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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21. 21

I step inside. Rhythms fill the air and even before I see the tall, swaying figure behind the screen, I know who’s spitting into the mic. I yank my hood down low over my face and make a beeline for the far corner. Ash ain’t said a word to me since things went gash between me and Deanna.

JJ’s leaning on the snooker table, Coke in one hand, this bunch of tinies crowding round like he’s some kind of celebrity.

‘Anyway, this boy’s on tag, yeah? He’s gotta stay in his flat.’

I slide in beside JJ, clocking the new cornrows on his head. He carries on talking, too busy telling his story to see me.

‘So we know where he lives. He’s trapped, y’know?’

The tinies gawp at JJ, mouths open. The cornrows look more jaggedy than before and he’s got this sharp line of stubble round his jaw that adds five years to his age. I know bare girls would say he looks buff, and he does, but I can’t decide if I like it.

‘We wait outside ’til tings go quiet, then boom! We bust in with three niners between us, shoot the roof down and box him. He ain’t gonna be walking town centre for longs.’

Disbelieving looks pass between the tinies. I wait for JJ to meet my eye and force a smile, thinking rah, this ain’t the type of story he was telling just a few weeks ago. This stuff he’s talking about, it’s more than small-time beefs, one on one. This is organised lickings. This is people getting serious revenge, with tools. Packing niners? I’m worried for if the tables get turned.

JJ catches my eye and we peel off from the pack.

‘Ite?’

‘Ite.’

We stay like this for a bit, me trying to think of something to talk about that ain’t gonna push us further apart, him just nodding into space.

‘You seen your nan lately?’ I say, finally.

JJ nods, his eyes dropping to the floor.

‘Saw her the weekend,’ he says, in this voice that don’t match the one just telling the story. He sounds beat.

‘And?’

He shrugs. ‘Same as.’

I nod, figuring the news on his nan ain’t good. She’s been in that place for over a month now and it seems like a downward spiral she’s in. Even though she’s lost her marbles, I guess her brain works enough to know she’s been put in a care home to die. I guess she’s doing what she got put there to do. I’m thinking of how to change the subject when, out the corner of my eye, I see Vinny lumbering towards us with a bin bag in each hand.

‘Who wants to take the rubbish out?’ he says, like it’s a special treat.

Blank looks bounce off all the tinies’ faces. I catch eyes with JJ, thinking rah, that used to be us, that did, putting the rubbish out on Wednesdays for Vinny. JJ looks at the floor. I guess that’s just one more thing that’s changed around here.

Vinny rounds up a couple of tinies and pushes the bags into their hands, then he turns to us.

‘How’s it going?’ His crinkled smile peeps out from under the frayed cap.

My insides do a mini-flip. I know why he’s here. This is about me.

Vinny’s always trying to get us involved in stuff. For some people, the music and games and activities is the reason they come to the Shack. Some kids do their homework on the computers. For Ash, it’s all about the studio. Some spend their whole time in the skate park. But me and JJ, we just come here to cotch. We ain’t the type to get involved. But yesterday, I got involved. I asked Vinny to look at my CV. Miss Merfield said it would be good to get his eyes on it.

‘Alright,’ I say, feeling suddenly nervous.

‘D’you wanna…?’ Vinny waves a sheet of paper in the air and I feel my heart start pounding. He lays my CV on the edge of the snooker table and shuffles into this mad squat, like he’s sitting on an invisible chair.

I scoot round to join him, staying on my feet. Next to me, JJ tips the rest of the Coke down his throat and crumples the can in his fist. I’m half thinking he might join us, but when I look sideways I see he’s pulling out a bag of crow and rolling himself another joint.

The music stops, giving our ears a break and allowing us to speak normal volume. Except we don’t speak – not for a bit. Vinny just looks out at me from under his cap, shoulders hunched round his ears on account of his squatting position. There’s something going on in my belly – a tightness, like I’m scared about something.

‘This is great,’ he says, finally.

The tightness dissolves and I feel breezy and light.

‘I had help,’ I say.

‘Everyone has help,’ says Vinny, shrugging. ‘That’s how we improve ourselves.’

‘D’you think I’ll get a job?’ I ask, eyes flitting down to the piece of paper. It’s weird. I never cared about nothing typed up and printed off before, but this page is different.

‘I think you stand a good chance.’ Vinny nods, then he pushes my CV along the scuffed green felt and I see he’s scribbled little notes in the margin. ‘D’you wanna go through my thoughts?’

My first reaction is rah, what thoughts? But before I get hyped he tells me it’s mainly just questions and ideas about what they might ask me in an interview. My rage dies down and turns back into nerves. Interview.

‘Oh yeah,’ says Vinny, as we get to the end. ‘I didn’t know you played piano?’

I shrug. ‘I did lessons at school. Don’t really play no more.’

Vinny squints at me like he’s thinking about something. Either that or he’s cramping up from all the squatting.

‘We could do with someone on keys…’ Vinny’s head flicks towards the empty recording studio, then back again. He clears his throat and leans in. ‘It’s not common knowledge yet, but there’s gonna be a bit of a collaboration between Ash and… No Endz? D’you know –’

‘Swear down!’ The words just shoot out my mouth; I can’t stop them. Vinny looks a bit confused, but seriously – No Endz? As in the No Endz? As in the rapper with his own label and a Pepsi sponsorship and bare houses all round the world? As in, the biggest name in grime?

‘Like I said, it’s not official yet, but…’ Vinny’s got a smile on his lips.

I knew it, I’m thinking to myself. I knew Ash would make it big. He’s got the beats and the voice and the style, and he’s smart, too. He’s the works. This is gonna be the start of big things, I feel it.

‘So?’ Vinny’s looking at me crooked.

‘So what?’

‘D’you think you might wanna play keys in a couple of tracks?’

I feel my mouth drop open as the hugeness of the question hits me. Me playing a track with No Endz? That’s just crazy talk. That’s the type of thing that happens in films that end happily ever after. This ain’t happening to me. This is madness.

I clamp my mouth shut, suddenly remembering one reason why it ain’t gonna happen. Things is frosty between me and Ash. We ain’t crossed paths since I nearly stabbed his cuz in the eye with a blade, so I can’t see him having me play keys, even if I was good enough – and that’s the other thing. Deep down, I know I ain’t got the skills to play. Ain’t no point in even thinking about it.

Vinny’s still looking at me, so I put on the brightest smile I can and say, ‘For real,’ even though I know it ain’t gonna happen.

I head out to find JJ, thoughts whizzing round my head. There’s a haze of smoke spiralling up into the air and when I get close I realise JJ ain’t alone. He’s squaring up to some kid in a white tracksuit. I feel something drop inside me. Only one person I know wears that much Nike.

‘Why not, blud?’ Twitch shifts from foot to foot, looking like he’s in the mood for trouble.

‘Got tings to be doing,’ says JJ, his voice calm and deep.

‘What tings?’

JJ shakes his head slowly, his body swelling to twice the size of Twitch’s. ‘Just tings, alright?’

Twitch’s eyes go wide and his jigging turns into a full-on dance. ‘Check you! Big man tings! Big man tings!

I feel the air hotting up. Twitch knows JJ’s got status now. If JJ was with his Crew then Twitch wouldn’t be saying these things. But he ain’t, so Twitch is just pushing it, coz that’s what he’s like. He’s seeing how far he can go before JJ snaps.

Turns out, JJ don’t snap. He just shakes his head, flicks the end of his spliff at Twitch’s feet and storms off towards the gates.

I freeze, stuck between two people I count as close. I owe them both, big time. I can’t just breeze on Twitch after what he done for me the other day, but I can’t leave JJ thinking I don’t care. In the end, the problem’s solved by Twitch turfing himself inside, cussing at JJ under his breath.

JJ’s practically out the gates by the time I catch him and it takes me nearly a block to get him to look me in the eye.

‘He don’t mean no harm,’ I say, falling in step.

‘His behaviour is buzz, man!’

I don’t say nothing. JJ’s more hyped than I’ve seen him in long. It’s like he’s done a complete flip in the last half-hour. I’m thinking maybe it’s the business he was telling me about – some kid called Poke trying to step on his toes in the Crew – or maybe it’s just one of his moods. They happen all the time these days. It used to be easy to get him smiling again, but not any more. It’s like there’s bigger things going on in his head. Like he’s buried too deep in too much stuff.

‘Wasteman!’ spits JJ, shoving his hands in his pockets, eyes trained on the ground.

I’m thinking of saying Twitch ain’t no wasteman – not after what he done for me – but then the thought pops into my head that the reason JJ’s turned sharply on Twitch is coz Twitch helped me out. Maybe JJ feels bad it weren’t him paying off the yardies, watching my back, keeping me safe.

The silence between us grows and the longer it gets, the more I come round to thinking that this is what’s playing on his mind. JJ’s always been there to look out for me, but this time he wasn’t. He was off with the mandem – the exact same mandem who’s caused me all my troubles. Maybe JJ feels torn.

‘You hear about Ash?’ I say, trying to lighten the mood.

‘What?’ JJ grunts the word out like he don’t care either way.

I open my mouth to tell him, then close it again, remembering what Vinny said. Then I open it again. JJ ain’t gonna tell no one.

‘He’s gonna record tracks with No Endz.’

Another grunt. That’s all. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, but I got this feeling that if I keep on going then I can lift him out of this dark hole.

‘You know what else?’ Another grunt. ‘Vinny asked me to play keys.’

He lifts his head just enough to check me through narrowed eyes.

‘You don’t play keys.’

I shrug, like I’ve got it covered, even though the truth is that I been thinking the same ever since Vinny asked. It’s one thing being able to get through one of Miss Merfield’s sheets of music, but jamming with Ash and a big-name rapper by your side? That’s a different story.

‘Vinny reckons I can,’ I lie. Vinny didn’t say nothing like that. He just saw the word ‘piano’ and got over-keen. ‘He saw it on my CV.’

‘Your what?’ JJ’s voice sounds more normal now. He’s still vexed, but at least he’s talking.

‘My CV,’ I say, pleased he’s picked up on it. I wanna tell JJ the latest. ‘Miss Merfield’s gonna print off copies so I can apply for jobs, blud.’

JJ looks like he’s gonna cross the road but then he stops, standing still on the pavement and eyeing me suspiciously.

‘What’s this all about, blud? You need more p’s? Is that it?’

I just look at him. Before I can get my mouth round the words, JJ’s pushing a thin coil of notes into my palm. My brain catches up in time to see him shoot across the road.

‘It ain’t like that!’ I yell at the back of his head. ‘It ain’t just the money, blud!

I set off after him, ignoring the squeal of brakes as this Beemer skids to a stop. My own words echo round my head. It ain’t just the money. It ain’t just the money. I mean, I need p’s to live, just like everyone else, but there’s different ways of lining your pockets and deep down I know that the way I been lining mine up ’til now ain’t gonna work forever.

Bottom line, I don’t wanna be running around stuffing food down my pants when I’m twenty-five. I don’t wanna be risking a stretch in the pen every time I hit the streets. I don’t wanna risk being played by big-name gangstas who pretend they’re checking for you and then turn on you. I don’t wanna feel like I can’t move or breathe or turn round for fear that the mandem’s gonna come after me. Weird thing is, I never even knew that’s what I thought until the words spilled out my mouth. It ain’t just the money.

The roll of notes feels hot in my hand, but I know JJ won’t take it back, so I stuff it deep in my pocket and run after him.

It don’t take long for me to work out where he’s headed, and once I know I feel my heels start to drag. He ain’t got no idea what effect that place has on me, the way my knees buckle and my body shakes and my belly tries to empty itself when I get near.

‘Let’s go town centre,’ I say, taking quick steps to catch up.

‘Why’s that then?’ JJ snaps. ‘So you can go McDonald’s and ask for a job?’

I keep my face blank, but inside I’m stinging. I only heard JJ use that tone on me one time before, and that was when they was kicking his nan out the flat. It hurts. It hurts badly, and the worst part is, I know JJ’s got a point. I ain’t gonna earn no gangsta sterling in McDonald’s, but at least in McDonald’s you ain’t risking ending the day with your face sliced open.

‘What’s up with you?’ I yell, expecting him to just keep on going as my limbs grind to a halt. But he stops. Then he turns to me with these hardened eyes.

‘Man don’t wanna go town centre. Man’s got tings runnin’.’

I stare at JJ for a second. Man this, man that. This ain’t the JJ I know. The question what tings? nearly shoots off my lips, but then I remember what happened when Twitch did the same. I push away all the bad thoughts in my head and fix a smile on my lips.

‘Safe,’ I say. ‘You go your way, I’ll go mine.’

JJ just nods, spins round and keeps heading up the road. It’s only when I look back and catch a glimpse of his wide shoulders and sharp new cornrows that I realise what I just said. Please say that ain’t what’s happening, I think to myself, the words dragging my mood low.

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