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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10. 10

The creps is winking at me through the glass, bold and bright and colourful, a neat white swoosh on the side of every pair. I allow my eyes to slide over them, pretending like I got seventy notes to spare and I’m about to breeze through NikeTown and grab me a pair. The red and black looks peng – I can see myself busting out the store in a pair of them. Or maybe the blue and green. Maybe both. Maybe I could wear a different one on each foot and start a new thing?

Some yat barges past me, scraping her shoe down the back of my heel. I spin round, but there’s bare people flowing around and I can’t see who it was. Anyway, it ain’t smart to be running your mouth off when you’re trying to lie low. I thump the glass, a growl rising up in me at the unfairness of it all. My creps is so old they got holes where my toenails rub. You can’t hardly see the Adidas stripes no more – and anyway, what’s the point of Adidas stripes? Nike Blazers – that’s the only thing to have on your feet these days.

I push off the window, the rage starting to gnaw at my insides. I’m still cotching in some shotter’s hole on a settee that feels like it’s made of sponge cake. My weave’s bulking out, I smell like a tramp and my belly’s constantly hollowed out. Same time, there’s people all around me, checking out the latest threads and splashing their sterling like they got too much to know what to do with.

It ain’t fair. I just want new creps. That’s all. And a place to live. Not a flash house like the ones in Miss Merfield’s endz, just a place that’s mine, with a shower that works, with no wasteman shotter wandering around in a haze of draw all day long. I wanna have income like these types; I wanna spend it on nice things like creps instead of stashing it all in a plastic bag, ready to give over to the gangstas that set me up in the first place.

I lose myself in the crowds, putting my mind on what I came here to do. There’s a swarm growing on the corner of Regent Street, people colliding and weaving as more pour out from underground. I let myself drift, slipping between bodies, my eyes scanning this way and that.

I cruise up to a bunch of squealing yats, clocking the labels on their designer bags. Fakes, as usual. Not even good ones. But you never know what you might find inside. Sometimes there’s cash, gived to them by rich parents and that. Mainly, though, the whole bag’s worth less than a tenner even with everything in it. It’s all plastic these days. It ain’t worth the risk.

Five minutes later and still no luck, so I head underground. Straight away I find myself face-to-face with a shiny new colour touchscreen. It ain’t the latest model, but it’s in good condition and sticking out of a woman’s bag as she bends down. Easy pickings. I move forward for the kill, my fingers twitching, my heart picking up pace. But as I get level I see the full picture and the buzz fizzles out. The thing she’s bending over is a baby in a pushchair. It’s one of them crazy double-decker types. A screaming kid’s tugging madly at her skirt: face red and streaky, eyes filled with tears. The other one’s chucking stuff out the pushchair and the mum’s running about, struggling to cope.

I move on. You don’t rob young mums, just like you don’t rob old people. You don’t rob pregnant women or people with problems in the head. Twitch once nicked a phone off some mental kid on the bus. When the others found out what he done, they made him text someone in the address book and sort out for the phone to get back to the kid. You take from people who ain’t gonna miss it when it’s gone – people who don’t need it. Half the time they claim on insurance and end up with a better model while we’re selling theirs down the market. That’s how it goes.

I swirl around in the flow of the ticket hall, waiting for someone to follow. It ain’t smart to rob people down here as there’s cameras everywhere and boydem lurking in every corner. Plus the escape routes get blocked. Up on the street, though, that’s fair game. As long as you got quick legs, you can do what you like. Five minutes later I got my man.

It’s a suit – the type that looks straight through the likes of me. I’m invisible, like the dirt in the air. I could probably walk straight up to him and swipe the whole bag off his shoulder and he still wouldn’t be able to tell the fedz what I looked like. I ain’t gonna go for the bag, though. It’s too big and heavy. Besides, there’s more value in the TAG wrapped round his left wrist than all the laptops you could fit in that bag.

I got an eye for watches. I can spot a big-name watch from across the street. Best thing about watches is, they can’t be traced. Once you got it off the wrist, it’s yours for keeps – or for p’s. Easy p’s compared to phones.

I trail my man up the steps like a ghost, my eyes lasering in on his free left hand as I work my way up close. We hit fresh air and I track his hand as it dives into his pocket and then does this big arc as he pins the BlackBerry to his ear, right next to me. I follow him across the road, sticking tight like a shadow. He ain’t suspecting a thing, I can tell. His brain’s on the phone call. It’s like he’s trying to make my life easy.

‘Yah, quite.’ I hear the words as I tuck in, looking around to plan my escape. He’s leading me down one of them fancy streets where the shops all have gold lettering above the doors.

‘Well, exactly. They’re the ones in the chain. Two point five. I’d stick at that. Two point five.’

A tourist zigzags across our path and the man gets aggro, dancing left and right and chucking his spare hand in the air. I take advantage of his confusion, grab and pop. The latch is undone. I yank on the watch, feeling the BlackBerry slide out of his hand and fly through the air.

There’s a clattering noise as the phone smashes onto the street but I’m already running, my hand like a claw round the silver TAG. By the time the suit thinks to start yelling, I’m halfway to Green Park, whipping off my black hoodie and pulling the sleeves down on the grey one underneath. I duck down a side street and burst out on Piccadilly, hopping on the nearest bus.

My chest’s heaving, but I bust my way up the stairs, slipping the watch into my pocket as I go. Grabbing the seat at the front, I give myself a couple of seconds to calm down, then I check the goods. A smile spreads up my face. There ain’t no scratches on it. Not a single one. I never expected today to be this good. Thieving gets you goods worth tens, maybe a hundred notes if you’re lucky. This is mint. This is gonna wipe out my whole debt in one go. My body tingles with the thought.

Turns out I’m on the 436, which takes me all the way to Peckham. I sit back, feeling smug, thinking how maybe things is coming together. I’ll grab the coil from Snoop’s, hit the market, sell the watch and head to the barber’s to pay off my debt. Rah, maybe things ain’t so bad. Maybe with a few more like this, I’ll be getting them Nike Blazers after all. I dig in my pocket to ping JJ.

I got a message. Not a BBM – a text message. I don’t know nobody who uses texts these days.

Hi Alesha, I read, wishing I hadn’t looked. How U doing? Let me know if U need anything. Helen (Miss Merfield)

I stare at the screen ’til it goes off and the phone locks up. I’m still staring five minutes later when this fat woman barges up and expects me to move to the window. I shift across, but my head’s somewhere else. I can’t put my finger on it, but I got this weird feeling in me – like the black cloud you get when you know someone’s waiting for you round the corner.

It ain’t like I’m scared of Miss Merfield. I know she ain’t gonna cause me no trouble. I know she don’t care too much about the p’s I took – she probably don’t hardly notice they’re gone. But I can’t shift this feeling. It ain’t right, what I done. It breaks the rules. Just like you don’t thieve from them who needs it, you don’t thieve from fam. I know Miss Merfield ain’t fam. She’s only a teacher, but she’s been good to me. It don’t feel right.

The bus rattles its way through Victoria and suddenly we’re flying over the bridge on empty roads like we’re gonna take off. I lean my head on the window, my hood separating the grease of my weave from the grease on the scratched-up glass. I’m back in that room of Miss Merfield’s in the music block, on that tatty stool, my fingers tripping their way through the tunes.

Twelve o’clock on a Tuesday was the one time I looked forward to. I never took to the exercises and scales and such, but the playing – the bit where you put the notes together and heard the sound that come out, like proper music – that was safe. That felt good. Miss Merfield, she knew what I liked and just let me do my thing. After that time I blew up, she worked out there wasn’t no point in telling me to practise. Where was I gonna practise, anyway? Mr Pritchard wanted me out of the music block coz he saw me as trouble. There’s a keyboard at the Shack, but I ain’t gonna play Mozart in front of my bredrin. Miss Merfield knew I wasn’t never gonna be one of them pupils that did school concerts and that. I never even did my Grade 1. She worked me out. She just gived me the music, let me play, put in a pointer here and there and made me cups of tea. She said I was good. I don’t think I was good. I ain’t good at nothing, truly, except thieving and brawling. Reckon Miss Merfield just said that to make me keep trying. Really, though, I didn’t need no words. Touching them keys was enough.

I quit thinking about it coz the black cloud’s getting blacker. Miss Merfield ain’t my teacher no more. There ain’t no affiliations and now I’ve got the p’s together to pay back the Crew, I don’t need her in my life. My days of playing piano is over – I left that behind with the maths and English and science and such. I wake my phone up and hit delete on the message. I don’t need no more complications in my life.

Traffic’s stop-start up Peckham Road, like it always is. I hop off at Kestrel Estate and walk the rest, feeling the sun on my back and my mood fizz as I reach in my pocket and finger the chunky links of silver. I picture the look on Sanjay’s face up the market when he sees what I got for him, imagine the feel of the p’s in my hand – a nice thick wad of notes to add to the rest.

I cut through Telford, deep in sums, working out how much I’m gonna have left over after paying off my debt. My brain’s working so hard I don’t hardly notice the blue flashing lights on the street up ahead. Takes me a couple of seconds to take in the faint crackle of voices on radios and the hum of engines on idle.

I see the van first, then the cars. Three cars. My heart thumps inside me, quick and loud, like bust machinery. It takes everything I got not to turn back the way I come and split as fast as I can. I slow down, fearing the worst and trying to work out a game plan. Then I stop. The door of Snoop’s block swings open and two uniforms step out, struggling to carry something between them. Someone. My belly tightens. It’s Snoop. In cuffs. He’s being pushed into one of the cars just as two more uniforms barge through the other way, back into the flat.

I slip back into the shadows, can’t hardly feel my feet under me. The bag. That’s all I can think about. The bag of notes. I left it under the settee. The place will be swarming now – they’ll be turning the place upside-down, finding all the draw that wasteman’s hidden about the place, plus my bag of notes.

I feel hollow. It’s like someone’s opened me up and scooped out my insides. That was the money I owed the Crew. It took nearly a week to pull it together – a week of living in fear, lying low in my own endz and thinking of nothing except building up the p’s.

It’s all gone. Not just the p’s but the roof over my head. All I got in the world is a stolen watch. I lean back on the wall, feel my weave catch on the crumbling brickwork as my knees go weak and this wave of sickness swallows me up.

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