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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15. 15

I check the time on my phone. Half two. There’s rhythms pumping from the speakers, filling the air with complex beats. I sink down low in the broken settee, yanking my hood down low so my face ain’t on show.

I shouldn’t be here. I know that. I should be hiding out at Deanna’s, where I don’t need to be constantly watching my back, but I ain’t spending no more days up in that flat. It’s making me crazy. I’m like one of them lions you see on TV, pacing up and down with pains in my belly, bad vibes filling up my head. Anyway, I need to see JJ. Ain’t seen him in how many days.

‘Ite?’

Someone sinks into the settee next to me and I feel myself bouncing up. Bouncing far up. I look round and feel my hopes crash to the floor.

It’s Smalls. I give him a nod, make it clear I’m not in the mood for real talk.

‘’Sup?’ he yells, leaning forward to catch my eye.

I shrug, staring straight ahead so he gets the idea. I think he knows I’m lying low. He just don’t know the scale of what’s happened. No one does.

‘You hear ’bout last night?’

I look up, even though I don’t want to. ‘Hear what?’

‘You ain’t heard?’ Smalls moves in close. I feel the heat of his massive thigh through my jeans and for some reason this makes me flinch. ‘Big fight up SE5. Shots fired, blud.’

I’m nodding, trying to push the thoughts out my head as quick as they come in, trying not to see the faces of Tremaine and Wayman and Masher in my mind.

‘Three in hospital, one in critical,’ Smalls tells me.

I blank it out, don’t wanna think about them. I stare at the action behind the decks, let the tunes drown out Smalls’ words. Ash is playing on the sliders, helping Vinny show the tinies what’s what. I focus on him, respecting the smoothness of his movements. Then I stop, suddenly taking in the full meaning of what Smalls just said.

‘Who?’ I say, my mouth dry. ‘Who’s hurt?’

Smalls shrugs. ‘SE5 come off worse, that’s all I heard.’

‘None of ours was hurt, then?’ I press him.

‘They was the ones firing the shots, blud.’

I take a deep breath, let it out proper slow. Suddenly I’m panicking. What if JJ went in with the strapped-up yardies last night? What if he got caught in the crossfire? That happened to a boy last year, name of Skidz. He was having his hair cut in the barber’s. Fight breaks out, they see some black kid with freshly done hair reaching into his pocket, and boom. Waste of a life. I feel myself curling up inside, my eyes darting this way and that. What if JJ’s one of the ones in hospital? What if that’s why he ain’t here now?

Smalls makes some comment and walks off. I’m lost in the bad things in my head. Up ’til now I been telling myself that JJ ain’t getting involved in the nasty business; that he’s just the boy that jacks the wheels or hides the tools. He ain’t caught up in the bullets and blood.

I been kidding myself, I know that now. JJ don’t talk about the bad stuff coz he don’t want me to know. That’s how it works. The same boys who slice bits of skin off other boys’ faces come back to their fam at the end of the night, full of sweet talk and kindness, making you think rah, he couldn’t even hurt a fly. They draw a line between the good and bad and they keep them far apart. Sometimes it’s the sweetest types that do the nastiest things. Like Tremaine, I start to think – then I stop myself, forcing my thoughts onto the figure who’s just took Smalls’ place next to me. Suddenly, all the worries and stresses inside me melt away and I feel my shoulders drop from round my ears.

I try and catch JJ’s eye, but he’s looking straight ahead, all distant and glazed, chewing on his bottom lip like it’s popcorn chicken.

‘What’s good?’ I say, clocking the little river of dried blood between the cornrows on his left side.

He don’t reply.

I move closer, show him it’s OK, whatever it is. I know he got involved in some bad business last night. Even without the blood, I’d know. I can see it in his eyes.

JJ rocks forward on his knees and presses his face into his hands. I keep still, pretending like that don’t hurt me, keeping our knees lightly touching.

The music changes beat and Ash’s quick-talking voice comes firing through the amps. I try and force myself to hear the words and get into the song, but my mind’s stuck on the boy sitting next to me. I can’t bear it no more.

‘What happened?’ I ask.

No reply. JJ ain’t one for words, but this is another level. I ain’t seen him this still and quiet in all my life.

‘I heard about the bust-up,’ I say, after a few minutes.

Still nothing. It’s like he’s iced over. I give it one last go.

‘Heard there was shots fired. You OK?’

Slow as a tortoise, JJ turns his head. ‘Yeah, well…’ His voice is so low I can’t hardly hear it over the music. ‘You gotta look out for your fam.’

I nod, even though his words make me shrivel up inside. I leave it for a bit, thinking maybe he needs time to calm himself. Or maybe it’s me who needs time. Feels like all the muscles inside me is curling up. Fam. I know what he means by that. I know who he means, and the thought of it makes me feel sick.

A snooker ball shoots through the air and the two of us reel back just in time. Some kid trots over to pick it up, but JJ’s already kicked it across the room. I swear, it’s like the black mood that used to come over him every few months is stuck with him most of the time now.

We sit like this for long, that word ringing in my ears. Fam. It’s like a knife through my heart, that is. I still feel tense and tight, like I’m ready to lash out. I wish I could tell him. I wish I could show him the bruises and spell out for him what they done to me. I wish I could make him see he’s running around risking everything for the mandem that’s done worse things to me than he could ever guess. But I can’t. I can’t say the words. I just keep my gums sealed and watch as JJ slowly reaches into his back pocket.

He pulls out this roll of notes and slips it into my hand. I squeeze the coil, feeling my heart do a little lurch. At least he’s still looking out for me, I think to myself. Even though he’s got the p’s from his dealings with them, at least he’s still checking for me.

‘How much?’ I say, low volume.

‘Five,’ he says, his eyes meeting mine for just a second.

‘Cool,’ I say, thinking maybe I need to use bigger words to say how much this means, but just as I’m thinking what they might be, I clock this whirl of quick-moving Adidas stripes. My body tenses up and I feel a wave of heat run through me.

I spring to my feet, barging past the drinks machine and through the kids on the snooker table. I ain’t got no plan – don’t even know what I’m doing but my head’s filling up with the sound of my own screams, the feel of their hands on my mouth, the taste of salt on their fingers as I bite into their flesh.

‘You snake!’ I hear myself say as I tense up, my legs working like springs as I chuck myself at Twitch. My full weight hits him hard in the stomach.

I must’ve catched him off guard. He goes down instantly with this grunt that gets lost in the beat of the music. I keep pummelling, pummelling, pummelling, going for any bit of flesh I can reach. His freckly face appears under me and I lay into it, watching the blood leak out of his nose and smear across his cheek, into the ginger hair and down to his yelping mouth – only in my mind it ain’t Twitch’s mouth that’s yelping no more. It ain’t Twitch on the floor and it ain’t me delivering the beatings.

It’s like I’ve shrank back into the distance and I’m watching from a corner, watching the arm swing again and again, hearing my mum’s high-pitched screams for mercy. I can’t do nothing to stop it. The arm’s too strong and it’s got in a rhythm now: bam, bam, bam. The blood’s gushing out the white, bruised skin and there’s drips all over the floor.

Then the music stops. I feel hands grabbing at me, dragging me backwards. There’s voices all around and I fall back, panting and shaking, staring up at the metal roof of the Shack and feeling a giant arm round my ribs. I’m back in the room again. Someone’s hauling me into a sitting position, propping me up against the wall.

First thing I see is Twitch – this mess of pale skin and blood – slumped against the speaker opposite, half-leaning on Ash’s foot. Ash is staring at me like I’m a bit of gum stuck to the bottom of his crep. I follow the arm round my chest to Smalls’ pillar-box body, then I see JJ’s face just behind. His brown eyes lock onto mine like they’re trying to work things out.

Vinny’s voice cuts through the din and I look up to see the white scar running down his head. His cap must’ve come off in the brawl. There’s bare yoots all around – I can see knees shifting this way and that like they’re itching for more punches to be thrown. I wait for my breath to come steady, then I look Twitch in the eye across the room.

Snake,’ I hiss at him.

His head rolls back and I see that one of his eyes is half closed up. I don’t care. I’d do the other one too if I could.

‘What d’he do?’ I hear someone ask.

‘He sold me out!’ I yell, hating on Twitch more than ever.

His working eye looks at me.

‘I never,’ he croaks.

‘Liar!’ I hurl the word at him like a firework. It ain’t enough that he sold me out to the elders – now he’s pretending he never did. I spell it out for him loud and clear.

‘You knew I’d be there,’ I say, slowly. ‘You was the only one. You said to meet me, to gimme the ring.’

‘And what?’ He shrugs, all cocky, even though half his face don’t work. ‘So I never got the ring. I never showed.’

I take a deep breath. He done more than never showed, and he knows it. He sold me out to the mandem so they could do them things to me. Things that make me curl up inside when I remember. Things I can’t talk about. I can’t tell the whole Shack what happened that night. I can’t tell nobody.

‘You’re full of shit, bruv,’ I say, clambering to my feet and heading for the door.

I’m halfway across the skate park when JJ catches me.

‘That was harsh, Rox,’ he says, taking long strides to keep up.

‘He deserved it.’ I keep on storming towards the gates. ‘He sold me out, bruv.’

I can feel JJ’s eyes on the side of my face and I know what he’s thinking. Sold you out how? I feel this wave of heat come over me and I wish with every cell in my body that I could tell him. It was them, I wanna say. Them, who you count as close. Them, who you call fam. You ain’t fam. You don’t even know them. But my lips stay zipped.

We pass through Lazy’s hut, yank on our hoods and walk out onto the street. I’m still on fire inside.

What?’ I snap, when he’s still watching me as we cross the road. I know it ain’t his fault how things are, but I need to take it out on someone.

It takes him long to reply. He kicks a Coke can at the kerb and then crushes it as it bounces off.

‘Look,’ he says, slowing us down. ‘Next time you need to give someone a licking like that, you just say, yeah?’

I look sideways at him, taking in the meaning of what he’s just said.

‘It ain’t right,’ he carries on, ‘seeing you move to a boy like that.’

A warm glow heats up my insides, even though my mind’s filled with ugly thoughts. JJ’s got my back. That’s what this means. Whatever the beefs, whatever the moods, whatever the troubles we can’t find the words to talk about, deep down we’re still tight. We’ll always be tight. No matter what else goes on in our lives, JJ and me will always be tight.

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