Jay Merill ~ A Cousin from Leicester

Late but not quite mid­night. Marina Melba stands on the com­mu­nal bal­cony of the flats. She pulls a cig­a­rette with ele­gance from a pack­et. Lights it with­out look­ing, eyes fixed on the balustrade and fog­gy sky. 31st December is the date.

            Tess on her way to meet friends stops by the ele­va­tor. Pops out to the bal­cony for a sec­ond, on a sud­den whim. She’s sur­prised at find­ing someone’s there. It’s so cold and dark. She sees it’s the lady from the first floor who does­n’t want to form attach­ments, the oth­er ten­ants say. Marina Melba, slen­der, styl­ish, six­ty. In PR; takes clients to the Ritz at lunchtime. Or so it’s claimed. She holds her cig­a­rette suave­ly between thumb and fore­fin­ger, her hand curved side­ways to stave off gust­ing wind. 

            The two nod with­out involve­ment. As usu­al, noth­ing’s said. Marina Melba keeps a low­ered straight­ened arm. Pins this arm at the indent with two fin­gers from her oth­er hand. Then she speaks unex­pect­ed­ly. Which makes Tess jit­tery. She can’t remem­ber hav­ing ever heard Marina Melba’s voice before. Despite liv­ing in the same apart­ment block for a cou­ple of years and occa­sion­al­ly pass­ing one anoth­er in the entrance hall. The voice is cool, crisp; not unpleas­ant. Though there’s a sharp­ness, a def­i­nite crit­i­cal edge.

            “We won’t be able to see the fire­works. Won’t be able to see the New Year in.”

             Tess can’t detect dis­ap­point­ment in the words. The deliv­ery is strict­ly monot­o­ne. After speak­ing Marina Melba brings the cig­a­rette up towards her lips, draw­ing in deeply as though she needs to recov­er from the effort of com­mu­ni­cat­ing. She breathes the smoke out fast at last. A chic jerk­ing motion of her head accom­pa­nies this. And she repeats the actions over and over like a set rou­tine. One foot is point­ing out­wards like some­one about to dance.

            Tess strug­gles to find the right response. There’s some­thing about Marina Melba which makes it hard to chat.

            “It is fog­gy,” she says after a pause, becom­ing even more awk­ward halfway through the sen­tence in case the woman thinks she’s com­plain­ing about the smoke from her cig­a­rette. 

            After a few more shared min­utes on the bal­cony, all unspo­ken, they say good­night. Tess turns to leave then swings back to face her neigh­bour.

             “Happy New Year,” she says, in attempt­ed friend­li­ness. But Marina Melba is star­ing out at the sky again. She makes no reply. Then Tess walks back to the lift. Goes out to meet her friends.

            On January the 2nd the police are in the build­ing. Marina Melba had drowned in her bath the night before, they inform the oth­er ten­ants. Her body was dis­cov­ered by the porter who was alert­ed by the gush of water pour­ing through his ceil­ing. Did any­one know any­thing? No one did.

            She was there silent­ly and then just as silent­ly she wasn’t any more. A cousin from Leicester col­lect­ed her things and drove away.

~

Jay Merill lives in London and is Writer-in-Residence at Women-in-Publishing. She is run­ner up in the 2018 International Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize and the win­ner of the Salt Short Story Prize. She is the author of two short sto­ry col­lec­tions: God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies (both pub­lished by Salt), and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a third col­lec­tion of sto­ries.