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The Nurses. Chapter 35

Tags: heaven, angel

“So this is heaven," she thought. “Then the priests were right, there is life after death."

Mediterranean, March 6th, 1941.

The next time Maria opened her eyes, everything was white and so bright.

“So this is heaven," she thought. “Then the priests were right, there is life after death."

The face looking down at her, smiling and beautiful, piercing blue eyes glistening with moisture, blonde hair tied back in a plait must have been an angel too.

“Katarina, you are with me here in heaven!"

The vision suddenly laughed gently, choking back a tear.

“We are not in Heaven, Maria, we survived! This is a British warship. They found us!”

The tears welled in Maria’s eyes as she raised herself into a sitting position. Looking around her, she realised she was in the ship's sick bay.

“How long have I been asleep?" she eventually asked.

“Asleep?" laughed the young nurse. “Asleep! I thought you were dead! The surgeon says they picked us up yesterday morning and now it is after midday. He says if they hadn’t found us when they did we would not have lived."

Stepping forward, the young, blonde Berliner threw her arms around the neck of her Bavarian friend, and they held each other tightly.

Eventually, the two women separated, and Katarina looked at Maria and frowned.

“The surgeon said that you were in a worse state of dehydration than I was, even though…" she paused and narrowed her eyes. “Even though I had swallowed a lot of salt water."

Maria said nothing.

“You gave me more water didn’t you?”

Still Maria said nothing and her friend continued,

“You were willing to give your life for me, Maria. I will never forget that and some day I will repay you!” and, once again, the two German nurses came together in an embrace that said only death would part them.

Slowly, it began to dawn on Maria that, although they had been saved, they had been English voices that she had heard, enemy voices.

“Katarina!" she whispered, “Have they hurt you?”

“No, Maria, why would they?”

“They are the enemy! Don’t you remember what we were told the day we left Karlsruhe? What they said the British would do to us if we were captured?”

“Did you really believe all that?” then Katarina’s eyes opened wide and she smiled.

“Didn’t you?” Maria looked surprised.

“No, of course, I didn’t. They are not so different to us."

Katarina sat on the side of the bunk and told her friend about how, as a child, she had visited England with her family and how much she liked the English people.

“You know, Maria, if they take us to England, as prisoners of war, you will see how they are there."

“You say they are just like us, Katarina,” Maria whispered, looking around frantically in case anyone should overhear her. “Look at how our people behave, how they treat our citizens. Those people are not even enemies!”

Katarina was stunned but what her friend said made her think.

“Those... people,” she began began slowly and emphasised the word 'people', “are Nazi's. Do you really think all Germans are like them?”

Maria shook her head hesitantly.

“No, of course, I don't but don't you see? That is how the English will see all Germans. That is what they see on their newsreels and hear on the radio. They don't know any difference. We are their enemies!”

Again, Katarina thought carefully before she replied.

“I see what you mean,” she said slowly and carefully. “ I think you are wrong though. They are not Nazis and we are not soldiers. I am sure they won't hurt us.”

Maria squeezed her friend's hand for reassurance.

“I hope you are right; I really do but all the same, we must be careful.”

At that moment, the big steel door swung open, and an officer entered.

“Ah, good!" he said, seeing the two women together. “You have revived."

Both women stared at him, a little afraid, despite what Katarina had just said.

The officer looked at them, puzzled then his face brightened as it dawned on him:

“Of course, sorry, you don’t speak English!”

He looked thoughtful for a moment then said very slowly and carefully,

“Sie sprechen, erm, erm, kein Englisch ?"

Maria shook her head slowly, never taking her eyes from the Englishman.

Katarina replied:

“Kleine ," then added, “a little. Sprechen sie Deutsch ?”

The surgeon shook his head sadly,

“I am sorry," he answered, “I don’t speak German enough to converse, but maybe we will manage between us."

He smiled, then said:

“Oh, I nearly forgot! Soup and bread! Just tomato I’m afraid."

He gesticulated the tray he had placed upon his desk when he had entered.

The two nurses looked at each other, understanding only ‘soup’.

“Ah, erm, Tomaten Suppe und Brot ?” he winced as he spoke as he was basically guessing the language as he went along.

“Danke," they smiled, and Katarina added, “Thank you."

“You are welcome," he answered, then continued,

“When you have finished I will bring water for you to clean up... Oh, erm, wasser, to erm, baden? Yes?”

They smiled again:
“Danke."

“Right, erm… yes, hrmph,” and he turned and walked out of the sickbay, turning briefly by the door and giving a nervous wave and smile.

Katarina faced her friend and when she was sure the officer was out of earshot she said,

“You see? He was nice. Do you think an SS officer would have treated us so if the situation was reversed?”

Maria smiled nervously and shook her head, uncertain.

“No, I suppose, but he is just one.”

“You will see,” Katarina laughed. “We will not be beaten or raped, don't worry.”

Maria, who had never been outside of Bavaria in her life, until she was sent to France smiled, but she still was not sure.

“All right," she said at last. “But we must keep our senses. We are at war with them. We must stay alert."

“Oh, Maria! We are women, nurses! Why would they want to hurt us? We are not soldiers; we have no weapons!”

“I know, but still, we must be on our guard."

Together they sat at the desk and each took up a spoon, tentatively tasting the orange red liquid in their bowls.

“It is quite nice,” Maria said after a moment to savour the taste, “but I prefer potato soup with bockwurst.”

Katarina agreed.

“Yes, but I suppose we will not see that for a while.”

She allowed her spoon to sink slowly back into the dish as she realised that they were, in fact, prisoners and could remain so for as long as the war continued.

She took a deep breath, not wanting to share the thought with Maria.

“English food is nice,” she said with a smile, “Quite different to ours, though.”

For the next few minutes, they ate in silence. Maria had not realised how hungry she was. This was the first food that had passed her lips for almost five days and, although the medics had been giving her plenty of water while she was unconscious, her lips were still cracked and sore.

Pushing her empty bowl aside and wiping her tender lips carefully, Katarina put her arm around Maria’s waist and laid her head upon the other's shoulder.

“What do you think will happen to us?”

She didn’t really expect an answer and Maria didn’t offer one. Instead, Maria put her arm around Katarina’s shoulder and with the other softly stroked her matted blonde hair finally letting her own head relax sideways until it came to rest on that of her friend and closed her eyes.

It seemed but a few moments when the steel door clanged open again.

This time it was not the surgeon who walked through it but two sailors carrying a large metal tub.

They stopped dead when they saw the two young women and stared at them.

“Cor blimey!" one of them said to no-one in particular. “This is the enemy?”

A third man entered behind them. He was wearing overalls and had an oily cloth in his hand.

“Oi, give over you two," he said sharply, “Have a little respect!”

“Sorry Chief," the first sailor replied, “Just a bit surprised, that’s all."

The ‘Chief,' as the sailor had called him, being the chief stoker, turned to the nurses and smiled awkwardly.

“Sorry about these two, Ladies. We have been at sea for a long time. Anyway, we’ve brought this tub for you to bathe in,"

He wiped his head with the cloth he was holding, leaving an oily smear across his forehead before continuing.

“We’ll be back in a minute with some hot water."

He turned away and then swung his arm out sharply, swiping one of the sailors across his upper arm with his cloth, said:

“Come on you two, jump to it!”

As they withdrew, Maria turned to Katarina who shrugged her shoulders and grinned as neither of them had a single clue what had been said.

Some five minutes later, the three men returned as promised. The two sailors were each carrying two large canisters. The type of canisters that the two women had seen attached to vehicles at the dockside when they were boarding the ship.

Each of the sailors unfastened the caps on the canisters and poured the hot water that each contained, into the tub.

The chief had some overalls and soap which he offered them with some embarrassment, saying:

“I’ve brought you these to wear while we clean your uniforms”

Maria and Katarina looked at each other then took the overalls.

“Dankeschon... " they spoke simultaneously, even though they had no idea what he had just said!

“You’re welcome, Frow lines," and turning away, the three sailors left them in peace to bathe.

“Maria, what if someone comes in while we bathe?"

Katarina was concerned, but Maria had already noticed the screen in the corner and pointed to it.

“We can use that," she answered and went and wheeled the mobile curtain screen around the tub.

When all was ready, they went behind the screen and helped each other to undress.

Katarina unclasped the enamel ‘Rotes Kreuz’ badge from her collar and held it tightly in her hand as she began to unfasten the buttons at the front of her blue and white striped dress.

When she peeled the salt encrusted cotton from her shoulders she realised how long she had been in the sun as her head, neck and hands were quite dark against the pale white skin of her arms. She thought about how much worse they would have been had they not used their underskirts to shield them from the harmful rays.

Soon they had dis-robed and they stepped into the tub of hot water together. Neither spoke but sat down together and enjoyed their first hot bath in almost a week. They had no cloths or sponges but Maria had picked up a metal jug so they could rinse their hair. She leaned back against the now warm metal of the tub and pulled gently on Katarina’s shoulders, who was, with her back to her, sitting between her legs, allowing her friend to rest against her.

Katarina rested her head on Maria’s shoulder and closed her eyes and, for a moment, she was back home, in the bathroom of her family’s apartment on the Potsdamer Strasse in the heart of Berlin.

As Maria relaxed, she thought of her family in the quiet Munich suburb of Pasing, hoping that they were safe.

“There is one blessing in all of this,” she said quietly without opening her eyes. “At least our parents won't be worried as they know we couldn't contact them so they will have no idea about what happened.”

Picking up the jug, Maria filled it with warm water from the tub and began to wash Katarina’s hair with the soap the chief had supplied. It was just ordinary soap but at the moment it was the best thing either of them had ever used.

As the warm water flowed over her head, washing away the salt and grime, Katarina began to feel human again and Maria’s fingers massaging her scalp felt so good she began to think this must be what heaven is really like.

Once her hair was clean, she again leaned back and rested her head on Maria’s shoulder only this time, Maria leant forward and kissed her forehead. It was a surprise but it felt so nice and made her understand the bond they now shared so she tilted her head back and returned the kiss then reached up, curling her arm around Maria's head and, for a moment remained cheek to cheek.

They were not friends now; they were together as one. Together they had stared in the face of death and survived. Nothing could separate them, not now, not ever.

They finished bathing and the two, somewhat thinner young women dried each other and put on the Navy blue overalls. They were far too big and with legs and sleeves rolled up they looked anything but the smart, prim nurses they once were but now they were clean and comfortable and, having no brushes for their hair, Maria helped her new ‘sister’ to but her long blonde hair into plaits around her head in the Bavarian style.

Stepping back she looked Katarina up and down and said,

“Schone, beautiful."

They looked steadily into each other's eyes and then burst into fits of laughter. 

"Beautiful?” Katarina giggled. “If dehydrated and dry skin and cracked lips are beautiful!”

Their reverie was interrupted by a sharp rap on the door.

“Komme," they said together and laughed again.

The door opened, and the surgeon put his head inside, but he couldn’t see them because of the screen, so called out,

“Are you finished?”

When they appeared, he just stared at them as they stood hand in hand. They were such pretty young women! No make up but fresh and clean and both had the most striking blue eyes he had ever seen.

“Oh, erm, sorry, I… I mean, erm, entschuldigen sie, I didn’t mean to stare."

His face had turned the colour of beetroot in his embarrassment.

“I have brought you something."

He held out a small jar.

“Lanolin," he explained. “For your lips," and imitated putting some on his lips.

Katarina took the jar from him and opened it, put it to her nose and gently sniffed the aromatic contents. Satisfied, she took a little on her finger tip then passed the jar to Maria who did the same. The Lanolin moistened and soothed their cracked lips.

The surgeon thought they had such pretty lips.

He wasn’t much older than they were, twenty-eight in three weeks time, and not married as his studies had got in the way of finding a wife and right now, he thought, there wasn’t a woman on the planet who could possibly be any prettier than these two. They were so alike he thought they must be sisters.

Walking to his desk in the corner of the sick bay, he beckoned them to sit.

“The captain… Der Kapitan wants to know who you are."

He was embarrassed to ask and didn’t know enough German to ask them directly so he took a pencil and some paper from his draw and placed it on the desk in front of them so they could see clearly what he was writing.

“I have to ask you some questions."

They looked at each other nervously. They understood ‘Kapitan,’ but now they were scared. The surgeon saw the worry and tried to reassure them.

“Don’t worry," he told them, “it’s all right. No-one will hurt you. You are safe here. Oh, what is safe…?”

He thought hard, then,

“Oh yes, sicher! Safe! Sie sind... sicher. Ja?”

Maria looked at Katarina who, in turn, looked at the surgeon with fear in her eyes.

“Der Kapitan? Ist guter mann?”

The surgeon frowned, he didn’t understand so, in very strongly accented English, Katarina tried again:

“Iss goot man, der Kapitan?”

The surgeon breathed a sigh of relief,

“Yes," he said, “Ja, ist guter Mann."

Picking up his pencil he first looked at Katarina and asked her name to which she replied:

“Katarina Langsdorf." He then asked where she was from. She didn’t understand that so he simply said,

“Residence?”

“Ah."

She understood now,

“Berlin, Potsdammer Strasse."

He wrote just ‘Berlin’ next to her name.

Maria gave her a little kick and said,

“We mustn’t say too much!”

The surgeon saw the kick and the worry in Maria’s face and again tried to reassure them.

“It’s all right, ” he said, “I don’t want know everythin, but we have to inform the Red Cross of any prisoners we have."

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he used the word ’prisoners.' He liked them and didn’t want to think of them as 'prisoners'!

Again they looked at him without understanding. He winced, he knew so little German it was becoming difficult.

“Fur das Rotes Kreuz," he offered with hesitation.

All of a sudden and with no warning, the officer suddenly smiled and stood up.

He offered his hand to each in turn as he said.

“Mein name ist Lieutenant- Surgeon Simon Madison. Ich bin der Doktor."

He didn’t know if that was correct, but the two nurses smiled and shook his hand.

He sat down again and faced Maria before asking her name also. This time she smiled.

“Ich heisse Maria Kaufmann und ich komme aus Munchen."

The surgeon looked into her eyes for a moment, smiling as she held his gaze without blinking, a small smile appearing on her lips.

Now it was Katarina’s turn to kick.

“Stop it!” she said. “You are flirting with him."

He lowered his eyes when Maria broke away to look at her friend and wrote her name and city on the paper. He looked up again and was embarrassed to ask their ages but he had no choice:

“What are your dates of birth?" again, blank looks. He hadn’t a clue what the German was so he tried what he knew:

“Erm…. Tag?…no… er… hmm," suddenly he put his forefinger up and smiled, then began to hum ‘Happy birthday to you’!

The women grinned widely. For the first time since they had been thrown into the sea, they felt safe again.

“Geburtstag !” they said in unison. The surgeon thought the sound of their laughter was like all the bells in heaven ringing at once and if his smile got any wider his face would split.

“Geburtstag ," he repeated. “Birthday," and looked first at Katarina.

“April neunten,” she told him, smiling now.

Half guessing, he wrote ‘April 19’ and turned it to her. She shook her head,

“Neun. Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, NEUN !" they laughed again as he erased the one.

“Jahre?” he continued,

“Eins, neun, eins, acht,” she said slowly as he wrote each number 1...9...1...8.

He looked at Maria then.

“April neunten ” she didn’t smile. The surgeon frowned.

“Not Katarina," he shook his head, “you” and pointed to her

“Ja," Maria nodded, now she was smiling. The surgeon frowned even more as he said,

“Jahre?” Maria's smile widened and she nodded her head again. The surgeon allowed his pencil to droop so that the tip was resting on the year that he had just written against Katarina's name.

“Nineteen eighteen?”

“Maria’s eyes twinkled as she laughed at his confusion.

“Twins!" he suddenly exclaimed, as his eyebrows shot up and his face became a picture of amazement. “Erm, erm… zwillingsschwestern !”

The young women laughed so much they nearly cried.

“Nein! Nicht schwestern !”

“Not sisters?” he asked, incredulous.

“Nein,” they repeated, shaking their heads and still laughing.

The surgeon scratched his head and raised his eyebrows in amazement.

“I think that will do,” he said, half to himself and put down the pencil, “I wish I had taken more notice when I was supposed to be learning your language.”

They didn’t understand, but they half guessed.

“I will come back later."

Standing, he looked at them again. They should not be here, he thought but said,

“Ich komme spater wieder. ”

He picked up their uniforms and they looked at him with curiosity, questioning why he was taking them.

“Ah, just cleaning them," he responded to their stares. “Erm… reiningen… wasche? Ja ?”

“Ah, ja, ist gut, danke. Oh, Warten sie! Bitte! " Katarina remembered her brooch. “ Meine Brosche !”

“Und Meine Uhr! ” Maria added.

The surgeon frowned. He had no clue as to what they said but waited whilst they stepped towards him slowly.

Neither of them wanted to spook him so very carefully, Katarina lifted the top layer from the pile he was holding and found her Red Cross collar brooch and then delving deeper into the pile, unpinned the watch from Maria's dress.

“Sehr kostbar fur uns, ” she said softly and smiled sheepishly.

The surgeon smiled. He still had no idea what this beautiful young woman had actually said but he guessed from their faces that these two items were very important to them.

With an awkward wave he turned and stepped through the doorway, closing it behind him.

Was it just the situation?

Maybe but he was beginning to like these women very much, Maria especially and he couldn’t be sure but he thought that they liked him too.

After the door closed, Katarina turned to Maria.

“He is nice."

“Yes," she replied slowly, still looking at the door from where he had departed, her face a mixture of confusion and uncertainty. “He is but... he is still the enemy.”

Katarina shook her head and smiled.

“He is not our enemy, Maria. Nor are we his.”

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