In this extract, Anna is standing in a bread queue in freezing temperatures, waiting to receive the bread ration for the Levin family. Food shortages are very severe, and hopes are pinned on the one remaining route by which food supplies reach Leningrad, which is the so-called ‘Ice Road’ over Lake Ladoga. But this route is so dangerous that very often supply trucks do not get through.
Sacks of flour, meat essence, butter, tinned fish, cereals, ammunition, baby milk. Anna wills the trucks forward. They must come whatever happens, over hundreds of kilometres of emergency track built over the Ladoga marshlands, and over the ice by truck on to the railway that will bring them to Leningrad. The German pincers can’t quite close on this last supply route. They bomb it whenever the sky clears, but winter is on our side. The ice grows thicker. Engines groan as the trucks labour on. It is twenty degrees below zero out on the ice, and the wind blows hard, stripping heat from men and machines. The sacks of flour are tightly packed, but even so they judder as the trucks judder.
These are not sacks of flour, but days of life. If a truck rolls into a crevasse, this number of people will die. If a truck gets through, this number will live. Kolya will grab his bread. Anna will give it to him bit by bit, to make sure that he chews it properly instead of swallowing it like a dog. He must chew, in order to extract every morsel of goodness from the bread. She will smear it with a few drops of the sunflower oil she bartered for her mother’s sheepskin coat. Kolya’s whole life is in his mouth.
The bread queue surges. It’s arrived, the bread which is still called bread even when it’s mostly cellulose and warehouse sweepings. The smell of it drifts out as if from the lips of heaven.
Anna shuffles forward, feeling for the ration cards where they lie in the secret pocket she has sewn into the lining of her coat. She won't take the cards out until the moment when she’s at the head of the queue. Ration cards are not like gold: they are so far above gold that you can’t even make the comparison. Before she even picks up her bread, she’ll hide the cards again. If there are thieves about, better lose one day’s ration than the cards. You can survive a day without bread, just about, but you can’t survive without ration cards until the end of the month. She and Marina have discussed over and over again the risks of Anna collecting the rations for the whole family. What if she fainted, and was robbed of the cards? It would be safer if she and Marina went together. But someone must stay with her father, and Kolya. And although Anna doesn’t say it, she knows she is now the only one with the strength for the daily walk to the bakery, and for hours of queuing. Marina’s cough is bad.
Anna prepares for her daily walk to the bakery as carefully as a marathon runner. She eats the quarter-slice of bread she has saved from her ration, and tucks another quarter-slice into her pocket to eat if she begins to feel dizzy. She drinks a glass of hot water with a pinch of salt. She warms her jacket, coat, gloves and scarf at the burzhuika before putting them on. She heats foot-cloths, wraps them around her feet, and then puts on her father’s felt boots. She does everything slowly, according to a set pattern.
She always takes her father’s cherry wood walking stick to the bread queue. If she slipped on the uncleared ice and snow, she might never be able to get up again. And besides, the solidity of the stick in her hand is good. If someone tried to rob her, she would hit them with it. She’s seen people grappling in the snow, fighting in slow-motion over a crust of bread.
She swathes her face with her shawl until only her eyes show. Each time, before Anna leaves, Marina makes the sign of the cross over her. The gesture means nothing to Anna, and a few weeks earlier it would have irritated her, but now she lets Marina do it. It’s another part of the ritual of setting out.
‘Be careful!’ they all say.
‘Be careful, Anna,’ pipes Kolya, staring at her from the mattress where Marina has laid out his fort and toy soldiers. Sometimes he strokes his toys, but he hasn’t the energy to play with them any more.