H.M.S. Lakhota, March 22nd, 1941.
Maria screamed loudly, a long drawn out wail of a scream.
“Nein, Nein...” she repeated over and over as she cradled her closest friend in her arms.
Tears dripped from her eyes and splashed onto Katarina's motionless face, and she trembled uncontrollably.
After the shortest hesitation, Simon drew Maria's hands away against her protest, scooped Katarina's lifeless body into his arms and carried her to the table.
“Come on,” he said to her, trying to be as sensitive as he could but also to instill some urgency. “She needs us to be calm if we are to save her.”
Maria stared at him.
“She... she is...”
Maria couldn't finish the words; her mind was numb with grief.
“No,” he said quickly, “She is still alive, but we must work quickly if we are to keep her that way!”
She pushed herself up and went to her friend's side.
Simon was right; there was still blood, dark red and thick pulsing from the wound around the knife blade which remained deeply embedded in Katarina's stomach.
“I have to remove it,” Simon told her. “Hold the wadding tightly around the blade as I withdraw it and then we can see what damage it has done.”
Maria nodded tentatively, not understanding his words, but his meaning was perfectly clear.
Her hands were shaking like never before. She had done such things so many times but always with the detachment of the patient being a stranger. Now she was working to save the life of the only person she had ever cared deeply for outside of her own family, someone who was so like her that she was almost an extension of her own personality.
She nodded, eagerly this time and as the surgeon slowly withdrew the hard steel from the soft, pliant tissue, he watched carefully, searching for evidence of arterial damage until it was drawn completely clear.
The deep red blood continued to pulse steadily from the puncture which gave Maria renewed hope as it was a sign that Katarina's heart was still trying to pump this precious fluid around her body.
“It is good,” Simon told as he examined the lesion. “It is not gushing, so the blade has missed any major arteries or veins.”
He probed the wound carefully with his finger, trying to feel for the place from where the blood may be escaping.
“Forceps, Maria, please,” he asked, holding out his hand.
She didn't understand so held out the stainless steel tray for him to choose.
Her hands were shaking so much that the instruments it contained rattled against each other.
He allowed time for the briefest of smiles before picking up what appeared to the untrained eye to be a pair of flattened scissors.
Carefully dousing them in alcohol, he inserted the tip into the wound and very slowly moved them around as though trying to catch something with them.
After several seconds of probing and searching he suddenly pressed them together with a click and lay them carefully upon Katarina's exposed stomach.
He didn't look at Maria but held out his hand and said,
This time, she knew exactly what he needed and placed another pair of forceps in his upturned hand which he also doused in alcohol and proceeded to repeat the search.
Once more, after a few seconds of prodding and pulling at her wound with his finger, he snapped the handles closed and began to wipe away the huge stain of blood which had spread across her stomach.
Maria watched intently, staring at the surgeon's hands as he worked.
She trusted him implicitly and believed without a doubt that if anyone were going to save her friend's life, he would.
Very carefully, the surgeon began to press around the open wound, searching and watching until he stood up straight and took a deep breath.
He looked at Maria and smiled. He didn't speak but gave just a little nod to confirm that he thought she would be all right.
Maria felt so sick now. She was no stranger to watching and assisting surgery, and she was fully aware that although Simon had located and clamped the ends of the severed vein he now had to repair the damage and that was just as uncertain. What he had done so far was just the beginning.
The sudden commotion that had erupted when Maria screamed had brought sailors running from outside the sickbay and whilst Simon and Maria worked to save Katarina, the recumbent form that the surgeon had knocked down with a single blow, began to stir.
Able Seaman Geoffrey 'Nobby' Clarke groaned and rubbed his painful jaw.
He looked around, and his eyes fell upon the figures working feverishly at the examination table. In that moment he remembered what he had done and panicked, trying to get to his feet.
For some reason, he found himself unable to move.
“I ought to throttle you right here, Clarke!” a familiar voice hissed.
Clarke looked up and saw that the reason he couldn't get up was the presence of another sailor's foot in the middle of his chest.
“If I 'ad me other arm, so 'elp me I would!”
The sailor, who had been one of the first casualties to be brought in was now standing beside him, leaning on a bunk for support whilst hoping that the pressure of his foot on Clarke's chest would prevent him from doing further damage.
“I din't do on purpose!” Clarke whined, “It were a' accident, 'onest it were.”
“Accident my arse,” came the venomous reply, “You came in 'ere full of 'atred. That girl layin' on the table 'as saved more lives than you can ever imagine.”
Clarke said nothing. His head was spinning with fear now, and he looked around for a means of escape.
Placing his hands around the ankle of the man holding him down he was about to push him off when he heard a click beside his head.
“Go on, Clarke, give me an excuse!”
He turned his head and found himself looking at the end of the barrel of a Webley Revolver, and he knew it was over.
“I din't mean to stab 'er, she just appeared. I was just wantin' to frighten 'em, not 'urt 'em.”
With a sudden push of his foot on the middle of Clark's chest, the injured sailor cursed at his wretched colleague.
“If she dies I'll watch you 'ang!”
The adrenaline slowly wearing off, he relaxed, letting out a groan before removing his foot and allowing Clarke to stand whilst the officer holding him at gunpoint pushed him towards the door.
All this went totally unnoticed to Simon and Maria. Their complete attention was on Katarina who remained motionless throughout.
Maria was now in full control of herself, and the two of them worked as one with the nurse pre-empting the Surgeon's needs and having everything he needed ready for him as he required it.
They worked tirelessly until the the final suture was tied and the blood cleaned from Katarina's pale flesh.
Simon stood back and looked at Maria.
“We can do no more but wait,” he said. “You should sleep, you look exhausted.
She was so tired that her brain wouldn't work well enough to translate his words, but it didn't matter.
Gestures were enough, and she stepped to him and took his bloody hand in hers.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her eyes once again moist with tears.
He stepped towards her and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her to his chest.
This time, she didn't pull away but put her head against him and sobbed quietly.
Simon's heart was breaking seeing her so distressed, and he prayed silently that her friend would come around, but he knew that this was still far from certain and he was sure that Maria knew it too.
Although he had found the damaged veins and repaired them, he had been unable to tell whether the blade had damaged Katarina's intestines. The slightest puncture would result in infection, greatly reducing her chances of making a recovery.
All they could do now was wait.
With the assistance of his orderlies. Simon carefully lifted Katarina's inert body and placed it on the bunk which hitherto had been occupied by the sailor who had lost his arm.
Although weak and with blood soaking through the dressing on what remained of his arm, he refused point blank to return to the bunk, insisting that he would be all right on the floor.
In the end, the orderlies found a stretcher which would be somewhat better than the cold steel deck, but first Maria insisted that she be allowed to redress his stump.
This time, the surgeon was adamant.
“No, you need to sleep... Du musst Schlafen,” he said gently.
Maria shook her head and indicated the recumbent form of her friend.
“Nein, not to sleep.”
Simon was too tired himself to argue with her but went over to his desk and dragged his chair around and placed it beside the bunk.
“At least you can be comfortable in that,” he said.
Maria kissed his cheek.
“Danke,” she said quietly and smiled. “You are good man.”
A sudden cough behind them startled them they both looked round. Captain Meadows smiled grimly.
“Sir. I didn't hear you come in.”
Simon made a half-hearted attempt to salute his commander, but the Captain stopped with a shake of his head.
“That's all right, Simon, relax. I have heard about what has been going on down here. You must be exhausted.”
He looked at Maria as he spoke and added,
“Both of you.”
The surgeon nodded but said nothing, allowing Captain Meadows to continue.
The Captain moved over to the bunk and looked down at the young woman lying comatose thereon.
“How is she?”
Simon took a deep breath.
“Hard to say, Sir. I...” he glanced at Maria. “We have done all we can. Her blood pressure is low, but she is breathing well and has a good pulse. She is not out of the woods yet, though.”
Captain Meadows paused.
“I see,” he said, eventually. “You are aware of how badly damaged the ship is, Simon?”
“I image that we are in a bad way, considering the angle of the deck, Sir.”
“A bad way I would be happy with,” the Captain replied. “Several compartments are flooded, both the forward turrets are out of action along with the torpedo tubes and the mast and rangefinder are gone completely. We are taking on water, but the pumps are coping, just.”
Simon listened intently as Captain Meadows continued to speak.
“We are heading directly for Gibraltar but we can barely make ten knots, with a little luck may just get there without any further trouble.”
The Captain fell silent, once again lost in his own thoughts before he looked at Maria and then back at the surgeon.
“When we dock, I shall have all the casualties put ashore for return to England. There is a hospital ship there, the Chantilly, which is due to leave in the next few days. If we get there in time, I will try and get them on board.”
“And these two?” he asked.
“Hmm, I don't know, if I am honest. If they go to England, they will be interned. Let's wait and see.”
The two men fell silent, and both looked at Katarina's pale and motionless figure, her breathing was shallow but regular.
“Get some rest, Simon,” Captain Meadows said eventually. “You look about done in.”
“I am,” he agreed. “I can't leave Maria, though, not after what happened here.”
“Don't you worry about that. I have ordered a sentry to remain here. No-one will enter without the permission of the officer of the watch.”
Maria looked across at the clock on the bulkhead. It showed almost ten O'Clock. Some six hours had passed since Clarke's attack which meant she had only had one hour of sleep since she had woken the day before. She imagined from the expressions of the two officers that they were talking of important matters of which she understood very little.
Odd words like Hospital Ship, England and Gibraltar she had picked out, but what that meant for her and Katarina she could not work out.
Finally, Captain Meadows turned to her.
“Good day, Matron Kaufmann,” he said. “I am sorry about your friend.”
There was more, but Maria was beginning to feel a little light headed, and sick and her vision began to blur. She tried desperately to fight it, and when Captain Meadows saluted her, she tried to draw herself upright.
“Thank you, Herr Kapitan...” she began, but her legs felt as though they were made from jelly and would no longer hold her weight.
She vaguely heard the surgeon's voice call her name as though from a distance. The air was so hot that she could hardly breathe and her ears had begun to hiss so loudly that she could barely hear anything else.
For a moment she closed her eyes.
It wasn't long before the feeling passed and she opened her eyes but, for a moment was confused as to where she was. She looked around and slowly began to realise that she was in Simon's chair where he had placed it earlier beside Katarina's cot.
She sat up suddenly, and the blanket which had been draped over her fell to the floor.
Gradually her memory of what happened came back to her. She realised that she must have passed out from sheer exhaustion.
There was no sign of Simon, but his orderlies were busy with the patients.
She looked again at the clock and was astounded to see that she had been asleep for almost seven hours!
For a short time, she allowed herself to relax back into the chair. Because of the unnatural position in which she had slept, every muscle in her body screamed with pain when she tried to move, but it didn't take long before she was able to stretch and then stand up. The first thing she did was to check on Katarina.
She was disappointed that nothing seemed to have changed. She was still laying just as she had left her, but the most important thing was that she was still breathing easily and her pulse was strong.
“They've been looking after her while you slept.”
Maria spun round, wondering who was speaking to her. It was the sailor who had lost his arm, laying on the makeshift bunk behind her.
“What? ” she said, trying to focus her mind.
“The Orderlies. They have been checking her carefully every few minutes.”
“I sorry, I do not...”
The sailor sighed.
“No, I'm sorry, I forgot. Your English...”
“Is not good,” she smiled as she ended the sentence he had begun. “Nein.”
The sailor continued anyway.
“Your, erm, colleague...”
Maria looked back at her friend,
“Yes, She is being very well looked after...”
The sailor's words trailed off. He didn't know any German at all and Maria's puzzled look was very frustrating.
“Ah, you are awake.”
“Oh Simon, yes, I... I do not...” Maria stumbled over the sentence. Her confusion over what happened and limited English made it difficult for her to really know how to reply.
“You fainted,” the surgeon smiled.
“Fainted?” she said, her brow wrinkled with confusion, “What is 'Fainted'?”
“Oh, erm, fainted is... erm.”
Not knowing the word, the surgeon made an attempt to act it out in the way that one would in the game 'Charades' and hoped she would understand and explained how tired she was.
“Du warst sehr Müde,” he said slowly.
She smiled, and her stomach suddenly rumbled so loudly she was sure that the whole ship could hear it.
Simon's lips stretched into a wide grin.
“Hungry?” he asked.
Maria nodded, blushing a little and lowered her head in embarrassment.
“I have some sandwiches ready for you, come on.”
Maria didn't move.
“Oh, no, Simon, I...” she looked at her friend still laying peacefully, “I cannot.”
He didn't argue with her but smiled.
All right,” he said gently, “ I will bring them to you.”
Maria didn't think about what she would do next, it was pure instinct that made her pick up Katarina's wrist and check her pulse, the same thing she had done for so many patients over so much of her life.
Her pulse was weak still, and her arm felt warm, too warm.
Maria then felt her forehead. That too felt warmer than it should have.
Now she was worried as a high temperature indicated infection and an infection could kill her.
Quickly, Maria pulled back the sheet that was covering her and checked the dressing. To her relief it was clean, and no further bleeding had occurred, so she pulled the sheet back up to her friend's shoulders.
The surgeon appeared just then with a plate of sandwiches and a mug of steaming tea.
Maria grabbed his arm, causing the tea to slop over the edge of the cup.
“Simon! She is...”
“Hey, hey, It's all right, Maria. We are watching her.”
Maria slumped down into the chair once more. Her heart was still so heavy, and the thought that Katarina's life was still hanging in the balance made her stomach churn.
The surgeon offered her the plate, but she shook her head sadly, no longer hungry.
“You must eat, Maria. Please, for me?”
Again, she shook her head but gratefully took the mug of tea and sipped it. She still hated tea but was learning to tolerate it although she swore that should she ever return home she would never drink another drop of it. It was warm and sweet, though, and her mouth was so dry.
For the surgeon, seeing this beautiful young woman so sad and broken made him feel utterly useless. Over the days they had been on board, he and Maria had developed a bond or, at least he had. He knew that someday soon they would part, and he would deal with that when the time came but now, he stood before her, looking down and saw a lost and frightened young woman. For once he had no idea what to say.
In the end, he crouched in front of her and tried to tell her what they had done to look after her friend.
“She has morphine, and the orderlies have been keeping a close eye on her. I will not let her go without a fight, Maria. I promise you that.”
Maria tried to smile, but her lips just wouldn't work that way. She didn't understand all his words, but she knew what he was trying to tell her. Simon was the most caring man she had ever met, and when they reached Gibraltar, she knew that leaving him behind would not be so easy now.
She looked up with red-rimmed eyes.
“You can stay... ein minuten?” she asked quietly, pleading almost, hoping that he would agree.
For a moment, all the things that he needed to do passed through his head. Because of the condition of the Lakhota and the losses from the crew, he had so much to do, but as soon as his eyes met hers, he no longer had a choice. He had to give her a little of his time.
“All right,” he smiled. “Ein paar minuten.”