SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWENTY-FIVE
Judge Embert Wimple was cruising towards the end of his long legal career. Time was closing in and his honour had not yet solved the riddle of the universe. He now accepted the Big Bang theory, but what about the position before that event? A man needed leisure to come up with an answer, to indulge in the famous ninety-nine per cent perspiration which just might precede a great mental breakthrough. The judge was also ever-more conscious of his growing crankiness. Some of his recent interjections from the bench had left his own jaw dropping, let alone those of counsels and their principals. Today might well produce more of the same, for Embert Wimple was feeling a little cantankerous. That was his own fault for staying awake half the night, listening to the doings of England’s cricketers on their overseas tour. Well, he would try to curb himself.
Now, what was on the menu today? Ah, yes, Oldroyd versus Oldroyd. That didn’t seem too promising. Probably another tiresome family wrangle and, his honour noted, one concerning an incident which took place outside his normal jurisdiction, the third of its kind in short order. No doubt there were reasons, into which he did not wish to enquire. A further point of interest was that the advocates represented the extremes of age among the local practitioners. The plaintiff, George Oldroyd, had placed his case in the hands of the vastly experienced but rapidly declining Simon Fortescue, while the defendant, Margaret Oldroyd, had entrusted hers to the young terrier, Arabella Bray. Fortescue had let it be known that he was likely to retire in the near future, so any case now might be his last. High time, in Embert Wimple’s view. For goodness sake, the man must in his late seventies.
Still revelling in his position of not being inconvenienced by a jury, the judge took his place, verified that all was as it should be and, assuming his most brisk manner, addressed Fortescue. “Let’s get going, Mr Forecastle.”
Prosecuting counsel, who had been busy massaging his knuckles, sprang to attention. “May it please Your Honour, we are dealing here with a dispute between husband and wife. Mr and Mrs Oldroyd are in their middle fifties and have been married for twenty-eight years.”
The judge pounced immediately, giving vent to a touch of irascibility. “I assume you mean married to one another?” he said sharply.
“Yes. In –”
“It’s just as well to be precise in these matters. Go on.”
Slightly shaken, Fortescue offered a small bow. “Thank you. In recent years, there have been marital strains. Though continuing to live together conventionally, the parties were drifting into estrangement. Finally, my client decided that something should be done to impart spice to the union. With this in mind, he suggested to his wife that the two might undertake an expedition.”
“Did he indeed?” said the judge, his romantic side evoking visions of dizzy mountains, mighty chasms, white water, jungles and the like. “That certainly sounds lively enough. Something Himalayan, perhaps?”
“Not quite, Your Honour. Mr Oldroyd proposed a walk on Ilkley Moor, his idea being to rekindle something of the spirit of courtship years.”
The judge leapt in again. “Possibly not what many might consider high adventure, but no doubt all such things are relative. However, let us not digress. Continue, please.”
Fortescue wasn’t amused by this further interruption, but was too world-weary to care much. “Mrs Oldroyd agreed and the two set out in the afternoon of the sixth of November last year. They parked their car at the end of an unsurfaced road about fifteen miles north of here, then proceeded on foot through a conifer plantation, over two or three stiles and onto the moorland. It was a dull, misty day and Mrs Oldroyd did not wish to walk too far. At about a quarter past four, Mr Oldroyd, who was in the rear, stumbled. He pushed out his hands, inadvertently striking his wife in the back. Both parties fell. As this was a special occasion, Mr Oldroyd was particularly concerned to be solicitous with regard to his wife’s wellbeing. On checking for injuries, he detected what seemed to him to be a swelling of Mrs Oldroyd’s right ankle. Assuming a severe sprain, he insisted that his wife remain on the spot, while he summoned assistance. Confident that he could negotiate his way back to the car, he left Mrs Oldroyd, assuring her that he would soon return.”
The judge, now immersed in the story, leaned forwards. “So the lady was left on Ilkley Moor. Was she, in the immortal words, baht ’at?”
This caused Fortescue to go into a brief huddle with his client, before reporting back to the judge. “Yes, Your Honour, the lady was indeed baht ’at. However, she had a hooded anorak, so was not entirely deficient in the matter of headgear.”
“Thank you. Proceed.”
“Mr Oldroyd located the car, only to find that it had been vandalised. The driver’s side door lock had been chiselled out. The Oldroyds had left nothing of value in the vehicle and the would-be thieves, having been deprived of booty, had spitefully deflated two tyres and made off. Under the rear bench seat was a foot-pump, which the miscreants had either overlooked, or thought unworthy of their attention. Mr Oldroyd managed to reflate the tyres, then drove home, intending to raise the alarm.”
“One moment,” said the judge. “Did it not occur to him to call at a local house. I mean, his wife was in distress, was she not?”
“People do not always think rationally in such circumstances, Your Honour. My client’s dominant feeling was to get home, then alert the authorities. In that, he may have been in error, but he was under pressure and confused.”
“I see. Carry on.”
“At a little after six o’clock, Mr Oldroyd was about to initiate a rescue when, to his surprise, his wife appeared. He was further startled when she attacked him.”
“Good heavens,” said the judge. She hurled herself upon him, did she?” It had not been lost upon his honour that Mrs Oldroyd was well-endowed in the matter of avoirdupois and was three inches taller than her spouse.
“Not exactly, Your Honour. She assaulted my client with a chicken.”
“What?” squawked the judge, his tone not dissimilar to that of a specimen of the fowl just mentioned. “Explain.”
“Mrs Oldroyd had left a frozen chicken in a pan, intending it for the evening meal. The thawing was not complete, so the creature was hard and heavy and a formidable weapon. Blows were administered to my client’s head and face. He lost two teeth and sustained severe lacerations. For this he seeks satisfaction and is willing to accept Your Honour’s decision.”
“Dear me,” said the judge. “I think it is high time for us to hear from the defence. He turned to Arabella Bray. “Ms Greystoke?” The judge had been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and was mentally swinging through the jungle.
Defending counsel was getting to grips with Embert Wimple’s idiosyncrasies. “Thank you. What we have heard so far is an incomplete version of the events. My client was an ill-used woman and her patience was exhausted. It is true that she was persuaded to embark upon the adventure described by the prosecution, and that there was a fall. However, for reasons which will become clear, Mrs Oldroyd believed that this was an attempt by the plaintiff to incapacitate her. As we shall show, the effort was unsuccessful.”
“I can hardly wait,” said the judge.
“Nor shall you, Your Honour. “Shortly after Mr Oldroyd’s departure from the scene of the alleged accident, my client examined her ankle. She found no swelling, nor did she have any pain. Her indisposition had been transient, arising mainly from shock. She mastered her fear of the gloom, made her way to the point where the car had been parked and from there to the main road, then began trying to thumb a lift. It is perhaps a sad reflection upon our social mores that she – a lady alone in an isolated spot in the dark – was ignored by numerous motorists before being picked up and driven into the nearest town, from where she caught a bus to within a mile of home. She walked the rest of the way, arriving to find the family car parked in the drive and lights on in the downstairs rooms. The front door was unlocked and she entered the house, thinking to rush to her husband for solace after her ordeal. However, she heard his voice coming from the living room. He was telephoning someone, speaking loudly and seemingly in high spirits. Mrs Oldroyd grasped that her husband was talking to a friend. Arriving at the living room door, she heard: ‘. . . and ditched the old trout at last, so you’ll call for a noggin.’ My client concluded that she had been the victim of a most wicked plot to leave her to expire on the moor, and that Mr Oldroyd’s suggestion that the outing was designed to revitalise the marriage was a cruel deception. Coming on top of her already harrowing experience, this was too much for Mrs Oldroyd. She lost her temper, seized the chicken and used it to belabour her husband.”
The judge nodded. “A most disturbing affair,” he said. “Is that all, Ms Vicar?”
Being familiar with Oscar Wilde’s work, defending counsel grasped at once how the judge had connected the clerical title with her real surname. “Not quite, Your Honour. When things calmed down to some extent, Mrs Oldroyd demanded an explanation. Her husband gave her his version of events. Such is human nature that my client was half-tempted to believe him. However, the matter was to take another turn. A week after the incident, my client was going about her house-cleaning when she found, in her husband’s bedside cabinet, an invoice for a foot pump, purchased from a local supplier of motoring accessories and dated the day after the fateful outing. As far as Mrs Oldroyd could remember, the couple had never previously owned a foot pump. She assumed that Mr Oldroyd had bought the item after the event, merely to corroborate his story.”
Bray paused briefly to ensure that her words had hit their mark, then continued: “Later the same day, my client was tidying the inside of the car, when she found in the glove compartment a chisel which looked familiar. Hurrying to the garage-cum-workroom, she found that the space normally occupied by the implement was vacant. She concluded that Mr Oldroyd had staged the whole matter of the claimed vandalism and that he had used the chisel to remove the door lock of the vehicle, then placed the tool in the nearest convenient spot and forgotten about it. She further assumed that the alleged tyre-deflation had been another ruse, designed to account for some time to elapse, and had probably not occurred at all.”
“A dreadful business,” said the judge, who was beginning to tire of the wordmongery of both counsels. “I will come back to you, but I think we need a further word from the prosecution. Mr Forsyth?”
“Thank you, Your Honour. The simple fact is that Mrs Oldroyd was clearly affected by some bizarre delusion. The only proven point here is the attack upon my client, who asks the court to note the further point that as the household’s provider, he was obliged to replace the fowl, which was a free range one and quite expensive.”
“I don’t see why the original chicken should have been wasted,” said the judge. “However, as I seem to be switching from one party to the other more than usual, I would like to know why Mrs Oldroyd presents no counter-charge. Ms Wray?” The judge was now in ‘King Kong’ mode.
“Your Honour, the explanation is simple. The plaintiff maintains that when he arrived home, he tried to telephone the local police station, finding the number engaged. He contends that while waiting for the line to clear, he decided to contact his closest friend, claiming that this would help to settle his nerves. After much discussion, Mr Oldroyd finally convinced my client that she had misheard his side of the conversation. The two men are anglers and were allegedly discussing a long-postponed outing. Mr Oldroyd insists that what he actually said was not: ‘… and ditched the old trout at last, so you’ll call for a noggin,’ but: ‘… and fished the odd trout at last, so we’ll call for the log-in’ This ‘log-in’ is apparently the term used in the two men’s angling club for registering a catch.”
“I see,” said the judge. “However, if Mrs Oldroyd accepted her husband’s explanation, I wonder why the charge was not withdrawn?”
“My client insisted that the case be heard. She was tormented by remorse over her action with the chicken and wished to make an example of herself.”
The judge nodded. “I understand. She wishes to don a hair shirt. Now, the position is perfectly clear. I am surprised only that Mrs Oldroyd has not made charges against her husband. Since she has not done so, I am obliged to consider only the plaintiff’s charge of assault with the chicken. However, as a matter of interest, I would like to know the present state of relations between the parties. You may confer.”
Counsels and litigants mustered to discuss the point, Bray emerging with the answer. “Your Honour, Mr and Mrs Oldroyd continue to live together and have no intention of separating. The only point of contention between them is that before the court.”
“Excellent, though a little puzzling,” said the judge. “If they are largely reconciled, as appears to be the case, it seems odd that we are here. Still, I am accustomed to encountering strange behaviour, so do not propose to enquire further into the reasons on this occasion. Clearly there was a tragic misunderstanding. It is always saddening to hear of matrimonial discord, but in my experience a basically sound union is capable of surviving many shocks and setbacks. With the right spirit on both sides, these can be overcome. The parties here have been married for twenty-eight years and I think that what we are looking at is an extreme example of the proverbial seven-year itch. There being no denial of the defendant’s behaviour and no counter-charges, I am bound to find in favour of the plaintiff, though I hope he will regard his victory as a pyrrhic one. I think that a nominal fine of one pound is appropriate. I hope the litigants will reflect upon their unnerving experience and rejoice that despite what has occurred between them, they are still together. Others have fared worse. Proceedings concluded.”
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