19 April 2018

After distributing the eight ice-creams - they were the largest vanilla, chocolate, and raspberry super-bumpers, each in yellow, brown, and almost purple stripes - Pop Larkin climbed up into the cab of the gentian blue, home-painted thirty-hundredweight truck, laughing happily.

'Perfick wevver! You kids all right at the back there? Ma, hitch up a bit!'

Ma, in her salmon jumper, was almost two yards wide.

 'I said you kids all right there?'

'How do you think they can hear,' Ma said, 'with you revving up all the time?'

Pop laughed again and let the engine idle. The strong May sunlight, the first hot sun of the year, made the bonnet of the truck gleam like brilliant blue enamel. All down the road, winding through the valley, miles of pink apple orchards were in late bloom, showing petals like light confetti.

'Zinnia and Petunia, Primrose, Victoria, Montgomery, Mariette!' - Pop unrolled the handsome ribbon of six names but heard only five separate answers, each voice choked and clotted with ice-cream.

'Where's Mariette? Ain't Mariette there?'

‘I’m here,  Pop.'

'That's all right, then. Thought you'd fell overboard.'

'No, I'm here, Pop, I'm here.'

'Perfick!' Pop said. 'You think I ought to get more ice-creams? It's so hot Ma's is nearly melted.'

Ma shook all over, laughing like a jelly. Little rivers of yellow, brown, and pinkish-purple cream were running down over her huge lardy hands. In her handsome big black eyes the cloudless blue May sky was reflected, making them dance as she threw out the splendid bank of her bosom, quivering under its salmon jumper. At thirty-five she still had a head of hair like black silk cotton, curly and thick as it fell to her fat olive shoulders. Her stomach and thighs bulged like a hop-sack under the tight brown skirt and in her remarkably small delicate cream ears her round pearl-drop earrings trembled like young white cherries.

'Hitch up a bit I said, Ma! Give father a bit o' room.' Pop Larkin, who was thin, sharp, quick-eyed, jocular, and already going shining bald on top, with narrow brown side-linings to make up for it, nudged against the mass of flesh like a piglet against a sow. 'Can't get the clutch in.'

Ma hitched up a centimetre or two, still laughing.

'Perfick!' Pop said. 'No, it ain't though. Where'd I put that money?'

Ice-cream in his right hand, he began to feel in the pockets of his leather jacket with the other.

'I had it when I bought the ice-creams. Don't say I dropped it. Here, Ma, hold my ice-cream.'

Ma held the ice-cream, taking a neat lick at a melting edge of it with a red sparkling tongue.

'All right, all right. Panic over. Put it in with the crisps.'

Packets of potato crisps crackled out of his pocket, together with a bundle of pound notes, rolled up, perhaps a hundred of them, and clasped with a thick elastic band.

'Anybody want some crisps? Don't all speak at once! - anybody -'

'Please!'

Pop leaned out of the driving cab and with two deft backhand movements threw packets of potato crisps into the back of the truck.

'Crisps, Ma?'

'Please,' Ma said. 'Lovely. Just what I wanted.'

Pop took from his pocket a third packet of potato crisps and handed it over to Ma, taking his ice-cream back and licking the dripping underside of it at the same time.

‘All right. All set now.' He let in the clutch at last, holding his ice-cream against the wheel. 'Perfick! Ma, take a look at that sky!'

Soon, in perfect sunlight, between orchards that lifted gentle pink branches in the lightest breath of wind, the truck was passing strawberry fields.

'Got the straw on,' Pop said. Won't be above anuvver few days now.'

In June it would be strawberries for picking, followed by cherries before the month ended, and then more cherries through all the month of July. Sometimes, in good summers, apples began before August did, and with them early plums and pears. In August and again in September it was apples. In September also it was hops and in October potatoes. At strawberries alone, with a big family, you could earn fifteen pounds a day.

'See that, kids?' Pop slowed down the truck, idling past the long rows of fresh yellow straw. ‘Anybody don't want to go strawberry picking?'

In the answering burst of voices Pop thought, for the second time, that he couldn't hear the voice of Mariette.

What's up with Mariette, Ma?'

'Mariette? Why.'

'Ain't heard her laughing much today.'

'I expect she's thinking,' Ma said.

Lost in silent astonishment at this possibility, Pop licked the last melting pink and chocolate-yellow cream from its paper and let the paper fly out of the window.

'Thinking? What's she got to think about?'

'She's going to have a baby.'

'Oh?' Pop said. Well, that don't matter. Perfick. Jolly good.'

Ma did not seem unduly worried either.

‘Who is it?' Pop said.

'She can't make up her mind.'

Ma sat happily munching crisps, staring at cherry orchards as they sailed past the truck, every bough hung with swelling fruit, palest pink on the sunnier edges of the trees.

'Have to make up her mind some time, won't she?' Pop said.

'Why?'

'Oh! I just thought,' Pop said.

Ma, who had almost finished the crisps, poured the last remaining golden crumbs into the palm of her left hand. Over the years, as she had grown fatter, the three big turquoise and pearl rings she wore had grown tighter and tighter on her fingers, so that every now and then she had to have them cut off, enlarged, and put back again.

'She thinks it's either that Charles boy who worked at the farm,' Ma said, 'or else that chap who works on the railway line. Harry somebody.'

'I know him,' Pop said. 'He's married.'

'The other one's overseas now,' Ma said. 'Tripoli or somewhere.'

‘Well, he'll get leave.'

'Not for a year he won't,' Ma said. ‘And perhaps not then if he hears.'

‘Ah! well, we'll think of something,' Pop said. 'Like some more crisps? How about some chocolate? Let's stop and have a beer. Got a crate in the back.'

'Not now,' Ma said. 'Wait till we get home now. We'll have a Guinness then and I'll warm the fish-and-chips up.'

Pop drove happily; both hands free now, staring with pleasure at the cherries, the apples, and the strawberry fields, all so lovely under the May sunlight, and thinking with pleasure too of his six children and the splendid, handsome names he and Ma had given them. Jolly good names, perfick, every one of them, he thought. There was a reason for them all.

Montgomery; the only boy; had been named after the general. Primrose had come in the Spring. Zinnia and Petunia were twins and they were the flowers Ma liked most. Victoria, the youngest girl, had been born in plum-time.

Suddenly he couldn't remember why they had called the eldest Mariette.

'Ma,' he said, 'trying to think why we called her Mariette. Why did we?'

'I wanted to call her after that Queen,' Ma said. 'I always felt sorry for that Queen.'

'What Queen?'

'The French one, Marie Antoinette. But you said it was too long. You'd never say it, you said.'

'Oh!I remember,' Pop said. 'I remember now. We put the two together.'

Ten minutes later they were home. With pride and satisfaction Pop gazed on home as it suddenly appeared beyond its scrubby fringe of woodland, half filled with bluebells, half with scratching red-brown hens.

'Home looks nice,'  he said. ‘Allus does though, don't it? Perfick.'

'Lovely.' Ma said.

We're all right,' Pop said. 'Got nothing to worry about, Ma, have we?'

'Not that I can think of,' Ma said.

Pop drew the truck to a standstill in a dusty yard of nettles, old oil drums, corrugated pigsties, and piles of rusty iron in which a line of white ducks, three grey goats, and a second batch of red-brown hens set up a concerted, trembling fuss of heads and wings, as if delighted.

'Just in time for dinner!' Pop said. It was almost four o'clock. 'Anybody not hungry?'

He leapt down from the cab. Like him, everybody was laughing. He knew they were all hungry; they always were.

'Down you come, you kids. Down.'

Letting down the back-board and holding up both arms, he took the youngest children one by one, jumping them down to the yard, laughing and kissing them as they came.

Presently  only Mariette remained  on the truck, wearing jodhpurs and a pale lemon shirt, standing erect, black-haired, soft-eyed, olive-skinned, and so well-made in a slender and delicate way that he could not believe that Ma, at seventeen too, had once looked exactly like her.

'It's all right. I can get down myself, Pop.'

Pop held up his arms, looking at her tenderly.

'Ah! come on. Ma's told me.'

'Let me get down myself, Pop.'

He stood watching her. Her eyes roamed past him, flashing and dark as her mother's, searching the yard.

It suddenly crossed his mind that she was afraid of something, not happy, and he half-opened his mouth to comment on this unlikely, disturbing, unheard-of fact when she suddenly shook her black head and startled him by saying:

'Pop, there's a man in the yard. There's a man over there by the horsebox. Watching us.'

Darling Buds of May

'I'm from the office of the Inspector of Taxes.' Pop stood blank and innocent, staggered by the very existence of such a person.

Pop walked across the yard towards the horsebox. He owned two horses, one a young black mare for Mariette, the other a piebald pony for the other kids. Mariette, who was crazy about horses, rode to point-to-points, sometimes went hunting, and even jumped at shows. She was wonderful about horses. She looked amazing on a horse. Perfick, he thought.

'Hullo, hullo, hullo,' he said. 'Good morning, afternoon rather. Looking for me?'

The man, young, spectacled, pale-faced, trilby-hatted, with a small brown toothbrush moustache, carried a black briefcase under his arm.

'Mr Sidney Larkin?'

'Larkin, that's me,' Pop said. He laughed in ringing fashion. 'Larkin by name, Larkin by nature. What can I do for you? Nice wevver.'

'I'm from the office of the Inspector of Taxes.'

Pop stood blank and innocent, staggered by the very existence of such a person.

'Inspector of what?'

'Taxes. Inland Revenue.'

'You must have come to the wrong house,' Pop said.

'You are Mr Sidney Larkin?' The young man snapped open the briefcase, took out a paper, and glanced at it quickly, nervously touching his spectacles with the back of his hand. 'Sidney Charles Larkin.'

'That's me. That's me all right,' Pop said.

‘According to our records,' the young man said, 'you have made no return of income for the past year.'

'Return?' Pop said. 'What return? Why? Nobody asked me.'

'You should have had a form,' the young man said. He took a yellow-buff sheet of paper from the briefcase and held it up. 'One like this.'

'Form?' Pop said. 'Form?'

Ma was crossing the yard with a box of groceries under one arm and a bag of fruit in the other. Three big ripe pineapples stuck cactus-like heads from the top of the huge paper bag. The twins loved pineapple. Especially fresh. Much better than tinned, they thought.

'Ma, did we have a form like this?' Pop called. 'Never had no form, did we?'

'Never seen one. Sure we never.'

'Come over here, Ma, a minute. This gentleman's from the Inspector of Summat or other.'

'I got dinner to get,' Ma said and strode blandly on with groceries and pineapples, huge as a buffalo. 'You want your dinner, don't you?'

Pop turned with an air of balmy indifference to the young man, who was staring incredulously at the receding figure of Ma as if she were part of the menagerie of hens, goats, ducks, and horses.

'No, never had no form. Ma says so.'

'You should have done. Two at least were sent. If not three.'

‘Well, Ma says so. Ma ought to know. Ma's the one who does the paperwork.’

The young man opened his mouth to speak and for a moment it was as if a strangled, startled gurgle came out. His voice choked itself back, however, and in reality the sound came from a drove of fifteen young turkeys winding down from the strip of wood land.

Won't hurt you,' Pop said. 'How about a nice hen-bird for Christmas? Put your name on it now.'

'This form has to be returned to the Inspector,' the young man said. 'There is a statutory obligation -'

'Can't return it if I ain't got it,' Pop said. 'Now can I?'

'Here's another.'

As he recoiled from the buff-yellow sheet of paper Pop saw Mariette walking across the yard, slender, long-striding, on her way to the wooden, brush-roofed stable where both pony and horse were kept.

'I got no time for forms,' Pop said. 'Gawd Awmighty, I got pigs to feed. Turkeys to feed. Hens to feed. Kids to feed. I ain't had no dinner. Nobody ain't had no dinner.'

Suddenly the young man was not listening. With amazement he was following the progress of Mariette's dark, yellow-shirted figure across the yard.

'My eldest daughter,' Pop said. 'Crazy on horses. Mad on riding. You do any riding, Mister - Mister - I never caught your name.

'Charlton.'

'Like to meet her, Mister Charlton?' Pop said. The young man was still staring, mouth partly open. Between his fingers the tax form fluttered in the breezy sunlit air.

'Mariette, come over here a jiff. Young man here's crazy on horses, like you. Wants to meet you. Comes from the Ministry of Revenue or summat.'

In astonished silence the young man stared at the new celestial body, in its yellow shirt, as it floated across the background of rusty iron, pigsties, abandoned oildrums, goat-chewn hawthorn bushes, and dusty earth.

'Mister Charlton, this is my eldest, Mariette. The one who's mad on horses. Rides everywhere. You've very like seen her picture in the papers.'

'Hullo,' Mariette said. 'I spotted you first.'

'That's right, she saw you,' Pop said. Who's that nice young feller in the yard, she said.'

'So you,' Mariette said, 'like riding too?'

The eyes of the young man groped at the sunlight as if still unable correctly to focus the celestial body smiling at him from three feet away.

'I say every kid should have a horse,' Pop said. 'Nothing like a horse. I'm going to get every one of my kids a horse.'

Suddenly the young man woke from mesmerism, making a startling statement.

'I saw you riding over at Barfield,' he said. 'In the third race. At Easter. You came second.'

'I hope you won a bob or two on her,' Pop said.

Again he laughed in ringing fashion, bringing from beyond the stable an echo of goose voices as three swaggering grey­ white birds emerged from a barricade of nettles, to be followed presently by the half-sleepy, dainty figures of a dozen guinea fowl.

'Pity we didn't know you were coming,' Pop said. 'We're killing a goose tomorrow. Always kill a goose or a turkey or a few chickens at the weekend. Or else guinea fowl. Like guinea fowl?'

If the young man had any kind of answer ready it was snatched from him by the voice of Ma, calling suddenly from the house:

'Dinner's nearly ready. Anybody coming in or am I slaving for nothing?'

We're coming, Ma!' Pop turned with eager, tempting relish to the young man, still speechless, still struggling with his efforts to focus correctly the dark-haired girl. Well, we got to go, Mister Charlton. Sorry. Ma won't have no waiting.'

'Now, Mr Larkin, about this form -'

'Did you see me at Newchurch?' Mariette said. 'I rode there too.'

‘As a matter of fact, I did - I did, yes - But, Mr Larkin, about this form -'

What form?' Mariette said.

'Oh! some form, some form,' Pop said. 'I tell you what, Mister Charlton, you come in and have a bite o' dinner with us. No, no trouble. Tons o' grub –’

'I've eaten, thank you. I've eaten.'

‘Well, cuppa tea then. Cuppa coffee. Bottle o' beer. Bottle o' Guinness. Drop o' cider.'

The entire body of the young man seemed to swirl helplessly, as if half-intoxicated, out of balance, on its axis.

'Oh! yes, do,' Mariette said and by the time he had recovered he found himself being led by Pop Larkin towards the house, from which Ma was already calling a second time:

'If nobody don't come in three minutes I'll give it to the cats.'

'Know anybody who wants a pure white kitten?' Pop said. 'Don't want a pure white kitten, do you?'

'So you were at Newchurch too,' Mariette  said. 'I wish I'd known.'

A moment later Pop threw up his hands in a gesture of near ecstasy at the overpowering beauty, which suddenly seemed to strike him all afresh, of the May afternoon.

'Beautiful, ain't it?' he said. 'Perfick. I got a beautiful place here. Don't you think I got a beautiful place here, Mister Charlton?'

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