SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER THREE
One For The Pot
With a final snip, Judge Embert Wimple removed the last of his protruding nasal hair – he had already dealt with the ears. This monthly grooming ritual represented the judge’s only use of a mirror. Having been converted to electric shaving twenty years earlier, he saw no reason to observe himself during that operation. This time, he lingered for a moment over his inspection. The years had undoubtedly taken their toll, but for a man of his age he was in good condition. True, greyness and baldness had been battling for decades in the upper reaches, the contest being still undecided. There was a shaggy near-white tuft above each ear, bracketing a ruddy scalp – two tenacious shrubs clinging to a hillside – plus a crescent of similarly snowy hue at the back. In court, the bewigged majesty of the law concealed such things. The slim, five foot seven form was still supple, thanks to early morning bending and stretching exercises, a vigorous daily walk and a good, varied diet. The judge had recently fenced with a vegetarian regime, but that had brought him into such conflict with the distaff side that he had, with concealed relief, abandoned the project. Thus, the ample Mrs Esmeralda Wimple had triumphed as she so often did, quietly but firmly.
The victory had given little satisfaction to Mrs Wimple, who did not pay much heed to domestic matters nowadays, being deeply immersed in oil painting. Even now, she was away for three days, having travelled southwest to Bath to attend a course on perspective. She had been told by her mentor that once one had that element right, one could get away with murder in other aspects of the art. Mrs Wimple had no intention of such impropriety, for she had genuine talent and had several times pocketed respectable sums for her efforts.
So, Embert Wimple was confined to the ministrations of the part-time housekeeper, a lady only marginally younger than her employers and with firm views on domestic affairs. It was, Judge Wimple sometimes thought, ironic that he, so awesome in his official duties, was subjected to what he considered petticoat government on the home front. Still, the forthright Mrs Bristow had been somewhat quelled by her recent head-to-head encounter with the judge.
This being early May, the cricket season was lumbering into action. England’s players had returned from their exhausting overseas tour and were facing a summer of what promised to be equally hard labour. Gardening at the Wimple establishment had finally been handed over to a professional. This arrangement suited his honour perfectly, as it gave him time to concentrate on the intellectual pursuits so dear to him.
The judge had only one small matter before him today, as so often a contest of which he knew nothing in advance and which he was, happily, to try in his new position, without a jury. The case was Winterton versus Boland, the prosecution and defence being represented by, respectively, Roderick Prendergast and Douglas Latimer, two gentlemen well known – albeit with their names not entirely clear – to the judge. Having appeared and satisfied himself that he had grasped the preliminary details, Embert Wimple addressed prosecuting counsel. “You may proceed, Mr Fothergill.”
Aware of the judge’s proclivities, Prendergast nodded. “Thank you, Your Honour. The position here is that my client, Mr Winterton, claims damages against the defendant, in that he – my client – suffered financial losses amounting to nine hundred pounds, as a result of the activities of Mr Boland. There is also an element of emotional distress, though no claim is made in that respect.”
“I see,” said the judge. “Perhaps you would favour us with the details.”
“Certainly. The event occurred on the eleventh of December last year. The defendant had bought for his son a model aeroplane, operated by remote control. Father and son had adopted the practice of flying the object in a field adjacent to the properties of both parties. The high-pitched whining of the miniature aircraft caused much annoyance to the Winterton family and to others in the neighbourhood, though Mr Winterton was the only one prepared to take a stand. On the day of the incident, he went out to remonstrate with Mr Boland and the boy, and was greeted with derisory laughter and advice as to what he might care to do with his complaint, the recommendations including a certain anatomical operation on which I will not dwell. Suffice it to say that the defendant’s language was intemperate. The upshot was that there was a scuffle, during which Mr Winterton admits that he pushed Mr Boland in the chest. Mr Boland lost control of the model, with the unfortunate result that it burst through the dining room window of the Winterton house, causing considerable damage.”
The judge interrupted. “One moment, Mr Penworthy,” he said. “Can you enlighten me as to the dimensions of the window and whether or not it was double-glazed?”
“Yes, Your Honour. The window was six feet wide, four feet six inches deep and was single-glazed.”
“Thank you,” said the judge. “I ask only because I had occasion to replace a window recently, following the impact of a golf ball. The pane was somewhat larger than the one you mention and double-glazed, and the cost of replacement was far below what is claimed here. Was there something special about this window?”
“No, Your Honour, but there was er … as the military people put it, collateral damage.”
“I see. In what form?”
“Mrs Winterton’s dress was ruined and there was defacement of decorations.”
“Dear me,” said the judge. “The details, please.”
Prosecuting counsel drew a deep breath. “It so happened that Mrs Winterton was just passing the window as the aircraft crashed through. Unable to react in any other way, the lady flung herself to the floor and in doing so, tore a very expensive dress, which proved to be beyond repair.”
The judge interrupted. “For the record, could you tell us something about the size and type of aircraft involved?”
“Yes, Your Honour. It was about two feet in wingspan. I cannot state the exact length, but believe it was not much different from the width. The item was one of a series of scale models of World War Two combat aircraft. It was a Stuka.”
“Ah,” said the judge. “The old Sturzkampfbomber. I remember it well.” His mind scrolled backwards through the years. As a young man, Embert Wimple had been an enthusiastic amateur aviator. Indeed, in the dark days of 1940, he might well have been one of the immortal ‘few’ – but for the fact that all his identifying papers were accidentally incinerated in a barrack-room stove. That incident caused him to languish in a Worcestershire transit camp for several weeks, until the authorities rediscovered him. By then, the Luftwaffe menace was receding and it was felt that his administrative expertise would be even more valuable than his flying experience. So he became an organiser, rising to the rank of squadron leader without so much as handling a joystick. He had had what some people used to call ‘a good war’. Hauling himself back to the present, he continued: “I see. Now, you say Mrs Winterton lost an expensive item of clothing.”
Prendergast nodded. “Yes, Your Honour. It is the custom of the Wintertons to dress for dinner –”
“And a very proper custom, too,” the judge broke in. “It is pleasing to see these traditional values upheld.” In fact, when dining at home, Embert Wimple invariably did so clad in an ancient cardigan, a plaid shirt and carpet slippers. His interruption was not unintentional, for it gave him time to glance at the litigants. The plaintiff wore an immaculate dark-blue pinstripe suit, plain red tie, white shirt and gleaming black shoes. The defendant presented something of a contrast. His hair was an untidy black mop, his face showing a two-day growth of stubble. He wore heavily-stained brown cord trousers, a windjammer of scuffed black leather, a grey wool shirt with the top two buttons open, revealing a tangle of black chest hair, and mud-caked tan brogue shoes. Some might have considered such casualness disrespectful. But this kind of thing would not influence Judge Wimple. A custodian of the law must at all times be absolutely impartial.
Noting that his visual wanderings had created a pause, the judge fixed his eyes again on Prendergast. “You also mentioned decorations, did you not?”
“Indeed I did, Your Honour. Further problems were caused by the trajectory of the aircraft, which caused it to plunge into a tureen of bouillabaisse, prepared by Mrs Winterton as part of the evening meal. There was extensive damage. The dining room wallpaper was ruined and had to be replaced. Furthermore, Mrs Winterton’s dress, already mutilated as result of her avoiding action, was splattered.”
“Most disturbing,” said the judge. I have heard the expression ‘one for the pot’, but never before in this context. I imagine that if the aircraft’s propeller was still turning when it struck the fish stew, we could regard the result as spin-off damage.”
Prendergast bowed. “Your Honour is as perceptive as ever.”
“You are very kind,” said the judge, who turned his attention to defending counsel Latimer.
“Now, Mr Trellis,” he said. “Would you care to state your case?”
“Thank you, Your Honour. There is one point which must be made, namely that while what my learned colleague says is essentially accurate, there is the question of the attack upon the person of my client.”
“By which you mean that Mr Winterton pushed him?”
“Quite, Your Honour. It was a physical assault, causing some distress.” The judge glowered. “Are you saying that Mr Boland was injured?” he asked. “If so, we would require evidence to that effect.”
“That cannot be produced, Your Honour. However, there is a sound reason. By a happy coincidence, Mrs Boland is a nurse and was able to deal with the matter.”
“I see. So there is no documentary evidence of any injury?”
“That is correct.”
The judge turned his eyes back to Prendergast. “Now, Mr Dunwoody,” he said, “do you have any bills to support the claim for nine hundred pounds? It is after all a considerable sum.”
Prendergast was unhappy. “Your Honour,” he said, “both the window replacement and the redecorating were carried out by a local tradesman.”
“No doubt,” snapped the judge. “I hardly imagined that contractors from Cornwall or Sutherland would have been summoned. Nevertheless, presumably the party concerned supplied invoices?”
“Bloody cowboy!” The exclamation came from the defendant, who was disposed to continue, but was silenced by a venomous glare from his counsel.
Ignoring the outburst, the judge continued to address prosecuting counsel: “Can you produce any documents?”
“Your Honour,” said Prendergast, “we have done all within our power to prevail upon the gentleman to provide us with bills, but he is intractable.”
“Very well. In that case, can you tell us the dimensions of the dining room concerned?”
“Yes. It is approximately twelve-by-ten feet, with an eight-foot ceiling.”
“Good. Now, with regard to Mrs Winterton’s dress. You said that it was a costly item. Can you substantiate this claim?”
“Regrettably not, Your Honour. The garment was bought some time ago, the supplier is no longer in business and the Wintertons have no record of the purchase.”
Judge Wimple nodded. “I see,” he said. “So, we have no verifiable evidence of any injury to Mr Boland, nor have we any documentation concerning the reinstatement of the Winterton property, and the position with regard to the dress is also unclear. This is unfortunate, but we must be resourceful. When all is said and done, a dive-bombing incident is no everyday occurrence. Now, I need to make enquiries, so we shall recess until two o’clock.
When the parties reconvened, everyone but the judge was in subdued mood. His honour was effervescent. “Now,” he beamed, “are the parties willing to accept my verdict?”
There was no dissent, so the judge riffled his papers, as usual all blank, excepting the top one, which he crumpled and discarded. It was littered with his unsuccessful efforts to defeat himself at noughts and crosses, in which exercise he had indulged while mentally drifting during counsels’ presentations.
“Very well,” he said briskly. “We are in the all too familiar position of not having every detail available to us. Nevertheless, a decision must be made. You might be relieved to learn that I have not slept through the lunch break. I have made certain enquiries. Incidentally, I must say that I am troubled by the fact that we tend increasingly to emulate practices in the United States, where there are almost four times as many lawyers per citizen as in Britain. Not that I wish to denigrate our American cousins, whom I admire in many ways.”
At this point, the judge, seeing drooping heads before him, curtailed his intended sermon, returning to the immediate issue. “First, I have learned that there are designated places for people to fly model aircraft. I was not surprised to learn that built-up areas are excluded – and here I am inclined to discount the fact that there is a field close to the residences concerned. You might wish to know that, had the defendant’s aircraft-flying been reported to the environmental health authorities, the activity would have been stopped. Second, I have made efforts to establish the likely costs of window replacement and redecoration of a room of the size concerned here. Third, I have, as far as possible, familiarised myself with the admittedly variable costs of ladies’ attire. By no stretch of the imagination can I reach a total of nine hundred pounds, which is the amount claimed. I think that the bouillabaisse was not the only thing that was fishy in this matter. The lack of tradesman’s invoices suggests that if the plaintiff employed anyone at all, that person was probably a odd-job man, supplementing his dole, while as to Mrs Winterton’s dress, I am bound to wonder whether we are dealing with fabric or fabrication.
“My conclusion is that the defendant behaved most reprehensibly, in that he provoked the opprobrium of his neighbours. As to the plaintiff, he has a genuine grievance, which he has sought to exploit beyond reasonable bounds. Taking everything into account, I find in favour of Mr Winterton and award damages of three hundred pounds. The defendant will also pay a fine of fifty pounds. Proceedings concluded.”
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