Excerpt from The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Children's War

by Monique Charlesworth

The Children's War
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 384 pages
    Sep 2005, 384 pages

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Weeks ago, her mother had bought a berth in a four-person cabin in a cruiser, a white ship which would set sail from the harbour built by the Romans as the sun set. Big though the ship would be, it hardly seemed possible that all these people could get cabins. They looked hard-pressed and too poor for a luxury cruise. The woman at the guichet was bad-tempered and snapped at anyone who showed the slightest impatience with her. Every berth was taken. There was space on deck. She shrugged her shoulders. If they didn’t want this boat, then they could take the next. For you to choose, she said. But it would be just as crowded if not more so. One or two went away. Most just bought tickets.

Her stomach rumbled. There would be dinner on the boat, perhaps at the captain’s table. Because it was such an expensive journey all the meals were included. Conversation would be animated and pleasant, and the captain would salute his guests in champagne, making toasts to every one of them. "A votre santé, Monsieur le Capitaine." "Et à la vôtre!"

The people waiting did not look as if they were the kind who dressed for dinner and she felt embarrassed in advance for them, for the awkwardness when they found out. In her case, she had a dress, which she hoped was not too crushed.

At six o’clock a man in a blue official-looking jacket opened the double doors at the back of the room. The crowd pushed forward. A short walk from the back of the building lay the sea, which was not blue at all but nearly black. The wind blew hard and she held her coat together to keep warm. From the quay she saw that despite the pretty name, the Belle de France was not a cruise ship but a ferryboat. Streaks of rust lay down the funnels. There could be no sun loungers on this deck, no pursers in white uniforms. There was no first class. She had been told to find a steward who would have a passenger list and tell her where to go, but no such person seemed to exist.

The decks were already full of people who had no berths, who lay or squatted on the floor and should have been unhappy, but had a kind of ease. Men in long gowns with dark faces and sandals were smoking strong-smelling cigarettes. These were probably Berbers, natives of Morocco. One man gave her a welcoming smile. Coffee-coloured, he was beautiful with eyes of a miraculous, deep blue. She was not to smile back. Her mother had been very clear about whom to talk to (almost nobody) and when (only when essential).

It was stuffy down below, where a long snail of passengers trailed down corridors all carrying luggage and looking for their cabins. Ilse held her suitcase in her arms as a buffer before her and followed the others. People argued. Nobody knew where to go. The names of the passengers were handwritten on slips of paper pasted outside the cabin doors, so each door created another obstacle in this already crowded place. Ilse reminded herself that those like her, shuffling from corridor to corridor, sidestepping and stumbling with their luggage and fighting to see the scraps of paper, were the lucky ones. They would have a bed to sleep on. Mademoiselle Blumenthal’s berth was at the very end of the corridor a further floor down; there seemed no way that fresh air could penetrate these depths. She read a French name and two more German-sounding ones, a Madame Ginsberg and a Mademoiselle Tischler. The door was open: a nun sat on a bunk reading. A fat middle-aged lady wearing a lace blouse sat on the other side with suitcases piled beside her, with eyes closed. When Ilse knocked, she gave a start.

"Bonjour, Mesdames," she said quietly. A lucky chance had allocated her the top bunk. She lifted up her suitcase and heaved it up, then scrambled up after it. She had not had a space of her own for days. There was a little net on the side, which would be a good place to put her book, her own light switch and a hook for her coat. The blanket was folded in a neat way and perhaps the sheet was clean. She hung up her coat and lay down, and through her trembling legs and the heaviness of her head, which was now aching quite hard, she felt deep relief at being in the precise place which her mother had selected for her. With her eyes closed, she could almost see her mother’s face.

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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