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HomeDrama StoriesKindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 13

Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 13

Maria was thrown to the floor by the force of the blast...

Tripoli. June 8th, 1941


A whole month had gone since Maria arrived in North Africa and the time was passing by almost unnoticed.

The patients who came to her ward were mostly suffering from dysentery or minor wounds that would heal without the need for repatriation, so she barely had time to remember their names before they were gone.

There were so many cases of dysentery that she and her staff struggled to keep up with the demands that were placed upon them.

The extreme heat, the flies and the dust that got into everything all conspired to make life difficult but not unbearable, and between them, they managed to process every patient that was sent to them.

The daytime temperature was up to and sometimes in excess of thirty-five degrees now and night time didn't drop much below twenty. Trying to sleep was so difficult that she found herself constantly waking during the night and had to resort to taking catnaps from time to time as soon as she finished her duties.


Although today was Sunday, it was no different to any other day. Life, and in some unfortunate cases, death, continued just the same.

Maria had written several letters to Katarina but had not received any from her since mid-May. She was certain that something must be preventing the post from getting to her and she had no doubt whatsoever that she would write if she possibly could.

Letters from home seemed to arrive in bundles, and it had been almost three weeks between her last letter and the arrival of several all at once.

Her Mama wrote that all was well and things were continuing as normal in Munich.

She also wrote that a young Policeman had stopped her in the street and asked how her daughter was getting on.

“I think he is carrying a torch for you, Sweetheart,” she had written. “That was not the first time.”

That had amused Maria since she had thought of him as being so young.


In another letter, which Maria noted had been sent only a few days earlier, Anna had written that she had received a letter from Magda Langsdorff who said that Katarina had been posted to a hospital ship called Aquilea which was in the Mediterranean.

Upon reading this news, as soon as she had been able to find the time she had enquired with the harbourmaster's office as to whether the Aquilea was likely to come to Tripoli.

The Officer in charge had looked at her through narrowed eyes as though considering why she would ask about shipping movements.

Katarina was not slow to appreciate his situation.

“I just discovered that my sister is on board and I would dearly like to see her,” she explained.

The Harbour Master was a middle-aged Italian man who was carrying a few kilograms more than was healthy and his slick black hair was beginning to show flecks of grey.

Suddenly his lips broadened into a smile, and with sparkling eyes, he beckoned her closer to his desk.

She leaned towards him, horribly aware of his garlic laden breath. She hated garlic, and the strong aroma made her stomach churn with distaste, but she slowed her breathing to a minimum and listened carefully as he whispered, as though they were conspiring something together.


“Sunday?” Maria repeated. “This Sunday?”

The greying Italian nodded.

“Afternoon tide and you didn't hear it from me.”

Maria backed away slowly and took a discreet intake of fresh air once clear of this man's breath.


That was two days ago, and now she was watching the clock. The hands just didn't seem to be moving as quickly as she wanted them to.

This morning she had received the notification that any badly wounded soldiers were to be prepared for repatriation but this time she didn't have any. All of her current patients were either short-term sick or recovering from minor wounds, and so there was nothing for her to prepare.

From the windows of the ward, she could see the dockyard in the distance, but she deliberately didn't look out until the time for high tide approached.

Around midday, the orderlies appeared with the rations for her patients. Those with dysentery were allowed very little, just a few spoonfuls of a thin soup along with some medication but even this was enough to send some of them running to the latrines.

Those who simply had wounds were allowed a little more. Potato soup and a small amount of bread.

Maria sat at her desk and watched as one of her nurses, Agathe spoon fed one of the young men whose hands were both bandaged after they had been scorched whilst rescuing one of his less fortunate colleagues from a burning truck. Unfortunately, his comrade had not survived despite his best efforts, but his hands would heal from the superficial burns he had received.

Agathe was very gentle as she lifted the spoon to his lips or broke off a piece of bread for him and Maria wondered if there was some connection between them. She had already noticed that Agathe spent a little longer taking care of him than she did her other patients. That was not to say that she neglected any of them, far from it but Maria had sensed that something was different when it came to this young Afrika Korps soldier.

“You have noticed then, Matron.”

The voice behind her pulled her suddenly from her observations, and she turned her head to see who had spoken.

“Oh yes, Eva,” she smiled up at the nurse behind her. “She does seem rather taken with him doesn't she?”

“It'll end in tears,” her colleague replied. “Always does.”

“Then we will have to look after her if it does then, won't we?”

Eva looked at her for a moment and then softened, a small smile appearing.

“You always think good things, don't you, Matron? Doesn't anything ever get you down?”

Maria looked at her for a moment or two before answering her.

“Many things do, Eva but what is the point in dwelling on the bad things. Life is full of those. It is the good things that bring happiness. If I can ease the suffering of others, then I have nothing to reproach myself for. Don't you agree?”

Eva nodded slowly in agreement.

“You are a saint, Matron,” she laughed.

“No, I'm not, Eva, I'm just me. Just someone who wants to do the right thing.”


The conversation was halted abruptly when the whole ward shook from the force of an explosion at the dockyard quickly followed by a second and a third. They were under attack!

“Open all the windows and move the beds to the centre, quickly now!” she commanded as she ran to the nearest window.

As she pulled both sides open simultaneously, she briefly saw the grey and white aeroplane flying towards her and instinctively threw herself to the floor, seeking the protection of the more solid wall.

The British bomber roared overhead without dropping its bombs, and she breathed a sigh of relief, immediately getting back on her feet and helping her nurses.

By opening the windows wide, the pressure from a bomb exploding nearby would be reduced inside along with the chances of injury from flying glass, but there was still the possibility of debris coming through which was why the patients were moved into the centre.

There was little more they could do, and Maria wondered why there had been no warning.

Another big explosion and through the open window she could see ships burning in the harbour.

Although afraid, Maria put her own fears to one side as she constantly moved around the beds encouraging her nurses and reassuring the patients.

The noise was unbearable. Bombs screamed down, anti-aircraft guns and machine guns rattled, and aeroplanes roared overhead as they twisted and turned to avoid the withering anti-aircraft fire from the defenders.

From time to time she glanced quickly out of the window as she moved around and she saw an attacker dive into the water beyond the harbour with smoke and flame trailing behind it. Even with all the clamour of the attack going on around her she still found herself hoping that the pilot had managed to escape with his life.

Another explosion, closer this time and Maria felt as though she had been punched violently from behind as she was thrown to the floor by the force of the blast. The hospital shook alarmingly as debris rained down upon them.

For a while she lay still, struggling to breathe as though the air had been forced suddenly from her lungs. Soon though, she caught her breath and pulled herself up again to ensure that all was well with everyone else, checking and checking again. No-one appeared to have been injured, and on closer inspection, she realised that the debris was little more than small pieces of plaster and flakes of paint.

Most of the patients were able to shelter themselves beneath the beds, and those who couldn't move were assisted there, and so they were not further injured.


The raid seemed to go on forever but was probably little more than thirty minutes in reality and when Maria was satisfied it was over the task of cleaning up began.

The ward was in a terrible state. The beds were covered in dust and plaster, the floors too and several window panes had been broken.

None of the patients had been further injured but some, as was apparent by the pungent aroma had not been able to hold themselves because of their condition and had defecated where they sheltered.


It took several hours to clear up the mess from the raid, but with little outside help, the ward was finally getting back towards a semblance normality and to a point where Maria thought she could relax for a minute. She cleared the dust from her desk and sat down.

As she leaned back, however, a searing pain shot through her and she couldn't help but let out a little yelp.

She felt quite hot suddenly. Not from the heat of the day but inside, a heat that made her feel dizzy and sick and the voices around her began to feel distant and vague.

“Matron, are you all right?”

She looked up to see Agathe standing over her, but she couldn't focus properly.

“I'm not sure,” Maria tried to reply but her lips didn't seem to want to move, and her head was swimming.

By this time the other nurses had rushed to her at Agathe's bidding.

“She doesn't look at all well,” she heard one say.

“We'd better get her a bed and get a doctor,” another stated but she couldn't tell who and she felt herself being lifted gently to her feet.

The slow walk to the nearest bed seemed to help clear her head, and the unbearable sickly heat faded away.

“I'm all right now,” she told her colleagues, but nausea had given way to a feeling of weakness and chill.

“No, Matron you are not all right. Look at you; you are shivering. Let me take a look at you.”

Again it was Agathe who was taking the lead in her care and guided her to sit on the bed.

“Let me look at your back,” she repeated.

One of the others brought a screen and put it around the bed whilst Agathe unfastened her apron.

Maria slowly and painfully released the buttons down the front of her uniform and allowed Agathe to slip it carefully from her shoulders.

She heard an audible gasp.

“My goodness me!” the young nurse exclaimed. “No wonder you felt sick!”

“What? What is it?”

“Matron! You have a bruise right across your back! No wonder you felt weak!”

The memory flooded back.

“The explosion that blew me to the floor!” she exclaimed. “Something must have hit me.”

Agathe laughed whilst still staring at Maria's back.

“Something? An understatement I think, Matron. Whatever it was must have hit you with some force. I am amazed you got up so quickly.”

They were disturbed by a male voice from beyond the screens.

“I think you may want to see this.”

Agathe slipped Maria's dress back over her shoulders, and she buttoned it as quickly as her pain would allow.

The screens were moved away, and Maria looked up to see the young soldier that Agathe had been feeding, With his forearms he was holding a large piece of jagged metal about thirty centimetres across and about two centimetres thick.

Maria couldn't tell what it could possibly be as it seemed to be just a torn and twisted piece of steel.

Seeing him struggling with his bandaged hands, Agathe quickly took the piece of steel from him and immediately dropped it with a loud bang onto the floor. It was considerably heavier than she imagined it to be.

“Oops, sorry,” she said as she bent to retrieve it. “What is it and where did it come from?”

The young man told her he had seen it under his bed near to where Maria had been blown over.

“It's a fragment of bomb casing. It must have come through the window and hit you in the back, Matron,” he said directly to Maria. “I imagine it must have been almost spent otherwise it would have cut you in half. You are a very, very lucky lady, Ma'am.”

Maria was shocked to silence as she stared at the offending shrapnel that the young nurse was struggling to hold. The pain in her back was forgotten for the moment as she realised just how close she had come to being killed.

It was all too much, and she suddenly heaved and vomited onto the floor in front of her.

Almost at that exact instant the doctor arrived looking rather flustered but when he saw Maria looking so disheveled and sick his face quickly softened.

“Matron Kaufmann! What happened to you?”

Whilst Eva wiped her face with a wet cloth and gave her water to drink, Agathe showed him the piece of debris which she had now placed on Maria's desk. The doctor stared at it aghast.

“That hit you?” he said, eyes wide. “And you are not seriously hurt?”

Maria shook her head slowly.

“I don't think so,” she answered but not at all sure.

Without further ado, the astonished doctor carried out a thorough examination once the screens had been pulled together again.

When he saw the ever blackening bruise on her back, he stood back and scratched his head in amazement.

“Matron, someone up there is definitely looking after you today. There is no serious damage that I can find, and nothing appears broken, but that bruise is going to hurt like hell for a few days. Incredible!”

Every time she moved her shoulders or tried to straighten her back the pain was almost unbearable, but she couldn't stop now.

She fully expected more patients to arrive at any moment and so she drank the water that Eva had given her, fastened her clothes, took a deep breath and got slowly to her feet.

With gritted teeth, she held herself upright.

“You quite are right, Doctor,” she said with an immense effort. “It does hurt like hell!”

“Matron, I strongly advise that you rest.”

Seeing that she was about to protest he held his hand up in front of her.

“No, Matron I insist. If you don't rest whilst the contusion is still fresh, you will aggravate it and increase your healing time. You are a very experienced nurse, so I know that you understand what I am saying! Normally I would consider you a patient but under the circumstances...”

He paused and cast his eyes around the room.

“Maybe you should recover in your own bed. I will get the other Matrons to check on you as they come and go.”

As every breath took great effort, Maria reluctantly agreed, but before she went, she looked around her.

“Doctor, would help me with something then?”

The doctor nodded and waited.

“Could you arrange some labour to help my girls finish cleaning up and repair the windows, please?”

“That is the least I can do, Matron.”


With the aid of an orderly on each arm, Maria walked slowly to her room on the other side of the hospital. The normally short walk seemed to take forever, and so many people asked what had happened and was she all right that by the time she got into bed she was exhausted.

The orderlies had found some extra pillows from somewhere. They didn't say from where and she didn't ask.

Once settled she began to think about what had happened and the feeling of nausea returned as she remembered the size of the bomb fragment that had struck her.

She decided that it must have hit with a glancing blow on the flat side because she couldn't imagine how she would have survived if the jagged edge had struck her full on.

For a moment she closed her eyes and as soon as she began to relax her mind filled with horrific images and memories.

She remembered the explosions and the screaming sounds of the bombers as they roared overhead.

She saw the aeroplane that crashed into the sea and then she saw the tilting decks of the Meer Koenigin. Another explosion and the suffocating feeling as the water closed over her head and the panic as she searched for Katarina under the surface.

She remembered the attack on the Lakhota and the screaming shells and steel fragments crashing around the sick bay, and she couldn't bear any more. Her eyes snapped open, and she lay staring at the wall beside her. Her heart was racing and her breathing short and sharp. Each breath made her back throb, and she felt such a strong sense of loneliness.

For the first time since she had left her home for France, a whole year ago, she wished that she were back there, with Mama and Papa to tell her that everything would be all right and that she was safe.

She wasn't at home though, and she wasn't in France either, with her sister, laughing together and helping each other whenever the need arose.

Instead, she was alone in a hostile country, scorching hot and uncomfortable, a land where she very nearly ended her days.

She could feel the tears begin to well in her eyes and slowly she pushed herself upright.

“No!” she told herself. “You are not going to be so damned self-absorbed. Think of what so many other people have been through... are going through. How can you be so selfish to think that what has happened to you is so terrible?”

She took a deep breath and mentally slapped her face for being so self-pitying telling herself that she had no right to complain whilst good people were being dragged away just because of their beliefs and origins.

With a small lace handkerchief from the night-stand, she blew her nose then lay back as carefully as she could and once more closed her eyes.

This time there were no more images, no more memories to haunt her and despite the heat, she drifted off into a deep sleep.





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