Solomon Had It Easier
Chapter 22: Spaced Out
Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius
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.”