“I wasn’t meant to be in that life,” he says, so softly spoken that at times his voice is almost a whisper.
“I was a good kid, manners, the works. I grew up in a church, grandmother used to take us there as kids.”
And indeed, to some, David might have seemed a very good kid: rising at seven, out of the house early and on his bike, on the way to the gym for some healthy exercise before school.
The truth was slightly different.
The £400 BMX Mongoose had been stolen to order by a junkie who specialised in trading bikes for drugs.
And that “pen”: despite him telling the family with whom he was staying that it was for writing song lyrics, it was in fact a £5 flick knife.
“I was still trying to do my GCSEs,” insists David – not his real name. “I knew I had to do well at school.”
It was just that on a good day he might have done 10 drug deals before arriving at the school gates, and after lessons finished he would be out until midnight doing plenty more.
If he was phoned at school by one of his best “clients”, like the man who every other day bought “20 and 12” crack and heroin wraps, he would also abandon his studies to do the deal.
Bad clients got less friendly treatment. He doled out his first punishment beating aged 15, to a “frail” addict twice his age.
David, now in is twenties, may have turned away from that world and become a voluntary worker.
But as he tells his story, with unflinching candour, you begin to see how easily it must have been for him to be sucked into the life of a child drug dealer, into a world, where The Independent has found, gangsters are now luring younger and younger children into dealing harder and harder drugs.
Born in St Ann’s, Nottingham, David moved away aged three with his mother and siblings to inner city Birmingham.
“The gang culture there was crazy,” he says. “I grew up seeing all these shootings, stabbings. As far as I can think back, I have known about drug dealing. For my childhood, it was normal.”
He saw his first stabbing aged about eight, his first drive-by shooting aged 10.
“Over the years, it became normal, very normal.”
Perhaps that’s why, aged 11, he was trying to resolve a dispute with 13-year-old youths who snatched his football by threatening one of them with a ball-bearing gun, having “tightened the screw to make it hurt more”.
He moved back to St Ann’s when he was 13, at about the time that the main road running through this area of Nottingham was acquiring the nickname “Death Mile” because of all the gang-related shootings that had occurred along it.
His father worried about the influences he was being exposed to, sent him to another part of the city to live with his grandmother.
But, says David, “I would always find my way over to St Ann’s, smoking weed sometimes, trying to get girls, with older kids who were about 16.”
He ended up living at the home of a family friend, in St Ann’s.
“From there,” says David, “I started being wild.”
When David talks about “school”, he means the pupil referral unit. He got kicked out of mainstream education aged 15, for fighting.
Shortly afterwards, he embarked upon his career as a teenage crack and heroin dealer.
Jamal Forrest, 34, once a gangster, now reformed and working with the charity Catch22 to keep children out of gangs, knows how easy it can be to recruit children like David.
“They are attracted to trinkets,” he says. “Once you have got one young person around you, because of their social circles, they can do the recruiting for you. It’s a domino effect.”
“When you look at these young people,” he adds, “You see business opportunities. It’s like a recruitment agency. You see certain skill sets within them…”
Perhaps, from a gangster’s point of view, David was the ideal “job” candidate: with a ready acceptance of violence, a mindset that considered drug dealing normal, and a certain distance from the steadying hand of strong, ever-present role models.
“Nobody knew what I was doing,” he says, “Because I wasn’t living with family. The structure wasn’t what I expected it to be.”
There seems to have been little to counter the allure of “trinkets” or the “domino effect” that came from seeing his 16-year-old friend getting easy money.
“I was seeing him doing certain things,” says David, “Seeing the money coming back, £200 a day from selling crack and heroin. I was telling him I needed to be involved.”
There is no dissembling, just a matter-of-fact acceptance of what motivated him.
“When you are young,” he says, “Money is what entices you. If I can go to town and buy two pairs of trainers for £90 each, and your mum’s telling you to wait until she gets paid at the end of the month, you’re going to wanna do the same as I’m doing.”
Once he too started selling for the 25-year-old “big man”, he learned fast.
After a couple of months, he moved up the distribution chain, and began getting his drug supplies direct from the even more senior guy, the one who sold to the “big man”.
Cutting out the middle man bumped the profits up from £200 a day to £315.
David says he never knew too much about the “even bigger guy”, who he thinks was in his mid-twenties.
“You don’t know where those people live. They keep as quiet as possible. They might come and pick you up in their car, or they might meet you at one of the druggies’ houses.”
Within eight months, now aged 16, David was trusted enough to get his own “office”, where he divided the drugs into individual wraps, in the house of an adult junkie, a father in his 30s.
“I had what he needed,” says David, explaining why a grown man would let a 16-year-old take over part of his house. “Once I had done what I need to do with the drugs, I might let him have a little bit of dust off the plate.”
A philosophical shrug: “No it wasn’t enough, but when you are a drug user you get what you can.”
David was moving up through the ranks: he was soon working off his own phone, plus a friend’s phone, with his own 15-year-old assistant to help handle all the calls.
Profits were now up to £600 a day, and for the teenage dealer running his own mini-empire, the junkies who paid in stolen goods were becoming decidedly convenient.
“It’s easier to buy from the drug user,” says David, “You haven’t got time to go shopping in the town centre, and you pay less.”
There was a price to be paid in terms of violence, but even today, David’s attitude seems a lot like calm acceptance.
He dished out his first punishment beating, aged 15 to a “fragile” addict twice his age, who had tried to cheat him on a deal, “So the next time he sees me, he knows not to do it again.”
When his 15-year-old assistant made a mistake that could have got them both arrested, he was more considerate.
“I hit him once in the face,” says David. “But I didn’t want to mark his face, because he was still a friend. So I started hitting him in the chest.”
“You know what it is,” muses David, “I always thought of it as just business. If I own a shop and someone shoplifts, I call the police.
“In this business, I can’t phone the police: the only way to deal with it is to beat him up.”
As for his friend, “It was,” he insists, “Like, ‘That’s a learning curve, don’t do it again’.
“It wasn’t superbad. We are still friends to this day.”
David is a changed person now. Perhaps, though, he still carries with him some of the attitudes of his formative years.
“I wouldn’t call it violence,” he says, “It’s a fight, not really violent for me. I have grown up, seen all these stabbings, shootings. Fighting was just what you did in the school playground.”
By the end, the “superfast” £600-a-day business was buying “Parties with mad lots of alcohol, motorbikes, trainers, jewellery, the works.”
The irony is that he was arrested only after he had given it all up.
After getting five GCSEs, he had started a plumbing course in the autumn before his 17th birthday.
Combining college with drug dealing, he says, “Was taking up too much of my time. I was leaving college tired, going home and falling asleep. I didn’t have time to be out doing what I was doing.”
And, unbeknown to David, he had that summer sold to an undercover police officer. Now, drug stashes started disappearing from the bushes where he had hidden them. Police would jump out of cars, for ‘friendly chats’: “It started becoming a problem”.
He stopped dealing, only to be arrested shortly after his 17th birthday, once the police had worked out where he was in the criminal chain.
David served one year of a two-year youth custody sentence for supplying Class A drugs.
He emerged aged 18. With his criminal record, getting a job was no easy matter. But David was lucky. One of his former teachers, “who had always seen good in me”, was running a local youth club.
And by now, David had had time to reflect – particularly about how children like him could be attracted to a life of drug dealing:
“I felt that’s what I needed to change. For me, youth work was the obvious thing.”
A few years on, David is now doing voluntary youth work, helping to divert young people in Nottingham away from a life of crime.
His own drug dealing days, he says, are firmly behind him.
“I saw the opportunity to make something of my life,” he says, “And I took it.”
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