Chapter 16 of Christobel. Chris’s story continues. Now charged with a debatable crime committed with the best of intentions and held on remand in prison, he awaits trial and judgement by his host country. His future is very uncertain.
I hope you are enjoying this serialisation. If you’d like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain?, which is not a book chapter. Thank you for reading my work!
Chris sat waiting in a visitors’ room of the Justizvollzugsanstalt, Osnabrück’s massive brooding red-brick prison. Finally, after three and a half interminable weeks of waiting, he was being granted a visit by Frieda. He had never felt so miserable, so anxious, so completely isolated in his life. Telephone contact wasn’t permitted as he was a remand prisoner and it had taken a seeming age to apply for a visit, unaware because of the lack of communication that she had been going through the same snail’s-pace process. But yesterday he had been told that she would be visiting today, for half an hour, under strict conditions that the case was not discussed in any way that might affect it. It would be supervised and only German-speaking allowed. Any infringement and she would be asked to leave.
Well, he didn’t mind that; anything to see her, even if they couldn’t touch, and anything to hear her voice, speaking any language. There was a clock high up on the wall, its minute hand taking forever to make its imperceptible way to three o’clock, although he’d only been waiting since five to. He watched the seconds counting down. Two minutes to three. One minute. Twenty seconds. Three o’clock. No Frieda. A minute past. Still no Frieda. A faint twinge of anxiety. But then the door opened on her side of the dividing table and there she was, being ushered in by a warder.
She sat as the warder stolidly took up station by the door, his arms folded, legs braced apart. Her face was careworn. Her dark-shadowed eyes, full of sadness, were on the table, avoiding his. He broke the silence. ‘Hi, Frie; it’s so good to see you.’ The welling of emotion, of relief, of gratitude for her presence, was threatening to choke off his words already.
The warder interrupted immediately. ‘Deutsch sprechen, bitte’.
She replied monosyllabically, as if begrudging words, ‘Hi.’ No name. No endearment.
Chris switched to German. ‘You okay?’
‘Yes, well . . .’
He felt a prick of irritation now. What did she have to be miserable about?
‘You’re not, are you?’
Frieda looked up now, her eyes cold. ‘Well, what do you think?’ The words were a barbed accusing arrow.
‘No; right. Of course not. This isn’t exactly a picnic for me, either, you know.’
‘No, I do not imagine it is, but then you didn’t have to do it, did you!’
‘But you don’t know what I did! Or rather didn’t do!’
She sighed heavily. ‘No, I don’t. You have done something with Vater and someone else to kill my Opa; that is all I know. You have done something behind my back, sneakily, although I don’t know how you got the opportunity. You were never alone with him. Although I suppose you could have sneaked off during the day to do . . . to do . . . something terrible, I don’t know what.’
‘I haven’t done anything terrible, Frei!’ Chris’s voice was rising, edged with anger. He caught himself; lowered it. ‘You know I refused your dad, when he asked me!’
‘Well the police must think they have got a good case against you for doing something, whatever it is, otherwise you wouldn’t be awaiting trial!’
‘Yeah, well it’s none of the horrible things you’re probably imagining, honestly. Come on, Frie; a little support would be rather welcome here!’
‘You are asking me for support?’ Frieda snapped, close to angry tears. ‘It has not been great for me either, you know: losing Opa and his body being seized for post-mortem, then the police turning up like that with their arrest warrant and taking you away, with no explanation, then finding Vater has been arrested too, and Mutter and I being left completely in the dark, not knowing what was going on. I am sorry, but I am having to spend what strength I have supporting Mutter. She is absolutely out of her mind with worry, and so am I!’
‘Okay Frie, I’m sorry,’ Chris said, chastened. ‘Please don’t be cross with me.’
Frieda snorted. ‘Why wouldn’t I be? It was no concern of yours, interfering in my family’s affairs!’
The warder cleared his throat. ‘Please do not discuss the case; it is not allowed. If you keep on, I will have to ask you to leave.’
‘Sorry,’ Frieda muttered, turning her head to him. She looked back at Chris. ‘All right. I am sorry too. Let’s talk about something else.’
‘Yes, okay.’ Chris searched his brain for another topic. ‘Er, have you or your mum visited your dad yet?’
She managed a wan smile. ‘Yes. Mutter and I saw him the day before yesterday.’
‘Ah, right. How is he? . . . Oh, sorry; stupid question. Not good, I suppose.’
‘No, not good. Obviously.’
‘And, er, have you had the funeral for your granddad yet?’
‘Yes, it was last Friday. We had to wait until the police would release the . . . release him back to us before we could complete the arrangements.’
‘I see. Did you have to do that then?’
‘Yes. Well, me and Kurt. We took the load off Mutter’s shoulders. She had quite enough to worry about without that.’
‘Yes. I’m sure.’
Frieda’s expression softened just a fraction. ‘And what about you? Does your grandmother know what’s going on?’
‘Yeah. I had a visit from some guy from the British embassy the other day. He was quite helpful, really. Said he’d be in contact with Gran, and he left me literature about the legal system, so I know what to expect. It sounds as though it’s quite different from the British system, with no jury or anything.’
‘Mm, that is so. And not like the American one either. Not like you see in the movies.’
‘No, apparently not. Gran wrote to me yesterday, so that was good, anyway. She was very concerned to put it mildly that I’d got into this situation, as I thought she would be. I really hate to worry her. And she mentioned something that had happened to Mick, an accident or something, but she didn’t go into details; said I’d got enough on my plate and would tell me later. That’s fair enough; it’s not as though us two are close. I’m going to write back to her later.’
‘Right. And what about a lawyer for you? Are you employing someone?’
Now it was Chris’s turn to smile bitterly. ‘I don’t know about “employing”. How can I do that, with no money? I gather the legal system’s very expensive over here. But then the law always is. The lawyer person I saw at the beginning, when I was charged, said that her firm could represent me, but it would have meant paying a hell of a lot upfront, which I just don’t have, and then a lot more later, and court costs too, unless I’m completely acquitted.’
‘Mm. So what are you going to do? You can’t defend yourself, surely.’
‘Well, apparently the court can appoint defence lawyers in cases of financial hardship, although you might still have to pay something. Perhaps it’ll be like a student loan or something, paying it off years later.’
Frieda sighed. ‘Yes, I suppose so. Oh, Chris, what a terrible mess you have got yourself into!’
‘Yes, Frie,’ Chris agreed. ‘I certainly have.’
They talked some more, lethargically, making small talk when really he longed to tell Frieda, who now seemed so hostile and alienated, of his role in the affair; longed to tell his side of the story and plead for understanding. But it seemed it couldn’t be done. It would have to wait for the trial: the public examination, the pubic parading of his misdemeanour, the signposting of his uncertain future, before any sort of forgiveness might be forthcoming.
And then, all too soon, the warder announced that the visit was over. Chris looked at the clock for its confirmation. Yes, it informed, it was indubitably three twenty-nine. There was clearly no latitude. Perhaps it was time for the warder’s drink break.
Frieda rose. Her expression was hard again. ‘Okay then, I’ll, er, see you.’
He got up too. Tried to will a smile from her stony face, a show of tenderness, of concern. But there was only a blank.
‘I don’t know why you came if you’re so angry with me,’ he said miserably.’
She sighed heavily. ‘No, I don’t either, really. Sort of sense of duty, or something, I suppose.’
‘Well thanks, anyway.’
‘You are welcome. Bye then,’ she said, and turned to leave the room, quickly, without looking back.
Four days later he was informed that he was getting another visitor: a court-appointed defending lawyer. The man who bustled into the interview room clutching a battered briefcase was middle-aged, short, corpulent and balding but immaculately attired in a grey pin-striped three-piece suit. The publicly-funded sector of the German legal system looked to be lucrative, if nothing else.
Chris rose. The lawyer proffered a chubby limp hand, smiled. ‘Hello Mr Benson. ‘I am Gunther Braun, your lawyer.’ He sat down with a wheezy sigh opposite, depositing his briefcase on the table and taking out notebook and pen.
‘This conversation is entirely between you and I, so would you prefer if we speak English? You might understand me better. Or are you fully fluent in German?’
‘Oh, right; yes please. No, I’m not very fluent yet.’
Braun smiled a slightly wintery smile and switched effortlessly to English. ‘Fine. That is good. Have you lived in Germany long?’
‘No, only three months. I’ve picked up quite a lot of the language – enough to get by in, anyway, but there are a lot of words I still don’t know.’
‘Yes, it takes a long time to become fully proficient.’ Braun glanced at his notes. ‘So; you work at the Schindler Klinikum as a nurse, I gather?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Although I suppose I’ve lost my job now, because of this.’
Gunther Braun smiled again. It seemed fairly sympathetic. ‘Well, not necessarily. Obviously it will be on hold at the moment, but it depends upon the outcome of the trial. Also obviously. If we get a full acquittal and you are completely exonerated, the hospital might look kindly on you, although it is an ethically complex case, I must admit. Like some crimes – if “crime” is the correct term – it is not entirely black-and-white and open to subjective opinion and personal morality on the part of the hospital authorities. It just depends on the particular people deciding your fate, really.’
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ Chris said unhappily.
‘Well, you can cross that bridge later, if necessary.’ Braun glanced at a paper he’d taken out of his briefcase. ‘Meanwhile, I’ve looked at the charge against you. I note that you exercised your right to silence at the original police interview. I presume you were advised to do that. It is fair enough in a nuanced case like this. Please take me through your version of events, being as frank as you can. I must warn you though; it will harm your prospects if you conceal things or are not entirely truthful with me.’
So Chris did so, opening up to the nodding, note-taking lawyer, blurting words out without care for how they might sound. It felt cathartic, a release; felt confessional again, as it had when he had bared his soul to Emilia Weber. It all came out, unchecked: his feeling that he was doing the right thing; his sympathy and compassion for Dieter Ernst; but his confusion now, his realisation or at least suspicion that the matter wasn’t really morally clear-cut. His regret about it now, anyway. And regret too that he’d probably ruined his career. And lost Frieda into the bargain. Ruined his future by one impulsive, well-meant act.
He finished speaking. Gunther Braun continued writing a little longer and then tapped his pen, reflecting. ‘Mm, as I have already said, it is complex. Assisted dying is a vexed and morally complicated question – in much the same way that abortion or genetic tampering with foetuses are, although in the case of abortion, public opinion generally is now largely settled on the matter. Unless you are strongly religious. I assume you are not, Mr Benson?’
Chris shook his head. ‘No, I’m not. Er, would that count against me?’
‘No, no. Your faith or lack of it is entirely your own business as far as the state is concerned. But I would imagine that you have a firm moral compass nevertheless, do you not? I get that impression, from what you have just told me. And you are a nurse, after all.’
‘Well, yes. I like to think so.’
‘And there is no way in which you did what you did for financial gain? You were not offered money at all?’
‘No, absolutely not!’
‘You would swear to that if you were accused of it in court?’
Braun smiled thinly. ‘Good, good. My feeling is that it isn’t so much a case of whether you did what you did – you are not denying it – but your motivation. The judges will take a negative view if it is shown that you did it for money but will be more inclined towards leniency if your motivation was entirely altruistic and compassionate.’
‘Well it was,’ Chris said, the pleading tone in his voice making it shrill. ‘It really was.’
‘Good,’ Braun repeated. ‘That gives us something to work with. As a matter of fact, it is almost a pity that you weren’t in this situation six months or so from now.’
‘Because there is some talk at the moment of an assisted suicide bill being put before the Bundestag. The proposal is for a liberalising of the law, making it legal provided that there is a clearly-expressed wish for it by the person concerned, with firm safeguards against exploitation of the vulnerable, and provided there is no financial gain involved. There could be no set-ups like Dignitas in Switzerland. Or pressurising to die by relatives eager to get their hands on inheritances.’
‘Oh, I see. Well that doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen in Britain any time soon. The last time it was voted on it was thrown out.’
‘No, well, what Britain does is up to her of course. This is not a matter that could ever be legislated upon in the European Union. It is an issue for individual governments, and quite rightly so.’
‘And do you think it’s likely it will become legal in Germany?’
Gunther Braun frowned, considering, as if he personally were being asked to make a judgement. ‘Yes, I think it’s quite likely, with the current political complexion of the Bundestag. And the general mood of the people is for it, I think. But with those caveats I have just mentioned. Of course there are always dissenters, particularly amongst some of the disabled community, who fear that it might be the thin end of a wedge. That is understandable, I suppose. But it would be up to the Bundestag to build in really robust safeguards. I do not think people need fear such a law, necessarily.’
‘Yes, that is why I say it is a pity this is not happening about nine months in the future. At the moment the law is vague, but if or when the proposed bill becomes law, things will be clearer.’
‘Well might it come in before I – we – go to trial?’
‘I think that is unlikely, knowing the slow pace at which legislation comes into being in Germany. If you were employing my firm on a private basis we might be able to delay things somewhat until it did using procedural devices, but there is less scope for doing that when we are court-appointed. I am sorry.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Is there anything else you want to ask me?’
‘Er, well, one thing. If I am found guilty and go to prison, would I be deported afterwards?’
Bauer frowned again. ‘Well, it depends on the severity of the sentence and whether you were considered an ongoing threat to German society. In that case yes, but otherwise no, not necessarily, if your behaviour in jail was impeccable and you obtained early release.’
‘Oh, right’, Chris said, morosely. Deported or not, the future looked bleak.