It was late May and I, in my early Twenties, was sitting in Berlin's overground train S-Bahn with a huge backpack between my knees. I was nearly home after several hours' journey across Germany and really looked forward to giving my mum my presents for her recent birthday. One of her favourite flowers being Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), I had assembled a collection of all sorts of things "Little May Bells", the latter being the literal translation of the plant's German common name.
There were napkins with the flower's likeness, lily-of-the-valley soap, a beautiful birthday card with a photograph of a lily-of-the-valley posie and more. In France, where I had recently been on a day off from where I was working at the time, I had bought a box of chocolates decorated with an artificial flower stalk because, as I had discovered, it was customary there to gift each other lily-of-the-valley on May Day.
Then a man entered the Overground - and he carried a bucket full of lily-of-the-valley posies! The train was packed but someone opposite me had just left. Since flower man was the first one through the door he sat down right in front of me, putting the white plastic bucket that once had held paint on his lap. A cloud of perfume drifted towards me.
Now, much like in London it is considered odd in Berlin to talk to a stranger on public transport. You just don't do it. Besides, even though it seemed obvious that he was going to sell the flowers somewhere, I could not be 100 per cent sure. Moreover, I was a very young woman and he a considerably older man who did not look the most approachable. Also, there were people all around us. In short: much as I would have loved to, I didn't muster the courage to open my mouth and ask him if I could buy a bunch off him. How would that have looked? What if his reaction was odd?
I think my jaw might have dropped in surprise; then my face lit up. Under the smiles of those around us who had witnessed the scene I thanked him profusely. But even though I didn't say much more than "Oh - thank you so very very much!!", he seemed a little embarrassed, perhaps by his own good deed. "But don't sell it on!" he sternly added. I happily promised I wouldn't.
I thought of him and this episode when I came across an old woman sitting on a stool in a public square the other day, just such a white paint bucket full of lily-of-the-valley posies in front of her. They were for sale, of course. And of course I couldn't pass. It made my day. Like an addict I smelled and sniffed and inhaled, soaking up the unmistakable sweet yet somehow also spicy scent on the way back and whenever I passed it over the next few days.
I didn't tell that stranger many years ago what his surprise gift meant to me, beyond being a small bunch of fragrant flowers. He will never learn that it was the bouquet in my life that made me the happiest - even though I have received a few more very precious ones which were almost as special and made me similarly gasp. But I do hope that from my shiny eyes, my surprised gasp and my whole demeanour he caught a glimpse of how well his generous gesture was received, how much joy it brought. And I hope his kind act got its own reward - good karma or whatever. I for one arrived home at my mum's skipping.