SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : CHAPTER FIVE
Rights Of Passage
Having allowed the first test match to proceed more or less unhindered – for which Judge Embert Wimple was thankful – the weather had changed, the British summer apparently having decided to set in with some severity. It was cold, wet and windy. Normally, his honour paid little attention to the elements, unless they interfered with cricket, but domestic matters had made this morning exceptional.
The judge’s day had started badly. He had been irritated almost from the outset. For the first time in fifty-two years of married life, Mrs Wimple, who usually made breakfast, had failed to produce a full measure of oat flakes. For decades, Judge Wimple had fuelled his morning exertions with porridge. On this occasion, he had been reduced to half-rations. Mrs Wimple was not one to wallow in contrition. She had responded to her husband’s complaint with some asperity, saying: “Naturally I’m sorry, but let me point out that it’s the first time in over half a century, Your Honour.” Such sarcasm! Only once before had anything similar occurred. Twenty years earlier, the judge had protested about the absence of his preferred brand of tea-time crackers, causing his wife to remark that if he didn’t stop complaining, she would get him a supply of whinger biscuits. Not a woman to trifle with.
This time, the judge had been somewhat mollified by his wife’s apology, qualified though it was, plus the timely provision of a large free-range egg, soft-boiled, with five toast soldiers for dipping. Still, the ageing custodian of the law remained a little tetchy as he prepared for the day. But a man had to make allowances. The judge reminded himself of Mrs Wimple’s recently formed addiction to painting and there was no accounting for people with artistic leanings. And it had to be admitted that Esmeralda was no dabbler. Within two years of her first flush of interest, she was selling well. Still, it was all a little trying.
Dismissing the inconvenience from his mind, the judge steeled himself to do his duty. In the eight years since he had relinquished his full-time responsibilities, Embert Wimple had found himself called upon more frequently than he had envisaged, to assist his peers in dispensing law. He would, he sometimes thought, have preferred justice, but as that was so elusive, the statutes usually had to suffice. Dwelling further on the demands made upon him, the judge thought it odd that his colleagues were often indisposed. Diet was the problem. If the young whippersnappers of sixty-five or seventy would only subscribe to a balanced intake of food, they would not be laid low as often as they were. However, deplorable though it was, the situation played into Judge Wimple’s hands, as it had given him the ammunition necessary to avoid the gardening he so hated.
The case was White versus Brown – not a black and white issue, as Judge Wimple would later remark to anyone who cared to listen. For the umpteenth time, the judge found himself dealing with those two seasoned advocates, Rodney Melliflewes and Desmond Oddley-Staggers. On this occasion, Melliflewes appeared for the prosecution, Oddley-Staggers representing the defendant. Embert Wimple was still revelling in the absence of jurors and other supernumeraries. He took the same view as the tycoon he had heard say that a business should be run by an odd number of directors, three being too many.
Having assimilated what was necessary – and having also failed to come up with prosecuting counsel’s name, or any other that seemed appropriate – the judge nodded and waved Melliflewes into action. The barrister assumed his customary hands-behind-back posture. “May it please Your Honour,” he said, “the circumstances here are uncomplicated. At shortly after three in the afternoon of the seventh of October last, my client, Mrs White, left a shop in Low Street in this city, intending to enter her car, which was parked outside the premises. She was encumbered by her purchases and almost collided with the defendant, who thrust out an arm, forcing Mrs White back into the doorway from which she had just emerged. She sustained physical injuries and suffered acute mental distress.”
“Just a moment,” the judge broke in. “Your client seems, at least superficially, to be well at present. Am I to take it that she has recovered?”
“Mercifully, the bodily harm was relatively minor. However, there is no telling what longer term psychological consequences an assault of this kind might cause. Mrs White is entitled to redress.”
Thank you, Mr Tranter,” said the judge. The keen blue eyes switched to defending counsel. “Now, Mr Enderby, what have you to say?”
Oddley-Staggers bowed. “May it please Your Honour, my client, Mr Brown, is basically in agreement with regard to the overall circumstances. However, as so often, we are concerned with subjectivity. Mrs White left the shop at great speed and Mr Brown, having perceived a threat, real or imagined, extended an arm to counter it. This was quite natural, in view of his occupation.”
“I see,” said the judge. “What is that occupation?”
“Mr Brown is a professional rugby player, Your Honour.”
Judge Wimple looked at the six-foot-one, fifteen-stone defendant. “A fine figure of a man,” he said, mentally noting the physical contrast between the parties, the plaintiff being barely five feet tall and less than half Brown’s weight. “What position does he play?”
“He is a front-row forward.”
Judge Wimple’s mind reeled back through the decades. There was a time, sixty years or so ago, when he’d been a nimble fly-half, appearing at least once at the premier grounds in England, Ireland and Wales, missing Scotland by a hairsbreadth. Still, that was another time, and perhaps another man, was it not? No bearing on the present matter. “I would imagine so,” he said. “The plaintiff would be no match for him in a scrum?”
“So it would seem, Your Honour.”
“Wouldn’t be likely to bring him down with a well-timed tackle, eh?”
“Probably not.” Oddley-Staggers had much experience of the judge’s digressions and was not disposed to attempt deflection.
His honour nodded. “Quite. Now, we must get to the details. And here I think it would be appropriate for us to consider both sides as near simultaneously as possible. First, we must establish whether there were any hand signals.”
“Hand signals?” chorused the two advocates.
“Yes, yes,” snapped the judge, his breakfast tribulations surfacing. “I am concerned to know whether either party gave them.”
Melliflewes was the first to regain composure. “Ahem, Your Honour, we would point out that hand signals are not normally used by pedestrians.”
“And a great pity, too,” said the judge, “I think they should be. That would spare us all many problems, don’t you think?”
Melliflewes bowed. “Your Honour is, as always, most incisive. However, I believe that without further deliberation we may say that no hand signals were given.”
Oddley-Staggers nodded his acquiescence.
“Very well,” said the judge. “Now, was either party breathalysed?”
Melliflewes was shaken. “Breathalysed, Your Honour?”
“Yes, breathalysed. If one or other litigant was intoxicated, or perhaps even both of them, that would influence the matter, would it not?”
Momentarily forgetting her counsel’s advice to remain silent, Mrs White strained forwards. “He was as drunk as a sk –” That was as far as she got before being subdued by a wrathful glare from Melliflewes.
The judge had delivered a googly, causing the learned gentlemen to confer with their clients and one another. Finally, Oddley-Staggers replied: “Neither party was breathalysed, Your Honour.”
The judge shook his head. “Most unfortunate. Knowing the result of such a test would have assisted us. Still, we must proceed with the information we have, however incomplete it may be. Now, with regard to the weather at the time. I imagine that has been considered.” His eyes fixed on Oddley-Staggers. “Mr Guilfoyle?”
Counsel for the defence faced the basilisk glare bravely. “The weather, Your Honour? I am wondering –”
The judge interjected. “I doubt that it has escaped either party that in our climes, the sun strikes us at varying angles, according to the time of year. It seems to me that this may have a bearing on the case. We are speaking of an incident that took place in mid-afternoon on the seventh of October. If it was a sunny day, that would surely have been a factor. Can anyone enlighten me?”
This caused a further consultation involving the two advocates and their clients. It was Melliflewes who responded to the enquiry. “Your Honour, we agree that the sun was shining brightly at the time.”
“Excellent,” said the judge. “Now, there remains the question of Low Street. How does it run? Is it north-south, east-west, or what?
Another melee, from which Oddley-Staggers emerged with the answer. “Your Honour, we are in agreement that Low Street runs roughly east-west, or vice versa.”
“Splendid,” said the judge. “We progress. Now, at the time and on the date in question, the sun was well past its annual zenith, but was obviously in the South and must have been high enough to clear the buildings on Low Street, which are hardly skyscrapers. Next, we have to consider where Mrs White made her purchases. Which side of the street? He looked at Melliflewes. “Mr Brewster?”
“My client had been hiring video-tapes from an outlet at the northern side of Low Street.”
“Indeed,” said the judge. “And you said that she was encumbered, which suggests the possibility of a large number of tapes. Are we to be privileged to learn what material was involved and whether it was for Mrs White’s entertainment?”
“Come, Mr Westwood,” said the judge, “We need to know everything that might help us.”
This caused Melliflewes to have a further long discussion with his client. Satisfied at last, he addressed the judge. “Mrs White was hiring tapes for herself. They were all of the action-thriller variety.”
“Thank you,” said Judge Wimple. “Now,” he turned his attention to Oddley-Staggers. “It might also be helpful if we could establish where Mr Brown was bound. Is that possible?”
A brief exchange between Oddley-Staggers and his client elicited that Mr Brown had intended to visit the shop which Mrs White had just left. The defence advocate had a further observation. “Your Honour, we feel it appropriate to remark here that my client was subjected to verbal abuse from the plaintiff.”
“I see,” said Judge Wimple. “Would you care to be specific?”
“Without entering into detail, we can say that the plaintiff’s observations on my client’s alleged parentage and . . . er . . . certain proclivities were most explicit.”
“Thank you,” said the judge. “Now, one further point. Is Mr Brown a motorist?”
After consulting his client, Oddley-Staggers confirmed that the defendant was a driver. “Very well,” said the judge, scribbling his final notes. “I believe I now have sufficient information to reach a conclusion. I don’t think I need to retire.”
Allowing the parties to quiver with apprehension, the judge pored over his papers for two minutes before pushing them aside. “Now,” he said, “it seems to me that the main problem here is the lack of a pedestrian equivalent to the Highway Code. If we had such an instrument, the position would be clearer. Indeed, it has often occurred to me that we should paint white lines along our pavements, similar to those in the roads. If we were to do that and to introduce breath-testing and hand signals for pedestrians, we could save ourselves much anguish. You may recall that before the appearance of winking indicators, drivers gave notice of their intentions by hand and arm movements. In my view, it would be a boon if those on foot now did the same. Were they to copy the old rules for drivers, the left turn would involve a circular motion of the right arm. Indeed that could hardly have been otherwise for drivers, unless the person concerned had a prodigiously long left arm and an open left window – and even that would hardly have been adequate for other motorists.”
The judge’s eyes rose ceilingwards as his mind went back fleetingly to the halcyon days of motoring before returning to the current task. “Admittedly, the right turn, requiring full extension of the arm might cause confusion among pedestrians, especially where many people moving in opposing directions sought to manoeuvre at close quarters.” Here Judge Wimple’s eyes held a mischievous gleam. “One could imagine that with so many limbs flailing, half the population might become interlocked along our streets. Even so, that would save troubles like the one we have here – and arranging the disentanglement would offer the police an interesting challenge. Also, who knows but what such a potentially tactile society might not lead to more friendship all round? It’s an intriguing thought.”
It was far from intriguing to any of the judge’s listeners, but he allowed them to titter briefly before continuing: “In this case, it seems to me that both parties were probably hampered by the prevailing conditions. They were possibly also influenced by established mindsets – in the case of Mrs White, by the material she had just obtained and in the case of Mr Brown, by a reflex action, arising from his sporting activities. Seeing Mrs White coming upon him, he may have had a momentary lapse, mistaking her for an opposing defender and deciding to palm her off in the manner common among men in his line of work. Alternatively, he may have been indicating a right turn, in the manner to which I have alluded. There is also the question of the angle of the Sun at the time in question, which probably affected both parties. The light must surely have been directly in the plaintiff’s eyes and probably at about ninety degrees to those of the defendant. Indeed, I suspect that this may have been decisive. All things considered, I am minded to dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded.”
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