Tripoli. February 03rd 1942
Maria stared in disbelief at the fuel gauge but it made no difference. She could stare at it all night but the fact of the matter was, the fuel tank was empty!
Hanna and Anneliese came through the door, Hanna taking the empty seat to the left and Anneliese remaining in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
“The Benzine is gone.” Maria couldn't help but make the obvious statement.
It was Hanna who replied.
“What do we do now then?” she asked.
“Tonight, nothing,” Maria said, almost absently. “The light is almost gone already and we can't wander about the desert in the dark.”
“You are not planning to walk to Tripoli are you?” Anneliese's eyes opened wide. “It is hundreds of kilometres away. We'd never make it!”
Maria turned abruptly in her seat and stared up at her.
“Tripoli? Good heavens no!” she laughed.”Silly girl! I was thinking more like Qaminis! It can't be more than ten kilometres and if I can find just a few litres of Benzine then we can take the ambulance there and refill the tank... hopefully.” she added.
“And tonight we just sit here, then?”
“Unless you have a better idea, Anneliese,” Hanna replied sharply.
“Hanna!” Maria glared at her. “She is scared, have a little patience with her.”
“I'm scared too, Matron. I don't want to die out here any more than she does.”
Maria climbed out of the driving seat and ushered the other two into the rear where they sat on the couches. Maria on one side, Anneliese and Hanna on the other.
“There are various things that can happen, now,” she told them. “We can stay here, do nothing and wait to be discovered...” Anneliese opened her mouth to speak but Maria stopped her before she made a sound. “The problem with that is, we don't know how long that will take or who will find us. The chances are that it will be the British which will put us straight back to where we started from, internment in a prisoner-of-war camp. It could be our own people or the Italians but we can't be sure of that and since we are still quite close to Benghazi... which, in case you have forgotten, is in British hands... that is unlikely.”
She paused, waiting to make sure they were taking it all in. After a moments silence she continued.
“All right. The other option is that, at first light I take some water and walk to Qaminis. There is still the possibility that we could be found in the meantime but quite honestly, I can't think of any other alternative.”
“What if something happens to you?” Hanna asked. “We should all go together.”
Maria shook her head.
“No,” she said. “If the ambulance is discovered abandoned, we lose it.”
“If it is discovered with us in it, we will lose it anyway.”
“Hanna, if it is found with you two in it, at least we won't be wandering around in the desert sun looking for it.” The young woman accepted that, at least as maria went on. “ If you are found then you can also tell them where I am... yes?”
They both agreed although somewhat reluctantly and Maria reassured them.
“I will do everything in my power to get us home as I said before.”
The night was very long, very dark and very cold. The three women wrapped themselves in the blankets they had and huddled together to keep warm. Sleep came in fits and starts and none of them slept for longer than an hour or so at a time.
Every little sound alerted them. A rustle here, a chirrup there. Their frayed nerves were jangling with fear
Although Maria had always been rather fond of the night time and all the beauty and peace it brought with it, she had never been so pleased to see the darkness give way to the first signs of light at the tiny windows of the ambulance, coated with a thin layer of ice.
Both Anneliese and Hanna were asleep and she looked at them sadly. Neither of them seemed to be peaceful, Anneliese in particular making small, intelligible sounds as she dreamed of whatever horrors were troubling her.
As stealthily as she could, Maria took her water bottle, wrapped her blanket tightly around her head and shoulders and silently opened the small connecting door to the cab. Stepping through she took one last look at her friends and then closed it almost as quietly.
Without the sun to warm it, the desert air was bitterly cold, below freezing in fact and as she climbed carefully from the cab she couldn't help but give an involuntary shiver.
In the half-light, she could just make out the road. It didn't appear to have been used for some time as there were no tracks in the thin layer of sand that covered it. She decided that having no compass could put her at a distinct disadvantage. She would have to be very careful not to wander away from the trail.
Driving along the sandy road had brought its own difficulties. Unlike the ambulance she had used on her trips from the hospital at Benghazi, this British one only had the rear wheels to push them through the soft sand but the tyres with which it was fitted had provided sufficient grip to keep them going. Walking, though, was a different matter. Soft sand moved with every step she took, needing twice as much effort as walking on solid ground. It was uneven and covered in ripples and bumps where the winds had caused it to drift. Sometimes she would put her foot down and it would be solid, other times she would sink a few centimetres and she would stumble or her foot would slip as she stepped forward. Each step was different and after an hour the muscles in her legs were screaming out for relief. To make matters worse the sun was beginning to show her face and the cold, early morning air was warming rapidly.
It was no good trying to push herself too hard. She estimated that she had probably covered about four kilometres. If she didn't rest now she would just get slower and slower and it would take even longer to reach Qaminis and so she sank into the soft sand and took out her water bottle.
The water inside was cool and it felt so good against her parched mouth and throat but she had to be careful. This one bottle was all she had and if she finished it before she reached her destination...
She returned the stopper and and rested for a moment more before taking a deep breath and getting back on her feet. With renewed vigour, she set off again along the road, one unsteady foot in front of the other.
Maria had never been to the seaside as a child, never had the pleasure of playing in the dunes. If she had, she may have thought differently about the sand which insisted on filling her shoes and making the simple act of walking such a chore and then there was the sun... As the hands on her watch moved relentlessly around the dial so the sun rose ever higher in the sky.
She adjusted the blanket to cover her head and shoulders. Although she didn't need it to keep warm anymore, now it was keeping the sun's rays from burning her.
Another hour passed and still there was no sign of any civilisation, let alone a town! Once again she sat down in the soft sand and took a mouthful of water. It was no longer cool but the moisture swishing around her dry mouth was like heaven. She risked a second swig and then looked at the bottle... half gone already. As she sat in silence, staying under the shelter of the sand coloured blanket, another aeroplane roared low overhead. She didn't look up, an aeroplane couldn't bring her Benzine. It didn't occur to her that she couldn't be seen from the air anyway, not whilst she remained under the camouflage of the blanket.
Yet again, she set off along the road, following the flat, sandy trail and continually checking that she hadn't deviated from her course but this part of the desert was flat and featureless and she couldn't be sure that she hadn't. There was nothing she could see, nothing she could use to take a reference from.
The minutes passed by slowly as though they were reluctant to move on. She checked her watch but each time the interval was shorter, fifteen minutes only had elapsed, ten minutes... She took another drink and pushed on step after agonising step. It was beginning to cross her mind that maybe, they hadn't driven as far as she had thought from Siduq, maybe she still had another five, ten perhaps, kilometres to walk to reach Qaminis. She checked her water, about two centimetres left. That wouldn't last another hour, let alone two or, God forbid, even longer!
Again she looked at the small quantity of liquid sloshing about in the bottom of her bottle. Her mouth and throat were drier than ever but now she didn't dare drink a drop.
Once again she checked her watch, almost eleven. She had been walking for three and a half hours!
Shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand, Maria scanned the landscape. Up ahead, just off the road, was a small square shape. If it was a house it must still be some distance away but it was all she could see. This time she didn't stop but continued to force one foot ahead of the other, leaving a pair of crooked lines behind her rather than footprints.
The 'House', she discovered just ten minutes later, wasn't a house at all but more like a small store. It measured only about three metres square and about the same in height. It was no more than a stone built box with a corrugated iron roof and no windows.
Tentatively, she pushed open the rough wooden door which resisted her efforts, the dry hinges screeching loudly in protest. The noise scared her. If there was anyone inside they would be acutely aware of her presence.
Inside was dark, the only light from the doorway and as she pushed it further open she caught a glimpse of something small and black scurry away from the sudden sunshine. A scorpion!
Scorpion or no, she didn't have any options left and she pushed the door to its fullest extent and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior.
Right in the centre was a round circle of stones forming a rough wall, about sixty centimetres high. Inside the ring was a hole. With bated breath Maria picked up a small stone and dropped it into the hole. To her relief, just seconds later she heard a splash. Thank goodness, she thought, a Well.
There was just one small problem, unlike the Well at Siduq, there was no bucket or even a rope.
Around the walls were several large items covered over with sheets and Maria lifted the corner of on such sheet which seemed to be covering something round. Underneath it she found a large, two hundred litre steel drum lying on its side in a stand. She gave it a firm kick and by the sound it made she gathered it was almost full... but of what? At one end was tap and she turned the valve very carefully, just enough to allow a small drip to escape, then touched her finger to it. It felt slippery, certainly not water and as she brought her hand up towards her nose she caught a whiff of the pungent smell. Benzine!
For a moment, Maria allowed the euphoria of this important discovery get the better of her but she soon realised that there was a problem. There was no way she could move two hundred litres of fuel by herself. Once again, she kicked the drum but harder in her frustration. The reverberation echoed around the shack.
“Aahhh...” she screamed aloud, allowing her frustration to vent itself audibly. “I've found water and fuel and I can't use either!” She kicked the drum again.
This time she struck out a little too hard and lost her balance, toppling over backwards to land square in the middle of another covered stack which immediately collapsed amidst a loud metallic clatter, throwing her onto the sandy floor.
Remembering the scorpion she jumped instantly to her feet and stared into the shadows around her. There were no scorpions, much to her relief, but what she had fallen against was a stack of empty twenty litre steel cans.
Immediately she began to think. The ambulance was some ten to fifteen kilometres back. She couldn't get the drum to them but if she could manage some five litres, that might just be enough to get the ambulance to here,
Maria dragged one of the cans over to the drum and flipped open the lid, immediately she could smell the vapours of the residual fuel that been its previous contents. For a few moments she let the benzine flow directly into the can, tapping it momentarily to try to gauge whether there was enough... she couldn't tell.
Finally, she turned off the tap, clamped the lid closed and lifted the can. It was heavy but not excessively so, she thought, and she certainly wasn't going to waste any.
So, that was one problem solved now the other. She would not be able to walk for three hours, in the sun, with a can of fuel, without water. There was water and she had a flask, all she had to do was get the water into the flask but that was easier said than done. She couldn't use a can, even if they hadn't been contaminated with fuel, the Well just wasn't wide enough. She lifted the one remaining sheet... more cans but full ones. These ones were different. They looked the same in the dim light from the door but they had a word stencilled on the side. It was faded and she couldn't make it out so she looked again at the can she had put the Benzine into. That one had a word too and she saw it was an English word that she hadn't seen before. It said 'PETROL'. She was puzzled. Although faint, she could see it wasn't the same word on the other cans so she pulled one out and into the sunlight that was shining through the door way. He heart leapt when she finally made out the incomplete stencil... 'WA R' “Thank goodness!” she thought aloud, “Water!”
Thirty minutes later, Maria was back on the road heading back the way she had come. She had stayed just long enough to take a short rest, drink plenty of water and fill her bottle. She had hoped that she could retrace her footsteps but the warm breeze had covered her previous tracks.
Nevertheless she pushed herself to the limit, there was no time to lose. Every minute she spent walking was another minute that her comrades were left alone, stranded and scared. And with every laboured step, the fuel can seemed to get heavier and heavier.
After almost four hours of dragging herself and the can through the shifting sands she felt that she couldn't take another step and slowly sank to her knees with exhaustion. She lifted the bottle to her lips but it was dry. The last of the water was gone.
“Oh well,” she thought, “There can't be much farther to go.”
She tried to stand but her legs had had enough, she needed to rest awhile.
She closed her eyes but no sooner had she done so when she heard a voice.
“Matron?” a brief pause, “Maria, can you hear me?”
Maria opened her eyes,
“Hanna!” she gasped. “What are you doing out here? Where is Anneliese?”
“Never mind that.” Hanna held the water flask to her lips. “Drink now and then we'll get you back to the ambulance. You've been so long we were beginning to think something had happened to you.”
The water did the trick and Hanna helped her to stand. Without a thought, Maria took hold of the fuel can but Hanna stopped her.
“I'll take it the last few metres, Matron. You've done enough for one day.”
For once, Maria was happy to allow her to take over for a short while. She couldn't have managed another step with that can. It felt as though it weighed far more than the few litres of fuel she had put in it.
Side by side they walked that last few metres. As soon as Anneliese saw them appear she ran out to join them, putting her arm around Maria and supporting her.
When they got back, the two nurses made their superior rest inside the ambulance whilst between them they tipped the small amount of petrol into the tank.
A few moments later they climbed up into the cab. Hanna took the right hand seat and, after making sure the gearbox was in neutral, pressed the starter button. The engine whined... and whined... and whined but it didn't fire. Hanna stopped for a moment, checked the choke lever was fully out and then pressed again. As the engine whirred she pumped the right hand pedal but still it wouldn't fire.
She was about to try again when Maria's weary voiced called out from behind her.
“Stop, Hanna! No more. You will drain the battery!”
Maria got back out into the blazing sun and opened the bonnet. She soon located the fuel pump and saw that the glass bowl beneath was empty.
“It must have air-locked!” she called from under the bonnet, I'll need to prime it.”
“What does that mean?” Hanna asked, puzzled.
“Oh, it's something I learned at Karlesruhe. The engine isn't turning fast enough to pump the fuel up from the tank. I will have to do it by hand. If I can get enough just to fire the engine then it will do the rest on its own. When I shout, press the starter.”
Underneath the glass bowl was a small lever, about three centimetres long and Maria began pumping it as fast as she could. After a short time the the bowl began to fill.
“Now!” she yelled, “Do it now!”
Hanna pressed the button and the engine slowly turned, the battery almost exhausted.
“Come on...” Maria breathed as she pumped the lever one more time. It was enough and the engined began to turn faster and faster until, with a clatter it finally started. It ran, coughed, rattled, chugged and ran smoothly.
Hanna pressed the pedal gently, carefully revving the engine until she was sure that it would run by its self.
Maria slammed the bonnet shut, hooked its catches down and jumped into the cab.
“Let's go!” she said urgently, “While we still can.”
Hanna selected first gear and the ambulance moved off along he road in the direction that maria had followed so many hours before.
After some thirty minutes or so, Maria pointed.
“Over there,” she said, “To the right. That small building!”
Hanna stopped directly in front of the doorway.
“There is water and Benzine. I am sure we can manage the cans between us.”
Without considering that there may have been someone inside, Maria threw the door open. Fortunately it was as empty as it had been five hours before.
She dragged the sheet from the drum and Hanna and Anneliese began filling the can with fuel.
They made five trips before the tank was full and then they filled another five cans for good measure and put them in the back. They then dragged two of the water cans out from the shadows.
As Maria took a hold of the handle on one of the cans she felt a sharp pain in the side of her hand. She recoiled suddenly.
“Oww... damn it!” she cursed.
Anneliese ran to her side.
“What is it, Matron?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Maria replied. “Just caught my hand on something sharp in the shadows. See? Hardly marked it.” There was nothing more that a small red mark just below her knuckle on the fleshy part of her hand. “Look, it will be dark soon, the sun is almost gone. We'll drive a few kilometres into the desert, away from prying eyes. We should now have just enough Benzine to get us to Tripoli so we can avoid Az Zuwaytinah totally. We can't travel in the dark, it's too dangerous so we will follow the old camel road which follows closely the main road to Tripoli but is little used.”
She paused, giving the other two the chance to object if they wished but they remained silent,
“Right then,” she continued. “Let's get onto the track and then find a place to park up.”
She found the track just as the sun began to dip below the horizon and they continued aong it until it became too dark to go any further.
Maria pulled up just off the track and flexed her right hand. She winced with pain and saw that the area where she had scratched her hand had become swollen and inflamed.
“That's all I need,” she thought, “An infected hand!”
Whilst Hanna and Anneliese were otherwise occupied with preparations for settling down, Maria cleaned the tiny wound with alcohol from the ambulance supplies and dressed it to prevent any further contamination. Her hand tingled somewhat but she thought that was to be expected.
When all was ready, she offered the couches to her two nurses but this time they wouldn't hear of it. “After what you have done today, Matron, you deserve to sleep comfortably!”
She agreed that she needed to sleep and so she lay down on the couch and closed her eyes but sleep wouldn't come, the pain and tingling in her hand was spreading up her arm and she began to twitch uncontrollably.
Sleep took her eventually, though and she began to dream, strange dreams. She could hear voices in her dreams, distant and urgent, familiar voices.
“Matron, wake up! Maria! Matron!”
She felt hands shaking her, trying to rouse her and then she felt as though her bed was moving. Rocking and shaking and then... peace. No sounds, no light just a pain free peace as she drifted off into a deep, deep sleep.
When she awoke she felt strange. She opened her eyes to a brightly lit room which smelled faintly of disinfectant and she immediately saw a face she knew but couldn't place it through the thin fog that still befuddled her mind. She could just make out the white hat on her head and she could tell she was smiling but otherwise...
“Hanna?” she asked tentatively. “What happened? Where are we?”