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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11. 11

Ash stops in front of the door and puts his hand up to knock, then he freezes, side-eyeing me.

‘What?’ I say, squinting up at his hardened face like I don’t know what’s up. Truth is, I do know what’s up. I know the type of thoughts that’s going round his head. He’s worried I’ll do something bad, mess things up for his aunt and her baby girl. ‘Everything’s cool,’ I tell him, all breezy.

I feel the opposite of breezy. My stomach’s in knots. I been living on the run now for over a week and this feeling of being constantly on the lookout is starting to stress me. It don’t help that the last person I cotched with is now sitting in the pen, looking at a long stretch inside.

Ash looks down at me, his face proper straight.

I nod. I know what he’s saying. He’s saying don’t bring trouble on his aunt. Ash knows my situation. He knows what could happen if things turn bad. I can’t bring his blood fam into the equation.

He knocks and steps back, relaxing his features like we do this on the regs. There’s a little kid’s squeal from inside, then the door clonks open on the chain.

‘Ash-leah!’ sings this friendly Jamaican voice as these big, dark eyes peep out at us. In the background there’s more yelps and the buzz of a TV.

The door opens wide and Ash cruises in, doing his best to ignore his aunt’s long arms as they hook him for a hug. The woman’s wearing a red and white summer dress that runs all the way to the floor from these skinny shoulders that’s above the height of my head. I guess tallness must run in the family.

She turns to face me, and that’s when I notice the bump. Ash never told me she was knocked up. He said there weren’t no man on the scene. Maybe the dad done a runner, like mine.

‘Alesha?’ she says, with this smile that’s tinged with worry. She’s buff in a tired kind of way: big eyes with rings around them, skin hanging off high cheekbones and tidy hair all neatly plaited and running down her back. ‘I’m Deanna. Come in.’

I put on my sweetest face and step on through, feeling the vibes of worry coming off her. I slink down the corridor, thinking of how I can put the woman’s mind at rest. I only get a few steps in when this thing comes bouncing towards me, a black silhouette against the sunlight that’s streaming through from the back.

‘Hi!’ The kid’s all toothy smiles and fuzzy, wagging pigtails. I’d guess at five, maybe six.

‘Tisha!’ Ash’s aunt makes a grab for her, but the girl slips free, wiggling her way to my side.

‘You Alesha?’ she yells up at me. ‘I’m Leticia. But you can call me Tisha. That’s what everyone calls me. Are you Leesha? I can call you Leesha, if you like.’

The fast flow of words coming out of her mouth makes me smile. I find myself thinking rah, did I have that much to say when I was little? I know I had bare thoughts in my head but I reckon I kept them in there, zipped up.

‘I’m Alesha,’ I say. ‘That’s my only name.’

We head into the flat, me and Ash following Deanna, Tisha doing her jumping thing at my side. I don’t know what I done to deserve it, but it seems like the kid’s whipped on me, even though we ain’t hardly met.

Deanna offers us juice. She don’t wait for no answers, just busies herself getting cups and pulling out this bright orange stuff that looks like Fanta but says Fizz on the label. My eyes do a quick scan of the room, which tells me Deanna’s the no-nonsense, hard-working type. She reminds me of this woman called Toni from the estate who used to let me and JJ watch TV with her kid, Dale. I think Toni felt sorry for us, seeing the state of my mum and knowing the way JJ kept getting passed around. Toni gived us ice lollies in summer even though she couldn’t hardly afford to feed her boy.

Looking around, I see that even the flat’s a bit like Toni’s: small, with hardly no stuff in, but everything spotless clean. The tablecloth matches the curtains, both of them made out of colourful threads like what you see in the market, and there’s pictures of Tisha dotted about in cheap plastic frames. The place is a standard set-up with two little bedrooms, one bathroom and one room for everything else. Sometimes in these new flats there’s a ledge outside for plants and bikes and that, but this one’s all modern, with windows that don’t open and a big metal screen with holes in to let the air through. That’s so you can’t jump out, JJ says. Ain’t much point in stopping you jumping if you ask me. There’s bare ways to kill yourself if that’s what you wanna do. Bennie Grainger from the estate could’ve told you that, except he can’t now, coz he did it. He came out the pen one day, then jumped in front of a train the next.

Ash is already slumped on one of the matching plastic chairs round the table – the one that faces the TV. I follow him over but find myself stopping to help with the chair Tisha’s dragging across the floor. She gets all vexed when I try and put the chair at the end of the table, screaming for it to go right up close to mine. I smile, thinking rah, this girl’s like I was when I was little. She knows what she wants.

As soon as the cups get put down on the table, Tisha snatches hers up and drains the lot in one go. Deanna shoots her a bad look. I keep quiet. I can see things is already heating up between them. Give it a few years and there’s gonna be some noisy cussing in this flat, I feel it. Tisha’s gonna be firing words at her mum just like I did at mine. Things gonna turn out different for them, though. I can’t see Deanna taking no nonsense from her girl. I can’t see her turning to vodka when it all gets too much. I can’t picture her rolling off that little blue settee while some man tries to mash up her face with his fists. Tisha ain’t gonna end up cotching at her mate’s nan’s flat, rolling smoke after smoke to try and forget what she seen the night before. Deanna’s one of them mums that lays down the law from the start. Just like Toni.

Ash looks at his aunt like he’s busting to tell her something. The minute she sits down, out it comes – all the stuff about his latest tracks and the recordings at the studio and that.

Deanna nods and smiles, her head darting up every few seconds to check the juice, check the TV, check the time. Women like her, they ain’t the type to relax. They got bare things going on in their lives. I clocked a green uniform on the back of the door, like the type cleaners wear. I’m guessing Deanna’s got a job or maybe two. What with baby Tisha and the other one on the way, I guess she ain’t really got time for an extra hassle like me in her life. That’s why I know I need to make a proper effort here, else I’m gonna end up back on the streets.

‘It’s a rough cut,’ says Ash. He’s buzzing. He gets like this when he talks about his music. ‘We’re gonna do a proper recording next time. Vinny says he’s gonna find out about setting up a label.’

I look at him. This is news to me.

‘Shack Records,’ he says, this smile spreading across his face. ‘Or Shank Records… I dunno. It ain’t decided yet.’

He keeps talking, his words spilling out like there’s too many to hold inside him. I guess Ash’s mum is the same type as Deanna. That’s why he got good grades and that.

Suddenly his tone changes. The smile drops from his lips. ‘Might not happen, though. Depends on the funding.’

Deanna lets out this slow, sad sigh. ‘It always does…’

‘Are you coming to live with us?’ squeaks Tisha, staring up at me.

My eyes skim Ash’s. I clock the warning look on his face. ‘I’m just cotching here for a bit,’ I tell her.

Ash gets back to telling his aunt about the project. His aunt nods, like she wants to believe it’s gonna come to something. Her eyes keep darting to mine. I think she’s worried by the attention her girl’s paying me. I look down at Tisha’s puppy dog eyes, which blink back at me like I’m some crazy new toy. I can’t help it, I think. I never asked for this.

‘We’re gonna try and do a collaboration, you know? With a big-name artist. Get us a rep in the music world.’

‘Why are you staying with us?’ Tisha pokes me in the arm.

I glance at Deanna, thinking she might wanna handle this one, but she’s just looking intensely at me, like she don’t want me to say the wrong thing to her girl. I don’t know what Ash told his aunt. I’m guessing he glossed over the details, but even if he did, she’s gonna know the type of trouble I’m in. She ain’t dumb.

‘I just need a place for a bit,’ I say. ‘While I sort out some things.’

‘What things?’

I get level with her on the table, look straight into her round, brown eyes and lower my voice. ‘I gotta find something that I lost, so I can go back to my fam.’

The girl shoots me a screw-face. ‘Did you lose your key?’

I gotta watch this one, I think to myself. She’s smart, like Ash and the rest of them.

‘Something like that,’ I say, nodding.

Ash grabs the TV remote and turns up the volume. ‘You seen this, Tisha?’

A brass band blares out at us while a load of white horses dance across the screen with ribbons in their hair. It’s the news – something to do with the royals. Looks like a royal palace.

‘Waste of money,’ Deanna kisses her teeth, jumping up from her seat and clearing away the empties. ‘Public money! Imagine that! See that bute-pah, bute-pah datya have?’ She jabs at the horses, her yardie tones coming over strong. ‘We coulda put dat money to betta use! All them kinda tings them use the money for… What about y’record label? Them waste it all on the horse and dem tings!’

I keep quiet, keep staring at the TV as Deanna heads back to the sink, cussing words I don’t even know under her breath. I ain’t hardly met this woman, but I can see she’s got a fiery temper on her. I don’t wanna be on the wrong side of that temper.

I can tell from the stamp of her feet she’s still vexed when she comes back from the sink, even though the horses have galloped off and the TV’s just showing the news reader.

‘See?’ She says, poking holes in the air with her finger.

I look at the screen, mainly coz I’m too scared to look at her face. The news reader’s saying something I can’t hear, but the picture above his shoulder is of this long snaking line at the Job Centre.

‘More cuts!’ Deanna looks at Ash, then me. Her accent’s flipped back to English again but she’s still vexed, I can tell. ‘Coz they’re spending their money on the fancy horse parade!’

Tisha’s head is flicking between me and her mum like we’re yelling at each other, even though I ain’t saying nothing. My mind goes back to the time when my head was doing the flicking, my pigtails bobbing just like hers, only the people above me was doing more than just yelling. I could feel the blood off my mum’s lip hit my face.

I focus on the TV, trying to squeeze the memories out of my head. Ash is joining in with the shouting now, saying how the rich is getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He’s smart, he is – got lots of knowledge in his head and keeps up to date on what’s going on. I ain’t never been that clued up, not on things like wars and business and such. But I pick stuff up. I know how it is on the street.

We had this talk in assembly last term. The man worked for the council or whatever. He stood up, rolls of white fat spilling out of his suit, and he talked about local youth schemes. He said about taking opportunities and developing skills and making something of ourselves. I got one word for all that. Bullshit. Ash is right. What’s happening is the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer. Ain’t no hope for people like us.

‘Enough.’ Deanna flicks off the TV.

Ash gets to his feet and starts moving towards the door. I feel something tighten inside me. He’s off. I ain’t worried, exactly, but I don’t feel right. I ain’t exactly bonding with his facey aunt and now I’m alone with her and her baby girl, hiding out on an estate I don’t know.

‘Thanks for the juice.’ Ash lifts a hand, eyeballing me on the way out like he’s sending me a private message. No trouble, yeah? I give a little nod and get to my feet, but Ash and his aunt’s already talking in low voices about family stuff. I stop where I am, staring at the blank TV and thinking about what I’m gonna do.

Tisha slides out of her chair and thumps me on the leg. ‘Is Ashley your boyfriend?’

I let out this little sigh, thinking rah, this little voice could get jarring if it carries on. ‘No.’

‘Who’s your boyfriend?’

I roll my eyes. ‘I ain’t got no –’

‘You stop bothering her, this minute!’ Deanna’s back in the room. Her voice is sharp. ‘Time to go laundrette.’

Tisha does another screw-face.

‘Don’t make eyes at me.’ Deanna comes zipping across the room and makes a grab for the girl’s hand. ‘Them clothes ain’t gonna clean themselves.’

Tisha wriggles free. ‘I’ll wear them dirty.’

Deanna’s arm comes swinging down, her bony fingers clamping shut on Tisha’s wrist. Then the woman drops low and glares right into her little girl’s eyes.

‘You know what people say if you go round in dirty clothes?’

‘I hate the laundrette.’ Tisha shrugs. ‘It’s boring.’

Life’s boring. Come.’ Deanna yanks her away, hooking a big basket of washing with her other hand as she heads for the door. I make a decision.

‘She can stay with me,’ I say, all casual.

‘You don’t want that,’ she replies quickly. I’m wondering if that’s what she means, or if she means she don’t want that, leaving her baby girl with some stranger who just come in off the street. She don’t know about the exclusions from school or the drugs or the bad types I roll with, but she knows my type. She knows she don’t want her baby girl turning out like me.

‘I don’t mind,’ I shrug, looking round for something that’s gonna help my case. Under the TV there’s a stack of paper and coloured pens. ‘We can do drawing.’

‘Drawing!’ Tisha twists free and does a star jump.

Deanna’s frown starts to melt. ‘If… If you’re sure.’

‘I’m sure,’ I say, even though it’s her who ain’t sure.

Five minutes later I’m drawing squiggles on bits of paper in the middle of some woman’s flat that I don’t hardly know, batting off questions from this over-hyped kid who’s too busy bouncing to pick up a pen.

‘Who’s fam?’ she asks, sticking her face in mine.

I don’t answer straight up. I know what she’s getting at. She’s asking whose place I’m gonna head for when I’m done here. When I find my ‘key’. Fact is, I don’t even know the answer. JJ’s fam, for sure, but he ain’t got no crib I can use, and anyway, it ain’t like when it was just me and him and his nan. I don’t know why, it just feels like things have changed. The Crew’s like a new fam for JJ. He’s one of them. Every time I see him, he’s filled up with stories of Wayman and Mustard and Tango and all these other names I don’t hardly know. We’re still tight, I just don’t get to cotch with him so much. I guess it’s coz I’m lying low. I just need to scrape together them p’s so I can be part of it again – so I can get back with the Crew.

‘People you don’t know,’ I say, pushing the pen back in her hand. She blinks at me, then takes the pen and starts to draw.

I pull out my phone and ping Twitch.

WUU2? Can we meet?

‘Who’s that?’ Tisha drops the pen and looks over.

‘Just someone.’ I stare at my phone, thinking through my plan. If I can get the ring off Twitch, I can use it to take more off Miss Merfield.

‘Who?’

‘Do another picture, Tisha. That’s good, that is.’ I check out the scribble she done. It looks like she’s drawn a giant ball of wool. ‘You’re a good drawer.’

She puts on this face like she don’t believe me and slowly picks up the pen.

I look at my phone again, even though I know it ain’t buzzed. JJ says there’s bad words going around about me now – people saying I can’t be trusted; that I done a runner and I’m gonna get cut up if I show my face on the street. I knew it would happen. Word spreads quick when you ain’t there to defend yourself. I just need to get hold of the sterling and hand it over.

Still nothing from Twitch. Tisha’s drawing another ball of wool. I’m just pleased she’s quiet for a change. My respect for Deanna is high. She puts up with this every morning and every night, working all day in between, and on top of that she’s knocked up again. My mum couldn’t cope with just one of me. That was different, though. Mum was only fifteen when she had me. She didn’t wanna look after no baby. She didn’t want me. I reckon that’s why she turned to the booze. She wanted to forget all about me and escape. I didn’t care, to be honest. The more she escaped, the more I could do what I liked and she wouldn’t even turn her head. She didn’t notice if I was in or out, good or bad – she only noticed if the bottle in her hand was empty or full. Before that man come along, it was all gravy to me.

My phone pings.

Why u wanna meet?

I think for a few seconds. Gotta be smart here. Don’t wanna show I’m desperate, but I need to make sure he turns up.

U got sthing I need, I type.

‘Look!’ Tisha pokes me, letting out a little giggle.

My eyes slide sideways to the girl’s drawing but before they get there, they flip back to my phone again.

U mean the ring?

‘Look!’

I can’t look. I’m too busy staring at the screen and thinking. My heart’s beating double time. How does he know I want the ring? Did JJ say? Did he see one of Miss Merfield’s red notes? That’s the worry – if he’s seen one of them then he knows what the ring’s worth. He ain’t gonna give it away if he can get good p’s for it somewhere else. I quickly reply.

U robbed my own. Woman needs it back.

I’m playing it cool, but inside I’m panicking. This is the best way I got for making back the p’s. If Twitch knows what that ring’s worth, I’m stuck robbing suits all day.

I wait for the reply to pop up on the screen.

No reply. My arm’s getting sore from Tisha’s poking, but I need to sort this thing out. A minute later, there’s still no reply. I pick up the phone.

‘What you playin’ at?’ I yell down the line.

‘What, blud?’ Twitch is somewhere noisy. Probably in town, robbing and thieving.

‘You need to gimme back that ring,’ I holler.

‘Back?’ he says, playing me. ‘It ain’t yours.’

‘I told you,’ I yell, pissed off with Twitch’s games. ‘You robbed my woman. She needs it back.’

‘Alright, alright,’ says Twitch, like he’s finally clocked my tone. The background noise drops, like he’s moved out of the crowds. ‘Meet you up Rye Lane tomorrow.’

‘Not Rye Lane,’ I say quickly. ‘It’s too bait.’

‘Kestrel, then.’

‘Yeah, alright,’ I say, thinking rah, at least there’s bare exits in case the Crew comes looking. Just as long as I don’t make the same mistake as Reggie Bell.

‘Falcon House?’

‘Yeah,’ I say, thinking of Reggie and feeling sick. ‘By the garages.’

‘What time?’

I think quickly. The days are long right now. I don’t wanna be moving about in broad daylight. ‘Ten.’

‘Ite. See you then.’

‘Don’t be late.’

I put down the phone, checking my balance on the way. £2.14. I just spent 25p. Still, it’s gotta be worth it if I make £500. Tisha’s staring at me, her mouth hanging open, the felt-tip loose in her hand.

‘Let’s see this drawing then!’ I reach for the piece of paper she’s been trying to push into my hands, my brain still stuck on the conversation with Twitch. Feels like this big wave of relief has come sloshing over me, streaked with nerves. No word of payment. Seems like Twitch don’t know what it’s worth – maybe he’s had problems shifting it. Maybe he’s been going to the wrong places.

Tisha’s drawing looks like another ball of wool, only this time it’s unravelling all over the page.

‘Nice!’ I say, even though it ain’t. Seriously, there’s squiggles covering every little bit of space.

Main thing is, I’m gonna get Miss Merfield’s ring back. Tomorrow night I’m gonna head down Falcon House, get the ring off Twitch and sell it back to Miss Merfield for five hundred. Just like that. Rah, I’m gonna make back the p’s I owe. Gimme a few days and I’ll be back with the Crew – back with JJ.

Look!’ screams Tisha, screwing up her drawings with this naughty grin on her face and chucking them behind the settee, just as the door bursts open.

Deanna strides through, dumping the basket in the kitchen and turning on us with this busy-busy smile, eyeing the pile of blank paper suspiciously. ‘Everything OK?’

I nod, looking sideways at Tisha, who’s got this massive grin on her lips like she’s gonna show her mum something special, even though she ain’t got nothing to show coz she’s chucked them behind the settee.

‘Gimme back the ring!’ she squeaks, giggling as she holds her hands up to her mum in the shape of a gun. ‘You robbed my woman. Gimme back the ring!’

Deanna’s eyes narrow, then travel slowly from her baby girl to me, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

I open my mouth, but the words don’t come out. I just hang my head, feeling the bad vibes coming off Deanna in waves. That girl, I think to myself again. That girl is heading for trouble.

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