When she was 12, Hayley McGregor had an affair with her 25-year-old teacher. Here, for the first time, she reveals the moment she realised it was not an affair – it was abuse
Photograph: Paul Cooper
I remember the sickening moment it first dawned on me I’d been a victim of child abuse. I was 33, at home in Manchester with BBC news on in the background. My ears pricked up when I head the anchor talking about an international police hunt for a schoolgirl who’d run away with her teacher, Jeremy Forrest, 30. He and Gemma Grant*, his 15-year-old pupil, had fled to France when their affair was discovered by colleagues.
As the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘child abduction’ flashed up on screen, my chest tightened. Over the next few weeks, I became obsessed with the story, but the more I read, the harder I found it to get up in the mornings. The dark truth was hitting me: if I hadn’t kept the relationship I’d had with my teacher a secret when I was 12 – only telling my best friend – his face would have been plastered all over the media, too. Had my relationship actually been paedophilia?
Andrew Willson was 25 when he joined my school as our drama teacher. I was just 12 and, like every other pupil (and teacher), I adored his charming facade and sharp sense of humour. He reminded me of Mark Owen. I was unsure of myself; the pupil who boys laughed at and girls called ‘Spot the dog’ because of my acne. But Mr Willson thought entirely differently of me.
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Almost immediately, he cast me as the lead in our end-of-year play. I was flattered. During rehearsals, he’d touch me softly on the arm and whisper that he didn’t know what to do with himself because my eyes were so sparkly. I’d never had a boyfriend or any kind of attention: I was shocked but instantly enamoured.
Andrew soon learned that my parents were often busy in the evenings; my mum taking care of my baby brother and my dad working nights as a fireman. He made sure to bond with them over their joint love of Leeds United at parents’ evenings, so they were delighted when he said he’d give me lifts home after late rehearsals.
One evening, he stopped the car down a dark lane, looked into my eyes, then leaned in to kiss me. He ran his hands through my hair and said he knew it was naughty but he’d been wanting to touch me for so long. My stomach churned. I knew it was wrong – I wasn’t allowed boyfriends and he was married with a four-year-old child with special needs – but he was my high-school crush so I couldn’t help but be excited.
Hayley with Andrew when she was in her teens
By the end of our performance of Blood Brothers two months later, we were meeting in his car every night. I was infatuated. He said we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but the teacher-pupil power balance very much remained. I still called him ‘Mr Willson’ or ‘Sir’, even during our trysts. When I look back, our ‘relationship’ was a string of sex acts which he’d teach me and I’d perform on him in his car. I was desperate to please but always trembling with nerves.
No one suspected a thing. If anyone really looked, perhaps we seemed overly familiar with each other. But he was that type of person and was careful not to treat me differently in class. Away from school, to keep me quiet, Andrew made me believe I was in the wrong for getting involved with a married man and said my parents would be furious if they knew. We have it drummed into us to be wary of strangers and not to get into strangers’ cars. But no one warns you about the people you look up to and trust.
So when, in my thirties, I began poring over details of Jeremy Forrest’s five-year sentence for a similar relationship, I fell into a two-year downward spiral. I realised that, like Gemma, I was a victim and the affair hadn’t been my fault. By 34, I was regularly experiencing panic attacks. During one of them, my friend – who knew nothing of my past – convinced me to see a counsellor. The therapist highlighted how being sexualised at such a young age and the lack of trust I had after the relationship ended affected my entire life. I never knew the relationship troubles I would go on to have in my twenties stemmed from this one moment.
Before the counsellor, the only person I had revealed the relationship to was my teenage best friend, Nicola. She found the situation as exhilarating as I did back then, squealing with delight at the fairy tale I was living. I was a happy teenager and my parents didn’t suspect a thing. But the fairy tale soon came to an end. I was 14 when Andrew revealed he was moving 200 miles away for his wife’s job. I was devastated.
It took a long time to realise that I wasn’t the only one he’d groomed. Andrew and Dad stayed friends even after he moved. On my 15th birthday, Dad arranged for us to stay over at Andrew’s house in Northampton on the way home from a football match at Wembley. I hadn’t seen him for months and felt a mix of terror and excitement to be around him again. However, that turned to horror when he took my virginity the following morning, with my parents and his son upstairs, saying he simply couldn’t wait until I was 16. It hurt and I felt hideous. After that, we didn’t see each other again properly, except for the occasional family event.
The first partner I’ve felt able to tell my story to was Leroy, who I met at 33 around the time I was starting to break down. He helped me realise I’d been abused and that I should report Andrew to the police. I built up the courage to tell my parents, worrying they’d blame me, but they didn’t. They were devastated that I’d suffered alone all these years. The police spent months gathering evidence to corroborate my story and arrested him in 2015.
During my case, another woman came forward saying he’d done the same to her, but she later dropped the charges. God knows how many women he may have abused while I was silent. That’s something I will never get over.
I couldn’t face going to the trial but heard that his wife left him soon after he was arrested. My parents watched as Andrew was sentenced to 20 months’ jail last February at Burnley Crown Court, after he pleaded guilty to indecent assault. He cried out about how sorry he was and how much he loved his wife. Neither I nor my family have spoken to him since.
If I hadn’t seen the news that day, and it hadn’t triggered my breakdown, I might never have spoken out and would still have been blaming myself. That’s why I decided to share my story, so women like me can recognise they are victims of abuse. The emotional impact still lingers, but Leroy is helping me move on. We’re trying to start up our own theatre company to educate young people through drama about mental health issues and how to spot signs of grooming and abuse of trust. The more we talk about this, the better we’ll be able to recognise predatory paedophiles at a young age.
Hayley’s book 'Teacher’s Pet' (Ebury) is out now