Babies – the right sort, of course – are commodities. Demand was high but so was the spec: customers of Elite Adoption Agency were used to getting what they wanted. This did not include gaunt babies in opiate withdrawal or five year olds who already knew that all adults were dangerous. Potential parents wanted to swipe through pictures, click on the desired product, get it delivered.
Georgie focused on her blank laptop screen. Sometimes it was easiest to just pick a letter and go from there. Today felt like an ‘E’ day – so maybe Evan? Too low brow. Edward? That was a contender. A wild part of her considered Erik and a story that involved Viking heritage, but that wouldn’t get past the editor. She typed a header in bold “Edward (Teddy): 2 months”. The screaming coming from down the corridor barely registered; she was long past trying to work out whether it was infant or adult.
It was all about the backstory. Georgie’s skill lay in understanding her audience. Typically, an uncomplicated tragedy that smacked of good genes went down a treat with a 40-something accounts manager who had never met the right man. But a happy-clappy couple adopting for Jesus rather than dried up tubes needed a good dose of drama.
Admin Tim – all acne and elbows - laid some papers on the edge of Georgie’s desk. He hovered just in her eye-line with two bony fingers drumming the photocopier. “Loved your latest, Georgina, little Ella rescued from that yachting accident. So sad.”
Tim loved Strictly Come Dancing and thought velvet trousers were acceptable as menswear.
“You do realise that there was no actual yacht?” Georgie turned full force to face him. “That baby was Fat Christie’s and to be frank was bordering on unadoptably ginger. Good job it wasn’t a boy.”
“Yeah, true. Well I better get on.” Tripping over his oversized feet, Tim left her to scowl.
Working for the agency had been exciting to start with. It was a bonus to keep her clothes on. Editor Hans had been part-owner of the club she worked at back then. He was the first to bring in low-tech hologram dancers - some virtual form of Georgie still sashayed away for nothing. This left the real girls free for specialist dances in small airless rooms. Once the other clubs followed and the novelty had worn off, Hans wanted to move on. Several of the girls had got knocked up; either they or their bump disappeared. His idea for a win-win opportunity had been born. With good connections and his dead mother’s sprawling bungalow to hand, Hans set up the agency with his own girls’ products. Georgie had donned some trousers and offered her skills to grow the business - a community service in a way.
Demand was never an issue. Supply soon was. There just weren’t enough pregnant strippers and schoolgirls to keep up. Doubling their prices made no difference at all, so they tripled them. The bungalow was extended to provide birthing suites so that medical staff could not ask awkward questions. Some of the girls came only half way through their pregnancy, glad to be out of the residential unit or firing line. Georgie earned enough to rent a small place that didn’t require Irish dancing to exit the front door without stepping on a syringe.
Although the agency was not too fussy about who they dealt with other than their financial means, it was important to give an air of screening. Over time she increased the number of standard questions that were asked of customers. A hip flask of gin helped disconnect her fingers from her awareness. The cooling-off period was over and her blood-alcohol level now legal. Georgie read through some questions from the hazy day before.
What are your major personality faults and how will you protect your child from these ruining his / her life?
The cursor flashed five times at the end of the sentence. Georgie swigged her diet coke and pressed copy, pasting the question into the next batch of paperwork to be emailed out.
If your child is nothing but a disappointment to you no matter what she achieves, will you at least let her off the hook and not expect weekly updates on her humiliating lack of success in life?
Lips twisted to the left, Georgie clicked the corner of the document shut and selected ‘send to recycling bin’.
Once she had a pen portrait of her desperate mothers-in-waiting, Georgie started to draft letters from overwrought thankful birth mothers. These tended to be impressively poetic for someone dying of a rare form of cancer or caught beneath the metal framework of a vehicle five minutes before it exploded. Lucky that paramedic scribbled it all down. Maybe it was better to have a sloppy letter from a never-known mother than the heavy sighs of an ever-present one who hadn’t taken the chance to walk away?
Despite the increased turnover and wages, Georgie missed the early days of actually meeting the pregnant girls. They seemed to happily talk at her with no expectations on her to say the right thing. Talking didn’t come naturally to her, but she could get by with nods and shared packets of jelly-babies. She had used details of their faces and lives to form the basis of her tall tales. Then new doors had been inserted at the rear of the growing property and there seemed to be less coming and going of staff and wombs.
A cold Friday, half past four and all the staff sharing the front offices had buggered off early. Georgie’s colleagues had long learnt not to ask if she had any plans for the weekend. As the cheap clock hit six, she rose up out of her chair a little taller than her usual five foot four. It was about time she knew what the hell happened in the rest of this place. She was a founding mother after all.
Georgie exited her grey-painted office, heading left away from the front door towards the new annexe. She faced an unexpected security door. Knowing Hans was fairly lax with these things she tried entering ‘password’ into the keypad. Ping, she was in.
Some sounds of movement, a muffled voice or two. Edging her way down the corridor she hoped to see a familiar face – maybe Brandi who delivered a tiny girl a while back (‘Darcy, six weeks: brave mother tragically lost her battle with cancer after refusing treatment for the good of her child, devastated devoted husband could not face the angelic-faced reminder of his deceased wife’). The first door on the left had a glass window to peek through. Georgie stilled: this room also had a pass-protected lock on, and inside looked like the bleakest student digs she could imagine. She would not let a different description enter her awareness. Not a word that involved locks, and stripped down rooms with people who did not choose to be there.
“Ahh, Georgie, nothing better to do on a Friday night then?”
Annoyed at herself for jumping at his intrusion, Georgie quickly straightened her face. “What the hell, Hans. Are you locking these women in?”
“Just a temporary measure. Some Poles have been helping us out a bit, keeping the numbers up.”
Georgie’s lunch danced about under her ribs.Hans grabbed her arm, maintaining eye contact and the smile of a showroom salesman.
“Georgie, this is temporary; I got bigger and better things coming up. I’ve been meaning to speak to you.”
“You lying arse. Let me past.”
She couldn’t move. Turning her back to the wall, Georgie’s legs loosened and she lowered to her haunches, breathing as fast and desperate as her spaniel. Her eyes flickered towards the kind of room she didn’t want to end up in.
“You know the score - it’s business. Then they are out of trouble and our way.” He stepped back, leaning on the wall opposite her. “In the meantime, I got an Audi and pay rise with your name on it.”
“God Hans, we could get in deep shit for this.” Georgie pushed herself back up to standing, snatching a glance down at her supermarket-bought shoes.
“Knew I could rely on you and that brain of yours. Now get yourself home, do the crossword or whatever it is you do for fun. I’ll have something sorted in the car park for you next week.”
Swallowing bitter spit and excitement, Georgie managed a shallow nod before retracing her steps and heading out of the front door. Cocooned in her car, she lit up a cigarette. Through the rear view mirror, she glanced at the chaos of bottles, cardigans and crisp packets across the back seat. Georgie switched the radio on and turned the volume to maximum.
Winter came and went no differently from the previous two. Georgie had survived the Christmas party. Admin Tim no longer lingered at her desk since she had vomited in his bed. She stood smoking a breakfast cigarette and watched her silver Audi park itself before heading into the office. Georgie fiddled with her leggings, stretching them out with her thumb. “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” she sang to the stubborn bump. She didn’t have much longer left to choose her future.
The post-it note on her desk was folded upwards to hide its content. Breath held, Georgie pulled down the corner.
Lot 22, Calmont Estate, keycode 1999, 7am tomorrow.
The business had expanded to an out-of-town site that no-one from the office had been to. Hans had hardly been around as he attended meetings that were not detailed in his diary. “Hope it’s not hologram bloody babies,” she said to no-one in particular as she typed the details into her phone.
Tucked around the corner of an industrial estate, Lot 22 was next door to a timber merchant. Huge metal gates were pulled down on each lot in the unnatural quiet of the morning. Georgie stomped to the side door, reading the keycode off her phone as if it hadn’t been lodged in her mind for the last twenty hours. The door beeped and she pushed her way inside. Lights switched on automatically to reveal a large tiled entrance. Clinically clean and devoid of humans, there were no waiting room chairs. Georgie marched past the front desk towards a large secured door. She pressed in the keycode and watched the light above the door turned from red to green. Inside the room, low-level lighting was already switched on. A soft low sound escaped her.
The room had the look and smell of her sixth-form science labs. Three pristine white benches to her left were each filled with at least eight beeping machines hooked up to large Perspex jars.
Or should that be foetuses?
Reaching her arm out for the solidity of the wall, Georgie looked across from one jar to another. Curled inhabitants floated in some kind of thick almost see-through soup. A sudden limb movement came from Jar Number Two – Georgie dropped her handbag, its contents rattling across the tiles. A couple more jolted at the sound. Georgie took off her cardigan and walked towards the jar. On the bench was a computer screen that seemed to be streaming medical data. This baby was about the size of a Chihuahua, arms folded up over its head. Gently pressing her hand against the warm jar, Georgie swallowed at a lump in her throat that wouldn’t go away.
She had walked out of class only once. Her nun-fuelled school had grouped all the girls together in a sweaty classroom one summer to show them a video about abortion. With prior warning from the sixth-formers, Georgie knew what was coming – invented images of hoovered-up foetuses making Mother Mary weep. She had argued with head-girl-in-waiting Angie that at the early stages of development there would be no pain or distress. Rumours flooded the school of her refusing to watch the video as she had got knocked up at fourteen. Truth was she couldn’t bear the touch of another person at that point, not having had much practice as a child. It wasn’t much easier now. Not without gin.
Peering into the nearest three jars, Georgie could see how different each baby was. One calm and hairless, another jittery with a back like a werewolf, the last making smooth movements while sucking its fingers. Turning away from the jars, she leant her back against the cool white bench. So many possibilities. These parentless babies - all waiting for a story.
Hans crashed into the room late as usual at half past seven with a bottle of supermarket cava and two cups.
“So, what do you reckon? Got the best minds in with us on this Georgie.”
“I’ve no idea how you’ve pulled this off. But yes it’s pretty amazing. When will they be ready for adoption?” She could go from A to Z with names and tick off half the waiting list in one go. She glanced around the side of the bench at Adam, Beatrice and Charlie in the first row.
“Well, we are hopeful by next year, then we can crank up the international market.”
Her fingers tapped the side of her handbag.
“Hans, they’re in their last trimester, won’t they just keep growing?”
“Georgie, always so impatient. These are our testers. Test-tube babies, ha!”
Hans spoke fast, his fingers punctuating each word as his eyes looked anywhere except at Georgie.
“It’s taken ages to get this far down the line. We’re getting closer, but we haven’t quite got to ones that can make the change from jar to not jar.”
Georgie’s hand dipped into her bag, searching for a cigarette packet that was not there. She found a mint instead. Without looking down, she slipped it into her mouth, chewing hard and fast.
“When this works - which it will - we are going to be world leaders in the market Georgie. We’re going to be rich.”
Mint gone, Georgie’s jaw continued chomping. Clinking the glasses and bottle onto the nearest bench, Hans pulled out a bottle opener in the shape of a mermaid.
“I know it’s early Georgie, but what the hell. Are you in or are you out?”
Georgie stared at the shiny floor and let her hand drop away from her stomach. She reached out to a cold empty glass.
“It’s only early, yes. Make mine a large.”
Stephanie Hutton is a writer and Clinical Psychologist in Staffordshire, UK. She believes in the therapeutic value of short fiction.
http://stephaniehutton.com for news / links to work
www.thewritingkiln.com for her community writing project
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