Metro Mensch in Berlin
Story by Tann vom Hove, Illustration by Manuel Ferrari


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Father and Son
Michael’s eventual release from this hospital will depend as much on changed attitudes among my colleagues as on your husband’s mental recovery, Dr Esvenciano Este told Erika Schreiber on their first meeting. We must strive to achieve both.

That was six years ago. Dr Este had just become director of Berlin’s secure psychiatric hospital. His predecessor, an eminent professor, had always insisted that Michael Schreiber would never be allowed back into the community. Drawing on comments made by the judge at Michael’s trial, the professor dismissed any chances of substantial improvements. Your husband is very sick and his delusions will always be a threat to young families.

Some 14 years earlier, Michael and Erika Schreiber too were a young family. They had met at a law conference, fallen in love and not waited long to get married. Soon afterwards, Jon was born.

But one Saturday afternoon, driving out to the Spree Forest, Michael’s thoughtless overtaking manoeuvre changed their lives. Jon was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, both parents walked away unscathed.

For a few weeks after the accident, Michael and Erika were forced into a new routine. Between visits from family and friends, they spent hours with the police and even more time with their lawyers. Then Michael disappeared.

The police issued a warrant for his arrest while also searching the woods and lakes around Berlin for his body. Erika did not believe in Michael’s suicide. He has probably gone to London, where had he spent a year studying, she told her mother. But telephone calls to London friends brought no news.

Erika was in bed, mildly sedated, when Michael let himself into the apartment. He smiled, kissed her. She was too tired to ask questions but glad to feel his body again. His fingers drew circles on her breasts.

Rays of sunlight, the smell of coffee and baby babbling woke her up the next morning. Erika enjoyed a few unreal moments of contentment before running screaming into the kitchen. Michael was changing the boy’s nappies, a bottle of baby milk stood in a saucepan of warm water. We will be happy again, was all he said.

Erika waited almost two weeks before she went to the police. Michael had explained how he flew to Cologne, stayed in a cheap hotel near the Cathedral. In some bar he started to talk to a young guy who was about to be drafted into the army. They met again the next day and the day after over beer and shish kebab. The guy told Michael about his 16-year old girlfriend, the squat they lived in and his baby boy. Michael met the mother, a skinny girl, who found it hard to focus. The baby needed feeding and changing. Michael took care of both.

The girl wanted to be paid in dollars. German notes can be traced, she said. Michael offered five thousand and eventually gave her eight. Two days later he was back in Berlin.

Michael was Michael again. Cleaning the apartment wearing only boxer shorts, talking about skiing in Austria and joking about German politicians. Erika had told her office, she needed time off. Her boss agreed. After all, it was only six weeks since the car crash. The kitchen cupboards were still full of baby stuff. Jon’s room had been left untouched.

For ten days Erika lived Michael’s dreams, even believed in them. Then the TV news reported a baby snatch in Cologne. Michael was still in boxer shorts when the police came. Three social workers took the baby away. Nobody bothered about Erika.

Before the start of his trial Michael cut his wrists. For the public prosecutor it was a sign of guilt. The jury agreed with him. You have shown no remorse, the judge told Michael. You are a threat to young parents and their children and will therefore be imprisoned for a very long time.

Michael started his sentence in a prison unit for sex offenders but was transferred to Berlin’s secure psychiatric hospital after his mind shut him off from the outside world. He still remembered every detail of skiing in Austria but failed to recognise Erika. In his sleep he talked to his baby boy.

Erika Schneider began work for a new law firm. Over the years she became successful and made money. Friends suggested she should resume her maiden name. She said, no. She could have divorced, but she didn't. All her relationships seemed like one-night stands.

Michael’s case was reviewed after the boy’s mother confessed that there was no snatch. In a paid interview for a women’s magazine she described how she met Michael and how she handed her baby over to him. She couldn’t remember how much Michael had paid her. She lied at the trial, she said, to protect her good name.

Despite the new evidence, three review judges, supported by psychiatric experts, refused to change Michael’s sentence. They argued that he had still not come to terms with Jon’s death and, if released, was likely to seek to obtain another baby.

Shortly after the review trial, Dr Este was appointed director of Michael’s psychiatric hospital.

*

The coffee was already poured when Erika Schreiber was shown into Dr Este’s office. Over the years it had become a ritual to begin each consultation with a cup of black coffee drunk from small white Rosenthal cups. Sometimes he would offer thin almond biscuits sent by his mother from Verona.

Frau Schneider - the relationship between Dr Este and Michael’s wife had remained formal – as I wrote to you, our medical board has agreed to my recommendation to allow your husband to live with you. Of course, there will be strict supervision and our decision will be reviewed in six months. Michael’s state of mind cannot be normalised; it can only managed. Much will depend on you. Erika understood. Our main concern still is, Dr Este explained, that your husband believes Jon to be a young man now. And he insists on meeting his son.

In my report, Esvenciano Este continued, I suggested that instead of fighting your husband’s delusion we should cooperate. I have in mind engaging a young actor to play your son. As you would expect, some of my colleagues are totally opposed to the idea, but I believe that, after 20 years in this hospital, Michael deserves that we take some risks. The final decision is naturally yours.

Michael was to be told that his son had flown over from Boston where he studied. He would stay in Berlin for four weeks before going back to America.

During the past two years, Erika had met Michael regularly, often more than once a month. Mostly they walked in the hospital gardens or ate together in the visitors’ café. At first they talked little. It was at a visit in January - some patients had built a snowman - when Erika saw Michael smile for the first time since his arrest. She had pointed out the snowman to him.

Do you remember the snowman you built outside our chalet in Austria? It had snowed heavily during the night and you got up early. When I opened the curtains, there was that two-metre tall snowman clutching a sign, Will you marry me?

Michael remembered and briefly touched Erika’s hand.

A theatrical agent, Dr Este described him as an acquaintance, had suggested three actors who might be suitable to play Jon. Erika looked briefly at their photographs. Would Jon have looked like them? Do you wish to interview them, Dr Este asked. No, you choose.

Hans Kieler arrived unannounced. He wishes to talk to you about Michael Schreiber. Show him in, Dr Este told his PA. He must be one of the actors, but he should have made an appointment.

Dr Este pointed to the aesthetically designed but uncomfortable looking leather chair. His visitor sat down. The interviews were scheduled for this afternoon, but since you are here….Hans Kieler did not understand. I came to talk to you about Michael Schreiber. I know, but your agent should not have given you his name. I have no agent. You are an actor, here to play his son…? No! I am his son…in a way.

Now Dr Este did not understand. You are his son…in what way? I am the boy Michael Schreiber took from my mother twenty years ago.

When I was fourteen, I read the interview my mother gave. I didn’t know then she was my mother. The story was also on the front page of the Bild Zeitung and most TV channels showed clips of Michael Schreiber and his wife. My foster parents became very angry. They sent me to my room, told me not to go to school the next day. When two photographers took pictures outside our house, the police came and drove us to Darmstadt, forty kilometres away.

Of course, I understood we were somehow connected with the baby snatch that wasn’t. Relentlessly, I asked the same questions, making my mother cry and my father shout. After a few days two social workers came. I was upstairs. They argued with my parents. Don’t tell him, I heard my father plead. He is too young.

He needs to know before journalists get to him, the social workers insisted. I was called downstairs. Through the window I saw my father trying to light a cigarette in the garden, he had given up smoking nine months earlier. My mother hoovered the kitchen.

Then I was told.

We moved back to Frankfurt after a few months. Normality returned. I finished school, opted for hospital work instead of one year in the army and started university in Berlin.

Now I would like to meet the man who named me Hans. You knew that I did not have a first name when my real parents met Michael Schreiber. Dr Este did not know but the name made sense. Hans and Jon, both short for Johannes.

Michael Schreiber is about to be released. I will have to talk to his wife before I can give you a decision. I will wait. Hans Kieler stood up, Dr Este walked him to the lift.

Are you prepared to take an even greater risk, Dr Este asked Erika a few minutes after Hans had left.

Then he telephoned the theatrical agent. We do not need an actor after all.

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