Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 will be published on 15 April. Here we bring you a story from the second list, which appeared in 1993, by Ben Okri.
One morning, more golden than yellow, I went outside to our house front and saw that the beggars had gone. I scoured the street and asked everyone I met. I went to Madame Koto’s bar-front. I searched for them along the edges of the forest, where they scavenged for food and slept in unfinished houses, but I simply couldn’t find them.
Late in the afternoon when Dad returned from work, reeking of the bags of fish he had been carrying on his head all day, I told him that the beggars had gone.
‘Gone?’ he asked incredulously. ‘How can they go? I’m going to build them a school. I’ve even started asking about the cost of a plot of land. They haven’t really gone, have they?’
‘They have,’ I said.
Stinking of fish, his forehead glistening with iridescent scales, his boots thick with mud, he bustled out into the street and went looking for the beggars. He didn’t even stop to change from his work clothes. I hurried out with him. Great energies swirled around Dad. His spirit was fiery. He walked with enormous strides, and I tried to keep up with him as he erupted into a torrent of fantastical ideas and schemes. He was going to build a unique school for beggars. He was going to supervise the education of all poor and illiterate people. He said they needed education the most.
‘That is how the powerful people keep us down,’ he maintained. ‘They keep us illiterate and then they deceive us and treat us like children.’
He swore that he was going to teach the beggars mathematics, accountancy, law and history. He said I would teach them how to read. He talked of turning all the ghettos into special secret service universities where the most effective knowledge in the world would be made available.
We went up the street and got to the main road. Crowds of people all over the place were talking about politics. They talked about the forthcoming rally and the famous musicians who would be performing. And they also talked about those who had died in the political violence. We happened to notice a few beggars up the road and Dad went and talked to them as if they were old friends. I heard him asking one of them about Helen, a beautiful beggar girl with a bad eye. I heard him pleading with them to come back to our street and help with the building of the school. He was so fervent and earnest that he must have struck everyone as being quite mad. The beggars were frightened by him and they fled. Dad went after them, pleading, and they kept running: they must have thought that he was trying to steal what little money they had. Exasperated, Dad turned to me and said: ‘What’s wrong with them? Why are they afraid of me, eh?’
‘They are not the same beggars.’
‘Not the same beggars?’
‘These are different beggars. They are not the ones from our street.’
Dad glared at them. Then he said: ‘Let’s go back.’
We pushed through the crowds, past bicyclists ringing their bells, cart-pullers groaning with their loads of garri and cement, past the tight throng of traders and market women. At the arena where the great rally was going to be staged carpenters were constructing a mighty dais with a zinc roof. Hundreds of artisans were working at the site, hammering away, sawing up wood, climbing up ladders, carrying thick planks, singing, shouting and arguing. Petty traders sat around selling soft drinks and ready-made food. Dad met some of his fellow load-carriers and engaged them in lengthy political disputations. And when we got back to our street we were astonished to find our beggars sitting round the broken vehicle, as if they had been there all along, and as if we had just re-entered their alien reality. Helen wasn’t with them.
The beggars looked at us with dull eyes. They didn’t move from their positions and their faces didn’t light up at the sight of Dad. It was clear that they had reached a decision. Dad felt excluded from the closed circle of their resolution and he tried to regain their trust and inspire them with his lofty schemes. But they had heard his promises a thousand times and their faces registered no response. He joked, and laughed at his own jokes, but they remained sullen. He asked about Helen, but they made no reply. He became unaccountably desperate.
‘Where has she gone? Has someone touched her? Did she run away? Has she deserted our cause?’
The beggars were silent. Dad stared at them for a long time, apparently confused. Then, muttering something, he hurried back to the house. I went after him. When I got to the room he was taking off his boots. He told me to polish them till they shone. He went and had a bath and washed the fish smells off him.
While he bathed, Mum returned from her day-long hawking of cheap wares. She seemed leaner, her eyes dulled by the yellow dust, her face darkened by the fiery marigold sunlight. After dropping her basin of provisions on the cupboard, she sat on the bed. She did not move. She did not speak. She stank of profound exhaustion.
When Dad came in from the bathroom he did not seem particularly happy to see Mum. In fact, he ignored her altogether. He sat on his chair and proceeded to anoint himself with coconut oil. He combed and parted his hair. Then he put on his safari suit, which used to be white but which had turned brownish with age. He applied cheap perfume to his face. Something odd had happened to Dad after his great dream: he had become more susceptible to invisible presences in the air. It was as if holes had opened up in his spirit through which wisps of malevolence could enter.
When he saw that his boots had not been cleaned or polished, he exploded into a short burst of rage. He chased me twice round the room with a thick belt in his hand. He caught me at the door, dragged me in and was about to lash me when Mum–in a deadly voice–said: ‘If you touch my son, you will have to kill me.’
Dad lowered his belt and sat in his chair. He retreated into the barely contained whirlwind of his fury. He poured himself a generous quantity of ogogoro, lit a cigarette and, in between smoking, The demon-girl moved into Dad’s spirit and sat comfortably, and then I couldn’t see it any more.proceeded to decrust his boots. While he cleaned his boots his spirit boiled, and I watched as a strange demon in the form of a beautiful girl with green eyes entered him. The demon-girl moved into Dad’s spirit and sat comfortably, and then I couldn’t see it any more. As he cleaned his boots with fiery vigour, smoking his cigarette with a grim intensity, his spirit rising and swirling, Dad lashed us with accusations. Sweating through his suit, his temper seemed to burn around him. His forehead became an agitation of wrinkles. Mum sat very still, listening. While Dad was shouting at us an evil spirit went right through our room, on its way to the preparations for the great political rally. The evil spirit, passing through our spaces, made all of us edgy. It awakened deep irrational passions in Dad’s brain. Fuming, he scraped the dried mud off his boots angrily. His face swelling, his chest heaving, his big muscles bristling, he accused us of betraying him, of not caring enough for his ideals. Mum, he said, only cared for herself. He complained that we had no respect for him, that we didn’t even see the importance of carrying on his schemes while he recovered from his fight.
He harangued us as if we were failed members of a government cabinet. He was angry about the fact that we had not supervised the beggars, had not encouraged them, had not fed them, and had not looked after Helen the beggar girl, whom he said was a princess from a distant and devastated kingdom. He rounded on me because I had stopped spying at Madame Koto’s bar. He rounded on Mum because she had not been keeping in touch with political developments and had done nothing to recruit women to his political party. And he turned on both of us for failing to keep alive his dream of a university for beggars and the poor.
Mum said: ‘You spend all your time talking about this university for beggars, but what about us, eh? Are we not beggars? Don’t you hear how cracked my voice is? From morning till night I walked this ungodly city, hawking my provisions, crying out, while you slept like a goat for seven days.’
Leaping to his feet, Dad vented his full fury at Mum. Blindly he hurled his boots at the cupboard. The cupboard door flew open, revealing the pots empty of food. Cockroaches were sent scampering everywhere. Stamping his feet, lashing the air with his big fists, he went quite beserk with shouting. He said Mum was entirely devoid of vision and spent all her energy counting her wretched profits, while he tried to improve the condition of the people.
‘Improve our condition first,’ Mum replied.
Dad was momentarily stunned at the boldness of Mum’s interruption. She continued.
‘Where will you get the money to build a school for mosquitoes, talk less of beggars, eh? Will you steal, eh? Do you think money falls out of dreams, eh?’
Dad stopped in the beginnings of an antagonistic gesture.
‘But what about all the money I won?’ he asked, staring at us in utter disbelief, his bewilderment tinged with rage.
We were silent. We had completely forgotten the huge amount of money due to Dad for winning the fight with the warrior from the land of Battling Ghosts. Worried about his injuries, awestruck by his fabulous sleep and distracted by his recuperations, we had not remembered that Sami, the betting-shop man, owed us what amounted to a sizeable fortune.
‘WHAT ABOUT MY MONEY?’ Dad cried again.
‘We forgot,’ I said.
Mum shot me a furious glance. Dad sat on his chair and kept staring at us alternately, as if we had committed acts of unbelievable criminality.
‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, pressing such menace into every word, ‘that you people haven’t YET collected my money, eh?’
We dug deeper into our silence. Mum started to fidget. Then Dad, jumping up, sending the three-legged chair flying from underneath him, truly unleashed his mistral rage.
‘You are not on my side,’ he bellowed at Mum. ‘You are clearly my enemy! You want me to fail! You want me to be destroyed by the world! You go around in dirty clothes and ugly shoes and a disgusting wig of a he-goat, when I have hundreds of pounds sitting just across the street! You starve me, you starve my son, you obviously feed yourself in secret and meanwhile you don’t even bother to secure my investments! I carry loads that would break the neck of Hercules. I fight with giants and monsters and thugs. Yes, I fight and get beaten and manage to win–and I win only because of you two–and yet, through all this agony, you don’t even bother to look after the fruits of my victory?’
Dad paused. Then he drew a deep breath and, thrusting his raw face at Mum, he shouted: ‘GET OUT OF MY HOUSE, YOU USELESS WOMAN WITH YOUR STUPID WIG! GET OUT! Go and sell your stupid provisions from morning till night! YOU ENJOY SUFFERING–YOU ENJOY POVERTY! Fine! GO and enjoy your poverty somewhere else and DON’T COME BACK! I will not kill myself for an UNGRATEFUL WIFE!’
Mum bore his tirade in a dangerous and stiff-necked silence. When Dad had exhausted himself, Mum stood up. With the movements of one who was enacting a decision she had reached long ago, she began to bundle her possessions. She gathered her faded wrappers, her moth-eaten wig, her undergarments, her old blouses, her slippers, her cheap jewellery, her tin-can of money, and dumped them all into an ancient box. Having almost reached the end of her forbearance, she took Dad’s words extremely seriously.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
She screamed at me, deafening me with the full volume of her life-long frustration. Dad stamped on his boots, downed a shot of ogogoro, and stormed out of the room. I followed him, but I kept a careful distance between us. The demon-girl was growing in him, becoming more luminous and ecstatic.
Outside, green moths were thickening in the air. No one seemed to notice. Dad was striding furiously to Sami’s betting shop when he saw Helen. Her beauty was more hypnotic than ever. Her blind eye was darker, her good one more jewelled and she was sitting on the bonnet of the burnt political vehicle, surrounded by the moths.
As if magnetized by the force of her astonishing serenity, Dad changed direction and ran over to her. He was about to speak when she turned her strange eyes to him and said: ‘It’s time for us to go.’
‘Why?’ Dad said.
‘When the time is right we will be back,’ she replied, turning away from him.
Dad pleaded with her to stay. The more he pleaded, the less interested she seemed. After a while she jumped down from the bonnet. The other beggars appeared mysteriously with rotting corn-cobs and mouldy bread in their hands. They gathered round Helen, awaiting her command. The moths had concentrated about them as if their poverty and their wretchedness were a unique kind of light. Without uttering another word Helen led the beggars up the road. The moths went with them, their clattering wings sounded oddly metallic.
Dad stood still for a long moment, watching the beggars leave. His face was disconsolate and it seemed his dreams were deserting him. The beggars had gone a short distance when Dad broke the trance of his abandonment and ran after them. The street watched us. The moths clicked in our faces. Thickly gathered around the beggars, they seemed a kind of shield. Was I the only one who saw the moths? Dad didn’t seem to, for he had launched into an impassioned plea directed at the beggar girl. Staring deep into her gem-like eye, he begged her to give him one last chance to fulfil his promise. He blamed his neglect on his recuperation, on me and Mum; and swore that he was going to build a school for them as soon as he had collected his money from the betting shop man.
‘I will prove it to you,’ he kept saying.
But the beggar girl, deaf to his entreaties, carried on walking. Glowing in a new delirium, Dad began to praise her beauty and her elegance, her face of a yellow moon, her limbs of a blue gazelle, her eyes of a sad and sacred antelope. He completely amazed me with his declaration of fearless love. In a burning voice, robust and insane, he said: ‘I dream of you every day, my princess from a strange kingdom. Everyone else sees you as a beggar, but I know you belong to a golden throne. You are so beautiful that even these butterflies . . .’
‘Moths,’ I corrected.
Dad glared at me, tapped me on the head and proceeded with his bizarre, passionate courtship.
‘ . . . that even these butterflies cling to you as if you are honey. You have the head of a spaceship, your eyes are like those of the wonderful maidens of Atlantis, you belong to the angelic kingdoms beneath the sea. You are a moon-woman come to brighten the earth. Your skin looks like flowers from another planet. You are the mistress of beauty, princess of grace, queen of the road. Let the flowers of the earth see you and weep . . . ‘
Dad went on and on, pouring out a stream of contradictory praises. The beggars ate their mould-encrusted bread and laughed at Dad’s ridiculous words. Helen remained indifferent. Unable to bear her indifference, his face twitching under the assault of the moths, Dad finally blocked her path, just before we got to Madame Koto’s bar-front. He astounded me by saying: ‘I want you to be my second wife. Stay and marry me. I will take care of your people.’
The beggar girl went on as if she hadn’t heard anything. Then Dad–his spirit swirling in the new yellow delirium–boldly declared his intention to honour his promises. He said Helen should come with him to Sami’s betting shop, and if all he was saying wasn’t true, if he didn’t have the money to build them a school, to feed and cater for them, then she was free to go. He made a solemn oath, loudly and with dramatic gestures.
For the first time Helen acknowledged his persistence. She stopped. Dad’s face broke into a triumphant smile. Turning to the rest of the beggars, he told them to wait for him. Then he seized Helen’s hand and set off with her towards Sami’s shop. Pestered by the moths, he strode defiantly through the rumour-making stares of the street.
Just as we were going past our house, Mum emerged with her tattered wig on and her ancient box under her arm. Dad didn’t notice her. She looked so unlike herself, so wretched and haggard, as if she were a tramp, or as if she were fleeing the compound in shame, that even I nearly didn’t recognize her. She followed us a short way and then, loud enough for the whole street to hear, she shouted: ‘So you want me to go, eh? So you are throwing me out because of that stinking beggar girl with a goat’s eye, eh?’
Dad looked back, saw her through the eyes of the demon sitting comfortably inside him, made a dismissive irritated movement of his hand and carried on, dragging the unwilling but mesmerized beggar girl with him. The demon that had entered my father had moved in for good. The occupation was complete. I could see his spirit whirling with grand dreams of love. For as he went, oblivious to the terrible changes he was bringing into our lives, I realized how much Dad was brimming over with love, possessed by its secret madness, bursting with love for everything, a wild unholy indiscriminate love, a love so powerful that it made him feel like a god, so vast that he didn’t know how to contain it or express it. The love in him had become a double demon and it propelled him towards chaos.
Mum began weeping bitterly, cursing all the years of her privation and suffering; cursing the day she set eyes on Dad in the village, during the most beautiful years of her life; swearing at Dad for having drained the life out of her in so profitless a marriage. And between them both I didn’t know who to choose. Mum went off, wailing, in the direction of Madame Koto’s fabulous bar. Dad marched on to Sami’s place, unmindful of the destruction he was sowing behind him. I started after Mum, but she screamed at me, as if she perceived that I was in alliance with Dad. And it may have been because of the moths (which I alone saw as moths), because of Helen and her tattered yellow dress, her emerald eye; or because of Dad’s polished boots and his bristling demonic love, or because I didn’t really believe Mum would disappear from our lives, that I chose to go after Dad–for with his mad passion lay the greater magnetic adventure, the curiosity and the rage.
And so, watching Mum grow smaller in the distance, a slouching figure, wailing and renting her wig, I reluctantly stuck with Dad’s story, and suffered the choice I made for many nights to come. ■