Ewa Mazierska

Drawing Board

They met during a dancing party at the end of the 1950s. When Arthur saw Liz, he said to his friend: ‘This is a girl I will dance with; this is a girl I will marry.’ When, many years later, their son Andrew told this story to a friend, she regarded it as an expression of his father’s working class machismo, as suggested by his name, which was the same as that of the protagonist of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – the ultimate British working-class bad lad. Andrew, however, replied that the opposite was the case: the words revealed his father’s romanticism and simplicity in matters relating to male-female relationships and, indeed, to everything else. Arthur said what he thought and he did what he said. He also assumed that everybody behaved in the same way, as was the case in his family, which consisted of Middlesbrough steelworkers; three or four generations of them, quietly building British industrial might.

Arthur was a handsome man and a good dancer, so Liz was charmed by him or rather he tantalised her, because during his courtship he showed predilection to things which took her off balance and made her dizzy. If they didn’t go dancing on Saturday evening, they would go to a funfair or a pub, where he would buy her a glass of cider and himself a pint of beer, which would suffice him for an entire evening as he wasn’t a drunkard. Many years later she would begrudge her husband for putting her in situations where her judgment was impaired, but she had to admit, that this state, which she wouldn’t experience again, was very pleasant.

Like Arthur, Liz was also of a modest background, but a different one. Her ancestors were smallholding farmers and servants at the aristocratic estates in the South-East of England. Liz’s mother was an illegitimate child, the fruit of an affair of Liz’s grandmother with a son of an aristocrat, at whose estate she was a maid. Liz was brought up by her grandmother, whom she believed to be her aunt. There were more women in the family who fell under the spell of wealthy and powerful men, and paid heavy price for doing so. Andrew noted that ultimately Liz wasn’t very different from her female ancestors, but it wasn’t obvious then, not least because times were changing. Working class women became less naïve and more eager to make their own luck. Liz belonged to this generation. When she met Arthur, she was a student in a teacher training college and wanted to become a primary school teacher. In her case it wasn’t just a route out of relative poverty, but her vocation. She always saw herself surrounded by kids whom she commanded by a sheer force of her charisma.

By the time Saturday Night, Sunday Morning had its premiere in 1961, Arthur and Liz were married, moved-in with Arthur’s parents, and Liz had got her first training job in a primary school in Middlesbrough. Their wedding was in the Church of England, but soon the couple converted to Catholicism. It was Liz’s idea; she was inspired to become a Catholic on a trip to Bavaria, when she was twelve. She’d stayed with a Catholic family for two weeks and she found them very enlightened and spiritual, unlike her own family and friends. For her, changing denomination was a way to break with her past and assert independence from numerous generations of narrow-minded little Englanders. Arthur followed Liz, simply because he didn’t care much about religion or, indeed, spirituality.

At the time of their wedding Arthur worked as a turner in a factory and their early life looked like a collage of less dramatic scenes from the kitchen sink films of the late 1950s, with Liz’s mother in-law bustling in the kitchen, men folk reading newspapers or watching football matches on television or at a stadium. On Sunday, there were occasional fishing expeditions. For them, such life was normal, even fine; they didn’t strive for anything better, they were only worried about worse things which might befall them, having all the deprivations suffered by British workers from the beginning of the industrial revolution ingrained into their psyche. The idea of success was practically alien to them, as was the concept of life having meaning; life was for living, for going through, for enduring, not for dissecting or inserting meaning to it. That said, Arthur wasn’t a simpleton, far from it. From childhood, there was a certain yearning and melancholy in him, in which he indulged through visiting shipyards and sketching ships or just rivers and the sea. Arthur once told his son that he always liked to see the horizon. For Andrew, who would become a lecturer in philosophy, it was a sign that his father was a ‘pre-philosopher’, at least according to Plato, Kant or Husserl’s definition of philosophy – he didn’t have a wish or ability to discover ‘real things behind shadows’ or ‘things-in-themselves’, but he had a premonition that there is something beyond the material world worth considering. However, Arthur himself would probably just say that living near the sea inevitably makes people think about the place where the waters meets the sky.

Liz’s ‘genetic memory’ wasn’t as long as Arthur and she wasn’t led by the past, but the future. She wanted them to be successful, which meant living an affluent life which, at the time, constituted home ownership, an annual holiday, the latest consumer goods, running a car – although Arthur would be the one who did the driving – and having children because, without children, there was no family and no future. For Arthur (and subsequently Andrew), it was a narrow-minded concept of happiness, but he wanted to satisfy Liz and had nothing more attractive to propose. Indeed, for many years, Arthur followed Liz not because he was taken by her ideas, but because she seemed to have an opinion on every subject, while he didn’t or his opinions were amorphous or nebulous, more like gut feelings than opinions.

In line with Liz’s wishes, Arthur devoted himself with equal zeal to the double task of inseminating his wife and securing a mortgage. Several months after the wedding bells Liz became pregnant and eight months later gave birth to a stillborn child. Yet, she wasn’t put off by this misfortune, but became pregnant again as soon as it became safe to do so. This time, all went well and she gave birth to a healthy boy, Steven. With him the couple moved to their brand new, three-bedroom, semi-detached house in the Middlesbrough suburbs. Again, in line with the rule established by the kitchen sink films of this area, they liked to go up the hill, from which they could see their growing city and their house. There was another miscarriage but, still less than two years after the birth of Steven, their second son, Andrew, was born.

Arthur thought that, with this new addition to the family, their marital contract was fulfilled and he would be allowed life to gaze at the horizon and paint the ships in his (however reduced) free time for the rest of his life. Yet, life rarely goes the way people hope, even in the most prosperous of times. Shortly after Andrew’s birth, Arthur had a serious accident in the factory. As a result of that, he spent many months on sick leave. This long break from work allowed him to develop his natural talent for drawing and painting, but also changed its character. Not seeing the sea and ships, he started to paint still lives and portraits, especially of his wife and children. Andrew wasn’t sure if they were good but, for sure, they were flattering.

Liz, for her part, used Arthur’s accident as an opportunity to convince him that working in a factory offered him few opportunities to move up the social ladder and, being so dangerous, put their future at risk. Besides, industrial work had no future in England. Given that Thatcherism was some fifteen years ahead of them and that the sky in the vast area of England’s North was covered by smoke from the factory chimneys, she was prophetic. The conclusion was that they should move to London, which was the land of opportunities. Arthur wasn’t keen, finding London too large and intimidating and lacking in the landscapes of the kind he liked to draw but, as usual, he had no arguments to counter-weight Liz’s plans. And so they started to prepare for their relocation, looking for an area where they could afford to live on a limited budget, given that they assumed that Arthur would have to retrain himself and Liz was only beginning her career as a primary school teacher. Their decision to move to London did not put Liz off from her determination to expand her family and so they arrived in the capital with three small boys attached to their parents’ hands. As this was already 1969, they looked less like characters from kitchen sink films and more from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, with Arthur playing the role of Loach’s emasculated post-industrial man.

They got a council apartment in a block on Frampton Park estate in Hackney. It was a ground floor flat, second from the right. Looking at its photos some forty years later, Andrew saw it as a perfect image of the working-class alienation, although probably by the time they moved in, they stopped being working class and became an indefinite class: poor, but no longer performing manual labour. The kids had to share their bedrooms, but they didn’t mind, as they didn’t have big expectations about Lebensraum, spending most of their time either at school or playing outdoors. Andrew and Steven used to go fishing in the river Lea, which later would gain fame thanks to Adele’s song River Lea.

Immediately after moving, Liz got her first job in a primary school on the Kingsmead estate, next to the Lesney factory, famous for producing toy cars every British boy wanted to have, at least those of Andrew’s generation. Andrew remembered that he and his brothers received them for Christmas, so that he collected about five in his childhood. Eventually he passed his collection to his own son – by the time he did it, these matchbox cars were no longer ordinary toys, but ‘collection items’.

In 1970 Arthur enrolled into a foundation course at St Martins’ College, to study industrial design, as he had no courage to think of himself as a ‘proper’ artist. During this period he acquired a large drawing board, which was put in the living room as the flat lacked the space to have it elsewhere, and this room caught the most daylight which Arthur preferred to work under than that cast from an electric bulb. Arthur proved to be very good in his work and was admitted to a three-year bachelor course in industrial design. The early 1970s was probably the happiest period in Liz and Arthur’s marriage, as everything developed according to Liz’s plan. She was praised in her work as a primary school teacher and they managed to enlarge the family with another son, Robert, their fourth, who more than made up for those whom they lost as a result of miscarriages and stillbirths. He was born in February 1973, some eight months before the famous oil crisis which, probably irrevocably, destroyed optimism among the working classes across the western world. But, in early, 1973 Liz was proud of her miniature army of four boys and of herself, facilitating Arthur’s progress from the working to the middle class. But the reality was more complex. On one hand, Arthur progressed as an artist; he managed even to develop his own style, marked by precise, realistic drawing of the contours of represented things, combined with vivid, almost otherworldly colours. On the other hand, however, the studies increased his sense of not fitting into the crowd of prospective designers and artists. While they spent much of their time hanging out with each other, and networking with people who might offer them a job after graduation, he hurried home to stand in front of his drawing board. It protected him from the world, whenever it felt threatening, because within its large frame everything was possible.

Another reason why Arthur hurried home was his realisation than Liz wasn’t particularly interested in their children. She didn’t listen to them, but required them to act on her commands. When this didn’t work, she got angry or sulked. The fact that it was easier for her to be in control of the whole class than of her family, made her spend more time at work than was necessary, leaving the bulk of household chores to Arthur. Arthur didn’t object. Indeed, he liked to play with the boys. Out of wood and various discarded materials he made toys for them, which were so good that Andrew preferred them than the toy cars from the Lesney factory. For some time Arthur even thought about designing toys for a living but, although he finished his studies with good results, he was unable to find a job as a designer. He even didn’t know how to write a CV, let alone where to send such a thing. Instead, he went to various places in person, asking if they need a designer and was met with polite rejections. When he went to the Lesney factory, the managers were more sympathetic, but they were laying off workers, rather than employing new ones; British de-industrialisation had already begun even though it was still nearly half a decade until Thatcher’s victory. A long period ensued when Arthur had a series of poorly paid, low-status jobs, alternated by intervals of unemployment. He became a hybrid: a working-class man with perfect manners and self-conscience of an artist, yet lacking entrepreneurial skills. In this sense he became a trailblazer – thirty years or so later Britain would be full of university graduates unable to find employment commensurate with their qualifications and ambitions, and ending as precarious workers.

When Arthur developed internally, spending his free time on painting and reading books written by authors such as Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, Liz was focused on her career, which she didn’t allow to be derailed even by her frequent pregnancies. After she returned from a short maternity leave following the birth of their fourth son, she was promoted to the position of the deputy head in her school. A couple of years later she moved to a new school, where she became a headmistress. When the politically turbulent 1970s came to their close, this was also a time to leave their council flat and move to their own house – a quite large terrace with four bedrooms, still in Hackney, but in a nicer area than their council flat. At the time, quite a few of the neighbouring houses were either empty or squatted.  When Andrew moved back after university to London, he lived in a squat in the same area. It was Liz who chose the house, as she was the one who got the mortgage. Arthur, as some ten years previously, followed her, not so much convinced that they were moving in the right direction, as, again, not having any arguments to thwart her.

Although the new house was large, it was barely sufficient for this large family. To ensure rational use of the space, Arthur’s drawing board was moved to the main bedroom. For Andrew, this move was symbolic – it signalled the division of his parents’ space into two domains: one belonging to his mother and one to his father. Andrew noticed that his father’s favouring saying was ‘back to the drawing board.’ It had both literal and metaphorical meaning. When Arthur was upset, he didn’t shout or quarrel, but hid behind his drawing board with pencils or watercolours. ‘Back to the drawing board’ also meant that Arthur was prepared to step back, reflect and start again. This was what he told his sons, when they were fighting and to Liz, when she complained about him. He pointed to her that he kept his side of the bargain which they made before they got married. He always loved her and was faithful for her. He also provided for their family as much as he could; if it became at some point less than what she earned it was because she took him to the place where he couldn’t flourish as much as she did.

Liz, however, didn’t like the idea of a ‘drawing board’; for her it was merely a tool of dignifying the ways of perennial losers, because the winners didn’t need to return to the drawing board; they always moved ahead without looking back. The past still did not matter to her, unless as a springboard to the better things. She even didn’t like to look at the old photos of her children, because they represented objects which no longer existed. For the same reason she didn’t like to look at old photos of Arthur. Additionally, his old photos were a proof of her poor judgement. Of course, live Arthur reminded her even more of her youthful mistake, therefore she tried to see him as little as possible, by staying at work late and going out to meet her peers. She particularly enjoyed male company: male teachers, psychologists or school inspectors. Whenever she met those charming and articulate men, she couldn’t understand how she ended up with Arthur, who was such a bore. She particularly liked to talk about her disappointment with a local priest. For some months she extolled his virtues at home, in front of her sons and Arthur, and then stopped talking about him altogether. Soon after she announced that she became pregnant again. In a family with four children such an announcement shouldn’t be a big surprise but, by this point, their youngest son was nine years old and there was a tacit assumption that Liz and Arthur wouldn’t have more children. Arthur didn’t believe that he was the father of the child Liz’s was expecting, but he didn’t share this opinion with his sons till many years later, as keeping the family together was more important to him than asserting his masculinity. Despite his suspicions, or maybe because of them, Arthur looked after his fifth son, named Sebastian, with the same patient affection he had given to his other children, or maybe even more so to make up for the child’s absent biological father the priest, who disappeared from Liz’s life as soon as their friendship became an object of gossip amongst the church’s congregation.

By the time Liz became pregnant for the last time, her expectations of living standards increased, no doubt in part by the political atmosphere of the time, with Margaret Thatcher at the helm of the country, encouraging fellow citizens to be ruthless in their ambitious. Engaging in property speculation was one way to improve one’s standard of living and so by mid-1980s Liz and Arthur moved to their third house in London. The house was in the best part of Hackney and had four bedrooms. By this time, Andrew had gone to university and, to all intents, didn’t live there. So, when he returned home during a gap between terms, he was surprised and saddened to notice that the house had been divided, with Liz occupying its higher parts and Arthur being demoted to the basement, where his drawing board was also transported. Liz and Arthur became like a family from the films by Mike Leigh, popular at the time, a cross between Meantime and High Hopes, unfulfilled, unable to communicate, with one side obsessed about progress and status, the other fighting for survival.

In his basement Arthur compensated for the scarcity of natural light by creating very bright pictures. The more he was upset, the more tranquil the scenes in his pictures. He painted green meadows, flowers in full bloom, woods and valleys which could serve as a model for Shrek’s swamp. The brighter his paintings, the more inner turmoil he experienced.

Andrew thought about van Gogh, whose colourful paintings also contrasted with the painter’s supposed internal pain and anxieties. Yet, after talking to his father, he was not sure whether this comparison was right, as Arthur didn’t come across as unhappy. On the contrary, he was almost serene, possessing the calm of people who have lost so many things in their life that they are relieved that they have nothing more to lose.

In the end of the 1980s Arthur got a job, which he would perform till the end of his working life: he became a court usher for the Privy Council in Whitehall.  The usher role usually goes to ex-military types – they have to look good in a suit and issue instructions in a suitably sonorous voice.  Arthur didn’t look like an ex-officer, but even in his fifties he looked handsome and commanded respect. He liked this work, not because he rubbed shoulders with Law Lords and other top lawyers, and was on first name terms with some of them, as he wasn’t a snob but, paradoxically, because these high-positioned and often well- bred people were at bottom quite ordinary and modest, just like him, and in contrast to his social-climbing and judgemental wife.

Andrew assumed that, despite their differences and Liz’s indiscretions, his parents would remain married till the end of their lives. But, he was proved wrong – they officially split in the mid-1990s, at the time when Four Weddings and a Funeral tried to convince the public that love is possible in every age, while advocating for national unity. Arthur and Liz, however, didn’t see the film. By this point they’d stopped going to the cinema and, even if they had seen it, it would not have changed anything.

It was Liz’s decision to divorce, as she held monopoly for important decisions. Andrew suspected that it was because Liz wanted to have the house for herself, to be free to meet her male friends, who were put off by her being married to Arthur. After his retirement, Arthur returned to Middlesbrough, where he settled in a small apartment, not far from his old factory, which was no longer there. He took with him his drawing board and even bought himself an easel. Again, he changed his style of painting or, rather, returned to his early style and subject of drawing ships realistically with sharp, self-assured lines. Being an agreeable man, he quickly befriended local men and even re-discovered old acquaintances. However, as far as Andrew knew, he remained single – either he was still in love with the girl with whom he had the best dance of his life, or was too disillusioned to start again. He enjoyed his quiet life for six or seven years. Then he got cancer and died.

In contrast to Arthur, when Liz started to live on her own, her friendships dried out. Some men left London, others got sick and it was difficult to find their replacements, not least because Liz lost her looks; she was now an old woman with a body which had endured birth too many times. Moreover, there were conflicts with two of her sons and they broke contact with her. Another one moved to France and would see his mother sporadically. When Andrew visited Liz couple of months after Arthur’s death, she said with an untypical frankness: ‘Maybe I haven’t done everything right in my life. Maybe I should have appreciated your father more. He used to say “back to the drawing board”. But there is no drawing board to return to for me. He was my drawing board and I lost him.’

Andrew thought that Liz said this because she wanted him to comfort her; admitting guilt was the price she was prepared to pay to achieve this goal. Her humility brought him some satisfaction, but he couldn’t force himself to say things she wanted to hear or extend a hug. He just muttered something under his nose and soon left.

Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef and Mystery Tribune, among others.  In 2019 she publisher her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists  (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories have been shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.