Leah tipped boiling water into the thin china cup, swilled it round with an uncertain hand and flushed it into the stainless steel mouth of the sink. She proceeded to make a cup of tea mechanically, as if almost unconscious - her pale hands moving listlessly, hardly permeating the silence to which she had grown accustomed, as if in respect to an almost physical presence.
Even when she turned on the television, she kept the volume low, almost muffled – as if anxious of disturbing some paper-fine equilibrium. She stood observing the flickering picture, feeling the cup burn into her skin with its crass lips. On the screen, the plastic lacquered mouth of the News-presenter trilled over the state of the ‘pandemic’, lists of figures, the arterial ends of typed accounts from desperate eyewitnesses crippled in some country or another.
Leah struggled to push the tea to the back of her throat, feeling the indelicate sweetness of the cardboard-boxed milk stick to her tongue, mocking her like a sacrament. Perhaps there was something holy in being alive, she sometimes thought. She attempted to pride herself in that she had kept eating, kept drinking – the news said it was apparently important to maintain ones immune system as well. She had meticulously researched the nature of the pandemic on the computer – albeit frantically - her hands often greasy and senseless over the bulbous back of the mouse. It was a necessity, she told herself, to be prepared.
It was the same message relayed to everyone.
However, this did not stop the university lectures from continuing, did not stop the Dean making this familial tracks down the cobbled roads to the chapel – where the stained glass glistened a dewy green with a kind of mocking resilience. Or so people told Leah. She communicated largely by telephone, for she hardly saw anyone these days and could not bear the greasy seals and spattered lines of handwritten letters sent by some relative or another. She burned them as they fell in the porch, dropped dead in their elusive metaphor.
She told herself she felt no guilt, she told Edward this too – Edward who as her roommate remained curiously passive and allowed her strange qualms to accumulate. Sometimes he would begin to reprimand her, although the intensity of her gaze told him that such was futile and he would soon stop. For the hours she would sit open-mouthed at various electronic sources of information, he would bring her tea she would not drink, her lips only tumbling open to tell him more about this ‘plague’, how she had personified it.
He could smell her fear and it incensed him.
Yet Leah told herself only the opposite, whistled to herself shrilly as if to block any other thought as she let the contents of the kettle gutter out into a basin of her worn-once clothes, reflecting the raw red of a dress. She convinced herself that she felt vaguely relaxed, watching the scrubbed-pink of her hands dart about their menial tasks almost automatically, watching the clothes clot like organs – an awful externalisation of her feeling body. In the background noises of the television mixed with the morning congregation of birdlife upon the cliffs, she half heartedly listened to a debate about oil prices and wondered why it mattered.
Edward smoked a cigarette as he strolled up behind her, letting the ash scatter, almost with the weight of raindrops, against the floor.
“Stop it!” She hissed instinctively, turning around to the guilty upturn of his mouth, her hands dripping with the sheen of soap which coloured the skin beneath “You know what the news says about ash – clean it up, clean it up!”
He hated how she spoke about the televised news as some kind of divine authority – it seemed to infiltrate her life – even as he pressed his head to the pillow in the opposite room at night, he could still hear the monotonous mumble of some newsreader of another shaping their mouth to a politically correct and personality-drained cue. Her mouth pressed itself into the whole of a shapeless scowl as he stood there languorously, blocking her path to the television, nursing the cigarette between a gentle pressure of his teeth.
He knew what would happen, he had seen it so many times before – her eyes would flicker and colour as if refracting the intensity of all those charts, those graphs, statistics and numbers she so often surveyed – he could see it now as he looked emptily upon the scraped-clean crockery of a frugal and overly cautious meal.
Her tone changed and she gazed at herself before facing him imploringly.
“My hands look greasy,” There was an emphasis of the imperative to her tone which seemed designed to make him reply in the affirmative “They do look greasy. That’s the first stage you know, the news says, overly-great skin is – “
Her painted red lips looked like a widening incision in her pale, pale face.
She mumbled disconsolately as she had so many times before, attempting to scrub away the imagined residue into the sink. Oh, he had seen her many times declaring that she was infected, rocking back and forth on her haunches with a rhythm she had convinced herself was a declaration of sickness, she screamed out her knowledge of its incubation period to him, how her hands would be next to inflame. She knew everything.
Perhaps it came as a hot quick comfort to her, suddenly, surely, as she fell against the sink and felt the pressure against her chest, the darkness she envisaged, perhaps she felt correct in something for once in her life – even though Edward’s eyes stared back at her as she laughed and shrieked and giggled until her head was stilled upon the cold tiles.
The knife of a diseased humanity was finally pulled from her side. Edward left a note next to her stating that she had suffered so much more when she was living.
Even the police struggled to know the truth of the matter when they arrived some days later. An ex-corporal with uneasy foot put a cautionary bullet straight through the television believing it to be the noise of suspicious breathing, and even the visiting doctor felt almost chilled to watch how the little glass shards still reflected the precision of the dead girls face as she lay some metres away.
“That’s the horrible thing about technology,” the doctor whispered “You almost have a relationship with before it kills you, one way or another.”
History had been written, thick and horrible, in her bloodstream.
It had been a very intimate death.