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The Long Road Home Chapter 2.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Long Road Home Chapter 2.

Something large and heavy landed on her, knocking her to the deck...

The continuing story of two dedicated nurses, Katarina and Maria.

The Mediterranean. January 17th, 1943

As the setting sun began to dip below the horizon, SS Aegean Sea reduced her engine revolutions to slow. The frothing, white water that had hitherto washed along her flanks disappeared as her speed reduced to almost a standstill. Captain Konstantinos Theodopolis opened his bible and read.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want...”

 

Katarina closed her eyes and clasped her hands together. She and her nurses had tried so hard but without proper medical facilities, they couldn't save the three poor souls who now lay on the deck wrapped in white cloth. One was the soldier who had passed away that morning and the other two were both so severely burned that she was surprised that they had actually lived as long as they had.

 

“...Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil:

For thou art with me;

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

Thou anointest my head with oil;

My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

As the captain slowly closed the Book, Katarina had an almost certain feeling that this would not be the last time on this voyage that she would hear those words.

Captain Theodopolis and Oberleutnant Rath both gave the traditional naval salute as the three bodies were committed to the deep, each one making a gentle splash as they entered the water. Neither one lowered their arms until the last was gone.

“Thank you, Captain.” Katarina touched his forearm.

Captain Theodopolis looked at her for a moment.

“No-one asked for this, Matron. Those men didn't deserve to die just to satisfy the demands of...” his voice trailed off but she knew what he was thinking. “Well, they didn't deserve it. None of us does,” he finally concluded.

By now, the sun had disappeared below the horizon and the sky was already turning a darker blue but, in the distance, an orange glow shone on the underside of dark clouds. The captain stared towards them.

“I think there is a storm coming, Matron,” he said and turned away to climb the stairs up towards the bridge.

 

That night, Anneliese and Katarina returned to the storeroom where they found that Hanna and Ilsa had re-stacked the errant life vests somewhat lower and more spread out so they were secure against the walls of the small room to prevent them from falling again. They had also found some blankets.

 

The Captain's prophecy had proven correct and Katarina awoke to a stomach-churning sensation of being lifted and dropped rather too frequently for comfort. She hadn't suffered sea-sickness before but this was enough to make her feel very uncomfortable.

With difficulty, due to the rolling and pitching of the ship, she dragged herself from her resting place and towards the door. She opened it carefully to allow a little light so she could check the time.

Three-fifteen!

Opening the door a little further, Katarina saw that Anneliese was still sleeping. How that could be so, with the thunderous roar of the waves pounding against the steel hull like some huge kettle drum, was beyond her. The motion had been enough to waken Katarina, quite apart from the noise.

There was no point in trying to sleep, she thought, so she squeezed through the narrow opening and made her way to the galley where she hoped she might find some coffee.

The passageway outside the small room was rancid with the smell of sickness. The aroma of vomit, and worse, mingled to make the air almost unbreathable. The violent motion of the ship was bad enough for Katarina who was young and strong but for those who were weak and sick, she could only imagine that it must have been a living hell. The short walk to the galley took quite some time as she stopped to try and help those who couldn't help themselves. She and the other nurses were stretched to their limits trying to keep them clean and hand out bowls to the worst affected of them.

By the time she reached the small, makeshift galley, Katarina was more than ready for that coffee but, to her dismay, there was none to be had! It hadn't occurred to her that there may not be any cooks about at that time of the morning. On the other hand, of course, the pitching and rolling of the ship weren't exactly conducive to pots of boiling liquids on the stove. There was only water available and she drew some from the small tap above the basin in the corner.

Even that was not without its difficulties. Try to hold a cup under a tap whilst holding on against the ravages of the sea... well, she got more water down her front than in the cup.

She did manage a few mouthfuls, however, and then sat on the long bench. She was glad that the tables were fixed to the floor, at least she had something to hold on to.

 

Even after sunrise, the storm continued unabated. The rain lashed down upon the aged vessel and the waves pounded against her sides. How much longer these poor souls could endure such treatment she couldn't fathom. It was as much as a fit and healthy person could stand but the overcrowded decks were filled with men in various states of poor health and this was doing nothing for their chances of survival.

 

Taking a deep breath, Katarina left the Galley and headed down the ladder to the upper hold deck. The passageway there was also obstructed by the casualties and almost as soon as she stepped off the ladder she heard a weak voice calling her.

“Nurse, Nurse. Over here!”

In the dim light of the bulkhead lamps, she could just make out a white bandaged arm, waving.

Although the passageway was quite narrow, it was as much as she could do to keep herself from falling over the men and remain on her feet by trying to match the rolling motion and keep her hands out to steady herself against the bulkheads.

When she finally got to the soldier, she asked him what was wrong. When he didn't reply she asked him again but he just stared at her, a look of fear in his eyes. As she crouched beside him to try to hear him above the cacophony of the sea, the ship suddenly lurched and fell and she was thrown against the opposite bulkhead. For a moment she felt as though all the air had been sucked from her lungs, such was the impact of her back against the cold steel. Her head swam as she gasped for breath but she remained calm and tried to control her breathing. The ship then rolled the other way but now she was ready and she planted her feet firmly against the deck and pushed herself against the bulkhead until she regained her composure.

Pushing herself back up on to her feet, she flexed her shoulders. Her back was a little sore but nothing too bad and she looked back at the young soldier. He had been sick but Katarina was more than a little concerned as what he had ejected was dark red and was still bubbling from his mouth. She dropped to her knees and when she got closer she saw that the frothing had stopped and the eyes that looked back at her were lifeless.

Reaching out she drew her fingers down over his eyelids, closing them.

She shook her head. If this storm didn't abate soon, she thought, the captain was going to be very busy come sundown.

There was nothing more she could do so she made a mental note of where he was so he could be dealt with when the ship became calmer.

 

Katarina moved on. She was surprised by how many men were actually sleeping. She could only put it down to their utter exhaustion.

By the time she reached the ladder up to the main superstructure, she was feeling decidedly queasy herself. The motion of the ship coupled with the stench of its passengers was beginning to get to her. She needed fresh air but, with the storm still howling and the seas pounding the little freighter, she didn't know how she would get any.

Suddenly, she heard a scream from above and before she could react, something large and heavy landed on her, knocking her to the deck.

Hanna groaned in pain and began to struggle to her knees.

“Matron,” she said softly, seeing Katarina's motionless form lying beneath her. She cried out in pain as she tried to get to her feet. “Matron...”

Katarina didn't move.

Above her, a man's voice shouted above the noise of the storm.

“Are you all right, down there?”

Hanna shouted back.

“No, I can't rouse her. Help me, quickly!”

Oberleutnant Rath ran quickly down the ladder, his feet virtually flying over the treads as he slid down the handrails.

“What happened?” he asked. “Is she breathing?”

“I fell when the ship lurched. I can't tell.”

Gunther leaned over Katarina's face and looked carefully. He took her wrist, fumbling desperately for a pulse.

“I can't...” The ship rolled first one way and then the other and he grabbed at the rail to steady himself. In the process, he dropped Katarina's arm.

He tried again... and again.

“I can't find her pulse!” he said, desperately and then, “Ah, it's all right, I've got it.”

Hanna leaned back against the bulkhead and breathed once more.

“We need to find her a bunk, Sister,” he said. “Let's get her up the ladder to the Captains day room to start with.”

As he spoke, Katarina let out a groan and opened her eyes. She looked at the officer looking down at her and then over to her young colleague, sitting back against the bulkhead.

“What hit me?” she asked.

Hanna looked sheepish.

“I'm afraid it was me,” she said. “I fell down the stairs and landed on you. Are you all right?”

Oberleutnant Rath helped Katarina to sit up.

“Yes, I think so,” she replied and rubbed the back of her head. “I must have hit my head on the floor when I fell. What about you?”

Again, Hanna appeared embarrassed.

“I'm not sure,” she said slowly and then groaned with pain as she tried to get up. “My leg.”

Putting her own aches and pains aside, Katarina knelt beside her and turned to Gunther.

“Could you find a sheet or something, please. Just to cover her whilst I examine her leg.”

He didn't need to be asked twice and, within moments, he had returned with a large piece of canvas which he held around them as much as he could.

Katarina lifted the hem of Hanna's skirt gradually higher, checking her leg as she went. There were a few small scrapes but nothing so bad until...

“My goodness, Hanna. No wonder it hurts!”

At the top of her leg, Hanna had a huge purple contusion and a badly grazed area of flesh around the outside of her left thigh.

Katarina touched it gently.

“Owww...”Hanna wailed.

“I'm sorry, Hanna. I can see it's sore but I need to see whether it's broken.”

She gave the young nurse a moment to prepare and then gently pressed around the damaged area.

Hanna's face contorted with pain and she bit her lip in an effort to be brave.

Finally, Katarina pulled her skirts back down and allowed the Oberleutnant to relax and let the sheet drop.

“Do you think you can stand? I don't think it's broken.”

Hanna nodded and Katarina and Gunther helped her to her feet.

Desperately trying not to cry and her face as white as a ghost, Hanna took the weight.

“I'm all right,” she said, even though the look on her face said otherwise. “I think you're right, it's not broken...” She managed a weak, grimacing smile, “...but it hurts like hell!”

 

By midday, the storm had all but passed, leaving a still somewhat stomach-churning swell. Katarina returned to the captain's day cabin to check on Hanna.

Captain Theodopolis was on the bridge so she asked his permission to enter.

“That was some storm,” she said.

The captain agreed.

“Yes. The Mediterranean can get pretty violent on occasions. How are our passengers?”

“We lost another four. They were too weak to endure such conditions.”

He looked back out to sea.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” he replied. “I will arrange another interment for the same time... if the sea allows it,” he added as an afterthought.

Katarina thought for a moment.

“Has the storm slowed us down?” she asked. “Will we still arrive in Piraeus when you said we would?”

“No, there has been a change of plan. I had to alter course when the storm blew up. The ship is old and suffered some damage so we are heading for Taranto instead.” As he spoke, his eyes remained fixed on the sea ahead.

“Taranto? Italy?”

“Is that a problem?”

Katarina smiled.

“No. We sailed from there in '41, my sister and I.”

The captain frowned and turned to face her, puzzled.

“I thought you said you flew from Greece?”

“I did. It's a long story and so much has happened since then. We were on the Meer Königin when...”

Meer Königin?” he interrupted. “That ship was sunk by a mine in February that year.”

“I know,” she nodded. “We were adrift for days in a life raft.”

Captain Theodopolis was stunned.

You were one of the two missing nurses? I heard they were lost.”

“As I said, Captain, it's a long story. We were picked up by a British warship, HMS Lakota.”

He turned back to the sea and spoke as though to himself.

“I knew her first officer, Hugo Neumann. He was devastated when his ship went down. All he talked about afterwards were the two missing women. It was as though he blamed himself for their loss. I think he was attracted to one of them, mentioned her quite often. Katarina, if my memory serves me. When they called off the search, he wouldn't accept they were dead and whenever he put to sea he would keep a constant lookout. He knew there was no chance of finding them, especially after so long, but he still held that hope in his heart.”

“I had no idea, Captain, I liked Hugo. Perhaps you could let him know that I... we, are safe.”

The captain didn't blink.

“I can't.”

“I know it is almost two years,” Katarina insisted, “but if he felt so strongly then at least...”

She didn't get to finish the sentence.

“He's dead.”

Katarina was stunned.

“Oh... I... I'm so sorry to hear that. He was a good man. How did he...?” her voice trailed off.

“After the loss of Meer Königin, he was seconded to the Reichenfels, another merchant vessel. It was bombed by the British Royal Air Force, back in June. I was told that he was caught in the blast of the first bomb.”

Katarina didn't know what to say and so an awkward silence fell between them until,

“I am Katarina,” she said quietly.

The captain turned to her.

“So now I understand why he was so enthralled by you. He said that there was something special about you... and your sister. Was it she that we had to leave?”

Katarina nodded, a dark cloud seemed to pass over her.

“I'm sorry,” he said.

“No, it's all right, I understand. I think she would too. It is just so hard not knowing where she is, She should have been right behind me but...”

Again, silence descended between them. It was Katarina who broke it.

“I should go. I just came to check on Hanna, if I may?”

Captain Theodopolis returned his attention to the sea as he responded.

“Yes, of course.”

 

In the day room, Katarina found Hanna sitting on the captain's bunk.

“You should be lying down, Hanna!” she said with a smile. “How is it now?”

“I won't pretend it is well, Matron, it hurts like hell but it's all right. I can stand up now and the pain is bearable.”

“Let me see, Katarina asked and slid the wooden door across to prevent prying eyes from the bridge.

Hanna lifted her skirts and turned to the side. The top of her thigh was a dark, angry purple mess but Katarina was pleased that the contusion had not spread.

“And what about the graze? Doesn't your uniform irritate it?” she asked.

“It does,” Hanna agreed. “The pain from the impact is worse though so I will be fine.”

Katarina pondered whilst Hanna let her skirts fall back, hiding the damage once again.

“I can't deny that we are very stretched down there without you but I don't want another unnecessary casualty to look after so...” she paused. “Look, rest a little longer here and come down only if you are sure that you are up to it, yes?”

Hanna agreed and promised she would not become a burden.

 

That evening, at sundown, the sea was calm again and four more victims were committed to the depths. Each one was recorded so that Katarina could hand over their possessions for returning to their families.

 

The following day, the seventeenth, was calm and clear but this time, as the sun sank below the horizon, the SS Aegean Sea didn't reduce her speed for another interment, instead, she slowed to enter the port of Taranto and never in her life had Katarina been so pleased to see land.

Although the light was failing as they entered the harbour, She noticed that the Italian battleship Conte di Cavour was no longer visible, as it had been two years before. She later discovered that it had been refloated and, in the December of nineteen-forty-one, had been moved to Trieste for repairs.

There was to be no rest for any of the nurses that night. With no time to lose in unloading the fragile cargo, an ambulance train had been organized at very short notice. There would be no respite until the last of the patients had been safely disembarked and loaded onto the carriages.

Katarina was the last to leave the ship and, along with Hanna, Anneliese, and Ilsa, bid farewell to Oberleutnant Rath and Captain Theodopolis.

She was in a daze of exhaustion as she walked slowly down the gangway and set foot on dry land for the first time in more than seventy-two hours.

She stood at the bottom and held on to the end of the rail. She was so tired she felt sick.

“If only the ground would stop moving,” she thought,

Through the sickly haze, whilst she tried to recover her balance, she heard a voice call to her.

“Matron!”

It was a gentle voice and when she looked up for a moment her mind played a cruel trick on her. She thought, just for one brief instant, that the nurse who had called her was her sister, Maria. She closed her eyes and let her weary head fall forwards whilst she regained her composure.

“Matron?” the voice repeated, accompanied by the gentle touch of a hand on her shoulder.

Katarina looked up again.

“Oh my Lord, Maria! It is you!”

Maria nodded and Katarina threw her arms around her sister's neck and the two young women sobbed heartily in their embrace.

 

 

 

 

 

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