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Henrietta Rose-Innes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

20/20: A tiny story made of 50 first lines

20yrs-Logo_vekAnd they said it couldn’t be done! Behold: a gloomy tale made up of the first lines of each of the Twenty in 20 longlist: the Best Short Stories of South Africa’s Democracy. (Some small liberties taken).






Once upon our time

8th of June 2004

Rokytnice nad Jizerou, Czech Republic

The time is 16H00. It is the beginning of autumn. By the time you read this letter, I will be dead.

It is annoying, to keep telling the story of a woman tormented by her husband. I guess you won’t believe me, either. But all these years I’ve watched quietly, listened silently, to one side of the story.

I came to South Africa to survive. When I was twenty-one I went down to the Cape – you were a fool not to join me. (Claremont Park on a late summer’s afternoon: now that is one helluva place to smoke dagga.) I told my family I was going to America.

It is always, as they say, by chance. When I was combating a bout of loneliness, a new neighbour moved in next door. Before, it had always been a good road.

Ernest Sibanda. The chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz. The baby-soft feel of the touch of his hand, the velvety sheen of the skin of his face … sunbrowned and outdoorsy. (My skin is sallow, almost grey, when I stand in the darkness, something I do often.)

“So what’s your secret?”

From the moment we touched, I was hooked. Like a veld fire, the fever swept through me. An earthquake; a celestial event. Apocalyptic warnings.

He was a devil, who taught me about wickedness. To tell the truth, when he hit me that time, in my face, I wasn’t surprised: just grateful for the map of the future he offered me. The morning after the argument, I woke early and knew I wouldn’t sleep again.

Sleep is already distant. The images burn and keep burning: run dry on the highway, lost in the dead of night.

Let’s hope being a bastard skips a generation. Beneath the Christmas tree that tilts in the empty fireplace lie four identically sized presents, covered in zebra-skin wrapping-paper and shiny plastic. Cyprian is a sickly boy; he likes the sheets tucked in, so that when he gets into bed, it’s like slipping into an envelope, tight. No swell.

I don’t want them to touch each other.

Wind tugs at the house and slams against the windows. My cell phone starts beeping. It’s time.

I’m a runner. That’s the role I’ve given myself. I run a bath for myself and for your memory in my head. It gets the blood going, my dear.

I hate this stuff.

I shoulder my chainsaw.

Forgive me.

Mary Whitaker


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    July 7th, 2014 @16:20 #

    This is amazing. Henrietta, you are a legend.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    July 7th, 2014 @16:34 #


  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 7th, 2014 @16:34 #

    This is *awesome* - !!

  • Jennifer
    July 7th, 2014 @16:37 #

    This is just about the coolest thing ever.

  • Good Book
    Good Book
    July 7th, 2014 @22:02 #

    I really love this.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 7th, 2014 @22:56 #

    Sheer genius.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Nozizwe Cynthia</a>
    Nozizwe Cynthia
    July 8th, 2014 @09:01 #

    This is so cool. Poor Mary.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    July 8th, 2014 @10:26 #

    This is just incredible. Love it, Henrietta.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    July 8th, 2014 @12:54 #

    Legend. True genius. The dark heart of SA fiction exposed.

  • Maire
    July 9th, 2014 @12:10 #

    Brilliant! With a touch of chill.


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