This is a fictional story. I haven’t published any for some time, and thought I would try again. It is rather long, and may take some time to get through. For the benefit of readers outside the UK, Reading is a large town, situated 45 miles west of London. It is pronounced Redd-ing, not Reed-ing.
Graham rummaged in his pockets for something to use to scrape the windscreen. He had been surprised by the frost, as it hadn’t seemed that cold last night, and it was not something you expected in April. Even as he showered, then had a hurried breakfast of tea and toast, the thought that it might have been cold out didn’t even enter his head. He found an old library card inside his wallet, a remnant of a former life. The briefcase and pile of workbooks had to be delicately balanced on the roof as he scraped, careful not to send them sliding. Once inside, he rubbed at the interior of the window with the sleeve of his jacket, waiting for the heater to achieve sufficient power to dislodge the rest of the ice. When he was satisfied that the engine was warm enough, and visibility restored, he put the car into gear, and headed off to work.
The school was not that far, just south of Reading station. At this time of day though, the journey from Caversham would take some time. Commuters were still being dropped off, and other traffic was heading down to the M4 motorway. He didn’t mind sitting in the queues. He had allowed enough time, and it gave him the chance to think about his plans for the day ahead, and what classes he would be teaching. His preference was for the first-years. Still a bit nervous in the huge school, not yet confident enough to be disruptive. They would need more time to develop the bravado and insolence so common in the older kids. Still, he had been around long enough to handle those too. Don’t try too hard to be their friend, never let them inside your life, and never show weakness. Distance and professionalism, that was how he operated.
After six years at this High School, Graham was reasonably well established. Having taught for almost twenty years, he was one of the older members of staff. He knew what they thought of him. He was seen as a plodder, a man with little star quality, lacking innovation and drive. The Head had more or less told him so, at the end of last summer, although she chose her words more carefully. ” Graham, you do all you need to do. Your results are generally above average, and your attendance is exemplary. It would be nice to see you get more involved with the students though, come up with some motivational ideas, and involve yourself more in other activities. Don’t you agree?” He didn’t agree. As he was not seeking promotion, and had received satisfactory reports from any and all inspections, he had little need to give her much regard. Inside, they both knew that nothing could be done to get rid of him, and being unpopular in the staff room was no justification for dismissal. As he saw it, as long as English was a compulsory subject, he had a job for life.
Graham had started his career in the south-east of the country. At the time, he was living with his parents, in the town of Dartford, in Kent. His first job after qualifying was in a middle school near Canterbury, and he had moved to that city, renting a small flat. He had stayed there, learning the ropes, watching how the system worked, and steadily building his confidence. The years just seemed to slip by, one term merging into another, until he became part of the furniture of that unexciting school, and found that this suited him just fine. Some years later, his parents had moved to Reading, to be closer to his elderly grandfather. He visited occasionally; Mothers’ Day, Christmas, sometimes on a birthday. They had bought a solid bungalow in one of the nicer roads in Caversham, very close to the golf course. Dad had taken up golf when he retired, then Mum was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Graham cut down his visits. He couldn’t see the point, when Mum didn’t even know who he was. Dad soon wore himself down looking after her, and it was obviously a relief when she died.
Just over six years ago, his Dad had dropped dead of a heart attack, on the fifth and somewhat tricky hole of the golf course. Graham’s colleagues at work were very kind. They got in a supply teacher, and told him to take all the time he needed. A meeting with the family solicitor in Reading revealed a nice surprise. As an only child, he was due to inherit everything left by his Father, as well as a substantial life insurance payout, which he had known nothing about. In addition to the debt-free house, there was a woodland holiday home, hardly ever used, and enough money to keep him comfortable for the rest of his life. His Dad’s car was also bequeathed, but as he had no interest in it, he arranged to give it to a distant cousin. The solicitor smiled at him as he said, “You could easily give up work Mr Hardy, become a man of leisure.” Graham had no intention of giving up work. He wouldn’t know what else to do. After the quickest and quietest of funerals, attended by some golf club cronies and that distant cousin, Graham made a decision. He would move here, find a job in a local school, and live in the bungalow.
He returned to Canterbury, and began to look at job vacancies in the Reading area. It didn’t take long to find an opening at the High School, as it was undergoing substantial reorganisation, and also had a new head teacher starting. Using the Caversham address, he applied, and gave a very good interview. He managed to make himself appear progressive in outlook, and this together with his many years of experience, convinced the new head that he was just the man for the job. He got in some local tradesmen, and gave instructions for decorating and modernising his parents’ bungalow, before returning to Kent, to tender his resignation. He would work until the summer break, then move to Reading during the holidays, giving himself ample time to get the place just how he wanted it, before the start of school that September. It was a new chapter in his life, and he was embracing it, as only he could.
He sat for a while in the school car park, as was his habit, watching the different groups of children arrive for their day in school. The younger ones, uniforms still as they should be, if perhaps a little too big. Muslim girls walking together, keeping their own company, wearing trousers and headscarves. Older girls, dressed as if for an evening out in a night club. Skirts too short, wearing too much make-up, checking their mobile phones, updating Facebook statuses. The awkward boys of the same age, cat-calling, jumping on each other; unsure how to display the mating rituals that they could feel gnawing away inside. The good kids, the fat kids, the friendless, the one very cool boy. Every school was the same, everywhere. Nothing ever changed.
In the staff room, the usual seats were occupied by the same people, as they were every day. Some nodded a greeting to Graham as he entered, though most ignored him. He was seen as a loner, an outsider. He always wore a suit and tie, still carried an old leather briefcase, and usually sat on the wide window ledge, ignoring the Scandinavian-style furniture. He wasn’t in the tea club, never joined other staff members for a drink on Fridays, and had not once attended the Christmas Party. The other teachers in the English department organised trips to the theatre, arranged for guest speakers who had become successful writers, and took extra classes for those falling behind. Hardy just taught the syllabus. Nothing more, nothing less. Infuriatingly, his results were just as good as anyone else, sometimes much better. He demanded peace and quiet in his lessons, and rarely interacted with students. He made them read the parts in plays, but never took one himself. Despite his age, he was like a teacher from another time. The only occasions that anyone ever recalled him being animated, were during debates about strikes. He was a committed union member, and always voted for industrial action. But he was never on a march, a demonstration, or picket-line. He just didn’t come in.
Mrs Abayo entered the room, calling out “Good morning everybody” in her loudest voice. Her appointment had not been without controversy back then. Graham had no problem with her colourful clothes, braided hair, or African origins. Others did, and hid their feelings behind false smiles, and over-enthusiastic greetings. He was very happy to work for her. She left him alone, and only spoke to him when she had to. For her part, she felt uneasy around this man. He dressed like a civil servant, and carried himself in an old fashioned way. He was polite and well-mannered, but his aloofness reminded her of the British diplomats in Lagos, a memory of her youth. His hair didn’t seem to grow. It was always the same; not too long, cut neatly, with a side parting. His steel-rimmed spectacles were worn close into his face, and he had a way of looking at you, with what she felt were dead eyes. Of all her staff though, he was the only one who still managed to get the pupils to behave. He rarely shouted, but he was free with handing out detentions, and could quieten a class with an intense stare. He also made disruptive children stand outside her office, waiting to report themselves to her for bad behaviour. She had told him that this wasn’t really acceptable in this day and age, and that he must find other ways to address the problems. In truth, she never knew what to say to them, so always made a note in a book instead, and told them that it had ‘been noted’.
All the teachers looked at her that morning as she announced her presence. She had something to say to them all, that was obvious. “In three months time, it will be five years since Gemma Purdey went missing. I thought that the school should do something to mark this anniversary, and sort it out while we have time to prepare. Any suggestions?” Alex Harding looked around at the others before he spoke. “I don’t think that any of the pupils will remember much about that now, after all, her year have all long since left.” Fran McKay sat forward in her seat and glared at him. “That’s hardly the point Alex, she went to this school, and went missing whilst a pupil, I think Janet is right, we should do something.” Her tone had been unnecessarily aggressive, her voice a little louder than required. Graham watched this interaction. Rumour had it that Fran and Alex once had something going, and he had ended it. The young man had undoubtedly made an enemy for life, as she always took the opposite view now, on anything. The Head could see she was getting nowhere. “OK then, I am going to issue a press release, saying that we are still thinking about her, and that we have not given up believing that she will be found alive and well one day. I will ask her family first, and see if they want to be involved. Thank you.”
Gemma had gone missing on the Friday before the summer holidays. Graham had been at the school for almost a year then, and had taught the girl, finding her to be an intelligent and enthusiastic pupil. She left school at her normal time, and didn’t come home. There had been the usual uproar. Teams of searchers, TV crews and journalists, police everywhere, helicopters in the skies. Only a few days away from her twelfth birthday, her angelic school photo, long fair hair, green eyes, cute smile, was seen all over. On the front pages of the newspapers, featured on the TV news, on posters around the town, and circulated throughout the country. Examination of all available CCTV cameras took some time, but her movements were eventually traced. She could be clearly seen on the station platform, before walking on to the London train. When the train arrived at Paddington, there was no sign of this young girl leaving the station. She was gone. No other camera spotted her, anywhere in London, or anywhere else for that matter. Other passengers, and a ticket inspector, remembered a young schoolgirl sitting nearby, reading a book. They paid no more attention to her, and none remembered seeing her get off. There was a televised re-enactment of her last known movements. They used a young actress to play Gemma, but everyone in the staff room agreed that she didn’t look anything like her.
The investigation centred on her family, as it usually does in these matters. Her Dad was interrogated, and both his brothers too. Their backgrounds were splattered all over the tabloids. One uncle had been in prison for something or other, and her Dad had once been in the army, so they spoke to his old comrades, who mostly backed him up. When nothing came of harassing the family, they turned their attentions to the school. Every staff member was more than happy to cooperate. Individual interviews were carried out at the school, the staff called back from the summer break due to the seriousness of the situation. The detectives were thorough, and very personal in their questioning. They were especially interested about everyone’s actions on the Friday in question, and made no secret of the fact that they expected all the teachers to supply them with a firm account of their movements. They avoided the word ‘alibi’, but nobody was left without any doubt that this was what they really meant.
Graham was more than happy to tell them what he had done that weekend. He had driven straight from school to Canterbury. With the schools breaking up for the six-week holiday, he had arranged to visit an old colleague, and stay overnight. He was able to provide them with contact details, and was confident that his old friend would confirm his arrival late on Friday evening, and his departure early on Sunday morning. The only member of staff unable to account for that weekend was Tom Farrar. He was a popular young teacher, who took sport and physical education. The kids really liked him, and many called him by his first name. He lived some way from the school, in the town of Bracknell. He was single, and didn’t have a girlfriend; at least not one that anyone had heard about. He told the police that he had spent that weekend alone, hardly venturing outside his flat. He was relaxing after the long spell at work, and looking forward to a trip to Greece before school started again. This lack of activity, and absence of interaction with possible alibi providers, made Tom the focus of police attention. They had him back and forth to Reading for questioning, and he soon came to the attention of the local press, who sold the story on to the nationals. Someone got hold of a photo of him, in a swimming class. He had his hands underneath Gemma, showing her some sort of swimming posture. Despite the fact that all the other class members were in the photo, it was artfully cropped, and found its way to many newspaper front pages, quickly appearing on TV news as well.
Tom was hounded. The other staff members avoided him, and only pupils could be found to support him. Trouble was, the more youngsters that came forward, the stronger the suspicions became. His flat was turned upside down, and his life examined in minute detail. The investigators soon discovered that he was gay. One of the reasons that he had been unwilling to disclose his movements that Friday, was because he had spent the night with a married man, and didn’t want to betray this confidence. Despite this development, the police still treated him as the main suspect in Gemma’s case. He was attacked in the street, and his home was also damaged. Tom was left with no alternative but to move away. He resigned from the school, and when there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for anything, he left the UK, to start a new life abroad in Canada. At least that was what Janet had told them. She had received reference requests from various places in that country, apparently.
With no other leads, the police continued to concentrate on the staff. They were asked to hand over their mobile phones and computers, and to allow access to bank statements, and anything else that the detectives deemed relevant. They also wanted permission to search their homes. There were some protests. Some of his colleagues saw this as an invasion of their privacy, and an attack on their liberty. Graham was more than happy to hand everything over. He had told his colleagues, “If you have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t you try to help?” The only thing remarkable about Graham’s laptop and phone, was that there was nothing remarkable about his use of either. Safe search had never been disabled on the computer, and all the activity and searches concerned literature, educational matters, and the odd e mail to old colleagues in Kent, as well as a distant cousin in Devon. His phone use was equally uninteresting. He had never taken a photo with the camera, or received one from anyone else. There were text messages to the same former colleagues in Kent, and some phone calls to car dealers, and takeaway restaurants. As for his home telephone, it had not made hardly any calls since it had been installed, and had only received a few, mostly from canvassers. Detective Inspector Sue Teller was presented with the findings, covering less than one A4 page. She looked up from her desk at the young officer and remarked, “This is one dull guy.”
On the first anniversary of her disappearance, there had been a fresh appeal from the still distraught parents. The whole story was briefly re-hashed on an episode of ‘Crimewatch’, and the pupils made their own appeal, on a specially set-up Facebook page. Nothing happened, no new leads were discovered. Life went on as normal.
The rest of his day having passed as it usually did, Graham was happy to be arriving home that evening. The cold had not lasted, and the early evening was bright and fresh. Opening the fridge, he put away the milk and fresh grocery items he had bought on the way home. He went into the large living room, removed his tie, and switched on the TV, consulting the magazine guide to that evening’s programmes. He set the recorder to make sure he taped some news, as well as a popular game show later. He rarely watched the television, but he was acutely aware that this was seen by many others as being strange behaviour. Over breakfast tomorrow, he would skim through the recorded programmes. This would enable him to discuss things, should they come up in general conversation. The large pile of workbooks were placed on the dining table at the end of the room. He would mark the work later, it never took him very long. In the utility room behind the kitchen, he took off his suit, and pressed it, ready for the next time it was worn. He circulated five suits for work, taking four of them to be dry-cleaned once a month. He ironed all his shirts for the week on Sunday afternoons, and this routine made him feel settled. Placing his shirt and socks in the laundry basket, he walked around to his bedroom, wearing only his underpants. He chose a black polo shirt from the wardrobe, and some jogging bottoms to match. Slipping flat sandals on his feet, he adjusted the thermostat in the hallway, and walked slowly up the stairs to the loft.
He had the loft conversion built into the roof space soon after moving in. He got the builders to carry out the work, as part of the overall modernisation. It provided a spare room of reasonable size, with a small en-suite bathroom. One large skylight window was also installed, with a blackout blind fitted to it. At the time, he was asked by colleagues, and even by the builder, why he would want more space, in a substantial bungalow that already had three large bedrooms. He said that it would add value to the place, and also serve as a guest room, should any of his former colleagues, or his distant cousin, ever wish to stay over. From the front, it was hard to tell that any work had been done. At the rear, only the window betrayed the presence of an extra room. The small staircase had easily fitted inside the generous hallway, and the finished job was most attractive he thought. The lock was fitted later, he did that himself.
He opened the door and walked into the stuffy room. She was sitting in the armchair next to the bed, and she smiled as he entered, putting her book onto the bed, and rising to give him a kiss on the cheek. Her long hair was tied in plaits either side of her head, and her fresh face, devoid of make-up, made her look younger than her almost seventeen years. “What have you been working on today?” Graham asked in a kindly tone. ” Jane Eyre” she replied. “I’ve written an essay on her relationship with Mr Rochester, it’s on the desk.”
It had been easy enough. She was new to the school, good at English, and very impressionable. He saw the talent in her right away, streets ahead of the others in her class. She would be doomed though. Her parents doubtless had little ambition for her. She had lots of siblings, and as the oldest, would be expected to work as soon as she could. Graham was sure of that. He had asked her what she thought she might do, later in life. She told him that she was thinking about becoming a nurse. He thought about that, and it riled him. Nothing wrong with nursing, but there were plenty of others to tread that path. This girl had an instinct for literature, and he would not allow her to waste it. He showed her a little attention, and occasionally chatted to her, after the rest of the class had left. He was sure to give her very good marks for all her work, and softened his usual nature sometimes, but only during the brief moments they were alone. To any onlooker, he was just a caring teacher, nurturing a talented pupil.
He bought two basic mobile phones from a stall in a distant shopping centre. They were the sort that didn’t need to be registered, and used any sim card you put in them. When he was sure, he slipped the phone onto her homework with a note, telling her to keep it to herself, and adding the number of his own phone. On that note, he wrote that he would text that evening, and she should make sure that her phone was on silent, and that she was alone in her room. The secrecy would excite her, he hoped. He gambled that she wouldn’t tell any of her classmates. She didn’t seem to socialise that much anyway; probably had to get home, to help out around the house. After a couple of months of clandestine texts, she agreed to a meeting. He would slip her the money for the train, and text her instructions on what to do. On that Friday, she had left school as usual. Instead of walking home, she had taken the much longer walk to the main station, arriving in good time to catch the non-stop London train. She made no attempt to conceal herself, openly buying a ticket, and waiting on the platform, dressed in her school uniform, with a backpack slung over her shoulder. As the train neared London, she went into the toilet. Inside, she quickly changed into the clothes supplied by Graham and left where she could find them. Her hair was bunched up into a baseball cap, and the hood of her baggy fleece top placed over that. With long shorts, and new trainers, her image was changed completely. She put her school clothes into her backpack, and put all of that into the nylon sports bag she had folded inside it earlier. Making her way to a different part of the train, she left the carriage as it arrived in London, bunching up with other passengers, walking on her toes with a swagger, and looking down. To those examining the CCTV, she was disregarded, believed to be a teenage boy.
Gemma checked her phone. He wasn’t there yet, the train was a lot quicker than the car. Anyway, she still had to get a bus, to somewhere in south London that she had never heard of. Graham’s instructions were most detailed, and he had assured her that she would find the place, and not get lost. He had even given her a ticket, a sort of voucher. Because of her age, she probably didn’t need it, but he told her to just get on, and put it under the driver’s partition. Keep her face down at all times, and not to speak to anyone. By the time she had completed the long bus journey, amazed at the heavy traffic, he was there waiting for her, as arranged. She was pleased to see him, and excited by the adventure, almost breathless. Part of her was still very scared, but she knew he would sort it all out. He went over every detail of her journey, asking countless questions. When he was sure that she had done exactly as instructed, he started the car and drove off, heading south. When the buildings thinned out, and she started to see some fields, they stopped at a McDonalds, near a big roundabout. He went inside and bought her a meal, and a milkshake, as well as something for himself. They ate it in the car park, as Graham went over the arrangements for the next few days.
He had rented a caravan, on a large site on the Kent coast. It was only a short drive from Canterbury, where he told her that he had to go to see some friends. He had bought enough shopping, to last her for a few days, as well as some changes of clothes, toiletries, and anything else she might need. It was all in the back of his car. She was not to go outside, or to answer the door to anyone. The caravan had a small toilet and separate shower, and she would have no need to leave it, until he came back on Sunday. There was no TV, but he would leave her lots of books, and contact her on their secret phones. When he went into the office to get the key, she lay on the back floor of the car. Anyone glancing over would have seen an empty vehicle. When he was sure nobody was about, he got her into the caravan, and showed her how everything worked. As he left, he said he would text her very soon, and that she should text him, if she was worried. Remarkably, she managed well. She replied to all the texts he sent from the house of his old colleague, and sent some saying goodnight, or good morning, but she didn’t panic. Not once.
Bright and early on Sunday morning, Graham put the second part of his plan into operation. He reasoned that they would all be suspects, and that his house may well be searched. Until that was over, it was important that Gemma be somewhere safe and quiet. Although he had gone over this previously, he repeated it all again, on the drive up to the motorway. He had checked the caravan thoroughly, and cleaned every surface, just in case. Handing in the keys, he had waited until a casual worker was at the desk, and just dropped them hurriedly onto the counter, without comment. Their next destination was the woodland lodge, just outside Buckingham. It seemed his father had bought this isolated property purely for its proximity to Silverstone Motor Racing Circuit. He had a love of that sport, and could use the lodge to attend meetings there, avoiding race-day traffic. Graham had been up there recently, and stocked it up with all that would be needed for an indefinite stay. She would no longer have to be alone, which would make things much easier. As he was on holiday, his absence could easily be explained, and he could be contacted easily enough on his normal mobile phone. When the call came, he was ready.
Gemma had begun to get a bit edgy. The novelty of the adventure was wearing off, and she missed her Mum, and her brothers and sisters. She had suspected romantic motives for Graham’s actions, but he had not touched her. He read books, smiled at her a lot, and told her that she had a great future. There was no TV to watch, no Internet, and they didn’t go out. She was bored, and told him so. He got a little angry, and said that she didn’t appreciate what he was doing for her, what he was prepared to give up, to help her. He seemed like a teacher again. When he had to go away, he told her it was just for one night, as he had things to do. He never mentioned the police. In fact, he told her, nobody was looking for her, and her parents had not even reported her missing. That evening when he left, he locked the door and windows, and took the keys. Now she was getting scared, and even considered smashing a window. But she had no idea where she was, and no money. She could ring 999 on the mobile, but what would she say? Best wait and see, she reasoned, he will be back tomorrow.
The house had been searched, and nothing found. Graham returned to the lodge after dark, and gathered up all the things. The two phones were disposed of in the woods, and once he had cleaned up to his satisfaction, he left with Gemma, who was looking forward to moving into his house, where they would surely become the couple of her dreams. She spent the journey on the back seat, covered by a duvet. Graham drove carefully, he certainly didn’t want to get stopped by the police. He ushered her into the bungalow, and led her straight upstairs to the loft room. That morning, he had made up the bed, and installed the shelving and wardrobe. A large desk was against one wall, and a cosy armchair behind the door. There were lots of DVD films on the shelves, together with dozens of books. New clothes hung in the wardrobe, and toiletries and towels had been placed in the bathroom. A computer sat on the desk, with pens, notebooks and a printer. It wasn’t connected to the Internet, but in the absence of a TV, it could play the films he had bought her, and also serve for her to do her work on. She really liked the room, and he made dinner for them both, bringing it up on a tray. He explained why he would have to lock the door when he was out. It was for her safety, in case anyone got in.
After the first few days, it began to seem normal to Gemma. She had breakfast in her room, and lunch was left if he went out. They ate dinner together every evening, and he readily supplied new films for her to watch, when she quickly got through those already there. Because of the summer holidays, he was home most days then, and spent them with her; going through books, discussing great writers, and sitting up with her, until she went off to sleep. There was no indication that he was going to be her imagined lover though. Other than a friendly cuddle, or occasionally stroking her hair, he didn’t go near her. Not in that way. It was very peaceful, after her noisy life at home, and she began to see the sense in his argument, that she could study better in this environment, and one day become a great writer. He would see that her work was published, and when she was older, they would reveal their great secret to everyone.
Once a month, Graham would make the trip around the M25 to the huge shopping complex called Lakeside, in Essex. There was no chance that anyone there would ever recognise him, and he could buy the things that Gemma needed, certain of his anonymity. The shop assistants changed frequently, but still he was careful not to use the same shops all the time. On the way back, he would stop at a huge supermarket in Hertfordshire, stocking up with enough groceries to avoid having to keep going to the shops locally. He always brought her back a gift. A small necklace, a new book, or a brightly-coloured jumper. She was delighted with these trinkets, and felt very special indeed. She soon stopped asking about her family, or the others at school. He would read through her work, and tell her that it was of an incredibly high standard. He was sure that she would be the next Bronte. He might also bring home ice cream, always her favourite flavour.
That evening, after finishing the essay on Jane Eyre, Graham put the papers back on the desk, and turned to look at her. “Excellent work” he declared. “We will have to arrange something very special for your seventeenth birthday.” She beamed her satisfaction, then said, “It is only a couple of months now.” He reached over and stroked her face. She really was the brightest pupil he had ever taught.