Slowly, she reached across the table to hand me the glass.
I took the glass glancing at Mutti Frida and Lili but returning to hold Col’s gaze. I thought for a moment. “Tu es toute ma vie. Reste en sécurité ici en sachant que je penserai à toi tout le temps.” (You are my entire life. Stay here in safety, knowing that I will think of you all the time).
Col’s eyes closed for a moment and I heard Lili’s soft intake of breath. French was our secret language and Lili’s weakest, but she too had understood what I had said. When Col’s eyes opened, I could see the moisture gathering at the corners.
I took a sip, the alcohol exploding the taste of Schnapps across my tongue and I nearly coughed, even though I had expected it – my young body was not used to spirits.
I put the glass down in front of Mutti Frida, whose look lingered on me. She may not have understood the French, but she clearly comprehended the emotional content of what had passed between her daughter and me.
She gave me an understanding smile, picking up the glass and drained the small remaining mouthful.
Col jumped up and retrieved a package wrapped in blue tissue paper, tied with a delicate bow of thin white ribbon, from the dresser drawer. She sat down and slid it across to me.
I smiled at Col, recognising the carefully preserved paper, and opened the package: a leather wallet.
“Something to take with you to remind you of all of us during your travels.”
“Thank you,” I smiled at Lili and Mutti Frida.
“And now, Willi, you must leave so you are home at the right time.”
We all rose from the table. Col hung back whilst Lili and Mutti Frida gave me intense hugs.
Mutti Frida’s sensitivity showed again. “Col will say goodbye to you in the hall, Willi.”
I put the wallet in my trouser pocket and went out into the hall with Col, who firmly shut the door behind us. We shared several lingering kisses before Col gently pushed me away.
“You must go, Willi.” I could hear the tears trembling in her voice and then it firmed. “And when you return, we will have that talk about our promise with Mutti.” Her eyes held mine. I could see trust, fear and desire in them and a frisson ran through me, lifting the hairs down my back and arms.
I leaned in and planted a gentle kiss on the tip of her nose and caressed her cheek.
“Take care of you,” and I turned and walked out of the door. I paused at the gate, turning to receive and return a blown kiss before the door closed.
As I walked home, the moisture on my cheeks was cold in the night air.
My mother sensed my mood when I walked into the kitchen, even though she did not know the actual reason for it. She gathered me into her arms, staying silent for a while. Eventually, she relaxed the hug and looked into my eyes.
“I know you’re worried about this trip. I’m sure everything will be fine, but be careful over there, Will. Don’t make life difficult for yourself, or anyone else.”
I hung about in the kitchen and then took the mug up to my room and checked my suitcase again. I transferred the money I had taken out of my Post Office account into my new wallet, putting it on my desk with my passport and the information about the trip. That would go in my duffel bag along with a jumper and a few other things I might want with me all the time. I had pondered what books to take and had settled on Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, both of which were set texts. After a moment, I added my pure Maths textbook to leaven the mixture and slipped the picture of Herr Schmidt I had cut from the newspaper into it. I wanted to make sure I recognised him in the unlikely event that I saw him. After a moment’s thought, I also slipped in a copy of my essay, that I had laboriously written out: photocopying was another technology I missed.
Despite my worries over the trip’s possible consequences for Col and Mutti Frida the emotions of the last few days had drained me. I slept so soundly that my mother had to wake me when she checked on me at half-past seven. I hustled through my morning ablutions, packed my wash bag and did one final check on the suitcase before closing it up.
I was treated to a lovely breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast, causing me to raise my eyebrows.
“You need to start with a full stomach, Will. Today’s going to be all over the place and heaven knows when you’ll eat – or tomorrow, travelling to Berlin.”
As I waded through my breakfast, my mother sat opposite me, sipping her coffee and glancing at the paper.
“Try to send us a postcard from West Berlin when you get there before you go into east Germany, Will.”
I gave her a questioning look.
“Allow me to have a mother’s concerns over her chicks, Will.” She had a self-deprecating smile on her lips.
I smiled. “OK – I’ll try to send a postcard from West Berlin. I’m not sure about from inside East Germany through.”
My mother nodded in understanding.
I sat and read the newspaper for a while before my mother said it was time to go. I took my bags out to the car and my mother drove us down to the station. She insisted she pay for the return ticket to London and as we turned away from the ticket office, Lili walked into the station.
“Have a safe journey, Willi,” Lili said, in Polish, shyly leaning forward to give me a brief kiss on the cheek.
Mustering my Polish, I took her hand. “Thank you for coming to see me off. Please look after Col.” Lili gave me another shy smile and nodded.
My mother looked between the two of us. “Your Polish is coming along then, Will?”
“Yes, he and Col are learning quite quickly,” Lili explained.
“Col’s not coming to see you off?” My mother asked.
Before Lili could answer, I turned to my mother “I asked him not to come. He told me he’s not good at goodbyes.”
My mother looked a bit surprised and then gave a small shrug.
“Dr Johnstone?” We turned round to find a photographer. “I’m from the newspaper. I’d very much like a photograph of you and your son as he heads off on his prize trip. Perhaps the three of you could stand together.” He shepherded us against a British Rail cream wall. “Young Mr Johnstone in the middle, please.” My mother and Lili looked at one another and Lili moved from beside my mother to beside me. “Excellent.”
The camera flashed.
“Just one more.”
The camera flashed again. As it did so, I saw a man in a trilby hat staring at us from across the station foyer. He was probably wondering what made us special.
“We really must be going. My son has a train to catch.” My mother used her doctor voice and moved us towards the platform ticket machine.
The photographer doffed his hat. “Thank you for your time, Dr Johnstone.”
My mother inserted two thruppenny bits into the platform ticket machine, handing one of the tickets to Lili. We moved out on to the platform as my train was announced and it rolled in with an electric hum: none of the hissing clouds of steam and smoke that I had so much enjoyed as a boy.
My mother watched the coaches slow to a halt and made sure I was entering one with open seating, not compartments. The train was fairly empty and I had no trouble finding a seat on the platform side. I stowed my case, plonking my duffel bag on the seat and waved to Lili and my mother.
The train started moving so smoothly, that it was almost like the station was bearing Lili and my mother away from me as they waved farewell; then the carriage jerked and reality reasserted itself: I was leaving them, feeling rather uncertain about why I was doing so. The train moved slowly down the platform, past a few people including the trilby hat man. Disinterestedly, they watched us depart, waiting for a different train.
As we picked up speed, I sat down and pulled the Thomas Mann novella from my duffel bag. I’d been finding Gustav’s obsession with Tadzio a bit uncomfortable. This was probably coloured by Col’s initial reaction to the revelation of my strange circumstances and the confusion of her gender for Lili and myself. It is fascinating how we read ourselves into other’s art – or perhaps it is because great writers leave room for the reader to see themselves in their work.
We clattered through the Kentish countryside which drew my attention from Gustav’s obsessions. The blossom in the orchards was being replaced by fresh green leaves. I was still coming to terms with the startling greenness of the countryside after decades of the much sparser, greyish Australian greens. I sighed; there was so much of my previous life I could not talk about except with Col and for the next two weeks I would need to be extremely careful. Eventually, the Kentish fields and orchards gave way to London’s expanding suburban sprawl and we eventually rolled into Victoria Station.
I carefully checked my wallet and repacked my duffel bag, making sure for the umpteenth time that my paperwork and passport were safe in the internal pocket. My first time through as a teen I had been somewhat absentminded, prone to leaving a trail of unintentionally abandoned possessions, but decades of life had trained me to be more careful. Nevertheless, I was concerned that my young brain might betray me – so I checked.
With my duffel bag over my shoulder and my suitcase bumping awkwardly against my legs, I set off to find the Station Hotel. A porter gave me directions and, pausing occasionally to swap my case between my hands, I found the hotel and went into reception.
“Yes?” The bored man behind the desk asked, staring down his nose rather like Mr Sturr.
“I’m looking for the UNESCO group, the International Youth Cultural Exchange program travelling to Germany.”
He waved at a sign pointing down a corridor. “In the Mallard Room,” and he dismissed me by dropping his eyes back to the work on his desk. I walked past a couple of rooms, also named after famous locomotives of the steam age.
There was no-one in the fairly small Mallard room, so I put my case on the floor beside a sofa, sat down, retrieved Der Tod in Venedig and, with nothing to distract me, started reading. It was only just gone eleven o’clock, so I wasn’t surprised I was the first to arrive.
The clock was showing nearly half past eleven when a harried man looked in and then stood out of the way to let in a young man.
“Well that’s two, anyway,” he muttered and disappeared.
The young man looked at me, clearly noting my young age. “You must be the runner up,” he said rather dismissively. “Do you actually speak German?” I could hear the sneer in his voice.
He was clearly trying to establish some sort of pecking order, so I just smiled and returned to my book, making sure the cover was visible to him. After a moment, he dropped his case loudly beside an armchair and sat down, drumming his fingers on the armrests.
Almost immediately, a girl in her late teens stepped rather tentatively into the room. “Is this the UNESCO trip to Germany?” she asked in a very soft voice, trying not to look at either of us.
The young man leapt to his feet. “Indeed it is. I am Peter Farquar.” His hand came out ready to shake the girl’s, but she almost shuffled back, looking down, and did not put out her hand.
“Oh, I am Virginia Dawson.” Her voice held a trace of west country in it.
“Come and sit over here with me.” Peter grabbed for her suitcase, but Virginia pulled it away and looked round the room. There was an armchair beside my sofa and she quickly retreated, her pale, freckled skin blushing slightly beneath her red hair.
Peter gave her a frown and went back to his seat, trying not to look embarrassed at the failure of his advances. The three of us sat in silence for a few minutes. I thought about returning to my book but decided I should introduce myself to Miss Virginia Dawson.
I turned towards her. “Hello, Miss Dawson. I’m Will Johnstone.”
The freckled face turned towards me and there was a pause. “Hello, Will.” She glanced across the room at our companion and turned back to me. “I’m pleased to meet you. Please call me Ginnie. Are you going to East Germany too?”
Peter Farquar’s voice cut across the room. “Little William is our runner up.”
I could hear the sneer in his voice again. It seemed we had someone in our midst who needed to shore up his self-image by putting other people down.
I saw Ginnie stiffen slightly and make as if to respond. Instead, she held my gaze. “Is that Thomas Mann you are reading?” Nodding towards my book.
“Yes, it’s one of my set books.”
She was slightly startled. “You’re reading that for O Level?”
I gave her a slightly embarrassed smile. “No, for A level.”
“Goodness.” She gave me a closer inspection, blushing faintly when she realised this was a bit rude. “How old are you, Will?” she asked, curiosity sounding in her voice.
“Umm...” I was worried that this would just intensify Peter’s unwanted attention. “I’m fourteen.”
“Goodness,” she repeated.
Just then the rather harried man came in, followed by two other boys, both in their late teens.
“Right ho,” the man said, putting a bunch of room keys on the coffee table. “I’m Mr Stock and we’ll be joined shortly by Miss Turner. We are your guides and chaperones for this visit to East Germany.” He paused and looked round the room. “We’ll get you settled into your rooms and conduct introductions over lunch.”
He pulled a sheet of paper out of the clipboard he was carrying. “Here are your room assignments. Peter Farquar and William Johnstone.” He picked up one of the keys and tossed it to Peter. “Henry Ruthven and Timothy Charles.” Another key was tossed. “Virginia Dawson, you are with Miss Turner,” and he picked up the remaining key and handed it to her.
“OK. Off you go.” He waved at the door. “Be back down in the dining room by one o’clock.” He glanced at his watch. “That’s about fifteen minutes. Don’t be late,” and he bustled out without waiting for us to start moving, quickly followed by Henry and Timothy.
I packed my book into my duffel bag and stood up, but there was no movement from Peter. As he had the key and knew our room number, perforce I had to wait. As the others gathered their gear, Peter stood up. “I’m stuck with the baby of the group,” he said half to himself, giving me a disgusted look.
“Listen, you little oik. Stay out of my way or there will be dire consequences for you. I don’t want to see or hear you.” He leaned down and picked up his case. “The room is mine and it’s bad enough that you have to sleep there. Just stay away apart from that. D’you get that?”
His attitude was not unexpected given his initial reaction to me, but I had not been expecting to share a room with him. I was unsure what to do, so just stood there.
He dropped his case, took several steps and towered over me. “Did you hear what I said, oik?”
I was now quite scared. He was built like a rugby scrum player and would have no trouble flattening me. Before I could summon up a reply, he grabbed my shirtfront and pulled me up onto my toes.
“Cause me any trouble on this trip, oik, and...”
“What,” asked a commanding female voice, “is going on here?” Miss Turner stood in the doorway, bristling.
Peter dropped me back on to my feet and pretended to be brushing down my chest. “We were just discussing arrangements about our shared room.” It slipped glibly from him, clearly he was well-practised in this sort of ploy.
“No, you weren’t” Ginnie’s voice sounded angrily from the corner where she had been fiddling, unnoticed, with her case. “You were bullying William.”
Peter’s eyes narrowed and he gave Ginnie a black look.
“Miss Dawson, is it?” Miss Turner asked.
Ginnie nodded. “Peter Farquar was ... intimidating William.”
Miss Turner looked at Ginnie. “I see you have our room key. I suggest you take your bags there. I’ll join you shortly.”
Ginnie gave me a sympathetic look and sidled past Miss Turner. Peter turned and picked up his case.
“Where do you think you are going, Mr Farquar?”
It was a rhetorical question, but Peter answered in a tone that assumed unassailable superiority. “To my room,” and he attempted to push past Miss Turner, who had moved back into the doorway after Ginnie left.
“I think not, Mr Farquar.” Her tone was icy. “Please give me the room key.”
Peter stood there, clearly unused to being commanded by a woman and yet concerned that a confrontation could see him in trouble. After a few long seconds, he tossed the key at Miss Turner, who caught it deftly.
“Go and wait at reception for Mr Stock and we’ll decide what to do with you.”
Trying not to look like he was following her instructions, he sauntered out past Miss Turner.
Miss Turned tapped the key on her palm several times. “I thought putting the two of you together might cause problems, William, but...” She gave me an appraising look. “From what I hear, you are probably used to being a bit out of place. Hmm?”
Just what had Mr Sturr told them, I wondered, staying silent. I was grateful for Miss Turner’s intervention but I did not want her mothering me for the next two weeks.
She tapped the key against her palm a couple more times and sniffed. “Very well, here’s your key. Take your bags up and hurry down for lunch.”
I looked at the key: room 104, shouldered my duffel bag, picked up my case and headed off to my room. It had two single beds and I pondered which one I should take to avoid more confrontation with Peter: close to the window or close to the door? I had noticed the bathroom was down the corridor, so I tossed my bags on the bed nearest the window. I suspected he would complain whichever bed I chose, so I just locked the room behind me and went back downstairs to lunch.
When I walked into the dining room, I could see Miss Turner sitting at one end of a table with Henry, Timothy and Ginnie. I walked over and joined them, wondering where Mr Stock and Peter were. Miss Turner had kept an empty seat next to her and she waved me over to sit there. It seemed that she had appointed herself my guardian. I hesitated for a moment.
“Come and sit here, William.” She patted the chair.
There was no point in fighting it, so I sat down. Ginnie was opposite me and flashed me a smile. I suspected that Miss Turner was keeping a close, chaperoning eye on her too.
“Mr Stock is having words with Peter Farquar about his unacceptable behaviour.” Miss Turner looked round the table, pausing in particular when she looked at Henry and Timothy, who both looked a bit sheepish despite having done nothing wrong. “Peter Farquar will be sharing a room with Mr Stock for the rest of the trip,” she turned to me. “So you have the luxury of a room to yourself, William.”
Given Peter Farquar’s odious attitude, I felt that Mr Stock was coming out on the short end of this particular stick.
“I would ask you all to remember that on this trip you are representing our country. People will be looking at you and making judgements not just about you, but about this country and our society.” Her piercing gaze traversed the table again, looking to see that her message had been understood. “Good. Now, let’s have lunch.”
About five minutes later, Mr Stock arrived with Peter Farquar and lunch passed at our end of the table with Miss Turner driving the conversation to find out a bit about us.
Ginnie was indeed from the west country, outside Exeter, where her family ran a dairy farm near Woodbury, bordering the Clyst before it ran into the Exe estuary. One of the farm labourers was an ex-German prisoner of war who had stayed on after the war and brought his fiancée over to join him. Growing up on a busy farm, Ginnie had spent considerable time with his wife and this explained her command of German.
Miss Turner looked at me. “I understand you have a close German friend, William.”
I tried not to tense up – my mother’s blabbing about this to Mr Sturr was coming home to roost. “That’s right.” I could see Miss Turner about to ask for more information.
Fortunately, Mr Stock tapped his glass to get our attention.