Innsbruck, December 20th 1943
The young woman opened her eyes. Where on earth was she? In the gloom, she could make out twisted and mangled pipes, many with steam hissing from the fractures. Loops of wires hung down from above and, worse still, the room seemed to be full of bricks and rubble. Great slabs of concrete also hung down with twisted and bent wires poking out from around the jagged edges. She closed her eyes again and remained still, curled up on the floor against the wall.
Her mouth tasted horrible and when she licked her lips they were dry and encrusted with something that tasted almost metallic.
With head pounding and her body racked with pain, she felt battered and broken but had no idea why. What had happened to her and why was she here? Nothing made any sense.
The hard, concrete floor was cold and her shredded clothing gave her no protection. She began to push herself up into a sitting position, hoping to lean against the wall behind her.
She cried out in pain as even the slightest movement was agony. For a moment she lay still again, shivering uncontrollably. Who had done this to her? Had she upset someone? Her mind was a total blank.
She opened her eyes again. Even they hurt! She couldn't stay where she was, lying prone like that. No, she had to sit up and so she tried again, this time fighting against the excruciating pain that accompanied even the slightest effort. Where she found the strength she could only imagine but, eventually, she managed to manoeuvre herself into a more upright position and allowed her eyelids to droop closed.
She tried to take a deep breath but again cried out, even just that minimal effort made her chest hurt.
It was difficult to see much in this half-light but it soon became clear that the darkness was because of the destruction. The room was illuminated by shafts of sunlight shining through small gaps in the wreckage, there were no windows.
She sat motionless, trying to keep her breathing as shallow as she could. Even her pulse hurt!
How long she had been there, she couldn't tell, nor how she had got there.
Again, she opened her eyes and looked about her, looking for a way out. Above the hissing of the escaping steam, she could hear nothing. There were no voices, no sounds of movement, nothing.
Then she saw it, in the wall opposite, a door. Some five, maybe seven metres away, beyond the tangle of wires and pipes and fallen masonry. She stared at it through the dusty sunbeams. Was it a way out or just a cupboard? It didn't really matter. After all, what option did she have other than to wait for help that may never come?
She tried to push herself up but her legs hurt too much and she didn't have the strength. Instead, she slid sideways and turned onto her front and began to crawl.
The pain was unbearable but she gritted her teeth and pulled herself along but after no more than a metre, she stopped to rest and allow the pain to subside. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest and her head was throbbing. The taste in her mouth was so vile that she couldn't swallow and she turned her head to the side and spat out the offending fluid. Had she looked more closely she would have seen the bright red blood.
She waited a few minutes until she had regained her strength and was ready to make another attempt but this time, she managed to get to her hands and knees.
As she crawled, sharp pieces dug into her palms and knees and jagged spikes pulled and tore at her clothes and flesh. Every centimetre seemed to sap the energy from her broken body.
She didn't know how long it took, hours it seemed to her, but she eventually arrived at the door, her knees and hands bloodied. She reached up, pulled down on the handle. To her dismay, even pushing with every ounce of strength she possessed, it didn't move. Clenching her teeth she pulled herself up and once more pushed against the cold steel portal. Still nothing, it was solid!
In complete dismay, she slid back down to the floor where she remained motionless, resting her back against the door.
Now she wanted to cry but there were no tears, just an intense pounding in her chest and temples.
Whilst she sat, looking back towards the ruin from which she had crawled, she noticed that the sunbeams were beginning to fade. She guessed that the sun must be setting.
It occurred to her that if she didn't get this door open, she would be trapped in there in total darkness. The thought of it steeled her into making another attempt so she reached up to the handle and pulled herself to her feet. Half-way up she felt dizzy and held onto the handle to steady herself when, to her complete astonishment, the door swung partially open! She had been pushing it the wrong way! As she began to fall backwards, she gripped more tightly on the handle and the door jammed against the debris on the floor.
She paused to catch her breath and then the young woman tried to squeeze herself through the narrow gap which had opened up but it wasn't enough. With what little strength she had left and steadying herself against the edge of the door, she pushed several pieces of brick and concrete away with her foot. Suddenly, with a nerve-shattering screech, it moved another few centimetres and she slipped through the extra space it had left and fell heavily onto the hard, concrete floor beyond.
For a moment she lay still, her heart pounding from the intense effort she had made. Her head felt as though it were being crushed.
When she eventually looked up, she saw that she was in a dimly lit corridor. The light from lamps hanging from the ceiling seemed to come from far away down the passage, as those nearest to her were broken.
Once again, using every last shred of energy, she pulled herself up to her feet and began to take step after agonizing step along the corridor. First, leaning against the rough, concrete wall and then, as her strength faded, on hands and knees. Not knowing where it led, she began to crawl towards the lights.
In the end, the effort was too much for her and as she approached the first working lamp she felt so sick and weak. Everything was becoming hazy and she could no longer support herself. Slowly, she sank to the floor and darkness enveloped her.
When she opened her eyes again she was lying on something soft and warm. There was a blanket covering her. Although still throbbing, her head felt tight, as though something was squeezing it but gently. She raised her hand and touched her fingers to her forehead. It felt strange and coarse, as though she were wearing a hat.
“Ah, you are back with us,” the voice seemed distant, ethereal somehow. “How do you feel?”
The young woman turned her head towards the direction from which she thought the voice had come. She couldn't see properly but there seemed to be someone there, beside her.
“Where am I?” she asked. “Am I dead?”
The voice laughed gently.
“No, you are not dead although, by rights, you should be. You are in a side-room.”
She tried to sit up but a gentle hand held her firmly.
“Don't try to move,” the voice soothingly told her. “We don't yet know all of your injuries.”
She relaxed and lay still then asked,
“A side-room?” she asked. “A side-room where and why am I here?”
“I believe you were found in the basement after the raid. You were unconscious.”
“I. I'm sorry, I don't understand. Why was I unconscious and why do I feel so bad? What basement?”
“Don't you remember?” the voiced asked. This time there was a note of consternation in it.
The young woman tried to think but she remembered nothing... nothing at all!
“No,” she said.
“There was an air raid. The wing of this hospital that you were in suffered a direct hit. You can't remember?”
The young woman tried but there was still nothing.
“Well, I have to ask you something,” the voice was hesitant. We have accounted for all our nurses but there were two visiting Matrons from Germany who have not yet been identified. Can you tell me your name, please? You had no papers when we found you.”
“Yes, I am... I... am...” her voice trailed away as she realised she couldn't remember. “I... I don't... know,” she whispered.
A hand took her own and gently squeezed it.
“Don't worry,” the friendly voice replied. “You have taken quite a beating. I am sure you will remember in time. You just relax and I will inform the doctors that you have regained consciousness. I will just be a minute.”
For the few minutes that she was left alone, the young woman closed her eyes. The throbbing in her head persisted and so she tried to relax, willing the pain to leave her.
When she opened her eyes again, two people were staring down at her. They both still seemed vague and distant and she blinked her eyelids, trying to sharpen the image but it made little difference. She could, however, make out that there was a woman, a nurse perhaps, and a man who was dressed in white.
The man leaned over her and shone a light into her eyes. First one and then the other.
“Can you see me?” he asked her.
She shook her head slowly.
“I can see shapes,” she said. “I can see that you are there but you are very blurred and seem so far away.”
“Hmm, yes. I was afraid of that. You have taken a very heavy blow to your head. Your skull is not damaged other than lacerations to your scalp but I fear you may have some pressure around your brain. How do you feel in yourself.”
“I... I'm not sure. I feel woozy and my head is pounding. My whole body hurts and I feel nauseous.”
“I am not surprised,” the doctor replied. “You have contusions and lacerations all over you but, incredibly, nothing too serious. I am just amazed that you have not broken anything!”
There was a moment of silence as though none of them was sure what to say. It was the doctor who spoke first.
“So, Matron, we have another problem, your memory. The Sister here tells me that you don't know who you are.”
The young woman shook her head again.
“Why did you call me 'Matron'?” she asked.
“Well...” the doctor continued. “You were wearing the uniform of the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz. I believe that you are one of the two Matrons who have been assisting here over the last couple of days, The problem is, we don't know which one.”
The tears began to well in her eyes.
“I have tried to remember but my mind is empty. I don't remember anything. Maybe the other... maybe she can tell you?”
The doctor and the nurse exchanged unseen glances.
“She is not yet accounted for,” the nurse replied.
The young woman closed her eyes, wishing the pain would stop but trying hard to remember something, anything. A tear rolled down the side of her face and soaked into the pillow.
“All right, you need rest,” the doctor told her. “I will leave you alone for now but Sister Wallner will stay with you. I am hoping that we should see some improvement over the next few hours.”
A few minutes later, the young woman opened her eyes again. Much to her joy, she could see clearly again and the fuzziness in her head had cleared. There was still a dull throbbing in her head but not as bad as it had been.
She saw that she was in a small, white-painted room and she also saw the nurse sitting in a chair beside her. 'So that is what she looks like', she thought although, she appeared to be older than she had imagined. Her voice had sounded so young and yet she looked as though she was much older, perhaps in her fifties.
“So that is what you look like Nurse Wallner,” she said quietly.
The nurse suddenly turned to her.
“Ah, you are awake at last. How do you feel?” The young woman was surprised that this nurse sounded so different. “Nurse Wallner left hours ago. I am Sister Kissling.”
“Oh. I'm sorry. I couldn't see her but... hours ago? I only closed my eyes a few minutes ago.”
The older nurse laughed.
“You might think so but no,” she smiled. “I have been here all night. Sister Wallner went home hours ago. I will get the doctor to see you.”
She wasn't gone long and when she returned she was preceded by a very tired-looking doctor whose white coat wafted outwards as he walked quickly through the door.
“Ah, Matron. How good to see you awake. How are you feeling?”
The young woman was puzzled.
“You are the same doctor who was here before. This nurse said I had been asleep for hours but I knew I couldn't have been.”
“Yes, sorry. I've been here all night,” the middle-aged man replied. You have been out for about ten hours. It is almost seven now.”
“God in Heaven!” she exclaimed. “In the morning?”
“Yes indeed. Now, how do you feel?”
Immediately, the doctor shone a light into each of her eyes. The bright light made her wince.
“Hmm, good. I see an improvement. Your pupils are much more responsive now. That is a very encouraging sign. How about your memory. Do you remember who you are yet?”
The young woman shook her head slightly.
“No, it is still a blank. What about the other one you mentioned. Have you found her yet?”
Now it was the doctors turn to shake his head
“Not that I know of. I have asked the other wards to let me know but so far, I have heard nothing.”
After a moment, the young woman asked,
“Can you tell me what happened to me? How did I come here? I don't even know what town I am in.”
The nurse looked at the doctor.
“I think that you had better get some sleep, Herr Doktor,” she said. “I will fill her in and maybe she will be able to remember some of it as we go along.”
The doctor agreed.
“Yes, I am rather tired.”
Once he had left, the nursed helped the young woman to sit up a little. She couldn't help but wince as the movement aggravated all the cuts and bruises she had suffered.
“Are you hungry?” the nurse asked. “There will be some food along soon. Nothing much, I'm afraid, just a little soup and bread but better than nothing.”
After checking her pulse and blood pressure and giving her a little water, the nurse returned to her seat beside the bed.
“Now then,” she began. “Do you remember the air-raid? No? Well, yesterday, the town... oh, you don't know where... Innsbruck, we're in Innsbruck, was bombed. I have heard that more than two-hundred and fifty buildings have been destroyed. I suppose we were lucky this time, last Wednesday more than two-hundred and fifty people were killed. So much worse than yesterday. I believe that only around sixty-five people have been reported as dead so far this time. One of our own, sadly, Sister Winkler from Ward eight was among them.”
Suddenly a vision flashed through the young woman's mind. It was brief but, for a second, she could see blood, a lot of blood and a prone figure lying across a bed. Though no sooner had it appeared, it was gone.
Nurse Kissling had noticed the look on her face.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Did you remember something?”
The young woman shook her head.
“No, not really but...” she paused. “No. Whatever it was is gone.”
The Sister frowned.
“I noticed your expression change when I mentioned Sister Winkler. Do you remember her?”
The young woman slowly moved her head from side to side.
“No. What happened to her?”
Nurse Kissling turned away for a moment, hiding her sadness from her patient. When she turned back she took a deep breath.
“I am told that they found her buried in the rubble not so far from where you were found. They said that she had a deep cut in the side of her neck.” She swallowed before continuing. “They also found shards of glass embedded in her back...” She bit her bottom lip, trying to stop it quivering. “It would appear that she died quickly... didn't suffer...”
Once again, the bloody image appeared in the young woman's mind but this time it lingered, albeit a patchy, broken memory.
“I... I remember...” she whispered, closing her eyes.
“You saw it?”
The young woman nodded.
“It is not clear but... but...”
Nurse Kissling leaned forward.
“Please, try to remember,” she whispered, a tear rolling down her cheek. “Traudl was my niece!”
Opening her eyes to look at the troubled nurse, she spoke haltingly.
“It is vague but I remember the glass. She had her back to the window when...”
Nurse Kissling leaned nearer, not wanting to miss a word and took the young woman's trembling hand.
“There was blood... so much blood...” She closed her eyes again. “I... I can't remember.”
It was as much as she could do not to press her for more information but Nurse Kissling knew what harm she could do by insisting. Instead, she gently squeezed the young woman's hand.
“It's all right, don't worry. It is a good sign that you remember even that. Rest now and I will see where that soup has got to.”
When she returned, the older nurse was carrying a tray which contained a metal dish filled with thin but hot potato soup and a chunk of grey bread. She placed it on the stand beside the young woman's bed.
They didn't speak whilst she ate. The bread was quite hard but, by dipping it in the soup first, it was more palatable.
Because of the injuries to her lips, she found eating quite difficult and painful and so she was rather glad when, at last, the dish was empty. Nurse Kissling dabbed the remaining races from her mouth and helped her to lay back against the pillows, once more.
It was then that another, white-coated doctor appeared in the doorway and gestured for the nurse to join him.
The young woman could see them talking but they spoke too quietly for her to hear. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't pick out anything they said. Something was wrong, she was certain. They appeared to be speaking earnestly and, at one point, turned to look at her.
The doctor left and nurse Kissling returned to her bedside. She didn't smile but looked at the young woman as though trying to decide what to say or, more likely, how to say it.
She took a deep breath.
“The other matron...” she began uncertainly. “Your companion. She has been found.”