This year we decided to get away from the festivities. I had a lingering sense of guilt that I was letting down family and friends. However, that was somewhat ameliorated by the clear tone of relief in their voices as they told me how sorry they would be not to see us. We opted for Scotland as I have spent several happy Christmases there: including the one where my oldest friend at the Bar invited me to a country retreat near Loch Lomond. Shortly after midnight there was a knock on the door and a young Scotsman offered us some whisky. Sadly, my friend thought the gift was the entire bottle instead of just a ‘nip’, and, thanking him profusely, took it off him and shut the door. It was not until the following day that the confusion was sorted out.
We were at a hotel this year. After a hot bath and an exploration of the free items in my bedroom, including a small decanter of a rather vicious cherry gin, I came downstairs for a look around the hotel. Walking down a rather narrow corridor with graphic paintings of animals being slaughtered in a variety of country ways, I heard a voice coming from a room bemoaning outrages of modern life. I went through various stages of comprehension: it couldn’t be, could it? It wasn’t him surely? How would he be here? It sounded like him. It sounded really like him. It must be him. It was.
And so, by the time I reached the room in question, which unsurprisingly was the cocktail bar, it came as no real surprise to see Paddy Corkhill sitting with several elderly male friends. I had imagined myself immune from bumping into fellow members of Chambers some 450 miles from the Temple, but apparently not. He spotted me. ‘William, my old friend, so you came here after all.’ I was no wiser, but went over just to be sociable. In fact, I quickly discovered that the friends to whom he was talking were, in fact, simply a group of widowed Americans who happened to be spending Christmas in Scotland.
Paddy then explained that he had seen a printout from the internet on my desk in Chambers containing details of a number of hotels in Scotland, including the one in which we were now both staying. The only chance involved was that both of us had happened to pick the same one. ‘Why didn’t you mention it?’ I asked him. ‘I never thought you were actually going,’ he replied. ‘You’re always printing things out in your room when you are in Chambers. You do nothing else.’ I considered that remark to be exaggerated. ‘It’s a shame,’ I said. ‘If you had told me, we could have all travelled up together. It would have been delightful.’ That last remark also contained some exaggeration, fond of Paddy as I am.
Having established our mutual global positioning Paddy returned to his theme: ‘So there it is, gentlemen, gratitude. As my pupil master said to me all those years ago – “get the fees while they’re still grateful”.’ The Americans seemed duly impressed and another round of bourbon was summoned.
A couple of hours later, Paddy and I dined together beneath some poor beast with huge antlers which had been imported from Canada apparently. My other half upstairs thought a cold was coming on, although, curiously, only after I had mentioned the happy coincidence of Paddy’s presence, and opted for an early night.
The manager appeared and gave me a book of maps covering walks in the area. ‘You said you were wanting something like this, sir.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I’m extremely grateful.’ The word prompted another wave of observations by Paddy. ‘No-one’s really grateful. It’s like when we say “I’m grateful” to a judge. We mean anything but that. And if someone lends you money: how quickly does gratitude turn to obligation and obligation to hate? I don’t think human beings can feel grateful for more than a minute.’
We swilled the claret round our glasses and returned to the venison. ‘For our food, lord, make us truly grateful. You see how they needed to add truly,’ he said and then went on: ‘It’s like those wretched fobs. You’re a nobody now unless you have one of those things round your neck attached to a coloured ribbon to open doors at court or in solicitors’ offices.’ Sitting back in my chair, I could not see immediately the connection with gratitude but knew that somewhere around the fifth brandy, I would.
William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.