It was something of a shock last Thursday when Jacob Seeley suggested a drink at a nearby hostelry – even more so when he invited horse-mad Hetty Briar-Pitt to join us. She exudes the robust health of the English ruling classes, with her windswept hair, ruddy cheeks and green Barbour, which always has the faintest smell of manure. Jacob himself has a clammy appearance. He might well have spent all day in a tomb, waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon.
I cannot say he is my favourite tenant in chambers: he is one of those lean prosecutor types, peering uncomprehendingly through horn-rimmed spectacles at various South American peasants who, knowingly or unknowingly, have imported large quantities of cocaine into the United Kingdom. He nevertheless achieves a large number of convictions.
He was not his normal self. At first, this was a relief. He took the unusual step of buying a bottle – not just any bottle … he was inviting us to quaff the finest vintage bubbly. Not that we saw much of it. He downed glassfuls at 30 second intervals, topping up his flute until it poured over the sides. Hetty gave me a sweeping look worthy of the finest Carry On tradition. Whether this was because our glasses were effectively empty or because of the sight of Jacob behaving so uncharacteristically was unclear. Charitably, it was the latter. This was the man, after all, who when asked by the East-End bar lady we had recruited for our Christmas party what he “fancied”, replied “a thimble of sherry wine, madam.”
A second, and indeed third, bottle followed in like manner and we realized slowly that he was in fact incandescent with rage. I understood later that it all arose from the fact he had been replaced in some major case by alternative counsel, as Andrew our senior clerk put it, for expressing himself “a touch vigorously” on the shortcomings of the “prosecutorial authority” in failing to carry out Seeley’s learned pronouncements. I discovered recently that Andrew regularly watches Countdown on a television application feed to his computer screen.
Back to the pub … Seeley was holding forth in an impassioned voice about the “sheer monstrosity” of those “fools”. “This is what we’ve come to,” he said, “no longer just having our fees cut to the bone, hitting the good and the bad alike, but being second-guessed by these incompetents.” We noticed that the worst eventuality had now occurred: Jacob was sobbing into his bubbles. Hetty, who specialises in family law, showed that peculiar lack of human touch which was the hallmark of her professional style by shouting back: “Whoa! All in the same boat! Darkest hour before the dawn and all that!” But he was not listening. He raised his increasingly blotchy face, exhibiting streaks and a runny nose, and became more purposeful: “I’ll become an adviser to a Colombian drugs cartel, if they don’t want me. At least I’ll be paid properly. I know it all – every trick in the book. Let the whole country be swamped with class A substances. I don’t care.” At this point he fled to a nearby lavatory and, from the distant and evocative sounds, was violently sick.
I accept I have pastoral responsibilities but regret that, on this occasion, I decided to exercise them by taking Hetty Briar-Pitt out to dinner – leaving Jacob to the landlord. Unexpectedly, Hetty seemed more bearable as the evening wore on and even held my hand at one point. She assessed our fellow tenant perceptively. “It’s the trouble with prosecutors,” she said, shaking her face in a wobbly way at me. “They believe the world is a good place if only we can bang the baddies up. Not like us, Willy. (Willy?!) We see it all. Life? What’s it all about? Tale told by an idiot, as the Old Bard put it, if you ask me. But it’s come as a bit of a shock to Sealant (Sealant?) to find he’s being shafted right, left and centre by his own.”
And so, today, I found myself driving to a discrete nursing home in Surrey and being shown into a rather charming little bedroom and study. “He’s feeling perkier today,” I was told. “Hello, Jacob,” I said, on entering his room. “Feeling a bit better?” He looked long and hard at me through rather smeared spectacles. “Did you know,” he said, “that Catherine of Braganza had pigeons tied to her feet to try and cure her?”
I hope the Lord Chancellor takes note as he reflects on his grand Consultation.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.