You are just like my cat.
Thus spoke a young woman in the bookshop the other day. I had just heaved myself up from putting a book away on the bottom shelf – no mean feat when one is quite so heavily spherical – and she had caught me exhaling perhaps a little too vociferously. I certainly didn’t feel especially feline.
The lady’s cat, it transpired, had just been pregnant. She said that as she herself was only twenty-seven, she’d never given much thought to being pregnant or babies before, but watching her cat get more and more pregnant had made her really think about it all. And, she explained, it was very funny because I looked just like her cat when she’d been about to give birth. She giggled slightly madly, and I could only feel grateful that she didn’t have a pet elephant instead.
It was one of the stranger exchanges to have taken place in the bookshop over the past few weeks. Saturday was my last day: now – with under two weeks till due date – the blissfully wide open space of maternity leave spreads out ahead of me.
A friend dropped into the bookshop on Saturday afternoon, and stayed for a little while, chatting to me in any brief gaps in what turned out to be a particularly busy day. This must be the nicest place to work ever, said my friend, who had been quietly and smilingly observing the various comings and goings over the past half-hour.
I could only agree.
And, though certainly tiring, it has been a particularly special place to work when so obviously pregnant.
The thing is, my enormously protruding bump has turned out to be an amazing signal of common ground, an open invitation for conversation. I imagine it’s not dissimilar to going for a walk with a very sweet pet dog. Everyone wants to come up and say hello, stroke or pat it, ask some questions, and tell you about their own. Of course, in a bookshop, one has conversations with customers all the time. These are, however, always about books, and while I am at my happiest chatting away with people about what they enjoy reading, it transpires that most people are keener to talk about babies.
In the bookshop over the past months, I’ve had at least ten conversations a day about having a baby. They don’t usually begin with someone telling me I’m just like their cat. A more standard opener is: ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ or, ‘Where are you having it?, ‘Is it your first?’, and – especially over the past few days, accompanied by looks of faint alarm – ‘How long have you got left?’
There have been other comments, which are rather funnier: ‘You are getting nice and fat.’ Or from one rather awkward gentleman, ‘I had no idea you were so, so … well …’ Um, pregnant? I eventually had to offer.
These are just opening gambits and before long the customer has launched into smiling reminiscences of their own pregnancy, or offered advice on babies and children. Over the end of the very hot summer I was given a great deal of sympathy while I was so visibly melting. Someone offered to buy me an ice cream and one lady advised me to time it better with the next one – she said that she’d had all her babies in the early spring so she hadn’t needed to turn the heating on all winter. I’ve been given all sorts of advice: from what sort of sling to get, to the pros and cons of routines, and, my favourite: ‘If anyone offers you any help, take it … always take it. If you say no to help with the first one, no one will offer you any help at all when it comes to the second.’
Sometimes there’d be a note of cynicism along the lines of ‘read/sleep/have fun/go to the cinema now while you still can…’ but any vague hints of the horrors to come have always been compensated for by a very tangible excitement and feeling of goodwill. The customers were always smiling as they left, wishing me good luck, all the best, asking to let them know how I get on.
I’m sure that some of them, with whom I’ve built up a bit of a friendship and rapport over the years are genuinely interested in my baby, but for many I think this strange happiness that comes with seeing the bump and talking about babies is more of a reminder of something universal and miraculous.
People have babies all the time. It is, of course, how we all came into the world. There shouldn’t really be anything so special about it … and yet it is – evidently –undeniably, unavoidably exciting and mindblowingly amazing. A whole new person is about to arrive in the world! A whole new life!
For many of these customers, their children are no longer babies. Parents come in and are usually rather fraught, with their scootering sprogs knocking all the books off the shelves, making a racket, demanding the sixty-seventh Beast Quest book. Or their children are teenagers, or going off to university – all so grown up. It must be easy to lose sight of the quiet miracle of the start, when they are so tiny and helpless, all wrinkled and squashed, more like a frog than a human. Perhaps seeing the bump inspires a chance to remember this special time of newness, firsts, and beginnings.
The bump is such an obvious visible cue that it is impossible to ignore it, it is impossible not to think of a baby being just in there, so close to coming into the world. Perhaps seeing me heave my roundness around the bookshop is not so unlike the lady watching her cat fill up with kittens.
To return to this particular exchange … After a long account of the ins and outs of her cat’s birth, the lady said that I so reminded her of her cat that she’d like to give me one of her kittens. Somewhat bewildered, though touched, I politely declined. I explained that I already had a pet tortoise, who might well find it hard to adjust to life with a baby around, and the addition of a kitten as well would be a recipe for disaster. I could just see the kitten playfully pouncing on a terrorised Daphne, whose curious head would never emerge from her shell again. The lady seemed a little disappointed, but I think she understood.
As I left the shop at six o’clock on Saturday, looking especially spherical after having scoffed a great deal of cake – thank you dear bookshop colleague – and bearing flowers, cards, and a stack of books, just in case I find I am able to read while breastfeeding in spite of what the cynics warn, accompanied by the husband carrying a load of boxes for when we eventually manage to move house (let’s hope), I felt excited about this next chapter, and also very aware that I’d just experienced a strangely wonderful few months.
I would never have imagined that having a bump would prompt so many people to be so chatty, friendly and open, so full of stories and advice and excitement. Working in the bookshop has been exhausting, for sure, but as people keep telling me in an attempt to reassure me about the sleepless nights to come: you don’t really mind feeling so tired when something amazing is happening.
So bye bye for now bookshop … see you on the other side.