It was 6am on Saturday morning and already the sun shone brightly in the sky. June in the Russian north was as warm as December was cold.
Natasha started to comb her long brown hair. The summer holidays had started and weeks of free time stretched ahead of her, but she was not happy. She lived in a small village and the entire school fitted into one class. While the older kids had gone to summer camp, Natasha had kicked up a big fuss and refused to go.
There was only a little gang of infants left. Natasha thought they were sweet but her heart sank at the thought of a whole summer being the big sister to them. She remembered last year, it had been weeks and weeks of mud pies and drying their tears after they had poked at the wrong insect nests.
I wish I could have an adventure, thought Natasha, but nothing exciting ever happens.
The letterbox clattered and her dad ran down the stairs. There was a pause and then he burst into the room, waving a letter.
‘Wonderful news!’ Dad cried, he looked happier than he had done in ages, ‘a job, and a good one.’
A happy tingle flared in Natasha. Her dad used to work as an engineer, but he had not had a proper job in a long time. She could almost see the strain lift from him. Although he hadn’t told her, Natasha had realised money had been running out; it was why she had pretended she didn’t want to go to camp. But that had changed. It was like a day when the sun shone and nothing could go wrong.
‘Natasha,’ said Dad. ‘It’s a six-month contract repairing machines on an oilfield. I’ve talked to Deda and you’ll stay with him.’
A great dark cloud flew across her mind. Natasha tried not to let her dad see how sad this news made her. Her grandfather was lovely but staying with him would mean living in Horridgrad for six months! Horridgrad was a medium-sized town, but compared to her little village, it was big and scary.
‘Can’t I stay here? I can take care of myself.’
‘Natasha, you’re nine.’ Her father shook his head.
Natasha thought about asking why Grandfather couldn’t come and look after her in their house, but she knew her grandfather would never leave Horridgrad, no matter how bad it got.
The days passed too quickly for Natasha and soon it was time to go. One evening her dad packed her bags and loaded them into the boot of their little car and they set off. As they drove away, she looked back at their old house and gave a small sigh.
I’m on a big adventure; it’ll be fun, she told herself and tried hard to believe it. But she felt small, and not a bit adventurous.
After an hour, the open fields were replaced by buildings. They drove past unhappy factories that fell apart. On the street corners, shadowy groups of people stood around fires, huge shadows danced on the blood-red walls. Sirens wailed as police cars darted urgently through the gloom.
The dark streets with boarded-up shops made her mouth a little dry and she locked her door and sank a little deeper into her seat. She closed her eyes and tried to think happy thoughts.
It was late when they arrived at Grandfather’s block of flats and Dad carried a sleeping Natasha inside.