Three times a week we were expected to shower, whether the water was hot or cold. Herr Doktor stood in the corridor outside, shrink wrapped into his uniform, with a white overcoat, waiting to assess our bodies as we pranced past him, dripping wet and naked to the locked anteroom were towels, which were more like rags, and our clothes were kept. With a cursory glance he made notes with a pencil, in his little notebook. Sometimes, however, he would stick the palm of his hand up: a stop sign. The woman selected had to perch on top of a wooden stool. At first, before it became routine, I had to translate his requests. He was like a dentist asking the patient to open their mouth as wide as possible, but he would nudge me, and tell me, to tell them, to open their legs wider and wider. Herr Doktor’s top lip and nose would ride up in disgust at his final indignity. He had to bend down and almost put his face inside a prostitute. The woman on the stool had to hold open her pudendum and vestibule with splayed fingers, like a curtain in a bloodied cave. The front line of women would snaggle and stop and he would examine a mark, a boil, and the hint of epidermal deformity, like a Vermeer signature at the bottom of a painting on public display. We shivered then and not only with the cold. He would hold his breath as he flipped back through the back pages of his notebook. Herr Doktor would look at me and I had to step forward, stand straight, not slouch, and translate any questions that he had. Sometimes there was no need.
The fair Gertrude, with the face of the Madonna and a better command of the German language then me, balanced between isolation and gregariousness, made all manner of promises to Herr Doktor that needed no translation and no ears should hear. But that didn’t save her. And I thought if she’d known more she would have said less. Said nothing. Never have pleaded. All the old rules of morality, duty, dedication and devotion, were finally washed away in that shower room.
Despite the indignities the shower room was the highlight of the week. It was the place were we could regain full possession of ourselves. Under the hiss of hot water bouncing off the hard tiles, unknotting our bones, we shouted to each other our theories of when and how it would all end. Soon, soon, would seep into us, and above the noise of the pumps, we would confront the baptismal world of hope, whilst also doing our washing.
The sheets from our bed were torn from the brackets of mattresses and scoured with soap at the seams to kill any lurking body lice. Each mark on them was debated like a new form of plant life that had grown overnight: what was their origin and where did them come from, as if understanding them would make it easier to avoid them in the future. But there was thunderous laughter and safety in such talk because it meant not talking about us, or the ghosts of our families.
Marina said little about such things. She seemed content to join in the scrubbing and the laughter and to leave the future to older women, that knew better than her, the plans of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
‘Why are your sheets always so stained with blood?’ I asked, laughing as the sliver of soap she held as it disintegrated back into the sand it was largely made up of. ‘Do the men that come to you, come from some sort of field hospital, and bleed on you every night?’
‘No.’ she said.
She drew away from me a little, her face and chest pink with embarrassment, for she didn’t like to talk about such things, or listen to any ribald chatter.
‘No,’ she lisped, ‘it’s me’.
Her face turned away from me and she kept rubbing at a mark on the sheet that was no longer there. I touched her gently on the wrist. ‘Is there something wrong?’ I tried to whisper above the sound of the spray.
‘No.’ she said, not looking at me.
‘Then why do you bleed?’ I said, perhaps too loudly, because Eva looked across at me, but she smiled, luxuriating in hot water so completely that I don’t think she would have cared if I’d shouted the war is over.
‘I just do,’ Marina said.
‘Where do you bleed?’
I was becoming slightly frantic. For if Herr Doktor found out she would be marched away the same day to the Umschlagplatz, loaded in a cattle truck and sent East to her death.
She moved her head slightly and nodded downwards. I tried to work out what disease it could be. Venereal diseases were pus and boils, but those were the later stages, perhaps, I concluded, this was an earlier stage. I couldn’t breath, the hot water now seemed like a distraction. I didn’t want to lose her.
‘When do you bleed?’ I asked gently.
‘Every night, when the soldiers come’ she replied, her frightened little girl eyes, holding mine, as if to say it’s true.
I wanted to hold her close, to cuddle and reassure her that it was going to be ok. But we were beyond the reach of such fairy tale endings and besides one of the other women might use such information to curry favour with Herr Doktor.
I scrutinised her scrubbed form for some further clue. Marina had put on a little weight since she had come here. Basic rations were supplemented by what the men gave us. Some women were better than others in getting these gifts. But usually we shared what we got, even the odd piece of chocolate. But if she was haemorrhaging, nobody had noticed. She didn’t show it in the way that she sat. And her two pairs of pants showed no more than the normal wear and tear, and she was obsessive about keeping them clean.
‘Why do you bleed Marina?’ I whispered in her ear.
‘I don’t know,’ she lisped, looking away.
It was clear she wanted to talk no more and it was one of the rules that had grown up and around us, if someone does not want to talk, leave them alone, but she made the first move, patted my hand and whispered,
‘it’s ok, it only hurts when the first man lies on me. When their thing is inside me. It breaks after that and gets easier’.
‘What thing?’ I asked, mind tumbling away searching out for some kind of disease that I’d never encountered.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, biting her top lip, ‘the piece of skin that protects your insides from you outsides’.
‘Your hymen?’ I asked.
But I could see from her face she had no knowledge of such words. I tried to think of a way of putting it that she would understand.
‘Before you came here Marinna, had you ever been with a boy, lain with a boy?’
‘No,’ she gasped.
To be respectable for Marina was more important than having two eyes, two arms, or two legs. She still retained these pre-war vestiges in the way that she walked and talked and held herself, but I had to be sure.
‘Marina,’ I said, ‘before you came here, did a man ever put his penis inside you?’
I could see her face working out what I meant like mental arithmetic. She looked at her feet and shook her head, as if the very thought was disgusting and moved away from me to the other showerhead.
‘Please Marina, I’ve got to ask you, when a German man lay on top of you for the first time here and put his penis inside did it hurt and did you bleed?’
‘It was a fat Shaulis man,’ she said, as if I was asking her to pick him out from an identity parade, ‘he stunk of Vodka and garlic. I looked at a dot on the ceiling, really concentrated on it, so that it was as if my body was separate from me. But it was really sore.’ I thought she was going to cry, but she continued, ‘but he didn’t care, didn’t care anything about me. Just used me, wiped himself down, and left me for someone else.’
‘But I did bleed,’ she said, as if she was trying to be more helpful and precise. ‘I always bleed when the first one mounts me. After he tears through that thing that you called, what was it? “the hymen,” it gets easier’. She smiled at me as if she was a child, getting the correct answer, in an oral examination.
We could hear the squeak of the spanners above the sound of the shower water as the guards turned Hot and Cold taps. As the water gurgled and slowed and stopped, I helped Marina gather up her washing. We twisted and turned it in a corkscrew motion, one way, then the other, to get as much water out of the clothes as we could and let it run into the drains.
‘Marina,’ I said, ‘that bit of skin, that protects your inside from your outside, the hymen, what happens to it?’
We waltzed back and forth, her to me, me to her, shortening the distance between us and folding the washing between us. Her clothes were in a bundle laid out on the shower room floor. Mine were still wet.
‘Oh, that grows back,’ Marina said, ‘it’s still sore, each night, when the first mounts me and I still bleed, but it’s easier now with that grease you gave me.’
‘Hurry,’ said he guards, banging the pipes with their sticks, but they always said that, and were in no hurry themselves, pleased with their duty of ogling us.