Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2018

‘Night Runner’ (1983) by Elizabeth Jolley in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, edited by Nicholas Jose

I am indebted to Sue at Whispering Gums for the discovery of ‘Night Runner’ in my copy of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature : she triggered the thought that I might have some of Elizabeth Jolley’s short stories within other collections on my shelves…

‘Night Runner’ takes us to the world that we’ve been reading about in Meg Broughton’s reviews of the Vera Trilogy.  Shy, tentative Nurse Vera Wright is at St Cuthbert’s and it’s her first night as a Night Runner, a job which entails running about getting equipment, and also preparing the Night Nurses’ meal: one little sitting at twelve midnight and a second one at twelve forty-five and, of course, the clearing up and the washing up.   Jolley paints vivid pictures of the staff, of whom Night Sister Bean is the most terrifying:

‘Go up to Isolation for the oxygen,’ she says without looking up from something she is writing.  I am standing in front of her desk.  I have never been so close to her before, not in this position, that is, of looking at her from above.  She is starch-scented, shrouded mysteriously in the daintily severe folds of spotted white gauze.  She is a sorceress disguised in the heavenly blue of the Madonna; a shrivelled, rustling, aromatic, knowledgeable, Madonna-coloured magician; she is a wardress and a keeper.  She is an angel in charge of life and in charge of death.  Her fine white cap, balancing, nodding, a grotesque blossom flowering forever in the dark halls of the night, hovers beneath me.  She is said to have powers, an enchantment, beyond the powers of an ordinary human.  For one thing, she has been on night duty in this hospital for over thirty years.  As I stand there I realise that I do not know her at all and that I am afraid of her.  (p.722)

The story is three pages in, before I realise that the setting is London under the Blitz.

I am frightened out here.

For one thing, Isolation is never used.  It is, as the name suggests, isolated.  it is approached by a long, narrow covered way sloping up through a war-troubled shrubbery where all the dust bins are kept.  Because of not being able to show any lights it is absolutely dark there.  When I go out into the darkness I can smell rotting arms and legs, thrown out of the operating theatre and not properly put into the bins.  I gather my apron close so that I will not get caught by a protruding maimed hand.  (p.723)

Ugh!  Only Jolley would do this to me, I think, as I read on…

The theme of loneliness is ever-present in all Jolley’s novels that I have read, and also a remarkable propensity for forms of revenge both mild and severe.  These acts of vengeance are always presented as perfectly reasonable expressions of resentment.  Well,  Nurse Vera hasn’t made any friends among her colleagues, and one of them takes advantage of her, so that she owes money that Vera needs to get back.  Nurse Ferguson probably has no idea that her saboteur is timid Nurse Wright who is too embarrassed to ask for her money.  It doesn’t pay Nurse Sharpe to boss her around either, and to offload the worst jobs, though likewise she doesn’t have a clue.

Whenever I come back to the office Sharpe says, ‘take these pills to bed twelve’ or ‘get the lavatories cleaned’, and ‘time to do the bread and butter – and don’t leave the trays smeary like last night.’

At the end of the ward I pull out the laundry baskets and I move the empty oxygen cylinders and the fire equipment; the buckets of water and sand.  I simply move them all out from their normal places, just a little way out, and later, when Sharpe and Queen go along to the lavatory, they fall over these things and knock into each other, making the biggest disturbance ever heard in a hospital at night.  Night Sister Bean comes rushing all the way up from her office in the main hall.  She is furious and tells Sharpe and Queen to report to Matron at nine a.m.   She can see that I am busy, quietly with my little torch, up at the other end of the ward, pouring the fragrant mouth-wah in readiness for the morning.  (p.727)

Oh, didn’t we all wish for such sweet revenge at times!

Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Title: ‘Night Runner’ in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature pp 721-734
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, in association with Macquarie University and Sydney PEN, 2009, first published 1983
General Editor: Nicholas Jose and Deputy General Editor: David McCooey
Contributing Editors: Kerryn Goldsworthy, Anita Heiss, Peter Minter, Nicole Moore and Elizabeth Webby
ISBN: 9781741754407
Source: Personal library

I can’t quite believe that this anthology is out of print: it just shouldn’t happen to an essential reference book like this.  Booko tells me that there is a copy at AbeBooks.

Update 14/6/18 I was wrong!  And very pleased to be wrong.  This book is not out of print, it’s been reissued under the name The Literature of Australia, see here at Goodreads for publishing details.


  1. Much of Jolley seems to be unavailable in the UK too but I am intrigued enough to have reserved a book from the local library!


    • That’s great, it’s good to know she’s on the shelves:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m enjoying this series of Jolley posts (pun intended). Thanks for bringing her to my attention.


  3. As I think I said elsewhere, this was the first Jolley I read back in the 1980s, and is what made me want to read her more. Jolley used her nursing experience in several of her stories and novels. I think I’m right in saying that Helen Garner has spoken of the revelation, that she got from Jolley, that you you can reuse stories and ideas from work to work. Jolley was expert at this – and you never feel irritated, but rather enjoy “meeting” people or ideas or situations again.

    BTW Good point about the revenge idea in her work.


    • I meant to say also that it’s a wonderful inversion of the Florence Nightingale ideal… we just don’t think of nurses pottering around the wards plotting and scheming revenge on each other, do we?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, no, good point! Hope that makes sense… ie Yes it is, and No we don’t!


        • And that macabre bit about the bins…. *shudder*!


  4. I grew up reading Come Hither Nurse, a bit like Doctor in the House etc, which everyone knew once and now probably no one does. I think Jolley must have worked in a different hospital.


    • Guilty, m’lud, I’ve never heard of that one. The nurse books I read were ‘girls books’. There was a whole series called featuring a nurse called Cherry Ames, and I swear I read them all, one after the other until the library shelves were exhausted, but I do not remember a thing about them now.


  5. I should say that I am enjoying EJ week too. Well done! And thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your contribution!


  6. Hi Lisa, Jolley is sweet with her revenges. They are not big but so effective. Jolley had a very sharp mind. I picked up Palomino today for 50 cents from an op shop. Helen Garner said “Re-reading Palomino, I take off my hat to Jolley once again.” You cannot help but agree.


    • 50c! Oh that’s brilliant! What I must do is make a list of the ones I don’t have, that I haven’t read or read from library copies or loans from a friend, and then scour my opshops to see what I can find. Because I really want to read the trilogy and re-read the others again:)


  7. […] see Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review of ‘Night Runner’ […]


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