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The Nurses. Chapter 37

Suddenly, the injured sailor's eyes rolled upwards and he dropped back onto the table...

H.M.S. Lakhota, March 7th, 1941.

Neither Maria nor Katarina had slept well.

In their exhausted state they had fallen asleep almost immediately as they sat on the bunk but their fears and uncomfortable positions had meant that they awoke after just a couple of hours.

They had climbed into their individual bunks and drifted back to sleep but the noises on the ship and everything that was going on both in their heads and around them served to allow just a few minutes here and there but mostly, they lay awake trying unsuccessfully to shut out it all out.

When the Surgeon appeared in the morning, they were already up and dressed in their uniforms, determined to continue being the nurses they had always been.

“Guten Morgen,” he greeted them.

Maria added, “Grüß Gott,” to her reply and smiled, genuinely pleased to see him.

“I have brought breakfast, erm, Frühstück,” he told them, stepping aside as Leading-Seaman Andrews stepped over the coaming carrying a large tray.

“It isn't much, I'm afraid,” he said, “Just Porridge but it will fill you.”

“Was ist 'Porridge'?” Maria frowned and as Andrews removed the plates that he had used on top of the dishes to keep the contents warm she exclaimed,

“Ah, Haferbrei!”

The porridge was accompanied with ship's biscuits, and when Katarina saw them, she shivered uncomfortably, remembering the very similar ones that had helped to keep them alive just long enough to be rescued.

The Surgeon stared at them in admiration in their pristine uniforms with starched collars. He found it difficult to tell them apart but there was something about Maria that made his heart beat just a little faster.

He noticed the brooch at Katarina's throat and how perfectly straight it was. He could easily see how proud she was of it and was sure that if he had such an item, he wouldn't give it up so easily either.

On the other hand, he also noted how dull Maria's fob watch was due to the salt with which it was encrusted. She had obviously made a great effort to clean it but she had not been able to get it all off.

He turned to the Steward.

“Andrews, would you tell Matron Kaufmann that if she wishes it, I will take her watch to the machine shop where they will clean it for her, make it like new again.”

Andrews did as he was asked but Maria shook her head slowly, smiled and thanked the surgeon but politely refused. As with Katarina's brooch, she would not risk letting it out of her sight.

Before Andrews had relayed her refusal, the Surgeon already knew what she had said purely from her expressions as she spoke.

He had listened to her voice and, although German is a harsh language her voice seemed to him to be the voice of an Angel and he wished with all his heart that he had paid more attention when he was being taught her language at his school.

Suddenly, he was pulled from his reverie when Andrews coughed, clearing his throat and he realised that he had been staring at Maria for maybe a little longer than was polite.

His faced reddened noticeably, and he apologised.

“Oh gosh, ahem, erm, yes, sorry, erm...” he blustered. “Yes, right, well, erm, yes, ahem. Andrews here will be staying on hand to help translate.”

Leading-Seaman Andrews was grinning widely as he translated for them and Katarina thanked him but she had also noticed that Maria had also been a little distracted.

She smiled inwardly, happy that her closest friend had found someone who interested her enough to distract her so.

“Please, don't let me keep you from your breakfast, erm, dein Frühstück,” he added, indicating their plates. “I will come back later.”

He paused again, gazing at Maria for a moment before ushering Andrews away and leaving them alone to eat.

As they sat at the desk, Katarina looked intently at her friend, a smile playing about her lips.

Maria blushed a little but said simply,

“What?”

She couldn't, however, say it with a straight face as she knew exactly what her friend was referring.

“Oh, nothing,” Katarina grinned, lifting her spoon to her lips and tasting the congealed, off-white mixture.

Maria also tasted the sticky substance.

“Not so different to ours, is it?” she said.

When they had finished eating, and the Surgeon and the Leading Seaman had returned, they spent the next few hours helping out in the sickbay.

There were no patients to attend to and the morning sick parade had passed with not a single seaman attending.

Simon explained that it was not unusual. When they had arrived on station he had many cases of sunburn to deal with but now the crew were used to the temperatures and the sun and he now just had the occasional minor injury to deal with.

It was around midday, whilst Simon was away attending to something elsewhere on the ship when the steel door swung open and two, grubby looking sailors entered.

One was supporting the other who had a dark red stain down the outside of his trouser leg and a small trail of blood droplets marked the route they had taken.

Maria immediately approached them.

“Bitte, setzen Sie!” she said, Indicating the table in the centre of the bay.

Katarina was already by their side, but she was met with a glare of distrust.

“Please,” she said slowly, struggling to fine the words in English. “We are not your enemy.”

Grudgingly, the sailors allowed her to guide the casualty onto the examination table where Maria proceeded to cut away the blood stained fabric of the unfortunate man's trousers.

What she revealed was a deep gash about four inches long and half an inch wide across the side of his thigh and was ragged as though the flesh had been ripped apart.

It was so deep that blood was still oozing from it.

Maria turned to Katarina but such was their experience that she had no need to say anything as the other nurse was there already with a bowl and cotton swabs.

“Das ist Schlecht ,” she said but realised immediately that neither understood and added, “Nicht Gut,” hoping that was nearer to English.

“We need Simon,” she said to Katarina. “This needs a doctor to close it.”

Katarina pointed to the intercom on the wall.

“You... telefon?” she said to the patient's companion who frowned then nodded uncertainly.

“Call Leutnant Madison!” she instructed, trying to show how urgent the situation was.

The sailor went quickly to the bulkhead and lifted the handset then studied the buttons, nor sure which to press.

“Schnell !” Katarina urged.

The sailor pressed a button, and the speakers clicked.

“Erm...” he paused, having never made an announcement in his life, “D'you hear there?” he began, hesitantly with a voice that, to him seemed to belong to someone else “Lieutenant-Surgeon Madison to the sick bay please!”

Another click and the speakers went dead as he released the intercom button.

He returned to the table where Maria was carefully cleaning his friend's wound.

Suddenly, the injured sailor's eyes rolled upwards, and he dropped back onto the table.

Katarina's experience had already alerted her that this was likely to happen as his flesh had taken on a greyish pallor and become cold and clammy.

As he began to waver she put her arm around his back and supported, guiding him gently down as his senses left him.

His companion stared at her.

“Is he all right?” he asked but glared at her as though she was responsible. 

"Er geht es gut,” Maria said, and Katarina added,

“Ja, he is... good.”

She wanted to explain that he had just fainted, but she didn't know the English word.

Without need for further conversation, Maria carefully lifted the inert man's leg and Katarina placed a thick pad against the wound and wound a bandage tightly around it to maintain a pressure whilst they waited for the doctor to arrive.

Between them, they kept a continuous check of his pulse and breathing and bathed his forehead with a cool, damp towel.

Only a few minutes had passed before the Lieutenant-Surgeon appeared.

“What has happened?” he asked immediately, and the sailor snapped to attention and saluted.

“We was in the engine room when 'e slipped and dragged 'is leg across a stud. Looks bad, Sir.”

When he saw the work that the two young nurses had already done, the surgeon could help but let his face betray his admiration. They had already done the preparation and all he had to do was remove the bandage and assess the severity of the wound.

Already, the sailor was beginning to come round, and Katarina checked his eyes and pulse again.

His heart rate was a little fast, but it was no more than she expected.

Whilst the surgeon washed his hands, Maria cut away the bandage to reveal the wound once again.

She was pleased to see that the bleeding had eased considerably and the wound was not as bad as it first appeared.

Simon studied the wound carefully and, once satisfied that the man was settled, explained that he would need several stitches to close the injury.

“It is not too deep,” he said, once Maria had cut the thread. “I think you should remain here for a while to make sure all is well but I think you will be fine.”

He turned again to the women,

“Would you care to... erm...?”

Although he didn't know the words, they fully understood that he wanted to give them the opportunity to dress the wound and they smiled their agreement.

Throughout the drama, the injured man's companion had watched them intently, not trusting them at all but, with an officer present, he couldn't say anything.

By the time they were finished though, he could only admire them and he realised that, as prisoners, they didn't have to do anything at all but they had and he begrudging admitted to himself that maybe, just maybe, not all Germans were bad.

He looked at the man on the table who now had some healthy colour back.

“I'll, erm, leave you to it, then,” he said and, as he turned to leave Katarina said quickly,

“Er, braucht neues Hose. ..”

He stopped and turned back, frowning and looked at the Surgeon for a translation.

Simon was at the basin washing his hands and didn't appear to notice so the sailor looked again at Katarina who picked up the blood-stained fabric of the wounded man's trousers.

“Hose!” she repeated with a wide smile which seemed to brighten the room, for him at least.

“Oh, oh yes, trousers,” he blurted as her meaning became clear.

“Ja, troussers,” she said slowly.

The man smiled.

“I will bring some,” he said, paused and then disappeared through the doorway.

Simon Madison wiped his hands on a towel and smiled to himself. He had heard everything but he wanted these two German to feel safe and if he could get the crew to see them the way he did then they could at least feel a little easier.

When he had done, Maria and Katarina also scrubbed their hands and joined the Surgeon at his desk where he was writing in what appeared to be a diary.

“The Log,” he explained.

Neither of them knew what 'The Log' meant but when he turned it around to face them they saw that it was quite similar to the book they filled in on their wards.

As they watched, he wrote their names beneath his own on the left side of the page,

'Lt-Sur S. Madison' and then

'Matron M. Kaufmann'.

'Matron K. Langsdorf'.

Katarina couldn't help but wonder whether he had written Maria's name first deliberately or subconsciously but either way, it brought a smile to her lips.

Seeing her looking so intently, Simon stopped writing and said,

“You both did very well.”

He stopped suddenly, thinking and then, very slowly and carefully said,

“Ihr, erm... beide habt es... erm, sehr gut, erm, um... gemacht. Yes? ”

Katarina smiled,

“Yes, Danke .”

Once the log entry was complete, Simon went to the drugs cabinet and took out two white tablets and looked at them in his hand before turning to the sailor on the bunk.

“How does it feel?” he asked him.

The sailor thought for a moment.

“Sore,” he said slowly. “not too bad, though, thank you, Sir.”

He looked again at the two Aspirin tablets.

“All right,” he said. “Rest here for a while and keep that leg raised. I don't want to give you these as I need the blood to clot as quickly as possible but if the pain gets too bad, let me know.”

“Yes, Sir,” the sailor replied and then looked at the nurses still sitting at the surgeon's desk but watching. “Would you thank them for me, please. They looked after me well.”

Once more the sickbay quietened and the two of them were left alone with only the sailor for company. As he was their only patient, they treated him like royalty, ensuring he was comfortable and had enough water and checking his pulse and blood pressure regularly.

He spoke to them now and then, but the language barrier made it too difficult, and he remained quiet, communicated with nods and smiles and the occasional 'thank you' as and when required.

It was almost eleven when the surgeon appeared again, and this time he had Andrews with him.

“We have received orders from London,” he said, pausing whilst Andrews translated for him.

“It has been requested that you be put ashore in Gibraltar from there you will travel back to Germany via Spain.”

Maria and Katarina listened carefully until Leading-Seaman Andrews had finished and then looked at each other. Would they have to find their own way home?

The Surgeon continued.

“I am afraid that you will have to stay with us for a few days though as we are not due to return there just yet although the captain may consider transferring you to another ship if the opportunity arises.”

Neither spoke but their minds were full whirring. Until now they had been given instructions and all they had to do was liaise with the various authorities to ensure that their travels arrangements were carried out. Now they were on their own and in the hands of a foreign power and all they could do was wait and see.

Maria was the first to ask.

“If we are put ashore, how will we get home?”

Andrews relayed her fears as much as he could, and the Surgeon frowned thoughtfully.

“I really don't know,” he answered truthfully. “I would hope that the Red Cross will make arrangements for you. We will be leaving you in their hands, of course.”

He could see that they were not convinced so he tried to allay their fears as much as he could.

“Look,” he said gently. “Captain Meadows is a good man and he will do his best to ensure that you are safe, as will I. If we are not happy then we will ensure that you are looked after by our own QARNNS until the transfer can be made.”

As Andrews translated he new that these two young German women would have no idea what that meant, so he added that they were the Royal Navy's own nursing service.

Katarina frowned.

“In English, QARNN ist Nurse?” she asked as she had never before heard that term.

The Surgeon smiled.

“No, Entschuldigung . It means Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, but we just call them 'Qarnns,' you know, from the initial letters? They have a hospital, erm, Krankenhaus on Gibraltar.”

Katarina and Maria both smiled, feeling a little relieved knowing that they would at least be with medical people who would probably make them feel a little less like prisoners, hopefully.

There was a moment's silence as this new information sunk in and then the surgeon smiled.

“Lunch!” he said suddenly. “Mittagessen! And then, after, I will take you up on deck, erm, if you would like to?”

“Ja, Danke,” they said simultaneously after Andrews translated, then Katarina added, “We would like.”

Lunch was duly delivered and gratefully accepted and less than an hour later, the nurses and the surgeon made their way along the corridor and up several near-vertical steps until they reached a steel door. This ship was not like Meer Koenigin at all. There were no wood panels and all the steelwork was painted the same shade of grey throughout. Simon unclipped the latches and swung the door outwards.

As the two young women stepped over the coaming and out onto the open deck into the bright, warm Mediterranean sunshine, they screwed up their eyes in pain. Having been shut in the sickbay for the last three days they had become accustomed to the artificial lighting and the very small amount of sun that had found its way through the tiny portholes.

Seeing their discomfort, the Surgeon guided them around to the shadier side, away from the direct rays where they slowly adjusted to the bright light.

He remained silent, allowing them to relax.

It wasn't long before they were able to open their eyes fully and as they scanned the waters they could see that they were not alone. In the near distance was a big grey warship which seemed to them to be so much bigger than the one they were aboard.

The Surgeon could see that they were fascinated and said,

“Bonaventure.”

They turned to him, puzzled.

“Schuldigung?”

“Das Schiff, ” he smiled. “H.M.S. Bonaventure. Über vierhundert Männer! I was her Junior Doctor until I was promoted to Lieutenant-Surgeon.”

Neither of them spoke but just looked at him not comprehending anything but the 'over four hundred men' which he had remembered in German.

Thinking carefully, he tried to recall enough to explain that he knew most of her crew and officers but gave up, wishing he had brought Andrews along. Instead, he simply said, “Ein Gutes schiff.”

The nurses nodded, understanding at least that he had some affection for the sleek grey shape across the water.

“Would you care to stroll?”

Simon offered his arm to Maria who looked at him uncertainly, pausing for thought. She was unsure of whether she should but Katarina nodded her approval, urging her almost, with just a slightly raised eyebrow and an almost imperceptible nod.

She smiled and gingerly threaded her hand beneath his elbow and rested it upon his forearm.

Satisfied, he offered his other arm to Katarina who, with a half smile towards her friend, politely refused.

The fresh, warm sea air was invigorating and they breathed deeply, pushing the recent bitter memories of their days adrift as far to the back of their minds as they possibly could.

It seemed so soon, though when Simon turned them all back and began to head for the doorway.

“I cannot leave you alone out here,” he said. “I must return you to the sickbay.”

Picking up just a few words and from the apologetic look on his face, Katarina understood enough to realise that they were not really free but that was all right, she found it totally understandable.

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