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.