Exclusive Excerpt: Nicole’s War by Andrée Rushton

Exclusive Excerpt: Nicole’s War by Andrée Rushton

Set against the backdrop of France during the Second World War, Andrée Rushton took inspiration from the stories her mother told her about her escape from Paris only days before the Nazis arrived. After arriving in England, her mother joined WAAF and met her father, an RAF sergeant. Through the novel Andrée explores the question: what if her mother had never escaped?

Nicole and her travelling companions, including her mother Anne and her dog Kim, have fled Paris and arrived in Bordeaux, hoping to escape by boat to England.

They reached the office of the shipping company, where it was evident that the threat of mines in the estuary was not putting off fleeing travellers. It was crowded in the ticket office and Nicole waited outside with Kim while Anne queued with Rick and Georgie for tickets for a particular boat. ‘Well, that’s lucky. We’ve all got places tomorrow afternoon. Now, take this in case we’re separated for any reason,’ Anne said, smiling with relief as she emerged half an hour later and handed Nicole her ticket.

The next job was to sell the car. It was late in the day before they found a garage willing to buy it. Rick fumed about the price he was forced to accept by a car salesman, who was taking full advantage of his obvious desperation. 

That evening, Anne tried to telephone Jessie from the hotel to tell her when to expect them, but it was impossible to get through. 

‘We’ll telephone her when we get to England. Isn’t it marvellous to think that tomorrow we’ll be away from all this nightmare, sailing to England and safety?’ she said, as she put the phone down.

Her smile was strained. Nicole crushed her own misgivings about the boat not being able to leave or being blown up in the estuary and gave her mother a hug. 

‘Yes, roll on tomorrow!’ she said. 

‘Let me give you some money in case we get separated. You never know.’ Anne handed some cash to Nicole. 

 ‘Thank you, Maman. I didn’t have time to go to the bank because we left in such a rush in the end,’ Nicole said, slipping the money into her purse. 

The following afternoon, they arrived by taxi at the docks on the River Garonne. The quayside was thronged with people. Threading their way through the crowds, they arrived at their boat to find passengers already boarding. Anne, a little ahead of Nicole, was on the gangway, her case in one hand and her ticket in the other, when an official barred Nicole’s way, pointing at Kim. 

‘Where’s his certificate?’ 

‘Here’s my ticket,’ Nicole said, flourishing it. 

‘No dogs allowed without a health certificate,’ the official said, taking Nicole’s ticket and handing it back to her. 

‘We haven’t got anything for the dog. No one in the shipping office said anything about that,’ Anne said.

Rick and Georgie joined in the pleading to allow Kim on board, but the official was adamant. It was against company rules to take animals aboard without a certificate of good health signed by a qualified vet. Hadn’t they read the small print? He had a closed face and no sympathy whatsoever with their plight. 

‘What shall we do?’ Nicole said. 

‘We’ll have to leave him behind,’ Anne said. 

‘Can’t we find someone to look after him?’ 

‘If you can, of course, but the boat’s leaving in half an hour.’ 

‘All right. You go up and I’ll come and find you.’ 

People behind were becoming restive and Rick, Georgie and Anne continued up the gangway. With her case in one hand and Kim’s lead in the other, Nicole slipped through the crowd. All these people were passengers and there was no point in asking anything of them. In the space behind the crowd, she saw shops and offices. One was selling tickets for different boat journeys. She stepped inside with Kim to find a middle-aged woman in charge. 

‘Please can you give a home to my dog? They won’t let me take him on board.’ 

 The woman’s face, about to smile, grew stern. ‘Non!’ She almost spat out the word. ‘What would my cat say, silly girl!’ 

 Nicole wasted no time on persuasion. Next door was a shop selling fishing tackle. Two men turned towards her as she entered and repeated her request. 

 ‘I’d like to help you. He looks like a nice little dog, but I can’t. My mother wouldn’t stand for it,’ the younger one said. 

 ‘Sorry, my dear. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this war and we can’t take on an extra mouth to feed,’ the older man said. 

Disheartened, Nicole withdrew. No one wanted him. A dog, unlike a car, was of no use at such a time, even in a dog-loving country. How thoughtless she had been in not finding out the rules for taking a dog on board. She was almost in tears as she turned back towards the boat. The crowd had thinned out and the gangway was empty. She tried to persuade the official who had refused to let Kim board to change his mind. It was no good. A rule was a rule and she could see the pleasure with which he repeated it. She looked at the gangway. Could she bolt past the man and onto the boat? She started forwards, with Kim, but then the gangway began to rise. 

‘Stop! Wait for me!’ 

‘Too late, you’ve missed it,’ the official said implacably. 

‘No, no! I’ve got a ticket. My mother is on that boat. I must get on it!’ 

The gangway was rising steadily and sailors on deck were preparing to take it on board. Grinning, the official repeated what he had said. This time, Nicole believed him. Scanning the deck, she could make out her mother, high above her. Anne was looking at the quayside, clearly searching for her, but did not see her at first. Then, she waved. As the boat began to move, Nicole waved back. 

‘I’ll… catch… the… next… one!’ 

Her voice was a scream into the wind. It might have picked up her words and carried them to Anne, but Nicole did not know for certain if her mother had heard her. She watched the boat edge its way into the middle of the Garonne, moving towards the sea. Soon, she could not distinguish anyone on board. She gazed helplessly, screwing up her eyes to see better, as the boat slowly shrank in size. She could not stop looking until it disappeared from her sight because she was remembering the rumour she had heard. Her only consolation was that there did not appear to be any mines in the river. 

Nicole’s War by Andrée Rushton Cover, Photo: Andrée Rushton

Nicoles’ War was published on January 28th 2024.

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Lead photo credit : Bordeaux © ppl / shutterstock

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