SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER SIXTEEN
It was a glorious morning. Mild, watery sunshine, multi-coloured leaves everywhere and the harvest gathered in. Judge Embert Wimple found himself, not for the first time, emotionally torn. On the negative side, there was the usual hiatus in the cricket programme. Against that, this was the only time of year the judge really liked, in environmental terms. Winter was inconvenient, spring brought out noisy lawnmowers and suchlike torture instruments and summer was a series of interruptions, a time when people were always somewhere other than where they were needed. Perhaps on some other plane there would be a perfect state of permanent autumn, plus cricket. Could there be such a world? Embert Wimple hoped so. He accepted the idea of reincarnation, a belief which caused him to have mixed feelings. Did one want to do it all again? Some might, but he did not. Could one get out of the cycle and pass on to better things? Possibly – by being very good. Therefore, the judge did his best.
The tests encountered along life’s way were many and varied and the octogenarian lawgiver was today facing what appeared to be one of the more mundane ones. The impending hearing seemed likely to be tiresome, since it involved a motoring matter. This depressed the judge, who recalled the days of carefree driving, wind in the hair along country roads, dropping in at a pub without piped music and breezing along to one’s rural destination, albeit with the odd puncture on the way. What did we have now? Everybody and his brother had a car. And the result? Chaos, bad tempers and territorialism.
The judge took his place, finding that the case was Drinkwater and Thomas versus Hogg. Two plaintiffs. Or was it a company? No, it was two individuals. They were represented by that old campaigner, Desmond Oddley-Staggers, the defendant’s counsel being another battle-hardened veteran, Roderick Prendergast. As they were such familiar figures at court, both advocates had hopes that the old boy would confound the current odds in the barristers’ betting system by remembering one or other of their names. Time would tell. Judge Wimple scanned the written details, then addressed Oddley-Staggers. “Very well, Mr Goldstein, perhaps you would get the ball rolling.”
Prosecuting counsel was not the obsequious type. Adopting his customary thumbs-in-waistcoat-pockets pose, he favoured the judge with a minimal nod. “Thank you, Your Honour. We are dealing here with what is, in our view, a case of mindless hooliganism. The incident in question occurred at about seven-thirty in the evening of the twenty-first of June, initially on a minor road four miles from the centre of this city. One of my clients, Mr Drinkwater, had stopped at the junction with the major road and was checking the traffic position before emerging. The defendant drove up behind and failed to stop, his car striking the rear of Mr Drinkwater’s vehicle. My client got out of his car to check for damage. The defendant joined him and, despite my client’s calm reaction to the incident, became most abusive. Mr Drinkwater, who is more than twice the age of the defendant and a semi-invalid, feared for his safety and rejoined his wife in his own car, having established that the vehicle had suffered minor denting to the rear bumper.
“As the Drinkwaters were composing themselves to proceed, they were startled by a further rear-end impact, which was caused by the defendant’s intentionally ramming their vehicle with his much larger, heavier car, before retreating a few feet. Mr Drinkwater was unwilling to expose himself to possible further aggression, so leaned out of his window and shouted to the defendant, demanding an explanation. He was subjected to a further torrent of abuse and the comment that he now had something to complain about.”
“Good heavens,” said the judge. We seem to be invoking Clausewitz, who I believe considered war as the pursuit of diplomacy by other means.”
“An apposite observation, Your Honour,” Oddley-Staggers replied. That is precisely how Mr Drinkwater views the matter, especially in view of what followed.”
“And what was that?”
“My other client, Mr Thomas had driven up behind the scene of the incident. He noted that Mr Drinkwater had returned to his car and, suspecting that there was something amiss, he halted about thirty feet behind the defendant’s vehicle and left his car, intending to enquire as to what had happened. Unfortunately he was, like Mr Drinkwater, greeted with an unreasonable verbal response from the defendant. This caused him to retreat and lock himself in his car. Mayhem ensued immediately.”
“Did it indeed?” said the judge. “In what form?”
“After his altercation with Mr Thomas, the defendant leapt into his vehicle, which he proceeded to drive to and fro several times, first hitting Mr Drinkwater’s car, then that of Mr Thomas and so on.”
“Ah,” said the judge. “He was shunting, was he?”
“One might consider it so, Your Honour. With each impact, the plaintiffs’ cars were pushed alternately, one forwards, the other backwards, until Mr Thomas’s car was struck by another vehicle approaching the junction.”
“A fourth vehicle?” said the judge. “And yet we have no fourth litigant. Furthermore, you say that the plaintiffs’ cars were pushed. Did they not have handbrakes and gears, which might have obstructed the defendant’s activities?”
“They did, Your honour. However, the circumstances were unusual. My clients were, not surprisingly, flustered by the defendant’s outrageous behaviour. Neither had the presence of mind to use brakes or gears. It might also be argued that, had they done so, the damage would probably have been even greater than it was.”
At this point, the judge peered at the litigants. The two plaintiffs were elderly men, Drinkwater being the senior in years at well over seventy, while Thomas was in his mid-sixties. The defendant, Darren Hogg, was a tall, heavily-built, red-faced man of thirty-odd. “I see,” said Judge Wimple “Now, what about the fourth vehicle?”
“It was a vintage Rolls-Royce, Your Honour, yellow and black. Mr Thomas, who has much motoring experience, tried to note the registration number, but failed. However, he believes that the car was a 1920s model. This fourth vehicle, which sustained minor front-end damage, immediately reversed in a wildly erratic manner. The driver performed a backwards slalom until he reached a side-road, along which he drove at high speed. Judging from his actions, one might well conclude that he was perhaps intoxicated and wished to depart a scene that presented complications.”
The judge nodded. “Well,” he said, “there should be no great difficulty in tracing such a distinctive car, especially one with a defaced frontage. However, we will not detain ourselves with that, as we have enough to do here. I almost hesitate to ask, but was there was anything more?”
Oddley-Staggers cleared his throat. “I fear there was, Your Honour, although it does not bear directly upon these deliberations. It so happened that in his final thrust forwards, the defendant pushed Mr Drinkwater’s car into the major road. An oncoming oil tanker, on the same side as the car, was obliged to swerve. In so doing, it crossed the central white markers and caused a Land Rover coming in the opposite direction to swerve in turn and to leave the road for a few yards.”
“Saints preserve us,” said the judge. “And still we have no other litigant. Can you explain?”
“Up to a point, Your Honour. Mr Drinkwater was too shocked to make any effort to note the number of the oil tanker. With regard to the Land Rover he tried, but the vehicle was so mud-spattered that the licence plate was largely obscured. Both vehicles sped away. We must assume that the two drivers concerned were satisfied that they had narrowly averted accidents and did not wish to linger at the scene.
“Thank you,” the judge replied. “Is that all?”
“I believe so.”
The judge turned to defending counsel, Prendergast. “Now, Mr Potterton, I assume you have some riposte. Your observations, please.”
Prendergast gave a mere fifteen-degree nod. “Your Honour, much of what my learned friend says is correct. However, there are two points which we feel must be considered. First, the confrontation between my client and the first-named plaintiff. Mr Hogg does not deny that his car initially struck the rear of Mr Drinkwater’s vehicle, causing no damage of consequence. The two parties left their cars and conducted a verbal exchange. However, it was more than a simple matter of words. Mr Drinkwater was not only abusive, but also attacked my client.”
“Did he?” said the judge. “In what way?”
“With a forefinger, which he thrust into Mr Hogg’s solar plexus, causing much pain. My client believes that Mr Drinkwater was presuming upon his advanced years, insofar as to suppose that there would be no retaliation against a senior citizen.”
“I understand,” said the judge. “And your second point?”
“A particularly poignant one, Your Honour. My client had been undergoing traumatic experiences. First, he had marital difficulties. Less than a week before the matter under discussion here, his wife had left him, taking with her the Hoggs’ two young children. Second, on the day of the incident, Mr Hogg had been informed that he was to lose his job with virtually immediate effect, thus being deprived not only of a substantial income, but of unlimited private use of a company car, which was the one involved in the matter we are addressing. The altercations already mentioned added to his misery.”
“Troubles coming not as single spies, but in battalions,” said the judge.
“Exactly so, Your Honour. Not surprisingly, Mr Hogg was already acutely distressed before this incident, which at first caused hardly any damage. Mr Drinkwater’s fit of rage and his assault with the finger amounted to the last straw. Or perhaps we should say the penultimate one, since the other plaintiff, Mr Thomas, also behaved intemperately, his language being extremely strong. It could be argued that my client’s response was excessive, but our submission is that many another man might have reacted even more fiercely after going through the same chain of events. It was an outbreak not of rage, but of exasperation at the vicissitudes of life.”
“Thank you. As a matter of interest, what work did Mr Hogg do?”
“He worked with heavy machinery, Your Honour.”
“What kind of machinery?”
Prendergast looked as embarrassed as a barrister ever does. “Your Honour, Mr Hogg . . . er . . .”
The judge leaned forwards. “Yes?”
“He operated a car-crusher.”
It was hard to tell which facial feature Judge Wimple opened wider, mouth or eyes. He flopped back again. “Bless my soul,” he said. “I have heard of people taking their work home, but this is an extreme case. I hope you are not going to tell me that your client proposed to charge the plaintiffs for practising his trade on them.”
“No, Your Honour. The . . . ah . . . service was provided gratis.”
“Well, we must be thankful for small mercies. Now, it seems that half the vehicles in the North of England received Mr Hogg’s attention one way or another. I would hate to think we had overlooked any.” His eyes roved from one advocate to the other. “Can we be sure we have not, and will both parties accept my judgement?”
The learned gentlemen were satisfied that nothing had been missed and were willing to accept the judge’s verdict.
“Very well. The complexities here are superficial, so I don’t need to retire. To summarise, there were six vehicles involved. If I may permit myself a colourful allusion, I consider the yellow car a red herring, as I do the tanker and the Land Rover. This leaves the three litigants’ cars, all damaged by Mr Hogg’s impromptu performance.”
Here, the judge removed his half-glasses and took a deep breath. “Now, we come to apportioning responsibility. There can be no reasonable excuse for what Mr Hogg did. However, I accept that this might well have resulted from the pressures upon him before the incident. I am disposed to believe that the stress affecting him was exacerbated by his being verbally and physically assaulted right and left almost simultaneously, which –”
Drinkwater leapt to his feet. “It’s a bloody li –,” he bellowed, before being quelled by a horrified look from his counsel, who realised that much of his sterling work had just been undone.
“ – which,” the judge went on, “might indeed have been the last straw referred to by defending counsel. So, there is no doubt about Mr Hogg’s culpability, though I understand the mitigating circumstances. Some of this is attributable to the way we now live. In the old days of motoring, such behaviour as we are considering here would have been unthinkable.” The judge was again transported to the golden era, when only the ‘right’ sort of people had cars, which they regarded more as toys than tools. In those days, colliding motorists would have exchanged a few airy comments. ‘I say, bad luck, old chap. Been at the bubbly, eh?’ and so on, neither party caring much about smashed radiators and crumpled boots.
His honour continued: “Nowadays, regrettably, tempers often run high in these matters. Disturbed though I am to hear of Mr Hogg’s recklessness, I realise that few of us are visited by matrimonial collapse and redundancy within a week, and which of us could predict our reactions to such events? Now, I see from the written information provided that all three vehicles have been repaired under insurance arrangements, so the question is how Mr Hogg should pay for his misdeed.”
The judge assumed a stern look. “This matter could have been settled at the outset by a few conciliatory words. However, since no-one other than the litigants knows the true nature of the verbal exchanges, we can only try to picture the position. It was a dangerous cocktail. On one hand, a possibly hot-headed young man under great pressure. On the other, two ageing drivers – and here I am mindful that some elderly people tend to be cantankerous. My decision is that Mr Hogg must pay a fine of fifty pounds, which may incline him to moderate his behaviour. I imagine the sum is more modest than the plaintiffs were expecting, so this outcome might also have a steadying influence on them. Proceedings concluded.”
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