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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6. 6

The curtain swings open and I look up, clocking the stubbly face of Wayman, one of the mandem, who squints down at me like I’m a pile of shit. I don’t say nothing. Don’t expect him to give me respect.

‘Harman House,’ he says, leaning against the door frame and tilting his head so all his ratty twists fall onto one shoulder. ‘Y’know weh deh?’

I nod, fronting it even though Harman House is just a name in my head. The yardie goes off to sort the packet, leaving the curtain to drop down in front of me, his words bouncing off the walls of my brain. Harman House. I must’ve been there sometime. I know all the estates in these endz.

Reggae blares from the speakers in the barber’s behind me and there’s this hum of noise from the razors and footsteps and chatter. A hazy picture of Harman House builds up in my mind and I reckon I know which direction to head. I run a hand round the back of my neck, trying to get some air on my skin.

I got this itchy feeling all over. It’s been coming on for days. Maybe it’s the heat. London’s been burning up again this last week and I got this layer of sweat on my skin that just sits there, all slimy, day and night. We’re allowed to use the sinks in the mornings if we don’t make no mess, but ten minutes after splashing cold water on me I’m sticky again. Still, it’s worth it for the roof over our heads and the p’s in our pockets.

I get out my phone, see if JJ’s pinged. I ain’t hardly seen him these last two days – just this dark shape lying next to me one minute, gone the next. We both been on it, night and day. He’s getting proper involved now, jacking rims and riding on jobs for the elders. He’s bringing home money, too. It ain’t just a rep he’s earning – it’s serious p’s.

I got a message, but it ain’t from JJ. It’s just one of Squeak’s all-round pings about a bunch of TVs going cheap. Squeaky Clean, that’s what they call him, coz he ain’t. Him and his boys is known in the endz for trading boosted goods.

I stuff my phone away, still thinking about JJ and how there ain’t been no pings. A few months back, we was like ping, ping, ping, all day long. We’d ping about faces we seen on the roads, things his nan said, new Nike creps coming out… We used to ping even when we walked down the street side by side. These days, it’s just WUU2? and BRB.

No word from Twitch, neither. I been trying to get hold of him all week but he’s done one of his disappearing tricks. He does that. It’s usually when he’s in trouble, like when he owes money or when he’s gone on one of his thieving sprees.

As soon as I worked out it was him that run up Miss Merfield, I went all over, nabbing them red shiny cards so Twitch couldn’t see how much it was worth. Way I see it, that sterling’s mine for the taking. Miss Merfield’s my link. I’m the only one who’s worked out what’s going on.

I’m still waiting. There’s raised voices behind the curtain but the music’s drowning out the words. I stand in the corridor, trying to ease my mind and mop up the sweat off my neck. If I wasn’t about to jump on the bike then I’d light a bone, but stinking of crow when you’re carrying a grand’s worth of Class A down your pants ain’t smart, however quick you can pedal.

One minute later, the curtain’s slung back again, Wayman’s tall silhouette blocking out the light. He squints down at me slowly, then pushes the packet into my hand. It’s wrapped in blue plastic bags like the type you get down the market – like that’s gonna fool the fedz if they stop me. I stuff it down my trackies and give the yardie a nod, show him I know what’s what.

Until last week, I didn’t know what was what. Even when I dropped my first package I didn’t know. It took a trip to Kelsey Mansions – the place they call Kabul on account of the powder that passes through that place – to work out what bit of the food chain we was playing in. Soon as I caught sight of the man they call Pops, with his crinkly smile and his army of boys, I knew we was pretty close to the top.

I’d heard of Pops before I went to Kabul. Pops is forty-something; old in gangsta years. Most get locked up or shot before they hit twenty-five. Pops, though, he’s still going even though his plaits is going grey. He’s called Pops on account of his age, but also coz of the way he is with his boys. I seen that now. It’s like he’s the dad they never had – full of kindness and money and rules. I been there twice now and both times there’s been youngers fighting for spots on the settee to play Xbox and munch on crisps. There’s older ones too, looking up to him, all round eyes and big man talk.

They say you shouldn’t be fooled by the niceness. They say he can flip, just like that – rush you with a blade for putting a packet down wrong or whatever. All I know is that right now I’m up there in Pops’ good books, and that’s the way it’s gonna stay. The types he rolls with, they’re the ones taking the consignments straight off the planes and supplying half the shotters in South. They’re the ones that run these streets. This is big man business. I ain’t messing around.

I hop on the bike and speed off up Telford Road. It’s nearly midnight and the traffic’s eased for the day, giving me a clear run through SE15. I can feel the sweat steaming off my back and wetting my tee, the insides of my knees getting slimy. At least I can get up some speed. It feels good, the air whooshing past my face and swirling round my arms as my legs do the work.

By the time I reach the lights I’m panting. Somewhere up Peckham Road there’s sirens. There’s always sirens in these endz. JJ says you don’t need to worry about the boydem if they’re making a noise. He says it’s the quiet ones you gotta watch out for. I know he’s right, but that don’t stop the nerves running through me as I wait for the lights to change. Omar probably thought he was safe and look at him.

Big news come in this week. Omar got charged with verbal assault. They said he mouthed off at the fedz when they tried to do a routine search. Bail got set at twenty bags – I guess they thought that was gonna be out of his price range. They didn’t reckon on Tremaine Bell, biggest deela in South, stepping in with the p’s. So Omar’s out and Tremaine’s twenty bags down. That ain’t good for his cash flow, which ain’t good for his mood. Still, at least it’s good for business. Every day there’s more packages need running up and down the street, which means more p’s for me. That’s the good thing that’s come of it all.

The lights change and I push off again, flying through the darkness on my little set of wheels. Feels like I’m gonna burst a lung but I keep going, pedalling, pedalling, pedalling. I swing off the main road and swerve up on the grass, cutting across the corner of Telford Estate, remembering the way as I go. Then I stop pedalling and hit the brakes, my belly going suddenly tight as I see the road I’m heading for. It’s Peckham Road. I skid to a stop on this dark little alley that runs up to the base of Harman House. That’s why I got that weird feeling when the yardie gived me the address. Harman House is on the front line. It ain’t SE5 territory, but it ain’t Crew territory, neither. It’s no-man’s land. It’s the type of place you don’t go to without protection – especially not with a bag of food down your pants.

I wheel my bike into the car park, slowly, checking all around me as I go. The place is quiet. I stop down the back of the bins and dump the bike in the shadows, then reach down and transfer my flick knife into my pocket.

There’s yoots hanging around by the lift and they turn and stare at me as I bust my way through. I don’t like taking lifts. You never know what might be waiting for you when the doors open. But 12A sounds like it’s on the twelfth floor and there ain’t no way I’m taking the stairs all that way.

I head straight for the silver doors, hood up, my fingers curled round the handle of the knife. I press the button and wait, taking deep breaths, ready for the stink I know’s gonna hit me from inside. Some kid calls out, asks what’s my business round here. Another says something about my creps. Another time, maybe I’d show them the blade – teach them not to cuss me. Not tonight, though. Not with this stash on me. Tonight, I just act cool and calm. I learnt that off JJ. No matter what’s flapping about in your head, if your face is calm, you look calm, and that’s the best way of coming across. Anyway, I must’ve fronted it coz all they do is chuck a firecracker in as the doors slide shut, which is a pretty lame way of getting at someone if you ask me.

Flat A is staring me in the face as I step out the lift. There’s reggae and voices inside – deep voices, like the type you hear in the barber’s. Low and mean. I reach down with my left hand, check the packet’s still there – even though I can feel it against my leg so I know it is – and knock on the door.

The voices inside go quiet. The reggae beat is all I can hear. I stand, looking casual, my insides turning somersaults. I got this ache creeping up my arm on account of the tight grip I got on the knife. Seems like minutes later, the door opens on the chain.

Dark eyes stare at me through the crack. I reach in my pocket, showing him there’s something there without getting it out. It ain’t smart to bring out a grand of food in the middle of a block of flats.

There’s a jangling and then the door opens properly, showing me the whole of this yardie’s body, all gold bling and braids and muscle. More eyes stare at me from around the room. It’s weird – I done bare drops now, so I ain’t no stranger to this game, but it feels like there’s something different about the vibe in here. I can’t work out what it is. There’s a fizz in the air, like I stepped in just as something was about to kick off.

Braids man steps to me, his face all hard and mean, looking hungry for that package. He snatches it right out my fingers and flings it back to the man by the window, who slides a knife in and tests the stuff on his gums. That’s when I realise what’s off. Braids ain’t interested in the goods. Except for the one testing it, none of the mandem look like they’re interested in the goods. No one’s handing over notes and telling me goodbye. They’re all just standing around, looking at Braids, like they’re waiting for something to happen.

I got a seriously bad feeling about this now. My heart’s beating fast in my chest, my knees shaking so bad I can’t hardly stand up. Braids is in my face, staring into my eyes like he’s trying to burn holes in them. His breath swirls in front of me, all hot and stinking of stale cigarettes and something sweet. Maybe rum. I feel sick.

He tilts his head to one side, slowly, still looking at me. He’s got this grin on his lips, but it ain’t no friendly grin. It’s pure evil – like he’s getting off on all the bad things going round in his head.

‘You steppin’ outta place, y’know?,’ he says, treading round me and catching the eye of his mandem across the room. ‘You on da wrong turf.’

‘I’m just deliverin’ –’

That’s all the words I can say, on account of this big hand reaching round and grabbing my face. For a second I ain’t sure what’s happened, but then I feel the fingers pinching my jaw and this thing pressing on my throat so I can’t breathe. I know I gotta stay calm, like JJ always says, but I can’t get the air in. I can’t breathe. I gotta get out of his grip.

‘Man’s gonna teach you a lesson,’ he says, coming round and staring me in the eye again.

I try to nod, but it’s like he’s controlling my face now and all I can think about is pulling in my next breath. I need air. I need to get free. The squeezing’s getting harder and it feels like he’s yanking my jaw off my skull. Everything hurts and my brain’s going blank. I been played. Tremaine’s… The mandem… I’m trying to keep hold of the thoughts but they all just keep slipping away, like my brain’s disconnecting from the rest of me.

Suddenly I’m bending over, gulping in air and coughing. I’m free. I raise myself off my knees, filling up with relief and crawling around for the door. Everything looks dark. I think I’m blacking out.

There’s a click. My brain shifts into action and I feel my bloodstream fill with fear. I stay half-straightened, half-bent, frozen rigid. The grunting and gasping inside me stops and this giant ball of sickness comes up my bruised throat. I know that noise. I know it ain’t a noise you wanna hear next to your head. It ain’t a noise you wanna hear ever. I’m gonna get shot. That’s all I can think. The yardie’s gonna shoot me. I’m gonna die.

People say you see pictures from your whole life flashing through your head just before you die, but that ain’t what I’m seeing. All I’m seeing is the back of my eyelids and all I can think is I’m gonna die. I don’t wanna die. I ain’t never said a prayer in my life, but I’m begging God now, Please don’t let me die.

It’s like I can’t move. If I move, I might get a bullet in my brain. Feels like the safest thing is to keep proper still, like I’m making time stop, like I’m giving myself a chance to think. But I can’t think. The only thing in my head is the fear of dying. I try and remember what JJ said. He said the first time you see a strap, you come over all shaky. I’m more than shaky. I’m iced over. Keep your head, he said. Focus. Focus on what?

Through squinting eyes, I see it. Braids is moving the gun in front of me, making patterns in the air like some big, black, slow-moving fly. The mandem’s standing around in the background, watching like they’re watching TV. The gun leaves my head, slides down to my shoulder, across to my chest and then swirls round my belly. That’s where it stops. I can’t open my eyes properly. He’s gonna shoot me in the belly. I know what that means. It means your insides fill up with blood and you die slowly and painfully. It can take a whole day, JJ said, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it except die.

I clench up my stomach and shut my eyes, waiting for the bang. I’m shaking now, my brain stuck on this one thought. I don’t wanna die. I can’t die. It ain’t fair, me dying – I’m just doing what I was told to do. I ain’t a proper member of the Crew. They can’t just kill me like this. They can’t.

Bang.

My whole body jumps. But I can’t feel no pain. It takes a second for me to work out that it wasn’t no bang after all. It happens again. It’s the buzz of a mobile phone. I’m so tensed up, my mind ain’t working properly. I don’t hardly notice when Braids turns away. I’m only half there when he starts eyeing the man with the phone and growling something about the cost of some rims. By the time I’ve clocked the situation, the mandem’s getting aggro, the piece is waving this way and that in the air, the voices booming angry and loud. After a while I realise something. They’ve forgotten I’m here. I move for the door, still half-crouched. It ain’t locked. I fling myself through it and head for the stairs, waiting for the ‘pop’ as a bullet shoots through my head. I don’t care now. I’m in escape mode. If I get shot now, at least I tried. Two flights down and no pop. I’m swinging my way down off the metal rails without hardly touching the floor – never moved so fast in all my life. Still no pop.

I get to the bottom, shaky and sweating, waiting to die any second. The little boys is still chucking firecrackers but I don’t hardly notice them as I swing round the last bend. I dive into the dark little hole where I hid the bike and hop on, wheels spinning as my foot slips on the pedal. Can’t hardly believe I made it this far.

To get to the road, you have to cross this wide, open square of grass that’s lit up by street lights. I ain’t taking that risk. I duck round the side of the block, sticking to the shadows and heading off in the opposite direction to where I need to go. I’d rather do a ten mile loop than be a moving target on the mandem’s home turf.

Five minutes later, I’m still pedalling. My legs is just turning and turning like windmills – I can’t switch them off. I’m back in my endz, back on the roads I know, but it feels like I’m still being chased. I still got a thing pointing at the back of my head. I skid round a corner and ride straight into a car that’s coming the other way up the side street.

I swerve, but there ain’t nowhere for me to go, so I skid into a parked car and bounce off into the gutter, the bike crushing my legs as I hit the tarmac. Maybe I’m hurt but I don’t feel no pain. The driver don’t even bother to stop.

I drag myself up, push the bike off and curl up against a brick wall in a shaking, bleeding, sweaty ball.

For a second, nothing happens. The wall props me up and I half-sit, half-lie, my head swimming with nothingness. Then it’s like there’s this big wave crashing over me, filling me with something I can’t hardly describe; it’s like I’m being electrocuted and this lump’s swelling up inside me and my shoulders do this jerking thing that I can’t control and suddenly I’m crying. I’m crying. I never cry.

The swelling keeps happening, the tears coming and coming, dripping down off my face onto my aching chest. I’m halfway through this big, shuddering gulp of air when I realise what I just done. The food. I just left a grand of food in some flat on Peckham Road.

The tears stop. The shaking stops too. My whole body seems like it’s in shutdown mode. If I go back to Tremaine’s without the sterling, I’m gonna come face-to-face with another gun. That’s how it works. Deelas don’t go easy on nobody. A debt’s a debt. Even though it was their fault I got nearly killed, I owe them a grand. Peanuts money, for them – they wouldn’t miss it. But not for me. One bag. Where am I gonna get that kind of p’s from?

It takes time for my limbs to work. I feel for my phone, hands shaking, mind flitting this way and that, fear taking over again.

‘Fam, it’s me.’

‘Ite?’ JJ’s cool and calm, like always. My voice is the opposite, I know it, but I don’t care.

‘You with them? You with the Crew?’

‘Just done a drop. Why?’

‘I been played! They pulled a gun on me at Harman House. I left the packet and split – I ain’t got the notes!’

‘Chill, blud.’

Chill? He says it like there ain’t nothing the matter. I hear my voice come out in this high-pitched squeak. ‘Didn’t you hear me? I been played! I nearly got shot and now I owe serious p’s to the Crew!’

‘Hold on.’

There’s a rustling noise like he’s stuffing his phone in his pocket and moving about. He’s with them, I can tell. My belly goes all hard and tight again.

‘How much?’ he asks, all casual.

‘A bag.’

He goes quiet for a second. I wanna say something, but I can’t think what. I just want this whole thing to be over.

‘How much you got?’ His voice is low now.

I feel into my pocket, bring out the roll of sterling. My fingers is shaking so much I can’t hardly count the sheets.

‘One thirty,’ I say. My heart flips inside me as I hear the smallness of the words. ‘You?’

JJ lets out this breath down the phone. I can see him leafing through his stash, trying to keep out of sight of the elders.

‘Three fifty.’

I shut my eyes. At least that’s something. At least JJ’s starting to make something now he’s rolling with the mandem. But that’s still another five hundred we ain’t got. My insides feel like they’re in knots.

‘What’m I gonna do, fam? I can’t go back there – they’ll slice me up!’ I can hear my voice go all whiny like a kid’s. I’m panicking now – feels like I’m in trouble no matter what.

‘Allow it,’ says JJ, smoothly. ‘I’ll fix you a floor to sleep on. We just gotta get the p’s together, you feel me?’

‘Mmm,’ is all I can say, coz I know what he means. I’ve heard the stories of people who owe money and can’t pay it back. Some kid got a finger chopped off. Another had his ear burned flat on an iron. One thought he’d got away with it but it turned out his little brother been jooked in the leg. That’s how they roll. They don’t just go after you, they go after your fam. I’m scared for JJ, now; scared they’ll turn on him.

‘Be careful,’ I say.

‘Chill, Roxy.’ He’s trying to calm me down, I know. ‘It’s gonna be fine. I don’t know your business, alright? This call never happened.’

I let out this shaky breath. ‘OK.’

‘I’ll ping you once I’ve sorted a crib, yeah?’

I can’t hardly speak for the worry, but I know I’ve gotta tell JJ how thankful I am.

‘Fam,’ I say, but I think it’s too late – he’s already gone.

I sit in the dark some more, thoughts zipping in and out of my head as I try and work out how to make up the five hundred notes. It ain’t just the notes, neither. It’s where I’m gonna cotch while this is all kicking off. JJ reckons he can find me a crib, but really and truly, I don’t know where he’s gonna find one. Most of the names in my phone, they affiliate with the Crew. Their loyalty’s gonna be to the mandem, not to me.

A woman in high heels comes busting towards me, kissing her teeth as she steps over my bike. Her hair’s all piled up high on top of her head and the bag on her shoulder looks like genuine Gucci. Five hundred notes. In my head, I know I need to jump up and lick her – I’d maybe get a hundred for the bag – but it’s like all the energy’s been zapped out of me. All I can do is watch as she taps her way down the street, head high like she ain’t got a care in the world.

As I watch, something pops into my beat-up brain. An idea. Five hundred notes. I know how to make up the sterling, even if I can’t get that ring from Twitch. I know what I gotta do.

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