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The Nurses. Chapter 24

“You are very young,” he whispered, “And yet so wise.”

Amiens. December 29th 1940

 

 

Sunday and the last night shift of the week.

 

Katarina and Maria both had two days of rest afterwards and then a new day shift would begin.

 

They had decided that they could celebrate the start of the new year and the passing of the old the following Tuesday by having dinner together but, as they had to start working early on Wednesday they would not stay up.

 

Today, though there was one last night shift to contend with and so, as usual, they had met in the canteen for dinner before they parted and each went to their own wards.

 

“This has been some week, Katarina,” Maria sighed as she pushed her empty plate to one side and picked up the coffee jug, offering some to her friend.

 

Katarina nodded in agreement, both to the coffee and to Maria's statement.

 

“Yes, indeed,” she replied. “I think this would have been the worst Christmas ever had you not been here. Did Renatte get away all right on Wednesday?”

 

Maria smiled wistfully.

 

“She did. She didn't want to go and leave her comrades but I don't think she could have coped without the time away. She was exhausted.”

 

Katarina looked at her over the top of her coffee cup,

 

“Did she know that you gave up your leave for her?”

 

“No, of course not, that would not have have been fair on her and maybe she would not have have gone had she known.”

 

“I didn't think you would say anything,” Katarina replied, “I just wondered.”

 

As they chatted a distant rumble, quiet at first but slowly increasing in volume. The two friends placed their cups on the table and strained to identify it above the general hubbub of voices in the mess hall.

 

Katarina spoke first.

 

“Aeroplanes,” she said, “Big ones I think and lots of them.”

 

As the sound became louder and the aircraft got nearer they left their seats and went to the window.

 

It was too dark outside to see anything in the sky but they knew where these squadrons were headed because they had seen it so many times before... London!

 

Katarina turned to her friend, a sad look on her face.

 

“It has been so quiet lately but it looks as though England is for it again.”

 

Maria nodded and they both returned to their seats.

 

“They are going early tonight,” Maria said, looking at the big clock on the wall across the room, “It is only Six-thirty.”

 

Katarina looked about her in a conspiratorial sort of a way and leaned closer to her friend,

 

“Between you and me,” she whispered, “I don't think they are finding England as easy a nut to crack as France was.”

 

“Katarina, Shhh!” Maria hissed, looking around but then also leaned closer towards Katarina.

 

“Why do you say that?” she asked, barely audible above the droning of the engines above.

 

Katarina pursed her lips and squinted,

 

“You may not have noticed but the soldiers who are in my care are mostly airmen rather than Wehrmacht or SS, excluding those who arrived Tuesday night, of course.”

 

Maria frowned so Katarina continued,

 

“You have civilians on your ward so you probably didn't realise but, with the exception of those SS men on Christmas Eve, the admissions are mostly aircrew who arrive from the coast. Some have even been rescued from the sea.”

 

Maria wasn't sure what to think.

 

“Surely the English can't withstand the amount of bombing they must be receiving. It is night after night and has been going on for months now.”

 

“Yes, I agree,” her friend hissed, “But, don't you see? If we are still getting so many casualties from our own side then they can't be falling, can they?”

 

Maria pondered the idea,

 

“You know,” she said eventually, “I think you are right. If that is so then England must indeed be strong!”

 

They sat silently, sipping their coffees and listening to the constant droning of the aero engines passing overhead.

 

Eventually, Maria placed her cup upon the tray in front of her and sighed.

 

“I suppose we had better get on,” she said, “Hedda and Ailise will be waiting.”

 

They walked together until they reached the point where their paths separated.

 

“See you for breakfast?” Katarina smiled.

 

Maria looked up at the ceiling but in her mind saw beyond and up into the bomber filled sky above,

 

“All being well,” she replied.

 

On Ward Seven, Maria greeted her opposite number.

 

“Gruss Gott, Hedda,” she said, “All quiet I trust?”

 

“And to you, Maria,” her colleague replied. “Quiet?”

 

She too looked up to the ceiling as though peering through it.

 

“In here, yes,” Hedda continued, smiling, “But since that business last Tuesday, they are really uncooperative, though stopping short of abusive.”

 

“They have been the same with me,” Maria sighed, “ I suppose we cannot expect to gain their trust when the Gestapo are so often here but I still try my best to show that we are not like the Nazis.”

 

Hedda shrugged but agreed and once they had been through the paperwork together she departed leaving Maria with her two remaining nurses.

 

Around two hours later, the phone on her desk rang and she immediately answered it with her usual, efficient greeting then listened for a moment.

 

“Matron Eberhardt!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with surprise, “You are still here?” a pause whilst her manager spoke and then, “Yes, of course Matron, I will prepare them immediately!”

 

She listened again,

 

“Oh, I am sure we will manage without Renatte. It will be difficult but we will be fine I'm sure. Erm, Matron,” she spoke slowly, “Where will they go?”

 

Another pause,

 

“Oh, I see. All right, we will begin right away. Goodnight, Matron.”

 

Maria replaced the receiver carefully on it's cradle and then stood up and called the three nurses to her.

 

“We have a problem,” she began, “A big problem.”

 

Madeleine frowned and the three young women looked at each other and then back to Maria.

 

“We have a number of casualties coming to us tonight with varying degrees of serious injuries.”

 

“Oh, that is not a problem,” Madeleine smiled, relieved, “We can manage that all right.”

 

“I am afraid that is not it,” Maria continued as the smile slowly faded from the young nurse's lips. We are going to receive around twenty casualties throughout the night.”

 

“But we only have twenty beds, Maria. How are we going to... oh.”

 

The understanding hit Madeleine like a bullet and she looked around at the fifteen Frenchmen.

 

“They are to be moved?” she whispered.

 

Maria nodded, grim faced.

 

“But where to?” one of the others asked.

 

“I'm afraid I don't know, Lili,” Maria admitted. “Matron Eberhardt said they would not tell her other than away from this hospital so...”

 

Her words trailed away and after a moment she took a deep breath and said,

 

“All right, let's get to it then. The orderlies will be here in about...” she looked down at the little watch on her apron, “thirty minutes so we need to prepare them all to be moved.”

 

The three nurses didn't move immediately and Madeleine suddenly asked,

 

“What do we tell them?”

 

"We can't tell them anything, Madeleine. If you can speak enough French for them to understand, all you can say is that they are being moved. You can't tell them where because we don't know.”

 

Without further ado, the four of them began preparing the patients who were none too happy at being told they would be leaving their beds at this time of night.

 

Because of their patients belligerence, the girls had prepared only eight of the fifteen when the ward doors crashed open.

 

A group of five SS soldiers led by an Oberfeldwebel, all armed, stormed through and onto the ward.

 

The Sergeant marched straight up to Maria and before she had a chance to speak said,

 

“Are they ready? We have transport waiting!”

 

He didn't wait for an answer but turned and signaled to his men who separated and each went to a bed and ordered it's occupant out.

 

“Sergeant! Stop this at once!” Maria demanded but her words fell on deaf ears and one by one, her patients were dragged from their beds at the point of a rifle.

 

She went to her desk and picked up the telephone, clicking the button on top several times and then demanded to speak to the Duty Medical Officer.

 

She waited a moment before slamming the receiver back onto its cradle and cursing, 'damn you!' and again she marched up to the Sergeant.

 

“This is a hospital, not a prison!” she hissed at him, Can't you treat these sick men with a little compassion?”

 

The Sergeant sniggered but said nothing.

 

“I do hope you are not obstructing these men in the course of their duties, Matron.

 

The words were spoken gently but with such malevolence that Maria's blood froze and a chill ran up her spine.

 

She turned slowly to find the the Gestapo agent whom she had spoken to a few days before standing in the doorway, a thin smile playing on his lips.

 

“I am watching you. I don't care who your father knows, step out of line and I will be there.”

 

Maria's heart almost stopped at the mention of her beloved father.

 

“What do you mean, 'who my father knows'?” she said firmly,

 

“Oh, I know all about your father,” the sinister man said grimly. “He may be a diplomat but all those high ranking party members will not defend anyone who stands in the way of their orders. Not even the Fuhrer will save you.”

 

These words struck fear deep into her heart but Maria was not about to let this nasty little man get the better of her.

 

“I don't know who you think I am, Herr...” she paused but no name was offered, “But I can assure you that my father is not a diplomat.”

 

“Really, Matron Langsdorf, please don't try and lie to me. I know who you are and who your diplomat father is.”

 

“Then I suggest you think again. I am not Matron Langsdorf. Now, if you would please sort out these thugs of yours, maybe we can get these men safely to the ambulances.”

 

The Gestapo Agent looked at her, confusion beginning show in his eyes.

 

He would have to be wary with this one, he thought, she was good at playing the innocent and he would have to be very careful not to let make a fool of him.

 

He nodded to the sergeant and the fifteen Frenchmen were herded along the corridors to a lorry waiting outside.

 

Some boxes had been placed at the rear so they could climb onto it but there was only wooden bench seating along the sides for them to sit on.

 

As she helped a frail old man to climb up she heard a familiar voice.

 

“Maria, What is happening? Can I help?”

 

“Katarina, hello,” she replied, turning her head to face her friend. “No, keep out of sight. The Gestapo are here and he thinks that I am you. He said he is watching you. He is a horrible man.”

 

Katarina smiled.

 

“Ah, yes, him. We have crossed swords, last Tuesday, when those SS men were ambushed.”

 

“He is trouble, Katarina. You mustn't aggravate him.”

 

Katarina thought for a moment.

 

“You are right of course but that doesn't mean we can't have a little fun at his expense.”

 

Maria saw a little twinkle in the corner of her eye and knew exactly what she meant.

 

“Alright,” she said, “But be careful.”

 

Katarina strode off in the direction of her own ward, looking out for the agent.

 

As expected, he appeared around the the corner, coming from the direction of Ward Three and she made a point of making sure he saw her but said nothing.

 

He glared at her as they passed.

 

Before long, the Maria's charges had been loaded aboard the lorry with as much care as the four Nurses could manage and the tailboard was slammed shut and locked.

 

She looked at each of the frightened faces and hoped that they did not blame her for something she had been unable to prevent.

 

She hated this damned war and, even more, hated the Nazis.

 

The truck's gear crunched into place and as it began to move, the old man looked at her and nodded, a thin smile on his lips. She felt a small tear well in her eye and quickly brushed it away with her thumb as she turned away.

 

Beside the lorry was a black Citroen and, as she passed behind it she almost walked into the Gestapo agent who was heading purposefully towards the drivers door.

 

He was about to protest but then stopped, mouth open as he saw her face and frowned in confusion.

 

He looked back towards the hospital entrance and then back at Maria who said nothing but glared back at him.

 

She guessed, correctly, that he had seen Katarina inside and was now wondering how it could be that she was also here.

 

His eyes narrowed but he turned away and opened the car door, paused, took one last silent look at Maria and then slid in behind the wheel and drove away rather more rapidly than he normally would have done.

 

Back on her Ward, Maria and her three young women set about the task of preparing a ward full of now empty beds so they would be ready for the new arrivals.

 

Although only the tender age of twenty-two herself, she fussed around her girls like an old mother hen, making sure everything was done and working just as hard as the others as they all threw themselves into their work and tried hard not to think too much about what had just happened.

 

Maria was glad that Renatte was not there. She didn't think it would have helped her at all and may, in fact, have tipped her over the edge into a complete breakdown.

 

They had prepared about half of the beds when the telephone rang. It was the guard room telling her that the first ambulance was about to arrive.

 

She didn't need to worry about leaving her nurses to continue without her so she donned her cape and headed for the front entrance of the hospital, the same place where she had seen her last patients away from.

 

Within a few minutes of her arrival, an ambulance scrunched around the gravel drive and squealed to a halt in front of her.

 

She was surprised that there were no soldiers this time as she had become so used to them.

 

The front doors opened and two orderlies went around to the rear and opened the doors at the back.

 

This was not a lorry for once but looked to Maria like a small bus that had had its seats removed and replaced with stretcher racks.

 

It contained four stretchers, two either side, one above the other, each with a patient swathed in bandages.

 

She had been joined by two more orderlies from the hospital and between them they carried the stretchers to her ward, two at a time.

 

A field nurse remained with the ambulance until the next two were taken inside and passed into Maria's care.

 

This happened four more times throughout the night until all twenty of her beds were occupied but it didn't stop there. Casualties kept coming until all the available beds in the hospital were taken up!

 

The constant drone of aeroplanes continued unabated until the early hours of the morning and it was almost six when the last ambulance disgorged it load and the hospital returned to something approaching normal.

 

About Five-fifteen, Maria heard one of her patients began to shout. She went quickly over to see what the commotion was over.

 

Lili was trying to calm the agitated airman but with little success.

 

“They lied to us!” he cried as she approached, “They said the RAF is all but finished but it isn't! They were all over us!”

 

“Sshhh now, calm down. It is over now, you are safe,” she said calmly. “There are sick men here, let them rest.”

 

The airman looked about him, seeing for the first time so many of his comrades.

 

“D'you see?” he replied but more quietly now, “We have been bombing them for months now but still they keep coming. For every one of theirs we shoot down they destroy two of ours. It can't go on, I tell you, it can't!”

 

Maria placed her hand upon his where he had grabbed her arm.

 

“You mustn't say such things, the Gestapo are often here. If they hear you saying that you will be in trouble.”

 

The airman opened his eyes wide.

 

“You would tell them?” he hissed.

 

“No, of course I wouldn't but they have ways of finding out things so please keep your voice down.”

 

She looked at him sadly. He was not young like her, maybe late thirties and she wondered whether he had a wife, children perhaps who would be worrying about him.

 

Maria pulled up a chair and sat down beside him.

 

“If you want to talk to to me,” she said with barely more than a whisper, “You can trust me but if you say anything that could cause trouble then please speak very quietly, yes?”

 

He nodded and lay back against his pillow, just looking at her.

 

“You are very young,” he whispered, “And yet so wise.”

 

She blushed a little.

 

“I have no choice,” she replied. “I had to grow up very quickly.”

 

“Yes, I suppose you did,” he sighed and closed his eyes.

 

“They keep telling us, 'England is finished, their Royal Air Force is destroyed' but no, it is all lies.”

 

His eyes remained closed as he spoke, reliving his own personal nightmare.

 

“Thousands of bombs were dropped tonight, London was ablaze but they never let up. We released our load and were heading back across the channel when they hit us. The Navigator was killed instantly, a bullet passed through his helmet. The left engine was ablaze and the fuel tanks holed, we didn't stand a chance.”

 

Maria gripped his hand and noticed a small tear roll from his eye and drip onto the pillow.

 

“I did everything I could to save them.”

 

“You are the pilot?” she asked to which he nodded.

 

“I kept going, taking hit after hit. The One-Eleven is tough but it can take only so much punishment. The Radio Operator was hit and the upper gunner killed and the whole wing was now ablaze. We couldn't stay airborne any longer and I had to put it down in the sea. She was so badly damaged that she broke up as soon as we hit, just off the French coast. I don't know what happened to the others but I was told that I was pulled unconscious from the water by one of our E-Boats. I suppose I must have been thrown through the shattered nose.”

 

Maria sat silently, listening intently and holding his hand for comfort.

 

For the first time since he began his tale, the airman opened his eyes and looked directly into hers.

 

“They said that my back is broken, that I may never walk again...”

 

His eyes searched hers, looking for any sign of hope but she had already seen his notes.

 

Maria smiled sadly.

 

“There is always hope. Never is a much used word,” she said. “When you are physically healed, then is the time fight it but, for now, you must be patient and pray?”

 

The pilot sneered,

 

“Pray? To who, God? Why should he help me after what I have done?”

 

“Does it do any harm to try?” she said gently.

 

 

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