Genre: Science Fiction
Short Story Type: Short Story
Summary: Unwed motherhood in Victorian England spells the end--your chances of marrying, chances even of working, disappear. Unless you can somehow "disappear" the evidence...
That's where "baby farmers" Amelia and Margaret come in. They'll care for your unwanted infant--for a fee.
But what are they really doing with the babies? When the police find dozens of tickets for pawned baby clothes and no evidence of the babies themselves, Amelia and Margaret become wanted women, and the life of a newborn hangs in the balance.
Excerpt:Hackney Central, London, 1898
"Another answer to our advertisement," said Amelia. The sound of Margaret pouring boiling water into the teapot distracted her; she returned to the page in her hand. The handwriting jumped in its lines, as if the writer had trouble controlling the pen, and ink blots spattered the page.
"How many this week?" said Margaret.
"Three, with this one. No lack of sad cases."
"So much the better for us. Give." Amelia handed over the paper. "Boy," said Margaret. "Three weeks old. 'Discretion called for.' There will be no further enquiries, then. Perfect." Margaret stretched her tall, solid body until her puffy sleevecaps touched her ears. "I mean to loosen these stays. They're far too tight, damnable things, I'll never get used to them. Have you taken the last one's clothes to the pawn shop yet?"
"No," sighed Amelia. "They're still in their parcel. I'll sort them, shall I." A drooping, brown paper bundle tied with limp string stood on the trestle table. Margaret took up the tray sitting next to it, laden with cakes, cream, sugar lumps and the teapot, and strode through the kitchen door.
Amelia tucked the sad package and the end of her enormous pink challis shawl under her arm, and trailed after. "I do hate this part of it." She opened the package once they sat before the grate in the comfortable sitting room. Her thin hands moved among the tiny garments: two dresses; several flannel waists cleverly made to grow with the baby; two caps knitted in fine wool; miniscule shoes that shook in her trembling palm. "Shouldn't we ought to burn these instead of pawning them?" Amelia whispered. "The pawn shop's bound to get suspicious at some point."
"Then use another one. There are only several dozen in London," said Margaret. The dull gold signet ring on her right middle finger clinked among the tea things as she poured. "We need the money for housekeeping. And there's no baby to wear them here."
Amelia examined the fine seams of one of the little dresses, made in pale blue fine wool. Expensive fabric for a baby dress, and such care taken; Amelia winced. She wondered about the mother. She'd only seen her for a few minutes, but fingering the dress brought a closeness she shouldn't allow herself. "She must have made these. Pity the wee one won't ever wear them."
"Somebody's 'wee one' will." Margaret fixed her companion with a pinched eye. "I often wonder why you're here, Amelia. You're far too soft-hearted."
"I don't know myself, I suppose. Someone has to care for the babies the short time they're here."
"I don't see how it matters," snorted Margaret between bites of cake.
"No," murmured Amelia, "I don't suppose it does." She folded the tiny clothes into a neat pile, set the tiny shoes atop them, and poured herself a cup of tea.
Later, she would obediently re-wrap the bundle in different paper and trot down the street. She would wish for the great pink shawl around her meager, gray-wool-clad shoulders; she was always cold here despite the unfamiliar layers of clothing. She would pawn the little bundle and bring the money back to Margaret for housekeeping. Margaret would put the ticket in her little basket full of pawn tickets.
But now, Amelia threw the brown paper wrapper, the one with the baby's name on it, into the fire. It flared, then flew into ash.