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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9. 9

I keep my head down and hold my pass up, checking out the bunch of hoods by the door, just in case. It ain’t like the gangstas ride about on buses, but everyone’s got affiliations. Could be snitches inside them hoods.

The bottom deck’s clear. It’s all old ladies and girls with headphones on, trying to block out the world. I get halfway to the stairs when I hear the driver’s voice and this familiar noise as he bangs on his little plastic screen. 

‘You two! Oi!’

You two. It’s us, I know. I stop in my tracks. Up ahead, JJ’s busting his way upstairs, but I ain’t gonna make it, not with these yats in my way – and anyway, even if I make it up there, the bus ain’t going nowhere with the driver still yelling like that. That’s how they are, these drivers. Jarring.

‘Hoods down.’

‘What?’ I push mine back just enough to look him in the eye. It’s one of them slow-moving, grumbling types who looks like he ain’t cracked a smile in years. ‘Why?’

‘Because I’m telling you to.’

I take a deep breath, feeling the air between us hot up. Because I’m telling you to. That ain’t no reason. You think he’d take that snarling look off his face if I told him to? This is why I hate the authorities. I hate them and their stupid rules. I always did, even when I was little. Miss Carson at Upton Junior used to say it was best if I didn’t get taught the school rules coz as soon as I knew them I’d be rah, let’s see how quick I can break them. No running in the corridors? Watch me. No spitting in the playground? Catch this. The social workers used to say it was coz our mums never bothered with no rules when we was little. I just reckon the rules don’t make no sense.

‘Why you sayin’ that?’ I yell, knowing I shouldn’t be, not if I wanna lie low. But seriously, I can’t just keep it all zipped up inside me.

‘Keep y’voice down, Miss. We’re not goin’ anywhere ’til you’ve put your hood down.’ He lets out this sigh like he’s tired already. I look at him. We ain’t hardly got started.

‘You can’t tell me that,’ I say, pulling my hood proper low on my face and tipping my head back so I’m looking down my nose at him. There’s footsteps on the stairs and I know it’s JJ coming back down. People around us start cussing and I can feel their eyes on the back of my head but I ain’t moving – not until this man gives me a proper answer. ‘You ask them nanas at the back to take off their hats, did you? You ask them Muslims to take off their headscarfs?’

The driver don’t reply – he just shakes his head like he’s seen it all before.

There’s a trampling of feet and then I hear JJ’s voice, all quiet in my ear. ‘Roxy, let’s go.’

‘Nah, man.’ I keep looking at the driver. ‘I wanna know if the other people’s been told the same thing. Have they?’

‘Seriously, blud.’ He’s pressing against me gently, trying to push me towards the doors we just come through.

‘Have they?’ I say again, putting up resistance to JJ’s pushing. ‘Or is it just us, the black kids, that spells automatic trouble?’

I heave against JJ, who heaves back, so we ain’t going nowhere. My breath’s coming quick now, making a noise as it flows in and out of my nose. It ain’t just this driver that’s riling me, it’s everyone – everywhere you go. People in power, chucking their weight around, playing God, coz they can. Teachers, shop owners, security guards, the fedz – they all say the same: Put your hood down. Don’t look at me like that. Empty your pockets. What’s their beef with our hoods anyway? Don’t they think maybe we ain’t showing our faces for a reason? Can’t they get it into their dumb heads that we ain’t doing it to intimidate no one – we’re doing it to keep ourselves safe?

JJ’s pushing harder now and I know I ain’t gonna win, so I roll with it. I think about yelling some final thing into the bus, but we’re on the street now and the doors is closing and I ain’t checked who’s about and even though my skin’s so hot I wanna scratch it all off, I got the sense to keep my gums sealed before I draw attention to myself.

JJ’s still pressing me when we get back on the street, his shoulder ramming up against mine like he’s got plans.

‘What you doing?’ I say as he barges me to the next stop, where a bus is just pulling up.

‘Stopping you getting merked,’ he says, pushing me on and stepping up behind, just as the doors slam shut. This driver don’t even bother to catch our eye.

‘What?’ I’m still raging. ‘What d’you mean?’

JJ checks out the other passengers, which reminds me to do the same. There’s a couple of boys up the front, but I don’t recognise them and the way they’re dressed tells me they’re rich boys, not the type to hang out with the Crew. The rest is all mums and pushchairs. 

JJ leans over so his mouth’s up close to my ear. ‘Don’t be so bait, fam.’

‘I ain’t bait.’ I spit out the words, even though I know he’s right.

‘You was bait, back there.’

I screw up my face, not liking the way this is going. ‘So what if I was?’ I shrug. ‘That driver was disrespecting us.’

‘Yeah, and what?’ he says, his voice deep.

I look at him for a second. He ain’t talking like the JJ I know. JJ wouldn’t stand for no disrespecting by no one. ‘What you saying?’

He keeps his eyes on me, our hoods practically touching, we’re that close.

‘You gotta pick your fights, blud. You go mouthing off at bus drivers, where’s that gonna get you?’

I lean back on the yellow rail. Ain’t got no answer to that. Far as I know, we mouth off at whoever asks for it – whoever needs teaching a lesson. Except when it’s the fedz. Then it’s a different set of rules.

‘And right now?’ JJ looks at me, shaking his head like the yardies do when they ain’t impressed. ‘When you owe a G to the Crew? That ain’t smart, Roxy. That ain’t smart.’

I feel myself nodding. Even though I’m still pissed at the bus driver, a small part of my brain gets what JJ’s saying. The reminder of the p’s I owe and the threats Wayman pushed at JJ makes me cold inside. It’s been a week now – they’re gonna ramp up the pressure soon, I know it.

My eyes lock onto JJ’s hand, which is sliding into his pocket.

‘You gonna be careful, blud?’ He pulls out this roll of notes, keeping his hand wrapped around it so only I can see.

I nod, showing him I know how serious the situation is. Coz I do. I ain’t gonna forget what it feels like to have someone put a strap to your head. I know we ain’t messing around no more.

He slips the roll into my hand. It’s nice and solid, like the type they hand over for the food. It feels good between my fingers; makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere – like I might live to see the week out after all.

‘How much?’ I ask.

‘Two.’

I nod, doing quick sums in my head. Add that to the two-fifty Miss Merfield gived me, plus the rest of my stash… That’s nine bills. I’m nearly there. Nearly safe to walk down my own roads without getting shanked. I tug on my hood again, out of habit, and look deep into JJ’s eyes.

‘You being careful?’

He just does this little shrug.

‘They been asking more questions?’

He shakes his head. ‘Nah, blud. It’s all good.’

I keep on looking at him. ‘They know we’re tight, fam.’

‘It’s cool.’ JJ’s brown eyes bore into mine. ‘They got bigger things to deal with than this, trust.’

The way he says these words makes me suspicious.

‘Like what?’ I ask. ‘What bigger things?’

JJ rearranges himself, leaning off one of the high rails and making himself proper tall. I only just noticed how tall he is – and big, too. I catch a glimpse of his stomach where his tee pulls up and the skin’s dark and tight – all muscle.

‘You know Omar Cox got nabbed?’

‘Everyone in South knows,’ I say, wondering where this is going. ‘He got done for assault.’

JJ nods, looking at me with this weird smile, like he can’t wait to spill the news. It’s the same weird smile he done that time at the Shack, when the Omar thing first kicked off.

‘What?’ I say. ‘What’s going on?’

Slowly, an eyebrow lifts up.

‘Turns out, it wasn’t him doing the assault.’

‘What?’ I ain’t following.

JJ swings closer, his voice dropping low. ‘The fedz,’ he says, eyes twinkling. ‘They pulled him in the back of the van and stepped to him. Words and fists, blud. Words and fists.’

I let out this long breath and let my eyes wander, thinking rah, that’s bad. That’s bad for Omar, coz he never went looking for no trouble and now he’s on trial for assault. But I don’t get JJ’s mood. It’s like he’s high – like this is good news. What’s good about one of your bredrin getting licked by the boydem in the back of a van and then getting accused of verbal assault? Omar can’t press charges like they can, coz he ain’t got no proof – it’s just his word against theirs and nobody’s gonna believe some black kid from Peckham who’s been linking with Tremaine Bell’s sister for how long. I don’t get it.

Then JJ drops the bombshell.

‘He got proof.’

My head jolts up. ‘What?’

‘He got the whole thing on his phone.’

‘Swear down!’

JJ’s nodding so much it’s like he’s been electrocuted. I ain’t never seen him buzzing like this – not since we played our last game of knock-and-run on the estate, years back.

‘He was leaving a voicemail when it happened and he never dropped the call. It’s all there, man. N-word and all.’

I catch the grin off JJ’s lips as my brain catches up.

‘They used the n-word in his face?’

JJ nods. ‘The fedz don’t know about the voicemail. The mandem’s gonna leak it to the press just before the trial. He got their badge numbers and everything. They’re going down, blud. Them uniforms is going down.’

I take it in. This is news. Bare people I know been put away for assault, bare people come out saying it wasn’t a fair trial or it was just their word against the boydem’s, but this… this is turning the tables. Proof of the fedz assaulting a black boy? That’s gonna kick off something serious. My whole body feels alive and tingling.

‘When’s the trial?’

‘End of August.’

‘That’s soon.’ 

JJ don’t reply, he just nods, slowly. He’s got this wide, toothy grin on his lips – a grin I ain’t seen on him in long.

‘Fedz ain’t gonna know what’s hit’em,’ he says.

I find myself nodding, thinking about Omar and what’s gonna happen when they send the press the voicemail, but my brain won’t stay focused. It keeps sliding off Omar and onto the boy with the arm muscles flexing above my head. These last few days it’s been like cotching with a different person. JJ’s said it himself that when he cruises on the roads, people know him. Yoots apologise if they cross his path. His status is rising and I can see the change in him.

I know this is a bad thing as well as good. I seen what the likes of Tremaine and Wayman can do. But truthfully, I ain’t never seen JJ look so sure of himself. Even though I’m fearful of what might happen if they find out he’s lying, or if they take a dislike to him like they took a dislike to Kingsley and countless of others; even though there’s bare things to be afraid of now he’s in deep with the Peckham Crew, there’s good things that can come of it too. And right now, it feels like JJ deserves some good things in his life.

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