The final part of our Darling Buds Of May summer series

Fireworks that made the donkey Derby end with a bang: In the final part of our Darling Buds Of May summer series, the Larkins toast the arrival of TWO new additions to Britain’s favourite countryside clan

 With ITV’s remake of the much-loved The Darling Buds Of May coming this autumn, our exclusive extracts from the original novel by H. E. Bates have captured all the heart-warming comedy and drama that so endeared us to the 1990s series, starring David Jason as Pop Larkin and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his beautiful daughter Mariette. 

In today’s final extract, it’s three weeks since the hapless young tax inspector Mr Charlton first visited the Larkins to demand Pop fill in his tax return. Dazzled by Mariette and the charms of their rural lives, he has been staying with them ever since. Still unaware that Mariette is pregnant by an unknown suitor, he has an important question to ask Pop . . .

Early on the day of the gymkhana being held in the Larkins’ meadow, Mr Charlton and Mariette went across the yard to feed the four donkeys Pop had secured for racing.

As soon as they were in the half-dark stable, Mr Charlton took her quickly in his arms and kissed her. Mariette laughed, trembling, and said she’d hardly been able to wait for that one, the first, the loveliest of the day. Mr Charlton, with something like ecstasy, said he hadn’t been able to wait either.

Quietly, as the second kiss went on, the donkeys stirred about the stable, swishing tails, restless. Hearing them, Mariette partly broke away from Mr Charlton and said with half-laughing mouth: ‘I suppose there’s a first time for everything. I’ve never been kissed among donkeys before.’

As soon as they were in the half-dark stable, Mr Charlton took her quickly in his arms and kissed her. Pictured Philip Franks as Charley and Catherine Zeta Jones as Mariette in the ‘Darling Buds of May’ TV show 

By half-past 11 the sun had broken through, beginning to dry at last the heavy dew on the grass, the trees of the bluebell wood, and the hedgerows. 

In the meadow now gay with flags of yellow, scarlet, blue, and emerald, the tents and marquees standing about the new green grass like white haystacks, Pop watched Mariette, who was horse-mad, having a practice canter.

She had changed already into her shirt and jodhpurs and her bare head was like a curly black kitten against the far blue sky. Mr Charlton was in attendance and suddenly Pop remembered the little matter of the baby. He supposed she wouldn’t have to ride much longer and he wondered mildly if Mr Charlton knew. He’d forgotten about that.

All the Larkin children were properly dressed for the gymkhana wearing jodhpurs, and riding caps, even though only Mariette and Montgomery were participating. Each of them went about sucking enormous pink-and-yellow ice-creams; and the twins, who took so much after Ma, had large crackling bags of popcorn and potato crisps.

While Ma wandered about with the children and Mr Charlton watched the various events, listening with pride every time the loudspeakers spoke the name of Miss Mariette Larkin, Pop was behind the beer tent, trying to induce their neighbour Miss Edith Pilchester to ride in the ladies’ donkey Derby.

Pop watched Mariette, who was horse-mad, having a practice canter.

A fortyish, slightly moustached brunette who was shaped like a bolster and threw herself into an amazing number of projects with a ferocious energy, Miss Pilchester prowled from charity to charity, bazaar to bazaar, like some restless, thirsty lioness seeking prey.

As secretary of the gymkhana committee, she had recently paid the Larkins a visit to inspect the field. Afterwards, Pop had given her a lift home in the pre-war Rolls-Royce he had taken in exchange for a debt.

‘Did you kiss her?’ Ma had asked that night.

‘Course I did,’ replied Pop.

‘I thought you would,’ Ma said, unperturbed. ‘Do her good. Make her sleep all the sweeter.’

Behind the beer tent, Pop urged Miss Pilchester to be a sport.

‘I thought you liked a bit o’ fun?’ he said.

‘I think you are trying to be naughty. Who else is riding?

‘All girls of your age.’

Miss Pilchester darted a rapid glance at Pop. The cast of suspicion died in her eye as she saw his new brown Edwardian cap. How well it suited him.

‘What about that time I took you home in the Rolls? Best kiss I’ve had for a long time. Haven’t been able to forget it.’

Miss Pilchester hadn’t been able to forget it either; she had even wondered if it may be repeated.

‘I admit it was far from unpleasant, but what has it to do with the donkey Derby?’

Pop started to caress the outer rim of Miss Pilchester’s thigh. With upsurgent alarm Miss Pilchester felt an investigating finger press a suspender button.

‘People will be looking!’

‘Coming to our party tonight?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Repeat performance there. Promise.’

At four o’clock Miss Pilchester was ready to ride in the ladies’ donkey Derby.

A quarter of an hour before that Mr Charlton had ridden in the men’s donkey Derby. He had ridden three yards and then fallen off.

While Ma wandered about with the children, Mr Charlton watched the various events, listening with pride every time the loudspeakers spoke the name of Miss Mariette Larkin. Pictured Pam Ferris as Ma Larkin with the children – the twins Petunia and Zinnia played by Christina and Katherine Giles, Julie Davies as Primrose, and the youngest daughter, Victoria, played by Stephanie Ralph

His mount had instantly bolted, ending up in stirring style far beyond the tea tent, by the river, where already a few lovers, bored by the events and stimulated by a warm afternoon of entrancing golden air, were embracing in the long grasses by the bank, profitably dreaming out the day in a world of rising fish, wild irises, and expanding water-lily blooms.

When Pop went to collect the animal, which was called Jasmine, he found it staring with detached interest at a soldier and a passionate, well-formed young blonde, both of whom were oblivious, in the grasses, of the presence of watchers.

Jasmine, Pop thought, seemed so interested in what was going on that after being led away some paces she turned, pricked up her ears and looked around, rather as if she wanted to come back and see it all again.

After all this, Pop selected Jasmine for Miss Pilchester to ride. The animal stood dangerously still at the starting point, in stubborn suspense, while Pop gave earnest ante-post advice to Miss Pilchester, who sat astride.

‘Hang on with your knees. Don’t let go. Hang on tight. Like grim death.’

Miss Pilchester, already looking like grim death, gave a hasty glance round at the other competitors, dismayed to find them all young, effervescent girls of 16 or 17. She herself felt neither young nor effervescent and the donkey was horribly hairy underneath her calves.

‘Don’t mind them, Edith. Look straight ahead — straight as you can go.’

Miss Pilchester became vaguely aware of carrots, in orange arcs, being waved in all directions. A few animals trotted indifferently up the track, between shrieking, cheering rows of spectators but Jasmine stood fast.

When Pop went to collect the animal, which was called Jasmine, he found it staring with detached interest at a soldier and a passionate, well-formed young blonde, both of whom were oblivious, in the grasses, of the presence of watchers. Pictured David Jason as Pop Larkin

‘Git up, old gal!’ Pop said, and started to push her. ‘Git up there, Jasmine!’

He heaved against her rump. Nothing happened, and it seemed as if Jasmine had sunk her feet into the ground.

It was all absolutely ghastly, Miss Pilchester was just thinking when over the loudspeaker a voice started up an announcement about Anne Fitzgerald, aged three, who had lost her mother. ‘Would Mrs Fitzgerald please …’

The loudspeaker gave a few snappy barks. Jasmine cocked her ears and broke through, with frenzy, the waving arcs of carrots, leaving Pop on the ground and everybody scattered.

Miss Pilchester, as Pop had so earnestly and correctly advised, hung on firmly and desperately with her knees, just like grim death, and in 30 seconds Jasmine was back at the river, once more staring into the world of grasses, water-lilies, irises, and a soldier’s summer love.

Half-dismounting, half-falling, a dishevelled and demoralised Miss Pilchester stood staring too and it only made things worse when the soldier, disturbed in the middle of his technique, looked up calmly and said:

‘Why don’t you go away, Ma? Both of you. You and your sister.’

At the Larkin’s post-gymkhana party that night, their billiard room was a clamorous, fighting mass of 50 or 60 people, one half of whom had never received a formal invitation.

In the comparative quiet of the sitting room, where it was getting dusk, Pop got the impression that the entire billiard room would, at any moment, blow up behind him. The place was a whirring dynamo, rapidly running hot.

‘And what about me?’

It was Miss Pilchester, furtive against the cocktail cabinet.

‘Having a nice time?’ he asked

‘It’ll be nicer when you’ve kept your promise.’

Might as well get it over, Pop thought.  

Miss Pilchester didn’t know how to hold herself for the act of kissing and Pop seized her like a sheaf of corn. There was a momentary bony stir of corsets and Miss Pilchester gave a palpitating sigh, determined to give it everything she’d got.

For all the velvet artistry he put into it, Pop could make little impression on lips so well fortified with teeth that he felt they might at any moment crack like walnuts underneath the strain.

Finally Miss Pilchester broke away, gave something like a sob, patted Pop’s cheek, and rushed hurriedly away.

Back in the billiard room, a tall aristocratically fair girl pulled Pop aside.

‘They tell me you practically organised this whole bun-fight single-handed,’ she said ‘My name’s Angela Snow. Emhurst Valley. We’ve got one of these pony-trots coming off in August — what say you come over and bring the donkey outfit and make that one go with a bang?’

The word bang made Pop remember something. It was, he thought, the one thing needed to make the day a perfick one.

‘Like fireworks?’

‘Adore ’em.’

‘This way,’ Pop said.

Halfway to the sitting room, he was stopped by Mr Charlton and Mariette, who said: ‘Pop, Charley has something he’d like to say to you.’

Halfway to the sitting room, he was stopped by Mr Charlton and Mariette, who said: ‘Pop, Charley has something he’d like to say to you.’

‘Not now,’ Pop said. ‘Busy now.’

‘It’s terribly important. It’s something he’s got to ask you.’ Mr Charlton looked strained and tense. Must have found out about the baby, Pop supposed. Pity.

‘Be back in five minutes,’ he said and followed the tall, aristocratic girl into the sitting room where she knocked back her cocktail with the coolest speed, like a man.

‘One more of these, dear boy, and I’m ready.’

Pop was ready too. Ten minutes later the first firework went off like a bomb under Ma, who showed hardly any sign of disturbance at all. Two ladies met a Roman Candle on the stairs and Pop put a Mighty Atom under the billiard table where it set the champagne glasses ringing like a xylophone.

In the middle of it all Mariette and Mr Charlton tried again, with little success, to speak with Pop, who was running about the flower beds waving a Golden Rain, happy as a boy. When finally Pop had thrown the Golden Rain over a damson tree Mr Charlton said: ‘Pop, I want to speak to you. Ma says I can marry Mariette if you’ll let her —’

‘Perfick,’ Pop said. ‘Let her? — course I’ll let her.’

A quarter of an hour later he was standing on a chair outside the billiard room, announcing to the gathered guests, in the smoky garden, with a touch of imperial pride in his voice, together with a certain sadness, that Mr Charlton was going to marry his daughter Mariette and had everybody got their glasses filled?

‘Give you the toast!’ he called into the smoky summer air. ‘Charley and Mariette.’

As he lifted his glass a stunning explosion split the air, knocking him yards backwards. It was the last devastating Roman Candle of the cool, tall, girl.

‘Quite perfect,’ she said.

When it was all over, Ma and Pop sat alone in the kitchen, Ma now and then shaking all over as she remembered the donkeys, Miss Pilchester, and the way Pop had been blown flat on his back by the Roman Candle.

Pouring out two nice big glasses of port, Pa said it was very nice about Mr Charlton and Mariette and had Mr Charlton found out about the baby?

‘She’s not having a baby now,’ Ma said. ‘False alarm.’

‘Jolly good,’ Pop said. ‘Perfick.’

‘I am though,’ Ma said.

A quarter of an hour later he was standing on a chair outside the billiard room, announcing to the gathered guests, in the smoky garden, with a touch of imperial pride in his voice, together with a certain sadness, that Mr Charlton was going to marry his daughter Mariette and had everybody got their glasses filled? 

Pop looked mildly, though not disagreeably, surprised.

‘How did that happen then?’

‘How? What do you mean, how?’

Pop said he meant when did it all date back to.

‘That night in the bluebell wood,’ Ma said. Just before Mister Charlton came. You said you thought there was a wild duck’s nest up there and we went to have a look.’

‘That night?’ Pop said. ‘I never even thought —’

‘You don’t know your own strength,’ Ma said.

Pop had just finished a second slice of apple pie and was vaguely wondering about a third — there wasn’t so much of it left and it was a pity to let it go begging — when Mr Charlton and Mariette came in from the sitting room. He said how glad he was to see them and how he could congratulate them now it was quieter. He and Ma weren’t half glad about things and it didn’t seem five minutes since Mr Charlton had arrived.

‘How about a glass of port, you two?’

While he was pouring out two more big glasses he couldn’t help thinking how nice it was about Mariette and the baby — just as well to start with a clean sheet about these things.

‘Well, cheers,’ he said. ‘God bless,’ and with a sudden affectionate impulse got up and kissed Mariette. ‘Couldn’t be more perfick.’

Ma, who said she wasn’t going to be left out, then got up and kissed both Mariette and Mr Charlton; and then Mr Charlton and Pop shook hands.

‘Are you going back to that office?’ Ma asked.

Mr Charlton, thoughtful again, said he supposed if he didn’t go back he’d lose his pension.

The word pension made Pop laugh. ‘You mean sit on your backside for 40 years and then collect four pounds a week that’s worth only two and’ll only buy half as much anyway?

‘I tell you what. I’ll be doing a nice little demolition job soon. Big mansion. What say we pick the best out and build you and Mariette a bungalow in the medder, near the bluebell wood?’

‘Oh! wonderful, wonderful, Pop!’ Mariette said and, with eyes impulsively dancing, came to kiss his face and lips and hair, so Mr Charlton knew there was, really, nothing more to say.

Pouring out two nice big glasses of port, Pa said it was very nice about Mr Charlton and Mariette and had Mr Charlton found out about the baby? ‘She’s not having a baby now,’ Ma said. ‘False alarm.’ ‘Jolly good,’ Pop said. ‘Perfick.’ ‘I am though,’ Ma said.

‘Well, that’s it then,’ Pop said. ‘Perfick. Now who says one more glass o’ port? And then we go to bed.’

He was intensely looking forward to that. It would top it all up to have a cigar in bed and watch Ma get into her transparent nylon nightgown.

He poured four more nice big glasses of port, saying at the same time how glad he was about the rain. It was just what the cherries, the plums, and the apples wanted now.

‘Shall you come cherry picking, too?’ Mariette said to Mr Charlton, but in answer he could only look at her olive skin, the dark shining eyes, the kittenish hair, and the firm young breasts with silent fascination.

Some moments later Pop took his glass of port to the kitchen door, staring out at the summer darkness and the rain. Mr Charlton felt an impulse to join him and stood there staring too, thinking of how spring had passed, how quickly the buds of May had gone, and how everything, now, had blossomed into full, high summer.

‘Listen,’ Pop said. ‘Perfick.’

Everybody listened; and in the dark air there was the sound of nightingales.

The Darling Buds Of May by H. E. Bates is published by Penguin £8.99 © H.E.Bates 1958. To order a copy for £8.09 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Offer price valid until 04/09/21.

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