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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4. 4

The security guard’s checking me as I pick the garmz off the rack. I feel his eyes on the back of my head like lasers. It’s the same everywhere you go. Shops, cafés, even walking down the street. They clock you like they don’t clock nobody else. They follow you about the store, tracking your movements with suspicious eyes. Way I see it, if they make out I’m up to no good, I might as well get up to no good. I grab two of everything so I got a big pile to dump on the spotty white boy when I leave the changing room.

‘Can I try these on?’ I give the boy a nice smile and he hands me a disc saying 1, which is dumb as it means I only have to give one thing back to him after. That ain’t my plan, though. That amount of thieving would just be madness. Besides, I ain’t in the mood for a proper lift – I’m just killing time before going back for the night. Tremaine’s place ain’t the type of crib you wanna cotch in any more than you have to.

The changing room’s like a cupboard: small and nasty with boxes stacked up on one side and a hook on the door that’s hanging upside down. I lock myself in and get straight on with the job, kicking off my creps and trying the trackies on for size.

There’s only one pair that fits nice round my bum, which is good coz that’s all I got room for. I take out my tool, pop the tag, check for labels and pull up my old McKenzies over the top, feeling fly. I get a buzz out of thieving. It’s my only skill, but it’s a good one to have. JJ reckons I’m good coz I started young. When I was little my mum used to take me round the shops. She used to make an effort with herself back then, so the mandem used to stop and chat her up. I kept myself busy in the pushchair, filling my pockets with stuff from the shelves I could reach. She never said nothing when we got back to the flat and these handfuls of chocolates and crisps would tumble out onto the floor.

I reach up to the loose ceiling tile above my head and chuck the dead tag where it belongs. Then I move onto the tees. I’m done in five minutes – bust my way out the changing room and dump the spares and the disc on the rack.

‘Any good?’ mumbles the kid, which proves he’s dumb, coz I’m already halfway through the shop wearing four of his tees and a pair of trackies. Some people don’t deserve a job. There’s kids I know who can’t get work emptying sanitary bins. But white kids, they ain’t got such a problem. People look at them differently. No one cares that Pizza Face is getting paid to watch people rob his shop.

I head straight for the exit, feeling a shiver run through my body as I step towards the knucklehead on the door. I done this hundreds of times. It should be a breeze, but you can’t take nothing for granted. There’s always this chance you left a tag on, or the rolled-up trackies pop out the bottom, or it turns out the spotty kid can count after all. There’s bare things that can go wrong.

I’m only a few steps away from the scanners, looking straight ahead at the pillars that hold up the shopping centre. The knucklehead’s checking me – I see him even though I ain’t looking his way. My legs feel wobbly, like old springs in a broken mattress. I keep walking; keep heading for the trickle of late-night shoppers. Three steps to go. Two steps. One step.

‘’Scuse me, Miss.’

I ignore it. It’s in my head. My mind plays tricks on me sometimes. I hear the bleep of the alarm, imaginary voices telling me I been nabbed. I keep walking, keep looking at the pillars. My feet take me into the spindly flow of people but my head wants to turn.

‘’Scuse me, Miss!’

I get this jolt through my heart as I realise the voice is for real. The security guard’s hollering at me, his heavy footsteps echoing off the shiny floor.

Keep walking, I tell myself. Lose yourself.

‘Miss!’

The footsteps sound close. They sound like the footsteps of someone who means business. My heart’s beating double time. I got two options: play dumb or split. He’s getting close now. I’m telling my legs to shift it, but they won’t – it’s like I’m stuck in slow mode. I feel a hand on my shoulder.

‘’Scuse me, Miss.’

He comes round the front of me, squints at my eyes. My heart feels like it’s gonna explode in me. Thoughts of JJ’s time in the Young Offenders’ try to creep in my head, but I squeeze them out. I gotta stay calm. Look cool.

‘Yeah?’ I say, flashing the same smile I gived Pizza Face.

He’s panting, the clapped bastard.

‘You dropped these.’

I look down and feel all the fear leak out of me like I’m wetting myself. He’s holding out a bunch of pink knotted wires: my headphones. I let out the gulp of air I been holding, grab the things and disappear.

By the time I hit the exit, my whole body’s shaking. I feel dizzy and high, like I just smoked my way through a Z. I breeze out, taking deep breaths and feeling this mad smile creep up my face at the thought of the brand new threads I got on.

It’s nearly eight o’clock and the light’s fading, but the air’s like steam, pressing down on me and making me sweat. It’s tropical – like Jamaica, I reckon, even though I never been to Jamaica. Ash, one of the boys from the Shack, went to Trench Town with his uncle when he was small – says all he can remember is two things: the heat and the guns. He says London’s getting like Trench Town. He says soon we’ll have schools with different doors for the kids from different streets so they don’t have to walk down other kids’ roads. Maybe we’re getting the heat, too.

My skin’s turning slimy and I must’ve left a label on, coz something’s itching against my neck. When I get to Rye Lane, I stop down the side of the phone shop and peel off the layers, one by one. Just as I’m bundling them up, my phone buzzes. 

WUU2?

It’s JJ.

Aylesham, I type back. WBU?

I grab hold of the label down the back of my neck and tug, waiting for JJ’s reply. He went off this morning to give Geebie away to some kid on the estate and stop by to check on his nan in the place she’s been put, but now it’s night-time and he still ain’t back.

New Cross

I read it before it’s even buzzed, looking at the words and trying to work out where that place is. It’s somewhere in South, but that’s all I know. New Cross. This vexes me. JJ ain’t got no business up New Cross. I guess he’s hanging with a new set now. These last few days, since we moved into the place above the barber’s, JJ’s been rolling tighter with the Crew. The mandem’s been learning what he can do and putting his skills to good use. JJ knows his rims. He can tell what’s under the bonnet of practically any car on the road and he knows what bits is worth what. He knows how to drive, too. There ain’t nobody on the roads who knows his wheels like JJ.

I stare at the phone, thinking about what JJ said to me when he come in last night – or more like this morning. The strips of sunlight was just starting to spread across the little room and he was on a high. He was buzzing.

He says it feels different, even walking down the street. People look at him different, like they got proper respect. He says he knows they ain’t gonna step to him coz of his affiliations. He says he feels safe.

I push the phone back in my pocket, rolling the spare garmz into a ball and using them to wipe the sweat off my forehead. No one feels truly safe. There’s always troubles, issues, things that can happen. That’s why I keep the knife down my sock, just in case. No matter how deep you roll with the Peckham Crew, you can still be unlucky. Look at Reggie Bell.

My skin’s cooled a bit so I carry on walking, feeling my legs slow down as I close in on the barber shop. It’s all bright lights and mirrors and silver swivel chairs and you can hear the reggae pumping through the glass. From here, it don’t look so different from any other salon on Rye Lane. It’s got the same faded posters in the window showing the same tonked black men winking at you with their neat plaits; the same special offers and late-night opening hours. You wouldn’t know that the back rooms was filled with one of the biggest businesses in South. You wouldn’t know that thousands of pounds of food goes in and out that place every day, the Queen’s heads stacking up in the pockets of Tremaine Bell and the mandem. You wouldn’t know the floor of the over-hot store room upstairs was a home for more than a dozen yoots each night, but it is – and I’m thankful it is.

The garmz stay bundled up close to my chest as I step through the door. The man in charge gives me this little nod from his desk and I head through the curtain at the back, knocking on the door that leads upstairs.

There’s a stamping noise, then a jangle, then some cussing, then another jangle and finally the door flies open.

The smell of draw hits me in the face, nearly sending me back through the curtain. The kid with the keys has these glazed eyes that stare at me like he don’t know who I am. Seriously, I don’t think he knows who he is, let alone me. Crow, that’s what they call him. Now I see why.

‘Yeah…?’ His ’fro looks like a giant mushroom on top of his head and he’s got this wisp of black fuzz on his lip that looks like it blew there from the floor of the barber’s.

‘I’m cotching here, blud.’ I push past.

He practically falls away from the door and I climb up the creaky stairs that feel like they’re gonna rot away under my feet. The smoke’s even worse upstairs and I can’t hardly see my way to the corner where me and JJ left our stuff. It don’t help that the window’s been boarded up, so all we got for light is this one little bulb hanging from the ceiling, which just shows up the dubz and the old scrap of carpet that ain’t quite big enough to stretch across the whole floor.

Crow falls his way up the stairs and rolls over to where some other kid’s puffing away against the wall. There’s a whispering coming from nearby and through the smoke I can just make out the boobs and legs of a bunch of skets. I know they’re skets, even though I can’t see their faces. They’re sitting by the boarded-up window, doing something with their hair. That’s what they do. They get all dolled up, hair and nails and underwear, then they drop their knickers for the first man to come along. Most of them do it for p’s. Some of them think they’re gonna hook a gangsta and get all the latest threads and ice and champagne on tap. Some do it to get knocked up.

Sometimes I think rah, maybe my mum was one of them – maybe that’s why I ain’t never met my dad. Maybe she was one of them skets who got herself knocked up on purpose to escape from the life she was in. That’s why they do it. It ain’t just to get housing or benefits, like they say on TV. It ain’t greediness. They do it coz they wanna escape. They think they’ll get love off a baby like they ain’t gonna get off no one else and that’s gonna make their lives better. They don’t think about the crying or feeding or red-faced tantrums – they just think about the love and the new life they’re gonna have. It ain’t just for the p’s.

The thought of p’s makes me tense up inside. I’ve only got a tenner left from my share of the iPad we robbed last week. My belly’s growling at me; I ain’t had nothing to eat all day. Part of me wants to run back outside and spend the whole lot on popcorn chicken and fries and beans, but I know I gotta crush that idea. I feel around in the dark ’til I hear the crackle of plastic. Ginger nuts.

Suddenly I’m shivering. Maybe it’s the sweat on my skin or the weed in the air or the money thing in my head, but it feels like I’m sitting in the middle of this freezing black cloud and there ain’t no way out. I can’t get warm. I rub my arms and hug my body as I the biscuit crumbles in my mouth, but I can’t stop the shaking. I put one more layer on, then another. Slowly I feel the blood coming back. As I do, I hear this creaking on the stairs and I feel myself freezing up again – only this time it ain’t from the cold.

It’s slow, heavy footsteps. Must be someone with a key, too, coz whoever it is didn’t knock… he just come right up.

I squint at the hatch, where this shape’s appearing in the smoke. I can’t see details – only the size of his shoulders. Big shoulders.

‘Whaya smoke?’ He sniffs the air like he ain’t impressed.

Nobody says nothing. I sit proper still, waiting for someone to reply. It’s the tonked yardie they use to guard doors and that – the one with the scar down his neck. Masher, they call him. I don’t hardly know nothing about him, but I know enough to keep my mouth shut and not mess about.

‘I need somebody t’drop supm f’me.’

There’s more silence, then there’s this clonking noise, like someone’s dropped a big bag of potatoes all over the floor. I squint into the haziness and see it’s Crow. He’s conked right out. The other kid starts pissing himself, moaning and groaning like he ain’t never seen nothing so funny in all his life.

‘Ona na ‘ear mi?’ growls Masher. ‘Mi say mi’ad supm t’drop. Mi looka fifty pound for d’job, yeah?’

The kid stops rolling around – guess he’s worked out from the yardie’s voice that this ain’t no laughing matter. At least, that’s how it seems, but seconds later he’s off again. It’s like the rest of us is missing the joke.

I ain’t thinking about jokes. I’m thinking about the fifty and the things I could be doing with it. Masher’s standing at the top of the stairs, breathing deep like he’s about to land a fist in the first face he sees.

‘I’ll do it,’ I say quickly. The way I see it, Masher’s rage is brewing and the longer I leave it, the more angered he’s gonna be. Plus, there’s fifty in it for me and right now I need all the p’s I can get.

The floor creaks as he leans in my direction. I can see him looking over at me, then at the skets, then me again. I know what he’s thinking. Ain’t she with them? I sit up straight and stare back at him, making it clear I ain’t no jezzie. Truth is, he’s seen me bare times before, but he don’t remember. People like Masher, they don’t need to remember people like me.

‘Whoya gun carry ma tings?’ he asks, all slow and suspicious.

‘I got wheels,’ I say, thinking on my feet and hoping JJ’s left the bike in the usual place.

There’s this long gap that feels like it lasts ten minutes. The air’s starting to blow clear and I see his eyes, all beady and black, looking at me. He’s studying me, I feel it – working out if he can trust me.

‘Whaya nem?’ 

‘Alesha.’

He nods. ‘Come dis way, mi give you da tings, yeah?’

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