This was the short story that I wrote just a few years ago. It was my first attempt at a real story. It was from this humble beginning that my epic tale arose. I had intended the longer tale to lead up to, and finish here. However, when I reached this point, I couldn’t end it this way and so…
I hope that you enjoy what you read and will be tempted to read more as I post. Hopefully, someday, my books will be picked up by a publisher… who knows?
The Nurses and the Surgeon
The little grey life raft bobbed up and down on the gentle swell. A tiny speck on the surface of the huge, blue ocean.
Katarina and Maria were alone and frightened.
They had been on their way to Africa to join the other nurses tending the wounded soldiers fighting against the British eighth army at Tobruk but the small freighter that had been their home since leaving Germany a week ago had been torpedoed by a British submarine and sunk.
It was dark when the ship went down and they had been separated from the rest of the survivors, now they were floating alone in the vast emptiness of the Atlantic ocean with the morning sun warming them as it climbed high above them.
They were dry now but their uniforms and hair were encrusted with salt. They had no rations and the little water they had would not last long as they huddled together in the fear of not being found.
“Katarina, Katarina,” Maria gently shook her colleague. “Aufwachen! Wake up.”
They had only met when they had been berthed together on the ship but in the week onboard they found that they got on well and enjoyed each others company. It was just as well as there had been no other women on board.
By a very odd coincidence they had been born on the same day, twenty-three years before but hundreds of miles apart. Katarina in Berlin and Maria in Munich. What fate it was that brought them together, they would never know but here they were, like twin sisters, alone and afraid.
Katarina opened her eyes and looked up at her friend.
“Maria?” She was bewildered and looked around. “So, it was real then and not a dream.”
“I am afraid it was,” Maria looked down at Katarina as she cradled her head in her lap. “Are you all right now? You swallowed a lot of water.”
“I think so,” the young nurse closed her eyes for a moment. “You saved my life. I would have drowned otherwise!”
Maria smiled and wiped the hair from her forehead.
“Yes, I think you may have but we are safe now,” she paused. “At least for now.”
Unscrewing the cap from her water bottle, Maria held it to Katarina’s lips and allowed a little water to moisten her mouth then took a little for herself.
“I am so thirsty, Maria.”
“I know, Meine Liebe,” Maria said quietly. “It is the salt but we will be all right, you’ll see.”
The sun climbed ever higher as the day wore on and the two women searched the horizon for any signs of shipping but nothing appeared and soon the sun began to get low in the sky and darkness descended on the little grey raft.
Through the long night hours, they took turns staring into the pitch blackness, the stars shining brightly above them, the moon bright and cold, sending a wavering finger across the rippling water as it reflected off the glittering swell and the air had become so cold without the sun to warm it.
…and still, no ship came.
The deep blue line of dawn creeping up from the horizon came as a blessed relief and once more they could see.
Maria went to take a mouthful of water but there was none, the canteen was empty. Her mouth had long since dried out and her lips were dry and cracked from a combination of sun and salt.
Katarina was lying in the bottom of the raft, unmoving, so she leaned forward and shook her gently.
“Are they here?” a voice as dry and cracked as Maria’s lips.
“No, Leibling, they are not.”
Katarina began to cry. There were no tears just tiny sobs of despair.
“We are going to die here aren’t we?” Katarina spoke haltingly between each quivering intake of breath.
“No we are not,” Maria tried to reassure her friend but it was hard for she didn’t believe her own words. “A ship will come soon, you will see.”
But no ship came and as the day became night again the two young women, huddled together in each other’s arms becoming so weak they closed their eyes and waited., silently, for death to take them.
“I don’t believe it, Chief, There’s two women in it!”
Maria opened her eyes slightly and with difficulty. The sun was bright and hurt her eyes but she recognised English voices, “and at least one of ‘em is still alive!”
“Well don’t just stand there with yer jaw ‘angin’ open, Get ‘em aboard!”
It was the last thing she heard and darkness descended upon her once more as all her senses left her and her eyes closed involuntarily.
The next time her eyes opened, everything was white and so bright.
“So this is heaven,” she thought, “then the priests were right, there is life after death.”
The face looking down at her, smiling and beautiful, piercing blue eyes shining with moisture, blonde hair tied back in a plait must be an angel too.
“ Katarina, you are with me here in heaven.”
“We are not in Heaven, Maria!” she laughed, choking back a tear. “We survived! This is a British warship. They found us!”
The tears welled in Maria’s eyes as she raised herself into a sitting position. Looking around her she realised she was in the ship’s sickbay.
“How long have I been asleep?” she eventually asked.
“Asleep!” laughed the young nurse. “Asleep! I thought you were dead! The surgeon says they picked us up yesterday morning and now it is after three in the afternoon. He says if they hadn’t found us when they did we would not have lived.”
Stepping forward, the young, blonde Berliner threw her arms around the neck of her Bavarian friend and they held each other tight.
Eventually, the two women separated and Katarina looked at Maria and frowned:
“The surgeon said that you were in a worse state of dehydration than I was, even though…” she paused and narrowed her eyes, “Even though I had swallowed a lot of saltwater.”
Maria said nothing but waited.
“You gave me more water didn’t you?”
Still, Maria remained silent as her friend continued,
“You were willing to give your life for me, Maria. I will never forget that and some day I will repay you!” and, once again, the two German nurses came together in an embrace that said they would be lifelong friends, sisters even… twin sisters!
Slowly, it began to dawn on Maria that, although they had been saved, it had been English voices that she had heard, enemy voices.
“Katarina!,” she whispered, “Have they hurt you?”
“No, Maria, why would they?”
“They are the enemy! Don’t you remember what we were told when we signed up as military nurses? What they said the British would do to us if we were captured?”
“Did you really believe all that?” the young woman’s eyes opened wide and she smiled.
“Didn’t you?” Maria looked surprised.
“No, of course I didn’t. They are not that different to us.”
Katarina sat on the side of the bunk and told her friend about how, as a child, she had visited England with her family and how much she liked the English people.
“You know, Maria, if they take us to England, as prisoners of war, you will see how nice it is there.”
At that moment, the big steel door swung open and an officer entered.
“Ah, good,” he said, seeing the two women together, “You have come round.”
Both women stared at him, a little afraid, despite what Katarina had just said.
The officer looked at them, puzzled and then his face brightened as it dawned on him,
“Of course, sorry, you don’t speak English!”
He looked thoughtful for a moment then said very slowly and carefully,
“Sie sprechen kein Englisch.”
Maria shook her head slowly, never taking her eyes from the Englishman.
“Kleine.” She then added, “A little. Sprechen sie Deutsch?”
The surgeon shook his head sadly,
“I am sorry,” he answered. “I don’t speak German enough to converse but maybe we will manage between us.”
He smiled, then said,
“I nearly forgot! Soup and bread! Just tomato I’m afraid.”
The two nurses looked at each other, understanding only ‘soup’.
“Ah, erm, tomaten suppe und brot?” He winced as he spoke as he was basically guessing the language as he went along.
“Danke,” they smiled and Katarina added, “Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” he answered, then continued,
“When you have finished I will bring water for you to clean up. Oh, erm, Wasser? Erm, to erm, baden? Yes?”
They smiled again,
“Right, hmm….yes, hrmph” and he turned and walked out of the sickbay, turning briefly by the door and giving a nervous wave and smile.
“You see Maria?” Katarina spoke after the door closed, “He is nice. I told you”
Maria, who had never been outside of Bavaria in her life, smiled but she still was not sure.
“All right,” she said at last, “but we must keep our senses. We are at war with them. We must stay alert.”
“Maria! We are women, nurses! Why would they want to hurt us? We are not soldiers, we have no weapons!”
“I know, but still, we must be on our guard.”
For the next few minutes, they ate in silence. Maria had not realised how hungry she was. This was the first food that had passed her lips for nearly four days and, although the medics had been giving her plenty of water while she was unconscious, her lips were cracked and sore.
Pushing her empty bowl aside and wiping her lips carefully, Katarina put her arm around Maria’s waist and laid her head upon the others shoulder.
“What do you think will happen to us?”
She didn’t really expect an answer and Maria didn’t offer one. Instead, she put her arm around Katarina’s shoulder and with the other softly stroked her matted blonde hair finally letting her own head relax sideways until it came to rest on that of her friend and closed her eyes.
It seemed but a few moments when the steel door clanged open again.
This time it was not the surgeon who walked through it but two sailors carrying a large metal tub.
They stopped dead when they saw the two young women and stared at them.
“Cor blimey,” one of them said to no-one in particular. “This is the enemy?”
A third man entered behind them. He was wearing overalls and had an oily cloth in his hand.
“Oi, give over you two,” he said sharply. “Have a little respect!”
“Sorry Chief,” the first sailor replied. “Just a bit surprised, that’s all.”
The ‘Chief’, as the sailor had called him, being the chief stoker, turned to the nurses and smiled awkwardly.
“Sorry about these two, Ladies. We have been at sea for a long time. Anyway, we’ve brought this tub for you to bathe in.” He wiped his head with the cloth he was holding, leaving an oily smear across his forehead, before continuing. “We’ll be back in a minute with some hot water.”
He turned then and hitting one of the sailors with his cloth, said,
“Come on you two, jump to it!”
Some five minutes later, the three men returned as promised. The two sailors were each carrying two large canisters. The type of canister that the two women had seen attached to vehicles at the dockside when they were boarding the ship.
Each of the sailors unfastened the caps on the canisters and poured the hot water that each contained, into the tub.
The chief had some overalls and soap which he offered them with some embarrassment, saying,
“I’ve brought you these to wear while we clean your uniforms.”
Maria and Katarina looked at each other then took the overalls.
“Dankeschon,” they spoke together, even though they had no idea what he had just said!
“You’re welcome, frow lines,” and turning away, the three left them to bathe.
“Maria, what if someone comes in while we bathe?.” Katarina was concerned but Maria had already noticed the screen in the corner and pointed to it.
“We can use that,” she answered and went and wheeled the mobile curtain-screen around the tub.
When all was ready they went behind the screen and helped each other to undress. They both still wore the starched white aprons that they had been wearing when their ship had been sunk.
After untying the bow and removing hers, Maria unclasped the enamel ‘Rotes Kreuz’ badge from her collar and armband from her left arm and began to unfasten the buttons at the front of her blue and white striped dress. As she peeled the salt-encrusted cotton from her shoulders she realised how long she had been in the sun as her head, neck and hands were quite dark against the pale white skin of her arms.
Soon they had dis-robed and they stepped into the tub of hot water together. Neither spoke but sat down together and enjoyed their first hot bath in almost a week. They had no cloths or sponges but Maria had picked up a metal jug so they could rinse their hair. She leaned back against the now warm metal of the tub and pulled gently on Katarina’s shoulders, who was, with her back to her, sitting between her legs, allowing her friend to rest against her. Katarina rested her head on Maria’s shoulder and closed her eyes and, for a moment, she was back home, in the bathroom of her family’s apartment on the Potsdamer Strasse in the heart of Berlin.
Maria was from a different setting. As she relaxed she thought of her family in the quiet Munich suburb of Pasing. They lived in a traditional style house away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. By another strange coincidence, neither Maria nor Katarina had any brothers or sisters.
Picking up the jug, Maria filled it with warm water from the tub and began to wash Katarina’s hair with the soap the chief had supplied. It was just ordinary soap but at the moment it was the best thing either of them had ever used.
As the warm water flowed over her head, washing away the salt and grime, Katarina began to feel human again and Maria’s fingers massaging her scalp felt so good she began to think this must be what heaven is really like. Once her hair was clean she again leaned back and rested her head on Maria’s shoulder only this time, Maria leant forward and kissed her mouth. It was a surprise but it felt so nice that she responded and accepted her friend’s kiss eagerly.
They were not friends now, they were together as one. Together they had stared in the face of death and survived. Nothing could separate them. Not now, not ever.
They finished bathing and the two women dried each other and put on the overalls. They were far too big and with legs and sleeves rolled up they looked anything but the smart, prim nurses they once were but now they were clean and comfortable and, having no brushes for their hair, Maria showed her new ‘sister’ how to put her long blonde hair into plaits around her head in the Bavarian style.
Stepping back she looked Katarina up and down and said,
As they looked into each other’s eyes there was a knock on the door.
“Komme,” they said together and laughed. The door opened and the surgeon put his head inside. He couldn’t see them because of the screen, so he called out.
“Are you finished?”
When they appeared he just stared at them as they stood hand in hand. They were such pretty young women! No make-up but fresh and clean and both had the most striking blue eyes he had ever seen.
“Oh, er, sorry, I…I mean, er, entschuldigen sie, I didn’t mean to stare.” His face had turned the colour of beetroot in his embarrassment. “I have brought you something.”
He held out a small jar.
“Lanolin,” he explained. “For your lips,” and imitated putting some on his own lips.
Katarina took the jar from him and opened it, took a little on her fingertip then passed the jar to Maria who did the same. The Lanolin moistened and soothed their cracked lips.
The surgeon thought they had pretty lips.
He wasn’t much older than they were, twenty-eight in three weeks, and not married as his studies had got in the way of finding a wife and right now, he thought, there wasn’t a woman on the planet who could possibly be any prettier than these two. They were so alike he thought they must be sisters.
Walking to his desk in the corner of the sickbay, he beckoned them to sit.
“The captain… der Kapitan, wants to know who you are.” He was embarrassed to ask and didn’t know enough German to ask them directly so he took a pencil and some paper from his draw and placed it on the desk in front of them so they could see clearly what he was writing. “I have to ask you some questions.”
They looked at each other nervously. They understood ‘Kapitan’ and ‘questions’ but now they were scared. The surgeon saw the worry and tried to reassure them.
“Don’t worry,” he told them, “it’s fine. No-one will hurt you. You are safe here. Oh, what is safe?” He thought hard and then,
“Oh yes, sicher! Safe! Yes?”
Maria looked at Katarina who, in turn, looked at the surgeon with fear in her eyes.
“Der Kapitan? Ist guter mann?”
The surgeon frowned, he didn’t understand so, in very strong accented English, Katarina tried again:
“Ist good man, der Kapitan?”
The surgeon breathed a sigh of relief,
“Yes,” he said, “Ja, ist guter mann.”
Picking up his pencil he first looked at Katarina and asked her name to which she replied,
“Katarina Langsdorff.” He then asked where she was from. She didn’t understand that so he simply said,
“Ah,” she understood now. “Berlin, Potsdamer Strasse.”
He just wrote ‘Berlin’ next to her name.
Maria gave her a little kick and said,
“We mustn’t say too much!”
The surgeon saw the kick and the worry in Maria’s face and again tried to reassure them.
“It’s all right,” he said, “I don’t need know everything about you but we have to inform the Red Cross of any prisoners we have.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he used the word ’prisoners’. He liked them and didn’t want to think of them as ’prisoners!’
Again they looked at him without understanding. He winced, he knew so little German it was becoming difficult.
“Fur das Rotes Kreuz,” he offered with hesitation.
He stood and offered his hand to each in turn as he said,
“Mein Name ist Simon Madison. Ich bin der Doktor.” He didn’t know if that was correct but the two nurses smiled and shook his hand.
He sat down again and faced Maria before asking her name also. This time she smiled:
Ich bin Maria Kaufmann und ich komme aus München.”
The surgeon looked into her eyes for a moment, smiling as she held his gaze without blinking, a small smile appearing on her lips.
Now it was Katarina’s turn to kick.
“Stop it!” she said. “You are flirting with him.”
He lowered his eyes when Maria broke away to look at her friend and wrote her name and city on the paper. He looked up again and was embarrassed to ask their ages but he had no choice.
“What are your dates of birth?”
Again, blank looks. He hadn’t a clue what the German was so he tried what he knew.
“Erm….tag…no…er…hmm.” Suddenly he put his finger up and smiled, then began to hum ‘Happy birthday to you’!
The women laughed for the first time since they were torpedoed.
“Geburtstag!” they said in unison. The surgeon thought the sound of their laughter was like all the bells in heaven ringing at once and if his smile got any wider his face would split.
“Geburtstag,” he repeated. “Birthday,” and looked first at Katarina.
“Neunter April,” she told him.
Half guessing, he wrote ‘April 19’ and turned it to her. She shook her head,
“Neunter nicht Neunzehn! Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier, Funf, Sechs, Sieben, Acht, NEUN!” they laughed again as he erased the one.
“Jahre?” he continued,
“Eins, Neun, Eins, Acht,” she said slowly as he wrote each number 1… 9… 1… 8.
He looked at Maria then.
“Neunter April.” She didn’t smile. The surgeon frowned.
“Not Katarina,” he shook his head, “You,” and pointed to her.
“Ja,” Maria nodded, now she was smiling. The surgeon frowned even more as he said,
Maria smiled wider and nodded her head again. The surgeon’s pencil drooped onto the year.
Maria’s eyes twinkled as she laughed at his confusion.
“Twins!” he suddenly exclaimed, “Erm… Zwillingsschwestern!” The young women laughed so much they nearly cried.
“Nein! Nicht Schwestern!”
“Not sisters?” he asked, incredulous.
“Nein,” they repeated, shaking their heads and still laughing.
The surgeon scratched his head and raised his eyebrows in amazement.
“I think that will do,” he said, half to himself and put down the pencil. “I wish I had taken more notice when I was supposed to be learning your language.”
They didn’t understand but they half guessed.
“I will come back later.”
Standing, he looked at them again. They should not be here, he thought, but said, “Ich komme wieder.”
He picked up their uniforms and they looked at him, questioning why he was taking them.
“Ah, just cleaning them,” he responded to their stares. “Erm… reiningen… wasche? Ja?”
“Ah, ja, ist gut. Danke,” Maria relaxed again and the surgeon left with a smile and an awkward wave.
Was it just the situation? Maybe but he was beginning to like these women very much, Maria especially and he couldn’t be sure but he thought that they liked him too.
After the door closed, Katarina turned to Maria.
“He is nice.”
“Yes,” she replied, still looking at the door from where he had departed. “He is.”
For the next few days, the two nurses helped out in the sickbay. Their uniforms had been cleaned and returned to them and they looked just as they had before but with makeshift headwear, as their uniform ones had been lost when their ship went down.
They began to learn a few words of English and in turn helped the surgeon improve his German but they all knew that, ultimately, they were going to be prisoners once they reached England.
One morning, they were cleaning the sickbay when an alarm sounded, loud and piercing and the speakers crackled into life. “Action stations! Action stations!”
They didn’t know the words but they may as well have said, ‘Achtung!, Achtung!’. The urgency was clear enough.
Outside the sickbay, they could hear feet running and doors banging and the sounds of men shouting orders to each other and before long the sounds were joined by that of heavy guns firing and explosions. They ran to the portholes and looked out and saw great plumes of water as shells landed in the water nearby.
Maria grabbed Katarina’s hand and together they ran to the other side of the bay, away from the portholes and huddled together in each other’s arms, against the wall, trembling with fear.
Suddenly, there was a loud crash and the whole ship shook around them. They heard screams and more shouting and then, shortly after, the sick door crashed open and the surgeon entered, supporting a badly injured sailor, both of them covered in blood.
At that moment all fear was pushed aside as their natural nurse’s instincts kicked in and they ran to help tend the dying man.
As they worked, more wounded men were brought to them and the smell of burning and shells filled their senses but for many hours they toiled without sleep or even rest until finally the sounds of battle died away and no more wounded were brought to them. They had done everything they could but still, some of their patients had not survived.
Finally, they sat down and relaxed, exhausted, when Maria exclaimed, “Simon! Du Blutest!”
“Bleeding?” he looked down and saw his shirt was wet with fresh blood.
Maria jumped up and went to him and tore open his shirt. He had a gash just below his ribs which was oozing dark red blood.
She was relieved to see that it was not too deep but when she had cleaned it up she realised it would need to be stitched.
The surgeon wouldn’t take any morphine as there were too many wounded men needing it so, as gently and as carefully as she could, she closed the wound with eight neat stitches.
He looked at her when she had finished and said, with a smile that said far more than any words could,
“You are a good nurse.” Maria looked up at him and he leant forward with a wince and kissed her forehead.
“Und,” she said, slowly and carefully, “You are good doctor,” placed her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
Katarina watched them and smiled.
“I knew it,” she thought, “I knew she liked him.”
For a few minutes, they remained in each other’s arms.
“Maria, I…” he broke off, then, “We have to rest. We have a lot to do now. Get some sleep.” He looked into her eyes, “Schlafen,” and smiled happily.
Later that night the women woke as the heavy steel door creaked open and a drunken sailor staggered inside.
“Germans,” he was muttering. “I’ll show ‘em. Bloody Germans.”
Maria got out of her bunk and was soon joined by Katarina. With horror, they saw he was waving a knife around.
“I’ll show yer. Bloody bitches!” and he lunged at Maria, knife in front of him. “I‘ll show yer what ‘appens t‘ bloody Germans! Killed my best mate!”
The sharp knife sliced easily through the heavy cotton uniform and into the soft flesh beneath, cutting upwards through the diaphragm and into a lung, causing it to instantly deflate.
Maria screamed, but not in pain for it was Katarina who had been stabbed as she rushed forward to protect her friend.
The drunk sailor let the knife fall to the floor in shock. He hadn’t meant to hurt the young women, just to scare them for what their countrymen had done to his friend but Katarina had been too fast and as he pretended to stab at the nurse, the other had run in front of him and onto the rapidly moving blade.
He turned to run but he was stopped by the surgeon who felled him with one swift blow to the jaw.
Maria fell to her knees as Katarina collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath and a dark, red stain spreading out over her abdomen.
The surgeon ran to them and tore open her dress to try to stem the flow of blood and as Maria cradled the young nurse’s head in her lap he packed the wound with dressings, trying desperately to save her but, with her diaphragm torn and her lung quickly filling with blood, there was nothing he could do.
With failing strength and choking on her own blood, Katarina looked up at Maria and whispered,
“I told you I would repay you… my sister.”
“Katarina, don’t go, don’t leave me… please… Katarina!” Maria pleaded with her, the tears streaming down her face but her friend could not hear. The bleeding had stopped because her heart was no longer pumping and her beautiful blue eyes were still.
“Nein, nein…” Maria wailed and fell forward, holding her friend’s body tightly not wanting to ever let her go.
Katarina was buried at sea with full military honours. As her body slid from beneath the pre-war German flag and splashed into the cold Atlantic Ocean, the surgeon and the nurse stood silently, his strong hands supporting her as she stood and saluted, hand flat, palm down, fingertips against her forehead, not arm outstretched like the Nazis, and the tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks.
When the little warship docked in England, thanks to the recommendation of its captain, Maria was not interned but handed into the keeping of the ships surgeon’s family who had agreed to take her for the duration of the war. She and the surgeon had become very close and within a year they were married.
She never returned to Germany but did write often to her mother.
Katarina’s parents didn’t reply to the letter she wrote to them as they had been killed in a bombing raid before they received it, so they never knew their daughter was dead.
In 1953, Maria received a final letter from her mother. It was short and simply said,
April 9. 1953
My precious daughter
I am writing to you now as I am dying and will never see you again. I have cancer.
There is something I have to tell you.
When you were born you had a twin sister. Your father and I could not afford two babies as Germany was in such a mess and we had no work. A neighbour took your sister, as they could not have children, and brought her up as their own after moving to Berlin.
I wish you could have known her, her name was Katarina.
I love you my daughter