She pored over his advert just once more to remind herself, although she’d looked at it so many times she knew it off by heart. Tall, athletic build, a teacher. He was good looking. There was no getting away from it. Made you wonder why he needed to advertise but then these days it was what everyone did, apparently. And he seemed to like her.
She always looked forward to his emails. They came every evening, without fail, filled with tales of the average school day. Enough to make you glad you weren’t at school yourself anymore. He had to deal with bullying by text, with girls who should have known better sending daft pictures of themselves to boys, the sort of photos that would make you want to die if your Mum and Dad saw them, the sort that ended up posted on Facebook for half the world to see.
After a while, she’d begun to wonder whether he was married. During that first month or two, when they never managed to meet, when dates were cancelled at the last minute, trains missed, emergencies suddenly came up, she’d had to ask herself what was going on. She’d accused him in an email in the end. Said it was strange how they’d never spoken, let alone met.
He sent flowers the next day. Beautiful flowers, not some tacky arrangement full of chrysanthemums. Coffin flowers, her Mum always called them. No, these were special – lillies and alliums interspersed with eucalyptus. Unusual, just like her, he said. And he’d phoned that night. She’d been startled at first. Thrown by his voice, which wasn’t what she’d expected. Not the sort of voice you’d imagine commanding the respect of a room full of teenagers. But once they got chatting, she forgot all about it. He seemed to understand her so perfectly. He felt like her best friend at the end of that first call. She’d congratulated herself. It felt like they already knew each other so well and they hadn’t even met.
So how had she let nine months pass without that meeting actually happening? His excuses had always seemed so plausible: the demands of the school timetable, weekend rugby trips, weekend field trips, the school skiing trip. Then his mother fell ill and he’d been sending weekends with her in Shropshire. She’d stopped talking to her friends about it. She couldn’t take the disbelieving looks, the sighs, the impatience when she’d had to confirm that yes, another week had passed and still they hadn’t met.
She had the emails though. And the late-night conversations, so romantic that she couldn’t believe how lucky she was. They’d even talked about marriage, about the number of children they’d have, where they might live. It was the perfect relationship, text book in every way except one.
One lunchtime, emboldened after a couple of glasses of wine for her birthday lunch and egged on by her friends, she’d called the school. He’d sent her beautiful flowers that morning, fat-bloomed peonies, palest pink, wrapped in cerise tissue and cellophane, raffia-tied. She should thank him, she reasoned. She’d tried his mobile – he hadn’t picked up.
The woman who answered the school phone had a crisp, no-nonsense voice. ‘St. Brides Upper School. How may I help you?’
She’d stumbled a little over his name. ‘Reynolds,’ the woman had replied. ‘Miss Reynolds. Let me see, she must have left here about a year ago.’
‘No, Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Thomas Reynolds. He teaches sport. And geography.’
‘I think you mean Humanities,’ the woman said. ‘Hmmm. I’m afraid we don’t have anyone of that name here. Are you sure you have the right school?’
She’d paused, puzzled. Her alcohol-fogged brain couldn’t compute this. Her friends were looking away, wry anxious smiles on their faces. She tried again. ‘Thomas Reynolds. About 37. From Shropshire originally.’
The reply was firm. ‘The only Reynolds we’ve employed in recent years was Miss Teresa Reynolds. She was about 37 and she taught humanities. And sport, come to think of it. But no Thomas Reynolds, I’m afraid.’ There was a decisive click and the line went dead.
Her friends stepped in then. They’d taken her home, sat with her while she veered between horror, disbelief, embarrassment, despair. Her plans evaporated, her whole future changed. They’d swung into action, googled, tracked, uncovered, phoned. Teresa Reynolds was, in fact, her Thomas. And someone else’s Terence, and someone else’s Tony. She’d been duped, deceived by a fake photograph and the anonymity of the internet, by her own desperate wish to believe. She’d just played a romantic game of consequences, with no winners.
The police had investigated whether there was a fraud case to answer and someone had tipped off the journalists. They’d hounded her for her story, asking her whether, after her experience, there was one piece of advice she could offer to anyone else who found themselves in her position. She considered. ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’? But then what about those who had advised her to ‘seize the day’, that ‘life wasn’t a dress rehearsal’? In the end, she settled for the one thing she’d chosen to keep her sane, that she chanted like a mantra every day when it all felt too much. ‘Don’t look back, look forward.’
This is my (late this week – very sorry…) entry for the Thanet Creative Writers competition