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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8. 8

I walk quick, hood pulled down low over my face. The main thing is not making eye contact. Eye contact is what gets you boxed. Other days it’s me doing the boxing. Someone looks at me or makes a comment, I see to it they don’t make the same mistake again. Not today. Today I’m keeping my head down. Today I’m a ghost. The only thing in my mind is getting the sterling to pay back the Crew.

I got nearly five hundred in the bag under the settee, so with Miss Merfield’s two fifty, I’m only a couple of hundred away. That’s pennies, in their terms. I could give them what I got and we’d be done, if that’s how things worked, but it ain’t. It don’t matter the amount, you gotta pay it all back. That’s the rules. JJ says word’s out that the Harman House drop went gash. People know that I lost them a bag of stash. That looks bad on me. Even though it wasn’t my fault what happened, it’s still my debt to pay back.

I’m worried for JJ. He’s playing it cool, says it ain’t gonna come bad for him. I know he’s fronting it. Wayman caught JJ on the way back from visiting his nan in the home the other day. Took him aside and made him swear he didn’t know where I was cotching – even went through JJ’s phone to check for my number. Lucky for both of us, JJ’s got me under Roxy. JJ told him we weren’t tight no more. That stinged me inside, hearing JJ say what he said. I can’t lie. It was like he’d put a wall up between us – him on one side with the Crew, me on the other. I know he did the right thing; I know he’s only doing what’s best for us both. I just wish it hadn’t of come to this.

I hit Grove Vale and look around. It don’t feel right to cross the line. This is the edge of my endz – the last of the roads I know. It’s like I’m going into another country. From here on, it’s wide, quiet streets with trees on both sides and tall houses owned by rich types. I swear I can feel a difference in the air. A breeze blows up on my face but it feels nice, not like the hot, swirling air of Rye Lane. There ain’t no crisp packets flying about, no dogs growling at my feet, no drunks or crazies making speeches on street corners. Everything looks tidy and there’s less pressure and stress: no uniforms pacing the streets, no flying squads cruising for trouble, waiting to put you away. It’s like a different world.

I take a deep breath, filling my lungs up with the air and trying to relax as I pass out the danger zone. My thoughts stay stuck on JJ. That was close, what happened with Wayman. If it wasn’t for the Roxy thing, JJ could’ve got himself merked, or worse, for lying to the mandem. Asking him about me was a test of his word. The Crew don’t need to go chasing round for the p’s, but they need to know JJ can be trusted. He passed the first test. I’m scared there’s gonna be more to come.

Turns out things get nicer the deeper you go. I bust my way down Dulwich Grove and have to check my phone to see if I got it wrong. The road’s as wide as a football pitch and each house gets its own garden and hedgerow and sometimes a tree, too. The driveways is all rammed with Beemers and Mercs, all of them shiny and new. My eyes swivel this way and that, popping out my head as I take in the makes and sizes of everything around me.

It ain’t fair. I think of Snoop’s flat with the broken shower and cracked window and nasty settee. You could fit ten of them into one of these houses – and there’s probably like two or three people rattling round each one of these places: mummy and daddy and maybe some pretty white kid who gets took into school in the X5, all cosy and safe behind blacked-out windows. I know these types. You see them at the edges sometimes, looking in on our world and pulling faces like they don’t much care for what they see. Well, tables are turned now. I’m here, checking out their world, and I don’t like what I see, neither. I wanna rip up their pretty little hedgerows and chuck bricks through their windows. If I had a spray can with me, I’d tag their cars and their doors and their little signs saying ‘Primrose’ and ‘Brookhurst’ and then I’d wait for the first person dumb enough to step to me and then I’d box them. The only houses I know with names is the tower blocks up Kestrel Estate. I’d like to see what the Peregrine House lot would make of a street like this.

I turn the corner and the houses shrink down in size, the gaps between them disappearing to nothing and the driveways turning into garden paths. It ain’t like the last road, but there’s still a feeling of money in the air: doors and windows freshly painted, hedgerows trimmed and bins neatly tucked away. Cars line both sides of the street – a step down from the last road but still decent enough, mostly estates with a couple of nice-looking coupes.

The white Clio catches my eye, sticking out like a Primark bag in a line of Pradas. I know it from the school car park. It don’t belong here, especially not jammed in at a mad angle to the road like that. Maybe Miss Merfield don’t care. She ain’t the type to care about what people think. You can tell that by the threads she wears.

It ain’t like Miss Merfield got no fashion sense. It’s more like she just got her own ideas. The rest of the world’s busting skinny jeans and designer tees and Miss Merfield’s clomping round in brown boots, a raggedy top and some crazy coloured skirt. That’s just how she rolls.

I check the door number and head up the path, my eyes slipping down to the white gravel that fills the yard – only it ain’t the gravel I’m looking at. It’s the empty bottles lined up on top of it: beer bottles, wine bottles, champagne bottles, all sitting tight against each other. It’s like the whole front yard’s lit up green.

My feet keep moving to the front door, even though my mind’s pulling me back. It ain’t right what I’m gonna do. Thieving from a teacher – there’s bare reasons why that’s a bad idea. Joyce Cole in my class, she thieved Mrs Oatley’s phone last term. That went badly wrong. Joyce used it to call her mum and Mrs Oatley looked up the digits on her bill, worked it out and called the fedz. Joyce got excluded for two weeks. This is different, though. It ain’t the worry of getting excluded that’s dancing about in my mind. I’m done with school. I don’t even care if the fedz get involved. The thing I care about is how Miss Merfield’s gonna feel when she knows what I done.

The doorbell makes this coughing noise when I push it. I take a step back, my mind in rewind mode, pictures of that hot little room popping into my mind: Miss Merfield perched on that creaky stool, waving a sheet of music to try and keep cool; me stumbling through one of them pieces from the leather box, my eyes flicking sideways and seeing that big-eyed smile pushing me on; Miss Merfield getting all excited when she come in from making tea and found me playing some new piece on my own.

I stand there, my thoughts going suddenly black as another scene tumbles into my head. I shouldn’t of gone into school that day. There was too much fire inside me. All Miss Merfield did was tell me to practise in between lessons. I went proper crazy, yelling madness in her face. What’s the point? I don’t need no piano in my life! Why am I here? Piss off! I don’t care! Miss Merfield just sat there, blinking at me as I screamed down the room. 

She never kicked off at me. It was like she got why I was mad. Like she seen that man yanking the toaster out the wall and swinging the thing in my face. Like she seen the state of my mum’s eyes, all glazed and bloodshot as she yelled them words from the settee. Get out. She was yelling at me, not him. After all the things I done for her… It was me she chucked out the flat.

I was halfway through the door when Miss Merfield catched my attention. She didn’t say nothing. She just leaned over and started madly digging through her leather box, pulling out this old CD. She rammed it in the machine on the wall, turned up the volume to max and then lay down flat on the floor, me just watching with my mouth hanging open as this crazy loudness blasted through the speakers, making everything rattle.

Ride of the Balconies, she yelled, then she told me to get in or out and shut the door. I wasn’t just gonna split with her lying there like a loon, so I shut it with me inside. Then I felt stupid for standing around watching, so I did what she was telling me to do and lied down next to her.

We stayed on the floor for the rest of that lesson, like a couple of crazies, staring up at the ceiling as the music crashed and blasted around us. I never told Miss Merfield this, but while we was lying there it felt like some of my anger was leaking out. It wasn’t like proper crying. It was just hotness and tears and this weird lightness coming over me – in a good way. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, that’s why it don’t feel right to be thieving off Miss Merfield right now.

There’s sounds of tapping feet behind the front door. I push my hood off and take a deep breath, sweeping my thoughts away. I need to be sharp now. I need Miss Merfield to believe me. Still no word from Twitch, but she don’t need to know that.

A white man opens the door, like the type you get in the family car ads – all tanned skin and white teeth and dark, gelled hair that looks like it’s been scooped into shape, like an ice cream.

‘Hi,’ he says in a game show host voice.

‘Is Miss Merfield in?’ I say, clocking the Armani watch on his wrist and wondering if this is Miss Merfield’s man.

His blue eyes come alive like he’s suddenly worked out who I am. ‘Yah, sure! Alesha, right? She’s around… Hold on.’

He steps back and yells her name, jerking his head for me to come inside.

Straight away I see signs of money: dark wood floors, paintings on the walls and a twinkly light hanging from the high ceiling that looks like it’s made of a thousand diamonds. But the floor’s sticky under my feet and some of the paintings is wonky and there’s a pair of tights dangling off the fancy light. The place is a mess, too: bin bags dotted about, garmz draped over surfaces and piles of stuff all the way up these big, sweeping stairs. I’m thinking rah, must’ve been some kind of shubz going on last night.

As I eyeball the place there’s a tap-tap-tap and Miss Merfield’s legs appear on the stairs. They’re skinny and pale and wrapped in a thick brown skirt that looks like it’s made from a sack. Her hair’s tied in a messy knot on her head, wisps falling in front of her big brown eyes.

‘Hey!’

Even without the boots, Miss Merfield makes bare noise for someone that skinny and light. It’s like there’s a horse coming down the stairs. For a second it looks like she’s gonna try and kiss me, but I skirt her like a boxer and shoot her this breezy smile, so she just does the same and sweeps me towards one of the doors in the place. I’d rather just take the sterling and split, but I get the impression it ain’t gonna work out like that. These middle-class types, they turn everything into a proper event.

‘How’s it going?’ Miss Merfield’s talking to me, but she can’t help taking one last look at the good-looking man as he ghosts into another room.

‘Good,’ I lie. If things was good, I wouldn’t be here, but Miss Merfield don’t need to know that.

‘Sorry about the mess.’ Miss Merfield pulls a face and I look around the room we’re in, clocking the piled-up pizza boxes and bags and pans everywhere. The surfaces I can see look like they’re shiny and posh, like everything else in the place. ‘We had a bit of a party last night.’

I skirt round a set of white speakers that’s connected to a giant stereo, thinking about what kind of party it was and what Miss Merfield would be like when she gets boozed up. For some reason I can’t picture it.

Miss Merfield stops in the middle of the room, looking awkward. There’s a table somewhere under all the junk, but it’s gonna take a while to find it. She chews on her lip, eyes narrow, then she gives me this look – like the kind of look you give when you’re about to do something bad – and launches herself at it, clearing the whole thing in one go. Everything rolls and splashes to the floor, but Miss Merfield don’t seem to care. I smile.

‘Tea?’ she says, spinning round to the tap.

I shake my head, even though my throat’s saying yes. Miss Merfield always offered me tea in lessons. Every week I said no, turning her down countless of times until one day she tells me I’m having some anyway. It wasn’t so bad. From that day on she made me tea every lesson.

The table’s sticky so I keep my elbows to myself. Miss Merfield washes some glasses and pours us water from the tap. I gulp it down, thinking rah, even the water tastes better round here. It’s like everything’s on a different level.

Miss Merfield sits there, eyeballing the mess. I get the feeling her mind ain’t on the mess, though; her mind’s on that ring and the notes she’s about to hand over.

‘So,’ she says, like something’s gonna happen. But before Miss Merfield can get no more words out, this other voice fills the room – a high-pitched squeal that hurts my ears.

‘I forgot the brownies!’

I spin round. Some woman’s busting into the room in a tight red dress that makes me think she’s still wearing her garmz from the night before. It’s a nice style, some expensive designer I reckon, but that much titty at this time of day is too much to handle. It’s more than even the jezzies would show.

‘I’m so hungover. I feel like – oh, hi!’ She steps over this pile of chicken bones that Miss Merfield just swept to the floor, her eyes flickering at me behind these long, fake lashes. The blur of makeup on her face makes me think she’s definitely still dolled up from the night before. Maybe she ain’t been to sleep. Maybe it’s her tights hanging on the light in the hall.

‘I’m Beth.’

I say hi, wondering what the setup is here. The woman’s the same age as Miss Merfield, but she’s got green cat eyes and short black hair that flicks and shines when she moves. Her style’s like the opposite of Miss Merfield’s – not just the skimpy threads, but the way she talks and moves and smiles.

She yanks on the oven door and this smell blasts out across the room like nothing I ever smelt in my whole life. It’s like a drug. I breathe it in, pulling in breath after sweet breath, my mouth filling up with spit.

‘Phew.’ The woman wafts a cloth in front of her face and I catch a glimpse of her shiny red nails as she yanks out this giant tray. My belly’s growling so loud I reckon everyone in the room can hear it.

‘Everyone like brownies?’

She comes over with the tray and I swear her tits nearly burn clean off. In my head, there’s this voice telling me it ain’t right to be cotching with the likes of Miss Merfield and this woman, but my belly ain’t listening to the voice and before I can even reply, my hand’s gone and snatched up a brownie.

For a minute, I can’t even think about nothing else – just the taste of this stuff in my mouth and the feeling of my insides getting filled. When I look up, there’s this whole plate of brownies sitting between me and Miss Merfield and Big Tits has flitted out the room. Miss Merfield’s nibbling like a bird.

‘Beth’s an awesome cook,’ she says, pushing the tray at me. ‘She’s awesome at all sorts, actually. She’s the one who designed the Wanted signs for my ring.’

I nod, taking another brownie and feeling bad again. I ain’t gonna tell her that most of the red shiny cards ended up in the bin.

‘She’s got her own marketing firm.’

I nod, coz that seems like a good thing to do. I scoff down my second brownie, picking the stickiness out my teeth and feeling my thoughts fall back to the reason I’m here. I gotta get the sterling off Miss Merfield.

‘So,’ she says again. ‘How’s things?’

‘You already asked me that,’ I say. Truthfully, I think to myself, I didn’t see the point in the question the first time. How’s things? they always say, these types, but it ain’t like they wanna hear the truth.

‘Good point.’ She nods. ‘Sorry.’

I decide to hurry things along. ‘I know where your ring is, Miss.’

Miss Merfield jumps. This look flicks across her face like she’s excited but she don’t wanna show it. I feel bad again, but then I look around me. She ain’t short on p’s. Even this kitchen’s bigger than the whole of Snoop’s place.

The look fades away and Miss Merfield eyes me nervously.

‘You… You won’t put yourself in any danger getting it back, will you?’

‘Nah Miss,’ I say quickly. ‘It’s fine.’

‘Only…’ She puts her cup down and starts chewing her lip again. It’s like she’s worried about something. That makes me nervous, that does. I don’t want her thinking too much or she’ll work things out. ‘I know there are some dodgy streets around that area. The police took us on a drive-around.’

I nod back, suddenly feeling cold. Dodgy streets. That’s my endz. She’s disrespecting my endz. She don’t know nothing about SE15, living down here in this quiet little street with its hedges and flowers and trees. And as for running off to the fedz like they’re gonna make everything OK – that’s just typical, that is. I ain’t gonna say it, but I can’t see the uniforms taking me on a drive-around when someone robs me on the street.

There’s footsteps in the hallway and the man with the gelled hair sticks his head in.

‘Just popping out for some Alka-Seltzer,’ he says, shooting a smile at Miss Merfield. ‘Anything you need?’

I watch as she shakes her head and thanks him, lashes fluttering.

‘He your man, Miss?’ I ask when the front door’s swung shut.

‘Oh…’ Her eyes roam the table. ‘No, we’re just… mates. House mates.’

I nod, eyeing her carefully.

‘He owns this place,’ she says, like she needs to keep talking as the pink blotches spread up her cheeks. ‘Or rather, his dad does. He and Beth are uni mates and I know Beth from school, which is how we ended up here.’

She takes a bit gulp of water and I feel myself smiling. I ain’t never seen Miss Merfield look this awkward. She’s whipped on that man, I can tell.

‘So.’ She slides her glass away, looking like she means business. Finally. ‘You think you can get the ring, with the two fifty up-front?’

I nod, my mind zipping back to the point. ‘Definitely.’

She reaches back and grabs an envelope that’s balanced on a gunked-up food mixer, but she don’t hand it over straight away. She looks at me, her shoulders tensing up round her chin.

‘Look…’ Her eyes zigzag around the room like she’s lost in deep thoughts. ‘Um, I don’t know the rules around this, but I’m fairly sure I could lose my job if anyone found out I was giving a pupil money.’

I ignore the wave of worry that passes through me and push a smile onto my lips.

‘Rules is made to be broken,’ I say, remembering the words she told me when Mr Pritchard made up the new rule about no students being allowed in the music block kitchen. Then I think of something else. ‘And anyway, I ain’t a pupil no more, Miss.’

‘Well, you –’

Miss Merfield stops herself, like she’s worked out there ain’t no point in saying whatever she was gonna say.

‘I won’t tell no one,’ I say.

Fact is, I ain’t got no one to tell. Miss Merfield don’t need to worry about me going to the authorities over this. The authorities is the last place I’m gonna go.

She slides the envelope across the table and I take it, pushing back my chair as I stuff it in my pocket. My fingers itch to tear at the paper and count the notes, but I don’t allow it. I gotta wait.

Miss Merfield makes these noises like she wants me to stay – offers me tea again, says I’m welcome to stay, rah rah. I gotta split, though. I don’t belong around here.

I’m crossing the hall when something catches my eye through a half-closed door. It’s glossy and shiny and black, the keys so white they’re like freshly done bathroom tiles. Like everything else in the house, it looks expensive. It ain’t nothing like the scratched brown one at school.

Miss Merfield clocks my expression and pushes the door so I can see the whole thing. It’s reflecting the view through the window like a black polished mirror.

‘Nice piano, Miss.’

She nods. ‘Yes, it is. It was my dad’s. He was a concert pianist. Do you fancy a quick –’

‘No,’ I say quickly, remembering the strapped-up yardies and the boy who didn’t pay off his debt in time. No point in playing piano if you ain’t got the full set of fingers and thumbs. ‘I best be off.’

I make it as far as the door before I feel Miss Merfield’s hand lightly touch my shoulder.

‘Are you OK, Alesha? I mean… generally?’

I put on this breezy smile.

‘I’m fine, Miss. I’ll let you know when I got your ring.’

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