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The Nurses. Chapter 20

She raised an eyebrow and her eyes twinkled in the morning light.

Amiens. June 12th, 1940

After her first day being such a rush and the unexpected promotion, Maria had fallen asleep as soon as her head touched her pillow. It had been her intention to read for a while, but she hadn't even opened her book.

Now she was wide awake and felt thoroughly refreshed and ready for the new day.

As she brushed her hair and plaited it, she thought about Sergeant Steiner and how confused he had been. She hadn't seen anyone else who looked like her, but even the DMO had thought the same thing when she arrived.

Soon she was ready for the day and put all those thoughts behind her as she walked briskly to the mess hall.

Coffee and bread with a little cheese were all she needed to begin the day and when she selected all she wanted and looked for a place to sit she saw Madeleine and the other nurses sitting chatting at a large table and walked over to them.

“May I sit with you?” she asked.

Madeleine looked up at her.

“Of course, you can!” she said, “You don't need to ask.”

“Oh, I don't like to presume,” Maria said as she pulled out a chair and sat down. “I have not been a matron long and am not really sure whether it is correct for me to be with you. I don't want to cause any trouble.”

“You know us, now, Maria. You know we don't mind, right girls?” she added, looking at the other three.

They all nodded eagerly, pleased that she even wanted to sit with them.

For the next half an hour or so, they chatted easily among themselves.

Maria told them about her work and life in Munich, and she listened intently as they told her about their lives until it was time to go to the ward and take over for the day.

“Good morning, Maria,” Matron Braun greeted her cheerily as she entered.

“Good morning, Hedda,” she replied, equally cheerfully. “A good night?”

“Oh, much as usual,” came the reply, “I don't think anything will change much.”

Maria smiled, and together they walked around the ward.

There were only about half of the twenty beds actually occupied so the rounds were completed in no time and Hedda Braun left Maria to begin her shift.

She watched carefully as Madeleine approached the bed of Michel Belleville. As on the previous day, he began with his accustomed glare and refusal to co-operate.

“Monsieur Belleville, please...” Madeleine began with a sigh, “We went through all this yesterday. I am only trying to help you...”

Again he glared at her and then, he caught sight of Maria watching him, arms folded from across the ward.

She raised an eyebrow, and her eyes twinkled in the morning light.

Belleville sighed and begrudgingly opened his mouth just enough to allow Madeleine to slip the thin glass tube past his lips.

Maria smiled and gave a little wink at which the old man slumped back against his pillow and relaxed which allowed Madeleine to lift his arm and attach the inflatable cuff.

It was some hours later when a sudden and totally unexpected roar made Maria jump.

She hadn't noticed the sound building outside and almost immediately it was followed by another, only, this time, it was accompanied by a strange rattle.

She and the other nurses ran to the windows just in time to see two small aeroplanes disappearing into the distance, the first of which had a trail of thick black smoke pouring from the front of it and then vanished below the treeline.

The other, a more square looking machine, circled for a while and then turned and flew away from their sight.

Maria had never in her life seen such a sight.

“What happened, did it crash?” she asked no-one in particular.

No reply was forthcoming and slowly they returned to their duties.

About thirty minutes later the telephone on her desk rang.

“Ward Seven,” she said into the mouthpiece and listened as a voice on the other spoke. “Yes, I see. We will be ready.”

“Another patient is coming, Ladies,” she called, “He will come from theatre as soon as they are done. Bed One, please!”

There was no hurry as they knew there would be a little time before the patient arrived but with their usual efficiency, Madeleine and Beatrice put fresh sheets on the bed whilst Maria took a file from the drawer and prepared it for the new arrival.

It was almost an hour later when the doors crashed open, and two orderlies pushed the trolley into the ward.

Unusually, they were accompanied by two fully armed soldiers who held the door open whilst the orderlies passed through.

“What on earth is going on?” Maria demanded, “Why are they here?”

She nodded towards the soldiers.

“You saw us come in, Matron. Don't you know?”

It was one of the soldiers who answered her.

“Well, of course, I saw you come in, I was standing right here when you burst through the doors!”

“No, not just now, earlier, when we arrived after the ambulance. I bumped into you.”

“I don't think so, Private. I haven't left the ward all morning.”

“But Matron, I...”

The soldier stopped, confusion was written across his face as he realised that Maria had no idea what he was talking about.

In the meantime, the orderlies and her nurses had moved the prone figure onto the bed, and Maria noticed that he was still wearing his trousers. The remainder of his uniform was draped over the end of the bed.

She went over, curious, as the uniform she could see was not grey but blue as was his shirt and above the pocket of his jacket was a cloth badge which comprised an RAF insignia with curved wings outstretched either side, not Gothic in style and holding a swastika, as the Nazi Eagle was.

She looked at him for a moment. He was no older than she was, she thought.

His face was blackened but had been cleaned up somewhat, and the flesh was red and scorched although not burned and his eyebrows were completely gone.

His hands, though, above the sheets, were bandaged almost to his elbows

Maria took the file from Beatrice and opened it.

The only details were his name, Robert Richard Mitchell, his rank, Pilot Officer, and his number, 1663215 followed by the words, Royal Air Force.

It slowly dawned on her who he was, and she turned to the soldiers who were now standing behind her.

“He is the pilot of the aeroplane that flew over this morning?” she asked.

The soldiers looked at each other in confusion and nodded in agreement.

“Then why is he here, in this ward?” she pressed them.

They both shrugged and one answered her.

“All we know is that we have to guard him, Matron. He is an enemy pilot and must not escape.”

Maria took a deep breath.

“Does he look as though he is going anywhere?” she said sternly.

“Well, no but we have our orders...”

“Then just make sure you do not get in the way!” she said. “There are some chairs over by the door. You can use those.”

Again, the soldiers exchanged glances and, as Maria was glaring at them still, shrugged again and went away and sat down.

“Why have they brought him to us?” a voice behind her asked.

She turned.

“I imagine, Beatrice,” she began, “That it is because we have French patients rather than our own wounded.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” was the reply.

“You know, we must treat him just the same as all our patients, don't you?”

Beatrice looked shocked.

“I hadn't thought anything different, Matron,” she replied as though offended. “I know you have only been here two days, but you have taught us already that all are people, whatever side they may be fighting for.”

Maria nodded and smiled.

“I want you to be careful, though. I have seen many times the way certain people behave. To some, an enemy is an enemy regardless, so whilst he is under our care, we must protect him as much as we can.”

“You mean, to help him escape?” Beatrice whispered her eyes open wide.

“No, silly!” Maria chuckled. “Of course I don't! I mean to nurse him back to health until he can be taken to a prison!”

She raised her eyes.

“Oh, oh yes... of course.”

Beatrice' face reddened with embarrassment.

Still grinning, Maria patted her arm.

“Come on,” she chuckled, “Back to work.”

Lunchtime came and went, and things were so busy that Maria didn't bother to leave the ward but just drank coffee and ate a few biscuits that Madeleine brought for her from the canteen.

It was getting late in the afternoon when the young British airman began to regain consciousness.

As he slowly opened his eyes, he saw Maria standing studying his notes at the foot of his bed.

“Am I dead?” he whispered.

Maria looked up and smiled.

She had no idea what he had just said.

“Ah, Guten Abend, Herr Mitchell,” she said smiling but he looked at her with total incomprehension.

“Ah, so. Sie sprechen kein Deutsch.”

Again, he stared at her fearfully and then his face contorted with pain as he tried to move.

“Nein, Bitte nicht Bewegen! Du bist Verletzt!”

Maria urged him to remain still and, although he had no idea what she was saying, he slumped back onto the bed, exhausted.

“Does anyone here speak English?” she called out, and one of the soldiers stood up and took a step towards her.

“I do, Matron,” he said.

She looked at her nurses who all shook their heads apologetically.

“Oh, all right, you will have to do,” she sighed.

As he began to approach, Maria stopped him.

“Wait,” she said, putting out her arm, “You will scare him dressed like that. Take off your helmet, utility belt and jacket. At least try to be a little less threatening to him.”

The soldier did as he was asked and left them in the care of his colleague.

The young airman stared at him as he approached the bed, eyes wild and darting to and fro.

“Tell him your name, be a little less, well, soldier-like.”

“Ich bin...” he began

Maria rolled her eyes.

“In English!”

“Oh, er, yes, sorry,” he said.

“I am Gefreiter Seidlitz,” he began again. “You are in hospital and in no danger.”

The airman still said nothing but switched his gaze between soldier and nurse.

“Meine Name ist Maria,” she said carefully, “Deine Name ist Robert, Ja?”

The airman nodded slowly

“Pilot Officer Robert Richard Mitchell, RAF. 1663215.”

She looked at the soldier.

“Tell him I am not trying to interrogate him, that he is safe here.”

The soldier leaned forwards and spoke loudly and slowly.

“Pilot Officer, you are in der hospital und dese are nurses. Sey do not vant any information from you. Zey are just to help you recover from your injuries.”

Robert Mitchell narrowed his eyes, but his lips remained tightly closed.

Shrugging his shoulders the soldier turned to Maria.

“Alright,” she said, “Let him rest. We will try again later.”

The soldier returned to his chair at the end of the ward and spoke quietly to his friend who shook his head resignedly.

Shortly after the exchange, Maria heard a commotion out in the corridor.

She heard loud voices and approaching footsteps until.

“Ah, here, Ward Seven!” and the door suddenly burst open.

Standing in the doorway was a very smart young Luftwaffe Officer flanked by two orderlies.

“Where is he?” the young man demanded.

“I am sorry Matron, but he would not wait...” one of the orderlies apologised.

Maria placed her hands upon her hips and marched up to this unwelcome intruder.

“Where is who and what do you mean by making such a noise on my ward?” she demanded.

She saw that this man also wore a badge above his Jacket pocket which comprised of a flying eagle with wings outstretched and holding a swastika in a wreath in its talons and officer rank insignia on his epaulettes.

He reminded her of the suave Luftwaffe officer she had met on the train.

“The English pilot! Where is he? Ah, there...” he added as his eyes befell the blue uniform jacket.

He took a step towards Pilot Officer Mitchell before Maria put up her hand and placed it squarely against the middle of this arrogant young officers chest.

“I asked who you were,” she said firmly.

He looked at her for a moment astonished that this slip of a girl could be so audacious as to stand against him.

Behind him the two soldiers, who had jumped swiftly to attention on his appearance, looked at each other nervously, wondering whether they should intervene.

They decided against it when the Pilot smiled.

“Please, forgive me,” he smiled. “In my excitement, I have forgotten my manners. I am Oberleutnant Erich Scholz of Jagdgeschwader2 'Richthofen'.”

“Thank you, Oberleutnant. I am Matron Kaufmann. What do you want with my patient?”

“Oh. I am sorry Matron. He is the best damned pilot I have ever encountered! This morning he fought with three of our Messerschmitt 109's. I was the one who finally brought him down but not before he had destroyed my two wingmen. The Spitfire is a fantastic aeroplane but in his hands...”

Maria looked steadily at him.

“Oberleutnant,” she lowered her tone to barely more than a menacing whisper, “I will not have any acts of revenge here. He is my patient, and he will remain safe whilst in my care. Do you understand?”

The officer was shocked, and his jaw dropped.

“Matron, you misunderstand me. My wingmen both escaped with minor injuries, the worst being a sprained ankle when he landed awkwardly from his parachute landing. No, I only want to meet this man and congratulate him on his incredible performance. I heard he had survived and was brought here.”

Maria stood her ground, assessing him.

Finally, she dismissed the two orderlies who had remained close-by.

“He is hurt, Oberleutnant so I will allow you just a few minutes but please, take it easy. Oh and he doesn't speak German!”

Upon hearing this, the two soldiers breathed a sigh of relief and returned to their seats as the pilot replied,

“That doesn't matter, before the war, I studied in England, at Eton so my English is good.”

They approached the Englishman's bed and he watched them intently, as he had done since Oberleutnant Scholz and the orderlies had first arrived.

Maria Jumped back as the pilot suddenly clicked his heels together and raised his arm, fingertips to his temple and palm downwards in the traditional salute rather than that of the Nazis with arm outstretched.

“I salute you,” he said. “You are an amazing pilot and incredibly brave.”

At this, Pilot Officer Mitchell seemed to relax and even gave a small smile of satisfaction but, as the German offered his hand in friendship, he could do no more than lift his heavily bandaged hand a few centimetres above the covers.

“Ah, my apologies, I didn't realise.”

He turned to Maria and said in his native tongue,

“Is it bad?”

Maria shook her head,

“Not too bad,” she replied, “But it will take time and be very painful for a while.”

He returned his attention to the English Pilot.

“I have to say, you put up one hell of a fight this morning.”

Pilot Officer Mitchell grinned.

“If one you blighters hadn't 'accidentally' hit my sump you wouldn't be so smug now.”

He paused, and then,

“Did the other two get out?”

“Yes, they are fine,” came the reply, “But you are not, I see.”

“Just a scratch, old boy, I assure you...”

Maria smiled and shook her head. After the terrors and hardship, she had endured in Munich she was astounded that, after trying, and almost succeeding to kill each other, these two warriors were chatting away like old friends.

Oberleutnant Scholz seemed to be recreating the fight with his hands replacing the aeroplanes, explaining what he had seen and done.

She had absolutely no idea what they were saying, but Pilot Officer Mitchell seemed much more at ease.

She noticed, though, that the other patients were looking at them as though trying to kill them both just with their thoughts. Did they think that the Englishman was fraternising with the enemy by talking so freely with him.

She could not ask them any more than she could explain it to them. All she could imagine was that there was some sort of affinity between pilots, regardless of nationality and warfare and perhaps it would be the same with nurses.

Was it the same kind of camaraderie that stopped the fighting in 1914 when the Christmas spirit brought the last war to a temporary halt?

Jolted from her reverie, she was surprised to see Hedda standing beside her.

“Gosh, is it that time already?” she gasped as she looked at the clock.

“Yes, time to go,” was the reply. “It looks as though you have had an interesting day.”

“Yes, you could say that,” Maria laughed and told her friend everything that had happened.

“These two,” she said, indicating the two soldiers behind them, “are here to make sure he doesn't escape. They are no trouble, though,” she added with a chuckle.

“How long has he been here?” Hedda nodded towards the Luftwaffe pilot.

“Oh, almost two hours now. I was just about to suggest that the he allows our patient to rest now, but I will leave that to you if that is all right?”

Hedda smiled.

“Yes, That's fine,” she said, “You go. I will see you in the morning.”

They bid each other 'goodnight', and Maria headed straight for the canteen. She was finding that she was so busy during the day that she didn't even notice that she was hungry until she was able to relax and then, the rumbles began.

In the mess hall, she went straight for her cutlery and a tray, a jug of coffee and then selected fried potatoes. She decided at the last minute that a schnitzel would be nice with them and once satisfied he looked around for a place to sit.

The Mess Hall was quite busy this evening but, over in a far corner, he spotted a small table with two vacant chairs so she quickly headed for it hoping that she would be quick enough before someone robbed her of it.

In her haste, she quickly placed her tray on the table and immediately it collided with another which had arrived at the exact same moment, causing both hers and the other nurses coffee to splash onto their trays.

“Oh my, I'm awfully sorry!” she apologised at the exact moment as the other.

As she looked up she gasped, her surprise being reflected in the face of the other who could only say,

“It's you!”

“My goodness!”

Maria put her hand to her mouth,

“You must be... Matron Langsdorf!”

Simultaneously the other said,

“Matron Kaufmann!”

There was a stunned silence and then, suddenly, they both collapsed in fits of laughter.

When they regained their senses, without any need for an invitation, they sat down opposite each other.

Maria reached across the table,

“Maria,” she said.

“Katarina,” came the reply and the two shook hands.

“Now I see why there has been so much confusion,” she said, still chuckling, “We really do look alike.”

The two of them began chatting, incredulous that even though they were from opposite ends of the country, they had so much in common.

They talked about their families and about their work in their respective hospitals in Munich and Berlin and about the things that were happening in their own home cities.

Suddenly Maria stopped.

“My goodness!” she exclaimed, “Have you seen the time?”

Katarina looked at the big clock on the far wall.

“Ten O'clock!” she gasped, “It can't be!”

“It is!” Maria confirmed as she looked around at the empty tables. “Will you be here for breakfast?”

“Yes, about six?”

“Six is fine.”

Maria paused and then,

“Do you think fate has brought us here?” she asked.

Katarina giggled,

“It certainly seems that way.”

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