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Silent Servant

Silent Servant

By Scriptorius


Silent Servant

The last case before Christmas – and a good thing too, thought Judge Embert Wimple. Despite a profound aversion to seasonal frivolities, his honour had no objection to a short respite from his official duties. Rest was becoming increasingly necessary. It was as well that judges so often did their work in short bursts, with frequent breaks between bouts of intense concentration. Were it otherwise, the octogenarian lawgiver would have resigned long ago. As it was, the working hours he kept enabled him to maintain a fresh attitude to whatever confronted him. Nevertheless, the time was surely approaching when he would have to heed the call to greater matters. The Theory of Everything still beckoned and how could a man deal with that if he were to be continually confronted with the misdeeds of his fellows? Like many an older man, Embert Wimple often thought that he needed to keep going because his juniors were not quite up to the job. In fairness to him, he usually had second thoughts, leading him to conclude that the initial ones were largely based on rationalisation, designed to keep him in the saddle. But a man had to learn when to let go. It was just a matter of timing.

Now, what was the case today? It seemed ordinary enough. Harris versus Pickles. Apparently a straightforward matter of assault. Beginning to relax for Yuletide, the judge noted with some satisfaction that the litigants were represented by two old warhorses, Rodney Melliflewes for the prosecution, Douglas Latimer for the defence. While happy to welcome the younger advocates, Judge Wimple usually felt more at home with the old brigade. He addressed Melliflewes. “Very well, Mr Mallander. You may proceed.”

“May it please Your Honour, this is a simple case of a physical attack, which occurred at about 10.45 p.m. on the nineteenth of August this year. My client, Mr Harris, had been enjoying a drink or two in a public house. He left the establishment alone and decided to round off the evening by going to the nearby fish shop, which he did, with unfortunate results. He had in mind a portion of haddock and chips. On placing his order, he was disappointed to find that only cod was available. He raised the issue with the defendant, who failed to engage him conversation. My client’s patience was severely tested by what he saw as dumb insolence on the defendant’s part. Mr Harris’s language may have become a little intemperate, but at no time did he threaten violence. However, in the case of Mr Pickles, the reverse applied. After refusing to speak for about two minutes, he resorted to hurling at my client a wire-mesh trayful of chips, fresh from the frying pan. Mr Harris sustained burns to his face, plus damage his only suit, which he cannot afford to have cleaned. He seeks redress.”

The judge looked at the litigants, trying to glean what he could from their appearances. The defendant was a small, well-dressed, inoffensive-looking man, whose nervous state was betrayed by continuous fidgeting. The plaintiff was a much larger fellow, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, with no jacket. He gazed vacantly ahead, giving the impression that he was present in body only. His ruddy face and mass of purple cheek and nose curlicues just possibly suggested more than a nodding acquaintanceship with the cup that cheers. Embert Wimple turned his eyes to defending counsel. “What say you to this, Mr Lorimer?”

Latimer was pleased by this worthy effort. “May it please Your Honour, what my learned colleague says is true, as far as it goes, especially with regard to his client’s inflammatory words. However, there were extenuating circumstances, which the prosecution has failed to mention.”

“I am not surprised,” said the judge. “One would hardly expect both sides to reveal all without a little coaxing. However, notwithstanding the great adversarial tradition in this country, we do try to deal in truth – though I sometimes wonder whether we should try the Code Napoleon. That might be more expedient in getting to the point, but would not be half as much fun as our system. Please continue.”

“Thank you. It is correct to say that the duologue, or rather monologue, occurred as the prosecution has stated. Now we come to the underlying situation. My client, Mr Pickles, had two good reasons for his reluctance to become involved in a verbal exchange. First, he is employed at The Peace of Cod on –”

“The what?”

“The Peace of Cod, Your Honour. That is the name of the fish and chip shop.”

“I see. Well, I dare say the title makes its point, though it is perhaps not very imaginative.”

“There is more to it than meets the ear, Your Honour. The second word is spelt as in ‘War and Peace’.”

“Ah, that’s better. The Peace of Cod. Are you now about tell me that the produce involved passeth all understanding?”

“Only insofar as the high quality is widely thought to be beyond the comprehension of the shop’s competitors.”

“Well said. You excel yourself. However, if you continue to take us along these byways, we shall be here all day. Please continue.”

“Thank you. My client was employed on a part-time basis. Owing to his retiring nature, Mr Pickles has a history of difficulty in securing employment. In fact, his only job of any consequence has been the one at the place in question, where he is still occupied. It is therefore understandable that he was anxious to stay in his position. His employer, a Mr Yardley, has a certain reputation with respect to his staff. It might be said that he rules with a rod of iron. He is a former heavyweight boxer and a man of overbearing demeanour. Among other things, he discourages his employees from chattering with customers. Silent service appears to be his motto, and since he is always present during opening hours, his will prevails. Being in fear of losing his source of income, my client obeyed his master to the letter.”

“The dark satanic mills,” said the judge. “I think I understand. However, I wonder how Mr Pickles managed to serve customers without speaking. Could you clarify?

“Yes. Normally, there are two people at the counter, while my client deals only with frying. On the occasion concerned, one of the two usual servers was off sick. Mr Yardley was in the back room chopping chips. The other assistant, noting that there were no customers, had gone to the toilet, leaving Mr Pickles in the unfamiliar position of dealing with frying and possibly serving at the same time.”

“I see,” the judge replied. “Now, what about the second reason?”

“In a way, that is more important. Mr Pickles wishes to join the order of Trappist monks, which involves a vow of silence. It seemed to him, rightly or wrongly, that he should place upon himself voluntarily the state he aspired to maintain later in life. Only thus could he be sure of his presumed vocation. One might say that his normal work in the fish and chip shop was providential, in view of the owner’s attitude.”

Here, Latimer paused for a drink before continuing: “By Mr Yardley’s admission, my client fulfilled his duties admirably, until the incident in question here. This submission is supported by the fact that Mr Yardley continues to employ Mr Pickles, who had done exactly what was expected of him, until provoked beyond reasonable bounds by the plaintiff’s speech and gestures. It is also noteworthy that Mr Yardley lost considerable custom on the evening in question, as a number of people left his premises unserved, being alarmed by the plaintiff’s aggressive behaviour, which was no doubt attributable to alcoholic intoxication – a point on which we can offer independent corroboration, should that be necessary. In fact, when the shop was closed, Mr Yardley found himself with several portions of cod and chips unsold, an almost unprecedented situation. Owing to the lunchtime rush, he cannot be with us now, but has asked that his opinion be considered. I believe Your Honour will find among the relevant papers a letter from him to that effect.”

The judge had already read the scrawled note. “Yes, I have seen it,” he said. “A most lucid presentation, Mr Lansbury. Now, you have made your two points.” He turned to Melliflewes. “Have you anything to add, Mr Ackerman?”

Not a good sign, that. Was the old boy beginning to wander further than usual? “Nothing strictly relevant, Your Honour. The fact remains that, whatever the supposed provocation, my client was physically assailed and restrained himself in trying circumstances. He is entitled to satisfaction.”

The judge was beginning to visualise the incident. “So he is, if he has been wronged. And yet, I would like to know more. The defence mentioned that Mr Harris was somewhat the worse for drink. Do you concur?”

Aware of his opponent’s comments concerning the production of witnesses, Melliflewes had no intention of extending the proceedings, thus possibly provoking judicial ire. He was stymied. “It is true that my client had imbibed – after all, that is the usual purpose of anyone visiting a public house. On the occasion in question, matters were exacerbated by the fact that there was a malfunction of the pumps and my client, who normally drinks only mild beer, was obliged to switch to bitter, which is stronger than his preferred beverage.”

“I see,” said the judge. “And how much did he consume, before and after this switch? We could enquire of the publican if necessary, but perhaps you could spare us that effort?”

Melliflewes suddenly found the floor most interesting. He was aware that the judge might well adjourn proceedings and haul everyone off to the scene of the incident. Best to own up. “Before the change, eight pints of mild. The position after that is unclear.”

The judge saw the possibility of a little light entertainment. “Eight pints, plus heaven knows how much more,” he exclaimed. “Your client must have a remarkable bladder. I wonder how he retained his intake, if indeed he did.”

This caused prosecuting counsel to examine the pine-clad walls for ten seconds before the judge continued: “You seem to be pregnant with information, Mr Melbrook. Is there something?”

Still dwelling on defending counsel’s comment concerning witnesses, and suspecting that the judge might have a little anecdotal evidence, Melliflewes was distinctly uncomfortable. “Your Honour, my client urinated against the wall of the fish and chip shop, though very briefly. The owner did not wish to make anything of this.”

The judge chuckled. “I appreciate that it would hardly be good for his business if he were to publicise the fact that such things occur at his establishment. Now, as a matter of interest, what does your client do for a living?”

“Unfortunately, he is unemployed. He had a deprived upbringing and his limited education fitted him for nothing more than manual labour. Also, owing to an arthritic condition which affects his joints, he is unable to carry out even such work.”

“An unenviable position,” the judge said. “Still, he seems to have at least one fully functional elbow. Now, I think the affair has been covered comprehensively.” He turned to Latimer. “Anything to add, Mr Ponsonby?”

“Only a plea for clemency, Your Honour. My client is most contrite, but is concerned that any court judgement against him might affect his application for acceptance into the Trappist order.”

The judge sighed and gave the slightest of head-shakes. “As between the tribulations of your client’s present life and what might await him in his apparent vocation, I am not in a position to comment. Only he knows what goes on in his own mind. Now, I am bound to wonder why the shop owner, Mr Yardley, did not intervene on the occasion in question. Can you shed any light on this?”

Latimer bowed. “A little, Your Honour. Mr Yardley is a great believer in self-reliance. He expects his staff to demonstrate this, notwithstanding his presence.”

“Quite a martinet, it seems,” said the judge. “On the one hand, he seems to repress his employees, while on the other, he requires them to cope with whatever happens to them, regardless of his omnipresence. I doubt that I would wish to be employed by such a man. This reminds of the German word ‘Zugzwang’, which means compulsion to move and requires someone to act, notwithstanding that anything done will be detrimental.”

The judge felt that he had now captured his audience. He contemplated the ceiling for a moment before continuing: “This is a depressing matter. We are dealing with a young man who has a spiritual calling, yet finds himself enmeshed the secular affairs which concern all of us. The strain upon him must have been enormous and one can only speculate about his state of . . . a . . . internal combustion on the occasion in question. By some process of concatenation, I find myself thinking of the words of, if I remember rightly, G. B. Shaw, who once observed of a woman of his acquaintance that she had retained the power of speech, while having lost the art of conversation. When I consider the verbal clamour around us, I wonder whether our lives might be better if more people were to take vows of silence.

“As for the plaintiff, he wanted fish and chips and being mindful of his condition, I am bound to doubt that he had any genuine worry about whether he got haddock or cod, as I do not believe that he would have been able to detect much difference. Incidentally, my heart bleeds for a man who was able to amass the resources to buy a large quantity of beer, but not those required to clean his suit. A question of priorities, I assume.”

Seeing the declining heads of counsels, the judge thought it best to avoid further digression. “So, Mr Pickles did what he is accused of. He was in the same position as a parent who, confronted by an impossibly recalcitrant child, resorts to the expedient of physical force. This may not be right, but it terminates the bickering – at least pro tem. Strictly speaking, I should find the defendant guilty. However, considering what he seeks to impose upon himself for the rest of his life, I feel bound to avoid frustrating his desires by an adverse judgement, especially as he was so blatantly goaded. I suspect he will find himself in a similar position many times in the future. The charge is dismissed. Proceedings concluded.”

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11 Aug, 2018
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