The Children's Crusade

excerpt Attention on platform three! Please stand clear of the edge of platform three! The special train is now arriving from Oradea! Attention on platform three! Please stand clear of the edge of platform three! The special holiday train is now arriving from Oradea! The train will be coupling up with carriages from Baia-Mare and Satu-Mare! Attention on platform three! Please stand clear of the edge of platform three! In the torrid summer air, the Bucharest express, announced over the loudspeaker a few minutes before the special train, was slowly forming on platform two, Pavel followed it at length with his gaze, and then absently turned towards the bustle produced in the station by the arrival of the two trains, To an immobile observer, the Brownian motion of the travelers would have seemed chaotic and apparently meaningless, as purposeless as the mad whirl of particles during the first minutes of the universe might have seemed to the same eye, when the primordial objectives of matter or, according to religious conceptions, the intentions of divine creation did not yet express the existence of any rational or, according to the case, divine plan, but, to the extent that the gaze, detaching itself from the standard distances of human eyesight, manages to adapt itself to examination of isolated states within the larger whole, separating from reality portions whose perception can be regulated, like a camera lens, depending on the cognitive horizon of the human senses, the picture of reality acquires, within the immediate order of the system of spatial and temporal co-ordinates in which the careful observer is situated, meaning and consistency, offering itself with elementary simplicity to the senses and awareness, The yellow flag, fluttering from a door of a carriage of the train standing at platform two, signals the entry of the Bucharest express into the station, the train on which Pavel will return to the capital, he had arrived at the same station, alighting on the same platform, two days previously, on Sunday to be precise, and Dan Pantea, his former university colleague, had been waiting for him, Railway stations depress him, he has never liked them! Wherever you direct your gaze, you see youngsters with mountainous rucksacks on their backs, heading for all the usual holiday destinations, but Pavel will not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the nostalgia with which the juvenile atmosphere of the station entices him, as he strives to concentrate on the professional problems he came to Cluj in order to elucidate, he had been called by Dan Pantea, a good friend and editor of the city's largest daily, with whom he has been collaborating for a good few years in uncovering the western branch of the cross-border child trafficking network, Dan had placed at his disposal all he had most recently discovered, fresh confessions from parents who had sold their children over the border, revealing photographs, data from informants and, above all, fresh information that would have allowed the discovery of the identity of the one who, within the network, was known as the Colonel, but unfortunately, believing that they had reached one of the bosses of the trade, the two journalists and friends then realized that the individual in question was nothing but a link, a person at the bottom of a pyramid whose pinnacle vanished somewhere in the mists of huge non-taxable and, implicitly, intangible profits, and since he had come to Cluj anyway, besides the fact that he had been happy to meet up with Dan, he had formed in his mind a fresh subject for his newspaper editorial, and decided to write it up on the train, on his laptop, and, with this thought welling from the depths of his professional conscience, Pavel's fingers lightly stroked the digits encrusted in the yellowish metal of the coded lock that secured the bag resting beside him on the bench, a bag in which he carried all his documents and the laptop with which he gauged the objective measure of reality, A woman's hand, with fingernails varnished pink, a translucent pink, strokes in tacit melancholy the huge suitcase, made of a rigid material, samsonite, which sits, in anticipation of the Bucharest express, at her feet, It was the first time she had used the suitcase, she had only just bought it a few days ago, with an almost erotic thrill she touched its elegant handle, thinking dreamily of a more civilized world where such objects are a sign of normality rather than pointless luxury, a world to which she was to fly via british airways on Sunday, a world which contained the fascinating New York of books and magazines and which was included in the America of every promise, a new world! A world in which the present insatiably absorbed every trace of the past, she had seen the as yet youthful man with his bag on the bench, he was, undoubtedly, also waiting for the Bucharest express, she felt like exchanging a few words with him, just for the sake of it, to disperse the spider's web of sadness that threatened to spin itself within her soul at the thought of her definitive departure from the city where she had spent her entire life, she would have liked to share with someone the circumstances that were taking her to New York to start a new life, she smiles quietly, into the air, at the man who doesn't return her gaze, at the yellow flag waving in the doorway of the train, at the clock on the platform and at the presumably blue sky, only presumably, because her sunglasses render it in the almost black tint of the lenses that conceal her eyes, in the meantime, the express had come to a stop with a metallic grinding noise at the platform announced, platform number two, and from the station loudspeaker could still be heard the impersonal voice of the announcer on duty, Attention on platform three! Please stand clear of the edge of platform three! The special train is now arriving from Oradea! Attention on platform three! Attention on platform three! Please stand clear of the edge of platform three! The special train is now arriving from Oradea! On the same platform, between lines two and three, Octavian impatiently listens for the umpteenth time to the same precious parental indications, Clean your teeth every night and in the morning when you get up, be careful where you keep your money, don't spend it all on the first day and, above all, but Octavian didn't hear what his mother wanted to say above all, as his thoughts were elsewhere, he was thinking of Bogdan, he hadn't seen Bogdan yet, his friend and desk-mate, "Why isn't Bogdan here?" he asked his mother, "He ought to have come by now! Look, there's Diana and her parents!" The whole of the sixth form had arranged to meet at the exit from the underpass, he couldn't stand Diana, she was the top of the class and she put on airs, as prim as could be! But how great it would be at summer camp! Octavian cheered up, "Here comes Miss too!" among the passengers climbing the steps out of the underpass he caught sight of her red hair, they had the coolest class tutor in the whole school! "I kiss your hand!" Diana's father kissed the hand of Octavian's mother in mid-air, verbally only, "Bogdan is here!" Octavian leapt up joyfully to greet his friend and desk-mate, and just then a boy of his height, one of those boys who go begging on the streets and in the buses, almost knocked him over, "Watch it, you!" the boy who had bumped into him shouted nastily and, as a bonus, threw in a revolting swearword, "Eat my…!" something of the violence whereby such an important element of the male anatomy was transferred to the culinary domain startled Octavian, "How could I eat something like that!?" the vagabond could not have been older than him, which is to say no more than twelve years old, "What train could this be?" Calman wondered, irritated after bumping into that well-fed snot-nosed brat, dusting himself off, as though contact with the other boy had tainted his skin with an unpleasant sticky sensation, then he took another drag on the cigarette butt he had picked off the ground, he recognized it by the smell, over time he had honed his senses of smell and taste for cigarettes, "it's a Marlboro!" he had the gift of being able to recognize any cigarette brand from the first puff he drew into his lungs, "it's a Marlboro!" a well dressed type had discarded it just as he was climbing into the train and hadn't had the chance to smoke the whole cigarette, that's what Calman liked about railway stations, because he always had the opportunity to come across good cigarettes that had only just been lit, "It's a Marlboro!" he had never learned to read, naturally, but he didn't need to know when there wasn't a brand of cigarette in the world that he hadn't held between his lips at one time or another and that he wouldn't recognize a second time if he took a drag and, on the platform between lines two and three, Calman didn't know which way to head, but what he did know was that he had to get back to Bucharest! "Attention on platform three! The special train to Mangalia is now arriving from Oradea," One-Arm also heard the announcement over the loudspeaker as he was standing with his back against the sweets kiosk, looking at the trains as though he was only passing through, he had made a fair bit of money in Cluj from begging, if he went back to Brashov his father would take all the money and spend it on drink and send him back out with a kick in the backside to make more, someone had told him that the train on platform two was going to Bucharest, he would get on it, but those ticket inspectors on the express were mean as hell, on Friday evening one of them had taken all his Caraiman beer away from him, that's what everyone called him, Caraiman, he peddled Caraiman beer on the trains, the inspector had confiscated it from him, so he had had to pay the boss out of his own pocket, he would be better off waiting for the slow train! on the slow train the inspectors are more indulgent with the beggars and, ultimately, he was in no hurry to arrive anywhere, and in the meantime he could empty a few pockets around the station or snatch another handbag, in summer people dress more summarily and they are not equipped with too many pockets, but on the other hand, summer is the best time for stealing mobile phones, The delicate sound of a samsung cell-phone, the latest model, could be heard from the pocket of the well-ironed cream trousers of Alexandru Aldeman, who was just about to climb aboard the express, into carriage number five, when "Hello! Yes! It's me! I'm just getting on the train, in Cluj, I don't know exactly what time I'll be arriving in Bucharest, but I'll phone you later and tell you, alright! Of course! Yes! Okay!" overwhelmed by his own personal importance, by that of his telephone with its built-in digital camera and, above all, by his light-colored trousers and impeccable shirt, Alexandru Aldeman put his telephone back in his pocket, then with his right hand he gripped the handrail of the door to carriage five of the Bucharest express, nimbly vaulting up the steps, the whole length of carriage five Sabina followed him with her eyes, she was carrying nothing except a rucksack on one shoulder, containing the strict necessities, hoping to be back by the next evening, she could already see herself returning from the capital, passing over the day to come, with the wait in the queue at the embassy, since the purpose of her visit to Bucharest was to submit her application file for emigration to Canada, she had an interview scheduled the next day, at eleven o'clock, the file was complete, with all the necessary documents, but she could not rid herself of the feelings with which the step she was about to take in life overwhelmed her, "Carriage five!" she said to herself casting another glance at her platform ticket, Calman didn't have a ticket for the express and nor were there any other trains he could take, he never bought a ticket, he didn't even know what a ticket looked like! but he was looking for someone he knew on the platform between lines two and three, because those like himself, the vagabond beggars, are always traveling around the country and they especially meet in railway stations, but no one had attracted his attention, only the special train to Mangalia which, at line three on his left, was coming into the station with a metallic rumbling of wheels, among the passengers who had all of a sudden started to swarm about as the train pulled in he glimpsed One-Arm leaning against the sweets kiosk and he tried to make his way towards him, agilely slipping between the bags that were now being lifted, between the children and the adults in frenetic motion, and when he reached One-Arm he joyfully clasped his hand, Mrs. Cristea thrilled with pleasure, a pleasure that she could barely conceal, when the father of Alina, the classmate of her son Octavian, shook her hand, lightly gripping it, this man had always intrigued her, a man who always turned up to all the parents' meetings alone, and all the more so given that the children's fathers were, in general, indifferent to such school events, her husband, for example, could probably not even remember which form their boy was in, and as for their son's progress at school, "Mother, have you packed my swimming goggles?" Mrs. Cristea tried to remember whether she had packed her son's swimming goggles in the rucksack bulging with those items most needful in her eyes as a caring mother, Mr. Bratu, the object of the preceding meditations on the part of Mrs. Cristea, also seemed preoccupied by a certain idea and namely not to forget to remind the class tutor to look after Alina, not to allow her to go into the water, as the girl had been slightly fearful of water since their last trip to the seaside, all three of them, four years ago, the last family holiday, when Alina almost drowned, of course Helga, his wife at the time, now his ex-wife, had accused him of negligence, that everything was his fault, that, but here his chain of recollections was interrupted by the expression of grave desperation he glimpsed on the face of Mrs. Cristea, No! she had not packed her son's swimming goggles, What negligence! thought Mr. Bratu, I'm sure that she's packed all kinds of useless items, but she has forgotten the thing her child wanted the most, the swimming goggles! thought Mr. Bratu, convincing himself yet again that his opinions regarding the fair sex were as sound as could possibly be, the boy had huge teardrops in his eyes, ready to fall, but he wouldn't cry! because Bogdan was there too and he was determined not to display his childish weakness in front of Bogdan and his classmates, on the other hand, Sonia's grandmother did not shrink from letting her tears flow down her cheeks, she wouldn't see her darling granddaughter for two weeks, how would she manage alone, it was the first time she was going away from home, unaccompanied, "Sonia is a big girl!" the redheaded class tutor attempted to console her, "there are even younger children in the class who are coming with us to the seaside!" and the young teacher's hair, tied behind with an orange scarf, fluttered over the heads of the children, she was determined to board the train only when all the class were present, it was the first time she was going to the seaside with the children, she had finished her second year as class tutor, her class were moving up to the seventh form, she loved children, children loved her, "Miss!" "Miss!" she was assaulted on every side by their merry voices, this caused her to grow slightly afraid when she thought of her responsibility towards them, perhaps she was too young and too enthusiastic, along with so many children at the seaside! Sixteen! the vaguely uneasy parents on the platform, worried beneath it all about the departure of their children, but some of them also possessing the air of adults satisfied at the thought that they will get a little peace and quiet during the holidays, And the children's class tutor, some of the mothers thought, nonetheless does seem too young! The young teacher interpreting all too well the glances of the parents, especially those of the mothers, tried to demonstrate that, in spite of her youth, she could easily keep the children under control! "Pay attention children, I'm going to make a roll call! Silence when your class tutor is speaking!" she looked at her watch first and then at the list of names, The head conductor of the Bucharest express looked at the exact hour shown by his watch, attached by a little chain to the belt of his railway uniform, and then at the other side of the platform, there were exactly another three minutes until departure and beneath his clean blue shirt warm beads of sweat were already beginning to trickle down his back, seven hours until Bucharest! "Good day!" he respectfully touched the peak of his cap saluting the as yet youthful gentleman in whose combination-locked bag could be found precious documents and a laptop, and in one nook of whose mind could be found an unwritten article for the next day's issue of a large-circulation Bucharest newspaper, Pavel accepted that it was the moment to board the train, all the other passengers would already have taken their seats, and that bridge between the events which marked boarding the train and the latter's departure could no longer possibly frighten him, having been reduced to a minimum, but as he boarded the express he couldn't manage to discover Cazimir's whereabouts, "Where is Cazimir?" the class tutor asked the pupils for the third time and not even on the third call was Cazimir able to reply because during the triple roll call he was on the back seat of a taxi that was coming down Turzii Street, heading towards the station at speed, the driver was doing his utmost to weave through the traffic and catch all the green lights, ignoring all tokens of discontent on the part of other drivers, Cazimir's mother, who, after all, was in no way guilty, trembled silently on the right of the driver whenever the latter's skilful maneuvers were transformed into veritable stunt driving, they were late, in fact, because of the boy's father who had promised the previous evening that he would take him to the station in the company bmw, the car with which Cazimir had been hoping to cause all the mouths of the boys in the class to gape, but, as his father had been caught in a meeting which he couldn't get out of, he had announced only at the last minute that he wouldn't be able to leave work, suggesting that they urgently call for a taxi, on the back seat of the taxi, Cazimir, sulking and annoyed with his father, unhappy and profoundly convinced that he wouldn't reach the station in time, was gazing absently through the window, the holiday he had dreamed of together with the other boys had got off to such a bad start and it was as though he didn't even want to catch that train but to stay at home instead so that his father would have reason to feel guilty, it was all the same to him! at that moment he hated his father with all the childish passion of trust betrayed, but the boy's mother, in the front, next to the driver, could not bear the idea that he might miss the train and have to stay at home after they had paid for the holiday at his fervent pleading, allowing him to go to summer camp with his classmates even though they themselves would be going to the seaside two weeks after that, they would pick up their son directly from the camp, as they had already booked a villa in Mangalia, together with two other families, her husband's colleagues from the company, Oh, Lord! the woman placed her hope in the goodness of the lord above, if only the road through town were less busy, don't let the train leave, let Cazimir catch the train! Florina ILIS's book, the recipient of many awards, is "a story about the loss of innocence, about fatally, inescapably, mathematically getting lost in the world… a special holiday train packed with children leaves from Cluj for the seaside resort of Navodari, but never arrives at the destination. Through a conspiracy of the whole (romance/Romanian) universe, the schoolchildren, each with his or her own drama, take control over the train, led by a waif descended from the 'last witch' of the ill-famed neighborhood of Ferentari." (Simona SORA in Dilema veche, 2-8 December 2005)

by Florina Ilis (b. 1968)