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?


14. 14

Hot sauce is running down my fingers and there’s gherkins all over the tray, but I don’t care – I’m too busy stuffing as much as I can into my mouth, my jaw working double time to keep up.

I shovel some fries in, then burger, then fries, washing it down with the shake and getting back to the fries. Miss Merfield’s picking at some little salad thing that looks like it’s for rabbits. I know she’s watching me, but I don’t care. Right now, I’m too hungry to care.

I went for the full works: Big Mac, fries, nuggets and strawberry shake, even though the coldness of the shake makes my teeth hurt. The way I see it, if someone else is picking up the bill, I’ll take what I can. These last few days, my belly ain’t been up to holding much in, but the smell of the air in here must’ve triggered something inside me, coz suddenly I’m sucking stuff up like a vacuum cleaner.

‘You were hungry,’ says Miss Merfield as I screw up the Big Mac wrapper and start picking at the nuggets.

I nod.

‘Mum not feeding you?’

I look up. Miss Merfield’s got this nervy smile on her face, like she don’t really wanna be saying the words but she can’t think of no other way to ask.

‘I don’t live with my mum,’ I say.

‘Oh.’ She nods, which makes her earrings go clip-clop. Mad, swirly things made of wood, they are – more like lamp shades than jewellery.

I keep on eating, ripping into another pack of ketchup.

‘Friends,’ I say, saving her the trouble of asking. She’s questioned me before in lessons, but I lied to make things easier. I didn’t want school finding out where we was cotching. Maybe Miss Merfield knew I was telling lies. She don’t exactly look surprised.

 ‘Right.’ Miss Merfield gives up on the rabbit food, pushing it away and nodding, slowly. ‘I guess that means we had the wrong details for you at Pembury High?’

I shrug. ‘I guess.’

I know. I know they got the wrong details, just like Miss Merfield knows. They think I’m still at my mum’s, coz that’s where Social Services think I am. As far as the authorities know, my mum’s off the booze and caring for me like a proper mum, coz that was the situation when they last checked. Or more like, that was the situation they seen when they last checked.

They see what they wanna see. They ain’t got time to know the truth and they don’t truly care. Social workers, they get paid for how many hours, then at the end of the day they clock off, head back to their cosy little flats and forget about us. They do it for how long, then they move on. I don’t know where they go, but I know they move on quick, coz in all my years growing up I ain’t seen the same social worker more than three times running. It got to the point where each month I’d be thinking rah, where’s the new one, then? Sure enough, this fresh face would appear at the door, all smiles and politeness, running through the same list of questions the last one did, ticking the same boxes and leaving with the same big smile like they’ve fixed things when they ain’t fixed nothing. Oftentimes, they even made things worse.

If they cared, they’d think about why I kept running out the classroom and onto the streets, not coming back ’til after dark. They’d think rah, something ain’t right here. They’d work out that mum was fronting it, lying and pretending, and spending my child benefits on vodka each week.

Mum got good at lying and pretending. You could tell the days when the social worker was coming coz mum would be up, dressed and sober; maybe she’d even put some food in the cupboards. Then as soon as they waved us goodbye after how long, it was back to the old ways – and worse, coz mum started hating on me, blaming me for getting the authorities involved. That’s when things went downhill between us. It was Social Services that made things worse.

I ain’t gonna bring that on myself again by telling Miss Merfield the truth – especially not with Deanna and Tisha in the picture. Tisha’s only just talking to me again after I whacked her in the face.

Miss Merfield’s brow is knotted up. I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking of the letters she sent out. She’s thinking rah, that’s why no one’s bothered to reply. She used to give me notes for mum to sign, but after a while I just started chucking them in the bin. I could’ve faked them like I faked other stuff for school, but the way my life was going, piano exams wasn’t high on the priority list.

‘How long have you been staying with friends?’

I shrug again. ‘A while.’

‘Is that…’ Miss Merfield tucks away some hair that’s escaped from the blonde mess on her head. ‘Is that a long term arrangement?’

I shrug again, popping a nugget in my mouth so I can’t reply. This ain’t what I came here for. And anyway, I couldn’t answer the question even if I wanted to. The most long term I get is thinking about the next few days and how I’m gonna get through them without running into no yardies from the Crew.

A shudder runs through me and I go all cold inside. I feel sick. I grab a napkin and cough out the half-chewed nugget, forcing my eyes to take in the family next to us – forcing my brain off the thing that happened. It’s an Indian family; the kids is all round and fat. The baby’s screaming madly. I watch as the mum jiggles it up and down, its feet kicking seriously close to her box of chips.


I feel around in the box for another nugget. It’s empty – there’s only greasy crumbs rattling about. I’ve chewed my way through the whole lot without hardly noticing. I get the feeling Miss Merfield’s asked me another question and nerves starts to tug at my insides, but then this buzzing noise comes from inside her bag and I feel this wave of relief wash over me.

She jumps in an over-the-top way that tells me I ain’t the only one who’s glad of the distraction. Then she heaves the bag onto her lap and digs around for the phone. There’s all sorts in there: pens, tissues, bits of paper, hair clips, boxes of plasters and even a massive iPod that looks like it’s older than me. By the time she gets to the phone, it’s gone quiet.

‘Shit.’ Miss Merfield squints at it for a second, then turns it the right way up. ‘Oh. It’s Alex.’

My mind jumps to the man with the ice cream hair at Miss Merfield’s house. I watch as she works the buttons, this little smile creeping up her face.

‘That’s a nice phone, Miss.’ I eye up the shiny BlackBerry, thinking how it ain’t in keeping with the rest of her stuff.

‘It’s Beth’s,’ she says, stabbing at the buttons like a mad woman. ‘She lent it to me when mine got nicked, but I still can’t…’ She glares at the screen. ‘What? What’s it doing?’

I feel myself laughing inside. It’s like watching nan try and work the microwave.

‘What you trying to do, Miss?’

‘Just send a text!’ She pulls a face at the phone and hands it to me. ‘Why won’t it let me send?’

I look at the screen. Straight away, I see what’s up.

‘You ain’t got nothing in the ‘to’ box, Miss. Who’s it for?’

Miss Merfield’s eyes roll up inside her head and a faint smile crosses her face. ‘Right. Yes, that would help.’

She grabs it back and taps something in, still smiling.

‘Why you texting, anyway?’ I ask.

She looks confused.

‘Just ping,’ I say.

She looks at me like I’m talking Chinese.

‘BBM,’ I explain. ‘It’s free.’

Her face gets even blanker, so I show her. Turns out, the slick-haired housemate of hers is on a BlackBerry, too. I set things up, teach her to ping and then we sit, waiting to see if he pings back.

‘So, are you going to translate?’ Miss Merfield looks at me. She’s grinning now.

‘Translate what?’

‘That word. What was –’

Oh,’ I nod, remembering the thing with the security guard the other day. ‘That bumbaclot.’ My right hand shoots to my left arm, where he grabbed me.

‘That was it. What’s a bumbaclot?

I shake my head, finding myself smiling even though what happened wasn’t funny. It ain’t right, hearing Miss Merfield use that word.

‘It’s rude, Miss.’

She pulls her mouth into a line. ‘Go on, then.’

‘It means ‘cloth’, but the type of cloth you use for…’ I point down below, waiting for Miss Merfield to catch my drift.

‘Ah,’ she nods, her cheeks coming up rosy. ‘I see.’

‘It’s like… the worst word you can call someone.’

‘Right.’ She nods again.

‘He was disrespecting me,’ I explain. ‘He stepped –’

‘Ooh!’ Miss Merfield jumps. I look down and see her phone’s lit up in her hand. She reads the reply from Mr Slick and I see another little smile slide up her face. When she tucks it away, the smile’s still there, only now it’s pointing at me.

‘Thanks for showing me that.’

‘Welcome,’ I say, thinking rah, this ain’t so bad after all. I feel all warm inside, and that ain’t just the food. This is alright, this is, cotching with Miss Merfield in McDonald’s.

‘You’re smart.’

I look sideways at her, confused. ‘What, coz I showed you how to do something my five-year-old cuz could do?’

She crumples a bit but holds my eye.

‘No, I mean… generally.’

‘What?’ I still don’t get what this is about.

‘I know you’re smart, because you outwitted half the teachers at Pembury High. Remember when Mr Pritchard tried to reason with you on the school rules?’

I can’t hide the smirk. Mr Pritchard was Head of Music at Pembury High and me and Miss Merfield both hated on him. She never said it in lessons, but I could tell. This one time he nabbed me for swigging Coke as I left the music block and I let off this massive long stream of words in his face. Miss Merfield heard it all through the window.

‘You had him tongue-tied.’ She laughs.

I shrug. ‘Them rules didn’t make no sense.’

Miss Merfield’s still smiling as she asks the next question, only suddenly I ain’t finding it funny no more.

‘What’s the plan, then? Are you coming back to Pembury High next term?’

I let out this big sigh, all the good feelings draining out of me at once. Guess this was always on the cards, what with saying I’ll meet up with a teacher. They wanna know what’s your plan, where you’re headed, what you’re gonna do with your life.

‘I don’t know.’ My eyes flick away and I think to myself, rah, no point in lying. ‘No, Miss. I ain’t going back.’

‘Why not?’ Her voice is quiet, like she’s gone serious again.

I press down on a used ketchup sachet and slide my fingers along, waiting for it to spill out the end.

‘No point,’ I say. Coz that’s the truth – there ain’t no point in going back to school.

‘That’s not true,’ she says. ‘It may not feel as though there’s a point, but believe me –’

‘Oh yeah?’ The ketchup squirts out the sachet and lands on the edge of the tray, like a red shit. I feel like Miss Merfield just reached out and shanked me in the arm. I thought she was different. I thought she understood things – didn’t go along with that bullshit they spout in school. ‘Is that right?’ I say, louder than I meant to, but I don’t care. There’s anger in my voice now and I can see Miss Merfield’s proper shook by it, but it’s her fault for getting me started.

I look into her rabbit eyes. ‘You got proof, Miss? Coz there’s yoots round my way with bare qualifications and you know where they cotch all day? On the streets, Miss, coz they can’t get no jobs. I know kids been trying two years and they still can’t get no work.’

I expect Miss Merfield to shrink back on her stool, but she’s staring right back at me now and there’s rage flaring up in her eyes.

‘Those kids aren’t you,’ she says, through clamped teeth.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means you’ve got to think about your future, not just go by what you see around you.’

I screw up my face and look straight back at her.

‘Yeah? How’s that, then? How am I different to the rest of them?’

Miss Merfield gives me this look. It’s like the kind of look you see mums give their kids when their screaming gets out of control. That riles me, that does.

‘You’re bright, Alesha,’ she says. ‘Maybe your friends aren’t able to get jobs, but you might. You’ve got to give it a go. You’ve got to try. You can’t just give up before you’ve even started.’

I pull back on my stool, staring at Miss Merfield for long. My breath’s coming quick in my throat and my limbs feel all tingly, like they’re springing into fight mode. For a second, I wanna lash out and box Miss Merfield in the face, but then something pulls me back. I sit there, listening to my breaths and staring at her brown eyes, thinking rah, she ain’t got no idea.

She don’t know what it’s like to be living off favours and thieved goods, always looking for ways to make the sums add up. She don’t understand that part of the reason I ain’t going back to Pembury High is coz I can’t afford to be in school. Without no benefits coming in, I got to find some way of filling my belly and getting a roof over my head. Deanna ain’t gonna have me forever – and anyway, even if I did go back to school and come out with the best qualifications ever, then what? Ash did that, and he don’t even get no job interviews. Lol did OK at school but they take one look at his black scruffy face and tell him to wait for a call. The call never comes. Miss Merfield’s wrong. If Ash and Lol can’t get jobs, then I ain’t got no chance.

It’s jarring the way these teachers think. They talk about the future like it’s something you can plan for, picking and choosing what’s gonna happen in the next how many years of your life. They don’t get it. For people like me, planning means working out how to get through the next two days. You can’t just say Oh, then I’ll go and get this or that qualification, coz your mind’s on getting to the end of the week. Even if the courses didn’t cost bare p’s, it’s a case of taking time out of other things; robbing and thieving and making ends meet. We can’t afford to live like them.

I shake my head, kissing my teeth at Miss Merfield. ‘You don’t know shit about my life.’

Miss Merfield’s chewing her lip, eyes still focused on me.

‘Maybe I don’t,’ she says, like she’s sad. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you; I was just trying to help.’

I shake my head. I ain’t buying it. My head’s filling up with images of tidy hedgerows and fancy doorknobs and big kitchens and I see that Miss Merfield ain’t on my side after all. She’s one of them. In her world you walk into whatever job you like, coz you got the qualifications and the daddy who knows the right people. That ain’t how things work around here. That ain’t how my life’s gonna go.

 ‘Yeah, well.’ I slide off my stool, chuck the screwed-up napkin onto the tray. ‘Next time, don’t.’


I hear her scrape back the stool and clatter after me in her big brown boots, but it’s too late – I’m already through the door. I pull up my hood, leg it across the road and hop onto a bus.

From my seat at the back, I see her fretful white face scan the crowds on the street, looking this way and that like she’s lost her little kid. I pull my hood down low and lean my head against the rattling glass. I ain’t sticking around for that. I ain’t putting up with some middle class woman in tatty threads telling me how to live my life.

What’s the plan? I’ll tell you what’s my plan. Ride the bus, get off the bus, head for Deanna’s, stay out of trouble. That’s the plan. It don’t feature no college courses or qualifications. It don’t give me no career path or money goals. Just a crib and a way to get there. That’s my plan… End of.

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