Story of Anna P by Penny Busetto

EXTRACT: The Story of Anna P as Told By Herself by Penny Busetto

An extract from the EU Literary Award-winning debut novel

Thursday 25 October
School. Home. I have a cheese sandwich for lunch.
At last I pull out some paper and my paints.
I clear the table so that I can work without worrying about
knocking things over or messing them. I put down some sheets
of newspaper and set out my paints and colours. For some
time now I have been obsessed with painting self-portraits.
I have hung them about my apartment and they now cover
every surface and in places are doubled up even, since there is
nowhere else to hang them: small ones, large ones, in oils, in
inks, in watercolours. The eyes follow me constantly, watching,
judging. They are not soft, there is no compassion in this gaze
I turn on myself.
Today too I feel a need to paint a self-portrait, to capture
something about myself that doesn’t feel very clear to my
understanding, some microscopic shift. I hold a small mirror
in my left hand and paint with the fingers of my right, trying
to trace the lines, the darkness and light that I see reflected. I
have begun to know the shapes well. I work swiftly, the lines
already so familiar to me, the deeply etched frown that pulls
my eyebrows close to protect my eyes from the glare, the dark
shadows under the eyes. This is the core of my face, of my
portraits, that I paint again and again, often not bothering
with the other features, which feel less distinct.
This time the colours run and blend in places and my
expression comes out particularly dark and anxious-looking.
I suddenly feel exhausted. I pack everything away and lie
down on my bed, hoping to make time pass, hoping that it
will soon be night and that I can end this day, which hasn’t
been a particularly bad day, so I am not sure why I am feeling
so scratchy. I look at my watch. Only an hour has passed. It is
only five o’clock. Three hours to go before supper. Six hours
before bedtime. How am I going to fill this time?
I put my hands into my pockets in boredom. They are full of
junk as usual. I pull out the contents and examine them dully.
Amongst the crumpled tissues and odd coins I find a receipt.
It is from a hotel in Rome. Pensione Arcadia. It is made out
to my name. Strange, I have no memory at all of having been
there.
I fall into a troubled sleep.

Friday 26 October
On Friday afternoon I take the 2.30 ferry to Anzio. The sun
is hazy over the sea, high cirrus clouds filter and obscure the
light but the glare is painful to my eyes. Spaces in between,
transitions. I take the bus in rush-hour traffic, where bodies are
stacked, piled into the little standing space and pressed up tight
against one another. And after a while I feel an anonymous
hand touch me, grope, then slide under my skirt. La mano
morta, as they call it here, the dead hand. I try to move away
but the disembodied hand follows me so I eventually get off
in the square a few stops away from Via San V. and walk
the rest of the distance to the Questura, my feet echoing on
the pavement. The rubbish bins, the cassonetti, are full and
garbage is overflowing on to the pavement. Some of the bags
have been torn open and orange peels and coffee grinds litter
the ground. I stop breathing as I walk past, but it takes too
long and when I am forced to take a deep breath the smell of
decomposition fills my lungs.
Outside the building, tired-looking people hang around
waiting, leaning against the iron railings or smoking nervously.
It is impossible to distinguish the bystanders and informers
from the plainclothes policemen, scruffy and unkempt, who
wait with them, attempting to infiltrate their lives.
I go into the dusty drab shabbiness of the Ufficio Stranieri
of the Questura, the immigration section, the high wooden
counter at which lines of people wait, day in, day out, mostly
immigrants hoping for a break, hoping that today, at last, all
the documents they need will miraculously come together and
the file will be complete and they will be given the permesso di
soggiorno that will allow them access to the land of milk and
honey, to the stability that makes possible memory and hope,
which are so tenuous even here but impossible in their places
of origin. Africa, Asia, Middle East, South America, Central
America, Eastern Europe. Just about anywhere except for this
small haven of privilege here where they are trying to find a
space, a tiny harbour that will take them in and give them rest.
A place that will allow them to collect themselves and their
memories and aspirations and make a story, a narrative that
will give meaning to their fragmented lives.
I join the queue, the dark-skinned, anxious, exhaustedlooking
queue of extracomunitari and wait, like all the others,
patiently, part of the herd. A woman in front of me in the
queue is giving the breast to her infant as she stands, naturally,
unconcerned about her public nakedness, unconscious of the
hungry looks of the men, the lewd comments. I step up to the
counter where there is a sign saying EXTRACOMUNITARI
in capital letters, and ask for Ispettore Lupo. I am told to wait.
I sit down on the graffiti-covered bench against the wall and
wait. Nothing happens. After an hour I rejoin the queue, and
when my turn comes, repeat my request. Once again I am
told, more impatiently this time, to wait. I return to the bench
feeling heavy and tired and anxious.
The queue has grown shorter and at last straggles to an end.
I return to the counter and struggle to catch the attention of
one of the police clerks. He looks at me in irritation.
– Che c’è ancora? What is it this time?
I tell him I am waiting to see Ispettore Lupo.
– È già andato via. He’s left. Come back on Monday.
As I walk back towards the bus stop my eyes catch sight of
a small sign on an old building. Pensione Arcadia. I suddenly
remember the receipt I found in my pocket yesterday. I look up
at the building but there is nothing to be seen, just the brass
plaque with the name and the single star beneath it.
I stand outside on the pavement, trying to understand. It
disturbs me not to be able to remember. I know I have been here
before, but it’s a feeling on my skin like a ripple of recognition
rather than a memory that I can locate. I try to push against the
resistances of my mind a little, try to force the images to come.
But it’s like having a word on the tip of your tongue. I will have
to wait for it to come of its own accord.
I wander on along the street. The plane trees are bare now,
their trunks livid grey in the pale light of the street lamps. I
remember reading somewhere that they will all have to be cut
down soon, that they are hollowed out from within, diseased,
their hearts dead. Their falling branches represent a danger to
pedestrians and motorists.
Heavy traffic inches past, emitting clouds of exhaust fumes
into the already polluted air. I am uncertain what to do. There
are other people standing around like me and I realise that they
are waiting for a bus. After a few minutes one arrives. I follow
them on board and take a seat near the window. I watch the
familiar streets pass by. I get off near Castel Sant’Angelo and
walk down near the river, which glides past greasily after the
October rains. Two canoes pass under the bridge near the far
bank, the oarsmen rowing in unison, thin black shadows, their
reflections repeating their shapes on the black waters.
It is dark as I walk back through the narrow streets towards
the bus terminus. Under the deep porticoes figures emerge and
retreat into the shadows. Women, mouths gaping in rage or
laughter, pace to and fro in the cold night air. Their eyes meet
mine, and then pass on, immediately excluding me as a client.
An old man with a purple nose comes up to me, his tongue
out, lips wet and covered in spittle, and rubs his fingers in my
face, the age-old symbol of money, and I shake my head in
confusion and turn away. Dark bird-shapes wing silently, just
beyond vision, no more than a presence.
Cars sidle by, one stops. A woman steps up to the open
window, takes in the details of the driver’s lust. Sometimes this
will be all he requires and he will speed away to spill his seed
alone. Others, more literal, will invite her in and consummate
their passion on the back seat of the car in the piazzale around
the corner.
I pull my threadbare corduroy coat tighter around me,
feeling the cold filter up into the sleeves and down the neck.
I wrap my scarf up around my face so that only my eyes can
be seen above the scratchy fabric. I feel conspicuous and try
to pass by as quickly as I can. At last I see Sabrina. There is
recognition, a half-smile, and the woman turns and leads the
way towards a small hotel a block away. I follow.

Extracted from The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself , published by Jacana and available from Kalahari.com.

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