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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2. 2

‘Barry?’ The voice screeches through the flat, hurting my ears. ‘Barry, are we goin’ out?’

I look at JJ, who closes his eyes for a second, taking an extra-long toke on the draw before passing me the spliff.

‘Barry?’

I quickly push the joint back into JJ’s hands and get up off the settee. ‘I’ll go.’

‘Barry, is that you?’ The mad old bag’s already on her feet by the time I get to the bedroom.

‘You ain’t going nowhere,’ I say, taking her hand and getting her back in the chair. ‘Too hot outside.’

‘Who are you?’

I do my nicest smile. She asks me that every time, even though I been cotching on the floor here nearly a year. Deep down, I know she don’t like me. She’s suspicious of me, on account of the colour of my skin. She can’t help it, she’s just old. JJ’s mixed race – white mum, black dad, same as me – but she makes allowances for him coz he’s blood fam. Me, I’m just some dark kid she don’t wanna know.

‘I’m Alesha. Jayden’s mate.’

‘Get offa me! Lemme go! We’re goin’ out. Where’s Barry?’

There’s a trick to dealing with batty types. They’re like kids. You gotta distract them so they forget about whatever it is they’re whining about, then you get some peace and quiet. Barry’s dead. He’s been dead for long. But I ain’t gonna tell her that.

‘You hungry, nan?’ She ain’t my real nan. She ain’t even JJ’s nan – she’s his mum’s nan – but she’s been nan to me ever since I knew JJ, which is nearly all my life. ‘Want a biscuit?’

She looks like she’s thinking about it, then she squints at me, all confused.

‘Who are you?’

I tell her again, then offer her the biscuit again and this time she holds it all in her rattly old brain long enough to answer the question.

I grab a custard cream from the pack we keep hidden in her cupboard, where she never goes coz she thinks it’s full of Barry’s stuff. (It ain’t. It’s full of stolen garmz and food and draw and sometimes money, if we got any spare. We sold Barry’s stuff to Sanjay at the market, years ago.)

‘You ain’t taken your pill.’ I point to the little pink tablet on the arm of the chair. Who knows if it’s today’s or yesterday’s, or maybe some other day’s. I swear she’s spitting them out and putting them back in the box. They ain’t running out like they should be. Maybe that’s why she’s losing it in the head so quick.

I stay with her ’til she’s nodding off in her chair, biscuit crumbs all down her front. JJ catches my eye as I come back in the room. He ain’t one for words, but I know what he means. He means Thanks.

There ain’t no need for JJ to thank me. I can spend the rest of my life looking after his nan and I still ain’t done owing him – not after what he done for me. Me and JJ roll tight. JJ’s the only fam I got.

Bare people I know, they call each other ‘fam’ and ‘blud’ like they’re so close they don’t know each other from real blood. Like they’d do anything for each other. That’s what Twitch and Lol and Smalls is like at the Shack – yeah blud, no blud, for real blud. It ain’t like they’re lying, they just can’t see that if it comes to it, they’d rather protect themselves than take one for their bredrin. They say they got your back, when really they’re only watching their own. But for me and JJ it’s different. I know, coz he proved it by doing six months in the Young Offenders’ for me.

I come over all shaky with rage, thinking about that time. I hate the fedz and their stupid rules. I hate the way they can pin you against the railings like they did to me and JJ and tell you: empty your pockets. I hate how they look down on you, how they get all smart-ass and talk to you like you’re dirt. I hate how they don’t listen when you try and tell them you’re carrying a knife for protection, not coz you wanna cause trouble. No one wants to get locked up in the pen. No one wants to carry a blade. We do it coz we can’t defend ourselves if we don’t.

They don’t even pretend to listen. They enjoy watching us get sent to that place – the place where you ain’t allowed phones or gum or posters or magazines or even a picture in your room. The place where they feel you up as you walk through every doorway; where they watch you through mirrors and cameras; where the shitters ain’t got no seats on and the food comes on paper plates with plastic forks that fall apart in your mouth.

That’s what JJ went through for me when he jumped at me in the Stop and Search. He pushed the blade out my hand and told the fedz both knives was his. No point in two of us doing time, he figured. That’s what he did for me. That’s why I know I can trust him more than anyone else on this earth and that’s why I ain’t never gonna complain about looking after his nan when he ain’t feeling it. I owe him a lifetime of favours.

JJ hands me the ends of the draw – nothing more than a few flakes of red-hot ash falling through my fingers. I take the last puff and stub it out, looking down as Geebie appears at our feet, tail wagging madly.

‘What’s up with you?’ I push him over and rub his hot little belly, how he likes it. ‘You wanna go out? You wanna bad up some more little dogs?’

Two days ago, Geebie – short for GBH on account of his first owner – went for this other Staffie owned by some kid on the estate. JJ had him on the lead, but the lead wasn’t enough to stop the killer instinct. JJ says they was dragged together so quick he practically headbutted the other kid. He pulled back just in time, but not in time to stop Geebie tearing a hole in the other dog’s ear. Lucky for both of them they’re quick on their feet. One of these days, that dog’s gonna get us in trouble.

JJ joins us on the floor and gets the dog in this proper state. Soon Geebie’s panting and rolling and making a play for whatever comes near and it’s only when JJ pushes me backwards I realise the dog was going for my new Burberry belt. JJ only got it for me last week.

He laughs as I pick myself up, his big, wide lips peeling apart in a way that don’t happen so much after his time inside.

‘Comes, let’s take him out.’

JJ grabs the lead while I look around for the keys.

‘Y’alright, nan?’ he yells as we head. ‘Laters.’

He always does that – always talks to his nan like she’s all there, even though he knows she ain’t. If the other kids could see him now, they’d think he was messing. On the streets, JJ reps the endz. He was stealing rims before his time in the Young Offenders’. He’s boxed up bare kids and he ain’t afraid of stepping to no one if they show him disrespect. But he’s got a soft side. I see it when he’s with his nan. I see it when it’s just us. Not all the time, just glimpses.

We take the stairs, even though they smell of piss. At least with stairs you can scatter if you come face-to-face with the wrong types. In the lift, you’re a target. It’s mainly tinies round here, but from time to time you get the mandem paying a visit. That’s the thing about tower blocks; you can’t tell who’s round the corner.

The authorities don’t know we’re cotching in JJ’s nan’s flat. If they knew, they’d move us out. That’s what they do. They take you away from the only fam you know and put you with a bunch of strangers in endz you don’t know. It happened to JJ bare times. Care home, foster home, care home, foster home. The only place he ever called home was Winford Court with Mrs Jenkins. He was there for two years. She was a good woman: strict but kind, like a real mum. That was a crazy flat. It was filled with all the most noisiest and troublesome types, but it was JJ’s home. Then they told Mrs Jenkins she was too old for fostering and the next week they emptied out that flat and scattered the yoots across the endz. JJ’s new mum was a bitch. That’s why we’re up here with JJ’s nan. Nan looks after us with her benefits and we look after her with the food and the washing and that. We got it all worked out. It gets jarring from time to time, fetching this, wiping that, saying things over and over, but at the end of the day, it’s JJ’s nan. She’s all the blood fam he’s got left – except his blood mum, if she’s even still alive. JJ don’t talk about that crackhead no more.

‘I been hearing things, Roxy.’

‘What things?’ I look sideways at JJ, a faint grin tugging at my lips. Roxy’s the name he calls me when I done something bad. It comes from when we used to mess about on the estate, chucking balls at windows and that. This old woman on the first floor, Mrs Adeyemi, she had it in for me badly. Used to scream and shout and threaten to call the boydem when I showed my face. This spurred me on more. I’d put stones through her letterbox, roll her plant pots down the walkway and lay out scraps from the bins on her windowsill to attract the pigeons. Then one day she did call the boydem. They cornered me and tried to pin an ASBO on me. But then JJ stepped in. He said it was my sister doing all the mischief, not me. ‘Sister?’ said the officer, looking confused. ‘Who’s that, then?’ JJ’s eyes travelled to the pile of rocks I’d heaped up outside Mrs Adeyemi’s door that morning. ‘Rocks…’ He looked at the officer. ‘Roxy.’ It didn’t work, but the name stuck. It still makes me bubble up inside when I hear it.

‘Everyone’s saying you been excluded.’

The bubbles pop. I get this cold shiver run through me as my mind flips back to classroom and I see the drip, drip, drip of Shalina’s blood on the floor.

‘Who’s everyone?’

JJ pulls on the lead as the dog tries to fling itself down the steps. ‘Lol heard it from Kai.’

I try and swallow but there ain’t enough spit in my mouth. Kai’s Lol’s cuz. She’s in the year above me at Pembury High. Lol’s one of the boys down the Shack. I ain’t thinking about Kai or Lol, though. I’m thinking about me.

‘For how long?’ says JJ.

I focus hard on the steps as my legs carry me down. I don’t wanna meet JJ’s eye.

‘Forever.’

JJ don’t say nothing. I keep on looking at the steps, trying to stop my mood from going into free-fall. I been excluded before. I got excluded so many times from Langdale Girls’ I got transferred to Pembury High. Then I got excluded from Pembury High every time I did something bad. But this is different. This is me being chucked out the system for good.

Schools ain’t supposed to chuck you out. They say you can come back if you spend how much time in isolation – all alone in a classroom with no other kids and different breaks and that. Truthfully, I don’t mind it that much. When you been moved round as much as I have, you don’t get tight with the rest of the class. I got fam on the roads. I don’t need no other fam. Maybe if I said sorry for what I done then I could do more time in isolation and then they’d let me go back for my Year 11 at Pembury High. But that ain’t gonna happen. They ain’t gonna let me back, coz I ain’t gonna apologise to Shalina Amlani. I’d rather do ten years in isolation than that. Anyway, there’s only one week left of term and then in September I’ll be sixteen and they won’t need to bother asking me back no more. Way they see it, I’m out of their hair and they’re glad of it. Kids like me and JJ, they never wanted us in the first place.

We hit the street and I try and shift my thoughts onto something else, but it’s like my brain’s got other plans. All I can think about is the fact that on Monday I ain’t got nowhere to go. Tuesday the same. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday… It’s all over. No more school.

I never liked school, but it don’t seem right that it can just end like that. One minute everyone’s telling me what to do, where to stand, what to say, then the next they don’t give a shit about nothing I do. Feels like I’m being cut loose.

I nearly let out some of the stuff in my head about my life and how I just wasted all them years and come out with no grades, no nothing – but then I suck it back in. JJ went through all this when he got kicked out – and worse. Ain’t no point in saying what’s already been said a million times. I hate school anyway. I hate the teachers. I hate the rules. I hate Shalina Amlani and the SE5 scum. I’m done with it. We both are. Me and JJ, we can look after ourselves.

The Shack’s one of them council schemes where everything’s big, shiny and new. In the yard there’s bowls and ramps and rails for the skaters and inside there’s settees and decks and a studio where you can lay down tracks. It’s gotta cost bare p’s to run and it ain’t getting the numbers it should, but that’s the council’s fault for putting it where they did. They thought by putting it right on Peckham Road they’d get yoots from both the north and the south. SE5 and SE15. They probably thought rah, job done, that’s cleaned up our streets. They don’t understand. You ain’t gonna get nobody crossing that road to come cotch at the Shack from SE5. The last person to step in these endz from there got the side of his face sliced off.

There’s dubz all over everything, but it’s neat dubz with artwork and words, not like the type you get on Kestrel Estate. All round the skate park there’s high metal railings with spikes on top and cameras looking down. I don’t mind the cameras here, coz the Shack ain’t the type of place where you’re gonna get up to no mischief. Anyway, it’s only Lazy doing the watching.

Lazy’s the man who sits in the hut. We call him that coz of his lazy glass eye, not coz he’s lazy, although I reckon he ain’t the quickest in Peckham. Tell the truth, he don’t need to be. The man’s got fists the size of my head and arms like punch bags. Word is, it took six men to pin him down and scoop out his eye. Nobody knows what the fight was about. Ain’t nobody brave enough to ask.

Lazy nods as Geebie yanks us through. I check for faces we know, but outside it’s all just tinies. JJ ties the dog to the door and we cruise in, then I nearly head straight out again on account of this grinding noise that’s blasting through the speakers. It’s like someone’s drilling into the mic. Vinny waves from behind the glass, all winks and smiles from under his cap as he shows some kid how to do something on the sliders. 

Vinny’s the youth worker. He’s one of them ex-gang members gone clean. He rolled with some crew in North, but then his brother got shot dead so he changed his lifestyle and moved to South. He talks about it sometimes, takes his cap off and shows us the scar that runs all the way down one side of his shiny bald head. Rah, you gotta keep out of gangs, he says. It’s different for us, though. We can’t just move out the endz, just like that. If you’re stuck in your endz, you’re better off affiliating with a crew than going off on your own. Everyone knows that.

The grinding noise fades and a thumping bass kicks in, making the whole place shake. I lose my jacket and follow JJ to the pinball machine, which has got this mass of bodies clumped round it.

‘What’s good?’ JJ breaks the circle and makes room for me.

Standing in front of us is this kid in a pair of white baggies and an over-big hoodie. You can’t see his face coz it’s hidden under a cap and then another hood and then these white Skullcandy headphones, but we both know who it is. No need to see the shaved ginger head to know it’s Twitch. You can spot him from Denmark Hill on account of his boosted designer labels. That and the jigging about.

I reach up and swipe the headphones off his head. That gets his attention. He turns on me with his red piggy eyes, all hyped, then he sees who it is and drops his shoulders.

‘Ite?’ I yell. There’s feedback coming through the speakers now. ‘What’s good?’

‘You ain’t heard?’ he yells back.

‘Heard what?’

Twitch is hopping about like he’s been mainlining bennies. He’s always like this – always jumpy, always busting the latest garmz, always running his mouth off. He’s OK, for a street rat. You can’t believe nothing he says and you can’t trust him with none of your stuff unless you want it to disappear, but he’s alright. I still count him as close.

‘Heard what, blud?’ JJ moves in.

Twitch looks at us like he can’t believe we don’t know. He even stops hopping for a sec.

‘Tremaine Bell,’ he says. ‘He’s out.’ 

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