Semi-naked girls and a strawberry-stained catfight: In the third slice of our divine Darling Buds Of May series, a coquette’s thrusting bosom turns a fruity encounter with the tax inspector into a bout between two howling wild cats
Anticipating this autumn’s return of the much-loved Larkin family in ITV’s remake of The Darling Buds Of May, our first two exclusive extracts from the original novel by H. E. Bates described the beginning of the unlikely courtship between daughter Mariette and shy young tax inspector, Mr Charlton. Arriving at the Larkin home to demand their tax return one Friday afternoon, he has somehow ended up staying all weekend. Despite her best efforts, Mariette has failed to overcome his shyness and today we rejoin the story, as Monday finds the Larkins persuading Mr Charlton to take sick leave and join them strawberry picking — with uproarious results.
Cedric Charlton followed the Larkins into the strawberry field, convinced that a terrible day lay in front of him. The morning sun was already clear and hot and by noon it would be blistering down.
‘You can eat all the strawberries you like,’ Mariette said. ‘But you’ll soon get tired of that.’
Mr Charlton did not feel at all like eating strawberries. He longed to be able to sit down, if possible to lie down, in some cool quiet place under the chestnut saplings.
Already, along the yellow alleys of straw, 20 or 30 girls and women, with an odd man or two, were picking. A green canvas tent, towards which Mr Charlton looked with pitiful desperation, as at an oasis, stood in the centre of the field, piled about with white baskets.
The hot summery distances were full of calling cuckoos. The field trembled like a zither with chattering women’s voices. A man stripped his shirt off and the sudden sight of his pure naked torso set every female voice laughing, catcalling, or simply whistling in admiring wonder.
‘Why don’t you do that, lovey?’ Mariette said. ‘You’d be all that much cooler. In time you’d get marvellously brown.’
‘I think I’ll try and get acclimatised first,’ Mr Charlton said.
Lying on their fresh beds of straw, the squarish fat crimson strawberries shone in the sun with a too-perfect beauty exactly, as Pop said, as if painted, and now and then Mr Charlton looked up to see the lips of Mariette parted half in laughter, half in the act of biting into some glistening arc of lovely dark ripe flesh.
He was very slow, he presently discovered, at the picking. Mariette could fill, with swift deft ease, three punnet-baskets to his one.
‘You’re not very fast, are you?’ she said. ‘Come on — let’s go along to the tent and get the baskets weighed.’
Lying on their fresh beds of straw, the squarish fat crimson strawberries shone in the sun with a too-perfect beauty exactly, as Pop said, as if painted, and now and then Mr Charlton looked up to see the lips of Mariette parted half in laughter, half in the act of biting into some glistening arc of lovely dark ripe flesh. Pictured: Catherine Zeta Jones as Mariette Larkin and Philip Franks as Charley in the TV series
The tent was Mr Charlton’s salvation. Pop, who was also there getting his first baskets checked, introduced him to the foreman, a youngish energetic man in khaki shirt and slacks, as ‘Charley boy. Friend of ours, Mr Jennings. Office feller from the tax-lark’.
Mr Jennings appraised Mr Charlton, of the tax-lark, with interested swiftness. You didn’t often get office fellers in the strawberry field.
‘Chap I’m looking for,’ he said. ‘What about sitting here and doing my job? I got a million things to do besides check these ruddy women.’
‘There y’are, Charley boy,’ Pop said, clapping him on the shoulder.’ Got you promoted already. I got to run along now. See a man about some scrap iron. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. See you all about five.’
As Pop departed across the field to his truck, Mr Charlton sat down at the table in the green shade of the tent, feeling intensely relieved. With a chair under his bottom it was almost like being back in the office again.
‘Nothing to it,’ Mr Jennings said. ‘You just got to keep a record in the book here, with the names, that’s all, so we can pay out at the end of the day.’ Mr Charlton said he thought he had it taped all right, sat back and cleaned his glasses and combed his hair.
Across the field he could see all kinds of women, fat ones, scrawny ones, pretty ones, old ones, very young ones, bending and laughing in the long strawberry rows, their blouses and slacks stringing out flagwise, in brilliant colours, under a hot cloudless sky.
It was a very pleasant, peaceful, pastoral scene, he thought, and there was a delicious fragrance of ripe strawberries in the air.
He was startled. He had utterly forgotten Mariette, who had been standing behind him all the time.
‘Afraid I had. So absorbed in the new job and all that.’
‘Well, don’t,’ she said, kissing him lightly on the cheek. ‘And mind what you’re up to. Don’t get mixed up with other women.’
Mr Charlton, who had no intention whatsoever of getting mixed up with other women, began applying himself earnestly to the task of checking and weighing the baskets of fruit as they came in.
He looked up, sometime later, to see a pretty, fair-haired, well-made girl standing in the tent.
She was wearing tight black jeans and an even tighter thin black woollen sweater. The outlines of her breasts were as pronounced as if carved. Her hair was tied up in a long shining horse-tail, the fluffy sun-whitened ends of it brushing her bare shoulders.
‘Pauline Jackson,’ she said, ‘two dozen.’
Her eyes were big and blue. Her smooth skin was deep brown from working in the fields. Her forearms were covered with tender, downy golden hairs. Her tongue played on her straight white teeth when she had finished speaking.
While Mr Charlton was writing in the book she said: ‘New here, aren’t you? Never seen you here before.’
‘Sort of on holiday,’ Mr Charlton explained.
‘Nice to be some people.’
She had a slow, drowsy way of talking. It somehow matched the way her tongue remained playing on her lips and the way her hair fell on her shoulders.
Reaching out a brown long-fingered hand she took a strawberry from a basket and, as she bit into its white-crimson juicy inner flesh, Mariette came in, carrying two baskets.
‘Oh! Company,’ the girl said, staring at her with flat cool eyes. Mr Charlton thought Mariette’s eyes looked, in reply, like two infuriated black bees.
‘Well, I’ll push off,’ the girl said. ‘See you later.’
She tossed her hair from one side of her shoulders to another, at the same time giving Mr Charlton a glad, cool, backward look. ‘If not before.’ She was hardly out of the tent before Mariette banged the two baskets on the table and shouted ‘Tart!’
Mr Charlton was very much shaken. ‘Steady,’ he said. ‘She’ll hear . . .’
‘She’s meant to, the so-and-so . . .’ He had never seen Mariette angry before. Her voice sounded raw.
‘I’m going into the wood to cool off,’ she said.
‘Wait just a minute . . .’
‘I’ve got to cool off! That’s where I’ll be if you want me.’
Mr Charlton, who had no intention whatsoever of getting mixed up with other women, began applying himself earnestly to the task of checking and weighing the baskets of fruit as they came in. Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Mariette Larkin in the TV series
By the middle of the afternoon it was so hot that Mr Charlton went to stand at the door of the tent to get a breath of air. He had never known it so hot in May and when he looked across the strawberry field he was astonished to see a startling change there.
Almost all the women had stripped off their blouses and shirts in the heat and were working in nothing but bodices and brassieres.
Mr Charlton went back into the tent and tried to satisfy his curiosity about what Pop called the strawberry lark by adding up how many pounds of strawberries had been in and out of the tent that day. He calculated, astonishingly, that he had checked in more than a ton. That meant, he reasoned, a pretty fair lump for the pickers.
His trained mind wondered what the tax position about that was. He was still thinking of this when he looked up and saw Pauline Jackson standing in the door.
She was not wearing a black sweater now. Like the rest of the women she had stripped down to her brassiere. She had very fine suntanned arms and shoulders but the lower part of her deep chest was as white as the inside of a young apple by comparison.
It was this startling whiteness that made his heart start bouncing. She smiled. She came to the table and said in her lazy way: ‘Not much cooler, is it?’
She put 24lb of strawberries on the table. He started to fumble with pencil and paper, his eyes downcast. She leaned forward as if to see what he was writing down and said: ‘How many does that make for me today? Eight dozen?’
He started to say, ‘I’ve got an idea it’s more than that, Miss Jackson,’ determined to keep it as formal as possible, and then looked up to see, not ten or 12in from his face, most of her bared, white, perfectly sculptured bust, blazingly revealed, heaving deeply.
Miss Jackson did not seem unduly perturbed.
‘Two more dozen,’ she said, ‘and I think I’ll pack it up for the day. What time are you knocking off? Going back to Fordington? If you are I could give you a lift on my Vespa.’
Too nervous to think clearly, Mr Charlton said: ‘I don’t know what time I’ll finish. I did want to go to Fordington to fetch some clothes from my room, but . . .’
‘Might go on and have a swim at the pool afterwards’, she said. ‘How about that?’
The sculptured breasts came an inch or two nearer, their division so deep and the pure whiteness so sharp in the shade of the tent, against the dark brown upper flesh of her shoulders, that Mr Charlton was utterly mesmerised.
‘No hurry for half an hour one way or the other. Just tell me when.’
She swung her body away. He saw the splendid curves turn full circle in such a way that he was dizzy in the heat. She laughed and reached the door as he stuttered: ‘You know, I actually couldn’t say if — I mean, there’s nothing definite . . .’
‘Just say when’ she said. ‘All you got to do is to tell me when.’
She left the tent and moments later he heard a sudden pandemonium of yelling and shrieking. Thirty yards away a ring of semi-naked vultures were shrieking and flapping in the sun and Mr Charlton caught a glimpse, somewhere in the vultured circle, of two bare-shouldered girls fighting each other, like wild cats.
One of the cats was Pauline Jackson; the other was Mariette. Like cats, too, they were howling in the unrestricted animal voices that belong to dark rooftops.
She left the tent and moments later he heard a sudden pandemonium of yelling and shrieking. Thirty yards away a ring of semi-naked vultures were shrieking and flapping in the sun and Mr Charlton caught a glimpse, somewhere in the vultured circle, of two bare-shouldered girls fighting each other, like wild cats. One of the cats was Pauline Jackson; the other was Mariette. Like cats, too, they were howling in the unrestricted animal voices that belong to dark rooftops. Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anna Skye as Mariette and Pauline in the 1990s TV series
With alarm Mr Charlton saw streams of blood on the flesh of hands, faces, bare shoulders, and half-bare breasts, and then suddenly realised that this was really the scarlet juice of smashed strawberries that the girls were viciously rubbing into each other’s eyes and throat and hair.
The fair horse-tail was like frayed red rope and the neat dark curls of Mariette that he cared for more and more every time he saw them were being torn from her face.
Afraid she would get seriously hurt, he felt a little sick at the thought of it. Suddenly he felt constrained to rush in and separate the two combatants, all scarlet now and weeping and half-naked, before they disfigured each other for ever.
‘I’ve got to stop them. I’ve got to make them stop it,’ he said to one of the onlookers. ‘Anyway, what on earth are they fighting for?’
‘Gawd Blimey, don’t you know, mister?’ she shrieked. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know!’
Even when he was riding home that evening in the back of the truck Mr Charlton still could not really believe he knew. The notion that two girls would fight for him still had him completely stunned.
Everybody had been sternly briefed by Ma, before the truck arrived, not to say a word to Pop. ‘Might give her a good leatherin’ if he knew,’ Ma explained, ‘and it’s hot enough as it is.’
Everybody agreed; they were all for Mariette. Mr Charlton was all for Mariette too; he felt himself grow continually more proud of her as the truck, driven at Pop’s customary jolting speed, rocked homewards through fragrant hedgerows of honeysuckle, the first wild pink roses of May.
He kept smiling at her and watching her dark, pretty, red-stained hair. Somebody had lent her a green sweater to wear over her ripped bodice and you could hardly tell, now, that she had been in a fight at all.
In a curious way it was Mr Charlton who felt he had been in a fight. A total lack of all feeling of uncertainty, together with an odd sensation of actual aggression, began to make him feel rather proud of himself, too.
‘Well, how was the first day, Charley?’ Pop said. In the sitting room he had poured out a Dragon’s Blood beer for himself and one for Mr Charlton, who felt he really needed it. He was as hungry as a hunter too. ‘Everything go orf all right? Smooth an’ all that? No lumbago?’
‘No lumbago,’ Mr Charlton said. ‘Everything smooth as it could be.’
‘Perfick,’ Pop said.
He drank Dragon’s Blood to the day’s perfection and called through to the kitchen: ‘How long’ll supper be, Ma? I’m turning over.’
‘About an hour yet. Roast beef’s only just gone in.’
Pop turned to Mr Charlton: ‘Hour yet, plenty o’ time for you to take Mariette for a stroll as far as the river. They’ll be cutting the grass in that medder tomorrow.’
Mr Charlton agreed. He had his thoughts very much on that buttercup-filled meadow. Just before going outside, however, he remembered he had a question to ask of Pop. ‘An awful lot of money gets paid out to these people,’ he said. ‘Strawberries. Cherries. Hops and so on. Take for example all these Cockneys coming down for the hops. Strictly, in law, they ought to pay tax on that.’
‘Pay tax?’ Pop said. He spoke faintly. ‘Dammit if they was taxed they wouldn’t come. Then you wouldn’t have no strawberries, no cherries, no nothink. No beer!’
The logic of this argument dashed the last of Mr Charlton’s reasoning and he went away to find Mariette, who was just coming downstairs in the cool green dress of which he had grown so very fond.
As Mr Charlton and Mariette disappeared across the yard in the evening sun Ma’s only complaint, as she watched them from the kitchen window, was that she hadn’t got a pair of field-glasses, so that she could watch ‘how that young man’s getting on with his technique. If he’s getting on at all’.
Pop, after pouring two gills of gin into his second Dragon’s Blood to pep it up a bit, retired to watch television. It had been on for some considerable time, out of natural habit, though no one was watching it, and Pop sat back in the greenish unreal semi-darkness, content to sit and sip his beer and enjoy a programme about female pygmies in Africa, all of whom hopped about their villages with unconcern, without a stitch on, all the women bare-breasted.
Out in the buttercup field Mariette and Mr Charlton were lying in the tall brilliant flowers and the even taller feathery grasses. Mariette, so dark and so pretty in her green dress, was drawing Mr Charlton very gently to her and Mr Charlton was responding with a proud, searching look on his face so that Ma, if she could have been watching him at that moment through binoculars, would have seen that he had gone some way, in certain directions, towards improving his technique.
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 September 4.
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