SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWENTY-THREE
It was early February and bitterly cold. Embert Wimple was glad to don his thermal long johns, nowadays discarded for only three or four months of the year. Life was more or less in balance. On the minus side, there was an interlude in the strenuous overseas test match schedule, a struggle in which England’s lads were doing their best against tough opposition. On the plus side, Esmeralda Wimple, after abandoning her whimsical interest in other matters, was painting with renewed vigour. The only change was that she had developed a taste for portraiture. Judge Wimple was mildly disappointed that his wife had not chosen him as her first subject, especially as the Wimples were enjoying domestic harmony. Perhaps there was further to go along this path. Were some of the Eastern believers right in thinking that it was it all an unending cycle? Embert Wimple thought not. At some point, there must surely be a progression to another plane. But would that start the whole thing over again at a different level? It was confusing.
The judge put his mind into freewheel as he was chauffeured to court. No point in speculating on what awaited him. He did know that he was to deal with the case of Walmsley versus Walmsley, and entertained a tenuous hope that this would not be another matrimonial shindig. He found such affairs distasteful. They were usually revealing, but Judge Wimple did not like grovelling in the anatomy of any marriage. In such circumstances, he found himself continually reminded of the observation of Randell Jarrell, who spoke of ‘the uneasy world of family life, where the greatest may fail and the humblest succeed’.
On this occasion, the judge found himself dealing for the first time with two female barristers. The prosecution was to be conducted by the rapidly advancing Arabella Bray, the defence being in the hands of a newcomer, Lorna Perceval. Not being completely converted to androgyny, Embert Wimple found himself casting an appreciative eye over the advocates. He was already familiar with the appearance of Ms Bray, a short, stout, black-haired woman in her early thirties, possessed of formidable talents. Pugnacious was the word. Defending counsel was a little younger, a tall slender, pony-tailed blonde of, the judge thought, quite compelling and distinctly equine appearance. By the process that the human mind carries out at such bewildering speed, Embert Wimple zipped through his cerebral attic, retrieving a snippet of conversation he had had with a fellow law student over six decades earlier. The young man had asked whether Wimple preferred blondes, brunettes or redheads, to which the judge-to-be had replied blandly in the affirmative.
Somehow, Embert Wimple sensed that this case might offer a welcome change from the normal run of prosaic matters. Perhaps his feeling was just another of those things that seem to be in the air at times. But something was amiss. Ah, yes, there was no defendant. This was unusual, but not unprecedented. The plaintiff was a six-footer, thin as a rail and remarkably pallid, his appearance suggesting that a moderate wind would blow him over. The judge nodded at Ms Bray. “Very well, Ms Garbo, please get the ball rolling.” He had been thinking of his latest viewing of ‘Ninotchka’.
Prosecuting counsel offered the briefest of nods. “Thank you, Your Honour. My client, Peter Walmsley, was the victim in an incident which occurred on the twenty-fourth of October last year. If Your Honour will permit a little background information . . . ?”
“Of course. Please carry on.”
“There is another party involved, albeit only indirectly, in these proceedings. I refer to Mr and Mrs Broadbent, who conduct a fast-food establishment in the suburbs of this city. Assisted by their son and daughter, they provide meals, both over-the-counter and by delivery. Their speciality is pizzas, though they supply other items, such as curry, chips and so forth. It is perhaps appropriate to say that they have been having a difficult time. They conduct their business in a traditional family way, with the son and daughter delivering orders, the son by bicycle and the daughter by scooter. On the evening in question, a man entered the Broadbents’ premises, saying that he was hosting a rugby club meeting at his home and that, as matters were going well, he had decided to treat his guests to an evening of food and drink. He ordered forty family-sized, pepperoni-topped pizzas, plus a large quantity of other items, all to be delivered at his house within two hours. He said he was on his way to a cash machine and would pay on receipt of the goods.”
“I see,” said the judge. “Quite a bonanza for the Broadbents, I imagine.”
“So it seemed, Your Honour. And timely too, for a decent family facing an uphill struggle to make a living.”
The judge leaned forwards. “You may put down the violin, Ms Brain. I am already sympathetically engaged with the Broadbents.”
“Your Honour is most understanding. Now, the Broadbents prepare the food themselves and are very proud of their pizzas. They were delighted with the order, which was exceptionally large, and got to work at once. After their intensive joint effort, Mr Broadbent loaded the food into his van and drove to the address he had been given. On arrival, he was surprised to note that all appeared quiet and that only one car was parked at the house. With mounting apprehension, he knocked at the door, which was opened by my client, Peter Walmsley. Mr Broadbent was relieved to see the face he had seen earlier, save that the complexion was much less tanned than the one he recalled. He assumed that to be an optical illusion.”
Bray, who savoured her presentations to the full, paused to take a long drink of water. Sure of an attentive audience, she continued: “A strange conversation ensued. My client knew nothing of any rugby club and he and his wife never entertained guests. They had no wish to eat pizzas, especially not ones with pepperoni, as they and their two children are vegans.”
The judge looked from counsel to plaintiff and back again. “Ah, I was wondering about that,” he muttered.
“Beg pardon, Your Honour?” said Ms Bray.
“No matter, Ms Crane. Merely a passing thought. I apologise for the interruption. The floor is still yours.”
“Thank you. Coming on top of the Broadbents’ already serious business difficulties, this shock was severe. I will not give a blow by blow account, although the incident did almost result in blows, which would have been one-sided anyway, as my client is a pacifist. However, when matters calmed down, it became clear to Mr Walmsley that both he and the Broadbents had been victims of a trick perpetrated by my client’s twin brother, Ian Walmsley. This man, the defendant, has a long history of practical joking and has several times embarrassed my client. Peter Walmsley had no idea that his twin was in this country, as he heard with great relief that Ian had departed for Australia some time earlier. Finally, my client invited Mr Broadbent into his house, where the matter was discussed over a glass or two of dandelion wine. On learning of the Broadbents’ plight, my client agreed to pay for the goods supplied, on condition that Mr Broadbent retain them to do with them as he saw fit.”
The judge was hanging on grimly. “Is there much more?” he whined.
“No. Happily, thanks to my client’s sense of family honour, Mr Broadbent did not suffer financially. However, Peter Walmsley concluded that he had had enough of his brother’s irresponsible behaviour. He decided to take action for recovery of the amount he had paid to Mr Broadbent. I believe the sum is stated in Your Honour’s papers.”
It was – and the judge’s eyebrows rose when he saw it. If they managed to sell their food at such prices, could the Broadbents really be in trouble? However, that was not the point. More interesting to Judge Wimple was the matter of the absent defendant’s behaviour. His honour was not given to great emotion, but had a visceral hatred of practical jokes. He had never liked them and his attitude had been set in concrete when in his youth he had been invited to a birthday party. Some prankster had placed an iron bucket full of water in a doorway, then yelled for help. Young Wimple had responded, to find himself tripping over the obstacle, flooding a kitchen and sustaining wounds to his right shin. Even now, seventy years after the event, a faint scar was still visible. It would require a very skilful defence to incline the judge toward leniency. “Yes, I have the details. Is that all?”
“We have nothing else specific to this case.”
The judge turned his attention to defending counsel, Perceval. “Now, Ms Parsifal, what can you tell us – beginning with an explanation of your client’s failure to appear?”
At this early stage in her career, Perceval had expected to draw a few short straws, and none would be shorter than this. Still, she was determined to do her best. “Your Honour, my client offers his profound apologies for his absence, but asks the court to bear in mind that he is a freelance business consultant with international obligations. As such, he is often called to faraway parts at virtually no notice. If he refuses a commission, his reputation suffers. On this occasion he was summoned to Bangkok yesterday morning. He has given me full powers to act in his absence.”
“A high-flyer, is he?” said the judge. “Well, I will take his work into consideration. What about his involvement in this affair?”
Perceval doggedly pursued her hopeless cause. “At the time, my client had just returned from a spell of work in Canada, where he had been assisting a computer company. He admits that he called at the Broadbent shop and placed the order in question. However, he intended to invite a few friends and pay a surprise visit to his brother’s house, so his apparently extravagant order for food was genuine at the time he gave it. Unfortunately, he was attacked by muggers while on his way to the cash point he mentioned to Mr Broadbent. He was injured and spent the evening attending to his wounds. Being disorientated by his experience, he did not think to telephone his brother. By midnight, he had more or less recovered, but felt that it was too late to make telephone calls, though he still intended to rectify matters as quickly as possible. However, early the following morning he was asked to proceed at once to Turkey, in order to offer advice to a building firm.”
“Most interesting,” said the judge. “People in your client’s line of work seem to be remarkable polymaths. And yet I have heard it said that a consultant is a person who will borrow one’s watch in order to tell one the time. It never ceases to amaze me that so many large organisations seem to be run by either accountants or consultants. I often wonder what happens to the entrepreneurs who found such businesses. Please forgive the aside. You were saying?”
“There is little more to contribute from this side, Your Honour. Since the evening in question, my client has been immersed in a series of exigencies affecting one or other of the organisations he helps. Such is the pace of his life that he has hardly had time to draw breath. However, he is acutely aware of the embarrassment caused to his brother and the inconvenience to the Broadbents, and is willing to accept the court’s verdict. He asks only that it be understood that his intentions were quite innocent, if a little eccentric.”
The judge scribbled a further note, then stared at Perceval. “Thank you, Ms Persimmon. Do you believe your client’s story?”
“I have no reason to disbelieve it, Your Honour.”
“Very well.” He turned to Arabella Bray. “Anything to add, Ms Thwaite?”
“Nothing directly relating to this incident, but we ask that the court take into account the defendant’s past antics, since they have caused much misery to a number of people. Also, my client asserts that his brother is not a business consultant, but a professional gambler, who travels to wherever he foresees exciting action.”
The judge grunted. “In a way I sympathise with him. If he were a business consultant rather than a gambler, he would have only an upside to his activities, whereas most gamblers sometimes lose. Now, I believe I have all the relevant details and the defence has already indicated acceptance of my decision. Is the prosecution also agreeable?”
There was no objection from Bray. “Very well,” said the judge. “There are several points to consider here. First, my heart bleeds for the Broadbents. At the prices they charge, I wonder whether their merchandise is offered on gold plates. They must need to sell at least half a dozen pizzas a week to make ends meet. However, that is irrelevant. If these people offer high-priced products which others are willing to buy, that is no concern of this court. After all, we hear of millions of pounds being paid for old artefacts, and who is to say that the Broadbents are not as eminent in their line as Michelangelo and his kind were in theirs? Personally I would as soon eat a memorable pork pie as contemplate a Titian. Now, I am pleased to note the defendant’s wish to make amends for his action, which caused so much trouble for others. He seems to have been sliding merrily down the banister of life and he has now encountered the newel post. I am determined to stamp out this kind of behaviour and my decision is that the defendant must reimburse his brother for the amount paid to the Broadbents, plus a fine of one hundred pounds. Proceedings concluded.”
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