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The Nurses. Chapter 33

“No, Hugo,” she said gently. “My father is most certainly not a Nazi.”

Meer Koenigin, February 28 th, 1941.

At the end of the afternoon, Maria sat in their cabin reading. It was after five, and she wondered what was taking her friend so long with the final tour.

“Oh, silly!” she thought. “Of course. She will be with Hugo.”

Maria smiled to herself. Katarina made friends easily, so she was not surprised that the doctor would like her and she felt that there was something there between them, like a spark.

She thought then of Michael Steiner back in France. Katarina had liked him too, indeed, so had Maria but there had been no spark that she could tell. In fact, he had not had so much as a mention since they arrived in Karlsruhe.

She was turning these thoughts over in her mind when...

“Aha, speak of the devil and he will appear, or in my case, think,” she laughed as her friend stepped over the coaming.

Katarina was puzzled.

“Did I miss something?” she frowned.

“No. I was just wondering what was keeping you. I am getting hungry.”

“Ah, right...” Katarina spoke slowly. “Erm, would you mind if Hugo joins us tonight?”

Maria chuckled inwardly and then adopted a straight face.

“Hugo? The Doctor? Why would he want to sit with us? Doesn't he dine with the other officers?”

Katarina's face dropped and flushed a little .

“Well, yes, he does usually...”

“Oh, I'm just teasing you! Of course, I don't mind.”

Maria chuckled then, seeing the relief in her friend's face.

“In fact, if you like I will sit with the others to give you some space together.”

Katarina looked aghast.

“You most certainly will not!” she exclaimed, sporting a huge grin. “He is not my lover, you know, and even if he were I would still want you to stay...”

Her words tailed off as Maria chuckled even more

“You're still teasing me...”

As agreed, KapitanLeutnant Neumann joined them at six.

He approached the table at which they had settled and then stopped short as though unsure of himself.

Both Maria and Katarina looked at him.

“Good evening, Hugo,” they greeted him in turn. “Please, sit down.”

Without speaking but offering what seemed to Maria to be a very nervous smile, he sat across from them and placed his hat on the seat beside him.

“This is terribly embarrassing,” he began. “I can't tell which of you is which...”

The two young women looked at each other and grinned.

“Don't worry,” Katarina said after a brief pause. “We are used to that now. I'm Katarina.”

Hugo relaxed.

“I can tell when you speak,” he said. “I am from Berlin too. I can tell your accent. I think that you have a southern accent, Maria?”

Maria smiled.

“Yes, from Munich,” she smiled. “Katarina lives on Potsdamer Platz. Do you know it?”

He looked at Katarina as though nothing else existed.

“Yes, I know it,” he replied. “Everyone in Berlin knows it. A very busy area right in the the centre of the city.”

It seemed to Maria that her friend had temporarily lost the power of speech so she thought she would elicit as much information as she could but without seeming too inquisitive.

“What part of Berlin are you from, Hugo?”

“I don't actually live in Berlin, as you do,” he said to Katarina before remembering his manners and directing his answer to Maria. “I live just outside, in Potsdam.”

At his mention of Potsdam, Katarina froze and a shiver ran up her spine.

“Katarina, are you all right?”

Maria had noticed the brief moment of shock in her friend's eyes, something which Hugo had not and he was puzzled at why Maria would ask such a question.

“Oh... oh yes, I am fine, thank you.”

Katarina was hesitant but seeing her friend's concern she went on.

“Do you remember how I told you about my neighbour, Herr Metzler?”

Maria nodded that she did.

“Well, his brother came from Potsdam. The mention of it just reminded me, that's all.”

Hugo frowned, thinking he was missing something but too polite to ask.

Seeing his confusion Maria asked him,

“Do you know anyone called Metzler, Hugo?”

He smiled at that and shook his head.

“No. Potsdam is quite a large town. Why do you ask?”

“I just thought it would be an amazing coincidence if you had known Katarina's neighbour's brother.”

He smiled,

“Yes indeed, that would have been something eh, to meet someone with a connection half a world away?”

They laughed at that, but Maria could see that Katarina was forcing it to save his embarrassment.

In fact, she thought that it was probably a good thing that he did not know Herr Metzler.

For the next hour or so, the three of them chatted easily. It seemed that Hugo had very similar reasons for going to sea as they did for becoming Nurses.

“So what made you want to join the Navy, Hugo?” Katarina asked him, “After all, Potsdam is a long way from the sea.”

“Ah, well, you see, I didn't always live in Potsdam. As a child, I grew up in Hamburg. My father had been in the Imperial Navy during the last war. Just after I was born, in May, Nineteen-Sixteen, my father was killed at the battle of Jutland. He had been a stoker on Lutzow which was sunk by the British. He was one of the initial survivors who was taken aboard a destroyer, but he died of his injuries.”

Both Katarina and Maria were fascinated by his story and remained silent, waiting for him to tell them more, but he didn't. Instead, he just smiled and said,

“I shan't bore you with the details.”

“No, no! I am very interested!” Katarina spoke what Maria was thinking. “Please, tell us more... If you want to of course.”

Hugo's eyes widened in surprise, not expecting the women to be in the least bit interested.

“Oh, well. Yes, all right then,” he said with a smile.

“The Lutzow had been badly damaged during the battle, but before she went down, the survivors were taken aboard other ships, destroyers. My father had been below decks and had been badly injured when the British shells struck the ship. The surgeons on the other ship did what they could to save him but they could not. My mother remained in Hamburg for several years after the war, and I would go down to the docks and watch the ships as they came in and out of the port. Anyway, when I was ten, mother and I moved to Potsdam to live with her sister, but I still yearned for the sea. When she told me what had happened to my father all I wanted was to become a doctor on a ship so that I too could try to save those who were hurt. The German navy was very small then so my mother allowed me to sign on with HAPAG where I became an officer cadet and learned about medicine and sailing until I was old enough to go to sea and so, here I am.”

Katarina looked serious.

“That is a sad story, Hugo. I can't imagine life without my Papa.”

“Neither can I,” Maria agreed. “Like Katarina, I am very close with my parents.”

Hugo smiled.

“No, don't be sad. I never knew my father, so I don't miss him, at least, not in that way. I suppose that you could say the sea is in my blood. I am used to being away from home.”

He paused for a moment.

“But that is enough about me; it's your turn now.”

Neither spoke, each waiting for the other, so Maria nudged her friend with her knee.

“Oh, erm, yes. Well, I was born in Berlin. Lived there all my life and the only thing I ever wanted was to become a nurse, from as young as I can remember. In fact, I used to bandage my doll and nurse her back to health.”

Maria stared at her, agog.

“You did?” she said, and Katarina blushed immediately.

“Oh! Do you think that is a little weird then?”

Maria laughed.

“No, of course not!” she exclaimed. “I did exactly the same thing!”

Katarina breathed a sigh of relief.

“I thought you were going to say I was silly or something like that!” she grinned.

Hugo looked a little bemused.

“What about your family?” he asked her eventually. “Were they medical too?”

“Oh no, not at all,” she answered him. “My father is a diplomat.”

There was a heavy silence.

“A Diplomat?” Hugo asked, suddenly serious.

“Yes, why? Is that a problem?”

Katarina was puzzled but then wary. Now she had to be careful. She couldn't tell him that he was not a Nazi just in case Hugo was but if he wasn't she didn't want him thinking that her father was.

Maria was lost. In a single moment, this conversation which had seemed so promising was suddenly stalled, and she didn't know why.

Hugo wasn't sure what to say. Surely these sweet young women couldn't be Nazis... could they?

“Erm, no...” he replied with great uncertainty, “No, of course not.”

“Damn this world!” he thought to himself. “Why did the damned Nazis have to make life so bloody difficult?”

“I expect he is away from home a lot then?”

It was all he could think of that was reasonably neutral.

Katarina smiled wistfully.

“Not really, not these days. He was before the war, in the days when Herr Hitler wasn't invading other countries but all the work that he used to do, like visiting our embassies is no longer needed. Everything is military now, and most of the embassies are closed.”

Hugo brightened a little.

“So he isn't an official then?”

It suddenly dawned on Maria what the problem was and leaned towards her friend.

“He thinks your father is a Nazi!” she whispered.

Katarina didn't reply but looked steadily at Hugo.

“Papa is not one of the, erm... well, the 'hierarchy' if that's what you are thinking, Hugo. He is just an ordinary man.”

“You mean he is not a Nazi,” Hugo confirmed.

Katarina smiled.

“No, Hugo,” she said gently. “He is most certainly not a Nazi.”

“I'm sorry,” he said with a sigh, “It is a rotten world we live in when we cannot talk without fear.”

“Don't worry, Hugo,” Maria reassured him, “Katarina and I have pretty much grown up with the fear of the what happens these days. By coincidence, we are here now because we have both refused to bow to the violence and intimidation that has been meted out in our respective hospitals.”

Katarina nodded her agreement.

“My head doctor had me posted to France as he was afraid that I was drawing too much attention because of my resistance to the thugs who came onto my ward regularly to take my patients away. Mainly Jews but others too. Maria was the same. It is how we came to meet at Amiens. Unfortunately, the same things happened there too and so we are now here.”

Hugo stared at them both with astonishment.

“But you are just two young women. How could you...”

His voice trailed off as he failed to find the right words.

Shaking his head he looked from one to the other of them.

“I can see that there is more to you two than meets the eye,” he said wondrously.

Katarina grinned and looked at Maria who's grin was equally wide.

“Maybe we will tell you about it one day,” she said. “But for now, do not be afraid to say what you...”

Her words were cut off as the ship reverberated with a tremendous explosion which threw them all from their seats.

It felt as thought the whole ship had been lifted from the water and immediately been dropped. The mess deck tilted at an extreme angle before tipping back the other way and then finally settling at a less than level angle.

Maria and Katarina screamed out with shock at this sudden and unexpected occurrence.

Alarm bells were now ringing throughout the ship and Hugo and the two young women dragged themselves back to their feet.

“We're being attacked!” he shouted about the clamour. “Get your nurses on deck as quickly as you can and make sure they have their life jackets!”

Without further thought, Katarina and Maria headed quickly towards the cabins as Hugo headed for the bridge.

As they ran they noticed that the deck was tilting more steeply now and they had to push themselves away from the walls.

They checked alternate cabins to rally their nurses but as Maria entered the fourth she found just two nurses, one of whom was lying comatose on the floor against the first bunk.

“Matron, I can't rouse her!” the other cried as Maria entered. “She is bleeding!”

“Alright, Heidi, alright. It's important to keep calm. Get your life jacket on and find hers please.”

Maria knelt beside her, conscious that the deck was tilting even more. It was so steep that a bottle fell from a shelf and rolled down towards her.

“Agathe, can you hear me?” she asked, gently shaking her shoulder.

Nothing.

“She is breathing and has a good pulse so help me get her up on deck. Quickly now!”

Between them they lifted the lifeless nurse and dragged her out of the cabin.

“Maria! Is she all right?”

Katarina was passing as they left the cabin.

“I think so but she hit her head. Can you help Agathe while I check the other cabins?”

“It's alright, I'll do it,” Katarina assured her and turned away.

“Trina, hurry! I don't think we have much time!”

Katarina raised her hand and disappeared through a door two cabins down the corridor.

Without further ado, Maria and Heidi struggled up the stairs to the next deck. The angle was so acute now that the stairs were almost vertical and the noise was deafening. Alarms were sounding and the scream of escaping steam was ear shattering! Worse still, Maria was certain that above all this and the groaning of tortured steel plates she could hear the sound of water pouring into the ship!

It seemed to take forever before they reached the top where they were met with a scene of chaos and panic.

A steward dressed in pure white uniform appeared as though from nowhere.

“I didn't expect to meet you again in such circumstances, Matron!” he shouted, trying to smile.

Maria was puzzled but dismissed any further thoughts as he took Agathe and carried her bodily out onto the open deck.

“What happened?” she said. “Are we still under attack?”

“No,” he replied, “We struck a mine!”

Maria had no clue as to what he meant and there was no time to find out.

“Go with him, Heidi and get her life jacket on!” she shouted before turning back and heading for the cabins.

“Matron! Maria! Wait you can't...”

Maria didn't listen and struggled as quickly as she could back down the stairway.

At the bottom she met Katarina who was carrying their life jackets.

“They're all out,” she shouted, “Come on, let's get up!”

Together they dragged themselves back up the stairs, glad that this would be the last time as it was becoming almost impossible.

Once out on deck Katarina's heart missed a beat as she saw the crazy angle that the ship had now achieved. The water was over the bow now and she was sure that the stern must be out of the water.

They stood for a moment whilst they donned the life jackets and then went to find the nurses at the lifeboat station but the crew were having difficulty lowering the boats due to the angle of the ship.

From deep inside Maria heard a rumble, like an explosion and the rear of the ship began to sink back towards the water.

“A bulkheads gone!” she heard someone shout, “We haven't got much time now!”

The one advantage though was that the deck was less steep and they could lower the boats more easily.

“Katarina, where is Agathe?”

Maria looked around frantically.

“She's in the boat, Maria!”

Katarina was pointing towards the white wooden boat that had just splashed gently onto the surface of the boiling sea.

Are they all in?” Maria shouted back.

“No, I can't see Gerthe!”

“Ladies, get in quickly, please!” a seaman at the other boat was urging them. “There is no time to lose!”

“Katarina, get in. I will find Gertha.” Maria urged her friend. She shook her head vigorously.

“Not without you!” she shouted back. “You check this side, I'll take the other.”

They stood for a moment unmoving, just staring a each other and then threw their arms around each other, holding each other tightly.

After a second they separated and went their separate ways.

Maria found the missing nurse vomiting violently and hanging onto the ships rail.

“Gerthe come on!” she called. “It's all right, come. Let's get you to the lifeboat.”

Maria guided her along the wall of the superstructure.

“Where is your life jacket?” she asked suddenly.

The nurse shrugged her shoulders.

“I don't know,” she replied. “I couldn't get to my cabin.”

“Here, take mine!”

Maria untied her own jacket and gave it to Gerthe who protested briefly but Maria was having none of it.

“Take it! Now!” she said. “I shall find another.”

Having helped her into the lifeboat Maria turned back to find Katarina who appeared by the door from which they had emerged just a few minutes before.

“I've found her, Trina, she's in the boat. They are all safe.”

Her words were not heard, however because just as they left Maria's mouth a tremendous explosion from within rocked the doomed ship.

The force of the explosive blast through the open doorway blew everything nearby over the side and into the sea. Maria and Katarina included!

Maria hit the water on her back and the water closed in around her. As a girl she had learned to swim at the local pool and her instincts caused her to push downwards into the water and very soon her head broke the surface, and she gasped in the cool air, filling her aching lungs.

She looked around frantically.

“Katarina!” she screamed, “Katarina!”

She dived down but the water was seething with bubbles and she could see nothing.

In her frantic search she neither saw nor heard the death throws of the Meer Koenigin as it slipped beneath the waves, racked with explosion after explosion as the bulkheads finally gave way and flooded the boiler room.

The blast had forced the air from Katarina's lungs and as if through a mist she felt herself thrown into the air and hit the water with such an impact that she was unable to take a breath.

She was sinking, down, down through the bubbling water and slowly, the darkness closed in around her as her consciousness deserted her, leaving her to be taken by the cruel sea...

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