Feral Youth

Growing up on a south London estate and excluded from every school that would take her, Alesha is the poster girl for the nation's 'feral youth'.
When a young teacher makes an unexpected reappearance in the 15-year-old's life, opening the door to a world of salaries, pianos and middle-class housemates, Alesha's instinct is to pull up her hood and return to the streets.
But fuelled by a need to survive, she falls into a cycle of crime, violence and drug-dealing, her one true ally deserting her when she needs him most. While everyone around her is rallying against the authorities in a war of haves and have-nots, Alesha finds herself caught in the crossfire, inextricably linked to the people she is trying to fight against.
Can she see a way out? And as riots sweep the nation, whose side will she take?

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1. 1

Reggie Bell is dead. He was seventeen. JJ says we saw him get shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing. It was all just a blur of hoods – a mad whoosh in the darkness.

I heard it, though. Reckon half of South heard Reggie Bell die. It was the kind of noise a cat would make if it got stretched and stretched ’til it snapped. Then nothing. JJ says that’s when Reggie died. He says the blood was leaking out of his body from the slit in his neck and when there was two pints all over the road, that’s when he died. JJ knows about things like that. He learnt more stuff in the Young Offenders’ than I learnt in the whole of year 10.

‘Alesha?’

I keep on ripping strips off my exercise book, watching the tiny curls float their way to the floor.

‘Alesha?’

I let out this big sigh and drag my eyes up to Mrs Page’s face. When it comes to jarring teachers, Mrs Page ain’t the worst at Pembury High, but she’s up there.

‘Why do you think George shot Lennie at the end?’

My shoulders lift up and I let out a long, loud sigh. The rest of the class is watching, waiting for me to say something rude.

‘Coz he was a paedo, Miss?’

Laughter travels round the classroom. I smirk, getting back to ripping strips off my book. I’m nearly at the margin now, which is filled with jaggedy biro scribbles.

‘Alesha, that’s not funny.’ Mrs Page stares at me, her head sticking out like she’s one of them long-necked birds. ‘Do you know who George and Lennie are? Have you actually read this book?’

‘Yeah,’ I lie.

I ain’t read the book. I got about three sentences in and then I gived up coz the page was filled with complex words. Honestly, I thought this Lennie man was wrong in the head coz Mrs Page kept banging on about him stroking rabbits and such. That’s why I said he was a paedo – it weren’t even a proper joke.

‘Then I’ll ask you one last time,’ says Mrs Page, staring me out. ‘Why do you think George shot Lennie?’

I ping my ruler against the desk, trying to come up with a good reply. Jokes is the best way. I ain’t gonna be one of them losers who just stares back at the teacher like a goldfish, saying I don’t know. You do that, you lose all your respect.

‘Coz he was pissed off with Lennie’s jarring questions,’ I say, making a point.

‘Right, that’s enough.’ Mrs Page does her crossed-arms, pouty mouth thing at me while another laugh ripples round the room. ‘And what is that mess on the floor?’

She’s losing it, I can tell. I just sit there and watch as she flings her arms about, eyes rolling in their sockets as she jabbers on.

Truth is, I don’t see how this book is gonna help me live my life. Is it gonna get me a flat? Is it gonna bring in the p’s so JJ don’t have to go thieving wallets for our food at night? What’s the point in talking about made-up killings in a made-up book when there’s real ones going on down the road? Mrs Page don’t know nothing about blood and shootings. Reggie Bell’s lying dead on a slab right now, bled dry through a slit in his neck. Knowing why George shot Lennie ain’t top of my priority list.

‘Pick up your stuff and swap places with Hailey,’ she says, finally. ‘I want you where I can see you.’

I slam my book shut, grabbing my bag and pushing past Hailey, who’s creeping through the room like a spider. I’m thinking about busting straight through the door and out the school gates, but then I remember just in time that I’m seeing Miss Merfield at lunch so I drop into Hailey’s old seat and flip open my shredded book.

‘George shot Lennie out of kindness,’ says Mrs Page, looking over my head.

I zone out, turning towards the window. Crystal Palace tower looks faint today on account of the drizzly rain. You can’t even see the flashing light on top.

I watched the news this morning, thinking rah, maybe Reggie’s gonna be on TV. No sign. I looked at the front of the newspapers on the way to school. No sign. That’s how much they care. A black seventeen-year-old getting shanked in South London – that ain’t news. That’s just the way it is. Me and JJ, we joke that no one round here knows what it’s like to see their twentieth birthday. Maybe it ain’t jokes after all.

I feel eyes on the side of my face and I turn to see Shalina Amlani looking down her giant nose at me. I hate Shalina Amlani. It ain’t just the way she looks at me – it’s who she is. Her affiliations. Shalina’s brothers roll tight with SE5, the crew that killed Reggie last night. Reggie was one of us; one of the Peckham Crew. The beef between the Peckham Crew and SE5 runs deep.

Shalina squints her lashes in my direction and then spins back to Mrs Page, flicking her oily black hair like she’s won something over me. Like I’m dirt. Bitch. She don’t even know what went down last night. She probably heard some hyped up version from the mandem but she don’t know the truth. She ain’t seen what I seen.

Thinking about that noise again, I remember Jamila, Reggie’s sister. She was in the year below me at Langdale Girls’, the last school I was at. We never rolled tight, but we’d check for each other. I hope she don’t get told how it happened. I hope she don’t hear about the blood spurting in the air like a burst water pipe or the way they run off and left him. I hope she don’t find out it was one of ours who set things off by stepping on SE5 turf – that if it weren’t for Kingsley Wright getting over-hyped and leading the mandem through the bit of Kestrel Estate where the exit’s blocked off for road works then her brother would still be alive. Some things, you don’t need to know.

I feel Shalina’s eyes on my face again and I turn, proper slow, feeling the pressure build up in my veins. She’s looking at Mrs Page but her head’s tilted sideways and I know she can see me. She knows I know she can see me. Feels like it’s only a matter of time before things kick off.

‘This dream of getting their own place, living off the land…’

I tune in, then out again. I got dreams. I wanna get my own place. Ain’t gonna happen, though. Social Services don’t even know I exist.

The bitch is playing me. She’s waiting for me to break. I ain’t gonna break. I’m just gonna sit here staring at the side of her ugly face ’til she turns and then I’m gonna make sure she knows who’s dirt.

‘…true friendship throughout the book…’

Shalina ain’t got no clue. She don’t know what’s coming to her and her bredrin. SE5, they made a big mistake shanking Reggie Bell last night. Big mistake. Maybe they thought he was just one of the youngers, someone they could shank to get back at Kingsley for breezing through. Maybe they couldn’t see properly in the dark. Or maybe they knew exactly who he was. Maybe they knew his cuz was Tremaine Bell.

Tremaine Bell runs the Peckham Crew. He got put away for dealing, years back, but he still runs the Crew from inside. He’s still the most feared and respected gangsta in the endz.

Tremaine getting done for dealing was jokes, given what he done up ’til then. He put a man in a coma for linking with his girl. He cut the ear off some shotter who couldn’t pay up. He’s known for rearranging people’s faces with scalpels and wire-clippers and rusty blades and he chops fingers off people who ain’t to his liking – at least, he did before he got chucked in the pen. Now he gets the mandem to do it for him. Tremaine Bell is nasty work. SE5 killed his cuz. This means there’s gonna be trouble. Shalina Amlani and her crew need to watch their step.

I’m still staring at the side of her face, waiting for her to turn round. I’ve got this itchy feeling under my skin. It’s like my blood’s too hot, expanding inside me, moving too fast in my veins. I feel like I’m gonna burst with rage. I hate Shalina Amlani. I hate her. I hate her brothers and cousins and everyone else that comes from the wrong side of Peckham Road.

Mrs Page starts handing out bits of lined paper, walking between us and causing me to break my stare. I blink, reach into my pencil case and pull out the metal straw JJ gived me last year, when he was still in school. He thieved it from a bar. Nabbed two: one for him to protect me, he said, and one for me to keep. He even scratched my initials on it with a compass. They ain’t supposed to be pea-shooters, but that’s what we use them for. I feel around for a BB pellet and slip it inside, like JJ showed me. It’s a perfect fit. I wait for Mrs Page to get a few rows back, then I aim and fire.

Chook. Straight into the side of Shalina’s neck. Her whole body twitches like she’s having a spasm, but only quickly. I see her hand shoot up, like she’s gonna rub where it hurts, but then it drops back onto her desk and she sits up, tall and still. I tuck the pea-shooter away, pleased with my skills, and watch as this purple mark appears on her skin. Not much longer, I reckon, before she turns round and gives me the eye.

‘Imagine you’re setting off on a journey, like George and Lennie.’ Mrs Page taps her way to the front. My eyes stay trained on Shalina.

The itching’s getting worse. Feels like my skin’s on fire. Shalina ain’t turning round. It hurts, I know it, but she ain’t gonna show me how much. The purple’s spreading up her greasy-brown skin and I think about Reggie, lying there under the shower of his own blood, feeling himself drain away in the dark. Any minute now, I think, she’s gonna side-eye me or rub the mark… but she just sits there, looking up at Mrs Page as the woman spouts her stuff.

‘Remember what we said about narrative. Alesha?’

I ain’t looking at Mrs Page. I’m keeping an eye on the bitch next to me. My body’s shaking with too much anger – too much hatred for this yat.

‘Alesha?’

I let out this long, hot breath through my nose, catch the eye of Mrs Page and pick up my pencil. Then I get back to staring at Shalina.

She’s hunched over now, writing her words like a good girl. That riles me. She’s just pretending like everything’s cool, even though there’s this giant purple stain creeping up her neck. I’m shooting daggers at the side of her face but she’s fronting it.

Seconds later, she straightens up, her eyes scanning left to right like she’s checking her work, even though there can’t be more than one line on that page. I feel the hate building up inside me as I lean on my own blank sheet, a ball of fire burning inside my belly. As I watch, Shalina folds the sheet in half, then in half again, then again so it fits in her hand. Then she turns sideways and flicks it onto my desk, giving me this look that I can’t hardly describe. I swear, it’s like she ain’t got no cares in the world. Like she’s so happy right now, she don’t even notice the hurt in her neck.

I flip open the note, clocking the shakiness of my hands. I’m like a petrol bomb being held over a flame.

How does it feel to be on the losing side? Loser.

The bomb explodes. I don’t know what happens but I hear this yelp and the screech of chairs on the floor and then Mrs Page’s voice above my head. I can taste dirt on my tongue and my head’s pinned to the ground and some yat’s sitting on my back and all around me is shoes – scuffed black shoes, kicking dust and grit in my face. I can hear dripping, right next to my ear. I twist my head and see a dark, red puddle a few centimetres away. Shalina’s blood. That’s when I notice the pencil in my hand. That’s when I work out what I done.

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