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The Nurses. Chapter 36

“I don't like the way they look at us,” she said

H.M.S. Lakhota, March 6th, 1941.

The ship they were now on, judging from the size of the sick bay, was quite a significant warship and, although they were left pretty much alone there were, on occasion, sailors coming in and out. Maria and Katarina did feel that they were being watched and, they thought, distrusted.

That made them a little unhappy as they had only ever wanted to nurse and help those who were sick or injured.

Katarina thought back to the old Jewish man she had saved on the tram all those years ago and considered that this must have been how he would have felt, although his situation was far more perilous.

Maria was having much the same thoughts when she looked at her friend seated beside her at Lieutenant-Surgeon Madison's desk.

“I don't like the way they look at us,” she said.

“Neither do I,” Katarina agreed. “I know that sometimes our patients don't trust us, I remember you telling me about the nurse on your ward but this is different. I don't know what we can do.”

Maria took her friend's hand.

“Ah yes, Renatte,” she recalled. “I think that the only thing we can do is be ourselves and make them see that we are not enemies.”

“But how, Maria? I barely know any English and you know none at all...”

Maria though for a moment.

“Well, that is true...” she began slowly. “I am sure that the surgeon will make them see, though.”

They weren't kept waiting for long when the steel door swung open and a seaman came in to take away their trays.

Maria smiled sweetly and thanked him.

“Danke. Das war lecker. ”

The seaman scowled at her, a mixture of uncertainty and incomprehension then half smiled and disappeared through the door.

Katarina looked at her.

“Well it was delicious!” Maria said defensively. “Even if they don't understand our words they can read our gestures.”

Just as they spoke, Lieutenant-Surgeon Madison stepped through the opening. Maria smiled but it faded from her lips as the returned smile seemed somewhat less warm than when they had first met.

He sat down awkwardly in his own chair on the other side of the desk and studied the two young Germans for a short time as though trying to see something in their faces.

Maria and Katarina stared back at him, bemused. What had changed to make him seemingly distrust them?

Their question was soon answered when he dropped a salt encrusted khaki armband onto the desk in front of them.

He remained silent as they looked at it and then at each other. Finally they returned their attention to him, still puzzled. What did he want from them?

“Was ist das ?” he asked coldly when they didn't speak.

Maria answered first with a frown.

“Das ist unser Rang. Wir sind Matronen. ”

“Es ist... erm, Khaki... sie... erm... erm... ” he couldn't find the words in German that he needed. “ Fur Afrika?”

Katarina answered his hesitant question.

“Ja, we were, erm... going... to...”

Maria kicked her and frowned.

“You can't tell him!” she hissed. “We couldn't even tell our parents!”

“Wir wolten ein Feldkrankenhaus errichten, ” she continued in Katarina's stead.

The Surgeon looked carefully at Maria.

“I don't understand what you said but... ' Feld'? Field perhaps and 'K rankenhaus' ? Field Hospital maybe? So you are Wehrmacht ?”

He still looked serious.

He desperately wanted to trust them but an army officer rank insignia that the laundry people had found in one of their pockets was making it very difficult.

Maria stared at her friend.

“He thinks we are in the Army!” she gasped. “Does he think we are spies or something?”

Katarina held out her hand and opened her fist to reveal the Red Cross collar badge her father had given her for her fifteenth birthday.

“Nicht Wehrmacht ,” she shook her head, “ Deutsches Rotes Kreutz. Krankenschwestern. Nicht soldaten .”

The Surgeon reached across and took the badge from her upturned hand and read the inscription around the outside.

'Deutsches Rotes Kreutz' , then, below, ' Schwesternhelferin '.

He also noted the two Swastikas separating the words.

Closing his fingers around it he stood up,

“I will show it to the Captain,” he said.

As he rose, Katarina panicked on hearing the word 'Captain' and reached out for her brooch.

“Nein! Bitte! Das war ein geschenkte vom mein Vater !”

Simon frowned having not understood a single word.

“Fur mein Funfzehnten geburtstag. Bitte nehmen Sie es nicht. ”

Katarina was close to tears at the thought of losing her beloved brooch and Simon could see that in her face and also the pleading look Maria had as she gripped her friends hand.

“My Father... fur mein ... birsday...” Katarina added haltingly, trying to find the correct words in English. “ Bitte nehmen Sie es nicht . Bitte...” she repeated desperately.

Simon Madison was torn and sat down again in his chair. He guessed correctly that this simple brooch meant a great deal to this pretty young nurse and the tears welling in her desperately pleading blue eyes caused a lump to form in his throat.

He looked at Maria and her worried look, along with the strong grip of her friends hand convinced him to hand back the small metal brooch and he placed it gently into her straining upturned palm.

Katarina took it gratefully as a tiny droplet fell from her eyelid and splashed onto his desk.

She closed her fingers tightly around it and held it to her chest.

“Danke ,” she whispered, “ Danke, Danke .”

Maria smiled at him and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Hast du ein Wortebuch ?” she asked him, but he just frowned uncomprehendingly.

She thought hard for a moment and then,

“Papier, Stift ?”

Paper he understood so he nodded and opened a drawer on his side of the desk from which he took out a note book and guessed that a pencil might also be useful.

Maria took them and repeated,

“Wortebuch ,” as she began to write.

First, she wrote ' Vater ' and showed it to Katarina who took the pencil and wrote '= father' beside it.

Maria the wrote ' Geburstag ' and Katarina added '= burthday' beside it.

Slowly he realised what they were doing, even though Katarina didn't know how to spell 'birthday'.

Of course! Maria wanted a dictionary! ' Wortebuch ' must mean word book!

He smiled widely at her and jumped up, holding up a finger in the internationally understood gesture of 'one minute' and said, 

"Be right back.”

Once more the two Matrons were left alone, and Katarina turned to Maria.

“Why did he want to take my brooch?”

Maria didn't answer immediately because she wasn't sure herself. 

I don't know,” she said eventually. “Do you think he wanted it for himself?”

“But why? What use is it to him?”

Maria shrugged her shoulders.

“I don't know, but I am sure he wasn't going to steal it. He mentioned the Captain, maybe it was for him.”

Katarina wiped her eyes on the rolled up cuff of her oversized overalls.

“I couldn't bear to lose it,” she said. “It would break my heart.”

Some ten minutes later, the door opened, and the Surgeon reappeared holding a somewhat tatty looking booklet and sat down opposite them again.

“It is not a dict... a wortebuch ,” he corrected himself, “but it might help us.”

He placed it on the desk in front of himself and Maria instinctively reached across to take it.

The Surgeon instantly grabbed it and held it out of her reach.

“Nein,” he said as pleasantly as he could, “It is an official document... erm... Geh, Geheim...?”

Try as he might he just couldn't remember the word for 'secret'.

“Geheimnis ?” Maria offered.

“Ah yes, thank you, erm, Danke.”

She could see from the front cover that it had the name of the ship printed below a crest which included the head of a dark skinned man with a head band and single feather at the back.

HMS Lakhota.

It meant nothing to her. She had heard news reports on the radio, but she had never taken any notice of the ships names. She barely remembered the names of the German ones, let alone the English ones.

She nudged Katarina and drew her attention to it who then looked directly at the officer across from her and pointed to the booklet.

“This is this... erm, Schiff?” she asked, “Ein Kriegsschiff?”

The surgeon looked at the cover of the book and suddenly realised that when they had been brought aboard, the day before, they had been unconscious and so had no idea about what kind of ship they were aboard.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “HMS Lakhota, a Royal Navy Destroyer.”

Maria looked him directly in the eye and repeated slowly,

“H... M... S... La... koh... ta. Was ist Lakhota?

Simon Madison smiled and reasoned that the German high command was probably aware of their presence in the Med. and so, even if these sweet young women were spies after all, which he now strongly doubted, they would learn nothing new.

“Lakhota is an American Indian tribe...”

He paused seeing that they were puzzled.

“Like Apache? Yes?”

“Ah, Ja, Amerikanischer Ureinwohner !”

He smiled widely, unable to draw his gaze away from Maria's enchanting eyes.

“If you say so!”

Katarina watched them intently and thought of Hugo. She wished she knew what had happened to him.

Simon cleared his throat, remembering what he wanted to ask them.

“So,” he began, “This, this...” he opened the book and scanned the pages. “This Armbinde .”

With the help of the secret cipher book, the contents of which, he kept hidden from them, Lieutenant-Surgeon Madison managed at long length to ascertain that the armband he had been given was to help Maria and Katarina to work with the army, and he soon felt confident that they were exactly who they said they were, simple Nursing Matrons with the German Red Cross.

They worked long and hard, using the book to translate word by word and both these young women had taken great pains to ensure that he knew exactly who they were and what they did. He also understood that there were things they were unwilling to share, but he felt that what they kept to themselves would probably be unimportant anyway in the general scheme of things.

The build up of German forces in Tripoli was not a secret, and he doubted that the German High Command would have informed them of anything strategically sensitive.

They had also been very careful to ensure that he knew how precious Katarina's brooch and Maria's fob watch were to them and why.

Suddenly, the phone on the wall behind the Surgeon's desk jangled, and he swung around in his chair and grabbed the handset.

“Madison!” he said sharply and then listened carefully.

“Yes, Sir. Right away.”

“Der Kapitan,” he said as he replaced the handset and checked his watch.

The two women smiled as his face took an expression of astonishment.

“Good heavens, look at the time!” he said. “I must get you some food; you must be starving!”

They looked at each other, not understanding his sudden outburst then Maria opened her hand and looked at the salt encrusted fob watch which, after all, they had been through, was still working.

It showed six-thirty!

Simon saw their puzzled stares and thought carefully.

“Hungry,” he said slowly. “ Haben sie Hunger ?”

Maria looked at him.

“Ja,” she said with a gentle smile, “ Wir haben Hunger .”

“Zehn Minuten ,” he replied. “ Essen, ja ?”

They nodded, and he was gone.

The Surgeon was true to his word, some ten minutes later the door opened again, and two sailors appeared carrying trays of food.

“There yer go, Ladies, the Navy's best grub, bangers and mash!”

The first sailor placed his tray in front of Maria and the second in front of Katarina.

They looked at the pile of what appeared to be some kind of pulverised potatoes with two sausages covered in a brown viscous liquid.

Ever polite they smiled and thanked them pleasantly.

“You're welcome!” the sailor replied. “Give me a minute an' I'll bring some tea.”

Before either of them had a chance to speak the two seamen were gone.

Katarina looked at her friend and then back at her plate then picked up the fork from beside it, scooping up a sample of the potato and liquid and taking it tentatively into her mouth.

Maria watched her carefully, her stomach rumbling as she waited.

“It's not too bad, really,” Katarina said, once she had swallowed then picked up the knife and sliced into the sausage, cutting off a small piece.

Maria couldn't wait any longer and tucked into her own food.

“There is not much meat in this sausage,” she grinned.

Nevertheless, they were so hungry that they were grateful for whatever they were given.

So much so that they didn't even notice that one of the sailors had returned with another tray which contained a metal pot which looked a little like a coffee pot but was somewhat wider, not as high and with a shorter spout.

There was also two mugs and a small jug containing a thick, creamy yellow liquid.

“Tea!” he said with a smile and then, “Oh, forgot the sugar!”

As he turned to leave, Katarina stopped him, recognising 'tea' and 'sugar'.

“Ist gut,” she said with her sweetest smile and indicated the two of them with her hands and shook her head, “No sugar.”

Maria poured the golden liquid from the pot into the two cups.

Neither of them liked the tea. Katarina had tasted it before, during her trip to London before the war but had never taken to it, and Maria had simply never experienced it. She found the flavour too aromatic, too herbal, maybe and preferred the taste of the coffee she was used to although with the possible exception of the coffee substitute.

They both decided to add a little of the milk. The 'milk' was familiar to them although they did not know it as 'evaporated' but it was much the same as the canned milk they had used so many times. It made the tea only slightly more palatable but they didn't like to ask for coffee being grateful for whatever their... their rescuers? Captors? Whatever they may be, were willing to give them.

Almost an hour had passed before the sickbay door opened again.

One of the sailors who had brought the dinner had returned to collect the empty trays. 

"You must have been hungry,” he said, and they smiled and nodded their agreement, understanding the word hungry.

“Ja, ” Maria answered for them both as he stacked everything onto one tray and, when he lifted it, “ Danke .”

To their surprise, the sailor replied,

“Bitte. ”

Both the German women stared at him in surprise!

“You speak German?” Katarina gasped.

The sailor, who was somewhat older than they were by several years, replied, still in German.

“Yes, a little. I spent two years working with your navy after the last war.”

“What is your name, please?” Maria asked him, a little abruptly, he thought and became instantly defensive.

“Why?” he asked, his eyes narrowed.

“Oh, so that you can help the Lieutenant-Surgeon to understand us and for us to understand him,” she explained, realising that her eagerness had been misunderstood.

Once again, the sailor relaxed.

“All right,” he said, smiling again, “I am Leading-Seaman Andrews, Miss.”

Maria smiled again.

“Thank you, Leading-Seaman Andrews,” she said then added, indicating the empty plates. “That was nice.”

He smiled and thought to himself that this pretty young woman was just trying to be polite as the food on board fell a little short of nice due to the available rations of dried potatoes and sausages that contained more cereal than meat!

After he had left, they had a short wait until the Surgeon returned and he was carrying two parcels which he placed on the desk in front of each of them.

“Your clothes, erm... Kleidung ?” he said.

They each opened the parcels and found their uniforms almost as good as new, clean, pressed and starched. At last they could at least feel like nurses again rather than prisoners.

They thanked him with sincere gratitude, which, despite his limited understanding of their language, made him feel warm inside.

He took one look at them and realised that they must have been very tired. It was, after all, the first day since their ordeal had ended and they needed rest.

“The Captain,” he began, “is satisfied that you are who you say you are.”

He stopped, realising that they didn't understand and tried a different approach

“Your ship, erm, Schiff?” he started again, “Meer Koenigin...”

The two women stared at each other. Neither remembered telling him that name.

“The name, erm, Namen , was on the life raft, erm, erm...”

Unable to think of the German he settled for 'kleine Boot' or little boat.

Seeing that was enough, he continued.

“We know, erm, Kennen...“

Maria stopped him by saying suddenly,

“Leading-Seaman Andrews!”

Simon frowned, puzzled by this sudden and unexpected outburst.

“Er, Spricht Deutsche .”

“Really?”

The Surgeons eyes opened wide,

“How did you...? Never mind.”

He swung round and picked up the intercom.

“D'you hear there? Leading-Seaman Andrews to the sick bay...”

He repeated the message and replaced the hand set.

They didn't have to wait more than a few minutes until the requested crew member appeared through the doorway.

He saluted smartly, looked briefly at the two nurses and then said,

“You wanted me, Sir?”

“Ah, Andrews, yes. These ladies inform me that you speak German. Is that so?”

“ Yes, Sir, a bit. I spent time with their Navy after the last one, Sir.”

“Oh, good. All right, Andrews, relax.”

The steward visibly relaxed from his 'Attention' stance as the Surgeon explained what he wanted.

“Tell them, please, that their ship's name was on the life raft and that we already knew it was heading for Tripoli.”

As he spoke, Andrews slowly translated his words into German as much as he was able.

“The Captain is happy that they are Red Cross Nurses and are therefore no longer prisoners of war but 'guests' until we can pass them over to the Red Cross authorities, whenever that is possible.”

Maria and Katarina listened intently, becoming relieved as they began to understand that their position was now more secure.

Katarina waited until until a suitable moment and then asked.

“If they know about our ship, do they know whether there were any survivors other than us?”

The surgeon listened carefully as Andrews told him what they had asked and then shook his head sadly.

Both their hearts dropped heavily as they waited for the translation of his reply.

“He says that although they know that she sank, they don't have any details. As there were no British ships in that area at the time he guesses the survivors would have been picked up by German or Italian ships.”

The women breathed again. That was at least better than the answer they were expecting.

With Andrews' help, the Surgeon told them that they could sleep in the bunks on which they had recovered when they were first rescued and they could at least draw some privacy from the curtain they had used when they bathed.

When he was satisfied that they had everything they needed for the night, the Surgeon told Andrews to inform them that the information they had given him had been passed back to England and would be relayed to the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva so that their families could be informed that they were safe and well.

For that, the two women were grateful and told him so, thanking him for his understanding and hospitality.

Once more, they were alone but, although the Surgeon had assured them of their safety, they were now in a hostile environment such as they had never before experienced. Sitting together on one of the bunks, they embraced each other, comforted that they had each other in the desperately uncertain days ahead.

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