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?


19. 19

I drag my soggy creps along the street, pulling my hood down low to protect from the rain. I should be moving quicker, but I can’t get my muscles in gear. It’s like there’s this imaginary wind pushing me back. Really and truly, I don’t wanna be going where I’m going.

My phone buzzes in my pocket. I head for the bus stop and pull it out, glad of the distraction.

All good for 2moro. Can use Beth’s office for printing. I’ll send U the address.

A drip runs off my nose and onto the screen. I wipe it off with my sleeve, watching the words break up into dots. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. It ain’t that I don’t want Miss Merfield’s help. She’s done bare things for me these last few weeks and I owe her big time. I was just hoping the ping was from someone else. Right now, all I want is for JJ to bust his way through that glass door and tell me he’s cleared things with the Crew – it’s all gravy, he’ll take it from here.

Deep down, I know it ain’t gonna happen. JJ don’t know the full story. He don’t know what they done to me that time – and he ain’t never gonna know. It ain’t hardly surprising he’s leaving me to deal with this on my own; he don’t see no problem. I got the gwop, I just need to hand it over. I scrunch my eyes shut, trying to blank everything out before I cross the road.

The place is buzzing – not just the barber’s but the rooms out the back, too. The door to the upstairs is open and there’s bare yoots hanging about in a thick mist of smoke. I head for the curtain, feeling eyes locking onto my face as I go.


I breeze through the fog, pretending like I still cotch here on the regs, like this ain’t no special trip. They all know, though. I can tell by the way they’re looking at me. Feels like I forgot to put my clothes on. The only one who ain’t giving me side-eyes is Crow, who’s staring brainlessly at the wall as he sucks on this over-big spliff.

‘Free draw,’ says his mate as I hang there feeling zingy. He leans over and nabs the reefer from Crow’s fingers, lifting it to his lips. ‘Took from the BTBs.’

I nod, fronting it. I guess that explains the thickness of the air. The Big Time Boys is this bunch of youngers going round calling themselves a gang. The leader, Duppy, used to cotch on the estate, years back. Me and JJ used to laugh at him. He always talked of repping the endz, even when he was ten years old. He said by the time he hit eighteen he’d be driving the fastest car and splashing his p’s on the latest garmz, a whole army of boys underneath him. He must be nearly that old now. I guess he’s still got plans. Problem is, that’s all he’s got. The BTBs ain’t got no connects so they ain’t got no guns, so they can’t look after themselves. And as for the drugs, the Crew’s got the endz on lock. JJ reckons they ain’t gonna last the month.

The boy lets out this slow stream of smoke in my face. I close my eyes and take a proper deep breath, hoping the draw’s gonna steady my nerves. He takes another drag and then wedges the thing back in Crow’s limp hand. My shaking’s so bad I wanna reach out and snatch that fat joint, sucking the draw deep into my lungs so all the worries float out my head and the pain in my belly disappears. But I can’t, coz that’s gonna land me in even more trouble and the point of me being here is to sort out the trouble I’m already in. I look the boy in the eye.

‘I’m here for Mustard,’ I say.

The boy nods his head at the curtain that leads through to where the elders cotch. I push my way over, keeping my face blank while my insides turn cartwheels.

I pull back the curtain, just enough to squint through. There’s two men on the other side. The one facing me is short and groomed, with the blackest skin I ever saw. I swear, it’s blacker than a black leather settee. The other one’s got his back to me, but his tank-like build sends puke surging up inside me. It’s Masher. I nearly drop the curtain again but I manage to hold it, swallowing the bitter taste away. He knows I’m here. He’s clocked it in the other man’s eyes. I wait for him to turn round, gripping the curtain so tight I can feel my fingernails through the threads.


His mouth turns up in a half-smile, but his eyes stay cold. I hold it together, pushing the thoughts out my head. Gotta stay cool, gotta remember what JJ said. Always keep cool on the outside.

‘Where di coil?’ he says, like the last three weeks ain’t happened.

I pull out the bag of sterling and hand it over, feeling lightheaded as I realise what this means. This is it. After this, I’m free of the mandem. Maybe the nightmares will end.

‘It’s all there.’ I push the words out, forcing myself to look at him.

His eyes narrow on the notes and he starts fingering through them, one by one. Maybe it’s coz I’m hyped, but it feels like everything’s happening in slow motion. I just need to get out now. I can’t deal with any more time with this man.

He looks up, eyeing me crookedly, this squinty look on his face.

‘Where d’rest, den? This a’not di full amount.’

A wave of heat flushes up inside me. ‘What?’

‘A two t’ousand mi alooki eh?’

My breath’s coming so quick now I can’t speak. I don’t know what’s happening. Either Masher’s got it wrong what I owe, or this is some kind of sick game he’s playing. Either way, I’m short.

‘One,’ I correct him, my voice coming out squeaky and high. ‘One bag, man.’

Masher does this thing where his head slowly shakes but his eyes fix straight ahead at me.

‘Two.’ He flicks his eyebrows in the direction of the stocky man inside, who swaggers over like there’s some kind of show going on.

My knees feel so weak I think like I’m gonna collapse, but I can’t. I need to get through this. Whatever game he’s playing, I need to win; I need to pay up and walk out like I planned.

‘One bag, man,’ I say again, surprising myself with the firmness of my voice.

A look passes between the mandem. It’s like they’re starting to have some fun.

‘I gotta go,’ I tell them, hoping they might just let this blow over.

My hopes fall apart. As I turn, a hand wraps round my wrist, hot and tight, taking me back to the spot in the car park. My whole body lurches and I taste sick in my throat, but I make myself gulp it back down again. My eyes zoom in on the floor on the other side of the curtain, my brain filling up with ugly thoughts.

There’s more voices in the back room now – more of the mandem coming to watch me suffer. I try pulling away, but I just get this burning feeling up my arm. I’m back in that dark car park, my head thudding against the wall. I know I gotta calm down, stop getting so hyped, remember what JJ told me. Always be calm on the outside. How? How can I be calm when I’m trapped by the mandem who done things to me I can’t even think about?

‘Leave it,’ says this voice.

It’s more like a squawk than an order. Ain’t got no authority, but it catches the mandem’s attention. Masher loosens his grip on my wrist, just enough for me to yank it away.

I stumble back into the smoke. That’s when I clock the Nike swoosh. Bare Nike swooshes. I can’t hardly believe it. Twitch is stepping into my spot in the doorway, trying to make himself look big, squaring up to the mandem.

‘Leave it,’ he says again, holding out something in his fingers. It’s so small I can’t see what it is. ‘Take this, man. It’s worth bare p’s.’

I hang in the background, my legs telling me to split but my head saying stay – just long enough to work out what’s going on. I can’t make no sense of the situation. First Twitch is selling me out to the Crew, now he’s buying me back. Masher’s turning the thing round in his thick, sausage fingers, squinting and holding the thing up to the light.

I find myself staring through the crack in the curtain, thinking rah, what’s Twitch playing at? What’s this thing he’s offering up to the mandem? And why? They’re eyeing it like it’s a fully working piece, only it can’t be coz it’s like the size of a pebble. It can’t be drugs, coz they ain’t rubbing it on their gums – and anyway, that amount of drugs is peanuts money to them.

Masher presses up close to Twitch’s face and growls something I can’t hear. Twitch is shifting his weight from foot to foot, looking hyped but holding the big man’s gaze.

‘I swear,’ I hear him squeak.

Then Masher’s hand closes on the thing and Twitch comes tumbling backwards towards me. I throw my brain into gear and head for the street, speeding through the barber’s so quick I don’t even catch sight of no faces. It’s all a blur until I’m dodging umbrellas and splashing through puddles, running and running to the sound of my heartbeat and Twitch’s footsteps behind me.

‘What the…?’ I pant, hands on knees as I stagger down the side street next to Primark.

Twitch don’t speak for a bit. He just tugs on his wet hood and leans on the wall, gasping for air. Then he turns to me and grabs my arm.

‘I never sold you out,’ he says, piggy eyes staring out at me, one of them still purple from where I boxed him.

Suddenly things slot into place in my head and I work out what he just give the mandem.

‘You bringed me the ring,’ I say.

He shrugs. ‘They’ve got it now, blud.’

I look at him. ‘How d’you know I was gonna be there?’

‘Mustard said you was settling today. I was gonna catch you before you passed the coil, make you pay.’

He says the last word like it’s meant to be a threat, but I swear he can’t make nothing sound like a threat – not compared to the mandem.

‘Was thinking about leaving them to it, letting them serve up the punishment.’ He points at his bruised eye.

I look at him, thinking rah, you don’t have a clue about punishment. But inside, I’m thankful to Twitch.

‘Why didn’t you?’ I ask.

Twitch just looks at me, jigging from side to side. ‘You seen what they do to them who don’t pay off their debts?’

I don’t reply. I just wait for him to catch my eye, then push my lips into some sort of smile.

‘Thanks blud,’ I say.

Feels like I should say more, like tell Twitch I’m sorry for not believing him, for busting his face, for disrespecting him in the Shack like I did, but I can’t think of how to say it, and anyway, I can tell his attention’s already wandered to the bunch of white girls nearby, their handbags poking out from under a giant pink umbrella. My phone buzzes against my leg.

Beth says 10am is good. It’s 34 Upper Grove Lane, 1 min from Denmark Hill.

I shove the phone back in my pocket, feeling this cloud of badness drift over me. Twitch is already on the lookout for his next piece of business, but I can’t let him go before I’ve asked him one last thing.


Miss Merfield’s done all these things for me – sorting out the sterling, putting a roof over my head, saying she’ll help me look for a job. All she wants in return is this one little ring – and I’ve just gone and got it handed to the mandem.

‘What?’ Twitch is looking impatient now.

I take a breath to ask him about the ring, but the thing is, Twitch ain’t gonna know any more than me about where it’s gonna get to in the hands of the Crew.

‘Nothing,’ I say, watching the Nike swooshes slip away into the crowd.

It don’t matter anyway, I think to myself. Miss Merfield’s got countless of things in her house and bare p’s to buy new ones when they go missing. She don’t need that ring. I don’t even have to tell her I seen it.

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