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?’
‘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.