I BEGAN this blog five months ago as a partly therapeutic exercise following my breakdown last June. I envisaged it as a vehicle to look back on my 28-year career as a journalist, an outlet for my creative writing and to expunge some of the events of my life.
It is the last which I turn to now. I have already told of the sexual abuse I suffered as a young teenager, my battle with cancer and my descent into near alcoholism. I am now publishing four accounts which I have vaguely called Back from the Edge. Part one is titled: Regret.
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped
AS I survey the eternal bombsite that is my life, dark clouds gather constantly over one moment in time.
That moment is forever with me, because more than others it shaped who I became.
It was a huge and horrendous mistake I made when still a young man learning about life. Indeed at the time, my life was full, I had the world at my feet and my future ahead of me.
Thirty years have now passed since that moment. Thirty years that I have yearned to open up but felt bound by my own guilt and shame.
Now it is a story that coruscates with agony to tell, but if I am true to the badge of honesty I wear, I HAVE to tell it, for all that follows. Many friends – and my family – know the events well, but others who have come to me later in my life might recoil at its telling and I may lose some as friends.
George Orwell foretold 1984 as a year of doom for mankind; for me it is a year that will be forever Orwellian.
In that year, I was a 26-year-old ‘highly gifted’ special needs teacher. I had cut my teeth for three years in a busy comprehensive school in South Yorkshire but moved south for career advancement. I suddenly found myself as the youngest head of a special needs department in the whole of my new county local authority.
My first year in charge of the new department had been vibrant and successful. With that success came greater demand and soon I was juggling the growing number of children needing my services and skills. The demand was recognised and in the January of 1984, the headteacher of the attached comprehensive school offered me the help of two school leavers to prepare work for my charges and sit to hear them read – these were the days before classroom assistants.
The two Easter leavers – both girls – exceeded all my expectations and soon they were spending lunch times helping make work cards and even offering to stay after school.
One of the girls – who I will only refer to as W – was exceptionally gifted and helpful and often stayed for a cup of tea and a chat about her job hopes when she left school. Before long, a friendship developed and W began to accompany me to karate lessons in a neighbouring town once a week.
Many of you reading this will already be seeing red flags waving. For me writing this 30 years on, my thoughts are what a stupid git I was and that I didn’t see the obvious!
Anyway, without going into too much detail, the friendship with W quickly turned into a relationship and became sexual.
I was married to a loyal wife and had a small child from that marriage, but thought nothing of her while I enjoyed the physical attraction of a much younger girl.
When W finally left school at Easter, we arranged other times that we could see each other. We went away for a couple of weekends together and sordidly even had sex in my car. It seemed for all intents and purposes that I could have my cake and eat it. Morality and loyalty for my wife had left me. Not once did I stop and ask myself ‘what are you doing Nic?” I carried on regardless.
But the winter months turned to spring and warning bells began to chime.
Sometime in late May I was called in for a ‘private chat’ with the headteacher of the comprehensive school. We had become friends. He was 20 years older than me and I looked up to him as a mentor and role model. During that ‘private chat’ he told me that I had been seen by other members of staff after school with W in my car. In her home village, the gossip was already rife about my affair with her. In stentorian tones the head warned me that I was risking my career and my marriage if I continued seeing W. He told me to act immediately to save what I had.
That evening I jettisoned anything left of my humanity and bluntly told W we had to stop seeing each other. I left her shaking in tears and returned blindly to my wife.
Somehow over the next few weeks, I managed to push W from my everyday thoughts, disentangle myself from the affair and climb back on the treadmill of a ‘normal’ life with my wife and young son. I had learned heartlessness.
On Saturday 7 July, in glorious summer sunshine, I took my teenage sister to Wembley Stadium to watch an all day concert starring UB40, Carlos Santana and my musical hero, Bob Dylan. At that moment I kidded myself that life could not be any better.
Four days later, on 11 July 1984, all that changed forever.
It was just a few days before the end of the school year and I had returned home after a day’s teaching to light a bonfire and clear weeds from the back garden.
The early evening sun was playing mad shadows when I looked up to see W standing at my back gate. At her side was an older girl I recognised as her sister. I gulped as I was beckoned across by both of them. I walked to the gate unprepared for the shock which awaited me. Staring at me, and on the verge of tears, W told me that she was three months pregnant with my child. My heart raced and I choked as I tried to take in what she said. And before I had time to assimilate any of it, her sister barked: “And she was only 15 when you shagged her!”
Her words cut me to the core. I struggled for sanity and can’t remember how I replied. I recall feeling sick and asking for 20 minutes to sort out a couple of things and to meet outside the village hall, half a mile away.
In blind panic, I walked into my house and found my wife feeding our small son. I sat shaking next to her on our sofa and blurted out that I had had an affair with a former student and she was now pregnant with my child. I added the enormity that she was just 15 years old when we first had sex! My wife broke down as I struggled for reason before telephoning two friends to ask for their assistance.
Blinded by fear, I then drove to meet W and her sister by the village hall where I agreed to talk with their parents the following day.
An hour later, accompanied by my best friend Phil, I drove immediately to the local police station. Swallowing hard, I walked up to the desk to face the duty sergeant. I was in for another shock. The sergeant was very familiar to me… his name was Bill and he was the father of one of the pupils I taught. Shaking with fear and embarrassment I told him I had come to make a statement. Bill looked at me and smiled and asked if it was serious. I told him it was. He led me into an interview room where I sat and told him I had had sex with an under-age girl. Bill stared at me and asked if I was ‘sure’ I wanted to confess this? I answered ‘yes’ and said I had to try and put some things right. So we sat and he took a short statement from me, before adding that he would have to pass the matter to CID. He then patted me on the shoulder and told me to ‘go home’.
I did not realise at the time, but this was the beginning of something far bigger than I had ever imagined.
My wife and I barely slept that night. In a dark mist of tears and fury, both of us were unsure whether our marriage would last or whether either of us wanted it to. I can only imagine how W must have felt at this time. Thirty years later my heart goes out to her again.
The next morning dawned like the beginning of a nightmare. I telephoned the headteacher of the comprehensive school – who was my boss and line manager – and told him I could not come to work as there had been a domestic crisis. Half an hour later he arrived at my front door to check on what had happened – yes, he had already heard rumours! He asked a few questions and I offered him my immediate resignation as a teacher. He blankly refused to accept it and kindly told me to take the rest of the summer term off and ‘let things cool down’.
That evening I met with W and her mother and frankly discussed what I had done and how we would deal with the results of my stupidity. Both W and her mother made it clear that she would keep the baby. I in turn tried to raggedly apologise and promise as much financial help as I could manage. My reaction was pathetic in the extreme. The primary thought that a baby was on its way was blinded by terror of what I had done.
My next task was to tell my parents and friends. The telling and the reaction was mixed with horror, shock, denial, rejection and shame.
Within a week the school summer holidays had begun. The six weeks became a blur, punctuated by two interviews with CID officers and being formally charged with committing Unlawful Sexual Intercourse (USI) under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act. After being photographed, charged and having my fingerprints taken, I was told by police to await the outcome of their report to the Crown Prosecution Service.
The only other punctuation amid an endless summer was taking W to the local branch of Mothercare to stock up on some essentials for our child, who was due sometime the following January.
Then a week after the holidays ended, there came a knock at our front door. It was a local police officer who politely handed me a summons to appear at our town’s magistrates’ court on Thursday 27 September. I choked, still unable to fully understand the enormity of what I had done, or indeed what lay ahead.
I resigned from my teaching job the next day – this time the head accepted the resignation and I prepared to meet my doom in the courtroom.
In preparation for the dreaded day two friends, plus the headteacher, volunteered to write court references and a local solicitor agreed to act for me.
The day arrived too soon. My solicitor lodged my plea of guilty to all charges and I stood in the dock while the three magistrates read my references and weighed up the evidence. I admitted in court that I had “wrecked W’s teenage life and could never redeem what had been done.” I stood shaking when the JPs returned to the bench. My father stood behind me as the chairman of the magistrates said: “It is sad that a man with the abilities you have stands before the court convicted of an offence like this.” He then read out my sentence: “Three months imprisonment… suspended for two years”.
I stood down and felt the full punishment and total humiliation descend upon me.
The next few days brought testament to that feeling as local newspapers ran my court story under headlines as lurid as “Teacher ruined by gymslip sex”, “Affair with girl 15 wrecks career” and “Exceptionally gifted teacher made girl, 15 pregnant”. The papers also reported that my wife was standing by me and we were repairing our marriage.
The humiliation was complete, but it was not over yet… not by a long way!
A few days later, I received a short letter from W. Her words were wrought with pain, rejection and anger. In short she told me to “Fuck off out of her life” and she would raise “her child” without me.
In the reality of hindsight, her feelings were raw and I should have embraced them and offered more help. But at the time I lapsed into a deep depression. I became a recluse and life no longer had any meaning. I was the architect and perpetrator of my own downfall.
Sometime in October 1984 I stole my father’s shotgun and armed with the gun, two cartridges and a bottle of rum I walked deep into the forest at the back of our garden. I sat on the damp leaves by a tall pine tree and drank two thirds of the bottle of rum. I loaded the shotgun and held the barrel under my chin… then I fell asleep. I was woken from the drunken stupor by my Border Collie licking my right hand. The dog had followed me into the forest and had stopped me concluding my end purpose.
Shamed and crying, I walked back down the hill and returned the shotgun to my father’s gun cupboard. Although I often wanted to end my life over the next year, I did not try to commit suicide again.
Within no time it was Christmas. Probably the most empty festive season of my entire life. My thoughts were everywhere. I had just received a letter from the Department of Education and Science telling me, that following a review of my case, I had been banned from teaching anyone under the age of 16 for the next 10 years! My name was officially on the infamous List 99 of banned teachers.
January and 1985 dawned bleakly as I tried to pick up my life.
Then two things happened which rocked me still further and made me realise I had to carry on.
The first unexpected event was the arrival of two letters from parents of former pupils, each asking in turn whether I would consider teaching their children privately. I am staring at the letters again as I write this and realise the strength of forgiveness of fellow humans.
Then I heard word than W had given birth to our child and it was a healthy baby girl she had named T. A week later my solicitor obtained a copy of my daughter’s birth certificate… its details shook me. T was born on 1 February… my birthday! It felt like God was sticking a finger in my eye and telling me I would NEVER forget her or my actions again.
I knew I could have no part in my daughter’s upbringing, but set up a savings account for her into which I would put money aside for her future. It seems pathetic, but it was all I could do. I also vowed to write a letter to her on her birthday each year and store those letters away until the day we might eventually meet.
The next couple of years blazed by as I struggled to set up my own writing and teaching agency – after obtaining clearance from the DES – and giving myself some sort of purpose in life. Most people in my home town seemed to be aware of my conviction, but few ever mentioned it. For most of the time my head was elsewhere as I struggled to keep my marriage afloat, care for my young son, run a small business and think constantly of W and my daughter T.
Twice over those years I glimpsed her by chance. The first time I was shopping in a local delicatessen and while paying for cheese I glanced outside to see W pushing a buggy with a beautiful little girl inside. The second occasion was about a year later when I was driving through the village where W lived and saw her pushing the same buggy with a blonde haired toddler strapped in the seat. These two moments stayed with me for many years and were my ONLY visual link to my daughter.
But then in September 1987 my life changed again… this time through illness rather than any action by myself. After a year of failing health, I was diagnosed with an advanced and highly malignant cancer of my right shoulder muscle. I have blogged about my cancer battle elsewhere on No Time to Think. As part of my recovery I wrote a series of “Open After I have died” letters to close friends and family, including W and T. When I was put into remission in the summer of 1988, I sent the letter to W. It was a cathartic event on my part and an effort to apologise more fully for what I had done.
I did not expect a response.
As I gradually returned to full health I received a letter from the DES stating that they had reviewed my case and part of my teaching ban had been lifted. But inside me nothing had changed. I had committed a crime and I was being punished.
Towards the end of the summer of 1988 I received a surprise telephone call from W. She received my letter and appeared genuinely concerned about my health. She had moved away to a town 60 miles north of where I lived. We chatted for more than 20 minutes amid lots of questions about T. As the call ended, we agreed to write to each other.
Over the next couple of years we exchanged a number of letters and developed a cool friendship. Finally in March 1990, I divorced my long-suffering wife and was on the verge of moving to Scotland to begin a new life in newspaper journalism. I then grasped the nettle to ask W if we might meet. I was taken aback when she agreed.
The meeting, initially in a park in W’s new home town, was full of questions and at times quite barbed. W was now aged 22 and had grown into a mature and loving mother. She said she was living with a man, who was helping her raise T, who had just started school. She said she cared deeply for him and he was proving a great stepdad. We adjourned our meeting to lunch in a local pub and W surprised me by giving me two photographs of our daughter. We agreed to continue sharing letters and W would keep me informed of T’s development. We also agreed that when T reached 18, we would tell her of our story.
A new line had been drawn under what I had done and I felt ready to move on.
But three weeks later another shock was in store. A letter arrived from W which was to change things again. Her partner had opened the most recent missive I had sent her and set down an ultimatum: either we stop all communication or he would move out! W said she had reluctantly agreed to his demand. W closed her letter by promising that she would contact me if ever anything happened to T, which she felt I should know about.
And so I moved to Scotland bereft and clinging to the two photographs of T that W had given me. I framed the pictures and placed them on a mantle to look at every day.
My life moved on and I continued to save money and write my annual letters to T. She was always in my mind while my conviction still chewed at me even though it was legally ‘spent’ – which meant no-one could talk about or report it without facing dire legal consequences – in 1991. My career blossomed, but these were the lost years.
Then with a new partner in tow, I moved back to England in 2001. By this time T had turned 16, and I awaited with some anxiety the next two years.
So 2003 arrived and as my daughter’s 18th birthday drew close, I wrote to W for the first time in many years. My letter was to check out her thoughts and our mutual readiness to tell T about the past.
But more shocks were to come.
In September, following an exchange of text messages and a fraught phone call with W, it was clear that T had no idea I even existed. She had grown up believing her mother’s former partner was her natural father.
T went through emotional hell when she discovered the truth. I believed that I may never see my daughter and had only myself to blame.
But a couple of days later, on a wet Saturday, my mobile phone pinged. I had received a text message from an unknown number. Gingerly I opened the text to find a message from T, asking if we could write to each other.
That afternoon my heart opened and 18 years of pain and explanation flowed from my word-processor as I wrote to my daughter.
Two more weeks passed with more letters before we arranged to meet at a hotel in T’s home town. My wife and I had booked two rooms for the night at the hotel and had given T the option to stay over.
It was a Saturday and we had arranged to meet in the hotel bar at 6pm.
I sat and waited nervously. The hour passed and the clock in the bar ticked towards 6.20pm. Maybe she had cold feet? My nerves were raw as I ordered a second gin and tonic and waited.
Suddenly a blonde-haired girl walked into the bar carrying a small holdall. She looked at me and said simply: “Nic”. I replied: “T”. Unsure whether to embrace or shake hands we simply sat down.
We talked, drank, ate and talked some more until well past midnight. The next morning we had breakfast together and continued talking until past lunchtime. She met my wife and my small son Nathan (who was just 20 months old at the time).
Weekend visits to our home followed and a slow bonding process began with more questions and answers than I can remember.
At the end of October we organised a family get-together for T to meet her biological grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and her older brother and sisters.
And there hangs another story.
In 2005, T helped persuade me to appeal against my teaching ban. I had no intention of ever teaching again, but it seemed a good thing to do.
On Saturday 3 December, I received a letter from the then Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, repealing my teaching ban. In her letter Ms Kelly said: “You were contrite about your offence, you have expressed remorse, you did not attempt to justify your actions, you have attempted to make amends for your wrongdoings… you are not a risk to children and would be an asset to the teaching profession.”
The bonding with T has continued over more than 10 years. It has not always run smoothly, and I have had to recognise that the man who raised her for the best part of 14 years will always be her real dad. But our relationship survives and I have a daughter. What I also know is I cannot change the past and can never repair what I did to W. Time has passed and it is ironic that our daughter is now older than I was when I committed the offence.