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The Long Road Home. Chapter 4
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home. Chapter 4

They both laughed gently. It was good to hear someone had survived the escape from Tripoli unhurt.

After the frightening escape from North Africa, Maria and Katarina find time to rest but still have responsibilities...

Rome. January 19h 1943

It was well after midnight when, with a short, sharp blast of the locomotive's whistle, the train signalled it was ready to leave. The carriage in which the two young sisters were sitting gave a sudden jolt and then, with another, began to move. Almost imperceptibly at first, it rolled slowly along the quayside before turning away from the water and passed between the warehouses.

The track was very uneven and the steel flanges of the wheels squealed noisily when they rubbed against the steel rails as they clattered and rocked over points and crossovers. Even travelling at what was barely a walking speed, the movement was quite uncomfortable.

After several minutes, however, the landscape of the docks changed as the train joined the main line and began to pick up a little speed.

It was too dark to see anything outside with any clarity and so, Katarina and Maria settled back in their respective couches and closed their eyes. Katarina, particularly, was so exhausted that she felt she could have slept anywhere and soon she drifted into a deep sleep.

Maria, too, closed her eyes but for her, sleep would not come. Even the rhythmic 'clickety-clack' of the wheels passing over the rail joints only served to keep her awake.

She finally decided to stretch her legs and maybe get some air so, as quietly as she could, she slid open the compartment door, stepped through and closed it equally carefully behind her. At the end of the carriage was a door which opened into a vestibule where she could open a window without disturbing anyone.

To her surprise, when she stepped through the door, she found she wasn't the only one who couldn't sleep.

“Hanna!”

“Hello, Matron!” Hanna greeted her with a broad smile. “I heard that you got here. How did you do it? Are you all right?”

“Oh, it's a long story, Hanna but what about you? I heard you had a nasty fall. Shouldn't you be resting?”

Hanna sighed.

“Yes, I should but...”

“But what?” Maria asked.

“Didn't Matron Langsdorf tell you what happened?”

“She said you fell down some stairs and that she caught you.”

Hanna laughed.

“A bit of an understatement, Matron. I fell from the top to the bottom and landed on top of her. She was knocked right out!”

Maria chuckled.

“Oh, good heavens!” she laughed. “She didn't tell me that. So, what about you?”

“My thigh is badly bruised. It isn't too bad now, standing up but when I try to sleep the pressure becomes too painful and wakes me.”

“Ah, yes. I see. I don't know what to suggest other than maybe a sedative to help you sleep.”

“I'd rather not, Matron. The pain isn't quite unbearable, it aches a lot but I'll be patient. I am sure it will ease soon.”

Maria put her hand on Hanna's shoulder.

Katarina and I are both here for you, Hanna. If it gets too much, let us know.”

Hanna nodded.

“I will, Matron. Thank you.”

Maria fell silent for a moment and then asked,

“Anneliese and Ilsa. Did they both get out all right?”

Hanna smiled.

“Yes, and without any damage too! They are asleep in the next carriage.”

They both laughed gently. It was good to hear that someone had survived the escape from Tripoli unhurt.

 

When Katarina opened her eyes, the morning sun was streaming through the grubby window. On the couch opposite, Maria was still sleeping. She checked her watch, it showed almost eight O'Clock.

Outside, she could see the green countryside stretching away into the distance. It looked like it was going to be another warm day as there wasn't a cloud in the sky. One thing she had noticed, however, was that the train wasn't moving.

At the end of the carriage was a small wash-room and there was just enough room for her to be able to freshen herself a little. On her return she found Maria sitting up and looking out of the window.

“It's going to take forever to get home if we keep stopping,” she sighed.

Maria looked up with a serious expression.

“Home?” she said in a quite puzzled tone. “Didn't they tell you?”

Katarina's heart sank.

“Tell me what?”

“We're not going home, Katarina. We are going to a recuperation centre near Rome.”

Maria picked up her bag and fumbled inside for a moment then pulled out an envelope. Inside were her travel documents.

“It says here that the train is going to Naples first where our patients are to be assessed. The less serious cases will be transferred to a temporary sanatorium until they are fit to return to service and those who are more seriously wounded will then continue to Rome where the Italians have more surgical equipment to aid their recovery.”

Katarina sat down on her own seat opposite her sister.

“And then what?”

Maria scanned the documents.

“It doesn't say,” she replied at length. “I suppose we will get new orders when we get there. I did notice that all the train staff are Italian so I imagine they won't know either.”

Looking out of the window, Katarina sighed.

“Oh well,” she said without turning away. “I suppose we weren't expecting to go home any time soon anyway.” A brief pause and then, “Have you heard from Mama and Papa?”

Maria noticed that she omitted the word 'our' but said nothing.

“No,” she replied simply. “Have you?”

Katarina shook her head.

“Not for weeks,” she replied. “I expect the post is messed up because of the retreat.”

Maria nodded her agreement.

“Probably,” she said.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The train finally squealed to a halt in a siding in Naples some two hours later and was immediately boarded by members of a Heer medical unit. Both Katarina and Maria went to find the officer in charge.

The Officer in question turned out to be a very young, blond-haired, blue-eyed junior officer who didn't appear old enough to be qualified in anything never mind as a medical officer.

As he approached the step at the end of the rearmost carriage, Maria jumped down and approached him whilst Katarina remained inside.

“I am Matron Maria Kaufmann of the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz,” she said before he had a chance to speak. I and my...” she paused a moment before continuing, “...my colleague, Matron Katarina Langsdorf are the senior German medical staff on board.”

The officer clicked his heels and bowed slightly.

“I am Leutnant Assistenzarzt, Franz Bernauer...”

Maria raised an eyebrow.

“Bernauer?”

“Yes,” the young officer replied slowly. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no, of course not. I'm sorry but it is a very familiar name in Munich... erm, you're not from Munich, are you?”

“No, I'm from Flensburg, why?”

“Oh, just a thought. Agnes Bernauer is a big figure in Munich's history. I just wondered you know...”

The officer narrowed his eyes,

“Right, well, that's all well and good but I have a job to do so if you don't mind...”

“Yes, of course.” Maria was somewhat taken aback. “I gather that you are to assess the severity of the cases for rehabilitation?”

“I am here to ensure that there is no-one on this train who is fit for duty. Any that are will be sent to the eastern front!”

Maria frowned.

“There are no malingerers on this train, Herr Leutnant, if that is what you are suggesting.”

The young man took a deep breath and drew himself up.

I will be the judge of that, Matron Kaufmann. Now, if you will stand aside...”

“Just one moment, Herr Leutnant.” Maria stood firm. “Matron Langsdorf and I have been responsible for these casualties all the way from Tripoli. We did not bring them here for a boy like you to just send them straight off to the front line!”

The 'boy' went purple in the face.

“I could have you shot for that!” he hissed. “I am a Leutnant Assistanzarzt of the...” before he could finish, Maria, having slipped her armband over her sleeve, interrupted him.

“And I am a Hauptmann Matron, Herr Leutnant! I could have you shot but my duty is to preserve life, not take it so... shall we start again?”

“I... I'm sorry, I didn't realise. I...”

Maria didn't press the point but asked him, “How long have you been an officer, Herr Leutnant?”

The young man blushed.

“Four days ago. I finished my training on Friday and was sent straight here. I arrived yesterday and given this task only this morning...” His voice trailed off with embarrassment.

“Let me give you a little advice,” she offered. “There is enough to contend with in this war without having to fight our own people. Now, correct me if I am wrong but you joined the Sanitätsdienst to help keep people alive, right?”

The youngster nodded his agreement.

“Good. I have been a nurse for almost ten years and I have seen things that you cannot even imagine but rest assured that as this war progresses you too will see such things at first hand. Don't try to be the hard man, that will just make your life even more difficult. You will need all the help you can get. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Frau Hauptmann, I do but...”

Maria frowned.

“But what?” she asked.

“I still have to assess your patients.”

She smiled.

“Yes, of course you do. Matron Langsdorf and myself will assist you but I want assurances that those soldiers who are assessed as likely to become fit for duty will be given rest to allow them to return to full health, agreed?”

“Ma'am, I... I can't make such promises. I am only to make the assessments. The senior officers will make those decisions.”

“Hmm...” Maria thought for a moment. “Yes, you are right. You may carry out the assessments but only with our supervision. Now give me two minutes to brief my colleague and we can begin.”

She turned and walked quickly back to the train and bounded up the steps. Katarina was waiting just inside the saloon.

“His name is Leutnant Assistenzarzt, Franz Bernauer,” Maria told her quickly. “He is just out of training and eager to make his mark. You take him through the first coach and I will meet you at the next.”

Katarina did get the chance to reply but saw immediately her sister's eyes were sparkling with mischief.

No sooner had Maria run through the door at the other end so the young, baby-faced officer appeared.

“Matron Kaufmann. I must insist that we...” He stopped mid-sentence and stared at Katarina's face.

“Is something wrong, Herr Leutnant?”

He didn't answer immediately. His visage made it obvious that something was troubling him.

“Herr Leutnant?” Katarina repeated.

“Your face...” he began

Katarina feigned surprise.

“My face?” she questioned him. “What about it?”

The troubled young man shook his head.

“Erm, no, nothing. Never mind,” he answered mysteriously. “We must get on.”

Katarina smiled.

“After you,” she said, standing to one side and then followed him into the corridor. “The first compartments are the nurses but the second half of this carriage is for the more mobile of the wounded. Those who should make a full recovery within a few weeks and don't need a couch or stretcher.

The Leutnant slid back the door of the first compartment which contained casualties. He pointed at the first man sitting nearest to the door, a very tanned Gefreiter who's arm was in a sling and bandaged around the upper half of his torso.

“You! What is your injury?” he asked, sharply.

“Shoulder wound,” came the languid reply.

The young officer glared at him.

“Is that how you address an officer of the German Army?” he growled

The Private looked him up and down, taking in the starched stiff uniform and gleaming black boots but, more so, at the boy's face looking down at him. His eyes narrowed and as he began to push himself up from his seat Katarina stopped him, raising her hand and shaking her head.

“Stay where you are, Gefreiter. That wound needs to be kept as still as possible if you are to make a good recovery.” The last part was directed at the young Leutnant who looked as though he had been slapped.

“You!” he barked again and pointed at the soldier in the opposite corner by the window who ignored him totally.

He took a step into the compartment and was about to kick the soldier's foot when Katarina said,

“He's blind, flash burns. He should regain his sight, given time but we cannot be sure.”

Again, the officer blustered.

“I... I see. Good.”

This continued for the remaining compartments and by the time they reached the end of the carriage, Leutnant Bernauer was looking decidedly uneasy.

Once again, Katarina allowed him to go before her as they crossed into the next carriage but as she passed the wash-room, the door opened and |Maria grabbed her and pulled her inside.

“Sshhh...” she hissed, with her finger to her lips and a crafty wink of her eye and stepped out into the vestibule.

“These soldiers are also walking wounded,” she said from behind the Leutnant. He didn't respond but when he slid open the first compartment door, instead of his previous brusque manner he turned around.

And what is wrong with each of...” he stopped and stared once again. His eyes narrowed and his mouth moved but the words he needed didn't materialise.

“Is something wrong, Leutnant?” Maria asked him.

“No... well, yes. Yes, there is. Your face...” he stuttered.

“Oh, don't worry about that. Just a few little scratches and bruises. They will be gone in a day or two.” Her smile was sweetly exaggerated.

“Yes but... I don't get it... I mean, just now, in the other carriage... they were... well, gone!”

Maria forced a gentle laugh.

“Oh, come now, Leutnant. Even with as little experience as you have, surely you must know that is just not possible. Perhaps it was a trick of the light.”

Leutnant Bernauer looked quite pale now.

“Yes, that must be it,” he agreed. “A trick of the light. Yes, that was it.”

Further along the carriage, Maria ensured that they went inside a compartment and while they were occupied with the patients, Katarina hurried past and hid in the wash-room of the next carriage.

 

Once again, as they passed between the carriages, Maria stepped aside and allowed the Leutnant to go ahead. As soon as he entered the next corridor, Maria tapped on the wash-room door and Katarina came out as she slipped inside.

“Aha!” the Leutnant exclaimed.

“What?” Katarina gasped. Her heart missed a beat.

“The more seriously wounded!” he declared.

“Oh, Oh yes. I see.” She tried to conceal the relief in her voice. “Yes, the next few carriages are the stretcher cases. There are no patients in here who will be fit enough for a rest centre. These all need special surgical care.”

“Nevertheless, You won't mind if I...” As he turned to face her his jaw dropped a little. “...if I...” His eyes narrowed as his train of thought failed him.

Suddenly, he squeezed his eyelids tightly closed, shook his head and then opened them again, only to resume staring at her face.

“Herr Leutnant, are you feeling all right?” Katarina looked most concerned. “It is quite warm if you are not used to it. Why don't you sit down for a moment?”

Leutnant Bernauer didn't reply but stepped nearer to her and examined her face closely.

“It doesn't make sense,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “It can't be a trick of the light...”

Katarina almost felt sorry for the boy.

“I'm sorry?” she said. “What can't be a trick of the light?”

He turned away without answering her and, since she knew exactly what was troubling him, Katarina said no more.

The casualties in this carriage were quite severe and some were lucky just to have survived the sea crossing. By the time they reached the end, the inexperienced doctor/soldier was looking somewhat sick.

Now, Katarina did feel sorry for him and began to wonder whether she should admit the trick that she and her identical twin sister were playing on him.

Again, as they passed between the carriages, the two young women swapped places and Maria followed him through the door.

No words were exchanged and as soon as she approached him once inside, he turned immediately and stared at her face.

“M... Matron Kaufmann...” he stuttered. “I don't...”

Maria finally took pity on him but only a little.

“Leutnant Bernauer. It is clear to me that you are not at all used to seeing men in such poor condition. Why don't you go and get some fresh air? My colleagues and I will arrange for the transfer of the less serious cases. I am sure that you have arranged transport for them?”

“Y, yes. I have... erm, that is, well, there will be transport here shortly...” He pushed his cap back and wiped his shining brow. “If you will excuse me, Matron?”

Maria stepped aside and the hapless young man stumbled down the carriage steps and walked unsteadily towards the buildings across the tracks. To her, he appeared considerable less self-assured than when he had first arrived.

 

True to his word, several Italian trucks began to arrive some ten minutes after his departure and Maria and Katarina, along with Annaliese and Ilsa, assisted the Italian Orderlies with the transfer. It took some time to carefully move them all across to the waiting lorries and as they worked, the Locomotive was detached and disappeared for a while. Maria reasoned that it had gone for coal and water.

One of the lorries was a supply truck and field kitchen which was quickly set up to provide a hot meal for everyone. Each of the patients in the trucks was given a dish of spaghetti with a ladle of meat on top. Once they were served, the orderlies from the train were then able to take care of their own patients who still remained on board.

For Katarina, it was the first good meal she had tasted since leaving Tripoli and she felt that she would never enjoy another that could possibly taste better.

 

The sun was fading once again by the time the train was ready to depart on the final leg of the journey to Rome. Still some two hundred kilometres away, it would likely take the whole night to get there.

The whistle blew and Maria stepped up into the last carriage and turned to close the door. As she did so, she saw that the young Leutnant Assistanzartz Bernauer was standing a few metres away.

He walked over when he saw her.

“Matron Kaufmann,” he called. “Two things. I don't understand what has happened to me and I apologise for my behaviour. I think maybe the heat was causing me to see things that didn't really happen.”

“I understand, Herr Leutnant and don't worry, I put it down to your age and inexperience. And the other thing?”

“Thank you, Ma'am,” he replied. “The other thing is your colleague, Matron Langsdorf. I never saw her.”

He shouted the last few words above the noise of the locomotives second and longer whistle.

“Yes you did, Herr Leutnant...” and as the carriage jerked and began to move, Katarina joined her sister in the doorway.

The young man's jaw dropped and he rubbed his eyes with disbelief.

“Arrivederci, Leutnant Bernauer,” she called as they stepped back inside and closed the door.

 

The overnight journey to Rome was uneventful and the two tired sisters slept, each taking turns at intervals to take a walk through the train to check on the passengers. Nothing was needed, however, and by daybreak n the morning of the nineteenth, the train squealed to a halt alongside an almost deserted platform. Katarina looked for the station nameplate but when she found it she was none the wiser. She sighed.

“I thought we had arrived,” she said, somewhat disheartened. “This isn't Rome, it's someplace called Ciampino.”

Maria grinned.

“It is Rome,” she laughed. “I have been here before!”

Katarina stared at her.

“You have? When?”

“Oh, almost two years ago now. Ciampino is where the airfield is. This is where I stopped over when I flew to Tripoli back in 'forty-one.”

Katarina suddenly became thoughtful.

“You don't think...?”

“What,” Maria asked.

“You don't think they will be flying us home, do you? I don't think I want to be parted from you just yet...”

“Hmm...” Maria held her chin. “Well, I can see the sense of having a medical camp near the airfield. It would be easier to repatriate the more severe cases from here.”

With that thought, they fell silent, each lost in her own thoughts.

They would not have long to wait until all would be revealed.

 

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