Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Reckless’ by Gemma Rogers.
It wasn’t a collision. There was no crunching of metal or shattering glass, but the sound of tyres screeching across the tarmac drowned out the voice of Roman Kemp on Capital radio. I winced in my seat, gripping the steering wheel in an attempt to control the car as we skidded across the road. The back end of my Audi A3 swung out, shaking my daughter and I inside like rag dolls, before bumping against the grassy bank of the roundabout. The seat belt locked and dug into my chest, as the side of my head thudded against the window. I flung my arm out across Charlotte’s chest, terrified she was going to fly out of her seat, as we came to an abrupt halt. Disorientated by the ringing in my ears, time slowed. Sharp, shooting pains flew down my neck, each movement drawn out in contrast to my racing heart.
‘Are you OK?’ I looked at my fifteen-year-old daughter in the passenger seat, gaping at me. She managed a nod as I patted her thigh.
I put my hands back on the wheel, knuckles white as I struggled to catch my breath.
‘Mum, you OK?’ Charlotte’s face was ashen, eyes wide and now brimming with tears.
Head throbbing, I raised my hand to feel the beginnings of a tender bump, hidden beneath my hair. I flinched.
‘Jesus, he was driving like a dickhead!’ she exclaimed.
A car horn sounded, pulling me back to the moment, and I saw him through the haze of raindrops that littered my windscreen. The weather was unusually wet for the beginning of September. It seemed like it had rained for days, the ground was saturated. The driver of the old black, boxy-shaped Ford Fiesta that had pulled out, into my path, causing me to slam on the breaks and lose control on the slippery road, stared at me. We locked eyes; his, like Charlotte’s, wide and panicked. He was young, just a stupid kid.
Teeth gritted, I tried to articulate the word that was forming. Rolling it around my mouth before I could spit it out. The car had stalled, but Stormzy blared out of the speakers relentlessly. I started the engine and lowered my window, ignoring the beeping behind me.
Watching him trying to start his car, to leave the scene. I could hear his engine turning over but refusing to come to life and give him an escape. Our cars were blocking both lanes of the roundabout, at a standstill, mine facing his driver’s door.
Leaning my head out of the window as far as I could, pinned by my seat belt, I shouted, ‘You absolute twat!’
He stared at me, open-mouthed as though he wanted to reply. But then his car sprang to life and he tore off, wheels spinning, still driving too fast for the conditions. The rain had stepped up a gear since we’d stopped, now hammering on the roof.
Cars were queuing behind me and horns of commuters on their way to work screamed impatiently. Not caring that I’d seen mine and my daughter’s lives flash before my eyes only seconds earlier. No one had got out of their car to check we were all right. No one wanted to get wet.
Sighing, I manoeuvred the car into first gear, and slowly eased away. Indicating to leave the roundabout, unable to stop my hand trembling on the gearstick.
‘Mum?’ Charlotte’s voice was stronger now, the shock ebbing away.
‘I’m fine. Are you OK?’ I saw her nod in my peripheral vision. ‘What an idiot.’
My face contorted and I could feel the perspiration at the base of my spine seeping into my cream blouse. The drumming in my chest slowly returning to its natural rhythm. I didn’t need this today. The first day of the summer term at a new school for both of us. I was desperate to make a good impression. Charlotte’s navy uniform had been pressed, her brogues glistening. Her hair in a neat plait; mine smoothed and tucked behind my ears. Everything had to be perfect, but now I was a flustered mess.
Fifteen minutes later, after a slow drive in which I was reluctant to move out of third gear, we arrived at the car park. I felt like I’d held my breath the entire journey and was grateful to find there were spaces left. Even with the near accident we weren’t late, having left the house in plenty of time. I parked away from the entrance; Charlotte hopping out as soon as the engine was off, desperate to leave the confines of the car. I followed, smoothing my clothes before closing my door, then opening it again.
‘Really, Mum? Today?’ Charlotte sighed, as I counted to four.
I bit down on my molars. There was no point in explaining again, it was a compulsion. An anxiety tick of sorts. The therapist I saw when it started had said it was a coping mechanism for times of increased stress. A repetitive action that helped me regain control of the situation and of myself. It had become second nature and something I did automatically now to feel calmer.
Charlotte didn’t understand. Not today, on the first day at a new school. It was all about her. Wasn’t that what all teenagers were like? I knew she was nervous as she pulled on her earlobe and twisted her plain gold stud. She rolled her eyes at me, her mouth giving way to a smile as she took in my proud stare.
‘Good luck. Have a wonderful day. Text me if you need to, but don’t get into trouble for using your phone.’
‘You too, Mum.’
She turned on her heels and headed for the main entrance, out of the drizzle, leaving me behind. I knew it was going to be that way. I hadn’t expected anything less. I retrieved my satchel from the boot and counted the number of times I locked and unlocked the car as I left the car park. The key fob hot in my hand. Always four, everything was four.
The sun broke through the clouds and there was a brief pause in the rain as I stood to take in the looming old building of St. Wilfred’s Comprehensive, its red-brick two-storey exterior with peeling white sash windows situated on the largest grounds I’d encountered. It looked almost gothic from the outside, like an old boarding school. It was certainly big enough and I knew it would be a while until I found my way around. It was a new start in Rusper, just outside Horsham in West Sussex, where I would be teaching English and Charlotte would be going into year eleven. She’d turn sixteen in January next year and was going into her final year of high school. My stomach clenched at the enormity of it. This had to work, it just had to.
Groups of children gathered by the doors, a sea of navy blazers and white shirts. I waited until there was a gap and moved inside. The long corridor was brightly lit, white walls displaying artwork; mosaics and watercolours, and a trophy cabinet positioned outside the headmaster Mr Scott’s office. His door was shut and I could hear muffled voices inside, so I decided not to interrupt.
‘Excuse me, could you tell me where the staffroom is please?’ I asked a girl loitering nearby. She was around Charlotte’s age and wore thick black eyeliner around her chestnut eyes.
‘It’s the last door on the left, Miss,’ she replied, pointing down the corridor, before heading in the opposite direction. I’d been inside the school before for my interview and had a brief tour, but only remembered Mr Scott’s office.
I found toilets before the staffroom and slipped inside, grateful they were empty.
I imagined most of the teachers were already in their classrooms, preparing for the day ahead. I wanted a moment to tidy my hair and put on a dash of lipstick. The cream blouse and navy pencil skirt I’d chosen was my smart but functional outfit, until I saw how the other teachers dressed. In some schools, teachers wore suits, but in others their attire was more relaxed. I hoped it was the latter.
My face was still pale, the colour yet to return to my cheeks. The queasy feeling that had started in the pit of my stomach was drowned out by the throbbing of my head from the collision with the window. Spraying some perfume across my blouse, I took a moment to regain my composure. Pushing aside the anger bubbling beneath the surface at the other driver who’d been so reckless.
First-day nerves took hold and I zipped my bag open and shut, again and again. One, two, three, four. You can do this, it’s a new start, a new life in a new town.
Just then a text came through on my phone. Sliding my finger across the screen, I saw it was from my husband David.
Good luck, you’ll be fantastic x
Steadying my breathing until I felt in control, I pulled open the door and stepped into the busy corridor, almost colliding with the frowning headmaster.
‘Ah, there you are. Welcome, Isabel.’ He smiled, opening his arms wide and, for a worrying second, I thought he was going to envelop me in a hug.
‘Izzy, call me Izzy. Sorry, you had someone in your office,’ I explained but he waved me away.
‘No problem. Now, Izzy, let me take you through to your classroom. As I mentioned before, you have a lovely year eight class that you’ll be form room teacher for. You’ll be known as 8C; they are all aged between twelve and thirteen. They’ll be with you for about twenty minutes twice a day, each morning and afternoon, where you’ll take the register. I looked after them for part of last year and they are a smashing bunch.’ Mr Scott strode quickly down the corridor and I hurried to keep up. My skirt too tight at the knee to walk fast. Why did he look after a form? In my previous school that would have been unorthodox for a headteacher.
‘Will I teach my lessons from the same classroom?’ I asked.
‘Yes, absolutely, that will be your classroom.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Still raining out there?’ I nodded, remembering my umbrella in the boot of the car.
‘Afraid so, but I think it’s slowing down. The Great British Summertime, eh,’ I said, palms dampening as a tirade of bewildered-looking students pushed through the doors and ploughed towards us.
Someone bumped my shoulder and mumbled an apology.
‘Stevens,’ Mr Scott said sternly.
The boy turned around and my stomach plummeted to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
‘Yes, sir?’ he replied in a bored tone, his mouth in a tight smile.
‘You bumped into Mrs Cole. Can you apologise please?’ He hadn’t seen me properly; hadn’t registered me yet. But I saw him, clearer now he wasn’t behind a windscreen. Blond shaven head, blue eyes, vaguely resembling a young Jude Law. Athletic-looking, he stood almost as tall as the headteacher. Our eyes met, and I thought I heard him gasp.
His smile faded, and he stuttered, ‘I, I did.’
‘He did,’ I agreed, unsure why I was defending him. I eyed him coldly. He could have killed us this morning.
‘Off you go and tuck that shirt in,’ Mr Scott instructed, nodding towards his untucked T-shirt, before we carried on down the corridor.
As he held open the classroom door to 8C, I glanced behind me in the direction we’d come from. The boy, last name Stevens, was still standing there, staring at me. A permanent fixture in the corridor as students scurried around him. I paused, my hand briefly touching the small mound on my head. My thumping skull stepped up a notch. Mr Scott’s voice was muffled in the background. As I crossed the threshold into the classroom, I took one last look down the corridor, sure I saw the corners of the boy’s mouth curl upward.
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