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The Nurses. Chapter 41

She took up her friend's wrist and searched for a pulse. Oh my Lord, she couldn't find it!

H.M.S. Lakhota, March 23rd, 1941.

 

Long into the night, Maria sat beside Katarina, talking to her, checking her pulse and temperature, bathing her forehead with a cool damp cloth and generally praying and encouraging her to pull through.

Occasionally she would check on the other patients, some of whom gave her words of support, and to others, she would offer a few words of her own, but otherwise she remained at her friend's side.

The surgeon brought her more sandwiches and tea but, as before, they remained uneaten.

He begged her to eat something, to keep her strength but she refused, sipping only at the tea.

 

The ailing ship continued it's agonisingly slow journey towards Gibraltar, the deck remaining at an angle which made Maria feel a little sick, but so far, no further attacks had materialised.

In the dim light, she could see the clock on the bulkhead. It was past midnight.

Taking Katarina's hand, she relaxed in the chair and closed her eyes.

As though from afar, she dreamed she heard a voice calling her name. It was weak and distant, but it was a familiar voice.

“Maria...”

“I am with you, Katarina,” she said in her dream.

She opened her eyes again and looked at the clock. It had barely moved.

She suddenly realised that the voice wasn't a dream at all as she hadn't been asleep!

She felt Katarina's hand grip her own, albeit weakly and she turned to look at her friend.

Katarina was laying just as still as she had been, but she had turned her head on the pillow to look at Maria.

Her eyes were open, albeit partially and those icy blue Irises had their old twinkle in them.

“Katarina!”

Maria couldn't say anymore as she got to her feet because her throat had a lump the size of an apple and her mouth had suddenly dried out. Her eyes filled immediately, and the tears dripped from her chin.

Biting her lip, she lifted her friend's hand and pressed it against her cheek, sobbing gently.

“I thought I had lost you,” she whispered when she was able.

“It is not my time yet, Maria,” Katarina replied slowly, her voice dry and cracked. “We have too much to do for me to die yet. How long have I been asleep?”

“Almost twenty hours,” Maria smiled.

“Did he hurt you?”

“Did who hurt me?”

Katarina swallowed and spoke haltingly

“The... the man with the... knife.”

Maria shook her head.

“No, he didn't hurt me. You saw to that and Simon knocked him down before he could hurt anyone else.”

Katarina tried to lift her head in an attempt to say something confidentially but the effort was too much for her, and she let her head drop back onto the pillow.

“Sshhh... You must stay still, Katarina. You have to get better now.”

Maria gently wiped the back of her hand across Katarina's brow and brushed her hair away from her eyes. She was cooler now but still a little clammy.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Sick,” Katarina replied with a tiny grin, “...and sore.”

She swallowed again.

“Maria, I am so thirsty,” she said, closing her eyes.

“I will get you a little water.”

 

For a moment, Maria didn't move but stood beside the cot and looked down at her motionless friend and thought about how life would be without her.

In Katarina, she had found a soul mate, and they had developed a bond which would be almost impossible to break.

She smiled sadly and turned away to get the water.

There were a basin and tap in the sickbay, but the fresh water plumbing had been damaged in the attack so; instead she had to use the water which had been brought in a Jerry can.

She tried to lift it, but it weighed over twenty kilogrammes and was too heavy for her in her exhausted condition. All she could do was to try and tip it and hope she could hold it from falling over.

She placed the metal cup on the floor and released the cap of the can then began to tip it just a little.

Nothing! It was not enough, so she tilted it a little further until some water splashed onto the floor, missing the cup completely.

With her foot, she pushed the cup into the middle of the puddle she had created and tipped the can again.

This time the water splashed around the cup, but enough went in to half fill it which she thought would be sufficient for Katarina's needs. She couldn't allow her to drink too much until she was sure about the condition of her wound.

She tried to let the can return to its upright position without making any noise but the weight of the water slopping about inside overpowered her and it banged back with a metallic thump with caused the unlatched cap to rattle loudly.

She took a deep breath of exasperation then replaced the cap and picked up the cup.

“Are you all right, Matron?”

The voice of the orderly startled her, and she dropped the cup onto the steel deck with a loud clatter, the water splashing up her legs.

Putting her hands to her face, she stamped her foot quietly with barely disguised frustration.

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you,” the red-faced orderly apologised. “Here, let me help you.”

He immediately picked up the now empty cup and with little difficulty, drew water from the Jerrycan.

“For you?” he asked and when she shook her head, said, “Then for Matron, Langsdorf! She is awake?”

Maria nodded and went to take the cup in her shaking hand.

“No, let me take it for you, you look pretty well done in.”

She had no idea what on earth 'done in' meant, but she was too tired to protest so she let him carry the water and followed him back to Katarina.

The young nurse was exactly as Maria had left her and her heart almost stopped. Filled with dread, she took up her friend's wrist and searched for a pulse.

Oh, my Lord, she couldn't find it!

“Katarina!” she croaked, choking back more tears. “Katarina, please! Wake up!”

Katarina opened her eyes slowly.

“I am so tired, Maria,” she whispered.

The sudden relief she felt almost caused Maria's legs to give way beneath her, and the orderly took her arm.

“Sit down for a moment, Miss, I will give her the water.”

“No... No, I do it. Danke.”

She took the cup and, with still trembling hands lifted Katarina's head slightly and held the metal cup to her lips, tipping it just enough for her to take a sip.

She swallowed gratefully and, after repeating the process two or three times more, Maria gently let her head sink back onto the pillow.

Katarina closed her eyes once more.

“I am glad you are here, Maria,” she whispered.

“I always will be, my dear friend.”

The orderly stood awkwardly, just a step or two away. He didn't want to intrude, but he too was relieved that Katarina seemed to be pulling through.

Until yesterday, he, like others had grave doubts about allowing enemy personnel to be given such a free rein in the care of British sailors. Now, though, having seen how selfless they both were throughout the attack and in the aftermath then seeing how hard they had worked to save lives, he had no doubts whatsoever.

He looked at Maria once again; she looked tired. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and she was so pale.

“Ma'am, Matron Langsdorf will be all right now, I'm sure,” he said to her.

Maria nodded without looking up.

“Now you must sleep, yes?”

She sighed and nodded again. She knew he was right. Real sleep had eluded her for days now, and she felt so weak that she could not stand any longer.

Very gently, she brushed the hair from her friend's face.

“He is right, Katarina, now I can sleep,” she whispered. “I will be here right beside you.”

Katarina didn't open her eyes, but she moved her head slightly showing that she understood and Maria squeezed her hand gently and sat down in the chair alongside her.

The orderly took the blanket and draped it over her.

“Sleep well, Ma'am,” he said.

She thanked him and closed her eyes slipping almost immediately into a deep sleep.

 

By six she was awake again but those few hours sleep had brought her back to life.

The first thing she did was check Katarina.

To her surprise, her friend was wide awake and smiling.

“How do you feel?” was the first thing that came into Maria's mind, so she asked the question.

“Better than you look,” came the surprise reply.

Maria was stunned for just a moment but then burst into peels of laughter.

Katarina laughed too, but then she grimaced.

“Don't make me laugh, Maria, it hurts too much.”

The joyful sounds brought attention and moments later a familiar face appeared beside them.

Simon had a huge smile on his face and to hear Maria laugh once again made his heart soar.

Without warning, she threw her arms around his waist and held him so tightly he could hardly breathe.

“You saved her, Simon,” she said happily.

“No, I didn't save her,” he corrected as he stroked her hair, “We saved her, Sweetheart.”

When she released him, he turned to Katarina.

“We were very lucky,” he began, hoping she followed him. “The blade did no serious harm, and you should heal quickly.”

“How long to Gibraltar?” Maria asked.

It was the one question he had tried not to think about, but now he had no choice.

After a short silence, he said, “We are still maintaining ten knots so should arrive tomorrow night, erm, morgen nacht.”

Maria nodded, she didn't know whether to be happy or sad. On the one hand, Katarina would be in a hospital which would be better for her, and they would be back on dry land. On the other, well, she would have to say goodbye to Simon.

She sighed,

The surgeon said nothing. For the first time in his life, he was not looking forwards to docking.

 

Like the day before, breakfast was brought to the sick bay from the galley but, unlike the day before, Maria ate.

Simon brought another chair, just an ordinary wooden chair and sat with them.

Katarina was now able to sit up a little, and Maria helped her to eat some scrambled eggs and a little bread.

The eggs were not fresh, a kind of substitute but under the circumstances, both Maria and Katarina enjoyed them more than ever before. Eating from battered aluminium plates was as good to them as dining at the best restaurants they had ever experienced, and even the tea was like the nectar of the Gods just then.

The day passed surprisingly quickly for Maria.

As before, she gave her attention to the other patients, ensuring they were comfortable and their dressings were checked and changed as required but also returning to Katarina's side constantly to ensure her well-being. As the hours passed, so Katarina's strength gradually returned, the fever had gone, and she was able to eat and drink although not without pain.

 

That night, Maria still didn't sleep well, almost hourly she woke, troubled by recurring dreams of violence. Each time she would check on Katarina, ever fearful that she had taken a turn for the worse but each time she checked she found her sleeping peacefully.

 

The following day, Maria and the orderlies prepared the patients for transfer from the Lakhota once she docked. Medical kits were checked and double checked. Stretchers were prepared and stacked against the bulkheads and blankets were folded by each bunk, even in the Mediterranean the nights could be very cold at this time of year and, as Simon had informed them, they would be taken directly to the hospital ship, Chantilly.

 

It was late evening when, with a great exchange of shouted orders and changes in the level of rumbling from the engines as the propellers were reversed, the Lakhota finally tied up alongside the quay.

The surgeon had been in and out all day but, during the process of tying-up, he had remained in the sick bay doing final checks and preparations.

He hadn't said a great deal to Maria over the last few hours. While the clock moved agonisingly quickly towards the time that they must disembark, he had become quieter and somewhat withdrawn, even snapping occasionally at his orderlies.

Katarina had noticed and on an occasion when Maria was with her said, “You know what is wrong with him, don't you?”

Maria nodded. “Yes. When we leave his ship, we leave him... for good.”

She had been reminding herself of that moment for days now and tried so hard to remain distant, but deep down she knew she had fallen in love with him and soon it would be over. The war had brought them together, and the war would separate them.

Katarina grabbed her arm. “Maria, stay with him! Don't go back to Germany!”

Maria didn't even consider the thought. “No,” she replied sadly. “I cannot leave you behind and my parents, what about them?”

“It doesn't matter about me, Maria. I can look after myself, and you can return after the war to find your Mama and Papa.”

“Katarina, if the shoe was on the other foot if it was you who were in love, would you go?”

Katarina fell silent for a moment, and her head drooped slightly.

“No,” she whispered.

“Then you know that I will not either.”

 

About an hour passed after the ship had become still. The orderlies waited patiently for their orders, and when they finally received them, they began taking the stretchers two at a time to ambulances which were arranged along the quayside ready to take them to Chantilly several hundred metres further along.

It wasn't long before they were only three left in the bay and it was deafeningly silent.

Simon was the first to speak.

“The Captain wants to see you before you leave,” he said, unable to look at them directly.

The words had barely left his mouth when Captain Meadows appeared in the doorway.

“At ease, Simon,” he said as the surgeon jumped to his feet. “I think we can be informal for a few minutes.”

Simon relaxed as the captain removed his cap and entered.

He spoke immediately to Katarina.

“Simon has kept me informed of your progress, and I am so relieved that you are healing all right.”

“Yes. Thank you, Herr Kapitan,” she replied. “I am, erm, erm, verbesserung.”

She finished in German, unable to find the right word for 'improving.'

He turned then to the surgeon.

“I have asked for an interpreter to meet us before they leave,” he said quietly. “I want to wish them well, and I want to make sure that they understand what will happen when they leave us. I think we owe them that.”

 

They didn't wait for long in the stifling heat of the sickbay. The Captain had arranged that they would get Katarina to the waiting ambulance where they would meet the interpreter, and so Maria and Simon assisted Katarina on to the stretcher. She insisted on trying to walk to it, despite the pain of movement but neither of them would allow it.

“You know very well that if the stitches inside you at which Simon worked so very hard were to come apart, you could be in very serious danger,” Maria scolded her but with a half smile.

Katarina conceded then and allowed them to support her.

With an orderly at each end of her stretcher, the small group made their way along the corridor until Maria saw an open door ahead which was the exit out onto the deck.

The fresh night air was sweet, and Maria took a deep breath and filled her lungs, but it was the first time either she or Katarina had been out of the sickbay since before the attack and what confronted her sickened her to her stomach.

The superstructure was blackened and burnt, and there were large holes everywhere that she could see. The deck ahead was littered with twisted steel and debris and looked nothing like she remembered from her walks.

When she turned around and looked towards the front of the ship, she felt physically sick. The two gun turrets that she had previously seen were recognisable only from the guns pointing out from the wreckage at crazy angles and above them, the bridge was partly missing. She also remembered that there was a steel mast behind the bridge, but it was not there now, just a jumble of twisted steel and a tangle of wires.

Smoke rose lazily from the two funnels and from a large hole in the side of the bigger of the two.

Seeing her distress, Simon put his arm around her.

“How did..., Why we not...?”

In her shock at seeing the scale of destruction, Maria struggled to ask what she was thinking, even in her own language. The fact that the ship had managed to survive at all was beyond her comprehension.

 

The small party moved on towards the gangplank which, because of the list that Lakhota had developed, was more or less level.

Almost as soon as she set foot on the dockside, Maria felt like she had lost control of her legs. She felt weak and wobbly as though the solid ground was moving and trying to make her fall.

She grabbed the surgeon's arm, and he held her tightly around her waist, holding her strongly against him.

“What is wrong with me?” she asked him, suddenly afraid that she was going about to vomit.

“It will soon pass,” he replied, smiling at her. “You have been at sea for almost a month now you must readjust to being back on solid ground.”

She frowned at him with total incomprehension.

He moved his hand in a wave-like movement.

“You, sea,” he said, swaying his body slightly. “Now no sea but you...”

He swayed again a little to try to explain how she was still compensating for the movement of the sea even though she was now on solid, motionless ground.

She nodded her understanding then and still holding onto Simon's arm, she turned and looked at the ship, shaking her head in disbelief.

Now that she was off she could see the damage to the hull too.

“You were...?”

She looked at Captain Meadows, and her voice trailed off as she pointed to what remained of the bridge structure.

He nodded grimly.

“And you live?” she whispered. “Then God sees you.”

 

Katarina, from her position on the stretcher, didn't have the same opportunity to look more closely at the damaged ship and the movement was causing her considerable pain, but she did notice the surgeon suddenly put his arm around her friend's waist. Despite her pain, she smiled to herself, but at the same time, she was sad that the blossoming romance must end. She closed her eyes and tried to shut out all the pain and destruction and think only of going home and seeing her parents again.

 

Inside the ambulance was another nurse, from the British Red Cross and from her insignia the two of them could see that she was a little more than just a nurse.

In fact, she was a senior nursing officer who also spoke German and as he had promised Captain Meadows, with her help wished both Katarina and Maria a blessed future and offered them his best wishes for a safe journey home.

The British nurse told them all that she would ensure that the two young Germans would be treated with respect and would not be expected to leave the hospital here in Gibraltar until Katarina was completely well again and fit to travel.

 

And so, the time had come for them to leave.

“I will think of you always, Simon,” Maria told the surgeon truthfully for she could not imagine finding anyone quite like him

“If it takes the rest of my life, when this war is over I shall find you,” Simon vowed quietly so that only she could hear.

Using every last ounce of willpower and strength she could, Maria turned away, head held high and climbed the steps into the ambulance.

She didn't look back just in case the surgeon might notice her tears.

 

 

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