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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18. 18

‘You sure this is it?’ There’s worry in her voice.

I roll down the window and squint through the haze of rain. It’s a grey two-storey building squashed in on the end of the row. The concrete yard and rusty railings make me think maybe it was a pub, but right now the place looks more like a prison. It’s got one of them heavy-duty doors with a pin-code and metal strips and half the windows is boarded up. There’s bars on the ones you can see. I check my phone, even though I already know this is it. Maybe Miss Merfield was expecting something more fancy. I wasn’t.

‘This is it.’

I wind up the window, thinking of Miss Merfield’s face when the Housing woman told us they’d find me a hostel. She got all excited, like it was a proper result. Guess she ain’t heard the stories like I have. She don’t know about the girls that come out these places in a worse state than how they went in. She don’t understand that the only thing that makes hostels better than the street for sleeping on is that they got a roof – that’s all.

I step out the car, grab my bag of stuff from the back and slam the door, worms sliding in my belly. That’s when I notice the quietness of the street and I realise Miss Merfield’s switched off the engine. It’s like she thinks she’s coming in.

She ain’t coming in. I need to stop Miss Merfield following me up them steps. I can’t let her see the inside of that place. I can’t let her see how my type live – not now I’ve seen the way she lives.

‘You don’t wanna leave your car here, Miss,’ I say.

Miss Merfield’s already out, one hand on the slippy wet roof, the other on the door. She eyes up the chipped paintwork and I can tell what she’s thinking. She ain’t never been bothered leaving these rims nowhere before.

‘It’ll be fine…’ She looks up and down the street.

I feel myself panicking inside. I can’t let her see that place. I know what these places is like inside. There’s reasons for that chipboard in the windows. It ain’t just to stop the mandem climbing in – it’s to stop the nastiness from getting out. I know what Miss Merfield would say if she saw in there and I don’t wanna hear it.

‘Joy-riders,’ I say, thinking on my feet. ‘Boys on the lookout for cars exactly like this.’ I nod to the dented Clio. ‘They’d run it to the ground, Miss.’

No boys I know would jack a car like Miss Merfield’s. It ain’t good for nothing, not even cruising. But my words do the trick and I see this look of doubt creep into her eyes.

‘Oh, right. Really?’

I nod. ‘For real.’ I put on my widest smile and lift my hand. ‘Thanks for the lift, Miss.’

I make a beeline for the door, hoping Miss Merfield don’t catch a glimpse of what’s on the other side.

Turns out, there ain’t no chance of Miss Merfield catching no glimpses, coz the door stays firmly shut. I ring the bell again, then another three times, but there ain’t no sign of life. Raindrops find their way through my weave and onto my scalp, running down my neck. More pressing. Still no reply. I keep at it, aware of Miss Merfield’s worried stare on my back. Just when I feel like she’s gonna pop up and reel me back into the car, the door flies open and out struts this big black girl with shoulders like bricks and a face like a man’s.

I step out the way, clocking the new Nike creps and jacket as she tosses me this look that freezes me to the spot. Gold earrings swing from under her short, over-slick hair as she busts her way onto the road.

The door nearly slams but I catch it, glancing over my shoulder just in time to see the man-girl hock up a loogie and spit on the road, right in front of Miss Merfield’s car. I take a deep breath and push myself inside.

The smell hits me instantly: a mixture of sweat and draw and wet threads hanging in the darkness with nowhere to go. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, what with the windows all boarded up and half the bulbs blown in the lights. When they do, I find myself wishing they hadn’t.

There’s a row of kicked-in metal lockers along the back, then next to them is this scratched wooden thing that looks a bit like a reception desk, except it’s hanging all wonky off the wall. Near the front, under the working light bulb, is this mess of broken armchairs and cushions with foam spilling out the sides and an upside-down pin-board that looks like it’s been chucked there in a rage.

I scan the place, looking for signs of someone in charge. There’s a tapping noise coming from the corridor that runs off past the wonky desk. I head down it, yelling ‘Hello?’ into the darkness and taking care not to touch nothing.

There’s a crack of light coming from a room down the corridor. I push on the door. First thing I see is the broken bedframe – propped up with bits of wood. Then I see where the tapping noise is coming from. Some sket’s sucking off a hairy white man in a vest. There’s a grunt, then the door comes flying back in my face. I stumble back into the darkness, heading for the stairs and thinking about what the woman said when Miss Merfield asked them about this place. Women only, they said. Yeah, right. And that ain’t the only bullshit they’re spitting. Temporary arrangement, they told us too. I know what that means. It means they’re gonna tell me they’re looking for a home, tell me they’re still looking, keep telling me that for the next two months and then the day I turn sixteen they’ll be like rah, you get benefits now; you can find your own place. That’s how it’s gonna go, guaranteed.

The smell gets worse the higher up you go. It stinks less of wet threads and more of salty, sticky sweetness that sets my belly lurching and rolling. Sweat and booze. That’s what it is. My brain flips back in time to hours spent listening to the clock tick-tock, trying not to hear the slow, heavy footsteps on the stairs – trying not to think about what’s about to happen. I press my way up, feeling shaky and sick.

‘There you are!’

My heart nearly leaps out my chest as this woman appears from the darkness at the top of the stairs. Straight away I see that she’s wearing too many clothes for the time of year and her grey hair’s sticking out at mad angles. There’s a familiar glint in her eye. I know what it means. I know the look of a crazy.

‘Where’ve you been?’ She pounces on me, tries to touch my arm, but I’m too quick. ‘Trying to run away… You naughty, naughty girl!’

I duck past her, heading for the patch of light down the corridor. It’s a kitchen – at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. There’s old pants and bras hanging on bits of string and the surfaces is streaked with brown. Ain’t no sign of plates or food.

The mad woman’s still bouncing off the walls by the stairs. I take a chance and head down the corridor, my expectations low. This place is worse than I thought. I knew there’d be dirt and grime and people with problems, but I never pictured the whole thing all together like this. Truthfully, I don’t know how long I can stick it round here. I’m scared I’ll turn out like them.

‘Hello?’

I push my way into another room. The door swings open and something catches my eye. It’s a mini-fridge. Reminds me of the one Squeak got us when nan’s fridge-freezer packed in. It’s all shiny and white and new. Then I see the rest of the goods: kettle, toaster, microwave, a little TV – all locked to the radiator with this tangle of flimsy chains. I eyeball the room and realise there’s something else funny about it. It’s clean. I mean, it ain’t clean. It’s still got a layer of grease on it, still got bare stains on the carpet and marks on the walls, but there ain’t no used condoms lying about or smokes ground into the floor. It don’t smell of piss or sweat. There’s even a little curtain thing across the window – black threads pinned to the wall.

‘Who are you?’

My eyes flick to the movement on the bed. This long pair of legs twists round and a pale face squints up at me. Her brow’s knotted up and her honey-coloured hair is harshly scraped back, but the girl’s got a fragile look about her that tells me she ain’t gonna cause me no trouble. With legs like that, she looks like something you’d see in a magazine – except you don’t see so much of the swollen eyes in magazines. Them bruises tell me exactly why she’s here.

‘I’m Alesha. I’m looking for who’s in charge.’

The girl skims me quickly, one eyebrow arched.

‘You’ll be lucky.’

I can guess what this means. It means whoever’s in charge don’t give a shit. My eyes do a sweep of the room and I feel something lurch inside me. There’s another bed in the room. It ain’t a bed, exactly; it’s more like a little shelf behind the door with a dirty old mattress that’s hanging over the edge. Looks like it’s been shoved there for a kid or something, but I’m getting other ideas. I could do with cotching with the one girl in town who ain’t no junkie or mad woman – the one girl with the full set of goods lined up against the wall.

‘I think that’s my bed,’ I say.

The girl turns away so I can’t see the bruised eye no more, pretending to study this big pile of papers and books on the bed. ‘Cool.’

I stare at her, checking I heard it right. To be honest, I was expecting her to tell me to piss off. That’s how things go around here. Maybe this girl ain’t from the streets, I think to myself. Maybe that’s how she’s ended up all black and blue – she can’t look after herself.

I shut the door and drop my bag on the floor, heading for the tiny bed and sinking into the nasty grey mattress.

‘What’s your name?’ I say.

‘Natallia.’ She side-eyes me, like she’s checking out if I’m safe.

‘Nice set-up you got here,’ I say, checking the goods all lined up and chained to the radiator. ‘This don’t come with the room, right?’

A little breath comes out her mouth, like the sound Geebie used to make when something got up his nose. ‘I wish. It’s all mine. You can use it though, as long as…’ She looks at me again for just long enough to catch my eye. ‘As long as you don’t take the piss.’

I nod. That sounds fair.

‘You ain’t like the average girl round here,’ I say.

She looks at me. ‘You mean I’m not a crackhead?’

I nearly laugh. The words sound wrong coming out of her pretty little mouth. It’s like hearing Miss Merfield swear.

‘You and me both, fam.’

A smile creeps up her face, like something’s melting inside her. She flips shut the book she was pretending to read and swings her legs off the bed, stretching them out between us. They’re even longer than I thought – like models’ legs, skinny all the way down.

‘How d’you get the p’s together for this, then?’ I nod at the shiny set of goods between us.

‘I’ve got a job,’ she says. Then she starts chewing on her lip, like she ain’t gonna say no more.

Then I work out why. There’s only a few types of job that pays good enough p’s to buy books and fridges and fresh garmz like what she’s got on. With a body like that, I reckon Natallia can make decent sterling. A mate of Lol’s cuz, name of Cheri, used to work the clubs. She took home close to a bag a night on a good night. But other nights she’d take home a beat-up face or worse. One time, she needed stitches down below and couldn’t walk for a month. That’s one line of work I ain’t going near. I seen enough bruised skin and cut-up flesh already in my life.

‘I’m saving up for college,’ she says, dipping her head to the books. ‘Gonna study Law.’

My eyes open wide. I don’t know nobody who wants to study law. Far as I’m concerned, the law’s all wrong. The law puts people like JJ in the Young Offenders’ for six months while rich men in suits get to steal millions without even knowing what the inside of a cell looks like. Learning about that just sounds jarring.

Natallia pokes the door shut with her foot and starts quietly telling me what’s what around the place. She gives me the code for the front door, talks me through the situation with the bathrooms and runs me through the most craziest and dangerous yats in the place, including Mental Maggie, the one I run into on the stairs.

I nod, like these stories is all new to me, but truthfully I heard it all before. I seen it with my own eyes. Maybe Natallia ain’t familiar with these types, but she didn’t grow up on an estate with Ayesha Clark. I seen skets pulled backward through broken windows by their hair. I know what it looks like when a girl’s face is so messed up she can’t see for the swellings. I was there when Ayesha’s brother’s baseball bat crunched against the skull of a twelve-year-old girl and I seen the girldem scatter at the first sign of trouble, leaving the weakest to take the beating. I swear, girls can be crueller than boys. I know this place ain’t gonna be no holiday camp.

Natallia’s telling me about some girl shotter by the name of Mikaela who makes her living off the junkies in the place when my phone pings.

WUU2? When u paying back the ps?

My hand shoots to the side of my bra, where the bag of notes is stuffed – too many to properly fit down there. I can’t hardly believe Miss Merfield gived me the notes. It’s mad. Four tons, just like that. She’s got this idea about me getting a job and paying her back, which sounds like crazy talk to me, but the main thing is, I got the p’s to pay off my debt.

2nite? I type.

‘…thing you need to remember about Mikaela,’ says Natallia, looking at me like she’s teaching me something. ‘She doesn’t like anything to stand between her and her business, if you know what I mean.’

I nod, even though I’ve already forgot who Mikaela is. I don’t need no white girl laying out the rules of the street for me.

My phone pings again.

Not 2nite. All kicking off. Come by 2mz – ask for mustard.

I stare at the words, feeling that wormlike thing in my belly again. All kicking off. What’s that supposed to mean? Is there gonna be trouble? Is JJ gonna get hurt? Ask for Mustard. Meaning that JJ ain’t gonna be there for me? He’s gonna let me walk in that place and deal with the mandem coz he don’t wanna be associated with me? That hurts, that does. That tears me up inside.

JJ’s got status in the Crew now, I know that. He’s doing bigger jobs and he’s got other kids running around doing his business for him. That’s how it works. You gotta hold your position or you get trampled on. Last year some kid, name of Z, shanked his own bredrin to prove his status. I get that. But to put your status above your fam – I mean, proper fam, like fam that’s been with you since before you could walk… that ain’t right. It don’t feel right.

Sideways rain hammers on the window. I look through the metal bars at the black sky outside, feeling my spirits sink like a stone.

‘What’s up?’ Natallia looks at me, eyes flicking down to the phone in my lap.

I take in a deep breath through my nose. Maybe he don’t mean it like that. Maybe he’s just got stuff on. Maybe it’s gonna be Mustard and JJ taking the notes off of me tomorrow.

‘Nothing,’ I say, lying back on the empty bed and hearing the springs pop, one by one, against my spine. ‘Just some business I gotta sort out.’

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