Artist: Terry Aspin
Reprint: Tina Topstrip #52 as Achter het stille gordijn (Behind the Silent Curtain)
Yvonne Berridge lives for cycling and is a promising champion in the sport. But she is a selfish girl who thinks only of winning. When Yvonne is offered the chance of being reserve on the British team to a cycling tour in Mavronia, an Iron Curtain country, all she thinks about is getting there and winning medals, and does not care about the financial difficulties the trip is causing her family. As Yvonne takes off for Mavronia, her mother gets an awful feeling – which of course proves prophetic.
Meanwhile, the Mavronian cycling star, Olga Marcek, is despairing. Her trainer, Madam Kapelski, is a slave driver who pushes her too hard and gives her no rest, relaxation or fun. And Olga bears a striking resemblance to Yvonne; just a couple of small differences can tell them apart.
There is more prophetic warning when Yvonne arrives in Mavronia. A gypsy woman keeps approaching her with warnings of danger and she must leave quickly. Yvonne is shaken, but her selfishness soon resurfaces.
Yvonne’s arrogance and selfishness do not make her popular with her team-mates. She soon wins successes, but this makes her more arrogant and unpopular. Her arrogance also upsets her trainer, Mr Foster, and it does not go unnoticed by Madam Kapelski either. And she is so caught up in herself that she does not bother to write to her family.
When Yvonne and Olga meet, they are stunned by their near-resemblance to each other, but soon strike up a friendship. Yvonne does not realise that Madam Kapelski instructed Olga to do this; she is taking advantage of Yvonne’s arrogance as she realises Yvonne is the only one who could beat Olga. But Olga has an agenda of her own; she is taking advantage of Yvonne and their resemblance to each other to hatch a plan to escape from Mavronia. But Olga’s plan goes dreadfully wrong when a ship crashes into their boat while they are swapping identity papers.
The accident kills Olga while the shock renders Yvonne mute. So Madam Kapelski takes advantage of Yvonne’s inability to speak and resemblance to Olga. She alters Yvonne’s appearance to look exactly like Olga and forces her to pose as Olga and cycle for Mavronia. Olga’s body is buried in England in Yvonne’s name. Yvonne resists at first, but eventually complies when Madam Kapelski threatens her and Olga’s cousin Tanya (who has discovered the deception) with the dreaded State Home for Children of Dissidents. Tanya warns her not to tell even Olga’s cousin Igor what is going on because people ‘disappear’ in this country – and Madam Kapelski’s brother is in the secret police.
Nevertheless, Yvonne does not give up hope of escape. She refuses to let Madam Kapelski break her will, but Madam Kapelski realises it and becomes equally determined to break Yvonne. This is on top of her regular severity as a trainer that drove Olga too hard. So it is a constant battle of wills between them. Yvonne’s spirit refuses to break, but of course the ordeal is knocking the selfishness and arrogance out of her. She finds that cycling glory, which was all she cared about before, is now leaving her cold because she is getting it the wrong way. And the rebellion keeps fermenting with Igor wanting to rise up and Tanya warning him not to.
Tanya tells Yvonne Olga’s story. The Marcek parents were journalists who participated in a rebellion against the Party and went on the run when it failed. They were betrayed by an informer and then shot and left for dead by soldiers. Olga learned that her mother was rescued, nursed back to health and smuggled out of Mavronia. But by this time Olga was in the State Home for Children of Dissidents. Tanya’s own parents were executed for participating in the rebellion.
Yvonne spots the gypsy woman who tried to warn her before. She and Tanya contrive a plan for escape with the gypsies’ help. But it fails because Madam Kapelski’s police spy, Elsa, gets suspicious.
Then Madam Kapelski takes Yvonne and Tanya to England to participate in a cycling match against the British team. But she has an ulterior motive – use the sight of England and no hope of escape there to break Yvonne entirely. However, people who knew either Yvonne or Olga get suspicious, and this includes Igor. A strange woman in black starts shadowing Yvonne. Then Yvonne’s little brother Andy recognises her.
Tanya and Yvonne tell Andy the truth, but don’t know the room is bugged. So Madam Kapelski kidnaps Andy and holds him at the Mavronian embassy to blackmail Yvonne into winning an event. But the woman in black sees the kidnapping and rescues Andy.
When Madam Kapelski hears this, she panics. She has her goons try to kill Yvonne at the cycling event, but instead the shock of the attack restores Yvonne’s voice. She can now tell everyone what happened, only to find the police have been onto it already – with the help of the woman in black, who is Olga’s mother! Mrs Marcek had suspected Yvonne was not Olga, and her suspicions were confirmed once she talked to Igor.
Madam Kapelski is arrested, and also faces big trouble from the Mavronian government, who did not know about her passing Yvonne off as Olga. Yvonne is reunited with her family, Tanya stays in England with her aunt, and Igor returns to Mavronia to carry on the fight for freedom. The British team hold a party to celebrate Yvonne’s return. Yvonne declares that the returned Yvonne is a better team-mate than the one who went away.
From the moment we read the first episode, we know where this story is going to lead when we see that Yvonne is a selfish girl and the unfortunate Olga Marcek is almost a dead ringer for her. Yes, Yvonne is going to swap places with Olga, and it has something to do with her emerging a changed and better person by the end of the story. It’s just a matter of how the details unfold as the story develops.
There have been plenty of stories about unpleasant girls changing for the better. Sometimes they make poor stories because the change is not handled in a realistic manner. But in this case it is, and the beauty is that it does not come all at once in the story. In the early episodes her selfishness is given free rein and grows as it feeds off her successes while making her increasingly unpopular and causing trouble with her coach. But at the same time both Madam Kapelski and Olga notice it and are taking advantage of it in their different ways. It is the “pride before a fall” approach, with the pride going on an extra high.
Then comes the fall. When it strikes, the ordeal Yvonne goes through is more than a shock to the system. She has a terrible accident, then is kidnapped, held prisoner, forced to cycle in a deception, and frustrated by the loss of her voice and unable to call for help. But there is more; she also becomes victim to state oppression and has to learn to tread carefully if she is to survive. She now thinks of her family, fears she will never see them again, and regrets how she was so thoughtless about them before. And while she cycles as Olga, she now gets what she came to Mavronia – winning medals and receiving cycling glory. But instead of revelling in it as she did before, it leaves her cold. She has what she wanted but in. She finds she has lost her lust for glory and even has to fake it to fool Madam Kapelski. Ironically, the unruliness that was annoying before now becomes true courage as Yvonne refuses to let Madam Kapelski break her and commits acts of defiance.
A slave story where the captor takes advantage of a girl’s inability to speak (or remember her past) to blackmail her into fraud, crime or other subterfuge is a very well-established formula in girls’ comics. But here it is taken even further because it’s not just the usual matter of getting away from the villain and regaining your voice or memory. It’s a matter of getting away from the whole country, which is a repressive, Iron Curtain country where people ‘disappear’, and they get executed or thrown into oppressive institutions designed to provoke fear, as represented in the State Home for Children of Dissidents. It’s a far cry from what Yvonne is used to in the country where she comes from, and Tanya says as much. And there is no respite from the eyes of the state; once Yvonne is forced to impersonate Olga, she finds herself under constant, insidious guard of the state police and learns what it is like to be under Big Brother. And she is now like the people who live in that oppressive state and dream of escape to the West. Except that Yvonne’s case, the West is home.
At the time the story was published, the politics in it were very topical. The Cold War was still strong, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present, the Berlin Wall was still up, and people from the East were constantly trying to find ways to escape to the West. It looks more dated now that the Cold War has ended and the Berlin Wall long since demolished – or is it? The rise of Putin warns that the Cold War could resurface. The Soviet Union may be gone, but cases like Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace 30 show that Russia is still just as intolerant to political dissent as much as it was when this story came out. And there are still oppressive, totalitarian states in the world. So politics may change, but oppression and totalitarianism always persist one way or another.
And people who live under totalitarianism are made to suffer because the state cares little for their welfare. For example, women grumble at the expense paid on the place of sport where Yvonne is to compete, “yet how many of us ever taste meat?” We get to see a bit more of how oppressive this country is once Yvonne herself falls victim to it and finds out what happens to people who rise against it, such as the fate of Olga’s parents, or the children who are put in the State Home for Children of Dissidents. The Home, which seems to be a combination of harsh school and outright prison, would be worthy of a slave story in its own right.
It is the power of the totalitarian state that makes Madam Kapelski such a powerful villain. Girls’ comics have abounded with harsh, demanding coaches who drive their charges too hard and care little for their welfare (“Sheilagh’s Shadow”, June) or villains who kidnap girls and enslave them with sport (“Swim for Your Life, Sari”, Tammy). But few have been backed by the power of a totalitarian state – or at least the threat of it – to force their charges to do what they want. And no doubt it has played a huge role in shaping Madam Kapelski into a brilliant but ruthless coach who demands way too much and permits no rest, relaxation or fun. It is possible that this is how Mavronia itself treats its children. We see echoes of Madam Kapelski’s demanding attitudes in the teaching methods at the State Home for Children of Dissidents; they do not tolerate “slackness” and poor schoolwork means a night in the punishment room. And like the state itself, Madam Kapelski is intolerant; in England, when she hears The Who on the radio, she snarls, “these pop musicians would never be tolerated in Mavronia!” Inwardly, Yvonne retorts, “Don’t tolerate very much at all there, do you, Madam Kapelski?”
Although escape looks hopeless with the constant guard they are under, we know it has to happen. But there are so many threads and possibilities floating around in the strip we don’t know which one it will be. Will it be the gypsies who tried to warn Yvonne? Will it be the people who start to get suspicious when Yvonne is taken back to England? Will it be Yvonne’s mother, who never quite believed her daughter was dead and had premonitions that something awful was going to happen to her in the first place? And what about Olga’s mother, who escaped Mavronia? And how come nobody seems to try the British embassy in Mavronia? Oh, well.
It’s realistic that escape does not happen at once and hopes of escape are constantly dashed. Yvonne falls into despair and tears as each attempt fails, and Madam Kapelski is delighted. Her plan to break Yvonne seems to be working perfectly, and taking her back to England itself would be in her view a masterstroke. A return to England would raise Yvonne’s hopes to their fullest, so they would hit their crushing lowest as they are constantly dashed. But there were things that Madam Kapelski did not count on when she took Yvonne back to England, and this turned her masterstroke into her undoing.