It may have been fifty-six years since they had last seen each other, but Ruth had recognised Lucy the second she entered the coffee shop. As teenagers, the two of them had often been mistaken for sisters, tall with long blond hair and matching hazel eyes, but the years had taken away their similarities. Lucy leant on a walking stick as she looked around. She was thin and frail, whereas Ruth was short and plump. Lucy’s face was lined now, but Ruth still knew it as well as her own. It was a face she would know anywhere. She waved to catch her attention, and Lucy’s smile transformed her into the person she had known as a teenager when she spotted her. She weaved between busy tables, and Ruth took a deep breath before standing up to greet her old friend.

“Ruth, oh my goodness.”

Lucy’s hug was surprisingly tight for a woman so frail looking. Ruth wrapped her arms around her and hugged her back, inhaling the familiar lavender scent they had both loved back in the sixties. She had stopped using it after they had parted ways because the reminder had been too painful.

“Look how old we’ve both gotten,” Lucy said.

“Speak for yourself. I’m still twenty-one at heart.”

Laughing, they sat down and placed their order with the waitress who approached the table.

It took only a few minutes for Lucy to get out her smartphone and start showing Ruth pictures of her family.

“Ryan, that’s him at the back there. He’s the eldest of my grandchildren and really into all this technology. He helped me get this phone and set it all up with pictures of everyone. I wasn’t sure at first, but they are actually quite fun to use.”

She continued to look through the photos. Ruth smiled as she thought of the ancient Nokia her daughter Nessa insisted she carried with her for emergencies. She kept a series of pictures in her purse and brought them out now. Lucy took them, looking carefully at the faces until she stopped at one of Ruth’s three children. She had taken it a couple of Christmases ago.

“Nessa?” she asked, pointing at the only girl between her two brothers.


“She was only a baby the last time I saw her.”

The waitress returned with their drinks, and Lucy handed the pictures back. Ruth knew where her thoughts must have gone, but some cowardice inside her stopped her from saying anything. It was the perfect time to explain why she had agreed to this meeting in the first place, but she didn’t want to ruin this for them.

“She was a beautiful baby,” Lucy continued. “I wish I could have seen her grow up.”


“I knew, Ruth. I knew why you stopped contacting me. But you didn’t have to do it.”

Ruth met Lucy’s eyes, full of nothing but kindness, and shame washed over her. But she didn’t interrupt; she just let her old friend talk.

“We went through school together, we planned our weddings together, then we went through pregnancy together. We had our baby girls a day apart; they were supposed to grow up together, best friends just like us. Losing Lilian as I did was the hardest part of my life. I was angry at you for a long time for abandoning me during it, but I forgave you many years ago. You left because you were trying to protect me from the hurt of seeing Nessa grow up when I couldn’t have that for Lilian.”

It was time, and Ruth knew that.

“Lucy, you need to let me explain.”

“You don’t need to.”

Lucy took a sip of her coffee and smiled before continuing.

“I messaged you because I wanted to tell you in person that I forgive you.”

“And I agreed to meet because I needed to finally come clean about the day Lilian died,” Ruth said.

Lucy put her mug down and gave Ruth a searching look. Ruth swallowed, but she couldn’t back down now. She had come too far, and this had been eating away at her for too many years.

“Lilian didn’t die.”

“What? Ruth, what are you talking about?”

“Nessa died that day in the hospital. Only everyone thought it was Lilian, and I didn’t correct them.”

The colour had drained out of Lucy’s face. Her hands shook, and she clasped them together, but after a second, the shaking in her hands slowly until she was statue still, and Ruth knew she wouldn’t interrupt.

“After you had Lilian, they took her to the nursery. I was in the early stages of labour, but I hadn’t told anyone because I had to go and see her. They let me in, and I held her. Oh, Lucy, straight away, I felt a connection between us. She was so perfect in my arms that I couldn’t bear to put her down. Finally, I had to accept my baby was coming, and I lay her back down in the cot. When Nessa was born, I held her and waited for that same feeling. Only it never came. I went to see her in the nursery. I held her, but she felt like a stranger to me, so I also picked up Lilian. The difference between them was so great that I could almost believe Lilian was really my daughter. No one was looking, so I put Nessa down in Lilian’s cot and held Lilian instead, just to let myself believe for a little while.”

Tears were running silently down Lucy’s face. She had to be putting the pieces together, but she didn’t interrupt.

“Then a nurse said Nessa’s heart was struggling, and then there were doctors and machines and people panicking. And I should have been one of those people panicking, but I wasn’t, and I don’t know why. And then she was gone, and I was still holding Lilian, and I just couldn’t say anything.”

Tears were running down Ruth’s face now as she let out the words she had held in for so many years. Words that even her husband hadn’t heard.

“They looked so alike, and it was before they started putting ID bands on patients, so no one questioned it. Because what kind of mother would watch her own baby die and feel nothing? So I left with Lilian and gave her my baby’s name, pretending nothing had happened. I’ve been pretending nothing happened for nearly sixty years. Sometimes I can pretend it wasn’t real, but then I look at Nessa and see you looking back at me.”

“Why would you tell me this now?”

“I wasn’t going to. I moved away because I was so frightened of you realising who Nessa really was. The last I heard, you had also moved away, so I thought it might finally be safe to return. I didn’t dream that you would also move back and contact me. But when you did, I just felt like it was time to finally get this off my chest and tell you the truth.”

Lucy pushed her chair back from the table and stood up.

“My daughter died. She’s gone. I don’t know what rubbish you have been telling yourself over the years, but that is what happened. Don’t ever contact me again.”

She picked up her walking stick and headed out of the coffee shop; heads turned towards Ruth as she did so. People must have heard the emotion in the conversation even if they hadn’t heard the specifics. Ruth stared into her half-drunk coffee and wished she had done as she had promised herself the day she took Nessa home. She wished she had taken this secret to her grave.

For the next three days, whenever someone knocked on Ruth’s door, she panicked. Everyone, the postman, the man who delivered her groceries, and the young woman putting flyers through the letterbox all sounded like the police to her. She refused to explain her jumpiness to anyone; even her husband, Joe, was kept in the dark as she waited for the police to turn up and arrest her for what she had done almost sixty years ago. Ruth stopped eating or sleeping. In coming clean to Lucy, she was finally feeling the full horror of her decision.

On the fourth day, someone hammered at the door. Reluctantly, she opened it and gave a sharp intake of breath as she saw Lucy on the doorstep.

“Why?” Lucy said.

“I don’t know.”

“You must have had a reason. People don’t just swap babies around on a whim. Your daughter died, and you’re telling me you felt nothing?”

“It devastated me.”

“You said you felt nothing.”

“I just felt numb, and I still had Lilian in my arms, a baby I already adored. Lucy, it didn’t feel real. By the time things started to sink in, it was too late to come clean.”

“It was never too late, not back then.”

“I was barely twenty. I was stupid. Everyone does stupid things when they’re twenty.”

“Yes,” Lucy said. “They experiment with drugs, they drink too much and sleep with the wrong person. They don’t steal another woman’s baby and bring her up as their own.”

Tears escaped Ruth’s eyes and ran down her face.

“So turn me in, get to know Nessa and her family, whatever you need to do. I don’t want to live with this secret any longer.”

The two women stared at each other for a long moment. When they were younger, Ruth was sure she could read Lucy’s mind, but now she had no clue what was going through the other woman’s head.

“Have you ever told anyone else?” Lucy demanded.


“Nessa has no idea?”


“I don’t want her to know.”

All the time’s Ruth had imagined this conversation; she had never imagined it going this way.

“Why not?” she said.

“Because it’s finally too late. I won’t have the rest of Nessa’s life ruined because you were too screwed up to come clean years ago. If she was a child, then maybe. But it’s too late now. So no, I won’t go to the police, and you will get to keep your relationship with her.”

“Thank you,” Ruth said

Lucy gave her a hard stare, her eyes blazing.

“Don’t you ever thank me. I haven’t done this for you.”

She turned and walked down the path to the gate. As she went, Ruth knew they would never see each other again and that they would both have to learn to live with what the other one had done. She closed the door behind her, sank to the floor, and sobbed, the relief coming out of her in waves.

Finally, she took the old Nokia out of her pocket, turned it on and dialled one of the few numbers programmed into it. It rang a couple of times before a familiar voice answered.


“Hey, Nessa.”

“Mum, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, I just had some bad news, is all. I just needed to hear your voice.”

It was a comfort she should never have had. As awful as she had felt when speaking to Lucy, when she heard Nessa call her mum, everything was worth it. Maybe it made her a terrible person, but she didn’t regret anything. And this time, this time, she knew she would take the secret to the grave.

December 02, 2022 22:14

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

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