The Nurses. Chapter 31

By AnnaMayZing

Original link: https://www.storiesspace.com/stories/drama/the-nurses-chapter-31.aspx

Tags: journey,

Added: 09 Oct 2016 Views: 703 Avg Score: 5

She waved to it as though waving goodbye to her homeland.

Italy, February 25th 1941.

Neither Katarina nor Maria slept well as the train lurched along through the mountains.

They would just be drifting off when the wheels would squeal in protest around the tight curves and bring them instantly back to wakefulness.

They had no idea where they were when the sun rose on yet another cloudy day,

Outside there was snow, and the clouds looked as though they were about to release yet more.

“I need the bathroom,” Maria said, stretching her arms out and yawning widely. “I will check on the girls on the way.”

The other nurses were spread out between the other nine compartments and Maria looked in on each in turn.

None of them had slept well, but all were in good spirits, wishing her, 'Good Morning, Matron' as she slid the door open and greeted them.

Satisfied, she returned to her own compartment where she found her friend tying back her hair.

“Are they all right?” she asked as she adjusted her cap in the long mirror above the luggage rack.

“They are,” Maria replied. “Of course, none of them has slept, but we can catch up as the day goes on.”

“Do you have any idea where we are?”

Maria looked out of the window.

“Not a clue!” she replied. “Not even what country we are in.”

Breakfast was a simple affair of bread, cheese, and ham which they had to arrange for themselves from the crate of provisions, which had been placed in the final compartment and coffee that had been provided in a large urn.

Nevertheless, it was a welcome feast after the long, sleepless night and when they had finished, one of the young nurses said she thought that they might be in Italy, as they were leaving the mountains.

Indeed, the sky was beginning to clear.

The train had stopped and started so many times that none of them could be sure whether they had passed through Innsbruck or Bolzano, but it seemed likely that, as they began to see the open countryside, Italy was a reasonable assumption.

Sure enough, some time later, the train began to slow and this time came to a halt in a station. Not at a platform, but on one of the lines away from the station itself.

Katarina looked out and could see the nameplate on the front of the building.

They were right; it said 'Verona.'

The stop was not a long one, maybe to take on coal and water they thought.

As they watched out of the window, a locomotive passed slowly on the next track.

It was different to the one that had taken them through the mountains, smaller and older looking.

Their's had been enormous, with two sets of wheels.

Maria remembered her father telling her about them when she was small. He always said that they were the biggest and most powerful in all of Germany and had been built especially for the Bavarian State Railways before it became part of the national railways shortly after the last war.

Several minutes after that they saw the guards returning to their positions on the little cabin at the end of each carriage and once more, with a jolt or two, they were on their way again.

The carriage wheels screeched in protest, as they passed over several junctions.

As their carriage, the final one of the train began to cross over the junction onto the main line. Maria saw the big black loco standing alone in a short siding surrounded by a haze of steam and a thin grey plume of smoke rising lazily from its chimney.

She guessed that it had been replaced by the one she had seen earlier, Italian probably as it didn't have the Eagle and Swastika that was on the side of the German one.

She waved to it as though waving goodbye to her homeland.

Katarina saw her and waved too and then, to their surprise, the engineer who had been standing by the door to the cab with coal-blackened face and enjoying a cigarette, raised his hand and waved back!

The two young women looked at each other and giggled.

The journey continued more quickly than it had and with fewer stops.

They passed through Bologna without stopping, and the first break was Rimini where the train came to a stop.

This time, they were at a platform.

Immediately, Katarina went off to find a someone in charge and returned moments later.

“We have an hour here!” she said breathlessly, “We can stretch our legs but on the platform.”

Quickly, the two of them informed their charges of the good news.

“Stay together and don't leave the platform,” they told them and with great excitement, they left the confines of the carriage for the fresh, warmer air of the station.

Whilst the weather was not hot enough to remove their coats, the sky was clear, and the direct sunlight at least made them feel warmer than they had for several months.

The platform itself was full of soldiers all stretching their legs in the same way.

Neither Katarina nor Maria had seen this uniform before.

They were not the grey of the Wehrmacht nor the black of the SS but a sandy colour not too unlike the colour of the canvas tops she had seen on some lorries.

A mobile canteen had been set up at the end of the platform, and they were pleased to enjoy some freshly made coffee at last and a sandwich.

Maria noticed that the locomotive was missing from the front of the train and when she enquired was informed that it had gone to the coaling station at the end of the goods yard.

The soldier who had informed her then asked,

“You seem very interested, how come?”

“My father is a station supervisor in Munich,” she replied.

“Oh, then that would explain it,” he said with a smile.

The hour passed all too soon for Katarina and Maria.

With the locomotive re-attached, they shepherded their nurses back into the carriage and once again, the train began to move.

The view had changed now, and out of the window, the Mediterranean sea came into view.

“What a beautiful sight,” Maria gasped in awe. “I have never seen a sea so blue.”

Katarina agreed as she had not seen it before either.

The railway followed the sea for hours. To the right, they could see fields and houses and passed through towns but to their left, so long as their view was unobstructed, remained the sea.

The sea was still visible much later when the light began to fade once more.

Maria and Katarina were so tired that they soon fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. The gentle rhythm of the wheels and motion of the carriage only served to relax them as the line was quite straight and the curves were reasonably gentle.

Unbeknown to any of them, deep into the night the train turned away from the sea and headed inland, cutting directly across the 'heel.'

The next time they would see the sea would be when they arrived in Taranto.

It was still dark when they were awoken by voices shouting and orders being given.

Maria lifted the window blind and saw that they were stationary in what appeared to be a busy goods yard. Outside there was a seething mass of khaki-clad soldiers all being ordered into smart lines and officers and NCO's all running around like shepherds.

Sliding open the compartment door she saw that on the other side was what appeared to be a ship. It was being loaded with vehicles and tanks and from huge cranes swung nets loaded with crates and sacks.

She stared in awe at the scene before her all being carried out under great floodlights.

She had been joined by her friend who looked out of the window beside her.

“I suppose this is it then,” she said, a slight tone in her voice that made Maria realise that even having far more experience of travel than she had, Katarina was equally as nervous.

“I suppose so,” she answered. “We had better make sure that everyone is ready.”

As she spoke, a smartly dressed Italian soldier appeared and began talking.

They didn't understand a word he was saying and Katarina raised her hand.

“We don't speak Italian,” she told him.

The soldier frowned.

“Trenta minuti...” he said holding up his hand and alternating between three raised fingers and making a circle between thumb and fore finger.

“Thirty minutes?” she asked, and the soldier repeated, nodding.

“Thirty minutes for what?” she asked.

He looked at her with total incomprehension then turned and pointed to the door, repeating,

“Trenta minuti, trenta minuti,” and before she had a chance to speak again, he ran quickly down the carriage steps and was gone.

Maria looked at Katarina, and they both burst out laughing.

“You get the girls ready,” she suggested with a grin. “I'll go and see what is happening.”

Whilst Maria was gone, Katarina fussed about like a young mother hen, ensuring that they had all their belongings and were prepared for the voyage ahead.

Fifteen minutes had passed before Maria reappeared.

“They are so busy down there that no-one wanted to talk to me,” she said. “Now I see why we were given these!” she pointed to the band she had put on her upper arm which showed her rank insignia that Leutnant Fischer had given to her. “I had to be quite forceful!”

Katarina smiled and took hers from her pocket and looked at it.

“So,” she said. “What's happening then?”

“The soldiers are embarking first,” she began. “They want us to wait here for another...” she looked at her watch, “...Fifteen minutes now, then we are to assemble on the dockside. They want to move the train as soon as they can as there is another behind, waiting.”

“So why can't we get off now then,” Katarina asked, puzzled.

“They want to clear the soldiers first,” Maria replied.

Eventually, the thirty young nurses stepped down onto the ground each with their own large kitbag.

Huddled in a small group, they looked around them. It would be dawn soon, but under the glare of the lighting, they could see little beyond their immediate surroundings.

“Ladies,” Maria began and immediately had everyone's undivided attention. “I have been told that we are to remain here until the train is removed,” she looked back at it, “which should be at any moment. After it has gone, we are to make our way along the dockside to the next ship along. Does everybody understand?”

They all nodded as their two matrons scanned them carefully in case of any doubt.

“Good,” Maria continued. “It is very important that we all remain together. If anyone is separated Matron Langsdorf or myself may not be able to get to you.”

At that moment the locomotive blew its whistle once and, very slowly, began to move.

Because they had been in the rearmost carriage, the area before them was quickly clear and on the other side of the track a dock worker blew a whistle and waved at them to cross.

“Alright girls, come on,” Maria shouted above the general noise, “and stay together!”

Once again like a couple of mothers with their children, the two young women shepherded their charges across the track and to the dockside keeping them safe from all the activity that was happening.

Lorries were moving up and down, horns blasting at various obstructions and cranes were swinging their cargoes from shore to ship. Men were shouting, and the noise was like nothing either Maria or Katarina had ever experienced.

The ship they were directed to seemed huge to them. It was a freighter which had great open hatches before and behind the superstructure, and into these, the giant dockside cranes were lowering cargo of barrels, crates, and sacks.

There was a single tall mast at the centre of the front part and another on the rear part but the centre of the ship looked a little like a passenger ship with a single funnel which rose up into the night sky and had tiny round windows along the white painted side which were lit dimly from the inside.

It was a German ship, and the sailor at the bottom of the gangway which climbed steeply up to the deck looked at them as though they weren't welcome.

No words were exchanged, but he gestured that they should board immediately.

The young women climbed wearily up the ramp, trying to carry their heavy bags and hold onto the rope handrail to pull themselves up.

At the top, they were met by a very smartly dressed young officer who smiled and, on noticing their armbands, saluted the two matrons in the naval fashion of hand palm down and fingertips touching the side of his forehead.

“Good morning and welcome aboard Ladies,” he stated stiffly when they were all on deck.

He held out his hand which Maria and Katarina shook in turn.

“I am Kapitanleutnant Hugo Neumann, and I have been charged with liaising with you whilst you are with us.”

Katarina's eyes opened wide.

“You are the captain?” she gasped. “But you are barely any older than we are.”

The young man smiled and visibly relaxed.

“No, I am not the captain. Kapitanleutnant is the same as Leutnant in the army, like yourselves.”

The last bit he added after glancing down at Katarina's arm.

“I have been a seaman since I was fourteen years old,” he said proudly.

There was an awkward silence then until,

“So, if you follow me I will show you to your cabins.”

One by one, the nurses stepped over the lip of the doorway and followed Hugo Neumann into the corridor within and on through another door with turned out to be some sort of dining room.

Once inside the young officer stopped.

“This is the Galley,” he said to no-one in particular. “When you have put your bags in the cabins that I show you, please meet me back here, and I will run through the procedures you will be required to follow whilst you are on board.”

He didn't wait for a reply but left the room through the same door through which he had led them.

After a couple of turns further into the ship and up a flight of steep stairs, they came to the cabins.

Although the the accommodation was basic, it felt cosy as there were so much woodwork and the bulkhead lights cast a gentle light throughout.

They had been allocated eight cabins. The first seven, which were along the same corridor, were shared between the nurses, four bunks in each but the eighth, around the corner from the rest had just two bunks along with a small desk and wash basin.

This was to be where Maria and Katarina would be spending the next few days.

“I've never shared a room before,” Maria said quietly.

Katarina frowned,

“We shared the train compartment but other than that neither have I,” Katarina agreed. “It'll be fun.”

“Yes,” Maria smiled. “I think it will.”

Placing their bags on the floor just inside the cabin, they closed the door and then returned to the other nurses to make sure that they were all settled, and before long they returned to the galley where Kapitanleutnant Neumann was waiting for them.

He sat patiently, watching until they were all settled and then began.

“Good morning, Ladies and welcome aboard the 'Meer Koenigin'.

He paused for effect.

“I am sure you are wondering why you here with us rather than on the troop ship with the soldiers that you traveled so far with. Well, the answer is simple. We have several cabins available which would otherwise have remained empty and the Wehrmacht thought it would be safer to keep thirty young women as far as possible from a ship full of soldiers.”

He smiled as he said this which caused a ripple of amusement to run through his audience.

“But seriously,” he continued, “We are now in an active war zone. Taranto has been attacked most severely by the British as you will see when we leave port. Before we reach the harbour entrance and enter open sea we will pass the battleship Conte di Cavour which was sunk in the major raid back in November. They are working to refloat and repair her which is why she is surrounded by so much equipment.”

Once again a murmur rose, and Kapitanleutnant Neumann waited patiently, knowing that what he was telling them must have come as quite a surprise to them.

“I have told you of this,” he went on as the chatter slowly died away, “because you need to know that there is always a danger of attack as we cross to Tripoli and you need to be aware of what to do should such an unfortunate situation occur.”

Katarina raised her hand.

“Forgive me, Herr Leutnant,” she said politely. “Are you saying that this ship could be attacked on the way across?”

There was a deathly silence as they all waited for him to reply.

“Yes, Matron,” he confirmed, “I am saying exactly that, but it doesn't happen every day. I am warning you of what could happen and not necessarily what will happen.”

Katarina nodded and turned to Maria.

They had arrived at the front, and the tension was tangible!

For the next thirty minutes or so, they sat and listened carefully about what to do in the event of an emergency, what drills to carry out and where the life jackets and lifeboat stations were and so on.

Maria couldn't pretend that she wasn't worried, she was, but she and Katarina were responsible for the safety of their nurses, and she knew that they couldn't show any fear that might spread among them.

“So, now that is all clear,” the young officer said with a smile, “it just remains for me to say that we will be leaving in around two hours but if you wish to remain here, I have instructed the cook to prepare some lunch for you.”

As he turned to leave, both Maria and Katarina stepped towards him.

“Thank you, Herr Leutnant, for being so forthright about our situation.”

“Please, call me Hugo,” he smiled.

“Alright, thank you, Hugo,” Katarina replied, “I am Katarina, and this is Maria.”

Hugo bowed stiffly at each of them and then looked carefully at each one in turn.

“Is anything wrong?” Maria asked him nervously.

“Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare, but you are sisters, yes?”

“Nursing sisters, yes,” Katarina said with a chuckle, “But we are not related. I am from Berlin and Maria is from Munich. We hadn't met before last June.”

Despite his apology, Hugo continued to stare at them.

“But you are so much alike...”

“Apparently so,” Maria laughed. “Don't worry, we have had a lot of fun because of it.”

Hugo smiled then.

“I will apologise in advance then because I am sure that the next time I see you I won't remember which of you is which!”