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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22. 22

I kick off the sheet and flap the tee round my belly to get some air flowing on my skin. My whole body’s slippery with sweat on account of the sunlight streaming through the flimsy black threads at the window.

 My throat’s so dry it feels like it’s gonna crack. I reach for the bottle on the floor, clocking Natallia’s skinny limbs sticking out the bed opposite, a yellow bruise spreading up her arm. Always bruised, that girl. I don’t get why she does that job. She says the reason she’s here in this shit-hole is to get away from the man that boxed her, but now she’s getting fresh beatings every night of the week from men she don’t even know.

I lurch forward, spitting the mouthful of hot, stale water back into the bottle. It must’ve been lying in the sun all morning, like me. I crawl to the bathroom, shoving my feet in my creps on the way and nearly tripping over the tramp that’s slumped across our door.

There’s men all over the hostel – not just boyfriends brought in for protection, but proper down-and-out types; the types that sleep with a bottle of White Ace and talk so slurred only other down-and-outs can understand. It’s another reason for keeping a tool down your sock at all times. Natallia nearly got herself pricked the other day with some old needle covered in hairs and blood and whatever. She had to lock herself in the bathroom and beat her way out with a floorboard.

Silvia’s supposed to be running the place, keeping these types from coming in, but seriously, that woman couldn’t keep oil from water. She don’t give a shit, like the rest of them. Last week some tramp was beating on the new girl who ain’t right in the head, so she couldn’t properly defend herself. It took three of the mandem to pull him off and Silvia wasn’t nowhere to be seen. I guess it’s all good for me. Means I get a place to cotch with a fridge and TV and the works without no Social Services poking around in my business.

I’m done in a couple of minutes – you have to be quick, else you suffocate from the smell. It’s like someone’s shoved a bunch of dead rats down the plughole and left them there for jokes. Natallia’s right. Taking a shower in this place makes you dirtier than when you went in. When I get back to the room, my phone’s lit up.

R U coming?

I sink back down on the little bed, feeling bad. I said I’d go round Miss Merfield’s today to do job applications. She made me promise I’d be at their place for midday and it’s already half past.

Coming, I type back, pulling on fresh trackies and picking the flakes out my eyes in the plastic mirror Natallia’s taped to the wall. My teeth’s all brown and my hair’s bulked out round my face, making my head look over-big. Maybe I’ll get a new weave with the p’s JJ gived me the other day. I need to do something as this is getting out of control.

I breeze out the hostel and across the street, pulling my shades down over my eyes to avoid Mikaela’s death stare. It riles me the way she stands there, day and night, her man-face scowling at anyone who ain’t drunk or high – anyone who ain’t here to do business with her. She don’t own these roads. She ain’t got no right to look at me like that. One of these days I’m gonna teach her a lesson, but not today.

I hit town in record time, making it to Miss Merfield’s endz by one. I don’t know why, but today I don’t feel no burning rage as I pass the shiny rims on the quiet, tree-lined streets. It’s still jarring, seeing them lined up like that, bumper to bumper like they’ve run out of space for all their nice things, but I don’t get no urge to take out my tool and scrape my way down the sides. I don’t feel hyped as I stand on Miss Merfield’s doorstep looking down at the white gravel all around. I feel good.

Miss Merfield’s shaking her head as she opens the door, but I can see there’s a smile peeping through the scowl. It’s like the look she used to shoot me when I turned up late to my lesson – a look that says she knows she’s supposed to be angry but really she’s just happy I turned up at all.

‘Sorry,’ I say, clocking the tennis racket-shaped bags and big Nike creps in the hallway.

The door’s open to the room with the piano and it looks like that’s where we’re headed, but before I get to it, out shoots this tall figure in a white flapping robe, muttering posh hellos as he swoops up the stairs. It’s Mr Slick with the ice cream hair, only today he don’t look so slick – he looks scruffy, like one of them pop stars that’s making a comeback after how many years: designer stubble, bright eyes and hair all over the place. I swear there’s this look that passes between him and Miss Merfield as he disappears.

My eyebrows do a little questioning dance at Miss Merfield. She mumbles something about cups of tea and slides out the room, her cheeks glowing pink. A smile rises up my face. Now I know there’s something going on.

I think about this as I stand in the quiet room, looking around at the lines of bookshelves, the fancy settee with its matching chairs, the giant rug on the floor. His floor. This is his house – I know, coz Miss Merfield said so. I can see why she likes him. I’d like someone who can set me up with a place like this.

My eyes travel to the piano. It’s like a black, polished mirror, keys sticking out like over-bleached celebrity teeth. I move closer, checking out the music on the stand. It ain’t one of the ones Miss Merfield gived me in lessons. Schumann Piano Sonata No. 1, it says on the top. I find myself slipping onto the stool.

The keys is proper shiny, with sharp edges and a heaviness about them that just makes you wanna press and press. That’s what I do for a bit – press middle C, again and again. Then my head makes the connection with the dots on the page and I’m playing the Schumann, slowly and jaggedly coz it’s been a while and I ain’t never been good at sight-reading.

I’d forgot how nice it feels to play. Turning this black and white page into a noise you can hear – a noise I control, it’s mint. The sound grows around me, swells up as I get to the chords and then drops to a low rumble in the bass. I press the pedal to keep the sound in the room, like Miss Merfield showed me. It gets complex again: four notes at once, different beats in the right and left hand. It’s hard, but it sounds good, like proper music. I’m missing out notes now, my hands jumping about to keep up, but I’m keeping the rhythm and it’s rocking along slowly, tune ringing out on top. I can feel it filling the room. I can’t stop. It’s like I’m turning a handle and making the music pour out the top of the piano and I can’t stop turning coz I don’t want it to end.

I get stuck on the last page when it goes all high and I can’t tell what the notes are. I try and make it up, but I know I’m off track coz the right hand don’t go with the left. Sometimes in lessons I’d start kicking the piano and chucking music off the stand when it got like this. One time I walked out on Miss Merfield, saying I wasn’t never coming back. But I come back the next week, and the next. This time, I ain’t kicking nothing. This piano’s too shiny and posh – and anyway, I don’t feel it. Things ain’t so vexing today. Today, I just wanna hear the music flow. I skip the hard bit and move to the next line, doing my best to keep up even though there’s more dots on the page than I ever seen before.

When I finish, first thing I hear is this mad whirring noise that makes me spin round before my fingers is even off the keys.

‘What’s that?’ I whip round.

Miss Merfield’s got this dreamy look on her face like she could carry on stirring her tea forever. She looks up, blinking like she’s coming out of a trance.

‘Oh…’ Her eyes travel to this black slab on the table. ‘It’s the fan on my laptop. It’s quite old.’

I don’t wanna laugh at Miss Merfield, but seriously, this thing looks like an old roof tile and it sounds like it’s gonna take off.

Miss Merfield flips the screen on the thing and the noise ramps up to blast-off level. I drop onto the settee, reach for my tea and that’s when I clock the stuff. Right next to my mug is a new toothbrush, still in its packet. Next to that is toothpaste. And next to that is a bottle of bright pink mouthwash.

My tongue shifts to the tooth that’s been giving me trouble. It feels fuzzy today, but it ain’t zinging. The pain comes and goes.

‘Is that for me?’ I say, going all tight inside. I don’t wanna think about brown teeth or dentists and I definitely don’t wanna think about Miss Merfield busting her way round the supermarket thinking rah, what things can I buy for Alesha? But at the same time, I’m thinking maybe this will sort things out. I had a toothbrush back when we cotched at nan’s. Maybe it’s coz I ain’t been brushing that I’m getting the troubles. And maybe it ain’t so bad that Miss Merfield’s breezing round shops buying things for me. Maybe I should just be thankful.

‘I thought it might help.’ She shrugs. ‘Worth a try, anyway.’

My eyes flick from Miss Merfield to the toothbrush and then back again, tongue flicking round my furry mouth. A smile tugs at the sides of my lips.

‘Thanks, Miss.’

I put the goods at the end of the table and then feel my belly lurch as I clock the pile of papers in front of Miss Merfield. I can see my name in big letters across the top of each one. It’s my CV.

‘I had a look in the local paper,’ she says, sliding the pile over to me. ‘But then I realised, these days it’s all online.’ She rips a blank sheet out of a notebook and lays it flat, like she can’t wait to get started.

Half an hour later, the page ain’t blank no more. Scribbled on it is a list of every job in South that don’t require no qualifications. The good news is that it’s a long list. Everyone’s saying there ain’t no jobs out there, rah rah. But that ain’t true – there is jobs – I’m looking at them. The bad news is that they’re all wasteman jobs.

They got fancy titles, like Retail Assistant and Home Carer and Junior Bar Staff, but you know what they mean. Shelf-stacker. Ass-wiper. Scrubber. You know they mean spending your days getting covered in other people’s dirt and shit and piss.

‘Right!’ Miss Merfield still sounds like we’re off on some crazy adventure.

I look at her blankly. Truthfully, I don’t know what she’s expecting. What happens next?

‘Well go on, then,’ she says, her eyes yo-yoing from mine to the table and back.

That’s when I clock the banana phone sitting in the middle of the table, behind the laptop.

‘What…?’ I ask, even though I kind of know what she’s saying. My throat’s gone dry.

‘You need to start calling them to see if the jobs are still available.’

I feel my face crumpling up at the sight of the stupid plastic phone. I don’t do phone calls. I just ping. What am I supposed to say down the phone? I can’t do it. I ain’t gonna make no calls.

I think Miss Merfield clocks my unease, coz next thing I know she’s talking me through what to say, writing words in big letters on a fresh piece of paper. Slowly, I pick up the yellow phone.

‘Hi,’ I say, nerves coming through in my voice. ‘My name’s Alesha and I’m calling about the cleaning job.’

‘Hhhhwhat?’ says this foreign woman.

‘The cleaning job,’ I say, looking at the words on the page. ‘I’m looking for work.’

‘Ano,’ she says. ‘Ano job here.’

The line goes dead.

I put the banana back on the table, looking at Miss Merfield as I wait for my heartbeat to die down. Feels like I just ran the hundred-metre sprint. My head’s full of nerves and fear and relief. No job, but at least I done the call.

‘Next?’

I take a deep breath and pick up the phone again. Warehouse Assistant. This time I get as far as telling the man my situation and he gets all excited ’til he hears I’m too young to drive. I put the phone down, try for Cashier. The woman says I can apply, but there’s already six people going for the job. My nerves is fading now, replaced by a growing rage. Factory Packer. Job’s gone. Back Office Assistant. Must be ‘highly literate’. Care Assistant. Over-sixteens only. I can feel my muscles tensing up. I’m only ten minutes in and already the list’s shrunk to half its size.

‘Do you have any retail experience?’ asks some chirpy-voiced girl.

That does it. Don’t ask me why, but the sing-song tone of that yat tips me over the edge.

‘It’s a waste of time!’ I chuck the receiver on the floor and watch it bounce and roll like some plastic toy. My eyes skim the stack of CVs on the table and suddenly I feel like setting light to the whole lot, right now. JJ was right. There ain’t no jobs for our types. I just spent half an hour proving it.

‘It ain’t fair!’ I yell, reaching for the list on the table and screwing it up in my fist. I chuck it across the room, but it only gets as far as the table on account of its lightness. ‘I can’t even get no wasteman job!’ I jump to my feet and head for the door. ‘Can’t get no job and can’t get no benefits. What am I supposed to do?’

I’m practically in the hallway when I hear this ‘click’ and then Miss Merfield’s voice from the settee, so quiet I can’t hardly hear it.

‘What?’ I snap, whipping round in her face.

‘I said, is that what you want?’ she says.

‘Is what what I want?’

Her hands is pressed flat on the flipped-shut laptop and she looks calm, like she’s asking if I want another cup of tea.

‘Benefits. Do you want to rely on handouts?’

The rage is boiling inside me now – I can’t believe Miss Merfield’s turned on me like this. I thought she was supposed to be helping.

‘I ain’t got no choice,’ I spit.

‘You do have a choice.’

‘What? Go back to running deliveries?’ I spike the last word so she knows what I mean.

‘No.’ The blonde hair quivers, but her eyes don’t leave mine. ‘You could keep trying.’

‘Yeah, like that’s gonna get me places.’

‘Yes, it might.’ Miss Merfield keeps on looking at me from the settee. ‘You don’t want to give up so soon, Alesha. I know you don’t.’

‘I give up when there ain’t no point in carrying on.’

A knot grows on Miss Merfield’s forehead. ‘But you kept at it with piano.’

I shoot her a screw-face. ‘What?’

‘You never gave up with piano – well,’ she does a quick smile. ‘Only every now and then.’

‘That’s different. I like piano.’

‘You might like working when you get into it.’

I stare at her for being so dumb. ‘But I ain’t gonna get no work, Miss. All this… this calling, it’s a waste of time.’

‘There’s always a hard stage before you start getting the rewards. Don’t you remember learning to read music?’

I roll my eyes, unwanted thoughts piling up in my head of long hours spent staring at blobs on the page and kicking that piano ’til the wood come loose.

‘You stuck at that,’ she says, ‘and now look what you can do.’

She nods at the piano and I find my eyes sliding across, my thoughts drifting to what I just done ten minutes before. I sat down and played the Schumann. I did that. I did keep going on piano. I don’t know why, but I did.

‘But I ain’t gonna get no job playing piano, am I?’ I eyeball Miss Merfield.

‘Well,’ she shrugs. ‘You might be able to. It’s up to you. I mean, I was thinking it’d be easiest to start off with a standard part-time job and then go from there, but if you want to play piano then there are probably opportunities in bars and cafés… we could focus on that and get you up to a high enough standard to perform –’

‘No!’ I yell, thinking back to the time Miss Merfield tried to get me to play in the school concert. It makes me curl up inside, just thinking about it.

‘Look,’ Miss Merfield springs to her feet and squares up to me, her white face hovering in front of mine, waiting for me to catch her eye. ‘You’re smart,’ she says, when I finally do. ‘You’re streetwise. You’re quick to pick things up and you’re… you don’t like to back down. I promise you, you’re exactly what a lot of employers are looking for.’

A blast of air escapes from my mouth. ‘Yeah, right. They’re all looking for a school dropout who’s been on the roads for how long.’

Miss Merfield glares at me, her eyes on fire.

‘That’s enough,’ she says, like she’s proper riled. ‘Stop putting yourself down. And stop feeling sorry for yourself.’

I step backwards into the doorway, scared of Miss Merfield’s tone. It’s the same tone she used on Mr Pritchard that time when I listened through the door. I wasn’t supposed to hear, but she was running her mouth off. Mr Pritchard was telling her how my lessons gotta stop coz the grant ran out, rah rah. Miss Merfield gave him this whole long speech about why I should carry on with piano and how she wasn’t gonna stop teaching me. Mr Pritchard didn’t have no words to fight back. He must’ve lost, coz my lessons carried on. Miss Merfield can be proper firm when she wants to be.

‘I know it feels as though the whole world’s written you off.’ Her eyes stay locked on mine. ‘I know it feels as though everyone around you is saying you’re no good, but I think you are, Alesha. I think you can get yourself a job. All it takes is for one employer to see what you could bring and then you’re on the ladder – you can build on that.’

I nod, too scared to argue back.

‘But you can’t keep talking as if there’s no point. You can’t keep on going through the motions. You’ve got to know you can make it happen.’

I watch Miss Merfield as her eyes narrow and she starts chewing on her lip. When she talks again, it’s like the volume’s been turned down.

‘I failed my grade eight,’ she says, looking at me, her voice all thin and small. ‘I knew I would. I told my teacher there was no point in entering me for it.’

I watch Miss Merfield, suddenly seeing her differently. I never thought about her failing stuff. People like her, they just breeze through life. They find everything easy. I can’t picture Miss Merfield messing up.

‘I was sixteen,’ she says. ‘I’d been through a lot in the previous year and I guess I’d just lost all my confidence. My teacher kept telling me I’d be fine, but the more he said it, the more I knew I wouldn’t be. I just went in knowing I’d fail. And I did.’

I stare back at Miss Merfield, but it’s like staring at a different person. Knowing I’d fail. That’s me, that is. That’s how I feel when I send off my CV and apply for jobs. That’s how I feel the whole time when Miss Merfield tells me to do this stuff. Deep down, I know I’m gonna fail.

‘It took a year for me to get over it,’ she says. ‘If it hadn’t been for Mr Jacobs I probably would have given up, never touched a keyboard again in my life. But he kept encouraging me, kept telling me I was good.’

‘Did you pass?’ I blurt out, coz I need to know how this ends. I think I know, but I need to hear it.

‘I passed with distinction.’ Miss Merfield looks at me, her voice back to full strength, eyes boring into mine. ‘But not because of what Mr Jacobs said. Not directly. I passed because I’d decided I was going to pass. I believed in myself again.’

My head fills with thoughts of Miss Merfield, all young and confused, sitting on a piano stool next to this Mr Jacobs man and thinking rah, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Then I picture her putting her hands on them keys and hammering out scales and arpeggios, up and down, up and down, ’til she knew she was gonna pass. I can see it now.

I take a deep breath, then I head back into the room and snatch up the yellow phone, uncrumpling the list I chucked on the floor. Quickly, before I can change my mind, I punch in the next number on the list.

‘Hi,’ I say to the man in my most poshest voice. ‘My name’s Alesha and I’m calling about the cashier job.’

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