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The Nurses. Chapter 39

“You don't understand, I know but thank you. You are Angels.”

H.M.S. Lakhota, March 21st, 1941.

 

The one thing that gave everyone in the sickbay hope was the continuous thudding of the anti-aircraft guns, so long as they were firing, all was not lost.

As Simon helped the two women to their feet, the door swung open, and two sailors carrying another on a stretcher entered the bay.

“Over there!” Simon pointed to the padded steel examination table.

Without a second thought, both Maria and Katarina rushed over to help, but the two medical orderlies grabbed them, stopping them.

“Leave them, let them help!” Simon shouted.

At first, the two men frowned but continued to maintain their grip.

The surgeon glared at them.

“I said leave them!” he shouted.

Very slowly, the two men released their grip.

“Get out there and tend to the wounded!” he ordered, and after a short hesitation the two orderlies slunk away muttering under their breath.

The casualty on the table had flash burns and shrapnel wounds and whilst they assisted the Surgeon several more explosions rocked the ship, one seeming more violent than the others which caused it to lurch over before returning upright again.

It wasn't long before another stretcher casualty was brought in and then another.

The victims were badly wounded, one having lost an arm. The other was totally unrecognisable the side of his face having been torn away by flying steel fragments.

There was no time to waste and Katarina and Maria, using their years of experience, each attended a casualty very quickly taking steps to stem the bleeding and prevent further deterioration until the surgeon could get to each of them.

As the attack went on, more and more casualties were brought in. The two women set up a Triage so they could assess the most serious of cases and present them to the Surgeon who was working flat out to save them.

They could quickly dress the less severe wounds and those more serious were passed on to the surgeon.

 

The air raid seemed to go on forever but in reality lasted no more than a few minutes and the bombing had been reasonably accurate. HMS Lakhota was severely damaged.

Although Maria and Katarina themselves had no knowledge of how many men served on her, of the complement of almost two hundred sailors and officers, some fifty had been wounded, ten of which had injuries so severe that no matter how hard they tried they had been unable to save them.

 

Hour after hour, long after the attack had been repulsed, they worked tirelessly, moving from man to man, helping the surgeon with the more difficult cases and attending to blood-soaked dressings.

It was well into the night before any of them could relax and actually sit down for a few minutes, their aprons soaked with blood.

Simon looked at the two of them with great admiration. Not once did he have to ask for anything from them because they knew exactly what was needed. Their professionalism and care shone through like a beacon of sanity throughout the apparent chaos that was the sick bay.

A few minutes was all that Katarina and Maria allowed themselves.

They ate a little food which had been brought from the galley and drank tea, more because it was the only warm liquid available to them, and then they were back on their feet returning to the task of monitoring those few who were still in the sickbay, those who were far from certain to survive the night.

The two of them would not rest until all their patients were stable.

 

Katarina approached the man whose face had been so badly damaged that the surgeon had struggled to stabilise him due to the damage to the left side of his skull. His cheekbone and eye socket were all but destroyed along with his left eye.

She took his wrist and holding two fingers against the soft tissue, searched for a pulse.

She struggled to find one and when she did she was alarmed to find it very weak and irregular.

Whilst she counted the pulses under her fingertips, the man gently turned his hand and took hold of hers.

“Danke,” he whispered, barely audible through the thick gauze that covered his entire head.

Katarina froze.

“Viele gluck.”

The unfortunate sailor's words were almost lost, but Katarina gently squeezed his hand.

“Andrews?” she said quietly.

There was no reply and his hand relaxed and slipped away from hers.

“Simon! Simon! Schnell, Komm her!!” she called, trying not to disturb the other patients.

The surgeon rushed over to her side, closely followed by Maria, and he placed his stethoscope to Andrews' chest, moving it a little to try to find evidence of a heartbeat.

There was none.

He shook his head sadly, and Katarina looked directly at him.

“Was Andrews?” she asked sadly, and Simon nodded slowly.

“How did...?” he began to ask her, but she didn't let him finish.

“He say 'Thank you' und 'Good luck'... in Deutsche,” she whispered.

“Verdammt dieser Krieg!” Maria hissed sharply, striking the edge of Andrews cot with her tightly clenched fist. “Verdammt, verdammt, verdammt!”

Simon lifted his arm to put it around her and reassure, but she quickly sidestepped, out of his reach.

“Nein!” she shook her head, “Nein! Ich werde dich auch verlieren!”

Simon looked at her, his heart heavy seeing her so distressed, her hands by her sides clenched tightly, but he understood her words only too clearly, she was afraid of losing him too.

It was Katarina who comforted her instead, placing her arms around her and holding her tightly.

“Don't push him away, Maria,” she whispered.

Maria didn't answer, but when they finally parted, she looked at the surgeon and smiled.

“Es tut mir leid,” she said, stepped towards him and took his hand, holding it before her for a moment.

She wanted to tell him how sorry she was, that she was afraid, only she didn't know how. Instead, she repeated that she was sorry and turned away to check the next patient.

Simon turned to Katarina who smiled sadly and shrugged her shoulders whilst the surgeon pulled the sheet up over Andrews ruined lifeless face.

 

At the next cot, the man there was lying quietly as Maria checked him.

Satisfied, she released his wrist and returned it gently to his side so to not disturb him. Regardless of her own feelings of despair, her patients would always be her priority.

As she moved on, he called quietly after her.

“Sister.”

Maria turned back.

“When you came aboard,” he began, “We thought you would both be prisoners of war and some of the crew resent that you are not.”

He stopped, wincing with pain and his breathing difficult.

She listened carefully, but the little English she had learned didn't help her. She touched her patient's shoulder with the tips of her fingers.

“Shh...” she whispered, “Rest now.”

The young man rolled his head side to side.

“You two...” he coughed a little and swallowed. “You two are the most caring people I have ever seen. Don't let this war... No, don't let anything change you.”

Maria smiled, nodded and once again, said,

“Please, must rest.”

The unfortunate sailor sighed and closed his eyes.

“You don't understand, I know but thank you. You are Angels.”

Although the words were alien to her, somehow she knew what the man was trying to say, and she patted his shoulder once again and smiled.

“Danke,” she replied and then, “Thank you.”

 

Maria looked at the clock on the bulkhead and saw that it was almost three the next morning.

Finally satisfied that there was nothing more they could do, she and Katarina looked for somewhere they could rest awhile and catch a little sleep.

The Surgeon had fallen asleep at his desk, the log book serving as a thin pillow and their bunks were now occupied by sick men.

Katarina thought as she scanned the bay, that the floor seemed to no longer be level. It appeared to be sloping down towards the outside wall.

After a moment, she dismissed it as being a figment of her excessively tired imagination and joined Maria on a pile of blankets.

“I should wake Simon so he can go to bed,” she said quietly and turned towards his desk, but Maria stayed her arm.

“No,” she whispered, “Let him sleep. He is exhausted.”

They made themselves as comfortable as they could and within no time at all had drifted off into a deep sleep.

 

Maria began to dream.

It was a troubled dream in which she could hear a voice.

“Bleedin' Jerries...”

It was a man's voice, low and menacing.

“Where are yer, bleedin' German bitches!” it hissed.

She opened her eyes to make the dream go away, but it didn't. The voice continued in the same menacing tone.

“I'll find yer, yer bastards!”

Getting slowly and unsteadily to her feet, Maria peered over the now clean operating table and saw the dim figure of a sailor peering around, searching.

Suddenly he spotted her and walked slowly towards her spitting words vehemently at her.

She had no idea what he was saying, understanding only 'Germans' and 'Jerries.'

She stood silently, watching him advance towards her and gasped when she realised that in his hand he was holding a long pointed knife, holding it out in front of himself, pointing it towards her.

As her tired eyes focussed upon the intruder, she recognised him as the sailor who had spat in her face, and suddenly she was afraid!

 

Maria took a few steps sideways, hoping that he would not see Katarina laying on the blankets, blissfully unaware of what was happening.

“There y'are,” he said, stopping and staring at her.

The sick bay was dimly lit, but she could clearly see the hatred etched in his soot-blackened features.

“I should've shoved the two of yer overboard when I 'ad the chance.”

Maria took another step or two sideways as he approached, sliding along the wall until she was stopped by a steel rib.

For a split second, she remembered the Frenchman with the gun, but this was different. This time there would be no soldiers to protect her and this time she was the focus of this man's hatred!

 

Maria stared fearfully back at him, desperately trying to remain calm.

“I not your enemy,” she said, trying desperately to remember the English words she needed. The last time she had seen this man her German greeting had triggered his venomous attack and now since he was holding a vicious looking weapon she didn't want the same reaction.

“I not hurt you,” she tried again, speaking as calmly as she could and painfully aware that her less than basic knowledge of English was not helping.

“Nah, maybe not but if yer could yer would. Just like yer Luftwaffe pals did!”

The sailor was rocking back and forth, trying to stay upright on the tilting deck.

“Look around yer,” he continued. “Look at what yer mates 'ave done an' it's only by God's grace that we're not at the bottom of the sea right now an the way she's listin' it could still 'appen!”

None of what he said made any sense to Maria. Not only was her English extremely limited but his accent and the fact that he was hissing and spitting the words out made most of them intelligible to her but she understood his meaning quite clearly.

“I am Nurse, I not kill,” she said gently. “I help to live.”

The angry sailor snorted his contempt.

“'elp Jerries live, maybe.”

Maria took a breath, suppressing her fear and trying to control the tremor in her voice whilst carefully forming the words in her mind before speaking.

She shook her head.

“No, help all to live. German, yes and English.”

She paused.

“Franzosisch und Juden auch.”

She lapsed into her native tongue as she didn't know the English words, 'French' and 'Jew.'

The disgruntled sailor stepped closer, holding the knife a little higher and she pressed herself against the steel of the ships hull.

“Shut that filthy language up, yer stinkin' Kraut!” he hissed, loudly this time.

“Nobby! What the hell are you doing?”

The voice came from one of the bunks that separated her from her assailant.

“Shut up, Harris!” he spat, “Mind yer own business... unless yer a Jerry lover!”

“Don't be bloody stupid, Nobby!” the voice replied, “I ain't no Jerry lover, you know that but they're ain't the enemy either. Leave them alone.”

The voice coughed and groaned in pain and Maria stepped towards him, suddenly forgetting her own precarious position. She recognised the voice as that of the sailor who had tried to warn her earlier.

Nobby held the knife out at arm's length in front of him.

“Get away from 'im!” he growled, “You ain't touching 'im!”

Maria stepped back against the wall.

“Nobby...” Harris coughed again and again. “Nobby, let her alone, for pity's sake!”

As he spoke he struggled for breath, the injuries to his chest prevented him from saying much and once more, Maria stepped towards him.

“Move again an' I'll slit yer wide open!” Nobby said, his voice so menacing that Maria was in no doubt whatsoever that he was totally sincere as to his intent.

Once more she pressed back against the wall.

“I need help him,” she said urgently.

“'elp 'im?” Nobby sneered. “Finish 'im off more like!”

Maria didn't dare look down at Katarina who was still sleeping soundly. She didn't want to draw his attention to her so instead glanced over his shoulder to the surgeon's desk at the far side of the sickbay.

Simon, too was as she had last seen him with his head on his log book pillow.

She didn't dare to shout in case the sudden sound caused this unhinged sailor to carry out his threat which he could easily do in the time it would take for the surgeon to reach her.

Harris coughed again and tried to sit up but the effort was too much and with an almost inaudible rattling gasp of pain, fell back, his breathing erratic and noisy.

“You kill him!” Maria tried desperately to make this fool understand what he was doing, but his hatred blinded him to everything but the revenge for his fallen comrades.

“Nobby... If... if you...” cough, “If... you...” cough, cough. “If you... 'arm 'er... I, I will see... will see that you... you 'ang...”

Maria looked again at Harris and could see a thin line of blood trickle from his lips as he struggled to speak.

“Harris, no. Not to talk!”

She felt so inadequate that she couldn't say more. She wanted him to lay still and not aggravate the injuries that he had received. He had been stable, and the injuries to his chest had not been life-threatening, but if she couldn't stop him trying to get up that could easily change.

His lungs had been damaged by the sudden pressure change when one of the bombs had exploded nearby. He had suffered several lacerations from flying debris. Nothing too serious but if he didn't remain calm he could easily aggravate the internal damage making it far worse that it had originally been.

In front of her, 'Nobby' was agitated, waving the knife about and pointing it directly at her.

“What is wrong with you, Harris?” he hissed. “Good men were killed by 'er lot and you yerself was injured. “What are yer protectin' 'er for?”

“She ain't a Nazi, Nobby,” Harris replied slowly, “She... she ain't 'urt nobody.”

“Really? What about Andrews then, eh? Di'n't do much fer 'im did she!”

“She... she ain't God, Nobby. And... Andrews was bad.”

Maria watched every move that this tormented man before her made. She actually felt quite sorry for him because she understood how he must be feeling. She wanted to reach out to him, to reassure him but she couldn't. Her lack of English made it impossible. Her accent already made him angry, and if she tried to speak her thoughts to him they would only be in German, and that could quite easily tip him over this very fine edge which seemed to be holding him back.

He stood silently, the knife wavering before him as though he were struggling with some internal demons.

“No, she ain't God, Harris,” he suddenly whispered as he raised his head and looked directly into her face. “She ain't God at all. She's a Nazi bitch!”

As the final word spat contemptuously from his mouth, he stepped forward and jabbed the knife suddenly towards her.

Maria screamed aloud as the razor sharp steel found it's mark slicing easily through layers of thick fabric and into the softly yielding flesh beneath.

There was a moment of complete silence as her attacker stood staring in horror at what he had done. This wasn't what he wanted, not to kill her! He wanted to frighten her, to punish her for what her countrymen had done to his ship and her crew but he didn't want to kill her!

As Maria slid slowly down the wall, her face contorted with fear and astonishment, he turned on his heel and fled... or would have done had the hammer blow of the surgeons fist not dropped him instantly to the steel deck.

She looked down in horror at the protruding knife and the dark red stain spreading quickly out around it.

She screamed again.

“Simon! Simon! Hilf mir, Schnell!”

The surgeon dropped to his knees beside her in a state of shock.

Maria felt no physical pain as the knife blade had found its target. It was the sudden shock of him lunging forward that frightened her.

That and the sudden appearance of her closest friend who, as the deranged sailor had pushed the blade towards her, had suddenly jumped to her feet and thrown herself between them.

Maria's assailant had not intended to stab her, just to frighten her but the sudden appearance of the other nurse had shortened the distance, and the knife had plunged deep into Katarina's stomach!

Maria cradled her friend in her arms, the tears streaming down her face as the surgeon torn open her dress and examined the wound.

“We must get her onto the table!” he said quickly moving around so that he could lift her but as he was about to slide his arms beneath her Katarina looked up at her friend.

“I... I told you I would repay you,” she said, the words coming slowly and painfully as she tried to smile.

For a second, her eyelids flickered and then slowly closed and with a sigh she became still.

 

 

 

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