Thursday, February 19, 2015

In memoriam: Babylon Don

It was a pretty typical night for me at that age: 19, I think.

I didn’t have a car, but I found my way to Melville, without a clue how I’d get home. I did this often — sometimes I'd manage to get a lift, sometimes I'd walk the two hours it took to get to Greymont. It takes my breath away when I think of how reckless I was with my safety back then.

I can’t remember if I was with anyone that night, but I remember trundling down 7th Steet and almost tripping over what looked like a pile of rags. Then I saw two soft brown eyes peering out from a pair of spindly wire glasses. It was a man. A very odd-looking man.

He had a thick beard and a mop of dark dreadlocks, piled high and fastened with an elastic to create a kind of teepee. The tarot cards laid out in front of him on the sidewalk piqued my curiosity, but I was more fascinated by the ice hockey stick strapped to his back like a samurai sword.

‘Read your cards?’ he said, ‘no charge. Only what you feel it’s worth.’

His name, he said, was Babylon Don.

I had nowhere else to be, I was thirsty for novelty, for fresh distraction. Also, mainly, for attention. So I sat down opposite him.

He was younger, I noticed, than I initially supposed — late 20s, early 30s, and although his fingernails were blackened, he smelled fresh, like tea and soap, with something earthy beneath; tilled soil, perhaps, as though he’d slept in the ground, like a vampire.

It soon became apparent that Babylon Don inhabited a very different reality to mine. As he read the cards, his eyes were distant, looking inward, and his interpretations veered into a sermon on the coming of the Dark Guards; that a Great Battle was imminent.

I was amused. Entertained. Intrigued.

I listened to him ramble for a while. Asked questions. I felt at ease in his company, and something passed between us, a fine thread of understanding, and we hugged before I went on my way.  I felt that for all his oddness, Babylon Don was one of the world’s lambs, a gentle soul.

I saw him again over the months, and greeted him as a friend, though he didn’t always recognise me, and often seemed confused. He was never without his ice hockey stick, strapped to his back, or his tarot cards.

One night — it was late, around 12pm — I was in Melville, casting about for somewhere to go, something to do. I’d spent the evening at Stones, where they knew me, flirting and playing pool, and the barman had called last rounds.

I spied Babylon Don on the balcony, drinking a beer. I went and sat with him, bought him and myself another beer. He offered to draw up my star chart.

‘Great,’ said I, delighted that I would be able to delay going home for a while.

‘Not here though. I need my books. We could go back to my place,’ he said, ‘it’s just up the road.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But nothing’s going to happen. I’m not sleeping with you.’

He nodded, shrugged.

On the walk, I quizzed him about his life. He spoke gently and distractedly, and kept looping back to the Great Battle. His answers were vague and surreal, and I got the impression his synapses had been trained along a path less travelled; perhaps hallucinogenics were to blame, or some kind of schizophrenia. I'll never know.

I was amused and gormless and not really listening, to be honest — it felt like freedom to me, ambling through the dark, deserted streets of Melville with this unlikely soothsayer.

After a few blocks, he stopped in front of a little face-brick house. His aunt’s, he said, as he unlocked the front door. This explained the floral scatter cushions, the pink velour lounge suite a la Morkels, the side table covered in little ceramic animals.

I got comfortable while he made us tea, then set to asking me questions about my birth, scribbling furiously on a notepad. I’ve since forgotten his predictions, except for the denouement: ‘You will rise to fame before or around your 30th birthday.' Right.

I didn’t want to go home just yet though.

‘We could have sex,’ he said, not particularly hopefully.

‘We’re not having sex.’

He nodded.

‘Hey, what’s in there?’ I pointed to a small school case next to the door, the kind I had as a kid: brown cardboard trunk, clunky clasps and a plastic handle.

He opened the case and set it flat on front of me.

‘This is the army of the White Priestess. These are the Dark Guards,’ he said.

The case was empty, apart from the white paper that lined the inside, with circles and lines traced onto it to resemble an ice hockey rink. Little paper figures had been cut out and glued down on each side, then folded at right angles to form neat rows. They'd been meticulously decorated with helmets and little ice hockey sticks; the figures on the right were coloured in with black cokie, the ones on the right had been left pale. Two ice hockey teams.

‘The White Priestess will triumph,' he said, launching into a description of the Great Battle, peppered with hockey terminology and Lord of the Rings-style combat scenarios. I didn't understand most of it.

I let myself out a short while later. Babylon Don never even looked up, so absorbed was he in his bizarre diorama. I walked home.

Time passed. I graduated. I mooched off my parents and messed around (and up) and eventually got a job. I met my future husband and moved to Cape Town.

I forgot all about Babylon Don until a few years ago, when I was driving down Main Road in Woodstock, and saw a man with dreadlocks and a beard, wearing what appeared to be an ice hockey stick strapped to his back. I could have sworn it was him, but I don't know for sure. Traffic was moving swiftly and I only caught a glimpse.

It jolted me though, in the way that sudden, long-forgotten memories do. They open a kind of wormhole in your identity, a tunnel that takes you back to a person you used to be, to a parallel universe; an entity from the past that exists inside you, just not in this time or place... The emotional terrain that separated my 19-year-old self from my 31-year-old self was thrown into stark relief.

Are any of us in touch with the person we were in our teens? If, rather than finding fame before 30, Babylon Don had told me I'd be living in Cape Town, in a lovely home, married to a man who is kind and clever and gorgeous and nuts about me, earning a living as a writer... I would have been just as skeptical.

When I was 19, I didn’t believe my future held anything good. But it did.

All this culminated in a kind of explosive gratitude: for the peace I've found, for the love in my life, for hard-won self-belief (though there's still work to be done on that front!).

I still think about Babylon Don. I wonder if it really was him I saw that day on Main Road. I wonder if the Great Battle ever came to pass, if only in his mind, and whether the White Priestess prevailed.

I hope so. Because we're all fighting our own Great Battle, aren't we?