Read the opening of Robert Dinsdale‘s latest novel, Gingerbread – a savage and moving fairytale of Stalinist Russia…
When the car comes to a halt, the boy stirs from his slumber. The very first thing he sees is his mama’s face, peering at him through the mirror. She has it angled, so that it doesn’t show the sweeping headlights spreading their colour on the fogged glass, but shows her own features instead. Mama is tall and elegant, with hair at once yellow and grey, and blue eyes just the same as the boy’s. In the thin mirror shard, she traces the dark line under one of those eyes with the tip of a broken fingernail, then spreads it as if she might be able to see more deeply within.
The boy shifts, only to let mama know he is awake. Outside, unseen cars hurtle past.
‘Are we there, mama?’
His mother looks back. She has not been wearing a seatbelt – but, then, the hospital told her she wasn’t to drive the car at all. This, she said as she buckled him in, would have to be their very own secret.
‘Come on, little man. If I remember your Grandfather, he’ll have milk on the stove.’
Mama is first out of the car. Inside, the boy sees her blurred silhouette circle around to help him out. It is not snowing tonight, though mama says it is snowing surely out in the wilds; in the city it is only slush, and that pale snow called sleet. It has fingers of ice and it claws at the boy.
Mama helps him down and crouches to straighten his scarf. Then it is up and over and into the tenement yard. On one side, the road rushes past, with rapids as fearful as any river, while on the other the yard is encased by three sheer walls of brick. Eyes gaze down from every wall, half of them scabbed over by black plastic sheeting, the others alight in a succession of drab oranges and reds.
The tenement is a kind of castle where Grandfather lives. Mama says the boy has been here before, but that was in a time he cannot remember, and might even have been before he was born. Together, they cross the yard, to follow an archway of brick and cement stairs to the levels above. The path goes all the way around the building, like a trail climbing a mountain, and at intervals the boy can peer down to see the car itself dwindling below.
At last, three storeys up, mama stops.
‘Come here,’ she says, and there is something in her voice which makes him cling to her without hesitation.
They are standing before a door of varnished brown, with a threadbare mat on which stand two gleaming ebony boots.The boy is marvelling at these things that seem so old when his mama raps at the door. An interminable time later, the door draws back.
‘Vika,’ comes a low, weathered voice.
The boy’s eyes drift up from the boots, up the length of mama’s body, up the doorjamb broken by hinges. In the doorway, hunches his Grandfather. He seems a shrunken thing, though he is taller than mama, and taller still than the boy. On his head there is little hair, only a fringe of white hanging from behind, and his face is dominated by features that seem too large and out-of-place: a nose with a jagged crest; blue eyes shining, but eye sockets deep and dark. He is wearing a flannel nightgown, burgundy, tied up with a black leather belt, and though his eyes dwell first on mama, they drop second to the boy. He shuffles closer to mama’s legs, and it is only then that he realizes that Grandfather’s eyes have dropped further, to the boots on the mat.
‘My jackboots,’ he says. ‘They’re finished. Bring them, would you, boy?’ Grandfather turns to shuffle inside. ‘Oh, Vika . . .’
‘We’ll talk soon, papa.’
After mama has gone in, the boy picks up the jackboots and follows.
It is a small place, with a narrow hall and a kitchen at the end. Mama and Grandfather are already in that kitchen, with a pan rattling on the stove, but the boy creeps up quietly, stealing a look at the photographs adorning the walls. In them he sees people he does not know: a mama and a papa and a baby girl; banks of men in uniforms wearing jackboots just the same as those in his hands. He stops to scrutinize the grainy images, and sees long shadows cast at the end of the hall: the malformed shapes of his mama and Grandfather waltzing in the small kitchenette.
‘No,’ Grandfather says, the word stressed by the clatter of pans. ‘I won’t hear it, Vika. You were foolish coming here. It’s giving in. It’s weakness. I didn’t bring you up just to let you give in.’
‘It isn’t weakness, papa. It’s cancer.’
On the tolling of that word, the boy appears in the kitchen door. It is a small room, with a stove in its centre and a ragged countertop running around its wall. Pots are piled up haphaz- ardly in a simple tin sink.
Across the stove, Grandfather’s hand trembles as he lifts a pan. His eyes, desolate, fall on the boy. ‘I made you a hot milk,’ he breathes.
But mama puts an arm around him, and ushers him back into the hall. ‘Come on. I’ll show you your new room.’
There are two bedrooms around a turn in the hallway, and a third little corner with a gas fire and a rocking chair for sitting. Mama ushers him to its furthest end, past yet more photographs of times beyond the boy’s memory.
The room at the end is empty but for a bed with two bunks and a chipped wooden horse standing on the window ledge. As they go through the door, his mama reaches for the light – but no bulb buzzes overhead. Still, she coaxes him in. Setting down the bag from her shoulder, she unrolls a simple set of bedclothes.
‘What do you think?’
‘It isn’t the same as at home.’
‘It’s my home. This is where your mama used to sleep.’ Mama goes to lie on the bed. It is a ridiculous thing to think she might once have slept in it, because even the boy can see she is too big.
Mama sits up, turns back to the pillow at which the boy is pointing. Where she lay her head, the pillow has kept a neat lock of her hair.
‘Oh, mama,’ whispers the boy.
In two simple strides she is across the room, snatching up the wooden horse from the ledge. She gestures the boy over and, torn between his mama and the hair she left behind, it takes a moment before he complies.
‘This,’ says mama, ‘is my little Russian horse.’
The boy takes it. Once it was painted a brilliant white, with ebony points and a tail of real horsehair, plucked – or so the boy imagines – from the mane of some wild forest mare. Now its paint is dirty and in patches bare, its golden halter a murky brown. The chip above the left eye has given the trinket a look of immeasurable sadness, and the red around its open mouth looks bloody, as if the horse might have come alive in the dead of night and made a feast out of the woodlice who carve their empires in the fringes of the room.
‘It was a present from my mama, and now it’s yours.’
But the boy blurts out, ‘I don’t want it to be mine. It’s yours, mama. You have to look after it.’
The boy grapples to push it back into her hands. Even so, mama’s hands remain closed.
‘You’ll look after him, and your papa will look after you.’
The boy accepts the Russian horse, feeling its chips beneath his fingers.
‘But who will look after you, mama?’
Mama crouches to plant a single dry kiss on his cheek. Once, her lips were full and wet. ‘Get dressed for bed. I have to speak to your papa.’
After she is gone, the boy sits with the little Russian horse. By turning him in the light from the streetlamps below, he can cast different shadows on the wall: one minute, a friendly forest mare; the next, a monstrous warhorse rising from its forelegs with jaws flashing wild.
He does not get into his nightclothes and he does not climb under the blanket. To do either would mean he would not see mama again until morning, and he knows he must see as much of mama as he can. When he hears voices, he steals back to the bedroom door and out, back past the banks of photographs, back through memories and generations, to the cusp of the kitchen.
His mama’s voice, with its familiar tone of trembling resolve: ‘Promise me, papa.’
‘I promise to care for the boy. Isn’t that enough?’
‘I want to be with my mother.’
‘Vika . . .’
‘After it’s done, papa, you take me to that place and scatter what’s left of me with her. You listen to me now . . .’
‘You shouldn’t speak of such things.’
‘Well, what else am I to do, papa?’
His mother has barked the words. Shocked, the boy looks down. His shadow is betraying him, creeping into the kitchen even as he hides himself around the corner.
‘I miss her, papa. On her grave, I haven’t asked you for a single thing, not one, not since the boy was born . . .’
‘Vika, please . . .’
‘You do this thing for me, and we’re done. I won’t ask you for anything else.’
‘It has to be there?’
When mama speaks next, the fight is gone from her words. They wither on her tongue.
‘Vika,’ Grandfather begins, ‘I promise. I’ll look after the boy. I’ll take you to your mother. And, Vika, I’ll look after you. I’ll hold you when it happens.’
Then comes the most mournful sound in all of the tenement, the city, the world itself: in a little kitchenette, piled high with pans, his mama is sobbing. Her words fray apart, the sounds disintegrate, and into the void comes a wet and sticky cacophony, of syllables, letters and phlegm.
When he peeps around the corner, Grandfather is holding her in an ugly embrace, like a man in a patchwork suit at once too big and too small.
‘And you don’t let him see,’ mama’s words rise out of the wetness. ‘When it happens, you make sure he doesn’t see.’
Taken from Gingerbread, by Robert Dinsdale
Our Booksellers say: “This is an unforgiving book, as brutal and twisted as the stories that weave through the lives of Alek and his Papa, and yet remains one of the most perfectly beautiful things I have read this year.” Becky, Waterstones Bedford
You can Reserve & Collect Gingerbread from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1kyimUK), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1kyim72) or download it in ePub format from Thursday.