Since the Riots, Chapter Three

(DRAFT CHAPTER. IF YOU SEE A TYPO, PLEASE TELL ME IN COMMENTS BOX BELOW)

Having slept with her mobile directly under her pillowcase, Isobel wakes up to check her phone. Relief.

Morning shorty, Soz, fone bttry died. tingz went fine wid da bredders. Hope u wernt too shook from it. Nxt time leave Dwayne out of tingz. He went mad. Lucky I was bak home den. How was da girl? Uokay? Jxx

Isobel pulls on her baby pink towelling dressing gown and animal slippers. Still tired, she walks downstairs to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

At the end of the hallway floor lying by the front door is a hand-delivered envelope ornately decorated with flowers and exotic birds. The prettiest envelope Isobel has ever seen. In the most magnificent handwriting the card is addressed to her. She flips over to read the back, Emily Sutton, 55 Pepys Road, Telegraph Hill.

A rush of excitement stirs her sleepy head. She never gets nice letters! Stuffing her mobile into her dressing gown, she rushes to the kitchen table.

Dear Isabelle,

Thank you so much for helping me out yesterday. You and your friend risked your own safety for a stranger, and this fills me with immense gratitude. I am both overwhelmed and humbled by your good deed. I do not know how things would have ended had you not come to rescue me. Looking back, I should never have put up a fight, but my camera is a precious gift that means more to me than anything else.

I told my mother what happened and she would like to invite you and your mother over for tea and cake, this afternoon, if you are free? If this is not convenient for you, then let us rearrange another time that suits. If this is convenient, then I would be grateful if you could let me know so that I can begin to bake you the best thank-you cake in the world.

My kindest regards,

Emily Sutton

Then scribbled in grey pencil: P.S. Remember what we said xx

Isobel looks at the clock as she fills the kettle. It is just after eleven. See if Mum wants one, she thinks. Better not shout. Probably hungover.

Isobel walks upstairs, gently knocking her mother’s bedroom door. ‘Wanna cup of tea?’ she whispers, pushing the door open, popping her head inside. No sign of Carol Richards. The bed is still made with several rejected outfits spread over the bed sheets and floor, along with an empty bottle of rosé. Dread instantly replaces the excitement of Emily’s card as Isobel calls her mum’s mobile. She hears the ringtone faintly coming from downstairs, and with a sinking heart heads to the living room to find Carol lying on the floor, puke on the carpet next to her.

Isobel puts her ear to mother’s mouth, eyes on Carol’s chest. Relief floods in as she hears breathing and feels her mother’s pulse. Looking at Carol’s ripped tights, she gently strokes the greasy strands of hair away from the vomit down on her mother’s face, mascara smudged down her cheeks. She’d been crying again.

‘You smell homeless,’ Isobel whispers, before noticing the picture frame on the floor. She reaches over to pick it up and sees the image of her father. Isobel recognises the photo but not the frame. Any anger towards her mother’s drinking dissipates as Isobel lets out a sigh, ‘Come on Mum, let’s get ya to bed.’

Somebody knocks on the front door while Isobel is hoisting her mother’s body up from the floor. What now? She gently lays Carol back onto the carpet and places the photo upon the mantelpiece.

‘Alright?’ Hayley asks, walking straight into the kitchen.

‘Sort of,’ Isobel replies, following her friend. Third time lucky, she’ll make that cup of tea.

‘What’s the matta?’ Hayley asks.

‘Where do you want me to start?’ Hayley follows her around the kitchen as her she grabs teabags and milk. ‘Mum’s passed out in the living room. Pissed out her brain. Again. I ain’t had no sleep. Last night after you and Dwayne left, me and Jerome–‘

‘Oh my god! You fucked him!’

‘Shhh. Keep your voice down Hays, Mum’s in the living room. No, we talked about it. Ain’t you spoke to Dwayne?’

‘About what?’

‘Oh my days, me and Jerome was walking to mine, all cosy and everything, then these boys were merking up some girl, like proper merking her. She was so shook, Hay. Crying ain’t the word. Me and Jerome run over to stop it.’

‘What – did Jerome ruck with dem?’

‘Nah. He was chatting to them for ages. Then took them back down the hill.’

‘Did they beef with him?’

‘That was the worst part. His phone was going to answerphone and I was stuck with this girl.’

‘What time was this?’ Hayley asks wide-eyed.

‘Nine, not even late.’

‘Naaaah, that ain’t on. Where were they from?’ Hayley’s voice becoming increasingly incensed.

‘Don’t know, they wouldn’t tell us.’

‘Did they know you was Graff Gang?’

‘Yeah I told them. But the main one wasn’t even scared.’

‘Shi-t. Nah, this is madness.’ Hayley shakes her head. ‘Jerome okay?’

‘Yeah, I got a text this morning, but I couldn’t sleep all night, Hay. I was crying my eyes out. I wanted to go his house but I couldn’t knock on the door and wake his nan up and shit. Anything could‘ve happened to him. Loads of teenagers are getting stabbed. The streets is getting worse. These days, you don’t know who’s carrying a knife. And they’re proper little yutes. You got ten year olds not scared to stab a grown man.’

‘I know. That’s why my brother said he’s gonna get me a gun.’

‘What?’ Isobel looks at Hayley in shock.

‘Yeah. I said no, but now I think I should say yes. That way if they come back, I’ll do more than knock ‘em out,’ Hayley picks up the unused chopsticks from last night’s Chinese and jerks it in the air.

‘Hayley, what are you on about? You’re talking about killing… a person!’ Isobel shakes her head in disbelief and pours milk into her friend’s tea.

‘Yeah, do you think if someone pulls a knife out, I’m gonna just have it?’ Hayley stirs in three sugars. ‘No way, they’re getting a gun pulled out on them, blood.’

‘Hayley, you’re talking madness. And, if not, then make sure you and your gun stay right away from me. Joint enterprise. If police – oh yeah and that reminds me I ain’t happy with you.’

‘Fucking hell, I just walked in the door!’

‘You know what I am on about. You stole that hair gel yesterday.’

‘I didern’t. Oh yeah,’ Hayley switches things back on Isobel, shaking her head from side to side, ‘I should be angry with you, getting fag burns in my jeans, but you’re lucky I saw you was being paranoid; too much weed.’

Isobel takes the chopsticks from her friend and theatrically places them against Hayley’s chin, ‘Swear on your gran’s life you didn’t steal anything yesterday.’

‘I swear on my mum’s life.’

Isobel looks Hayley square in the face, ‘I said your gran’s life.’

‘You was outside smoking, so if anything happened you wouldn’t have nuffin to do with it.’

‘I don’t care where I was!’ Isobel exclaims. ‘I’m serious. What if police stop you an hour later? These days, I’ll get done too. Joint enterprise.’

‘What you keep saying joint enterprise for?’

‘Because police don’t see it that way. I get it just for being with you.’

‘Alright, man! I come here to get away from all this,’ grabbing one chopstick back, she uses it to stir in the sugar at the bottom of the mug. ‘So who was the girl they was robbing?’

Distraction successful, they both sit down at the table.

‘Well this is the interesting bit. Some girl who lives in one of those houses on Pepys Road.’

‘Did you take her home?’

‘Yeah but I brought her here first. She was a proper mess. All shaking and crying.’

‘Did you call her mum?’

‘She didn’t wanna tell her mum. She said that would tip her over the edge, or something like that. Nah, she just washed her face and we chatted. Proper well spoken. A bit posh as it happens.’

‘Old? Young?’

‘About to go in Year 11. Same as us. She was already doing A-Level stuff, “Prep Work” she called it,’ Isobel remembered being impressed. She’d not met anyone who does coursework on time let alone before the school year begins.

‘What a boffin.’ Hayley gets up to raid Carol’s biscuit tin.

‘She says she’d been doing it all summer. She got her Art GCSE in Year 10. A-star!’

‘What a fucking megatron boffin.’ Hayley dips a chocolate biscuit into her tea. She takes three more biscuits before passing the tin to Isobel.

‘Make sure you eat the whole thing, don’t just lick out the chocolate!’

‘Alright, fam! What was they robbing her for?’

‘Her camera, but she wouldn’t let go of it.’ Isobel picks out a custard cream, ‘Jerome was well good though, pretended like it was some cheap crap to stop them taking it. Worth five hundred pounds.’

‘Five hundred! You should’ve robbed it! Did they teef anything else?’ Hayley pulls the tin back to her end of the table, taking out two more bourbons.

‘Nah, she only had that on her, and her door key. Gonna meet up with her today. Oh yeah, what’s the time? I have to ring and say yes.’ Isobel briefly flashes Hayley the handmade card before retrieving Emily’s home phone number.

Hayley snatches the card back for inspection. She starts to mimic a posh English accent, ‘And this fills me with im-mense gra-ti-tude. I am both over…whel-med and hum-bled by your good deed. Blo-ody hell!’ she exclaims. ‘Did you save the Queen ‘erself?’

Isobel grabs the card, and motions her friend to be quiet while she waits for someone to pick up. Meanwhile Hayley returns the bourbon biscuits back to the tin, minus the chocolate filling.

‘Urm, hello. Could I speak to Emily please? This is Isobel Richards. Yes, from last night.’

‘This is Isobel Richards,’ Hayley mimics.

Emily’s mum, Janie is on the other end. She speaks in a rush of thankfulness, ‘Oh what an amazing girl you are, Isabelle. Emily told me all about it. So nice of you. Very kind indeed. I’m Janie, Emily’s mum. So you received Emily’s card I gather? Are you both able to make tea today?’

‘Urm, I can, but…’ she pauses to think of an excuse, ‘my mum is sick.’

‘Pissed as a fart!’ Hayley shouts, screwing up her face.

Isobel, already stressed by trying to pronounce each word properly waves at Hayley to shut up.

‘She, has an upset stomach’ Isobel continues. Deciding to remove herself from Hayley, she walks out of the kitchen, opening the front door.

‘…AND SO I TOLD THAT CUNT, RIGHT…’ Isobel slams the door on her neighbour’s conversation and walks past the kitchen and down the hallway.

‘Oh poor her,’ replies Janie Sutton in her chirpily. ‘Send your mother our kindest regards. She must be very proud to have such an honest daughter.’

Looking at her passed-out-drunk mother through the crack of the living room door, Isobel replies, ‘Yeah, she is.’ Carol stirs to the sound of her daughter. Isobel gasps and rushes up the stairs into her bedroom.

‘Okey dokey, Isabelle. We shall expect you at teatime.’

‘Urm. So, what time should I get there?’ Isobel remains monotone.

‘Well, teatime…’ a silence, ‘so… four o’clock.’

‘Oh. Okay. See you then. Bye,’ Isobel flips her mobile phone shut and falls back onto her bed, exhausted from the mental concentration of having to speak to a posh person.

 

In another world entirely, Emily’s mother puts down the phone and chuckles to herself, ‘I forget that some children are not educated in the same way as you, dear.’ She smiles, ‘The girl doesn’t know when teatime is.’

‘Oh Mum,’ Emily groans. ‘You haven’t made her feel self-conscious have you?’ Emily cringes, as she hears her mother go on. Nobody cares about the Dutchess of Bedford.

‘Now why would I do that? Just an observation, that’s all.’ Janie begins to collect her keys and jacket to go shopping. She’s not happy. ‘Where exactly does this girl come from?’

Emily smiles at herself in the antique hall mirror, ‘Down the road.’ She glides her hands over the wooden panelling, following her mother, now in the kitchen digging out the reusable bags. ‘Mum, this will be so cool.’

Janie smiles into the kitchen cupboard. This is the first time in a long while that her teenager has used that adjective on her. She resurfaces, popping two shopping bags into her handbag before turning to her daughter, ‘So I’m doing something cool for once?’

‘Of course you are. I really feel like me and Isabelle clicked last night. Felt like meeting an old friend. Exactly what I need.’

‘Well, Emily dear, before you fill that pretty head of yours with dreams, can Mummy give you some advice?’

Emily shrugs, all set to mentally block what is about to come from Mrs Sutton’s lips.

‘Emily. It is right and proper to thank someone for a good deed. This tea will be just that. As far as friendship goes, darling, well, I cannot see it. Now, you have just about convinced me to invite a stranger into our home. But let me be clear. This is a one-off. I just heard the way that girl speaks and, well, your father will not approve of such a friendship.’

‘Mum, you haven’t even met Isabelle yet; and she can’t be a bad person. Look what she did for me?’ Emily looks at her mother with puppy eyes.

‘Emily, dear, I understand. You are a sweet girl. Heaven knows, had I stupidly left my bag on a wall, I would not expect someone to return it to me. You are very lucky indeed, but this really doesn’t mean you need to become friends.’ She pauses thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps I have made error of judgment here. I should have consulted your father before inviting–‘

‘No!’ Emily intercepts her mother’s growing angst, ‘No Mummy, really. You are quite equipped to make your own well-judged decisions, without,’ Emily pushes her chin in towards her neck, deepening her voice, she frowns, mimicking her father: ‘Mr Sutton getting involved.’

Emily’s mum giggles.

‘You shouldn’t mock your father. Or call him Mr Sutton.’ Mrs Sutton heads towards the door, grabbing her car keys on the way. ‘I’m off to Lordship Lane. You know what you have to do now?’ She points to the piano.

Emily stands straight and salutes: ‘Concerto number three in D minor, Ma’am.’

Her mother doesn’t really do impressions but plays along, ‘Piano exam in three weeks, soldier.’

 

Once Emily sees her mother drive away, she picks up the phone and presses the redial digits to retrieve Isobel’s number.

‘Hello, can I speak to Isabelle please?’

‘Speaking,’ Isobel answers, rushing back to her bedroom.

After a few minutes, Isobel returns with a huge smile on her face.

‘So what did posh girl say?’ Hayley sneers.

‘Her name is Emily,’ Isobel gives her friend a look. ‘She just called to tell me not to say nothing about the mugging to her parents. She said they would make her go hospital for a check-up, then police to record the crime, then lock her in the house for the rest of her life.’

‘What happened, love?’ Carol asks, back in the land of the living, putting a shaking lighter to the cigarette hanging from her mouth.

‘Can I have a fag, Carol?’ Hayley asks.

‘No. Buy your own!’

Hayley pokes her tongue out at Carol then takes another biscuit and begins licking out the chocolate filling.

‘Last night some girl got mugged and me and Jerome stopped it.’ Isobel hands her mum the card, ‘She posted this today and wants me to go over and meet her mum.’

‘Oh that’s nice,’ Carol stirs her instant coffee. ‘What a lovely wee card.’ Isobel grabs it back so that Carol doesn’t see the part that invites the mother along too. Not noticing this urgency, Carol takes her eye mask out of the fridge. ‘Well I’m proud. Now excuse me but I need to be in a dark place. Have fun. I’ll cook a roast later… if I get up.’ Kissing her daughter on the forehead, she drags her hangover upstairs. After a final lick, Hayley sneaks the biscuit back into the tin.

 

3.59pm. Isobel is standing outside 55 Pepys Road wearing her nicest top and jeans, with some black flat pumps and a matching handbag. 4pm. Isobel rings the doorbell.

 

5.05pm. Isobel is back at home, a slightly changed person. She opens the front door to the flat, floats upstairs to her room, falls back onto her bed and stares at the ceiling.

 

Marx and Engels, Emily thinks, looking at her mother. No that’s Communism. Start again. Think. Think. Eliza Doolittle!

‘Perhaps we should watch My Fair Lady while we wait for Mr Sutton?’ Emily suggests biting her lip. Come on Dover, move your bloomin’ arse!

Her mother cuts her a knowing look, ‘Emily please! And stop calling your father Mr Sutton!’

‘But Mummy, who says rich and poor can’t be friends?’

‘Emily, don’t put words into my mouth. I mentioned nothing about money. I am more concerned about your education. This is a big year for you and I do not want to pollute your environment with distraction.’

‘Mum, I want the same things too. This is all linked to my education. This is like, like performance art.’ Emily forms a theatrical pose.

‘You do not take performing arts, dear.’

‘A rich ethnographic study. From this I am sure to derive the highest possible A-Level grade the art department has ever seen. Not to mention the critical acclaim!’ Emily takes a bow.

Mrs Sutton bends down to pick up a cake crumb missed by the broom. Emily stares at her mother. Her antique pearl earrings are an everyday adornment, as is the modest necklace with a small ruby pendant and her gold bracelet. Her mother’s wedding and engagement rings sparkle as she fluffs her hair in the hallway mirror. For her fifty-two years, and at five foot six inches, she looks deceptively normal – in her polo shirt and navy trousers. On the face of it, Mrs Sutton looks like any other wealthy woman, except she’s a stickler for traditions to the point of being odd; her strict views of the world and its citizens results in her few friends and lots of time for gardening projects and local committees. Polite while keeping people at arm’s length. Whereas Emily dreams of parents who have an open house, let friends invite friends, who embrace the random.

‘And when I’m living in Paris,’ Emily continues, ‘you can read about me in the newspaper: “Emily Sutton: artist or social visionary?” You can say to yourself, I helped my daughter meet her muse.’

Emily’s mother puts on her royal blue cardigan. She stares at her daughter theatrically fluttering an invisible paintbrush around an invisible easel. ‘Emily, I don’t know where all this comes from. Neither from my side of the family, nor your father’s. Help me prepare supper and forget happened. Your father will be home from the golf tournament in…’ her immaculate fingers lift her sleeve to expose her gold watch, ‘precisely one hour. And he shall be expecting his supper on the table.’

Emily, poking her tongue at her mother’s back, vows to never be in a marriage as dull as this one. Like, ever. And with every intention of making Isobel Richards her new best friend, she follows her mother obediently to the kitchen.

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Since the Riots, Chapter Two

(DRAFT CHAPTER. IF YOU SEE A TYPO, PLEASE TELL ME IN COMMENTS BOX BELOW)

‘I know!’ Hayley says, excited, ‘Let’s both text the boys; you text Jerome and I’ll text Dwayne and we’ll see who texts back first.’

‘Saying what?’ Isobel smiles, thinking of Jerome’s soft lips.

Hayley reads out her text message to Dwayne: Can’t w8 2 suck ur dick l8r.

‘Hays!’ Isobel exclaims. ‘We’re on the bus, man! Hold it down.’

‘I’m joking, man. Just put something like, ‘Hi babes, still wanna meet up? Kiss. Kiss.’ First one to text back is real love!’

The pair type their messages in silence.

‘Ready yet?’ asks Hayley. ‘Make sure we send it exactly the same time!’ she adds, hitting the send button to get a head start.

‘Okay, I’m ready.’

‘Go! Time it too,’ Hayley insists. ‘4.37pm on my phone what does yours say?’

Her phone beeps. ‘That’s my credit. Bollocks. Run out. This tune comes on when Dwayne texts.’ Hayley puts the volume up as the beats scramble through the speakers of her brother’s old phone.

‘I love that tune,’ Isobel agrees, and they start singing the chorus. A woman turns her head with a disapproving growl at the noise they’re making. Hayley gives her the middle finger. Weighing it up, she turns back, shaking her head.

‘Stupid bitch,’ Hayley mutters loud enough for the woman’s shoulders to flinch.

‘Do you always have to do that?’ Isobel hisses.

R’n’B’ plays from Isobel’s phone. She sits upright, ‘It’s… Tameika.’

‘Crazy Christian Tameika?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why’s she got your number?’

‘I gave it to her the other day. Some project she’s doing.’

‘Dat girl’s always on a Jesus flex.’

‘Innit. She’s got that Duke of Edinburgh thing where she wants to send good messages to her neighbours.’ Isobel would have signed up for it too, but felt like the gang would have taken the piss out of her.

Hayley’s stopped listening. Instead she scans the streets outside, hoping to see a familiar face she can yell at.

‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

Hayley turns back to Isobel.

‘What’s Gandhi mean?’ asks Isobel.

‘Some African voodoo shit. It’s a curse ting.’

Isobel’s phone vibrates again in her hand, making her jump.

‘Ha! That got you shook!’ Hayley laughs loudly.

‘It’s Jerome!’ Isobel’s back arches as butterflies rush around her stomach.

Hi babes, yeh I’m gud. Cum 2 da Endz. Wer gonna go park l8r.                  Wot u doin 2nite. Can I cum ovr? Jx

’What should I say?’

‘Ask him if Dwayne’s there.’

‘Dwayne’s always there.’

‘Ask him if Dwayne loves Hayley.’

‘Like Dwayne chats to Jerome like me and you talk.’

‘Ask him… if they’ve got weed?’

Isobel’s phone beeps again.

‘He wants to come my house. Mum’s going pub tonight, you know?’ She looks to Hayley to read between the lines.

But Hayley’s back surveying pavements, ‘Oi FRANKIE!!!’ Hayley jumps on the seat, trying to get her face as far out of the small window opening as possible. ‘FRANKIE!!!’

A teenager looks up but the bus moves too fast for him to recognise Hayley’s thumb in the air.

‘Yeah, so… you know,’ Isobel pulls Hayley back onto the seat, ‘I’m not chatting my business on the bus, Hays.’

‘Oh seen, seen. I get ya now.’ Hayley makes porno noises in the annoyed lady’s direction.

The two girls jump off the bus and head home to meet the boys.

‘Why do they call this a road when it’s blatantly a hill?’ Hayley puffs. ‘Spark up and twos me?’

Second road on the right and the end is in sight. There are two blocks on the estate. Isobel lives in one and Hayley the other.

 

Turning into Jerningham Court, the pair can hear the boys’ laughter echoing from a stairwell. Jerome and his older brother Dwayne live in another block of flats on the other side of the street but they choose to hang around the girls’ blocks to avoid troubling their grandmother.

Following the laughter, they head to Hayley’s block to find their gang on the steps smoking.

Most adults living between New Cross Gate and Brockley have never heard of the Graff Gang, but if you’re a teenager, Dwayne Madaki and Jerome Campbell are a well-known duo. They are more than half-brothers; they’re best friends. When their mother left for the last time, Dwayne made a promise to Jerome that no matter what happens, he will never let his little brother out of his sight.

Jerome catches Isobel approaching, ‘Babes!’ he cries, excited.

‘Ahhh! Swag,’ call out the boys, laughing at their friend jogging up the stairs to meet his girlfriend.

‘You alright?’ Jerome asks, kissing Isobel on the cheek and putting his arm around her shoulders.

‘I’m fine fanks, darling. Yourself?’ Hayley utters sarcastically, pulling Isobel back towards her.

Jerome laughs, ‘Sorry Hays. You alright though?’ He gives Hayley his flagship little wink and smile.

‘Datz, Little Miss to you!’ Hayley snips as the trio meet the group.

Their name comes from Telegraph Hill, where they all live (except Barry), though they spell it ‘graff’ like graffiti.

Behind the bins in the stairwell, If you look around, you can see the gang’s logo. When they agreed on their name, Isobel  tried to convince them to keep it ‘ph’ and not graff, so they’d be more sophisticated, but after much heated debate, it was decided that it wasn’t street enough. For Isobel, being part of Graff Gang meant she belonged on the estate, having moved there unexpectedly at the age of eight.

 

 

Dwayne sits on the steps with his back towards the girls. Hayley decides to creep up on him. Putting her hands over his eyes, she shouts, ‘Guess who?’

‘Watch, man!’ Dwayne snorts, pushing Hayley away at the same time she tries to kiss his cheek. ‘Can’t you see I’m building a blunt?’

‘Sorry,’ Hayley mumbles. ‘I didn’t see.’

The other boys laugh. Hayley scowls at them before sitting a couple of steps down from Dwayne. For all her big mouth and rudeness, she is pretty quiet around her boyfriend, something Isobel finds highly annoying. The others continue to laugh, because that’s what they do all day: Catch jokes.

The group head towards the basketball court. But as they approach they can see it’s full of university students playing football.  Dwayne sizes them up. Graff Gang usually hang out and smoke weed by the benches, but their spot has been taken by a few girls with rollers in their hair and high-waist floral shorts sipping cans of cider. The rest of the group watch Dwayne to see what he is thinking. He looks up at the light blue sky, then back at the students.

‘Come, we go top park,’ he says. Everyone follows. They walk past. A football is kicked over, bouncing into the bushes in front of Dwayne.

‘Kick it over, lads?’ asks one of the students. Dwayne shoots the student his usual screwed-up face and continues walking. Isobel, embarrassed, runs to get the ball out from the bush. Jerome helps and kicks it back into the court.

‘Nice one, bro,’ the student says, raising his thumb to Jerome. Jerome nods back.

‘He ain’t your bro,’ Dwayne snorts.

The student, unfazed, shakes the indie cut from his eyes to tackle his friend before lashing in a volley, and turning away in triumph. Isobel smiles at Jerome and hangs back to hold his hand.

They cross the road and head to the highest point of Telegraph Hill Park. The Upper Park doesn’t have the swings, slides, pretty ponds or basketball court. Inside, there are couples playing tennis while owners walk their dogs and the fat-2-fit squad get tortured by their personal trainer. Aside from the tennis and a few benches, there isn’t much going on up there. But the view of London’s skyline is pretty cool.

Today feels just perfect to Issy. The sky is clear. The sun is warm with a soft breeze that tickles the skin. Everyone can wear their t-shirts and vests without a goose pimple in sight. The gang settle on the grassy bank for the evening, laughing and joking, as they always do, at the expense of each other.

No-one is safe from the cusses of their friends. There are only degrees of who gets teased the most. In first place is Barry, mainly because he’s called Barry. His parents knew a Barry who was really kind to them when they arrived from Grenada. How were they to know that calling a black boy living in London trying to be gangsta “Barry” was not a good move? They thought an English sounding name would stand their son in good stead for the future.

‘Yeah a future packing shelves,’ Anton laughs.

‘Shelves?’ cries Dwayne, ‘You mean washing toilets, bruv.’

‘Barry,’ Andre says, still laughing, ‘If you keep saying it over, it just sounds more and more nutz, bruv. Barry. Barry. Barry. Barry. Barry!’

Jerome and Isobel roll around with the others, in fits.

Poor Barry sits upright, ‘Nah man. I’m just gonna get it changed when I’m eighteen, I can’t take this shit my whole life.’

‘Bahhh haaaah,’ they continue laughing, producing tears and belly cramps.

‘Yeah, it ain’t funny though.’ Barry watches everyone hugging their torsos at his expense.

Second in the pecking order is Anton. Anton is seen as “a bit thick”. When he gets things wrong, he gets them so wrong. Dwayne, Jerome and Barry once made up a fake profile and downloaded pictures of a world famous singer. They then added Anton and convinced him she was a girl from Brixton who wanted to suck his dick but only if he took photos of it and sent them to her. And Anton did it. Those photos were texted to everyone in their phonebooks. He forgave them eventually. Just.

Hayley is in third position. Although, since she and Dwayne have been beating – the latest slang word for sex – she receives less flack. Hayley’s weakness is her chaotic family. Hayley’s dad is in and out of prison and the Graff Gang boys often joke about how poor Hayley is. Hayley has blown her lid a couple of times when failing to see the funny side of their verbal ambush. She once punched Anton in the face for joking that he got head from Hayley’s mum for a half-eaten fried chicken and chips – ‘Not even bucket bruv, she sucked my dick for the one pound meal deal.

Dwayne, Jerome and Andre don’t receive the same level of humiliating treatment though they do get cussed: Andre for his big lips, Dwayne for his “blick” skin, and Jerome for being a pretty boy and a soft touch, both qualities exaggerated since he fell for Isobel. Somehow this gets him called a Battyman.

The gang tease Isobel for being too traditional and conformist. She doesn’t like breaking the law, she enjoys school, likes police, never shoplifts, and thinks prison is a good form of punishment; though she makes an exception for underage smoking, drinking and sex – believing some things to be the responsibility and choice of the individual.

The seven of them hang out all the time. They mostly smoke weed in the park or watch music videos when someone’s got a free house. Occasionally, they drink rum and juice when they put their money together. But their passion is music, and, whenever open, they go to play their self-made music on the karaoke machine at the youth club and to “spit bars”.

It’s late August and soon the summer holidays will be over and the final year of school will begin for all of them, well, except Dwayne. He dropped out of school to “do his own ting”. ‘I take no shit from no-one,’ was the line that got him excluded from college, telling the course tutor to ‘Go suck your mum,’ as he was escorted from the premises.

Dwayne is not scared to speak his mind, even if another crew look like trouble. But nobody really troubles them. Being the only teenagers on their estate (aside from crazy Christian Tameika), the Graff Gang have full run of their “Endz”.

Their territory includes the roads up from where the youth club sits, then along the A2 for about a quarter of a mile including their favourite fried chicken shop on New Cross Road. Graff Gang represent all the way up both Jerningham and Pepys, both upper and lower parks on Telegraph Hill and any roads in between. Basically, about a square mile south of New Cross Gate train station. Anywhere east and south of the park belongs to Brockley EndzUp, their allies and friends. Anywhere west belongs to Peckham Manz, their rivals. Anything north of the main road runs into the Old Kent Road, which has a massive mix of all sorts of territories, beyond that is Bermondsey, mainly populated by football hooligans – though rising house prices are sorting that one out. They won’t admit it out loud but Graff Gang like to steer clear of the white skinheads. Besides, Graff Gang don’t go looking for trouble in other areas. As Jerome tells Isobel, ‘If trouble comes to me I’ll deal with it, but life ain’t about making tings harder, trust.’

One by one the lights of London pop up as darkness overtakes the summer twilight. ‘I love this bit of the night,’ Isobel says, inhaling her spliff. ‘Makes me tingly.’

‘Datz da sensi,’ Andre chuckles in a put on Patois accent, signalling to Isobel’s spliff.

‘Can’t you feel it Jerome?’ Isobel asks, turning her head on his chest to look up at him.

‘Feel what babes?’

‘I dunno, feels like… like there’s magic in the air.’

‘Yeah,’ Jerome says, slightly uncomfortable, feeling Dwayne’s eyes on him.

‘Whatever, bruv,’ Dwayne snorts.

Jerome looks across to his brother scowling and then back down at his girlfriend and smiles.

The group sit in silence until Andre’s phone rings.

‘Hello,’ Andre says, in commanding voice, like some army general. Everyone listens to see who it is. His tone lightens, ‘Soon come, soon come.’ He clicks off the phone and turns to the group, ‘Mum’s got curried goat. Dad’s gonna eat it all if I don’t soon come.’

‘Yes, G, I am on that.’ Anton jumps up, assuming an invitation.

Barry grabs his phone and dials, ‘Mum, what’s for dinner? What! But it’s the weekend, man. You had all day to cook up some nice oildown or chicken stew!’ He throws the phone on the grass, then turns to Andre, ‘Bruv, I’m coming with you. I can’t get fed up proper in that house of mine. Woman tinks she can cook up nuttin’ on a Saturday.’

‘What, your mum ain’t cooked nothing?’ asks Hayley, knowing exactly how that feels.

‘Nah, woman’s coming with prawn cocktail sandwiches.’

‘That’s cos your mum thinks if she feeds you white people’s shit, one day you’re gonna wake up white,’ laughs Anton. Everyone joins in.

‘Tell her, skin lighting cream works better than mayonnaise!’ cries Andre.

‘Bahhahhhahaa’ the group kick off again. Barry pans his friends with both his middle fingers.

‘What are you two on?’ Anton asks.

‘Dem manz is eatin something else, bruv,’ Andre says, looking at Isobel and Hayley.

Anton doesn’t get it. ‘What’s your gran cooking up?’ he asks Jerome, weighing up which house to beg food from.

Andre clips Anton over the head, ‘You sooo dumb, I mean da punanee, skeen?’

‘Fuck off,’ Hayley shouts. ‘I ain’t nasty.’

‘Excuse me, I am here you know,’ Isobel says. ‘Jerome?’

Jerome looks at the boys, ‘Allow it man.’

After knocking fists with each other and  several ‘laters’, the boys head back, leaving the half-brothers with their respective partners.

‘Actually, fooood,’ Hayley groans. ‘I ain’t eaten since breakfast. Dwayne d’ya wanna get chips?’

‘You got money?’ Dwayne snorts, looking at Hayley in a manner Isobel despises.

Hayley digs into her pocket and pulls out the same pound coin from this morning. Isobel looks at her, then at the hair gel in the plastic bag. Isobel snatches the bag.

‘What you doing, man?’ Hayley shouts, grabbing for the bag.

The plastic bag is crumpled and dirty and discoloured at the handles.

‘Just looking at the gel you bought,’ Isobel says, pulling out a receipt which doesn’t match the label on the bag. Before Isobel can read the receipt properly, Hayley swings for the bag again, this time getting it.

‘What’s your problem?’ Hayley demands, dusting cigarette ash from her jeans. ‘Look what you made me do!’

Isobel decides to leave it. She is a little spaced out from the weed and cannot be bothered with an argument.

‘Come we go shop then?’ Dwayne jumps up from the grass. He walks off, not noticing Hayley holding up her hands to be assisted, then whimpering like a neglected puppy. He turns to see her outstretched arms. ‘What man? My belly’s rumbling.’ But he pulls her up. She immediately squeals happily, putting her arm around his waist, forcing Dwayne to place his arm over her shoulder.

Jerome and Isobel snuggle up. Cheeky bitch, Isobel thinks to herself watching Hayley and Dwayne walk off. Fake receipt and everything.

‘You alright babes?’ Jerome asks Isobel.

‘Yeah? It’s just I wish she wouldn’t teef shit around me. I’m not into that. It proper pisses me off. I feel like not hanging around with her when she blatantly lies to me.’

‘Yeah, I know. I really rate you, you know that innit?’

‘Yeah. I really rate you too.’ She kisses his hand. ‘Babe, you gotta stop them boys making sex jokes about me. It’s getting too much these days and we ain’t even done it yet.’

‘I know, I know, I’ll tell them, promise.’ Jerome strokes Isobel’s hair as they watch London glittering with traffic. Isobel notices a train weave in and out through tall buildings – the light from the train’s windows moves across the dark landscape like a thief stealing a string of diamonds.

Jerome looks at Isobel, ‘Babe, I’ve been thinking yeah, and I don’t want you to think a way, but… well, I’ve been looking for the right way to say this…’ He starts to mumble, ‘You don’t have to… nah… urm, fuck it.’ Jerome sits up a little before he continues. ‘Basically…’ He takes both her hands in his. ‘You know I’ve done tings with other girls before us, innit?’

‘Yeah,’ Isobel sits up uneasily to face him, unsure she wants to hear what’s about to come.

Sensing this Jerome kisses her cheek, ‘Nah nah nah, it aint nutting bad. What I’m saying is I’ve done stuff, even with you, but never… you know.’

‘What you saying?’

‘What I wanna say sounds fucked up in my head, so I don’t wanna say it that way.’

‘Try,’ Isobel assures. ‘You can tell me anything. You know that.’

‘Basically, I’ve been, bashing. A lot. Over you.’

Isobel starts laughing.

‘What’s funny?’ Jerome spits defensively, annoyed Isobel is laughing at him, but he pushes his negative feelings away, as he always does.

‘Is that it? You wank over me?’ Isobel asks, still giggling.

‘Dat’s a hard ting to say ya nah.’ Jerome defends himself in a Jamaican accent, placing his hands down his chest as if straightening out wonky braces.

‘I do it too,’ Isobel gulps. ‘When I think of you, I mean. I look at your profile pictures on my phone.’

‘Do you do it loads?’ a cheeky smile spreads over Jerome’s face. ‘Describe your technique.’ He lifts his eyebrows, ‘Can I watch one time? You can give me some tips!’ He pokes her ribs and they both laugh.

He’s so funny, she thinks. Her heart pounding in her chest just looking at him. His skin is soft and picture perfect. His teeth are white and shiny and his lips are like two plump silk cushions. But the things Isobel loves the most are the jewels below his eyebrows. Jerome has incredible hazel brown eyes that are adorned with long thick black eyelashes. He reminds Isobel of an Egyptian prince. Jerome is, quite literally, beautiful. Inside and out.

Jerome would say Isobel is also beautiful, but her best features are hidden away. She has freckles, which Jerome and her mum find sweet but she hates. They are always covered up with cheap foundation that doesn’t match her skin tone. Green hued eyes complement the freckles. They seem to change colour depending on her mood. Her auburn hair – which is naturally wavy – is dyed with clumsy blonde highlights and brown lowlights and is straightened daily. Often she has her hair braided at the front and, like Hayley, puts different coloured hairbands in depending on what she is wearing. Her breasts are small, and though her hips are widening, her body isn’t yet that of a fully developed woman; she’s still fifteen. Isobel bites her nails – and worse still, the skin around the nails – often resulting in two or three scabby cuticles most days of the year. Her concealed skin has a dullness to it – she rarely eats vegetables. She only likes apples and bananas and refuses to eat most food unless it has been cooked by her mum; usually burgers, beans and chips, alhough she is starting to try Jerome’s grandmother’s food, her favourite being barbecue chicken with rice and peas.

As they lie on the grassy bank, Jerome can’t seem to shake the image of his girlfriend touching herself. Licking his lips, he asks, ‘So can I watch then? Educational purposes innit.’

‘Yeah, obviously. You’re my man. Just say when,’ Isobel says, calling his bluff.

‘I’m a virgin,’ Jerome blurts out, as if it were his last breath. He looks up shyly to gauge her reaction. ‘Never told no-one before. I know I go on like I ain’t, but dat’s because of Dwayne and dem mans.’ He relights his spliff and inhales nervously, ‘Every night he’s on about this girl he’s beating, that girl he’s got on lock. I don’t lie, you get me? He just assumes like I’ve done it too.’ She doesn’t make it easier by not speaking. ‘I was thinking… you know… if you are. It don’t matter if you ain’t,’ he quickly adds. ‘I still rate you. I thought about it a lot. Obviously it’s better if you are, but at the end of the day, I won’t feel a way about it. I won’t tell no-one your business or nuttin.’ He is remembering the things he read on the teen website about how to speak about sex for the first time with your partner. One thing was to promise confidentiality. He feels happy he remembered that one. But Isobel just sits there. Jerome feels nervousness change to paranoia, ‘Shit I’m chatting too much.’

Isobel watched an old movie the other day with her mum. In it, the actress had a long cigarette holder and sultry eyes. The character never gave much away and the men were all crazy for her. Isobel takes Jerome’s spliff and slowly inhales. Mimicking the style of the film, she asks in a calm manner, ‘Are you asking me if I’ve done stuff with other boys?’

‘Not stuff. Obviously we’ve all done stuff at the end of the day.’  Now the paranoia is heading towards jealousy. He shakes out any images of Isobel having sex with other boys.

‘Yes,’ Isobel tells him.

‘Like I said, it’s no biggie,’ Jerome clears the lie from his throat.

Isobel drops the act, laughing, ‘I’m still a virgin, Jerome.’

Jerome sighs in relief, ‘You’re not just saying that? Like to make man feel better or some shit?’

‘Jerome, come on, I’m fifteen. How many boyfriends have you seen me with?’

‘Five. Since you moved to Jerningham.’

‘What?’

‘I’ve counted them.’

‘I ain’t had five.’

‘White Barry, James, John, that boy Russell and some boy last year.’

‘White Barry and James were in primary school, so that don’t count. John was in Year 7 for about six weeks and we only kissed a few times. Russell, well we didn’t have sex.’

‘What about that other white boy?’

‘Who?’

‘He stayed in your bedroom last summer.’

‘Brian! My mum’s friend’s son. Urgh man, I didn’t want him there! He was into some shit computer game he was playing with some Chinese boys. In China. It was well weird. He got addicted in the end. He never leaves his room and gets these like anxiety attacks if he misses one day. Urgh. And he bites his toe nails.’

They sit in silence. The purple sky now eaten up, forcing the surrounding bushes, trees and grass to become shrouded in darkness.

‘Am I your first black boyfriend?’ Jerome takes a daisy from the grass.

‘Yeah. You know you are.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘What? That you’re black?’

‘Yeah,’ Jerome looks up and out towards the city lights.

‘No. Does it bother you I’m white?’

‘Not really.’

‘Then how come you asked?’

Jerome looks uncomfortable again, ‘I’m probably talking like this because I’m mash-up but I’m feeling like chatting tonight.’

‘You can tell me anything, Jay,’ Isobel moves closer towards him.

‘Issy, you know my dad’s mixed race, that’s why I am lighter than Dwayne innit?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Well, one thing he said sticks in my mind since me and you started. His mum was black and his dad was white. Basically his mum said to tell his children, like me when I’m older, yeah, to never be with a white girl.’

‘Why?’ Isobel asks, hanging on his every word.

‘Basically, his mum, my other gran, said that white people don’t marry black people. They grow up and realise life is tough for black people and they leave them for another white person…’ Jerome flicks the daisy away and looks out again towards the city. ‘Apparently my granddad ended up treating her badly for being black, which is nutz when you think about it because he made a baby with her.’

Isobel sits for a few moments thinking about what Jerome just said. ‘The thing is Jerome, in those days it probably was bad to be in a white and black couple. I know my nan was pretty racist. But things are different now. I never even thought about it being anything.’

‘I was just thinking that all your boyfriends were white.’

Isobel straddles Jerome’s lap. She gently pushes his back onto the grass. Sitting up, she relights the last bit of spliff then leans into Jerome, exhaling the smoke into his mouth. He returns the gesture as they kiss.

Looking to see who is around – dog walkers, tennis players and fat-2-fit detainees all dispersed – Isobel begins to grind her pelvis onto Jerome’s torso.  She feels his erection beneath her. Then whispers in his ear, ‘I’d love to lose my virginity to you.’

Jerome sits up and wraps his arms around her, ‘Yeah, but not here though babes.’ He looks at Isobel, ‘I want it to be special. Some Barry White flex.’

They both laugh.

‘Serious now, I’m a one woman man, babes. So it’s gonna be special, ya get me? If it’s our first time, like for me and you, then I’m gonna make it the perfect night. Get a hotel room, bottle of champs, chocolates. The other thing is–‘

Isobel’s phone rings. ‘It’s my mum. Hi Mum… yeah, on the hill… yeah fine… Alright. Have a good time. Okay, bye.’

She flips the phone shut and sighs.

‘Everything okay?’

‘Yeah. Just letting me know she won’t be back ‘til late. In the pub with Karen. Sounds pissed already.’ Her mum has been drinking more recently. She imagines herself losing her virginity to Jerome interrupted by sound of Carol coming home like she did last weekend, vomiting in the toilet. She blinks back to reality, ‘Anyway, wanna come over and watch a film? Got Chinese in the oven.’

‘I’m gonna check in with Gran first. See if she’s okay.’

The two make their way down towards the estate. In the summer, the huge trees that line Jerningham Road block out any dim yellow light the street lamps provide. Half way down the hill Isobel and Jerome see a group of boys surrounding someone.

‘That looks a bit dodge,’ Isobel says, holding onto Jerome’s arm. ‘Looks like a mugging.’

As they get closer, Jerome and Isobel can see a girl around their age clutching a small bag. One of the boys grabs the bag but the girl refuses to let the strap go from under her arm.

‘Please, please, take anything but this,’ the girl cries. ‘It has all my schoolwork in it.’

‘Oi!’ Jerome shouts in as deep a voice as possible, running over as he sees one boy grab at the girl’s neck. One boy immediately runs. The other turns to go, but hesitates, because the third remains.

Unfazed by Jerome the third shouts, ‘What?’

‘What you manz doing merking up my Endz?’ Jerome keeps his voice deep and his tone aggressive.

‘Is dis your Endz?’ the masked face asks.

‘Dis is Graff Gang, skeen. I know all Graff Gang manz,’ Jerome says, ‘and you ain’t one.’

‘Is it?’ the boy asks sarcastically, ‘Who you know from Graff Gang?’

He is Graff Gang,’ Isobel interjects, annoyed at the boy’s lack of fear and respect. Adrenaline pumping, she adds, ‘His brother’s Double G.’

‘Is it?’ The boy asks again in his fake tone.

Jerome isn’t happy Isobel just exposed him, but continues to stand his ground.

The timid girl is hunched in the middle, afraid of what is about to happen, yet relieved another girl has showed up. Isobel looks at the girl briefly before turning back to the boys with a serious face. She wants to smile and reassure her but first she has to act tough.

‘Where you manz from?’ Jerome asks, chest puffed out and standing tall.

‘Don’t watch that innit,’ says the second boy, his face also covered by a black scarf.

Jerome looks at him and then back at the ringleader. Keeping his voice deep, he shouts, ‘Don’t think I can’t see you’re a pussyhole. I saw you about to run out. So what, you don’t back it for your man dem?’ Jerome’s eyes on the ringleader holding the bag.

‘Now a few tingz can run from here,’ Jerome continues, ‘You can either give the bitch back her bag and disappear, or I can make a few phone calls and we can settle tingz differently.’

The ringleader stands firm staring at Jerome, bag still in his gloved hands.

‘See man like me don’t shit on my own doorstep, and you manz can appreciate I don’t like others shitting here either. Fedz come and this bitch tells them a few niggas robbed her. You manz know all fedz see is one black face…,’ Jerome pretends to sound angrier, ‘I don’t want no fedz getting inna my tingz, ya get me? My flat gettin’ raided up and shit, for what?’ Jerome snatches the bag from the boy’s hand, pulling the girl with it. He undertakes a mock inspection, ‘A camera…,’ He looks at the girl, ‘Dat all datz in there?’

‘Yes,’ the girl chokes, tears streaming down her face.  ‘My, my, my brother gave it to me. I, I need it. For school.’

Jerome looks back to the ringleader, ‘I seen dis ting for a tenner bruv. Same make and everything. Dis ain’t worth rucking Graff Gang, trust.’

He aggressively shoves the camera into the girl’s chest, then pushes her roughly into Isobel’s arms. The girl lets out a whimper. ‘Take her to your yard,’ Jerome commands Isobel. ‘Now!’ he yells fiercely, pushing them both towards home. Isobel instantly obeys, knowing Jerome is putting it on to scare the boys. He never speaks to her like that in real life. Spitting violently on the floor he turns to the boys, ‘Now if you manz want some dough, I’m gonna tell you a few tingz about Graff Gang business. Come we go.’ The boys, slightly baffled, find themselves walking back down towards the main road with Jerome.

As soon as they reach the stairwell across the street and are out of sight, the girl begins to cry uncontrollably onto Isobel’s shoulder. Isobel manages to get her inside the flat and sit her on the sofa in the living room. The girl is the same height as Isobel but she looks a lot smaller. Her body is petite and she dresses like the girls earlier in the park – floral and girly.

After a cup of tea and two custard creams, she sits back and exhales, ‘I was so petrified.’ She holds her camera close to her like a baby, ‘Thank you so, so much!’

Isobel isn’t sure how to respond. She smiles and nods. But sheis worried for Jerome. Those boys could decide to beat him up. The third one could come back with a knife or more boys. Isobel reluctantly decides to text Dwayne to let him know what just happened.

 

Since the Riots, Chapter One

(DRAFT CHAPTER. IF YOU SEE A TYPO, PLEASE TELL ME IN COMMENTS BOX BELOW)

Copyright © 2017 Melissa Jane Knight

All rights reserved

melissajaneknight@gmail.com

First ebook Edition 2016

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. This is not a true representation of any one person, people, age group or physical place and doesn’t aim to be. All names and slang names are supposed to be original.

ISBN 978 0 9956234 1 5

Front cover by designer, Danny Blackman, original artwork by Güzel Schach used with permission.

 

Dedicated to the young people of this world

 

Chapter 1

1 year before the riots…

‘Issy!’ Carol calls up from the bottom of the stairs. ‘Hayley is down ‘ere.’

The door belonging to the fifteen year old slams shut, cutting out some of the radio.

‘Is-o-bel!’ Carol calls again, this time stretching each syllable louder and longer, forcing her to cough up her morning feast: tea and cigarettes.

‘You need to give up those fags, Carol,’ says Hayley, hand out to imply she’ll kindly take them.

‘Get out of it,’ Carol says.

Hayley smirks as she watches Isobel’s mum continue to choke. Leaning on the wall in the corridor of Carol and Isobel’s two-bedroom flat, Hayley takes off one of her trainers. Her skinny blue jeans are turned up to avoid the ends scuffing against the floor. Her white and pink trainers match her tight vest top and her purple laces match the hairbands in her hair. Both Isobel and Hayley wear the same size shoe and have started a trend of wearing one foot of each other’s trainers along with co-ordinating colours.

Still coughing, Carol surrenders, ‘Oh Hay, she can’t hear me. Just go up.’

Hayley belts up the creaky stairs towards her friend.

‘And tell her to turn that racket down,’ Carol calls. ‘The crap they listen to,’ she mutters to herself.

Returning to her sofa, Carol wraps her pale blue towelling dressing gown around her waist. It’s Carol’s day off, which routinely includes pink wafers, forty cigarettes, catch-up television, and a teapot.

‘You deaf?’ Hayley says in her usual abrupt manner, bursting into Isobel’s room, jumping on her bed.

‘Oh, hello!’ Isobel turns down the music.

‘Half of London’s been calling you.’

‘Ain’t you s’posed to be with your mentor?’

‘Can’t be arsed. It’s well hot out there.’

Isobel frowns at Hayley.

Hayley ignores her. ‘You look shit.’

‘Do I?’ Isobel inspects herself in the mirror.

‘Joking. You alright?’

‘I feel knackered. Didn’t sleep ‘til three this morning,’ Isobel says smiling at herself in the mirror.

‘Chatting to Jerome?’ Hayley asks, having a nose around the bedside table.

‘Obviously.’

‘What the fuck do you talk about?’

‘Stuff,’ Isobel blushes, carefully putting down the hair straighteners. ‘Look what he gave me.’ She hands over a passport photo of Jerome, one eyebrow up, holding his chin, pouting like a rap star.

Hayley bursts out laughing, ‘Is that it?’ She digs out three gold necklaces from under her vest. ‘Dwayne got me this yesterday.’ She tugs one free, it has a clown attached.

Isobel leans over and inspects the chain.

‘Blatantly stolen.’

‘No it ain’t!’ Hayley shrieks, pulling the chain away from her best friend’s glare. ‘How d’you know?’

‘Well, if you look at it closely, there’s dirt in the cracks. Meaning it ain’t brand new.’

Hayley tucks the clown back into her vest top, like a mother protecting their child from ridicule. ‘He might have got it from a pawn shop.’

‘He’s probably robbed it from some poor younger. You should give it back.’

‘Back to who? How do I know who he got it off?’

Isobel rolls her eyes, ‘Back to Dwayne! Tell him you’re better than some stolen necklace. Tell him go jewellers or something. Buy a new one.’

‘I don’t care if it’s teefed.’ Pulling the chain back out again, she kisses the clown.

‘Yeah, because you do it,’ Isobel mutters, taking out another section of hair to straighten.

‘Lies.’

‘You teef from shops all the time!’ Isobel replies without breaking focus from the arduous task of making her brown and blonde highlighted hair as straight and neat as possible.

‘Shops don’t mean nothing,’ Hayley says, defending her honour as a respectable thief. ‘My brother told me, they have insurance for teefing. I’m actually doing them a favour…’ She raises her eyebrows as if stealing cosmetics was a charitable deed.

‘How do you work that one out?’ Isobel smiles, thinking of Jerome’s smile, the way he licks his lips before winking.

‘They get out of paying tax, or some shit like that. I dunno. Ask Ronnie.’

Hayley’s brother Ronnie is currently serving eight months for robbery in Feltham Young Offenders Institute.

‘Oh yeah?’ Isobel turns sharply, pointing her hair straighteners Hayley’s way, ‘When we go pharmacy from now on, you better not steal nothing with me. Mum’s work friend knows the manager there and can get me a job when I’m sixteen.’

Hayley murmurs something indistinguishable. Isobel tries to stare her out. Feeling Isobel’s glare, Hayley keeps her eyes down, deeply inspecting clown dirt.

‘And please get your trainer off my bed sheets; Mum only changed them yesterday!’

‘Dwayne’s much better looking,’ Hayley says, taking Jerome’s photo casually throwing it to the floor.

‘Oi, don’t chuck him!’ Isobel squeals, scooping up the still-life, stroking and kissing it. ‘Sorry my sweetheart,’ tacking Jerome back onto her mirror, her thumb pressing firmly into his forehead.

‘Come on, man! It’s well nice outside and you’ve straightened the same bit of hair five million times!’

‘How’s it look at the back?’

‘Good,’ Hayley replies without looking.

‘No bumps?’ Isobel asks, this time checking to see if Hayley is doing her job.

‘None!’ Hayley cries, ‘Now can we get the fuck out of here? You carry on like I’m the hair freak!’

Isobel gently takes Hayley by the shoulders and puts her in front of the mirror. Hayley laughs. Her hair is gelled tightly to her scalp. The baby hairs above her forehead are intricately gelled into swirled patterns. Hayley’s hair is the reason she is late to school most mornings. She loses her temper if it goes wrong and starts the process from scratch, which includes having a shower.

‘I need hair gel.’

‘Have you got money?’

‘What’s that s’posed to mean?’

‘Show me then?’

‘What are you, my mum?’ Hayley digs out a pound coin.

‘Good,’ Isobel unplugs her straighteners and smooths any evidence of Hayley’s body from her bed sheets. If she was Hayley’s mum, Hayley would know about it.

‘So can we go then m’lady?’ Hayley asks, bowing like a butler, arm extended, holding out her other trainer.

‘Piss off.’ Isobel grabs the shoe, handing Hayley hers. ‘Don’t make me out to be posh because I don’t shoplift!’

They both laugh and run down the stairs.

‘Fucking hell, wanna break my flat?’ Carol calls from the living room.

‘What’s wrong?’ Isobel asks entering the living room.

‘You two. Coming down the stairs like two elephants.’ Smoke releases through Carol’s teeth as she speaks – an odd hybrid of Scottish-Cockney, having moved to East London when she was a young teenager. She sits on her sofa, feet curled up to one side, flicking her cigarette into the ashtray.

‘It ain’t our fault this shithole’s made of cardboard,’ Hayley says.

Isobel and Carol both look at her.

‘What?’ Hayley asks. ‘It is a shithole.’

‘My flat ain’t a shithole, thank you,’ Carol snaps, pressing her cigarette out.

‘It ain’t personal or nothing. I live round here too, you know.’

‘Mum, can I have some money?’

‘I didn’t mean your flat in particular.’

‘For what?’ Carol asks Isobel, reaching for her handbag.

‘Sex and drugs and sausage rolls,’ Hayley chuckles.

‘Don’t be cheeky!’ Carol points a finger Hayley’s way, ‘You lot make me die. I would never dare say that to my elders!’

Hayley pokes her tongue out.

Carol smiles, shaking her head, ‘I think I’ve got a few quid in here.’

Hayley watches Carol hand Isobel a five pound note from her battered blue leather purse. She wishes her mother would do that for her. Or her father. She looks away, as if the moment is intimate.

Isobel grabs the money out her mother’s hand. She kisses Carol on the cheek. Hayley moves away in mock disgust, making vomit noises.

‘That’s nearly an hour’s wages you know,’ Carol tells her daughter, in some hope Isobel will appreciate the gesture.

‘Yeah, Mum. Love you!’

And the girls run out the flat.

They hurry down the iron steps. There’s rarely any time pressure, but they always seem to be in a rush. It makes the older neighbours worry: nobody likes to see teenagers running. But Isobel and Hayley don’t think about that.

As estates go, Jerningham Court isn’t the worst, but it is in need of some repair. Unless you lived there, you wouldn’t know its name. Most letters on the main sign have fallen off, leaving J  n  gh m Co   t. The usual ‘NO Ball Games’ notices have the ‘NO’ scratched off, one replaced with ‘SUCK MY.’

The Council recently painted the outside walls cream, but elsewhere a prison feel remains – harsh lines; grey concrete floors, steps and corridors. A few plants struggle for life on the green, consisting of an oval patch of mud with three sporadically planted rose bushes. The roses were put in a few years back but have yet to fulfil their potential.

 

After a short bus ride, listening to R’n’B on phone speaker, Hayley and Isobel jump off and head to the shopping centre. Arm-in-arm, they walk left foot first and they think they have perfected a pace that is their thing.

‘I need fags,’ Isobel says. ‘Come with me or I’ll get them while you’ – she puts her fingers into quotation position – ‘buy hair gel.’ It’s a major gripe in their friendship. Isobel prides herself on being honest and Hayley prides herself on being an expert shoplifter.

‘Stay with me. What if Teena and them are on road?’ Hayley holds on tight to Issy’s arm.

Isobel softens. Hayley won’t tell Dwayne or her family what Teena’s been making her do. ‘Hayley, don’t wanna go on but you ain’t teefing are you? You don’t have to say Yes, just say: Go buy fags and I’ll meet you outside.’

‘I told you I wouldn’t.’

‘Fine, come shop.’

Arm-in-arm they march to Mr Patel’s.

‘Can I have ten Mayfair, please?’ Isobel asks in her most grown up voice.

‘ID, please?’ Mr Patel barely looks up from his paper.

‘What?’ Isobel frowns. ‘You always serve me,’ her green eyes flash with disappointment.

‘Sorry, ID please? The rules changed. You have to be 18 or over and I can’t sell cigarettes now without ID.’

They stand there staring at their cornered shopkeeper. Mr Patel shuffles uncomfortably in the silence.

‘This is fucking stupid!’ Hayley shouts. ‘You know we’re old enough. You always sell us fags.’

‘Calm down, Hays,’ Isobel gently nudges Hayley, before switching tactics. ‘Mr Patel, we don’t have ID today. Can you let us off this time? We’ll bring it next time.’

‘Sorry, not my rules. You could be working for the police.’

‘Working for police!’ Hayley screeches. ‘Do you know what I think of police!?’

Isobel swallows the little jump in her chest.

Mr Patel, not realising the loaded sentence – no self-respecting teenager colludes with police – tries to soften the rising temper of his little customer. ‘Look, last week my cousin was fined five hundred pounds because two young girls working for police bought cigarettes without ID.’ He sighs heavily, ‘No offence, but I can’t risk that fine.’

Mr Patel’s explanation fails epically.

‘Are you thick? We hate police!’ Hayley shouts back.

‘Sorry but I do not know this.’ Mr Patel’s voice goes up to a squeak. ‘Not my rules,’ he says, defensively. Teenagers make him nervous. Number four on his list, after drunks, drug addicts, and football hooligans.

Disgruntled with the wait, the next customer pipes up, ‘Oi, come on kids, my ice-cream’s gonna melt.’

‘Who are you calling kids?’ Hayley turns to face a mid-thirties stocky man with a shaved head. ‘Don’t fucking talk to me like that!’ she shakes her head violently his way.

Unfazed, the man croaks in deep cockney, ‘Well you ain’t adults, are ya? Behaving like this. I wouldn’t serve you two a lollipop.’

‘Hayley leave it,’ Isobel pleads, worried things could get worse. She gently nudges, ‘Let’s go.’

‘No, let’s not fucking go.’ Hayley stomps her feet in protest. ‘Let’s buy our fags. Here. Like we always do.’

Two old ladies standing well back, decide to leave the shop.

‘Please? I’m losing customers.’ Mr Patel curls his spine and places his hands in the prayer position, ‘These are not my rules.’

‘Fucking little chavs,’ the man pushes past Hayley, slamming down coins on the counter. ‘Keep the change.’

As he leaves, Hayley shouts, ‘Who are YOU calling a CHAV?’ Grabbing a handful of bubble gums from the counter, she chucks them full pelt at the man’s back.

He wheels round, glaring. His lips spit a series of profanities her way. His white t-shirt tightens over his beer belly as his anger rises. The t-shirt continues to tighten over two well-built arms; one with the crest of a football club peeping through, the other a tattoo of a bulldog. His coarsely shaven jaw cracks. He looks Hayley up and down, stretching his fingers then clenching one hand into a tight fist.

‘What you going to do, hit me?’ Hayley says in her usual sarcastic tone. Isobel stands by her friend, taking deep breaths, hoping this will end without another arrest.

They both hold their stares.

‘Get out of the shop.’ He tells her.

‘Make me?’ Hayley replies.

He grabs her by the arm. Hayley starts punching and kicking in all directions as the man pulls her away from the counter. Isobel tries to hold on to her friend, but his strength is too much for her.

Mr Patel, a pacifist, stands back in shock. Hayley, looking scratches  like a wild animal at the man’s cheek, which heightens his anger as he continues to drag her towards the shop door. Her feet kick over crisps and packets of biscuits as she resists.

A little girl clasping a small puppy enters, ‘Dad? Got my ice cream yet?’

He drops Hayley, who falls to the floor. She blinks up to see a little girl wearing a pretty summer dress and matching sandals with crisp white frilly socks wrapped around her tiny ankles. The man notices Hayley’s reaction to his daughter. He kneels down, getting his mouth right near Hayley’s ear and whispers, ‘Your father must be proud of you.’

The words pierce through her like a stream of bullets. ‘Yeah he is, he is, actually,’ Hayley stumbles, not understanding fully how her anger just fled into retreat.

But the man isn’t interested in any reply. Lifting his frame, he turns to his daughter, ‘Here you go princess.’ He picks up the ice cream from the shop floor. ‘He only had strawberry.’

‘Daddy what was you saying to that lady?’ The little girl asks as they leave the shop.

Lady?’ he laughs, ‘That ain’t no…’ their voices fade into the sunshine.

Mr Patel stands there, not knowing what to do. Hayley, crumbled and speechless. Isobel staring at the bubble gum on the floor.

‘Here, take the cigarettes,’ yells Mr Patel, slamming the pale blue packet onto the counter, picking up the crumpled five pound note that Carol gave Isobel forty minutes earlier and chucking it in the till. ‘But don’t come back to my shop again!’ He nods firmly to Isobel.

She nods back, taking the cigarettes, not counting the change. ‘Sorry for this. I’ll pick up the stuff,’ she adds.

‘No. No. Just go – please?’ ‘Come on Hays,’ she say, lifting her friend to her feet.

Outside the shop, Hayley turns to see the man with his daughter in his arms. He gently strokes a wisp of hair away from the pink ice cream on her tiny cheek. Meeting Hayley’s eyes, he kisses his daughter on the forehead. Hayley looks away. She kicks a nearby bin.

‘If his daughta wasn’t there, I would’ve knocked him out.’