‘Any questions, before I sum up?’
It’s the end of the school day. Mr Philips looks around the class, his bright eyes darting around the room from one raised hand to the next. He’s unconvincing, dressed too casually, his hair tousled like a surfer’s. Aimee knows it’s love at first sight. She’s trying to remember enough about meiosis to ask a question before the bell goes. He writes a few bullet points on the whiteboard. There is a pause, and in the silence she calls out: ‘Are you married?’
His writing hand jerks, leaving a trail across the board. The class all turn to look at her, and his eyes, too, fasten on her, taking in, she hopes, a pretty face, long fair hair, a little skirt that’s slipped up her legs during the biology lesson. Some at the back of the class are giggling.
He considers, and chooses. ‘No,’ he says, ‘not any more.’
The silence is ended by the bell, and everyone piles stuff into rucksacks and quits the biology lab before Sir gets the chance to mention homework. Aimee is one of the last to leave, her friends crowding round her.
‘Why’d you say that?’
‘Just wanted to get a reaction, I guess,’ Aimee says. ‘I think he’s nice, don’t you?’
‘I dunno,’ Katie says. ‘I like Justin Bieber.’
Aimee rummages in her bag, checks her pocket. ‘I left my phone in the lab,’ she says, and before the other girls can say anything, she turns back. ‘See you tomorrow!’
Mr Philips is wiping off the whiteboard, and turns around as Aimee puts her bag down on the bench.
‘I left my phone here,’ she says.
There’s no phone on the bench. She bends down in her little skirt to search the floor.
‘Perhaps it’s in your bag,’ he says.
She unzips the bag, and starts to search the pockets. ‘Can you ring it for me?’ she asks.
He sighs, and his hand goes to his pocket for his phone. She gives him the number. There’s a faint hum as the phone starts to ring at the bottom of the bag, becoming louder as she brings it out. ‘Thanks, Mr Philips!’ She smiles and lingers.
‘Aimee,’ he says, ‘come here.’
‘Yes, sir?’ She shoulders her bag, and walks slowly towards him.
‘Why did you ask me that? If I was married? In front of the whole class?’
‘I just wondered.’
‘You can’t just ask people that, you know? You can’t behave like that. And look at the way you dress, your skirt.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ She’s right in front of him, unafraid. She notices the stubble on his chin, and the creases around his mouth.
‘It’s too provocative.’ He’s blushing.
‘How do you mean?’ She looks up, wide-eyed.
He grips her by the upper arms. His thumbs are making dents in her flesh. ‘You’re asking for it, Aimee. You really are.’ And then he frowns, and closes his eyes, and pushes her slowly away. He turns her round, and faces her towards the door. ‘Go home,’ he says, ‘go home. Don’t make me take advantage of you.’
On the way home, she checks her phone. His number shows on the screen, and she stores it in her contacts.
She does her homework after hours in the school library, and the day that Mr Philips is on library duty, she stays on, so that she’s the last to leave. He’s marking work, but every now and again, he looks up to find her staring at him. Sometimes he looks away. Sometimes he meets her eyes, so that she’s the one who has to look down. At six, he pushes back his chair, and stands up with the pile of work under his arm.
‘Time to go home, Aimee,’ he says. ‘You’ve been working hard tonight, haven’t you?’
‘I can’t work at home,’ she says. ‘I have to look after my little brothers, and I can’t get anything done.’
She makes her way to the bus stop, and waits. She’s alone, and it’s nearly dark, and starting to rain. A black car pulls out of the school gates, and she watches it as it slows to a stop beside her. The electric window slides down.
‘Come on, it’s late. I’ll give you a lift,’ says Mr Philips. Aimee opens the door, and slides gratefully on to the black leather of the front passenger seat. She tells him where she lives, and feels ashamed.
‘It’s on my way home,’ he says, with a smile. He pushes a switch, and she feels the warmth of the electric seat beneath her legs, as if she’s wet herself. He asks her a bit about her family, and she tells him she lives with her mum and doesn’t see her dad, and, no, she hasn’t got a boyfriend, she’s never had one, and then he shuts up, and follows her directions. She lives on an estate full of problem families, hers being one of them.
‘It’s this one,’ she says. Her house has window frames that need painting, and an untidy front garden with an old sofa left out in the rain.
He switches off the engine, and she thanks him, and gets out of the car. As she walks up the path, she’s aware of him watching her. Her mum’s been looking out for her, and opens the door, all ready to go out, with her handbag, and her shoes on, and her supermarket uniform underneath her quilted coat. Aimee sighs, knowing there will be a row on the path, and hoping Mr Philips won’t see.
‘Why are you so late? You know you’ve got to be back by six to watch the boys. What have you been doing? You’ve got no thought for me, have you? Anyway, I haven’t got time for this now.’ Her mum shoves past her and trots briskly down the path. ‘I’ll have words with you later. I’m going to miss my bus, thanks to you. If it wasn’t for me working all the hours I can, we’d have nothing…’
Mr Philips has got out of his car. Aimee watches as he apologises to her mum, and explains he’s a teacher from the school.
‘She was by herself at the bus stop, and I thought, it was getting late, I didn’t like to see her on her own, so…’
Aimee’s mum seems to accept this, and when Mr Philips offers her a lift, her show of refusal is only momentary.
After the boys are in bed, Aimee checks her phone. There’s a text on it. ‘Hope you didn’t mind me talking to your mother’, it says. He must have saved her number. She goes to bed with her phone under her pillow, holding within her heart the enormous secret of her first love.
They start to text each other, at school, at first about whether she wants a lift. The texts start to get more frequent. She sends him a picture of herself, he replies that she’s beautiful, and she sends him another. Soon, he’s driving her home from school every day. Sometimes his hand brushes her leg, as he changes gear. She doesn’t move away, or try to cover up with her coat.
‘Too many people,’ he says one afternoon, nudging the car out of the school gates, through a crowd of students, smiling at them and ignoring their stares. ‘Bet you wish we could be on our own, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ says Aimee, cautiously, looking at the side of his face. A muscle twitches in his cheek. He’s so handsome, she thinks.
‘Is that really what you want?’ His hands are clenched on the steering wheel. He’s looking ahead, at the traffic. Then he glances down at her thighs, as if he’s thinking about what she sent him.
‘I love you,’ she says, at last. ‘I really do.’
‘You’ll ruin me,’ he mutters, but he drives her to the roof of a multi-storey in the town centre. At that time of day it’s emptying out. They’re alone as dusk falls. He reaches for her with a groan, and they kiss and fumble in the car.
‘I really shouldn’t be doing this,’ he murmurs, ‘but… you’re aching for it, aren’t you?’
Afterwards, she tells him why she doesn’t see her dad any more.
‘My mum won’t let me see him,’ she says. ‘He was violent to her, so she hates him.’
‘Did they fight in front of you?’ His arm is round her shoulders, and he pulls her in to his side. ‘I’m sorry.’
She rests her head against his chest and nods, feeling her cheek scratching against the wool of his sweater, and the steady beat of his heart. ‘He put her in hospital once,’ she says. ‘The police came round.’
‘What were they fighting over?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘She seemed to always get him into a temper.’
‘Some women are like that,’ he says. ‘They don’t know when to stop.’
‘Is your wife like that, then?’ She feels him tense a little.
‘Not really. Look, I don’t want to talk about her, OK? It’s complicated.’
‘Sorry.’ The car windows have steamed up, and she gets out and stands by the wall, and looks out at the lights of the town, while he wraps quivering arms around her.
‘If I could just see you naked.’ His voice is dull with desire. ‘Don’t you want to do more than this?’
‘I want it. I really want it. But I can’t, I’m too young.’
‘Men can do it with much younger girls.’ He tightens his grip. ‘I’d so like to see you, I really would. Naked in front of me.’
‘I’ll text you some more pictures, then,’ she says, and smiles to hear him groan.
‘Show me everything,’ he says. ‘But, just don’t tell anyone, God’s sake, don’t tell anyone about us, OK?’
‘Not even Katie?’
‘I’d lose my job,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t want to be the cause of that, now, would you?’
He’s starting to pull her skirt up again, but she moves away.
‘No,’ she says, ‘not here, I can’t. Someone might see us.’
‘You want to, though, don’t you?’
She turns and presses herself against him.
‘I love you,’ she says. ‘It was love at first sight. Did you feel it, too?’
‘Come on,’ he says, ‘let’s get you home.’
The moment that breaks her is when he texts: ‘We must stop meeting.’
‘Why?’ She texts back. There’s no reply. She phones him.
‘Hang on,’ he says, and she hears the TV in the background getting quieter, and a door closing, deadening the noise. ‘We should never have done this. They’ve seen your pictures on my PC. Mrs McEvilly spoke to me after school.’
‘What’s she got to do with it? She’s Head of English.’
‘She’s the safeguarding lead. There’s going to be an investigation. You’ll be interviewed by the police.’
‘But I haven’t done anything wrong!’ She’s starting to panic.
‘Don’t start blaming me! Look…’
Aimee hears the TV suddenly get louder again, a woman’s voice, and then the phone cuts off.
She’s sitting in her bedroom after the boys have gone to bed. She looks at herself in the mirror, feeling really, really small. Her mum’s at work. She must think what to do. What if her mum finds out the truth about Mr Philips? What are the police going to say to her?
After a while, she texts him. ‘I’m going to run away.’
Her mum comes in from work, but Aimee pretends to be asleep.
At midnight there’s a text. ‘Pack some clothes. Pick you up tomorrow AM.’
She waits for the house to be quiet, then takes the books out of her school rucksack, and hides them under her bed. Then she packs some clothes. In the morning she tells her mum she’s going to Katie’s after school, for a sleepover. Mr Philips is waiting at the end of her road, in the black car. She gets in, and tries to kiss him.
‘Don’t,’ he says, ‘not yet.’ He accelerates away as soon as he can. They leave the car in the station car park, and catch a train to Dover. He pays for the tickets from a wad of money. At passport control he gives her his wife’s passport. She opens it and sees a pretty, blonde-haired stranger.
On the ferry, she tries to text Katie.
He grabs the phone away from her. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he yells.
‘I’ve got to let Katie know I’m OK. Look, she knows about us, right?’
‘Are you crazy?’ He switches the phone off.
‘She’s going to…’
‘Don’t you ever try and do that again! I told you not to tell anyone.’ He glares at her, and then takes the battery out of the phone and gives her the empty case. He slips the battery into his pocket. Tears are in her eyes, and he puts his arms round her.
‘Look, do you not know that they can track the signal? Don’t you realise how much trouble you’ve got me into? This is serious now, OK?’ He gives her a long, slow, heavy kiss. ‘Don’t cry, Aimee. You’ve just got to do as you’re told, d’you see?’
‘I love you,’ she says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry about everything.’
‘It’s OK,’ he says, ‘it’s OK. You can’t help being the way you are.’
She looks a question at him through stinging eyes.
‘Sheer unashamed jailbait,’ he says, and kisses her again.
At Calais they catch a train south. In a provincial station cafe, he buys her a cola and a baguette, and watches her eat. She smiles at him.
‘How far is it to Disneyland Paris?’
‘We need to find a hotel,’ he says.
He checks her in to the Grand Hotel as Mrs Philips. She’s never been anywhere as beautiful. She loves the faded glamour of the hotel lobby, the chandeliers and mahogany, and the thick red carpet that deadens footfalls. She kisses him in the lift, all the way up to the fourth floor.
He unlocks their door, and switches on the room light. She walks in, and stands marvelling at the white expanse of the bed. She hears the thud of the closing door, and he comes to undress her with shivering hands. Underneath her long coat, she’s still wearing her school uniform.
‘Leave it on,’ he says, and he tells her how sexy she looks.
She can speak little French, but they watch the TV news in the hotel room. She sees her mum crying. The police know they’re in France. His money’s running out. He can’t sleep on the third night, and sits up late in front of his laptop, while she dozes uneasily. Then he wakes her.
‘It’s hurting,’ she says, flinching away. But his arms are round her. He’s sweating, and panting like a thirsty dog.
‘Come on, Aimee. You’ve cost me everything. My job, my home, my family. They’re catching up with us. In another week I’ll be in prison.’ The word, prison, hits her like like a slap. ‘You wanted this. For God’s sake, try and enjoy it.’
Afterwards, she’s crying. ‘I don’t want you to go to prison,’ she says. He holds her, and strokes her, and kisses away the tears.
‘Look,’ he says, propping himself on an elbow. ‘They’ll say I’ve broken the law. They’ll say I should’ve known better. But what was I supposed to do, when you were coming on to me like that?’
‘You wanted it too,’ she says.
‘Look, Aimee, I’ve lost everything, because of you, and your pictures. I didn’t ask you for them, did I? You’ll tell people, won’t you? You’ll tell them how you started it?’
She nods, looking down along her body, remembering what she’d sent him. ‘I’ll say anything, if it stops you going to prison. I can’t believe how much I love you. It was love at first sight.’ She waits for him to say that he loves her, too.
‘Good girl,’ he says, and then he kisses her again.
There’s a knock on the door.
Aimee takes the lift to the roof of the multi-storey car park, and remembers how they once were there in his black car. Dusk is falling over the town. At least she hasn’t let Mr Philips down. She’s done everything she could to help him. She has given evidence at his trial, and told the Court, via a video link, how she’d sent him the naked selfies, and how she’d made him run away with her. The pictures were shown to the Court, and her texts were read out as evidence. She was cross-examined. Everything that she held to be intimate and secret has been exposed and violated by the lawyers and the Press. They didn’t understand when she said she loved him; after all, she has ruined him.
Clearly, concluded the judge, a respectable and educated man like Mr Philips, with good marriage and an excellent teaching record, would never have made approaches to a minor of his own accord. And so, they have been lenient, and he’s already served most of the short sentence. But he’s on the sex offenders register, and will never work again.
‘I groomed him,’ Aimee thinks. ‘It was all my fault.’ She knows it’s time to go back down, and face everyone. But she swallows a tablet, and waits for it to take her thoughts away. From the roof wall, she can see all over the town. Below her is a quiet street, a small park, and two hundred feet of empty air. It’s love at first sight.
This story is purely fictional. Although I have drawn inspiration from past Court cases reported in the Press, I do not have any in-depth knowledge of those cases, and no attempt is being made to represent any particular individual. The school tie is not intended to represent any particular school.
© 2015 chateauxenespagne.com
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