Welcome to the final chapter of my sometimes heart-rending and emotional (sorry) novel Christobel. The action is now in 2016, with more momentous and divisive events soon to happen in Europe, from Britain’s point of view anyway. Although it’s still not quite the end of the story of Christobel; there’s an epilogue to come.
If you would prefer to start at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive. It’s the last post on the list. Then read each successive post on from there, except the one entitled Unwelcome to Britain? which is a diversionary rant on my part about one of the possible consequences of Brexit.
The last day of March, twenty-sixteen. Having been a model prisoner, impeccably behaved, Chris had gone through the release-from-prison-early procedure. Almost a free man again, he was sitting in the discharge suite waiting for a final meeting with Gunther Braun. Why such a thing was necessary was beyond him, but still. He assumed it was just efficient German bureaucracy operating, not quite willing to let him go just yet.
At least his erstwhile lawyer didn’t keep him waiting though. Braun bustled in on the stroke of ten thirty. He shook hands, beamed, sank into a chair beside Chris. There was no dividing table now. Well, only a small circular one, upon which Braun dropped his attaché case. ‘How are you today, Mr Benson?’
Chris grinned. ‘Well, no disrespect, but very happy to be leaving.’
‘Yes, I am sure you are.’ He came straight to the point. ‘I am required to ask you, just as a formality, one or two questions about your time spent here.’
‘Oh, really? What are they?’
‘Well firstly, have you any complaints about your care here – given that you would obviously rather not have been here in the first place?’
Chris smiled again. ‘No, not really. Yes, it’s been an experience I would rather have done without, but no; no complaints.’
‘Good. And were you satisfied with the quality of your state-appointed defence?’
‘Er, yes. I thought you spoke very well for me, considering that I’d confessed, basically. And you were really just trying to paint my motives in the best light, weren’t you?’
Braun looked mildly relieved, as if he’d passed some sort of inspection or been spared the bother of a tiresome complaint procedure.
‘Yes, that was the essence of it. The crime wasn’t in question. Cases like this are always complex, as they in some ways aren’t black and white.’
‘No,’ Chris said, ruefully.
‘Well I must say, Mr Benson,’ Braun said, smiling again, ‘you have certainly been a model client. Unlike many of the people I find myself defending. Many of them would – what is your English expression now – “sell their own grandmother,” to be truthful.’
‘Mm, like a lot of the people in here. I tried to keep well away from them.’
‘Yes, very wise. But you are intelligent enough not to allow yourself to fall under bad influence.’
‘Well, I’d like to think so.’
Braun became serious. ‘I do not know whether you have been following the news in here, but the Bundestag has now passed the Assisted Dying Bill. It passed into law last November. So now, in common with some other countries, like Switzerland, Canada, Japan and some American states, it is perfectly lawful to help people to die if it is absolutely clear that they wish it.’
‘Yes, but there is a clear distinction between helping, for example placing a beaker of barbiturate in someone’s hands for them to swallow and do the deed themselves, and actively doing it, like Hans Neumann did, by injection, or other means. That is still regarded as euthanasia and is still illegal. And it is illegal even to assist the person to do it themselves if money is involved, so the regulations are still quite tight.’
‘I see. So what Hans, Andreas and I did is still illegal and we would still have had to go to trial, even now?’
‘Yes, that is so, I am afraid. Perhaps one day the public mood will change again and demand full euthanasia, with robust safeguards, as in countries like The Netherlands or Belgium, but not at the moment. In some respects, it is still a slightly grey area.’
‘Mm. Well anyway, it’s a bit ironic that I found myself on trial here when my great-great-grandmother, who was also a nurse, did too. Well, not here exactly, but in Belgium.’
Braun’s ears pricked. ‘Oh? When was that?’
Chris suddenly realised where the conservation might head. ‘Er . . . during World War One . . .’
Braun smiled. ‘It is all right, you need not be embarrassed. It is a very long time ago. And only the female line of my family is German, as a matter of fact. You are talking about the occupation of Belgium then?’
‘Well that is a coincidence, that you have a forebear who was also a nurse. In fact, two of mine were also lawyers during that period: my grandfather Thomas Braun and my great-grandfather Alexandre Braun. They were Belgian. I am only German because my father settled in Germany in the nineteen sixties, marrying my German mother, and I was born here.’
‘Yes. I have researched my male ancestors and discovered that they were involved in defending your World War One heroine Edith Cavell and her associates on charges of treason and espionage in nineteen fif – ’
Chris interrupted, ‘No!’
Braun looked puzzled. ‘Yes. Thomas was originally going to defend Edith Cavell but was dismissed by the authorities from doing so, but his father Alexandre did defend two aristocratic ladies. I forget their names now. Why do you say no?’
‘Well this is amazing!’ Chris said. ‘My great-great-granny Christobel worked for Edith Cavell in Brussels and got involved in the escape network she ran. I know this because she – Christobel I mean – kept a diary and recorded it all. I read it a couple years ago, before, er, this happened.’
Now it was Gunther Braun’s turn to be incredulous. He stared at Chris open-mouthed. ‘Well that is astonishing!’ He paused. ‘But wait; yes, I think I remember that name from reading about the trial. Well, it was not a proper trial, just a military tribunal, and very badly conducted at that. If I remember correctly, only Edith Cavell and two men were shot in the end, although six were originally given the death penalty, and most of the rest were given prison with hard labour. What was your great-great-grandmother’s surname?’
‘Farley. She was Christobel Farley.’
‘Farley. Farley.’ Braun repeated the name, trying to dredge it from memory. ‘Ah, yes. That is right. I think I remember reading that she was one of the alleged ringleaders and was sent to Siegburg Prison here in Germany.’
‘Yes. She thought she was going to get the death penalty too but in the end it was only prison with hard labour. Although that was bad enough, the way she wrote about it. She might have died from typhoid while she was in there but managed to survive. But unfortunately my great-great-grandfather didn’t. Not typhoid; he was one of the three who were shot.’
‘Oh? I don’t remember an Englishman being tried.’
‘No, he wasn’t – English, I mean. He was a Belgian: Henri Pascal. He and Christobel weren’t married, although they had a son, Jacques, my great-grandfather. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today telling you this, of course.’
Braun looked grave. ‘No, you would not. Well I am very sorry about your great-great-grandfather. Those were terrible times. Terrible. And justice was very harsh.’ He smiled wryly. ‘I would like to think that my country is much more enlightened now.’
Chris smiled. ‘Yes, I think my trial and sentence were very fair.’
‘Mm. Well hopefully Europe will never again descend into such madness. We have had peace for over seventy years now, due in no small part to the EU. But I hope Britain does not decide to leave when you have your referendum in June.’
‘Well, I shouldn’t think that’s very likely,’ Chris said.
The trial and subsequent meting out of justice were already a thing of the past. To his enormous relief, Chris had been re-employed at the Klinikum, his criminal record notwithstanding – although he was banned from entry to the pharmacy. But then most nursing staff were now. Since the case, the hospital had tightened its procedures as far as access to drugs was concerned. Not that, Chris had reflected ruefully, they need have been at all anxious about him. Not now.
On June the twenty-sixth, three days after Britain’s EU referendum, they visited Andreas and Birgit for Sunday lunch. Of course there was only one subject of conversation. Holding forth over the Bratwurst, Andreas was in expansive, financial-commentator mood.
‘Well, Chris; your Brexit result was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it?’
Chris hated trying to combine eating with conversation. He had never fully mastered the art of speaking fluently whilst simultaneously stoking his mouth. Dinner party competence was not his forte. He gulped a piece of sausage down. ‘Yes, I suppose it was. It wasn’t what they were forecasting, I don’t think.’
‘No, my paper did not predict it either. And now you are left without a Prime Minister and a very uncertain future. I am sorry to say it, but I do think the people who voted Leave have been sold a lie – well, a series of them, actually. That three hundred and fifty million pounds per week on the side of a bus for your health service; no more immigration of nasty foreigners; new trading deals struck around the world to replace all the trade you could lose from waving goodbye to a huge trading bloc on your doorstep; to name but three. I am sorry to appear critical of your fellow-countrymen and women, Chris, but I do think they are experiencing a sort of collective, self-destructive madness, and have caused a lot of bad feeling here.
‘When the EU begins to negotiate the terms of leaving with Britain, it will make sure that it will be disadvantageous for you to do so, otherwise the rot will set in and everyone else will want to leave too. And then where will we be? Back to square one and a disparate collection of, all right, fully sovereign states, although for most practical purposes we already are, with all the dangers of returning to the bad old days of nationalism and insularity and my-country-right-or-wrong.’
He paused to take another mouthful. Chris said, ‘Yes, well I don’t understand economics really, Andreas, but I suppose you’re right. I do know about the Health Service though. It seems they’ve already backtracked on that and admitted it won’t happen. I think that’s absolutely scandalous. And I don’t know who they mean by “immigrants”. They’re already quite tightly controlled from the rest of the world anyway, so I suppose they mean EU workers should be restricted too. But our health service relies on them heavily. It certainly did when I was working back in England, and I don’t suppose the staffing position has got any better since.’
Andreas resumed. ‘Yes, well that’s one of the four pillars of EU membership; free movement of labour. It’s mutually beneficial. After all, you are working over here, aren’t you? You have had the perfect right to, and to settle here, perhaps in a permanent relationship with someone.’ He grinned slyly at Frieda. ‘And vice-versa of course. For all its other faults, that has been one of the really civilising aspects of the European Project, and arguably has done a lot to keep the peace all these years.’
‘Yes, that is what worries us,’ Frieda put in. ‘The residency aspect. At the moment Chris is entirely free to work and live here with me, and I can do the same in Britain. But what will happen after Britain is no longer in the EU? Will either Germany or Britain still welcome the other’s nationals? Or nationals as partners?’
‘Indeed,’ said Andreas. ‘Or even spouses or children? I can imagine things becoming very messy, with possibly families being split up. It could become very inhumane. I am afraid your Ukip and other populist politicians have really opened Pandora’s Box. A lot of evils could be released into the world. There have already been reports of hate crime; of perfectly innocent foreign-looking, or sounding, people being abused and told to go home. Do we never learn from history? It is all rather depressing.’
‘Yes it is,’ said Chris. He looked at Frieda. ‘Well, we’ll just have to keep a careful eye on things I suppose. See which way the wind is blowing and make plans accordingly.’
‘Yes,’ Frieda agreed.
Chris’s gran, Pam, came to stay for a week. It was the first time she’d seen her grandson since his release from prison and was dying to see him. It wasn’t an ideal visit as Chris, having rejoined the Klinikum only fairly recently, had built up no holiday entitlement. But Frieda took a week of hers, so Pam wasn’t left alone in the apartment. The two women would be able to have a high old time, sightseeing and shopping and visiting Birgit, whom Pam was eager to meet, and female-centric pursuits like that.
Chris and Frieda met the beaming Pam off the train and they brought her back to the apartment. Over a nice cup of revivifying English tea, she declared herself pleased to see the couple reunited and, looking around approvingly, well impressed by their domestic situation. With her usual slightly blundering near-tactlessness, she said that it had been a terrible situation for Chris and Andreas and that other poor young man who was still in jail paying for his supposed crime. She couldn’t see why they had been found guilty at all, if all they’d done was help a desperate suffering old man die when he wanted to. It was what she wanted when her time came, if things looked as though they might be unpleasant, she said stoutly.
Chris told her about the remarkable coincidence of his defending lawyer’s ancestor defending at great-great- grandma Christobel’s trial. Her mouth formed a perfect O of surprise. ‘Really, darling? Well isn’t that just amazing! That there should be a link between what you’ve been through and that other terrible business all those years ago.’ She glanced quickly at Frieda to check for inadvertent offence-causing, but Frieda simply smiled; said, ‘Yes, it is extraordinary, isn’t it?’
Pam looked relieved. ‘Oh, talking about Granny Christobel: I’ve brought something for you. There was one last diary of hers that I didn’t give you before. I discovered it when I was spring cleaning the flat but wasn’t sure whether I could send it while you were in prison, darling.’
Chris’s eyes lit up. ‘Oh, wonderful, Gran. Great; thanks!’
Pam heaved herself off the sofa and went to her bags; unzipped one of them. Rummaged around and brought out a well-worn blue rexine-covered book with Diary gold-blocked in informal script across the top. Beneath it was a pasted-on paper label framed with flowers rendered in somewhat splodgy watercolour and the time span written in a familiar but now wavery copperplate: September 1959 – . Someone had added, less elegantly, 1st January, 1963. She handed it to Chris, who gazed at it reverentially. ‘I can’t wait to read the rest of her story. I thought she’d just lost interest in writing in the late fifties.’
‘No, not at all. This is the last of her diaries. The last entry she made was on the first of January; she felt too weak to write any more after that. My mum completed the label on the front – not very expertly, as you can see. She died in her sleep on the seventh.’
‘Aah,’ Frieda murmured.
‘So how old was she, Gran?’ Chris wondered.
‘Mm; that’s a good innings.’
‘Yes,’ Frieda agreed, although slightly unsure what Chris meant.
‘Well she certainly had an eventful life, which nearly got cut short at one point – no, two really: first in nineteen fifteen and then again in seventeen, with the typhoid. But at least she didn’t get the flu that came after the first war, so that was something.’
‘Yeah. That would have been too cruel, to have died from that after surviving everything else. So what finally carried her off; do you know?’
Pam sighed. ‘Mum said it was her heart. Perhaps weakened by her time in prison. But yes, she had a good long life, all the same.’
‘Yes, she did,’ Frieda agreed again.