Andy Jackson always knew that class 2C’s help in preparing for the annual Christmas Fair would be a mixed blessing. Then he’s paired up on the Lucky Dip with Greg, the man who dumped him but now can’t keep away, the pupils are either lecturing him on his lovelife or losing bladder control, and no one’s fixed the broken handle on the storage room. It may all be one whoopee cushion too far for him!
This story is 8,000 words in length.
© Clare London
“We’re not moving.”
I didn’t mean it to sound so aggressive. Really, I didn’t. Poppy and Benedict from 2C, plus Poppy’s little brother Tommy were working on the school hall floor at my feet, sitting cross-legged in a tangle of white crepe paper that was meant to be the basis of a snowy, Pyrenean mountain range but, at the moment, looked more like bandage supplies at the battle of the Somme. The rest of my team were working on the other side of our display table, bickering or giggling in turns. I’d only been allocated half a dozen of the younger pupils to help me out: the challenge had been in keeping them gainfully employed in creating separate scenes for Foods of the World.
Mrs Warren cleared her throat. “Mr Jackson, I welcome the full participation of all teachers, especially the newer members of staff, but as Head, I’m in charge of the Christmas Fair. It’s our major fundraiser every year, and as such, it’s important that tomorrow runs smoothly.”
“Of course it is.” I wished I didn’t blush every time she peered at me like that, like I was still one of her pupils.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tommy’s big, round blue eyes flickering between us. I knew how it must look: two teachers, face to face over the top of his head. Our voices were raised and one of my fists had clenched with the tension. And Tommy hadn’t even started school yet.
“Mr Jackson, we need this area for the Lucky Dip barrel.”
“I’ve been setting up the display here all morning,” I said. “With 2C’s help. It’s their turn to be on duty for this display. They told me it’s always in this corner of the hall. Every year.”
Out of the corner of the other eye, I saw Amy nod her head quite firmly, as if she were part of the adults’ discussion. Poppy frowned, and the Sophies A and W both sniggered nervously. I suppose my tone may have sounded a little hysterical. It had been a very long Friday and it wasn’t even lunch time yet. Tommy stared at the girls around him, but then turned swiftly back to his task of peeling his fingers off the safety scissors. It looked like they’d been dipped in the pot of glue. I had no idea if that had been an accident or otherwise. I didn’t even remember agreeing to babysit Tommy for Poppy’s mother while she worked on Arts and Crafts, though between her and the Head, it seemed to be a done deal.
Elvira Warren’s gaze drifted to the crown of my head. She reached up and took a long strip of shredded paper out of my hair.
“Weeping willow, Chinese culture. Recreation of,” I said. I wasn’t making much sense, but 2C and I had been working on the papier-mâché backdrop of the world in miniature since early morning.
“They eat chicken’s feet in China, you know.” Amy brandished a garishly-pink plastic chicken and groped for the scissors. In the confusion of transferring them from Tommy’s sticky hands to Amy’s, Sophie A somehow stabbed her thumb and started up a wail.
Mrs Warren glanced down and grimaced. “I think the children need direction.”
“I think,” I said, not thinking first, “they need reassurance.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Thank you for your input, Andy. I’m not sure you should always take what 2C says as entirely accurate.”
“But sometimes, I should.” I winced. God. How to impress the boss in two clumsy lessons. “Sorry. I mean, if I sounded…”
But Mrs Warren smiled. “It’s all right, I take your point. 2C may keep this corner for the Fair. But you’ll have to share it with the Lucky Dip.”
I was sure I heard a whispered “yay” from Tommy, though hard to say over the level of background noise in the school hall. “I’m sure we can manage it as well…”
“Which will be run by Mr Canbury, like last year.”
I swallowed hard. “He’s not exactly a parent.”
“He’s in loco parentis, Mr Jackson. An uncle, and a volunteer. And we’re very grateful for them, aren’t we?”
“Of course. But I’d rather not…” I took an awkward step backwards, knocking against the box of plastic fruit and vegetables on our display table. Helplessly, I watched as it toppled off the edge and tipped over on to Poppy’s head. A bunch of neon green grapes landed on her shoulder and a baguette the colour of a pumpkin thumped into her lap. She and Sophie W, inseparable at the best of times, started up a joint wail this time, hopefully more from shock than injury. Tommy started giggling.
By the time I’d scooped up the box, Mrs Warren was on her way across the hall to the Fancy Dress stall. She called back over her shoulder. “You and Mr Canbury have worked events together many times, haven’t you? I remember last summer’s Jamboree, then Firework Night, although you unfortunately had to leave early when you singed your hair. And that Quiz Night when you…” She paused.
I groaned inwardly. “I just gave the tea urn a little knock. The tap seemed to be stuck. And no one was burned that badly.”
Mrs Warren was distracted by another member of staff, beckoning her over. “You and Greg Canbury work well together. You make a good couple. I’m sure I can leave it all in your capable hands.” She paused again and glanced back at me. A small frown line appeared between her brows. “Well, Mr Canbury will be over soon, I hope.”
“Mr Jackson?” Amy tugged at my jacket. “Benedict’s got his finger stuck in one of the onions. Are you in trouble with Mrs Warren?”
“No, Amy, there’s no trouble.”
Her little nose wrinkled. She looked older than her almost-seven years and decidedly unconvinced. “Tommy says he has to pee.”
“That’s fine, Poppy can take him –”
“Now,” she interrupted. “He says he has to pee now. He’s going to do it in the top of your model of the Eyefully Tower.”
“What? Tell him to stop that right n–”
“Too late,” said a low, male, and very adult voice at my ear, a flicker of amusement in its tone. “But I’m on my way to save France’s national treasure.”
I turned my head to see Greg Canbury smiling at me, his expensive designer, I’m-a-city-trader shirt tight across his chest, his skin smelling faintly of expensive aftershave, and – rather incongruously – a large dishcloth and bucket in his left hand. He stuck the right hand out in front of me, demanding I shake it.
“Good to see you again, Andy.” He gripped my palm and leaned in closer. “And sharing such close quarters.”
God knows why it made me shiver: the hall was far from cold. “Look, Greg…”
“On our Christmas stalls, I meant.” His laugh sounded nervous. He didn’t let go of my hand.
“Sir,” Amy cried in the background. “Tommy says he’ll do the Targy Marl next.”
Greg looked puzzled.
“The Taj Mahal,” I explained. “Took me three evenings’ work and a month’s worth of empty cereal boxes to create.”
“Sir, Mr Jackson, sir!” Amy shrieked.
Both Greg and I leapt into action, me grabbing Tommy who was just pushing down his school shorts, and Greg waving the cloth, ready to clean up any spillages. For the next few minutes we were kept busy either scolding or scouring, no time for any other conversation. After all, my only concern was in guaranteeing tomorrow’s smooth-running school event, wasn’t it?
I sneaked more than a few sideways looks at Greg Canbury as we brought things back under control. Trouble was, I suspected if I had to share a stall with him, even for a couple of hours, this corner of the hall would need more than crepe paper bandages to deal with the wounded.