The JRB presents an excerpt from Tiger Work, the latest collection of poems, fables, and essays from Ben Okri.
Head of Zeus, 2023
The House Below
The mother and her three sons lived in a small flat in a two-storey building. There was a marsh in front of their house, where mosquitoes bred. Their house was on a little street off the main road. It used to be a dirt track, but cars and lorries now made it useable.
There were workshops along the street where the bodyworks of the big yellow buses of Lagos were built. In the mornings sparks flew from welding equipment. The mechanics, as they were called, never wore any face guards.
There was an abattoir towards the middle of the street. Next to it was a school. The school had no doors or windows. Its walls were raw unplastered cement bricks. Goats that were to be slaughtered were tethered in the school building after class hours. The goats never liked being tethered there. They seemed terrified and reared and tugged at the ropes whenever anyone came near them. It was as if they sensed the imminence of their deaths. The children went to school in a place haunted by dead animals.
The mother and her sons lived in the house opposite the school. The building was not as old as it looked. The landlord also owned the house next door, a long bungalow crammed with tenants who had large families. Sometimes as many as seven people lived in one room.
The mother rented a two-room flat on the ground floor of the main house. There was another family at the back, but she didn’t see them often. The rooms were small. She made the first into a living room and the second into a bedroom. These rooms held all the contents of a life that spanned two continents. She slept in the inner room, while her sons slept on the sofa and on mats on the floor of the outer room.
The house had been built as part of the scramble for land that happened as the city expanded. Without original permits, and with papers often put together after some bribe to the right people in the department of land development, landlords built houses wherever they found space. There was little town planning back then. That came later. Roads grew from paths that were once tracks that led to hamlets and isolated communities in the bush. The city expanded and encompassed the communities. The tracks used by cows and goats became paths and then roads. They had never been tarred and became hard and dusty in the dry season and turned to mud when it rained.
The houses were haphazardly built. Some would be at an angle to the road. Then others would be set in complete contradiction to those. The angles were all wrong but no one cared. A comprehensive survey of the land had never been done, and streets sprang up because someone stuck a name on a plank of wood. That sign became the street’s name. Sometimes streets acquired their names through rumour or through proximity to some factory or a notable place in the neighbourhood, which could be a celebrated buka or a local market.
When the mother moved into the house, it was a fine-looking building. It was mustard-coloured and four-square in the bright sunlight. Within a year, its paint had faded to a mouse-grey colour, the colour of dirt and mud and finger stains. The doors were blue and the roof was of solid zinc. It was the first building you saw from the bus stop across the marshland.
To deter thieves, it had a grey wall round its perimeter. All the windows had metal grilles with locks so they couldn’t be opened from the outside. The wall had barbed wire running along its top, and from within it looked as if you were not in your house but inside a small prison.
By the second year the colour of the doors had faded and the toilet had become clogged. But the strangest thing of all, which no one noticed for a long time, was that when they went out of the house they found the world aslant, out of kilter. For a long time the family had the certainty that the land had been wrenched from its original orientation. They sensed it every day when they went out, whether it was to work or school. It was only when they came back home that the world made sense again.
The family were kept close by the skewing of the world, the broken axis of things. They drew close together and told one another stories. They reinforced themselves with a mythology of the family created every day. It meant little to them that they lived on the edge of desperation. The mother worked hard at maintaining her dignity against the outrages of an undignified world. These things only strengthened their mythology, only deepened the intensity of their closeness.
Outside the house, the world was disintegrating. No one seemed to notice. More houses were built in the mind-boggling disorder of the area. Some people built houses that projected right into the street.
Some built their houses at street corners, forcing people to navigate their way round the obstacle of their property. Foundations were sunk into the ground and metal poles stuck up out of the earth and concrete mixers whirled outside the yard. And before you knew it a two-storey building sprang up, waiting to be weighed down with families burdened with poverty.
Front rooms became beer parlours or carpenters’ sheds or barber shops. Neon-lit signboards appeared advertising some new establishment. Sometimes it was a record shop. Apala music or the vibrations of Afrobeat would pound in the air along with the dust that rose from the scooters and the yellow taxis that struggled along the impromptu streets.
Meanwhile in the nation outside there were coups followed by coups. The daily newspapers coughed up the bile of corruption, the daily outrages to the public coffers. Vast sums went missing. Politicians were accused of kickbacks. Military governors awarded themselves lucrative contracts for roads that would never be built. And the children went to school in unfinished buildings, with half-erected walls through which they could see the horrified goats tethered and waiting to be slaughtered.
The mother lived in all of this with great dignity. She sustained the family with the salt of proverbs and the magic of stories. She had dreams in which her children, one by one, in their different spheres, triumphed in the world. The bad water and the ruined sewers affected her health but she kept her ailing condition to herself. To her children she showed not only remarkable courage but also unfailing good humour. She had a story for everything and there was not anything good or bad that she could not transfigure with a tale.
The world was tilting. The world was sinking. The city throbbed with energy and rage. People argued everywhere. The buses pumped out clouds of poisonous fumes. The factories darkened the skyline with their murky emissions. Roadside traders chanted their wares. Children returned from school, faces pasted with dust and smoke, clothes dirty with fumes coagulating in the air.
Sometimes in the evenings there were spectacular parties. Whole streets were taken over for weddings or funeral celebrations. Once there was a wedding party that went on for three days. None of the neighbours were consulted. The street was laid out with tables and chairs. Women came in lace wrappers and gorgeous head ties, men in sokotos and agbadas. Most families came in matching outfits. There were interminably long speeches. A band played on an improvised stand. Well into the night their voices rang over the houses and the fume-covered banana plants and the dusty palm trees. At these parties there was always dancing and laughter and quarrels and fights. The reconciliations were as dramatic as the altercations that caused the fighting.
The world rested on nothing and they weighed it down with all that passion, all that disorder. The earth was unstable too but no one knew. No one had consulted her. No one had spoken to her, asked her permission, or investigated her disposition. Everything was laid on her—vast skyscrapers, thundering lorries, gigantic drilling machines. All night the road roared with vehicles. It never stopped. From the house, the road and the world could be heard as through an infinite megaphone. When they didn’t hear it with their ears, they felt it through the vibration of things.
Then one day the mother stepped out of the house and found that the door was not at the right level. She had to step higher to go out. She had to duck her head acutely so as not to crack it against the upper part of the jamb. On another day the eldest son coming back home from work couldn’t quite find the house. He had to look harder than before. Then with an extraordinary effort of will he brought it back into being, as if pulling it up from oblivion.
That same son went away for a long time and when he came back confirmed for himself that all things tend to shrink in memory. Everything seemed smaller on his return. The school building seemed sadder and smaller, the goats seemed scrawnier, and the bungalow behind their house seemed like an enlarged matchbox. Their house was unrecognisable. It was hotter inside. Fabulous ingenuity was now conscripted for the moving of bowels. There were so many new houses in the area that the street had become a big obstacle course.
The heat made everything worse. Tempers flared and policemen took to flogging cars and motorcyclists. In compounds and rooms voices were raised to an unnatural pitch. The economy staggered along and elections were rigged and every few years the military came back in a coup.
The house that they lived in grew unbearably hot at night. Even the ceiling fan did not make sleep easier. The mother grew thinner, worked harder, helped her relations, and one by one her children flew the nest.
On the day the eldest left, she was to drive him to the airport. He looked back at the house with tears of fondness. It was the house in which he had been nourished with his mother’s love and stories. He had been close to his brothers. The rooms were small but the stories they shared made them large. Sometimes they would tell one another stories till late into the night. They told stories while the family upstairs quarrelled so implacably that they added to the weight of the house. They told stories through coups and the return to democracy, through the sapping of the nation’s resources and through the constant failures of electricity.
The eldest son stood there and looked at the house as if for the first time. It was then he noticed something that had evaded him all along. But what he noticed could not be true. It must have been an illusion produced by the strong emotion of leaving.
He noticed not only that the house was smaller but also that it was disappearing into the earth. The top floor was much lower than it had been years ago. He was about to share this discovery with his mother when she looked at her watch.
‘It’s a long journey, you know,’ she said. ‘And traffic will be terrible.’
They set off immediately and he forgot all about the sinking condition of the house. He travelled to France and Greece and to the United States of America. Then he settled in England where he devoted himself to the study of meaning.
The house kept quiet about its condition. This was not always the case. Sometimes the house spoke but no one listened. The landlord, increasingly certain that the house was in one of the prime locations of the city, doubled the rent. For the first time the mother began to think of leaving.
The house spoke to the tenants but they were too terrified to hear. The house spoke to the landlord but he was too proud and greedy to think that the house even had a right to speak for itself. So the house sank into its own silence and communed with the earth.
One day a daughter of the tenant who lived in the back rooms tried to leave the house to go to school, but found that she could not leave. The door would not open. Her parents thought she was looking for an excuse not to go to school and with a great effort they got the door open. They could not understand what had happened.
That night the mother had a dream that the house was becoming a tomb and that she was living not in a house but in a pharaonic coffin. She had been reading a book about ancient Egypt which spoke of the coffins not as places of death, but as the beginnings of the house of eternity. The dream had so troubled the mother that she decided the time really had come for her to leave.
A month later she and her remaining children hired a lorry. They had great trouble bringing out the bed and the centre table and the sofa. The door had somehow become too small for them. But eventually everything was out and they were set to leave. The mother took one last look at the house, just as her eldest son had done some time ago, and what she saw amazed her.
The house now seemed to be only the top floor. That was all that was visible. It did not seem possible to her that she had been living in a house that had been vanishing all this time. How is it that none of them had seen it? Was it the tyranny of daily perception, or had the house somehow conspired to envelop them in its fantasy?
The mother was on the verge of saying something about it to her sons but the lorry driver had a fit of Lagosian impatience and wanted to be off so he could get in a few more jobs before the day was over. The mother said nothing. But she retained in her mind the image of the shrunken house that had once been their home.
The mother moved onto her own land on which she built a house. She no longer thought about the house that had been left behind. But the house thought of her. The house missed her stories. She had thought she was telling stories to her children and receiving their stories in turn. But they had all been sharing their stories with the house. That was how the house had managed to delay its disappearance into the earth. All those stories had kept it buoyant, made it float, as it were, to the rhythms of other lands, other homes, other destinies.
When the mother left, the landlord rented her rooms to a large family of ten. They brought with them squabbles and noise. They had to crawl in through the gap at the top of the front door, which had been removed altogether. When they went out for the day, they had to crawl back through the tight space. They brought the weight of their troubles and their hunger. The young children cried all night in the unrelieved heat.
Then came the season of politicians who excelled in the art of taking without giving. They didn’t care very much about the earth or the fumes or the lungs of the people or the loss of the forests or the terror of the goats or the unfinished school building where the children carried on their incomplete education.
And the house, starved of stories, deprived of fine and far-fetched dreams, lost its levity and its humour.
Then one day, just before the big rains that swept in from the east, the house lost the will to go on existing, lost the will to maintain its coherence. The tenants went on living there, for years and years to come. They went on living there even when the house had sunk so completely into the earth that only the roof was visible.
The landlord provided ladders and ropes for the tenants who now lived below the earth. This way they could get out when they went to work or school. He was even kind enough to provide them with light extensions and free candles when the electricity failed, hour after hour, all through the night and through most of the day.
The family lived below the ground like moles. Out of their windows they saw only the earth. Sometimes water seeped up into the living room. The landlord showed his understanding by lowering the rent for the duration of the seepage. The family of ten lived down there enclosed all around by the dark and the heat. Sometimes huddled in their silence, in the blaze of their eyes as they stared with anxiety at one another, they heard scattered fragments of all the stories that the house had stored and played back to itself in the twilight of its existence.
Then one day the house disappeared and no one knew that it had ever been there.
- Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria. His childhood was divided between Nigeria, where he saw first-hand the consequences of war, and London, UK. He has won many prizes over the years, including the Booker Prize, and is also an acclaimed essayist, playwright and poet. In 2019 Astonishing the Gods was named as one of the BBC’s ‘100 Novels That Shaped Our World’.
This earth that we love is in grave danger because of us. Forests are becoming legends, rare as unicorns.
Inspired by environmental activism, the latest evocative collection from Booker Prize-winner author Ben Okri makes a powerful and very personal appeal for change.
If we continue to live as we do now, Okri argues, there will be no world left for us to fix. He imagines messages, sent to us from beyond the end, from those who saw it coming—from Africa, Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world—exhorting us to change, now.
Combining fiction, essay and poetry, Tiger Work displays Okri’s classic blend of storytelling, fantasy and magic.