It is a glorious afternoon in May. In the cab of his gentian-blue truck, with six children licking enormous ice creams in the back, skinny little Pop Larkin, crammed next to enormous Ma, starts the engine and drives along Kentish lanes lined with apple orchards and strawberry fields. As he approaches home he is, as so often, in a state of complete contentment.
The dusty yard in which he pulls up is a happy muddle of nettles, scrap iron and poultry. There are also two horses, belonging to Mariette, his eldest daughter and his darling, an exquisitely slender 17-year-old in jodhpurs and lemon shirt, ‘black-haired, soft-eyed, olive-skinned’ – and, he has just learned from Ma, expecting a baby. It is she who draws Pop’s attention to a man standing by the horsebox, watching them.
The Inland Revenue has come to call. Its pale young representative produces from his briefcase a buff form.
Things are about to change – but not, it transpires, for Pop. It is pale, nervous, desk-bound Mr Charlton – Cedric, but no one can bring themselves to call him that – whose old life now begins to unravel, as the form and all attendant questions are breezily waved aside. Already entranced by the sight of Mariette, he is invited into the kitchen. A gorgeous tea is set before him. Children crowd round, geese gobble scraps beneath the table, Ma, ‘huge as a buffalo’, pre-sides, washing everything down with Guinness. The room is lit by the ‘pallid, unreal glow’ of the television. Briefly, it is switched off.
In the half-darkness that now smothered the room, Mr Charlton felt something smooth, sinuous and slender brush against his right calf. For one shimmering, unnerving moment he sat convinced that it was Mariette’s leg entwining itself about his own.
He looks down, sees a goose eating half-cold chips, and struggles to return to the question of income.