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The Nurses. Chapter 38

Tags: news, joy, despair

The red faced sailor quickly pulled up his pants and saluted.

H.M.S. Lakhota, March 8th, 1941.

 

 

The following morning, Maria and Katarina attended the sick parade as they had the day before but this one was a little different. Instead of having no patients, this time there were several, all complaining of minor ailments ranging from headaches to stiff backs and aching limbs!

 

At first, the surgeon was puzzled, but then he realised that the sudden increase in sickness was obviously due to the fact that word had got out about his two new orderlies!

 

His suspicions were confirmed when the only genuine case hobbled in at the end of the queue.

 

Lieutenant-Surgeon Madison took one look, and all became clear.

 

“I take it that you told all these men about your treatment here yesterday?” he asked sternly.

 

The sailor was a little sheepish and replied in the affirmative.

 

“Yes, Sir, I did, Sir.”

 

Simon stared unblinking at him before replying.

 

“Then I suggest that you also tell them that imagined ailments will not be treated with the same care and consideration as your genuine injury, is that clear?”

 

The unfortunate sailor nodded rapidly.

 

“Yes, Sir. Quite clear, Sir.”

 

“Good! Now, let's have a look at that wound.”

 

Without further ado, the sailor lowered his trousers whilst the surgeon examined the dressing.

 

There was no blood showing through and so no requirement for a new dressing.

 

“That looks all right, Sailor. Trousers up and report to me in five days. That will be all!”

 

The red-faced sailor quickly pulled up his pants and saluted.

 

“Thank you, Sir.”

 

He turned towards the two nurses who were trying to remain serious,

 

“Ma'am,” to Maria then, “Ma'am,” to Katarina and quickly left.

 

As soon as he was out of earshot, the three of them laughed heartily.

 

“You two are going to cause me no end of trouble,” Simon chuckled yet he had no idea how prophetic his words would turn out.

 

Shortly afterward an unexpected visitor stepped over the coaming, and Simon immediately jumped to his feet and saluted.

 

“Sir!” he said, standing rigidly to attention.

 

“Stand easy, Simon,” Captain Meadows answered, returning the salute.

 

Both Maria and Katarina were now standing also, and when Leading-Seaman Andrews followed the Captain into the sickbay, they both had a sickly feeling that they were about to hear something unpleasant.

 

The surgeon turned to Maria first and said,

 

“Captain Meadows, this is...” he paused as if thinking and Maria, purely from habit, was about to tell him her name when he suddenly continued.

 

“This is Matron Maria Kaufmann of the German Red Cross and her colleague and friend, Matron Katarina Langsdorf.”

 

“I am pleased to meet you at last,” Captain Meadows greeted them, “I have heard so much about you.”

 

The women smiled as Andrews translated and then responded politely.

 

There was no time for any further discourse as Captain Meadows became serious.

 

“I am afraid I have some difficult news,” he began then waited whilst Andrews translated.

 

“We have picked up some radio traffic from an Italian ship. It seems that they have been searching for several days for missing survivors from a tramp steamer which hit a mine several days ago. They have accounted for all the crew and passengers apart from two whom they have now reported as missing believed lost.”

 

Katarina and Maria sat silently, waiting for the translation.

 

“We are the missing casualties?” Maria asked when Andrews had finished.

 

The Captain nodded.

 

“I believe so,” he said. “The ship was reported as the 'SS Meer Koenigin'.”

 

They sank heavily back into their seats, hearts heavy.

 

“So no-one knows we are alive?” Katarina asked finally.

 

“I'm afraid not. The report of your rescue has not yet been sent to the Red Cross because of our current operation here, but they will be informed at the earliest opportunity.”

 

She turned suddenly and grabbed Maria's arm.

 

“They will inform our parents that we are missing! They will be frantic!”

 

The colour drained from her friend's face.

 

“And there is nothing we can do...” Maria whispered with great difficulty.

 

The Captain apologised and shook his head.

 

“I'm sorry but no. The Bonaventure is heading for Alexandria, and it was suggested that we send you over to her in the launch, but we cannot afford to heave-to to allow the transfer, so I am afraid you will remain with us for a day or two longer until we eventually get into Gibraltar.”

 

Maria's heart was racing, and she could feel the moisture rising in her eyes. All she could think about was the messenger arriving at her house and handing her mother or father the card which announced her loss.

 

Katarina was imagining pretty much the same scenario, and she asked with voice cracking and strained.

 

“Is there no way that our parents can be informed that we are alive?”

 

As Andrews relayed the question, she realised what a stupid and futile question it was. Even though they had been treated with the greatest of respect, they were, after all, on board an enemy ship!

 

“I'm sorry,” Captain Meadows repeated. “I do realise what a difficult situation this is for you, and I will get you ashore as soon as I possibly can but for the time being I'm afraid you are stuck here with us.”

 

Maria looked towards Simon for support, but he just stood helpless and silent.

 

For the first time in their young lives, Maria and Katarina were under the control of the military and worse, an enemy force too. They had been used to looking after their own affairs and being able to control, albeit in a limited fashion, what happened around them but now they had no say at all in their future. All they could do was accept that they were prisoners of circumstance and make the best of it.

 

They sat silently, holding each other's hand. Tears did not come; they had to be strong, but they hoped beyond hope that they could find a way to let their Mothers and Fathers know that they were alive as soon as was possible.

 

The time now passed by very slowly. In an effort to keep busy they helped out as much as they were permitted in the sickbay and, with the aid of Leading-Seaman Andrews tried to learn as much English as they could.

 

They were young and bright and soon they began to pick up odd words here and there.

 

Simon Madison gave them as much time as he could, but he had many duties outside the sickbay.

 

During those quiet moments, he went with them out on deck to walk in the sunshine and breathe the fresh sea air.

 

He was pleased to see that they seemed none the worse for wear after their ordeal in the life raft. Their skin looked fresh and healthy once again and their ice blue eyes sparkled as they talked but, behind them, he could see the sadness they endured with each passing day.

 

Each morning the sick parades returned to a normal level as the crew slowly became accustomed to their presence. Many greeted them but also, many glared at them. Regardless of which they always smiled politely and said 'Good Morning' or 'Good Afternoon' in as little accent as they could manage but that in itself made them stand out because of that very correctness.

 

After lunch of the fifth day, they and the Surgeon were standing at the deck rail when Simon was called away for a few moments.

 

He looked at Maria directly.

 

“I shall be only a minute or two,” he said, studying her beautiful eyes which flicked from one to the other of his. “You must not move from here, yes?”

 

She smiled and nodded, only understanding that he must leave them alone.

 

Seeing her uncertainty, he thought carefully, searching his memory for the German words he needed.

 

“Bleiben Sie, hier,” he said slowly, “Stay here, ja?”

 

Again she nodded.

 

“We will,” she replied in English.

 

For a brief moment, Simon didn't move, captivated by this sweet young nurse but then took a deep breath and turned awkwardly away.

 

When he was out of earshot, Katarina, still leaning on the rail looking out towards the horizon, said quietly, “I hate this war!”

 

Maria stood beside her.

 

“Me too,” she replied.

 

Katarina sighed.

 

“I am worried for you,” she said and turned to face her friend. “I can see that you are growing fond of Simon.”

 

Maria looked down at the frothing white water as the ship cut through the swell but remained silent.

 

She knew that Katarina was right, but she couldn't help it. For the first time in her life, she had met a man who shared the same values as she did. Fate had brought them together but, try as she might, she couldn't see how they could have a future. War had brought them together, and as sure as the sun would set, war would keep them apart.

 

She turned to face her friend.

 

“Don't worry for me, Katarina,” she said with a sad smile. “I do like him, yes but I am under no illusion. I know we have no future together.”

 

Katarina placed her hand atop Maria's and smiled, equally sadly but said no more.

 

As they stood in silence Maria became aware of a sailor approaching them and without thinking said,

 

“Gruss Gott, ” and smiled.

 

The sailor stopped dead in his tracks and glared at each them, his face contorted with disgust.

 

“Jerry bastards!” he said and spat in Maria's face before storming away.

 

Maria was shocked and froze as the gob of saliva dripped down over her lips.

 

Quickly, Katarina took out her handkerchief and wiped away the offending fluid which was now mixing with Maria's tears.

 

At the same moment, the Surgeon had reappeared and shouted.

 

“Stand still, that man!”

 

The sailor stood rigid, as though rooted to the spot.

 

“Come here!”

 

Maria was shaking as the man turned and walked slowly towards the furious officer.

 

“S... Simon, no, is... is all right, please,” she said slowly, “I understand.”

 

Simon stared at the defiant sailor; his fists clenched with anger at his sides.

 

He looked at Maria and then back at the sailor.

 

“I will deal with this later,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “If I see you anywhere near these two again you will be court marshalled, is that clear?”

 

The man didn't answer.

 

“IS THAT CLEAR?” he shouted directly into the man's face.

 

“Yes, Sir!” came the terse reply.

 

“Get out of my sight,” the Officer hissed, and the man turned and walked slowly away, cursing under his breath.

 

Simon turned and saw how distressed Maria was. It tore at his heart seeing her like that and he wanted to put his arms around her and protect her but he couldn't.

 

Instead, he wiped the tears from her eyes with his thumb.

 

“I am so sorry,” he said gently. “I shouldn't have left you alone.”

 

She shook her head slowly.

 

“Mir geht es gut, ” she replied, then slowly in English, “I am good.”

 

She took his hand.

 

“Danke,” she said quietly and kissed his cheek.

 

The Surgeons' heart leapt with a mixture of joy and sadness that this had happened to her.

 

“Come on,” he said and led the two young women back to the sick bay.

 

From then on, the surgeon didn't let the two of them out of his sight when on deck. He had been as distressed as they were that a member of his crew could behave in such a way but as he thought over and over again he could see how some of them must feel about their presence.

 

Although some of the sailors had accepted the German women he had to consider, that others may feel antagonism towards them as members of an enemy state.

 

He resolved there and then that he would protect them, from that hostility as much as he possibly could.

 

Throughout the passing days, the ship remained at sea, and Maria and Katarina wondered how long it would be before they would return to Gibraltar.

 

There were several alarms but nothing really came of them, and the captain had the crew constantly practising their drills.

 

One morning, some two weeks after they had been rescued, Simon bid them sit down at his desk once the sick parade was dealt with.

 

“I have some news for you,” he said with a thin smile.

 

With the passing of time, they had learnt a little of the English language and Simon had not called upon Andrews to translate.

 

“In two days,” he held up two fingers, “We will be in Malta.”

 

The girls glanced at each other.

 

“Malta?” Katarina repeated. “Nicht Gibraltar?”

 

“We have orders to patrol around Malta,” he paused, seeing that they were unsure of what he said. “Erm, Patrolliren, Ja?”

 

Katarina smiled.

 

“Patrouillieren,” she corrected, “Yes, we understand.”

 

“Oh, right. Well, I am hoping we can get you ashore there and then on the next ship to Gibraltar.”

 

The two women looked at him, waiting, understanding only 'ashore,' 'ship' and 'Gibraltar'.

 

Simon gave a half smile and sighed softly before turning to the handset behind him and summoning Leading Seaman Andrews.

 

Whilst they waited, Maria reached across the desk and placed her hand upon that of the surgeon.

 

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

 

He looked at her, once again with his heart beating heavily.

 

“For what?” he asked.

 

“For help us,” Maria replied at which he blushed deeply and smiled awkwardly.

 

He wanted to shrug, to say, 'it's nothing' but he couldn't. They had been on the ship for two weeks now, and he wanted them to stay forever.

 

Suddenly he realised that when they reached Malta, he would probably never see them again, never see Maria again.

 

His heart ached and sank to the pit of his stomach, and all he could do was smile weakly and gently squeeze her hand.

 

Katarina watched, a sad smile spreading across her lips because she could see that these two really belonged together.

 

Her thoughts wandered back to the Meer Koenigin and to Hugo.

 

Kapitan Meadows had said that everyone had been accounted for. She knew that the other nurses had been safe aboard the lifeboats but what did 'accounted for' mean? Had they found corpses amongst the survivors or were they all safe? She couldn't tell whether Hugo had been rescued or whether he had drowned.

 

She was dragged from her thoughts by the metallic thud of the sick bay door opening.

 

“You called, Sir?”

 

“Ah, Andrews, Yes I did.”

 

The Surgeon dragged his hand quickly from Maria's.

 

“I need you to explain to Maria and Katarina that we are heading for Malta and that we should arrive the day after tomorrow, the Twenty-third.”

 

Andrews relayed the information to them but didn't stop at 'Twenty-third'.

 

Still in German he said,

 

“The Captain asked me to let you know that the Red Cross have now been informed of your whereabouts and will pass that information to your parents.”

 

Simon was bemused. He didn't speak enough German to know what Andrews had just said, but he could tell it was something important when both the young women jumped up and threw their arms around Andrews' neck, thanking him over and over.

 

“Steady on, now,” Andrews laughed, taken completely by surprise.

 

They let go and, still smiling, he turned to his superior officer.

 

“Sorry, Sir,” he said, somewhat embarrassed. “I took the liberty of telling them that the Red Cross have been informed that they are alive.”

 

He paused for a moment's thought then added,

 

“I had to tell them, Sir. I hope you don't mind.”

 

Simon smiled happily.

 

“No, that's fine, Andrews. I am just happy that they have a little good news at last.”

 

There was a moment of silence as they all hesitated, wondering who should speak next.

 

It was Simon whose mouth opened first, his intention to ask Andrews to explain to them what had been planned when they got to Malta but before he could utter a single word, the peace was shattered by the urgent ringing of an alarm bell.

 

“D'you hear there? All hands to action stations! All hands to action stations!”

 

The sound of the bell was ear shattering, and the Surgeon turned to Andrews.

 

“Stay here and look after them!” he said urgently before running out through the doorway.

 

“But, Sir! I...” Andrews called after him, but his words fell on deaf ears, the Surgeon was gone.

 

He sighed with resignation and pulled the heavy, steel door closed and latched it.

 

No-one spoke, the still clanging alarm bell made any kind of conversation difficult, but they didn't have to wait long before the reason for the alarm became apparent.

 

Above them, the dull thud of gunfire began.

 

Pom-pom-pom-pom... regular and rapid.

 

Very faintly at first, almost lost in the thudding gun fire but gradually increasing in volume, Maria could hear the scream of a siren and then the ship seemed to rock as something exploded in the sea alongside it.

 

She could tell from the sounds around her that with the engines running at full speed, the ship was turning violently.

 

Andrews looked nervous and kept looking up at the ceiling.

 

“Stukas!” he shouted, seeing the women looking at him.

 

They frowned, and Katarina yelled back,

 

“Stukas? Was ist Stukas? ”

 

“Bomber,” he replied, “ Deutsche Bomber!”

 

As he spoke, there was another explosion, nearer this time and then a different sound, tearing, and screeching of metal as one of the bombs scored a direct hit on the Lakhota!

 

The incessant pom-pom-pom continued unabated but so did the screaming of the dive bombers and the whistling of falling bombs.

 

Katarina and Maria sat helpless, suddenly afraid that they were going to end up in the same situation from which this very ship had rescued them.

 

Katarina began to tremble, convinced that she would not survive a second time.

 

She grabbed Maria's hand and held it tightly.

 

The steel door swung open once again. The surgeon had returned but now he was wearing a steel helmet.

 

He was followed by two men, both wearing similar helmets but also white armbands, each with a red cross.

 

“Thank you, Andrews,” the surgeon said. “You can report to your station now.”

 

Andrews didn't hesitate but jumped up and headed for the door.

 

Before he passed through, however, he stopped and looked back.

 

“Viele Gluck!” he said to the women, smiled and then disappeared.

 

“What'd 'e just say?” one of the medical orderlies asked no-one in particular.

 

“Good luck,” the Surgeon answered but as soon as the words left his mouth, another crash and more tearing and screeching and now they could hear men shouting.

 

Although they couldn't understand the words, the urgency was apparent to the two frightened young nurses.

 

A third crash and the ship shuddered violently, and Maria was thrown from her chair against her friend, causing the two of them to land heavily on the steel floor.

 

As they lay there, the acrid smell of cordite and fire smoke filled their lungs.

 

“Oh Lord, please. Not again!” Maria prayed aloud.

 

 

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