Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

I got passed a review copy of this claustrophobic thriller a few months ago but only got around to reading it recently. An ultimately sinister take on the weekend in the country theme, The Last Weekend is a brilliant piece of writing.

Ian Goade and his wife Em are invited to stay for the summer bank holiday weekend with old university friends Ollie and Daisy. Narrating the story, Ian is quick to point out that Ollie and Daisy are a ‘golden couple’, both successful and rich, while it soon becomes apparent that Ian and Em are far from either.

Ollie resurrects a bet between the two men, made twenty years previously in which they play the best of three sports, the winner taking an insanely large amount of money from the other. Ian wins the first game, but unperturbed, Ollie takes everyone out for supper at the local fish restaurant close to the Norfolk cottage they’ve rented. He shows off, buying expensive wine:

...Ollie ordered a second bottle – a Chateau La Perle Blanche 1976. “When people talk bollocks about the greenhouse effect, I remember that summer,” he said, “The heatwave lasted six weeks...” “Steady with the drink,” Daisy said, as Ollie topped us up. “You’re driving.” “I’ll be fine,” Ollie said, laughing her off, “They haven’t introduced the breathalyser around here.”

But there’s a reason for his extravagance: Ollie has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and is convinced he’s dying. At least, that’s what Ian says, but as the story progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to work out whether Ian is delusional, or just not telling the truth. His alcoholic intake isn’t helping matters. Despite his protestations that he’s sober, they’re all knocking it back a fair bit:

On the dining table, there were five empty bottles, (one champagne, two reds and two whites), as well as two more in the living room. I found a cardboard box in the cupboard under the stairs and filled it as quietly as I could, adding an empty gin bottle (Ollie and I had been drinking G&Ts before supper) to fill the last space.

The dynamic is further upset by the arrival of Daisy’s artist friend Milo and his two daughters, pushing Ian into further misanthropy. Suspicious of Daisy’s feelings for Milo, he does something utterly unspeakable, before poisoning Ollie’s mind with suspicion. Over a twenty year old Glenmorangie, tanged with bitterness, he accuses them of having an affair. Ollie gets ridiculously drunk over supper, making snide comments at Milo and topping up everyone’s glasses:

I put my hand over the glass as Ollie tried to pour me a dessert wine but consented to the red. He filled his own glass at the same time, then half emptied it in one swig. Marooned at the head of the table, he looked lost...

When Ollie makes a bet with Milo that he can’t draw a good likeness of anyone with a pencil and paper and isn’t a real artist, Ian concludes that alcohol had mugged him and scarpered with his brains. It’s time for Ollie to go to bed:

Smiling and nodding, he grabbed the edge of the table with both hands, a manoeuvre that pivoted him into a standing position but also jerked the table. Several glasses tipped over. The wobble sent him lurching backwards but he steadied himself on the wall behind and, with great deliberation, like someone avoiding stepping on cracks, he made his way across the room and down the corridor.

Oh well, there’s still one more day of the bank holiday to come, and one more contest yet to play. Surely things can’t get any worse than they are already?

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