SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER NINETEEN
November was doing its best to depress the general population, but was having no such effect upon Judge Embert Wimple, who was counting his blessings. With each passing day, he took increasing comfort from the dark, dank ambience. Nobody was fooling around with garden implements, and house extensions seemed to be at a standstill. These mercies were much appreciated by his honour who, but for the absence of domestic cricket, was in his element.
There was a touch of in-house frost chez Wimple, as the judge and his wife were at odds over his honour’s suddenly resuscitated idea of disposing of the rambling heap in which the two and their housekeeper rattled around like peas in a drum. Esmeralda had thought the notion well and truly dead, following a recent spat on the subject. The judge was still on the defensive in the face of Mrs Wimple’s assertion that in this case, a change would not be as good as a rest. His honour was about to defer yet again.
Embert Wimple had no foreknowledge of what awaited him in court and as ever, that did not cause him any concern. With a vast fund of experience at his disposal, he didn’t expect to be startled by whatever might come up. In fact there was a mild surprise at the outset, for the judge noted that the prosecution was in the hands of William Baskerville, who had discarded his wig over a year ago. Something had persuaded him to emerge from the woodwork. The defence was in the hands of an import, not known to the judge. This fellow, Nigel Palfrey, would have made his honour’s day in court worthwhile, even if there hadn’t been a case to try. The young barrister was six feet seven inches in height and weighed well under twelve stone. Judge Wimple abhorred all allusions by anyone to the physical peculiarities of others, but could not help thinking of the pipe cleaners he had used before renouncing the weed.
The plaintiff, Stuart Macfarlane, was a man of thirty-odd, a little over average height, wearing a blue serge suit that strained at the seams, plus a white shirt and plain red tie, one or both of which seemed to threaten asphyxiation. And were those hiking boots peeping out from under the trousers? The defendant, Jack Wainwright, was a wizened little man, well over twenty years older than his opponent. He wore a black suit and tie and a light-grey shirt. Having taken in all he considered noteworthy, the judge nodded at Baskerville. “Perhaps you would care to make a start, Mr Holmes.” For a man as erudite as Embert Wimple, it was only a short mental step to associate prosecuting counsel’s name with that of the Baker Street sleuth. The judge was already bounding across Dartmoor with a slavering phosphorescent hound at his heels.
Baskerville was an old hand in these matters and plunged unhesitatingly into his presentation. “May it please Your Honour, this case concerns reckless behaviour on the part of the defendant. My client, Mr Macfarlane, is the manager of a building site at the southern edge of our city, where two blocks of flats are being constructed. At the time that concerns us, which was the seventh of July, both parties worked on the site, the defendant operating a large tower crane, over two hundred feet tall. He had reported for duty and ascended to his cabin. He was in contact with Mr Macfarlane by two-way radio. A few minutes after taking up his position, Mr Wainwright became involved in a dispute with Mr Macfarlane. My client tried to settle the matter, but an impasse was reached. In a further effort to resolve the difficulty, Mr Macfarlane called a meeting with other workers. It was while the men were talking that the defendant committed his outrageous act.”
The judge was now fully engaged. “What did he do?”
“He saw that, contrary to normal practice, the bottom end of the lifting cable was close to its lower extremity, only four or five feet from the ground. Usually it is hoisted above that level overnight, to avoid any misbehaviour by intruders entering the site when work is not in progress. Apparently, Mr Wainwright also noted the position of my client and his workmates. With complete disregard for safety, the defendant swung the jib of his crane anti-clockwise, then brought it back clockwise. On such a large crane, the hook at the bottom end of the hoisting cable is a heavy object. Swinging forwards, that is clockwise, it had gained considerable momentum when it struck my client on the head, or rather on his hard hat, sending him bowling base over apex across the site. Using his hands to regain his balance he executed something resembling a double somersault. When he was half-upright in his second roll, he still had some lateral momentum and his head entered the mouth of a small cement mixer which had just been activated.”
“My goodness,” said the judge. “That sounds like a dreadful accident. And yet your client is present here, so it seems that his head was not mixed with the aggregate, or whatever it is called.”
“No and yes, Your Honour. No, because there was not an accident, but rather a premeditated attempt by the defendant to cause injury to my client. Yes, because Mr Macfarlane was extricated from his predicament by others, so that only his hard hat remained in the mixer. Happily, it was later removed.”
“We must be grateful for that,” said the judge. “So the substance of your case is that Mr Wainwright assaulted your client with the hook?”
“A strange incident. Was that the first time Mr Wainwright had so behaved?”
“No, Your Honour. About a week earlier, he had caused problems when he swung a large concrete slab with excessive force, causing it to demolish a section of wall already built, thus delaying work on the project. Two weeks before that, he was raising a number of metal components, stacked on a pallet hanging from the outer end of the jib. Without any obvious reason, he interrupted the operation and swung the load round in two full circles, generating centrifugal force. He then resumed normal control, but not before a sizeable item had fallen from the pallet, landing within a foot of a car owned by one of his fellow-workers. The gentleman concerned was of the opinion that Mr Wainwright intended to damage the vehicle.”
“Extraordinary,” said the judge. “Had there been any altercations preceding these two earlier incidents?”
“Not with regard to the first one I mentioned, although Mr Macfarlane says that he thought he had detected the smell of whisky on Mr Wainwright’s breath before work started that day. As to the other occasion, the man whose car was almost in the path of the falling item had had sharp words with Mr Wainwright on the evening before the incident. He was convinced that the act was vindictive.”
“I am shocked,” said the judge. “What about the company’s attitude? Was any thought given to terminating Mr Wainwright’s employment?”
“This is a very difficult area. One of the problems is that tower crane operators are a rare breed and thin on the ground.”
“Or in the air,” said the judge.
“Very droll, Your Honour.” Baskerville, who was noted for his complete absence of a sense of humour, maintained a straight face. “The position was debated, but these projects are subject to severe constraints with regard to schedules and finance. At the time in question, no replacement for Mr Wainwright could be found. The position changed shortly afterwards and he was dismissed.”
“I see. But the employer did not wish to take legal action against him?”
“That is correct. Mr Macfarlane is acting independently. He might well have been maimed for life by Mr Wainwright’s irresponsible behaviour. As it was, he suffered injury and distress and but for his dedication to his work, would have reported sick and would probably have been able to demonstrate that he was concussed. Happily for his employer, he is made of stern stuff and continued working. Nevertheless, he is entitled to recompense.”
The judge’s interest had begun to waver. “Thank you, Dr Watson,” he said. “Now I think we had better hear from the defence. “Mr Poultry?”
Palfrey had not been briefed on the judge’s ways, but was dealing with only his second case as a barrister, so was not inclined to disrupt matters on a minor point of identity. He gave a painfully extravagant bow. “May it please Your Honour, there is much clear water between what the prosecution says and the true position. I will seek to show that my client was the victim of reprehensible and premeditated conduct by some of his workmates, acting together.”
His honour was returning slowly from another brief excursion to Dartmoor. “So the water you speak of is not only clear, but also deep?” he suggested.
“Indeed it is. When my client reported for work on the morning in question, he left his car and reported to the plaintiff in the usual way. Mr Wainwright’s normal practice was to climb to his cabin, bearing over his shoulder a haversack containing his requisites for the day, the most important item being his lunch pack. When he got to his work station, he decided to check on what his wife had prepared for him.”
The judge smiled. “Fearing cheese sandwiches, I imagine,” he said.
“Possibly. However, when he opened his tin box, he saw that his lunch had been removed from the haversack and replaced by a pound or so of sand from the site below. Realising at once that he had been tricked while he was talking with the plaintiff, he communicated with Mr Macfarlane, informing him of the position and expressing his annoyance. The plaintiff responded in the worst possible taste, with a variation on an old music hall joke, saying: ‘You can’t eat your lunch because of the sand-which-is-there.’ My client was not amused by the witticism.”
“Very juvenile,” said the judge, who, while hating pranks, was a devotee of schoolroom humour and had at his disposal a stock of ‘doctor, doctor’ jokes, with which he occasionally tried the patience of his peers. “What happened next.”
“Far from conducting himself as the prosecution has intimated, my client showed great restraint. He asked that lunch be brought up to him, but was told that no-one else on the site had the necessary head for heights. Despite the lack of cooperation from those below, Mr Wainwright tried to start work. He could not do so, because the trolley – that is the crawler mechanism which runs to and fro along the jib – was stuck in its central position, halfway between the cabin and the outer end of its track, and would not move. Anxious to do his duty and notwithstanding the stupidity of his workmates, Mr Wainwright left his cabin and clambered along the jib to see what was amiss. He found that someone, obviously with malice aforethought, had inserted two metal wedges into the rolling gear. He was unable to remove these obstructions and it was only then that he swung the jib, in the hope that a pendulum movement might dislodge them.”
Palfrey took a drink of water, then continued: “It is appropriate that we mention here that Mr Wainwright had, in his determination to avoid delaying the construction work, done more than was required of him, since the trolley problem should have been handled by a specialist mechanic. My client was doing his very best to keep the project moving and had no intention of injuring the plaintiff. The prosecution is quite wrong in saying that Mr Wainwright noticed that the bottom end of the lifting cable had been lowered in the way already mentioned. That had obviously been done by the party or parties who blocked the trolley. In brief, the position was that my client’s patience was tried beyond all normal endurance, yet he behaved with admirable self-control and no little ingenuity. He was completely blameless.”
“A clear enough statement, Mr Paltry,” said the judge. “Now, what happened after your client had finished playing skittles with the plaintiff?”
“Order was restored. Mr Wainwright had a few chocolate biscuits and facilities for making tea in his cabin. He made do with what he had. Early in the afternoon, an expert arrived and freed the trolley.”
“I see. So perhaps Mr Wainwright’s lunch could have then have been hoisted to him on the hook?”
“Superficially a fair point, Your Honour. However, at its upper extremity, the hook would still have been several feet below the jib. For my client to collect his food in that way would have required on his part gymnastics of which he was incapable.”
The judge had had all the amusement he needed for one day. “I understand. Now, if you have both finished, I will give a decision.”
A headshake from Baskerville and spread hands from Palfrey left his honour to sum up. “I am aghast at hearing of these antics,” he said. “I realise that sometimes horseplay occurs where workmen get together and that we are considering the sort of place at which softies need not apply. Nevertheless, one expects a certain minimum level of sensible behaviour. Now, Mr Wainwright might in a way have been considered master of all he surveyed from his perch, yet his colleagues seem to have regarded him as a bird of ill omen – a high jinx is the phrase that comes to my mind. We are not obliged here to examine his conduct with regard to the concrete slab and the metal component, our concern being the incident which caused the plaintiff’s distress.”
This was not good news for Baskerville, who had hoped that the judge would take account of the defendant’s earlier behaviour. His honour proceeded: “The issue here is whether Mr Wainwright acted recklessly, or was motivated by the overall good. In passing, I wonder whether Mr Macfarlane considered having Mr Wainwright’s lunch delivered by helicopter, though perhaps that would have been an extreme measure. We shall never know the truth about the words exchanged between the two parties, nor shall we learn whether the lowering of the hoisting cable and the possibly associated blockage of the trolley constituted a foolish prank by the defendant’s workmates. If Mr Wainwright was unpopular, it was surely a part of Mr Macfarlane’s job to smooth any ruffled feathers. I do not underestimate the plaintiff’s misfortune in having his head flung into the cement mixer, but what I have heard does not convince me that Mr Wainwright’s action was malicious. I must thank you, Mr Moriarty and you, Mr Poltroon, for your lucid arguments, but the matter is too perplexing and I must therefore dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded.”
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