‘You are like my cat.’
So I was told when eight-and-a-half months pregnant, just before going on maternity leave from the bookshop. I had hauled myself up from putting a book away on the bottom shelf — no mean feat when one is quite so heavily spherical — and this cat-loving young woman had caught me exhaling a little too vociferously. I certainly didn’t feel especially feline, but as it transpired her cat had just had kittens, and I looked just like the cat had looked before giving birth. The lady giggled.
Working in the bookshop while visibly pregnant has made me aware how touchingly awestruck we all still are by the miracle of childbirth. Once my belly had protruded past the awkward stage of being mistaken for too big a lunch, I found that conversations about having a baby rose to over ten a day. Of course, in a bookshop, one has conversations with customers all the time but I had assumed that most people, like me, are happiest chatting away with people about what they enjoy reading. Not so. It’s babies over books every time.
‘Do you know what you’re having?’, ‘Where are you having it?, ‘Is it your first?’ Then, towards the end, alarmed: ‘How long have you got left?’
Men were every bit as forthcoming. They gave me practical tips on the best buggies and the merits of hypnobirthing.
I’m sure that some of our customers, with whom I’ve built up a friendship and rapport over the years, were genuinely interested in my baby, but I’m not vain enough to believe for a second that it’s all about me. Many of these smiling, well-wishing customers have children who are no longer babies. Cappuccino-clutching parents wearily enter the bookshop as their scootering sprogs zoom past them and pull all the books off the shelves, demanding one thing and complaining about another. Or their children have become teenagers, young adults, they are going up to university, moving out of home, getting married. It must be easy to lose sight of the time when they were so helpless, all wrinkled and squashed, more frog than human. Seeing my bump gives them a chance to remember.
The bump lived up to its name as I repeatedly forgot my new dimensions and knocked piles of books off a table, or bashed people out of the way while attempting to squeeze past.
One dear elderly gentleman I knocked aside congratulated me rather shyly. He said how nice it was to see pregnant women around, as opposed to in his day when they would go into confinement.
Some people would occasionally deliver messages of doom: ‘Read now while you still can’ — but any hints of the horrors to come were always compensated for by excitement and goodwill. I’ve never seen so many happy customers, grinning as they left, wishing me good luck, all the best, asking to let them know how I get on. It made me wonder if a bookshop shouldn’t always have a pregnant lady stationed at the counter.