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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13. 13

‘Let’s play Cloud Popper!’

I stare some more at the chicken on my plate. I been staring at it for long.

‘Cloud Popper!’

The screeching noise jars in my ear. I can hear the tone of it, but the words don’t mean nothing.

‘Alesha?’ Deanna’s at it now, peering at me from across the kitchen, her brow in knots. I can see her as I stare at the chicken, but I ain’t gonna look her in the eye.

‘Cloud Popper! Cloud Popper!’

The noise gets louder, but I don’t move. I can’t. Feels like they’re all banging at my door, trying to pile in on my space with these questioning words, but I just wanna keep quiet – pretend like I ain’t at home. Truthfully, I ain’t at home. I’m in this strange place that’s all blank and dark; it’s hard to describe, but it ain’t like what you’d call home.

There’s more squealing and I feel this hand dive into my pocket – except I don’t know it’s my pocket. I don’t know it’s Tisha making a grab for my phone to play Cloud Popper. In my head, it’s just someone trying to get in. Someone getting close. I jump up and bat the hand away, my body tensing up at the feel of her touch.

A wailing noise fills the air and I see shapes moving round me in a blur. Deanna’s shouting too and there’s things flying about, pressure piling up on me. Finally my brain snaps to and I look around, replaying the sounds in my head and working out what I done.

Tisha ain’t hurt from where I skimmed her face, but she’s bawling and gasping and eyeballing me from her mum’s arms like she don’t see me as a friend no more. Deanna’s got this look on her face like any small bit of trust she had in me’s just been blasted away.

I hear myself tell them it was an accident and I’m sorry – at least I think I do, but maybe it’s in my head. I can’t think straight. There’s too much bad feeling in the room. It’s like everyone hates me, everybody’s out to get me. I gotta escape. I gotta get out of this place and find me somewhere I can breathe.

I mumble more words and head for the door. The fresh air smacks me in the face and I feel my belly tighten and shudder inside me. I get to the railings just in time to lean over as this big wave of puke comes out of me and splatters into an empty space in the car park below.

It keeps coming, wave after wave of the stuff. I don’t know where it’s coming from; can’t remember when I last ate. I come away from the railings feeling shaky and weak. There’s bitterness in my mouth and I know I smell dirty and gross, like a tramp. My head fills up with disgust. I look like the type you’d cross a road to avoid. I wish I could cross a road and avoid me – not just coz of how I look and smell, but coz of what I’m like. What I am.

I can’t think about what happened. It’s a blank. It’s like I’m one of them horses in the parade on TV, the blinkers on my face only letting me look straight ahead, not back. It hurts when I pee and my jaw still feels tight from where they boxed me, but I ain’t thinking about the reasons why. I won’t allow it.

I bust my way up town, not bothering to hide my face. The way I see it, things can’t get no worse than this. If they spot me, they spot me. I ain’t got nothing to lose, coz I already lost it – and that’s the truth. I got zero left in my life. That’s how it feels.

Up ’til this day, I never thought of it like that. JJ always said I looked at the world through funny glasses, that I always see the good in things. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it was true. I seen some bad things in my life and not for one minute did I think rah, let’s all just give up. But today that’s how I feel. I feel like giving up.

My phone buzzes in my pocket. I leave it to buzz. Don’t wanna talk to nobody. I head for the Aylesham and dive into Super Sports out of habit. Boost a pair of shades, on automatic, and walk straight past store security with them up my sleeve, not even bothering to crack a smile. I don’t care if I get nabbed today. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I did. Maybe I wanna get nabbed so I can try it on with the fedz, let off some of the anger inside me.

No alarm, no nothing. I breeze out, picking the label off the shades as I go. My phone’s buzzing again in my pocket. I reach for it just to see who it is, then drop it again, feeling this fresh wave of sickness swell up inside me. Miss Merfield is over-hassling me, asking the same thing over and over – You OK?

I hate myself for what I done to Miss Merfield. I hate myself for taking her money and not giving nothing back. I hate myself for not even sending a text to say Sorry, it’s all gone gash. But it’s her fault for getting involved. I hate her for getting involved. I hate everything. I’m filling up with hatred.

The phone stops buzzing and I take a roundabout route through the shopping centre, my eyes half-glazed as I zigzag from pound shop to pound shop. A pair of uniforms comes strolling towards me, side-eyeing me as they get close, like I’m dangerous. I shoot them a death stare and keep walking. Today I am dangerous. I feel it. My mind’s filling up with all the reasons I hate the fedz, all the reasons I hate everyone like that; everyone who thinks they got power over me. I keep walking, the familiar itchy feeling spreading all over my skin.

The buzzing starts up again. I’m so filled with rage that I snatch it up and yell What? without even looking at the screen.

‘Hi Alesha. It’s Helen… Miss Merfield.’

Why you calling me?’ I growl, the anger swilling inside me.

‘I was just wondering how you were doing,’ she says in this small voice, like I injured her with my rage.

The hotness swells up inside me. How you doing? How’s things? That’s all she wants to know, except she don’t wanna know. It’s just a thing she says, like everyone else. It’s an excuse to meddle. No one wants to know the answer to them questions – they just wanna hear me say ‘fine’, so I do. I spit the word out my mouth like it’s poison.

The line goes quiet. For a second, I think maybe we got cut off – maybe Miss Merfield ran out of credit or whatever. Then I hear her voice again, quieter than before.

‘Are you sure, Alesha?’

I roll my eyes, even though I know she can’t see. ‘What, you think I don’t know how I’m doing?’

She does a nervous laugh. ‘No. No, I’m sure you can tell. I just mean… No, sorry. Ignore me. I’m sorry.’ She sounds flustered. ‘I’m glad you’re OK.’

‘Right.’

‘Right.’

More silence. I lean my shoulder on the window of the jewellery store, eyes travelling across the glinting display but not taking in what I see. After a couple of seconds I clock the manager woman, watching me through the gaps in the boards. I lean in harder against the glass.

‘So, is that it?’ I say.

‘Well, I guess…’ Miss Merfield trails off. The woman in the jewellery shop’s still checking me, staring harshly like she’s trying to push me off the glass with her eyes. I scan the display, taking in the twinkling diamonds and bands of silver and gold. Then I remember. I know why Miss Merfield’s calling me. It’s the same reason as it always is.

‘I told you, Miss,’ I say, ‘I ain’t got your ring. The boy’s ghosted on me.’

I get this shiver run through me as I think of that snake and what he done to me. My brain freezes up for a second but I manage to drag it back to the conversation, squash the feelings inside me. Miss Merfield’s talking again.

‘This isn’t about the ring, Alesha.’

‘What’s it about then?’ I snap. She’s got the lot, that woman – I seen it with my own eyes. She’s got the house, the car, the middle-class life… Only thing she don’t have is the stupid ring and she’s telling me that ain’t what’s on her mind.

I don’t know what Miss Merfield says next, coz the voice above my head drowns out the one coming down the line.

‘Step away from the window, please.’

There’s a hand on my shoulder. I feel this lurch in my belly and find myself twisting away, my whole body shuddering at the man’s touch.

‘Easy, now.’ The security guard holds up his hands like I’m armed.

I take a breath, try and calm myself. Then my eyes slide sideways and catch the woman in the shop trying to hide her smirk. Bitch. She called security. I know she did.

‘I ain’t done nothing!’ I spit, feeling edgy and vexed.

The man just eyeballs the woman in the shop, gives a little nod and walks off, leaving me panting and fuming and vexed.

I look down at the phone in my hand and realise Miss Merfield’s still on the other end. I give her a rundown of what just happened, which comes out as this mad stream of cussing.

After a little gap, Miss Merfield replies.

‘What’s a bumbaclot?’ she says.

I’m so hyped I don’t hardly take in the words. I open my mouth to keep yelling, but suddenly the rage ain’t there. It’s like someone opened a valve somewhere and all the pressure inside me escaped. The sound of Miss Merfield saying that word is distracting. It ain’t right. People like Miss Merfield can’t say that word.

‘It’s rude, Miss,’ I say. ‘Seriously.’

‘Oh.’ She goes quiet. Then she starts up again, all calm like we’re just killing time. ‘Will you tell me what it means?’

‘Look it up,’ I say, making out like I’m still riled. But really, the venom ain’t there no more.

‘I was hoping you could tell me… over food, perhaps. Maybe I can buy you lunch?’

‘What?’ I say, confused by the way this conversation is going.

‘Lunch. Maybe Friday? Please, Alesha. I want to know what a bumbaclot is.’

My lips twitch again at the sound of that word, then my belly does a giant rumble.

‘OK,’ I tell her. ‘But seriously, Miss, I ain’t gonna give you no ring.’

 

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