Rumpole and the millennium bug

An exclusive new short story for Christmas

"THE TIME has come, Rumpole, to move you into the 21st century." Soapy Sam Bollard, our unworthy head of chambers, gave me the small, patronising sort of smile with which a matron in an old people's home might briskly inform some geriatric that the time had come to take him to the toilet.

"Why don't you move into the 21st century, Bollard?" I suggested. "I think I'll stay here."

Matron Bollard gave a disapproving click of the tongue. "You've got no choice, Rumpole. In any case, we're ready for it, now we've got the clerk's room online."

I looked round the clerk's room and noticed once again how much the old place had changed. In the days of our clerk Henry, reward-from-crime cheques were kept in a dusty drawer which also contained a box of paper clips, Henry's sandwich and an individual fruit pie. Fees were recorded, for the most part, on the backs of envelopes during friendly negotiations with solicitors in Pommeroy's Wine Bar. Now the place was ablaze with screens, keyboards and other devices, all of which emitted a faint but perpetual series of little squeals and tiny grunts, as though they were painfully shy virgins waiting to be picked up for a go on the dance floor.

Presiding over this nervous machinery sat our new clerk, Bernard. Pale and misleadingly young-looking, with bifocals and a suit apparently made for his big brother, he rarely spoke. Instead he gazed with anxious concentration at the screen in front of him, only occasionally favouring us with a print-out. Henry was the sort of clerk who would give you a patient hearing as you moaned, over a bottle of Chateau Thames Embankment, about the lack of literary talent with which the Serious Crimes Squad composed confessions, or Judge Bullingham's habit of ostentatiously sharpening pencils during your final speech to the jury. Bernard was not a sympathetic listener, his narrow shoulder was not one to cry on, and I had christened him, quite early in his tenancy, "The Millennium Bug".

That morning the clerk's room was unusually decorated. Dianne, our secretary, no longer as young as she was when Henry loved her, had fixed sprigs of holly over the screens with Sellotape. A small plastic tree stood in the window and on the mantelpiece there was an array of Christmas cards, including a king-sized view of the Manger from the family of a double murderer I had managed to steer into the safety of Broadmoor, and three white and bloated angels from the Crown Prosecution Service.

The modern world to which Bollard had summoned me was being ushered in by the 2,000th birthday of the old religion. As the blue clouds floated across the Millennium Bug's screen I imagined God, his brows furrowed, his fingers dancing questingly over the keys, finally clicking on and snatching the world from some huge, dormant Internet. Was this, I wondered, an article of the Millennium Bug's faith, or was he too busy to have faith in anything at all? Such fleeting thoughts of eternity were interrupted by the saintly Bollard. "You ought to get a laptop, Rumpole, to work out your final speeches in court."

"I don't work my speeches out on my lap, Bollard." The man had touched a raw nerve. "I work them out on my feet. I look at the jury: I recognise my friends; I smile at my enemies. I try a few soft ingratiating phrases and then, by God, I let them have it! But not from the lap!"

My words were wasted. The man had gone. It's strange how my oratory frightens some people. At this point the Bug gave a brief yelp and said: "I've got it, Mr Rumpole!"

"Got what?"

"Your schedule. 10.30 at Uxbridge. In the case of Timson. Wasting police time. You want a print-out?"

"No thanks," I waved away all technical assistance. "I found all that out at last night's conference."

SEARCHING FOR the comfort of a small cigar, I pulled out of my pocket a long list and, remembering that cigars were about as welcome as bombs on the Uxbridge Tube, I fell to reading the list. It had been given me by my wife Hilda (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed), who had then sped off to Devon for a prolonged stay with her old schoolfriend, Dodo Mackintosh. She and Dodo would be back on Christmas morning and would then set about preparing the lavish and expensive feast to which, it seemed, Dodo was used to each Christian anniversary.

"Just see you get the shopping in by Christmas Eve, Rumpole," were my final orders. "That's all you have to do."

"It isn't all I have to do. I have to slog round such rough spots as the Old Bailey and the Uxbridge magistrates' court to pay for all this fine, rich eating," I might have said, but wiser counsels prevailed. I filed the list back in my pocket and decided to concentrate on the job in hand.

Hughie was a young scion of the Timsons, that extended family of south London villains whose ordinary, decent crimes had provided me with work, and kept us in groceries, over the years. It seemed that to impress his girlfriend Patsy, Hugh had boasted that he had planned, and indeed carried out, the raid on the Magic Mouse Computer Centre in Tooting, a job which was far beyond his powers, if not his imagination. The story got about and he made a confession to the police, again with the sole intention of earning the love and respect of his girlfriend. When further enquiries led to the apprehension of the real culprits (members of the rival Molloy family) Hughie was charged with wasting police time, causing unnecessary expense and generally making a nuisance of himself.

"We are at the time of year," I told the Uxbridge magistrates in my final speech, "when the message of mercy and goodwill towards men was trumpeted in the voice of an angel, watching certain shepherds. That message has echoed down the millennium and no doubt can even be heard in Uxbridge. Hughie Timson is young. He is silly. He wanted to impress his girlfriend. Can we not say to him, `Go then, and sin no more'?"

The assembled family seemed relieved at the pounds 50 fine, which was the magistrates' grudging concession to the Millennium message. Hughie went so far as to invite me to a Boxing Day party at which his engagement was to be announced, for Patsy still admired a man who laid claim to imaginary crimes.

"I'll e-mail the address, Mr Rumpole. I'll get your number from Mr Lofthouse. And thanks again for all you've done."

"Leftie" Lofthouse, my ever-patient instructing solicitor and now constant companion of the Bug, was last seen telling Hughie how to e-mail my chambers about a party I was unlikely to attend.

A PLEA to wasting police time had been scraping the bottom of the barrel so far as the Rumpole practice was concerned. In the best of times I had been concerned with murder and sudden death, bloodstains and questioned typewriters, post-mortem bruising and forged wills. To recapture some of these past glories I decided to spend Christmas Eve with "Pud" Rudman, long-time crime reporter for the Daily Planet and chronicler, in spidery handwriting over many dog-eared notebooks, of the highlights of the Rumpole career.

So we sat together in a corner of Pommeroy's and lived again the Penge Bungalow Murders, which I won alone and without a leader. We remembered the evidence of the borrowed bedroom slippers in the Eastbourne Nursing Home Murder and the improbable alibi in the Channel Crossing Disappearance Case. We marvelled at the savagery of the bold judges and the incompetence of so many prosecutors. We recalled the beauty of the young wife in the Epsom weed-killer business and the awful discovery in the Godalming abattoir. Pud remembered some of my finest cross-examinations, almost by heart. So an enjoyable time was had by both of us, while the tide went down in a number of bottles of Pommeroy's plonk, until he suggested, in view of the fact that the Millennium was only a week away, that we should go on to some shorts.

A good deal later I was passing out of chambers in Equity Court, on my way to the Temple Tube station, when I remembered the dreaded list. I had a vague memory of seeing it last on my desk at work when I had, once again, decided to postpone the required shopping. Looking up, I saw a light on in our clerk's room, and I climbed the stairs to find, not altogether to my surprise, the lonely Bug surfing the Internet.

"Mr Rumpole, I hope you don't mind me taking advantage of the software, sir. I have just clicked into a bar full of international lawyers' clerks."

"Enjoy yourself," I told the Bug. "Do what you like with the software." I was seated opposite him in an attitude of dejection, holding Hilda's list in a limp hand. "I'm beyond caring, being in deep, deep trouble."

"Professional misconduct?" The Bug looked at me as though he'd been expecting it for a long time.

"No. Matrimonial forgetfulness." And I told him the whole story about Dodo Mackintosh's visit and the Christmas feast. To my amazement, this caused the Bug's eyes to light up and his voice rose to a note of high excitement.

"No problem, Mr Rumpole! You've forgotten the new technology. Give me your list and I'll do your shopping on the Internet. I'll just surf around till I find somewhere that'll deliver late tonight. No problem at all. Just leave me your card."

"My card?" I had, when I started out as a white-wig, ordered some visiting cards with "Horace Rumpole, barrister at law" printed on them, but the supply had long since run out. When the Bug explained, "Your Visa card, Mr Rumpole", I gave him the strip of celluloid I seldom use, being content to let Jack Pommeroy chalk my debts until the next Legal Aid cheque comes in.

DESPITE THE Bug's confidence, no van full of supplies had arrived before I went to sleep or next morning. At midday Hilda and her friend Dodo arrived to find, on the kitchen table, only the frozen turkey curries, the chips, peas and packets of toffee ice-cream which I had managed to dredge up from the sadly depleted shop which was alone open on the corner of Froxbury Mansions.

To say that Hilda's wrath was terrible is to give too mild an impression of the atmosphere in our mansion flat. Her presence caused an icy wind to blow through our matrimonial home. She looked at me as though I were a nasty outbreak of rising damp staining the bedroom wallpaper. She gave it as her considered opinion that I was not, and never would be, of the slightest use to anyone as a husband. To this judgement her childhood chum, Dodo Mackintosh, appeared to concur and had nothing to add by way of mitigation of my offence.

It was in the middle of the trial and conviction of Rumpole that the telephone on the kitchen wall rang and Hilda grabbed it. "No," I heard her say. "This is his home number. We have no e-mail here. And, by the way, this is his wife speaking... What do you mean, you're deeply grateful and extremely touched?"

"Who is it?" I asked, thankful for the interruption, but Hilda was busy on the phone and I heard her say, "What did he send you exactly, Mr Timson?"

"Hilda," I said, holding out my hand for the instrument, "is it a client?" But Hilda didn't yield it up and she intoned: "Small bird... chestnut stuffing... pudding... cream... mince pies... after-dinner mints... Yes, yes. I'll tell him you're grateful."

"Rumpole," She Who Must Be Obeyed told Dodo as she hung the telephone back on the wall, "gave our Christmas dinner to a young man he was defending."

"Was he a poor young man?" I was surprised at Dodo's reaction, but that is what she said.

"I imagine so. Rumpole doesn't have many rich clients."

Dodo was looking at me, and to my further surprise her gaze was by no means hostile. "Well," she said. "I think that was rather noble of Rumpole."

"Noble?" Hilda was not yet exactly on message. "Did you say `noble', Dodo?"

"Yes, I did. Someone was in trouble and hard up. So he sent the family our Christmas dinner. Is that how it happened, Rumpole?"

"Oh yes!" I agreed with enthusiasm. "That's exactly how it happened! This poor young fellow by the name of Timson... I managed to keep him out of jail... I do have a certain talent for that sort of thing... But I knew the family hadn't got much for Christmas. I took a look at all we'd got and... well... I just felt I had to!"

"I think you did exactly the right thing, Rumpole." I profoundly agreed with Dodo's judgement. "Don't you agree that Rumpole did the right thing, Hilda?"

My wife, I have often thought, was under Dodo's thumb at school. Now she conceded: "Well, yes, I suppose he did." And she forced herself to say: "Well done, Rumpole."

THAT NIGHT, we found a Thai restaurant in Queensway that was open and Dodo stood us dinner. Later I discovered what had happened. Hughie had sent an e-mail to chambers headed "Mr Rumpole", followed simply by his address for his Boxing Day party. The ingenious Bug had assumed this address was where I wanted the shopping sent to and that I had found some way to e-mail it to him after I had left chambers. In the Bug's mind, I suspected, everyone, at any time, had a way of sending e-mails.

So the Christmas dinner went off to add to Hughie's party cheer. The Great Surfer in the Sky had clicked on to a caring and Christian Rumpole and I was, for a brief moment, filled with the glory of the Millennium. And, after that, life pursued its normal course and I could no longer remember the date.

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