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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12. 12

I skid into the shadows of the garages and dump the bike, tugging my hood down low on my face. It’s starting to rain – finally. The air’s got so hot and heavy it feels like you could stir it with a spoon. I wish I could whip off my hoodie and tip my head up to the sky, but I can’t risk showing my face. I roll up my sleeves and wait for the big, heavy drops to cool the skin on my arms.

No sign of Twitch. The place is quiet except for the sound of dogs barking at each other from the high-up walkways. The car park’s dead. Maybe people don’t come here so much after what happened to Reggie.

I look across the estate, my mind flipping back to the last time we was here – me and JJ and Smalls and the rest, just smoking and chatting and watching the sun go down without any troubles in our lives, before it all kicked off. Seems like long ago, but it was only a few weeks. Everything’s changed – not just for me, but for various of others. When we woke up that morning, Jamila Bell still had a big brother. Tremaine Bell was still in the clink. JJ had affiliations, but he wasn’t rolling deep with the Peckham Crew. Snoop was a free man, shotting away in his little flat, no bother from nobody. I had a place to live and a school to go to. It’s like things have happened in fast-forward. I don’t hardly recognise my own life no more.

Somewhere up Merlin House, an engine kicks into life. I can picture the rims from the noise. It’s gotta be white, maybe a Golf GTI, lowered and accessorised to the max, busting a top-of-the-range stereo with subwoofer. Sure enough, seconds later, this deep, throbbing beat kicks in – the kind of noise you don’t just hear but you feel, in your bones. I give it five minutes before the boydem come round and tell them to move along.

I check the time. Ten past. Still no sign of Twitch. The rain’s falling like bugs from the sky, weighing me down but not doing nothing to cool me off. I squint up at the windows of Falcon House, thinking of the place I’m in now and coming over all thankful to Ash for sorting me out. If it wasn’t for his aunt, I’d have nowhere to go. Snoop got charged with possession, his place turned upside down, my bag of money going the same way as the draw. The businessman’s watch got me ninety notes – not as much as I’d hoped – and apart from that, I’m on zero. If it wasn’t for Deanna, I’d be on the streets.

I don’t think things between me and Deanna is ever gonna be smooth, but it’s less bumpy than when I first come. What with summer holidays and the new baby coming along and no man on the scene, there’s times when she can do with an extra pair of hands. Right now I’d rather not show my face on the roads so I’m spending bare time in the flat, meaning Deanna’s got me on-tap.

It took a while for her to leave me alone in the flat with Tisha again. I still don’t think she likes doing it. Deanna’s one of them decent, upright types – the type who goes looking for you if you accidentally leave 50p in the laundry machine. I reckon she worries my badness will rub off on her girl if she leaves us together, but really, she ain’t got much choice. Don’t ask me why, but Tisha screams to be left with me when her mum goes down the shops. Maybe it’s coz she knows I ain’t strict, like her mum. I’m working her out, though. That box of tricks up her sleeve is the same one I had up mine ten years ago.

The music stops abruptly, leaving just the growl of the engine coming through the damp air. I check my watch again. Quarter past. That’s gonna be the boydem, then. A few seconds later there’s mad revving then the sound of the whip blasting off down the streets. It’ll be back in half an hour, guaranteed.

My phone buzzes with a text. Even before I’ve looked I feel the lurch in my belly. There’s only one person in my phone who still texts.

Hi Alesha, RU OK?

I wipe the rain off the screen and shove it back in my pocket, black thoughts crowding my mind. That depends, I reply in my head. Me being OK depends on Twitch turning up and me getting the ring back and then Miss Merfield paying up – more p’s than we ever agreed. So far, not even the first part’s looking good. I feel bad for not replying to none of her texts, but there ain’t no point if I can’t get the ring – and that’s what she’s asking. She don’t care if I’m OK. She just wants her ring back, I know that. End of the day, everyone’s after something.

My hand stays in my pocket, curled around my phone. I’m thinking of pinging Twitch to see where he is, but as I think about it, there’s footsteps round the back of the garages. I step out, busting my way across the car park and tingling with the thought of the p’s I can make with this thing. I head for the band of light streaming from the doors of Falcon House and that’s when I realise. It ain’t just one set of footsteps, it’s three. They’re heavy footsteps, too. Heavy and serious. This is the footsteps of the mandem.

They crunch their way round the corner and too late, I clock the crooked nose and black doo-rag. My heart starts thudding inside me and my mouth dries up. Next to Tremaine is Masher – chains swinging against his pumped chest – and on the far side is this tall, smooth-moving figure with a stubbly face and ratty twists in his hair. Wayman.

I need to run, but it’s like I’m cemented to the spot. I wanna shut my eyes. I wanna disappear. Suddenly I get what Tisha’s doing when she puts a cushion up to her face and thinks I can’t see her. That’s what I want right now. I wanna be invisible.

Tremaine’s spotted me – I know it. He’s turning to Masher. I can hear deep voices. Quicker footsteps. Maybe they don’t know who I am, I think to myself, my eyes flicking sideways to where I left the bike. I try and work out my best option: head for the bike, which is trapped by the garages, or scatter on foot. My legs spring into action, firing me towards the bike, but now the mandem’s on the move – I can hear their feet pounding the wet tarmac. That’s when I know I ain’t got time to grab the bike and get out. I skid to a stop and change direction, but now the footsteps is close and I can hear panting behind me. My arms keep pumping, but it’s like one of them dreams where you’re running in treacle and it’s only a matter of time.

A hot hand lands on my neck. I try and twist free but Wayman’s on me, crushing my spine, his clapped face staring down at me as he boxes me to the ground, yanking my hood down so they can see my face. This is it, I think to myself. If they didn’t know who I was before, they do now. A trickle runs out of my nose and drops onto the ground. Blood. Tremaine stares down at me, this ugly snarl spreading up his face. I reach for my blade, but before it’s even out my sock Masher’s booted it across the car park. I’m panicking now, creeping backwards on my elbows and feet like half-squashed road-kill. Ain’t no way I can escape, but I keep crawling, crawling, thinking maybe there’s this chance they don’t recognise me, or maybe they’ll just think rah, it’s only a girl.

‘Alesha.’ Tremaine flashes this crooked smile that goes all the way up one side of his face.

My hopes crash out. Then I work out what’s happened. This ain’t no coincidence. This was planned. Twitch must’ve told them where to find me. He sold me out, the snake. I can’t hardly believe it, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. Twitch snaked on me for a few p’s from the Crew. My breath’s coming fast, my hands scraping and grinding on the tarmac. All I can think of is Twitch and how he snitched on me and how, if I die tonight, it’s all coz of that greedy, thieving paigon.

Tremaine steps to me, the mandem moving round to block my escape.

‘I got set up,’ I say quickly, thinking back to the night with the gun. ‘They was gonna shoot me, so I split.’

Tremaine dips his head on one side, looking down at me like he’s enjoying himself – like he don’t even care what I say.

‘I swear!’ I’m shaking like jelly, can’t think straight. The rain’s lashing down now, soaking through my garmz. ‘I swear – they put a strap to my head… they… they’re with another crew, man, I’m telling you…’

Tremaine’s gold tooth glints faintly as he looks down at me. I can’t tell if he believes me. Truthfully, I don’t think it matters if he does or he doesn’t. They do what they like, the elders. They’ve merked kids just for the way they walk down the street.

‘Get up,’ he says, shooting a look at Masher.

I feel myself being heaved up and dumped on my feet.

‘You gonna make it up to us?’

‘I’ll get you the money,’ I say, forcing myself to look into his black eyes.

Tremaine’s smiling with both sides of his mouth now. It’s a smile of pure evil and I can’t tell what it means. He slides his eyes sideways at his mandem, then back at me.

‘I said, you gonna make it up to us?’

My foot hits something on the ground. I trip, but manage to pick myself up. I don’t get why he keeps saying the same thing over and over. I’ve said I’ll pay up.

‘I’ll get you the –’

A hand clamps tight round my wrist. Then the same on the other. I can’t feel my fingers. Masher and Wayman are dragging me into the darkness of the garages. I twist and kick but the grips round my wrists stay tight. We must be near where I left the bike now, but there ain’t no way I’m gonna get near it coz they got my arms and they’re pinning me up against a wall. I keep kicking, but it’s like I’m a fly in a spider’s web. I can’t do nothing.

My body’s shuddering, my breath coming in quick bursts, but I push out a scream. Then it stops. For a second I don’t know what happened, then I feel it. My whole face starts throbbing and my jaw feels like it’s hanging off my face. Another fist comes flying out the darkness and my lungs cut off halfway through a breath. I double over, my chest like a lump of lead.

I wanna shut my eyes and collapse but I can’t coz my arms is trapped and my eyes is fixed on the crooked nose that’s getting closer and closer. I pull my head back. It hits the wall. The throbbing ramps up but I don’t hardly notice. I ain’t got nowhere else to go. Tremaine’s face is so close now I can hear his breathing. That’s when I catch the look in his eye. That’s when I know what he’s gonna do.

I hear myself tell him no, please, no. I hear the jaggedy cries coming out of my mouth, but I already know it’s too late. He’s yanked open my jeans and I can feel his rough fingers grabbing at my pants, pulling at the threads ’til they come away. You gonna make it up to us? I don’t even know if he’s saying the words or if I’m just hearing them. I try and knee him, try and let out another scream, but it’s like all my energy’s been sucked out of me and I’m just hanging there off my arms, a dead flower in the dark.

He’s pressing himself against me now and I’m crying, sobbing like a baby, but he just keeps on going, holding me still with hot hands and jabbing himself at me until he’s inside. Fire spreads up inside me and I hear this scream escape from my mouth. Then a hand slams up against my face, my head crashing back against the wall.

Feels like I’m burning up. I keep begging for it to stop, but it don’t stop. It just carries on, the pain throbbing and throbbing and throbbing. I feel sick. I can’t see or hear no more. It’s like I’m crawling out of myself and flying away, hovering over the garages in the rain, looking down at what’s going on. You gonna make it up to us? The scene’s on loop. I can hear sobbing, but it’s like it’s someone else’s sobs, not mine. You gonna make it up to us?  I can’t stand it no more. My whole body’s hurting. I just wanna die. Make it stop. Let me die. That’s all I want. Let me die.

Finally I open my eyes and feel myself falling back down, collapsing into my body again. I’m lying crumpled up on the wet tarmac, tears and blood and rain streaming down my face, pain running through every part of me. My jeans feel loose and out of the corner of my eye I can see this lump of wet threads in a puddle – my pants – but I can’t move. I can’t think. My mind’s blank. There ain’t no thoughts in it, no feelings, no nothing.

I unclench my fists, raindrops splashing up from the ground onto my face. Somewhere in the distance is a siren. A dog’s barking. The sound of an over-modified car comes growling across the Merlin car park, subwoofer blasting on max. I close my eyes again and try and make out the beats as the rain lashes down on my face.

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