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Back To Square One

Back To Square One

By Scriptorius


Back To Square One

Esmeralda Wimple had done it! After – as she viewed the situation – initially grovelling in the gutter by selling her paintings for twenty-five pounds each, she had hurdled the hundred-pound obstacle, then passed the two hundred mark and now, only weeks later, had disposed of a landscape for two hundred and fifty pounds. It was a target she had set herself at the outset and no matter that her latest effort had been bought by a friend of the family, she was overjoyed. In fact the work was good enough to have achieved the same price on the open market. Suffused with largesse, Esmeralda had offered to treat her husband to a new pipe. Judge Embert Wimple had reminded her that following a self-imposed health scare, he had not smoked for two years. His wife hadn’t noticed. The Wimples may not have been twin souls, but they had reached a state of passably amiable tolerance of one another, both being absorbed with personal interests and barely conscious of other influences.

At well over eighty, the judge was trying to put an end to his long legal career but his colleagues had prevailed upon him to continue. After all, he was father of the house, so to speak. No rest for the wicked. Or was it the weary? Embert Wimple was never quite sure about that. It was like filling the bill or fitting it. The English language was such an unruly monster, receiving its input as it did from every corner of the Earth. However, a busy man has little time to dwell on such things. Messrs Ramsden and Clegg were awaiting their respective fates in what seemed to be yet another in the long line of minor neighbourhood arguments. Judge Wimple should have known better than to think in this way. He persisted in forgetting the famous exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that demolished the latter’s assertions about how commonplace these little matters were, noting that the ‘mundane’ affair the doctor had mentioned concerned a man who ended each meal by throwing his false teeth at his wife.

Accustomed as he was to seeing familiar faces across the bench, the judge was mildly surprised to encounter one new to him. The barrister concerned, Timothy Parmenter, was a slim, hawkish-looking six-footer, representing the plaintiff, David Ramsden. The defendant, Robert Clegg, was in the hands of the elderly Simon Fortescue. Judge Wimple did not bother to assimilate the charge. Everything would come out in the wash. However, he made a mental note to be on his best behaviour, especially with regard to identifying the visiting advocate. He nodded at Parmenter. “Perhaps you get us going, Mr Parmesan.”

Prosecuting counsel gave a mini-bow. “May it please Your Honour, the essence of this case is that my client was grievously misled by the defendant. The two gentlemen live in the same Victorian terrace, in houses which are commonly called back-to-back. Both properties retain many of their original features, including black iron cooking ranges, fuelled by open fires. The two parties had been friends for many years and it was their habit to get together each Sunday morning to play chess. The matter with which we are concerned occurred on the seventh of March, this year. Perhaps I may digress slightly here.”

The judge had already digressed and was thinking about the various propulsive agents that might be used for interplanetary travel. “By all means,” he said absently.

“Thank you. It was customary for the games to be played with a particular set of chessmen owned by the defendant, Mr Clegg. The pieces were red and white and had long been admired by my client, who collects chess sets. Mr Ramsden had many times offered to buy the one concerned from Mr Clegg, who had consistently refused to part with it, saying that it was the work of an Indian craftsman, who had carved the pieces from ivory, late in the eighteenth century. He said he had bought the set for fifty pounds, at an auction of rare items over thirty years ago.”

“A considerable sum at the time,” said the judge. “Might I enquire as to the pattern of the chessmen concerned? Were they in the traditional Indian style, or that more common today?”

This caused a brief consultation between counsel and plaintiff, then Parmenter swung back to the judge. “Your Honour, they were of the Staunton pattern which is seen most often nowadays.”

“Thank you. Please proceed.”

“On the day in question, my client made yet another offer to buy the set. Finally, Mr Clegg agreed to sell, saying that he considered a figure of three hundred pounds as appropriate. My client immediately returned to his home, where he kept substantial cash on hand. He came back and paid the full amount. It was decided that the deal would be consummated by a game with the pieces in question, by then belonging to my client. The game was recorded. When Mr Clegg made his forty-fourth move, he realised that he had blundered and was about lose. In a fit of pique, he swept an arm over the board, hurling the pieces around the room.”

“Good heavens,” said the judge. “I have played little chess, and then only for passing amusement. Is it usual for such emotions to be engendered?”

“I fear so, Your Honour. Chess is not always a relaxing pastime. There is a history of odd behaviour, which has been known to reach the highest levels, including world champions.”

“Ah, yes,” said the judge. “Now that you have jogged my memory, I recall that one great player was given to breaking furniture if things did not go according to his plans.”

“Your Honour is well informed.”

“You would expect that of a judge, would you not? However, let us get back to the incident.”

Parmenter nodded. “One of the pieces – the white queen – landed in the fire. Both men immediately grasped the full horror of what was happening. They tried to recover the piece, alternately pushing one another aside to do so. Finally, the item was rescued from the flames, but the skirmish continued. I understand that the defendant overbalanced, injuring himself.”

“One moment,” the judge broke in, having finally taken note of the plaintiff’s charge. “You say Mr Clegg was hurt. I will come back to you, but before I lose track, I think this might be a good point at which to hear a few words from the defence.” He turned to Fortescue. “Mr Willoughby?”

Defending counsel outbowed his opponent by some margin. “Thank you, Your Honour. My client admits that he was upset. He was already thinking that he had been ill-advised to submit to the constant pressure upon him to part with the chess set. His error on move forty-four was the cause of his subsequent conduct. He also agrees that physical force was used on both sides, but submits that he was motivated by an overwhelming desire to rescue the white queen from the flames, at whatever peril to himself and notwithstanding that it was no longer his property.”

“Very noble,” said the judge. “And he was injured?”

“Severely, Your Honour. Furthermore, the prosecution’s comment that Mr Clegg overbalanced is specious. He did so because he was first struck on the nose, then pushed violently by the plaintiff. Mr Clegg fell face-first against the oven, which was hot, as it contained some Yorkshire puddings which Mrs –”

“What kind?” asked the judge.

“Beg pardon, Your Honour? What kind of what?”

“The Yorkshire puddings. Were they the good old plate-sized ones, or these apologies we are sometimes offered in restaurants?”

“I will enquire.”

The judge had been carried away to his childhood, remembering his mother’s vast Yorkshire puddings, swimming in onion gravy, each almost a meal in itself. “Never mind. It was just a passing thought. Go on.”

“Thank you. In addition to the blow, Mr Clegg suffered burns to his forehead, which have healed only in the last week or so. However, he makes no charge in this respect, as he is conscious of his wife’s intervention.”

“Mrs Clegg? How was she involved?”

“It seems she was fearful for the fate of her puddings and entered the fray by kicking Mr Ramsden.”


“In the living room.”

“I was thinking in terms of Mr Ramsden’s anatomy.”

“Beg pardon, Your Honour. If I am to avoid indelicacy, perhaps it would suffice to say that kick was . . . er . . . below the equator.”

“Are you speaking of the Tropic of Capricorn?”

“That would describe it well.”

“I see,” said the judge. “Now, considering that Mr Clegg was injured and that action is being taken against him, I think we had better hear a little more from the prosecution. Mr Paraquat?”

Parmenter rubbed his hands, preparing his knockout blow. “Mr Clegg was not the only one injured, Your Honour. My client suffered extensive burning to his left hand. However, that is not the substance of our claim.”

“Really? Then perhaps you had better get to that substance. I have known murder trials with fewer ramifications.”

“My apologies, Your Honour. The point at issue is that, when the white queen was retrieved from the fire, it was deformed, having been partially melted. My client was suspicious, as he did not imagine that ivory would react in that way to such a brief contact with flames. On examination, he found that the piece – and all the others he had just bought – were of plastic, the bases being weighted and sealed. The set, or something like it, could be bought now for four or five pounds in any one of several local shops.”

“Dear me,” said the judge, “this is most disturbing. I assume your contention is that Mr Clegg was aware that he had sold this common or garden plastic chess set for three hundred pounds and had been misleading your client for some years?”

“Precisely, Your Honour. We suggest that no other interpretation is credible. It may be that in the initial instance, Mr Clegg was merely fantasising. It is even possible that he began to believe his strange story, but the fact remains that he obtained a substantial sum of money from my client by false pretences.”

“Very well,” said the judge, turning to Fortescue. “Have you anything to add, Mr Bannerman?” There had in fact once been an advocate of that name, who had appeared before Judge Wimple several times, but had been dead for twenty-three years.

While listening to the prosecution’s latest remarks, Simon Fortescue had been shooting furious glances at his client, who had not seen fit to advise him about the true provenance of the chess set. But advancing years had not yet extinguished Fortescue’s lights. He excused himself for a few muttered words with Clegg before replying: “Not a great deal, Your Honour, except that it appears that my client was duped when he originally bought the pieces at the auction, so long ago. He can hardly be blamed for passing on what he believed. For many years, he had been satisfied that he possessed an item of great age and considerable value.”

“Thank you. Now, both sides have had their say and it remains for me to summarise and arbitrate.” Straightening his minimal notes, the judge treated both counsels to a grim look, then went on: “This is a sad affair. To borrow from the chess vocabulary, the litigants are here because they have reached stalemate. On the one hand, there is covetousness and on the other, deception. I am not an avid reader of the scriptures, but I seem to remember that the former is one of the seven deadly sins. Still, this is a secular court and we cannot judge anyone for religious transgressions, so long as we are not dealing with crime in the generally accepted sense. Deception is a different matter, but is elusive, since it often depends on the interplay between disingenuousness and gullibility.”

After a brief pause to allow everyone to take in what he considered profound words, his honour continued: “One factor is that the plaintiff and the defendant share a passion for chess. It is therefore odd that neither should have noticed one most obtrusive fact about this set. I mentioned that I have had no great involvement in the game as a player, but that has never debarred me from being a student of its history. I would say that chess can, to perhaps an even greater extent than most games, be regarded as part playing, part discussing games already played and part lore. It is the third element which puzzles me in this case, insofar as I think it inconceivable that two such enthusiasts as appear here could be so deluded as they apparently were. We are asked to believe that both parties accepted the pieces in question as being the work of an eighteenth-century Indian artisan. This is nonsense – and I am bound to express my disappointment at the quality of whatever research was carried out in this case.”

The judge took a drink of water and glared again at the advocates. “Someone on one side or the other should have noticed that the Staunton pattern of chessmen takes its name from Howard Staunton, the only Englishman ever to have been considered the world’s best player. It was introduced close to the middle of the nineteenth century. Obviously, the likelihood of a chess set of this kind being made some decades earlier is remote. I very much doubt that a reputable auctioneer, especially one dealing with rarities, would have offered such a patently spurious item as the one concerned, so I do not accept Mr Clegg’s assertion that he bought the set in the way he claims to have done. I believe that he deceived the plaintiff.”

This brought a further angry glance from Fortescue to his client, before the judge continued: “Against that, we have the fact that Mr Ramsden caused Mr Clegg to suffer a serious injury, and the further point that Mr Ramsden was also slightly hurt. We must offset Mr Clegg’s injury against Mr Ramsden’s financial loss and the lesser physical damage to him. My impression is that there is little to choose between the two parties. I do not accept that any trinket of whatever supposed value can fairly be balanced against bodily harm to anyone. However, as there was injury to both parties, I think the best solution is that Mr Clegg should repay the three hundred pounds in question and that he should resume ownership of the chess set. That seems to be the nearest we can get to restoring the status quo ante, which was disturbed by avarice on one side and opportunism on the other. Proceedings concluded.”

* * *

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7 Jul, 2018
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