Elizabeth Jolley's stories are little true life capsules; perfectly formed, unhurried, faithful to the puzzle of life. I have long wanted to write a proper story about ageing and memory, despite not having aged all that much yet myself, and when I read 'A New World', I couldn’t help trying to emulate Jolley's bright and soft solemnity in a story of my own. What resulted was a story that is very different from Jolley's, but perhaps a worthy meditation on what we end up with in the end: love, irritability and a bouyant view of our world.

— Laura McPhee-Browne

'A New World' by Elizabeth Jolley

 

‘Now that I am old I get up very early and feel like God creating a New World.’

- From a Chinese poem, translated by Arthur Waley

 

Every morning the old man in bed twelve was shaved by the ward orderly.

‘When can I get a shave?’ he kept calling across the ward and the orderly, who had to polish the ward table, called back, ‘Soon as I’m ready and not before,’ and the old man muttered, ‘Very well, very well,’ and sat there in his bed.

And after a while, forgetting he had called once, called again.

‘When can I get a shave?’

And the ward orderly, sliding his dusters up and down over the smooth shining table top, replied, ‘Soon as I’m ready and not before.’

Mostly the old men were dozing; they had all been washed and tidied and the nurse had rushed round with the breakfasts and everything was cleared away early. At last the orderly was free to come with a little shaving mug of hot water and a shaving brush and soap. He wrapped the old man in a towel and lathered his face, rubbing in the soap round and round with the brush; the old man turned his face a little from one side to the other to help. Then the orderly set about the shave and the old man blew out first one cheek and then the other and tried to stretch the skin between his nose and mouth and against his solf old chin by twisting and turning his mouth in all ways. His face was old and sunken and because of this it was not easy to shave, but because he had always blown out his cheeks, first one and then the other, and twisted up his mouth, he did so now; it was from habit. The orderly was quickly finished with his task and the old man ran his fingers over the rough stubble of his cheeks and chin and nodded and muttered, ‘Quite good, quite good. Thank you, much obliged’

And then the orderly fetched mouthwash for him and he gargled and spat twice. Because he had always done this he did it now. He tried to comb his hair too and with the other hand in between the combing, he smoothed the few hairs back in strands.

Later on the old man, Twelve, asked the man in the bed next to him if he would like a smoke, and the old man, Fourteen, said he would very much. And as he was allowed up, he slowly got out from his bed and groped for his slippers.

‘They’re in my locker, Fred,’ Twelve said. ‘Down at the bottom they should be.’ And Fred shuffled round to get them.

‘Fetch ‘em out then’, Twelve said. But there did not seem to be any cigarettes in the locker. There was nothing there except a dish with a square of lint for a face flannel and a bit of red soap. There was nothing in the locker except this and the cleaned-out emptiness. So he went over and asked the ward orderly about it.

‘Oh, Twelve’s a bit confused these days, Dad,’ he said and went on with his polishing.

So Fred Nash went back and sat on a chair by the old man’s bed and the old man sat there in his bed and after a while they both slept a bit and quite soon it was dinner time.

When he became old he, Fred Nash, got up very early and felt like God creating a New World. It was as if the world opened out on all sides fresh and clear spilled all over with hibiscus and oleander, fragrant with roses and lavender and pinks, and sounding softly resounding with the running of the voices of the magpies and the gentle laughter of the doves. He liked to be up first. And, with his hand-knitted socks and cardigan he was nice and warm, and he went out into this first freshness of the day with his dog into his little garden. He put more wood on his verandah near the back door so that Edie, his wife, need only stretch an arm out to get nice small bits ready for kindling and then plenty of suitable bits for keeping the wood stove just as she liked it all day. He swept up the little paths and tidied the beds and rearranged flower pots and hung things in the shed he had built years ago. Sometimes he painted things. He painted the windowsills and the door and the white trellis along the verandah. He liked to keep things nice and neat. And all the time the doves caressed the morning as the sun warmed the leaves and the branches and the grass and the flowers and he felt the warmth of the sun on his back. And he thought and planned in his new world where he would grow sunflowers, and how he would rebuild part of the shed; it was held up, he guessed, only by the vines. All these things he had liked to think about and plan to do in the peacefulness of his life as it was first thing in the morning.

On Easter Sunday the nurses coloured all the boiled eggs with acriflavin and gential violet and took them round with the breakfasts, saying, ‘Happy Easter, Dad,’ and ‘Happy Easter, Grandad,’ all round the ward. But the old men looked with suspicion at the purple and yellow eggs in front of them.

            ‘I’m not eating that thing,’ one said and then another said, ‘I’m not eating that!’ And in the end, none of the old men ate their eggs and the nurse had to rush off to the kitchens to ask for a can of porridge for them. And the orderly put the eggs, with their despictable colours, in with the dirty laundry and so had them safely removed before the charge nurse came on.

            Every day the old man, Twelve, had a visit from his daughter. She lived near the hospital and worked in the kitchens and she was allowed up to the ward for just a few minutes before she went home. And every night in the night, Fred Nash, in the next bed, bed fourteen, could hear a munching and crunching and a smacking of lips and a licking up of crumbs. It made him feel hungry to hear those noises. The rustling of the paper, quietly as it was done, carried the suggestion of a piece of home-baded cake or a slice of apple pie, and the old man, Fred, sighed and turned over, his mouth watering at the though of whatever it was the old man, Twelve, had to eat in the night.

It was best then to think back and dream of those other times. Sometimes during the day when Edie had gone somewhere on the bus he sait in the back porch listening to the bees in the branches pressed against the trellis, and watching the small birds, Silver Eyes, darting in and out of a lantana bush and he would remember. Remembering at dusk the dirty streets where there were derelict back-to-back houses, remembering the cramped street where he had lived as a boy. Once he had seen a man, terrified and weeping, crouching with his heels pressed into the greasy bricks, trying to hold back from being dragged off by two policemen. He had seen women weeping and ill and children cold and hungry and people pausing on their way home from work to see things, dreadful things, Like himself, not knowing why it was.

            As soon as he could he left these streets and went to work on the ships. His mother was pleased. She told everyone, ‘He’s on the ships/’ And every time he went home he took money and presents for her and for his sisters. From far-away ports and cities he took home smooth yellow and green and orange beads and bracelets and necklaces of something volcanic, sparkling and shot with intangible delicate colours. He took back little bags of red leather embossed with gold, woven glittering slippers and little boxes of inlaid wood. Some of them played tunes when you lifted the lid, Come back to Sorrento and O Sole Mio. And one revealed a tiny couple revolving, embraced in the waltz, exquisitely dressed in silk and entombed for ever in quilted crimson plush.

            But it was chiefly the money, for he spent sparingly even on the presents, and he saved. He worked first at scrubbing the baths and lavatories and later in the cabins. The ship and his cabins and his passengers became his world. Back and forth his ship moved on her course night and day.

            His ship had every thing – space and cleanliness, comfort, chairs, swimming pools, ballrooms, lounges, films, games, toys, even a peal of bells for the Sunday morning service.

            He worked on the ships for eighteen years, till his mother was comfortable in a house of her own and his sisters all through school. And then he married his girl, Edie, and they took a final trip on the ship and settled in Western Australia. He bought himself some land on the coast down the south west and he built a small house there and half a dozen holiday cottages, mostly of weatherboard and iron. And he began again his service to people who came there throughout the years to have a holiday. It was very hard at first. The cottages were simple but all were fitted out in detail as a ship is. He collected old stoves and fitted them in his kitchens and made wood boxes which he kept filled with kindling. He laid coloured linoleum over the boards and Edie sewed at curtains and covered the mattresses with calico so they would keep nice. He used up all his money and his work was never done; it was a round of repairs and improvements. One winter he got himself a load of used bricks and chipped them even and built a wash-house and fitted in an old copper and next to that he put in a chip heater and a tank and the next summer his visitors could have showers and do their washing.

            Always he could hear the sea. It roared far out over a fringe of rocks, surf waves out there throwing up forty feet of spray. He could hear that at night and the croaking of the frogs in the swamp near his place. Before very long he had to make his front room into a shop and all the time his people came to buy groceries. And there were some kangaroos; they came down there of an evening and his two children and the holiday children fed them slices of bread.

He did not think of all these things at once; he remembered only in snatches when Twelve had done mumbling. It was a comfort to be at the edge of the dream at those times, as if he were able to step back into any part of it. He liked to think of Edie’s kind smile that came from her kind grey eyes and lit up her whole face.

Of course the nurse would be round soon. He always woke early, it had always been his time of day, the early morning, especially when he was old and in his own place which he made into a new world of his own. Things were different now; to wake early was not the same.

            Of course his boys had helped him but the time had come and school finished when they had gone off to other places, towns where there were garages and radio shops.

            He liked to see the pleased look come into the people’s faces when they arrived the first time and stepped into one of the little cottages. They exclaimed at the neatness and the cleanliness and at all the things ready for them to use. They were pleased to look through the window the whole wild way down to where the waves were breaking over the rocks. The rocks were wonderful there, steps and slabs and tables, pinnacles, piers and palaces of rock, strewn like gigantic playthings abandoned. The children always ran downstairs straight away.

            When he had been to the township for supplies and letters and come back to the road fork and the signpost, the same all the years, he felt a deep excitement. There was the road going off to the right, a narrow white strip between the fringes of red dust gravel. On either side the bush pread very quiet and mysterious, untouched and unchanged for miles. There was something about the bush that was like the sea. He felt the same as he had years ago on the ship.

            The road went down steeply through a place overgrown with trees and creeper, over a creek with a narrow wooden bridge and then stepply up and round to emerge suddenly ... than before, splendidly overlooking the wide wild bay. The uneven edges of the land ran down, with the river between to the sea. The smooth sea and the rippled sky met on a horizon so wide and light and open, it was the very joining of heaven and earth.

            Always he felt as if he had come there for the first time. It was a place where he could feel at once restored and remade.

            At the time it seemed a long life of working and improving and caring for so many people. And then it suddenly seemed a short time, his being there. One day the local authority came. They built a public toilet with showers and changing rooms. Not on his piece of land, of course, but right up against his cottages. And in front of his place they levelled the ground and filled in the frog-haunted swamp and made a lovely big car park.

            Edie made tea and sold pies to the men working there and they were pleased to sit on the little verandah.

            ‘It’s progress, Dad,’ they said to the old man. They cleared the bush beyond the toilets and put up a sign saying:

Happy Days. Campers Only.

The men said they were bringing out water and electricity.

            ‘It’s a new world, Dad,’ they said. The road was up everywhere and it was noisy and dirty with tractors and lorries and building materials. For the next thing was that the land was sold off in small blocks and people began building their own holiday houses, elaborate with concrete and glass and lights and flushing lavatories. The view from the little windows of the cottages was quite changed and it was impossible now to see the sea. And with these modern houses who would want to bother with kerosene lamps and earth closets and a chip heater in a shabby place, up the back, filled with leaves and twigs, visited nightly by possums, and open to the sky. The water tanks put there by himself seemed suddenly decrepid and he could see quite plainly when Mr Barker, quite a kindly man from the Public Health, showed him that his home-made, soak-away drains were quite inadequate, perhaps even dangerous to the people.

            Edie said it was all for the best really, as they were both of them getting on and it would be really nice to get the garden done how she had always wanted it. So when a road was put through where their cottages had been they hardly noticed it as their trellis was covered with vines and they were hidden in honeysuckle and hibiscus and lantana; there was oleander too, pink and white, and all threaded in and out with blue cupped bindweed.

            Later when he was on his own, the ladies brought him a hot dinner every day. It seemed every convenience had come to this place where there had once been nothing. They told him to spread a nice clean newspaper on the table and have his fork and spoon ready, at noon, and his plate put to warm. They chatted to him while they served him, but when they had gone he forgot about the beef and vegetables and the custard pudding. He forgot so often that it was decided it would be better if he were looked after properly.

For a few days the old man, Twelve, had not had his usual visit from his daughter. He sat there in bed waiting and waiting and hoping for her to come. And then the charge nurse came just before teatime to tell him that his daughter would not be coming again. Afterwards he just sat there skaing his head. He couldn’t get up and walk to the window to look out or anything, there was nothing he could do. So the old man, Fourteen, got up slowly and groped for his slippers and sat on the chair beside Twelve.

            ‘What’ll you have,’ the nurse asked them. ‘Soup or cheese or hot Bonox?’ They chose the Bonox and she gave them each a little tray and helped them each to bread and butter, forking it skilfully from her piled-up plate.

            They liked to blow into the hot Bonox and sip slowly and dip their bread and butter in it.

            The old man, Twelve, had been restless the last few nights. Fourteen had heard him turning and muttering and he was sorry for him. He thought and thought about what he could do about it. While he blew into the fragrant steam of the Bonox he watched Twelve stirring his and sucking at the spoon and he watched him enjoying his bread and butter, and an idea came to him. He took up one of his own slices and was about to dip it in his mug and he hesitated and put the slice down. And he sipped a bit and blew and picked up his break again from forgetful habit and, as if remembering something, he laid it down again. After the Bonox was all gone he took the piece of clean paper, which was the tray cloth, and carefully wrapping up the bread and butter he placed it in Twelve’s locker. He patted it lovingly with his old hands. Twelve looked at him and at the crumpled little package; both the old men seemed a bit perplexed. Fourteen patted the package again and looked at it, and after a little while he went to bed to wait for the night.

            In the night towards morning he heard the rustling of paper and the munching and scrunching and the licking up of crumbs. The noises made him feel hungry and he turned over and sighed and his mouth watered but he stepped quietly back into the edge of his dream.

Bio note:

‘A New World’ was presented on the BBC World Service on 29 June 1969, published in an anthology of new Australian writing in 1973, and included in Jolley’s 1979 collection The Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories (Fremantle Arts Centre Press).

Elizabeth Jolley published novels, short stories and nonfiction books, and received many awards during her career, including The Age Book of the Year Award, The Age Fiction Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, the National Book Council (Banjo) Award, The NSW Premier's Literary Award, the WA Critical and Historical Prize and the WA Premier's Fiction Award. She was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1988 and was declared a national living treasure in 1997. She died in 2015 aged 83.