How We Met: Arnold and Dusty Wesker

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The Independent Culture
Arnold Wesker, 62, has written 34 plays, mainly for the stage, including The Kitchen and the trilogy Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I'm Talking About Jerusalem. His autobiography has just been published by Century. He lives alone in a house in the Black Mountains of Wales.

Dusty Wesker, 58, was born Doreen Cecile Bicker in the village of Starston, Norfolk. She and Arnold Wesker married in 1958; they have three children and two grandchildren, but are currently living apart. She lives in north London, has written a cookbook and caters for dinner parties.

ARNOLD WESKER: At the Bell Hotel in Norwich, Dusty was talked about even before she was seen. One morning she appeared. I was serving breakfast. An effervescent personality burst through the swing doors, the sunniest woman I had ever seen.

Doreen Cecile was 18 when we met. I was 22, working as a kitchen porter and learning a bit about cooking. She was an unsophisticated farm labourer's daughter - so different from any of the London girls I'd known. Dusty had no middle-class expectations. She was naturally high-spirited and energetic, with long legs and wonderful golden hair. I told her that her hair reminded me of gold dust, and she's been known as Dusty ever since. She was irresistible but, having been ditched by four girlfriends in succession, I was determined not to entangle myself again.

We met at a time when I had no confidence in myself. I thought there must be something wrong with me. Although I'd twice passed auditions to get into Rada, before and after the Air Force, I'd failed to get a grant. I couldn't afford to go, so I'd become a kitchen porter, in the hope of developing some culinary skills. I enjoyed mucking around in kitchens, but when my shift was over, I was happy to stay in my room, reading, writing and listening to music. This must have confused Dusty and the other staff, for whom the most natural thing, after work, was to go off for a drink.

Later, when Dusty took me to meet her family, they were generous and hospitable, but they thought I was some kind of gypsy. They'd never met a Jew before. My sister Della and brother-in-law, Ralph, were also living in Norfolk with their children. They responded, as everyone did, to Dusty's vibrancy, but were bewildered at our relationship - at the cultural gap.

They wouldn't let me sleep with her under their roof, and so Dusty had to creep into my room in the middle of the night.

When I decided to go back home to London, Dusty followed. I talked about living in Paris, saving money and travelling. She could see all kinds of openings for herself. Dusty was prepared to take risks. When we were living in Paris, I saw an advertisement for a course at the London School of Film Technique. I decided I would spend the money I'd saved for our travels on the course. Seeing no future in our relationship, once we were back in England, Dusty took a job with Butlins in Skegness.

We led our own lives. I was working on Chicken Soup with Barley when I sent Dusty a telegram saying, 'Will you marry me?' She didn't reply, so I sent a second one saying, 'For Christ's sake, will you marry me?' I still have it - covered in red lipstick kisses. I was awarded an Arts Council Grant of pounds 250 which paid for our wedding on 14 November 1958. I designed Dusty's empire-line wedding dress and we had a party for 250 people with Irish dancers and a jazz band.

There are some people who can't see things lift off the page, and all the time I've been writing Dusty has had no interest in reading a word. She's always preferred to wait until work has been performed. She threw her energy into our life and the children. Dusty blossomed. She is a wonderful home-maker. Her cooking is chaotic and uneconomical - but great.

Like all relationships, ours had as much to do with suppressing what we didn't enjoy or feel at ease with in each other, as anything else. Four years ago, I fell in love with another woman, but I never fell out of love with Dusty. Now the second relationship is over, and although I live alone in Wales, Dusty and I are painfully attempting to build a modus vivendi. The separation caused a great deal of hurt. Lindsay, my eldest son, couldn't bear to see his mother so unhappy and was estranged from me for a long time.

Of course there are feelings of guilt. All those years account for a great deal of emotional baggage which you can't just discard. Dusty has been my companion for 40 years. She is the mother of our three children, the central character of two plays and a story, aspects of her etched in here, there and all over the place.

I'm fiercely independent and need to know that I don't have to depend on anyone - but the cycle has begun again. When Tanya, our daughter, came to stay in Wales, she was Dusty all over again - taking over the house. I felt Dusty's eternally bright spirit. Her energy.

WESKER: At 15, I decided that I had to get out of our village, so I went to work in Norwich, 18 miles away. I found jobs in different hotels and when I was 18, I ended up at the Bell, where Arnold was a kitchen porter. I didn't like the way he seemed to want to keep himself to himself. I kept knocking on his bedroom door, shouting, 'Are you coming out for a drink?' but he was always listening to classical music and writing.

Our relationship had a slow beginning but one day he took me to the Norwich Cine Film Club. They were making a film in which Arnold had the lead part.

He was so handsome with his black hair, and he dressed differently. Arnold was dynamic and I was hungry for new experiences. Even though I was already engaged to another boy, I wanted Arnold. I used to go into his room and turn his bed upside down - creating havoc. I'm still like that.

Although he was earning a pittance, each week Arnold sent money home to his mother. I liked that. One afternoon, when we were out cycling, he said, 'May I kiss you?' I thought, well, he really has to be something special to treat me like that. No boy had ever asked me that, so I broke off my engagement.

I'd never heard classical music before I met Arnold. Every Sunday afternoon I lay on his bed and we'd make love to classical concerts on the radio. When Arnold wanted to go back to London, I went with him and found a job at a hotel in Russell Square. Arnold started at the Hungaria restaurant in Lower Regent Street. He had the charm of the devil. I wasn't the first gentile girlfriend he'd brought home and we ended up living in sin with Mother Wesker in her flat. I loved her. She was small, dynamic and very progressive for those days. She used to bring us tea in bed, but whenever Arnold's Uncle Harry came, she was very embarrassed. We pretended we were sleeping in separate bedrooms.

Arnold decided we should go to Paris, buy a Vespa and travel to Spain and Scandinavia. We had pounds 24 in the world between us, but we were young and in love. Our first hotel room in Paris was so small I burst into tears. We were caught in the catch-22 situation of having no permits and therefore no jobs. I got lucky first, getting a job as a daily au pair. Arnold had a job in a restaurant, Le Rallye, and we found a hotel room in the Odeon district.

All I wanted was to live in sin with Arnold in Paris. In 1956, life on the Left Bank was wonderful. Even then, in our tiny room, we had a constant stream of visitors. While Arnold was writing, I painted in gouache.

Our travel plans went out of the window when Arnold saw an ad for a film course in London. I realised that Arnold's writing was all that mattered to him. I wasn't going to hang around, so I took a job with Butlins in Skegness. I had my freedom back and started to live it up with lots of boyfriends. One day Arnold sent me a telegram saying, 'Dusty will you marry me?' I thought it was a bit strange and ignored it. Then a second telegram arrived, so I gave in my notice and went back to London. We were married in Hackney Town Hall and moved to a furnished flat in Upper Clapton Road. Four years later we had our three hyperactive children, and, as Arnold's career flourished, we bought a big house in Highgate.

Life was incredibly busy. Arnold was always upstairs, working in his study.

I was happy being Mrs Arnold Wesker and the mother of our children. We had an open house and I cooked for entire theatre companies, but I didn't type his manuscripts or read work in progress like some writers' wives do. I was fulfilled running the family. I'd left my own family and was happy being part of Arnold's - I loved them all.

Living with a writer and a writer's enormous ego is incredibly difficult.

We've had a wonderful life together but there have been a lot of ups and downs. Some people would have committed suicide by now, but I'm resilient. I turn the other cheek. Arnold's not going to change. Now he's rebelling against me. In Wales he's being fiercely independent. He doesn't need anyone -but when I was there recently I noticed a lot of things need doing in the house. I left them.

I've always loved it there but I was brought up in the country. I'm not interested in isolation. Arnold's the one who needs peace. His eyes used to sparkle but the sparkle's gone and he looks tired. He wants some silence in his life.

The last four years have been very painful, but I don't have to be Mrs Arnold Wesker any more. I fell in love with Arnold and what he was, not what he was going to be.

(Photograph omitted)