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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23. 23

‘Why d’you never cotch there no more, blud?’

I take a long drag on the spliff, squinting through the smoke at the grey estate. Something flares up inside me and it ain’t nothing to do with the heat in my lungs.

‘I got my reasons.’

JJ grinds his crep into the dried-up earth.

‘You shouldn’t be running scared, you know. People talkin’, you feel me?’

I watch some yat string out a line of grey washing on the top floor of Peregrine. Everything’s grey round here. Even the sky’s grey today.

‘Let them talk,’ I say, like it’s all gravy to me. Inside, I’m tearing up. JJ don’t get it. He ain’t seeing the big picture, coz I ain’t shown him it. It’s true what he says – I am running scared, but not for the reasons he thinks.

‘You had status,’ he says. ‘You should get back into tings.’ He looks at me.

I take a deep breath, looking straight ahead. The yat’s gone inside now, leaving the panties swinging in the breeze. Feels like my body’s filling up with hot gas and if I open my mouth, it’s all gonna come spurting out.

JJ blows out this slow stream of smoke, then passes over what’s left of the spliff.

‘Wayman was asking about you.’

My fingers slip and I nearly drop the burning thing in my lap.

‘What?’ I look him straight in the eye.

JJ frowns, like I’m overreacting – which I am, given what he thinks is the situation. The thing with the debt’s all blown over. JJ’s right, I could get back into that lifestyle. Except it wouldn’t be the lifestyle JJ’s talking about. It wouldn’t just be running packets this way and that. It would be a lifestyle of facing the mandem every day, remembering what they done to me, keeping it all inside me as I feel their eyes on my skin, their fingers touching mine.

‘I told him I ain’t seen you in long,’ says JJ. ‘Just to keep it real, you know.’

I nod, trying to keep my face calm. I ain’t gonna pretend it don’t hurt whenever JJ blanks me in the street or tells the mandem he ain’t tight with me no more. I know he’s just fronting. I know he’s doing it for both our sakes, but that don’t stop it feeling like a knife’s twisting inside me.

‘Wayman says it’s all gonna kick off, y’know.’

‘What?’ I push myself to reply. Truthfully, I don’t wanna know what Wayman says. These last few weeks, it’s been Wayman this, Wayman that – I can’t deal with it. I don’t wanna know. I zone out, force my brain onto other things, block the thoughts from my head.

Some kid busts his way out of Peregrine House, yanking on the lead of some stumpy little dog that looks a bit like Geebie only darker. My mind flips to the time Geebie tugged so hard on his lead it snapped and we had to walk him on bits of string ’til we could nab him a new one.

‘Trial’s in ten days, blud.’

I tune in again, try and work out what JJ’s saying.

‘They’re gonna release the voicemail soon.’

I nod, catching up. He’s talking about Omar – the boy who got slumped by the fedz and then done for assault. My ears prick up. I don’t side with the mandem so much these days, but when it comes to hating on the fedz I’m with them, a hundred percent.

‘You heard it?’ I ask.

‘Wayman has.’

I grind the end of the spliff into the ground, pretending like it’s Wayman’s head.

‘Says it’s waste quality, but good enough. No doubt the fedz was beating on him.’

‘For real?’

‘No doubt, blud. Things is gonna kick off.’

I nod, dragging my knees up to my chin and scratching an A into the ground with a dried-up twig. JJ ain’t the only one talking like this. Everyone’s saying it. There’s hype on the roads and it’s hotting up. You don’t need no recording of the fedz boxing no black boy to know there’s friction between them and us. You can hear the crackle and fizz of cuss words every time the boydem cruise the endz. You can see the hatred in the eyes of the yoots as their pockets get turned inside out, spit hitting the street on the heels of the uniforms. It’s like a storm’s brewing. Even Natallia thinks so, and she’s studying the law.

My thoughts get broken by the sound of phones buzzing – not just mine, but JJ’s too. It’s like they’re playing a duet.

‘It’s Smalls,’ says JJ, getting to his first.

I stare at my screen a few seconds, clocking the urgent look of the words.

U bin down the shack?

‘What’s that about?’ I shoot JJ a screw-face.

He shrugs. ‘Maybe there’s brawling.’

Thoughts spin round my head, my imagination whipping up all sorts of craziness.

What’s up? I type back.

Smalls replies in a flash.

Come down. Bad tings.

I show JJ my screen. A frown flickers across his face.

‘Meaning what, blud?’ I take the phone back, my mind instantly flipping to the last time we went to the Shack and the thing Vinny said about me playing keys on one of Ash’s tracks. Rah, I think to myself. Maybe No Endz is in the building? Maybe that’s what this is about? Maybe he turned up to scope out the studio? But if that’s the situation, why ‘bad tings’?

Maybe he ain’t impressed with Ash’s tracks. Maybe Lazy didn’t recognise him and boxed him at the gates? Maybe it ain’t working out between him and Ash. My thoughts run wild, heading down this road even though I know deep down it could be a million other things.

I told Miss Merfield about No Endz. She got all excited, clapping her hands and telling me to come round and play on her piano whenever I liked, rah rah. I swear, she was buzzing more than I was – and she ain’t even heard of No Endz. Told me I had to go for it, said it could lead to more things, said she’d help me with the music if I needed.

I left one thing out of the story I told Miss Merfield. I left out the bit about Ash not talking to me on account of what happened with his aunt. I know Miss Merfield won’t like the idea of me carrying tools about. She ain’t got no street mentality. After the lecture she done on jobs and benefits, I figured we could skip the one on guns and knives. If I was gonna go for the keyboard thing, I’d have to straighten things out with Ash first.

‘Let’s find out,’ I say, elbowing JJ into action.

JJ ain’t feeling it, I can tell, but there’s spots of rain in the air and after a while, he stops pulling at tufts of dead grass and climbs to his feet.

My phone pings as we’re coming off the estate. I look down, recognising Miss Merfield’s old-school style.

Got some post 4U. Let me know when U want2 collect it.

My throat goes dry. I know what this means. It means I’m getting replies back from my job applications.

‘That Smalls?’ JJ looks down at my phone.

‘Nah, its –’ I turn the screen off, thinking quickly. ‘My roommate.’

I don’t like lying to JJ. Don’t do it unless I have to. But too many conversations have ended badly between us these days on account of the plans I’ve hatched with Miss Merfield.

JJ thinks there ain’t no point in looking for proper jobs. Reckons even if you get one, you make ten times more p’s doing jobs the other side of the law, so what’s the point? Tell the truth, my thoughts keep drifting the same way, but then I think about what Miss Merfield said, how it is in Miss Merfield’s world, drinking tea and talking about jobs and money and things and I start thinking rah, maybe I can do this. That riles JJ, I know it. I can’t be talking about Miss Merfield in front of JJ and I can’t gas about JJ’s ways in front of Miss Merfield. That’s the bottom line. Best thing is to keep them separate.

‘Fam, look.’

There’s something about the way JJ says them two words that makes my head flick up. Then I see it for myself. Outside the gates of the Shack is a mass of people, all swirling and jigging like they been turfed out.

I clock Vinny’s cap right away. He’s got his back to us and he’s waving his arms about like he’s trying to push back the crowds and calm the hype. Ash’s head sticks out above the rest of them and I can see he’s barging his way towards Vinny like he’s wanting to knock him down. I ain’t never seen so much movement round here since it opened.

We’re practically running now and I’m picking out more faces in the crowd. Smalls is there and Lol and Twitch. Ash is fronting with Vinny now. Looks like he’s trying to pin the youth worker against the gates – except there ain’t no gates. Not that you can see. There’s just this big sheet of chipboard instead. There’s cussing in the air, tinies asking questions and banging their skateboards against the wood. Nailed to the board is a white note covered in plastic. You don’t need to read it to know what it says.

‘Closed,’ says Twitch, clocking us and jabbing a thumb at the white printed notice. ‘Indefinitely.’

‘Looks pretty definite to me,’ says Lol, but there ain’t no joking in his eyes.

I check out the padlocks and barbed wire and chains. Even the Young Offenders’ didn’t have this much security.

‘Funding cuts,’ says Smalls, anger spilling out his giant hood.

‘Just like that?’ says JJ.

‘Just like that, blud.’

I’m thinking of stepping forward and rattling around in the metal chains, just to see if I can make something budge, but I’m caught off balance by this tall figure who comes storming past, shoulder-barging me into Smalls and running his mouth off. The voice is smooth and lyrical and loud – louder than I ever heard it, maybe even louder than when he’s spitting through a mic.

‘THEY CAN’T DO THIS, BLUD!’

Vinny yells for Ash to calm down but there’s distance between them now and you can tell Ash ain’t in the mood for calming down.

I exchange looks with JJ. Ain’t never seen Ash push people out the way. I watch him bust his way through the crowds, feeling something drop inside me as he goes. Now I understand the full meaning of the padlocks and tape.

No Shack means no studio and no Vinny and no youth group, which means no collaboration with No Endz. It’s like someone’s reached inside me and scooped out my secret hopes. And that’s just me, who was gonna maybe play keys in one or two tracks. Realistically, I wasn’t even gonna do that.

I follow Ash. I wanna make him know that I’m feeling the same – that I get what it’s like. You feel like boxing someone. You get this tingling inside you, like a million razor blades just escaped into your blood and you’re gonna explode with the pain any minute. There’s so much hate bubbling inside you, you don’t care where it goes. You don’t care if you use it on yourself or on someone else. You just don’t care.

‘Ash!’ I break into a run to keep up with his long striding limbs. Can’t think what I’m gonna say, but I know I need to say something. We ain’t even locked eyes since Deanna kicked me out, but right now it feels like all that is way behind us. I keep going, keep looking up at his stony face.

‘Maybe we can find another studio…?’ I’m trailing him now, panting as I take two strides for every one of his.

Ash keeps moving, his head shaking slow and steady. I can’t match his speed and I know he don’t want me to, so I give up and just stand on the side of the road, breathing hard and watching him disappear.

‘Ain’t gonna happen,’ I hear him growl, as he turns the corner. ‘Ain’t never gonna happen, blud.’

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