"Natalie and the Speedballs"
I stubbed my cigarette out on the pavement with the heel of my black office shoe. I hitched up my tights under the skirt of my second-hand black suit. It was raining lightly and I didn’t have a coat or an umbrella.
‘Feck it, I better go in,’ I muttered to myself. I picked up my briefcase and took a yellow post-it note out of the pocket of my jacket. Alright. Okay. Calm down. The name of the client, according to the note, was Natalie Aka Matilda Bright. What kind of name was that, anyway, I wondered. Maybe the client was some mix of English and Chinese? Or maybe Aka was a Nigerian name?
I’d only started work that morning. A junior solicitor in a law firm in Soho, London. I’d comem from Ireland, straight to London. I was a qualified solicitor, on paper. I could write my practical experience on the back of a packet of fags but Hobbes, Dervish & Co., Solicitors, didn’t know that.
‘Ms Keane, would you be so kind as to attend an established client of mine who unfortunately finds herself at Holborn Police Station,’ my new boss, Mr Hobbes, had said. ‘She is rather a character, knows more about criminal law than I do. I’ve rung the arresting officer to say you’re on your way. Demand to see her alone. Take cigarettes.’ He handed me the yellow post-it note. ‘And do not tell the piggie wiggies anything, Ms Keane. We do not like the piggie wiggies, Ms Keane. Always remember that.’
He smiled at me and I thought of Lord Emsworth, a PG Wodehouse character. Lord Emsworth was obsessed with pigs too, but the kind with four feet.
‘No problem,’ I said. ‘I get it. We do not like the piggie wiggies – at all.’
Mr. Hobbes looked pleased.
I got to Holborn and found the police station after a bit of confusion and marching the wrong way down a couple of streets and some chain-smoking and some panicked consultation of my A to Z. After stubbing out my final cigarette, I strode into the police station, in what I hoped was a masterful way. The Desk Sergeant was eating a bun behind his glass window.
‘Hobbes and Dervish, solicitors,’ I announced. ‘To see Natalie Aka Matilda Bright.’
The Desk Sergeant seemed a nice, podgy sort of man. He smiled. ‘Ah, working for the Late Mr. Hobbes, are we?’
‘I am,’ I told him, slightly puzzled. (I later learnt that my boss was known as the Late Mr Hobbes because he was almost always late for court.)
‘Well then, you must be here to see Natalie Bright, also known as Matilda Bright,’ he said in a kindly way. ‘I’ll buzz DS Bates for you.’
Damn. That ‘Aka’ wasn’t a surname at all. It was a.k.a. ‘Also known as.’ Eejit. I should have guessed.
‘He’ll be out in a mo’. Take a seat, Miss,’ said the Desk Sergeant.
DS Bates was a handsome and smarmy bastard. I mentally filed him under the category of ‘unpleasant piggie wiggies’. He filled me in on his version of the case. My client had been caught shoplifting. She’d been bailed last week from the same police station on another shoplifting charge.
‘Smack addict,’ he added, casually. ‘Lots of previous.’
He led me to an interview room, bare and windowless. Grey. Not unlike my office back at Hobbes & Dervish, Solicitors. In fact, it was so similar that I could predict in advance that the tinny chair on my side of the small formica table would made a scraping noise on the floor when I pulled it out. I did – and it did. I sat down and took out my A4 pad and a biro.
Moments later the door opened and a statuesque woman swept through it, in a cloud of expensive perfume with an underlay of something like vinegar.
‘Make it fast,’ said DS Bates.
‘Very quick. Just like you, darling,’ drawled Natalie. ‘And I’ll have tea with five sugars.’ She put two fingers up at DS Bates’ back as he turned to leave. ‘Bastard,’ she said, once he’d gone.
She was a fair-haired woman, with the long limbs of a model, and a face that could have been beautiful, except for a kind of vacancy about the eyes and a scar on the left cheek about two inches long.
‘Cigarettes,’ she demanded, still in that high class drawl of hers. She sat there blowing a cloud of smoke over the table, holding her cigarette high. She looked like Marianne Faithful’s first cousin, or maybe Nico’s sister, I thought.
‘Are you my brief?’ she said. ‘I asked for Hobbes, why isn’t he here? And,’ she continued, ‘why are you staring at my barbiturate burn?’
I didn’t know what a barbiturate burn was. I told her so. She relented. She’d been addicted to barbiturates and had taken too many, once upon a time. She’d fallen asleep and when she woke up she had a scar on her face where her head had rested on a cushion. No more barbies. They were out-moded, apparently. She loved heroin now.
‘You’ve still got a beautiful face,’ I said. ‘The scar adds character.’
She looked pleased.
‘Let’s get down to business,’ I said.
Back at the office, I tried to locate all of the files on Natalie. Also known as Matilda. Also known as Rosemary. Also known as Sophie. And Alexandra. Surnames varied too. Bright, Bolan, Young, Dylan, Baez, De Winter. Alexandra Baez was a nice choice, I thought, as I flicked through the files. Then I began to get very anxious. There seemed to be six different outstanding cases, all in different names. And it seemed she had at least thirty-seven previous convictions.
—Prostitution (and lots of it).
—Cheque fraud (known as kiting).
—Shoplifting (her clothes were wonderful).
—Obtaining money by deception (I later learned that one of her best tricks was to promise high-class sexual action to Japanese businessmen. She would ask for the deposit for the hotel room from them. Then, blowing kisses, she would stride into her favourite hotel in Piccadilly and walk quietly out the back door, leaving her new friend to wait in lustful mode until he realised he’d been gypped).
—And of course, possession of Class A drugs (‘I just loooove heroin’).
My first client was a very busy lady. Mr Hobbes said if she worked as hard in a normal job as she did in petty crime, she would be a director of a multinational by now.
Natalie was on remand. She told me her story, smoked all my cigarettes and demanded I bring her chocolate next time I visited. In Holloway prison, the interview rooms were little cubicles and the walls between each cubicle were glass from the waist up, so the warders could see what was going on, and we could see all the other solicitors with their clients. She interrupted her tale to point out some of the more infamous inmates to me. She had the enthusiasm of a B-list actress at an Oscar ceremony, revelling in her proximity to the stars.
‘See her?’ she hissed. ‘That’s the one who buried the axe in her husband’s head. I know her. She was right to do it. He let other men screw her and do the most vicious things, you know, while he watched.’ And again. ‘Look, she’s the one who brought all that smack through customs in the dead baby’s body. I don’t speak to her.’
‘Stop it,’ I said. ‘I can’t turn round and stare. I’m supposed to be a professional.’ But I couldn’t resist. I turned around in what I hoped was a subtle kind of way.
‘I knew you’d look!’ Natalie laughed, and I laughed with her, as if we were long-time friends.
I could smell her faint vinegary smell, even above the heavy clouds of nicotine and perfume. I guessed she was getting enough heroin, even here in the nick, because she hadn’t complained of withdrawal symptoms. I was getting more familiar with the ways of Natalie’s world. I hoped she would not tell me anything I didn’t need to know.
Natalie’s story: Once upon a time she was a young and pretty girl, the daughter of a wealthy English businessman, whose wife had died young. She had been a lonely, abused and rich kid. She fell madly in love with Muff Hack, a rising young pop star. She toured the world with him. London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin… They developed a fondness for barbiturates and various other drugs before deciding to settle down with a huge heroin habit. His manager got Muff into an exclusive drug rehabilitation unit, and got Muff to dump Natalie and her expensive habit. Her father disowned her before he died. The only assets she was left with were: some leather clothing; her life experience so far; and the bit of Japanese she’d learned in Tokyo where she’d spent a few months while Muff was recording a seminal album there.
The leather clothing was long gone. The bit of Japanese came in handy for the Japanese businessman trick. The huge heroin habit was a liability.
Her subsequent boyfriend, with whom she was madly in love, had been killed by the police by mistake. She had lots of previous convictions but had never done any physical harm to anyone but herself. Muff Hack, established pop star, would not acknowledge her existence, even though she had assisted him in his meteoric climb to fame: end of Natalie’s story.
June, the secretary, typed up my dictated definitive version of Natalie’s life. ‘It’s all lies,’ she said. ‘Muff Hack was married to that actress, Betsy Miller, wasn’t he?’ She handed me a copy of Natalie’s life so far.
‘You wouldn’t want to believe a word out of that Natalie,’ she said.
I was inclined to agree, but I didn’t.
‘Besides,’ she said, ‘this is different to the other story she gave Mr. Hobbes three years ago. Well, not entirely different. Just a bit.’
I liked Natalie. She seemed self-aware.
Other junky clients were scagged out of their brains. Some of them had arms like sieves. Not her. She must have smoked, not injected.
Some of my clients nodded off in the tinny chairs in my office while I tried to take instructions from them and talked to the air.
One of them, little Veronica with wounded eyes, was a hostess in the topless bar down the street. I feared that she would go to sleep opposite me and never wake up again.
Grifters, dippers and kiters came to the office. So did shoplifters. So did burglars and thieves, swindlers and conmen, drug dealers, drug addicts, drug barons, prostitutes, pimps and madams. Others were charged with assault causing actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, with blackmail, rape, manslaughter and murder. The clients who bothered me least of all, and of whom I was fondest, were a bevy of confused transsexuals, who desperately grafted in the streets to make enough money for their operations.
And of course, there was Natalie.
Natalie did some time, got out, and was almost immediately re-arrested. Yet again, I got a phone call. She was at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court. At short notice I sent the unfeasibly handsome young barrister, Mr Jeremy Lascelles, to represent her. He rang me afterwards, a bit flustered. He’d unwittingly misled the court, he said. He got bail for Natalie but after the hearing, he had spoken with her and realised all was not as straightforward as it seemed.
‘You see,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know she had all these other outstanding cases. And a bench warrant out for her arrest, in a different name. But of course, nor did the police, this morning.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘I know it’s confusing. The good thing is that everyone is confused. Not just us.’
I was unable to keep track of all of Natalie’s cases. All those different names. The courts, the prosecution, the police, me, Jeremy, we were all confused.
‘She may even have another solicitor dealing with another dozen cases, for all I know,’ I told Jeremy. ‘I mean, the court can hardly accuse us of misleading the court when the court and the prosecution and the police don’t know what’s what, any more than we do. Can they?’
June, the secretary, was wearing a very expensive-looking tan leather jacket. When I admired it she told me Natalie had given it to her.
To my horror, I discovered that Natalie had turned up at the office at 10 a.m. though her appointment with me was not until 3pm. She had given the jacket to June. Tina, the other secretary, had received another. Natalie had left some plastic bags in the office too. She told June and Tina that she’d collect them later, after her appointment with me.
‘We can’t keep her bags here! It’s knock-off stuff.’ I said.
June and Tina didn’t care. They were pleased with their jackets too, and didn’t seem bothered when I pointed out they could be ‘done’ for receiving stolen goods.
When Natalie arrived she looked faded and tired. I told her off for bringing stolen goods into the office.
‘Don’t be mad,’ she sighed. ‘It’s just a few bits and bobs.’
She took a rather nice leather jacket out of one of her bags and offered it to me across the desk. Pity I couldn’t accept – it would have suited me. She had stolen well.
‘If anything like this happens, ever again, we can’t represent you,’ I told her, emphatically.
‘Alright, keep your hair on.’ She looked a little worried then, and told me that in future I’d have nothing to worry about.
Call from Vine Street Police Station. ‘DC Peters here. Got a right one here for you Ms Keane. She’s been kiting up and down Oxford Street all day.’
I wrote the details on a Post-it note.
‘Calls herself Patricia O’Connor. She won’t have the Duty Solicitor, says you’re her brief. Refuses to be interviewed until you come.’
Sod it, I had loads of case preparation to do. I wished there was someone else to send. She had be Irish, I thought, but I didn’t recognise the name. Off I went, walking as fast as I could through the busy streets. Smoked a cigarette on the way. Stubbed out the fag. Strode into the station all masterful. By now I figured I knew how to deal with piggie wiggies.
‘Ms Keane of Hobbes and Dervish’, I said, efficiently and held out my business card. ‘Here to see my client, Patricia O’Connor.’
The client was in the interview room already, the Desk Sergeant said. I went in.
‘Top of the morning to you,’ said Natalie, in an atrocious brogue.
‘Jesus, Natalie. No one talks like that where I come from.’
‘Thought you’d be pleased.’
‘Thought you were in Clouds Rehab, like you’re supposed to be,’ I sighed. I’d put so much work into getting her a place in the Rehabilitation Centre, and Jeremy had worked valiantly to persuade a judge to send her there instead of jail. All a waste of time now.
Business as usual.
Natalie burst through the door of my small grey office.
‘I couldn’t stop her,’ shouted June.
Natalie slammed the door behind her.
‘What …’ I began to say.
Tears were streaming down Natalie’s face. She was heaving, trying to breathe. She unzipped her jeans and tore them down around her knees. Her knickers too.
‘Holy fuck!’ I said.
‘Pubic lice,’ she managed to get out. ‘Have I got …’ She seemed to be having some kind of panic attack. ‘Have I got pubic lice?’
‘Jesus, Natalie, I’m not your fucking doctor.’
No need to curse, she panted. Alcoholics were dirty creatures. She had to sleep with this guy. He was an alkie. Alright, so she was a heroin addict but heroin addicts were clean. Alcoholics were filthy people. She felt an itch. It must be pubic lice. She was always so clean. Why had she sunk so low? She sat on the tinny chair with her jeans and knickers around her ankles, her head in her hands, weeping in a low weeping moan. There were needle marks on her arms now, where I was pretty sure none had been before. Then I noticed track marks on her legs.
June the secretary used to be a nurse, and nothing could surprise her. ‘June, come here please,’ I said. I left them in my office while June had a look. No public lice. No sexual assault, apparently.
I looked up the address of a Soho sexual health clinic and made an appointment for her, but guessed she would not bother to go.
I was in Holloway Prison again. Natalie was in custody for selling speedballs to a cop. To DS Bates actually.
‘This is unfortunate,’ I said.
‘I’m innocent this time.’ She was looking slightly better since the pubic lice incident. This time she’d suffered withdrawal symptoms in the nick and now she was clean, she told me. She’d put on a little weight but it suited her, and her eyes were remarkably focussed.
Natalie insisted again that she was innocent. She wanted to go to Crown Court. Judge and jury.
‘You know I’m always pleading guilty because I’m guilty,’ she said. ‘Not this time.’
I explained if she contradicted what the police said, the Prosecution counsel would then be entitled to attack her own credibility, by listing all her previous offences in open court.
‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell the jury myself. But I didn’t do this one.’
‘Alright,’ I said.
I decided to instruct Jeremy Lascelles, the unfeasibly handsome young barrister, once again. A while back, he had gotten two of her cases dropped on technical grounds. He was good at all the nit-picking, date-counting stuff that careless prosecution lawyers paid no heed to. He’d also persuaded a judge to send her to a drug rehab for the second time. We worked hard to make that happen, but by the time I went to see her she’d absconded once again.
Jeremy was a perfect English gentleman, who treated every criminal client I sent him with the utmost civility, so that they always asked for him again. Not even the most skanky saddo lowlife seemed to faze him. I only ever saw his upper lip curl (slightly) once, and that’s another story. And he’d done a lot for Natalie already. He could handle her on the witness stand. At least I hoped so.
At the client conference in Holloway, Natalie lurched from shouting to Jeremy and I that she was innocent, to being unnaturally quiet and nodding a lot.
‘Ms. Bright,’ said Jeremy politely, ‘Rest assured, I will do my utmost on our behalf.’
I stayed behind for a minute after Jeremy left.
‘Happy then, Natalie?’ I asked.
‘He has a lovely ass,’ she said.
The jury were sworn in. They looked a decent bunch. DS Bates and his colleague gave their evidence. They’d been on plainclothes patrol in Ingestre Place, just off Soho Square, when a woman, identified as the Defendant, had offered to sell them a Class A drug. When DS Bates arrested her she had struggled and made abusive remarks.
Natalie took the stand. I felt tense.
But Natalie was the queen of the hour. She stood tall in the wooden witness stand and drawled and trawled her way through her life, assisted by Jeremy. She cut a romantic and a tragic figure all at once. A beautiful loser, a woman prepared to admit how and why she sank so low as to become a heroin addict and a prostitute, a lowlife criminal. The loss of love was the first step on a downward spiral. The jury was entranced. Jeremy got a copy of Natalie’s previous convictions and gave it to her. He led her through the list, while she explained how each and every conviction came about.
One nice-looking elderly lady kept her eyes glued on Natalie while she testified. A younger woman had tears in her eyes. The men in the jury sat up straighter when Natalie got round to explaining some of her prostitution charges. Another female member of the jury had her eyes fixed on the handsome defence counsel. For the jurors, this was the business. This was what they’d imagined jury service would be like. This was a story to take home.
‘I am guilty of all of those charges,’ declaimed Natalie. ‘But I am NOT guilty of the crime I am charged with here today.’
‘Thank you, Mizz – ah – Mizz Bright,’ said the elderly judge. He directed the jury. Simple. You believe DS Bates and his colleague, or you believe the defendant.
The jury filed back in. They all looked happy. The foreman stood up and announced the verdict.
Natalie was flushed with pride. I turned around to look at DS Bates and his sidekick. They were red with annoyance.
The judge rose and left the Bench. Before anyone had time to move, Natalie jumped down from the dock and towards the policemen.
‘I’ll have your testicles for my meatball stew, Andy Bates!’ she spat out, as the jailers grabbed her and hauled her down to the cells.
I wondered why she was roaring at him. What was the problem? She’d won, hadn’t she?
We went to see her in the cells before she was released. Jeremy slipped her a tenner.
‘I did it, didn’t I?’ she said. ‘That bastard. I should have recognised him.’
‘What?’ said Jeremy, looking puzzled.
‘I shoulda’ recognised him. I was off my head. I really must have been out of it that day.’
‘So you mean you DID try to sell him drugs?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ she drawled. ‘Even you believed me. You both believed me. Shoulda’ been an actress.’
Jeremy and I looked at each other. He let out a deep breath.
‘Well, I suppose we’re done,’ I said.
Jeremy phoned me later. ‘She’s the feistiest drug addict I’ve come across so far,’ he said.
‘You got to admire it.”
He agreed. He’d been a bit worried about the case though, but he’d checked with colleagues and we had not done anything improper according to law.
‘Because she didn’t tell you she was guilty, did she?’ he said. ‘And she didn’t tell me she was guilty.’
‘No. I actually believed that she wasn’t guilty. I can’t believe I believed it, now. If you know what I mean.’
‘I do know what you mean,’ he said. ‘I guess she deserved to win. It was quite a performance.’
‘Yes, it was.’
‘She may be dead soon, if she carries on like this,’ he said. ‘I almost wish we hadn’t won.’
Shortly after Natalie’s ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, a woman was found dead in a posh house in Primrose Hill. A scandal. An overdose in the house of an anorexic film star and the film star’s much younger, drug-addled boyfriend. A star-studded party gone wrong. The tabloids published confused accounts. The police investigated. The celebrities were not happy. The photograph in the newspaper looked a bit like Natalie.
It took a while to confirm. Three weeks later DS Bates rang to tell me that, yes, it was Natalie Bolan, a.k.a. Matilda Bright, a.k.a. Alexandra Baez.
Afterwards, I sat in my grey office and wept. The Late Mr Hobbes patted my shoulder kindly and said that I should take the afternoon off. Jeremy rang to offer tea and sympathy so we met in Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street.
‘I hadn’t seen her in a while,’ I said. ‘Only twice after the Crown Court case. She shouldn’t even have been out on bail.’
‘What was the beef with DS Bates?’
‘As far as I could gather, he didn’t pay her for sex. He expected it for free.’
I bought a CD the other day. Muff Hack, The Best of. It was on sale, very cheap, and the music was lame. I looked at the booklet inside. A brief history of Muff Hack and his band. Some black and white photographs of the good old days before Muff fell off a motorised lawnmower in his own garden and had a brain haemorrhage. Not really a Rock and Roll sort of death.
I looked a bit closer at one group photo. Surely that was Natalie. There. It was hard to see. In the background. One of those peaked caps people wore in the Seventies. Longer hair. No barbiturate burn. Looking upwards. Chin at an angle. Proud. Surely it was her. Not all of it was lies. Something had to be true.
End of Guest Post
Biography of Madeleine D’Arcy
Madeleine D’Arcy was born in Ireland and later spent thirteen years in the UK. She worked as a criminal law solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork City in 1999 with her husband and son.
She began to write short stories in 2005.
In April 2010 she was presented with a Hennessy X.O Literary Award 2009 in the First Fiction category for her short story ‘Is This Like Scotland?’ and also received the overall Hennessy X.O Literary Award for New Irish Writer.
One of her stories came joint-second in the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Short Story Competition 2011 and another was short-listed for the 2012 prize.
She has been short-listed in the Fish Short Story Prize 2008, the Bealtaine Short Story Competition 2008, the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Competitions 2009 and 2011, the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Competition 2009 and the Bridport Prize 2009 (UK). She received commendations in the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competitions 2009 and 2011.
Publishing credits include: the Sunday Tribune (April 2009); Made in Heaven and Other Short Stories (Cork County Library and Arts Service publication, May 2009); Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (Stinging Fly Press, October 2010); Etherbooks Mobile Publishing (October 2010); the Irish Examiner (Holly Bough, December 2010); Necessary Fiction (US literary webjournal, March 2011); the Irish Independent (5th October 2011); and the Irish Times (26th November, 2011).
Actors Jack Healy and Cora Fenton have read Madeleine’s stories on stage in Theatre Makers fundraisers in 2011 and 2012.
Madeleine has read her work in Toronto at the 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English (2010), at Cork International Short Story Festival (2009 and 2010), in the Working Man’s Club, Dublin (2010), at Dromineer Literary Festival (2012) and at various other events. She will be reading at Listowel Writers’ Week in May 2013.
Her short film script, ‘Dog Pound’, was a finalist in Waterford Film Festival Short Screenplay Competition 2012.
This story is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without the permission of the author.