We have all returned: full of good intentions but somewhat flattened by the holiday excesses. I had a peculiarly exhausting holiday, visiting a Viennese second cousin of my mother. In her late seventies, she is remarkably trim, immaculately dressed, incredibly fit and always thrusting pastries, delightful cured meats on rye bread, all kinds of cheese and inordinate glasses of champagne upon me with a distinct twinkle in her eye. ‘All seez bad people you defend, William. So charming.’ Strangely, these hugely unhealthy canapés are eaten by me with no guilt, because her Germanic accent and general demeanour seem proof against cholesterol, triglycerides and arterial blockage.
Walking into Chambers, I noticed everyone looked as though they too had been at the Viennese Whirls and Käserkrainer Sausage with Kaiser Roll and mustard. I could not see anyone in the clerks’ room. This was partly due to the new modesty guards that I had been persuaded to install at great cost to prevent our delightful clerk Jane from being subject to the unwelcome attentions of juniors (and a couple of elderly Silks, who unwittingly dropped paper clips on the floor) but which had somehow morphed into aerial partitions meaning no member could see any clerk unless he or she sat up very straight indeed. It was also accounted for by the fact that the clerks were all slumped in their seats looking jaded.
Andrew, our senior clerk, composed himself into a somewhat more human shape as I walked through the door. ‘Happy New Year, sir’ he said. I returned the greeting with an attempt at a benevolent feudal smile around the room. ‘All had good Christmases?’ I enquired. This brought a babble of responses, but when Ronnie, who had recently been elevated from junior clerk to fees’ clerk, decided to favour me with a rather lurid account of a New Year’s Eve party he had attended, Andrew cut him short. ‘Never mind about that, Ronnie,’ he said. ‘You get on with those private fee notes for that work Mr Byfield did before Christmas.’ He then rose from his chair and ushered me from the room.
When Andrew is even slightly agitated, his body parts move in a strange way as though he is changing shape. He pulled me into an alcove. ‘Mr Corkhill’s in, sir.’ Paddy Corkhill is a very old friend of mine, even going as far as to save me once from an attempted coup d’état, although his preferred method, reminding Chambers that awful as I was there were far worse out there than I, struck me as unnecessarily brutal. ‘He’s upstairs.’ Since a guided radar system was not one of the things for which we paid Andrew a handsome salary plus commission, I may have looked puzzled. ‘He’s drunk, sir.’ I again looked a little perplexed, as Paddy being drunk in Chambers was not wholly unknown, although not usually at 9.30am. Andrew read my mind. ‘No, sir, really really drunk. He couldn’t go into court.’ That means unbelievably drunk because clerks think that only death is an adequate excuse for a failure to be available. ‘Oh god,’ I said. ‘Who is he in front of?’ ‘Oh no,’ said Andrew, ‘he isn’t actually in court. Like a lot of members at the moment. I mean, I’ve done my best, but it’s these cuts.’ I felt we were diverting from the main topic. ‘I’ll go up and see him,’ I said. ‘Miss Briar-Pitt’s with him, sir.’
Hetty Briar-Pitt does not really ‘do’ people. Horses are her great love and she will stroke them, talk to them, spend hours brushing them: gently ministering such medicines as are needed. On walking into Corkhill’s room, I could see she was handling him in a rather rough manner trying to pour disgusting-looking black coffee down his throat. ‘Thank goodness, William, can you get him home?’ I asked her how it had happened. ‘Heaven knows,’ she replied. ‘He is rambling on about the modern world: terrorism, climate change, the destruction of the criminal Bar but mostly these new government guidelines on safe levels of alcohol consumption.’
At this, Paddy came to life again. ‘Dame Sally Busybody,’ he said, possibly referring to the Chief Medical Officer. ‘These people don’t understand statistics any more than they understand life.’ Then there was a sudden splurt of coffee. ‘Coffee’s good for you. Coffee’s bad for you…’
‘Happy New Year, Hetty and Paddy,’ I said. ‘A new year, a new term, new beginnings, old faces.’
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.