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2: Mendelism in the County Court

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Author Topic: 2: Mendelism in the County Court  (Read 57 times)
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« on: April 20, 2023, 12:17:54 pm »

DIDFORD, or to give it its full name Didford Parva---Didford Magna being a minute and forgotten village farther up the valley---is a small market town, the shopping and business centre of the district in which Yewbury lies. It is the centre also of such judicial business as the neighbourhood provides. The felonies and misdemeanours of the inhabitants are normally disposed of at a weekly session of the local justices, and their civil disputes are barely sufficient to justify a visit from the County Court Judge once a month. The newly appointed deputy, as he took his seat in the shabby courtroom, felt that he was being given an easy initiation into the mysteries of judging. The list of cases for hearing was short, and besides the half-dozen or so solicitors at the table there were not more than twenty people present.

"Judgment summonses," snapped the clerk from below the bench. "Spokes against Grantley."

He turned and thrust a blue paper on to the judge's desk, a very stout, elderly man who looked like a tramp waddled into the witness-box, and the business of the day had begun almost before Pettigrew was aware of it.

A hatchet-faced solicitor rose.

"For the creditor, your honour. Mr. Grantley, you owe five hundred and nineteen pounds. How can you pay?"

"Pound a month?" said Mr. Grantley calmly.

"How much?" gasped Pettigrew.

Evidently taking the deputy to be hard of hearing, the creditor's representative thundered: "He offers a pound a month. Will your honour make it thirty shillings?"

"Yes, if you like," said Pettigrew feebly.

The stout man nodded curtly and waddled slowly out of court. Everybody seemed perfectly satisfied. Pettigrew stared after him, wondering by what hidden magic he had ever attracted credit for £519. Mr. Grantley, he reflected, was now sixty, if a day. How old would he be by the time the debt was finally settled at this generous rate? He was trying to work it out in his head when he was aware that the blue paper had disappeared and another taken its place.

"Ingleson against Wates," said the clerk.

The hatchet-faced solicitor was on his feet again.

"The debtor isn't here, your honour. Adjourn to the next court for the usual letter to be sent?"

"By all means," said Pettigrew. Really, this job was easy. He must remember to ask the clerk what the usual letter was.

Three or four more debtors succeeded one another rapidly in the box. They all appeared to owe sums immensely disproportionate to their earnings, none had less than four young children to support and their debts were mainly in respect of such bare necessities of life as television sets and suites of dining-room furniture. Their creditors---or at least the creditors' legal representatives---gladly accepted offers which promised them repayment in an average period of twenty-five years, provided the instalments were maintained.

"Why I've wasted time and energy paying bills all my life," mused Pettigrew, "I simply can't imagine." He directed another usual letter to be sent, and then sat up in interest as a familiar name was called.

"Meal and Malt Limited against Wendon."

The blue paper recorded a judgment with costs amounting to £25 12s. 8d.

"Mr. Wendon, how can you pay this debt?"

Mr. Wendon did not offer a pound, or any other sum, a month. Instead, he turned a pair of candid blue eyes towards the bench, and observed:

"The fact is, your honour, the meal was rotten bad. Positively mouldy."

"That isn't the point," interjected the solicitor---not the hatchet-faced one this time, but the florid one with a moustache, who appeared to share with the other the major part of this unrewarding practice. "Not the point at all. You have a judgment against you----"

"I nearly lost three young gilts over it," went on Mr. Wendon. "Had to call in the vet. I still owe him a fiver for the job."

It was easy to believe, hearing him speak, that Horace Wendon had been at Harrow with Lady Furlong's nephew. In appearance, however, he scarcely did credit to that, or any other, public school. He was perhaps a little better dressed than Mr. Grantley, but only a very little, and he was considerably dirtier. A faint odour of pig manure was wafted from the witness-box. The face was not without distinction, but bore the unmistakable expression of a man with a grievance---a grievance which he was resigned never to see remedied.

"Just let me get this clear," said Pettigrew. "I gather that this bill is for meal supplied to you----"

"If you can call it meal---yes."

"---which you didn't pay for."

"Well, naturally not. I mean, would you?"

"Never mind about me for the moment. You were sued for the debt?"

"That's right."

"Did you tell the judge that the meal was bad?"

"Tell the judge? No, I wasn't there. I had a sow due to farrow that day, I think. Anyhow, I didn't turn up."

"And you didn't think it worth while to consult a solicitor about the business?"

"Solicitor?" Mr. Wendon's face was a study in contempt. "No thanks. I've had some."

"Then I'm afraid you'll have to pay."

"If you say so," said Mr. Wendon wearily. He seemed to abandon the contest almost with relief, as though the effort of protesting against ill usage was too much for him. "But you ought to have seen that meal," he added.

"And now, Mr. Wendon," said the florid solicitor, who had been champing, metaphorically at the bit and literally at his moustache, during this colloquy, "how can you pay this debt?"

"Well, that's just the point, isn't it? I mean, how?"

"You're a farmer, aren't you?"

"I prefer to say smallholder, myself."

"Married?"

"Good Lord, no."

"What's your rent?"

"Don't pay any."

"You own your place?"

"Sort of. There's a mortgage on it, of course."

"Got a bank account?"

"Overdrawn."

"Any other debts?"

"Nothing to speak of. There's the vet., of course."

"Any money owing to you?"

There was a perceptible pause before this question was answered.

"Yes, there is."

"How much?"

"Eight thousand three hundred and fourteen pounds."

Wendon had the figures pat, like a child repeating a lesson. Watching him, Pettigrew realized that the grievance which he had divined at first sight of the man had come to the surface. He longed to know the story behind it, but the pace was too hot to enquire.

"And when do you expect to be paid?"

Wendon's look of resignation deepened. "Never," he said.

"Then don't waste his honour's time. What is your monthly profit, do you think? . . . Do you pay income-tax? . . . Do you. . . ? Have you. . . ?"

At long last, after a contest which reminded Pettigrew of a pertinacious but clumsy terrier chasing an extremely elusive rat, Mr. Wendon was driven to admit that he could afford to pay two pounds a month. His departure marked the end of the judgment summonses, and the actions down for trial then began.

The present condition of the inhabitants of Markshire, as reflected in the business of the County Courts, consists, like that of the rest of the United Kingdom, in too many people chasing after too few houses. Nowadays, nobody who has once admitted anyone else into his home on any terms whatever can hope to get him or her out again without going to court about it. Pettigrew was not in the least surprised to find that all the cases in his list were of the type known to the trade as "possession cases". The first batch were simple enough, from the legal point of view, since the hapless defendants were merely holding on in the hope that once an order for eviction was made against them somebody, somewhere, somehow, would find them a place to go to. In rapid succession Pettigrew dealt with the case of the cowman's widow with a long string of children who must make way for her husband's successor if the business of the farm was to be carried on; of the young married couple who had disastrously overstayed their welcome in the tiny, overcrowded cottage of the husband's parents; of the butler in the big house whose employer's death had left him bewildered and unprotected in a world that did not want butlers and proposed to turn the big house into an institution for mental defectives. These preliminaries over---at what cost in anxiety and suffering Pettigrew did not care to think---the decks were cleared for the main work of the day, the seriously contested actions.

"A straightforward hardship case, your honour," said the plaintiff's advocate cheerfully when the first of these cases was called. Pettigrew groaned within himself. Paragraph (h) of the First Schedule to the Act---he knew it by heart already. This was one of those desperate cases in which he, Pettigrew, he and no other, would have to decide whether greater hardship would be inflicted on the tenant by turning him out or on the landlord by keeping him out of a house. He expected the worst, and the worst was duly forthcoming. The case for the landlord was positively heartrending. So atrocious was the hardship under which he and his family were labouring that Pettigrew caught himself wondering how any tenant could have the effrontery to resist such an overwhelming claim. He did not wonder long. The defendant's solicitor, when his turn came, produced evidence of the appalling cataract of misfortune which would descend upon his clients if they lost their foothold in the coveted dwelling (two sitting-rooms, two bedrooms and boxroom, scullery and outside W.C.). It was unthinkable that they should be evicted---but Pettigrew was compelled to think of it.

Before the case was over six doctor's certificates lay on his desk. Four testified to the dangerous ailments under which both parties and their respective wives were labouring. The other two announced the imminent arrival of new members in each of the two families. Whichever side was successful, the two bedrooms and boxroom would have to accommodate at least twice as many people as they had been designed for. Whichever lost would presumably have to camp out on Didbury Down. Such, social historians of the future please note, were the housing conditions of Markshire in the year of grace 1952.

He decided the case somehow---in whose favour he did not afterwards care to think. He only knew that he had not done justice, simply because justice was not possible in the circumstances---unless it is just to punish blameless people for living in a time and at a place where there is no room for them. Then he went out to lunch, reflecting guiltily on his own snug quarters, with a dressing-room to himself and a spare room for the chance visitor.

"Todman v. Pink" headed the list for the afternoon's work. Todman was represented by the hatchet-faced man of law, whose name, somewhat unexpectedly, proved to be Lovely. Pink appeared in person. It was not until the defendant came forward in answer to the summons that Pettigrew, preoccupied as he was with the prospect of another "hardship case," realized that this must be the good, worthy, useful person of whom Lady Furlong had spoken. He looked at her with interest. He was surprised to note that she was a comparatively young woman, not more than forty, at most. In view of Lady Furlong's adjectives he had expected to see someone on the wrong side of fifty, though why such qualities should necessarily belong to middle age it would be hard to say. She was not particularly good-looking, and her dress, to Pettigrew's inexpert eye, in no way differed from that of the ordinary, hard-working village woman. But there was something about her appearance that compelled attention. Casting about for a definition, Pettigrew found himself hitting on the word "dignity". It was the dignity, not of self-assurance or conceit---at the moment Mrs. Pink looked extremely nervous and unassuming---but of unassailable integrity. "Good, worthy, useful," he thought. "I am sure she is all that---but especially good."

It was time to listen to Mr. Lovely. He seemed extremely confident of his case, and there appeared to be every reason for his confidence. His client, Mr. Jesse Todman, whom Pettigrew already knew by sight as the proprietor of Yewbury's only garage and petrol station, desired possession of his cottage for his daughter and son-in-law, recently married, with a child on the way, and now living in the usual circumstances of squalor in one room over Mr. Todman's garage.

"I don't expect your honour will find very much difficulty in this case," said Mr. Lovely. "Mrs. Pink is a widow, I understand, without dependants, living by herself, and occupying this four-roomed house. She should have no difficulty in finding somewhere sufficient for her simple needs. On the other hand, here is this young couple anxious to make a home of their own, and, of course, living in conditions in which I am sure your honour will feel it would be most undesirable to bring up a young family. My client is not without sympathy for Mrs. Pink, but . . ."

When Mr. Todman came into the witness-box he very successfully disguised the sympathy for his tenant with which Mr. Lovely had so generously credited him. He was a small, wiry man with bright yellow hair and hard, grey eyes. Yes, he owned the cottage---had inherited it from his father just after Mrs. Pink went in---at a rent, he added gratuitously, that showed him no profit, after paying for the repairs the sanitary man had made him do. He had been asking her to go ever since. Now his daughter's husband had come out of the army, there wasn't room for them all in his house, and that, his expression said plainly, was that.

Pettigrew turned to Mrs. Pink.

"Would you like to ask Mr. Todman any questions?" he said.

"No, thank you, sir."

For good measure, Mr. Lovely went on to call Mrs. Todman, a tall, lymphatic blonde who just couldn't manage with a married daughter in the house, and as for a baby---well, there simply wouldn't be room to turn round with nappies all over the place, would there? There being once more no questions from Mrs. Pink, she was succeeded immediately in the box by her daughter.

The daughter, named, according to modern Markshire fashion, Marlene Deirdre Banks, was only too plainly an expectant mother. Regarding her, Pettigrew could only hope that, in case of need, the court bailiff, a competent looking man and an obvious ex-policeman, would prove to have added a course in midwifery to his other qualifications. But she survived her brief appearance as a witness without disaster and left Pettigrew with a comparatively agreeable impression of a pair of very bright brown eyes and a shock of untidy dark hair.

Marlene's evidence concluded the plaintiff's case. Pettigrew turned to Mrs. Pink.

"Now I should like to hear what you have to say," he said as kindly as he could.

He knew only too well what she was going to say, and his heart smote him as he looked at that quiet, patient face. Mrs. Pink had nowhere to go. Obviously not. Nobody had nowadays. But what would that avail her against Marlene's pregnancy and the patent impossibility of rearing her child in the shanty over her father's garage? The case was as good as decided already and it was only a question of how long he could allow her, in the beautifully vague phrase, "to make other arrangements". How he would ever dare to face Lady Furlong after this he did not care to think.

"I am sorry to be such a trouble to everybody," said Mrs. Pink. "But the fact is, I have nowhere to go. It is very difficult to find anywhere to live in Yewbury," she added.

"Quite," said Pettigrew encouragingly, but no further words came. Mrs. Pink had put her defence in the fewest possible words.

And there the cause of Todman v. Pink would have ended, had not Mr. Lovely, anxious to justify his fee, been inspired to cross-examine.

"You've got this house all to yourself, haven't you?" he said accusingly. "A four-roomed house!" His tone of voice somehow gave the cottage the amplitude of a Blenheim Palace. "You don't want all that space, surely?"

"Oh, but I do---really I do."

"Why can't you go and live in a furnished room somewhere?"

"That wouldn't really be possible, I'm afraid. I have so many things to look after."

"Things? You could store your furniture, I suppose?"

"It isn't only the furniture," Mrs. Pink explained gently. "There are all my papers---I do so much work. It wouldn't really be suitable in a furnished room."

Pettigrew had a sudden vision of a village landlady prying into the confidential correspondence of the Moral Welfare Association. No, it would not be suitable. Well, Lady Furlong would have to find another secretary, that was all. A pity, but----

Mr. Lovely was still developing his theme.

"A widow without encumbrances---that's you, Mrs. Pink, isn't it?" Receiving no reply, he went on, "You have nobody else to share this four-roomed house with, have you?"

"No. That is---nobody, now." The last word was spoken hardly above a whisper.

"Very well. Now have you seriously considered finding other accommodation, madam? Have you made any enquiries as to the possibility of purchasing a residence?"

(In the County Court, Pettigrew reflected, we always purchase residences. We leave it to lesser breeds without the law to buy houses.)

"I could not possibly afford it."

"Are you sure, madam? You can get very easy terms from building societies nowadays. You have enjoyed a very low rent for some years. Have you no savings?"

"Very small ones."

"Just how much money have you? What is your income?"

A look of acute distress passed over Mrs. Pink's face.

This really isn't fair, thought Pettigrew. She must feel as if she were being undressed in public.

"Perhaps you would prefer to write it down," he suggested.

"Thank you, sir." Mrs. Pink was handed pencil and paper, and after a little anxious calculation wrote down two figures, representing capital and income respectively. Pettigrew looked at them and then handed the paper down to Mr. Lovely. As he had expected, they were pitifully small.

"And that is all you have?" Mr. Lovely persisted.

"That is all the money in the world at my disposition."

She dropped the stilted words into the court like pebbles into a calm pool, wrapping her strange dignity round her like a cloak.

Mr. Lovely was off on another tack.

"There is no particular reason why you should live in Yewbury, is there?" he asked. "You could go to any other part of Markshire equally well---to any other part of England, for the matter of that?"

Then for the first time Mrs. Pink became vocal, almost eloquent. "That is perfectly true, in a sense, I suppose," she said. "I am attached to my work in Yewbury, of course, but I expect I could find myself useful things to do wherever I lived. I have always made myself useful wherever I was, thank God. It isn't only that, sir. I am very fond of Yewbury, you see. I was born there. I lived there until I went away to get married. That's why I came back when---when I was left alone." For a moment she seemed to have forgotten where she was. She went on speaking, half to Pettigrew, half to herself, borne on a stream of childhood memories. "My father was the organist in Yewbury Church. He used to let me sit in the organ loft with him when I was a little girl. I loved it. I don't suppose he was a very good performer, really, but I thought his playing the most wonderful thing in the world." She looked round, past Mr. Lovely to the bench behind him where the plaintiff and his family were sitting. "He played at your wedding, Mr. Todman," she said. "Do you remember? It's a long time ago, but I can see it all as plain as plain. There were four bridesmaids in blue, and Mrs. Potts wore pink. She was a lovely bride, for all we thought her a little tall for you . . ."

Really, the deputy judge felt, this was all most irregular. Jefferson would have stopped her long ago. He cleared his throat to intervene, but Mrs. Pink had stopped of her own accord. She was now dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. Mr. Lovely, shrugging his shoulders, sat down and began to tie up his papers. Quite clearly, the case was over. Pettigrew drew breath to announce his decision.

It was at this precise moment that Pettigrew felt rising strongly within him a suspicion that things were not altogether what they seemed. He paused, wrinkling his nose like a dog sniffing at a faint, elusive scent. There was something odd about this apparently simple little case, if he could only put his finger on it. Something he had casually observed during the hearing and not properly attended to at the time. That and something else Mrs. Pink had let fall in her rambling remarks. He looked round the silent court in search of inspiration. His eye lit on the Todmans, sitting together, with Marlene's tousled brown wig close against her mother's shoulder. A vague memory of a textbook on Mendelism came to him, and the two ideas suddenly coalesced in his mind and ran together like raindrops on a window-pane.

"I'd like Mr. Todman to come back into the witness-box," he said.

Surprised and annoyed, Mr. Todman came forward once more.

"Just two questions," said Pettigrew. "Was your wife a widow when you married her?"

"That's right."

"Is Mrs. Banks your daughter, or the child of the earlier marriage?"

"My Marlene," said Mr. Todman emphatically, "has never known any other father but me."

"Quite. But that's not exactly——"

"I gave her my home. I gave her my name. That was twenty-two years ago. She was a baby then, and twelve months old. What more could a man do?"

Pettigrew was reading yet once again the familiar words of Paragraph (h) of the First Schedule. They were as he had thought.

"You did not adopt her legally?"

"No."

Pettigrew looked at Mr. Lovely. Mr. Lovely rose to his feet. He had the expression of a boxer coming out of his corner in the certain knowledge that he is going to be knocked out in the next few moments.

"Can you get round this difficulty?" Pettigrew asked him. "The Act states specifically that the house must be required by the landlord as a residence for himself or any son or daughter of his. I see no mention of stepdaughters."

Mr. Lovely was too good a lawyer to waste time arguing an impossible proposition. He put up only a token resistance and admitted defeat. He was, naturally, concerned to point out that he had conducted the case upon the footing that Mrs. Banks was in fact Mr. Todman's daughter. Pettigrew, equally naturally, accepted his assurance, while privately wondering that a man of his obvious intelligence should not have known that by the laws of genetics two blondes do not make a brown. He had already conveniently forgotten that he would have overlooked the fact himself if Mrs. Pink had not given him the hint.

"There will be judgment for the defendant," he said. He felt the lawyer's satisfaction at arriving at an unassailable decision on a plain point of law, which, like the Order of the Garter, had no damned merit about it.

---

None the less, when, half an hour later, he was on his way home he felt on reflection that there was still something unsatisfactory about the odd little drama that had been played out before him. It is seldom that any judge really gets to the bottom of a case. The well of truth is usually too deep for the merely judicial plumb-line. Pettigrew was morally certain that he had not reached the bottom of this one. That by itself would not have worried him. What he found really disturbing was his conviction that during the course of the proceedings Mrs. Pink had more than once---not lied exactly, but paltered with the truth. And since Mrs. Pink had impressed him as a woman of exceptionally high character, it left him puzzled, and even a little distressed on her account.

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