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Queer Customer

Queer Customer

By Scriptorius


Queer Customer

It was late September and, thought Judge Embert Wimple, a good thing, too. The country was bathed in watery sunshine. True, the cricket season was over, but there were compensations. The gardeners were surely about to call it a year. That would be a blessing, particularly on this occasion, as the judge and his wife had new next-door neighbours, a young couple. The man’s idea of relaxation was to mow his half-acre of lawn twice a week, to the height of carpet pile – and not shag carpet, either, the judge reflected bitterly. Well, perhaps one had to make allowances. The newcomers had previously lived in a flat and were revelling in their first experience of owning a large garden.

Esmeralda Wimple was off on another short jaunt, calculated to improve her already profound grasp of perspective. The judge was happy to have his evenings free for contemplation, as he had set aside his examination of the latest developments in rocket propulsion, returning to his main preoccupation of cosmology in its widest sense. His thoughts were far removed from what he was about to deal with as he took his place in court. What was it today? Fallowfield versus Pryce, something about a contretemps in an eating house. And what about the advocates? Ah, familiar faces, Jeremy Turnpenny for the prosecution and Roderick Prendergast for the defence. That was positive on two counts. First, there probably would be no fireworks and second, neither barrister would expect his honour to be too well acquainted with what was coming up. The judge nodded at prosecuting counsel. “What delights have you for us today, Mr Turnpike?”

Turnpenny was pleased to note that the judge seemed to be quite jovial. “Interesting ones, Your Honour,” he said. We are concerned with the events of the fifth of May. Late in the evening of that day my client, Mr James Fallowfield, having spent an afternoon here in the city, went for a meal at a restaurant called ‘The Strasbourg Goose’, which is owned by the defendant and is situated about three miles north of the city centre. Mr Fallowfield had a meal, of which the main course was lobster. He was thoroughly dissatisfied with what was offered to him, but he did his best with it. When it came to payment, there was a dispute. My client was –”

“Just a moment,” the judge interjected. “If your client was unhappy about the matter, why did he not speak up earlier?”

“He restrained himself for two reasons. First, he was so hungry that he would have eaten almost anything put before him. Second, he could hardly have been expected to pronounce on the quality of the meal without eating it, or trying to.”

“I see. Go on.” “I was about to say that Mr Fallowfield offered payment, notwithstanding his justified complaint.”

Turnpenny paused to allow the inevitable further interjection. “What was the nature of that complaint?”

“Serious, Your Honour. The first course was a clear broth which my client equated with the effluent from the operations of a washing machine. When it came to the main course, the vegetables were steamed to a sloppy pulp. Still worse was the lobster. Mr Fallowfield maintains that he observed some movement on the plate, and he was not convinced that the creature was actually deceased?”

“Good grief,” the judge groaned. “I appreciate that there is a passion for fresh food nowadays, but that would be too much for most people. Furthermore, I have always thought that lobster changes colour when cooked. Did that not give your client a clue?”

“Mr Fallowfield had never before eaten lobster, so did not know what to expect.”

“Extraordinary. The idea of a meal escaping from the plate is new to me, though I seem to recall that James Bond encountered something of the kind. What then?”

“Despite his reservations, Mr Fallowfield agreed to pay in full for the meal. In doing so, he became embroiled in an argument with the waiter, who summoned the owner, Mr Pryce, who in turn brought in the restaurant’s security officer. At the time there was only one other patron, who was an old man and heavily intoxicated with drink. The waiter, Mr Pryce and the security officer hustled my client into the kitchen, where he was intimidated into washing crockery and cutlery for two hours before being released. Mr Fallowfield was in fear for his physical safety, so did not protest on the spot. He now seeks satisfaction.”

“Thank you,” said the judge. “That seems clear enough, but we will not jump to conclusions.” He turned to defending counsel Prendergast. “What is your version, Mr Pendlebury?”

“May it please Your Honour, there is something of a history involved here. The plaintiff had dined at the Strasbourg Goose on several previous occasions, each time causing trouble. Indeed, had my client, Mr Pryce, known that Mr Fallowfield was in the restaurant, he would have refused him service. As it happens, the waiters at the establishment change from time to time and the one who served Mr Fallowfield was ignorant of that gentleman’s idiosyncrasies.”

The judge was now fully absorbed. “Tell us a little more about them,” he said. “I mean the idiosyncrasies, not the waiters.”

“That is easily done, Your Honour. On his last visit to the Strasbourg Goose before the occasion that concerns us, he had ordered a sirloin steak. He caused much consternation by demanding a hammer and some tacks, saying that the only way he would get any value for money from the dish would be by nailing it to his shoe soles. This was a totally unwarranted slur on my client, who is well known for producing excellent steaks. Two months before that incident, Mr Fallowfield had dined at the restaurant, ordering fried plaice and a green salad. He caused uproar by demanding aspirin tablets, claiming that they would offer the only possibility of, as he put it, resuscitating the salad, which he said was made from wilted ingredients. He also asked for a bottle of Beaujolais and on learning that there was none in stock, demanded that the waiter go to the nearest off-licence shop to rectify the perceived shortcoming. This was done, then Mr Fallowfield created another scene when he railed at the waiter for failing to advise him against drinking red wine with fish.”

The judge was beginning to tire of the litany. “Is that all?”

“Not quite, Your Honour. Mr Fallowfield had patronised the restaurant on one still earlier occasion. He made no complaint about the food, but inveighed against the lack of stabling.”

“Stabling?” Did he arrive on horseback?”

“No. As far as we can ascertain, he does not own or ride a horse. He said that he was taking a stand against what he called declining standards at our catering establishments, saying that the absence of stables would have been unthinkable in times gone by.”

“I see,” said the judge. “A queer customer indeed. However, I understand that on the occasion we are discussing, despite his doubts about the state of animation of the lobster, Mr Fallowfield offered to pay, but was pressed into washing up instead. What do you say to that?”

“The proposed method of payment was in keeping with the plaintiff’s conduct on other occasions. By the time the bill was finally presented, Mr Pryce was at the table. Recognising his customer, my client was not disposed to tolerate any further antics from him and insisted on settlement. Mr Fallowfield produced a wallet from his inside coat pocket, opening it ostentatiously under my client’s nose and shaking it to demonstrate that it was completely empty. He then turned out his other coat pockets, which contained a handkerchief, a nasal inhaler stick and two paper clips. Thinking in terms of presenting a bill at a later stage, perhaps by post, Mr Pryce asked the plaintiff for proof of identity, but was told that Mr Fallowfield had none. Seeing that my client was becoming agitated, the plaintiff rummaged in a trouser pocket, bringing out a crumpled piece of paper. He tossed this onto the table, saying: ‘Take it out of that – and mind you get the right change.’ Mr Pryce straightened the paper, discovering that it was a banknote, torn half-through, the denomination being one thousand pounds.”

“Good heavens,” the judge squeaked. “I had no idea there were any such items in circulation. Was it genuine?”

“That question was never raised, as the note was no more than a catalyst for what followed. Perhaps the prosecution could enlighten us.”

“Never mind that now. These waters are already murky enough. Continue.”

“The alleged offer to pay was clearly frivolous. My client’s takings for the whole of an average evening, which the one in question was, amount to far less than a thousand pounds. Mr Fallowfield must have known that, irrespective of the validity of the note, his idea of a transaction was wildly eccentric. My client merely tried to settle the matter expediently.”

The judge nodded. “Thank you, Mr Penfold. If you have finished, I think we had better see whether the prosecution has anything further. Mr Turnstone?”

“Your Honour, the past differences between the two parties are of no concern to us here. We are addressing the simple question of my client’s satisfaction with his meal and his effort to pay for it. Mr Fallowfield was quite within his rights in complaining about the food, especially as the main dish appeared to be trying to return to its natural habitat. Notwithstanding that, my client, having decided to pursue retrospective methods of gaining satisfaction, offered payment. Now, inflation affects all of us, and it was a certain constellation of events that left Mr Fallowfield with his particular means of settlement. It may have been extreme, but was perfectly legitimate. For what it is worth, I would cite my own recent experiences. About two years ago, I availed myself of public transport into the city. I offered one pound and was chastised by the driver, who said that he was running a bus and not a bank. Eighteen months later, I took the same journey, also presenting the driver with a pound, only to be told that that was not enough. The position in the case here is no more than an extension of the same phenomenon.”

“Very well,” said the judge. “Now, this matter is more complex than it might appear. However, I do not propose to retire, so if both parties are willing to accept my verdict, I will give it.”

No-one demurred, so the judge dispensed with his half-glasses, adorned his papers with a copy of Einstein’s formula for time dilation, stared hard at both counsels and summed up: “I am dejected that a matter such as this should reach court. With regard to the plaintiff, the prosecution is quite right in saying that Mr Fallowfield’s earlier visits to the Strasbourg Goose are irrelevant. They may indicate a pattern of behaviour, but one must assume that any disagreements were resolved on the spot. Now, as to Mr Fallowfield’s complaint, we must try to equate this with someone’s buying an item at a shop. In such a case, if the goods are defective, they are normally replaced or a refund given. It seems reasonable to me that if someone has a meal at a restaurant, the quality of what is provided cannot be established without, as it were, the proof of the pudding, which as we know is in the eating. There is therefore no doubt in my mind that the two situations are alike, the only difference being that a part-eaten meal cannot be returned to the producer in its initial state. I regard that as a minor technicality. With respect to the question of payment, I accept that Mr Fallowfield’s offer of a thousand-pound note was extraordinary. However, no-one has contested the authenticity of the item, so we must assume that it was genuine, in which case it was legal tender. As to the question of Mr Fallowfield’s failure to offer proof of identity, I imagine that a man who walks around with thousand-pound notes as loose change is not normally asked demonstrate this.”

Defending counsel looked gloomy as the judge went on: “With regard to Mr Pryce’s means of enforcing payment in kind, I think he was a little precipitate.” Here the judge was looking at the litigants, noting that both seemed to be about forty years of age and that the defendant was tall, massively-built man, while the plaintiff was short and slim. “I cannot imagine that a man of Mr Pryce’s appearance would have had much difficulty in dealing with Mr Fallowfield, yet he seems to have enlisted the assistance of his security guard, which I assume is a euphemism for a bouncer. This leads me to wonder why an establishment with modest takings needs such an employee. However, that is by the way.”

The judge peered closely at his notes, then went on: “If there was doubt about Mr Fallowfield’s identity, that could surely have been settled by an insistence from the defendant that a name and address be supplied, with a view to legal proceedings by Mr Pryce. If any such demand had caused a scene, I have no doubt that the police could have helped, and I ask myself why they were not brought in anyway. In conclusion, I must say that, although Mr Fallowfield’s conduct was unusual and possibly provocative, it was – still assuming that his banknote was genuine – not unlawful. I am bound to find in his favour, to the extent of ordering repayment by Mr Pryce of the cost of the meal, for which he obviously extracted equivalent value from Mr Fallowfield. I will not impose a fine, but must caution Mr Pryce against any repetition of his behaviour in taking the law into his own hands. Proceedings concluded.”

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14 Jul, 2018
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