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The Nurses. Chapter 34

In the darkness, Maria had bumped into something floating, large and solid with a rope attached...

Mediterranean, March 1st, 1941.

The little grey life raft bobbed up and down on the gentle swell. A tiny speck on the surface of the huge, blue ocean.

Maria looked down at the recumbent form beside her. Despite all the horrors that she had seen and experienced throughout her young life she was in no doubt whatsoever that God existed and that he was watching over them both.

It could have been nothing short of a miracle that she had found Katarina in the darkness and confusion, floating amongst the flotsam, supported by her life jacket which had kept her face out of the water.

At first, Maria had thought she was dead, but she had to try anyway to revive her and, placing her lips around those of her friend and pinching her nose, she breathed gently once, twice and then, with a severe coughing fit, Katarina had expelled the water from her lungs and gulped greedily at the fresh air.

Immediately she began to panic, thrashing at the water, trying to find something solid to hold onto. Maria held her tightly, but she had been ready to push her away if there was to be a danger of her pulling them both down, as she had been taught so many years ago at the pool, and shouted gentle encouragement.

Within moments, Katarina had regained her senses enough to realise that she was safe in her friend's arms and relaxed enough to think rationally.

“Breathe, Katarina, I've got you, you are safe now.”

Her soothing voice had the desired effect, but Maria knew that she only had limited energy herself and had already used a great deal of that searching for her friend and just keeping herself afloat.

“I can't swim!” her friend yelled, still not completely calm and holding tightly onto Maria's clothing.

“It's all right, 'trina,” she yelled back, “Your life jacket will keep you afloat. Try to relax!”

Katarina had gradually released her vice-like grip, allowing Maria to hold her more securely.

“Do you see?” she called, you are fine now, yes?”

“I... I think so...”

Once Katarina had grown confident that her life jacket would indeed keep her afloat, Maria relaxed her grip but had kept a firm hold on her friend's hand, guiding her, pulling her along and ensuring that they would not be separated again. The two young women had begun to search for something they could hold onto until one of the lifeboats found them and picked them up.

In the darkness, Maria had bumped into something floating, large and solid with a rope attached, so she grabbed it and helped Katarina to hang on to it, and so they remained until first light.

That was when she realised that what they had found was the life raft, confirming that they most certainly were being watched over from the heavens.

The water was cold, and they were both shivering uncontrollably and, with every last ounce of strength she had left, Maria had pulled herself out of the water and fallen into the bottom of the raft.

For just a second she remained immobile catching her breath before reaching over the side and hauling Katarina over the slippery wet rubber and onto the gently rippling fabric of the bottom of the tiny craft.

Exhausted both physically and mentally, they lay back and closed their eyes, drifting into a dreamless sleep.

Maria was the first to come round. She felt the warmth from the sun, now high in the morning sky and she no longer shivered.

Katarina was still lying where she had fallen, but her breathing was dry and rasping.

The heat from the sun had dried them, but they were encrusted with salt, their hair matted and tangled, their white caps having been torn away in the blast.

When she looked over the edge of the little raft, she was horrified by what she saw... Nothing!

Kilometres of nothing!

No flotsam, no lifeboats, nothing!

In the darkness, they had drifted away from the wreckage, and now they were totally alone!

She scanned the vast empty sea for a sign of anything, ship, land, anything but all she could see was blue water flecked with occasional white specks of tiny waves.

The sun was merciless, glinting from the surface and dazzling her until she had to close her eyes for a moment to stop the burning pain as the harsh rays seared against her retinas.

At one end of this tiny craft, Maria spotted a small box which seemed to be fixed to the inside.

Very carefully, she manoeuvred herself around her friend until she could open the lid.

To her great relief inside, she found a small container of fresh water and a tin of ships biscuits.

Taking out the water container, a metal canister which had a short spout and a cap screwed onto the end which contained maybe five litres at most she crawled over to her friend, poured a small amount of water into her hand and gently wiped her brow.

“Katarina, Aufwachen,” she said, shaking her friend gently, “Wake up.”

“Uh, what?” Katarina croaked, finding that her dry, salty mouth would allow nothing more.

“I found water,” Maria said gently and carefully lifting her friend's head, placed the lip of the container to her lips allowing her to drink a little.

“Thank you, Maria,” Katarina said slowly. “Where are we?”

Maria took a tiny sip of the water herself, swilled it around her mouth, swallowed and then replaced the cap.

“I don't know,” she replied at last. “We found a raft, but we seem to be alone. I can't see anyone or anything around us.”

Katarina was bewildered and looked around, “So, it was real then and not a dream."

“I am afraid it was," Maria looked down at Katarina as she cradled her head in her lap, “Are you all right now? You swallowed a lot of water."

“I think so," the young nurse closed her eyes for a moment. “You saved my life. I would have drowned otherwise!"

Maria smiled and wiped the hair from her forehead.

“Yes, I think you may have, but we are safe now," she paused, “at least for now."

They were quiet for a moment, reliving the scene.

“Are they all drowned then, do you think?” she asked, pushing herself up to sit beside her friend.

Maria shook her head.

“I don't think so, we saw them all in the boats, remember? I think we had just drifted away from them in the night, probably when the ship sank.”

There was silence then, neither of them really knowing what to say next.

Katarina sighed and allowed herself to slip sideways to lean against Maria who put her arm around her shoulders and rested her head upon that of her friend.

The only sound was the gentle lapping of the water against the boat which rocked almost imperceptibly on the slight swell. There was not even the cry of a seabird.

They remained thus until Maria, noticing the heat of the sun against her cheeks, took a deep breath.

“We should protect our heads from the sun,” she said.

Katarina pushed herself back upright and agreed.

The only thing they could find that would provide any sort of cover for them was their underskirts, so they removed them and wrapped them around their heads. Such was the volume of fabric that there was enough to wrap around their faces from time to time thereby reducing the exposure that their fair complexions would receive when the sun was at its strongest.

From time to time Maria made Katarina sip some fresh water to help counter the salt water she had inhaled. Watching her carefully, she was soon satisfied that no lasting physical damage had occurred.

“I am so thirsty, Maria."

“I know, meine Liebe," Maria said quietly. “It is the salt, but we will be all right, you’ll see."

The sun climbed ever higher as the day wore on and the two women searched the horizon for any signs of shipping, but nothing appeared and soon the sun began to sink again, lower and lower in the sky until it disappeared beyond the horizon and darkness descended once more on the little grey raft.

Through the long night hours, they took turns staring into the pitch blackness, the stars shining brightly above them, the moon bright and cold, sending a wavering finger across the rippling water as it reflected off the glittering swell. The air had become so cold without the sun to warm it, so they sat huddled together for warmth and sleep would not come to them. Even in their exhausted state, they could only doze fitfully.

In the almost total darkness, Katarina whispered,

“Did you see anything of Hugo before... well, before we were blown into the sea?”

Maria thought hard and realised that she hadn't seen him since the original explosion when they were on the mess deck.

“I didn't,” she replied quietly. “The last I saw of him was when he told us to get our girls together. I hope he is all right.”

Katarina thought to herself for a moment and then said,

“I quite liked him you know.”

Maria pulled her closer, holding her more tightly.

“I rather thought you did,” she smiled. “I think he liked you too.”

Katarina huddled against her friend, and they fell silent once more.

The pitch black night made them feel so alone, so far from home and still... no ship came.

The deep blue line of dawn creeping up from the horizon came as a blessed relief and slowly once more the sun rose to warm their chilled and trembling forms.

Hour after hour passed.

They ate a biscuit each and Maria ensured that Katarina took water.

The long lonely hours were taking their toll. They were so tired and could not help but close their eyes as the weariness overtook them, but they slept for no more than a few minutes at a time.

Suddenly Maria's eyes opened wide.

“Look!” she cried and pointed towards the distant horizon.

Katarina, immediately alert, strained her eyes to see what her friend was pointing at.

After a while she said,

“I don't see anything, Maria. What is it?”

“Over there,” Maria replied excitedly. “On the horizon, a ship!”

Still, Katarina could see nothing.

“Right on the horizon,” Maria repeated. “As far as you can see... Oh Katarina, please say you can see it...”

Katrina shielded her eyes from the sun and stared hard in the direction that her friend was pointing, but she could see nothing but water and wavelets.

After a few moments, Maria sank back against the side of the tiny raft.

“It's gone,” she whispered. “Maybe it was just my imagination willing it to be true.”

Katarina said nothing but put her arm around Maria's shoulders, holding her tightly as she sobbed quietly from the disappointment.

The sun was already waning along with the last vestiges of heat when Maria went to take a mouthful of water, but there was none, the canteen was empty.

Her mouth had long since dried out and her lips were dry and cracked from a combination of sun and salt.

Katarina was lying in the bottom of the raft, unmoving, so she leaned forward and shook her gently.

“Are they here?" her voice as dry and cracked as Maria’s lips.

“No, Leibling, they are not."

Katarina began to cry. There were no tears just tiny sobs of despair.

“We are going to die here aren’t we?”

The words were spoken haltingly between each quivering intake of breath.

“No, of course, we are not!"

Maria tried to reassure her friend, but it was so hard to sound convincing for she didn’t believe her own words.

“A ship will come soon; you'll see."

But a ship did not come and as the day became night again the two young women, huddled together in each other's arms for warmth and companionship became so weak that they closed their eyes and waited silently for death to take them.

Another day dawned, the third sunrise since the Meer Koenigin had slipped beneath the waves.

The dark angel of death seemed to be calling them but as weak as they were, he had still not found them.

As the sun rose, Katarina noticed that the sky was not clear and as the morning wore on the clouds collected and became darker. A swell began to rock the raft, lifting it upon each crest and lowering it gently into each trough.

She didn't worry anymore as she was sure her life was coming to an end.

To die of dehydration or to be drowned in a storm, at least the latter would be quicker.

Suddenly, she felt something touch her face, like a tear and she turned to Maria, but her eyes were closed.

Then there was another and another.

“Rain!” she said aloud and then shook her friend. “Maria, it's raining, wake up!”

Maria stirred but didn't open her eyes.

“So we are to die in a storm then,” she croaked.

“No, silly,” Katarina shook her again. “It's clean water!”

As quickly as she could, Katarina took the lid from the biscuit tin and bent it to form a crease and, as the rain increased in intensity, she held the corner to the empty canteen and funnelled as much rainwater as she could into the small opening.

With shaking hands, Maria tried to help support the metal lid as the cool rain fell heavily upon them, soaking into their clothes and cooling them, invigorating them.

At the same time, they looked up to the heavens, the pouring rain running down their faces and into their open, grateful mouths.

But, as is often the way in the Mediterranean, the downpour was short lived and, almost as soon as it had begun, the deluge was over, and the clouds began to quickly disperse.

The merciless sun reappeared through the rapidly disappearing clouds and within a few minutes, the sky was once again clear and blue.

Katarina agitated the container.

“Not much,” she said, her disappointment obvious. “No more than half a litre at a guess.”

“Something is better than nothing,” Maria tried to sound upbeat, hiding her own disappointment. “It could be the difference between life and death.”

“That is true,” her friend agreed. “If God is watching over us...”

It didn't take very long for their clothes to dry out once more and Katarina had suggested that they try to squeeze some water from them before they did but Maria discouraged her.

“We were in the water for several hours,” she reminded her. “The fabric is full of salt.”

The hours passed, the last biscuit was eaten and the sun of the third day vanished beyond the horizon.

As the last light faded, Maria opened the canteen and passed it to her friend.

Katarina shook it.

“It is almost empty,” she said and passed it back to Maria without taking any. “You have it; I'm all right.”

Maria tipped it to her lips but didn't allow any to pass, just to touch and wet them and then passed it back.

“There is still a little left,” she said.

Katarina frowned but took it and tipped it.

A tiny trickle fell from the opening and into her mouth, just enough to moisten her lips.

“So that's it then,” she said. “Maybe it will rain again.”

Her words were little more than wishful thinking because deep down, she doubted they would survive the night.

They didn't bother to keep watch anymore. Their strength was failing, and they had no light anyway so if they did see a ship they could not make it see them.

How much later she couldn't tell but Maria became aware of a strange sound far above them. A droning sound that was gradually getting louder and louder. She struggled to open her eyes as she realised that the sound was an aeroplane.

She tried to sit up but just didn't have the strength left to even just shout and wave something and as the sound began to recede she stopped trying and closed her eyes in despair. Without any movement, even if he could see the raft in the darkness the pilot would have no reason to suppose that anyone was actually in it.

Instead, they huddled together and closed their eyes and waited, listening to the steady drone of the single aero engine fading away into the distance until once more the only sound was the water lapping against the tiny boat and resigned themselves to the likelihood that they would not see another sunrise.

Cor Blimey, Chief, I don’t believe it, there's two women in it!”

Maria tried to open her eyes but she could manage no more than a squint, and that was with unbelievable difficulty. The sun was bright and burned her eyes, blinding her with the glare, but although she had no idea what they were saying, she recognised English voices and could vaguely see that where everything had been blue, now there was grey.

She tried to move her arm to rouse Katarina, but all she could manage was to press her hand against the immobile form at her side.

An' at least one of ‘em is still alive!"

The effort was too much, and she closed her eyes and then tried to open them again, trying to call her friend's name, to rouse her but although her dry, cracked lips felt as though they moved, no sound passed over them.

Well, come on then! Don’t just stand there with yer jaw ‘angin’ open! Get ‘em aboard!”

It was the last thing she heard, and darkness descended upon her once more as all her senses left her and her eyes closed involuntarily.

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