Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
September 1964 – August 1970
I spent some of my Premium Bond money on proper framing. Lili’s pencil and crayon portrait of Col then adorned my bedroom wall along with the FDJ poster. I often found myself sitting on my bed, looking into her eyes. The feeling that it had been something I had done that had resulted in their betrayal to Oberstleutnant Schmidt grew in me. I sat there, sifting my memories of our time in East Germany trying to identify my mistake. At times, Col’s eyes seemed to contain hints of accusation.
When we restarted our homework meetings in September, I found Lili had a smaller version of the portrait which she had kept for herself – apparently the final essay before the larger version she had given me.
Our relationship had changed with the loss of Col. She was much of the glue that held us together and we had to search for a different way of relating. Lili was an artist of growing confidence and ability but she had none of Col’s curiosity for science. We still shared our languages and the literature our languages allowed us to access, but Lili was striking out on her own path, where I was stumbling into growing darkness. Early in the autumn term, she called off our homework club on a few occasions, perhaps to be with her boyfriend. There was a growing distance between us, probably caused in part by my need for her support while I had little to give her but my academic ability.
Almost every day, my old brain fought with the dark sea that threatened to engulf my young brain. My mother knew I was having a hard time and watched, unsure how to help. Wound up in my misery, I did not notice her suffering.
One October afternoon, for some reason my feet took me the long way round from Lili’s house – up the Downs and along Sea View Road past Col’s house. During the summer I had checked the house with decreasing frequency as it became ever more clear that they were not returning. Today it remained still and empty, the garden unkempt. I pulled myself away and my feet traced over the path back to my house. They had grown to know each crack in the pavement, each uneven surface intimately in the eighteen months that Col and Mutti Frida had lived there.
I was surprised to find my mother in the kitchen.
“No evening surgery?” I asked.
“Come and sit down, Will. We need to have a talk.”
I could see my mother was troubled. I hung up my coat and sat down opposite her.
“Will...” She petered out, looking at me with concern. She took a deep breath and started again. “Will, your father and I are separating.”
I nodded, my eyes searching her face. Given what I knew, this was not a surprise and I was glad to have him out of my life completely, but it must still be very hard for her.
“I have decided that I ... we ... all need a clean break.” She paused, her eyes in turn searching mine, looking for ... something, almost afraid of what she might find. “I am leaving the surgery here and have taken up a position in Leicester.”
I gave her a questioning look. “And... ?”
“We – that’s you, me and Hilary – are moving in two weeks.”
My stomach flipped – another break with my past. This had been my childhood home until I finally broke free at age seventeen. My parents had continued to live here even after they retired in the 1980s, living together in an uneasy peace.
“What about school?”
“I’ve arranged for you to stay with a friend of mine in Canterbury for the rest of the academic year.”
I just sat there, thinking about how my life was being completely turned upside down.
My mother reached across the table, taking my hand. “I’m sorry, Will, I know this comes at a bad time for you.” She gave my hand a squeeze. “Please try not to let it disrupt your studies.”
It was only in bed that night that I realised that once we moved it would be more difficult for Col to find me – if, despite my betrayal, she was looking. I was sure she’d try to contact Lili though, so I would make sure Lili knew where I was.
Our homework club and my Herne Bay life ended precipitously. My mother and Hilary moved to Leicester one weekend, dropping me at Dr Cassidy’s house beyond the Westgate in Canterbury. When Lili and I parted, she gave me a fierce hug and we promised to stay in touch, which we did by letters every week or two; Lili’s usually included a sketch of Rupert, her cat or a view around Herne Bay. Underneath everything she wrote and drew, I could feel her still sharing her strength in spite of the distance that had opened in our relationship.
Leafing through the local newspaper a week before Christmas there was a picture of a very smashed car on page 3. I would not normally read such depressing material, but a name leapt off the page at me. The accompanying article told me the Ford Prefect was flattened by a truck that lost control on the Thanet Way, killing the entire Wisniewski family – mother, father and two children. I found my fingers didn’t have the strength to turn the page but soon I could not see the awful photograph through the tears. Beautiful, talented Lili with sparkling blue eyes and that indomitable strength was gone.
It felt as if every part of my life was being shredded – and every trace of Col erased.
Somehow, I found the will to keep on keeping on. Perhaps it was so that a part of Col’s life remained in my memories of her and perhaps I was keeping my promise to her. I had no-one I could talk with about the darkness that washed at the shores of my mind, so I would lie on my bed and converse silently with Col’s portrait, which sometimes helped but at others the accusation became too hard to bear and I turned its face to the wall.
Nothing had come from our attempts to involve Mrs Wisniewski and that option was now for ever closed. After Christmas, rather naively, I tried writing to MI6 in the hope I could find out what had happened to Col and Mutti Frida, perhaps speak to Mr. Watling, but after several unanswered attempts I gave up.
My established habit of reading the newspaper continued – but now in the school library where I went through the Times before morning assembly. In the background, the race to the moon was heating up and I followed the press coverage, ticking off events as they coincided with my memories from my previous life. One morning shortly before the Easter term ended I read that Ladbrokes were offering odds on who would get to the moon first – and when. I realised that this was an opportunity to make some money using my foreknowledge – provided the Apollo program was as successful in this world as it had been in mine and the Russian N1 rocket the same unmitigated disaster. Laying a bet was also a statement that I was trying to make a future for myself: it would feel a bit like nailing my colours to the mast.
I knew well enough that this world was different from that of my old life, but the space program did seem to be following the track I recalled. The more I thought about it, the more the reward seemed worth the risk, particularly with its commitment to my future. I took one hundred pounds out of my post office account and went to the Ladbrokes shop in Canterbury High Street, having disguised my school uniform as best I could. I was clearly underage, but explained I was placing the bet for my dad. The size of the bet probably helped convince them of this and I walked away with the betting slip made out to Mr William Johnstone at odds of 950:1 for a moon landing and safe return to earth before the end of 1969. This was a bit less than the odds quoted in the newspaper, but I suppose I wasn’t the only one having a flutter and the odds had shortened. I carefully put the ticket in the frame behind Col’s portrait.
The habit of burying myself in my studies carried me though the rest of my ‘A’ level year and I won a scholarship to study Physics at Cambridge. Col’s portrait accompanied me there, along with the FDJ poster, both of which elicited nosy questions, which I ignored, from the infrequent visitors I allowed into my room.
As my first term at Cambridge drew to a close, I managed to screw up my courage and head to London to see if I could get anywhere with MI6 in person where my letters had failed. I was expecting the sort of security arrangements seen in 2000 era Bond films, but in 1965 MI6 seemed almost comically relaxed when I walked up the steps and into the foyer. There was a reception desk and beyond that a guarded security gate. Summoning my courage, I walked up to the reception desk, that was shielded behind what I suspected was bullet proof glass.
The young man behind the desk looked up with a friendly smile. “Yes?”
I spoke through the grill. “I’d like to speak to Mr Watling, please.”
“And you are?”
“I’m William Johnstone.”
I don’t suppose many teenagers came into MI6; he gave me an appraising look, deciding what to do.
“Okaaay.” It was drawn out as he continued to decide what to do with me. “Let me check.” He turned to a table behind him and rifled through what I took to be a directory.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t find such a person.”
I had been prepared for this as Watling was probably a false name.
“Well then, I need to speak to someone about a defector from the DDR – East Germany.”
The young man smiled indulgently at me. “Really – and what would you know about a defector from East Germany?”
“I know where she lived in Kent until recently and I also know she had evidence that a senior Stasi officer was guilty of war crimes.”
The young man scrutinised me for a few seconds and then reached for a phone. His other hand came up and flicked the grill closed so I could not hear him talk. After a short conversation, he put down the phone and opened the grill.
“Just wait there a minute please.” He gestured at a hard bench to one side of the reception counter. I sat and watched what little traffic there was in the foyer, trying to prevent hope that I was getting somewhere from burgeoning.
“William Johnstone, would you come with me please?”
I looked up. A rather non-descript man in a grey suit looked down at me. “You’re not Mr Watling,” I said, accusingly.
“You’re right there,” he smiled down at me. “But perhaps we can talk about this somewhere more private than the foyer?” He raised an eyebrow, gesturing towards the security gate. “Please come with me.”
Perhaps I was getting somewhere, so I stood and followed him. At the gate he pulled out an ID card and gestured towards me. The guard nodded and we entered the interior of the building. Following a ride in a lift and a short walk down a corridor, we arrived in a small room that reminded me of an old-fashioned interview room from a ‘60s TV police show.
“Please sit down, William. I am Mr Pritchard.”
As I sat, the door opened and a woman, her grey hair pulled back into a tight bun, walked in. I stood as I had been trained to by my mother.
The lady paused, her hand on the doorknob looking past me at Mr Pritchard with a wry smile on her face. “Well, Geoffrey, at least someone has manners.”
Mr Pritchard looked at her stonily but remained seated. The lady pushed the door closed, walking with a slight limp to sit opposite me. She placed a slim folder on the table and looked me over for a few long seconds. The scrutiny was intense and left me feeling I was lacking ... something.
Finally she sniffed, almost dismissively. “Well, William Johnstone, you’re very young to be up at Cambridge.” She paused, continuing her scrutiny. “But it’s clear from your file that you are quite a special young man.” There was more than a hint of derision in her tone.
Mr Pritchard pulled the file closer and flipped it open, leafing through the few pages.
“You have a file on me? Why?”
The lady gave me a smile that was almost condescending and responded in perfectly accented German. “How many fourteen-year-olds visit East Germany do you think? Particularly young men that speak multiple languages and who go on to win scholarships to read Physics at Cambridge?”
The lady wanted to try out my German? Fair enough.
Mr Pritchard looked up from the file, glancing sideways at the lady. Before he closed the file I caught a glimpse of one of the letters I had written: they had chosen not to answer me. “Now, what’s this about a defector from East Germany?” he asked in English.
I looked him in the eye and replied in German. “If you have a file on me, that file would tell you the information you need to know – or MI6 must be even more inefficient than the CIA believes.”
Mr Pritchard leaned back in his chair, his face hardening. “Now...”
The lady put a hand on his arm and gave him a commanding look. “Thank you, Geoffrey.” She was back in English and looked across at me, acknowledging the language competition as a draw with a slight nod. “If you know what’s in your file, why are you here?”
“Because I want to know where they are. I want to know what happened to them.” I could hear an edge of panic in my voice, so I took a deep breath. I needed to hold things together.
“What happened to whom?”
I closed my eyes, took another deep breath and looked at the MI6 people opposite. “To Colette Schmidt and her mother Frida Schmidt, who until early May last year lived in Sea View Avenue, Herne Bay, Kent. Frau Schmidt, whose husband is Oberstleutnant Schmidt, second in command of the Leipzig Staatssicherheitsdienst office.”
I paused, looking for a reaction I did not get. “Returning from the DDR in April last year, I unwittingly couriered back Mutti Frida’s assembled evidence that Oberstleutnant Schmidt was a Nazi war criminal.”
There was a stony silence from the other side of the table.
I waited a few seconds and then continued. “On the train home from London I gave that evidence to Mr Watling, Mutti Frida’s MI6 contact.” I gave a humourless laugh. “Perhaps a more accurate description was that Mr Watling took it from me.”
There was no motion from the other side of the table, and we sat staring at one another. The lady was quite imposing and it was only my need to find out what had happened that prevented me from wilting under harsh gaze. After several seconds, she gave me a slightly crooked smile and spoke to me again in German.
“You knew Frau Schmidt well enough to call her Mutti Frida – so you were close to her?”
“Yes.” I looked her in the eye. “And to her daughter.”
“I see.” She paused, raising an eyebrow. “You knew Colette was not a boy then.” It was a statement not a question, so I remained silent. The lady studied me across the table. Long seconds dragged past. Finally, she leant back in her chair, distancing herself from me and returned to speaking in English.
“We don’t know what happened to them.” Her voice was as hard and flat as a steel plate.
I looked across the table. “I...” My voice choked. I started again. “I betrayed them.” The black tide of guilt and shame roared in and I collapsed slowly forward, my forehead coming to rest on the table.
“William?” A hand grabbed my hair, jerking me up so the lady could see my face. “What makes you think you betrayed them?” Now her eyes held something dangerous.
“I don’t know,” I almost wailed. “I must have let something slip. Why else would they disappear so soon after my return?” My voice seemed to come from a distance, my chest heaving with emotion.
She let go of my hair, but when my head dropped back on to the table, she grabbed it again, forcing me to look at her.
“William, we only have the barest information.” I could see her deciding how much – or how little – to tell me. “Colette – or rather her alter-ego the boy Col – was collected from her school by a perfectly normal taxi that took her to meet her mother just outside Canterbury. There were two men with Frau Schmidt and the taxi driver left as they were all getting into a large black car – a Humber, he thinks. There was no sign of force being used according to the taxi driver.” She stopped, letting the implications of that sink in for a few seconds. “After that we have no trace of them or the car.”
Her face was flat and hard, devoid of sympathy. “We have to assume that they were smuggled out of the country – willingly or unwillingly – and are now back behind the iron curtain.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to control my emotions, then looked back at her, sensing she had more to say.
The lady’s voice was matter of fact as her eyes scanned me like a strange radar, searching for truth. “It is, I suppose, possible that you said or did something whilst in the DDR that led to their discovery. But we know that Oberstleutnant Schmidt was searching for them and...” she her eyes flicked towards Mr Pritchard, “we think there might have been a leak.”
Using my hair, she tossed me backwards into my chair. Standing up, she gave me a very cold stare. “Whatever happened, they’re gone.” Her eyes were full of ice: no empathy, no compassion. “Best you get on with your life and forget about them.” She picked up my file and walked out of the room, her gait displaying a slight hitch.
Mr Pritchard’s face declared his distaste for her demeanour. He watched the door close behind her and then took a deep breath, looking at me almost apologetically. “She’s extremely good at her job, but her ... experiences ... in the war cauterised her humanity.”
I sat, trying to take on board what had been said, but all I could think of was that Col and Mutti Frida had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
And I would never see them again.
Mr Pritchard stood up. “Right, let’s get you out of here.”
A few minute later, I was standing on the Embankment, dazed by the emotions running through me. I walked up on to Vauxhall Bridge and stood leaning against the balustrade, looking down at the river as it flowed away towards its end in the sea. The temptation was there, skittering across my thoughts, whispered in my ears by the breeze, flicked into my eyes by the water’s coruscations; but I managed to just stand.
Slowly, I dragged myself away and returned to Cambridge, where Col’s eyes looked down, accusing, yet full of compassion. The MI6 woman had intimated that perhaps Col and Mutti Frida had returned to the DDR willingly – and that implied they had lied to me – and Lili.
That thought haunted me for a few days. Could they have so mislead me? The longer I thought about this, the more ridiculous it was. Whoever that woman was, she was a masterful player and her seed of doubt came close to germinating. For now, however, it lay sterile.
Eventually I realised that life goes on and – my promise to Col remained.
At Cambridge, I was clearly much younger than everyone else in first year Physics and that made me different, which I hated as it always led to problems. I should have been used to this by now, but I wasn’t. In an attempt to look a bit older, I tried to grow a beard, but every attempt was a laughable straggle of patchy hairs and I ended up shaving it off, only to try again a few months later.
My tutor, Dr Finlay, kept trying to involve me in things beyond my studies, trying to help me fit into university society. There were departmental staff-student do’s, but these centred mostly around a keg of beer which, because I was under eighteen, I was not allowed to drink. With my fellow students, I gained a reputation as a hard worker, someone to have in your lab group, someone who had the answers to the difficult questions on the tutorial worksheets, but the age gap, my intolerance of stupidity and my morose nature kept me from forming any real relationships.
I ended my first year with A’s across the board – and I started to feel the eyes of some of my lecturers on me.
The summer vacation was another expanse of time to fill. I knew no-one in Leicester except my mother and sister – and she, as usual, would have nothing to do with me. It seemed I was to blame for the family break up which had removed her from her circle of friends.
I scouted around and found a part-time job washing cars at a local garage. I had picked up my textbooks for second year before I left, another use for the Premium Bond winnings, and I worked my way through these with my mother’s FM radio giving me access to classical music on the BBC. By early September I had finished the textbooks and my part time work had replenished my finances. Sitting around left far too much time to think and I was scared where that might lead. I realised I knew the centres of Dresden and Leipzig better that my country’s capital so, after a bit of to and fro with my mother, I booked myself into the central London Youth Hostel for a week.
For a couple of days I did the usual tourist things – Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and down to Kew Gardens, but then the weather turned cold and wet and I resorted to the Museum strip in South Kensington. My first port of call was the Science Museum: the old steam engines were fascinating, gleaming in polished brass and bright red and green paint, as was the top floor which was the aviation section: I lingered beneath a hanging Spitfire, amazed at how much bigger it was than I expected.
I was standing waiting for the Foucault’s pendulum to be reswung when I noticed a head of red hair joining the crowd: something about the way the head moved seemed familiar, so I carefully sidled through the gathered people until I could see the face. Once the pendulum was set in motion (by burning a restraining thread with a match) and the explanation of the pendulum’s motion was complete, people started to move away and I could get close enough to speak.
Her head turned towards me and after a moment her puzzled look broke into a smile. “Willi. Long time, no see.”
I smiled in return. “Likewise. How are things going? Are you studying medicine.”
“Yes. I’m well, thank you and I made it into St Thomas Hospital. I’m about to start my third year. It’s terrifying in a way but quite amazing. What are you doing?”
“I’m studying Physics.”
Ginnie laughed. “Of course you are.” She looked around. “I think there’s a cafe here, shall we get a pot of tea and catch up?”
“Ok ... but it’ll be coffee for me.”
She laughed. “So you got over that terrible cup in Leipzig, then?”
I smiled at the shared memory. “Yes.”
We found our way to the cafe and ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea for one. When I realised the coffee would be instant, I settled on an orange juice and we found a table.
Ginnie gave me a slightly accusing look. “You never replied to my letter.”
I blinked. “What letter?”
“I wrote to you once I had settled into St Thomas, that October after the DDR trip. I meant to write sooner, but I was so busy after we got back, what with exams, the farm and organising myself up to London.”
“My parents separated and we moved to Leicester in mid-October. Your letter should have been forwarded, but I never got it. I’m sorry, Ginnie.”
“Oh, Willi, I’m sorry to hear that.” She gave me a wry smile. “Are you keeping your languages up?” Ginnie asked, pouring her tea and changing the subject to something safer.
“There’s French and German clubs at Cambridge, but Polish is a more of a problem. What about your German?”
“I’m afraid that I don’t get to use it enough, only when I go home.” She looked at me, her head cocked slightly to one side. “So, you’re studying Physics at Cambridge.”
“I’m about to start my second year.”
“Well done, Willi. You’ve kept ahead of the pack then ... is that still causing problems?”
“Well, I haven’t had a Peter Farquar recently.” I pulled a face at the memory, “but I still really don’t fit in.”
Ginnie looked a bit flustered, remembering the attention she had inadvertently drawn on me that lunchtime in Leipzig and changed the subject again. “Do you still have that German girlfriend ... ummm ... Lili was it?” She picked up her teacup, sipping the hot tea carefully.
I couldn’t control the tension that stiffened my body and I saw Ginnie’s eyes widen.
“Willi, what is it?” The teacup paused, suspended in its return to the saucer.
“It’s ... complicated, Ginnie.” I closed my eyes, taking a few breaths, clinging to the cliff face of control.
The teacup clinked on the saucer and I felt a hand on mine, then a soft, intimate voice. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
Ginnie had been my companion and became a supportive friend during our trip and I felt she was owed the truth.
“Lili wasn’t my girlfriend and she wasn’t German.”
“What? ... Wasn’t?”
“I’m sorry, but I had to lie.” I looked at her face, seeking forgiveness. “Lili was my – our – friend. She was Polish and it was her that was teaching Col and I Polish.” I took a deep breath. “She was killed in a car crash with all the rest of her family just before Christmas a couple of years ago.”
“Oh, Willi. That’s terrible.” I could see the questions queuing up in her eyes.
“Col was my German girlfriend. She was from Leipzig – she and her mother had defected when she discovered that her husband was a Nazi war criminal.”
“Was ... not her too?” I could see the horror on Ginnie’s face.”
“No – at least I don’t think so.” I breathed deeply for a moment. “Ten days after we got back from Germany, both she and her mother disappeared. MI6 think they were kidnapped back to the DDR. Col’s father is a senior officer in the Stasi – the east German secret police.”
Ginnie sat there, her tea forgotten.
I could feel my old brain struggling for control. “And I think I somehow betrayed her when we were in the DDR.” My voice betrayed the anguish I was feeling.
“Betrayed her? How?” I could hear the disbelief in her voice.
I shook my head. “I don’t know – I’ve been over everything we did, everything I talked about and I can’t think of anything ... except...” I dribbled to a halt, my throat constricting.
Ginnie stroked my hand. “Except?”
“At the opera reception, do you remember a tall greying, man talking to me?”
“Ummm – vaguely.”
“That was Col’s father – Oberstleutnant Schmidt, second in command of the Leipzig Stasi office.” I fought a breath against the constriction in my chest. “Fräulein Hartmann introduced me to him, I think because of my interest in the Physics department of the University. He must have had me investigated and found Col and Mutti Frida.”
I could see Ginnie’s face changing as realisation struck her. “Oh, no. Fräulein Hartmann was there at that lunch, when I drew all that attention to you.” She slumped back in her chair. “It’s my fault she introduced you to him.”
“I don’t think so.” I shook my head, trying to convince her she had no blame in this. “I think it was me showing off my knowledge of Physics at the university that was the reason. After ... after they disappeared, I received a package of information about the Institut für theoretische Physik.“
Ginnie looked at me for a moment and then dropped her eyes, fiddling with her teacup. Then she looked up. “And ... you were in love with her, weren’t you?”
I nodded. I could feel tears in the corner of my eyes. “I still am.”
Ginnie looked at me for a few seconds.
“Come on, Willi. We’ll go for a walk in Hyde Park ... like we did in the Tiergarten.“
The rain had stopped but it looked like it could start again at any time. Ginnie retrieved a folding umbrella from her bag and we smiled at the similarity with our walk in West Berlin. As we walked along the wet paths, Ginnie told me about her desire to qualify and then specialise in obstetrics and I invited her to come and visit us in Leicester and meet my mother. We exchanged student addresses before we parted.
“Are you all right, Willi?” Memories of me nearly losing it at that lunch in Leipzig were in her eyes.
I gave her a grim smile. “Mostly. When it gets difficult, I just concentrate harder on my studies.”
“Stay in touch, please Willi.” She gave me a gentle hug.
I nodded, finding no words.
As I walked back down to South Kensington tube station, I realised I had now spread my guilt about Col and Mutti Frida to Ginnie. What sort of a friend was I?
For the rest of my time in London I drifted, memories of our trip to the DDR assailed my dreams and waking thoughts, so I spent those days in a sort of fog, not really experiencing the capital at all. After a couple of days back in Leicester I returned to Cambridge for my second year of studies to find a chatty letter from Ginnie which helped me settle back into the life I was living.
Everyone had said that the second year of the degree program was heavy going – and that proved quite correct. I was very glad I’d been through the textbooks during the vacation as that kept the workload reasonable, for me at least. That was certainly not true for everyone and I was able to provide help to some of my peers, which by Christmas had earned me grudging respect and envy in about equal proportions.
I found Christmas itself very difficult – my best Christmas memories were the two celebrations I had enjoyed at Col’s house. But their soft glow also cast long shadows of pain and guilt as the faces of Col, Mutti Frida and Lili peopled my dreams and waking thoughts; there were so many ‘if only’ thoughts. I escaped back to Cambridge as quickly as possible and buried myself in study, the only thing that seemed worthwhile in my life.
The catastrophic capsule fire of Apollo 1 in January 1967 occurred as I remembered, so I decided to risk another hundred pounds that things would turn out in this world as they had in my old one. The odds had shortened to 500:1 though, despite the recent tragedy. But that restatement of a belief in my future helped provide some continued direction to my life beyond study. I didn’t know what I would do, but I was making a commitment to be there and to do ... something.
Ginnie and I had exchanged a few letters and she invited me to stay at their farm for a week over Easter. We both had a heavy load of work, revising for the end of year exams, so our forays amongst the cows were punctuations in the time we spent sitting at her parents dining room table studying, frequently talking in German. I found the memories this evoked quite challenging and Ginnie sensed this. During a longer walk around the farm she gently encouraged me to talk, extracting the story of the homework club I had shared with Col and Lili. By the time we wound our way back to the farmhouse I was feeling less tense.
I complemented her on her bedside manner and she blushed. The green shoots of confidence I had first seen during our trip to the DDR had definitely burgeoned and blossomed. At the end of the week, we travelled up to London together on the train, talking only German for practice, which caused a few sideways looks from people around us. We parted at Paddington, Ginnie heading for her shared house and me across London for a Cambridge train.
I ended my second undergraduate year with excellent results and left for Leicester with the books I would need for my final year’s study. These kept me occupied along with picking up a part time job cleaning four days a week in the canteen of a shoe factory. I hated that job, but it was all I could find. I had to be there at eight o’clock in the morning to clean up after breakfast, then help set up for lunch and clean after that; then get set up for tea if the factory was working overtime on a rush job or for breakfast if not. The canteen was redolent with the aroma of boiled cabbage and no matter how hard I scrubbed, every surface seemed to retain a patina of grease that made my skin crawl with revulsion. I felt the need for a bath every day when I returned home. My old brain would have preferred a shower, but they were very uncommon in English houses back then. Still, the work replenished my finances for my final undergraduate year, a very important consideration.
In late October 1967, early in my final undergraduate year, my tutor inquired what I intended to do next. He intimated that there might be a place for me as a graduate student at the Cavendish Laboratory, should I maintain my current high undergraduate standing, which I had every intention of doing.
I went home for Christmas pondering this offer, trying to decide what I wanted for the rest of my life from this, my second time around. I had left my world in 2020, a year that had seen Australia savaged by the effects of climate change: widespread coral bleaching, a deepening drought, horrific bushfires and finally floods. Perhaps I could use my growing expertise in Physics to work on ways reduce emissions: I would take up the Cavendish post if it was offered and otherwise find somewhere else to commence postgraduate studies.
With the award of a First in June 1968, the hint from the Cavendish Laboratory became a firm offer and in October I would join the Cavendish as a very junior member of a team chasing the ever-receding dream of fusion power, which in my world had still not born fruit by 2020. I had the advantage of knowing what was showing promise in 2020 and could introduce the idea of braided magnetic field confinement and renew the flagging interest in Stellarators: perhaps that would be enough to tip the balance. For my supervising professor, I had expressed an interest in working on the plasma instability problem in Tokamaks and would work to refine this to a thesis once I started there in late September.
The implosion of the Soviet empire in late the summer of 1968 as I transitioned into my postgraduate studies was almost unbelievable, but I recalled those discussions with the FDJ, so perhaps not so incredible – even if twenty years earlier than I expected.
It started with a very black day in mid-August: the Soviets rolled their tanks into Prague to suppress Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring – an event I recalled from my old world but had forgotten about until it occurred. But differences soon became apparent.
The invasion sparked demonstrations in Poland that grew as unions joined the students on the street, fearing that the loosening bonds happening in Poland would lead to a similar suppression. Within days, the demonstrations spread to the Baltic states, DDR, Hungary and Rumania. Only the USSR and Tito’s Yugoslavia remained, at least outwardly, calm. The Soviets and the various Warsaw Pact governments were immobilised by indecision in the face of massive and spreading dissent – and that emboldened the Czechs, who surged onto the streets one sunny Sunday morning five days after the invasion.
Western media carried TV footage of Czech students holding hands and dancing round the Russian tanks, inviting the soldiers to join them, which increasingly some did. In the DDR, protesters marched to the Wall in Berlin and overnight demolished large sections, helped by some of the guards whilst others watched, bemused by events. Demonstrations started on the streets of Moscow, Kiev and several other Soviet cities, with banners demanding freedom. Within days, one by one, the governments of the Warsaw pact countries resigned, collapsing like dominos led by the DDR. In Russia, the authorities called out the army to clear the streets but almost en masse the army joined with the demonstrators and the Soviet era was over. Those young people I had met in Dresden and Leipzig had achieved their open society – they now needed to sort out what that meant.
Slowly, order returned to eastern Europe and information leaked out that the Soviets had tried to make the other Warsaw pact countries participate in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but they had all refused. In Germany, east and west looked at one another over what was now a meaningless border – and started moves to reunify their divided country, awakening historical fears in England and France.
I had no idea what had happened to Col and Mutti Frida, but I suspected that I might be able to pick up something that would help me find them in Leipzig. As things settled during the autumn, I thought about a holiday in Leipzig over Christmas. But it didn’t happen, in part because graduate students are the slave labourers of their professor’s research and that made it difficult get away, but mostly because I was afraid: afraid that if I went, I would not find Col and if I did, that she would reject me because of my betrayal. This guilt and fear pinned me in England, furious with myself for my cowardice but too ashamed and afraid to go and try to find her.
All of this boiled over on New Year’s Eve, when our neighbours, also students in a shared house, had a party. They invited our house not because we were particular friends but because that way we wouldn’t complain about the noise. My young body was not used to alcohol and I got very drunk before my old brain realised there was a problem. I have a vague recollection of being taken home and tossed into bed. The hangover when I finally stumbled out to the toilet did not help the darkness that was rising in my mind, but it did physically incapacitate me so I could not put into action the ending I was contemplating.
I spent New Year’s day mostly in bed and the sleeping continued into the night. I was dragged out of bed about ten o’clock the following morning when Jim, one of my house-mates, banged on my door, yelling I had a visitor and I’d better get downstairs quickly. I scrambled into some clothes, wondering who could possibly be coming to visit me, and stumbled downstairs to find Ginnie sitting coolly at the kitchen table, being chatted up by a couple of my house-mates.
“Goodness gracious, Willi. You look a bit under the weather.”
I blinked, finding it hard to summon any sort of enthusiasm. “Umm ... I overdid New Year a bit.” I looked blankly at her. “What are you doing here?”
She gave me a curious look. “Visiting you. Didn’t you get my letter - again?”
I shook my head. “‘Fraid not ... it must be held up in all the Christmas post.”