Rude, resilient and barely literate, Alesha is the poster-child for the nation’s ‘feral youth’ – at least, that’s what the authorities would have you believe.
The authorities – teachers, social workers, police – are the enemy. The authorities are the ones who left her cowering as a series of violent men unleashed their fists on her alcoholic mother until she finally ran away to live with JJ and his nan. The authorities are the ones who excluded her from school after school, each one leaving her a little angrier and a little less able to learn. The authorities are the ones who repeatedly stop-and-search kids like Alesha and JJ. The authorities might label Alesha ‘difficult’. But really, it’s her life that is difficult.
Living under the radar of Social Services, Alesha hides out in a one-bedroom flat inhabited by JJ’s great grandmother, who has dementia. It is only here, with JJ and NAN and their growling Staffordshire bull terrier, that Alesha feels safe. She says little, but the patience with which she cares for Nan and reminds the old woman, yet again, who she is, speaks volumes.
Alesha is fiercely loyal to JJ, following an episode where he served time in the Young Offenders’ for a knife that Alesha had been carrying. She had been carrying it for protection. Peregrine Estate is right on the fault line between SE5 and Peckham Crew territory – a dangerous place where young people hide under hoods and constantly look over their shoulder.
Despite her teachers’ assumptions, Alesha is bright. In fact, years of survival on the streets of Peckham have made Alesha sharp and devious. She understands how the world works and even if it means ducking the other side of the law, Alesha is determined to fend for herself – and for JJ. The few people who take the time to understand Alesha discover someone quick-thinking, cheeky and inadvertently funny – but also very vulnerable. Helen Merfield is one of these people.
Initially shunning her free, compulsory piano lessons at Pembury High, Alesha reluctantly finds herself returning for more of Miss Merfield’s quirky teaching and – to her surprise – discovered that playing they keys and joining up the dots on the page started to feel, well, kind of OK.
Helen Merfield, 28
White, middle-class twenty-something Helen Merfield has taught piano in south London schools throughout her short working life.
Brought up by her concert pianist father after her mother died in childbirth, Helen was orphaned in her late teens when her father lost his battle with cancer. Not that you’d know this by meeting her. There’s no self-pity or wallowing in the past where Helen is concerned. In fact, her parents’ deaths led Helen to believe that every day should be cherished, every opportunity seized – and perhaps most importantly, every talent recognised. Especially in ‘difficult’ kids.
Helen loves ‘difficult’ kids. Nothing bores her more than the hours spent teaching Grade 8 Piano to immaculately-dressed twelve-year-olds in the expensive private schools of Dulwich. She likes it when pupils answer back, make mistakes, challenge her. And Alesha does all this – when she bothers turning up.
Paying mates’ rates to live in a tall, Dulwich townhouse complete with cappuccino machine and thick-pile carpets, Helen is all too aware she’s got it good. The house belongs to tabloid journalist ALEX, an old friend of BETH’s, who is a university friend of Helen’s. The three of them, all in their late twenties, get on well enough, although Alex’s staunch Tory view of the world occasionally grates with Helen’s after a long day of teaching kids from council estates.
Episode 1: Survival
On the run from police, excluded from school and evicted from their flat, Alesha and JJ move in with the notorious Peckham Crew and discover they’re not as streetwise as they thought. Meanwhile, Helen Merfield gets into trouble of her own on Alesha’s estate.
Episode 2: Betrayal
Alesha is brutally raped by the ‘fam’ that was supposed to protect her, and finds herself distanced from JJ, who is determined to climb the ranks of the Peckham Crew. Helen Merfield doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when she takes Alesha in.
Episode 3: Direction
With Miss Merfield’s help, Alesha escapes police custody and finds a new direction that involves CVs, piano and homemade chocolate brownies. But in doing so, she has betrayed the Peckham Crew and among them, her best friend JJ.
Episode 4: Rejection
Alesha discovers that turning over a new leaf isn’t so easy and amid rejections from employers and her charitable middle-class hosts, she is forced back onto the streets. Smalls, a Peckham Crew member and friend of JJ’s, is shot by police in a raid.
Episode 5: Rebellion
Relations with the police turn sour, the local youth club closes down and Alesha’s prospects look bleak. Miss Merfield tries to persuade her otherwise, but Alesha sees where her life is heading. Smalls dies and a peaceful vigil turns violent. Riots break out.
Episode 6: Resolution
Alesha is forced to acknowledge her part in the London Riots and Helen Merfield finally comes to terms with her own past. JJ is offered freedom in return for betraying the Crew, forcing Alesha to tell him her shameful secret… with shocking consequences.
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