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The Nurses. Chapter 16

"Maria completes the final part of her journey but it is long and exhausting."
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Cologne. June 9 th 1940



Maria slept barely at all. The huge sofa was soft and quite comfortable, but she could not relax.


She had never slept away from the security of her own home except, occasionally, at the hospital but never outside her own world.


Now, she was in a city she had never visited and sleeping in an office rather than a bedroom. She was sure she was safe but still she could not relax and so, the hours passed very slowly until, finally, she was relieved when her small watch showed Four-thirty, late enough, now, to go to the bathroom across the foyer in the bar.


She was glad there was no-one around at such an early hour as she felt she must look a mess but, after carefully washing herself and tidying her hair, re-fitting her white cap and applying a little scent, she felt just a little human again and returned to the Night-Managers office to collect her suitcase.


Now, the manager was behind the reception desk.


“Ah, Sister. Did you sleep all right?” he asked her.


She smiled a grateful smile and lied,


“Yes, thank you,” she said, “The sofa was very comfortable.”


The last part, at least, was true.


He raised an eyebrow and looked a little doubtful.


“I am sorry I couldn't find a room for you. We are so busy this year.”


“Oh, don't worry,” she said, giving him her best look of gratitude, “I am just grateful that I had somewhere other than the station to stay.”


He held out his hand,


“Well, have a safe journey and good luck,” he smiled. “If ever you are back this way, you will be welcome here.”


Maria took his hand and thanked him then headed out into the early morning sunshine and back to the station.


Even at such an early hour, Cologne main station was busy. She checked at the barrier which platform she required and was directed to a train which was already standing on the platform.


As she made her way towards it, she came upon a group of young nurses about to board one of the carriages.


“Gruss Gott,” she greeted them as she approached.


The nearest turned to her.


“Hello,” she replied. You are from Bavaria?”


“Yes,” Maria answered, puzzled, “How did you know?”


“Your greeting,” came the reply, “No-one outside of Bavaria says that.”


“Really?” she said.


“Yes, really,” the other replied. “Have you never been outside of Bavaria then?”


“No, this is my first time,” she admitted. “Are you travelling to France as well?”


By this time, the other nurses had also taken an interest in her and another answered her question.


“Yes, to Amiens. You too?”


Maria nodded.


“I am supposed to report to the hospital tomorrow, but they changed it to Tuesday because of the trains, but they seem all right up to now.”


“So you travelled through the night?” another asked, “Only, we didn't see you at the hospital.”


“No, I stayed at the hotel around the corner,” she answered, puzzled, “What hospital?”


“The hospital here, in Cologne. Were you not supposed to stay in the nurses quarters like the rest of us?” the same nurse queried.


“Nurses quarters?” Maria was confused now, “There was nothing in my papers about where to stay. A porter took me to the hotel around the corner. I slept... well, tried to sleep on a sofa in the manager's office.”


“A sofa!” they cried in unison, and then the same nurse continued,


“Look, let's get on the train and we will have a look at your documents, yes?”


Maria smiled and nodded. First class was more comfortable, but she now had someone to talk to. The journey so far had been long and lonely and she was glad that now she had some company so, along with the others she boarded the carriage and the eight of them found a compartment and took their seats.


Once settled, they introduced themselves to her in turn. None was from her part of the country. Two were from Cologne, one from Essen, one Dortmund and the remaining three had travelled down from the north, Hamburg and, even farther away, from Schleswig.


Maria took out the folder containing her documents and passed them to the nurse who had asked her about where she stayed.


For a moment, the young woman leafed through the various papers, puzzled and frowning.


“You have a First Class travel pass...” she said, looking up at Maria.


Maria was a little embarrassed and felt her face flush.


“My father works for the railway. He wanted to try to make the long journey better for me.”


The nurse nodded, satisfied and returned to the papers in front of her.


“It is strange...” she said slowly, “There is no document for the accommodation, as you said.”


She turned the pages back and forth and then,


“Oh wait, look, here it is!”


Carefully she separated two thin sheets of paper.


“It is stuck to the back of your travel order. The one you didn't need because of your pass.”


“You mean I didn't need to sleep on a couch after all?”


“No, silly,” was the reply, “You could have been with us in the dormitory!”


All of them laughed and soon, Maria did too as she could now see the irony that in trying to make her journey more bearable, her father had actually made it less so!


Although the train was due to leave at Six, it was past Seven by the time it finally pulled out of Cologne and, again, Maria watched as the town thinned out and was replaced by the countryside.


Again, they had not travelled for long when their train slowed and came to a halt in a loop where it waited for a freight train to pass them loaded with military equipment.


This time, Maria did not bother to look out for more than a moment as she and the other nurses were chatting about where they had come from and the work they did.


Maria was very interested to hear about how things were in other towns and cities around Germany and it seemed that things there were little better than in Munich but, as far as she could tell, her home city was about as bad as it could be as that was from where the Nazi's had grown.


The day wore on and her train seemed to be making less progress than the one which took her to Cologne. Although the journey had begun as a bit of an adventure for her, she would be very glad to reach her destination.


For the fourth time, the train stopped and Maria noticed that it had not pulled off the main line as it had done every other time.


After a while, the conversation in her compartment began to tail off. They began wondering what was happening. Nothing had passed them or in the opposite direction.


Maria opened the window and looked out. She could see nothing but the train which appeared to be just waiting at a signal. There was no other activity to be seen.


“I can't see anything,” she told her companions with a shrug of her shoulders, “There doesn't seem to be anything happening at all.”


“It is a good thing we are not expected until Tuesday,” one of the others stated quite matter-of-factly.


Maria agreed and guessed that this was why her date had been moved forward a day.


Nothing moved at all for the next two hours during which time the ticket inspector had come to them and explained the problem. One of the military trains had been sabotaged, had become derailed and crashed. In the process, the track had been ripped up and the train wrecked. He was sorry to inform the young ladies that they would be returning to Cologne until a different route could be arranged.


They groaned with despair. How much longer was this infernal journey going to take.


Shortly afterwards there was jolt as another locomotive was attached at the back of the train and they began the slow journey back to where they had come from.


The mood in the compartment was sombre. Although they had seen and heard nothing, the news brought home to each of them that they were now going to war.


Maria herself had seen some terrible things on the streets of her home and in the hospital, but she had not really thought of that as 'war' since that had been carried out by Germans against Germans but here she was, soon to be working in a country where she was not welcome, and it saddened her considerably.


What she didn't know, however, was that this act of sabotage was, in fact, an accident which had occurred when the train passed over a junction and a rail moved, but because it was in Belgium, the Inspector just assumed it had been attacked.


After about an hour, the train stopped again only, this time, it was in a station. She didn't recognise the name and it sounded more French than German.


“Does anyone know where we are?” she asked no-one in particular. “I have never heard of this place.”


One of the others half raised her hand.


“Yes, I do,” she said, “I have been here before. This is Liege. We are in Belgium!” 


"Belgium!” Maria exclaimed. “What are we doing in Belgium?”


“Because Belgium is between Germany and France,” the younger woman explained. “I have travelled here from Cologne many times.”


At that moment, before Maria could ask any more questions, the compartment door opened.


The ticket inspector announced that they would not now be going back to Cologne as another route had been planned but one which was much longer as it now meant going via Brussels and Lille.


This news was met with several groans, especially as the longer route meant that they would probably travel well into the night. It was already late afternoon and Maria was getting hungry having eaten all the little snacks she had brought from home.


She asked the inspector whether there would be any food provided for them but he said not. There was no dining car on this train, however, as they could not leave for at least another hour he would make some enquiries.


He was true to his word and, as the girls looked out of the window, a porter arrived with a hand cart which was piled high with bread, sausages, cheese and so on. The man pulling it didn't look happy but Maria guessed that the cart was heavy and difficult to pull.


They were not sure whether they should wait for someone to bring the food to them but they soon found out when another porter began filling a basket with an assortment and then, not more than a few minutes later, the door slid open again and the same sad looking man entered and almost threw the basket of food into the compartment.


There was plenty for the eight of them but none of them had anything to cut it with. The sharpest and largest item that any of them had was a pair of small nail scissors which at least was enough to cut the string which connected the sausages!


“It is like a picnic!” one of the younger nurses giggled and, for a time, they laughed and joked and thought no more of the world around them.


They barely noticed when, with a jolt, their train began to move again, once more in the direction they had begun.


The Belgian countryside passed by much more slowly than she had remembered from the previous journey the chatter had slowly died away as tiredness began to overtake them.


One by one, they fell asleep in their seats, some leaning against each other.


Maria wanted to sleep but her mind was too busy.


She thought about all the things she had experienced in the last thirty-six hours. She had travelled further than she had ever had in her whole life and still she had not reached her destination.


She also thought of her travelling companions as she looked at each one in turn. They had such little experience as nurses but seemed so much more knowledgeable of the world than she did and they had travelled from so much further.


Gradually, her own eyes began to droop as the light beyond the carriage window began to fade.


She was awoken suddenly as the train jolted and squealed finally stopping in a dimly lit station.


Looking out, she found a sign, 'Lille'.


The Ticket Inspector had said that they would be going via Lille but she really didn't expect it to take so long. She looked at her watch and sighed, it was past midnight and she was becoming exhausted with the lack of sleep.


The door opened and this time, instead of the ticket inspector, a Wehrmacht soldier, his rifle slung over his shoulder.


“My apologies, ladies but you have to leave this train. It cannot proceed any further and is returning to Germany.”


Before anyone had a chance to ask why he was gone.


“Oh my goodness, what now?” the nurse from Essen asked, being the youngest.


Maria thought carefully.


“I suggest we go onto the platform and I will try to find someone to tell us what is happening.”


Having no objections, the eight young women gathered up their belongings along with the remainder of the food and alighted to the platform.


The platform was now quite busy as the train was full. Maria had not known but she now realised that it was a troop train and almost all of the other occupants were soldiers.


She watched silently as they all stepped down and arranged themselves into orderly lines, following the barked orders of their officers.


She noticed a soldier standing nearest to her who had stripes on his sleeve, so she guessed he was someone with authority and went directly to him.


“Excuse me, Sir,” she said firmly and the soldier turned to her and smiled.


“Sergeant will be fine, Sister,” he said. “What can I do for you?”


“I am with a group of Nurses from the Red Cross,” she began, indicating her companions a short distance away. “We are supposed to be going to Amiens but we have been told that the train is not now going there...”


“No, that is indeed correct,” the NCO agreed. “So how can I help?”


“I wondered if you knew whether any alternative arrangements have been made.”


“I am afraid that I don't,” he replied, “We are being transferred to lorries here but we were not going to Amiens anyway.”


Maria stood silently, looking at him. She was at a complete loss as to what to do next.


“Well, thank you anyway,” she said, wondering what on earth to do, “I will try to find someone from the railway.”


The sergeant looked at her and them at the others who were looking across at them from afar.


“Wait here a minute,” he sighed, “Let me see what I can find out.”


She watched him go, walking briskly past a group of soldiers and to a table at which sat what Maria recognised as an officer. She had met several at the hospital.


They were too far away to hear what was being said but the sergeant kept pointing across to her and her companions.


The officer seemed to turn some pages and shuffle some papers and then nodded, handing a sheet to the Sergeant, who took it, saluted with arm outstretched and clicked his heels together before turning and walking back towards her.


“You are in luck... maybe,” he said, adding the 'maybe' in a way that made Maria wonder if the luck part actually was. “That was the transport officer I spoke to. He said that he might have a lorry going to Amiens in a couple of hours which he may be able to get you on.”


Maria gasped with despair,


“A couple of hours?” she sighed, “And how long will the journey take?”


The Sergeant thought carefully and rubbed his chin.


“Well,” he said eventually, screwing up his face as he thought, “If nothing delays you, five hours at best I would think.”


Maria began to feel sick with lack of sleep, and this latest setback did nothing to help. She told the sergeant that they would wait in the waiting room in the main station building and he promised that someone would come and find them when the lorry was ready to leave.


The other nurses all groaned when she gave them the news. Like her, they were tired but, in the circumstances, they decided that it would be best to try and catch a few minutes rest while they waited.


The waiting room was warm enough and had long deep upholstered benches around the walls which gave them a little space to relax using each other as pillows and it wasn't long before Maria's eyes closed and she slipped into a dreamless sleep.


Almost immediately, it seemed to her, she was awoken by someone shaking her gently but urgently.


She pried her eyelids open, blinking against the burning, gritty feeling of having been awoken from such deep sleep and when she finally focussed, she saw that there was a soldier standing patiently.


“Sergeant Steiner sent me to take you to the lorry, Sister,” he said when he saw she was sufficiently awake.


“Oh, erm, yes, thank you. Would you wake the others please.”


She was shivering uncontrollably and felt so cold but she knew it was just the lack of sleep. The big clock on the wall showed Four and, although the room still looked as it did just three hours ago she knew that the day was beginning outside.


Thirty minutes later, all eight of them were outside in front of the station's main entrance where they saw a grey lorry standing, its engine idling and the condensation from its exhaust pipe rose lazily into the cool, pale blue morning.


The driver was waiting patiently at the rear with the wooden tailgate lowered.


From where she stood, Maria could see that the lorry was just an open truck with a canvas cover and the seats were just wooden, well, shelves was the best description she could think of. Just long slats of wood along either side and the only support was the solid sides of the body.


She was about to ask how they would get in there when the solder produced a short ladder from inside and leant it against the back.


“One of you can ride in the front if you wish,” the driver offered and they all looked at each other finally agreeing that they would rather stay together.


“As you wish,” he answered then grinned at the soldier. “You get the comfortable seat then, Helmut!”


Before long, after they were safely seated and their luggage on board, the small lorry lurched away with a whine from the gearbox and a puff of grey smoke from the exhaust.


The young women were sharing the truck with sacks of grain and, for the next few hours, took turns to get a few minutes sleep by rearranging some of the sacks so they could lie on them.


Some of the roads were quite rough and the truck bounced and lurched slowly along them and, as the hours passed, Maria wondered if they would ever arrive at the hospital. She felt sick not just from the lack of sleep but from the constant jolting and swaying of the truck.


She also hadn't eaten since leaving the train, the thought of eating just made her stomach churn even more.


It was a blessed relief when, at long last, the truck turned off the road and into the grounds of a hospital.


Maria prayed, with every ounce of strength she had remaining, that this was her destination.


With a squeal of brakes, the truck came to a halt at the back of what appeared to her to be the main hospital building.


She heard the cab doors bang closed and seconds later the driver's grinning face appeared over the top of the tailboard as he released the catches and let it fall with a clatter.


“Here we are, Sisters!” he laughed “Hope you enjoyed the trip.”


All of the nurses remained silent, exhaustion preventing any attempt at admonishment and together, the two soldiers helped these weary young women step backwards down the little ladder he had once again placed against the back of the truck.


The pleasure of being on firm, steady ground again was appreciated by them all as they stretched and walked a few steps to get their tired bodies moving again.


Maria thanked the two soldiers for the ride and as a group, they walked around to the main entrance where they found the office marked 'Duty Medical Officer'.


Maria knocked on the frosted glass panel and, on hearing 'Come!' turned the handle and stepped inside.


The DMO didn't look up right away but quickly finished writing and then, when he saw Maria, exclaimed,


“Good heavens, Matron Langsdorf, what on earth happened? You look as though you have been sleeping in a barn!”


Maria was baffled at this unexpected comment and, without thinking, replied.


“Sir, I have been travelling for over Forty-eight hours, the last seven in the back of a lorry. I have barely slept for two days!” she paused, “And my name is Sister Maria Kaufmann, not Matron Langsdorf.”


She placed her documents on the desk in front of her and the DMO opened them slowly, his face a picture of bemusement.


“My apologies, Sister,” he said at length, “I appear to have confused you with someone else.”


For a moment, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.


“Hmm... Kaufmann... That name is familiar...”


He looked up at her and frowned again


“Hmm, never mind, it can wait,” he said, “You look as though you need some rest.”


Maria smiled and nodded wearily while the officer called for an orderly to show her and the other nurses to the dormitory.


As she turned after thanking him, he added,


“The restaurant is open for lunch now. Go and eat then rest. I will send an orderly later with your instructions for tomorrow.”


Maria had never slept in a dormitory before but now she was exhausted and she would have slept in the street if she had to.


In her whole life, she had not been so grateful for a place to lay her head.



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