The JRB presents an excerpt from TJ Benson’s forthcoming debut novel, The Madhouse.
Penguin Random House South Africa, 2021
Read the excerpt:
She had been so lost in thought that she didn’t concentrate on the route that led here. The house before her was not the one-bedroomer she had imagined. It was big and the white paint had washed off. She used the key to unlock the padlock that held the wire-mesh gate together and walked past the twin palm trees to the doorstep. This wasn’t the time for a young woman to be living alone—she was aware that she would be easy game to inebriated officers—but she inserted the key and turned the lock. The door was pulled out of her hands, inwards and before she could recover from the shock a man was before her, naked but for the yellow square-print wrapper tied round his waist. She swallowed and turned back to the street but Mr Vincent was gone. A long silence ensued, during which the man chewed whatever was in his mouth, looking her up and down as if she was the half-naked one, and swallowing.
‘Are you hungry?’
His voice was nothing like she expected. With his build and facial hair, she had expected a deep mighty bass but it was soft, almost kind.
‘I just finished boiling yam and maize. If you are hungry I get yam and maize.’
‘This is my house!’
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smiled. ‘You are not the first person to come and claim this house. Go and bring your agent or landlord.’
She fished in her bag for her receipt to show him.
He stooped low and squinted to read and said, ‘That is a small amount of money to buy a house.’
She bit her lower lip so that she wouldn’t cry. Mr Vincent’s phone number was on the receipt but you don’t carry telephones out of your house; you don’t put them in your car or fly with their cords trailing after you to Hawaii.
She backed away from the door. ‘I will come back with the police.’
‘At least come in and sit down. Even if you don’t want to eat my yam, there is drinking water. The sun is too hot; at least come and rest a bit.’ He turned and walked back into the house, leaving the door ajar, and after a moment of surprise and confusion she allowed herself to walk in after him, wiping her eyes. The house was a mess: white walls coated with dust, brown cushioned chairs and a ceiling-high bookshelf at the far end of the living room, which looked as if masses of people had taken refuge here in a war. Some books were on a stool beside the chair she sat on, and when she looked closely at the title she was confused.
‘Are you a Moslem?’ she asked when he returned holding an aluminium cup of water in one hand and a plate of two steaming maize cobs in the other. The hot delicious scent of boiled maize perfumed the living room and she involuntarily swallowed. He smiled and she looked away.
‘Why do you want to know?’ he half asked, half chided, never losing his congenial smile as he set the maize on her lap. Receiving the plate with both hands was another involuntary action.
It was hard to be composed with the maize cobs steaming right into her nose. ‘I thought you were Moslem before because of your face, but you are tying wrapper and so I thought you are Igbo.’
‘Because I am yellow, pawpaw, right?’ The smile never wavered. Having placed the plate of maize on her lap and the cup of water by her side, he curled up on the chair beside the stool, legs drawn up under his wrapper, and dropped a pair of black-rimmed glasses on his nose, his other hand reaching for a book he had been reading on his side stool.
‘If you keep looking at me like that I will get shy,’ he said when he caught her eye, almost laughing now, ‘and it is not good for a man to be shy. Plus your maize is getting cold.’
‘This is my house! I just paid the money. I showed you the receipt. Show me proof that this is your house.’
He sighed a long sigh. ‘I was put in charge of this house by the Archbishop of Kaduna North. He took me in like his son when I was in the seminary and—’
‘I thought you said you are a Moslem.’
‘Look, er, what is your name?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Well, if this case gets to court I must still know your name.’
‘As I said, it is none of your business.’
‘You can sleep here if you want. There are three rooms in this house. It seems you have been duped and if that is the case you need time to calm down.’
She would always go back to this first encounter, inspecting it for precursors to the turn of their lives. She would always revisit the conversation and, most acutely, the solitude of the house in those days when there were no children in it and fewer people living in Sabon Geri. She moved into the first room she saw that day and spent the following week cleaning and dusting, deciding what to keep and what to throw away. It was in the hustle of this activity that she discovered the tins of paint but they were inconsequential then. It was as if she was the only one in the house; he avoided her and she was glad. She was starting to enjoy herself. The light rustle of the twin palm tree fronds in front at high noon, the murmur of creatures from the forest, the sigh of the kitchen door when she closed it—the sound of something grateful, old and satisfied.
- TJ Benson is a writer and visual artist who explores the body in the context of memory, migration, utopia and the unconscious self. His work has been exhibited and published in several journals and shortlisted for awards, winning the AMAB-HBF Prize and being placed as first runner-up for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. His well received short story collection, We Won’t Fade into Darkness, was published in 2018. He currently lives in an apartment full of plants and is on the verge of becoming a cat person.
‘Unique and colourfully eccentric, the inhabitants of The Madhouse—Sweet Mother, Shariff, Max, André and Ladidi—come together to create a mesmerising kaleidoscopic story that will grab hold of you and never let you go.’—Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
The dazzling story of a Nigerian family.
The house at the end of Freetown Street in Nigeria’s Sabon Gari was once a sanatorium for colonists deranged from the heat and insanity of the place. Now it is home to a family whose unorthodox lives unfold into legend: Sweet Mother, an artist, her husband Shariff, a writer and soldier, and their children André and Max.
From the moment his baby brother André is born, Max attaches himself to him, even dreaming the boy’s homicidal dreams. When the wayward André later pulls free from the family to join a death cult, Max must decide how far he will be drawn into his brother’s web.
Serene and beautiful, Ladidi joins the family as a foster child, promis ing to marry the boy at school who can bring her a strawberry, a fruit she has never tasted.
Sensuality blooms, along with loss of innocence amid the death of music legend Fela Kuti, massacres, disappearances, abductions and broken promises.
While Sweet Mother and Shariff battle their personal demons, Max realises you cannot save your family. But can you ever escape them?
In his exhilarating debut, TJ Benson conjures up a kaleidoscope of Nigeria. This is the extraordinary tale of five people bound by blood, each searching for a way through.