Johanna Bell

Virginia Woolf would be proud

Johanna Bell


The night before I left, I asked what you would miss most. You put your hands behind your head and stared at the roof. That’s easy, you said. The boat. I kept stirring the onions in their pan to make sure they didn’t go bitter.

Later, on the couch, I tried reaching through the fog. I asked about your day, and the boat, and thought I saw a flicker like Morse code. I strained to decipher the sequence — scribbled it down and poured through the pages of my Beginner’s Guide to Code Breaking.

COME TO SEA

SEE?

NO. SEA.

IT’S DARK

SO?

HOW WILL I SEE?

SEA?

NO. SEE.

BRING. A. TORCH.

The fog inevitably closed in, forcing the ships back to shore, and the sharp silence of the lounge room with the TV flickering.

You were so thrilled about the new house, the boat, and the way we were going to live. A fresh start, you called it. A new beginning — away from the city and everything that came before. I knew what you meant; a severing of the story. A new setting and fresh plot. Only you can’t change the characters even when you try.

In the year before we bought the house, I watched you drifting out to sea. I flashed all kinds of things to bring you back – the warmth of the bedroom lamp, the flickering light in the beer fridge and my breasts, like little moons in the night. But you were dazzled by brighter things. The kind of lights that don’t complain when they’re left on for too long. New LEDs that just keep on glowing.

On the day I should have left, you came home smelling of cigarettes and told me in the kitchen against the table we made together how you’d gone off course. Like a boat loose from its mooring, pulled by invisible tides. Even when you tried to straighten out, you weren’t able. You used the word adrift and I felt it enter and rise, filling my chest.

On the day I left, you promised again that you’d take me to the lighthouse where we were married. You said it like you often do, between mouthfuls of toast with your eyes on your phone.

I waited until you were out at sea before I pulled the bag I’d already packed from beneath the bed.

On the bus, heading north, I could see the coast streaked in silver, and up ahead, the long yellow beams of the lighthouse, slowly turning.


Johanna Bell is an award-winning author, Churchill Fellow and the Director of a Darwin-based storytelling agency (www.storyprojects.com.au). Her short fiction explores how landscapes and desire shape people. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her out bush with a set of binoculars and a bird book.

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