Munchen-Pasing. April 9th 1941
Maria's homecoming had been a very emotional affair. Although her mother and father had been informed that she had been found alive, that was all they knew. They didn't know where she was or when she would be coming home, indeed even if she was coming home.
Her arrival on the doorstep was such a relief that even her father could not keep his tears in check.
Now, sitting at the breakfast table, her mother could not do enough for her and wouldn't allow her to do the slightest thing.
For once, Maria didn't protest. She understood how her mother was feeling and she let her do just as she wished.
Once breakfast was finished and all the dishes had been washed and put away, Anna sat beside her daughter.
“What a shame that your father had to work today,” she said as she poured yet another cup of thick brown liquid that passed for coffee these days. “He will be home tonight though.”
There was a brief pause during which Maria saw that her mother was trembling.
“Mama?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
Anna didn't look up but nodded, shook her head and then nodded again.
“I couldn't bear it, Maria. I couldn't bear to lose you as well, I just couldn't. When we got the notification saying you were presumed dead it was just too much. I wanted to die!”
Maria was puzzled.
“Lose me as well as what, Mama?” she asked.
Anna didn't answer.
“Mama, you said you couldn't bear to lose me as well. What did you mean? As well as what?”
Her mother looked startled, confused even, as though she realised that she had said something that she shouldn't have.
Her eyes opened wide,
“Oh, er, I mean...”
She seemed to be struggling to find an answer until she sighed and slumped against the chair back.
“The day you were born was the happiest day of my life but when the war ended we lost everything. All we had left was this house and you. If your father had not been given work on the railway I fear that we would have lost the house and you could have been taken from us. I couldn't bear to lose you now, not after all that.”
Maria listened but she already knew about all those things. There was something else, though and she just couldn't figure what.
She didn't push the matter, if her mother wanted her to know then she would tell her in her own time.
She put her arm around her mother's shoulders and held her close to her.
“Well, I am home now,” she said. “Safe and sound.”
“Do you think they will send you away again?”
“I have no idea, Mama. We shall cross that bridge when we come to it.”
For the next few minutes, they sat quietly then Anna placed her empty cup gently upon its saucer with an almost inaudible 'clink'.
“When you went on the train to Taranto, your father told me that he had seen you.”
“Yes, he came whilst they loaded coal, I think.”
“He said he met your friend, Katarina.”
Again, Maria nodded but this time she didn't speak.
She had thought a lot about her friend and wondered how she was. She hoped that her family was looking after her as well as her own.
Her mother continued.
“He said that you and she were very much alike.”
Maria laughed gently.
“Yes, Mama, we are. Many people cannot tell us apart and I am afraid we do...” she stopped. “We did like to amuse ourselves because of it.”
She remembered all the times they had confused their colleagues by wearing their hair in the same style and couldn't help but smile to herself.
“You would like her, Mama.”
“Yes, Sweetheart, I have no doubt I would.”
“She saved my life, Mama and almost lost hers instead.”
Her mother suddenly stared at her, her eyes wide with fear.
“W...what? How?” she stuttered. “Was she hurt? Is she all right?”
Maria gasped suddenly as her mother grabbed her arm, squeezing it subconsciously in her desperation.
“Yes, she was fine when I left her yesterday.”
Anna relaxed her grip.
“Damn this war! Damn Adolf Hitler and damn all the Nazis to hell!” she hissed vehemently and with each curse banged her fist on the table so hard that the cups rattled on their saucers.
Maria was shocked to the core. She had never heard her mother use such angry words before and it upset her.
Anna didn't hear her daughter's worried voice, she was lost in a world of anger and fear.
“They won't be happy until they have taken everything! Our homes, our children, even our very lives!”
“Mama, you mustn't talk like that, not even here!”
She looked at her daughter and Maria saw in her face such hatred and anger. It hurt her so much and she wondered just how long her mother had kept these feelings locked up inside her.
“Mama, shh, it's all right,” she said quietly, putting her arms around her shoulders and holding her tightly. “I am home now and safe.”
Anna clenched her fists tightly and then slowly relaxed. Laying her head upon her daughter's shoulder she whispered,
“But for how long?”
They remained thus for several minutes.
Maria wondered what her mother was thinking but wouldn't ask, preferring instead to allow her to sit quietly and let the anger subside.
The silence was almost complete, save for the slow 'tick tock' of the clock on the shelf.
Maria was acutely aware of her mother's pounding heart and deep breaths and she held her for as long as she needed her to.
Gradually, Anna relaxed as the anger receded. She remained in the warmth and security of her daughter's arms as she asked,
“Tell me about her.”
Anna nodded slowly.
“Yes. Tell me everything about her.”
Maria smiled as she thought about her closest friend.
“You would like her, Mama. She is such fun and no-one could wish for a better friend. I sometimes wonder if we were meant to meet, if it was our destiny.”
She paused, remembering the days they had spent laughing with each other and the confusion they caused, sometimes intentionally.
“Do you know, Mama, we even share the same birthday!”
At the mention of 'birthday' Anna suddenly sat upright.
“Oh my word, Maria!” she exclaimed, clapping her hand to her mouth. “Your birthday! Oh my darling, with all the excitement of you coming home I had completely forgotten! How could I be so selfish?”
Maria laughed, not heartily but gently, reassuringly.
“Mama, it doesn't matter, really it doesn't. It is just a birthday. I am home now and we are all together again. Isn't that all that matters?”
Anna gazed directly at her.
“Well, yes, it is but...”
“But nothing, Mama. It is all that matters to me.”
Anna held her daughter's gaze for a while, seeing the old sparkle in her eyes.
“You haven't changed,” she replied quietly and slowly, a small smile playing across her lips “Still the thoughtful one.”
Maria cupped her mother's cheeks and looked her in the eye.
“I will never change, Mama. There are many bad people around these days but there are still those who need help.”
Covering her daughter's hands with her own, Anna took a deep contented breath and sighed.
“I am still going to make you a special dinner,” she said and then, as if an afterthought,”Whether you want it or not!”
Later, whilst Maria and Anna were preparing lunch there was a sharp rap on the front door.
Maria looked at her mother; mother seemed afraid.
“Don't answer it!” she hissed.
“But Mama, why ever not?”
“Just don't!” her mother hissed at her. “You don't know who it might be.”'
Whoever was at the door knocked again, more urgently this time.
“Mama, I must. It could be someone who needs help. Don't you remember the tram crash last year?”
Maria left her mother in the kitchen and went to see who was knocking.
When she opened the door, she found the same young policeman who had called for her help all those months ago.
This time he seemed more more confident but a little apologetic.
“Good morning, Sister Kaufmann,” he said, removing his helmet.
“Good morning, Constable. Oh, I'm sorry,” she continued, “I don't remember your name.”
“I don't think I told you,” the young man replied with a smile. “I am Constable Marcus Schmidt.”
“Then good morning Constable Schmidt,” Maria said politely. “What can I do for you? Is someone hurt again?”
“No, Sister. Not this time. I have come to see you about an important matter... If I may be allowed...?”
Maria frowned but stepped back, allowing him to step through the doorway, then led him into the living room.
“Please, sit down, Constable,” she said, holding out her arm, indicating the nearest armchair.
At that moment, her mother called out from the kitchen.
“Who is it, Maria?”
As the words left her, she appeared in the doorway and instantly froze when she saw the young policeman.
“Oh Lord! What's wrong, what has happened?”
“Don't worry, Frau Kaufmann, I am just here to speak with your daughter.”
Anna remained in the doorway, unmoving. Her eyes flicked uncertainly from the policeman, to her daughter and then back to him.
“Mama, this is the officer whom I assisted when the car crashed into the tram, do you remember?”
Anna still wasn't sure and remained for a moment, eyes narrowed.
“All right, Sweetheart,” she eventually replied. “I will put some coffee on the stove.”
At that, Unterwachtmeister Schmidt raised his hand.
“Thank you but it is not necessary, Frau Kaufmann, I shall not be here for long.”
Still Anna was uncertain but nodded once and smiled politely before turning away and returned to the kitchen.
Once again, Maria indicated the armchair and pushed the door closed, whilst the young policeman sat down.
“So, Constable, what brings you here? What can I do for you?”
She sat on the chair opposite.
Marcus Schmidt looked closely at her, as though he was trying to see inside her head.
“I am not here officially,” he began slowly.
Maria waited patiently.
“When I called for your help you came immediately, with no hesitation and no questions.”
“Well, of course I did...” she began, but the policeman stopped her.
“I know, you didn't do it for me, but, nevertheless, if you hadn't been there and helped and I had made a mess of things, my career could have been over before it began. Because of what you did, I learned a lot and my superiors are very happy with me.”
Maria was a little confused.
“I appreciate that you came to tell me that and I am very pleased for you but is that the only reason you are here?”
The young man pursed his lips.
“No,” he replied eventually. “I have come to warn you. If my superiors find out that I am here, I will be in serious trouble, but I had to come.”
“Constable Schmidt, you are making no sense whatsoever. Why would you not be permitted to see me?”
“Sister Kaufmann, forgive me, please, but we are living in desperate times. I overheard a conversation this morning. It had nothing to do with me but we have received a file about you.”
Maria frowned even more.
“About me? Who has, the Police? Why?” she asked.
“Because you were returned by the British. The Gestapo are suspicious that you might be a spy and will be watching you.”
Maria burst into loud peals of laughter. She could not believe such a thing.
“A spy! That's ridiculous!”
She almost shouted the words.
The young policeman looked surprised and raised his finger to his lips.
“Sister Kaufmann, Please....!”
On seeing the frightened expression on his face, Maria stopped laughing.
“You can't be serious, surely? Why on earth would they think I am a spy?”
“I told you, because you were released by the British and sent back.”
“Of course they did. I am a nurse, not a soldier. I save lives, I don't take them!”
“Please don't be angry with me, Sister Kaufmann. I am here to warn you, not to arrest you. I know how you are, I have seen you, remember? I don't believe that you are a spy for one one minute but the Gestapo have been told about you and so they will be watching you so please, Sister, be very careful. They already have information from the hospital that you were somewhat less than co-operative with the authorities. I am just trying to help.”
Maria glared at him as he spoke but then softened a little.
“All right, Constable, thank you. I am grateful but please, don't worry. I am not a spy, I promise you. The Gestapo can watch all they like, but they will not find any cause to be concerned.”
Unterwachtmeister Schmidt stood up.
“I wasn't here,” he said, as he turned towards the door.
“No,” Maria smiled. “You weren't.”
She accompanied him to the front door and as he stepped outside, he placed the helmet back on his head and tucked the strap under his chin.
He stopped and turned back.
“Good luck, Sister,” he said, rather sadly she thought. “I hope we don't meet again.”
She didn't reply, but gave a half smile and nodded, understanding his sentiment, then watched him as he walked through the gate at the end of the path and disappeared from her view.
Back inside, her mother appeared as soon as Maria closed the door.
“What did he want, Maria?” she asked, her face etched with worry.
“Oh, just to welcome me home,” her daughter replied.
Anna seemed to accept that although Maria could see the doubt in her mother's eyes and nothing more was said.
“You know, Mama, I am not really hungry. I think I shall just have coffee if that is all right.”
Anna agreed and the preparations for lunch were put on hold.
As she tilted the jug towards her daughters cup, Anna froze for the second time that day when there came another knock and the door bell rang.
Maria, too felt her heart drop. Now she was thinking the worst after the information she had just received.
Neither woman dared move and the bell rang again accompanied by more knocking, louder this time.
Anna put the jug on the table and went to move towards the hallway but Maria stopped her with a hand on her arm and an almost imperceptible shake of her head.
“I'll go Mama.”
Through the coloured and frosted glass of the front door, she could see the distorted outline of someone but no detail although she could see the outline of a familiar hat.
Tentatively, her heart pounding, she turned the doorknob just as the caller turned away.
“Romy!” she exclaimed.
The relief was tangible and didn't go unnoticed.
“Hello Maria,” her longtime friend greeted her. “Are you all right? You look as though you have seen a ghost!”
“Come in, come in,” Maria urged her, closing the door quickly behind her. “I'm sorry but I had a visit earlier.”
“What kind of visit? Official?”
“No, not exactly. Do you remember the crash a few months ago, the one where the car crashed into the tram and trapped that man?”
Romy thought for a moment.
“Yes, I think so. There was a young policeman who was out of his depth if I remember rightly.”
“That's it,” Maria confirmed. “It was that policeman who visited me this morning.”
“Oh, that's nice.”
Romy brightened, as she spoke.
“He must have found out that you were home.”
Maria didn't return the smile, her face remaining passive.
“Yes, Romy, he did. He came to warn me.”
“Warn you? Warn you of what?”
Romy was aghast.
You haven't even been here for almost a year! Why on earth would the Gestapo be interested in you?”
Maria frowned briefly and then remembered.
“Ah, of course. You don't know do you?” she said. “When our ship was sunk, Katarina and I spent a week in a life-raft with very little food or water.”
“Yes, I know that,” Romy interjected.
Before she could say more, Maria continued.
“We were rescued by a warship...”
Before Romy could say anything she finished the sentence.
“A British warship!”
Romy's mouth opened as though to speak and then seemed to think better of it.
“Oh, I see,” she said simply.
“I spent several weeks on board that ship and was returned via Gibraltar. They could be thinking that I am a spy... at least, that is what the policeman thinks, anyway.”
“I'm sorry, Maria, I don't get it,” Romy looked puzzled. “How could you possibly choose who would find you? No, maybe he was just being over zealous.”
“Hmm, maybe but...”
Maria stopped, as her mother appeared.
“Hello, Romy,” she said. “How nice to see you.”
Her lips were smiling, but Romy could see that her eyes were not.
Seeing Maria shake her head in a silent plea to say nothing, she responded.
“Hello, Mrs. Kaufmann. How are you keeping.”
Anna looked at her daughter.
“Much better now that Maria is home,” she replied and this time her eyes mirrored her lips.
Romy stayed for a couple of hours. They talked about Maria's adventures and about Katarina.
There were several interruptions from neighbours who came to welcome her home, but slowly, the earlier visit faded into the back of Maria's thoughts.
It was early evening when Maria's father returned home, and he hugged and greeted her.
“Happy Birthday, Sweetheart,” he said.
Anna looked abashed.
“I didn't realise this morning,” she said, smiling.
“Well, that is understandable,” Herman laughed.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small package which he gave to his daughter.
“We bought this some time ago after you left,” he said.
Maria opened it and found inside what appeared to be a small silver coloured coin but not like any ordinary coin because it had a small ring attached to it's edge.
On one side it had an image of a man with a walking stick and carrying a child on his shoulders, both had an aura around each their heads. On the other were the words,
'Vertrau auf mich, Ich schutze dich', Trust in me, I protect you.
Maria smiled happily.
“Saint Christopher,” she said.
“We trust in him to keep you safe and take care of you,” her mother said, stating the obvious but in her mind, Maria agreed. After the events of the day she felt that maybe she needed someone to watch over her.
As the evening passed and she took her leave of her parents to go to bed, she wondered what kind of a birthday Katarina had and before she went to sleep, offered up a prayer to God to keep her friend safe and added that, if he didn't mind too much, could he possibly let them meet again?