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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7. 7

The sun’s streaming through the yellowed threads pinned against the window, burning holes in my eyelids and baking this layer of sweat onto my skin.

I know where I am. Feels like I ain’t hardly been asleep. All night, these weird, dark thoughts been dancing round my head as I lie on the settee, shaking and sweating and trying to dodge the bullets coming at me from the dark corners of the room.

I’m at Snoop’s. JJ got me the place, sorted it without none of the mandem knowing. I’m in hiding from my own crew – lying low with some shotter I don’t hardly know. My whole body feels heavy, like I’m on the worst come-down ever, and I never even got high.

The sun’s high in the sky. It must be nearly midday. I rub my itchy eyes, shielding them from the fierceness of the light and swinging my legs off the settee. There’s stale weed hanging in the air and in the middle of the room on an upside-down box is this big glass ashtray overflowing with burnt-out Rizlas and the last bits of draw. My mind flips back a few hours and I get this hazy picture of Snoop laying back in his big, tatty armchair, dreads splaying out, eyes set on the telly but blind from too much draw. Maybe that explains my bad thoughts and sandpaper throat. The window’s sealed shut and there’s a crack running down it that makes me think trying to open it ain’t such a good idea.

The ache in my belly reminds me of times I try and forget. Waking up in that room. Walking to school. Empty belly, empty cupboards. That’s what I remember. That’s why I got good at thieving. I’d stop at the minimarket on the way to school, pretend to look at the comics and grab a packet of something on my way out. I never once got nabbed. It don’t hurt so much now – only aches. Maybe my belly shrank over the years.

I reach down under the settee, taking care not to touch nothing on the way. I ain’t seen no pins or what-not, but you never know in this type of place. You gotta be careful. One little prick and that’s it – game over. The bag’s still there, where I left it, wrapped round the sterling I pulled together so far. Four eighty, counting mine and what JJ slipped me last night. The idea of making it four seventy and grabbing a burger and fries nearly takes over my mind, but then I remember the kid with the burnt ear and I quickly stuff the notes back in the bag. I gotta pay off my debt before anything else. I gotta make that call.

My phone’s charging in the kitchen, which stinks just as bad as the rest of the flat, but with old grease smells mixed in with the draw. It must be the hunger making me crazy, but the sight of the fridge with its brown stains running down it makes me think rah, maybe there’s something I can eat round here. I pocket my phone and start poking around, picking through empty packets and sticky glasses filled with the ash from old smokes.

Snoop don’t seem like the tidiest type. JJ says he’s safe, but he clearly ain’t smart – even I can tell that. Smart shotters don’t live this kind of life. Smart shotters don’t roll up their profits and smoke them. That’s the golden rule of shotting: don’t get sucked in. It’s the same for white, brown, crow, whatever. If you end up your own biggest customer, you ain’t gonna build up your line.

The fridge is empty except for a brown paper bag at the bottom. I’m just bending down to see what’s inside when there’s this loud noise from nearby like an elephant honking, then I hear a flushing and out comes Snoop, then this waft of hot, stinking air.

‘Safe, what you up to?’

He leans on the doorway, all six-foot-whatever, dreads sprouting from his head like extra limbs as he zips up his flies.

‘You ain’t got no cold drinks, blud,’ I say, thinking on the spot. Truthfully, I was thinking about robbing a Q from the bag of crow, see if I could make a few p’s on the quiet.

His eyes run me up and down, taking in my bare feet and crumpled garmz from the day before and breaking into this hazy smile. ‘This ain’t no hotel, sista.’

I push out a laugh, heading for the taps and splashing water in my mouth, feeling this rush of relief for getting away with what I nearly done. I wasn’t planning to rob Snoop. I was only gonna see what was lying around. That’s all. I wouldn’t of robbed him. No way. Not with him letting me stay and that.

I wait for him to step away and light a smoke, then I splash water on my arms and body, trying not to think about the nice shower we had at nan’s. There’s a shower here but it’s been bust for a year, Snoop says. I’m getting good at showering in a sink. 

‘Laters,’ I say, slipping out the door quick-sharp so he can’t ask no more questions.

The stairwell’s as far as I need to go. Hanging out on the street’s just inviting trouble. Right now I gotta keep my face out of sight. I’m on the Crew’s wanted list, so until I got the p’s together, the plan is to stay invisible. I get out my phone and look for the digits I got off the shiny red card.

I stare for a couple of seconds, then I push the worries out of my head and make the call.

‘Helen speaking.’

I jump. That ain’t what I expected and for a second I’m stuck for words. Then the beeping on the line kicks in. I ain’t got no credit.

‘Miss Merfield? It’s Alesha from Pembury High. Can you call me back?’

I curl up on the concrete ledge, watching my phone like it’s about to catch fire. I don’t know why I feel zingy. Maybe it’s coz I know how smart Miss Merfield is – how good she is at seeing through my lies. Lying is always the best way out of situations. When the fedz come round accusing you of moving Mrs Adeyemi’s pots, you lie. When you get catched nabbing the knives and forks in Nando’s, you lie. When school wants to know why your mum ain’t picking up the phone, you lie. But the thing is with Miss Merfield, she knows – even if it’s a good lie.

The weird thing is, when she busts you, she don’t explode like the other teachers. She just goes all quiet and sad, like you’ve hurt her feelings. I swear, looking up at them round bunny eyes is worse than squaring up to any exploding teacher. When I told Miss Merfield I couldn’t do no school concert coz my mum wanted me back at the flat, she just nodded and said in this little soft voice, ‘You don’t want to perform, do you?’ I felt all zingy and bad, like I feel now. I hate lying to Miss Merfield.

The phone buzzes into life and I feel my hand clamp shut around it.

‘Hi, Miss.’

‘Hey!’ Her voice is all lively. ‘How’s things?’

In my head I see the bug eyes and goofy smile I seen a hundred times and I feel bad, but I get straight to the point.

‘It’s about your ring, Miss. I know where it is.’

That’s the worst bit over and done with. Maybe this time she’ll swallow it.

‘Really? How… gosh. That’s great news!’

She sounds over-keen. I feel bad. I know it’s good that she’s swallowed the lie, but I ain’t feeling it.

‘How did you find it? Who had it? Where is it?’

‘It’s with someone,’ I say, not answering none of her other questions. It’s true, it is with someone. I just ain’t got no idea who. Still no word from Twitch. Maybe he’s looking for it too.

‘Right… Cool.’ There’s suspicion in her voice. ‘Who?’

‘I can’t say,’ I tell her, which is true too. ‘But I can get it back, Miss. I just need the cash up-front.’

Silence.

This is bad. Miss Merfield knows what I’m up to. I get this sinking feeling inside me as I think about what I’m gonna do, how I’m gonna pay back the Crew, how long it’s gonna take, what they’re gonna do to me if they catch me without it… there’s so much bad stuff crowding my mind I don’t hardly hear it when Miss Merfield replies.

‘How much cash?’ she says quietly.

I tell her quick, before I bottle it. ‘Five hundred.’

She don’t reply again, and this time it’s for long. I start to worry. I can’t live like this, watching over my shoulder the whole time, scared to go onto Snoop’s estate, nearly dying of hunger.

‘I can get it back to you, Miss,’ I blurt. ‘I just need the five hundred up-front. The person who got it… That’s what he’s asking. Five hundred.’

That’s what it said on the poster. She said five hundred when she come tearing through the Shack that time… she must have the p’s to pay it.

Still no reply. I’m getting itchy again. The sweat’s running down my neck under my matted weave and my belly feels tight like a drum.

Finally she replies, but it ain’t the answer I’m looking for.

‘Is everything OK with you, Alesha?’

I step on it quickly, all brightness. ‘Yeah, everything’s cool, Miss.’

‘Good.’ She sounds different – all slow and careful, like she ain’t so sure.

There’s another long gap and I realise I’ve heard this tone before. It’s the voice she always used when I lied and she knew I was lying. When subjects came up that I didn’t wanna talk about, I’d switch on a smile and breeze it, tell her everything was cool. That’s when I’d hear that voice.

I’m starting to panic. Feels like Miss Merfield ain’t gonna buy it. I ain’t got no plans for what to do if she turns me away. She can’t turn me away. All this talk – she can’t just cut me off now. She can’t.

Long seconds later, I hear a breath being sucked in the other end, then out again.

‘It’s supposed to be a reward,’ she says quietly. ‘I can’t just give it away without any guarantee of getting the ring back.’

I’m stuck for what to say. Don’t wanna mess up my chances by sounding desperate, but I can’t let her just shut the door on me like that.

‘You’ll get it back, Miss. I promise.’ Seriously, I feel bad now, but the fear’s eating me up. I need that money.

‘How about…’

The words trail off. I hold my breath, like I need to hear the words as soon as they come out. Feels like I’m gonna explode but I keep holding it, the phone clamped to my ear.

‘How about two fifty up-front, then the other half when I get the ring back. D’you think that’d work?’

I let out the air, breathe in proper deep, then the same again. I’m running the sums. It ain’t enough, but it’s something. Maybe with a few more notes from JJ I can make it add up.

‘When can I come get the money?’

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