1. Extract from 'Blonde BOY, Red LIPSTICK':
Maybe because of the sheer size of the factory I worked in, it was pretty easy to be there and not to be there at the same time. I mean, someone could clock you in on one of those life-draining clock punch machines while you were still at home in bed. Sure, that could go wrong if one or the other of you weren't careful. But there were ways around it. And if you had a good friend, someone you could rely on, maybe take turns with, you could be at work without actually being there.
And so, from then on, that was what I began to do. I'd get up on time, leave the house as if going to work and then stay on the bus - this very route, the one I was on now - straight past the factory gate and into the city centre. Once there, sometimes I'd spend a few hours in the art gallery. And a few more hours in the central library where I read all about art and, for some obscure reason, I even learned basic Swedish. On other days I'd catch a local train and go to places like Sutton Park or Earlswood Lakes, where I'd spend hours and hours walking or sitting, my head more or less empty, just waiting for the clock to slowly move around so that I could go back home, pretending that I had been at work the whole day.
My god, that factory. The things that happened there. The stories I could tell. The work force usually got the blame. But it was run so badly, from the top downwards.
Again I smiled to myself as I remembered the coal man. For several years after the whole place had switched to oil fired heating, his job had remained unchanged. Every month he'd order the coal. Every month the coal would arrive. Then he'd then bag it all up in individual sacks and sell it - very cheaply, to be fair to him - to the other men who worked in the factory. And nobody further up the management structure ever thought to query his role, or the fact that Leyland was still paying for a few tons of coal every month.
What a place. But I'd had some good friends back there at British Leyland. It hadn't all been dull or shambolic. We'd had some good times too. And, as the bus finally approached my old factory, the one person who did spring to mind was Andy; Andy the skinhead.
Andy had grown up on an estate rougher than my own. And he had survived by becoming a skinhead. Not just any skinhead, but one of the toughest of the bunch. He read skinhead magazines, whatever they were. He had a few tattoos relevant to skinheads. He drank protein drinks several times a day, stopping work once an hour to pump some weights. All that and much more. Yet one morning - I'd never forget it - he came into work and the first thing he said was, "Fuck me, did you see Top of the Pops last night? That band. Was that a man or a woman?"
I hadn't seen it, so I didn't know what he was talking about. But I picked up the name from the replies some others made and overheard their comments too. Which weren't nice. Things like 'Fucking queer', 'Should be locked up', and so on. And then I heard Andy's distinctive voice. "Fuck off", he said, quite loudly, and almost challengingly. "If he's a lad and he wants to dress up like that, then so fucking what? Each to their own."
I had laughed and the others had shut up. Looking back on it now, I should have said something. I should have said 'Well put, Andy' or something like that. Yet I didn't. And I regretted my silence.
Finally, the bus reached the point where my factory had been. A place where thousands of men and women had worked and very many more had earned their living by servicing the industry. I knew it had all changed. I knew that those days were long-gone. All the same, as the bus pulled up at the stop I jumped off, expecting to see the original huge red brick factory, or a large modern replacement.
But now? There was nothing. Just rubble. Acres of it...
2. Extract from 'SKINHEAD GIRL - an Urban Love Story':
I wasn't certain which flat was Louise's, but at least I knew the right tower block now. And I seemed to recall she had told me she lived on the top but one floor. So I figured she should be easy enough to find. But as I walked the short distance from the community centre to the block of flats, still not running, though increasingly wanting to do so, I felt myself getting slowly but surely ever more tense.
And no wonder.
"She'll be fine", I told myself. But the doubts were pushing in more than ever. I had been wrong not to get a message to her. So bloody happy, so trusting, so certain of what we had. I should have made sure, somehow, that she heard from me.
I reached the three tower blocks, walked to the furthest of them and stopped.
I looked up.
It was not dark yet. Dusk. One of my favourite times of day.
A car screeched on the main road. Accelerated far too fast, away into the evening.
I told myself to calm down.
Singing nearby, I heard the comforting sound of a blackbird. I loved the song. It was melancholic but, somehow, reassuring.
I told myself that if Louise had not been... well... who and what she was, I would have been much more confident. So it would all, obviously, be fine, I said, trying to convince myself.
Nevertheless I waited until I heard the blackbird again. Just in case.
Now? There was nothing for it; it was time to find my girl.
I took another deep breath.
Then. Ready. Go.
The lift, with its thick, cold, silver doors, seemed to take an age to arrive. And when it finally did do so, the doors opened slowly part of the way and then stuck.
I froze. Wondered if I should take the stairs.
Then I grabbed hold of the doors and pulled at them and, thankfully, they opened.
Inside the lift I studied the well-used push buttons, and pressed the number 9. Ninth floor. Top but one.
And after a moment's hesitation, with a sudden jolting movement, the lift doors slowly closed.
And the lift moved.
Climbing up towards Louise's flat.
If I hadn't felt so tense - as I now did - I'm sure I would have laughed to see myself in that lift.
After all, I was going up in an elevator, in a tower block, in Chelmsley Wood, to call for a tough looking but gorgeous girl. But not just any girl. This was a skinhead girl.
That I would be doing that? Me? It was so unlikely. Impossible, almost.
The whole thing, really, was crazy. Funny. Just a little bit insane.
Yet here I was.
How life leads us along strange paths at times.
But I was too numb to laugh.
Finally the lift stopped. And after the briefest of silences, to my huge relief, the doors opened quite smoothly.
I took a few steps out of the lift and found myself in the middle of a wide corridor. The floor tiled or, no, in fact it was actually covered with lino. The thought of which did make me smile. Briefly.
The whole space was lit, as it was now starting to turn properly dark outside, with harsh communal fluorescent tubes. And, just as I had expected it to, it smelled of Jeyes fluid too. Detergent. A smell I rather liked.
I took a few more steps.
I had eight or maybe ten faded blue doors to choose from. Scratched paint work more often than not. Front doors. Entrances to lives. Different stories. Love. Births and deaths.
But which was her flat?
Which faded, scratched door belonged to Louise?
I wasn't sure.
I stood for a moment and listened. But there was nothing. No ska music. Maybe, just faintly, the sound of a television set.
So then... which door to knock?
Of course someone, anyone, everyone, would probably have known which flat belonged to Louise. All I had to do was knock at the first door, and ask them.
I realised that quite quickly, so I took a few steps towards a door... and then stopped again.
I stopped, this time, because I could see that the very next door had a black and white two-tone sticker on it. Behind the frosted, wire-reinforced glass.
Two such stickers in fact.
And, what was more, there was clearly a child's toy inside, bright red and yellow plastic, also behind that frosted glass.
So I figured I might as well try that door first.
Because there was a very good chance it was Louise's flat.
With my heart in my mouth, the strong smell of communal disinfection in the hall now mixing with the scent of frying bacon coming from a different flat, and the sound of somebody's TV now louder from a door suddenly ajar a little further along the corridor, I knocked at that scruffy blue door.
I looked to my left.
At the end of the corridor, there was a narrow window and a heavy fire door, which I knew accessed the concrete staircase and, for sure, a good view of tree tops and roofs. Streets. The tops of buses. The shopping centre. All now fading away as the darkness rose and the street lamps obliterated all meaningful shape or form.
Tower block world.
I wanted to go and look.
But I resisted the urge.
Then the door in front of me opened.
And I was finally face to face, once again, with my skinhead girl...