Playing Nice Page 2

Within moments I had a reply. There’s a hard core of about a hundred of us who stay online pretty much throughout the day, coming back to the forum in between our parenting duties. Once you got used to the cliquey jargon—DS or DD means “darling son” or “darling daughter,” OP means “original poster,” while OH is “other half” and AIBU is “am I being unreasonable?”—it was reassuring to be able to throw questions out there and see what others thought.

The mouse from The Gruffalo, mate. Brown shirt, white vest, some ears on an Alice band. Sorted.

That was Honker6. I typed back:

Er, Alice band? Your DDs might go for it but we don’t even own one of those.

Greg87 wrote:

What about Peter Rabbit? Little blue jacket, paper ears on baseball hat, face-painted whiskers?

Greg being practical, as usual. Nice one, I replied, trying to remember if Peter Rabbit had ever been involved in any age-inappropriate violence that Susy the nursery head might disapprove of. You had to be careful with those Beatrix Potter books.

Then the doorbell rang, so I put my cappuccino down and went to answer it.

* * *

ON THE STEP WAS the group I’d seen outside the nursery. My first thought was that they must have made a mistake, because our house wasn’t for sale. My second was that it wasn’t the group from the nursery, not quite: The woman was no longer with them. So maybe they weren’t house buyers, after all—they could be political canvassers, or even journalists. And my third thought, the one that immediately crowded all the others out of my head, was that, now that I saw him up close, the younger of the two men, the one roughly my age, was the spitting image of Theo.

He had dark hair that spilled over his forehead in an unruly comma, a prominent jaw, and deep-set blue eyes—the kind of dark, boyish looks that in Theo are heart-stoppingly cute but in adults always make me think of the word saturnine, without really knowing why. Almost six feet, chunky, broad-shouldered. An athlete’s physique. There’s a picture of the writer Ted Hughes as a young man, glowering at the camera with the same lock of hair falling over his right eye. This guy reminded me of that. A chiseled, granite face, but not unfriendly.

“Hello,” he said, without ado. “Can we come in?”

“Why?” I asked stupidly.

“It’s about your son,” he said patiently. “I really think this would be better done inside.”

“All right.” And his manner was so brisk and purposeful that I found myself stepping away from the door, even though I was now thinking, Was it his child Theo hit? Am I about to get shouted at?

“Er—coffee?” I said, leading the way into the lounge—which is to say, taking a few steps back. Like most people in our street, we’ve ripped out the walls downstairs to create one decent-sized room. The older man shook his head, but I saw the younger man glance at my cappuccino. “I make them fresh,” I added, thinking a pause for coffee might defuse the coming row a bit.

“Go on then.” There was an awkward wait while I frothed more milk.

“I’m Miles Lambert, by the way,” he added when I was done. “And this gentleman is Don Maguire.” He took the cup I offered him. “Thanks. Shall we sit down?”

I sat in the only armchair and Miles Lambert took the couch, carefully moving some toys out of the way as he did so. Don Maguire sat in my swivel desk chair. I saw him cast an admiring glance at my MacBook.

“There’s no easy way to do this,” Miles said when we were all seated. He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together like a rugby player about to take a penalty. “Look, if it was me, I’d want to be told straight, with no bullshit, so that’s what I’m going to do. But prepare yourself for a shock.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that Theo isn’t your son. He’s mine.”

I gaped at him. Thoughts crowded in on me. That can’t be right, followed by So that’s why this man looks like Theo. Disbelief, shell shock, horror, all paralyzed me. I’m not fast in a crisis, unfortunately; Maddie’s the one who thinks on her feet.

Maddie. Oh my God. Was this man telling me they had an affair? Is that what this is? That I’m a—

The word cuckold, with all its medieval ugliness, crashed into my brain like a rock. Maddie and I have had our problems, we’re like any couple in that regard, and there have been times over the last year or so when I’ve sensed her drawing away from me. But I’ve always put that down to the trauma of Theo’s birth—

Theo’s birth. Think straight, Pete. Theo was born just over two years ago. So it would have been two and a half years ago when this supposed affair happened. Which was nigh-on impossible. Maddie and I only came back from Australia, where we met, three years back.

I realized both Miles Lambert and Don Maguire were looking at me, waiting for me to react, and I still hadn’t said anything. “What are you trying to tell me?” I said numbly.

Miles Lambert simply repeated, “Theo isn’t your son. He’s mine.” His blue eyes held mine, concerned. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a shock. Please, take your time.”

It was Don Maguire who coughed and added, “You both have sons who were born prematurely, I understand, who were both separated from their mothers briefly when they were transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Alexander’s. It’s conceivable that, at some point during that process, the wrong tags were put on the wrong babies. That’s our working theory, anyway.”

Double negative, the editor shouted at me. The wrong tags got put on the right babies, you cretin. Which only goes to show that, at moments of crisis, you think the most bizarre things.



“SO YOU THINK YOU have our son. Our birth son, that is.” In all this chaos, it was the one thing I could grasp.

Miles Lambert nodded. “David. We called him David.”

“And what…” What happens now, I wanted to ask, but my brain just wouldn’t go there. “How do you know? That the babies got switched, I mean?”

Miles indicated Don Maguire. “This man’s a private investigator. He finds missing people.”

“But how do you know?” I insisted.

“I took the liberty of removing an item with Theo’s DNA on it from his nursery,” Don Maguire said apologetically. “I very much regret having to do that, but we didn’t want to put you through the strain of this approach if there was any chance we could be wrong.” As he spoke he was removing something from a padded envelope. It was Theo’s sippy cup, the one the nursery told me had gotten lost.

“The tests came back yesterday,” Miles added. “There’s absolutely no doubt.”

Don Maguire placed the sippy cup on my desk carefully, as if it were fragile bone china. “We’d like to return this to you now, of course.”

“Jesus. Jesus. You tested my son’s DNA without my permission—”

“Well, technically my son. But yes, we apologize that was necessary,” Miles said.

My son. The words thudded in my head.

“This is a copy of the test results for you,” Don Maguire added, taking an envelope from his folder and placing it next to the cup. “As Mr. Lambert says, there really is no doubt. Theo is his biological son.”

Theo. I couldn’t comprehend what this might mean for him. I put my head in my hands.

“What are you suggesting we do about this?” I managed to ask. “What do you want to happen now?”

Again, it was Maguire who answered. “Please understand, Mr. Riley. Nothing specific is being suggested here. Cases like this are so rare, there’s very little precedent—legal precedent, I mean. There’s certainly no automatic requirement for the family courts to get involved. It’s best for the parents to work out a solution between themselves.”

“A solution?”

“Whether to swap back, or stay as you are.”

The words, so stark and binary, hung in the air.

“Like I said, it’s a shock,” Miles added apologetically. “It was for me and Lucy, too, but obviously we’ve had longer to absorb it. You don’t need to say anything right now. And of course, you should get your own advice.”

I stared at him. The way he said it made it clear he’d already consulted lawyers.

“We’re suing the hospital,” he added. “Not St. Alexander’s—the private one where Lucy gave birth. You may want to join our action, but…like I said, that’s all TBD. To Be Discussed. There’s no rush.”

My eye fell on some pieces of red Duplo by his foot. Only that morning, Theo had assembled them into a tommy gun that promptly fell apart under the force of his overenthusiastic shooting-down of my attempts to get him to clean his teeth. A wave of love for him washed over me. And terror, at the abyss that had just opened up beneath us.

“Would you like to see a picture of David?” Miles asked.

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