You know how it is with friends – the closer you get, the less you see them for what they are. They suck you in. They drag you down. You resist but their allure’s too strong. Choked by their needs, you cease to see how mad they are. Or perhaps you see it from the start but choose to ignore it, out of love. Or the madness lies dormant until the chemistry between you sets it off. Who can say? I’ve only my own experience to go on.
The one thing I have learned is this. When people accuse you of harbouring negative feelings – anger, jealousy, malice, resentment – it’s they who’re feeling them. I dare say there’s a technical term for it. A shrink-word. But you have to be there – enfolded in someone’s weirdness – to know what it’s like.
It’s Ollie I’m talking about. But it could as easily be Daisy. Both were my friends. And both have left me with a sense of guilt, as though I, not they, were responsible.
Would it have been better if I’d never met them – better for them and better for me? I’ve sometimes thought so, over recent months. But you can’t spend your life hanging back. Friendship demands intimacy and intimacy carries a risk. I say friendship but what I mean is love. I did love Ollie and Daisy. No one has ever doubted that.
I’ve this memory of myself as a small boy, on the beach at Bridlington, afraid to step into the sea. What’s scary isn’t the cold but the vastness, the grey-brown water going on and on. My father, holding my hand, tries to coax me – then loses his patience and drags me in. As the waves reach my midriff, I break free, and turn and run, and keep on running till I reach my mother on the warm sand, and bury my head in her soft striped towel. ‘Don’t cry,’ she says. ‘ What’s up with you?’ But even when my tears have stopped, I don’t have the words to explain it.
At least I’m not that boy any more. I’ve lived. I’ve competed. I’m no longer a loser or a wimp.
As to the events of August, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent – who expects to be stopped going through customs even when he has nothing to declare. But what happened that weekend would surely have happened anyway. It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all – not to unburden myself or extenuate some offence but to set things straight.
It began with a phone call. ‘You’re joking,’ I said. ‘A country-house weekend?’ ‘In a house,’ Ollie said. ‘In the country. Over a weekend.
But no, Ian, not a country-house weekend.’ ‘Not white suits and straw boaters and people sippingchampagne next to a ha-ha.’ ‘No.’
‘Not even Pimm’s and picnic hampers.’ ‘Not that we planned.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘You sound disappointed.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. It was a Sunday evening in late June and I was sitting in the box room with a heap of exercise books on one side of my desk, a glass of beer on the other, and the computer screen glowing in the middle. Sunday evenings used to be convivial: Em and I would play badminton at the sports centre, grab a curry on the way home, then snuggle up and watch a DVD. Now there was always work to do, especially for Em, whose caseload grew larger by the month and whose colleagues seemed to think Sunday the perfect night to dump their problems on her. I’d been surprised to find the phone call was for me.
‘It’ll just be us,’ Ollie said. ‘And you two, we hope.’ ‘I’ll have to ask Em.’ He fell silent, as if I’d been rude not to accept straight away.
‘She and I barely speak these days,’ I said, jollying him along. ‘That bad, eh?’
‘When I’m in, she’s out, and vice versa.’
‘Sounds like you need a break.’
‘Absolutely. I can’t remember the last time.’ I could remember perfectly well. Lanzarote, at Easter. But I knew what Ollie and Daisy would think of Lanzarote. I tried making small talk but he cut me short. All he wanted was to hang up so I could ask Em. When something mattered to Ollie, nothing else did. ‘Call me back tonight if you can,’ he said. ‘We don’t go to bed before midnight.’
‘What’s the name of the place again?’
‘Badingley. I went there as a boy. You’ll like it.’
With the window open, I caught the scent of honeysuckle from the patio, where I’d been watering plants before coming upstairs – the tips of my trainers were still wet from the hose. It was late, nine thirty, but the light was good, and I could hear a thrush calling – I’m always amazed by how many birds there are in our small garden. Was there birdsong in Ollie and Daisy’s garden too? Did the sun leave the same faint print, a late remission on a red-brick wall? We’d visited their current house only once but I could remember the sliding glass doors, the wooden decking, the wrought-iron table and chairs. Perhaps Ollie had been sitting there when he called. When he wasn’t in chambers, he liked to be outdoors.
‘Who was that?’ Em called out.
‘God, what did he want?’
I went offline and swigged my beer before taking the six steps along the landing. If Em saw the glass, she’d berate me for not offering her one. And if she knew I’d been playing on websites, she’d be cross about that, too.
‘He called with an invite,’ I said, leaning my shoulder against the frame of the doorway. Em was sitting at the desk with her laptop, the pine double bed beyond heaped with stuff she’d brought home from work – box files, Xeroxes, print- outs, plastic folders. The spare bedroom, which doubles as her office, is bigger than the box room. But her job is bigger than my job. Or so she reckons – there’s more paperwork anyway. Sometimes I wonder why we keep a spare bedroom at all. I can’t remember the last time anyone slept in it.
‘What kind of invite?’ Em said, not looking up. ‘Don’t sound so suspicious.’ ‘I know you two are old friends.’ ‘I can tell there’s a “but” coming,’ I said.
‘He’s not been in touch for ages. When’s the last time you did anything together?’
‘Exactly. He said the same thing – that it’s time we saw them.’
Now she did look up. ‘ We?’ ‘You’re invited too. Daisy will be there.’ She gave a twisted little smile. ‘I assumed it was boys only.’ Years ago, when I first knew Em, Ollie and I had gone off to a stag night in Dublin. Just that once. Yet she makes out our ‘boys only’ weekends are – or were – a regular occurrence.
‘He asked us to stay,’ I said, letting it pass.
‘On holiday with them.’
‘Where are they off to this time? The Caribbean? The Galapagos?’
Over the years, Ollie – or rather Daisy – had been dutiful about sending postcards from far-flung places. Em and I saw it as a form of sadism. ‘Wherever it is,’ she said, going back to her work, ‘we can’t afford it.’
‘They’re renting a house in East Anglia. Near the sea.’
‘August. They’re suggesting the bank holiday weekend.’
‘Which one’s that?’
‘I’m not sure. The calendar’s behind you.’
It was a calendar showing a stag by a loch against a back- drop of purple heather. Em’s family originally came from Scotland and her aunt sends her a similar calendar every Christmas, to remind her – now her parents are dead – of her Celtic roots.
‘There,’ I said, fingering a blank box below the heather, ‘we could go on the Friday. Friday the 27th. The last weekend.’
I looked at Em and tried to imagine what I’d feel seeing her for the first time, rather than as someone I’ve been with for fifteen years. The wide brow, the full lips, the large breasts inside the turquoise blouse: her features were too big to be called beautiful, her gestures too expansive, but I could see why people felt they could talk to her – why they knew she would listen. She did listen, even to me. And though made wary by hearing so many hard-luck stories, she still looked young and naive. But for the lines across her fore- head, which deepened on Sunday nights when she went through her caseload, she might have passed for thirty. Whereas I was looking my age these days: receding hair- line, hunched shoulders, double chin.
‘So what did you say?’ Em said. ‘I said I’d ask you.’ ‘You could have asked while you were on the phone.’ ‘I thought you’d want to discuss it.’ ‘Since when do you and I discuss things?’ ‘Don’t be like that.’ ‘I’m not being like anything.’ ‘So you’d like to go?’ I said. ‘We’re hardly inundated with invites. We’re not like Ollie and Daisy.’ The various ways in which we’re not like Ollie and Daisy is a conversation we often have. Indeed, we’ve spent far more time talking about them than in their presence. The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkeston; Range Rover and BM W vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua, etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; Royal Opera House vs local Odeon; Waitrose vs Morrisons; golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.
‘Besides,’ Em went on, ‘by the end of August I’ll be desperate for a break. You get shot of your kids for the summer but mine are at their worst.’
By ‘her’ kids, Em doesn’t mean children she had with a previous partner. Nor is she in a position to talk about ‘our’ kids, the progenitive being another difference between us and the Moores – they only have Archie, but that’s one more than we do. (I say ‘the Moores’ because it’s a habit, but Ollie and Daisy have never married and at work she’s known as Daisy Brabant.) No, by kids Em means the problem teenagers she deals with at work.
‘As long as they’re OK with dogs,’ Em said.
The dog was a red setter, Rufus, moulting on a rug downstairs.
‘They know we have one,’ I said.
‘Even so. We can’t just take him without asking.’
‘It sounds like you’re making excuses,’ I said.
‘I’m being practical. You’re the indecisive one.’
‘You knew we were free but you wouldn’t commit yourself. Be honest: do you really want to go?’ Did I? I’d been so preoccupied with Em’s response that I hadn’t really thought about it. A long weekend near the sea might appeal to most people, but I’m a townie – grew up in Manchester, did my teacher training in Birmingham, distrust big waves, feel uneasy when there’s no concrete. On the other hand, Ollie and Daisy were bound to be staying somewhere comfortable, even grand, and it would be good to get together. I’d begun to think that we might not meet again, ever.
‘Ollie seemed pretty keen,’ I said.
‘The friends they originally asked have cried off, you mean.’
‘It’ll be fun. We all get along, don’t we?’
‘It depends who else is around. Remember that time at Primrose Hill?’ Em has more reasons for disliking Daisy than she realises. The one she cites is the occasion, ten years ago, when Daisy and Ollie were living in Primrose Hill, and invited us for the weekend without mentioning that they were having a party and that the guests (more than sixty of them) were mostly their work colleagues and therefore unknown to us, neither of which omissions might have mattered had Daisy not failed to introduce us to people and then treated us like kitchen staff, though as to the last I think the blame lay partly with us since, for want of something better to do, it was we who started passing plates of food around. The fact that two other couples stayed overnight, and that we’d no time alone with the Moores on the Sunday, didn’t help. Ollie bore some respon- sibility, of course. But the real culprit was Daisy. I too had resented her neglect.
‘It’ll just be them,’ I said. ‘Ollie said so.’
‘Good. Daisy’s fine when she’s not showing off. And it’ll be nice to see Archie. You’re supposed to be his godfather, remember.’
‘Ollie didn’t mention Archie.’
‘Archie or not,’ she said, letting me know she’d had enough, ‘it sounds like we should say yes.’
‘Right. I’ll call them back.’
‘Not now. It’ll make us look desperate. Leave it a few days.’
‘OK,’ I said, leaning down and kissing her.
‘Meanwhile . . .’
‘Meanwhile you’ve got work to do, I know.’
‘Don’t you?’ I did, but not as much as she had, or not sufficient to determe from going downstairs to fetch another beer. Shutting the fridge, I noticed the back door was open, and stepped outside, and felt the heat of the day still stored in the back step. Ours is a small garden, fifty feet or so, mostly gravel rather than grass. But there’s a view of the hills over the houses behind. And the previous owner created a pond, bequeathing us his koi and goldfish.
I picked up the canister of fish food, treading on a loose flagstone as I approached. The noise drew them upwards through the weed, their open mouths and feathery tails churning the surface. Goldfish are meant to have a memory span of ten seconds. So how did these ones know, when I trod on that flagstone, they were about to be fed? And why, when- ever a heron visits, do they stay close to the bottom for days afterwards? I admired them for living so simply. ‘Pond life,’ people say, as an insult. Perhaps Ollie and Daisy thought of Em and me as pond life. But they wouldn’t have called unless they wanted to see us. They probably liked us for the same reason as I liked the fish.
The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison is out now, published by Vintage.