SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWENTY-TWO
Administering the law was, Judge Embert Wimple sometimes felt, a tiresome business. If only people would behave in a more civilised manner, there would be far less need for cumbersome legal machinery. Still, one had to adopt a balanced attitude and after all, the disputes referred to him kept the Wimple household in comfort. The wolf was a long way from the door. When musing in this way, the judge usually consoled himself with the words of Cicero, to the effect that people were in bondage to the law in order to be free.
It was January and England’s cricketers were having a torrid time overseas, where they were facing some wily spin bowling and a daunting array of batsmen. Still, the chaps were battling bravely. What a pity that Jim Laker was not available to give the opposition a taste of its own medicine. The judge thought once more of that great test match in 1956, when Australian batsmen were mesmerised in quick succession. Would a bowler would ever again take nineteen wickets in a test and if so, would it be for a mere ninety runs? Those were the days.
Time to steel oneself. There were more serious matters to consider. In particular, the question of Gale versus Frost, a dispute in which Embert Wimple was about to officiate. Shedding his thoughts about leg-breaks and off-drives, the judge amused himself with the thought that this was another meteorological affair. Many years earlier he had tried the case of Breeze versus Hailing and now here he was, confronted by the elements again. It seemed too odd to be true that one judge should get two such cases in a lifetime, but fate has a way of arranging these things. If he worked on long enough, Embert Wimple thought, he might one day preside in the matter Storm versus Fogg. No, that was too fanciful.
Apart from failing to note the charge – an omission which was to prove unimportant – his honour acquainted himself with what he considered necessary, then took his place, He was pleased to note that the prosecution was in the hands of that doughty campaigner, Daniel Pettigrew, the defence being represented by the mettlesome young Cedric Thistle. The judge peered at Pettigrew cleared his throat and began. “Very well, Mr Peterson, it’s showtime.” Judge Wimple liked to put in the odd modernism, lest it be thought that he was out of touch.
Pettigrew bowed. “May it please Your Honour, we are concerned here with a difference between my client, Mr Gale and the defendant, Mr Frost.”
“Yes, of course we are,” snapped the judge. “What is the nature of that difference?”
Pettigrew was taken aback. Clearly, despite his early flash of humour, his honour was a little querulous this morning, which was out of character. In fact the reason was that he had had one of his rare disappointments, in that his breakfast porridge had come out a little too thin for his liking. More like gruel, really. His comment to the effect that the days of Oliver Twist were surely long gone had been given short shrift by the redoubtable Mrs Wimple, who wished to get to on with her real work and had no intention of being distracted by culinary trivia.
“Beg pardon, Your Honour,” said prosecuting counsel. “The dispute arose on the eighteenth of September last, at the workplace shared by the litigants, who follow the same occupation.”
“I see. What is that occupation?”
“They are both trainee astronauts, Your Honour.”
“Indeed? I did not know we had a space programme. I hope we shall not be required to exercise extraterrestrial justice. The earthly variety is troublesome enough.”
Pettigrew allowed himself a smile. Perhaps the old lad had switched back to mellow mode. “No, Your Honour, we are spared any such problems. The incident took place in a variable-gravity simulator at a research centre only five miles from here and indisputably earthbound. As to any official ambitions the country may or may not have, I am not competent to comment. In this case, the project is a private one, funded by a local businessman, who has an avid interest in interplanetary travel. He is what one might call a visionary.”
“I understand,” said the judge. “He must be a man of some means. I believe such enterprises are costly.”
Pettigrew had been hoping for a chance to explain. “The sponsor exercised some ingenuity On hearing that a local vinegar brewery was going out of business, he bought one of the large vats used in the process. He had this mounted on an electrically powered turntable and had the apparatus fitted with universal joints, so that users might get some of the effect of gravitational forces, plus a certain degree of disorientation. The gentleman also undertook responsibility for training of a group of unemployed people, including the litigants here.”
The judge nodded. “Most intriguing. I have some interest in these matters myself, but I have never heard of this development.”
“The man concerned does not encourage publicity, Your Honour. Now, the two parties were preparing for a mock space-walk when an argument took place, which led to an exchange of blows. In the encounter, the defendant laid hands on a knife, with which he inflicted damage in the form of a three-inch cut to my client’s space suit. Had the parties been in orbit, the consequences would have been fatal. Even as it was, they were not inconsiderable.”
The judge was now all ears. “Very strange,” he said. “I was under the impression that the selection of prospective astronauts took into account their equanimity, among other things.”
Pettigrew inclined his head. “Indeed it does, but these men are after all human and not divorced from the feelings common to most of us. In addition to the physical attack, the defendant made derogatory comments about my client’s wife, expressing specific views concerning her moral inclinations.”
“Dear me,” said the judge. “Are we to be permitted to learn the precise nature of those remarks?” – he had no objection to a whiff of the salacious.
Pettigrew was uncomfortable. “I cannot quote verbatim, Your Honour,” he replied, “but the terms ‘alley cat’ and ‘strumpet’ were used. I believe we can all imagine the position.”
“Oh, can we?” said the judge. “Well, it is not our job here to imagine, but for the moment I will accept your remarks. Is that all?”
“Almost. My client wishes to add that the defendant had been querulous on the day in question and was argumentative from the moment he came through the door that morning.”
If Pettigrew had entertained any notion of augmenting his remarks, he was halted by a restraining hand held up by the judge, whose impish smile boded embarrassment to come. “One moment. I realise that we are dealing with matters that have connotations beyond the mundane round. Am I now to understand that we are invoking the supernatural?”
“Beg pardon, Your Honour. I don’t understand.”
“You referred to the defendant as having come through the door. I have heard of people coming into a room by a door, or at a door, or through a doorway but I have never before encountered a situation in which someone entered through a door. This seems to argue ghostly qualities, does it not?”
“I stand corrected, Your Honour. The expression is widely accepted, even by prominent writers.”
“Perhaps. It was also long accepted by many that the Earth was flat. That did not make the view correct. However, I will not labour the point.” He turned his attention to defending counsel. “Now, Mr Trowbridge, what have you to say?”
Cedric Thistle took a moment to realise that it was his turn, but being a man of nimble mentality, he quickly rose to the occasion. “May it please Your Honour,” he said, “we have no quarrel with the basic substance of the prosecution’s remarks, in that my client did what the plaintiff claims he did. However, he was provoked. There were high words, but not all on one side. The prosecution referred to my client’s remarks and Mr Frost does not deny having made them. However, he did so in response to extremely offensive comments made by the plaintiff, concerning Mr Frost and his whole family, specifically commenting on their allegedly short journey from what he referred to as our common arboreal ancestry. I will refrain from reciting details, but there was more in the same vein, much of which I consider unrepeatable here. Furthermore, my client exerted himself to make restitution. Among other things, he offered to pay for repairs to the damaged spacesuit. The proposal was spurned.”
“I see,” said the judge. “I note your delicacy in sparing us anything that might give rise to blushes. However, it seems to me that, as the two parties are about the same size, Mr Frost might have suggested an exchange of spacesuits.”
“That idea does not seem to have occurred to either of them, Your Honour.”
The judge leapt in. “Most disturbing. Having already established that the emotional state of both men was unbalanced, we now learn that their presence of mind left something to be desired. I fear for our future in this matter of space travel. Now, what other reparations did Mr Frost suggest?”
“Positive ones, Your Honour. As an immediate gesture, he proffered the plaintiff a roll of adhesive tape. He further indicated that he knew a tailor in the city, who could have repaired the damage.”
“Did he really?” said Judge Wimple. “We seem to be entering abstruse fields. I am under the possibly erroneous impression that space suits are high-technology garments. Are you saying that they can be reinstated to full functionality by needle and thread, or something similar?”
“Yes, Your Honour,” said Thistle. “Such is our contention.”
“But what about the proposed space-walk? Would there not have been problems?”
“We are not able to say, one way or the other. However, it is not unknown for astronauts to get into difficulties and be rescued by commensurately mundane activity, including the use of ordinary spanners and pens.”
“A good point, Mr Trevellian,” said the judge. “However, we have not yet covered the matter of ultimate responsibility. I find it difficult to believe that in this day and age, such people as the litigants here are accountable for the state of their protective clothing. Surely, there must be technicians involved in this kind of undertaking. Can anyone enlighten me?”
Pettigrew coughed his way to the fore. “Your Honour, we are confronted here, as frequently elsewhere, with the problem of limited resources. It is true that such incidents as this would formerly have been handled by technical staff. However, the current position is that there is resistance all round, both public and private, to requests for continued funding for projects from which no short-term benefit is perceived. The businessman concerned is not entirely immune to this.”
“Hardly surprising,” said the judge. “I mean, when this space thing started, we were told that our lives were to be transformed. For example we would soon be able to stop worrying about accommodation, as there would be tinfoil suits available to all of us, offering complete protection from the weather. Yet here we are, with no such advances. We seem to have reached the position in which we could have pens which work upside-down and under water. Now, as I do not write in an inverted position, still less sub aqua, I have never had any requirement for such a blessing, and I imagine this is true of most people. However, I fear I interrupted you, Mr Galloway. Please continue.”
“Thank you. I was about to say that the situation is analogous to that which pertained in the days of national service, which Your Honour will doubtless recall. In those times, conscripts to the armed forces were given their initial clothing, but were required to keep it in good condition – in some cases by darning and sewing. As a result of budgetary constraints, this is what is now required of our would-be astronauts. In a way, it could be said that we have gone full circle.”
The judge nodded. “Yes,” he said, “I grasp the comparison, and a fair one it is, too. However, there are points which we cannot clarify by sitting here. It seems to me that we are in need of the genius loci. I feel that I cannot decide without taking in the full essence of the matter, so I believe we may need a reconstruction of the events. It would be helpful if we were to arrange a visit to the simulator in question.” The judge knew exactly what he was doing. He also guessed what effect his comments would have. And they did.
Both counsels were aghast, Pettigrew being the first to recover. “Your Honour,” he said, goggling, “I fear that would be difficult. The installation is extremely costly to maintain and is reserved for long periods in advance of any proposed use. It is unique.”
“I am not surprised,” said the Judge. “Especially now that Mr Heath Robinson is longer with us. Do you concur with the prosecution, Mr Enfield?”
Thistle’s bow was the epitome of obsequiousness. “Indeed I do, Your Honour. My learned colleague has taken the very words from my mouth. The expenditure would be astronomical.”
“Or perhaps astronautical,” the judge replied. “However, we have come to a pretty pass here. In circumstances such as these, it is not uncommon for all parties concerned, including juries where applicable, to visit the scene of an alleged wrongdoing, in order to establish the facts. Am I to take it that justice is to be frustrated on grounds of cost or time?
“No, Your Honour,” replied Pettigrew glumly.
Thistle was equally deflated. “Certainly not, Your Honour.”
“Very well,” said the judge. “Now, there seems to be general agreement that in addition to the time factor, the expenses involved in proceeding further would be great and I hardly need say that they would devolve upon the loser. This seems to be an appropriate moment for us to recess briefly. I shall return to my chambers and leave you to reflect on the position. We shall reconvene in fifteen minutes.”
Judge Wimple spent the following quarter-hour trying vainly to get news of England’s progress in the current test match. On returning to the courtroom, he found both parties in sombre mood. They had agreed that in view of the likely high costs and the uncertain outcome, no good purpose would be served by prolonging the action.
“Very commendable,” said the judge. “I applaud the pragmatic attitude of both sides. Proceedings concluded.” With a final withering look at the two barristers, he added: “Solomon had it easier.”
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