As usual, the opening line of a song that we sang in the acapella choir I used to belong to provides the mental background music to this time of year. Made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Rain, rain, rain, rain!” celebrates the long-awaited arrival of the rainy season to restore life to the arid, sun-scorched African savannah after months of torrid heat that turns the soil to dust.
“Oh, come, never come,” laments the song. And for day after roasting day we long for the introductory sound and lighting effects that herald the arrival of a crashing thunderstorm which will allow the weather magically to reset itself after days of steadily rising temperatures. Endless days during which endless sunshine beats down from a merciless white-hot orb so brilliant it seems to bake the sky into a solid dome of glossy blue. The heat is fierce and relentless, with temperatures stuck in the upper thirties for days at a time and never lower than the upper twenties during the sultry, sticky nights. Even the thinnest duvet is out of the question. We sleep, or try to, beneath an empty duvet cover and the gentle down-draught from the ceiling fan that does its best to stir the thick, heavy air into some semblance of a breeze to cool our clammy limbs. Meanwhile, we live in a state of perpetual gloom, keeping windows and shutters closed and curtains drawn throughout the day in an effort to keep the heat at bay and maintain at least an impression of ‘less hot’ if not exactly ‘cool’. But as each sweltering day passes, the heat gradually soaks through the brick and stone and starts to trickle down the walls, gathering in steamy puddles about the house, and over time reduces the gap between outside and inside temperatures to just a few precious degrees.
“Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” pleads the song. Every day we scan the shimmering horizon for signs of cloud gathering over the Sibillini Mountains where lies the bubbling cauldron of thermals that cast great, pearlescent towers of cumulonimbus cloud up into the brilliant blue: the surest sign in these parts that a downpour is on its way. But nothing. Just a milky blanket of heat haze fraying the sky’s furthest edges. And so the mercury remains stubbornly close to forty degrees for another day, and there are reports on the news about the exceptional weather, and features on how to cope with its effects – for it is not just we pasty, cool-blooded Anglo-Saxons who are suffering; everyone is feeling the heat.
Finally, it comes, though. Usually it is in the afternoon, by which time the air is so clogged with heat that every movement becomes a sweat-inducing effort. Over the Sibillini’s more northerly peaks the clouds at last begin to bubble up. Then to gather into great churning clumps, then to coalesce into a roiling mass of grimy grey that soon snuffs out the blazing sun. The immediately fresher air carries the scent of rain and we both scurry around the house, flinging the windows open, ready to usher the longed-for cool into every steamy corner of the house. An angry breeze starts to yank at the tops of the trees, drives the cat-flap into a frenzy and sets the shutters rattling. Within minutes big, fat, juicy rain drops begin to splat with an almost audible sizzle onto the sun-baked terrace. At last!
In no time the drops turn into heavy curtains of rain, billowing in the raging wind. Through the un-shuttered windows in the garden doors we watch the rain drops bouncing off the rain-slicked tiles. Down the valley, sea and sky merge into what looks like a vast and impenetrable wall of steel and within minutes the village is lost within the swirling cloud. Thunder roars and the demons of the Sibillini hurl down spears of lightning that flash silver-white against the now charcoal sky. For a while the end of the world seems nigh.
But within an hour it is over. The demons fall silent, gather their weapons and retreat to their mountain lair. The rain abates and the slackening wind flushes the grey away, revealing a sky of purest pastel blue. Across it are strewn bold streaks of lavender, pink and purple edged with gold. And as they slowly drift towards the horizon, the sun tentatively emerges once more. The storm has done its job, though: the temperature has almost halved and you can almost taste the freshness in the air. So at last we fling open the doors and windows and shutters, let the evening sunshine spill into every room and let the playful breeze blow away the drifts of stale heat that had accumulated in every corner. Normal service has been resumed; the re-set is complete. And “when the sun says good night to the mountain….the birds on the trees are singing sweet for the night”.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain!’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH7PM0-cpI