December 2017 – January 2018

Arts & Letters

Unfinished business: A short story

By Anna Goldsworthy
Can a young wartime couple pick up where they left off?

The train slows as it approaches the station, and he slides into view. He is not quite as she remembered. A little slacker around the jowls, perhaps, and not as bright of eye. Her heart pounds as she stands to open the door.

“Ruby!”

It sounds like a cough. And now he is holding her, with no sign that he plans ever to let go. She has waited a long time for this moment, and rehearsed it repeatedly in her head. It is an important moment to get right, for the sake of future retellings to the grandchildren, if nothing else. And now the crowd has moved apart to give them space, and she has this man clinging to her as if she is life itself. After a good amount of time, and then some more, she pats him on the back, and he releases her.

“You told me to pack light, you see!”

Found accommodation, travel light, his telegram had read, and so she had filled a suitcase with sheets and tablecloths and clothes; a suitcase full of her new life, and his.

He laughs, and heaves the suitcase towards the bus, and she steals a look at his body. It is leaner and more muscled than she left it. More sure, despite the uncertainty in his face. And she remembers their wedding night, two years ago now, or near enough.

They had fumbled, knowing they were working to a deadline.

“Why won’t it go in?” he had asked, finally.

She had been mortified: it had seemed confirmation that she was, after all, abnormal. That she couldn’t manage this simple task that even her mother had succeeded at, for goodness sake.

She had thought of the bull out with the cows to stud, the violence and certainty of its movements. “I think you have to push.”

“Heavens!” He recoiled. “Surely not!”

And so instead they had cleaved to each other all night, too aroused to sleep, too innocent to do anything about it. And the next day, she had seen him off on the ship to New Guinea.

“Be sure to come back,” she had said. “Unfinished business.”

She blushes now at her immodesty. But for weeks afterwards, she had seen the keen, blind angle of his sex everywhere: in the railway crossings, in the bows of the violinists at the Palais. She didn’t know how she would bear it.

He takes her hand and helps her onto the bus. She has planned some conversation, for fear that they will have nothing to say.

“Everything was just fine until Broken Hill. My godfather! The stationmaster called me in, and wanted to know why I was travelling at these times.”

Her voice sounds trivial in front of this officer in uniform, flushed and intent.

“I said, ‘I’m going to see my husband,’ and he asked where my husband was. And I thought – well, I can’t say I’m going to Brisbane, because that would be flouting the restrictions. So I had to tell a lie.”

She checks how he has registered this fact about his virtuous bride.

“So I said I was going to Redfern. It was the only place I could think of!”

His laughter is raucous. “He thought you were turning tricks, you see!”

It is a laugh that speaks of appetite – healthy, undamaged – and she joins in, relieved. She is sitting on this bus with a man she scarcely knows, a man with whom she plans to lead a life. And perhaps they will be up to it, after all.


The apartment is modest, but he did so well to find it that she will not complain. He brings in the suitcase, and they stand awkwardly for a moment. She is not quite sure how to launch herself as a wife. There is a marriage to be consummated, but perhaps she will first make a cup of tea.

He seems relieved. “And how have the last two years been for you, dear?”

She laughs mirthlessly. “Fine. Just fine.”

She had thought she would stay in Adelaide, but it was difficult in those early days. Men seemed to be everywhere. Each morning, as she walked into the business college, there would be a flurry of hats removed, of conversations catching in her wake. She felt a little contemptuous: why weren’t they off at the front? But she would still catch their eyes, just to see if they were looking. And they mostly were, and she felt that jolting complicity: that men and women do things to one another in bedrooms. As if she needed to be reminded.

She moved back to the farm.

“Mother seems a little miserable,” she says, “but I think she was glad of the help.”

Actually, there had been a strangeness between her and her mother this time. One evening, when Ruby was sobbing on her bed, her mother had come in and taken a brush from the dressing table. She had brushed Ruby’s hair out in long, calming strokes, as she did when Ruby was a child.

Surprised by this tenderness, Ruby took it as permission to talk.

“I feel like Miss Havisham.”

Her mother paused. “What did you say?”

“You know. Miss Havisham, the disappointed bride. Great Expectations. You have the book in the parlour.”

“I do not have any such book.” She was strangely adamant. “And I do not know what you are talking about.”

She put the brush down and left the room, and Ruby remembered not to look for sympathy there.

“Mother’s been working hard with the fowls,” she tells him. “Perhaps they’ll be able to sell that accursed farm if the war ever ends.”

She wonders if she should even speak about it.

“What about you, dear? How have the last two years been for you?”

He was granted a medical discharge from active service, and she still doesn’t understand why. He never seemed like an anxious man. But she is not sure she really wants to know. She wants to preserve him as the go-ahead young man he was in Adelaide when they went out dancing at the Palais.

He takes a sip of tea. “I don’t know that I much care to talk about that just now.”

They finish their tea, and he takes her hand in his, and they sit for a while in silence. Then she stands, and moves to the bedroom to make up the bed.


Somehow he has a better idea, this time, of what needs to be done. She doesn’t ask why. He is attentive, even industrious, and she is relieved that they have been able to do this thing. That they have earned their status as man and wife. Afterwards he looks at her with such tenderness that she feels a surge of pity, and supposes it must be love.

“My Ruby. My ruby gemstone.”

He curls into her, and his breathing slows into sleep. And so she is finally a woman, with her sleeping husband in her arms.

But she finds herself weeping, on this, her first proper night as a wife. She weeps for the two of them in a bed together in Adelaide, wide awake, before New Guinea. She wants to be there, again, and for him to be butting up against her, confused and almost delirious with desire. And for the lessons of the war to be unlearned, and for the damage to be not yet done. And for the beginning of their married life not to feel so much like an ending.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.

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