Every now and then, I like to read a little bit of fantasy (no, not the Nancy Friday kind, you dirty buggers. The Tolkien kind). As in most genres, some of them are brilliantly original and compelling. And as in most genres, most of them are pretty formulaic. There are gruff dwarves with huge axes, grumpy magicians and elves in impractically tight tights. And magic, it always seems, is dying out in the land, a sad echo of a bygone golden age.
Not round here. Magic is everywhere and it’s getting stronger. This is not the magic of the Northern hemisphere, where, from what I understand, real estate agents and data capturers can dance naked on the solstice to realign their chakras with ley lines so they can vibrate in sympathy with the universe (it’s a quantum thing) in order to make Deepak Chopra richer. I’m talking proper magic. Harry Potter magic. And you can see it. All you need is a car.
The best way to see it is to cut out all the background noise. Find yourself an isolated spot, like a graveyard. Wait until 2 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday, and drive yourself over there. Drive slowly around the block, making sure there is not a living soul in the area. Done? Stop the car and open the door. Standing next to you will be a man in a hat and a bright green dayglo vest. Always.
He is not a ghostly apparition. He is a living, breathing man. He will even talk to you. “Morning sir!” He will say. “I will watch your car.” As impressive as this feat may seem, the magic is not over. This man is called a car guard, for reasons which are not entirely clear, and he is not from some fabled, mythical realm.
He is probably, for reasons far too complex and tragic to go into here, from the Congo. But he is no ordinary man. He has conquered space and time, and uses this extraordinary gift to haunt parking lots, pretending to stop thieves from stealing your stuff while you go about your business. He is not really going to do this. Crime in Johannesburg can be terrifyingly violent, and this man is not stupid. Ready for some more magic?
Nod at the car guard and go into the graveyard. Hide behind a gravestone and carefully check out the area around your car. There will be no-one there. Not a soul. Stick around a while. Give it an hour or so. And then sneak back to your deserted car. Slip in behind the wheel and start the engine. Now check your rear view mirror. Three feet behind you will be the car guard, waving his arms around like a mime directing a landing helicopter. He is going to help you reverse out of your parking spot, whether you want him to or not.
You may, having just seen a man blink into existence out of thin air, be feeling rather alarmed. Get it together. You are going to need your wits about you. You have just reached a crucial moment. This is the climax of the whole episode. There is a game afoot. You are locked in a deadly contest with this mysterious stranger. And the stakes are high.
The rules are simple. You may not make eye-contact with the car guard. To win, you need to reverse your car out of an otherwise deserted graveyard parking lot at two o’clock in the morning while giving absolutely no indication that you have seen the man in the dayglo vest waving frantically right behind you. If you manage to do so, you get to leave. If not, if you acknowledge him for even half a second, you lose, and you will have to give him all the change from your pockets and any loose coins you find lying around your car.
We don’t, of course, usually do this sort of thing in pre-dawn burial sites. But those of us who live in Johannesburg do this every day, several times a day. It is quite simply impossible to park your car in a public place without performing this little ritual. And I have just talked you through the basic version.
If you happen to be in a supermarket parking lot, there is a complex variation of the game with a special set of rules governing who has possession of the shopping-cart, and when. There’s also an entertaining game-within-the-game in which the car guard will walk towards your groceries with arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s monster. The challenge here is to pack all of your groceries into your car before the car-guard reaches you and tries to do it for you.
So there you have it. If you are missing something in your life, or have grown bored with making Deepak Chopra rich, come over to Johannesburg and see some real magic. Instead of sticking bits of paper on your mirror telling yourself that you are a super person, and are going to be rich, you can watch Congolese men in dayglo vests wink in and out of existence, and, if you feel up to it, you can even engage them in a battle of wits.
Part of the reason magic disappears from those fantasy worlds I mentioned earlier is that no-one believes. And I can see that happening. I see you all sitting out there, shaking your heads and smiling to yourselves. “That silly 23thorns!” you say to yourselves. “Where does he come up with this stuff?” You shouldn’t do that. It makes you seem a little creepy. But what I am telling you here is the gospel truth. Unvarnished and unembellished. Ask anyone who has lived here. Except for one tiny detail. No-one drives around at 2 in the morning. We’re all too scared of the police.