|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.