She enters, takes her seat without looking at him, and closes her eyes. From outside the windows she can hear the sound of traffic and the uneven dripping of rain. A depressed, empty sound. He clears his throat.
”Come sta? I hope you will be able to talk to me today. I am going to put the tape recorder on again. Just in case.” He smiles, a thin-lipped smile that is not reflected in his eyes.
Her mind hears his words but she feels no need to respond. She can’t stop her ears from hearing, but she can block her reactions to the words.
“Vede, Signorina, posso chiamarti Anna, vero? Vedi Anna, you are in a lot of trouble. You need to help us to help you. Devi parlare.”
She opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. She is aware of his eyes constantly on her, following her breathing, watching her every reaction, trying to get inside, to penetrate beneath the skin.
”I’ve been looking at your folder. La cartella clinica. Very interesting. I’m interested in your childhood. Your parents, for instance. Your father.”
For a moment she stops breathing. He has noticed her reaction. Memory floods through her. She is ten. She has come home from school thinking the house will be empty as usual and that she will have to make herself some lunch and then do her homework. She doesn’t notice her father’s car parked outside under the tree. He has decided on an impulse to take them to the beach. Why he has decided this she never knows; he hasn’t been to the beach with them since she was very small. But this day he is determined. She and her brothers are reluctant to go anywhere with him. He senses this and grows angry.
Will you bloody kids get into that bloody car at once? How do you say no?
They eventually drag themselves outside to where he stands waiting. What he had wanted to be a happy, fun-filled outing is already turning sour.
As usual his huge black vintage car won’t start. He turns the key in the ignition time after time, pressing the starter, but the car just keeps balking at his efforts, refusing to catch. Secretly they begin to hope there will be a reprieve.
Get out and push!
So they all get out and push the car down the hill with him trying all the time to start it. Suddenly, about a mile down the road, where the road has already turned to a gravel track rough under their bare feet, with proteas high on each side and the smell of buchu strong in their nostrils, the car shudders into life with a roar. He puts his foot on the accelerator to warm up the motor, blasting the wilderness with black smoke and fumes. They all jump in, he turns the car on the track with difficulty, and then roars back into the village and on over the hills covered with young green wheat and then down through the rough coastal scrub to the beach.
It is late afternoon by the time they arrive. A few fishermen stand on the long white beach casting their lines out into the surf. Even though it is the middle of winter and their shadows are tall, the sun is warm on their bare legs and arms. The boys dive into the icy water and swim briskly for a few minutes, then come out puffing and covered in goosebumps. The light catches the drops of water in their hair and lights up their faces like haloes. They run up and down the beach to get dry. They start quarrelling as usual, their aggression and frustration more easily unleashed on each other.
He stays near the car, taking slugs from a plain medicine bottle filled with a transparent liquid. After a while he sets off, rather unsteadily now, towards the water’s edge, where he has noticed some fishermen pulling in a catch.
What did you get? he asks them, slurring slightly.
Dis ’n haai. They point at the rough grey shark still struggling on the sand.
Hey, kids, come here. Come and look at this.
Their hearts drop but they go and look. They know it is best not to defy him in public.
Wouldn’t it be bloody funny to have a shark in our fish pond, hey? Let’s take it home. Can you imagine what the cat will do when it tries to drink and sees a fin coming towards it in the water? It’ll be bloody funny.
They are embarrassed, humiliated at being part of him, of his absurd ideas, of his slurred speech. His shame is their shame. They wish they could disappear.
She opens her eyes and sees him watching her carefully. He looks frustrated, bored. She closes her eyes and lets her thoughts slip back to the past.
Her father negotiates a price and they lug the still squirming creature back to the car. By this time he is staggering slightly.
Who wants to drive? He points at her fourteen-year-old brother. You drive.
David is small for his age and can barely see over the dashboard or reach the pedals with his feet. From where she stands outside the car, it looks as if no one is driving.
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Even as she remembers this, she feels her stomach turning. She pulls the cushion out from behind her back and snuggles it against her body. But the memory keeps coming. They all pile in, their father in the back. He is drinking steadily and openly now, and is barely coherent. No one says a word. It is growing dark quickly, and her legs have turned mottled with the cold. Blue and pink and white. Sand scratches her thighs where they rub against the leather seat. She feels a tight bitter anger in her chest.
Sitting as tall as he can, David drives slowly down between the dunes and along the shady avenue of bluegum trees. The cold dusty scent of eucalyptus fills the car. He doesn’t notice the police car parked by the side of the road in the long shadow of the trees. Only when he hears the siren behind him does he turn his head and see the policeman signalling him to stop.
Dad, it’s the cops!
Oh Christ! Quick, hide the liquor!
They push the brown medicine bottles under the seat and sit paralysed, waiting. An overweight policeman saunters up to the door of the car.
License please, lisensie asseblief.
Her father opens the door on the far side, trips and falls out on to the ground. He pushes himself to his knees and then unsteadily to his feet. He holds on to the door of the car for balance.
Listen here, officer, my son’s just having a driving lesson.
The policeman studies him, and then inspects each of the children in turn. No one says a word. Meneer, you are drunk. Come with me. Don’t you kids move!
They sit in the dark vehicle and wait. They isolate themselves within themselves and don’t see their father being led away.
After what seems like a very long time of cold and dark, the policeman returns and points at David.
You, seuntjie, come with me.
A different policeman gets into the car without saying a word and drives the two remaining children over the dark hills to home. The car pulls up at last outside the house and they slip out while the policeman speaks to their mother in a low serious voice. As on so many other occasions, she doesn’t know what the outcome of this episode was. It is blanked out in her memory.
It is now almost completely dark in the room. She breathes deeply, flicks an invisible spot of dust off her jeans. He sits forward and looks at the small clock on the table beside her.
”È quasi ora. Dobbiamo finire. Ma riprenderemo domani. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stands and shows her to the door.
© Penny Busetto
About the book
This sparse, disturbing novel reflects the past, present, and future of a woman, Anna P, who lives on an island off the coast of Italy but can no longer remember how she got there. She comes from South Africa but has almost no memories of the place or people there. The only person she has any relationship with is a sex worker whom she pays by the hour. She has abusive encounters with unknown men, and it is not clear whether she occasionally kills these men or not. It is only when she begins to connect emotionally with a young boy in her accidental care that she finds some value in herself, some place which she will not allow to be abused, and her life gradually changes. This meticulously crafted debut asks a number of difficult questions about the nature of memory: Who are we if we lose our memories? What does it mean to have no identity? And if we have no identity, no sense of ourselves, how can we make any ethical choices? The answers may not comfort the reader, but The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself grounds such existential ponderings in a rich imaginative landscape that will linger with the reader long after the last page is read.
The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself was awarded the 2013 European Union Literary Award as well as the 2014 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize. The book was one of the three titles that made the shortlist of the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2015.
- Penny Busetto is a South African writer known for her 2014 novel The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself.
- Busetto was born in Durban, South Africa, and grew up in Cape Town.
- She moved to Italy when she was 17, where she studied, worked, married and lived for many years, moving from Perugia to Bologna to Milan and finally to Tuscany.
- She moved back to Cape Town in 1996, where she lives with her son.
- She is currently pursuing her doctorate in English and psychology, and has stated that the title character of her debut novel, Anna P, is somewhat inspired by Anna O, one of the first people to undergo psychoanalysis.