Marina is younger than us, a girl really, all sleek angles and foal like legs, but she has come late to our work. We have already marked out our territory on the gymnasium floor, carefully draping a gown over our chair, pushing and pulling a mattress away from the blanket door for more privacy, pilfering eiderdown pillows from the girls that have flown our nest. But there is a freshness, almost like dew, that lies on her face, on her beaky nose. We offer her a mist of fag smoke and our blank faces, the ones that the soldiers see. We are all out of encouragement.
Herr Doktor whistled 'Our Fluttering Flag Drives Us On', as he measured her and weighed her and checks her teeth as if she is a donkey going to the market. Her doe brown eyes look to me for reassurance, as he pokes and prods, but I can no longer translate that emotion. I do not tell her that if she passes this test it is slow death, and if she fails it will be death of a different kind. This, and showing her were her hard pallet of a mattress, is my concession to compassion.
But she slumps in the chair, as if a marionette has cut all her stings. Her eyes fill with tears. I get her a glass of water. 'Thank you,' she lisps.
And that almost breaks me. I want to tell her, when her time comes, not to struggle. That will just make it worse. But there is a hollowed out place inside myself that I escape to, away from her pleading eyes.
'What's you name?' she asks.
My name is like a dull ache in my head, something I once had, once owned. I turn quickly away from her, into the comforting snore of strangers, and do not answer, do not look back.
Herr Doktor is obsessed with cleanliness and with good cause. The German soldiers are clean enough, but their partizan allies bring there own presents and patriotic body lice. We work it, among ourselves, so that the new girl, Marina, meets out old friends first. Marina's constant scratching speaks its own language. It tells us that she is one of us.
I walk across the room and invade her territory. 'You'll need to tell Herr Doktor,' I say, 'he has a powder that helps you get of the lice, but the only real way is boiling everything, all your clothes. And all your bedstuff. You should really boil it as well.' My voice peters out.
'Lice!' she says, and she squirms and scratches.
'Yes.' I smile for the first time.
'Lice,' I say, and smile again, as she furiously scratches, as if I'm talking about puppies, as her face burns with the heat of embarrassment.
'When the men ask you if you want anything.' I can see that she does not want to talk about this, but I carry on. 'Don't say you want nothing. Don't say you want jewellery or money, for these things are worthless to us. Ask them for food, cigarettes, perfume and above all else, ask them for soap. Soap that is what we need more than anything else.'
I'd perhaps said too much. She cried then, unashamedly, an emptying of herself, like a child, all tears and snotters. I looked away and when she was finished, handed her a hanky.
'Come,' I said, 'I've some soap and I'll give you some of my clothes. You'll need to put yours in the sink and we'll boil some water. That will kill the eggs, otherwise we'll all become infected. And lice bring typhus. And if we become infected there is only one outcome.'
The sinks in the toilets still hold the memory of children. They are low down and small, but there is no hot water. We need to boil it on a large pot and quickly carry it to the sinks. But there is no drying. Blouses, skirts and pants are flung over door frames and cubicles of toilets. They grow and seem to form their own ridge line, like grass or moss in the most unexpected places. Marina laughs when she sees this, and I know that is a good sign. Her mind can take a holiday and find some joy in the unexpected colours of our day.
She asks me, to ask the guard, to turn his back as she changes out of her clothes in a cubicle. I shoo-shoo him to the door. Her body is long and supple the colour of birch in sun light. 'It would be better if you shave, there,' I say, pointing modestly as she darts across to the sink for to wash in the hot water, and hand her a pair of my clean pants from the crop of clothes around the door. Her laugh gurgles out of her like spring water.
'Where will I get such a razor?' she asks, looking down at herself.
'I think we'll be able to find you something.' I say in mock seriousness, for she has nothing there more than a little hair fizz, and I briefly wonder if she has menstruated, but my mind flickers away from such thoughts, and rest on her bright face.
I hand her a skirt and blouse, as an offering from my stash of clothes. 'Amelia,' I say, 'my name is Amelia.
She sniffs at them, like a young fox, buries her face in them, before putting them on.
'Thank you, Thank you, Thank you so much Amelia,' she says.
The warmth of her words unsettle me. I feel like crying, and ask the God that I don't believe in, that she should stay like this, and not become like me.