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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20. 20

I press the buzzer and take a step back, blinking from the harshness of the sunlight on the white door. Slowly, I pick out the letters on the sign. Gift Horse Marketing, it says, in these rounded letters like what a child would do, only neater and coated in plastic. My mind jumps back to the red cards Miss Merfield was waving about at the Shack that time and I feel this shiver of guilt run through me.

There’s a click and the door flies open.

‘Oh! Hi!’ It’s the one who done the brownies that time, her mouth spreading into this big wide smile, her giant titties pressing up against smooth silky threads like they’re trying to bust their way out. ‘It’s Aleeshaaaah!’ she sings, spinning on one of her high heels and clip-clopping away from the door.

I follow her down this long white corridor, my head turning this way and that as I clock the giant posters on the walls. They’re like the type you see at bus stops, only they’re in fancy glass frames and they ain’t smeared with gum and spit.

‘Didn’t know if you were coming!’ Big Tits looks over her shoulder like they do in the shampoo ads, hair shimmering in the light. ‘Did Helen not say ten o’clock?’

I shrug, not liking her tone. Didn’t know they was gonna be so strict about times. If I’d of known that, I would’ve told Miss Merfield rah, ten o’clock ain’t happening. These days I ain’t hardly in bed by that time.

Last night, it was problems caused by a bunch of street rats climbing through a window. They got Mental Maggie all wound up, which set off the mandem downstairs. Blows was thrown, someone yanked a pipe off the wall and then the fedz come round, followed by the fire brigade, banging on about a gas leak or such. Just as things is settling down for the night, Natallia breezes in and starts brewing her morning tea. That’s how it is, these days. I can’t remember the last time I slept from night ’til day.

I stop and blink for a couple of seconds as I step into the room. Strips of sunlight prick through the blinds at the front and every wall in the place is smooth and white. Dotted about is more colourful bus stop posters and under my feet is smooth, polished pine or such, like what you see in them showrooms. My eyes skim the place, taking in the giant plasma screen on the far wall, the shiny plants, the wheelie chairs and the curvy desks holding these white Apple Macs with screens so big you’d hurt your neck looking at them. The place ain’t massive, but it’s kitted out fly. A thought pops into my head that if I told JJ or Squeak this lot was here, we could all be a few Gs richer. I push the thought out my mind.

‘Hey.’

I drag my eyes off the shiny machines and feel a smile hit my lips as I see my old teacher busting ripped jeans and this crinkled leather jacket over a baggy white top. She looks kind of fashionable today, but I reckon it ain’t deliberate. Reckon she got them garmz long before that look came in. Or maybe it is deliberate, I think to myself. Maybe she’s trying to impress Mr Slick.

‘Hi, Miss.’ I head over, clocking the empty mug on her side and thinking rah, maybe she’s been waiting here the full hour. These people run like clocks.

‘How’s it going?’

‘Good,’ I tell her, which ain’t exactly the truth, but it ain’t a hundred percent lying, neither. At least I’m free of the Crew now, even if I’m cotching with a bunch of jezzies and wastemen. The big problem in my life has gone away.

There’s a clattering noise from the back and the smell of fresh coffee fills the air. I don’t even like the taste of coffee, but this smells good. I take a big, deep breath, filling my lungs up like I’m getting high off the fumes.

‘Ready to go?’ Miss Merfield glances sideways at one of the giant screens. I ain’t never used an Apple Mac before. The Shack only had basic black machines and the ones in Graphics at school was reserved for them that got good marks in their homework and such. I feel the little worms moving round in my belly again.

Big Tits struts back in with teas and coffees and crispy brown cakes on a tray, another big smile on her face. My belly does a loud gurgle.

‘That’s it – you can use Izzy’s desk.’ She nods at the screen I been staring at. ‘She’s away this week.’

‘Who’s Izzy?’ I ask.

‘Oh,’ she flutters her eyes. ‘My summer intern. She’s with me until September, but she’s off on hols this week. Tea or coffee?’

I sink into the soft foam of the chair, leaning back on the headrest and spinning slowly round. I’m pretending like I’m Izzy the summer intern. I don’t know what a summer intern does, but I reckon I’d be dressed up in one of them silky shirts like Big Tits, busting high heels and a designer shirt. I could do that. I could look smart and peng if I tried.

‘Alesha?’

I jump out my daydream and see Big Tits looking at me, eyebrows arched in a questioning way. She’s got a chirpiness about her that’s jarring. She’s always smiling, always swinging her hips like she’s somebody.

‘Tea,’ I say.

‘Please,’ says Miss Merfield, side-eyeing me with a smile on her lips.

I roll my eyes and say the word under my breath. Really, it ain’t tea that I want. What I want, what my insides is growling for, is a chunk of that crispy brown brick in my belly. But that ain’t how these types operate, I know that. They pretend like it’s all about the hot drinks and the food’s just on the side.

Miss Merfield digs her heels into the floor and pushes off, wheeling towards me like a kid on a toy bike. We wait for the screen to wake up and I look at the keyboard, suddenly feeling this new lurch in my belly. It ain’t hunger this time. It’s nerves.

The plate gets put in my hand and for a second I try and just think about the chocolate filling my mouth – not the thing that’s about to happen. Then something appears on the screen and makes me jump.

‘That’s buzz, man.’ I stop chewing and stare at the picture, feeling sick at the closeness of it all. It’s a blown-up picture of a black kid looking half-dead, skin cracked and dry, flies eating out of one of its eyes. ‘What’s that about?’

Miss Merfield leans forward and clicks it away, looking at her friend to explain.

‘Oh.’ Big Tits puts a second cup of tea next to Miss Merfield. ‘It’s a campaign we’re working on.’ Her eyes quickly scan the room and I follow, taking in the pictures on the giant posters. I hadn’t properly clocked it before but half of them looks like what I just seen – only it ain’t just dying black kids; it’s skinny dogs with no fur, forests with no trees, one-eyed donkeys and such.

‘This some sort of charity?’ I ask.

‘We work for charities,’ she says, whisking away Miss Merfield’s empty cup. ‘We’re a marketing agency. We help develop campaigns for non-profit organisations to help them raise public awareness of their causes.’

‘Oh, right.’ I nod, not properly taking in all the long words. I look again at the posters on the walls, feeling a hotness build up inside me. I ain’t gonna say nothing to Big Tits, but it’s jarring to see all these flashy posters for kids and donkeys and trees. I mean, I get that there’s things in this world that need saving. I get that the rich types need to spend their p’s on helping the poor. But what about the poor in their own endz? What about me, and countless of others who get by off thieved goods coz there ain’t no other way to get by? I don’t see no posters with my face on, asking for p’s.

‘I’ll leave you to it, then.’ She flashes us a breezy smile and clip-clops to the back of the office.

I lick my fingers and pick the sweet, scratchy cake out my teeth, trying to un-vex myself and think about something else. Then I stop. A zingy feeling shoots from the back of my mouth to my brain like an electric shock.

Miss Merfield looks at me, her eyes popping open like there’s something wrong with my face.

‘Ugh?’ is all I can say coz my hand’s shot into my mouth and my fingers and tongue and teeth is all mixed up together. I’m trying to work out where the pain’s coming from. It ain’t so bad now, but I can still feel it. It’s like a pulse in my jaw.

‘You’re… you’re bleeding, Alesha.’

‘Ugh,’ I say, tracking it down. It’s one of them back teeth that’s going brown underneath.

‘Here,’ she says, pushing a tissue at me and turning her head as I spit out the whole lot of food I just put in. I can feel Big Tits’ eyes on the back of my head and I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking rah, that yat’s disrespecting my cooking. I’d tell her to piss off if my mouth was working. It ain’t like that.

‘Was it something sharp?’ asks Miss Merfield, head bobbing for a closer look at the mess in my mouth.

‘There was nothing sharp in there!’ sings this voice from behind my head. A silky arm comes shooting between me and Miss Merfield with a glass of water on the end.

‘Then what…?’

I take the glass, wash the sweetness and blood away. The pulse in my jaw dies down a bit.

‘I dunno,’ I say, feeling around with my tongue.

‘Well…’ Miss Merfield squints at my face. ‘There must be something wrong with your tooth. Let’s have a look.’

Thinking I ain’t really got no choice, I open up.

‘Ew!’ Her head jerks back and she takes a proper deep breath. ‘Er, yes. I think there’s something wrong.’

‘You ain’t even looked,’ I say.

‘No, I can… I can… tell,’ she says, taking another breath and getting close again. ‘Mmm,’ she says, proper slow, like the doctors you see on them TV shows when they’re finding out someone’s got cancer.

I snap my mouth shut, not liking the way this is going.

‘Alesha, when was the last time you went to the dentist?’

‘I ain’t never been to no dentist,’ I say, tensing up at the sound of the word. I can still remember the noise Jabber made when Mrs Jenkins brought him back from the dentist that time. Reckon they yanked out half his teeth and most of his gums too – I ain’t gonna let them do that to me.

‘What… ever?’ She frowns.

‘I don’t need no dentist,’ I say quickly. ‘I’m fine.’

‘But Alesha –’

‘I’m fine!’ I stare at Miss Merfield, my eyes telling her leave it.

She nods. ‘Right.’

Miss Merfield drinks some tea and then nods again, spinning round so she’s looking over my shoulder at the giant screen.

‘Right!’ she says again, with added brightness in her voice.

My insides crumple up as I follow her eyes and think about what’s gonna happen now. We ain’t even got started and I’m already thinking I wanna leave.

I push my chair back, hoping she’ll fill the gap and take over on the keys. She doesn’t. She just nods at the screen, which is filled with this white page that looks like some sort of form.

‘I downloaded this from the internet,’ she says. ‘It’s a sample CV for a fifteen-year-old looking for part-time work.’

I nod, eyeing the screen suspiciously. When Miss Merfield said she was gonna help me find a job, I thought rah, here we go, off to the Job Centre to get passed from desk to desk and come out at the end with a form that sends me straight back to Social Services. I said no way. That was what I told her.

Turns out, Miss Merfield didn’t have no plans to stop by the Job Centre – said they wasn’t designed for getting you into work, just for getting you into these schemes that’s designed to keep the numbers down. She said there was other ways of looking for work.

I keep squinting at the page on the screen, keeping myself far away so she can’t quiz me on the words.

‘Have you done one of these before?’ she asks.

I shake my head, even though my brain’s already flooding with thoughts of that time Mr Drage made us do Personal Statements. I stormed out the class and nearly give Mr Drage a bleeding lip on my way out. That was one of the things that got me transferred from Langdale Girls’. My eyes wander to the posters on the wall. The nearest one’s got a picture of an orange boat whooshing through the waves. Who’s gonna give money to a charity for boats? That’s madness, that is.

‘It’s fairly straightforward.’ Miss Merfield looks at me for a second. ‘Tuck in – your arms aren’t that long!’

I shake my head again.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll help,’ she says, all smiles.

I swallow, feeling my breath start to come quick. I feel on edge, like I’m coming down from a night on the smarties. I wanna be outside in the sunshine, breezing down the street. I don’t wanna be here.

‘It’s your CV,’ she says, still not moving. ‘You drive.’

Suddenly, the tightness rips me apart.

‘I can’t!’ I spit, getting up from the chair.

Miss Merfield jumps up too, quickly blocking my route and holding her hands out so if I move any more she’ll be touching my arms.

‘What d’you mean?’ she asks quietly.

‘Writing,’ I mumble, thinking about how I can get outside. That’s all I want now – to be out in the air, away from these shiny white machines and crispy cakes and Big Tits, who’s pretending not to stare at me from the back of the room.

‘You mean…’ Miss Merfield’s eyes scan the floor and then focus on mine. ‘You mean you’re not confident with your reading and writing?’

‘I mean I can’t read and write,’ I say, crossing my arms and staring her out.

‘Oh.’ She frowns, still matching my stare. ‘But I’ve seen you… ping. You were the one who taught me how to do that.’

‘That’s different.’ I give up on the staring and let my eyes wander the stupid posters, thinking back to all the times Mrs Page told me off in English. I can’t do reading and writing. That’s the bottom line.

Miss Merfield lets out this little blast of air through her lips and, out the corner of my eye, I see her shrug.

‘It’s all the same, really – just a different context.’

Then she skims past me and sits back down, pulling herself up to the desk.

‘Right…’

I take a deep breath and think about busting my way to the door, only I ain’t feeling it no more. Seems like all the tension inside me has gone and I find myself twisting round and sinking back in the chair.

‘Let’s start with the facts,’ says Miss Merfield, all calm like we’re learning a new piece on the piano. I think back to them scratched white keys under my fingers and I feel this calmness sweep over me, like things ain’t so bad after all.

‘Address. Hmm. OK, let’s use this place for now. I’ll check with Beth later, but I’m sure that’ll be fine. Phone number?’

I hear myself reeling off my digits. She goes through this list of things, like email and date of birth and school and that, filling in the blanks with her own mumblings.

‘Dependents?’ She laughs. ‘You don’t have any children, do you?’

She’s joking, I know that, but it ain’t funny. My mum was younger than I am when she had me. Bare girls I know is pushing pushchairs round town.

‘Qual… Let’s leave that for now.’ Miss Merfield quickly taps her way down the screen, but I clock the shake in her voice and I work out what she’s trying to hide. Qualifications. Yeah. That would be it. What am I gonna put there? I kick my heels into the floor, balling my hands into fists and pressing my nails into my flesh.

‘This is buzz, man.’ My words shoot out through clamped teeth. ‘What’s the point?’

Miss Merfield just looks at me blankly. ‘The point is you getting a job,’ she says.

I feel the anger build up inside again. She don’t get it. She don’t get what it’s like to be me. Kicked out of school, batted from place to place, doors slammed in my face – she should try spending a day in my shoes. You can’t expect good things to come out when you got all the wrong things going in. I ain’t got no qualifications. I ain’t gonna get no job. I ain’t gonna be like Miss Merfield and her fancy friends. Ain’t no point in even trying.

I bring my fist down hard on the desk and this stream of cussing tumbles out my mouth.

‘Alesha!’ Miss Merfield looks proper shook, her eyes wide.

I spin away on the chair, finding myself face-to-face with the black kids and donkeys and boats. I feel better now. Not better as in it’s all gravy; just meaning I ain’t so filled with expanding heat no more. The fizz has gone. Now I just feel sad.

We stay like this for a bit – me facing the wall, Miss Merfield facing me. I know she’s facing me coz I can hear her breathing. After long, I hear her take this deep lungful and I know what she’s gonna say. Are you OK?

‘Alesha.’

That stops my thoughts dead. Her tone ain’t soft and sweet like I was expecting. It’s harsh, like a machine gun spitting out bullets. A-le-sha.

‘I’m trying to help you here.’

I stay facing the wall, thinking maybe Miss Merfield’s gonna give me one of them this is for your own good lectures like what the teachers give when the class gets wild.

‘I know this isn’t easy for you,’ she says, in the same hard tone. ‘That’s why we’re here, working through it. But –’

Miss Merfield pushes her head into the space in front of me, so I don’t have no option except to look at her. I let out a heavy sigh to show I ain’t buying whatever lies she’s about to spout.

‘Look,’ she says, ignoring my sigh. ‘I think you can do this. I think you can get yourself a job. If I was an employer, I’d be glad to have someone like you on the team: someone with spirit and determination, someone who’s quick on their feet, always got an answer… You could be a real asset.’

Asset, I think to myself. Yeah right. I don’t see no employers queuing up to take me on.

Miss Merfield carries on. ‘You’ve just got to believe in yourself,’ she says. ‘And put in a bit of work. It won’t be easy, but I think you can do it.’

I turn on Miss Merfield, feeling angry again. Believe in yourself. What does she think this is? X Factor?

‘I can’t even fill in no form!’ I yell, rising up from my seat. I know Big Tits is watching from behind her big screen, but I don’t care. ‘I ain’t never gonna get no job!’

My eyes bore down on Miss Merfield. I expect her to look away, but she don’t. She just jumps to her feet and stares back at me with this hardened look on her face. When she speaks, it’s in a voice that’s so low I can’t hardly hear it.

‘You’ll never know unless you try, will you?’

I shake my head – can’t believe she’s still banging on. ‘I ain’t got no qualifications,’ I remind her.

‘Well.’ Miss Merfield turns back to the screen, drops into her seat and starts tapping away on the keys again. ‘No problem. We’ll just put GCSEs pending.

‘What’s pending?’ I ask, getting suspicious as these words fill the box on the page.

‘It means… up in the air.’

I do a snort-laugh. ‘Miss, there ain’t nothing up in the air. I ain’t gonna do my Year 11. I ain’t getting no GCSEs.’

Miss Merfield eyes me, then types something else on the page. ‘They don’t have to know that, do they?’

I take a step closer, then find myself sinking back into the chair, my brain reeling. Miss Merfield’s telling me to lie.

‘How would you describe yourself?’ she fires at me.

‘I… I dunno.’

She drums her fingers on the keys like she’s playing a fast scale, over and over again. ‘OK, how would one of your friends describe you? If they were pointing you out to someone.’

A faint grin pushes on my lips even though I’m still kind of hyped. ‘Facey,’ I say. ‘You don’t mess with me. I don’t take no shit from nobody.’

As I speak, more words start appearing on the page. I screw up my face, thinking maybe Miss Merfield’s lost her mind. You don’t write that stuff on a form like this – even I know that much. I lean forward and stare for long at the words.

Slowly, I work out what she’s put. Determined, ambitious, diligent.

I burst out laughing.

‘What’s wrong?’ Miss Merfield’s grinning too. ‘I’m just translating it into the right sort of language. Now, I think we need something about team work. Do you do things with other people, at all…? What about those guys you hang out with at that youth centre?’

I warm up as I think of JJ and Twitch and Smalls and Lol. ‘We’re tight, man. I known them for long.’

Miss Merfield’s tapping away, words appearing on the screen.

‘What does that say, Miss?’

‘Collaborative,’ she says. ‘And I’m going to say loyal.’

My smile widens. That’s me, that is. I’m loyal.

We keep going like this, her shooting me questions, me giving answers and her writing whatever she likes on the page. As things smooth over between us, I feel my mind sliding sideways, hovering on the thing I been trying not to think about for the last how many hours.

There’s a band of white skin on her middle finger where it used to go. She must’ve worn it for years to leave that kind of mark. Makes me think, rah, what kind of ring was it? Not a wedding ring – she ain’t married and anyway, I think that goes on another finger. Maybe the other hand, too.

‘Right!’ She sounds pleased with herself. ‘We’ll say you’re Grade Three standard on the piano, in case they ask. OK?’

I look at her, my face screwed up. I ain’t taken no grade exams on the piano.

‘What?’ She nudges me and I start to get this feeling like she’s enjoying herself. ‘You’re good. On the pieces, at least. I doubt they’ll ask you play a scale in your interview.’

I give in with another smile, wondering if Miss Merfield’s talking like this on purpose. In your interview. Yeah, that would be nice.

‘D’you want to include previous jobs?’ she asks.

I look at her. ‘I ain’t done no previous jobs.’

‘Hmm, maybe you’re right…’ Miss Merfield’s got her thinking face on, but I can’t work out what she’s thinking. ‘What about…’

‘What?’

‘Well, have you ever done anything that might qualify as ‘work’…?’

My brain catches up. I see what Miss Merfield’s saying. She knows I got ways of making p’s for myself. She’s thinking of how she can put that down on here, make out like it’s a good thing. Trouble is, I don’t think you can ever make thieving handbags or lifting garmz from Super Sports sound like a good thing.

‘I know my watches,’ I say, pulling up my sleeve and showing her my Armani.

I expect Miss Merfield to take a closer look or come up with something to put on the form, but she doesn’t. She just goes quiet, staring at me with this squinty look on her face.

‘What?’ I say.

‘Did you steal that, Alesha?’ She’s talking all slowly again.

I nod. ‘Yeah. Like I said, I know my watches. It’s like… my thing.’

Miss Merfield don’t say nothing.

‘What?’ I say again. ‘Don’t look so surprised. Everyone does it.’

Miss Merfield looks kind of sad now. I see her look down at the white band on her finger. It makes me feel bad, but then I remember where she lives. You can’t go round worrying about all the rich people you ever robbed. End of the day, you need it more than they do.

‘Not everyone, Alesha.’

I look at the floor, trying to think of a way to make Miss Merfield understand. I know I’m right. Everyone does it – not always so bait, not always robbing, but everyone’s at it in some way or other. Boys taking copper off the railways at night, girls stuffing perfume up their sleeves, even grown men and rich types got their own ways of thieving.

‘Politicians, they steal from us,’ I say, thinking quick. ‘I seen it on TV. And the businessmen too, they’re at it. Everyone’s at it, Miss.’

I’m not,’ she says, quietly. ‘I don’t steal from anyone.’

I study her through narrow eyes. This is jarring. She just telled me to lie on this CV thing and now she’s saying not to rob. It don’t make no sense.

‘You ain’t never done no private lessons in summer for cash?’ I say, watching her carefully.

Miss Merfield looks like she’s gonna reply, then she shuts her mouth and looks away. I feel a smile creep up my face. Don’t need to say nothing – just keep on smiling at my old teacher until, finally, she looks at me and catches the smile and we’re looking at each other, meanings passing between us.

‘OK.’ She nods, slowly. ‘It doesn’t make it right, but you’ve got a point. Everyone’s at it.’

I keep on smiling, watching as Miss Merfield spins back to the screen.

‘So, what are we going to put under ‘previous jobs’?’

I squint my eyes, then remember something else.

‘Put part-time deliveries,’ I say, watching the words appear on the screen.

Minutes later, the printer in the corner of the room springs to life. I kick back my chair and reach out to grab the page it’s spitting out. Same time, my phone pings.

WUU2?

It’s JJ. I take my CV and lay it flat on the desk, my thumb skating over the buttons of my phone as I check out the words on the page. Bare words. Good words, too. If I was a boss and this page landed on my desk, then maybe I’d call up this Alesha girl for an interview, I think to myself.

Getting a job, I ping back.

Then I look sideways at Miss Merfield. I don’t say nothing; I just give her a nod. She smiles, holds my eye, and gives me this little nod back.

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