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Thinking Thin

Thinking Thin

By Scriptorius


Thinking Thin

The elements had relented. Having for several days done its best to confound the lion and lamb adage, March had given in and was ending placidly, with a high light-grey sky, no wind, no rain, no ice, no snow, and a moderate temperature. Judge Embert Wimple wondered why it couldn’t always be like this – days without any noticeable weather.

His honour was about to deal with his penultimate case. And high time too, was the thought uppermost in his mind. There were other engrossing things to do. Esmeralda, having in short order become not only an accomplished painter, but a teacher in her chosen field, was now often surrounded by acolytes. To her husband’s profound satisfaction, she had expressed relief at having finally consigned to the scrapheap all other artistic ideas. The judge had got the message. Mrs Wimple’s adoption of a new passion late in life – she had never before had any consuming interest – was just what the doctor would have ordered, had she consulted one, which she had not done for at least twenty years. Good for the goose, good for the gander, was his honour’s conclusion.

Wrapped in a comforting cloak of thought about a fresh start after six decades of wallowing in the morass of jurisprudence, Judge Wimple had only the vaguest notion of what awaited him in court. As ever, he was unruffled by this, as he had always been an adept improviser, never failing to astound learned counsels by recovering from a reverie or nap to demonstrate that somehow his subconscious had grasped all that had occurred during his apparent mental absence. Not once in over thirty years on the bench had he been obliged to admit to having lost track of proceedings.

Today’s treat was unusual, in that the litigants were both women and his honour had to think hard to recall his last such case. In his experience, the ladies were generally inclined to avoid the blunt instrument of legal proceedings as a means of resolving their differences. Of course, there had been the recent case involving Mesdames Duckworth and Thompson, so perhaps things were changing. The plaintiff, Susan Chapman, was a middle-aged woman, a little under five feet tall and of average build, with shoulder-length black hair. She wore a black jacket and skirt, a white blouse and black flat-heeled shoes. The defendant, Sharon Hill appeared to be in her early twenties. She had close-cropped blond hair and was about five foot seven and extraordinarily slim, a feature emphasised by a skin-tight red jumper and blue jeans which seemed to have been sprayed onto her slender form. White trainers completed her ensemble. Representing the plaintiff was the almost intimidatingly competent Arabella Bray, appearing for the second time opposite the urbane Rodney Melliflewes. If there were to be any fireworks here, they would, the judge thought, be one-sided. He nodded at Bray. “Very well, Ms Froy. You may turn the ignition key.”

Not having seen ‘The Lady Vanishes’, prosecuting counsel failed to understand the judge’s train of thought, but was not dismayed. “Thank you, Your Honour. There is not much to detain us here. The incident we are addressing occurred at about noon on the fifteenth of December last. The defendant walked into my client’s shop, clearly in a truculent frame of mind. She demanded a beef sandwich. My client said that she had none. Ms Hill expressed some annoyance, then said that she would accept a chicken breast and chips. Again, Mrs Chapman was unable to help. This seemed to raise Ms Hill’s ire. She went on to ask for two further snack items, neither of which Mrs Chapman had available. Finally, Ms Hill said that failing all else, she would accept a slice of pizza. She was again disappointed and flew into a rage, using language which it would inappropriate to repeat here.”

The judge broke in. “Perhaps she was unusually hungry, or possibly trying to get her lunch in limited time? Such circumstances have been known to try the patience of some people. Also, she seems to have requested fairly common things.”

“Superficially a reasonable assessment, Your Honour. However, if the young lady was affected by hunger or time pressure, we submit that she should not have called on my client, who is a florist.”

The judge, who had been known to lay verbal traps for counsels, had walked into that one. His already high estimate of Bray’s skills increased by several notches. “Oh, that certainly puts a different slant on the matter. Mrs Chapman does not sell food at all?”

“No. Only flowers.”

“Extraordinary. No wonder the two found themselves at cross-purposes. Still, such requests as Ms Hill’s are not viewed as strange in some parts of the world. I once spent a little time in the West of Ireland, where an order like the defendant’s would not have raised an eyebrow. Indeed, on one occasion I was speaking to a shopkeeper in a village in County Clare, when a local farmer interrupted us with an order for two pounds of tomatoes, a pair of slippers and a garden gate. The proprietor was not in the least incommoded and supplied the items without showing any surprise.” The judge was about to plough another furrow in the same field, but noticed that Bray, who was not a great fan of his anecdotes, was demonstrating the body language of impatience. “Sorry I distracted you. Please carry on.”

“Thank you. I was about to say that Ms Hill’s behaviour progressed from aggressive language to physical action. She brandished a fist at my client, using her other hand to slap the counter quite violently, causing a pen used by Mrs Chapman to roll from a pad on which it was resting. Ms Hill’s conduct then became even more extraordinary. Evidently noticing that the fountain pen was a high-class item, she seized it and rushed from the shop – or rather to the door, where she tripped over the threshold, falling face-down across the pavement. The pen flew from her grasp into the road, where it was run over and mangled by a passing bus.”

“A number nine, I suppose?” said the judge.

“Your Honour?”

“I was merely thinking that in such tales as this, any bus involved is usually a number nine, although I seem to remember one occasion on which it was a number seventy-three.”

As always, Bray had done her homework. “It happens that the number nine does pass my client’s shop, but only on the half-hour. Several other bus routes run along the same street and the one that caused the damage may have been a number twenty-four, although we cannot be sure. Anyway, it was almost certainly not a number nine.”

The judge smiled. “Ah, foiled again. I had hopes of confirming my preconception, but we must accept what we can get. However, you mustn’t take us along these byways. What happened next.”

“Mrs Chapman hurried outside and summoned the help of two passing pedestrians, who subdued the defendant until her name and address were established. My client, having noted the wreckage of the pen, had begun to think in terms of taking action.”

“Legal proceedings over a fountain pen? Was there something special about the item?”

“Yes. It had great sentimental value to my client. Having belonged to her mother, it was much treasured.”

“I see. But what about the intrinsic value?”

“Nothing identical is made today. The only guide we have is that a short time after the incident, Mrs Chapman noticed something vaguely similar in a flea market. These objects are increasingly sought and the one she saw was priced at fifteen pounds. This cannot begin to compensate my client. In addition, she suffered severe shock from the defendant’s behaviour.”

“Very well, Ms Graves. Now, as that seems to be all from your side,” – the judge had no intention of listening to any more – “we will hear what the defence has to offer. Mr Milestone?”

Fair to middling was Melliflewes’ assessment of that one. “May it please Your Honour, the incident was as described by my learned colleague.” He gave a genial nod to the prosecution, the twinkle in his eyes not being lost upon either the judge or Arabella Bray. “However, as is often the case, we are dealing with extenuating circumstances. Anyone lacking knowledge of the background to this affair would indeed regard my client’s conduct as reprehensible. Therefore, an explanation is appropriate. The position was that, shortly before the occurrence, Ms Hill had lost her job and was in search of further employment.”

The judge had one of his frequent flashes of what he considered precognition, much derided by some of his colleagues who, lacking the required mental equipment, averred that they had no time for ‘such nonsense’. “What work did she do?”

“She was a hairdresser.”

“I see. And how did she come to lose her job?”

“Er . . . she was dismissed, Your Honour.”

The judge nodded. “I don’t wish to pry unnecessarily, but you raised the matter of the background here. Why was she dismissed? If you do not have the details to hand, we could adjourn and make enquiries.”

Had the old fox homed in on the Achilles’ heel? Melliflewes was not sure, but had been impaled more than once on the horns of his honour’s mild questioning and knew that honesty was the best policy. This surely would be the case now, as the judge, having been wrong-footed by Bray, would be even more alert than usual. “She had the misfortune to fall foul of a customer.”

“In what way?”

The game was up. “It seems that my client and the customer had earlier been rivals for the affections of a young man and that the customer’s charms had prevailed. The two ladies were having something of an altercation concerning that affair, when Ms Hill quite inadvertently cut off a large hank of the customer’s hair, causing the lady to have an . . . ah . . .unusual appearance for a time. It was as a result of the customer’s complaint about this that Ms Hill’s employment was terminated.”

“Thank you,” said the judge. “I assume that is not the only point you wish to make?”

“No. I was seeking to indicate my client’s state of mind. The loss of employment was a precursor to Ms Hill’s subsequent actions. During her quest for a new position, she concluded that she was overweight and decided upon an extremely severe slimming regimen. Your Honour will perhaps appreciate that some people taking such courses are at times over-assiduous in following guidelines. When Ms Hill entered the plaintiff’s premises, she had not eaten anything for over two days and was in what can only be called a delirious state. To put it plainly, she did not know what she was doing or saying. She admits to having behaved as described by the prosecution, but submits that she would never have even dreamed of acting in that way, had it not been for the recommendations of the dietary adviser whose ideas she followed. She is most contrite and can only throw herself upon what she hopes will be the understanding of the court. In doing so, she realises that she can offer no restitution commensurate with the loss to the plaintiff.”

The judge had been straying more than somewhat during defending counsel’s remarks, but felt that he had reeled in the thread. “Thank you, Mr Malady. I think that both parties have said enough” – they had said more than enough for his honour’s liking – “and if there is nothing to add, I will make an order.”

There was nothing more from either party, so the judge went on: “I have heard many excuses for unconstitutional conduct, but starvation is new to me. The defendant admits to being at fault, but there are some points of interest. I am much in sympathy with Mrs Chapman, as I once lost two sets of cigarette cards featuring ships and steam trains, both series being irreplaceable. Therefore, I understand the plaintiff’s feelings. However, we cannot fairly assess sentimental value. All we know is that a similar object to that which was lost to Mrs Chapman was recently offered for sale at fifteen pounds. I accept that as the nearest figure we can get. There is also the question of the distress caused to Mrs Chapman by the defendant’s odd behaviour. Notwithstanding the sympathy I have already expressed, I must say that this was hardly a life-blighting matter, causing as it did only a few minutes of harassment, followed by sorrow over the connotations of the loss. It is not as though Mrs Chapman had been crippled or deprived of any of her senses by the incident. In my view, she is quite right, but seeks to make too much of the matter.”

Leaving both sides with something to hope for, the judge paused, glanced at his notes – mainly concerning causality and the speed of light – and continued: “As to the defendant, here again I have some understanding. She was obviously overwrought as a result of her sudden change of lifestyle, self-imposed though it was. My decision is that she should compensate Mrs Chapman in the sum of fifteen pounds and that she should pay a fine of thirty pounds for her transgression. I would also recommend that she should henceforth try to introduce a little food into her diet. Proceedings concluded.”

* * *

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8 Sep, 2018
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