The Darling Buds of May

BOOK: The Darling Buds of May
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PENGUIN BOOKS

The Darling Buds of May

H. E. Bates was born in 1905 at Rushden in Northamptonshire and was educated at Kettering Grammar School. He worked as a journalist and clerk on a local newspaper before publishing his first book,
The Two Sisters
, when he was twenty. In the next fifteen years he acquired a distinguished reputation for his stories about English country life. During the Second World War he was a Squadron Leader in the R.A.F. and some of his stories of service life,
The Greatest People in the World
(1942),
How Sleep the Brave
(1943) and
The Face of England
(1953), were written under the pseudonym of ‘Flying Officer X'. His subsequent novels of Burma,
The Purple Plain
and
The Jacaranda Tree
, and of India,
The Scarlet Sword
, stemmed directly or indirectly from his experience in the Eastern theatre of war. Perhaps one of his most famous works of fiction is the best-selling novel
Fair Stood the Wind for France
(1944).

In 1958 his writing took a new direction with the appearance of
The Darling Buds of May
, the first of the popular Larkin family novels, which was followed by
A Breath of Fresh Air
(1959),
When the Green Woods Laugh
(1960),
Oh! To Be in England
(1963) and
A Little of What You Fancy
(1970). His autobiography appeared in three volumes,
The Vanished World
(1969),
The Blossoming World
(1971) and
The World in Ripeness
(1972). His last works included the novel
The Triple Echo
(1971), and a collection of short stories,
The Song of the Wren
(1972). H. E. Bates also wrote miscellaneous works on gardening, essays on country life, several plays including
The Day of Glory
(1945),
The Modern Short Story
(1941) and a story for children,
The White Admiral
(1968). His works have been translated into sixteen languages. A posthumous collection of his stories,
The Yellow Meads of Asphodel
, appeared in 1976.

H. E. Bates was awarded the C.B.E. in 1973 and died in January 1974. He was married in 1931 and had four children.

The Darling Buds of May

H.E. BATES

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
WC2R 0RL
, England
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland
(a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
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(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)
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Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
WC2R 0RL
, England

www.penguin.com

First published by Michael Joseph 1958
Published in Penguin Books 1961
Reissued 2006

1

Copyright © H. E. Bates, 1958
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Set in 11/13pt Monotype Dante
by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire
Printed in England by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's
prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in
which it is published and without a similar condition including this
condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

EISBN: 978–0–141–90280–7

1

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.

BOOK: The Darling Buds of May
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