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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 29.
By
AnnaMayZing

Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 29.

“What happened to you? Are you all right?”

Tripoli. May 26th 1942

 

Several minutes had elapsed before the overwhelmed sisters were able to relax enough to relinquish their grip on each other. So emotional were they that they just sat and looked at each other, each gripping the other's hand so tightly it was as if they would never let go.

With an atmosphere that was so highly charged, Anneliese and Hanna could do nothing but stand silently and watch, their own tears of joy rolling freely down their cheeks and falling from their chins. They even held each other's hands.

Suddenly, Hanna shook herself free from her friends vice like grip.

“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed, wiping away the tears with her handkerchief and blowing her nose. “You'd think it was us!”

Anneliese, too, wiped her eyes and blew her nose as quietly as she could, looking sideways at Hanna and smiling sheepishly.

Katarina sat up straight and faced her sister. Still holding both her hands she looked concerned and frowned.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice taking on a serious tone. “What happened to you? Are you all right?”

Maria smiled.

“Am I all right?” she laughed. “What about you? You have cuts and bruises and are swathed in bandages and you ask if I'm all right! What on earth happened?”

Still concerned for her sister, Katarina dismissed the question.

“It's nothing. I was blown up, that's all, it's not serious but how long have you been here? I had no idea, no-one told me. What happened to you? First, you were on a British ship, which, by the way, I was told had been bombed... then I find out that you weren't after all but could have been killed in a bombing raid and now you are here... Oh my Lord, Maria, I am so pleased to see you, you have no idea!”

Once again she threw her arms around Maria's neck and held her tightly.

Anneliese turned to Hanna.

“They really are sisters aren't they?” she said with a chuckle.

Maria mumbled inaudibly into her sister's shoulder which prompted Katarina to release her.

“Well,” she began, “I almost was all of those things but I actually was stung by a scorpion.”

Katarina gasped.

“A scorpion! But they are treatable, aren't they? I have seen one or two in the few weeks I have been here.”

Maria smiled.

“Treatable? Yes, but I was quite weak and a little dehydrated when it stung me. I thought I had just scratched my hand and so I didn't say anything.” She paused for a moment and looked over at Hanna and Anneliese. “They saved my life, I think but I don't really know much about it but look, come on, how did you get blown up and why is your head bandaged?”

“All right, in a minute but you don't know what happened to you?” she turned to the other two.

It was Annaliese who spoke.

“She only really came round this morning, Matron,” she said a little sheepishly. “We wanted to wait until she was fully awake and settled before we went through it all. She has been semi-comatose for three days but she does seem better now.”

“Yes,” Hanna chipped in. “I think finding you again has really brought her back to us.”

Maria lay back against her pillows.

“So what happened after the little storehouse? I remember laying on the couch in the ambulance but everything after that is either hazy or a complete blank.”

Anneliese took up the story.

“When we stopped for the night I thought that you looked a little pale. I put it down to all the effort that you had put into the day but soon after you began to mumble and groan as though you were dreaming. In the following few minutes, you began to twitch and you seemed to be in pain but we couldn't rouse you. Finally, you had a full-blown seizure and you were frothing at the mouth. Hanna and I were so frightened but we knew that we had to find help or there was a chance that you could die. You had told us of the dangers of driving in the dark but we had no choice, we took the covers off the headlights so we could see our way back to the main track.”

Anneliese stopped to take a breath and Hanna took over the tale.

“We knew it was a risk but we had no options left. I remembered that you had mentioned a small town called Az Zuwaytinah. It didn't matter now whether it was in British, German, Italian or even Libyan hands, it was your only hope.”

“When we got there,” Annaliese continued, “we found it in German hands after all but they had very little resources. All they had was some anti-venom which they let us have and it seemed to settle you a bit but you were so out of it that we decided to bring you to Tripoli. We couldn't go to Benghazi because there was still fighting going on, as far as we were aware, so we brought you here.”

Maria couldn't believe what she was hearing!

“You drove all night to bring me here?” she asked. “Az Zuwaytinah is around nine hundred kilometres away, you must have driven for two days straight!”

“It wasn't so far, Matron,” Hanna told her. “The numbers on the speedometer had only risen by five hundred and sixty by the time we got here. I made a point of checking so I knew how far we had travelled each time we changed over.”

Maria frowned.

“It is certainly almost a thousand kilometres,” she asserted. “I checked the maps several times, as you know.”

“This ambulance,” Katarina asked thoughtfully. “Did you steal it from the British?”

Maria suddenly looked at her, puzzled.

“Yes!” she said with a quizzical stare, “How did you know?”

“I heard it from a British officer who was brought in this afternoon. He said he recognised me from Benghazi but, obviously, it was you he saw. In an alleyway, he said, but anyway, that would explain why you counted so few kilometres, Hanna.”

Now it was Hanna's turn to be puzzled so Katarina explained.

“The British don't measure in kilometres,” she said, “They use miles which are considerably longer, so nine hundred kilometres is about right for the journey you took.”

Again, Maria seemed a little confused.

“We left Benghazi on the thirtieth so it was the thirty-first when I got stung...” she tried hard to think as she slowly worked out the date. “You said two days so it is the third today then if I came round this morning?”

Anneliese smiled.

“No, Matron. Today is the fourth. You stirred briefly only last evening but then went back to sleep... proper sleep I mean, not coma. You woke properly this morning.”

Katarina took Maria's hand again and squeezed it.

“I wish I had known you were here, Maria...”

“From what I heard this morning, Matron,” Hanna interrupted, “It wouldn't have made any difference if you had known. You weren't exactly running around, yourself, were you?”

Maria glared at her sister.

“What does she mean, 'Trina. What are you not telling me?”

Katarina sighed.

“I suppose she is right. There was an accident with a lorry, yesterday. It exploded and I was caught in the blast. My eardrum burst and the other was slightly damaged. That's what the bandages are for. So that I don't get an infection whilst it heals.”

Maria opened her mouth to protest but as she did so the door opened and an Italian ward sister put her head around the door.

“I 'ave visitor for you,” she said in heavily accented German but then stared at Katarina for a moment and frowned.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Katarina replied. “Should I leave?”

The nurse looked at Maria and then back at Katarina.

“Er, no... 'salright,” she replied slowly. “How you...? Which one is...?” She shook her head in confusion. “No, no matter, no tell...” She stood back to allow the visitor to enter and then quickly departed, shaking her head as she went.

“You found her then?”

It was the Surgeon who had found Katarina earlier.

Katarina frowned.

“Yes, thank you, I did but how was it you didn't know she was here?”

“It would seem that the Italians were in no hurry to inform me that three of our nurses had turned up from the desert. I just found the file on my desk when I came out of theatre a few minutes ago.”

“But they arrived yesterday...”

The surgeon shrugged his shoulders.

“So I believe,” he replied. “I sent an orderly to find you and he obviously did.”

No, actually, I bumped into Nurse...”

“Schröder,” Annaliese whispered.

“... in the corridor. She brought me here.”

The doctor, stayed just long enough to give Maria a thorough examination and to ensure that the venom from the Scorpion sting was gone from her system. When he was satisfied he opened the file he was carrying and took out some documents.

“I think that the best remedy for all your ailments is complete rest so I have authorised some leave. I think two weeks should be enough to get you all back to fitness.”

He handed travel documents to each of them.

Anneliese and Hanna were delighted, they hadn't seen their families for so long but Katarina and Maria just looked at the documents and then, without a word passing between them they simultaneously handed their documents back to the doctor.

It was Maria who spoke first.

“I am very grateful, I really am and, in other circumstances, I would be happy to go home, even if only for a few days, but...” She looked at her sister. “If we go home now we will be apart again and I...” again she looked at Katarina and saw the expression in her eyes, “...we just couldn't bear that, not now.”

Annaliese and Hanna looked at each other awkwardly, a look that didn't go unnoticed by Maria who smiled.

“Don't worry,” she said gently, “You two can still go home... but make sure you come back!” she added with mock severity!

As he turned to leave, the doctor spoke to Anneliese and Hanna.

“Would you two come with me to my office, please. I would like to hear from you both exactly what happened in Benghazi.”

When they were alone, Katarina pulled up a chair and sat beside her sister.

“We have so much to talk about, you and I, that I don't know where to begin. It has been so hard this past ten months, discovering that we are sisters and being so far away from you that I couldn't tell you how I felt.”

“I felt it too, Katarina,” Maria replied. “I felt so bad for you and I didn't know how to deal with it. For me, nothing had changed other than my best friend... my only real friend... was now my sister but you had so much more to contend with. I... I just couldn't...”

Katarina placed a finger gently on Maria's lips.

“You don't have to worry, Maria. I was very upset at first but happy too. I had you in my life and I... That is, we, Mama, Papa and I... Well, we went to see your Mama and Papa and...”

She stopped and her face took on a slightly pained expression as the thoughts once again spun around inside her head.

“Maria, I know they are actually our Mama and Papa but I don't know them, not really, not like you do. Do you mind very much that I want to keep my own, just as I have always known them?”

Her head resting on her hand as she lay semi-prone facing her, Maria reached out with her free hand and cupped her sister's cheek.

“I don't mind at all, Katarina,” she said with a smile. “I am just happy that we can all understand and remain, friends... good friends. My only regret is that it has taken so long for us to finally be together again.”

Katarina smiled and nodded her head as she placed her hand against her face, clasping that of her sister.

Words did not come readily to either of them at that point and it was Katarina who broke the silence.

“It seems that we have two weeks to talk about it so I think that I should let you rest now, get some proper sleep. I will see you first thing in the morning.”

As she went to stand, Maria gripped her arm more firmly, prompting her to remain seated.

“I have to tell you something before you go,” she said. “Do you remember Agathe and Trudi?”

“Yes, certainly I do. It was Agathe who was very seasick, wasn't it, on the Meer Königin?”

“Yes,” Maria confirmed. “They are both dead, 'Trina.”

Katarina's eyes opened wide and her mouth fell open with the shock.

“What? But how, Maria? They were such good nurses!”

“It was the day we arrived in Benghazi, back in June. It was during the night and we were approaching the city when the convoy was attacked from the air. Maybe they couldn't see the red crosses in the darkness but Agathe was driving and Trudi was beside her. They were both killed when the bullets ripped through the windscreen.”

Katarina slumped back into the chair with a deep sigh and shook her head.

“How many more good people must we lose before this ridiculous war ends.”

Maria continued.

“Agathe said something before she died. She said we had to find each other and that she loved us. Well, Katarina, we have found each other and now she can rest in peace.”

Katarina nodded sadly.

“Yes, we have,” she agreed. “I pray to God that we are never parted again.”

In the following days, the two of them were inseparable, spending every waking hour together. They talked about everything that had happened since they had been parted. They would walk in the grounds, enjoying the warm sunshine and on the days that it rained, which were becoming more frequent, they stalked the corridors of the hospital.

As they passed, many people would do a double-take, especially after Katarina had her bandages removed.

Now they were together again, their mischievous streak began to rise to the surface once more and sometimes, when they came to a corner in a corridor, one of them would go around first and then the other would follow shortly after. Anyone they encountered would acknowledge the first of them and then, rounding the corner would encounter the other...

“Good Morning, Matron,” they would say to which the reply could be, “Good morning, Sister.” They would then continue around the corner where they would find the other.

“Good Morning, Matron,” they would say again and then suddenly look back with a very confused look on their face. “Good morning, Sister,” she would reply and continue to quickly catch up with her sister.

After the first few days neither Maria, nor Katarina could ignore the activities around them. By the Seventh of February, Rommel and the Afrika Korps had pushed the allied forces all the way back almost to Tobruk where, at Gazala, they had halted due to supply problems.

During this time there had been a constant flow of casualties and the hospital had been so busy that neither of them could remain detached from it and gradually found themselves getting involved in helping and guiding the staff wherever it was needed.

Katarina's hearing returned to normal after three weeks and in that time, both girls were like new again. The smiles had returned to their faces and although the horrors they had faced still loomed large in their lives they weren't troubled by them so much as now they had each other.

The number of German casualties had increased significantly since Maria's arrival in June and there was enough work to keep them both busy. Since there were now more wards under German administration they were each allocated several to take care of.

As the weeks progressed, things settled into a steady routine. With Rommel holding at Gazala and only minor skirmishes taking place, the workload remained constant but manageable.

February gave way to March and the days were becoming noticeably warmer although the rains continued as regularly as before.

Both Katarina and Maria liked the rain. Even though everywhere became so dirty and muddy, the air was sweet and clean after a deluge and it didn't take very long to dry out.

Katarina also had extra reason to be happy, she had acquired a helper. Several days after the accident with the lorry, she and Maria had been walking in the grounds close to the entrance when she spotted an Arab woman and a little girl aged around eight years. She recognised the child instantly.

As soon as the little girl saw her she immediately ran over, leaving her mother calling after her in Arabic. Suddenly, she stopped and stared at Maria and then at Katarina, her face contorted in confusion.

Katarina smiled.

“Meine Schwester,” she said but the child didn't understand German.

As her mother approached, the little girl looked up to her and tugged at her robes.

“Do you speak any German?” Katarina asked her.

“Little,” the mother replied.

Katarina was as brief as she could be.

“Do you understand 'Sister'?” she asked and when the woman nodded she indicated the girl and said simply, “Tell her.”

At that, the woman pointed to Maria and said something quite unintelligible to Katarina's ears, The child suddenly grinned widely and grabbed Maria's hand and shook it wildly.

Now it was Maria's turn to look puzzled and Katarina explained.

“This,” she said, “is the child I dragged from under the burning lorry whilst you were laying tucked up in bed.”

“Ah, I see...”

The child had sustained only minor cuts and bruises which had healed quite well by this time and this chance meeting led to the child becoming a regular visitor to the hospital where she helped out on the wards with little things like helping to fold bandages and take messages. Although she couldn't speak a word of German she seemed to understand what was wanted of her. Whenever she saw Katarina or Maria her little face would light up and she would always run and greet them.

In return, she would be given chocolate or a few lira for her family.

One morning, Katarina realised that she had no idea what the girl was called and so, when she appeared as she always did, Katarina beckoned her over.

“What is your name?” she asked gently. The child just stared at her with that blank look of incomprehension.

She persevered and pointed to herself.

“I am Katarina,” she said and then repeated but slower. “Kat-a-ri-na.”

Still, the girl said nothing but frowned at her.

Again she pointed to herself.

“Kat-a-ri-na... Katarina.”

At that moment, Maria appeared after finishing her work a little later than usual and walked over to them, crouching down beside her sister.

Without taking her eyes of the girl, Katarina pointed to Maria.

“Ma-ri-a... Maria,” and then to herself. “Katarina.”

“Rania!” the girl said so suddenly that Katarina almost toppled backwards. Pointing to herself she repeated, “Rania!” Then she pointed first to Katarina and then to Maria, saying in a thick Arabic accent, “Kat-a-ri-na,” and “Ma-ri-a.”

Weeks turned into months and the warm but often rainy weather became hot and dry weather and by the end of May the thermometer was pushing up into the low thirties... outside. Inside, though, the heat was stifling and the windows of the wards were kept open almost permanently.

Air raids on the port happened often and many of the casualties included sailors from ships that had been attacked in transit to Tripoli but then, on the twenty-sixth of May, news came through that the supplies that Katarina and Maria had seen passing through the city had reached the troops and Rommel had begun to move against the Allied positions at Gazala...

 

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