SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : CHAPTER NINE
A Load Of Balls
Judge Embert Wimple was out of sorts, his condition having arisen from a week-long shortage of sleep. He was still getting his fair share at night, but daytime was a problem. Since reaching the age of eighty, three years earlier, his honour had taken to cat-napping during the less complex parts of his cases, especially when learned counsels were inclined to verbosity. It had long been evident to the judge that there was no need to listen to all that was said by everybody, but rather to pick up certain key words which contained the essence of the presentation concerned. Unfortunately, Embert Wimple had recently heard a succession of demanding cases, causing him to remain exceptionally attentive. It was a strain.
On the plus side of life, affairs at the Wimple house were peaceful. Esmeralda was storming ahead with her painting and gaining a considerable reputation, while the judge had just about given up toying with his recent idea about the wisdom of selling the absurdly large residence and even more extravagant garden, and moving to a town apartment. He still looked longingly, if increasingly hopelessly, at the handsome houses surrounding the Georgian square a stone’s throw from the court building. It wasn’t so much a matter of the convenience – for Judge Wimple expected to turn in his gavel any decade now – but one of ambience. The place of his daydreams was given over to lawns, flowerbeds and splendid old trees, all enclosed by black iron railings, and the beauty of it was that the council dealt with the maintenance. The properties had long ceased to be purely residential and were now besprinkled with the discreet plaques of medical consultants, upmarket lawyers and architects. Still, a top-floor flat would be ideal. Well, perhaps in the life beyond, Embert Wimple would be able to construct his own Georgian square, choosing the occupants himself.
As the judge finished clipping his toenails, he began to get the day’s business into focus. He didn’t know who was to appear before him, but was aware that the case involved some sort of disagreement in the world of sports or games. Well, that would do to be going on with. Time enough to yawn through the details as they were recounted. Though once a first-class rugby player, Judge Wimple no longer had any time for sporting matters, with the exception of cricket, which he considered not really a game, but rather an aesthetically pleasing ballet, involving energy and elegance. The best of all worlds.
The judge arrived at court and took his seat, to find himself in the comforting presence of two familiar advocates, Desmond Oddley-Staggers appearing for the plaintiff, Albert Speight, Rodney Melliflewes for the defendant Dennis Ryan. The fog of sleep-deprivation had not totally cleared, so Judge Wimple took his time over making a final check of his papers, before addressing Oddley-Staggers. “Very well, Mr Catherwood. As a certain Roman lady said, ‘let it begin’.”
Being a little prudish, Oddley-Staggers was not too pleased by the allusion to the antics of a woman of easy virtue, but masked his disapproval.
“May it please Your Honour, the case here concerns a bizarre incident which took place on the twentieth of February in a billiard hall about a mile from here, owned and managed by a Mr Alfred Parsons. My client and the defendant became casual acquaintances because both men were patrons of the establishment. They had some difference of opinion as to who was the better snooker player and decided to settle the matter by means of a match. As they wished to finish in one session, they agreed on a best of eleven frames contest, meaning that the first player to win six frames would be the victor. There was no gambling involved, the encounter being simply a question of pride. Play was to proceed uninterrupted, save that each man was allowed to eat and drink between frames, or while the opponent was taking his shots.”
In order to let the details sink in, Oddley-Staggers paused for an unnecessary drink of water before continuing: “Play began at nine a.m. and proceeded until eight-fifty p.m., when it was abandoned after the incident we are addressing. At that time, five frames had been completed and the sixth was well advanced. It –”
“Just a moment,” said the judge. “You say they had been playing non-stop for nearly twelve hours and had completed only five frames. Now, while no expert, I am under the impression that a frame of snooker usually lasts for anything from, say, about twenty minutes up to an hour or so. Is that right?”
Oddley-Staggers bowed. “Your Honour is perhaps thinking of the highest standards, such as seen on television. Both parties here are far below that level. The five frames I mentioned had lasted for an average of rather over two hours each.”
“Ah, I see. Please carry on.”
“Thank you. The match was going badly for the defendant. My client had won all five completed frames and was on the verge of taking the sixth, which would have been the last. He was ahead by fifty-five points to three, with only twenty-four points left on the board. The –”
The judge held up a hand. “I’m sorry to interrupt you again, Mr Pettifer. You say that fifty-eight points had been scored and that only twenty-four remained. I believe that comes to eighty-two. Now, I am as a child in this matter, but I seem to recall hearing that there are one hundred and forty-seven points available in a snooker frame. Would you care to educate me?”
“Certainly, Your Honour. The figure you mention is correct, but depends upon maximum use of the object balls. To achieve this total, the fifteen red balls must be potted, each followed by the black, which has the highest value and which, like any other of the so-called colours – yellow, green, brown, blue and pink – is set up again after being potted, so long as there are still reds available. Once potted, the reds remain in the pockets. After all of them have gone, the colours are disposed of in ascending order, also remaining in the pockets. The maximum break occurs rarely and only among the leading players. At the other extreme it is quite possible for all the fifteen reds to be sunk, at one point each, without any being followed immediately by a colour. In that case, the reds’ total of fifteen points and the colours’ total of twenty-seven would add up to only forty-two points. Indeed, in the case of frame being conceded for lack of available scoring potential, a frame could be over with even fewer points registered.”
“Thank you. I understand. Continue.” In fact, the judge was well aware of the scoring system but did not wish to be thought of as a student of snooker.
“The match was clearly about to result in a crushing defeat for Mr Ryan. When my client prepared to execute the coup de grâce, the defendant began to behave in an extraordinary manner, making wild allegations and issuing most lurid threats. The situation became confused and increasingly heated. The result was that Mr Ryan attacked my client with his cue –”
“Which end?” the judge interjected.
“Which end, Your Honour? Do you mean of my client or of the cue?”
“Very punctilious, Mr Petherbridge. The cue.”
“The thin end, Your Honour.”
“Very well. Proceed.”
“Mr Speight was struck in the solar plexus. He staggered and fell backwards against the wall. It was then that events took a strange turn.”
“As if they were not already strange enough,” the judge remarked drily.
“They were to become more so. Here, I must digress slightly, to explain why.”
“By all means.”
“Thank you, Your Honour. The proprietor, Mr Parsons, had had trouble with balls disappearing, usually taken by people who wanted them as mementos of particularly good performances. This caused delays for later patrons, who were annoyed, as they paid by the hour and did not want to spend their time seeking missing balls or asking for replacements. Mr Parsons, who is a trained carpenter, made a set of six narrow wooden troughs – one for each table – each just under four feet long, They are lined with synthetic foam and are wall-mounted and each holds a full set of balls in, as it were, single file. One end is permanently closed, the other being secured by a small latch. When the second end is freed and the trough tipped, the balls roll into a baize-lined container, for transfer to the table.”
“It sounds very elaborate,” said the judge.
“Perhaps, but it was helpful. At the end of any day or session, Mr Parsons is able to fill each trough, seeing at a glance whether the sets of balls are complete. Any deficiency is made up from his stock of spares. This saves time and often avoids frayed tempers.”
“I do hope all this is necessary, Mr Oddbin.”
“I have almost finished, Your Honour. When my client fell, his cue arm was flung out and the cue became wedged under the closed end of one of the troughs, raising that end slightly. Unfortunately, the other end had not been properly closed, so Mr Speight was sprawled back against the wall, with his head about eighteen inches under the then open end. The balls rolled out at about half-second intervals, their progress being slowed by friction with the lining, so while my client was prostrate, each of the twenty-two balls struck him on the head, over a total period of ten to twelve seconds. Being bald, he did not have even minimal protection. He was distressed and disorientated.”
“My goodness,” said the judge. “This is pure Laurel and Hardy. Did no-one have the presence of mind to help Mr Speight?”
“I believe everyone was transfixed. The outcome was that my client, being incapacitated by his fall, was helpless to extricate himself from his predicament. He now seeks redress.”
“A clear presentation, Mr Penworthy,” said the judge. “Now, I think we should hear from the defence. He turned to Melliflewes. “What say you, Mr Merrydew?”
“May it please Your Honour, my client does not deny that he attacked the plaintiff in the manner described by my learned friend. However, the prosecution said nothing about the provocation.”
“Then perhaps you should do so.”
“Certainly. It is quite true that the match was poised as already stated. However, there are four points upon which the prosecution did not touch. First, there was the matter of cheating.”
“Cheating?” said the judge. “I don’t remember hearing of that in the context of snooker. What form did it take?”
The usually urbane Melliflewes seemed uncomfortable. “Er . . .Your Honour may have noticed that the plaintiff is somewhat corpul . . . ah, that is to say that he is of ample proportions.”
The judge had already noted that Speight was obese. By contrast, the defendant, Ryan, was slim, with a dark visage and a generally craggy, predatory look. “My eyesight is still intact, Mr Mowbray,” he said. “Go on.”
“My client’s contention is that the chicanery was systematic, in that if one ruse did not work, another might. For example, the plaintiff repeatedly leaned over the table. Under the cover of his bulk, he displaced one or other of the balls, as seemed advantageous to him. Second, there is the matter of distraction.”
Now the judge was fully engaged. “What kind of distraction?” he asked.
“It was mainly comments, Your Honour. Time after time, as my client was about to take his shots, he was subjected to derisory remarks from the plaintiff.”
“Ah,” said the judge, “I sometimes suffered from the same thing during the brief period I spent paying golf, many years ago. Perhaps the snide observations my companions made about my skill amounted to accurate appraisals, but a few useful tips would have been more constructive. I think it regrettable that so many men – I will not presume to speak for he ladies – prefer ridiculing their fellows to helping them. However, I am interrupting you. Proceed.”
“Thank you. Our third point is that my client does not accept that he was about to lose the match. He had merely been toying with Mr Speight and was about to teach him a lesson, starting with a recovery from his apparently poor position in the sixth frame, by way of a series of cunning snookers.”
“Let me be clear about this,” said the judge. “Are you saying that he had confidence in his ability to repeatedly place his opponent in positions from which escape without conceding points would have been difficult?”
“That is correct. Mr Ryan is an expert at this. Having induced in Mr Speight a sense of euphoria, he intended to snooker him repeatedly, thus taking the sixth frame, then the remaining five. He was frustrated only by the altercation. This leads to our fourth point, which is that the hostilities were initiated by Mr Speight, when he hurled the cue ball at my client, who headed it away.”
“What?” said the astonished judge. “He used his head to intercept a speeding snooker ball?”
“It is not as odd as it may seem. Mr Ryan was once a prominent player in the local churches’ soccer league, and as centre-forward he headed many a goal. When he saw a ball approaching him, he did what came naturally. Having disposed of the ball, he reacted with his cue.”
Judge Wimple shook his head. “Are you saying that your client was unable to distinguish between a snooker ball and a football?”
“It was instinctive, Your Honour. As soon as he had dismissed the ball, my client retaliated. The point is that he did not start the violence. He had been persistently tricked and taunted by the plaintiff, then assaulted by him. Mr Ryan has nothing to account for here and appears only because he was required to do so.”
“Very well,” the judge said. “Now, it seems we have no witnesses.”
“That is correct, Your Honour. Both parties claim that the proprietor, Mr Parsons, saw the whole incident. However, he dislikes the litigants and is not willing to appear for either of them.”
“Thank you. Now, I think I am close to being able to reach a decision. First, could the learned gentlemen tell me whether either the plaintive or the defendant suffered any long-term damage from this incident?”
On being assured that neither party had sustained lasting harm, the judge penned his final notes, then laid aside his spectacles and gave his summing-up. “As so often, it is the word of one party against that of the other. If Mr Speight was cheating, he probably got what he deserved. It is regrettable that we don’t have a film of the incident, which sounds like sheer slapstick. I am inclined to think that the immediate punishment visited upon the plaintiff was commensurate with his alleged transgressions. As to the defendant, one can only regard with bafflement the contents of the cranium of a man who chooses to present his head to a fast-flying snooker ball. Possibly Mr Ryan could find employment at the receiving end of a coconut shy.
“Now, whether the aggregate impact of twenty-two snooker balls falling slowly a foot or two to strike a human head outweighs that of one similar, rapidly moving ball doing the same must be a matter for conjecture. I have encountered some hard-headed people in my time, but we are surely here confronted with the opposite, as a pate abused as either of these two were and without obvious ill effects must be soft enough to cushion almost any shock. Since I find it impossible to favour either party, the charge is dismissed. Proceedings concluded.”
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