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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5. 5

‘Then some snake calls the fedz and they come down with the vans and that, cut off all the roads and Omar gets nabbed.’ Twitch rocks on his pedals, wobbles a bit, then makes a grab for the concrete table. ‘Word is, he got done for assault.’

‘Assault?’ The tinies crowd round.

‘Yeah.’ Twitch nods, spinning the pedals like it’s some kind of drum roll. ‘Of a police officer.’

The little ones make these noises like they’re impressed. They believe anything, they do. You could tell them shaved heads was the latest thing and there’d be all these kids with shiny little heads, angry mums chasing them round the roads.

Ash is eyeballing Twitch. ‘Assaulting the boydem?’

Twitch nods again. When Twitch nods, it ain’t like one of the slow, meaningful nods like what the yardies do – it’s frantic, all happening inside his hood so you can’t see the look on his face.

Ash side-eyes him like he don’t believe a word. He ain’t the type to stand for no bullshit. He’s a few years older: tall, groomed and smart. He got eight GCSEs. Vinny says he could’ve gone to university, but he ain’t got the sterling for A-levels so he’s sticking round here. Sees himself as the next big thing in grime. I’ve heard his beats – he plays them in the studio. I reckon he could make it. If anyone’s gonna get out of these endz, it’s Ash.

I ain’t saying nothing about the Omar Cox thing. There’s word buzzing round the barber’s, but everyone’s saying different things and you don’t know who to believe. Anyway, I ain’t got time to be sitting round gassing when I’m there – I’m too busy earning p’s.

Two hundred and fifty in less than three days. That’s what I made. I’m swimming in p’s and it’s easy money, too. Just peddling around the roads, dropping off packets and picking up coils of notes. Pick up, drop off. Fifty quid. Pick up, drop off. Another fifty. I know half the faces around the roads, too – boys like Benji and Pepper who used to run around with us kicking balls at Mrs Adeyemi’s window and older types I know from the estate. There’s risks, I know, but not big risks for someone like me. The boydem sees a girl peddling her way through Peckham – what they gonna do? Arrest me? Anyway, I’m quick on a bike. I ain’t gonna get nabbed.

Ash leans back on the concrete, watching as Lol takes over the questioning. Even just looking at Lol makes you laugh. He’s short and scruffy and wears these over-big glasses with thick black frames. He don’t take nothing in life too seriously.

‘What type of assault was it? Sexual? Sick! Omar Cox is a battyboy – I knew it!’

Twitch looks vexed that his story ain’t being taken seriously.

‘He was busting a niner, they say. He got –’

‘Omar was?’ Ash steps forward again, eyes narrowed.

‘Yeah,’ says Twitch in this wavering voice. ‘They searched him and found the ting and that’s why he got hyped and moved to them.’

Ash eyes Twitch suspiciously, same as me. Omar Cox ain’t the type to carry a piece and get hyped. He’s one of them cool, smooth-moving DJ types who stays on the right side of the law. It’s true that he’s tight with the Crew, but only coz he’s been linking with Tremaine’s sister, Sharise, for longs. I can’t see him busting a niner.

Ash looks like he’s got more questions inside him, but before he can get them out there’s stirring in the group.

‘There weren’t no ting,’ says JJ, coolly breaking the circle and shaking his head at Twitch.

I feel myself grinning inside as all eyes swivel to JJ. He was there, in the action, not like Twitch. Twitch is just making up stories.

‘What d’he go down for, then?’ Twitch squares up to JJ like he don’t wanna back down.

‘Verbal assault.’

Everyone goes quiet – even Twitch. We all know what that means. Verbal assault is like the deadliest crime. It’s deadly coz they can pin it on you, no matter what. Ain’t no need for evidence to nab you for verbal. No stolen goods, no bag of food, no bruises or blood; just the words that come out your mouth – or the words they say come out your mouth. No one knows what Omar said to the fedz. What he said don’t hardly come into it.

‘Shit, blud.’ Twitch is the first to speak. ‘That’s bad.’

‘Well…’ JJ catches my eye and I’m surprised to see his lips curling into a tiny smile. ‘If they press charges, they might be in for a little surprise.’

Confused looks fill all our faces. I tuck in tight, waiting for the explanation, but just as JJ opens his mouth there’s this sound of raised voices from the gates. Something’s kicking off.

The whole lot of us turn and stare. Lazy’s there with his back to us, moving all slow and steady like he does, trying to block someone from coming in. It happens all the time; we get bare unwanted visitors at the Shack. But this ain’t no ordinary unwanted visitor. The figure who’s ducking and diving and mouthing off ain’t no six-foot yardie with an axe to grind. It’s a white woman, aged thirty or so, with loose blonde hair and spindly arms that’s waving madly all over the place.

Someone says it’s the fedz, someone else says no, coz the fedz always come in twos and they don’t wear no dresses and boots like that. Then a row breaks out about what undies wear and if they work Saturdays and what they’d want with a bunch of yoots in a skate park. We watch this white lady dodge round Lazy and head for the shredders on the half-pipe, her straw-coloured hair blowing about, giving her the look of a mad woman. I’m thinking how she got the same sort of style as my old piano teacher at Pembury High, Miss Merfield – all flappy garmz and long legs – but I don’t say it coz no one else knows Miss Merfield. And anyway, there’s too much chatter going on.

‘Who’s that?’

‘What’s that she’s giving out?’

‘Dunno blud, but she ain’t got no business here.’

‘Lazy’s moving quick, man. Look.’

‘That’s what I mean – she ain’t got no business here.’

‘That ain’t quick.’

‘Lazy don’t do quick.’

My eyes stay trained on the woman, who’s blazing round the skate park in these big brown boots, her knees and elbows jaggedly sticking out of this dress that looks like it’s made of old curtains – all criss-crossy reds and browns.

One of the tinies flies off the mini-ramp and lands in a pile on the floor. The woman heads straight for him, says something that makes him laugh, then scoops him up and gives him this red, shiny card like a giant ticket. She moves onto the next one. Seems like she’s going round the whole place handing these red things out.

I’m squinting my eyes, same as JJ and Twitch and Ash and Lol, but I ain’t looking at the red things no more. It ain’t the woman’s skinny arms or flappy dress. It’s her boots. Brown and old with bare scuffs at the toes and laces criss-crossing all the way up the outsides – I know them boots. That’s when I realise. It is Miss Merfield.

 ‘Hi… …d’you know…’ I catch bits of words on the breeze as she flies about, panting and looking around. Miss Merfield’s got these big round eyes that always make her look scared and confused, but mainly I don’t think she is. She ain’t the type to get scared or confused.

Lazy’s lumbering up the hill after her. Vinny’s hanging out the studio door and next to him in the window of the Shack is this line of little faces, peering out as Miss Merfield hurries round the park.

She busts her way up the slope, heading straight for us. My mind flips back to the time she come looking for me, in the early days when I didn’t turn up to my piano lessons coz I couldn’t read music and it all seemed like a waste of time. She stamped her way through the form room door in the middle of lunch, not caring about the whispers and stares and giggles. Made her way straight for me and then said in that strict, quiet voice, Don’t you dare give up. She’s got the exact same look on her face – only this time she ain’t coming straight for me. She ain’t clocked me yet.

I keep waiting for her to catch my eye, but she’s too busy flicking her head this way and that, pushing red cards into the hands of Lol, Ash and more of the tinies… She rushes up, fumbling with her stack of red cards, then does one of them double-takes as she hands one to me. A confused smile rushes up her face.

‘Alesha!’

Tell the truth, I think she’s more surprised to find me here than the other way round, even though she’s the one who ain’t got no business round here.

It don’t feel right to say her name, not with the others around, so I just say ‘hi’, like I don’t hardly know her. Then I feel bad. I do know her.

Miss Merfield ain’t like most teachers. She’s young, for a start. But it ain’t just that. Mrs Page was young and she was a bitch. Miss Merfield’s different. She’s weird, but in a good way. First thing she said when I turned up for lesson number one, full of cussing and ready to split: D’you want a cup of tea? That’s what she said – to me. A teacher was gonna make me a cup of tea. That’s when I knew Miss Merfield was different.

 ‘I was wondering…’ She still keeps looking about her. There’s wisps of hair stuck to her forehead and her cheeks is glowing pink. The smile’s still there, sort of, but it’s all tense, like it’s an effort to keep it on her face.

Straight away, Smalls steps to her. That’s what he does, being twice the size of the rest of us. Most days, it feels good to have him checking for us, but right now I’m seeing them giant fists as a liability.

‘Leave it, Smalls,’ I say, like I’m cool with some white woman coming up the Shack and knowing my name.

Smalls takes a step back, his arms still tense. Miss Merfield’s eyes latch onto mine and she gives this little nod that I guess means Thanks.

‘How are you?’ She looks over her shoulder quickly. Lazy’s cruising up the skate park. ‘Are you… Are you doing OK?’

I shrug. Ain’t hardly gonna get into real talk with Miss Merfield right now.

‘D’you know if you’ll be coming back to Pembury High in September?’ she asks quietly, smoothing her dress like she knows this conversation ain’t really happening.

Smalls steps to her again before I can answer.

‘Look, Miss. You wanna tell us your business here?’

I raise a hand, like I used to when Geebie got mad, but the thing is, Smalls is right – she gotta tell us what she wants or she’ll be chucked out – I mean, chucked out. Lazy’s huffing and puffing his way towards her and Vinny’s wandering out the studio looking vexed. At this rate, she’s gonna be picked up and carried off.

‘Right… yes.’ She don’t exactly look scared, but she’s flustered. ‘Sorry.’ Miss Merfield’s eyes flick up at Smalls’ like she’s giving him some respect. That’s smart, I think to myself. That’s the right thing to do.

‘I’ve been mugged,’ she says, looking at me then all the other faces behind me. ‘I had my iPhone taken and…’ She holds up this stack of red cards and finally I see what it is she’s been giving out. ‘…this ring.’

It’s one of them notes covered in shiny film, like the signs saying ‘Staff only’ at school, only I ain’t never seen one this bright before. In the middle is this zoomed-in picture of a silver ring with a diamond-like rock and these flecks of blood-coloured stones round the edge. There’s one word below in big black letters: MISSING. Under that is a phone number and more words.

She’s holding it out like she wants me to take it. I feel for her, so I take it, even though I know it’s gonna end up on the floor or in the bin.

‘It’s the ring I want back,’ she says, just as footsteps come up behind her. Her eyes link with mine. ‘The phone was old – just… just the ring.’

Miss Merfield’s smart enough to not put up a fight with Lazy. She just clomps off in her big brown boots, looking over her shoulder and catching my eye as she goes.

‘I’ll pay for information!’ she says, nearly tripping over Lazy’s foot. ‘Five hundred pounds if I get it back! My number’s… on the…’

Something goes off in my head. Suddenly Miss Merfield’s got my attention. I look down at the thing in my hands and check the words. Five hundred is what it says. For a ring? I take another look at the stone with its flecks of red, then roll up the plastic in my hand, thinking rah, maybe I could do something with this.

Soon as Miss Merfield’s gone my brain whirs into action. I got the connects to find this ring of hers. If she got robbed in these endz, I reckon I’ll know the person who thieved it. I pull out my phone, but I don’t even get as far as scrolling through names coz something pops into my head. I remember the last time I seen an old iPhone.

‘Twitch? You –’

That’s when I realise, Twitch has ghosted. There’s blank faces staring at red bits of card, but Twitch and his tiny bike ain’t nowhere to be seen.

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