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 writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

From the front page

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

In This Issue

Some days

Some days, nothing comes easy

Image of Björk

The possible future

Björk moves towards renewal on ‘Utopia’

Image of Noel Pearson

Betrayal

The Turnbull government has burned the bridge of bipartisanship

Still from Call Me By Your Name

The perfection of youth

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a passionate, positive tale of first love


More in Arts & Letters

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic


More in Story

6 × 100

Six stories of 100 words

Alphabet

Sinkers

The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman


Online exclusives

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative