Having a baby is like having a dog. People stop and talk to you. You’re part of a club. You share a lexicon. Exchange stories. Instead of a bout of bum sniffing between your little creatures and a natter about breeds, you chat about weight, gender, age, birth order, sleeping patterns, eye colour, hair colour, names… Even people who don’t have babies in tow lean over, exchange a few words or just smile. We might not rush up and kiss other people’s babies like the Italians, we are English after all, but metaphorical kissing is allowed: a gaze across the room, a tickle under the chin, a cocked head, wide eyes, pursed lips, coos.
I recommend that every writer acquire a baby. Either have one naturally, or for a less painful, time-consuming option, kidnap one from a friend – they’ll be grateful for the break. Once the babe has been acquired, head out into a public place (sit in the middle of a cafe, stand in the busiest bit of a shop or join the longest queue at the supermarket) and let the magic begin.
Instead of being the weirdo in the corner, eavesdropping and scribbling in a notebook, people will come to you and divulge all kinds of interesting morsels for your storehouse of stories. I loathe the phrase, ‘everyone’s got a book in them’ (it’s like saying that everyone’s got a concert pianist or an astro-physicist or a world class cricketer in them – writing’s a skill, a craft, a talent and just because you can spell and write a sentence, doesn’t mean you can write a novel…), but everyone does have a story in them – usually several. And as you bounce your (or your kindnapped) baby on your knee, all you need to do is to offer a few prompts and those strangers who are gazing adoringly at your gurgling bundle will open up in a way they never would to the lone writer.
In the last week I’ve met an elderly couple called Martin and Sandy who go to the same coffee shop at the same time every morning, read the paper and exchange ideas. We’ve run out of things to talk to each other about so the paper helps, Sandy told me, we read an article and debate it. Their conversation, before they noticed Tennessee, was about the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once Tennessee was spotted, Sandy told me about her two sons and six granddaughters. Isn’t that an intriguing configuration – to have raised only boys and, late in life, to be surrounded by little girls?
Next to me now sits a lovely grandma, all plaid skirts and steel hair-clips, celebrating her birthday with her three daughters and six grandchildren. She’s nodding and smiling as the children give her anecdotes from their lives – she’s nodding and smiling but her eyes are far away: their world is as foreign to her as another planet.
Yesterday, a woman told me about her seven grandchildren – number eight on the way. When is the eighth one due? I asked. In a firm, level voice, she answered: Oh, he’s not conceived yet. I gave Tennessee a kiss in the folds of her chubby chin to hide my confusion, but the woman must have sensed my bewilderment because she went on: A clairvoyant told me that I’d have eight grandchildren, three girls and four boys. She’s been right so far – so now I’m waiting for the last one. She seemed like quite a reasonable old lady – drinking her coffee, doing a crossword, an M&S bag at her feet…I’m sure that at home she has a small dog and well kept garden and that she listens to Radio 4.
And then there are the constant strangers like my lovely barista, Anna, who brings my coffee and my biscotti and my glass of water to my table before I’ve paid for them because she knows how much of a faff it is to set myself up with notebooks and laptop and Tennessee. She loves Tennessee, calls her, my princess, asks me how I’ve slept, tells me about her life back in Poland, her parents, her brother and nephews, the Polish man she met in England with whom she’d like to have her own little princess.
And there are the less pleasant encounters – though these, too, are good material. The breast-feeding mafia who look daggers at me as I bottle-feed my daughter. I know what they’re thinking: why aren’t you using your boobs? Don’t you know that your baby will grow up to be ugly, overweight, thick, physically deficient and diabetic if she’s not fed on breast-milk? Or the old man who sits in the corner reading his newspaper, raising his bushy eyebrows and glancing over his glasses whenever Tennessee makes a sound as if to say: for goodness sake, can’t you control your child? Isn’t there an off switch or something?
So, although at present, there’s no time to write it all down, my little Tennessee is unlocking some worlds and characters that, one day, I’ll put into my cauldron along with a good dose of imagination, and translate into a story or two.