Un­fin­ished Busi­ness

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Anna Goldswor­thy

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.

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