Was it only last month I was predicting warmer winters? I spent Boxing Day in my car sliding off the road driving to a Welsh village with a two hour delay before we arrived at our holiday hotel 20 minutes after the last moment for a hot meal.
I had been determined to avoid East Anglia this year. Last year’s jaunt involved bumping into a member of chambers and making a tasteless joke about the late Judge Claude Allerick before being told he had been murdered. I am now defending the alleged killer.
The hotel seemed pleasant on the internet. In reality it was a ramshackle hovel. Shown to our room by an apparent employee with less than no interest, I started to form the distinct impression that we might be the only people staying there. Food, like staff, being absent, we consumed the complimentary sherry, peanuts and biscuits and shivered through the night. By morning, my stomach was rumbling loudly enough to attract any antacid salesman and I was profoundly hungry. I descended alone to the very small breakfast room to find I was not in fact the only guest breakfasting – indeed, there were three of us, myself and an elderly couple.
I am normally a tolerant man, but, whilst the lady seemed innocuous enough, her husband was a most instantaneously irritating person. He had an appallingly fruity voice which reminded me of a cake advertisement of some years ago which commented on their “exceedingly good” quality and also of something I could not place. When his wife announced that her cold had returned, unsurprisingly given the overall temperature inside, instead of nodding, grunting or otherwise expressing himself as succinctly as is appropriate to that time in the morning, he replied: “indeed it has; it has indeed.” I decided he must be a retired actor who had not distinguished himself in some local repertory company.
Then came the breakfast menu. The proprietor, unseen throughout, had that absurd affectation of telling you unnecessary details about the food his chef was subsequently to prove unable to cook. So, not sausages, but “delicious fresh sausages from Mr Ellis”, who was doubtless the local butcher. This attracted Noel Coward’s attention and when his arrived, he commented to the girl in sweatshirt and jeans banging his plate down in front of him: “ah, Mr Ellis’ sausages. A treat in store.” My stomach knotted. She adopted the house-style of ignoring him.
There were three windows on the south side of the room. Everything that came by them was grist to his mill. It was obvious that the hotel swelled its coffers by running some kind of stables and general menagerie for the locals. He seemed to find it necessary to identify each passing object in his elongated, fruity tones at intervals of under five minutes: “Kittie…horsey…a girl with a pony…Red Setter, silly boy…Collie (he became quite excited at this point)…dogs playing, what ho!…chickens – eggs or the oven?…donkey for a sixpenny ride”. My seating position meant that I saw them before he did. The tension of waiting for his comments was unbearable. It gave even the new law of provocation real meaning for me.
Eventually, and abandoning my scrambled eggs, I marched out of the room. “Good morning to you,” he said “and compliments of the season.” I muttered something back through clenched teeth. “Allow me to introduce myself and my good lady to you, Percival Ellis and Mrs Ellis.” I gave a little bow. Was this perhaps the sausage family? “William Byfield,” I replied. “Byfield the brief?” he said, in a ridiculously theatrical voice. “You don’t remember me, I fear. Judge Ellis …retired three years ago. You defended a very guilty man in front of me not far from here on a charge of arson with intent and bamboozled the jury into letting him ’awf.” He rambled on until I could get away. I ran upstairs, woke Sleeping Beauty, packed in six minutes and fled out of the front door throwing the requisite money at an uninterested receptionist. In the car, I answered all the questions by pressing “Home” on the SatNav.
Forget all the seasonal garbage. I felt positively nerve-wracked until we regained London. I could have kissed its citizens, even members of chambers. To hell with slashed fees, the BSB, higher taxes, ProcureCo, consultations, HM Government, and my client in the Claude Allerick trial! In the frozen countryside, there lurks worse.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.