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Kindred Spirits, Distant Hearts. Chapter 30

"“Is everything all right, Ma'am?” he asked her. “It's not safe to be out at night alone.”"
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Tripoli. October 23rd 1942


Maria awoke with a start. Something had disturbed her and she knew immediately what... Rain!

The summer had been relentless and no rain had fallen for some four months but now, it was beating against her window and she felt a huge sense of relief flood through her.

She checked her watch and saw that it was almost time to get up anyway so she pulled on her robe and went to the window.

It was still dark outside and the area she could see was quiet but, in the minimal light, she could see the steam arising from the hot ground as the rain became even heavier. While she watched she was sure she could hear the distant rumble of thunder.

Throughout the summer, at least until July, there had been a reasonably quiet period. Casualties had been sporadic and consisted of airmen and seamen but mainly localised sickness and accident injuries.

A rise in casualty admissions had coincided with Rommel's move from Gazala. He had defeated the allies and crossed the border into Egypt. As a result, there had been some intense fighting but right now, in the semi-darkness, Maria watched the rain forming rivulets as it intensified.

For a moment, her mind closed out the reality and took her to a place she hadn't seen for a year and a half... home.

As a child, she always loved to stand at her bedroom window and watch the rain falling outside. Everything always seemed so much fresher and greener afterwards.

Then her mind turned to the snow and the happy memories she had throwing snowballs with her friends and the snowmen her Papa used to help her build in the garden, with a carrot nose and small pieces of coal for its eyes, mouth, and buttons, whilst her mother made Glühwein and baked Lebkuchen.

But then the Nazis came and by then, Maria was growing into a young woman and such childish pleasures became lost in the mists of time as they were replaced by the horrors that her chosen profession had brought her into contact with on an almost daily basis.


Suddenly, she was startled by a rap on her door and she quickly returned her reveries to their hiding place at the back of her mind and turned away from the window.

“One moment!” she called out and tightened the cord around her waist.

When she opened the door she was surprised to find her sister waiting patiently in the corridor.

“'Trina? What are you doing here?” she asked as her sister entered. “It is still early.”

Hugging Maria briefly, Katarina then sat on the bed.

“It's Rania,” she said. “They brought her mother in last night, she was really sick with a fever.”

“Oh no!” Maria exclaimed. “How is she now?”

Katarina sat silently for a moment, head bowed before looking up and taking her sister's hand. “She passed away a few minutes ago.”

“Oh dear, poor Rania. Where is she now? With relatives?”

Katarina shook her head. “She's still on the ward. Anneliese and Hanna are looking after her. The problem is that she has no relatives. Her family, apart from her mother, were all killed in an air raid some time before the accident. She has nowhere to go and I'm worried that if she goes home anything could happen to her. We've both seen the children begging on the streets.”

Maria sank down onto the bed beside her sister.

“You are right, and I have heard stories...” She paused, thinking. “I suppose we...”

Her voice trailed off and Katarina stared at her.

“You are not thinking...” she said slowly.

Maria shrugged. “Well, couldn't we? She already spends most of her time here. Who would know?”

“Well... I suppose we could look after her until someone takes her but...”

“But?” Maria repeated.

“But,” Katarina echoed the question. “What if no-one does come for her?”

“Hmm, well, I suppose we can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Katarina agreed. “But in the meantime, we can look after her, can't we? She reminds me so much of how I was at that age. I always wanted to be helpful and look after less fortunate people.”

Maria looked at her sister and smiled, remembering her fifteenth birthday. She could clearly see the faces of her parents when her father told her about the interview at the Ludwig-Maximillian. It seemed like an age had passed since then.

“All right,” Maria said at length. “We will take care of her until we can find her a safe home.”

Katarina stood.

“Shall we have breakfast?”

“Don't you have rounds?” Maria queried.

“No, and it is still early, it's been quiet tonight. They know where to find me if they need me.”

Maria nodded.

“Alright then. Give me a minute to get washed and dressed.”


* * *


After they had eaten, the two of them went together to the wards and Katarina handed each one over to Maria, moving from bed to bed and checking the patients progress together.

By the time the handover was complete and Maria was fully cognisant with the day's requirements she took a moment to look out of the window of one of the wards. The rain had long since stopped and the ground was as dry as it had been before. The upside, though was that now it was less dusty.

The nurses had opened all the windows and the air was fresh and clean once again.

To Maria's surprise, Rania appeared on the ward mid-morning. She wasn't the bright, happy child she had once been and seemed a little lost.

Maria beckoned her over and knelt down as she approached.

She took the little girl's hands in her own and immediately, Rania threw her arms around Maria's waist and held her tightly.

Maria stroked her hair and waited patiently until the young girl's grip slowly released and she stepped back, still holding the Matron's hands. When she looked into Rania's big, brown, sad eyes, Maria's heart broke.

She gave a sad smile.

“We will look after you, Sweetheart,” she whispered gently.

Rania's face remained impassive, sad. Maria wasn't sure if she understood. Although she had picked up a few words which helped her understand what was needed, she certainly could not converse in German.

Maria tried in English.

“You safe here,” she said although, in truth, her English was little better than Rania's German.

The little girl's mouth widened into a small smile and she immediately hugged Maria again.

They remained together for just a moment and then Rania slowly broke free.

“Bandages,” she said and walked sadly towards the dressings cupboard.

Maria watched with a leaden heart. She didn't stop her. It was better, she thought, for the youngster to have something to occupy her but she would keep a careful watch on her.


* * *


The day passed uneventfully, at least, without any unusual dramas, but Maria noticed that little Rania had lost her sparkle. She didn't smile or chatter, even in her own unintelligible language, as she normally did. It was as though a dark cloud had descended on the whole ward.

She didn't hop and skip either, she just walked slowly and sadly from one task to the next.

Maria did notice, however, that her attention never wandered from the task she was doing. She never wavered even once and her work was as precise as it ever was.


As the evening approached and Maria's duties approached an end for the day, she took Rania to the mess hall to meet with Katarina. In this way, they could spend at least a few minutes every day together without their duties having to take priority.

“How is she?” Katarina asked once they were seated.

“As expected, really,” Maria replied. “I don't think she has come to terms with it, yet. She is trying to carry on as normal but I think she is scared.”

“Understandable,” Katarina agreed. “I imagine this is the first time she has been alone. I hope you don't mind but I had a word with the Quartermaster while you were working. He said he would let you have a mattress for her to sleep on but he will have to get it to you tonight, when it is quiet. Now I have to find him some cigarettes...”

“How many did you promise him?”


Maria rubbed her chin.

“Hmm, I'll see what I can scrounge. He might have to wait until tomorrow though.”

Katarina smiled.

“I told him that. He knows we don't smoke and since we're not going anywhere...”

As they talked, Katarina saw that Rania had not touched the food she had put in front of her.

“Hey, come on now. You have to eat.”

The little girl didn't look up but continued to stare at her plate.

Maria picked up her fork and carefully poked it into a piece of sausage, lifting it to the youngster's lips.

Rania didn't resist but took the fork and ate the sausage but the sisters could see that it was an effort for her.


* * *


The Quartermaster had been true to his word and when Maria and Rania entered Maria's room later that evening, Maria saw that a thin, straw mattress had been pushed under her bed along with a blanket and pillow. At last, Rania smiled when she saw them.

“I told you,” Maria said, gently. “You are safe. We will look after you.”

The girl then hugged Maria again and looked up at her, smiling.

“Now then. I think it's time you had a shower, don't you?”

Rania looked at her. She hadn't understood a word of what Maria had said but, with the trust only an innocent child has, she followed Maria out of the room and down the corridor to the bathroom.

It was only then that Maria realised that she had no clean clothes! Worse still, she also discovered that she didn't actually know where Rania had lived.

There was only one way to find out and so, when the little Libyan girl had showered and dried herself, Maria gave her the dirty clothes back and then, together, they went back to the wards.

Katarina was astonished to see them as they never disturbed each other when they were working.

“Hello. What are you doing back so soon?” she exclaimed.

Maria explained the problem.

“So I thought that as you have a rough idea where she lives, you could take her home and get her a change of clothes?”

Katarina went to protest.

“I'll stay here until you get back,” she assured her sister and then added with a chuckle; “Besides, most people can barely tell us apart anyway!”

Katarina reluctantly agreed and taking the young girl's hand led her from the ward.


It was quite dark now and Katarina began to feel a little nervous as she and Rania walked towards the hospital gate. She had never been outside the grounds after dark and she had heard many stories of what happened to women out alone at night. The fact that she was in her full uniform gave her some confidence though and when she passed the barrier the guard recognised her and saluted her.

“Is everything all right, Ma'am?” he asked her. “It's not safe to be out at night alone.”

“I'll be fine, thank you,” she assured him. “I'm not going far and won't be long.”

“Perhaps I could get one of the lads to accompany you, Ma'am, just to be sure?”

Katarina smiled.

“Thank you,” she replied. “That won't be necessary. As I said, I won't be long.”

“As you wish, Ma'am,” he conceded. “Take care, now.”

“We will,” she said and walked on and out into the still bustling street.


As she suspected, Rania's home was only a few metres away from where she had been hit by the truck but it had taken a short time for Katarina to get her to understand that she wanted to go there.

It was dark inside but Rania was home and she quickly found a lamp and lit it as she probably had so many times before. Her home was no more than one large room. On one side was a stove and at the back was a curtained area which, Katarina guessed, was where she and her mother slept.

Rania went to a cupboard which was attached to the wall adjacent to the stove and took out what looked like a teapot and two cups and placed them in the dusty table which was in the centre of the room.

When she put some wood into the stove, Katarina stopped her.

“No,” she said, shaking her head gently.

Rania stopped mid-way then suddenly dropped the stick she was holding, threw her arms around Katarina's waist and sobbed heartily.

She held the young girl tightly, taking a deep breath and struggling to keep her own tears at bay. Over the years she had seen so much and yet, seeing little Rania so distressed at the loss of her mother just tore at her heartstrings.

When she found out that her Mama and Papa were not her real mother and father she was devastated but she still had them and loved them just as much. Now, because of that, she could understand how this little child must be feeling to have lost the ones she loved the most and to be left alone in the world.

Katarina didn't hurry to push her away, she knew Maria would understand when she explained, but allowed the child time to recover her composure naturally.

When she finally released her grip, Rania looked up at Katarina and in tiny, faltering words said,

“Danke schön”

That this heartbroken child had thought enough of her to thank her in her own language drew a tear to Katarina's eye. After all, she had been through, Rania was still thinking beyond herself.

Wiping away a tear drop, Katarina smiled and replied softly, “Bitte schön.”


Regaining her own composure, Katarina went to the back of the dimly lit room and swept aside the curtain. Her suspicions had been correct. Beyond lay a large bed and beside it, a smaller one although 'bed' was a bit of a generous description. They were more like a couple of straw mattresses with a stack of blankets and a hard looking pillow thrown on them.

Against the wall beside them was a rather ancient looking chest of drawers on top of which was a large clay bowl and pitcher.

Beckoning Rania she went over to the chest and pulled open the top drawer. It was very hard to open and stuck repeatedly as she tugged but soon, it was open enough to see that it contained clothes which must have belonged to Rania's mother.

Rania watched silently and Katarina tugged gently at her dress.

“Your clothes?” she said slowly and extra clearly. Rania pointed to the third drawer down of the four, the last being somewhat deeper than the others and Katarina confirmed this by touching the front of it.

Rania nodded and Katarina took a firm grip of the handles and pulled as hard as she could.

To her utter amazement the drawer came out easily and Katarina flew backwards and landed on top of the smaller mattress only to be covered with Rania's clothes!

Rania herself suddenly burst into peals of laughter, a sound which gladdened Katarina and as she recovered from the sudden shock she too burst out laughing.

They soon settled though and together they picked up the clothes and placed the empty drawer back into the empty space in the chest. Then they selected some clean clothes and put the rest back neatly into the drawer.

“Come on, then,” Katarina said finally. “We will go back now and Maria will take care of you.”

She turned around and froze. Unheard by both of them, three burly looking local men were standing in the room, blocking the outer door behind them.

The older of the three, a weathered looking man dressed in the same robes that most of the men seemed to wear in Libya and who probably appeared older than he actually was, suddenly began speaking, unintelligible words and at a speed which Katarina could not understand.

She took a deep breath.

“Who are you?” she asked firmly. “What do you want here?”

She had learned from experience that a firm, authoritative voice was often enough to diffuse a tense situation.

The three men stared at her and then began talking to each other. To Katarina, it was just a sound, voices which meant nothing to her but they appeared angry and kept glancing at her and the child as they talked.

Suddenly, one of the two younger men took a grab at Rania who quickly jumped aside and then ran behind Katarina for protection.

“Leave her alone!” Katarina demanded. “What do you want with her?”

The men looked at each other and grinned. Suddenly she was afraid.

“She come with us.”

The older man pointed directly at Rania as he spoke, in extremely accented English. She looked up at Katarina with a look of pure terror on her face and shook her head vigorously.

“Who are you?” she asked again slowly but, this time, also in English.

“You not to know!” the man snarled. “She come with us!”

He took a step closer and Katarina and Rania stepped backwards to maintain the separation.

“No!” she said, equally forcibly. “She stay with me! You touch us, you find trouble!”

Katarina was struggling to find the words in English just as much as this unpleasant man.

His mouth broadened into a wide grin and he turned to his companions whom, Katarina guessed, could not speak either English or German. As their leader spoke again in their own language they all guffawed out loud.

Turning back to Katarina he said;

“Trouble? Who make trouble? You?” and again he laughed loud and strong.

He took a sudden step forwards and Katarina again stepped backwards, keeping herself between this vile man and Rania but she couldn't go any further and she bumped against the cold plaster of the wall.

His hand shot out and connected with the side of Katarina's head, causing her to fall sideways onto the larger of the two mattresses. At the same time, the two younger men jumped forwards and grabbed Rania, dragging her from Katarina's grip.

The little girl screamed and kicked violently, gripping Katarina's apron and trying to resist them but it was no use, she was no match for the strength of the two assailants.

Katarina tried desperately to get up, to protect the young girl but the older man pushed her back down with his foot. There was nothing she could do and she knew that resistance now could be bad for Rania.

The swarthy man looked back at his companions and spoke quickly and again they laughed but this time, still not understanding the words, she could see from their demeanour and their lewd laughter that she was in serious trouble.

Suddenly, the grin disappeared from the man's face and he bent over her and, with both hands, grabbed the collar of her uniform dress...



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