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The Long Road Home Chapter 14
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home Chapter 14

“How can snow still be so beautiful amidst all this devastation?”

Innsbruck, December 17th 1943

 

Both Maria and Katarina were glad that the policeman hadn't argued. They had spent some ninety minutes on the back of this filthy, freezing lorry as it picked its way carefully along the rubble-strewn streets, almost but not quite stopping as it drove over bricks and pieces of debris. The foreman had done a marvellous job of keeping the vehicle steady in such trying circumstances but it had all been too much for the injured engineer and he had passed out within five minutes of leaving the yard.

Katarina had constantly monitored his pulse and breathing whilst Maria had held his head as firmly as she dared.

 

The lorry stopped gently with barely a jolt and almost immediately, two doctors in once-white coats stained red with blood, appeared at the tail-board.

“B...broken neck, s...sup...perficial b...burn...n...ns to f...face and n...neck. P...possib...ble other in...intern...nal in... injuries,” Katarina called as loudly as she could through numb lips and severely chattering teeth.

By this time, the foreman and his mate had joined them and between the four of them, pulled the makeshift stretcher from the back of the lorry whilst the two matrons kept the unfortunate man steady. Two nurses had also appeared and they carefully protected his head as the stretcher left the truck.

As Katarina swung her legs over the tail-board, Maria, who had been kneeling for the whole journey, slowly fell sideways against her sister.

“I c...can't f...feel m...my legs,” she said as she stretched them out, waiting for the painful tingling to start as the blood-flow resumed.

Moments later, the foreman and his mate reappeared.

“You all right?” the foreman asked them.

When they both shook their heads, the two men helped them down and carried them bodily inside.

Still holding them, they looked for somewhere for them to sit. It was Katarina who spoke first.

“It's all right,” she said with a smile. You can put us down now. Thank you.”

Had it not been for the grime on their faces, Katarina was sure she would have seen them turn red but, nevertheless, the two men placed them carefully on their feet.

In an instant, Maria's knees buckled and the foreman grabbed her.

“I'm all right,” she smiled, gaining her balance. “Just getting the blood circulating again but thank you, anyway.”

He smiled awkwardly.

“You're welcome, Miss.” He paused as though unsure of himself but then, “We'll be getting back if that's all right. We have a lot of work still to do.”

 

After the men had left, the two young women began to look for their patient. Having not seen where he had been taken, they began to think it would be impossible to find him amongst the numerous victims of the earlier raid.

Suddenly, as they peered through yet another door into a room full of misery, Maria felt a hand placed firmly on her shoulder. Startled, she turned quickly to find an exhausted-looking nurse.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I think that we could ask the same question,” Maria replied with a smile. “I am Matron Maria Kaufmann and this is Matron Katarina Langsdorf of the Deutsche Rotes Kreuz. We just brought in a man from the Railway yard. Do you know where he is?”

The nurse frowned.

“No, Matron, I'm sorry, I don't.” For a moment she looked at Maria and then at Katarina. “If you don't mind me saying so, you look even more tired than I feel. Can I get you something?”

“We are tired, Sister and hungry,” Katarina told her. “Not to mention cold. Is there somewhere we can at least get warm and possibly something hot to drink?”

The nurse appeared somewhat apologetic as she replied that there was nowhere available. Every spare centimetre of space was being used as makeshift Triage.

“If you can find a space to sit, I will bring you some soup but we are so busy...”

They thanked her, telling her that they understood.

When she disappeared, Maria and Katarina picked their way through the many, groaning casualties until they spotted an unoccupied bench along the crowded corridor, Gratefully, they sank onto it and leaned back against the once white-painted wall and let out an exhausted groan.

 

Some thirty minutes later the Austrian nurse reappeared, carrying a small, metal flask. She stopped and smiled. The two German matrons were sound asleep, leaning against each other for warmth and support. She placed the flask on the slatted seat beside Maria and turned away. Just moments later she returned and placed a grey, woollen blanket over them. Again, she paused and looked at them sleeping peacefully. Finally, smiling to herself, she returned to her duties.

 

They didn't sleep for long, probably little more than an hour. It was Katarina who awoke first, sitting up suddenly and looking wildly about her until she gradually remembered. The movement woke her sister.

“'Trina? What is it?” She too looked around. “Oh yes, of course.” At the same time, she noticed the flask and removed the lid.

“It's still warm,” she said, pouring some of the thin liquid into the metal cup, which had been on the top, and passed it to Katarina who took a sip. Her top lip curled slightly.

“I think it's potato soup,” she said quietly, not wanting to seem ungrateful. “But it's so thin that I'm not really sure and there is certainly no seasoning in it!”

Nevertheless, Katarina finished it, enjoying the feeling of warmth that radiated through her. Draining the last drop she passed the now empty cup back to her sister who quickly refilled it from the flask.

Maria lifted the cup to her lips and drank. She shuddered at the first mouthful but said nothing. When she too had satisfied her hunger, albeit slightly, she placed the metal cup back on top of the empty container then looked at her watch. When she saw the time, just after midnight, she sighed and slumped back against the wall.

For a moment they sat in silence, eyes closed.

“I want to stay and help,” Maria said without opening her eyes, “But I am so tired.”

Katarina agreed.

“Uh-huh, me too but I think we would do more harm than good until we get some sleep.”

Suddenly, Maria sat upright.

“How long is it since we left the train?”

Katarina shrugged.

“I don't know, maybe six hours, seven perhaps. Why?”

Maria was about to tell her when she suddenly realised.

“Oh goodness! Our things! We have to get back!”

 

Without wasting a minute, they jumped to their feet and picked their way between the myriad casualties, back the way they had come in.

It took a while to find their way back to the hospital entrance but, when they found it, there was no-one there.

“Do you know the way back to the railway?” Maria asked, without a great deal of confidence that Katarina would answer positively. Her fears were confirmed when her sister shook her head.

“There was a guard at the gate. Maybe he can help.”

The two young women pulled their coats tightly about them and fastened the buttons up to their necks. Whist they had been inside a thin blanket of snow had covered the ground and gentle flakes were falling steadily from the night sky.

Katarina pulled her collar up and stared upwards. She blinked as the small, frozen flakes fell into eyes.

“How can snow still be so beautiful amidst all this devastation?” she said quietly to no-one in particular.

Maria, too, cast her eyes skywards, her eyelids flickering as the gentle flakes tickled her eyelashes. She put her arm around her sister's shoulders and sighed.

“It's hard to believe that just a couple of days ago we were in Rome.”

 

At the gate, the guard was standing alone, sheltering behind the perimeter wall, blowing into his cupped hands and stamping his feet.

As they approached, he stared incredulously at them, wondering what they were doing out there at such an hour.

Seeing their rank insignia as they drew near, he pulled himself to attention.

Maria spoke first.

“Can you tell us how to get to the railhead?” she asked.

“Erm, well, yes, Ma'am but...” he replied hesitantly.

Maria raised her eyebrow. “But what?” she asked.

“Erm, well...” he began again. “It is some fifteen kilometres, Ma'am. You can't be thinking of walking, surely. Not in this weather.”

“How long do you think it takes to put a locomotive back on the tracks?” Katarina asked him.

The soldier was stunned at such an unexpected question.

“I have no idea, Ma'am,” he answered after a moments consideration.

“We left a train which had come off the track several hours ago. Do you think they could have cleared it in that time, perhaps?”

Again, the soldier was unsure and shrugged.

“I don't know, Ma'am,” he replied slowly. “Maybe. Things do happen very quickly these days.”

“Everything we have is on that train. If we don't get back before it is moved we will lose it all. So, how do we get back there?”

The soldier looked nervous.

“Honestly, Ma'am, I don't know. I only arrived here yesterday but...” he stopped as he considered an idea. “Can you wait until One? My relief will be here then and maybe... well, he will be brought in a vehicle from the garrison and...”

“Perhaps they could take us?” Maria interrupted.

The soldier shrugged.

“I don't know but perhaps.”

Katarina checked the time.

“Just over half an hour,” she said aloud. “Shall we wait?”

Maria nodded her agreement and they moved beside the soldier, sheltering behind the wall.

 

The time seemed to pass by so slowly and the snow fell steadily. By the time the car arrived, Maria and Katarina were again feeling the cold and were a little disappointed that it was an open vehicle. Although the canvas roof was raised, there were no sides, only half-height doors. Nevertheless, they were glad to see it.

The soldier who was to be relieved went immediately to the driver and spoke to him. They were dismayed to see the driver shake his head. The soldier pointed as they approached.

“I'm sorry, Ma'am,” the young man apologised. “He says he won't take you.”

Maria bent forwards, putting her face on a level with that of the driver, a young corporal, and explained their predicament to him.

“I can't take you to the railhead,” he told her dismissively. “I have my orders.”

Maria pursed her lips.

“And who gave you those orders, Unteroffizier?” she asked firmly.

“Feldwebel Brandt, Ma'am.”

“He is your sergeant, I assume?” The driver nodded.

“Hmm. What orders did he give you?”

The driver was beginning to look nervous.

“I am to bring a fresh guard to the hospital and take the other back to the barracks, Ma'am.”

Maria exaggeratedly rubbed her chin with finger and thumb.

“So...” she said slowly. “If an officer requested you to take a detour on the return part of your duty, you know, a Hauptmann perhaps, like me, you wouldn't be defying your orders because he didn't specifically tell you to return directly. Am I right?”

“Um, well...”

“And, of course, you would also be carrying out the request of a much higher rank than your Feldwebel, yes?”

The driver sighed.

“Yes, Ma'am.”

Maria smiled and straightened up as the now smiling guard opened the door for her immediately behind the driver.

 

Once they were all seated, the driver violently crunched the gear lever forward. Maria leaned forward and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“I am familiar with these Mercedes Cars,” she said gently. “They are strong and have four-wheel drive so please get us there as quickly as you can.”

 

The driver did exactly as he was asked and, for the next twenty-five minutes or so, the big car drove through the shattered streets of Innsbruck whilst its three passengers clung on for dear life. Without the benefit of headlights to light up the road ahead, they bounced over bricks and debris, only slowing to manoeuvre between larger areas of ruined buildings.

Even though the short journey was so chaotic, Maria couldn't help but notice the stark contrast between the war ruined cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, the damage that the American bombers had wrought on Rome and now, Innsbruck. Italy, North Africa, all so far away from home but here, now, Innsbruck was almost home. It looked like home and it felt like home but it too, was damaged by the war and she began to wonder whether anyone would be left alive by the time it was over.

 

On arrival at the railway yard, the driver went to get out but Maria stopped him.

“Don't worry, we can manage,” she said, “and thank you, We do appreciate you bringing us here.”

“You're welcome, Ma'am,” the driver responded somewhat reluctantly as the door behind him slammed shut.

“Thank you, too,” Katarina said to the guard from the hospital as she closed her door and, with a crunch of gears the big Mercedes speed off in, what the sisters assumed, was the direction of the barracks.

 

By this time, the guard had come out of his office and they turned to face him.

“Papers, please!” he demanded after giving them a quick salute. They handed their identification cards to him and waited whilst he examined them.

After a moment he handed them back.

“I'm sorry but you are not authorised to enter,” he said tersely, saluted once more and turned away.

“Just a minute!” Katarina said, equally tersely. “We need to get back to our train.”

“There are no passenger trains here, Ma'am. The station is that way.” He raised his arm and pointed along the road.

Katarina took a deep breath and remained calm.

“Listen, Soldat. We have had a long and very tiring day. We were delayed by the raid yesterday and, once it was clear, we were supposed to pass through here on our way to Munich. Unfortunately, a rail broke and our locomotive came off the tracks, injuring the engineer.”

The soldier opened his mouth to speak but Katarina raised her hand to stop him.

“We took the engineer to the hospital and we were delayed there for several hours. Now we are here after a crazy drive through the town and we are frozen so, you can imagine that neither of us is in the mood for argument.”

At this point she tilted her head and raised her eyebrow, daring him to defy her.

The soldier glared at her and then at Maria. He let out a long sigh.

“All right, Ma'am. I still can't let you into the yard but if you will follow me to the office I will see what I can find out.”

 

The Guardroom was warm, at least, the heat coming from an open log fire in the fireplace. Whilst the soldier used the telephone on the desk, they stood in front of the fire, hoping to drive out the cold which seemed to have penetrated to their very bones. The cracking and popping of the burning wood seemed to have a very calming effect on them and, just for a moment, nothing else seemed to matter.

 

Their reverie was broken when the soldier returned the handset to its cradle with a discernable clatter.

“I have spoken to the Railway Officer and he says that there is no train.”

The sisters stared at each other for a moment. Katarina spoke first.

“What?” she asked sharply. “What do you mean by 'no train'?”

“The Railway office says that there is no train in the yard.”

Maria stared at him.

“No, I'm sorry but that is just not good enough. Where is the train that we arrived on yesterday? It can't have just vanished.”

The soldier became flustered.

“I... I don't know, Ma'am. The office just said that there is no train.” He hesitated and then, “At least, he said no passenger train.”

Maria shook her head in despair.

“It wasn't a pas... oh, look, 'phone them again and let me talk to them.”

The soldier had long since decided that it was probably unwise to disagree with these two and so he did as he was told, picked up the handset and dialled a number. When it answered he handed it to Maria.

 

The conversation didn't last long as once Maria had stated her case she listened to the response. Katarina tried to follow the conversation but with only, 'I see', and 'yes, but...', to go on, she couldn't tell what the situation would be.

Finally, Maria placed the handset gently down in its cradle and turned to her sister.

“It's gone...”

Katarina's jaw dropped.

“Gone? Gone where?” she asked.

Maria shrugged.

“I spoke to the Operations Officer. He said that the Locomotive was damaged but had been re-railed, as he called it, within a couple of hours of the accident. They had connected our train to another Locomotive and it went onwards after they sent along another track, around the damaged one.”

“With our luggage I suppose?”

Again, Maria shrugged her shoulders.

“I imagine so, he didn't say. All he did say was that there will not be another train to Munich until Sunday, the day after tomorrow.”

“And in the meantime?”

“I don't know. I suppose we should go back to the hospital and see if there are any nurses beds available. What else can we do?”

All the while, the soldier had been listening and watching and was beginning to feel sorry for them.

“Ma'am. If I may suggest. The next vehicle that leaves here... I could ask to take you back...? In the meantime, would you like some coffee?”

They nodded gratefully and, after bringing them two chairs so that they could remain by the fire, he disappeared into another room.

“This is a disaster, Maria,” Katarina said quietly as they sat down and waited. We are stuck here for another two days with no change of clothes, nothing. All we have is what we are wearing and... Oh no...” She finished with a sigh and slumped back against the chair. “Do you have any money?”

Maria shook her head.

“No. My purse is on that train too.”

Katarina laughed gently.

“You know, this is ridiculous.”

Maria frowned but said nothing.

“You and I,” her sister continued. “We have been through Hell and high water, both together and apart. We almost drowned and I was stabbed. We have seen atrocities that no-one should ever see. You were lost in the desert and stung by a scorpion and then almost killed in an air-raid. We've done all of that and more and yet, here we are grumbling about being stuck in Innsbruck for a couple of days!”

Maria stared at her and then began to laugh too.

“Oh my goodness, you are right! What kind of idiots are we?”

 

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