Protocol

“I want to go back to your place. And not that place you rent to play out this charade, the place where you actually live.”

Lucy hadn’t touched her coffee yet.

“What do you mean, sweetie?”

“You know what I mean. Dad.”

It was the way she said ‘Dad’. It was the way she said ‘that place’. It was the way she said ‘your place’. It was something in the way she was sitting. What was it. She knew.

Max reached for his professional instincts. It was like trying to hang onto a duvet when your mother was waking you up for school. He hadn’t thought about his mother in years.

“We can’t go to my place today. The decorators are there.”

“You’re lying.”

He took a slow sip of his tea.

She was very good at silence. He was almost proud of her. Growing up, he’d always told her, was knowing when to keep your mouth shut. It was the key to both avoiding and winning arguments. It seemed a lesson that a lawyer might give to his children. Lucy’s mother had liked it when he’d pitched it to her.

“Come on Max, mum’s been lying to me for, what, 10 years? If she’s not going to tell me the truth, at least there should be some clause in your contract that says you can, right?”

Max ran through the termination protocol in his head.

“You should talk to your mother. I need to get back to work. We can talk about this later.”

“Except we won’t, will we? Because those are the terms. You make it my mum’s problem again and then you disappear. Well I don’t want that. I can’t have both of my ‘parents’ being liars.”

He noticed that her eyes were welling up. It hurt. He felt like he was about to break a rule, which was not good. And he was proud of her, because she was so fucking smart.

“Please, Max. Tell me the truth.”

“How did you find out?”

“Tell me the truth.”

“Lucy, how did you find out?”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because it’s an error and I need to report it.”

It was the wrong word, and he regretted it instantly. But he was hanging onto professionalism with the tips of his fingernails. He was fucking it up. The compartments in his head were breaking down. Lucy was holding back tears.

“I want to go to your place.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to see who you really are.” Her fingers crept over the table to find his.

He needed time. Or space. Or to pause everything for a moment to work this out.

“Fine,” he said.

Lucy. 17. Beautiful. His darling daughter. His Client’s daughter. Little Lucy, the subject. 7 years old. Taking her to the Science Museum on the tube. Her tiny fingers wedged between his. Surprisingly strong for such a small girl.

“Why don’t you and mummy live together?”

“Your mother and I are separated.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, we were once in love. And because we were in love, we made you. And we both love you very very much. But mummy and I… we couldn’t love you properly while we were living together. So we decided it would be better if we live in different houses.”

“Why do I live in mummy’s house?”

“Because mummy is better at taking care of you.”

“Why?”

It was so easy back then, he thought, as he paid up, and Lucy got her coat to leave. But he couldn’t read her now.

Should they get the tube? Was it right? None of this was right. But would it be better, somehow, to depersonalise it? Make it into a journey that was less easy to repeat by getting into a taxi? She was a smart girl, she’d probably remember the address if they walked there from the tube station. She was a smart girl, she’d figure it out either way. This was a terrible idea.

“Lucy –”

“I won’t stalk you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“This isn’t right. I can’t do this. I need to get back to the office, I could lose my job. I need you to go back home.”

“Home,” she sneered. “I’m not going back there.”

“What?”

“I’m not going to live with a liar.”

“Lucy, your mum — you need to talk to her. She loves you.”

The words seemed so slim.

“Then why did she lie — Max?”

There was no answer. No easy answer. No answer that he was allowed to give. And anyway, his priority was to somehow stop being her father for a minute, just a minute, and work out what his job was.

If a child of a Client somehow uncovers the fact that there has been an Engagement, the priority is to return the child to the Client as soon as possible, and suspend further communication until the Client has been contacted.

He could put her into a taxi as if to take her to his place, and simply have it drive them to her mother’s home. But she would realise what was going on. But it was the best solution he could think of. Max made a mental note that instructions regarding minors should be made maturity-appropriate to the minor in question.

If, at the point of discovery, the child is over the age of 18, it is up to the discretion of the Other whether the child is of sufficient maturity to receive the agreed explanation upfront before being returned to the parent.

The agreed explanation. For Lucy it was that she was an IVF baby and her mother hadn’t wanted her to miss out on having a father. But Lucy’s birthday was in three months’ time.

Max was angry. I mean, for God’s sake, the girl was really fucking smart. He’d literally been there through all her exams. She was applying to veterinary school. She’d gotten all her offers.

If he told her she was an IVF baby, what did he expect her to do? Just stop asking questions and forgive her mother instantly because clearly it was an elaborate deception done out of love?

“Lucy. Talk to me. How did you find out?”

“If I tell you how I found out, will you tell me the truth?”

He took her hands and stood in front of her.

“If I tell you the truth, I will lose my job.”

Lucy looked firmly at him. It was causing him some sort of pain in his chest, the way she was looking at him.

“Even after ten years of playing my dad, I’m just a job?”

“It — Of course not.”

Why hadn’t there been some sort of protocol for this? Had they simply taken people for idiots? Had they been in denial about the fact that this might happen? Was it that his judgement was clouded by emotional attachment? Should he have terminated the Engagement earlier? Why hadn’t he? Did he wish he had? He should make a phone call at some point — heck he could even call the CEO at this point. This would be a use case they’d want to re-evaluate. I mean, it wasn’t like these cases came along often. And Max was one of the best, right?

“Dad? Do you have children? Real children?”

Max was finding it hard to maintain eye contact.

“No.”

“Did you ever want them?”

“I never really thought about it. I’ve always been too full of family.”

“Because of the job?”

He nodded.

“It must be hard.”

She hugged him. And the noise in his mind went quiet for a moment. It was hard to think through a hug.

“Was any of it real, Max?”

“Of course it was. I was there wasn’t I? I taught you how to ride a bike. I helped mark your practice papers for your exams. Your mum — she wanted you to have a dad.”

“I don’t understand why she would lie about it. I just want to know what she’s hiding. What you’re hiding. I mean, how do you do it? Pretend something so big, for so long. How do you…forget about it when you go home?”

He squeezed her tight.

“I don’t, Lucy. I don’t forget any of it.”

“I guess you take notes.”

“I do that. But when I’m out and about and I see a dog, or a cat, I remember your list of breeds. You know the one you used to keep when you were little? You were so obsessive. You had to list them out alphabetically. You told me that you would memorise them all so that you could be the best vet. You got so angry when I accidentally threw out the ‘horses’ list. You gave me a lecture about how vets don’t just deal with cuddly fluffy animals.”

Max began to cry. He wasn’t even sure why. It was just something his body needed to do.

“I thought it was a phase, but you never did grow out of that. And I was so proud of you for it. I am so proud of you, Lucy.”

She pulled away and looked him in the eye.

“But this ends now doesn’t it? Because I’ve found out. Now you go away and I never see you again.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his glove.

“It has to.”

“Because of your job.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. And he meant it, though he didn’t know for whom.