Erica stared at the distressed wooden table top, wishing one of the iced cupcakes would do something. Anything to detract from the awkwardness and forced sentimentality of Phoebe’s baby shower. She pictured them sprouting little legs and scuttling sideways off the table like crabs, the other guests flinging their chairs backwards in a bid to escape. Or else rising into the air and exploding in a shower of crumbs and buttercream. That would put an end to the incessant baby stories. Tales of pregnancy and childbirth and postnatal incontinence. It wasn’t that Erica didn’t like hearing other women’s stories. On the contrary, she found them fascinating. But after two hours of constant baby talk, she was beginning to feel rather left out.
Of the six women at her table, she was the only one who had never been pregnant. This was entirely deliberate on Erica’s part and not, as some of the others seemed to think, the result of some grave misfortune. Naturally, they noticed she wasn’t joining in with their conversation, merely watching it, back and forth like a tennis match, and that’s when the questions began.
‘How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘Oh, you’ve still got time then.’
Plenty of time, assuming everything was in working order, and there was nothing to suggest it wasn’t. Still, you never really know until you try, and Erica wasn’t ready to try yet. That didn’t stop her being envious of those who were, however. It was a strange, primal sort of envy. One that was hard to explain. It wasn’t that she wanted to be pregnant herself. She didn’t, not right now. It was the feelings they must be experiencing that she was jealous of. The awe, the wonder, the sense of anticipation and excitement. She once explained this to one of her male housemates back when she was still training. His response was surprisingly reassuring.
‘I think that’s something very instinctively female, and I don’t think you can help it.’
Erica wondered if it was also instinctively female to regale complete strangers with your childbirth stories. She didn’t even know the name of the woman to her left, but she did know how quickly her second child had taken to make her journey along the birth canal. She knew that her daughter was delivered on the bathroom floor while she herself was wearing nothing but socks, and that afterwards her husband had equated the damage to her vagina with his “favourite pub burning down.”
Perhaps I’m just too introverted for events like this, Erica thought. She was no prude, as any of her friends would attest. She had been an Ann Summers rep not so long ago, happily hawking vibrators and lingerie to rooms full of strangers. So what was it about baby showers that bothered her so much?
The answer soon presented itself when a quiz sheet was plonked on the table in front of her. Printed across the top in a cutesy swirling font was the question, “Who knows Mommy best?” Underneath was a list of fifteen questions, starting with, “When is her due date?” all the way down to, “What’s mommy’s favourite dessert?” How the fuck should I know, Erica thought, scanning the questions and hoping to God she wouldn’t have to read out her answers. She saw Phoebe twice a year, if that. Yes, they were cousins and took an interest in each other’s lives, but to say they were close would be an over-statement. She was here because she’d been invited, and because she assumed it would be a pleasant, heart-warming experience. Already she was regretting it.
The others were now busy scribbling down answers to the questions. There was also a predictions sheet which required guests to guess the baby’s sex, weight and arrival date, as well as suggesting names and offering advice. Erica didn’t know what advice she could possibly give someone who already had a child and was, by all accounts, doing a brilliant job. In the end she settled for something generic along the lines of, ‘Remember to make time for you.’ It was lame, but it was all she had. Some people could come up with witty answers at the drop of a hat. Alas, Erica was not one of them.
It was soon time for Phoebe to read out the correct answers to the questions, and as always with such quizzes, it turned out that no one knew anything. Even Auntie Claire, Phoebe’s mother, only got half of them right. Erica knew it was meant to be just a bit of light-hearted fun, but there was something about being put on the spot and made to write overly sentimental twaddle that she found deeply uncomfortable. It was all so contrived. The cupcakes, the bunting, the cutesy rose-patterned tablecloths. ‘Enforced present buying,’ that’s what her Dad had called it when she explained the concept to him. ‘It’s just an excuse for people to buy you stuff,’ he said, and he was not wrong.
After the quizzes, Phoebe herself came shuffling over to their table and lowered herself awkwardly onto one of the empty chairs. The older women immediately began clucking over her bump, comparing it to the ones they themselves had had decades ago.
‘I reckon that’s another girl,’ Auntie Claire said, pointing at Phoebe’s stomach. ‘You’re carrying exactly the same way I did when I was having you.’
‘See, I initially said girl but now I see you I’m thinking it might be a boy.’
‘Have you got any names in mind?’
‘Not if it’s a boy,’ Phoebe said, cradling the taut mound of her stomach in both hands. ‘If it’s a girl, Audrey.’
‘Oh, that’s lovely,’ they all cooed in unison.
‘Like Audrey Hepburn.’
It’s vile, thought Erica, hoping her expression didn’t betray her true opinion. Already she had pulled a face when one of Phoebe’s friends revealed that her son was born with hairy shoulder blades. She hadn’t meant to, but her revulsion must have shown, for the friend in question had gone on to say, ‘I know it sounds horrible, but when they’re your own you really don’t care about things like that.’
Erica, unconvinced by the assertion that a hairy baby wouldn’t bother her, smiled in what she hoped was a sincere manner.
Eventually, after three of the longest hours of Erica’s adult life, it was time to depart.
‘Well, that was…’
‘Weird and uncomfortable,’ Erica said, completing her mother’s sentence for her once they were safe inside the car.
‘Yep. I’m glad it wasn’t just me.’
As the car pulled away, Erica made a mental note never to hold her own baby shower. The idea of subjecting her own friends and family to an afternoon of forced jollity and baby talk was not something that appealed to her in the slightest. If they wanted to buy presents for future babies they were very welcome, but they certainly would not be obliged to do so.
‘You didn’t join in very much,’ Helen remarked once they were back on the main road.
‘I can’t contribute to conversations about pregnancy and babies and childbirth. Now if we’d been discussing contraception, that’s a different matter. I could talk about that for days.’
‘Think of all the hairy babies you could have had by now.’
Helen snorted with laughter at the look on Erica’s face.
‘They better not be bloody hairy,’ Erica retorted. She could feel herself uncoiling now that she was no longer surrounded by strangers. Looking out of the window, she watched the bare fields roll by beneath a grey November sky.
‘There is never a right time.’
That was what Phoebe’s friends had told her repeatedly that afternoon. Maybe not, but there were definitely wrong times, and for Erica, right now was the wrong time. Financially and emotionally she could have supported a baby tomorrow, but logistically, they just did not have the room. Not in the flat, with its one bedroom and thin walls. It wouldn’t be practical. Besides, Erica was a hopeless romantic at heart and always had been. She knew she wanted to wait until she and Scott were married before trying for a baby. Socially, she knew it didn’t matter anymore, but to her personally it did. She could have explained all of this to Phoebe’s friends back there, but she didn’t see why she should. They had made their decisions, and she was making hers. There would be a right time for her-she was sure of it. But that time was not now, and she was fine with that.