Conjunctions:76 Fortieth Anniversary Issue

Tabula Rasa
He woke up that morning and the world seemed good. He listened to the blackbird’s dawn chorus and the three-beat call of the blue tit. He had slept well, if briefly. The day had not yet formed. He could see, through the gap in the blinds, that the sky was still dark.

This was the best moment of the day. It was the time when he was all in himself. His mind was his and his being was his and nothing had yet impinged on his spirit. The day was clean. It was the best it would be for the next twenty-four hours. Even his thoughts had not yet begun to spoil the day.

He lay there, just before dawn, and wished in his heart that the moment could last indefinitely. But it couldn’t. Soon the house would rouse. Soon dawn would give way to daylight. Then the day wouldn’t be his anymore.

He rose from his bed on the floor and brushed his teeth. Then he made himself a modest breakfast of fried eggs, a sausage, a fried tomato, and some mushrooms. He had his breakfast with green tea. He had a shower, got dressed, and went out.

The moment he stepped outside his door his day was altered. He met a neighbor who, nodding in response to his greeting, gave him a suspicious look. With that look the day changed. Already, by virtue of being seen, he was presumed guilty of something. As he went down the stairs this sense grew more concrete. It happened even when there was no one looking. By the time he got to the front door, he was cautious. And by the time he had stepped out into the world he was a little timid. But he tightened his inner armor.

The air seemed to make him walk a little more stooped, as though it were pressing down on him with invisible weights. With a conscious effort he made himself a little taller and stood straighter. He had barely left the house and entered the world but already he felt weary from the accumulated weight of other days.

He went past people who barely noticed him. They barely noticed him yet they swerved to avoid him. He felt, as he walked down the street, that something about him preceded him. It went in advance of him in all directions. Boys on their way to school looked at him curiously.

At the bus stop, people stood away from him. In the bus, no one sat next to him, though the bus was full. There was much traffic and the bus moved slowly. An inspector came on board and went through the bus, looking for the faces of those most likely not to have paid their fare. The inspector saw him and stopped.

“Your ticket please.”

He brought out his bus pass and the inspector checked it against a machine. The inspector did it twice. Then the inspector reluctantly gave the pass back, seemingly unable to believe that his suspicion had not been confirmed.

He had expected that the inspector would choose him for inspection. No one else had been chosen. He expected it because it had happened every time.

When he arrived at his stop, he disembarked from the bus. The air wasn’t much good. It was always contaminated with the fumes from buses and cars. But it was good to see the colors of the world, the buildings and the streets, and people on their way to work.

He liked looking at the world. He liked looking at people and at things. He liked shop windows. The shoes people wore interested him. The cut of people’s clothes and how they fitted absorbed his attention. He liked to watch how people walked, how they carried themselves. Above all he liked to study people’s faces. For him the faces of people were the most interesting landscapes in the world. He made many surmises from faces. He analyzed them, he wondered about them, he made swift deductions about their lives and who they were, and often contemplated whether they were happy or not.

The faces of the world made him feel that the world must be a difficult place. The faces told him so much. They were maps to a secret history. He had learned how to read those maps. He had learned how not to look at the obvious things, like beauty or youth or even freshness of skin. He had learned to see the invisible signs on the map, the signs of fear and anxiety, of doubt and weakness. It was because he had learned to read the signs on the maps of faces that he had managed to survive. With a glance he could often read what he needed to know about a person, what they hide, what they project.


He watched faces from inside his face. From inside the armor. When he was younger it had not been an armor. It had been a burden. It had caused him no end of trouble. It got him picked on. It got him ignored. It got him arrested. It got him lonely. It got him without promotion and for long periods without a job. It got him passed over. But it also taught him to survive. It gave him a unique vantage point from which to survey the world. And as the years went past he came to realize that instead of being a burden it had turned out to be his greatest blessing. But it was a blessing that had its inescapable troubles. They were troubles he had to cope with every day. The years had taught him how to cope with them.

Because of the armor he had a steady place from which to study the world. He noticed that he had a fluidity in the world because of it. Sometimes it was an armor. But sometimes it was a camouflage.


That’s how it was. That’s how it was that morning. The world will do what it does, and he would do what he does. He was going to give the day the chance to define itself around him. He didn’t have to work. All he had to do was play. All he had to do was study people, study the world.

Today he was going to stand somewhere different. He hadn’t chosen where yet. But he will. He will just stand there, his mind empty, and wait to see what the world has for him on this day.

He walked till he came to the opera house. That was it. He recognized it immediately. This is where he would be for the day. And so he stood there, outside the opera house, watching men in bowler hats and with rolled umbrellas go in through the big glass doors and come back out again. He saw women in smart dresses and little handbags under their arms go in and then come back out again. They didn’t look different when they came back out.

As he stood there, a fine-looking car drew up near him. The driver got out and bounded into the opera-house building. While he was there, another man in a bowler hat came up to him and said: “You must be my driver. Well, look sharp about it. Let’s be off then.”

“Of course, sir,” he said obligingly, slipping into the driver’s seat. “Where am I taking you?”


Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, and playwright. His novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize in 1991. His works have been translated into twenty-six languages. His latest novel is The Freedom Artist and his latest volume of stories is Prayer for the Living, both published in the United States by Akashic Books.