Authors: Elizabeth Jolley
The Newspaper of Claremont Street
is the story of an old cleaning woman, known as Weekly, or âThe Newspaper'. Unknown to the residents of Claremont Street, for whom she works, Weekly dreams of escapeâescape from the parasitic demands of both her past and her present. She dreams of owning a small farm beyond the city.
Drawn with humour, sharpness, not a little sympathy, and finally, a sort of desperate calm, Weekly is one of Elizabeth Jolley's major creations; one of the wiry survivors whose vulnerability it is Jolley's special task to illuminate.
Elizabeth Jolley, like Virginia Woolf, is a writer rich in ambiguities as she is aware of the anguish of sensibility ... Elizabeth Jolley is a major figure in recent Australian writing.
Elizabeth Jolley joins the handful of Australian writers ... of whom it may be said that their books are able to alter the direction of one's inner life.
Elizabeth Jolley was born in 1923 in the industrial Midlands of England and grew up in a household âhalf English and three quarters Viennese', and later in a Quaker boarding school.
She came to Western Australia in 1959 with her husband, Leonard Jolley, and their three children. Although she began writing at a very early age, it was not until she was in her fifties that her first book was accepted:
Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories,
published by Fremantle Press (then Fremantle Arts Centre Press) in 1976. Her reputation as a major writer grew with the publication of a further nineteen works of fiction. Her novels won many prizes, including the
Book of the Year Award (three times) and the Miles Franklin Award.
Celebrated as one of Australia's major writers, Elizabeth Jolley also established a formidable international reputation, with her books being widely published throughout the world. She received an Order of Australia for services to Australian literature and was awarded honorary doctorates from four universities. She died in 2007.
No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time.
Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people's houses. Every day she was in someone else's place cleaning. While she worked she sang,
She liked hymns best and knew a great many.
âWell, and 'ow are we?' she called out, arriving with great noise, filling untidy kitchens with her presence, one
kitchen after another, for she worked steadily all day, every day, one house after another.
She would start by throwing open the windows and, while the sink overflowed with boiling water, she would pull the stove to pieces. She knew everything about the people she cleaned for and she never missed anything that was going on.
âWho's getting married Weekly?' they asked her, and âWho's moved into the corner house Weekly?' She told them everything they wanted to know, and when they asked more questions than she would answer, she said, âIf yo' know people is living, what else is there to know?' But she did know other things, deep hidden wishes for possessions and for money to get them; and there were wishes for those things which cannot be bought with money.
âI think that word should be clay. C.L.A.Y.' She leaned over old Mr Kingston's chair, âLet's see, what was that clue again?' She read it aloud,
You and yor intelleckshall crorsswords!'
Mr Kingston smiled shyly down at the paper. CLAY, he pencilled in the letters. The word fitted. For some years
now Weekly had taken part in one of his few remaining interests. On purpose, he did not finish the puzzle before her arrival. He took pleasure in the discovery that he shared with this uneducated woman a background of long Sunday afternoons devoted to getting by heart passages from the Bible.
âDon't you remember,' Weekly said, âlet me see now,' she looked up at the ceiling, ânow let me see,' she muttered to herself, âsomething like this,' she said.
They learned me that at Sunday School.'
âAh yes!' Mr Kingston said in his kind old voice. âAh yes!
âI can't say as I remember that part, Mr Kingston, but o' course it was a long time ago and they didn't learn us everything.'
âChatham's girl's engaged at long larst,' she reported to Mrs Kingston. âTwo rooms full of presents you should just see the jugs and glasses and the stainless steel cuttelry and talk about coffee tables and vawses!'
âKingston's boy's 'ad 'orrible accident,' she described the details to the Chathams. âLorst 'is job o' course but then that's because of what e's been taking, growing the stuff on a piece of clorth on top of the wardrobe. Whatever next! Missis Kingston said to me only larst time, “Whatever shall I do with this Weekly?” and there was this soup plate with the weeds growing, only they was all withered. “I think they must be bean shoots,” she sez but I thought otherwise. “I'd water 'em,” I told her, “looks as if they're on their larst garsp.” Poor Missis Kingston my 'eart bleeds.'
Weekly sadly shook the tablecloth over the carpet and carried out some dead roses carefully, as if to keep them for the next funeral in Claremont Street, which in her opinion was sure to be soon. Seen from the back, the top of Mr Kingston's head dropping over the personal columns of an old
gave an impression which supported Weekly's unspoken opinion.
When she went into the houses she saw what people were trying to do with their lives and she saw too what they did not try to do. Some things simply happened to them. The mess made by living did not bother her. People's efforts to clear up their mess were touching, their dead flowers drooping in stained, treasured vases and crumbs left in the bread tin made her shake her head and feel sad, not because she had to throw away the flowers
and clean out the tin. It was the picking of flowers in the first place and the buying of the bread and bringing it home to eat, they were the symbols of their efforts to live. Weekly made great efforts herself and was not unaware of the efforts of others. She noticed everything there was to notice about people and their houses; she could not help it.
She had worked for so many years in Claremont Street and had seen a great many people grow up and grow old. She could remember old Mr Kingston as a much younger man, someone to whom many people had turned for advice. Now he sat wrapped in red and yellow shawls knitted by his granddaughters. He smelled of a mixture of whisky and tobacco. Though members of the household paused briefly by his chair or put off going into his room for as long as possible, she realised that, unlike herself, he had relatives. His apparently useless life had been, and perhaps even now was useful, even precious to someone. This striking fact about human life could never be ignored and, without ever mentioning it, Weekly was aware of it and knew its importance.
she sang at the Laceys' while she washed the wrought iron
trellis on the mezzanine terrace. âYou should 'ave seen the mess after the Venns' party,' she called down to Mrs Lacey. âBroken glass everywhere, blood on the stairs and a whole pile of half-eaten pizzas in the laundry. Some people think they're having a good time! And you'll never believe this, I picked up a bed jacket, ever so pretty it was, to wash it and there was a yuman arm in it...' Mrs Lacey hurried to her walk-in wardrobe to change into something suitable for going out.
Weekly cleaned in all sorts of houses. Her body was hard like a board and withered with so much work. Her feet were so large and ugly with rheumatism, she seemed to have stopped looking like a woman.
On her way home from work, she went in the shop at the end of Claremont Street and sat there, taking her time, seeing who was there and watching what they bought. No one needed to read anything, the Newspaper of Claremont told them all stories and kept them up to date with the news. No one needed to bring a shopping list because Weekly knew what they needed to buy.
The boards on the floor of the shop were dark with repeated moppings with kerosene. Weekly sat on a broken chair propped against the counter. She sucked in her cheeks and peered unashamedly into the shopping baskets of the women who were hurriedly buying things at the last minute.
âAny pigs been eatin' babies lately Newspaper?' one of the shop girls called out.
âWhat happened to that man who sawed orf all his fingers at the timber yard?' the other girl nudged the first one out of the way. Both girls had on new pink cardigans, both were good natured and plump. They ate biscuits and chocolate and scraps of ham and cheese all day.
âYo'll not be needing flour,' Weekly advised a woman.
âWhy not then?'
âYo' bought some yesterday,' Weekly said. âNow eggs yo' didn't get. Yo'll be needing eggs.'
âWhat about “No fingers” Newspaper?' someone asked.
âWell,' Weekly looked all round, waiting for attention from the shop. âHe never got no compensation as he'd only been there half hour. Half hour and not a finger nor a thumb left on him. Both 'ands gorn and nothin' for it!' She let an impressive silence follow this appalling misfortune and, after a suitable time, she rose from her chair and went home.
She lived quite alone in a rented room covered in brown linoleum which she polished mercilessly every morning. Back at home she rummaged in the flyscreen cupboard where she kept her food, and taking out some bread and boiled vegetables, she sat reading and eating until she was rested. She was so thin and her neck was so scraggy that when she swallowed you could see the food
going down. But since there was no one there to tell her about it, it did not really matter.
There was very little furniture in the room and none of it belonged to her. All the clothes she had were given to her at the places where she worked. While it was still light, Weekly pulled her chair across to the narrow window of her room and sat bent over her mending. She darned everything she had; the needle was awkward in her fingers because the joints were enlarged with hard work and from an unnamed ailment in childhood. She put on patches with a herringbone stitch. Sometimes she made the worn out materials of her skirts firmer with rows of herringboning, one row neatly above the other, the brown thread glowing in these last rays of the sun which make all browns beautiful. Even the old linoleum could have a sudden richness at this time of the evening. It was like the quick lighting up of a plain girl's face when she smiles because of some unexpected happiness. The corners of the room softened in this last sunlight and the herringbone stitch satisfied Weekly with that pleasure which belongs to creative thrift. With the dusk came the end of her sewing for she was too mean to put on the light. She was tired and so was pleased when the darkness came.
âMam! One of my titties is bigger than the other,' she had called at dusk once.
âOh never you mind!' her mother's weary voice had
called from the washhouse. âJust you wait a bit and some man'll knock 'em into size for you. Get off with you now to Granny Ackroyd's for the eggs. Hurry now!'
Weekly had never forgotten the dark lane alongside the pit mounds, it was part of her early childhood which remained with her all her life; so was the strange old woman who kept fowls in a yard right up against the brick kilns. The coal mine was just behind.
âHurry up with you,' her mother's voice continued, âthe five o'clock bull's gone.' It was getting dark, the skeleton of the pit shaft, where the wheels turned, was crazy and black on the sky left red by the setting sun. All day and all night they heard the throb and pant of the engines and the noise of the wheels turning, taking the cage of men up out of the mine.
Granny Ackroyd's yard was pit dust and slag and sunflowers. The heads of the sunflowers were as big as Royal Worcester dinner plates and they grew like this out of this dust. Out of this nothing there also grew a very old pear tree. In spring Weekly stood pretending she was being married in the cascade of white blossom, but later, when the fruits came, they were small and hard and dry and had no taste at all.
âYo' must never take a tree for granted,' Granny Ackroyd said, âsame as yo' must never take a person for granted. People and trees is special. Always look at the
tops of trees as you would look into people's hearts.' Weekly used to try to look at the top of the old pear tree, especially if Granny Ackroyd was about, but it was over thirty feet high, really as big as a house. Sometimes Weekly wished they had a yard and a tree; a pear tree of her own would be nice she thought.
âIt's old, that tree,' Granny Ackroyd always said the same things, âplanted it when I was a young woman. Take some pears.' She offered the fruit as if she did not know how useless it was or, if she did know, refused to believe it.
Weekly forgot about her breasts almost as soon as she was aware of them. She was sent into service, and from then on hardly noticed her own body at all, being well covered with the uniform supplied by the Lady of the Big House. She was so busy having to learn and to do things for other people.
Later on when she saw young people on their way to the beach, she thought how lovely they looked. They were so well made and graceful. It seemed to her that if she had ever looked like these girls, she had never had the chance, or the time, to either see herself as she was or to let other people see her.
The house where the Newspaper of Claremont Street had her rented room was large and had been built a long time ago for a big family. It had wide wooden verandahs all around it and, when she stepped onto the rough
boards in the morning, she liked to think of the people who had built the house and the pleasure they must have had when they discovered that, at all times of the day, the verandah had some patches of sunshine, first in one place and then in another. Now the house was all divided up, a different life in every room and every life isolated from all other lives. She paid no rent for her room because, before she left for work every day, she swept and washed out the passages and the toilet, and she swept all the verandahs.
When the first grey light of the dawn filled the narrow space of her tall window, Weekly woke up and saw the sky of the new day waiting for her. Every morning she woke with an aching back. Sometimes she ached all over and had to ease herself out of bed, groaning. This stiffness seemed to get worse every day, but fortunately it wore off after some polishing and sweeping.
Some days it was so bad she thought she would not be able to get to work. While her body ached and was slow to see the reason for making haste to get up, her mind was alert. She knew she must go to work if she ever wanted to do the things she wanted most to do. And, with her eyes fixed on the changing sky, she planned which cupboards she would attack as soon as she stepped indoors at the Kingstons' and, before she put one foot out onto the smooth linoleum, she made a decision about the fate of
the Chathams' shower curtain. She allowed herself the luxury of a few more moments, just a little time more, to think her favourite thoughts, and a glow of pleasure spread through her thin aching body. There was something she wanted to do more than anything else, and for this she needed money. For a long time she had been saving, putting money aside in little amounts till they became larger amounts. The growing sum danced before her, every morning growing a little more. For a few moments then, she thought about her money, calculating what she would be able to put in the bank this week. She was not very quick at arithmetic and it took her a little more time to do the addition.