When teenager Gemma Grant* ran away to France with her Scottish maths teacher, the police search for them became a media sensation. Gemma was convinced she was in love with Jeremy Forrest, now a convicted paedophile.
Five years on, she tells her side of the story The police officer laughed as he threw a newspaper on to the hotel bed, where I sat cross-legged.
I couldn’t understand the French headlines, but the photo on the front page was my school picture.
“Do people actually know about this?” I stammered. “Just wait until you get back to England,” he smirked.
Eight days before, I’d been laughing in my boyfriend’s car with the windows down and a warm breeze in my hair. I was deeply in love with my maths teacher, Jeremy Forrest.
At 30 years old, he was twice my age. But it didn’t feel like that.
We first got close on a school trip to LA in February 2012 when I was 14. I would chat to him as we appeared to have so much in common – we liked the same bands and would compare our favourite Nirvana lyrics.
I thought he was so cool; he had a tattoo on his arm and performed at local gigs.
On the flight home, I sat between him and a female teacher and clung on to their hands to help my fear of flying – but I didn’t want to let go of Jeremy’s when we landed. He was locked into my brain.
I followed him on Twitter and waited.
He followed me back and a few weeks later, my phone pinged with a direct message: “Have I upset you?” I’d been acting up in his class and ignored him when he told me to stop talking.
Excitement spiralled in me as I replied, “Don’t worry; it’s not you. How are you?” From then on, we messaged regularly.
The two friends I told thought it was hilarious. He became my life’s focal point – Mum’s time was taken up with family life, and I was also secretly battling an eating disorder. Jeremy listened to me and served as a distraction.
Things become more serious
Four months after our LA trip, he messaged me asking if I wanted to go for a drive.
Nothing happened that afternoon – we simply meandered around the small seaside town where I lived. I didn’t stay out late, so my mum had no reason to suspect.
But I knew something would happen eventually. Just a few days after my 15th birthday in June, as we walked along the seafront, we finally kissed.
After that we met more regularly – I’d tell my mum I was at my friend Louise’s* – we even kissed in empty classrooms at school.
Losing my virginity
Summer term came to an end. I started to spend almost every day of the holidays at Jeremy’s house – one he shared with his wife of a year, who often worked away.
I’d sit on his sofa watching Peep Show. I would ask about his marriage, how he proposed, his girlfriends at university. He had so much life experience and I loved hearing about it.
He would show me messages from his wife where they were arguing, and insisted that they were separated. I chose to believe him.
It was in his spare room that we had sex for the first time, a month after that first kiss. He didn’t know I was a virgin.
Later, when I’d told him the truth, it would sometimes put him off having sex with me. He’d sit at the end of his bed with his face in his palms feeling guilty.
Other times, I’d wind him up and say, “Do you realise you’re seeing a pupil here?” He’d shake his head and say it wasn’t right.
I lived in constant fear that we’d be discovered.
I’d erase my phone inbox every few days and hid a packed bag in case my mum ever caught us and I had to run away. We’d daydream about where we’d like to start a new life together, suggesting France or America.
We never thought we’d actually need to flee England, though. I hoped that, once I turned 18, we could reveal the truth about our relationship, and the law would be on our side. The reality was very different.
On the grapevine
As soon as I stepped through the school gates to begin year 11, the atmosphere had changed.
Rumours had begun to circulate after a girl saw me getting into Jeremy’s car.
Teachers suspected something, too.
A week into term, one even dragged Jeremy out of the canteen when he saw me enter; the general feeling seemed to be that I was putting a decent man’s career at risk.
Every day, kids in my year would shout “slut” as I walked down the halls. Was that what I was? Was I actually ruining his life? I began to have panic attacks.
I’d shut myself in the school toilets, unable to breath. Jeremy was feeling the strain, too. The worst thing was that there was no one to turn to.
I tried broaching the subject with my mum by explaining there were rumours at school that I was too friendly with Jeremy. Her response was a sharp, “That had better not be true.”
I knew that if I told the truth, I’d be banned from seeing the man who’d become the centre of my world.
Four months after our affair began, the web of lies started to unravel.
I was heading to the English block when my phone rang. It was my brother.
“The police are here, saying you’ve been texting a teacher. You better get home,” he told me.
I stood paralysed with fear as my thumb cancelled incoming calls from my mum. I called Jeremy. My words were a garbled mess: “They’ll probably be at your house in a minute and you’ll be arrested.”
When Jeremy asked what I wanted to do, I replied, “Run away.”
By the time I got home, I’d deleted every trace of Jeremy from my phone, meaning I could calmly hand it over to the police waiting in my kitchen.
I’d denied that anything was going on, and seeing me act so cool meant Mum let me stay at Louise’s the next night.
Before I left, I looked Mum in the eyes and said, “I love you” before sneaking my passport out of the kitchen drawer.
Our trip to France
The next day, at 4.30pm, Jeremy collected me.
On the ferry to Calais, he threw his iPhone into the sea and we watched it sink.
In Bordeaux, Jeremy booked us into a rundown hotel and paid in cash.
For eight mornings, we headed to a little café and sat out enjoying pastries and milkshakes. We were oblivious to the media frenzy at home, to the headlines screeching “Paedophile teacher abducts innocent school girl”.
In the tiny sink of our ensuite bathroom, I tried to dye my reddy-brown hair blonde, but it turned brassy.
Jeremy coloured his mousy hair black and took to wearing a flat cap outside.
How we were caught
Just over a week after our arrival in France, as we walked hand in hand towards a pub where Jeremy had been invited for a trial shift, a man jumped out and grabbed him.
I began screaming, thinking he was being mugged. Then my arms were pushed behind me. The only word I understood was “police”. Jeremy was handcuffed and pushed on to a bench.
He kept mouthing “It’s fine” as I was bundled into the back of a van – and that was the last I saw of him, until he stood in front of me in court.
The first question they asked when I arrived at the French police station was, “Did you have sex?”
Then, “Did you willingly go over to France?” I replied “yes” to both.
I had to phone my mum. I thought she’d be angry, but instead she cried.
Then, along with five strangers – a mixture of embassy workers and police officers – I was escorted to a hotel for the night.
They ordered Pizza Hut, and I picked at a slice while asking questions about Jeremy. They ignored me. Before I went to sleep, an officer checked that the windows wouldn’t open wide enough for me to escape, and I had to leave the bathroom door ajar to show I wasn’t going to kill myself.
But I didn’t want to run away or commit suicide. I was relieved everybody knew. The next morning, I wrapped myself in his cardigan on the plane journey home – it smelled of his Hugo Boss aftershave.
The end of the affair
Back in England, “groomer” and “paedophile” were the words I kept hearing. I was sent to a special institution, alongside kids with behavioural problems, to complete my GCSEs.
Nine months later, my exams fell in the same week as Jeremy’s trial.
Right up until the very last moment, I thought people would understand, but when he was found guilty of child abduction and sex with a minor,
I broke down in the dock beside his family. After he was imprisoned, I became depressed. It was impossible for us to make contact – letters I sent were intercepted and splashed across the news – and I moved out of Mum’s as our relationship had become so fractured. When I was 16, I began talking to a man on Twitter who was 21 – he claimed to have no idea about my story and, after months of chatting to him, we started dating.
After a year of on-and-off romance, I discovered he had been trying to sell stories about me. I sunk back into my black space for a while and questioned whether I was the victim people had made me out to be.
I’m still asking myself that now. All I know is, at the time, it didn’t feel that way.
My life now
Since Jeremy’s release from prison, we have only spoken once, about a year ago, after I messaged a Facebook account with his name that came up as a suggested friend. He sounded happy – he even had a new girlfriend. Things have got better for me, too. I met another boy (my own age), who I fell head over heels for. I told him my story and he wasn’t fazed by it. We’re no longer together, but he showed me that my past doesn’t have to define my future. I’m now back on good terms with my mum, too. Do I regret my relationship with Jeremy? I can’t say I do, but I now recognise it for what it was: a dangerous infatuation. One that cost both of us dearly.
If you’ve been affected by the issues in this article, contact Childline (which supports anyone up to age 19) on 0800 1111.
*Names have been changed
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