chapter 1
chapter 2
chapter 3
chapter 4
chapter 5
chapter 6
chapter 7
chapter 8
chapter 9
chapter 10
chapter 11
chapter 12
chapter 13
chapter 14
chapter 15
chapter 16
chapter 17
chapter 18
chapter 19
chapter 20
chapter 21
chapter 22
chapter 23
chapter 24
chapter 25
Chapter 6
Birmingham: Biffer & Skin.

Birmingham, like many big cities of England, is divided up into various regions. The city centre itself contains the main shopping precinct, known locally as 'The Bull Ring', and many tall office buildings and department stores.
    We, however, are walking down a street a few miles north of the city centre, in the district of Aston: Kenilworth Drive to be precise.
    It is early morning. The sun will not be up for another hour but the sky to the east glows faintly in anticipation. The houses down this street are more than one hundred and fifty years old, sturdily built from London red brick and all are of a similar style.
    We stop outside number thirty-one. The door and windows, both upstairs and down, are securely boarded. The garden is overgrown and the front gate is hanging from its hinges. We would be forgiven for thinking that nobody lives at number thirty-one Kenilworth Drive, but we would be mistaken.
    Inside the upstairs front bedroom a chink of soft light enters through a gap in the planks covering the window, allowing us to make out a mattress placed directly on the bare floorboards. And curled up upon this mattress, covered by a solitary blanket, lies a sleeping boy.
    The boy's eyes flicker and then suddenly open wide. He glances towards the window without moving his head and notes the approaching dawn. Skin, for that's who it is, stretches and yawns loudly before leaning over and fumbling for some matches to light an oil lamp sitting on the floor beside him.
    By the light of the lamp we can see more. The room is sparsely furnished: just a single table and chair. Upon the table is a model aircraft still under construction and a neat row of books lined up at the back. On the wall above hangs a poster of Dean Saunders togged up in his Aston Villa football club colours. An action photo showing him perfectly balanced, shooting for goal. Stuck to an adjacent wall is another poster: a detailed exploded view of an internal combustion engine.
    And, ah yes! I spy something else. Look over there in the corner, a second mattress and on this a second boy. This boy is still asleep.
    Skin picks up the lamp and makes for the door. "Time to get up, Biff," he says, curtly.
    Biffer's only reply is a solitary grunt.
    Skin scoots down the stairs to the kitchen, lights the gas, sticks on the kettle and scoots back up again for a quick shower.
    Skin was already sitting at the kitchen table, knocking back a mug of tea, when Biffer burst through the door. "By gum, that waters damned cold." He declared and poured himself some tea. Biffer's short, dark hair was still damp and spiky from the shower.
    "Come on," said Skin, presently, getting up and slipping on his flying jacket. "Let's grab our bags and be off."
    He went to the cupboard under the stairs, pulled out two old canvas paper-round bags and handed one to Biffer.
    The back garden was very small, not more than a yard really, but big enough to contain a garden shed where their mountain bikes were kept. It was still quite dark so both boys switched on their lights.
    In appearance the boys are very different. Skin is a rather dishevelled character with long, light brown, unkempt hair, baggy trousers, now tucked into his socks, and a dark, heavy flying jacket. His wide set eyes and snub nose are situated on an unusually mobile face. Biffer, however, is neat by comparison. Dark hair, cut close to the skull, tight jeans and a long, designer jacket. He possesses piercing, blue eyes that invariably twinkle with some hidden humour. A swarthy complexion and a loose agility give him the air of a street fighter.
    Skin mounted his bike and led the way out onto the road before heading off in the direction of Patel's Newsagent.
    Biffer soon caught him up and pulled alongside grinning. "Come on," he said. "Race yer."
    The boys sped off hell for leather, frantically changing gear at any road junction or sharp bend. Sometimes Biffer leading, sometimes Skin. There was no other traffic on the road at that time of the morning so, as the brightly lit newspaper shop came into view, both boys performed a wheelie, screeched to a halt outside, parked the bikes and tumbled into the shop, laughing loudly.
    Mr. Patel emerged from the back room where he had been busy marking up the papers. "Oh, it's you two, is it? I might have known. Do you always have to make so much noise? Especially at this early hour?" he asked, in mock annoyance.
    "Just glad to be alive, Mr. Patel. Glad to be alive," answered Skin, taking a 'buccaneer bar' from the display cabinet. "Can you stick this on my tab, sir. Take it out of my wages at the end of the week, my good man."
     The slightly podgy Mr. Patel narrowed his eyes. "That's the third chocolate bar you've had this week. How do you stay so skinny? That's what I want to know."
    "Nervous tension," replied Skin, darting about the shop. "I'm hyperactive, me. Always on the move. When I go, I go fast. Why walk when you can run, says I. Only a buffoon would go gliding when he could speed along in a jet…"
    Biffer stood watching, fascinated, but eventually could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing. "Don't believe a word of it, Mr. Patel. You should see him of an evening. Let him just get a sniff of a sofa and he's on it. A right 'orizontal 'olmes is our Skin. The original couch potato."
     "Don't worry yourself, Biff," said Mr. Patel, with a wink. "He'll soon slow down when he sees the size of his paper round this morning."
    Skin did not just slow down, he ground to a halt.
    Now it was Mr. Patel's turn to laugh. "Over there, Skin. On the counter behind you. Yours is the one on the right."
     Skin slowly turned and when he saw the enormous pile of papers and magazines, his shoulders visibly sagged. "But…but…Why so many?" he spluttered.
    "Because it's both the beginning of the month and a Thursday. Today is when most of the magazines come out," explained Mr. Patel. "You should know that by now, Skin. And anyway, it was you who chose to do The Avenue round."
     "Yeh, that's right" agreed Biffer. "And I remember why, too. You thought that all those rich people would give you the biggest Christmas boxes."
     "Well, I was wrong about that, wasn't I?" grumbled Skin. "The rich are rich 'cos they 'old onto their dosh, that's wot. That lot down The Avenue are tighter than an 'ead gasket." He turned back to the pile in question and wearily lifted up his paper-round bag. "How am I going to get that lot into here? That's what I want to know."
    Mr. Patel was still amused. "Don't worry about that, Skin. I've got plenty of spare bags. You can always use two."
     And that's just what he did. Less than five minutes later, the two boys were cycling down the road together, Biffer with one bag resting on his handlebars and Skin with two.
    At the first road junction, Biffer bid his friend farewell. "See you at 'The Buccaneer' for breakfast," he said, and took the right hand fork.
    Skin cycled on through the empty streets. Empty, that is, save for the occasional milk float, postman or other paperboys and girls heading in the opposite direction to pick up their papers from Mr. Patel. He knew these fellow teenagers well, of course, and they waved to each other as they passed and exchanged greetings.
    "Will you be at the match on Saturday?" called out one.
    "You betcha," shouted back Skin.
    The surrounding buildings gradually changed for the better as Skin reached the more affluent part of Aston, until he eventually turned into 'The Avenue' where the difference was at its most stark. This road was wide and lined on each side with magnificent horse chestnut trees. Every house, or mansion in Skin's view, was individually designed and stood in its own grounds. The lush gardens, back and front, contained trees and shrubs in abundance: Magnolia, flowering cherry, plum, apple, pear, fuchsia and many more. There was even some kind of palm tree growing in one front garden. How it could withstand the cold winter nights, Skin never knew.
    He leaned his bike against a hedge and began to deliver the papers and magazines on foot. The numbers written on the papers, by Mr. Patel, were arranged in such a way that Skin could walk down one side of The Avenue and back up the other.
    The fact that many professional people lived down The Avenue was reflected in their reading matter. Medical Journals for doctors, financial magazines for bank managers and accountants and law publications for the solicitor. And the only newspapers Skin delivered were of the broadsheet variety, like The Guardian and Financial Times: Hence the need for him to be carrying two bags.
    An old friend was sitting on the doorstep of number fifty-six waiting to greet him, a golden Labrador. She came walking up the path, or should I say wriggling up the path for the act of wagging her tail caused her whole body to wriggle.
    Skin knelt down, put his arms around her and gave her a big hug. "Hello Cindy, my old girl. How the devil are you?" he said. "Will you be coming to help me on my round today?"
    "Woof, Woof," barked Cindy.
Skin grinned. "Hang on a sec. while I deliver this paper to your mistress."
    Meeting Cindy was almost a daily occurrence. Her owner, Mrs. Roberts, was getting rather too old and doddery to take Cindy for her much needed walks and encouraged her to accompany Skin on his round. Not that she needed much encouragement.
    Cindy trotted on ahead and soon had her nose stuck in amongst the piles of autumn leaves that accumulated along the side of the pathway. 'Sniff.' "Was that the scent of a hedgehog that had been hunting for snails during the night?" 'Sniff, sniff.' "Yes, yes. Of that I am certain."
    After delivering to the end house on that side of the road, Skin crossed over to head back up the other way, glad that one of his bags was now empty. At that moment the sun decided to break through above the far buildings behind him, sending rays of glorious sunshine shooting down The Avenue. The effect was stunning. Skin gazed in appreciation at the sudden transformation. The myriad leaves covering the two lines of horse chestnut trees shimmered in the breeze converting the sunlight into autumnal gold, reds and purple.
    Further along, something glistening on the ground caught Skin's eye. He crouched down and picked it up. It was a conker peeking out from a crack in its green, spiky armour. Skin put his thumbs into each side of the crack and pulled sharply. Out popped a shiny, brown jewel: a brand new conker. He slipped it into his pocket. Within a week, he knew, there would be thousands of these strewn all over the ground.
    Halfway down The Avenue stood Impala Lodge. An impressive mansion, set behind a high, iron railing fence and two huge, wrought iron gates. On one of these gates, just above the letterbox, was fixed a large notice:


Skin had always wondered about the strange wording but had never seen any sign of an animal behind the fence, wild or otherwise. Cindy, however, was very wary of Impala Lodge and would refuse to go anywhere near. Every day she would cross over to the other side of the road, sit patiently and watch while Skin delivered the paper, and then saunter back across further along.
    Shortly, Skin could be seen to ram the last paper into the last letterbox and walk over to his bike. Cindy was already there, waiting. She sat down and offered up a paw. Skin took it solemnly in both hands, trying hard not to laugh. "Thank you for your company," he said. "I hope to see you again tomorrow."
    Cindy gave one short bark, turned tail and scampered back down The Avenue to her home.

chapter 7