Marseilles, March 1939
Ilse held her suitcase safe between her knees. There was a continuous loud crackle of announcements, which she could not understand. After an hour she moved to the corner seat beside the frosted glass window, for this gave an angled view of the Gare St. Charles. There she watched the constant flickering of single and multiple blurs against the yellow advertisement for Amer Picon. Any one of those blurs might open the door from the huge vault of the station and solidify into the person collecting her. This was distracting. Each time the door opened and it was not for her, she could not settle. In the guidebook, the tour of Marseilles occupied twelve pages, whereas Paris took up thirty-three. Marseilles was a mighty port, the oldest of the cities of France. Ilse shut her eyes and conjured up the map of the harbour which, facing west, was defended by its two great forts, Saint-Jean, to the north, and Saint-Nicolas, to the south. How happy her mother had been to find a guidebook in French in the tiny foreign language section of the Wuppertal public library.
Greeks from Asia Minor had landed here twenty-six centuries ago, dark men in galleys with long oars. Centuries passed. Another hour went by. The city of enthusiasms welcomed the revolution, sent five hundred volunteers to Paris. The soldiers from Marseilles electrified the crowd with their rendition of a new marching song. It became the hymn of the revolution and was renamed in their honour. The guidebook had printed all the verses. She sang them in her head: the day of glory has arrived. People came and were collected and were replaced. Yawning, she feared to sleep. Marseilles, she recited to herself, is the great western emporium for trade with the Levant, importer of grains, sugar, peanuts, copra and Indian corn. How hungry she was. The big boy with the scuffed shoes unwrapped and ate his picnic, shovelling bread into his mouth. The woman with two small children went away to the café and then returned with chocolate bars. But Ilse did not move. What if the Red Cross woman came and did not find her there? Her legs felt funny, tingling with pins and needles but also very soft. Anxiety blurred the din, sharpened the ceaseless turning and returning of the same thoughts. Her head jerked up as once more the door opened abruptly, letting in a swell of noise.
It was a short woman with dark hair dyed blonde. "Du bist Ilse,"* ("You are Ilse") she said. She was not German. Ilse stood, a little wobbly. Certainty, which should have brought relief, was worrying. How had she recognised her? The Red Cross woman beckoned to Ilse to come nearer. She smelt of sweat, her pink face thickly powdered. With a pencil, she trailed down her typed list and crossed off Ilses name, scoring it deeply. "Come! Hurry you along!" she said in an odd mixture of German and French.
They hurried through to daylight and dust and wind. A huge flight of steps led past massive statues down to a boulevard. There was a hotel opposite and the sprawling city below, a patch of green to one side. Ilse noticed some young children playing and paused just for an instant but the woman (red woman, cross woman) hurried her on. They were to take a taxi. As she opened the door, the woman told the driver to go straight to the ships offices and to take the most direct way. She was disinclined to talk, which seemed to Ilse a great pity and an opportunity missed. Wriggling forward in the seat, the woman took off her jacket and eased her feet out of her shoes, as though she was on her own. How busy she must be, to need this moment so badly. Her feet were swollen with angry-looking bunions, the blouse ringed with sweat stains under the arms. She studied the list, which was typed on both sides of the piece of paper, as she bit at ragged cuticles. Her hands looked raw and used. Perhaps she went back and forth all day, shuttling unknown children on and off boats, to and from stations. Ilse hoped so. She badly wanted a companion.
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.
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