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HomeDrama Stories The Long Road Home. Chapter 15.
The Long Road Home. Chapter 15.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 15.

Tags: history, ww2,

“At least it has stopped snowing,” Maria said. “Quite a pleasant morning really.”

Katarina and Maria are stranded in Innsbruck after they saved the life of a locomotive engineer following a bombing raid. With no luggage and only the clothes on their backs, they have to get home, hopefully before Christmas... but how?

Innsbruck, December 19th 1943

 

Katarina and Maria sat silently facing the warm, crackling fire which was burning brightly in the fireplace of the guardroom. For a while, at least, they were warm but very weary.

On the wall above the fireplace was a large clock. Maria looked up at it and sighed gently. Every swing of the pendulum and every tick and tock of the escape mechanism moved the long, ornate minute hand ever closer to the vertical until, with a whirr, it chimed. Twice.

Outside, the snow still fell, the silent, white flakes drifting slowly down from the leaden sky.

For almost two hours they had been sitting patiently waiting for a vehicle, any vehicle to arrive at the gate but, so far, none had.

The guard had brought them hot coffee but there was nothing else to do but wait.

 

A few minutes later, Maria looked up as she heard the sound of an approaching lorry. The Guard jumped up, put on his helmet and slung the strap of his rifle over his shoulder. He disappeared out into the cold night air.

He was gone several minutes but, when he returned, both Maria and Katarina were disappointed to see, through the window, that the truck had reversed away from the gate, turned around and returned the way it had come.

The guard placed his rifle on the table and turned to them. Seeing the look on their faces, he smiled.

“That was one of the maintenance crew,” he said. “He has gone back to get something and then he is coming back. He said he would be happy to take you back to the hospital. He won't be long.”

“Thank goodness,” Katarina said to no-one in particular. “I don't think I can stay awake much longer.”

Maria agreed as they helped each other to put their coats on.

True to the driver's word, the maintenance truck soon returned. The guard opened the door and they were surprised to see the site foreman who had driven them to the hospital so many hours ago.

 

The foreman drove the Opel truck carefully through the debris but this time, he didn't have to worry about injured passengers.

“Thank you for this,” Maria said. She was sitting closest to him on the bench seat.

“You are welcome,” he replied. “I was going that way anyway to see how your patient got on. Do you know?”

Both the young women shook their heads.

“No, I'm sorry,” Maria told him. “When you took us inside they had already taken him in. They were so busy we weren't able to find out.”

“Oh, alright. I'll ask when we get there. Why are you going back? Weren't you going onwards with the train?”

“We were,” Maria shrugged her shoulders. “When we got back the train had gone.”

“And with all our luggage on it too,” Katarina added.

The foreman grinned widely.

“Ah, now. That is where you are mistaken,” he replied. “When the train was ready to leave, the train guard asked me if anyone had seen the two of you. When no-one had, he asked me if I would take care of your belongings. They're in the back of the truck.”

They stared at him, dumbfounded.

“Really?” Katarina asked and he nodded.

“Yes. That's what I went back for.”

 

The relief of getting their luggage back was surpassed only by the fact that, on their return to the hospital, a room was made available for them to use. It was only a small room in the nurses quarters, but it did have two reasonably comfortable beds and a bathroom across the landing.

By the time they were able to lay their heads upon their pillows, it was almost four o'clock and taking only the time to wish each other goodnight, they fell into a deep sleep.

The following morning, Maria opened her eyes and quickly closed them again. They hadn't thought to draw the curtains across the small window and the morning sun was streaming brightly into the room. The sudden light hurt her eyes immensely and, for a moment, she pulled the blanket over her head to block out the intrusive glare.

Moments later, she heard the swish of metal hangers along a metal rail and carefully allowed the blanket to fall down to her shoulders. She slowly opened one eye and found, to her relief, that from her bed below the window, Katarina had pulled the curtain across. The room was now bathed in a subdued, yellow glow.

“What time is it?” she asked as she stretched her arms above her head and yawned.

After a few seconds of rustling bedclothes, the answer came back,

“Ten-thirty.”

 

The first thing they did, once refreshed, was to find someone to report to. After all, they were going to be around for the next forty-eight hours and it was not in their nature to sit around and do nothing when the hospital staff were stretched to their limits.

Having found a senior doctor, the first thing they discovered was that the Engineer they had brought in was not as seriously injured as they had first suspected. His neck had not been broken when he fell from the cab as the stricken locomotive had lurched over. Having read the notes that the senior doctor had shown them, they were relieved to see that when he had landed on the rail, his head been forced back against the ballast stones which prevented his neck from twisting or bending too far. What had happened was that the force of the impact had likely caused swelling which had trapped his spinal cord. The downside to that was, he would not regain full feeling in his body for a few days until the swelling had subsided. What they knew already, though, and what the doctor was happy to remind them, was that had they not been so careful as to immobilise his head, the outcome could have been far more serious.

The burns he had received were, as they had already suspected, fairly superficial. He would scar, of that there would be no doubting, but only lightly and not too disfiguring.

 

The doctor didn't request anything specific from them, rather than, if they wouldn't mind, please to assist in any way they could.

As they had many times in the past, Maria and Katarina gladly made themselves available for even the simplest of tasks. Cleaning up blood, changing dressings, even just offering a kind word here and there to both patients and staff.

 

The hours passed so quickly that when Sunday morning arrived they felt that they had barely arrived and yet, now they were preparing to return to the railway to meet the train that the Railway Controller had told them about.

They didn't need to hurry, the train wasn't due to arrive until the afternoon.

Maria looked out of the window in their small room.

“At least it has stopped snowing,” she said. “Quite a pleasant morning really.”

Katarina smiled. “Tell you what,” she said, brightly. “We are in no hurry. Why don't we take the tram to the station? We don't have to be there until lunchtime.”

“Hmm, what a good idea,” her sister responded. “A leisurely ride... Yes, I'd like that.” She thought for a moment. “It would also be the first time that you and I will have taken a tram together.”

“Then that's what we'll do!” Katarina answered gleefully, jumping to her feet.

 

They spent the first part of the morning getting their belongings together and taking breakfast and then went off in search of the engineer who had been the reason for their being in this hospital.

 

When they found him, on a ward on the second floor, they were amazed at how well he was doing. Especially in such a short time. Although he had not seen them before, as they approached his bedside he knew exactly who they were.

“I believe I have a lot to thank you for,” he said. “I am told that had you not brought me here so carefully then I could have been permanently paralysed.”

“Apparently so,” Maria agreed. “I am pleased to see that you are recovering well.”

The engineer frowned and then screwed his eyes closed for a second. When he opened them he looked first at Maria and then to Katarina then back again at Maria.

He slowed breathed out.

“I'm sorry,” he said at length. “The accident has really knocked me about. I keep seeing double. I know this sounds silly but I can see two of you.”

The two young women laughed gently.

“Don't worry,” Katarina reassured him. “You are not seeing double. Maria and I are sisters.”

The Engineer relaxed visibly. “Thank goodness,” he said. “I really thought I had damaged my brain! But no, they say it will take a while until I am fully fit but I should make a full recovery.”

They were about to wish him well and take their leave when suddenly, a low whine began, quickly building to a crescendo of wailing, warbling sound that struck fear into the hearts of all those who heard it. The air-raid warning!

Without a thought, the two experienced matrons sprung into action, ushering out those who were able to get to the shelters. Other less mobile patients they helped out of their beds and to crawl beneath them in the hope that they would be afforded at least some rudimentary protection.

The engineer was one such patient and with great care, the two of them lifted him from his bed and lay him on the wooden floor beside it. They then pushed he bed-frame over him. All the beds were moved to the centre of the room, away from the windows.

 

No sooner had they finished that the distant hum of approaching aero-engines began to be heard. Louder and louder it became until the first distant crump, crump as the anti-aircraft batteries began to target the approaching storm.

Without any thought for their own safety, Maria and Katarina moved from bed to bed, reassuring the occupants and ensuring they were as protected as they possibly could be.

Within seconds the first distant explosions rent the air. Nearer and nearer they became while the incessant drone of the bombers, as they approached and then began to pass overhead, became almost unbearable.

The terrifying whistles of the falling ordnance began to take its toll on the minds of those patients who had survived the raid just four short days previously.

Katarina and Maria kept moving, running from bed to bed. A kind word here, a gentle touch there.

One patient began to shout out.

“I can't do it! I can't! I can't!” he screamed. Maria ran to his side. She saw that he was sweating profusely and shaking uncontrollably. She put her hand out to soothe him but he grabbed her wrist, staring at her through wild eyes. “I'm not going, I'm not! Shoot me, hang me, I don't care but I'm not leaving this trench!”

She realised that this man, probably in his fifties, seemed to be reliving the last war. The exploding bombs must have brought back some terrible memories.

“It's all right,” she shouted but to make herself heard over the cacophony of the raid. “I won't make you go. I will look after you, don't worry.”

Slowly, the man released his grip on her but he still held her gaze. She smiled, her ice-blue eyes seemingly burning into his soul and easing his pain. She withdrew her hand and stroked his hair. “Don't worry,” she said. I am here.”

Another explosion, close enough to shake the very foundations of the hospital. The man jumped and gripped her arm again but Maria kept calm and kept her eyes fixed on his, still smiling. He smiled back through moist eyes and released her once more.

“All right now?” she asked him and he nodded uncertainly. “I have to help others too but I will still be near.”

He took a breath and gave a nervous smile with an almost imperceptible nod.

 

On the other side of the ward, Katarina was also busy. One of the young nurses was trying her utmost to soothe the patients, as she had seen these two matrons doing, but the noise and vibrations were getting the better of her. Katarina saw her jump more and more as the bombs exploded around them. She had seen it before, this young woman was on the edge and it wouldn't take much to tip her over.

Katarina took her gently by the arm.

“Are you all right, Sister?” she said as calmly as she could but still be heard. Another explosion and she felt the young nurse tense up. “What is your name?”

“Win... Winkler, Matron, Traudl Winkler.”

“I am Matron Langsdorff, Traudl. You may call me Katarina if you would like to.”

Traudl smiled nervously.

“Matron, I...”

Katarina put a finger to her lips.

“Don't worry,” she said, “I know how afraid you are. I am too. My sister also, no doubt but we have to be strong, our patients are depending on us.”

The young woman blinked rapidly, struggling to bring her nerves under control but, somehow, she could feel the strength that this Matron, this woman who looked barely any older than she was, seemed to be giving her. She stared back into Katarina's brilliant blue eyes and she felt a strange sense of calm wash over her. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, closing her own eyes momentarily.

When she opened them again, Katarina was still there, still smiling.

“All right?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you, Matron. I am all right now.”

Another explosion, so close this time that all the windows suddenly exploded into millions of fragments. Patients and nurses alike screamed aloud as they became engulfed in razor-sharp shards of glass.

Katarina brushed away several pieces which had lodged in her uniform and as she looked up she was horrified to see the young nurse with whom she had just been speaking, lying across one of the beds in the centre of the room. The white sheets were rapidly turning crimson.

“Maria!” she screamed across to her sister as she ran towards the stricken woman.

Maria arrived at the same time and what they saw horrified them both. A shard of glass had sliced cleanly through the side of the young woman's neck, just above her collar. Bright red blood was gushing from the wound, pulsing and surging.

Without a word, Maria pressed her fingers hard against the carotid artery just below the wound. The pulsing reduced but the blood still oozed. Katarina rushed to the get clamps but, as she ran back, a bomb scored a direct hit on the ward. The crash was deafening and the air was knocked from her lungs. In a daze, she felt herself being thrown through the air and then falling as though the ground beneath her feet had opened up to swallow her.

 

Maria opened her eyes. She was in almost total darkness. Her legs and arm hurt and she felt as though a great weight was pressing down on her pelvis. She tried to move but she couldn't, the weight on her hips was holding her firmly. She closed her eyes again, trying to focus. Her head was pounding and she could feel something warm and sticky on her hands. Again, she tried to move but it was no use, she just didn't have the strength.

“Katarina!”

She tried to shout but her mouth felt as though it were full of grit.

With some effort, she found that she could move her hands and arms and she carefully checked herself. Whatever was on her hands wasn't from her, she decided, at least not from so far as she could tell.

“Katarina!”

Again, the sound that left her lips was little more than a whimper. If Katarina had been right beside her she probably still wouldn't have heard.

She began to feel the area around her, trying to build a mental picture of what had happened and soon she realised that she was lying beneath a pile of rubble. All around her she could feel the clod, sharp edges of broken bricks and concrete but then, her hand rested upon something smooth, something cold and possibly metallic. Whatever it was felt as though it was curved, cylindrical. At first, she thought it might have been an Oxygen cylinder but no, there hadn't been one on the ward. At least, she hadn't seen one.

For a moment she lay still, trying to regain some strength. One thing she didn't understand was just how quiet it was. There was barely a sound. All she had heard was the faint movement of the rubble as she had tried to move, the scraping of the clay bricks as they shifted around her.

Gradually, as she lay there, she began to piece together the last... how long had she been there? It seemed like just minutes but there had been a raid, she remembered the explosion and the glass and... the nurse! The one Katarina had been talking to. Of course! It was her blood that was on her hands. Maria's heart missed a beat when she remembered the poor young woman bleeding to death. She blinked back a tear and took a breath. There would be no saving the poor girl now, she thought.

With a renewed strength, Maria pulled herself upwards, trying to free herself from whatever was pinning her. She succeeded in moving just a few centimetres but the movement caused the whole area to shift. Bricks clattered and fell as her legs left a small void for them to fill but she had destabilised the whole stack and a few bricks began to fall from above her. She covered her head, trying to protect herself from further injury and, mercifully, she succeeded.

The slight disturbance had allowed a thin shaft of light to penetrate the darkness. What she saw made her heart stop. The metallic object beside her was now partially illuminated, albeit dimly, but it was enough. She could see it was large and green and in the dull light she could just pick out some yellow lettering stencilled on it. It was hard to read but she could just about make out, '500lb' and below that, 'AN-M64' and finally, what could only be 'TNT'.

None of the lettering meant anything to her but she was quite clear that this was not an oxygen cylinder.

The blood in her veins froze as she realized that the only thing this could possibly be was an unexploded bomb!

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