Imogen Lovett carefully parked her shiny yellow Clio between the white lines in the car park at the rear of the Mini Mart. As was her habit when concentrating on any particularly tricky task, the pink tip of her tongue was slightly protruding between her lips. Leaning forward in the seat to better calculate the distance, she drove another few inches towards the brick wall of the shop and then sharply pulled on the handbrake and turned off the engine. Checking the time on the dashboard clock, she decided to wait another five minutes before she went inside. The little supermarket would have been open for only fifteen or so minutes and there were only a couple of other cars parked; she wanted to ensure that there were at least a few other shoppers before venturing inside.
During her self-imposed postponement, Imogen took the opportunity to check her appearance in the car’s rear-view mirror. She brought up a hand to re-tousle her already tousled blond locks, shaking her head to ensure that her fringe fell back in place just so. She was pleased to note that her brilliant ice blue eyes – somebody once remarked that they were exactly like Cameron Diaz’s! – were bright and sparkly, even though there were pronounced dark smudges beneath them. Oh well, that was just lack of sleep. Lastly, she pulled back her full lips in a parody of a smile and checked that her straight, white teeth were devoid of anything that didn’t belong there – toast, muesli, lipstick. Yep, all good.
Imogen glanced at the clock again: perhaps five more minutes. Looking around idly at the immaculate interior of her car – the valet chappie had done a really fab job, and he was quite dishy as well – she wondered where Toby would be this morning: on the tills or stacking the shelves? Her preference was for the latter so that she could exchange a few words with him. In their code, of course; they had to be so careful – well, she certainly did! She would probably simply say something banal along the lines of, “How did the football match end up yesterday, Toby?” and he – the little devil that he was – would reply something like, “We won, miss!” all innocent, and then, leaning in, would continue so that only she could hear, “I thought about you afterwards, miss… in the shower.” He really could be so bad! But then again, oh so good.
At the age of twenty six, Imogen was what she liked to think of as scarred by love. There had been a string of failed romances bordering upon histrionic proportions. At Manchester University there had been The American, a tall and lugubrious chap studying Classics, alcohol and cocaine all with equal enthusiasm. They had lasted for only six months and now that Imogen looked back on the affair she cannot recall how it even lasted that long. The American – his name was Clint (yea, really!) – seldom had anything to say to her and when he did it was either something deep, meaningful and unfathomable – no doubt derived from his Classics studies – or merely incomprehensible, derived from his recreational pursuits. It had been she who ended it between them, however she was not sure to this day if he was fully cognisant of the break up and on several occasions following he would sidle up to her in a bar or at a party and slip his arm round her waist and tilt his head against hers as if they were still lovers. Gently extricating herself from his grasp and moving swiftly away, Imogen would glance over her shoulder to witness him in a state of what seemed utter bewilderment.
Colin had been next; very Scottish and ginger. He’d been sweet at the beginning. He was reading quantum something or other and would discuss the subject – whatever it was – with her in a lovely, lilting Edinburgh brogue that could sometimes put her to sleep. Such were Colin’s soporific skills that she often completely forgot he was with her as her mind wandered and meandered in her own separate thoughts, only to suddenly find herself tuning back in again with a shock tantamount to being awoken by a loud bang. Yes, Colin had been sweet at first but eventually all that saccharine was bound to prove unpalatable. As luck would have it, half way through his degree, Colin was made an offer he couldn’t refuse from a university in Wisconsin and after a tearful (on his behalf) last supper together he had flown off into the USA distance; she liked to imagine him doing so at quantum speed.
Imogen’s first proper teaching job was at a school in Stockport. She’d only recently graduated, receiving a second in English Literature and Drama, and was employed as Assistant Head of English, a title she relished even though the reality was that the only other teacher of English – Head of English – was a fusty man of some sixty plus years content to see out his final year until he could blissfully retire and no doubt drive his long suffering wife to an early grave. Albert Donaldson was his name and, although Imogen felt the school was a little on the rough side for her ideal longer term preference, the prospect of Albert’s imminent departure imbued in her some positive thoughts and the opportunity to greatly enhance her flimsy and still mediocre CV.
With thoughts essaying in her mind of Albert’s leaving and the possibility of her own star ascending, Imogen was further encouraged when she encountered Phil Lomax one afternoon as they approached each other in the corridor.
“Ah, Im,” said the Headmaster, stopping and facing her, “just the person I was after.” She smiled at him brightly but, typically, he left a dramatic pause before continuing to speak, an index finger held up vertically to his lips as if forbidding her to talk, giving the perception of some deep thought process being undertaken. At forty, he was slightly overweight with something of the hound dog look about his droopy eyes. An inch or so shorter than Imogen in her three inch stilettos, she forbade herself to glance even fleetingly at his forehead, which was of a dome-like shape and thatched by the last comb-over in England, as if the Head Teacher had recently been plucked from nineteen seventy two. “You’ve undoubtedly heard about Donaldson,” he finally went on.
Imogen merely tilted her head, indicating neither yes or no, her eyebrows slightly raised, waiting for him to continue, still smiling sweetly.
Lomax cleared his throat noisily. “Yes, well, he’s off. Jacking it in at the end of the year. Sad, I suppose, but can’t blame him. Anyway, it leaves a hole, if you follow. We need to get together some time and discuss it. OK?”
“Of course,” she replied pertly. “When do you want to meet?”
“Ah, well, yes. Sooner rather than later, I think,” and he did the thing with his lips and index finger again, showing that he was thinking. “How about tomorrow? Meet for a drink at the Stockport Arms. I’ll even spring for scampi and chips in a basket, eh?”
Having expected their meeting to be arranged within the school premises, Imogen was momentarily taken off guard. Recovering quickly, she agreed and a meeting time was arranged.
Their affair – if indeed it could be described as such – lasted for nine months. As the Head Master was married with children – and never indicated any desire to alter those circumstances – their liaisons were always conducted secretly: furtive grunts and groans in the staff room when all the teachers and pupils had departed, sweaty proceedings in the back of his saloon car parked in nearby woodland; on one memorable occasion a weekend at a bed and breakfast in Southport where Imogen was shocked to discover that they had to actually spend many hours together with little in common to talk about.
It was two months before Albert Donaldson’s retirement was due when he told her, very awkwardly, that he had had to appoint a new Head of English and, “regrettably”, it wasn’t she. It was coming up to six o’clock and they were again in the staff room. She cynically noted that he had timed his announcement post coitus.
“You have to understand, Im,” he was saying, “I have a responsibility to other people as well. The Committee. The other staff members. The pupils. You’ll have plenty more chances, a bright young thing like you. Plenty.”
With a sigh of resignation, Imogen replied whilst buttoning her blouse, “It’s OK, Phil. I do understand….” but then, with an uncontrollable sudden anger she continued, “but for God’s sake stop touching yourself like that and put your bloody trousers back on!”
A week later, Imogen gave her notice and spent the next eighteen months supply teaching throughout the North West. There was little if any satisfaction in the work, but the money was terrific.
Her desultory romantic existence continued. Mark the Painter had lasted for nearly half a year. A bit flash and, Imogen had to admit, more than a little rough and ready, he’d nevertheless been fun. They’d had a smashing two week holiday in Spain and she was warming to him so much that she’d harboured thoughts of a future together, perhaps even marriage. But things didn’t work out. Only a week after their Spanish holiday, he’d asked her to lend him eight hundred pounds – money he needed to buy decorating supplies for a big hotel job he’d secured, he’d told her.
After several days of unanswered calls, ignored text messages and no answer to the door of Mark’s flat, he had finally made contact only to tell her that he had moved back in with the mother of his six year old daughter. Being told of the existence of these two human beings was a shock and surprise to her; that she never saw the eight hundred pounds again wasn’t.
Then came Kevin the Accountant who worked for a building firm in Warrington and who still lived at home with his widowed mother: that was a six weeks stint…
Barney the Builder and sometime bouncer and full time Punk Rocker (aged thirty nine): a month…
Conn, unknown occupation, indeterminate age, a bit scary to be truthful: one Saturday night and Sunday morning (months ago) – may look up again one day…
And so on, etc, etc, etc…
Imogen checked her image one last time in the mirror. Yea, still got it. She exited her Clio and made towards the Mini Mart.
Toby Faulkes pushed the squeaky trolley loaded high with fruit and vegetables down the centre aisle of the supermarket and stopped adjacent to the appropriate shelves. Slitting open the first cardboard box, he began placing the stringed bags of oranges. That done, he collapsed the empty box, put the flattened cardboard square on the green linoleum floor, and then opened the second box, which contained melons.
He was in a contemplative mood and was glad that the manageress had assigned him to shelf stacking this morning so that he was able to marshal his thoughts whilst engaged in the mundane task. Also, he was still drained from the activities of the previous evening, not getting back home and to his own bed until gone three a.m. and so would have loathed the necessity of having to engage with customers at the tills. He had had to dash to work this morning and had only just made it in time. He had never been late and considered it a badge of honour to continue this punctiliousness.
As he worked away under the fluorescent lights, his thoughts were churning as he considered his options. He was in his final year at East Lancs High, studying for A- levels in maths, chemistry, physics and biology, and was intent on passing all with high grades. Then would come university, where again he would push himself as far as was possible. And then… who knew? But he wouldn’t be stacking shelves, that was a given.
“Would you tell me where the Worcestershire sauce is?” asked a bent over woman looking to be in her late seventies.
“Yes, of course,” Toby replied, “just follow me.” He took her to the third aisle, reached up for the bottle and put it gently into her wire basket.
“Oh, thank you, young man,” she said, “I don’t think I could have managed that on my own.”
“They are a bit high up there, aren’t they,” Toby observed, receiving a beautiful smile from her in reward. He emptied the box of melons, disposed of the cardboard as before and then turned his attention to the grapefruits.
Toby gave his head an imperceptible shake when he thought about his current situation, a small pursing of his lips masking a hidden smile to himself. Any other guy his age would probably be over the moon and wouldn’t believe their luck. A gorgeous, sexy, experienced woman – the teenage boys’ hormonal dream! And at first it had been, it had been a fabulous, unbelievable rollercoaster of a dream. That it also had to be kept a secret only added to the excitement and frisson. But if it ever came out, if ever they were discovered, what then? All of the romance that Toby had felt at the start – and, to a degree, still did – would simply be exposed as dirty and sordid. He could imagine it making the pages of the Lancashire Gazette, perhaps even the front page. A story like that could even reach the nationals. Toby could envisage Jeremy Vine doing a piece on his radio programme, inviting listeners to offer their opinions… his mother, horrified, listening one Wednesday afternoon as she did the ironing.
And what would it do for the hopes and aspirations he had for his future. Would they ask him – tell him – to leave East Lancs High, never darken their doors again? What would happen to his A- levels? Would he have to start again somewhere else? Where? Would a university feel they didn’t want the negative publicity that may ensue if they enrolled him?
“Excuse me… can I…?” came a woman’s voice behind him. He turned, realising as he did that his mental machinations had put an involuntary frown on his face and immediately rearranging his features into a winning smile.
“Sorry,” he said, stepping aside whilst the woman selected a melon. He waited patiently until she moved away again, placed the remaining grapefruits, and then started on the avocados.
And what about her? Whatever fate he would suffer at their discovery, surely it would be ten times worse for her. She would certainly lose her job, probably not be able to teach ever again. Because he was over sixteen when it had began, he was pretty sure that it wasn’t exactly illegal, but she’d said something about it was different because she was a teacher at his school, that she’d had to sign a sort of oath or something …
No, Toby thought to himself, something had to be done; one of them had to make the break, break the cycle – it just could not be allowed to go on.
Again, there was a voice behind him, this time a familiar one: “How did the football match end up yesterday, Toby?”
This time Toby was resolute: tonight he would tell her it had to stop. He’d tried to broach the subject on many occasions but, for one reason or another, the moment had passed and he’d kept his mouth shut. He was acutely aware that the longer he let it continue the more likely it gave rise to all the disastrous consequences he had been mentally assembling a growing list of. The last time he had come anywhere close to succeeding in saying something he’d contrived a seemingly innocuous conversation that involved speculation about their future lives; not together, but wholly separately, as individuals.
They had been lying in bed for the second time that evening; as was often the norm, Imogen liked to get straight down to it the moment he arrived at her little flat above the newsagents and then, after a brief post-lovemaking nap, they would take a shower and then she would cook him something for his supper or produce a pre-prepared salad with cold cuts. They would eat their meal on their laps, sitting on her small settee, usually with a glass of wine, and then return to her bed for Round Two.
On his last attempt at broaching the subject, camouflaged among speculations of the future, it had been following Round Two and he had begun by casually asking her where she thought she might be in five years from now.
“Oh, golly, darling – I don’t know. Never been one for planning ahead really. No, actually that’s not true. I suppose I was more that way once. But… oh, it just seems a bit of a waste of time and effort. There doesn’t seem much opportunity that I can see. The big reshuffle came when Marjorie Beaumont took early retirement. Now, it’s all just settled and done with. Nice to get a promotion some time, I suppose, but to be honest I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing.”
It wasn’t the response he had hoped to illicit. He’d tried another tack with a different question.
“Oh, you mean where will I actually be be. Well, I hope I can find somewhere better than this dump. But trying to find a place in the Valley close to the school that I can afford… That’s the tricky bit. Would be lovely to buy one day, of course, but they want such a horrid amount for the deposit. So, again, don’t really know. Probably still here, worst luck.”
She’d then shifted slightly away from him from the position she’d adopted lying in the crook of his arm so she could see his face. “You’re being a bit Piers Morganish with all these questions, darling,” she said with a small pout of her lush lips, turning her lithe body so that she could drape a smooth warm leg over his and extend a hand to softly rub his chest.
Feeling some degree of exasperation and calculating his next sentence, instead of asking about her, he’d then given a small presentation on what he wished to be doing, telling her he wanted to go to university and then take some time to travel, see the world and generally broaden his horizons.
“Oh darling, yes. You absolutely must,” she’d agreed, tapping at his chest for emphasis. “You see, that’s where I went wrong. There must have been a million people that I could have met at uni – societies and thingies I could have joined. But no. Good girl Imogen just hung out with all the boring weirdoes and knuckled down to pass her exams. And as for travelling, well, I wish. Straight from uni and straight to a teaching post. When I look back at what could have been… But you know what they say; you make your bed…”
Her hand, which had been making concentric circles over his chest, then began to inch southwards and Toby had been aware that another chance to tell her that it was over had gone the same way.
But this time: yes, he was resolute.
Toby had just finished an evening shift at the Mini Mart and it was nearing eleven. He trod carefully as he made his way down the narrow, cobbled alley that led to her flat. The automatic security light flashed on as he opened the yard door and quickly walked across to the wrought-iron back stairway. As expected, her door at the top was not locked and he called out as he opened it so as not to alarm her, even though he was expected.
“Hello,” she called back, her voice echoing down the narrow hallway. Emerging from the door which led to the small living room, she rushed forward and flung her arms around him and held him tight. Toby could feel her jagged breaths and as he looked down at her head pressed against his chest, he saw that her cheeks were wet with tears. Holding her slightly away from him, he said: “What’s happened?”
She let go of her grasp on him and quickly wiped at her face, the effect causing her mascara to smear down her lovely features in an almost comic way.
“What’s happened?” he asked again, more urgently.
“Oh, darling, I must look frightful!” she said, taking one of his hands and leading him through the door she had emerged from. With her back to him as he followed her, she continued, a strained laughter in her voice, “You must forgive me. Goodness, what a way to greet you! And you just come from doing all that dreadful shop work. You must think I’m awful. Come. Come and sit down.” She ushered him to the two-seater settee and they sat, Imogen still holding his hand as if he would float away without her restraint.
Toby noticed the almost empty bottle of wine on the coffee table beside a half-full ashtray and a packet of cigarettes, even though she hadn’t smoked to his knowledge for years. She produced a crumpled tissue and dabbed at her eyes again, blinking rapidly, forcing a smile on her mouth that almost made it.
“Tell me…,” he began once more, but she put a finger to his lips to shush him, indicating she was now composed and ready to tell him what had occurred.
When she did speak, it was almost robotically, as if she was relating an item of news on the television, not personally involved, but modulating her speech accordingly so as not to diminish the drama of the tale.
She had been summoned, she told him, to a meeting with the Headmaster and the Deputy Headmaster to commence directly after the final lesson that day. The nature of the summons had been in a formal letter on East Lancs High School notepaper and had been given to her by the Deputy Head as soon as she had arrived that morning. The letter stated that she must attend the – so far – informal meeting to discuss an allegation of a most serious nature and she was at liberty to bring with her a personal witness of her choice to the proceedings. “Well, I was hardly going to do that!” she added indignantly.
She had arrived, as instructed, just before 3.45 and, after dutifully knocking on the office door, had been admitted by the Deputy Head, who’d indicated a chair positioned some four feet from the Headmaster’s desk, who’d sat behind it looking uncomfortable but determined. The Deputy Head had taken a seat beside the desk and both men then briefly looked at some notes in front of them before raising their eyes to her.
“Miss Lovett,” the Headmaster began, and she was immediately startled because usually, with pupils not around, he would address her as Imogen and sometimes simply as Im. Perhaps using her formal name had had a similar effect upon him, too, because having used it he seemed to pale and stumble on his next words. “Well, firstly, thank you for attending this… thank you for arriving so promptly.” Then, visibly pushing all other considerations aside, he continued, “You may be wondering why I have called this meeting. As I told you in my letter, it is an informal meeting – certainly at this stage – but it has been made necessary by some very disturbing and serious allegations which I… we need to discuss with you.” The Headmaster again glanced down at the paper on his desk, as if needing time to consider his further remarks.
Imogen, apart from a quiet “hello” when she had entered the room had so far said no more.
“You know you could have brought someone with you, Imogen?” said the Deputy Head, and she had been grateful to hear her first name used.
“Yes,” she replied turning her head his way. “I’d rather know what it’s all about though, Matt,” she’d said, as if that was explanation in itself. Looking back at the Headmaster, she’d asked, “What allegations? What am I supposed to have done?” The Headmaster had cleared his throat and began to speak again.
“… Well, then it all came out,” she continued with her tale, letting go of Toby’s hand and reaching for the cigarette packet. “Oh, sorry, do you mind, darling?” she asked. He waived a hand and she flicked her lighter three times before finally getting the Marlborough lit.
The allegation, Imogen went on, after taking a few rapid sucks on the cigarette, was that she had had an inappropriate liaison with a pupil.
Toby felt a knot form in his stomach. Images of newspaper headlines and radio phone-ins raced through his mind in a nanosecond. Ungallantly, his own present thoughts and concerns were for himself. All of his fears had come true. They’d kick him out of school, no university would look at him… he’d end up stacking shelves for life.
“Did they… do they?” he began to ask, his face now pale.
Stubbing out her cigarette and seeing his distress, Imogen grabbed each of his hands in her own.
“Yes,” she told him, “but don’t worry. They said they believed what I told them and all I got was a verbal reprimand, so it’ll be OK. They haven’t sacked me or anything. Just told me I’d been silly and unthinking and that I should count myself lucky that nothing more serious had come of it.”
Hearing her words and finding no consolation in them that affected him, Toby blurted out, “But what in God’s sake did you tell them!?”
Letting go of his hands and sitting slightly back in the seat, Imogen said patiently, “I told them that I’d just happened to mention to you – you know, innocently, one day in school – that my kitchen tap had been leaking and I was struggling to find a local plumber. If you remember, that did happen and you, darling, managed to fix it for me yourself. Well, I just embellished the truth a little and said that you’d come round one evening and changed the washer or done something or other… and that was it.”
Letting it sink in, Toby said, “So… you told them that I only came round the once…? Just to fix a tap?”
“Yes! Tantamount to a hanging offence, according to the Head. Dereliction of responsibility and all that. I can tell you, he scared the heck out of me! Talking about the police and all sorts. But, as I say, it’s OK. Bit of a stain on me, of course, but that’ll wash off. I guess we’ve been lucky.”
As Imogen had been speaking, she’d continued to marginally retreat from him along the settee but now she moved closer and again took hold of his hand.
“Thing is, darling,” she continued in a softer voice, “It unfortunately means curtains on us. You understand? We’ve had a close shave, you and me. Been lucky this time. But I… we can’t take the risk anymore. You do understand, don’t you, darling… Toby?”
A few moments later, Toby was again treading carefully along the cobbled alley, mindful not to trip in a pothole or walk into a rubbish bin. He wasn’t sure what he was thinking. He was pretty sure it wasn’t regret. Relief, he supposed, was the word, then again… not that either. Perhaps just somewhere in between.
Imogen poured herself a glass of wine and pouted a little when she saw it was the last in the bottle. She sat back in the settee and her mind went back to the dreadful meeting with the Head. Lucky he was such a pussycat, really. It could have been a bad show. Matt, the Deputy Head, was the dangerous one. His phone call to her mobile earlier in the evening had left her in no doubt about that:
“Im, it’s Matt. Just wanted to say I hope you took all that today as seriously as it deserved. About the worst thing, you know, putting it about with a student. Career ending, that is. Oh, by the way, I hope you’ve found yourself a good plumber now because from what I’ve heard your taps always need some attention. See you at school, Im. Bye.”
Yes, she thought, Matt was no pussycat and could be the danger. But then again, she’d seen the way he’d looked at her in morning assembly and during afternoon staff meetings. It was a look she knew well, had seen a million times before on men’s faces… yes, she was pretty sure Matt could be tamed and brought to heel if needed.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
All names, people portrayed and incidents in the short story ‘Imogen & Toby’ are entirely a work of fiction and come entirely from the writer’s imagination.
Steven Elvy has had a varied working life as a film librarian, a cook, a barman, a labourer, a plastics-recycler, a salesman and a recruitment consultant. He grew up in North London then lived in East Sussex, The Midlands and The Lake District and now in a village in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. Always passionate about art and literature, he has published four novels. He has been married ‘a few times’.