SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : CHAPTER EIGHT
Back To The Soil
The Old Trafford test match loomed and so, thought Judge Embert Wimple, did rain. If Lord’s was an effective place for opening the heavens, surely Manchester was even more so. The judge had never bothered to check the assertion he had heard, to the effect that the Northwest’s premier cricket venue got no more attention from rain-doctors than any other place. Rightly or wrongly, he simply didn’t believe it, and at eighty-three, he was not inclined to have his opinions on such matters influenced by any facts which might refute them. Old Trafford was a wet spot and that was that. Still, there was the famous match of 1956 – dusty enough then, the judge seemed to remember.
Mrs Wimple had returned from her latest course on perspective and was even more immersed in her painting than before the junket. She had never been a chatterbox and was now more taciturn than usual, devoting the bare minimum of time to household matters and desultory conversation. Art was all. This pleased the judge, as he was increasingly disposed to delve into scientific questions and needed every hour he could find to grapple with them. The sands were running out and a man – or, Judge Wimple happily accepted, a woman – had to concentrate on ever-fewer interests, addressing them with greater intensity than before.
Despite having accepted a reduced workload since he had reached the age of seventy-five, Judge Wimple was still the local patriarch of his profession, a grey eminence, exerting considerable influence upon his juniors. One way or another, he was much in demand and seemed likely to be so indefinitely. The betting was that he would die with his boots on.
Today’s case seemed like yet another of those squabbles between neighbours, edifying only insofar as they confirmed that people, especially men, will often pursue to the bitter end – even to their own destruction – what they see as questions of principle. Judge Wimple sometimes wondered whether women – who appeared before him much less often than men – might manage these disputes more effectively. They were, after all, supposed to be more inclined to conciliation than confrontation. Whether that was attributable to the fact that the ladies had, at least so far, limited experience of occupying the hot seats was a matter to which Embert Wimple devoted more time than was generally realised. Was it the case that the incumbent moulded the high office or, as his honour suspected vice versa, the pressures shaping the reactions?
The argument in question today was between Messrs Shuttleworth and Bean, the parties being represented by, for the prosecution, the promising young newcomer Cedric Thistle and for the defence, the more experienced Jeremy Turnpenny, making his fifty-fourth appearance before judge Wimple and his second in short order. As to the case, his honour knew only that Derek Shuttleworth and Rodney Bean were locked in a particularly unpleasant combat concerning property. Calling the parties to order, Embert Wimple first addressed prosecuting counsel, Thistle. “Now, Mr Throstle,” he said, “please get us started.”
With hands behind his back, largely to conceal the fidgeting which was a symptom of his recent cessation of smoking, Thistle gave the slightest of bows. “Your Honour, the position here is one in which a mundane affair escalated sharply. My client, Mr Shuttleworth, recently sold his house to the defendant. On completion of the transaction, Mr Shuttleworth and his wife moved out in the usual way and the defendant and his wife moved in. They noted that two large flowerpots, one on either side of the front door, had been removed. Later that day, they checked the position, finding that the Shuttleworths had taken the pots and deposited them at their new home, again on either side of the front door. The defendant took exception to this and visited my client’s property late one night, a week after the sale was completed, removing the flowerpots and returning them to their previous positions, that is at the property then occupied by himself and his wife.
The judge thought this an appropriate moment for an interruption. “Were there any plants in the pots?” he asked.
“Yes, Your Honour. Hydrangeas.”
This meant nothing to the judge, but he had achieved his objective of giving all parties a short breather. “Very well. Please continue.”
“A week later, again late at night, the pots were taken from the Bean residence. Being suspicious as to what might have happened, Mr Bean drove by the Shuttleworths’ house the following day, seeing that the pots were once more situated as before. That night, he went there again, removed the pots and returned them to their original positions, that is to say the ones before the transaction. The following afternoon, my client drove to the defendant’s house, noting the presence of the pots. As they were, in my client’s view, still his property, he attempted to remove them.”
“What?” said the judge. “In broad daylight?”
“Yes, Your Honour. It was here that matters became complicated.” The judge glared over his half-glasses. “Are you saying that they were previously simple?” he snapped.
“It is all relative, Your Honour,” replied Thistle who was somewhat brash and not easily intimidated. “Mr Bean was watching a football match on television. When his wife called his attention to Mr Shuttleworth’s action, he went outside to remonstrate with his visitor. There were sharp words, culminating in a fist-fight, during which my client sustained a burst nose and lacerations to his forehead, cheeks and mouth.”
“Most disturbing,” said the judge, who noted that the allegedly aggressive Rodney Bean was a much smaller, frailer-looking man than the plaintiff. “Presumably there were further developments?”
“Yes. While Mr Bean was incapacitated, Mr Shuttleworth recovered the pots and returned them to his new home.”
“One moment,” said the judge. “You said that your client had sustained injuries, yet you refer to the incapacity of the defendant. Could you clarify?”
“Certainly, Your Honour. The hostilities were on both sides. I believe Mr Bean was also injured.”
“I understand. Please go on.”
“In the early hours of the following morning, Mr Shuttleworth and his wife were aroused by a commotion outside their house. They went to investigate, finding that the flowerpots were in fragments and that two shadowy figures were disappearing around a corner at the end of the street. Mr and Mrs Shuttleworth were in no doubt that the miscreants were Mr Bean and an accomplice.”
The judge nodded. “Was there anything more?”
“Nothing bearing upon the case, Your Honour.”
“Thank you, Mr Farnsworth.” The judge turned to defending counsel, Turnpenny. “Now, Mr Cartwright, perhaps you would favour us with your version of events.”
“May it please Your Honour, we have thus far been presented with a view which does not fully describe the matter. With respect to the transaction concerned, my client, Mr Bean, had perfectly reasonable grounds for supposing that the flowerpots in question were a part of the bargain. They were an enhancement to the property sold by the plaintiff and in my client’s view, integral to the deal. Nothing to the contrary was specified. It is true that emotions ran high, and with regard to the injuries sustained by the plaintiff, we would point out that my client suffered grievously at the hands of Mr Shuttleworth. Among other things, his head was rammed against his up-and-over garage door. This resulted not only in his receiving a blow which caused a large cranial contusion, but also in a dent to the door in question, which had to be repaired at considerable cost. It was while lying prostrate after the attack that my client was obliged to watch the removal of the flowerpots by the plaintiff.”
“My goodness,” the judge interrupted. “The battle must have been a spirited affair.”
“Indeed so, Your Honour. “However, with regard to the early-morning incident in which the pots were wrecked, my client maintains that he was in bed and under sedation at the time, as a result of the fight. He could not have been party to the destruction of the pots, even if he had wished to be. The simple fact is that the plaintiff apparently had second thoughts about the ownership of the items, and decided to keep them. Regrettably, this kind of situation is not uncommon where conveyancing of real estate is concerned. However, my client bought the property as seen and had every right to assume that the pots were part and parcel of the transaction. There is no dispute about the brawling, nor is there any argument about the injuries inflicted upon the litigants.”
“I see,” said the judge. “Testosterone prevailed and neither party wishes to be regarded as a sissy. Is that so?”
“One might view it thus, Your Honour.”
“Thank you. Is that all?”
“I believe so.”
“Good. Now,” he turned back to Cedric Thistle. “Have you anything to add, Mr Galloway?”
“A peripheral but important point, Your Honour. We did not wish to introduce a sentimental note, but it must be mentioned that my client’s main concern is that the soil in the flowerpots contained the ashes of his uncle, who had died several months before the incidents we are addressing. Mr Shuttleworth and his uncle were, in spiritual terms, very close and the deceased gentleman’s ashes were dug into the two pots, hence there is a factor which cannot be quantified.”
The judge looked startled, then scribbled a short note. “So, you are saying that the intrinsic aspect is of less consequence than the fact that Mr Shuttleworth’s uncle was consigned to the soil?”
“That is my client’s view, Your Honour.”
“Very well. I think we have reached a suitable point for a pause. I need to make some enquiries, which may take a little time. Now, I would like to know the names of the solicitors who acted for the parties in the house sale.”
This caused some consternation to both sides. Two brief huddles followed before the names were produced. “Thank you,” said the judge. “There is one final piece of information I need. Who was the late uncle, on what date did he die and which funeral director was involved?” Jeremy Turnpenny relaxed like a like a punctured balloon, but there was no such respite for the prosecution’s Cedric Thistle, who had that hollow feeling which accompanies the realisation that one has been bowled a ‘wrong-un’. A few words from an embarrassed plaintiff to him produced the information.
“Excellent,” said the judge. “We shall convene again at three o’clock.”
When the parties remustered, it was clear to both advocates that all was not as either would have wished. The judge’s brow was furrowed above a stern gaze. He pushed aside his notes and addressed both counsels with a sweeping look. “I am disappointed,” he said. Some castigation was clearly coming. “First, there is the question of the transfer of ownership. I would have expected such matters as the flowerpots to be covered as a matter of course. Sadly, that was not the case here. It seems that, on both sides, the transaction was handled carelessly. In the case of the prosecution, it was handed down to a junior solicitor who, as it happened, had domestic problems and was less assiduous than he might have been. As to the defence, the matter was dealt with by a supposedly specialist conveyancer, who had limited experience. Apparently, the matter of the flowerpots was not properly addressed by either party, so I must arbitrate – an onus which would not have been placed upon me if everyone had behaved correctly.”
Seeing that his words were producing the desired discomfiture, the judge made a show of consulting his papers before continuing: “Then there is the matter of the disposal of the remains of the deceased uncle. By pure coincidence, I am acquainted with the undertaker concerned” – the two were members of the same exclusive club – “and have established that the last wishes of Mr Shuttleworth’s late uncle included a desire to have his ashes scattered over the moors of North Yorkshire. While it is true that no-one from the undertaker’s company officiated at that culminating ceremony, I have no reason – other than the plaintiff’s contention – to believe that those final stipulations were not honoured.”
Cedric Thistle gave his client a look that could have frozen Hades. It was not lost upon Judge Wimple, who continued: “In the absence of any reliable evidence to the contrary, I am bound to conclude that the plaintiff’s protestations regarding the disposal of his late uncle’s remains must be viewed with scepticism. With respect to the ownership of the flowerpots, I can say only that if I had been buying the property concerned, I would have expected them to be included in the bargain, unless otherwise indicated. Now, if the plaintiff’s word is questionable in the matter of his late uncle, it might also be doubted in other respects. With regard to the defendant, it is surely inconceivable that some other party wrecked the pots in the final episode of this drama. I am therefore forced to the conclusion that he is also culpable of trying to mislead us. It seems to me that there is little to choose between the two parties, who both seem to be of the opinion that if they cannot prevail by unconstitutional means, they seek to do so through legal channels. They are not likely to succeed. For future reference, I would recommend that more assiduous work precede hearings of this kind.”
The judge found himself confronted by four red faces. He went on: “I am not normally a believer in violence as a means of resolving disputes, but on this occasion I feel bound to say that it is a pity that the litigants did not pursue their fight with even greater vigour than they apparently did. That might have knocked some sense into one or both of them. I see that we are concerned with charge and counter-charge and I must say that to find in favour of either party would be to compound this lunacy. Proceedings concluded.”
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