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The Nurses. Chapter 32

“Ah, KapitanLeutnant!” she exclaimed, “I didn't expect to find you here!”

Taranto, February 27th, 1941.

The Nurses were left alone for the next couple of hours and remained together on the mess deck.

For both Katarina and Maria, the dull rumble of the machinery seemed to make the ship feel alive. Neither of them had been to sea before, and the nearest that Maria had been to a ship was on a small pleasure boat once when she visited the Furstensee with her parents as a young girl.

This was no pleasure boat on a lake, though. This was by far the biggest ship they had ever seen, and they would be at least two days on board.

“Do you think we will be allowed to explore?” she whispered to Katarina as though she didn't want anyone else to hear.

“I hope so,” her friend replied. “I have never seen anything like this before but...”

Maria frowned.

“But what?” she asked.

“I can't help but be a little afraid.”

“Oh, I see,” Maria said, her face becoming serious. “Yes, I suppose I am too.”

Katarina slid her hand across to Maria and they clasped each other gently.

No other words were needed. That simple grip spoke volumes that they both understood.

Whatever perils they may face in the coming days, they had each other.

With a loud clatter, the hatch opened, and their lunch was served.

It was a simple but thoroughly enjoyable dish of steaming hot potato soup with slices of sausage and a chunk of freshly baked bread.

Katarina took a jug and poured two mugs of thick, black liquid.

When they tasted it, they could only assume that it was coffee as it had that appearance and a sort of similar aroma but it was bitter and not particularly pleasant tasting at all, more like warm, weak mud!

They both cringed as they swallowed and then laughed. 

"Some things don't change!” Maria chuckled.

The soup, however, was very tasty and welcome and before long they had put their fears behind them.

By the time the Meer Koenigin finally slipped her mooring ropes from the capstans and left her berth, some three hours had passed.

As requested all the young women had remained out of the way in the galley, but now that the dockside work was complete they all went up onto the deck to watch the land slowly recede behind them.

The KapitanLeutnant had been correct about the battleship in the harbour, and Maria and Katarina watched fascinated as they passed slowly by.

The water level was very high, lapping over the forward decks and around the base of the huge gun turrets. It was surrounded by a lot of other boats and equipment which they correctly assumed was because of the ongoing work to refloat her.

It took quite a while to leave the confines of Taranto harbour and as they headed out into the open sea both the young matrons and their sisters in medicine lined the guardrail and watched in awe as the sun began to sink below the horizon creating a long glistening streak on the sparkling water.

The bright yellow orb dulled to a deep fire orange as it gradually vanished leaving an orange glow against the deepening blue of the evening sky.

There were no clouds and as the light faded the tiny silver dots of the stars began to appear in the blue velvet firmament.

Because of the fear of attack the ship remained in darkness externally and so, as night began to take over they slowly returned to the interior, some to their cabins and others to the galley where there was a little more space to sit and talk.

Maria and Katarina chose the galley initially so that they could spend a little time with the other nurses and encourage any, who may have been nervous about what lay ahead.

After a while of chatting, Katarina noticed that one of the young women was very quiet and looking very pale, so she went over and sat beside her.

“Are you all right, Agathe?” she asked gently.

The pale young woman shook her head.

“I feel so sick,” she whispered.

Katarina put her hand to the young woman's forehead.

“You do not have a fever,” she said. “Maybe it is the movement of the ship. Would you like to go back on deck for some fresh air?”

The young woman slowly shook her head.

“It is just as bad outside,” she answered quietly. “I just hope it doesn't get worse. It's horrible.”

Katarina took her hand.

“Then let me take you back to your cabin,” she said, helping the stricken woman to her feet. “Lean on me if you wish. I think it may be a little better if you lie down.”

Arm in arm they walked slowly from the galley and Maria smiled benignly as they passed pausing only for Katarina to say that she would see her friend in their cabin shortly.

A moment or two later, the ship rolled gently on the swell, first to one side and then the other, a movement that Katarina barely noticed but Agathe clapped her hand to her mouth to try to control the rebellion that was building in her stomach.

She didn't comment, but Katarina was concerned that this young nurse was going to have a very unpleasant few days if she was unable to overcome her sickness.

They continued along the corridor until they reached her cabin.

At that time it was empty, her three companions still in the galley, so Katarina helped Agathe into her cot and made her comfortable.

Suddenly, she smiled.

“I feel like my Mama,” she said with a chuckle. “She would have looked after me in the same way.”

Agathe managed a weak smile as she replied, “Then your Mama has taught her daughter well, Matron. You are so kind. Thank you.”

Katarina squeezed her hand gently.

“There is no need to thank me, Agathe; we are in this together. I shall go and find you a bowl, just in case. Back in a minute.”

The young Matron left and went to find the sick bay only; she had no idea where it was. She decided that the best course was to find a crew member for directions, so she headed for the stairs and began to climb up.

At the top, she found herself in another corridor. Not a timber clad one like the one she had just left but simple white painted steel walls with plain bulkhead lights along it.

She stood for a moment pondering which way to go and reasoned that she would be more likely to find someone if she headed towards the front where the bridge was located.

She had not taken more than a dozen steps when she was startled by the sudden clang of the handle turning on a doorway she was approaching.

The big steel door swung open, and a sailor dressed in white stepped over the coaming and stopped dead as he saw her.

Seeing the insignia on her armband, he stood erect and saluted her, not with an outstretched arm as she had been so accustomed to at home but with the same naval style that they had been greeted with when they had stepped on board.

“Excuse me, Ma'am,” he said stiffly. “May I help you? I don't think you are supposed to be up here.”

Katarina never really considered herself an officer, always a nurse and so she smiled sweetly and said,

“Oh, I'm sorry, I was looking for the sick bay.”

The sailor relaxed but remained polite.

“That's all right, Ma'am,” he said, “You need to go down two decks. If you use the stairs over there...” he pointed to the staircase she had just ascended, “and then head towards the stern. You will find it.”

“Thank you very much,” she answered, still smiling.

“You are welcome, Ma'am,” the sailor replied and, had she taken a moment to look back as she headed in the direction from which she had just come, she may have seen the sailor breathe out slowly and watch her admiringly until she disappeared from his sight.

Katarina followed the directions she had been given, down the steep stairway to the deck from where she had begun and then down another, equally steep stairway to the deck below.

This one was also just plain white steel, and she surmised that the wooden panelling on her deck was for the benefit of the passengers for whom that deck was intended.

A few more steps and she found an open door with the word 'Krankenrevier' on a wooden plaque beside it. She had found it.

Stepping carefully over the high lip of the coaming, she called inside.


A familiar face appeared.

“Ah, KapitanLeutnant!” she exclaimed, “I didn't expect to find you here!”

“Oh, hello Matron... erm.”

“Langsdorf,” Katarina said, as she had become so used to doing so since she had met Maria.

“Matron Langsdorf,” he repeated. “I'm sorry. I knew I wouldn't be able to tell.”

Katarina smiled.

“Don't worry,” she replied with a smile, “I am used to it now but please, Katarina.”

Hugo Neumann bowed.

“Katarina,” he said, bowing slightly, “Hugo, I am the Junior Surgeon. I probably should have mentioned that when I introduced myself this afternoon..”

Now it was her turn to repeat,

“Hugo,” she said. “Probably, yes.”

They remained standing silently for a moment until Hugo cleared his throat.

“I am sorry,” he said, “I am forgetting my manners. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes, please. One of my nurses is suffering from seasickness. I was looking for a bowl just in case she... you know.”

“Ah, of course. I have just the thing. Please, step inside while I find it.”

Whilst Hugo stepped across to a large cupboard on the far side of the sick bay; Katarina took a moment to look around.

She was fascinated that this ship had, to all appearance a compact hospital complete with operating table and several bunks.

Hugo reappeared with a large, deep stainless steel bowl which he immediately handed to her.

“Thank you,” she said gratefully, “That is perfect.”

“You are interested in my bay?” he asked her, keeping his grip upon the bowl for just a moment longer than he needed to.

“Oh yes, it is fascinating,” she replied eagerly, glancing around as she spoke. “It is just like a hospital but all in one room.”

“If you would like I will show you around.”

Hugo hadn't taken his eyes off her for a single second.

“Thank you, I would like that very much,” she said with a sweet smile. “I think that I should take this to Agathe though and it is getting late.”

“Ah yes, of course. Tomorrow perhaps?”

“All right then, tomorrow,” Katarina agreed. “May I bring Maria too? I know she would love to see it.”

“Yes, of course, you may. In fact...” Hugo paused for a moment, thinking. “Why don't I show all your nurses how we work here? There isn't much for them to do at sea so it might help pass the time.”

“What a good idea!” Katarina enthused. “I will talk to you about it in the morning after breakfast.”

Hugo bowed.

“Until then, Katarina.”

For a moment, she paused, looking at this handsome young doctor.

“Until then,” she agreed and then turned and headed back to the stairwell.

“Oh wait!”

She stopped and turned back.

Hugo was standing at the door.

“I am stupid, I almost forgot!”

He walked towards her, his hand outstretched and two small white tablets in his open palm.

Katarina frowned.

“Anti-seasickness tablets,” he said, his face reddening slightly with embarrassment. “They don't work for everyone but worth a try.”

She took them and thanked him.

“Until tomorrow,” she said and headed up the stairs.

Back in her cabin Agathe had undressed and got into her bunk; the blankets pulled up around her. Her three companions having returned from the galley.

Katarina placed the bowl on the floor beside her and poured a cup of water from a jug.

“I hope these will help,” she said gently, passing the tablets to her.

The ailing nurse took them gratefully and swallowed them with the water.

“Now try to sleep,” she said and then looked up at her three companions. “If she gets any worse come and find Maria or me.”

“Yes, Matron,” they said at once.

Returning to her own cabin, she found Maria sitting at the small desk brushing her hair.

“Everything all right?” she asked as Katarina closed the door behind her.

“I think so,” Katarina replied. “I found the sick bay and guess who was there.”

“The ship's doctor?” Maria answered with heavy sarcasm.

“Yes, of course, the ship's doctor!” Katarina retorted. “Who is none other than the KapitanLeutnant!”

Maria's smile broadened.

“Well that explains why you were so long!” she laughed.

“Actually, it doesn't!” Katarina answered back but with a smile. “I put Agathe to bed and then walked the wrong way until a sailor redirected me.”

“Oh, all right then, I believe you.”

“Anyway, Hugo...”

“Hugo now is it?” Maria interrupted her with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, stop it,” Katarina chuckled, a little abashed. “Yes, Hugo...” she emphasised for effect, “offered to give us a tour of the sickbay tomorrow.”

“When you say us, do you mean you?”

“No, I mean us!” Katarina insisted but chose not to mention that Hugo had originally said her. “All of us. I told him we would see him after breakfast to arrange it.”

“Fair enough,” Maria conceded at last. “That will be interesting.”

Last, into bed, Katarina turned off the light, and they lay in darkness with just the light of the moon through the small round porthole.

“I like this ship,” Maria said into the darkness.

“Yes, me too,” Katarina agreed. “When this war is over perhaps we shall be able to sail again one day.”

“Mmm, yes, that would be nice...”

When they awoke the following day, the morning sun cast a warm light through the porthole.

The gentle movement of the ship and murmur of its machinery had all added to their extreme tiredness after the long train journey to ensure that they had slept soundly for the first time in days.

“Did you sleep well?” Maria asked as she swung her feet to the steel floor.

“Yes, perfectly,” her friend replied, stretching her arms above her head. “Did you?”

“I did indeed,” Maria said happily as she unclipped the brass fastening of the porthole to allow some fresh sea air to circulate around their cabin.

An hour later whilst on their way to the galley for breakfast, they looked in on Agathe.

She was standing beside her cot making some final adjustments to her uniform.

Katarina greeted her whilst Maria waited in the corridor.

“Oh, good morning, Matron,” she said happily.

“You are feeling better today then?” Katarina smiled.

“Oh, much better thank you,” she said, “I am still a little nauseous but nothing like I was. I think that being so tired made it worse and maybe the tablets helped too...” she added as an afterthought.

“That is good. I am very pleased.” Katarina told her. “Will we see you at breakfast?”

The young nurse thought for a moment.

“Yes,” she finally decided, “I think a little nourishment could help.”

As Katarina turned to leave, Agathe stopped her.

“I am very grateful for your help yesterday, Matron,” she said. “You made it just about bearable, thank you.”

Katarina smiled.

“You are welcome,” she said and looked at Maria. “It is what we are here for.”

Some of the crew were also there taking breakfast in the galley, but they were under strict orders not to have any contact with the young women whatsoever, and so they remained on the other side, maintaining a respectable distance.

As the two matrons ate, KapitanLeutnant Neumann approached them.

“Good morning, Ladies,” he said politely, bowing his head to each of them.

“Good morning, Hugo,” Katarina immediately replied. “I wasn't expecting to see you until after breakfast.”

Hugo reddened slightly.

“I was hoping to see you in the officer's mess, but I should have known that you would prefer to dine with the other nurses.”

“We always have,” Maria smiled. “We are not in the army, you know. Please, join us.”

Thanking them, Hugo sat across the table from them.

“Coffee?” Katarina asked him but if he had planned to refuse he would have wasted his breath as she was already pouring a cup of the vile liquid.

As they had done, Hugo cringed as he took a mouthful and swallowed.

“I'll get straight to the point,” he said. “The sick bay is not really big enough for everyone at once so I thought that you could bring in groups of four perhaps?”

Katarina and Maria looked at each other before Katarina answered.

“Yes, I think that is a good idea.”

She turned back to her friend. 

"I will take the first group, you the second and so on, yes?”

Maria nodded her agreement.

“Good,” Hugo smiled. “Sick parade is at eight...”

He looked at his watch.

“Oh, in five minutes. I had better run. First, one about nine then, all right?”

The two friends nodded their agreement as he got to his feet.

“Sorry to rush off,” he said. “See you later.”

He drained the remains of his coffee, plonked the empty mug onto the table and was gone.

Maria turned to face Katarina and gazed steadily at her, a small smile playing about her lips.

“What?” Katarina asked.

She felt her face warming knowing full well what her friend was hinting at.

Maria didn't answer, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.

“What?” Katarina repeated but a little more forcefully this time.

“I think he is quite taken with you.”

This time, Katarina blushed fully pink.

“Stop it!” she said but couldn't keep her face straight. “He is just polite.”

Maria raised an eyebrow.

Katarina nudged her sharply with her elbow and looked down at the table, still smiling.

“And it isn't all one-sided either, is it?” she continued.

Katarina looked directly at her then.

“Well, he is nice...” she conceded slowly.

“And a Doctor,” Maria added.

“I suppose there is that,” her friend agreed. “Common interests and all that.”

Having finished eating, they made sure that all their girls were aware of what had been arranged and on the stroke of nine, Katarina and the first four nurses entered the sickbay to be greeted by Hugo.

They had decided that the easiest way was to group the girls as they had arranged themselves for their cabins.

The KapitanLeutnant was very informative and told them all about his life as a doctor at sea.

They were surprised at how much he actually had to do with treating everything from drunkenness, through various illnesses to accidents which, although fortunately quite rare could be fairly serious.

He told them of one occasion where a previous crew member had allowed his hand to become drawn into a cable capstan and had crushed not only his hand but part of his arm before they were able to stop it.

On that occasion, he had to amputate the remains at his elbow.

That, he had told them was the worst injury he had dealt with to date, but he was pleased to say that the man had survived his ordeal although he was no longer able to go to sea.

Whilst he told his tales he showed them the equipment he had used and the recovery cots, even the instruments he had available.

Katarina was enthralled, and she was amazed that when he had finished a whole hour had passed!

Although she had to sit through his tour another three times, as the day progressed she realised that each hour passed just as quickly and she could have listened all day long.

The final visit was completed just after five and before they left Katarina thanked Hugo for taking the time and trouble to show them around.

“Oh, it was no trouble at all, Katarina,” he assured her. “It was a pleasure to be able to show you all around. I'm afraid my orderlies have heard it all before, so it has made a pleasant change.”

“Will you dining in the Officers Mess tonight?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he replied, “Would you care to join me?”

“Oh, erm, no, sorry. I couldn't leave Maria and the others.”

Hugo was disappointed but tried not to show it except that Katarina seemed to notice anyway.

“Perhaps you could join us?” she said, “If that is allowed of course and I know Maria won't mind.”

Hugo thought for a very brief moment.

“Yes, all right then,” he agreed. “I am supposed to liaise with you anyway so yes, why not. Thank you.”

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © All stories and poems are Copyright ©2013-2020 the Author. No unauthorised reproduction is permitted in any form.

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