Rain filled the café. Droplets fell from the spaces between the ceiling tiles and splattered on the floor. The checker-block tablecloths were drenched – their corners drooping heavily. Glasses and cutlery chimed with rhythmic tapping and waterlogged plates bubbled like water features.
The checkout till, with its drawer still open, clinked under the steady deluge of interior rain. The flooded compartments held floating banknotes or shiny pockets of submerged change. It was now a wishing well full of expensive wishes. Trays of cake and scones – which were, until recently, inediblely dry – came apart in soggy lumps. Cups of tea, now hopelessly diluted, cascaded into their saucers.
Beyond the watermarked windows, the outside world was alive with bright sunshine. Children played in a park across the street. Cars rushed past with drivers sporting sunglasses – their windscreen wipers still. A forlorn girl sat on a bench in the full glare of the sun. The strange rain within the café seemed a world away out here.
Passersby might have mistakenly assumed that the Corner Café’s sprinkler system had gone on the fritz. The staff abandoned it. The customers fled to dry safety – all but one.
At a table meant for two – somewhere near the back of the shop – sat a solitary man. His clothes – shabby and dark with water – were the finest he owned. A pink scar marked his black forehead – a remnant of a childhood accident – an accident that first brought on the rain. His face was as dark as a storm that has rained its last – gloomy and spent. The tap-tap of the water around him matched the solemn march of his heart.
His name was Paul Imvula. His mother – whoever she was – had left him on the farmer’s doorstep when he was no older than a week. The sun shone through the raging storm clouds on that day of days. By the time the farmer and his wife found the poor thing, his blankets were soaked and his lungs were swamped with pneumonia. There was a wild storm in his heart – they could tell by the look in his teary eyes.
As it turned out, he was too wild for school. He climbed trees, he fell out of them. He played rough games with other boys, often getting hurt. He was not lazy or unintelligent. The whirlwind in his heart was too wild to be tamed by dry textbooks and strict teachers.
On the rare occasions that he attended class, however, things did not go well. Many a classroom flooded when Paul was stressed. Once a teacher had asked him to read aloud to the class. The class mocked his tripping tongue and his stuttering lips. Their laughter was washed away by screams and running and sliding as the rain fell. Maths tests rained out. Geography classes were canceled. Experiments in the science class were usually too soggy to work properly. Burst pipes could could be blamed for the water – yes – but lighting and thunder were harder to explain.
It rained when Paul felt scared. It rained no matter where he was: outside, inside, even when he had nightmare. Most kids wet their beds, Paul flooded the house.
Thunder drummed when Paul was angry. As loud as the thunder got, it never managed to put off the bullies – bullies who thought it their duty to beat up strange, dark-skinned kids.
The worst of the rain came when Paul was sad. Bullies were one thing, but loneliness was a particular sort of empty despair. When he was at his lowest, monsoon rains followed him from room to room.
Quietly, without warning or explanation, Paul was taken out of school. The farmer and his wife were good, God-fearing folk, who did not go in for that sort of trouble. The boy’s darker moods certainly did not hurt their crops. While other farmers eagerly watched the horizon, hoping for an end to the drought, Paul watered the land with his loneliness.
The farm became his world. It was best that he did not wonder too far – just in case someone discovered his secret. He was taught to till the soil, sow seeds, and to harvest crops. He was taught to keep his tongue, not to speak least he unleash some unholy weather on the little farm.
As the years drifted by like clouds, Paul grew into a powerful young man. His shoulders grew broad and his limbs filled out with muscle. He quickly outgrew the clothes his adopted family could provide. His legs were visible in the growing space between socks and his trousers. His shirt sleeves could not reach his thick wrists. As he hardly said anything more than “please” or “thank you”, he did not ask for new clothing.
One day, the farmer’s wife noticed his shabby appearance. The road into town was long and hilly and as she and the good farmer were old and crumpled, a walk would be too much. They had no choice but to send Paul.
‘Happy thoughts,’ the old woman instructed and she stuffed a bag of money into his hands. ‘As long as you’re cheery inside, the sun will shine as brightly as the Lord’s Grace.’
Paul nodded and the sky grew darker. He did not know how many happy thoughts he had – this worried him somewhat. He ventured down the path and past the fields until he reached the rusted gate. He paused there: he had gone no farther than the fence for many years. He felt a drop land on his nose as he swung the gate open. He left the world he knew and journeyed into town.
Town turned out to be full of tarred streets and honking traffic. Every street had several clothing stores. Every zebra crossing was populated by several busy people shooting worried looks at the ominous clouds above. This only worsened Paul’s anxiety.
What if it rained? What if they figured it out?
This was when he first found the café. He had not been to such a place before nor did he plan to, but the smell of coffee seduced him. He chose an out-of-the-way table in an out-of-the-way corner. He self-consciously placed his bag of frugally chosen clothes on the seat next to him. He nodded solemnly to a waiter who asked ‘Coffee?’
This was also when he first met her.
‘Mind if I join you?’ asked a young woman. Her skin was smooth cocoa and her smile was a spring sunrise. ‘It’s just that there’s nowhere to sit and I need to get out of the rain.’ He nodded bashfully.
‘New here?’ she asked. A drop of water plopped into his coffee. ‘Must be a leak,’ she said not taking her eyes off of him.
A woman shot out of the seat at the table next to them. ‘What on Earth was that?’ she asked wiping the back of her neck.
The girl at his table seemed unperturbed. ‘You don’t look like you’re from around here. I would have noticed,’ she winked.
Shouts erupted from a table at the other end of the café. The occupants grabbed glasses and plates to avoid a leak.
Paul placed some money on the table and left his seat. The girl at his table shouted after him, ‘No, wait!’ It was too late: Paul was already outside, running all the way home.
That night a storm blew over a tree on the farm. The farmer put it down to one of Paul’s nightmares. In the pouring rain, the young man chopped up the tree deep in contemplation. Soon, a neat pile of freshly cut wood was drying out in the sun.
‘I’m going to town tomorrow,’ said Paul at dinner. The farmer and his wife were so startled to hear him speak that they fell into prayer. After they said amen, the farmer asked, ‘What on Earth for, Boy? The Good Lord has provided you with a world of your own here.’
Paul was silent for a moment. ‘The world is too small,’ he said softly. A drop of water landed in the sink.
Another storm raged that night. In the morning, the farmer’s wife found Paul’s room empty. His new clothes were not in his wardrobe. Footprints in the mud led all the way to the gate and to the big forbidden world beyond.
Paul sat in the same spot in the café for most of the day. He drank four and a half cups of coffee before the young woman entered the place. He made to rise from his seat, but then thought better of it. The only effect this had was to knock over the salt and pepper.
At least it caught her attention. ‘That’s bad luck, you know?’ She smiled her beautiful smile and took a seat opposite him.
‘Um,’ he said with the eloquence of a stage actor. ‘Really?’ A drop of water landed on his head. He ignored it.
‘Must be,’ she smiled. ‘I’m stealing a seat at your table again.’ Water dripped from a tile above the counter and landed on a scone. The place was not that busy today. There were no reason to sit with him.
Paul righted the salt and pepper. ‘Sounds like good luck,’ he said.
A bell rang as the cashier till opened. ‘That will be thirty…what’s that?’ asked the waiter.
‘I’m Thandi,’ she said.
‘I’m Paul,’ he said.
‘Not again!’ a waiter shouted.
The pitter-patter of rain filled the room. People shielded their heads with plates and newspapers. Some shouted. Some screamed. All left.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Paul.
‘So am I,’ said Thandi.
‘It will never work,’ he said.
Her smile evaporated. ‘Guess it was bad luck, then.’
Thunder rolled. The rain intensified. ‘I guess so,’ he said.
She stood and left Paul to stare at the empty seat. ‘Typical,’ she said under her breath as he pushed through the crowd. She crossed the street to a park and found a bench. She shielded her eyes from the glare.
At least her dress will dry off. The sun always shone brightest when she was sad – it almost burnt your skin off when she was heartbroken. She preferred gloomy weather.
She really thought that young man was different. She spotted him right away when he first entered the town. Rain clouds gathered around him – just like they did for her when she was happy. For a moment, she thought she was not the only freak in the world. For a moment, she thought…she hoped…she longed…
She was fooling herself, she thought. It was time to return to her sunny apartment. There the bright walls were so close together that you could hear the beat of her lonely heart from any part of the room.
This short story was inspired by many things (like all stories are), but the seed of it comes from a so-called true story. The strange case of Don Decker, the Rain Boy, might be worth a look if you’re into unsolved mysteries and the paranormal. I’m not to bothered about the truth of it. What I bothered about is the story’s potential for metaphor.
Double (or multiple) meaning is something I try to build into all of my stories. I think this is something that literature and poetry can achieve really well.
What do you think?
Top Photo by Gabriele Diwald on Unsplash
If you liked this story and want to read more like it, please see the other free short stories on the site. If you want a dose of humor, might I suggest my collection of themed short stories – available from the link below.