Shug – a short story


He was spiking soggy leaves in the quadrangle, stalking them as they blew in spirals, stooped against the bitter wind. Miss Shanks watched him wince and rub at the base of his spine as she sipped her tea. He reminded her of a native she’d seen spear-fishing in the Sunday supplements. Shug had the same wrinkled, baggy face as that Pacific islander and he needed a shave too. His bottle green overalls were filthy at the knees and just the thought of all the sweat and grime in his black woolly hat made her nose wrinkle. He had a habit of drying it on radiators when he’d been out in the rain or snow and once she’d caught a whiff in the corridors; it was like a dog drying by a fire. As if reading her thoughts Shug looked up at her window and she shuffled the papers on her desk.
She’d inherited Shug – what kind of a name was that anyway? – from Mr Porter, along with a school that had a reading age well below average and unacceptable attendance. She’d listened to Mr Porter, forcing herself to resist jumping in, so she could at least try to understand his legacy. He was an affable man with moist blue eyes and dry warm hands he’d use to shake for a little longer than was necessary. His trousers were shiny and his tweed jacket frayed at the cuffs; as keen for retirement as its owner. But Philip ‘call me Phil’ Porter was good with people and that had bought him time.
‘Families here don’t have much, Pamela. We’re not quite what you’ve been used to.’
She’d tried not to bridle at the use of her Christian name, the assumption that it was her that needed to change and not the pupils and staff at St Paul’s.
‘Attendance is improving. We work with the parents but it’s not the children’s fault. If they’re not supported adequately at home, we must do what we can for them here.’
She tapped her pad, tilted it away from him. She’d written nothing down. Mr Porter offered her a biscuit to go with her milky tea; in a mug, of course. Miss Shanks was watching her figure and pushed the plate away.
‘They’re happy here, Pamela. I like to think they enjoy coming to St Paul’s.’
She gnawed her lip. That swarthy man was pushing a cart onto the school field. The sole of his left boot had come loose and was flapping about like a dog’s tongue. He stopped below the rugby posts at the bottom of the field, hitched up his trousers and hefted a black plastic bag onto the turf.
‘What is he doing now?’ She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice.
Mr Porter smiled. You don’t have to worry about Shug. Shall we get on?’
She crossed to the window and watched as seagulls swooped and circled down from the grey sky. Shug scooped a handful of something and scattered it on the grass. The gulls began to wheel and bomb as they pecked and snatched at the crusts.
‘Should he be encouraging vermin?’
Mr Porter peered at her over his glasses. He coughed and turned over a page, signalling that part of the conversation was over.
‘Does he like pigeons?’
Mr Porter frowned. ‘You’d have to ask him.’
‘I’ve tried but he doesn’t talk to me.’
‘Ah, he was like that with all of us at first. Give him a little time.’
Miss Shanks had not forgotten her chat with the lollipop man. She’d learned more in five minutes with Ernie than she had in three weeks with the rest of them. She’d had him in for coffee, of course, told him he was a vital part of St Paul’s future and he would be getting a new uniform. He ate seven custard creams, but she learned Shug had strolled up one day and begged pasties and toast from the dinner ladies. Instead of calling the police they’d fed him and on the cold days he’d been allowed a warm in the boiler room. ‘When the boiler broke, he went and fixed it,’ Ernie said. ‘Proper odd job man he is, but he wouldn’t take any payment.’
It wasn’t the response Miss Shanks had wanted. Ernie bit into another biscuit, spraying her carpet with crumbs. ‘See, when Mr Bennett went and retired with his feet the school was left without a janitor.’
‘And Mr Porter took on Shug?’
Ernie nodded.
‘What’s he like with you?’
Ernie grinned. ‘He’s a character. I like him. We both served in Cyprus.’
Miss Shanks tried a smile. ‘Why’s he called Shug?’
She’d tried a search on Google and learned that Shug was a nickname for Hugh north of the border, but he didn’t sound at all Scottish.
‘He calls everyone Shug, sometimes Duck too. So, it just stuck I guess. It’s short for sugar.’
‘He’s never called me that,’ Miss Shanks said.
Ernie almost choked on his tea. ‘I don’t think he’d dare,’ he said, laughing.
The following morning she’d got in early and gone out of her way to pass Shug’s little cupboard beneath the stairs. The door was ajar but she rapped it with her knuckles and, when there was no answer, she poked her head inside. The kettle was just off the boil, so he couldn’t be far away. There was a stack of old coffee jars half-filled with crusty sugar, teabags and hot chocolate. A stack of newspapers was bundled and tied on top of a fridge. Other than that, there was only a battered and patched armchair, a beer crate she guessed he used as a footrest and a calendar tacked to the plaster. She ran a fingertip over a grainy image of men stood in front of a bottle kiln, tracing the curved outline, the cobbles and the swirl of smoke. She was pushing the door to when Shug gave her a jolt. He was standing down the corridor, his arms folded on his chest.

When she got back to her office Mrs Roper reminded her about the MP’s visit and the arts workshop with the children. ‘Would you like tea?’ Mrs Roper said.
‘Alison, will you come and sit down for a moment?’
Mrs Roper sat down and clasped her hands on her lap. I’m still making her nervous, Miss Shanks thought. She’s still Mr Porter’s secretary at heart.
‘Is it Shug?’ Mrs Roper said, fiddling with the cuff of her cardigan.
‘He’s a little……strange, sometimes. Does he like working here?’
‘He’s no bother at all. He’s good at his job.’
‘Everyone keeps telling me that, but I don’t get so much as a good morning from him and, to be honest, he could certainly do with smartening up his appearance.’
Mrs Roper cleared her throat. She wouldn’t meet Miss Shanks’s gaze. Miss Shanks wanted to get Shug in, but she didn’t think he’d speak to her. She didn’t want to be alone in an office with him staring and silent. The staff had grudgingly accepted her new authority, but Shug undermined her more than the rest with his silence.

When it was Mr Porter’s last day she had been relieved, if a bit anxious about the work that lay ahead. After all the handover palaver that seemed to have gone on forever, St Paul’s was hers to shape, drive forward at last.
‘Well Pamela, you’re captain of this ship now.’ Mr Porter gripped her hand. ‘I know you’ll have your own ideas and really I’ve no right to ask, but do give Shug a chance. He just needs a little time to get used to you, that’s all.’

Monday came and Miss Shanks still hadn’t got around to having her chat with Shug. She had chosen a jade brooch to wear with the new blouse she’d treated herself to at Marks. She wanted to look her best for the MP. She’d tried to get Shug to take a day off and when he wouldn’t she got him clipping the privet down the field. She was checking her lipstick when a flustered Miss Sayers knocked and ran in without waiting for an answer. ‘We’ve got a problem.’ Miss Shanks had to sit her down and calm her before she admitted the sculptor they’d booked had emailed to say he couldn’t make it. She’d tried a dozen times but he wasn’t answering his mobile. ‘Can we cancel? I mean these things happen, don’t they?’
‘No, we can’t,’ Miss Shanks said. ‘Too late anyway, now.’ A silver-grey Mercedes crept into the last space on the car park. Simon Hartley MP jumped out, clutching a briefcase. He gave them a cheery wave.
‘What are we going to do?’ Miss Sayers said.
‘Bring him in and we’ll have a coffee while I think.’
Miss Sayers nodded and scuttled off. Miss Shanks thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the pupils got messy and experimented. OK, they didn’t have a sculptor but they had clay and 4C had bags of enthusiasm. Simon Hartley would just want his face in the local rag, wouldn’t he? Mrs Roper tapped the door and said the photographer from the local paper had arrived and what should she do?
‘Tell him I’m on the phone. I’ll be five minutes.’
‘He says he’s got other jobs to get to.’
Simon Hartley checked his watch as he came through the door. ‘It’s brilliant what you’re doing here,’ he said. ‘A fresh start and all that. Shall we crack on?’
Mrs Roper brought coffees, fumbling the mugs and teaspoons.
‘Don’t we have any cups and saucers?’ Miss Shanks snapped.
‘I don’t want to appear rude,’ Simon Hartley said, ‘but I have another engagement straight after this one.’
‘Of course, I’m sorry. We’re just setting up the room.’
‘I’d have thought you’d be ready,’ Simon Hartley said, frowning as he sipped his coffee.
She couldn’t think of anything to fill the silence.
‘It’s a great idea, so well done. Get the experts in and see how it’s done eh? It’s inspiration for the children, isn’t it?’
Miss Shanks blew the surface of her coffee. She felt stupid, cursing the new blouse, the jade brooch and the dab of Estee Lauder.
‘The kids love getting mucky and chucking clay around, but it’s about getting them thinking about the bigger picture, getting new skills, isn’t it?’
I’d have agreed with you until five minutes ago, Miss Shanks thought. There was a knock on the office door.
‘Yes, yes, alright,’ Miss Shanks snapped.
Simon Hartley gave her an odd look. Miss Sayers peeped around the door and smiled. ‘You can come through,’ she said.
‘Cracking,’ Simon Hartley said, jumping to his feet.
As he got up Miss Sayers gave the thumbs up. What? Miss Shanks mouthed. She followed Miss Sayers along the corridor. Simon Hartley was talking to the photographer making jokes about his best side. A crowd of pupils had gathered around the art room door and she had to tell them to clear aside so they could get in. There were whoops and jeers and a group of forty or fifty children – as many as could fit in the classroom – had crowded around a man who was hunched over a desk. On the desk beside him there were teapots and mugs and plates and it took her a few moments to realise he was working a potters’ wheel. It was Shug and he was smiling and laughing with the pupils telling them they’d better build him a kiln.
‘Where did you get him?’ Simon Hartley said. ‘He’s amazing.’
‘I’ve made you a cup and saucer,’ Shug told Miss Shanks. ‘Emma said you were fed up with mugs.’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Are you going to fire me?’ he said, almost a whisper.
Miss Shanks’s face was ashen. Then she realised Shug was smiling and he meant the cup he dangled from his thumb.

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged | 1 Comment

Fool’s Gold – a short story

Not the brilliant Stone Roses’ track, but a short story…

Tumbledown cottage

‘Any better suggestions?’
Carol said nothing. He gripped the wheel, digging his fingernails into the soft leather leaving a cluster of half-moon impressions. He jabbed the button on the dash killing that irritating newsreader voice that had got them lost in the first place.
‘What are you grinning about?’
‘Nothing at all, my love.’
‘Cos you’ve got nothing to smile about. In case you’ve forgotten you’ve got us lost and it’ll be dark soon.’
It had been like this all the way down the A55: niggles and moans followed by silence. Why did he have to get so close to that Mercedes? When would they stop for a flat white?
‘You should’ve got the postcode off matey.’
‘Yes, love. I know I should but it wasn’t a good signal, was it?’
They’d been through this twice already. Matey was Gruff, the Mr Fix-It at the local solicitors.
‘Your fancy woman would know the way.’
‘You’re jealous of the Sat Nav now?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ Carol said and folded her arms to stare out of the window. The gold necklace he’d bought her glistened in the sunlight. There was a time when she’d been glad to get a bunch of daffodils in an elastic band, called him a romantic fool and ruffled his hair asking him which churchyard were they from? These days she thought expensive jewellery was the least she deserved. When he’d taken the gold necklace out at dinner she snatched at it and told him through narrowed eyes, ‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Pete Sutton.’
She frowned, swatting away a midge. Pete knew what she was thinking: Where do I plug in my hair-tongs round here? How the hell am I going to get a decent facial? Pete opened the window and sucked in the cool evening air. He closed his eyes and felt the breeze lift his fringe. He got a sweet trace of flowering gorse, the salt tang of the Irish Sea.
‘So, we sit here like lemons, do we?’
‘Christ, Carol. Give it a rest, will you?’
He didn’t have a postcode and the Sat Nav couldn’t cope with Welsh. The little windy lane they were looking for had so many vowels in it he’d likely copied it down wrong.
‘I said….’
Pete didn’t wait for her to say it. He rammed the gearstick in first and roared away scattering gravel in his wake and flattening the thin Mohican of turf that ran down the centre of the lane.
‘Does anyone live here?’ Carol said.
It was true they hadn’t seen a soul since they’d begun the steady climb from the coast road. The lane had got narrower and narrower and the dry-stone walls and scratchy brambles had come uncomfortably close to his front wings. He pulled up outside a cottage but the curtains were drawn.
‘We’ve been here before.’
‘No, we haven’t. I’d recognise it.’
‘I’m telling you. I’m not going to argue with you.’
Pete offered up a silent prayer; thinking if only that were true. He pulled in hard and snapped on the handbrake and got out. ‘Come on then, light of my life,’ he said.
‘What are you playing at now?’ Seeing he wasn’t coming back Carol grabbed her shoes from the foot-well and tottered after him. ‘We should get a hotel, get something to eat. Pete, for crying out loud…’
‘Don’t need to,’ he said. He was resting on a gatepost, grinning. Ten, maybe twelve years had fallen from his shoulders; the takeover and redundancies; his cancer scare and Julia and Stewart emigrating. Stand on your tip toes at the gate and, yes, it was just possible to see a tiny blue-green sliver of the sea beyond the abandoned quarry. Last time he’d come up this lane he would’ve been eleven and squeezed between their slobbering Labrador Ben and a stack of cricket gear, windbreaks and Dad’s fishing tackle. ‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it? A new start’s just what we need eh?’
‘You’ve got that faraway look,’ Carol said.
‘We had some good times here.’
Pete had never seen eye to eye with his Dad, but talk about buckets and spades and boat trips round the harbour and he got all misted up.
‘As long as your ghost isn’t still here,’ she said.
‘You what?’
Years ago, they’d been in a pub with friends and the drink had flowed and Pete had shocked Carol when he’d spoken of a ghost that had sat on the end of his bed as a kid. She’d always had Pete nailed as the practical sort who didn’t believe in the supernatural but he said it was an old sailor and he’d been so scared he hadn’t been able to move. His eyes were like black pits and he’d pointed at something through the window. The others had laughed and he’d got in a round of drinks to change the subject.
‘It’s got opportunity written all over it,’ Pete said.
Keep Out or Falling Masonry should’ve been written all over, Carol thought. New Place, it was called in Welsh. Well you could’ve fooled me, Carol thought. The drive up to it was full of potholes and broken half bricks jutted from the gravel. Pete didn’t have a key to the padlock so she had to carry her shoes and walk on the grass verge her feet sinking into the soft turf. New Place was enclosed by trees full of noisy crows. There were slates missing from the roof and fertiliser bags had been stuffed in their place to try and keep out the rain. The windows were streaked with grime.
‘What do you think?’ Pete was beaming. ‘We can get a conservatory put in and I want one of those wood burners. If I built a veranda thingy we could get a hot tub.’
Ever since he’d had the call from Parry’s solicitors he’d been glued to any property or renovation shows he could find. But you didn’t need to be an expert. Any fool could see his Auntie Gwen had left them a wreck. Carol’s thinking was to pull it down and stick on some holiday lets; those cute little timber chalets that were springing up all over the place. They could get six hundred a week each in the season, no trouble. Pete produced a long, thin key on a knotted piece of parcel string. He jiggled it about in the lock and it turned with a rusty scrape and they went in.

The White Lion was crowded but Pete found them a snug that wasn’t too near the toilets or coat stand and gave Carol a menu while he weaved his way to the bar for drinks. A few years ago, they’d have been serving up gassy lager, oven chips and scampi. Now it was all craft ales and Mexican and Thai food served up on slates with homemade relishes. Carol checked her watch. Pete wasn’t making much progress at the bar, so she draped her jacket over the chair and went to the toilets. It was chilly and she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait long. She sat in the second cubicle. The door opened, signalled by chatter and clinking glasses from the bar. Someone went into the next cubicle and sat down. After a few minutes a woman said her name. ‘We still on for tomorrow?’
Carol cleared her throat, agreed. ‘Come at three.’
The bolt slid across and the door swung open crashing against the tiles. Carol found she needed to pee after all. She was met by Pete in the corridor holding her vodka and tonic and a pint of something called Double Dragon. ‘Thought I was going to have to send out for a search party, petal.’
‘Just women’s trouble,’ Carol said, knowing Pete would never press.
When they’d got the wood-burner going she had to admit it wasn’t too bad. Dotty old Gwen had some decent furniture and the room had heated up so much she was glad for some fresh air on the patio. Gwen had painted a bit too – not Carol’s sort of thing – but she had to admit she had talent. She’d used something like a butter knife to spread splodges of oil paint. She’d caught the sea crashing over the rocks.
‘She was pretty good, wasn’t she?’ Pete said.
Carol yawned. ‘I’m bushed. Do you want me to take your book up?’
Pete followed her up the creaking stairs, no doubt angling for an ‘early night.’ How many times did she have to tell him she was worn out? She got under the covers, pulling them up to her ears as she had as a little girl – and listened to him breathing and sighing, hoping for something he wasn’t going to get. Finally, he cussed under his breath, clicked off the bedside lamp and before long he was snoring. Carol lay perfectly still, but wide awake beside him.
A little before three she heard the key in the lock and she went into the bathroom as they’d agreed. She put down the lid on the pan and sat on the toilet, listening. She heard a foot on the stairs and prayed Pete hadn’t woken. Usually, he could sleep through a tsunami. The bathroom floorboards were knotty and warped, the cracks between them wide enough to post a letter, so she took great care to inch around the skirting and open the door a fraction. There was a full moon and she’d left the blind up on the landing so it cast a faint, milky light on the stairs. She took a deep breath, grimacing as she opened the door a little more, cussing that she’d forgotten to grease the hinges with butter. They didn’t squeal and betray her and she offered up a silent ‘thank you’ to the heavens.
She saw him and swallowed. He gripped the banister rail and crept the last few steps to the landing. He was an old guy with lank, greasy hair and a dark complexion. He took a pipe from his pocket and bit on it. He wore an old cord cap and a creased woollen shirt beneath a greatcoat. He was perfect for the job. He watched each step and he pushed the door open with a gentle palm. Carol sat down on the toilet, counting to ten to slow her breathing, her racing pulse. The door was ajar and she caught the drift of tobacco, a low humming and a few words of a song before Pete screamed.
She made coffee. Pete sipped at it, holding the cup with both hands. Pete had bolted from the room. He wouldn’t go back upstairs and he wanted to drive, go anywhere. She said he was in no fit state to go anywhere, so they’d sat through the small hours in the rocking chairs talking, drinking coffee.
‘I know what I saw.’
‘I know love. It’s alright,’ Carol said.
‘You must think I’m tapped. It was him again. I know it was.’
Carol ruffled his hair thinking he was that boy again, desperate to get away. She sipped her coffee. It was important she didn’t rush him.
‘They were coming back from Australia when there was one almighty storm and they went down off the coal rocks. They were prospectors and carrying a fortune in gold, some of their pockets were full of it. They got a line ashore but some of them wouldn’t leave without their gold. They were still looking when they drowned. He’s still looking now, isn’t he.’ Pete shivered, blowing on his coffee.
‘Well he’s not going to have any luck round here,’ Carol said.
Pete stared at his feet.
‘What are we going to do then?’ she said. ‘I mean we can’t stay here if this is what happens.’
‘I’m sorry love. I’m not thinking straight, am I?’
Carol gave him a hug. ‘I don’t blame you. What happened was horrible.’
‘You believe me, don’t you?’
Carol smiled. ‘Of course, I do. You know what you saw.’ She went over to the window and gazed out over the gorse. ‘We’ll have to think about selling, though. It’d be impossible for you to live here.’
Pete said nothing.
‘We can’t stay love, can we? It’d be crazy,’ she said.
‘They haunt people cos they’re unsettled.’
Carol rolled her eyes. ‘You’ve been watching Channel 5 again.’
Pete shook his head. ‘If you can sort out what’s upsetting them they move on.’ He bit his lip. ‘The thing is I’ve done something I shouldn’t have….’
‘What did you do?’
Pete fingered the hem of his sweater. ‘He was searching for gold. If we gave him gold-’
‘No!’ Carol ran upstairs. ‘Where are they, Pete? What have you done with my earrings, my necklace? Shit, where the hell is my watch? Did you give it to that man?’
Pete climbed the stairs. He took her hands in his. ‘Not a man, a ghost. We’ve given him what he wanted so he’ll go away. I had to do it. We’ll stay here tonight and he won’t come again, you see.’
Carol stared into his eyes, searching for a glint, a gleam, anything. Pete stared back, giving her nothing.

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged | 2 Comments

Mrs Rochester’s Attic – short story anthology

I’ve been away from this blog for a while (busy working on a draft) but I’m delighted that one of my short stories, Pigeon Holes, will be appearing in an anthology called Mrs Rochester’s Attic.

More about this publication from Leicestershire-based Mantle Press soon.


Mrs Rochester - Cover

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My short story Lye Noon available to listen to here….

Lye, joint shortest station name in the UK and keen readers

Lye – setting for my short story – joint shortest station name in the UK and home to keen readers












I’ve never had my work performed by an actor so what a great experience to listen to Jack Trow reading my story Lye Noon.

You can listen to it online here

It was great fun, if a little sad at times, to write and I hope you enjoy it.

It’s a story about one of life’s outsiders, Billy Boon, who suffers despite his wish to help and be accepted.

Billy is a devoted admirer of the Wild West too and isn’t afraid to dress the part when he’s out and about in the Black Country.

The story wouldn’t have happened without the commissioning and support of WM Readers’ Network and, in particular Roz Goddard.

I had a fantastic time working with Lye Down with a Good Book reading group. They were friendly and encouraging and very knowledgeable.

Thanks to Rochi Rampal, Duncan Grimley and Jack Trow too, for a great reading.


Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

‘A Little Love’ wins Cardiff Review short story award 2016

Cardiff review - Fall 2016

Cardiff review – Fall 2016

I had the great news earlier this month that my short story ‘A Little Love’ has won the Cardiff Review short story award.

There’s an excerpt of the story here and a full version in the Fall edition of the Cardiff Review.

In the story the protagonist has a humdrum existence after dropping out of university to care for family and feels life may have passed him by. One night a surprise chance to do some good and feel he can really make a difference presents itself.


Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Great News – Garage Flowers chosen as winner by London literary agency

I had the fantastic news today that my novel Garage Flowers has been selected as the winner of Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV and Film Agency’s ‘Make Us Scared’ competition.

The official announcement is on the agency website here.

I’m delighted to win the prize which means I will be represented by the agency and I’m very much looking forward to working with them. They have some fantastic writers on their books with latest titles including The Missing by CL Taylor, Fiona Barton’s The Widow and (fellow Staffordshire writer) Mel Sherratt’s The Girls Next Door.

I’m looking forward to the challenge and excited to be working with a top agency.

The prize?


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Boscobel House piece on English Heritage

Boscobel House where Charles II hid

Boscobel House where Charles II hid










Thanks to English Heritage for picking up my Day Out in Shropshire piece on their Facebook page here.

Boscobel House is a great place to visit with a fascinating story….

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments