Excerpt of The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth
(Page 2 of 4)
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Jolted against the acrid odour of sweat and perfume on the turns, Ilse looked in vain for traces of the great trading city. There was no sight of the world-famous Canebière ("broad boulevard at the heart of Marseilles where those touring Provence must choose to stay; site, in more turbulent times, of a permanent guillotine"). She saw unremarkable streets full of people and trolley cars and trees whipped by the wind. She tried to see the street names, for the French loved liberty, equality and fraternity. Every town in France boasted a street named after deputy Mirabeau, a Jean Jaurès or a Garibaldi. Her mother had explained that France honoured great men who fought for freedom, even the foreign ones. There could never be a Hitlerplatz here. This was why everyone loved France. Hard as she tried, squinting against the light, the streets reeled by much too fast for her to read the names. But for the dirt and the names of the shops, it might have been Düsseldorf. They turned into smaller and darker streets. There was still no sign of the sea but she had smelt it in the sharpness of the wind; she felt its nearness in the way the streets all hurried down towards the water.
She cleared her throat and spoke in her careful French. "Can we go to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde? From the peak, one can admire the view of the town and the Mediterranean."
"A church. It is called Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde."
"You want a church?" said the woman, giving her a curious, sidelong look.
"There is a lovely panorama over the sea," persisted Ilse. The steeple, with its gilded ten-metre-high Virgin, rose fifty metres above the hill. The guidebook said that it was the Virgin who kept the city safe.
"Ah no, there is no time. Its the opposite way," she said.
Ilse had the timetable of her long journey firmly fixed in her head. She knew that she had hours to spare. She looked at the woman and the way her fingers ripped at each other, and her turned-away face.
They turned into a square and then the taxi drew up at a big cream building. The woman told the driver to wait. A queue spilled onto the street. The woman forced her way inside in the face of protests, tugging Ilse behind her. She cast one look at the room, which was packed with people, and pushed Ilse on, one hand in the small of her back, not unkindly but firmly.
"These people are waiting for the boat to Oran. Youll go from La Joliette. Thats the new port. You can walk to the dock from here. Go with the others. You understand?"
She watched the short figure stumping out to disappear into the haze, the last link in the human chain that had moved her to this place. She knew that the woman was supposed to see her onto the boat. Sitting on the suitcase, Ilse was level with the legs shuffling towards the ticket office. She had been wrong to mind the smell of sweat. The Red Cross woman was the sort of person whose kindness was all used up in her work, leaving nothing over for conversation, no space into which other people might intrude. She would probably never talk to the children she took from place to place. Ilse thought with regret that she had had her opportunity to see Marseilles and she had sat in the station and not taken it. From Strasbourg to here, she had crossed the whole of France without even drinking a cup of the prized French coffee: for this she had nobody but her stupid self to blame. It was nearly three oclock. French people took two or three hours for lunch. The tables at the charming seafront restaurants would still be full. Her mother had told her how to order food in a proper restaurant and had recommended the bouillabaisse. She would have undertaken any of the excursions her mother and she had planned, had they been offered. But Ilse was incapable of leaving this room, where she had been told to remain, to go to an unknown café, however near.
Excerpted from The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth, pages 3-9. Copyright© 2004 by Monique Charlesworth. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.