I had gone into a house by accident or maybe not. Originally I was searching for Margaret House, a mansion block. Anyway I went into this flat and the man of the house took me for his in-law, whom he had never met, or had met once before, a long time ago. He began saying things to me confidentially, telling me how he disapproved of some acquaintance, and how we should do this, that or other, and how my wife did or didn’t do what she was supposed to do, and he bared his heart and said many intimate things.
I watched him. When the misunderstanding began I tried to correct his error, but he seemed so keen to believe who I was and he was so absent-minded and yet single-minded in his rattling on that I didn’t get a moment to correct his mistaking me for someone else.
Besides, I found I rather began to enjoy it. I enjoyed being someone else. It was fascinating. It was quite a delight suddenly finding myself part of a ready-made family, finding myself belonging. The thrill of belonging was wonderful.
The flat was cluttered with items of a rich family life. It was obviously a large extended family. The man who was addressing me was making food for a feast, adding ingredients for a cake, mixing condiments for a sauce, and it all smelt good. The enveloping party and family mood quite intoxicated me.
I began to think that maybe I was the man he took me for. And that if he saw me as another then maybe I was that other. Maybe I’d just woken from a dream into a reality in which I was who he thought I was, and that my old identity belonged to the dream. But as I toyed with this notion there was a growing sense in me that any minute the real person that was expected would turn up. Or, if not, that the wife of the real person would turn up, and would not recognize me.
The fear increased in me. Any time now I would be unmasked. What would I do then? I felt awful. I dreaded it. I hadn’t got myself into this deliberately. I hadn’t even spoken a word during the whole time I was in that room, being mistaken for someone else. I wanted to belong. I wanted to belong there.
A sentence of unmasking, like death, hung over me. I waited, and listened to the man of the house talking, as time ticked away, bringing closer my inevitable disgrace.
Before I had strayed into that flat I had been going to meet a relation, my last living relation. It was, it seemed, the last stop for me in the world. I had nowhere else to go. Now I had this family, with food and a festival atmosphere promised. And yet…
And then, as I stood there, the door behind me opened. A black, Arabic, pock-marked, elderly gentleman came into the room, and I knew instantly that this was the man I had been mistaken for. He had the quiet and unmistakable authority of being who he was, the real in-law. And my first shock was that I looked nothing like him at all. I was younger, fresher, better-looking. I had vigor and freedom. I wasn’t trapped by tradition. I was lithe. I could go any which way. I had many futures open to me. This man seemed weighed down. There was an air about him of one whose roads were closed, whose future was determined, whose roles were fixed. He was, in the worst sense of the word, middle-aged; with no freedom, even to think independent thoughts. All this I sensed in a flash, but realized fully afterwards. But I was profoundly shocked to have been mistaken for this man.
At the very moment the in-law entered the flat, the man of the house, who’d mistaken me in the first place, looked up, saw the real in-law, and knew him to be the one. I think he recognized him. How unobservant can people be! Anyway, at that instant he turned to me and, in outrage, said:
“And who are you?
I think events swarm before my eyes after that. My unmasking was very public. Suddenly people appeared from thin air and were told in loud voices about my impersonation of the in-law. There were vigorous comments and curses and stares of amazement. People glared at me as though I were a monstrous criminal. Women regarded me darkly from behind veils. I feared for me life. Soon I was out in the street, surrounded by a crowd, by the community of extended family. I was holding out a map and was saying:
“It was a mistake. I was looking for Margaret House, or Margaret Court.”
During the whole commotion I saw the name of the place I’d been looking for on the next building. I bore their outrage and their loud comments silently. Then after a while I set off for the building next door, my original destination. But the man of the house, who’d mistaken me for the in-law, said:
“Don’t go there. You don’t want to go there.”
Then I looked towards Margaret House. I looked at the grounds. I saw people milling about, in aimless circles. They twitched, moved listlessly, or erratically. They were dark forms, in dark overcoats, and their bodies were all shadows, as if they were in Hades. They moved as if they had invisible lead weights on their feet. They seemed to have no sense of anything. The courtyard was of concrete, but their collective presence made it look dark and sinister and touched with unpredictable danger. There was the merest hint that they were mad…
I started to go in that direction, but, after the man of the house spoke, I stopped. I could feel the disturbed wind from the people milling about in an evil shade, in the courtyard of Margaret House. Then I changed direction, and went back towards the crowd, then out to the street, towards a life of my own.
“Beloning” is in Okri’s 2009 collection of stories titled Tales of Freedom. It is also an example of a strange literary form he invented and dubbed “stoku,” which is essentially a blend of the short story and haiku. Okri’s latest offerins are a collection of essays titled A Time for New Dreams and a book of poem titled Wild.
The stunning image is the work of Nigerian artist, Boloebi Okah.