A Story for January: Maternal Designs

January 2021

He is an architect, this man in the white shirt and the dark suit, striding away purposefully from the halfcollapsed building in the background. The dust made him sneeze; it always did, and the only thing to do was to get away from it as soon as possible. He has seen enough, anyway, and now he is making his way back home, to talk to his mother. She will be sitting in the living room when he gets back – the tea things laid out on the table – sitting there as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, he thought.

His name was Richard, and he had been in practice as an architect for nine years. He had been born into construction, as he liked to put it, his father having been a successful builder in Stirling. His mother, the daughter of a Dundee jute merchant, had been ambitious for her son, and had discouraged talk of his following his father into the business.

“You could go to university,” she said to him shortly before his sixteenth birthday. “You’ve got a good brain, Dickie, and you’re a hard worker. You could even go to somewhere down south. Maybe even Cambridge.” She waved a hand in the direction of England. In fact, it was Bannockburn, which lay not too far away from where they lived. A previous owner, strangely, had named their house Battle View; she would have changed it, as she thought it in bad taste, but had heard somewhere that it was bad luck to change a house’s name. A neighbour in Broughty Ferry had done that, and had died the next day. That was pure coincidence – obviously – but why tempt providence?

He expressed doubt. Cambridge seemed very unlikely, and he was not sure that he would like the people down there. They seemed to consider themselves superior in some way, and he had never approved of that sort of thing. Quite apart from that, though, he did not think of himself as a high-flier. “I’m not that clever, Ma. There are plenty of fellows who get better marks than I do.”

She would not have him selling himself short. “Nonsense. Who got the Rector’s prize for effort last year? You did. That counts for something.”

“But there are plenty of places I could go in Scotland. Or I could work with Daddy in the firm. He said I could, you know. He said he’d like that.”

She shook her head. “Boys who work with their fathers end up fighting with them. It often happens that way. Time and time again. That Henderson boy, for example. He and his father didn’t talk for years. And then what happened? Bobby Henderson dropped dead on the golf course and that boy didn’t have the chance to make his peace with him. I don’t want the two of you falling out.”

“But what if I want …”

She did not let him finish. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a builder, Dickie. If you think I’m saying that, you’re wrong.”

He thought: Don’t call me Dickie! Don’t call me Dickie! I’m not a little boy any more.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with being a builder. Your daddy’s done really well – as you know. All those houses for people to live in. Decent houses, too. With hot water and so on. With good windows for fresh air – and light too. Light’s very important you know. Consumption flourishes where there’s no light.”

“How? What has light to do with it?” “Germs don’t like sunlight. They can’t thrive in sunlight. You saw that photograph in that magazine – remember?”

He did remember. There had been a photograph in his mother’s magazine of a group of children lying on reclining chairs in the Swiss mountains. It was a sanatorium, his mother explained, and the children in the photographs were all consumptive. “Poor dears,” she said. “Not their fault.”

They were bare-chested, even the young girls, but he paid attention only to their sunglasses.

“Why are they all wearing dark glasses?”

“Because of the sun. It’s very bright up in the Swiss mountains. You need sunglasses to protect your eyes.”

He studied the photograph. “Will they all die?” he asked his mother.

She hesitated. “No, I’m sure they’re already getting better. See – they look as if they’ve been putting on weight. No ribs to be seen.”

But their ribs did show, he thought; and they would all be dead by now. She was trying to protect him.

“The point is,” she said, “I happen to think that it’s best for a boy not to work with his father. It just leads to difficulties.” She looked pensive. “I think that medicine would be a good career for you, you know. You could become a surgeon, perhaps. You’d like that.”

He met her stare. She would like that – that’s what she meant. She would like it.

“I don’t like the sight of blood,” he said. ‘It makes me … it makes me shiver. I go all cold.”

She laughed this off. “Nonsense. You don’t feel cold. That’s your imagination at work. And remember, you’re sixteen now. You might have felt that when you were younger – nine or ten perhaps – but you’re much older now.”

“I should know how I feel.”

She shot him a discouraging glance. “We all change. All of us. I remember I used to hate mustard. And now? I love it. You can’t go through life saying I hate mustard because that is shutting off the possibility of change. We all change. All the time – as we go through life, we change.”

He looked away. He wanted to lead his own life. He wanted it to be on his terms. “I suppose if you don’t like medicine, you could be a chemist. That’s an interesting job. Chemists have an interesting time – mixing medicines and so on. There’s a lot to being a chemist these days.”

“I don’t want that. I don’t like the smell of their shops. It’s something to do with disinfectant, or something. I don’t like it. It makes me sneeze.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “And try to be a bit more positive, darling. You have to do something – you can’t just wait for the world to choose something for you to do.”

But he had chosen. He wanted to build things. It was a desire that lay deep within him. He wanted to build, and he told her so, again.

She nodded. She did not want him to think that she was not prepared to listen to him; she was. But listening was not the same thing as agreeing.

“It’s always better if a son goes off and does something different. And university broadens the mind. Everybody knows that, Dickie.”

“But, as I’ve said, I like building things,” he protested.

“I know that, darling. But there’s more to life than that. You want to be an educated man, don’t you? Of course you do. You want to be able to look anybody in the eye – anybody – and say – to yourself, naturally, not out loud – I’m every bit as good as he is.”

He did not argue, and when he was seventeen he applied to the College of Art in Edinburgh for admission to the course in architecture. His mother accepted the situation, even though she continued to hope he would change his mind and opt for medicine. “Still,” she said, “architecture is a solid profession. There are some very well-known architects in Edinburgh. They get a lot of attention.” She paused. “Mind you, I can’t see why they need all that training. Designing a building is mostly common sense, I would have thought.”

“It’s not that simple, Ma,” he said. “You have to know about stresses and strains.”

She shrugged. “Make the walls thick enough. Use strong timbers. They never used to have architects, you know. They got by.”

He thought, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Ma. Sorry, but you don’t.”

After graduation he took a job with a firm of architects called Gordon, Patrick and Gordon. One of the Gordons was the president of a golf club. “I want to talk to you about golf,” he said, shortly after Richard had joined the firm. “Could we have lunch together – at my golf club? Any day that suits you.”

Richard had not known what to expect. At first the conversation had been about the office, and about the firm’s plans to expand. But then, after a slightly awkward silence, Mr Gordon had said, “I know that some people have very little time for golf. I can’t understand that myself, but there we are.”

“It seems to me to be a reasonably enjoyable game,” said Richard. “And it keeps you fit, I imagine.”

“Oh, it does that all right,” said Mr Gordon. “But it does much more than that. It brings in business – a lot of business.” He paused and gave Richard an intense look. “That’s why I’ve one piece of advice for you, Richard: play golf. That’s all I have to say on the matter.”

“I see,” said Richard. He did not take up golf, and nothing more was said of the matter as he progressed up the rungs of his profession. After a mere five years, he had under his control some of the most important and lucrative contracts in the firm’s portfolio. His mother was inordinately proud of him. “Dickie is one of the most talented architects of our day,” she boasted to her friends. “And, do you know, he lets me look at his designs before they go off to the client. He values my views, you know, and if I think that something’s not right, he usually pays very close attention to what I have to say.

“The problem, you see,” Richard’s mother continued, “is that many architects simply forget to ask women what they want. If you’re designing a house for a couple – any couple – an architect should bear in mind what women need – and want. Men are indifferent to heating – women are not. And men don’t care about floor surfaces. They don’t. And because architects are almost always men, they don’t know what women’s requirements are.”

“Women should tell them,” said Richard. “They should spell it out to men what they need in a house.”

His mother smiled grimly. “One day women will find their rightful place. Men will have to stop thwarting us.”

He tried to persuade her that men were not thwarting women, but he did not succeed. “Look at me,” she retorted. “I would have made a very good architect. Yes, I know I’m saying that myself, but I know I would. But it’s very difficult. There was just a handful – a mere handful, Dickie – of women architects until a few years ago, you know. Hardly any. Men kept us out.”

His eyes widened. “I’m sorry.”

“Yes, well, there you are. Men kept women out of everything. They still do.”

He looked down at his feet. He did not argue. All you had to do, he thought, was think about it from the women’s point of view, and the injustices became apparent. That was the trick, he told himself. Put yourself in the other’s shoes and the world looked very different.

After his father died, the building company was sold. Richard had decided that he needed a change of surroundings and had taken a job in a larger firm in London. With the legacy he received from his father’s estate, he bought a flat in Earl’s Court, in a slightly run-down mansion block overlooking a leafy square. After he had been there for three months, his mother told him that she, too, had decided to move to London. She told him this when he was back in Scotland for the wedding of a school friend.

“I need to stretch my wings,” she said. “I find Stirling so … so sleepy.”

He received the news in silence.

“Well, aren’t you pleased?” she asked.

“Very,” he said. He made an effort, and said, “Yes, it’s very good news. Think of all the things you can do.”

“I’m glad you see it that way,” she continued. “And you’re right – there’ll be any number of things for me to do. I shall be positively exhausted.”

He smiled. “Don’t overdo it, of course.”

“I shan’t. There’ll be bridge, naturally. I’ve heard of a club near Berkeley Square that’s looking for members. Fosty Anstruther belongs. She said you need to be introduced and she’ll do that for me. And she’s told me about a course she goes on for people interested in architectural history.”

This was a novelty. “Architectural history?”

“Yes, buildings. Movements in architecture – that sort of thing. Fosty says that they’re going to Rome on a field trip next year. Imagine that. Rome! I shall probably see Mussolini himself.”

“Thug. Bully.”

“So they say. But he’s frightfully interested in architecture himself, Fosty says.”

He reflected on this in silence. Then he asked, “Where are you going to live?”

“Well, I was going to ask you about that. Do you think you might be able … to put me up for a while?” She laughed. “In your bachelor establishment?”

He stared out of the window. The oak tree in the garden moved its boughs in the wind.


“Yes. I’m thinking.”

“I wouldn’t get in your way. And I could look for somewhere while I’m staying with you.”

He swallowed. “Of course, Ma. You can stay as long as you like.”

“You’re really kind, Dickie.”

“Anything for you, Ma.” He looked out of the window again. You couldn’t refuse your own mother, even if sometimes you thought … Well, what did you think? You thought that it would be better if she could just give you some room to be yourself.

She did not stay long. After six weeks, her friend, Fosty Anstruther, found a mews house to lease in Chelsea. It had a small garden and a sitting room decorated in the Arts and Crafts style. Fosty’s own lease had come to an end and she suggested that it might suit both of them if they shared the house. There was more than enough room for the two of them, and it would be an economy too.

Richard thought it a very good idea. “Fosty’s good company for you, Ma. I would have worried about you if were living alone. Of course I could always keep an eye on you …”

She laughed. “Like the little boy in that poem by A.A. Milne? What was his name? James James Morrison Morrison – something like that. He took such care of his mother although he was only three.”

“Of course his mother went off by herself,” said Richard. “And look what happened to her.”

“I suspect she had a good time,” she retorted. “Not that Mr Milne will tell us exactly what she got up to.”

Richard met a young woman called Alice Meadows and they married a year later. She had been a nurse and had spent three years nursing sailors in Portsmouth. He doted on her, and she on him.

“My husband,” she said to a friend, “is the perfect husband. He really is. I could try to think of a flaw – and, heaven knows, most men have them in spades – but, honestly, I can’t. I just can’t.”

They hoped for children, but none arrived. “Maybe one day,” she said. “Who knows?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We have each other. That’s the important thing. And I’m happy.” He paused. “Are you?”

“Am I happy? Of course I am. I have everything.”

He looked at her fondly. “I’m the luckiest man in London.”

“And I’m the luckiest woman. By far.”

But there was something that had been preying on his mind. Fosty’s son, Keith, had moved to Australia and had invited his mother to visit him in Sydney for six months. Richard was concerned about his mother being all by herself, and he discussed with Alice the possibility that she might move in with them for the duration of Fosty’s absence. Alice was generous, and needed no persuading. “Of course she can come and live with us. We’ve got the room. We can turn that storeroom at the back into a sitting room for her, so that she has her own place, more or less. You’re the architect, Richard – can you do that?”

“Easily. I’ll get somebody to make some shelves. A new carpet will brighten the place up.”

Once his mother moved in, she settled quickly, and they were soon all used to the situation.

“Are you happy, Ma?” he asked one day.

“Yes,” she replied. “I’m happy. I miss Daddy, of course, but who wouldn’t, after all those years of marriage? And I miss Fosty too, I suppose. Although she’ll be back before too long. She says she finds Australia very dry.”

“But you have enough to do? Enough to keep yourself occupied?”

“I think so. I have my bridge afternoons and …” She broke off.

He did not realise what it was that she did not mention – that discovery was to come later, at a cocktail party in a house in a neighbouring square. The hostess, who was called Maud Prior, known as the Priory, was the daughter of one of his mother’s bridge friends, a woman she had occasionally mentioned.

“Your mother and mine get on famously,” said the Priory. “Not only do they play bridge together, but they’ve taken to going to the theatre. A whole group of them went off to see that Coward play the other day. The one about hay fever.”

“They keep themselves busy,” said Richard.

“And she did a lovely job on that new scullery for my mother’s house in Suffolk.”

Richard frowned. “Who did?”

“Your mother.”

He looked puzzled. “My mother did what?”

The Priory spoke in a rather reedy, High-Church voice. “She drew the plans for the new maternal scullery, darling. One’s mother does need a scullery, you know …”

He stared in incomprehension. “You’re saying that my mother – my mother designed your mother’s new scullery?”

The Priory nodded before continuing, “And Mummy’s friend, Tatania Potts … She has a conservatory, you know – designed by your mother. She was very imaginative with that one, I’m told. They had a few teething problems, I gather, but everything’s settled down now. They’re frightfully pleased with it, although Tatania’s husband is a terrible old bore, you know, and drinks far too much.”

He was at a loss for words. The Priory looked at him, and smiled. “Fosty acted as a sort of assistant, I think. Sharpened the pencils; drew some of the plans – under supervision, of course. Fosty always fancied herself as an artist. Personally, I think her work is a bit … how shall I put it, a bit juvenile.  She thinks she’s Augustus John, but … Well, the important thing is that your mother is doing rather well in her little architectural practice. So nice. Having a mother who does nothing must be very trying. Mine just causes trouble, and that, I suppose, is better than nothing, but sometimes I wish she would get it into her head to do something other than play bridge and gossip …”

He raised it with her that evening. “Ma,” he said, trying to sound as severe as possible, “you shouldn’t be doing this. Architecture is a specialised business. You can’t just draw any old thing and get people to build it.”

“All right, dear. I won’t. I won’t practise architecture.”

But he suspected that she had no intention of doing as he had asked, and now, with this disaster – this utter disaster – of the part-collapse of the new insurance building he had designed, he knew that his suspicions had been well founded. He confronted her when he returned from the site.

“Ma,” he said, his voice rising in anger, “I am really, really cross. Did you fiddle about with those plans I left in my study? Did you touch them?”

She affected a look of innocence. “Me? Your study?”

“Yes,” he said, fixing her with an unrelenting stare.

She turned away. “Maybe a little,” she muttered. “The offices at the front were too small. I rubbed out a wall – just a small one, though. It gave them much more room.”

He closed his eyes. Then he opened them. “Ma,” he said, his voice choked. “You must promise me: never, never do that again.”

“Of course, dear,” she said. “Of course.”

He looked at her, and she looked back at him.

“I have to go to bridge now,” she said. And then she added, “And Fosty comes back from Australia next week. I’m excited, Dickie – so excited. We have so many plans, and my head,” she tapped her forehead lightly, “is positively abuzz.”

‘Maternal Designs’ is part of Pianos & Flowers, a new collection of short stories called inspired by vintage photographs.