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Kindred Spirits, Distant hearts. Chapter 9

“I am Corporal Giuseppe De Lorenzo, at your service, Signorina!”

  

 

 

 

Tripoli. May 05 th 1941

 

 

The flight from Munich to Rome had been uneventful. By the time they had left the ground it was half past eleven and the whole journey had been under cover of darkness.

Maria had slept only fitfully, dozing off only to wake a few minutes later by the droning of the engines and vibrations through the airframe. They had even encountered a little turbulence which had caused them to drop and rise once or twice.

She had hated that. The feeling in her stomach as they dropped and then almost instantly rose again her feel so sick but fortunately, it wasn't constant.

 

For the whole five hour flight she had thought about her her sister, Katarina and was so unhappy that she had not been able to visit her, even for a few hours. There were so many things she wanted to say to her and yet none of them really mattered. The important thing was just to see her as her sister instead of a very good friend. Now she didn't know when that meeting would be and each time she closed her eyes she could see Katarina's happy, smiling face and sparkling, ice blue eyes. Other times that vision gave way to her laying in the sick bay onboard HMS Lakhota, unconscious and feverish. It was at that point that Maria's eyes would snap open accompanied by a sharp intake breath.

 

As they approached Rome, Maria had been awestruck by the most beautiful sunrise she had ever seen. It was four-fifty in the morning and the black sky was just beginning to give way to a deep velvet blue in a thin line along the horizon. There were no clouds and the bright shimmering stars were starting to fade as the rising sun began to push back the darkness.

Once the aeroplane had come to a halt, Maria waited patiently whilst the engines were shut down and a strange peace ensued. After five hours of the noise and vibrations that she had become accustomed to, the silence and calm was like a great tension being lifted away and she sighed as she allowed herself to relax for a moment.

She hadn't waited long, however before the navigator appeared and took her to a waiting car.

“The driver will take you to a local hotel where you can rest for the day but please don't stray far. A car will collect you tonight at eight. We must leave soon after sunset.”

 

Katarina was so tired from her journey that she barely noticed the ever lightening sky now and when she arrived at the small hotel close to the Ciampino airfield she went straight to her room. As soon as her head hit the pillow she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

She awoke with a start and, just for a moment she wondered where she was. It was only for a moment and when the memory pushed through her sleep befuddled mind she allowed herself to relax and lay back for a minute or two.

The room was warm and stuffy so she soon arose and went to the window, pulled back the curtains and opened the large door-like window. It opened outwards onto a small balcony and she had leaned on the rail whilst she took a deep breath of fresh air and enjoyed the warm sun on her face.

It was then that she had realised just how quiet everything was. Other than the vague, distant sounds from the airfield there was nothing. No people, no traffic, just the continuous chirping of crickets, a sound that reminded her of the walks she had shared with Katarina in the hospital grounds in Gibraltar. The noise fascinated her. It was such a relaxing, peaceful sound that for a moment she had tilted her face towards the sun with closed eyes and enjoyed the tranquillity.

 

She was dragged from her reverie by a low whistle from below and she opened her eyes and looked downwards, the direction from which she thought the sound had emanated.

Standing alone in the courtyard was a lone Italian soldier looking up at her, shielding his eyes from the sun which glistened on his slick, jet black hair.

“Bella!” he said loudly since she was two stories above him. “Bella Donna!”

Maria was puzzled. Here was another language of which she knew nothing. She guessed correctly that it was Italian because it sounded the same language as the guard who took them off the train at Taranto and she didn't know what he had said either!

“What?” she said simply.

“Oh, Scusi! Sei Tedesco!” he replied and then, before she had time to speak again said, “Sorry, Sorry, you are German?”

“Yes,German,” she confirmed. “I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian.”

“'Is alright,” he smiled, “I say German.”

“Speak,” Maria replied, somewhat amused now but the soldier frowned.

“Scusi?” he replied looking puzzled.

“You speak German.”

The young man was even more puzzled.

“Si, I know.”

He shrugged his shoulders as he spoke but then realisation dawned on him.

“Ohh... I speak German!”

He laughed out loud. “Not, I say German!”

It was too much and Maria couldn't help but laugh along with him.

Their laughter was the only sound other than the crickets and soon it died away.

“So. What did you say just now?” Maria asked him.

“Oh, I just say, 'Beautiful Lady'.”

Maria blushed a little and was about to remark but the young soldier spoke first.

“I ask myself, who is this beautiful vision?”

He cocked his head to one side awaiting her reply.

“I am Matron Maria Kaufmann,” she replied.

To her complete surprise he an exaggerated bow, placing one foot forwards ahead of the other and sweeping his cap outwards whilst keeping his other arm across his waist.

“Incantato Signorina!”

Again, Maria chuckled. She had never seen anything quite like this.

The soldier straightened up again, still smiling.

“You share the Virgin Mother's name,” he said.

“Yes, my mother named me after her. You haven't told me who you are yet.”

“I am Corporal Giuseppe De Lorenzo, at your service, Signorina!”

Suddenly the smile fell from his face and he stood looking up at her seemingly concerned as though some thought had stopped him in his tracks.

Maria waited, wondering what was wrong when she suddenly burst into peals of laughter once again.

“Maria!” he guffawed and pointed up at her. “Maria e Giuseppe!”

She frowned as he reverted to his native Italian.

“Don't you see?” he said between fits of laughter. “Mary and Joseph!”

She smiled politely and chuckled a little. She was amused at the coincidence of their names but she didn't find it as uproariously funny as he seemed to.

Once he had recovered from his hilarity Maria asked him why it was so quiet.

“Siesta!” he replied, shrugging his holders with hands out from his sides. “Everyone sleeps in afternoon.”

“But not you?” she asked.

“No, not me,” the Corporal answered sadly. “I have to go to Vatican with supplies that arrive this morning.”

Maria was suddenly interested.

“The Vatican?” she exclaimed.

“Si,” he shrugged. “It surprises you?”

Maria thought for a moment.

“I suppose not, really. Are you coming back today?”

“Yes, I will be back about six-thirty why? You want to see me?”

“No, erm, yes, well... Can I come with you?”

The soldier shrugged again.

“Si... but you still wear night clothes.”

Maria looked down at herself.

“Oh gosh, so I am. Can you wait for me?”

“Sure but please don't be long.”

As quickly as she could, and oblivious to the fact that she hadn't eaten anything since leaving Munich, she had washed and dressed and was soon sitting beside this young Italian soldier as he drove his small truck like a demon towards the centre of the city.

 

Rome was nothing like anywhere she had ever seen before. It wasn't so busy as Munich but she had supposed that may have had something to do with the time of day.

The corporal chatted away almost as though she wasn't there, telling her all about the sights they were passing and about the ancient history for which his home was so famous. She listened as much as she could but her mind was so full of this wonderful experience that she found concentrating quite difficult. Despite everything she had endured of pretty much the whole of her adult life, just then she felt like a child again, looking in awe at things she had only heard of or seen in pictures.

The truck rattled and jerked and its driver seemed oblivious to any sort of traffic rules, his foot planted firmly on the accelerator and his hand constantly on the horn but then, for a moment, he slowed and Maria stared in amazement at the huge building that had appeared in front of them.

“She is beautiful, yes?”

Maria just nodded as she stared at this ancient colossus.

“The Colosseum. Almost two thousand years old.”

The truck squealed to a halt and Maria opened the door and climbed out to better see this marvel of the ancient world.

She walked around the front and right up to the wall, reaching out to touch the historic stonework.

Munich had some old buildings but nothing like this and she closed her eyes and imagined the Roman gladiators in the arena and the crowds roaring encouragement and cheering with delight whenever a slave was killed.

“Signorina, Scusi! We must go, no time, sorry.”

She was dragged from her thoughts by the urgent words of her companion and she returned to the truck to continue the journey to the Vatican.

 

The whole journey through the eternal city passed as though she were in a dream and her arrival at Saint Peter's square just seemed to perpetuate that feeling.

When the small truck squealed once more to halt outside a large ornate gate she turned to Giuseppe.

“Will I have time too visit the Basilica?” she asked hopefully.

He looked at his watch as the guard swung the gate open.

“Si. Now is a quarter past three so I can give you an hour.”

The lorry moved into the enclosed yard and Giuseppe went quickly around to the other side to assist her.

“Through there,” he said, pointing towards a colonnade.

 

When she passed through the opening she stood and just stared, almost holding her breath.

In front of her was a wide open courtyard completely surrounded by the colonnade which, at the end opposite the great church was open and beyond that, stretching into the distance, a long, straight road between the buildings of the Vatican City

The church, though.

As soon as she saw it the colonnade was forgotten.

Saint Peters Basilica was like nothing she had ever seen before and walking slowly, as though in a trance, she climbed the steps towards the open main doors and looked inside.

The biggest place of worship she had ever entered before now was the Frauen Kirche in Munich. That was big but this... this that one look dull.

Inside was richly painted with frescos and gilt work.

“Signorina...”

A voice startled her and she spun round to face a man dressed in the oddest clothes she had ever seen. He looked like he had stepped straight out of the Renaissance, his clothes striped with bright colours and holding a halberd which must have been a full seven feet long.

“Oh, I, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be here?”

“Yes, that is fine,” the man replied in her own language. “Please, go in if you wish.”

Maria was confused as to who this man was and couldn't stop herself asking.

Oh, all right, thank you but, erm, who...?”

The man smiled. He was used to such encounters.

“I am of the Papal Swiss Guard, Ma'am. His Holiness's personal body guard.”

“Oh my goodness, of course. I'm sorry, I have heard about the Swiss Guard but I never imagined...”

“Don't worry,” he assured her. “We surprise many people who have not seen us before. The uniform dates back to the sixteenth century although it was, erm, modernised about twenty five years ago.”

“And you really are Swiss, still?”

The soldier nodded.

This really was turning out to be a day full of surprises. She had always assumed that the Swiss Guard would have been just a name carried from its inception but that they would probably be Italian. It never occurred to her that the men themselves would actually be from Switzerland!

“You are welcome to view the Basilica Ma'am. I will leave you enjoy it.”

As she thanked him he turned and walked away to the end of the building and disappeared around the corner.

 

 

Of all the times she had visited the church of Maria the Protector back home, and the times she had heard of Rome and Saint Peters Basilica, Maria had never once imagined that she would ever set foot in that hallowed place and it wasn't without trepidation that she stepped over the threshold and entered this glorious building.

She found it totally overwhelming and she could hardly breathe. Her heart pounded and her jaw dropped as she looked up at the incredible ceiling.

She walked slowly, looking around her, towards the main Altar to which, as she approached she crossed herself and bowed her head in reverence.

Then she saw the confessional boxes. Ornate wooden rooms little more than a cubicle and she felt an urge wash over her to enter one.

Inside the dimly lit cubicle was a small netted screen with a small step upon which she knelt and placed her hands together in front of her.

“Bless me father for I have sinned...” she began.

A gentle voice from the unseen priest asked her,

“And what do you wish to confess, my child?”

“I have been thoughtless and selfish.” she replied. “I try not to be but I couldn't help it.”

“In what way?” the priest asked.

“I discovered recently that I have a twin sister and I was angry at my parents for keeping her a secret. I ran from them and left them to worry for quite some time and it was wrong of me to do that. I only considered my own selfish feelings.”

“And did you return to them angry?”

“Oh no, Father! I realised how wrong I was to behave that way and went home right away.”

“Well, that is good then. Do you often do selfish things, my child?”

“No, Father. I always try my hardest to think of others over myself. I am a nurse. I just want to be kind and helpful.”

“Then I don't think that the Heavenly Father would consider what you did was too serious under the circumstances. Do you want to talk about it?”

There was silence as Maria considered the question.

Eventually she replied,

“Yes, Father, I think I would but I have such little time here today.”

“All right, my child. Maybe you could spend a few minutes talking to Our Lord and perhaps he will find you some answers to your questions. As a penance for your understandable lapse you must say the Lord's Prayer and Ave Maria once each. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.”

Maria crossed herself as the priest blessed her then thanked him as she rose.

 

Back in the Nave, she found a pew directly in front of the Popes altar and knelt down, clasping her hands in front of her once again.

"Our father who art in Heaven...” She began and whispered the prayer quietly. Once done, she crossed herself and began the next. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you...”

When that one was done too she didn't move but remained kneeling and looked up at the giant Crucifix.

“I know I am not worthy to ask you Lord but...”

She stopped, wondering whether she should continue.

“I do not ask for myself, Lord but I just wanted to ask for your protection for my sister and for you to guide her in whatever she is doing now. I know that is a lot to ask but could you also protect my Mama and Papa and Katarina's too. They have had such a lot to contend with and I know they had our best interests at heart so please, Lord forgive me for my anger and take care of them.”

As the whispered words left her lips the strangest thing happened. Three brilliant rays of light appeared from above and shone down onto the great Altar.

Maria's heart leapt with joy. God had listened! She choked back a tear.

“Thank you, Lord. Thank you. I will never let you down, I promise!”

She sat back on the seat behind her and remained for a moment, head bowed, eyes closed and at peace, a peace that was suddenly disturbed by a hand on her shoulder and the urgent whispers of Giuseppe, her Italian driver.

“Signorina, come. I have been looking all over for you! We must go quickly now!”

Maria looked down at her watch. She was shocked to see that two and a half hours had passed since she had alighted the truck!

She jumped up, genuflected and crossed herself for the last time and followed Giuseppe to the exit.

Before they stepped out into the sunshine, Maria stopped and turned back to face the Altar still illuminated by the crepuscular rays.

“Thank you,” she whispered once more.

 

The drive back to Ciampino was even more frantic than the outward trip. Giuseppe drove like a man possessed and used the horn even more than he did before. Maria gripped the sides of her seat so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

“I'm sorry, Giuseppe. Will you be in trouble for being late back?”

“Si, a little perhaps but I am used to it,” he replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“I will come with you and tell your superiors that it was my fault.”

“Mama Mia! No! That will make it worse! They hate the Germans! If they knew I took you my life would not be worth living!”

“You don't hate us then?”

“Si, I hate the Nazis. You are not a Nazi, I can tell that. You are a sweet, beautiful woman.”

Again, he shrugged and smiled.

Maria put her hand on his arm just long enough to say,

“Between you and me, Giuseppe, I hate them too.”

 

By the time they got back to Ciampino, Maria had time only to find some dinner and then get her things together and wait for the truck to take her back to the airfield.

When she returned to the Aeroplane she saw that the cargo was different now. There were boxes upon boxes. No crates or sacks but cardboard boxes and all marked with red crosses. Medical supplies destined for her hospital, no doubt.

She was a little surprised to find that the aircrew were not the same ones she had arrived with. In fact, she discovered that it was not even the same aircraft.

It looked the same and was the same colour but now it was marked with red crosses on either side of the fuselage.

Once inside she took the same seat she had occupied on the first journey and waited patiently.

It wasn't long, however before a crew member had appeared. He ensured she was comfortable and explained to her that she should be aware that they were now flying into a very active theatre and even though the Luftwaffe had air superiority, they would not be safe until they touched down in Tripoli.

That really didn't help her to relax and for the whole flight she had been on edge, afraid that they could be shot down at any moment.

 

All that had been days ago. It had still been dark when they landed in Tripoli and she had been taken straight to the hospital where, as a Matron she had a room to herself.

She slept soundly knowing that she had finally arrived and since the visit to Rome she felt at peace with herself.

 

Her arrival on the ward yesterday morning was like a kind of homecoming. Most of the nurses with whom she had originally left Germany were still there and they were so pleased to see her but there was one constant question.

Where was Katarina?

Maria decided that she wouldn't tell them about Katarina's wounding or about them being sisters, it wasn't important here. She told them what had happened after the Meer Koenegin had gone down, about the days spent alone in the life-raft and about being rescued by a British warship but the details she left out. After all, it was a long, long story and that would be enough to explain why Katarina wasn't with her.

 

The hospital itself already had many patients. There were a few wounded Italians who had been involved in fighting the British but mostly there were German soldiers suffering from Dysentery.

Maria, being the person she had always been, set to work immediately ensuring that everything was in good order and correct a few things here and there but, generally, the nurses had done a good job without her and she had been able, in just two days to settle into a routine to keep everything running smoothly.

One thing she had noticed very quickly was that there was no interference from the Gestapo and no sign of the SS.

She smiled inwardly as she wondered if perhaps that was the reason she had been sent here, to keep her out of harms way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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