He thrums the bubble of his lip with a hammer-flattened thumb and suspends a soft uncertain sound. He squats to get a closer look.
“I dunno,” he says, “It’s not… bad…” The heel of his hand paws his wet nose and he looks up at her. “But will it do what I need?”
She stares at him through the ragged curtain of her fringe. Her voice is rough and dull. “I ate mushrooms. I ate burned cork,” and she coughs but does not mask her mouth.
His eyes take her in: black hair hanging in unbrushed streams, slickened with grease, they stick in coils to shoulders, cling like ivy down her back. A shapeless dress, once cream and covered in floral print, is dragged over her swollen torso, tight and tearing over hips, stretchmarks peeking through holes in cloth. It leaves her extremities exposed, she shows her swollen knees, more fluid than bone, and the pallid meat of her upper arms, both marbled white with seams of fat.
She wears no shoes; her toughened toes are somewhere between pink and blue. Her face is a square of uncooked meat, a butchered slab, features melted together in the centre.
She picks at her mouth. “It came out under heatlamps.”
He stands again, risks a glance down the length of the street. There are men there, lining the pavement both sides of the road, the same discrete distance between them. They watch the traffic and pretend they are not watching each other.
A procession of work clothes: butchers aprons, builders hard hats, mechanic’s overalls. It seems like every trade has sent someone out.
Turning back, he finds her eyes drilling into his, her teeth sliding over each other. His stare slips away to rest upon the offered thing. “Look,” he says, “I’m not sure. I mean, how big will it get? I need it to stay small…”
Her glower knocks the words from his mouth and with sweat nestling in the small of his back he tries again, “Will it be good in the dark? It’ll need to be down in the earth for days…”
He clears his throat.
“Drainage, you know. Pipes. New septic tanks. That sort of thing.”
“Of course,” she says, her words blunt, defensive. “I know my business. April is cork and mushrooms. I know what cork and mushrooms make.”
She pushes it towards him. “Do you want it?”
He looks down at the thing.
“I think… I think I’ll pass this time.”
Her teeth pass over each other and he can hear them—stone on stone.
“Thank you, though.” His smile is an uncertain slant, there and gone again.
She moves away in a chemical gust, pushing the pram before her and she glares at the thing that cork and mushrooms made. It returns her stare with bright little eyes, mouth open to show a curve of gum. It gurgles contented, playing with its stockinged feet
“There are others,” she mutters to herself and it, “More men. We’ll get a good price.”
A sock comes away in its grasping hand and it laughs, wiggling little blue toes. She looks and does not smile.
No bargain is made with the next man; he needs one that will work as told—there’s too much life in April’s child. There is no deal with the next man, nor the one after that.
They move on— eventually, a sale is made.
Homewards she wheels the empty pram.
Banknotes coil in a dirty fist.