SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWENTY-SEVEN
Unusually for him, Judge Embert Wimple had woken with a weary sigh. He was well aware of the reason for his lassitude. The conflicting pressures of duty and inclination were becoming too much. Also, this was mid-March, the rump of another trying winter. The judge was on the verge of a conclusion. He did not want to shuffle off the mortal coil without having made every effort to understand life, the universe and everything. That would be inexcusable. His increasingly frequent glimpses of the infinite and the infinitesimal were becoming ever-more tantalising. Could the depths be plumbed? Perhaps, but not while his honour was benchbound. Once again, the elder statesman of lawgiving was torn – but not for long, he thought.
There was nothing in the Wimple household that impelled the judge to extend his long period of trying to dispense justice. After years of mild tension, breakfast was once more a pleasant occasion for swapping ideas with Esmeralda, who had found her long-sought niche and was now spending as much time encouraging others as improving her own fine work, in addition to which she had ‘definitely, finally’ abandoned all other artistic aspirations. She was also concerned that the judge should indulge himself by following his true interests. The Wimples were more at one than ever before. Well, the judge thought, if one accomplished nothing else in life, that was perhaps achievement enough.
Despite persistently thinking that he had seen and heard everything, Judge Wimple was time and again perplexed by the vagaries of human nature, and today was to offer a further example. The matter seemed odd from the start, the case being Duckworth and Thompson versus Duckworth and Thompson. The judge could not recall anything of the sort. The plaintiffs, Margaret Duckworth and Eileen Thompson, were represented by an outsider, Andrew Stallybrass, who had appeared before Judge Wimple only once before. The defendants, Harry Duckworth and Frederick Thompson, had entrusted themselves to that anthropomorphised cannonball, Arabella Bray. The judge wondered idly why the positions were not reversed, with a female barrister putting the case for the plaintiffs. However, his was not to reason why. He did remember that prosecuting counsel Stallybrass had a penchant for flowery prose, which might have to be curbed. With a nod to that gentleman, he opened the hearing: “Please let us have your observations, Mr Stalybridge.”
“Thank you, Your Honour. We are dealing here with what, if it were not so serious, might be called a Whitehall farce. My clients, Mrs Duckworth and Mrs Thompson and the defendants, Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson are married couples and live in maisonettes, one above the other, in a housing estate about four miles from the centre of this city. Until the incident, which occurred on the ninth of December last year, the two couples had been not only long-time neighbours, but also friends. The defendants were in the habit of spending one evening a week at their local public house, leaving the ladies to pass the time together, which they did in one or other of the two dwellings.
“On the evening in question, the defendants returned home later than usual. The ladies had separated and gone to bed. Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson bade one another good night. Being the worse for drink and fearing recrimination from their wives, the men moved as quietly as their state allowed and retired without disturbing the ladies. Having been oppressed by the stuffy atmosphere in the public house, both men opened their bedroom windows. Outside, there was snow on the ground. It was a calm, clear, frosty night. The neighbourhood had settled down. All was quiet and peaceful. Thus it remain –”
The judge cleared his throat massively. He had decided that Stallybrass had done enough to set the scene. “A real page-turner, Mr Stalwart,” he said. “You are beginning to sound like an Edwardian crime novelist. Are you going to speak of butlers emerging ethereally from the wainscoting and suave detectives stroking moustaches?”
“Er, no, Your Honour. This is not quite the country house mystery so beloved of fiction writers. In fact it is more –”
A raised forefinger from the bench halted Stallybrass again. Satisfied that he had correctly recalled prosecuting counsel’s proclivity for ornamentation, the judge had resolved that the man must be kept on course. “We shall omit clouds scudding across a silvery moon,” he said. “Especially as there was no wind. What happened?”
“My apologies. At about three o’clock in the morning, Mrs Duckworth awoke, putting out a hand to check that her husband had joined her. She sensed that something was amiss and switched on a lamp, establishing that she had been in bed with Mr Thompson. She emitted a shriek of such pitch and volume that Mrs Thompson, in the maisonette above, was roused. She also turned on a light, finding that her companion in bed was Mr Duckworth. Mrs Thompson also cried out. Both ladies ran to their bedroom windows and conducted a conversation. They saw lights going on elsewhere, so temporarily doused their own to avoid attracting attention from other neighbours. Fumbling in the dark, they met in the Duckworths’ living room to discuss the matter.”
“One moment,” said the judge. “Did they not wake their husbands?”
“They tried, but found that the defendants were both in a state of drunken stupor. In fact it was not until close to noon the following day that the men, almost simultaneously, emerged from what could perhaps be called their hoggish slumbers. The parties foregathered in the Thompsons’ living room. Suspecting that there had been a conspiracy, my clients taxed the defendants, who were unable to offer a reasonable explanation. The ladies were dissatisfied with – ”
“I was more dissatisfied than what she w– ”
That was as far as Mrs Duckworth got before being faced down by her furious advocate, who continued: “I was about to say that the ladies were not, and still are not, satisfied with the feeble protestations they heard. They seek recompense for the distress caused to them.”
“A riveting tale, Mr Stansfield,” said the judge. “Now, I imagine the defendants have some explanation. “What about it, Ms Grayle?” He had drifted into the world of Raymond Chandler.
Arabella Bray was neither surprised nor deflected. “May it please Your Honour, there is indeed a reason. Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson are great believers in moderation and normally consume no more than three pints of beer during their weekly night out. It was only later that they were able to piece together what had happened. When they went out for the evening on the ninth of December, they found themselves in the company of several friends, one of whom had that day won a substantial amount of money. This gentleman has something of a reputation for playing tricks. Unable to understand their own behaviour on the evening in question, my clients finally asked their drinking companions about the events on that occasion. One of the men concerned admitted that each time my clients’ attention had been distracted, the prankster I mentioned had topped up their drinks with copious amounts of whisky. Unaccustomed as Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson were to such a large intake of alcohol, they succumbed. By the time they got home, they were in a confused state and entered the wrong dwellings.”
“Dear me, said the judge. “Did they not notice the differences?”
“No, Your Honour. Both maisonettes are laid out in similar fashion. Only certain items of furniture and some decorations are different – and then only in a few details. The Thompsons had earlier been impressed by the Duckworths’ refurbishment of their home and had largely copied it. No-one but the two couples lives in the maisonettes concerned, so in their state of inebriation, neither Mr Duckworth nor Mr Thompson observed anything odd. Both simply wished to get to bed without disturbing the ladies.”
The judge help up a hand. “One moment. How did it come about that the defendants entered the wrong homes? I would find it difficult to accept that the two ladies retired leaving their doors unlocked and I assume that the keys are not interchangeable. Can you explain?”
If the judge thought he had homed in on a weakness, he was to be disappointed, for Bray had done her research. “Your Honour’s acuity is undimmed.” For a moment, Bray thought she had been a little too effusive here, but the old lad seemed pleased as she continued: “This is indeed a critical point and I fear I must ask indulgence, as the clarification will take a minute or two.”
The judge gave a benign smile. “You are entitled to make your case, Ms Graves. Go on.”
“Thank you. This is a comedy, or some might say a tragedy, of errors, which probably would not have occurred with any other pair of households. Both the Duckworths and the Thompsons have adult children who visit them, sometimes without notice, occasionally finding their parents absent from home. To avoid any inconvenience to their family, the Thompsons had the idea of fixing two small hanging pot plants to their outer wall, one plant on either side of the door. They always left a key under the left-hand pot. The Duckworths were impressed and followed suit. In both cases, another key hangs on the inside doorframe. The doors are self-locking. This arrangement worked well for some years.”
“I understand,” said the judge. “The notion seems to leave something to be desired in terms of security, but that is not our concern.”
“Indeed not, Your Honour. Now, at one time or another over the years, three of the four parties here have mislaid or lost door keys and it had become a habit with my clients to use those under the plant pots, replacing them before closing their doors. Among other things, the practice confirmed that the outside keys were still in place. This explains why my clients were able to enter the wrong dwellings. Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson are most distressed and are prepared to make such restitution as is within their power, though despite all their enquiries, they are unclear as to what the ladies demand.”
“That is certainly a salient point,” said the judge, whose attention was hanging by a thread. “It can be clarified only by the prosecution.” He turned his attention to Stallybrass. “Exactly what are your clients seeking, Mr Bracegirdle?”
“Their case is a fairly common one, Your Honour. Both defendants have council allotments where they spend much of their time and where, in addition to gardening, which they regard as necessary, they have hobbies. Mr Duckworth keeps pigeons and Mr Thompson breeds ferrets. My clients have long complained that because of the defendants’ allotments, pastimes and drinking, they – the ladies – have been virtual widows for some years, as the men appear at home only for meals. The defendants give their wives weekly housekeeping allowances and appear to think that this absolves them of responsibility for all further domestic affairs. Mrs Duckworth and Mrs Thompson wish to teach their husbands a lesson.”
“Yes, yes,” said the judge, interest and irritability battling within him. “But do they assess this in monetary terms?”
“They do not. It is their contention that they have been neglected for far too long. They make no direct financial claim, but wish it to be brought home to the defendants that something must be done to instil into them a sense of spousal duty.”
The judge sighed deeply. “Not that this isn’t enough, but have you finished?”
Stallybrass nodded. “Yes.”
“Anything to add, Ms Brain?”
“No, Your Honour.”
“Very well. I could retire but I feel sure that a recess would not make me much wiser. It is sad that this kind of estrangement affects so many couples.” Here he was mindful of the fact that he and Mrs Wimple had lived together for over fifty years without too much discomfort, although they had spent much of the time travelling in different directions and had only recently headed back towards a true union. He continued: “I was at one point disposed to ask how it had come that apparently neither man noticed that Mr Duckworth ascended the stairs to the upper dwelling, while Mr Thompson stayed at the lower level. However, if I were to pose the question, there would be an answer, and I doubt that I could stand it.”
Having failed to cover the point, both counsels were clearly uncomfortable, which was pleasing to the judge, who went on: “That the defendants are at fault here is perfectly clear. As the evidence was presented, I began to think of this matter in the most serious terms. However, it seems that since Mr Duckworth and Mr Thompson were fast asleep throughout the night and most of the following morning, no real impropriety occurred, or at least none is alleged.”
Both Stallybrass and Bray were intrigued. How would the judge resolve this one? He did not keep them waiting. “I note the defendants’ submission that their behaviour arose from the unexpected strength of the drinks they consumed, but do not accept that as sufficient mitigation. I must find them guilty of the offence concerned.” His honour was shuffling his papers furiously, but could not find the one specifying the charge. However, he was too old a hand to stumble over such a hurdle.
“Until I heard that the plaintiffs were not seeking direct monetary recompense, I was disposed to set a fine. However, I accept that not everything can be quantified financially. I am forced to adopt an unorthodox method to settle this affair. My decision is that the defendants should, immediately and at their own expense, take their wives – I recommend that each be accompanied by his legal spouse – for a weekend at a seaside resort, to see whether the invigorating atmosphere will help to restore harmony. To avoid any further confusion, I suggest that the two places should be widely separate, for example Blackpool and Bridlington. As this idea is experimental, we shall meet here again in one month and see how it works. Proceedings adjourned.”
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