Nw by Zadie Smith

  They were the only two left in the pupils’ room. Everyone was either in court or already in the pub.

  “You can even take my last fag. Consider it part of the trousseau.”

  Natalie put her arms in her coat, while Polly worked the lighter, but they were not quick enough to avoid a clerk, Ian Cross, appearing at the bottom of the stairs carrying a brief.

  “Oi: put that out. Concentrate. Who wants this?”

  “What is it?”

  Ian turned the brief over in his hands: “Junkies. Robbery. Bit of mild arson. That’s young Mr. Hampton-Rowe’s notes on the back of it—over at Bridgestone. He got a higher calling last minute. That Reverend Marsden fuck-up. High profile.”

  Natalie watched Polly blush and reach out for the brief with an imitation of mild interest: “Reverend who?”

  “You’re joking, aren’t you? Vicar cut up a prozzie and dumped her in Camden Lock. Been wall to wall. Don’t you read the papers?”

  “Not those sort of papers.”

  “You should join the 21st century, love. There’s only one kind of paper these days.” As he smiled, the port wine stain around his left eye crinkled horribly. Another of Polly’s clever phrases: “a whole personality constructed round a stain.”

  “Give it here. She can’t. Nat’s getting married Sunday.”

  “Salutations. Everyone should do it. No man is an island, I always say.”

  “Oh, that was you, was it? I was wondering who that was. Nat, darling, flee from here. Save yourself. Have a drink on me.”

  110. Personality Parenthesis

  (Sometimes, when enjoying Pol’s capsule descriptions of the personalities of others, Natalie feared that in her own—Natalie’s—absence, her own—Natalie’s—personality was also being encapsulated by Pol, although she could not bring herself to truly fear this possibility because at base she could not believe that she—Natalie—could ever be spoken about in the way she—Natalie—spoke about others and heard others spoken about. But for the sake of a thought experiment: what was Natalie Blake’s personality constructed around?)

  111. Work drinks

  Natalie Blake hurried up the steps and past the clerks’ room to avoid any other briefs. She stepped out into the slipstream of Middle Temple Lane. Everyone flowing in the same direction, toward Chancery Lane, and she fell in step, found two friends, and then two more. By the time they reached The Seven Stars they were too large a party for an inside table. The only other woman—Ameeta—offered to get the drinks and Natalie offered to help her. “Vodka shots or beer?” They had forgotten to ask. Ameeta, another working-class girl, but from Lancashire, was anxious to get it right—as working-class female pupils they were often anxious to get it right. Natalie Blake counseled for both. A few minutes later they emerged in their sensible skirt suits holding two wobbly trays sloppy with foam. The men were lined up by the railings of the Royal Courts, smoking. It was a lovely late-summer evening in London. The men whistled. The women approached.

  112. Sir Thomas More, Lincoln’s Inn, 1496

  “Someone give this girl the bumps! She’s getting married. Ah, the good die young. What’s his name again? Francesco. An eye-tie? I move for a mistrial. Half-Trini, actually. IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD. Seriously, though, Nat. Best of luck. We all wish you the best of luck. I don’t believe in luck. Where’s my invite? Yeah, where’s my invite? Watch that glass! No one’s invited, not even family. We want to be alone. Ooh, exclusive! Someone lift her up. Pol says he’s loaded, too. Durham and Macaulay. Quickie in Islington town hall. Honeymoon in Positano. Business class. Oh, we know all about it. Oh yes, we know. Blake’s no fool. Ouch! No hitting. Point is, you’re joining the other side. Enemy camp. We will be forced to continue the hunt for love in your absence. This Francesco fellow: he approve of sex after marriage? Italians tend to. Catholic, we presume. Oh, yes, we presume. Frank. Everyone just calls him Frank. He’s only half-Italian. Jake, get her right leg. Ezra, get the left. Ameeta get the arse. Put me down! You’re on arse duty, Ameeta, love. Objection! How come Ameeta gets the best bit? Because I do. Objection overruled. Why can’t a gentleman refer to the posterior of a lady anymore these days? I TELL YOU IT’S POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE—oh, fuck it. One two three LIFT.”

  The trainee barristers carried Natalie Blake across the road, whooping. Her nose came level with the arch of 16th-century doorways. So far from home!


  “Morning after. Who’s that statue, up there?”

  “My Latin’s rusty—I have no fucking clue . . . Which way we heading? North? West! Which line do you need, Nat? The Jubilee?”

  113. Miele di Luna (two weeks)



  Sky, bleached.

  Swallows. Arc. Dip.

  Pebbles blue.

  Pebbles red.

  Elevator to the beach.

  Empty beach. Sun rise. Sun set.

  “You know how rare this is, in Italy? This is what you pay for—the silence!”


  He swims. Every day.

  “The water is perfect!”


  English newspapers. Two beers. Arancini.

  “Is it all right if we put it on this card? We’re in room 512. I have my passport.”

  “Of course, Madam, you are the newlywed suite. You mind I ask something? Where you from?”


  The waiters wear white gloves. Obituaries. Reviews. Cover to cover.

  Rum and coke. Cheesecake.

  “Can I put it straight on the room? The other guy said it was OK. 512.”

  “For sure, Madam. How do you call this, in English?”

  “Binoculars. My husband likes birds. Weird saying that word.”



  The public beach is at the tip of the peninsula. Four miles hence. Whoops. Screams. Laughter. Music from loud speakers. More bodies than sand.

  Wish you were here?



  “This is really like paradise!”



  Lone family. Red umbrella. Mother, father, son. Louis.

  LOOO-weee! Pink shorts. WAVE

  Nowhere and nothing.


  Vodka cocktail.

  “Have you got a pen? Do you know where they’re from?”

  “Paris, signora. She is American model. He is computer. French.”

  Louis stung by a jellyfish.

  Dramatic event!

  Rum Cocktail. Prawns. Chocolate cake.

  “512, please.”

  “Madam, I promise you this is not possible. There are no jellyfish here. We are a luxury resort. You don’t swim because of this?”

  “I don’t swim because I can’t swim.”

  Linguine con vongole, gin and tonic, rum cocktail.

  “Signora, where you from? American?”


  “This is your boyfriend swimming?”


  “He speak very good Italian.”

  “He is Italian.”

  “And you, signora? Dove sei?”

  114. L’isola che non c’è

  “You should at least stand in the water one time,” said Frank De Angelis, and Natalie Blake looked up at her husband’s beautiful brown torso dripping with saltwater and returned to her reading. “You’ve been dragging those papers around since the plane.” He looked over her shoulder. “What’s so interesting?” She showed him the wrinkled, water-damaged page of personal advertisements. He sighed and put on his sunglasses. “‘Soulmates.’ Che schifo! I don’t know why you love reading those things.
They depress me. So many lonely people.”

  115. The Old Bailey

  Ian Cross put his head round the pupils’ door. A room full of pupils looked up hopefully. Cross looked at Natalie Blake.

  “Want to see a grown jury weep? Bridgestone need a random pupil to make up the numbers. Court One, Bailey. With Johnnie Hampton-Arse. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do anything, just look pretty. Grab your wig.”

  She was excited to be chosen. It proved the efficacy of her strategy as compared to, say, Polly’s. Don’t get romantically involved with the star tenants of criminal sets. Do good work. Wait for your good work to be noticed. This innocence and pride was preserved right up until the moment she took her seat and spotted the victim’s family in the gallery, unmistakeably Jamaican, the men in shiny gray double-breasted suits, the women in their wide-brimmed hats topped with sprays of synthetic flowers.

  “Watch and learn,” whispered Johnnie, rising for opening remarks.

  116. Voyeurism

  The defense was constituted along the same basic lines as transubstantiation. Someone else had used the vicar’s flat to chop up Viv. Someone else had deposited her body in a series of bin bags by Camden Lock, twenty yards from his own back door. He claimed the key was freely passed among his parishioners; many people had a copy. That his sperm was found inside her was only evidence of further coincidence. (The papers had dug up a series of suspiciously similar-looking local prostitutes, all claiming to have known the vicar in the biblical sense.) “But this is not a trial about race,” said Johnnie, directing the jury’s attention to Natalie Blake with a slight move of his arm, “and to allow it to become one is to submit the evidential burden—your first concern, as jurors in a British court—to the guilty-cos-we-say-so principles of our lamentable gutter press.” The distressed huddle of Viv’s family kept clinging to each other in the gallery, but Natalie did not look at them again.

  The prosecution offered a PowerPoint presentation. Grubby-looking Camden interiors. Natalie Blake sat forward in her chair. The point was the flecks of blood, but it was everything else that interested her. Four modish 60s-era white chairs, unexpected for a man of the cloth. The too-big piano in the too-small room. Mismatched sofa and ottoman, a top-of-the-range TV. Out-dated fitted kitchen with a cork floor, unfortunate, the blood soaks in. Natalie felt a nudge from the junior advocate and began taking down the pretend notes she’d been instructed to scribble.

  117. In the robing room

  As Natalie Blake turned to shuck off her gown, Johnnie Hampton-Rowe appeared behind her, put his hand on her shirt, pulling it aside with her bra. She had a delayed reaction: he was pinching her nipple before she managed to ask him what the fuck he thought he was doing. With the same sleight of hand she’d just seen in court, he turned the fact of her shouting into the crime. Backed off at once, sighing: “All right, all right, my mistake.” Out of the door before she’d turned round. By the time she had collected herself and come out of the room he was at the far end of the hallway bantering with the rest of the team, discussing the next day’s strategy. The junior advocate pointed at Natalie with a pen. “Pub. Seven Stars. You coming?”

  118. Emergency consultation

  Leah Hanwell arranged to meet Natalie Blake at Chancery Lane tube. She was working close by, as a gym receptionist on the Tottenham Court Road. They walked to the Hunterian Museum. It began to rain. Leah stood between two huge Palladian columns and looked up at the Latin tag etched on gray stone.

  “Can’t we go to the pub?”

  “You’ll like this.”

  They made their tiny donations at the desk.

  “Hunter was an anatomist,” explained Natalie Blake. “This was his private collection.”

  “Have you told Frank?”

  “He wouldn’t be helpful.”

  With no warning Natalie prodded Leah into the first atrium, as Frank had done to her a few months before. Leah didn’t scream or gasp or cover her hands with her eyes. She walked right past all the noses and shins and buttocks suspended in their jars of formaldehyde. Straight to the bones of the Giant O’ Brien. Put her hand flat against the glass, and smiled. Natalie Blake followed her reading from a leaflet, explaining, always explaining.

  119. Cocks

  Thick and squat and a little comical, severed a few inches after the head, or perhaps simply shrunken in death. Some circumcised, some apparently gangrenous. “Not feeling that envious,” said Leah. “You?” They moved on. Past hipbones and toes, hands and lungs, brains and vaginas, mice and dogs and a monkey with a grotesque tumor on its jaw. By the time they reached the late-stage fetuses they were a little hysterical. Huge foreheads, narrow little chins, eyes closed, mouths open. Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell made the Munch face at each other, at them. Leah knelt to look at a diseased piece of human material Natalie could not identify.

  “You went to the pub.”

  “I sat there for twenty minutes looking at the grain of the table. They talked about the case. I left.”

  “You think he did the same with this Polly girl?”

  “They had a ‘thing.’ Maybe it started the same way. Maybe he does it to everyone.”

  “The plot thickens. I hate plots. The gym’s the same, full of cocks making drama. Drives me insane.”

  “What’s that bit? Cancer?”

  “Of the bowel. Dad’s kind.” Leah moved away from the jar and sat down on a little bench in the middle of the room. Natalie joined her and squeezed her hand.

  “What are you going to do?” asked Leah Hanwell.

  “Nothing,” said Natalie Blake.

  120. Intervention

  A few weeks passed. Dr. Singh cornered Natalie Blake in the pupils’ room. It was clear she had been sent as a sort of emissary. Some people upstairs—unnamed—were “concerned.” Why had she stopped participating in the social life of the set? Did she feel isolated? Would it help to talk to someone who’d “been through it”? Natalie took the little card. Without realizing it she must have rolled her eyes. Dr. Singh looked wounded, and drew a finger under a line of letters: QC, OBE, PhD. “Theodora Lewis-Lane was a trail-blazer”—this was meant as an admonishment—“no us without her.”

  121. Role models

  A fancy cake shop on the Gray’s Inn Road. Natalie was fifteen minutes late but Theodora was twenty, demonstrating that “Jamaican Time” had not quite died out in either of them. She was fascinated by Theodora’s chat-show weave (having recently abandoned her own, upon Frank’s request), and the subtle, glamorous variants she bought to the female barrister’s unofficial uniform: a gold satin shirt beneath the blazer; a diamante trim to the black court shoes. She was at least fifty, with the usual island gift of looking twenty years younger. Surprisingly—given her fearsome reputation—she was no more than five foot two. When Natalie slipped off her chair to shake Theodora’s hand she looked disconcerted. Sitting, she reclaimed her gravitas. In an accent not found in nature—somewhere between the Queen and the speaking clock—she ordered a tremendous number of pastries before proceeding without any encouragement to tell the story of her gothic South London childhood and unlikely professional triumph. When this tale was not quite finished, Natalie Blake took a fastidiously small bite of a croissant and murmured, “I guess I just really want my work to be taken on its own merits . . .”

  When she looked up from her plate, Theodora had her little hands folded in her lap.

  “You don’t really want to have a conversation with me, do you, Miss Blake?”


  “Let me tell you something,” she said, with a sharpness that belied the fixed smile on her face, “I am the youngest silk in my generation. That is not an accident, despite what you may believe. As one learns very quickly in this profession, fortune favors the brave—but also the pragmatic. I suppose you’re interested in a human rights set of some kind. Police brutality? Is that yo
ur plan?”

  “I’m not sure yet,” said Natalie, trying to sound bullish. She was very close to tears.

  “It wasn’t mine. In my day, if you went down that route people tended to associate you with your clients. I took some advice early on: “Avoid ghetto work.” It was Judge Whaley who gave it to me. He knew better than anyone. The first generation does what the second doesn’t want to do. The third is free to do what it likes. How fortunate you are. If only good fortune came with a little polite humility. Now, I believe this place does wine. Will you have a little wine?”

  “I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m sorry.”

  “It’s a good tip for court: don’t imagine your contempt is invisible. You’ll find out as you mature that life is a two-way mirror.”

  “But I don’t have contempt—”

  “Calm yourself, sister. Have a glass of wine. I was just the same at your age. Hated being told.”

  122. Theodora’s advice

  “When I first started appearing before a judge, I kept being reprimanded from the bench. I was losing my cases and I couldn’t understand why. Then I realized the following: when some floppy-haired chap from Surrey stands before these judges, all his passionate arguments read as “pure advocacy.” He and the Judge recognize each other. They are understood by each other. Very likely went to the same school. But Whaley’s passion, or mine, or yours, reads as ‘aggression.’ To the judge. This is his house and you are an interloper within it. And let me tell you, with a woman it’s worse: ‘Aggressive hysteria.’ The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”

  123. Bye noe

  hi finally

  that wasn’t so hard now was it

  just don’t like downloading things

  me no like computerz

  from the internet at WORK. Weak gov computers. One little virus

  me fear the future

  and they die innit

  is it

  shut it blake.

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