Chess with Hans

Aside from beating me at chess, he was also completely rational, so I had trouble figuring out why on earth he was a patient at Sankta Maria Hospital, especially on this locked ward.

 So, between moves (frowning slightly, he was considering his next) I asked: “What ails you?”

He studied the board for another three of four breaths, then made up his mind and moved his (black) rook three squares west—to be honest, I had not seen that one coming.

Satisfied, he leaned back a little and looked at me, “The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said. “So, I’m doing some reading on my own. I’m trying to figure it out. They let me check out psychology and psychiatry books at the hospital library.”

“And you’re a patient?” I said, incredulously (for that’s exactly how I felt, unbelieving).

“I have my bad days,” he said, clarifying.

“This is not one of them,” I said, indicating the chess board and his underway slaughter.

“No,” he smiled at that, “this is not one of them.”

I looked him straight in the eyes when I said the one thing that suddenly filled my heart, “You don’t belong in here.”

“I don’t think I do, either,” he said.

“So why do you stay?”

“I don’t have a choice.”

“They won’t let you out if you ask?”

“No, they won’t let me out.”

“They don’t know what’s wrong with you, but they won’t let you out?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, that’s just plain not okay.”

He doesn’t answer, but I feel that he agrees.

I’m looking at the board again, as if I was pondering my next move, but what I’m pondering is how to say that I wanted to say next. Then I take the plunge: “I could let you out.”

He leans forward a little when he says, softly, “What do you mean?” Then he looks around just to make sure no one’s listening.

I look around, too. No one is.

“I have the keys,” I said.

“They’ll fire you if they catch you.”

“They’ll fire me if they catch you,” I said, smiling at my own clever turn of phrase. He smiled, too.

Then I spotted where his rook was heading and I blocked him with one of my bishops.

“Nice,” he said, and went back to study the board some more.

“Would you be game?” I said.

“To escape?” he said. Calling the spade just that.


He really considered this for a while before he said, “Yes. Sure. I would.”

“Where would you go?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said. “But I would need some different clothes. They’ll spot me in these a mile away.” And he was right, the patient outfits were clearly patient outfits, uniform among them all (which is, I believe why they call them uniforms).

True. “I’ll get you some,” I said.

“Hide them somewhere outside,” he suggested.

“Yes,” I said. “Good idea.”

Then he moved his rook again, checking me while also exposing my bishop. I had to move my king, and he devoured my bishop. Yes, the right word was definitely slaughter.

“I’ll do some scouting,” I said. “I’ll find a place to stash some clothes.”

“And shoes,” he said.

“And shoes,” I said.

I moved one of my pawns up to threaten his queen. “Ah,” he said, and check-mated me in three more moves.

“Do you have any money?” I said.

“A little,” he said. “No much.”

“I’ll stash some cash with the clothes,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” he said.

“It’s not going to break the bank,” I lied.

He nodded a yes, that would help.

Three days later I had bought Hans a set of everyday, run-of-the-mill clothes and a pair of sneakers at a thrift shop. I placed them, along with all the cash I could spare in a plastic bag which I then placed in a second plastic bag, and then in a third—rain was threatening, and I had decided to hide the parcel in a shallow ditch at the south-eastern corner of the field the spread south from the hospital. Might get watery.

Later that day I placed the bag in the ditch and covered it with a few branches from a nearby birch; stepped back. Good job, I couldn’t see it and definitely would not spot it if I didn’t know it was there.

Tonight then: I had the night shift, and would at some point that evening unlock the agreed-upon of the many locked windows for Hans to slip out through once everyone was asleep. Toward morning I would then re-lock the window to remove it from the list of escape-route suspects.

We were only two nurses through the night and we spent most of the night in the staff room playing cards or reading. Policy was that we had to walk the ward twice an hour, or at least one of us had to.

At two o’clock Hans was still sleeping (or not, more likely) in his bed. A little after three, my turn to walk the ward again, Hans had arranged pillows and blankets to appear like he was still in bed. I could tell, though, no Hans there now. Satisfied that he had slipped out, I re-locked the window and returned to the staff room. “Three bells and all’s well,” I said.

We were relieved by the much larger dayshift at seven o’clock and I went up to my room for much needed sleep.

When I arrived back on the ward late afternoon, the buzz was that Hans had escaped during the night. I was, of course, suitably surprised and not a little scandalized: how could he possibly?

There was much debate about that very question, but no one could put any sort of finger on how exactly. He had, quite cleverly, made it seem like he was still in his bed—we could be forgiven for not noticing, they said, meaning me and my co-night-shift nurse.

He must have had a key, must have planned it for a while, was the common consensus, which, of course led to, but how did he get the key?

And what if the discarded patient garbs the police had found in a trash bin in town had belonged to Hans, would that not point to outside help in the form of a change of clothes?

No answers. Only speculation.

And no sign of Hans himself. By nine that morning the police had been notified and they were usually quite apt at spotting (not hard) and catching hospital escapees; quite a few took to the fields from the open wards, and a few from the closed wards as well—at least once a week on average, and they were usually back by lunchtime. Cold, hungry and humiliated. Park passes cancelled for a month or two.

But no Hans to be found anywhere, said the police. Just that uniform, which no one could confirm had in fact belonged to the escapee.

I never saw Hans again, for they never found him while I was still working at the hospital.

While I had helped other patients escape as well, they were, more in keeping with protocol, captured and returned in time for lunch. But not Hans.

A year later I received some very, very nice news from a friend who still worked at the hospital. They had finally tracked Hans down. By the time they found him he had found himself a job, and had held it steadily for over six months. He had found himself an apartment, and was current with the rent. He had, in other words, and successfully, stepped right back into society.

The great news was that the hospital decided to let him remain free, as it were, as long as he agreed to weekly counseling, which he did.

For all the escapes I was involved in, this was the one that worked.


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