The decision was made. Judge Embert Wimple would retire. He had a little court business outstanding, but would take on no more. Even his iron constitution was being taxed by a combination of age and, increasingly, weather. He was tired of rising early, especially in winter, to do battle with his contemporaries’ aberrant behaviour. There were more important things in life. Specifically, the judge was concerned that he might be leaving it too late to grapple with cosmic matters. It was the technical aspect that troubled him – and for a particular reason.
He had recently read an article concerning the lives of artists and scientists, in which it had been pointed out that the former frequently seemed to be virtually ageless, going from strength to strength, while the latter often burned out early. Admittedly, the article said, there were exceptions, Archimedes being cited as an example. However, it was contended that the boffins usually do their best work before reaching middle age. Einstein had erupted incandescently from about 1905 to 1916, but what he done afterwards? The article did not say, but Judge Wimple had drawn his conclusions. He had also thought of an eminent man in his own line of work, the American Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, who once said: “Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.” Well, Esmeralda Wimple was going well on that basis, a fact not lost upon his honour.
It was late March and the weather was striking a wild note, with a high wind and driving rain, a combination the judge found a match for his mood. However, it was time to get going. What was on the menu today? Goodall versus Short. Embert Wimple was not clear about what awaited him, but wasn’t greatly concerned, that situation being familiar. What of the advocates? Appearing for the prosecution was young Cedric Thistle, who was rapidly gaining a reputation as a two-fisted courtroom scrapper. Defending counsel was Daniel Pettigrew, now surely close to retirement and probably no more interested than strictly necessary. The plaintiff, Colin Goodall, was a slim fellow of about six foot two. The defendant, Victor Short, was a little over average height and heavily-built. Both men were in their thirties. Goodall was casually but tidily dressed, while Short wore a smart pinstriped blue suit. Judge Wimple nodded at Cedric Thistle. “Let us proceed, Mr Gristle.”
A fair effort, that. Prosecuting counsel inflated his chest and drew himself up to his full five foot seven. “Thank you, Your Honour. The incident that brought us here occurred on the twenty-eighth of November last year, at about two-forty in the afternoon. Before describing it, I must comment on my client’s unusual predicament.”
Fearing wordiness, the judge peered at Thistle. “Please be brief,” he said.
“I will try. Mr Goodall is unemployed. He does not own either a car or a bicycle and he cannot afford to travel by public transport.”
“Yes, yes,” said the judge. “That is unfortunate, but not unusual. Please make your point.”
“My apologies, Your Honour. My client assuages what he perceives as his social disadvantages by taking long walks at high speed. He is so accomplished in this way that he finds it difficult to accept that anyone else might exceed his fleetness of foot. He –”
The judge broke in: “You may be surprised to learn that the syndrome is not uncommon. You mean that your client cannot grasp that there may be those who can outpace him. I was once a member of a road harriers’ club, so I know the feeling. One senses oneself to be in competition, even when one is not. You may continue.”
“Thank you. At the time in question, Mr Goodall had been walking in the woods north of here. He emerged from a stand of trees and was heading towards a stile, when he noted the defendant and his family approaching the same spot from the opposite direction. Seeing that he and the Shorts were equidistant from the stile, my client obeyed his instinct and quickened his pace. Unaccountably to him, Mr Short did the same, surging ahead of his companions. In fact, Mr Goodall was convinced that the defendant actually ran a few paces.”
“Cheated, did he?” said the judge.
“One might say that. The two men converged upon the spot, the defendant being a stride ahead. Mr Short sat on the stile, beckoning his party to hurry along. Obviously insisting upon what he saw as his rights, he made no concession to Mr Goodall, but retained possession of the stile until the rest of his party – wife, three children, pushchair and two Labrador dogs – reached the place. My client took issue with this small-minded attitude and words were exchanged. The outcome was that the defendant struck my client on the head with a stick, causing lacerations which required medical attention. Mr Goodall was told that, should he retaliate, the dogs would be set upon him.”
The judge held up a hand to interrupt Thistle’s flow. “It seems to have been an unequal contest. A hefty man armed with a stick and supported by his family and two dogs, against a man with no companions and apparently no weapons. What did your client do?”
“While the defendant’s party nonchalantly passed by, he staunched the bleeding from his wound. Then he followed the Shorts at a discreet distance, noting that the family entered a car some distance away from the stile. By coincidence, my client recognised the car as one he had often seen in the drive of a house in the estate where he lives. From the electoral register, he established the details which enabled him to bring this action. He is entitled to recompense for Mr Short’s brutal assault.”
“Thank you,” said the judge. “Now, you mentioned your client’s psychological condition. I appreciate that may have no bearing upon the incident, but as a matter of interest, has he sought professional attention?”
“Yes, Your Honour. He has undergone aromatherapy and homeopathic treatment.”
“What about the more conventional methods? Not that I am in any way denigrating the ones you mention. In fact I favour them myself.”
“Mr Goodall has no faith in what might be called mainstream practices.”
“I understand. Now, I think it is time for us to hear from the defence. What contribution have you to offer, Mr Peterman?”
Pettigrew was not too pleased that the judge was thinking of a safe-breaker when addressing him, but sailed over the point. “Thank you, Your Honour. There is no question that my client struck the plaintiff as described by the prosecution. He happened to be carrying a stick he had picked up earlier, but used it only to defend himself when the plaintiff threatened him with raised fists. However, that is not the only point we have to make. My client, Mr –”
“Jewels of the baroque,” the judge interjected. He hadn’t meant to speak, but boredom had caused his mind to regress to a tour of Austria he had undertaken decades earlier, after passing his final law examinations. He had been enchanted by the architectural work of Fischer von Erlach, Prandtauer and von Hildebrandt.
“Beg pardon, Your Honour. Baroque?”
The judge needed to think quickly. “Yes. I was thinking of a case similar to this one, tried in Vienna in the nineteen-twenties. If I remember rightly, the courtroom was in one of the city’s many great structures built in that style. Amazing how swiftly the human mind works. However, I note that your client decided to get his retaliation in first. Now, what was your other point?”
It was an adroit recovery, fully appreciated by Pettigrew. “Your Honour’s erudition is as astounding as ever. I was about to say that my client wishes to draw attention to the matter of right of way. His contention is that he reached the stile ahead of the plaintiff and was therefore entitled to, as it were, plant his flag.”
“My goodness,” said the judge. “It would seem that he saw the incident as a replay of the race to the South Pole.”
“Perhaps not quite so dramatic, Your Honour, but there was a principle involved. Mr Short, perceiving himself as head of his party, intended to shepherd his flock over the stile.”
“Victor by name and by nature, apparently.”
“Possibly. However, there can be no doubt that my client was in the right. He was first on the spot and simply thought of his retinue. Furthermore, he did not initiate the hostilities, but merely reacted to the plaintiff’s argumentative attitude.”
“I see,” said the judge. “But what about the dogs? They might have intimidated the plaintiff.”
“They are the most placid of creatures. Had they been ordered to attack – and Mr Short gave no serious thought to such impropriety – they would not have understood the command.”
“But the plaintiff could hardly have known that, could he?”
“Perhaps not. However, the nub of this affair is that in the first place there would have been no trouble if the plaintiff had not behaved aggressively, and in the second place, my client was in situ before Mr Goodall and therefore entitled to exercise his right as he thought fit.”
The judge nodded. “Very well. Your client sees the crux as the plaintiff’s disputatious attitude and Mr Goodall sees it as the defendant’s territorial claim. Have you finished?”
“Thank you, Mr Petrus,” said the judge, who had recently read an article on French wines. “I believe I grasp your point and that of the prosecution. If there is nothing else, I will give a verdict without retiring.” Neither counsel wished to complicate the matter, so the judge brushed aside the blank sheets provided for his notes, pulled forward his glasses, rubbed his jaws with both hands and summed up: “There are times when I fear that we are adopting the litigious mindset of our cousins across the Atlantic, which seems to hold that there are no accidental or incidental occurrences and that everything that happens is someone’s fault. One wonders where this is leading. Only last year I slipped on an icy pavement and bruised a hip. Should I have taken action against the local authority, on account of negligence? I think not. We are speaking of material greed, and once people have embarked on the course of achieving gratification in that way, there is no end to their ambitions.”
That didn’t ring well with the prosecution, but his honour had more to say. “It seems to me that we are dealing here not quite so much with right and wrong as with a battle of egos, and I must say that this depresses me. A little common sense would have sufficed in the circumstances described. Ana active man should surely be able to climb over an average stile in five or ten seconds. By contrast, a party of one man, plus a considerably lagging group of one woman, three young children, a pushchair and two dogs would require possibly two or three minutes to do the same. Now, as to rights, I am reminded of a friend of mine, who was taking driving lessons and tried to beat another driver to a roundabout. His instructor admonished him with the quatrain: ‘Here lies the body of Mr Day, who died maintaining his right of way. He was right, dead right, all along, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong’. We seem to be on similar ground.”
Seeing signs of restlessness in his audience, the judge thought it time to close. “What we have here is a case of a man – Mr Short – who took possession of a place from which he intended to repel Mr Goodall, notwithstanding the fact that a responsible social outlook would have led him to conclude that he should have relinquished his position, to reduce the total time, including waiting, required for both parties to negotiate the stile. One of our great philosophers said many years ago that the greatest good to the greatest number is the measure of social success – or words to that effect. In this case, the optimum solution would have been for Mr Short to give way, regardless of his having been first on the spot. He then compounded his intransigence with violence, no doubt wishing to demonstrate his virility to his family. Nobody was going to get the better of him.”
Bad news for Short, but the judge had not quite finished. “As for Mr Goodall, his condition is, as I have already intimated, not as strange as some might think. It is no more than an aspect of the spirit of competition, transposed from the athletics arena to everyday life. He is young and will get over it – quite quickly if he keeps meeting people like Mr Short. Just as the proverbial hard man will eventually encounter an even harder one, so Mr Goodall will probably come across someone who can outpace him. Be that as it may, I find in his favour on this occasion. I hope Mr Short’s family is proud of his show of assertiveness, as it now leaves him with a court record and a fine of fifty pounds. Perhaps that will induce him to restrain what he clearly sees as his masculinity. Proceedings concluded.”