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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3. 3

‘You sure we gonna get in?’

JJ carries on walking. ‘I’m sure.’

‘How you sure?’

‘I know people.’

‘What people?’ I’m practically running to keep up. It ain’t easy, what with the high heels and the bling round my neck going jingle-jangle with every step.

‘Just people, alright?’

I ain’t gonna say no more. JJ affiliates with half the Peckham Crew, I ain’t got no doubts he knows people. Like me, JJ’s got connects – people he knows from the roads and that. I was just asking what people. It ain’t my style to turn up at a party without knowing who got me in. And this ain’t no average party. It’s a party for Tremaine Bell, the leader of the biggest gang in South. They’re holding a shubz in celebration of him getting out. There’s gonna be some names up Peregrine House tonight.

Peregrine House is a tower block, like all the other houses on Kestrel Estate. There’s three – Peregrine House, Falcon House and Merlin House. They all look exactly the same, like they’re made of giant grey Lego bricks that turn black at the bottom, with this mess of dubz all over the garage walls. The only difference is the types that hang there. Merlin House is mainly fast-talking white boys in boosted cars with blacked-out windows and gangsta rap blaring. Peregrine’s for yardies – the likes of Tremaine and the rest of the Crew. Falcon House is no-man’s land. It’s the one that’s closest to Peckham Road, so it gets used as a shortcut for all types – problem being, they got road works going on all summer, so the exit’s boarded up. That’s how Reggie Bell got killed. He got caught down a dead end with nowhere to run.

‘Wait up, blud,’ I call out. JJ’s leaving me behind.

He stops and turns round, barely looking at me as I catch up. Something ain’t right – I feel it. JJ never snubs me like that. I wanna ask what’s up, but I know this boy. He ain’t the type to just say it.

‘Rah, gonna be the whole crew there tonight.’ That’s my way of asking.

He don’t reply.

‘Gonna be big, man. What’s the chances we get a visit from SE5?’

JJ just shrugs. I ain’t getting nowhere.

‘Could get serious, fam. Reckon we should’ve got tooled up, you feel me?’

Nothing. It’s starting to piss me off now.

‘Reckon we should go back and get some? I got this vibe, you know? Like something’s gonna kick off?’

‘Alesha, allow it!’

I stop, practically falling off the pavement. His voice scares me. It ain’t like a voice I ever heard before – not on JJ. That’s the voice of an angry man. He ain’t never talked to me like that, not in my whole life.

I keep walking, but this time I don’t keep up – I leave a distance between us on purpose, getting slower and slower as we head for the shadows of Kestrel Estate. I got this sick feeling inside me, like I been poisoned. I ain’t feeling this party no more. Something ain’t right. The words of my old social worker pop into my head and I can’t push them out. That boy’s too together. One of these days he’s gonna explode – and you don’t wanna be there when he does.

I never believed her. Never believed nothing them social workers said. They didn’t know JJ. All they knew was what they heard off other social workers. JJ had this rep as a thief and a bad boy, which was well-deserved, but that don’t make him dangerous. This ain’t no explosion, anyway, but it makes me think. Something’s up. I don’t know what, but something ain’t right with JJ tonight.

I catch up with him on the stairs. He’s stamping his way up like he’s trying to punch a hole through every one of them concrete steps. I just follow on behind, thinking maybe I’ll ask him when we get to the top.

Turns out I don’t get to ask him no questions, coz at the top of the stairs is this scrawny ginger yoot dressed head to toe in Nike.

‘Ite?’ says Twitch, slotting in with us like he knew we was coming.

JJ don’t even look up – just heads off along the walkway that leads to 204.

I follow the sound of the beat, too angry inside to say hi.

‘’Sup, Alesha? You goin’ the drink-up?’

I shoot him a look for his dumb question. ‘Nah, blud. I’m up here for the views.’

Twitch just nods and falls in step like everything’s cool. There’s a giant yardie on the door of 204, all patterned hair, gold chains and this massive scar running down his neck. His arms don’t hardly fold across his chest for all the muscles.

‘Say, whaya bring?’

I pull out my Smirnoff. JJ must be already inside. I guess his rep was enough to get him in.

The man pockets my bottle and then stoops down, looking straight at Twitch, who’s jigging from side to side next to me.

That’s when I see what’s going on. Twitch ain’t got nothing to bring, so he’s using me to get into the party. I ain’t cool with that. I ain’t cool with that at all.

The yardie don’t move. He just keeps on staring at Twitch until finally the boy starts digging around in his pocket and brings out this battered old phone. It’s an iPhone, but it ain’t the latest model and the screen’s all cracked, held together with tape.

The yardie takes the piece of junk, squinting and turning it over in his hand, slowly, so we get a good view of the Crew tat that runs all the way up his stacked arm. I can tell he ain’t impressed.

‘I’m with her,’ Twitch shrugs, like he don’t care what the yardie’s gonna do to him, which ain’t the case, I know it. This is big man territory.

The yardie swings round to stare at me, his eyes dark and suspicious. He’s so close I can hear the air coming and going through his nose.

‘Him come wid yuh?’ he snarls.

I’m pissed off with Twitch. I don’t like being used as a free entry ticket – especially when he don’t even ask me up-front. True, Twitch don’t have the easiest life, just like the rest of us. But that don’t make it OK to use your bredrin to blag your way through doors.

I look away from the yardie’s face, staring through the gold chains at the scar on his neck. It’s thick and ugly, like a snake that’s buried itself under his skin. I can’t stop myself thinking, rah, if that’s what he come away with, what’s left of the other man? What sort of lickings does this yardie get into? I ain’t pissed enough with Twitch to let him find out.

‘Yeah, he’s with me.’

Long seconds later, we’re in the flat. I look around, clocking familiar faces straight away. Grindsman, a boy I know from the roads, is on the decks, wearing white sunglasses even though it’s close to dark in here and the air’s thick with smoke. In the kitchen by the bottles of spirits I clock Squeak, another boy I count as close, and scattered about is elders JJ knows from the Crew. On the settee, surrounded by jezzies in push-up bras, is this tonked yardie who looks like one of them bodybuilders on the TV. I know who it is, but he don’t know me. Even after how many years I recognise Tremaine Bell’s crooked nose and mean-looking eyes.

No sign of JJ. Whatever, I think to myself. He can take his beef someplace else. I got my own to be dealing with.

‘Wasteman!’ I yell in Twitch’s ear. The beat’s so loud I can’t hardly hear my own voice.

‘Appreciate that,’ he yells back, ignoring my tone. He’s already looking around, scanning the place like he’s looking for things he can thieve.

‘I don’t like being taken for a ride.’

He looks up at me from under his cap and nods, all solemn for about a second before he gets back to jigging.

This jars me some more, but I ain’t got the energy to push it. Thing is with Twitch, you know you ain’t gonna get nothing back from him as he ain’t got nothing to give. And you ain’t gonna teach him a lesson coz he already knows all the lessons – he just don’t apply them to himself.

‘Get me a drink,’ I snap, watching him bounce off, his knees working double time inside the baggy jeans. His story ain’t all that different to JJ’s, what with the crackhead mum and foster homes and care and that. He’s been living on floors since he was ten. But they turned out different, JJ and Twitch. JJ’s got a rep as a thief, but the way he plays it, that’s a skill. Twitch thieves too – but in a bad way. He’s known as a boy who takes anything from anyone, even fam. JJ hangs out with the big men and busts the latest threads, wearing this look on his face the whole time like he’s cool as ice. Twitch just looks like he’s gonna piss his pants.

The music’s so loud it’s hurting my ears, so I move to the concrete ledge that’s stuck to the side of the flat. There’s bare people out here – enough to bring down the whole thing, I reckon, but right now I’m too hyped to care if it does. I’m angry at Twitch, but mainly I’m angry at JJ. He ain’t got no right to talk to me like that. He snubbed me, back there. If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t care, but this is JJ. This is fam.

I squeeze through the doors just as half the mandem come barging through the other way, all swagger and big talk. It riles me some more the way they look through me, but I ain’t gonna mouth off at the mandem. Anyway, I get it. I’m invisible in these parts. I ain’t one of the boys, but I ain’t one of the girls neither, coz I don’t do the whole high heels and hot pants thing. Makeup, yes. Nice gold hoops, yes. Tight plastic top and thong showing? Nah. I hate them jezzie types. The girl two doors down from my mum, name of Shakira, was a jezzie. She didn’t get no respect. Didn’t care who did what to her, that girl. Seriously, I’d rather have a rep as a brawler than a rep as a sket.

‘Oi!’ Someone bundles past me, following the boys back inside. ‘Oi, watch y’self, blud.’

I stumble back against the grey bricks, making way for whatever’s kicking off inside. The mandem’s turned round and they’re squaring up to the one who’s stepping to them. My heart picks up speed. He’s got his back to me, but I know them shoulders. I know the shape of them cornrows.

‘What?’ The biggest of the group gives JJ this slow, meaningful look and I get this hollowed-out feeling inside me. He’s dressed in black and he’s got these little marks shaved into his eyebrow. I know that man. It’s Kingsley Wright – the one who led the mandem through Kestrel Estate and got Reggie Bell killed.

JJ just stands there, don’t seem to care who he’s talking to. ‘You just disrespected the girl.’ He jabs his thumb over his shoulder at me.

I freeze up. There’s six of them and one of him and this Kingsley man’s got a rep as a dangerous type.

‘Comes, then.’ Kingsley straightens up and steps to JJ.

I shrink back into the shadows, not wanting to see what happens. I seen it too many times.

‘Apologise.’

‘Yeah blud, for what?’ Kingsley’s got a mad glint in his eye. I’m shaking now. Don’t know what to do. I want JJ to stop but I know there ain’t no point in me getting involved.

‘For your attitude.’

‘Jokes, bruv.’ Kingsley laughs. His boys give each other side-smirks like JJ’s said something dumb.

JJ don’t move. I watch him from behind; see his shoulders lift as he puffs himself up. I feel my stomach dissolve inside of me. I know what happens next. This is gonna get messy and the way the numbers is stacked, I know where most of the mess is gonna be.

Then something happens. JJ drops his shoulders and pushes past Kingsley, storming off into the shubz. The boys just stand there for a bit. Clearly they ain’t never seen this before. By the time they work out what’s going on, JJ’s ghosted.

I scoot through the bodies, following the path I saw JJ take and guessing the rest. I find him charging down the walkway outside the flat, heading for the stairs we just come up.

‘JJ?’ My heart’s still pounding. ‘JJ!’

I overtake him on the walkway and stop dead, trapping him between me and the yardie on the door. Ain’t no one else around, so I guess the mandem ain’t got no interest in following up.

‘You gonna tell me what this is about?’

He shrugs, leans back on the railing and looks at the floor.

I let out this massive sigh – relief from the lucky escape, mixed with rage at the way he’s behaving. I ain’t gonna beg. I’m gonna wait for him to talk.

He ain’t talking.

Minute later, he still ain’t talking. I’m watching him. He’s still looking at the concrete, leaning back on the rusty rail. As I watch, he pushes himself off and takes this deep breath. He side-steps me and launches himself at the wall opposite, punching it hard with his fist.

There’s a thud and a cracking noise, then JJ bends double, rubbing his knuckle. It’s bleeding. Probably broken.

‘JJ!’ I push my way over, force my face up against his so he has to look at me. ‘What’s going on?’

‘We’re screwed,’ he says, wrapping his broken hand in his other one.

‘What?’

‘We’re screwed.’

‘Screwed how?’

‘They’re putting my nan in care.’

I feel something drop inside me.

‘They did an assessment,’ he carries on. ‘Say she ain’t fit to live on her own.’

‘She don’t live on her own,’ I blurt. ‘She’s got us.’

‘She ain’t got us,’ JJ says, staring at me.

I open my mouth to argue, then shut it again, working out what he means. A coldness creeps into my belly. Housing don’t know we’re there. I don’t say nothing, just reach in my pocket for a tissue and start mopping up the worst of the blood on JJ’s hand. Feels like I’m the one who’s been punched.

Things have been good this last year. It’s been cosy in the flat with me and JJ and his nan. Sometimes too cosy, but we made it work. It was our only option. Now we’re homeless. We’re street rats, like Twitch and the rest. Like JJ said, we’re screwed.

‘Leave it.’ JJ shakes his head, chucking the tissues on the floor. It’s gotta hurt with all that blood, but he’s pretending it’s fine. He’s like that with everything – fronts it so no one can see how he feels. I know, though. I know. It ain’t just the idea of being homeless that’s troubling him, neither. It’s nan. It’s the thought of them taking her away. No matter how mad or troublesome that woman can be, she’s still his nan. He don’t want them to take her away.

‘What we gonna do?’ I ask.

He shrugs. ‘I dunno.’

We stay like that for a bit, me looking at him, him looking at the bloodied tissues all over the floor. After a while, his head lifts up.

‘Your mum’s…?’ He says it so deep and quiet I don’t hardly hear it.

I look at him, trying to work out whether I got it wrong. Did he just say that? I can’t hardly believe he did. This image slides into my head: her crumpled body all black with bruising, like an old banana that’s been kicked about on the floor for a week. Eyes closed up, lips burst open, an empty bottle of vodka lying by her side. I look about me, at the wall, the inky sky – anything, just to put the images out of my head. I stare at JJ, angry at him for even saying the words.

‘That ain’t an option.’ I give him a look that says end of.

I breathe out, trying to bury the thoughts somewhere deep in my head but they keep bubbling up, like water that won’t go down the plughole. I hate that flat. I hate the whole estate, even though the estate’s where me and JJ spent how many years, crawling and running and playing with stolen balls in that little concrete yard. I hate that whole place coz of what used to happen when the sun went down and I had to go back to that nasty little flat.

JJ looks like he’s about to say something, but he don’t get the chance coz something comes cartwheeling down the walkway towards us, bouncing off the walls, arms and legs sticking out in all directions. We step back. The figure rolls past, blood leaking from his head, a groaning noise coming out of his mouth. I look closer as he crawls to the stairs. Black batties, black hoodie.

‘…man’s gonna cut you up,’ comes this deep, booming voice from the doorway of 204.

Me and JJ swivel. The yardie’s still there, muscles bulging, arms crossed. But it ain’t his voice that’s echoing off the concrete. It ain’t him who’s dusting off his hands like he’s just bruised every piece of flesh on Kingsley’s body. It’s the man with the crooked nose and mean eyes, his head covered by a neat black doo-rag. It’s Tremaine.

The groaning noise fades into the distance as Kingsley limps his way down the steps behind us. My eyes stay locked on Tremaine and I feel myself tense up. He’s looking at us, all slow and careful, gold tooth winking out from the side of his mouth. 

‘It’s you,’ he says, in this voice that’s seriously deep. I guess he must be twenty or something now. He takes a step forward, into the dim light of the walkway, and I see his eyes is fixed on JJ. 

I glance sideways. JJ’s face is like stone. He’s looking back at Tremaine with zero expression. This is what JJ does best, I remember. He stays cool in situations.

‘It’s you who stepped to my man.’ Tremaine comes along the walkway, eyeballing us like we’re lumps of dog shit.

JJ nods, once. I’m getting nervous. The likes of Tremaine Bell don’t like nobody stepping to his boys, even if it was the paigon that just got chucked out.

As he gets close, he holds out his hand for a low four.

‘Respect.’

My body relaxes. JJ just holds his expression, returns the low four, don’t say a thing.

‘So you know,’ says Tremaine, his mean black eyes not leaving JJ’s. ‘That sideman ain’t one of the Crew no more.’

JJ does a small nod. This is why he reps the endz. He knows how to handle himself.

Tremaine straightens up and looks at me, like he’s only just clocked me. Then he laughs. It’s a mean laugh – the type that makes you freeze up inside.

‘What’s this?’ His eyes flick to JJ’s, just quickly. ‘Man’s doing his own private business?’

‘Nah, blud.’ JJ comes over all casual. ‘Just getting some air.’

Tremaine moves closer, smiling, but it ain’t like no smile I seen before. His eyes could burn holes in your skin, they’re so sharp.

‘Don’t look like air from here,’ he says, eyes flicking down to the pile of bloodied tissues then up again. Now he’s looking at me. One eyebrow lifts up in this nasty way.

I stumble backwards. My heel hits the back of the railings. I’m telling myself to stay calm and keep cool, like JJ, but I can’t coz Tremaine Bell is staring at me, waiting for an answer, and my head’s filling up with pictures of wire-clippers and blades and scalpels and –

‘We been kicked out,’ I say, coz the heat of his stare is too much and it feels like my head’s gonna explode. JJ won’t like me shooting my mouth off about our situation, but I didn’t know what else to say. And anyway, maybe I done us a favour. Maybe we can get lucky, like this boy Lol knows from the roads, name of Push, who moved into this place above a barber shop on Rye Lane that’s run by the Crew. He got a place to cotch and bare cash, just for doing favours for the elders and running deliveries round town.

Tremaine’s doing this thing where only one half of his mouth lifts up. His eyes slide sideways to JJ, then back to me. Then he starts nodding, slowly.

‘I got a crib for you,’ he says, like he’s making plans in his head. I can’t swallow. I just keep staring back at him. ‘Cotch there for free, yeah? Just do the odd job for the mandem.’

My head spins round to look at JJ – I can’t help it. This is the answer to all our problems. Word is, you can make a bag a week off the elders. Ain’t no jobs that pay that kind of sterling – no jobs at all for fifteen-year-olds with no address and no qualifications. And as for protection, it don’t get much better than cotching with the Crew that’s got the endz on lock. That’s what I’m thinking, but I ain’t gonna mess things up more by opening my mouth and blurting it.

I’m still looking at JJ, feeling Tremaine’s eyes dancing between us. After a long time, JJ starts to nod.

‘Safe.’ He’s playing it cool. ‘We’ll think on it.’

Tremaine smiles, with his whole face this time, the gold tooth glinting. ‘Be sharp, yeah? Man’s got tings runnin’.’

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