The smaller bedroom had a cream carpet and a pair of birds painted on the wall in gold, blue, and emerald green.
“Previous residents used this room as a nursery,” the lettings agent said, squinting at the artwork. “We’ll do it all out in magnolia before you move in.”
“No, please don’t,” she said, surprising herself. “I like the birds. Leave them.”
The duo resembled immense hummingbirds, each with a body that measured from her elbow to wrist. She pictured a baby in her arms staring up at them, the weight of an infant’s downy head warming her skin. Perhaps at night the room filled with the murmur of wings fluttering to lull the child into sweeter dreams.
She placed her new bed and old clothes in the bigger bedroom and left the smaller room empty, apart from her stripy dressing gown, which she hung on the back of the door. It had once belonged to her ex-husband, that toweling dressing gown; he’d relinquished it laughingly in the weeks following their honeymoon.
“You wear it more than me. It suits you.”
They’d had sex often with her wearing only the robe and him wearing nothing at all, not even protection.
It’d made no difference though. She was forty now, with nothing to show for their marriage but the faded dressing gown and its empty, sagging pockets.
She took to bringing men back from bars and gigs—men with thinning hair and loosening bellies, with wedding rings they didn’t try to hide.
When still nothing happened, she brought home men with firm, taut bodies, stardust in their smiles and a curiosity about what it would be like to be with an older woman.
She always led them into the smaller room, with its soft cream carpet and painted birds.
The old and young men produced condoms, which she agreed to use, removing each sheath carefully after ejaculation. Once they’d fallen into a postclimax slumber, with their faces relaxed into ageless anonymity, she pulled on her dressing gown and went to the bathroom to reinsert their sperm using a perfumery pipette.
She waited with feet pressed against the cold tiles above her head for the optimum amount of time and then returned to the bird room, woke that night’s guest, and sent him out into the night.
One was younger than the others; young enough, according to his driving license, to conceivably be her son. His eyes were kind in a way that reminded her of her ex-husband.
She padded into the bird room after inserting his sperm.
Rain rattled on the windows of the rented house. The boy whimpered in his sleep, hands tensing defensively into fists beneath his chin.
She curled up beside him on the thick carpet, draping the dressing gown over them both. Like an animal instinctively seeking comfort, he buried his face in her armpit and snuffled into sweeter dreams.
At last she drifted too, feeling her insides unclench in a way they hadn’t in months. The sound of the rain and wind outside became the wings of birds, flapping, fluttering.