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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 11

Tags: fear, sadness,
With great care and tenderness she wound the brilliant white bandage around his head.

Tripoli. May 27th, 1941

 

Maria had slept very little since she had arrived in Libya, the heat did not suit her at all. The temperature through the night had barely dropped below seventeen degrees which was all that Munich attained during the day at this time of year. The daytime here though reached thirty degrees, a temperature she had rarely experienced and it was so dry, not a drop of rain had fallen since she arrived.

She found that as time progressed, however, she was finding it easier to acclimatise and she reasoned that her body was adjusting to the fact that every day was the same.

She took great care to remain covered when out in the sun and the time she had spent adrift with Katarina in the life-raft with little shelter and even less water was still very fresh in her mind. As a result of that experience she never went anywhere without a flask of water.

With all her precautions she still began to develop a tan. At first, she had reddened somewhat, but she had managed not to burn.

The thing she hated the most was the wind. Whenever there was even the slightest vesper, although it was welcome in the stifling heat, the dust that was disturbed would get everywhere, and the windows in the hospital would be kept closed until it died down.

 

Last night had been one of those when she just couldn't sleep at all. Since she had a room to herself she had even tried sleeping in just her underwear but it made no difference. If anything, she felt so insecure about someone entering her room and seeing her that it was just another thing to keep her awake.

As a result, she had risen about four-thirty and taken a walk in the hospital grounds, such as they were.

The air was cooler but still warm, and the darkness made it pleasant.

She found a rock that was close to a wall and sat down, leaning back against the cool plaster.

 

“Matron? What are you doing here? Are you all right?”

She looked up and was surprised to see that the sun was beginning to spread its light and warmth.

The voice was that of a young man dressed in the sand brown uniform of the Afrika Korps.

“Matron?” he insisted.

“Oh gosh, I must have fallen asleep!” she exclaimed.

“What, here?” Why?”

“I couldn't sleep,” she admitted sheepishly. “I took a walk in the cool air, and I must have been more tired than I thought.”

She tried to get up, but her bottom was so numb, and her back just didn't want to move without sending out a searing shock of protest.

The soldier held out his hand.

“If I may be so bold, Ma'am,” he said.

Maria took it gratefully, and he hauled her to her feet.

For a moment she teetered unsteadily, waiting for the blood flow to return to her legs accompanied by a severe stinging pain as though they were being stabbed with thousands of tiny pins or needles.

The feeling soon passed, however, and she thanked the young soldier for his help.

“You shouldn't sleep out here, Ma'am,” he continued. “There are so many things that can harm you. Some with two legs and others with many more.”

As he spoke, Maria noticed a movement at the edge of her vision and as she turned her head, she saw a small lizard scurry away into the shelter of a small rock.

Seeing her concern, the young soldier smiled.

“That one is harmless, Ma'am but it does show that you can never be too careful here. A scorpion or snake would be just as silent but...”

He didn't complete the illustration and shrugged but Maria fully understood.

“Yes, you are quite right,” she agreed. I will be more careful in future, thank you.”

She looked at her watch.

“I must run!” she exclaimed. “I am on duty in ten minutes!”

Without looking back, Maria ran for the nearest entrance leaving the bemused soldier to go about whatever business had brought him to the rear of the hospital.

 

A few days earlier had seen the culmination of a bitter battle hundreds of kilometres away at Halfaya Pass. Maria had heard much of what was happening there from casualties who had ended up in her care, but as it was so far away, it had taken some time for her to see any appreciable quantities of victims arriving at the hospital.

Now though, there were many. Germans, Italians and even a number of British soldiers who had been wounded and taken prisoner.

For her, the worst ones were those who had been burned escaping from destroyed tanks, but it didn't matter who they were or what their injuries, she and her nurses worked incessantly to ensure that all the casualties were given the best care they possibly could.

 

Around mid-morning an orderly arrived breathlessly on her ward.

“Matron, Matron!”

Maria was busy with a patient, and she looked around to see what the commotion was about.

“Over here,” she called.

The orderly hurried over to her, holding out a buff folder.

“Put it on the desk,” she told him as she wrapped a fresh gauze around her patient's blackened torso. “What is it?”

“Orders, Ma'am,” the flustered orderly replied, “Urgent orders.”

“All right,” she said, not diverting from the important task she was already carrying out. “I will read them as soon as I am done here.”

The man nodded and hurried away, dropping the folder onto her desk as he passed.

 

For Maria, the biggest priority was her patient and, with the help of one of her other nurses, very carefully laid paraffin dressings against the burnt flesh on his head and back and hands.

Other than his name, rank and service number, all Italian and his religion, Roman Catholic, information that was gleaned from his dog tags, she had no way of knowing who he might be. The burns to his head and back had rendered him unrecognisable and she couldn't even hazard a guess as to his age. All she knew was that his eyes were brown and she imagined that he must have been wearing goggles since the area around his eyes was intact and only reddened. That at least, she thought, was a small blessing.

With great care and tenderness she wound the brilliant white bandage around his head, careful to leave a small slit so that he could see when he came round and wouldn't panic.

Although he was not conscious, Maria talked gently to him as she worked. She had no idea whether he could hear her or even if he understood her language, but she hoped that a gentle voice would calm him and help him through his ordeal.

When she was finally finished, she took a syringe of morphine and carefully injected it into his forearm with the hope that it would at least keep him comfortable in some small way.

For a moment, she and her nurse stood back and watched him as he slept. There was no need for words and almost simultaneously they turned away to take care of their next duties, the nurse to her next patient and Maria to her desk to see what orders she had been given that were so urgent.

What she found inside spurred her into action, and she quickly jumped to her feet.

“Sisters, quickly! Come to me please!” she called.

Such was the urgency in her voice that all four of them immediately ran to her desk.

“I have received an order to prepare all our patients for immediate transit to the docks. A hospital ship has arrived, and they are to be embarked for repatriation.”

This was the first time since her arrival that such an operation had been carried out and she was not surprised that everyone worked hard to prepare the patients for travel. Paperwork was completed, dressings checked and trolleys and equipment moved away for clear access.

Maria remembered the time in the hospital at Amiens when the SS cleared out all the patients to make way for the wounded soldiers coming in, but this had nothing in common with that day at all. There were no SS or Gestapo here, and the transfer to the waiting ambulances was carried out with the utmost care and efficiency by Italian troops under the supervision of the medical staff.

 

Maria worked as hard as any of her nurses, helping them to move patients onto stretchers and ensuring that they were moved with as little pain as she possibly could.

The Italian soldier with the burns was the easiest since he was heavily sedated and was probably unaware that he was even being moved.

From the window, she could see that the patients were being placed into Ambulances which looked more like small buses with opaque windows. They all looked new, and she hoped that the patients would be moved more comfortably in those than in the canvas covered lorries she had seen being used for the same purpose.

By the time the last one was ready to leave the ward, it was late afternoon. He was a German Panzer officer who had been caught in a blast as he ran to his tank. His injuries were severe, a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, one leg dislocated and broken and the other torn off at the knee. His body was pierced with so much shrapnel that Maria had been amazed that he had survived at all!

Suddenly, as she was about cover him with a blanket ready for his transfer, she froze as a strange feeling of dread filled her.

Slowly she stood upright and looked around, but everything seemed normal, at least, as normal as one could expect in the circumstances.

For a totally inexplicable reason, she wanted to hide, to run away but why and from what she couldn't fathom. All she knew was that she was afraid. She felt that there was great danger, but what it was she couldn't imagine.

“Matron? Are you all right?”

She turned.

“Oh, Agathe. I, erm, I think so...”

The nurse was one of those who had survived the wreck of the Meer Koenigin, the scar on her forehead still visible from where she had hit her head.

“You look a little confused, Matron. Are you sure you are all right?”

Maria nodded slowly.

“Yes, I am fine now,” she lied, her heart still beating strongly as the adrenalin flowed through her veins. “Let's get this one away and then, maybe we will have time for a quick coffee, yes?”

Agathe paused.

“You looked after me and saved my life, Matron,” she said quietly. “If you need anything, however big or small, you can trust me.”

Maria smiled and put her hand upon the nurse's shoulder for a moment.

“Thank you, Agathe,” she said. “I appreciate that.”

As they worked, the dreadful feeling very slowly diminished only to be replaced by a deep sadness which was as strong and unfathomable as the panic had been.

 

Maria was true to her word, and when this last patient had been transferred to the ambulance, they took a well-earned rest, and she made everyone coffee or, at least something that made a very poor pretence at being coffee.

Agathe sat beside her.

She was about the same age as Maria, but there the similarity stopped. She was taller and her hair darker, although still blonde and she carried a heavier frame altogether, although she was not overweight at all.

Maria knew she was from Dresden in the East but other than that, very little else.

“Have you seen Matron Langsdorff since you were rescued? I know you two were very close.”

She shook her head.

“No, we never had the opportunity before I was sent back here.”

Agathe looked down into her cup as she talked.

“That's a shame,” she said. “You both seemed quite connected, like sisters almost.”

“We are,” Maria replied quietly.

Agathe frowned and turned towards her.

“I'm sorry?” she asked, not sure whether she had heard correctly.

Maria stared at the floor and smiled inwardly

“We are,” she repeated. “Katarina is my sister. We found out just before I came here.”

“Damn! I knew it!” Agathe exclaimed. “You were so alike I couldn't believe that you were not!”

There was a moment's silence, and her face took on a more serious expression,

“How was it that you didn't know?”

When Maria didn't answer, Agathe flushed with embarrassment.

“I'm sorry,” she said quietly, somewhat abashed, “It's not my business, I shouldn't have asked.”

Maria was quick to reassure her.

“It's all right; I don't mind. I am happy that we are sisters, but it is a long story. Maybe one day I will tell it to you, but at the moment it is difficult. Katarina and I have so much to talk about, but this damned war is keeping us so far apart.”

“So where is she now?”

“When I last heard from her she was still in Berlin working at the Charité Hospital. She said they had put her in charge of several wards until she was fit to return to active duties again.”

Agathe frowned and looked at her.

“What do mean, 'fit'? Why is she not fit for active duties? Did something happen that you haven't told us about?”

Again, there was a moment's silence.

“I'm sorry. I am too inquisitive. It's just that we all thought you had both drowned when the ship sank.”

Maria sighed.

“We almost did, but we found a life raft. Again, it's a long story, but I will tell you about it when we have more time, I promise.”

Agathe shuddered as she remembered that fateful night.

“I don't want to go on a ship ever again. If it hadn't been for you two, I would be fish food right now.”

Maria chuckled at her use of terminology.

“Do you feel better now, Matron?” Agathe asked, seeing her Superior smiling again.

“I do, thank you, Sister,” Maria replied, using the same formality as the nurse, but both knew that it was light-hearted.

“Well,” she continued, draining the last of the vile but warm liquid. “We had better get this place ready for the next patients.

 

As she had expected, it wasn't long before the first new patient arrived. He had come to her directly from the field dressing station, and she was not so surprised to see that he was a British soldier as they had suffered many casualties in their defeat at Halfaya.

When she read the file that the stretcher bearer gave her, she discovered that he had been hit three times. Two of the wounds were not too serious, one had passed through his upper thigh narrowly missing his femur, and the other had passed through his left hand but, although not life-threatening she feared that he would not regain its full use due to the shattered metacarpal bones.

The third wound, however, was a different story. It appeared that he had been hit in the abdomen by a tracer round which, because of the heat it carried had cauterised the wound and prevented his bleeding to death but had lodged in his back after causing severe damage to his intestines.

This young Englishman was in a very serious condition.

The field medics had done an excellent job of patching him up, and now there was nothing more to do than to look after him and make sure that he had the best chance of recovery that she could possibly give him.

As she read through the notes, she looked at him and saw that he was awake and looking at her.

She smiled and said.

“Sorgen sie nicht. Wir kummern dich um.”

The soldier's expression didn't alter, and he remained impassive, just looking at her until she suddenly realised that he probably had no idea what she just said.

“We will, erm, how do you say, erm look out...? No,” she paused, trying to find the right words in English. “We will... take care of you, yes?”

The soldier visibly relaxed and he nodded almost imperceptibly, a thin smile on his lips.

At that moment another casualty arrived, and she smiled again and moved onto the new arrival, another Englishman.

Maria was beginning to wonder whether all her patients were going to be English. It didn't matter a jot to her, of course, but she had no-one to help her communicate with them. The little English she had learned during her time aboard the Lakhota would not be sufficient to communicate effectively with them.

 

The next arrival was not English though, but Italian, and Maria didn't know a single word of Italian!

By the time her shift ended and her relief had arrived the ward was more than half full, and she was glad to be able to hand over to the oncoming matron and go to get some dinner. It was only then she realised that she had been so busy that she hadn't eaten a single thing all day!

 

The oncoming matron and her sisters were not surprised at the sudden change in the ward, they had seen the ship at the dockside and frenzied activity of the ambulances, but she also had some news of her own.

“Have you heard the news, Maria?” she asked, once the handover was completed.

“No, I've been too busy,” Maria replied. “Has something happened?”

“Oh, goodness me yes. Firstly, we have taken Crete!”

“Is that good news then?” she asked with a little hint of sarcasm. To her, any news of victories and defeats just made her think of the suffering that went along with it.

The other Matron frowned.

“I suppose so. I didn't really consider whether it was either good or bad, just news.”

She waited a moment, considering the implication when Maria suddenly apologised.

“I'm sorry, I am a little tired and hungry. I didn't mean that to sound so terse.”

“That's all right,” the other smiled, “I didn't really think that you were. Anyway, there is worse news; the Bismarck has been sunk.”

That piece of news made an immediate impact on Maria, as did the sinking of any ship. The ordeals she had suffered over the past few months had served to make her acutely aware of how terrible it was to be shipwrecked and reminded her of her sister lying close to death.

“How much more death and suffering is there going to be before this accursed war is over!” she sighed.

Her colleague shrugged her shoulders.

“I have a sneaking feeling that it will get worse before it gets better,” she replied.

“Yes,” Maria agreed. “”I think you might be right about that.”

With that, she bid her relief farewell and headed off in the direction of the canteen where she joined her own nurses for dinner.

 

For the first time, at Agathe's behest, he told them of the events after the sinking and, as she talked they listened intently. Each of them wanted every tiny detail, and when she told them what had happened to Katarina, they just sat with their eyes and mouths wide open in amazement.

Finally, it was Agathe who asked,

“She is all right though, now isn't she?”

Maria pondered for a moment.

“I think so,” she answered. “At least, when she wrote she said she was and was again working at the Charité.”

Agathe began to ask another question, but Maria stopped her.

“I think that is enough about me. What about all of you. What happened to you?”

One of the others took up their story.

“Nothing really,” she said in a matter of fact kind of way. “We drifted in the boats for a few hours and watched the Meer Koenigin slip beneath the waves. The nice surgeon was in our boat, and we rowed around and around searching for the two of you but, obviously, without success. He was quite distressed by the time we were picked up that you were gone. He seemed to blame himself.”

“But it wasn't his fault,” Maria exclaimed. “Why did he think it was?”

“Well, I think he had a bit of a soft spot for you both, especially for your sis... friend.”

Agathe realised as she spoke that Maria had not told anyone else about Katarina being more than a friend and quickly checked herself. None of the others seemed to have noticed, so she kept quiet.

Maria didn't make any response to her slip simply but asked,

“Does he know we survived?”

No-one seemed to want to answer, but it was Agathe who finally spoke.

“We don't know. When we disembarked here, you were still posted as missing and we haven't seen him since as he boarded another ship bound for Germany.”

“Oh dear,” she sighed. “Poor Hugo,”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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