photo of baby gerbils

The Bid by Judy Darley

She sits down opposite me, opens her purse, and carefully takes out a small wooden container, which she places on the table between us, slightly closer to her than to me.

It’s similar in shape to an acorn, but three or four times larger, gleaming in the overhead light of the diner as she sets it gently rocking with a nudge of one fingertip.

I glance at her, try not to stare at the crimson spot sitting just to the left of her mouth. She looks tired, but no more so than I’d expect of any new mom. She’d warned me on the phone that she might have to bring the child with her, and I’m relieved she seems to have come alone. Children scare me – I can’t understand their needs and wants. It all seems so relentless.

Perhaps the acorn holds her contact lenses, I think – do people really put those on in public? Some small inward part of me clenches with distaste at the idea, only relaxing when she turns her attention fully to me. “What do you have to show me?”

I take a deep breath and begin to lay out the proposal I’ve been working on. I know that mine is just one of four or five she’ll be sifting through, each one vying for the largest portion of the money she’s been awarded to revamp her company. I talk her through the multi-purpose centre I’ve decided the business will benefit from, and she smiles and nods in the right places.

The acorn suddenly emits a shrill mewing sound. I stare at it, and swallow a laugh. A fancy cell phone – so that’s what it is!

She looks at me sheepishly, yet seems oddly pleased. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” I assure her, my gaze carried to the pimple again. It has started oozing nastily, secreting some sticky substance. My innards clench once more.

She reaches out briskly and slides open the lid of the box, lifting out a tiny baby that curls like an apricot in her palm. Its stalk-like limbs curl and unfurl frantically as it yawls. She holds it to the nipple I’d mistaken for a spot and it latches on, its anxious flutters slowing as it sucks. “Carry on,” she urges me.

“Boy or girl?” I ask feebly, staring at the baby stuck to the side of her face.

“Girl.” She beams, the action dislodging the baby’s mouth so that it gapes in momentary panic before finding its way back to the nipple. “But they all look the same at this age, don’t they?”

I think of the gerbils we’d had at school that unexpectedly spawned, producing a mound of blind, hairless babies like something they’d thrown up.

I try to focus on the architectural plans I’m showing her: “So really, I think the only way forward is expansion. Bigger’s better, right?”

She blinks at me, and I belatedly hear what I’ve said.

“With a crèche, a little tiny crèche!” I add, then hurriedly amend: “A perfectly normal-sized, completely healthy crèche.”

I subside into silence. Our coffees arrive, large enough to drown any number of miniature babies. I watch the steam spiral towards the diner ceiling.

Judy Darley is a British fiction writer and journalist who has previously had short stories and flash fiction published by literary magazines and anthologies including  Litro Magazine, Fiction 365, Riptide Journal, and The View From Here. You can see more of her work at SkyLightRain.com. Judy’s debut short story collection, Remember Me To The Bees is due out in Fall 2013.

Lead image“Gerbil Pups” (via Flickr user Zac Bowling)