Another spring

For four days the rain enveloped Table Mountain. It clung with streaming wet fingers to the craggy slopes and refused to let the sky show blue. Pieter, the young flower-seller, took shelter on a cardboard carton under a leafless but benevolent oak tree, and I remained indoors, grateful for my books, writing commitments, and a flickering log fire.

The weather wasn't unusual for a Cape winter, but it eventually began to stir discontent among people reared on 14 hours of sunshine a day. Pieter wasn't so much concerned about his wet clothes and soggy cardboard perch as the lack of customers.

He missed the companionship of the people of Rondebosch, who always smiled as they passed his flower stall even if they had no intention of buying. Lots of them stopped to talk, especially the students from Cape Town University, which overlooked the village.

Pieter missed their cheery greetings in English and Afrikaans. He missed the banter and the questions about his family and the day's trading. He missed the books they brought him, and the extra coins they smuggled into the jam jar he used as a cash box.

Pieter was also saddened by the fact that people were missing so many lovely flowers, all damp and fresh in the cool wet air. There's nothing like a rainy day, he thought again and again, for bringing out the fragile yellow of the first daffodils or the soft bursting scarlet of an armful of gladioluses.

We chatted this over on the afternoon that I slipped out to buy the latest copy of Punch from one of the village bookstores. In between heavy showers I invited him to find me a cardboard carton and together we huddled hard against the gnarled trunk of his oak tree and learned a new appreciation of the changing season.

Pieter's flowers made a fine show, standing tall and proud in an assortment of cans and bottles. They were displayed in tiers on a loose-limbed wooden structure built by his father. The irises dripped color like thick, purple raindrops, and lifting their flawless trumpets to the skies were the arum lilies , white and gold and, when nudged by the breeze, gently spilling water.

As we chatted away quietly in the dusk I soon picked up his family history, his pride in his Cape Coloured ancestry, and his courage in the face of innumerable daily challenges: his groping for a proper education, the expensiveness of good food and clothes, the shortage of housing. He took me across the road to study a historical landmark of which he was also proud. With a sweep of his small, sensitive hand he cleared the raindrops from a plaque that read: ''On or near this spot stood a clump of thorn trees named by Johan Van Riebeeck, founder of our country, 'T Ronde Doornbosjen, from which Rondebosch took its name.''

Half an hour later I took my rain-softened copy of Punch back to the hotel feeling that the late afternoon had been well spent. Summer seemed far away, and Table Mountain, in thick rainy mist, even farther. But the compensations were more than adequate. Through the hissing of car tires on the road and the periodic rumble of a train through Rondebosch station, I could still hear the birds that had sung an accompaniment to our conversation. And I knew that nothing could erase the memory of those flowers in the rain.

Next morning I was awakened by the doves in the oak trees. Devils Peak stood out, a mossy blue tooth against a paler blue sky. The pine trees clinging to its slopes were like clusters of umbrellas suddenly anomalous in the sunlight.

I set out in the company of a small gray squirrel for a walk across Rondebosch Common, circling back eventually over the railway bridge to see if Pieter were at work. At first I couldn't see him at all. Mountains of oranges, apples, and bananas rose over his aunt's stall across the sidewalk, but there wasn't anything to be seen of the crinkly dark hair of the flower-seller.

I made my way past the Sunshine Bakeries and smelled the warm sweetness of biscuits in the oven. I crossed the stream that gurgles its wet brown song not more than 20 yards from Pieter's perch. Then I saw the gladioluses reaching for the sky, crimson against the black trunks of the oak trees. The flower-seller was there, all right, although his customers hadn't yet awakened fully to the sunshine after rain.

He was sitting with his carton in the horizontal position. It was still damp, and it sagged lopsidedly under his skinny brown legs. He was looking through the gladiolus branches to the sky and was lost to the sounds of the stirring day. Quietly I slipped in beside him. He showed no surprise. He didn't utter a word.

At first it looked as though his eyes were on the rain-washed blueness of Table Mountain. Then I realized the focus was tighter. He was admiring a branch of his oak tree which in one scoop enveloped the mountain, the flowers, and the sunshine. Squeezed from the damp blackness of the branch was a cluster of tightly packed green leaves. They looked transparent in the morning light and as crisp as lettuce.

I could hear Pieter breathe deeply. I thought his eyes would catch fire. He smiled and straightened his cartons, and as he got ready for his first customers murmured not so much to me as to the morning: ''Spring has come back to Rondebosch.''

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