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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17. 17

There’s piano music coming through the wall. That’s the first thing I notice. My eyes flick open, taking in the silky walls and the whiteness of the bedding. Bedding. That’s the second thing. I ain’t had bedding to sleep on for long.

The smell of bacon runs through the air. I jolt awake, pushing myself up and then straight away falling back down on the pillow. There’s a beat in my ears and serious pressure in my head. I swear it’s like someone’s holding paving slabs either side of my face and squeezing as hard as they can.

I stay where I am, seeing the world all sideways, thinking rah, maybe the pain’s gonna stop if I stay proper still. The floor’s made of polished wood and there’s shelves on the wall holding up these flash white speakers. A sick feeling comes over me and I clamp my eyes shut.

The wave passes. I open my eyes, clock the speakers again and pull my thoughts straight. I’m at Miss Merfield’s. I twist round so I’m on my back again, feeling soft material flow all around me. I look down and see I’m dressed in some mad stripy shirt that’s five sizes too big. Thoughts run wild through my head. I shove a hand into my bra and relief swallows me up as I feel the solidness of the plastic wrap. Then I remember what happened.

Deanna kicked me out. Another wave of sickness comes over me. The blade nearly sliced Tisha’s face, then she kicked me onto the street. I lie proper still, waiting for the puke to come and trying to answer the big question on my mind. What then? What happened next?

The puke don’t come. It stays locked up inside me, just like the memories of last night. It’s all a blank. A blank caused by boozing – I know that much.

The piano gets over-loud. Bash, bash, bash, it goes: big, dramatic chords that sound like they need four hands to play. I find myself thinking rah, if my head wasn’t in so much pain and my belly didn’t feel ready to turn inside out, I’d tune in and hear this thing, but all I can do is lie here like a turtle, only my head poking out the sheets.

My eyes roll round the room, taking in the velvet curtains and swirly patterns on the ceiling. I’m on one of them settees that turns into a bed and on a low table next to my head is a fancy pint glass that looks like it’s been thieved from a pub. Right next to it is a pack of pills. My hand shoots out.

Sometime later, the music goes tinkly and I’m feeling OK – not normal, but OK. OK enough to swing my legs to the floor and head out to find some place to empty out my insides.

I figure Miss Merfield heard me as I crossed the hall, coz the music stops abruptly and these clattering noises start ringing out from the kitchen. I bend over the bowl and shove a finger down my throat. The poison from last night rides up into my mouth and splashes out, leaving my belly empty, like my head. 

When I’m done, I put my face under the cold tap for long, working the bitterness out my mouth. I feel better now, but my teeth still got this layer of grime on them. I think there’s something wrong with my teeth; they’re all turning brown underneath.

Miss Merfield’s doing this crazy up-and-down thing in the kitchen, lifting plates out the dishwasher. She’s wearing this purple dress that’s made mainly of buttons and her hair looks like blonde tumbleweed. The place is all neat and tidy now, the surfaces sparkling clean. I watch from the doorway, waiting for her to look up and feeling stupid in these baggy stripy threads.

‘Oh!’ She straightens up, a big kitchen knife in her hand. ‘Morning. Sleep well?’ On her face is the same wide smile I seen a hundred times.

I nod, watching her sling the knife in this big wood block and seeing Tisha’s face flash through my mind.

‘Tea?’ she says, filling the kettle. ‘You hungry?’

My mouth lifts up at the corners and I feel myself nodding.

Miss Merfield busies herself with plates and mugs while I slump down in a chair, trying to fill in the gaps in my head. The smell of the bacon’s making my belly growl.

The gaps don’t fill up. They stay gaps. It’s like a DVD with a scratch on it, always stopping at the same point. You try rewinding a bit, pressing play again, but it won’t get past that point.

Miss Merfield comes over with two steaming mugs and a plate of bacon sandwiches.

‘Shall we…?’ She nods to the door.

I follow my sandwich through the house, thinking rah, I’d like to have all these rooms to choose from. I’d like to have a place for cooking, a place for eating, a place for playing piano. I think about this for a second, imagining myself sitting on my own stool, pressing the keys of my own piano, hearing the tunes come out without no bother from nobody. Just an empty house.

Empty house. Something jars in my head.

‘Where’s your mates, Miss?’

She puts the things down on a wood table between the armchairs. Her eyebrows do this little wiggle, like something’s funny.

‘At work,’ she says. ‘We don’t all get summer holidays.’ Then she laughs. ‘Although you’d be forgiven for thinking Alex does, the amount of time he takes off. He’s a journalist.’ Her eyeballs do a big loop up to the ceiling and back.

I don’t say nothing – just bite into the crispy toast, feeling butter and salt hit my tongue. Summer holidays. The words make me feel funny inside. I don’t get no summer holidays now I ain’t got no school. I know Miss Merfield didn’t mean it like that, but that’s the direction my thoughts go. I’m so busy trying to put on the brakes, stop my brain going down that path, that I get a jolt when I hear what Miss Merfield says next.

‘Who’s the Crew, Alesha?’

I stop chewing, let the mashed-up bacon just hang in my mouth. ‘You mean the Peckham Crew?’ I say, buying myself some time, trying to work out what’s going on. Seems I been talking last night.

‘You tell me.’ She sips her tea, eyeing me carefully.

Alarm bells ring out in my head as I slowly swallow the mashed-up meat. I been talking to Miss Merfield about the Crew.

‘Just a gang.’ I shrug, my toes curling up on the wood floor. The window’s wide open in front of us, but there ain’t no air coming through. It’s one of them hot, still days when nothing moves.

Just a gang?’ She looks at me bug-eyed.

I nod, putting the plate down in front of me and feeling my belly close up. Suddenly I ain’t hungry no more.

‘Are you… in the gang?’

‘I got affiliations,’ I say, my eyes flicking up for just long enough to catch the look on her face. She’s confused. I try and spell it out for her without letting my thoughts wander the wrong way. ‘I know some boys.’

‘What boys?’ she asks, her white face fixed on mine. ‘Members of the gang?’

I nod, clocking the way she lands on the word. Gang. Like she’s cussing.

Miss Merfield’s eyes dance about the floor, zipping this way and that. Here we go, I’m thinking. This is where Miss Merfield tells me about how you shouldn’t get involved in gangs, how gangs is dangerous, how people get killed, rah rah. People like her, they got opinions on this. They get their facts from the newspapers. They hear about gangs and think rah, that’s bad, that is, young people messing with knives and guns, throwing away their lives – but they don’t know how it is on the street. They don’t understand.

‘Why are you involved with the gang?’ she says. She ain’t hardly touched her tea.

I sigh, looking around the big room for a way to explain.

‘For protection,’ I say, keeping it simple in my head. I ain’t gonna tell Miss Merfield the full story. She don’t need to know about what happens when your own crew turns against you.

‘Protection from…?’

‘Other types,’ I say, even though I know she won’t understand. I can’t be explaining the whole thing with SE5 and that.

‘So… You’re affiliated with a gang to give you protection from other gangs?’ She looks at me.

‘Yeah.’

‘But…’ She’s struggling, I can tell. ‘You’re just putting yourself at risk, surely? If you weren’t involved with either gang then you wouldn’t have a problem.’

I sigh, quietly. Not being involved with a gang is exactly what brings on the problems.

‘It’s dangerous, Alesha.’ Miss Merfield’s still going. ‘People get shot and killed.’

Yeah,’ I say. ‘That’s why you need respect.’

Miss Merfield just looks at me. ‘But… What’s the point in having respect if you’re dead?’

I don’t bother to reply; I just reach for my tea. Miss Merfield thinks she knows better coz she’s read the newspapers, but she don’t. The newspapers don’t tell you how it feels to walk down the wrong street and have no respect, no one knowing who you are. The newspapers don’t say what it’s like to have a beef with some boy who’s rolling fifty deep with the mandem from down the road.

‘How much money d’you owe them?’

I swallow my tea, feeling cold inside, even though it’s hot in my throat. Miss Merfield knows about the money. I must’ve been running my mouth off last night.

‘How much?’ she says again. Her eyes stay trained on mine, no joking about.

I hesitate. I don’t know what she already knows. All I can do is tell the truth.

‘A grand.’

She pulls a face, like she thinks that’s big money. Seriously, a bag ain’t big money. The mandem work in hundreds of bags. To them, this is the type of loose change you’d have knocking around in the car ashtray; the type that comes and goes without you hardly keeping track. Thing is, though, they do keep track. They keep track of their debts. That’s what’s causing me all my problems.

I’m waiting for Miss Merfield to ask how I got in debt, but she don’t. She just looks at me and lets out this quiet sigh.

‘Is that…’ She sucks her lips up inside her mouth and suddenly I know what’s coming. I crumple up inside. ‘Is that where my money went?’

‘I had a lead,’ I say quickly, my brain whirring into action. ‘I know who run you up, Miss. That’s why I took it. I was gonna get you back your ring.’

I look around the room, avoiding her face. She’s a smart lady – she’s gonna guess I ain’t giving her the full story. Really, she got every right to be vexed. Way she sees it, she’s been robbed twice – once for her ring, then for her p’s. That ain’t a nice thing for anyone to know, especially when the second thief is sitting in your house, drinking your tea and wearing one of your shirts.

I feel Miss Merfield’s eyes on me. I turn round slowly, scared of the look I’m gonna find on her face. But then I clock it and I realise, it ain’t rage. It’s something else. She’s leaning forward in her chair, studying me.

‘Did you actually have a lead on my ring?’ she asks.

I nod, feeling even badder. ‘I did, I swear. But he was a flake. He never showed.’

Her body slumps visibly, but she still don’t look riled. ‘So… you put the money towards your debt.’

I nod again, bracing for the explosion. Truth is, I stashed her p’s long before I said I’d meet Twitch to get the ring, then her sterling went off with the rest of the stash that got nabbed by the boydem. The notes that’s stuffed down my bra, getting sweaty in their plastic bag, come from cashed-in phones and the p’s JJ got me on the sly. But Miss Merfield don’t need to know that.

‘So…’ She looks at me, but I can’t meet her eye. I know what’s bubbling away under the surface. I’m just waiting for her to snap.

My eyes run around the room, feeling the pressure build up between us. Any minute now that soft voice is gonna crack. The blinking eyes is gonna narrow to slits and she’s gonna tell me to get out her house, just like Deanna did. She’s gonna get mad at me for what I done, tell me I ain’t welcome no more and shove me out on the street in my bare feet. Tell the truth, I’d do the same. If it was me in her situation with some raggedy kid robbing me of my own good p’s, I’d be grabbing that fancy coat stand in the hall and looking to do some serious damage. I feel my muscles tense up, ready for action.

‘Alesha?’

The voice don’t sound like what I was expecting. It’s still smooth and calm. I look up.

The way she’s looking at me makes me realise I been getting so hyped I stopped listening. Miss Merfield’s asked me a question.

‘What?’

‘How much do you still need?’

Something bursts, but it’s inside me, not in the room. It’s like this mixture of fear and heat and relief, like when you nearly get catched doing something bad and then things turn out OK but you’ve still got the jangling feelings inside you. I’m starting to think maybe Miss Merfield ain’t gonna get angry after all.

‘A few hundred,’ I say.

‘How many is “a few”?’

I take a deep breath, forcing myself to look in her eyes.

‘Four,’ I say, taking in the calmness of her face. She looks serious, like in the early days when she used to ask why I hadn’t turned up for piano the week before.

I’m feeling uneasy. It’s like a storm’s been brewing and brewing and now it’s just blown away.

‘And then what happens when you pay it off?’

I shrug. Really and truly, I don’t know. I ain’t thought no further than paying it off. All I can see in my head is me handing over the notes and then walking away, free as a bird.

‘I mean, are you planning to do more work for them?’

I screw up my face, feeling confused and itchy and bad. I wish I could know what come shooting out my mouth last night.

No,’ I say, which is the truth. Even just thinking about the likes of Tremaine and Wayman makes me feel sick.

‘So, what’s the plan? School? Job? Where are you going to live?’

I feel myself curling up, turning away. It’s them questions again.

‘I dunno,’ I say quietly, coz I don’t. A few weeks ago I could see where my life was heading – at least for the next how many months. I had somewhere to go in the day, a place to come back to at night, bits of food and crow in the cupboards and JJ to cotch with at weekends. That’s all changed now. It’s all gone. Right now, all my energy’s going into staying alive.

‘You get housing benefits, right?’ Miss Merfield’s pressing me.

I shake my head. Maybe she don’t know the system or maybe she’s forgot how old I am. ‘Not ’til I’m sixteen,’ I say. ‘In September.’

‘Oh.’ She stares at the mug in her lap, this perplexed look on her face. ‘So…’

‘I’ll find somewhere,’ I tell her, not liking all the questions. The tea’s making me hot and my head’s starting to pound again. I need to get out.

‘No.’ Miss Merfield suddenly bangs her mug down on the table, making me jump. ‘You won’t find somewhere. That’s not how it works. You’re fifteen. If you can’t go to your mum’s place then you need to be given a place to live. Somewhere safe.’ She’s getting all agitated now, flicking her hair off her face and looking around, wild-eyed, like the answer’s somewhere in the room.

I already know the answer. I know how the system works. I know that when you get picked up by Housing they fire all these questions at you and then, when they figure out that things need straightening out between you and your mum, they get Social Services involved and that just makes things worse. I ain’t going down that road again.

I open my mouth to put things straight with Miss Merfield, but before I can say a word she’s on her feet, charging out like the room’s on fire. I’m left sitting in the chair, staring at my streaky reflection in the piano.

Next thing I know, Miss Merfield’s busting back into the room, this bright yellow plastic banana tucked under her ear. She’s making ‘mmm’ noises and looking at me.

‘Mmm. Fifteen, yes. Mmm. Yep. No, no she can’t.’ She looks at me, rolling her eyes like the person at the other end ain’t right in the head. ‘That’s the point. She doesn’t have an address.’

I can’t hardly believe what’s happening. I wanna jump up and smash that yellow phone against the wall – stop this conversation dead in its tracks. But I don’t, coz the truth is I’m scared of Miss Merfield right now. She looks proper riled now, like a dog that’s been wound up by the boys in the park.

No,’ she says, landing heavily on the word. ‘She can’t go back there. She just can’t. Well, possibly, but that’s not a solution, is it? Right. Well, perhaps I can speak to him. Her. Yes, fine. With pleasure. OK. Yes, she’s right here. Hold on.’

The banana gets pushed in my face. I take it, my fingers gripping the flimsy yellow sides. I can’t swallow. I don’t wanna speak to no Housing person, but right now I don’t know what Miss Merfield will do if I don’t.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, Alesha.’ The voice is all spiky and foreign. ‘Your friend was just telling me about your situation. We’ve booked for you to come in and see us tomorrow at ten. Is that OK?’

I look up at Miss Merfield, who’s blinking right back at me. Friend. That’s one word for it. It ain’t one I’d use, but then I don’t know what word I’d use. At the start I thought she was just being nice so she could get her ring back, but now I don’t know. If it was all about the ring, she would’ve gived up by now. I’ve told her the trail’s gone cold.

‘Alesha?’

My brain flips back to the voice on the end of the phone.

‘Yeah?’ I say.

‘Excellent,’ says the woman, and I realise she took my reply the wrong way. ‘We’ll see you here tomorrow at ten.’

I open my mouth, then shut it again. The line’s dead. I just signed myself up to a meeting with Housing.

Miss Merfield waits for the banana to drop from my ear, then gently takes it off me.

‘All sorted?’ she asks, like I just booked a table at Nando’s.

I eye her suspiciously, trying to work her out.

‘I never asked you to call Housing, Miss.’

‘Well,’ she shrugs. ‘I just thought it might help – at least to talk through your options.’

I shake my head, the brightness in her voice suddenly jarring. She don’t know nothing about my life. She don’t get that there’s reasons why I ain’t called Housing myself.

I push past Miss Merfield, through the door and into the room where I slept. Yesterday’s garmz is all folded neatly on the arm of a chair, like they’re on display in a shop. I pull them on quickly, feeling Miss Merfield’s eyes on my back from the doorway. I know she’ll see the scar from where that man belted me across the back when I was small. I know she’ll be staring and wondering and trying to work things out. But I don’t give her time to ask. I scoop up the plastic bag from the floor – the bag that holds everything I own except the notes in my bra – and head out. My breath’s coming quick now, the air flowing in and out through my nose like the pump on an old busted airbed.

‘What is it with you?’ I ask as she follows me into the hall. ‘Why d’you keep stepping into my life?’

I get to the front door but I can’t open it. It’s one of them where you need to do six things in the right order to undo it. I step aside and wait for Miss Merfield to catch up.

‘I hadn’t realised you wanted me to slam the door shut on you when you stumbled in drunk last night,’ she says, eyebrows raised.

I let out this big sigh, pissed off with Miss Merfield for coming over all smart. As soon as the latch is undone, I push my way out.

‘Let me know if you want me to come along tomorrow,’ she says, as I trip down the steps.

‘Yeah, right.’ I flip my eyes upwards and head into the sunshine.

‘I could bring along that four hundred.’

I freeze, too scared to turn round in case Miss Merfield’s joking. Four bills, just like that? Must be a trick. She can’t be serious.

I turn round, my curiosity taking over. Her face is proper straight.

‘You’d gimme four hundred?’

‘No.’ She shakes the fuzz of blonde on her head. ‘I wouldn’t give it to you. I’d lend it. You’d have to get a job and pay me back from your salary.’

I kiss my teeth. That’s the trick, then. Right there.

‘That ain’t gonna happen, is it? Ain’t no jobs for people like me.’

People like me?’ Miss Merfield screws up her face. ‘What does that even mean, Alesha? Why are you so sure you won’t get a job?’

I shrug, a million reasons tumbling into my head. I can’t read or write properly. I ain’t got no qualifications. I don’t have no skills, no links, no connects.

‘Do you have a CV?’

‘A what?’ She’s playing me now, I know it.

‘A CV.’ She looks at me for a second, then does a little shake. ‘Never mind. I’ll see you tomorrow. Shall we meet just before ten outside the offices?’

I let out this big sigh and bust my way onto the street, tugging my hood down low over my eyes. The anger stays in my bloodstream, pushing me through the posh endz with their flowers and house names and special lampposts, my thoughts burning up at the way things come so easy for these types and so hard for people like me. It’s all there for them, on a plate, paid for up-front, no hidden catches.

For people like me, there’s always catches. Always choices you gotta make that means good comes laced with bad. Miss Merfield just picked up the phone and called Housing like it was her shiny bright idea – like I ain’t never thought of doing it myself. She don’t even think maybe there’s reasons for keeping Housing out of my life.

My shoulders tense up as I cross back into my endz, thinking about where I’m gonna cotch tonight. I can feel the weight of the air dragging me down, the sweat building up on the back of my neck. My eyes dart left and right, scanning for trouble. Hot days is always the worst. It’s like the mandem gets restless; like they go looking for brawls to fill the long, sticky days.

A cloud drifts in front of the sun and my thoughts run cool, like the air. I keep pushing them to the back of my head, burying them in other stuff, but this one thought keeps floating to the surface.

I need to get clear of the mandem. That’s what I need. I need p’s to pay off my debt and I need a place to cotch that ain’t run by the Crew. And Miss Merfield’s just sorted me out with a way to get both.

I know there’s hidden catches, like coming clean to Social Services, but when I look at my options right now, the catches don’t seem so bad after all. It’s madness, I know, but for a couple of minutes I start picturing myself in this new crib somewhere I don’t need to watch my back the whole time, raking in p’s from someplace that don’t involve the mandem. The sun comes out from behind the cloud and I think to myself rah, maybe it wasn’t so bad what Miss Merfield done today. Maybe she’s giving me a way out.

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