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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24. 24

I seen her through the window before she clocks me. Her head’s bowed low so all I can see is this fountain of yellow hair and these pale skinny fingers wrapped round a mug of tea. I know it’s her, though. I can tell by the safety pins all the way up her top.

‘Can I help you?’ The waitress is already on me, blinking through suspicious eyes as I push through the door.

‘I doubt it.’ I bust my way past her, thinking rah, you don’t wanna help me – you just want me out of your café. That’s what it’s like in these endz, I can tell.

Miss Merfield’s head flicks up like it’s on a spring and her face melts into a smile.

 ‘D’you want a drink?’ she says in a tone that’s over-bright. My mood grinds lower. I can’t be doing with lightness and smiles right now. These last few days it’s been bad news after bad news and it feels like I’ve run out of energy. First the Shack got shut down, then someone broke into our room and bust the microwave trying to yank it off the wall, and then this morning JJ stopped by the hostel to look for a place to hide the piece he’s holding for Wayman.

The woman’s hovering, so I ask for a Coke; no please or thank you. Ever since I walked in, she been watching me like I’m about to launch myself at her cash register. I wanna say to her rah, you look at all your customers like this? You give them all squinty eyes like you’re giving me?

‘How’re your teeth?’ Miss Merfield bobs her head around like she’s a fly trying to get in my mouth.

I peel back my lips and flash my gums.

‘Well, they look –’

I clamp my mouth shut.

‘Oh.’ Miss Merfield waggles her eyebrows like she’s been snubbed. ‘OK.’

I stare at the table. I don’t mean to rile her. If I was feeling it, I’d tell Miss Merfield how my teeth was all smooth and how they ain’t giving me no troubles no more. I been cleaning them most nights and Natallia keeps making me wash my mouth with the pink stuff even though I don’t like the taste. I know I should say all this stuff to Miss Merfield, but I can’t seem to push out the words.

‘They’re fine,’ I say under my breath.

The waitress comes over and starts pouring my Coke into a glass. Don’t ask me why but that pisses me off, so I tell her to stop. She struts off and I swear she does this little snarl as I lift up the can to my lips.

‘That won’t help, you know.’ Miss Merfield gives me a nod.

‘Uh?’

‘The Coke.’ She pulls a face like she knows I ain’t gonna like what she’s saying. ‘Sugary drinks – they rot your teeth.’

I freeze, feeling the Coke fizz and pop in my mouth, tingling on my tongue, just how I like it. That ain’t true about it rotting your teeth. It can’t be. I never heard that before.

Miss Merfield eyes me as I swallow my mouthful. It tastes bitter and sharp in my throat.

‘You alright?’ she says.

I nod, pushing away the can of Coke and sinking down in the fancy wood chair.

‘I’m cool,’ I lie. ‘Everything’s cool.’

Miss Merfield leans forward and I can tell she’s waiting for me to look up. My head’s all heavy but I heave it up, slowly.

‘What happened about the keyboard thing?’ she says. ‘Did you –’

‘No,’ I reply loudly, feeling a fresh wave of rage swell inside me. ‘They shut everything down.’

Miss Merfield don’t get it, so I explain about the Shack and the studio and the collaboration. Ash was right. Turns out, with the studio and youth group gone, there ain’t nothing to link to No Endz. The collaboration ain’t gonna happen. Word is, Vinny got offered another job with the council – some new youth scheme on the other side of town.

Miss Merfield comes out with all these words, like shocking and terrible and the like, but I just shrug. Fact is, no amount of words can change what’s happened. What’s done is done. Just gotta move on. Besides, my attention’s already flipped to the envelopes sitting on the table between us.

‘Oh – sorry. Here.’ Miss Merfield shifts her mug to one side and hands me them. They feel all thin between my fingers, like there ain’t much inside. ‘One more came in the post this morning,’ she says, nerves showing in her voice.

She starts jabbering about how these ain’t the only options, how there’s plenty more still to come, how there’s always jobs coming up, rah rah… I zone out, flipping through the envelopes and taking in the look of my typed-up name on the front of each one.

I don’t wanna open them. I just wanna keep feeling the paper in my hands, looking at my name and thinking maybe. Maybe is better than no, and you gotta be realistic, like Miss Merfield says. Even Ash couldn’t get himself a job and he’s got bare qualifications. Honest to God, I know what these letters say inside them – there’s only one thing they can say. But keeping them sealed, it feels like I could be in with a shot.

‘…but the important thing is to keep trying.’

I look at Miss Merfield and realise she’s been giving me the same talking-to as I been giving myself in my head. I tear into the first one.

As I pull out the page and feel its flimsy edges in my fingers, my brain flips to what Miss Merfield said to me the week before. You’re smart. You’re good. The words ping around my head, making me think rah, maybe this is it. Maybe I can do this thing after all. I unfold the sheet, clocking the logo and company name, then scanning down and slowly picking out words, feeling something drop inside me.

Regretinformunable… My eyes flick to Miss Merfield’s and I shake my head, reaching for the next one. It’s another rejection. The third one feels wrong in my hands and I can tell it’s a no even before I’ve opened it. They ain’t even bothered to write two lines of words. I feel like not even opening the fourth one.

Miss Merfield’s watching me. I can feel her eyes on my face as I slowly push my finger into the fold. It’s thicker paper. That’s the first thing I notice. Then my heart does a little jump as I see there’s bare words on the page – more than on all the others put together. Then I see the words. Oversubscribed. My mood spirals in a downward direction.

‘I told you,’ I say, shoving the pile of torn-up paper in Miss Merfield’s direction.

She frowns, her hand diving for the letter on top.

‘I told you there ain’t no jobs.’ I kick the table leg hard, making the Coke can jump on the spot. My heart’s pounding, the pressure building up inside me.

‘This one…’

Oversubscribed,’ I say, like Miss Merfield’s retarded.

‘But it says there are apprenticeships.’

‘What?’ I stay put, eyeing the letter suspiciously.

‘They’re unpaid, by the looks of things, but you never know what –’

‘Unpaid?’ I pull my ugliest screw-face. ‘Ain’t a job, then, is it?’

‘Well, it gives you experience, so you can –’

‘Yeah? And what am I supposed to live off, while I’m getting experience?’ I look at Miss Merfield, eyes as wide as they go. This is the thing about her types. This is what makes me mad. They got all the answers for the long term, but they forget about now. It’s just like the politicians on the TV. They don’t talk about jobs, they talk about careers. They can tell you how much you’ll be earning in three years’ time, what you should be doing, rah, rah, but when it comes to how to get through the next three days, they ain’t got no clue.

I look at Miss Merfield, my eyes travelling down her white top with its frills and tassels and safety pins, down to the leather belt round her waist. It’s like she’s trying to make out she don’t have no p’s the way she dresses. Well, I know that ain’t true.

‘It’s alright for you,’ I say through gritted teeth. ‘You got money and housing and qualifications.’ I think back to the place with the wood floors and shiny piano. ‘You got rich friends. You got a daddy who gives you pianos and p’s on tap.’

‘Actually, I –’

‘Well try being me for a change!’ I cut her off, jumping to my feet and kicking back my chair. ‘I ain’t never even met my dad. I ain’t got no nothing on tap.’

I fling myself through the door, shooting daggers at the waitress as I bust my way onto the tree-lined streets.

My eyes stay trained on the ground as I go, thoughts spinning round my head. Apprenticeship. Like that’s gonna help. Keep trying. For how long? How long should I go without food? JJ’s right about this after all. I must’ve been crazy to believe some middle-class woman over JJ. I gotta make my own p’s. I ain’t working for zero cash when I can make good sterling on the roads.

A cloud rolls in front of the sun and a breeze picks up, whipping an old plastic bag into the air. I’m back in my endz. There’s soggy cardboard under my feet – some tramp’s bed pushed out of the doorway of KFC. I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with grimy air as I turn off towards the hostel.

There’s something different about the place. I feel it as I head up the steps and key in the code. It’s only when I’m closing the door, scrunching my eyes shut to force them to work in the dark, that I work out what it is.

‘Coupla rocks?’ comes this voice out of nowhere. It’s a weak voice – pathetic and small. The voice of a crackhead.

My eyes adjust and I take in the jagged shoulders and greasy hair. That’s when I work out what’s different. Mikaela ain’t hanging around. Usually, she’s standing on watch by the door, big shoulders hanging in the shadows, waiting for her cats to come crawling. Her post’s deserted. I don’t know where she’s gone, but she ain’t around. And if she ain’t around, I think to myself, then that’s an opportunity for me.

I know how shotting works. How hard can it be to stand around with a few pebbles under your tongue, ready to spit them out to crackheads or swallow them if the fedz come by? I picture Pops’ pad, his boys on the door, his twinkly smile, the line of youngers messing about on the settee. He don’t know me as a shotter, but he trusts me. Maybe he trusts me enough to sell me small amounts of food. Maybe then I can grow my line. Crackheads ain’t loyal. They go wherever they get the best rock. If Pops’ stuff is purer than whatever Mikaela’s dishing out, then all I need to do is convert this skinny cat and she’ll tell the others. I got myself a ready-made business standing right in front of me.

‘Yeah,’ I say to the skeleton. ‘I can do that.’

I nearly laugh to myself as I head back onto the street, making a beeline for Kabul. Half an hour ago I was being told to take on a job that paid zero p’s for how many hours. Now I’m looking at raking in two bill a day. I must’ve been out of my mind.

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