BASIC SKILLS

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Ann Cleeves' short story Basic Skills was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 2nd November 2006, read by Brigit Forsyth, as part of the Manchester Crime Wave series.

Maddy thought books could change lives. That was what she'd told Sylvia at the interview for the post of literacy tutor. Sylvia, who was in charge of access at MMU, had given a cynical little smile, but had given Maddy the job anyway. Perhaps there wasn't much competition. Certainly the pay was dreadful. The project was an attempt to encourage local people to consider further education, to give them, Sylvia said, a fresh start. It was a fresh start for Maddy too. A return to confidence after the end of a long term relationship. A change of career.

Now, walking through Didsbury Park to her first class, Maddy felt the same excitement as she had as a child at the beginning of the school year. She loved the romance of autumn. The leaves were starting to turn and there was a freshness in the air after a long, humid summer. In her bag she carried a new pencil case and a file with all her students' names. At the university she waited for her students in a room which smelled of worn gym kit and floor polish. In the street below, the lights came on.

The students drifted in one at a time. She greeted them all, holding out her hands, repeating their names. Knew she was being too effusive as soon as she opened her mouth, felt the smile too wide, her voice a little too loud. She should have worn jeans. Her clothes were showy and seemed designed to set her apart. She wanted to tell her students that she'd got the garments at cost, that she'd been in the business once. Instead she grinned and made more unnecessary introductions.

They sat at their little tables and stared at her. She marked them off the register, trying to memorise their names. Sophie was the thin one with the staring eyes. Alan had the nervous laugh. There were seven of them. One was missing - an eighteen year old called Anthony who lived in a probation hostel. Sylvia had said he might not turn up.

They're unpredictable, the hostel lads. We can't force them after all.

During her training Maddy had observed other literacy classes and thought how tedious they were. How patronising. She was passionate about reading. How could her students not respond?

She was just starting on her prepared introduction when the missing student walked in. He had soft hair and sad brown eyes. His face was framed by the hood of his parka. He had an edgy tension which made her think he might be an addict.

"Sorry I'm late, miss." As if he was still at school. He had a lovely smile.

She started them reading first lines. Interesting first lines from her favourite writers. Margaret Atwood. Charlotte Bronte. Carol Shields. She'd printed the words very big on thick, white paper. Then she asked what might come next in the book.

"Don't you want to find out?" she demanded. "Really, can you bear not to know?"

The students smiled indulgently at her and looked at the clock. They'd been told there'd be a break half way through the session. Free tea and biscuits.

They came back late, licking chocolaty fingers and smelling of cigarettes.

"If you were to write your own story, where would you start?" Maddy asked. "Give me a first line! Don't worry about the spelling, just get the words down."

She wasn't sure if Anthony had heard her. He stared in front of him, features rigid. Then he leaned very close to his paper and started to write. The point of his tongue was clamped between his lips in concentration.

"Who shall we start with?" Maddy asked brightly. "Anthony, what about you?" Already she was fascinated by him.

He looked up at her and she thought he might refuse to read his work. She decided she wouldn't make a big deal of it. Then he spoke.

"The buckle shaped like a ship on the belt my father beat me with," he said. "That's what I'd start with."

He spoke slowly, rhythmically. Like a poet, making every word count. She was moved almost to tears.

"Anthony, that's a stunning piece of writing."

He became her star student. He brought her scraps of verse and ideas for stories. Most of his writing was sentimental and childish, but there were pieces so powerful that they took her breath away.

On the third week he asked about her favourite book.

"Catcher in the Rye" she said immediately."You should try it. Really, it's only short. You could manage it. Come back with me now and you can borrow it." She was swept away by the idea that he would love the book too.

He waited while she packed away her papers and tucked her glasses in their case and they walked slowly through the fallen leaves.

"What's it like in the hostel?" she asked.

"Not so bad." He was standing under a light and she caught a quick, bleak smile. "I'm hoping to get a place of my own soon."

She didn't ask why he was living there. She felt it would be bad manners to pry.

In the flat, she poured him a glass of Rioja, because that was what she would have done with any of her friends. He sat opposite her, sipping the wine as if it was medicine. He told her his father was dead now. "Cancer, poor bastard, but he went out fighting as always." Then he left, with the book in his pocket. From her window on the first floor, she watched him go. He stopped once to look back.

Her friends were horrified by her folly in letting him know where she lived.

"Are you crazy? You don't even know why he's caught up with the probation service. He could be violent."

"Oh, I don't think so."

It was early October, a bright clear day. They were sitting outside Marmalade in Chorlton, drinking cappuccino. A Saturday morning ritual. She looked at their shocked faces and saw that perhaps she had been foolish. How could she have been so naïve?

She began to distance herself from Anthony. In class she picked skeletal Sophie or serious Maz to read first. She looked at Anthony's poems and stories when everyone else was there, read into them a suppressed violence which she hadn't previously noticed. What previously she had considered powerful, now she read as disturbed. After class, she rushed off immediately, claiming meetings, dinner with a boyfriend who didn't exist. Anthony sat at the front and looked at her.

One evening in her flat, after she'd eaten, she poured herself a second glass of wine and stood with it looking into the street. There was a fine drizzle which looked like mist. Half way along the road, leaning against a tree was a dark figure with a hood pulled over his head. Anthony. She let the curtain fall, felt her pulse quicken, saw that the surface of the wine was trembling, realised her hand must be shaking. When she found the courage to look out again, he'd gone.

The next day she had the locks on her flat changed. She'd lost her spare key some time ago and hadn't thought much of it. She had never been very tidy - one of the sources of discontent with Des. Now she tried to remember if she'd seen it since Anthony's visit. It tormented her that a kind and spontaneous invitation could lead to this unease. She knew it was her fault but she blamed Anthony. Whenever she thought of him now she was taken over by a sense of dread. In class she could hardly look at him.

The certainty that she was being followed developed over several days. There was nothing she could pin down. Nothing rational. A figure disappearing into thick fog when she left home early one morning to buy milk. A shadow thrown across the pavement when she walked back from college. Once she definitely saw him, huddled against a cold east wind, hands in pockets, head bent. He was walking along the street behind her. She sensed him or heard his footsteps, turned suddenly and caught his eye. He looked defiant but rather pitiful. She hurried on, could hear him behind her, running, but not quite catching her before she turned into her flat.

Before she closed the door he shouted after her. She couldn't make out the words; the wind seemed to snatch them away and she pictured them rolling down the street like dead leaves. Inside, standing with her back to the door, she felt sick and panicky. The last time she'd felt like this was when Des had told her their relationship was over. He'd fallen for a colleague. They'd decided to settle down and have kids. She'd vowed never to let a man get to her like that again, but here she was, in her own flat, wanting to throw up all over the carpet.

She stood there for a long time. The phone rang. It couldn't be Anthony. She was ex-directory and had never been silly enough to give him her number. She waited for a message to be left on the answering machine but the caller hung up. At last she moved, walked through to the kitchen, looked out of the window. The street was empty. She lifted the phone to ring her friends, but replaced it. She couldn't bear their I told you so sympathy. They'd thought all the time that she was stupid, that she'd be lost without Des, that it was ridiculous to teach losers to read.

Later she felt an emptiness which could have been hunger and she hacked herself a slice from a crusty loaf. The knife was short and squat, very sharp. After the bread was cut, she wiped crumbs from the knife's blade and put it into her handbag. That evening, as she stared mindlessly at a television drama, her thoughts returned occasionally to its steely sharpness, bringing her comfort, the nearest she'd been to calm for days.

It was the last class before the October half term and the students were in a cheerful mood. Maddy realised that they'd become friends. Sophie had lost her haunted look and was chatting about the care home where she worked. Anthony hadn't arrived and Maddy started the class without him. Perhaps she was free of him, he'd drifted off or been arrested again. But he walked in late as he had for the first session, with the same edginess and pleading eyes. She forced herself to be polite, took courage from thought of the knife, sharpened that morning which lay in the bottom of her handbag.

Towards the end of the lesson though, her nerve failed her and she finished the class early. Her students gathered around her desk.

"We're going to the pub, Maddy. Will you come too?"

"Sorry," she said. "I'm not feeling too brilliant actually. I think I'll go straight home." There was no point now, conjuring up the imaginary boyfriend. Anthony had been following her and knew he didn't exist.

She was going by the side of the park when she heard the footsteps following, light and quick. She walked more firmly, with her right hand she opened the bag which was slung over her shoulder, gripped the steel handle.

His touch shocked her. He'd never touched her before, not even to shake her hand. This was tentative, a stroke on her shoulder. Maddy felt her throat constrict as if she was already being strangled, turned and struck. With the knife in the clenched fist.

There was a gasp, a whisper and Sophie fell. Lying on the pavement she seemed even smaller and more delicate than she had in class. Her skirt had ridden above her knees and her legs were thin and white. In one hand she still held the purse Maddy had left on her desk before hurrying out of class.