Matthew Harrison channels Kafka in this story about an ageing father determined to open a bank account.
His son Chris who had come over for the evening was appalled. "Dad, you've already got a current account! God knows, getting that was hard enough..." He rolled his eyes at the memory.
Arthur's wife Mabel knew from bitter experience that once her husband had set his heart on something, that was it. "I support you, dear," she said quietly, patting his arm. And to Chris: "It's all right." But inwardly she quailed.
"No, it's not all right!" Chris shouted at her. He rounded on his father. "Don't you realise what it means? What you'll have to go through? What she will have to go through?" He indicated his mother. "Christ, even I'll have to..." He sank back as the ramifications came home.
Arthur cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Chris, I really am. But I've thought it through, I've got time, I'm retired now - and of course your mother is too," he squeezed her arm, "and I think we're still young enough to take it on. And I really would like to be able to do more than just write a cheque..."
"Have some more apple sauce, dear," Mabel said, spooning some onto his plate. She did the same for her son.
But Chris was too upset to eat. "Look, Dad, Andie sees the cases," Andie was his psychiatrist wife, "people like you, people younger than you, who thought they'd like a few more functions than they'd got with their current account. There's ruined lives there, Dad. And some of them," he leant in, emphasising each word, "they don't make it."
"Oh, d-don't frighten us!" Mabel quavered.
Arthur didn't say anything. But the tension could be seen in the way he chewed his roast pork.
Chris tried to reason with his father. But when, finally, it was clear that Arthur's mind was made up, he said, "Look, I'll take a few days' leave, stand in the queue for you, at least give you a start."
"Oh, that's so sweet of you, Chris!" Mabel was touched.
Arthur grunted, "I'm not in the grave yet, you know." But even he was pleased.
Chris was as good as his word. With the help of sandwiches and thermoses of coffee supplied by Andie - and her standing in for him during the small hours of the second night - he made it to the front of the queue. And it was a proud son who on the morning of the third day delivered the appointment ticket to his parents before staggering off for a shower and a well-earned sleep.
Sadly, this effort proved in vain. When Arthur and Mabel presented the ticket to the receptionist, they found that it was biometrically tied to Chris's identity. "It has to be the account holder," the receptionist explained to them. "If you want an account, you have to queue yourself."
So Arthur prepared himself for the ordeal. In a way, he was pleased, for now he would see the job all the way through. And privately he thought himself tougher than his son - young people weren't used to sacrifice. Why, he played badminton (this was true), and he was blowed if a little thing like a bank queue was going to stop him.
So, armed with a camping stool and warm clothing, Arthur took his place in the account-opening queue. The bank had actually been quite helpful, its staff directing him away from another queue which was for forex accounts. The investment account queue was longer and extended round the block. The clientele were older and appeared better off. This queue was a queue for the elite. And the final fifty yards of the queue before the bank entrance were even sheltered by a kind of marquee. It was definitely the queue for him!
The only problem was that the queue didn't seem to move. Hours passed, Arthur chatted - deferentially with those ahead of him in the queue, and rather brusquely with those who had sidled up behind - but there was none of the gradual shuffling forward that he expected. Darkness fell; once, bank staff came by with packaged cookies ("Nice touch, that," Arthur's next-in-line said, to general agreement), but Arthur remained standing, as far as he could tell, on the same spot.
Mabel, when she came with his supper (roast pork again), urged patience. Rome wasn't built in a day.
Pedestrians, who sometimes glanced idly at the queuers and in some cases even asked what they were queuing for, thinned out as the night went on. A smelly old tramp came past with his hand out, and Arthur surreptitiously gave him the remains of the roast pork which he didn't like very much. Then the streets emptied, and the queuers were on their own, ghosts swaying or sitting huddled against the cold stone walls of the bank. Arthur sat on his camp stool hunched in his coat and tried to sleep. It was an adventure, he told himself; he was proud to be able to take it, he was still young.
"It's moving, it's moving!" came excited cries. And indeed, miraculously, the people ahead of Arthur were flexing stiffened limbs and actually stumbling forward. He himself had almost despaired hours earlier as the cold light of morning fell onto his unshaven face. When the bank staff hauled away those who had not made it through the night, he had almost given up. But this was forgotten as he joined in the general excitement. Early-morning commuters glanced curiously at the bedraggled group as they clapped one another on the back, and cheered with cracked voices.
The rest of that day passed for Arthur in a flash. There was always something going on. First the queue would shuffle forward, then it would stop and he would exchange banter with the others, then just as they were beginning to fall silent and exchange anxious glances the shuffling would start again. It seemed not long - although it was in fact hours later when Mabel brought him his lunch (mercifully, this time a cheese sandwich) - before Arthur stepped under the protective shelter of the marquee. And standing there in that privileged position, Arthur knew that Chris's warnings and Mabel's doubts were unfounded. This was what he wanted. This was what he was for.
Arthur's sense of destiny only strengthened when he reached the end of the marquee and entered that holy of holies, the bank lobby. And when he greeted Mabel that evening from a vantage point high on the marble staircase, even she was impressed. "Oh, my!" she exclaimed, as she helped him to a punnet of lasagne, "We do move in grand circles now." The second night Arthur slept soundly on the bank's marble floor. And when he was woken the following morning by the sound of the bank staff opening doors and chivvying the queue along, he sprang up as if he were fifty years younger.
"I didn't think you could do it," Chris said admiringly later when Arthur showed him the ticket. "I'm sorry my own effort didn't work out," he added, shamefaced.
"We know you tried your best, dear," said his mother consolingly. And Arthur added his own appreciative words, although privately he felt that the boy was rather soft. His mother had spoilt him as a child.
"But don't underestimate the application process," Chris went on rather lamely. "This is only the first step, remember."
Arthur, in fact, had already taken that to heart. He was in training, insofar as one can train for tackling a bank. He had been attending a gym class, in addition to the badminton, and in the days leading up to the bank interview he had been doing extra repetitions, earning praise from the instructor. As they walked up to the bank's reception on the appointed morning, Arthur was flexing his muscles and sizing-up the various bank officials they passed. These puny bureaucrats wouldn't get the better of him!
The investment account-opening interview was on a floor of the bank that they had never seen - a platform suspended from a cat's cradle of girders and glass panels on which the bank staff perched in little booths. As Arthur and Mabel rose on the escalator, they could see all the way down to the floor of the bank, where just then a body was being carted away. After several delays and mix-ups with their ticket, that the couple were eventually led to one of the booths. There they were greeted by a brown duffle-coated young man with fashionably-waved hair who introduced himself as Edwin.
The interview took hours, which Mabel found rather trying. From time to time, Edwin would ask them questions, then type in their replies, then survey the result on-screen. But most of the time he seemed merely to be scrolling down ("And probably texting his girlfriend!" Mabel grumbled afterwards). Several times she rose to challenge him. But Arthur, hardened by his experience in the queue, counselled patience. In the end, Mabel sat slumped and numb in her chair, while Arthur provided the answers.
Eventually, all was done. Edwin smiled, and printed out the single sheet of paper which, surprisingly, was all that had resulted from their morning's work.
"That's it?" Mabel asked, hardly able to believe that they were through.
They weren't. "We have completed the initial enquiry," Edwin said, his smile firm now. "I need you to go to my colleague for confirmation of your risk profile."
Mabel was about to protest, but Arthur led her gently away.
They sat waiting in a separate space in armchairs provided, with other customers. Arthur, for whom the present conditions were a luxury, relaxed and chatted with the others, some of whom he recognised as fellow-queuers. It was harder for Mabel, who repeatedly chafed, looked at her watch, and wondered aloud how long it was all going to take. Arthur reminded her about Rome. "I could have built Rome in the time this is taking," Mabel retorted as she got out their packed lunch (roast beef sandwiches). Other wives nodded in sympathy.
The setting sun was casting long shadows from the girders when Edwin came up excitedly to them and said that his colleague was ready. "We should really be closed now," he said, "but I asked him to stay on especially. We wouldn't want you to have to come back!" he laughed.
They followed the young man to another booth, and sat down while the colleague prepared the procedure. This involved him reading out the risk disclosure form, and noting Arthur's answers. They had a trial run, then the real thing, which the young man played back for Arthur to check. Then he signed off and returned the printed form.
"Well done!" Edwin said to Arthur as he led them back to his own booth. "I shouldn't say this, but I knew you were not our average account holder!"
Arthur nodded modestly.
"So, what would you like," Edwin said, brisk again as he sat them down in front of his desk, "internet banking or phone banking?"
"Internet banking," Arthur said. Edwin raised an eyebrow. "He's clever like that," Mabel said, "you should see him on the internet, like our son Chris." She herself opted for phone banking.
Edwin seemed about to say something, but checked himself, and typed in their requests.
It took several more visits to the bank over the following month, but eventually all the formalities were completed, and Arthur and Mabel were the proud holders of an Investment Account. "That's the final step," Edwin assured them, as they signed yet another round of papers. "You can activate the account whenever you like, we will mail you the token."
Mabel, who had been vociferous in her complaints as they were led from one booth to another, was now almost sentimental as they parted from Edwin. "It's been a pleasure dealing with you," she said. She gestured at the girders that arched above them: "We'll miss this place!"
Edwin was pleased. "You know," he confided, "some of the customers just can't take it. I had one chap the other day, we had completed everything, he just had to sign, and he gave up the ghost, just like that!" He gave a rather clever imitation of someone expiring that made Mabel giggle. "He was young too."
Arthur agreed that not all young people were as strong as they looked.
Chris and Andie, who visited the couple that evening, were ecstatic. "I always knew you could do it!" Chris said. Andie, more practical, asked if Arthur could invest for them. Mabel was delighted, and had cooked roast pork again, this being Chris's favourite.
"Dear, why don't you show them the new account?" Mabel suggested when the meal was over. Arthur explained that this could not be done until they had received the token. So the young people had to be content with a glimpse of the interrogatory screen, which hinted, tantalisingly, at the delights of stock and bond trading for those who were privileged to enter. Mabel couldn't wait. Indeed, she was now almost keener on the account than Arthur himself.
Chris and Andie were also keen. "It's been pretty tough for us, Dad," Chris said to his father when the women were in the kitchen. "The bank interviewed us, and Johnny," this was their young son, "at his school. Even his friends. But we're glad to do it for you."
Time passed, but the token didn't arrive. They enquired, and Edwin moved mountains on their behalf, even opening their account for them to view when they visited his office. They asked to collect the token in person, but were told that it had to be delivered by mail.
Then, one day, when Arthur had almost given up hope, Mabel brought in the letters with a triumphant expression. "Feel this," she said, squeezing one large envelope, "I'm sure you'll be lucky."
And indeed when Arthur opened the envelope with trembling fingers he found the token nestling inside.
In the days and weeks that followed, as Arthur wrestled with the token and the online dialogue box, he almost wished he were back in the queue. There, physically arduous though it was, he at least had a target and, once the queue started moving, measurable progress. Now, it was impossible to tell whether he was getting nearer to activating the account or not.
"Oh, why won't the wretched thing work?" Mabel cried, as for the umpteenth time she sat beside him and tried herself. "It's so frustrating!"
The code that flashed up on the token faded out almost as soon as it had appeared. They tried photographing it, but the timer of the dialogue box matched that of the token. They brought Chris in to try, but he soon retired defeated - after, Arthur thought, a rather cursory effort.
Then, one day - for no apparent reason - the account opened. Arthur found himself looking out on a veritable vista of functionality. There were icons for Personal Details, Stock Trading, Bond Trading, Loans, New Accounts... Excitedly, he called Mabel in.
Mabel sat quivering beside him as Arthur updated their personal details, adding a phone number here, a relative there. He even let her type her maiden name in her section of the form. When she pressed Enter and the screen immediately reflected the amended name, they hugged each other in delight.
But enough of this small stuff. The moment had come to really put the account through its paces. To Mabel's mingled horror and delight, Arthur moved the cursor over the 'Stock Trading' icon, and clicked.
The screen immediately went dark, and nothing either of them could do would get it to work again.
Edwin, when they explained the matter to him, looked grave. "Stock trading, you say. Hm."
"It is an Investment Account," Mabel reminded him indignantly. "We expect to be able to trade stocks - and other investments as well."
Edwin hummed and ha-ed, and looked around. There was a scream from a distant booth, suddenly cut off. Finally, he said, "I suppose you've set your hearts on this?"
"You know us," Arthur said haughtily, "we are not your average account holders!"
"Right." Edwin was not smiling now. "You understand that if you pursue this, you put me in a very difficult position." (They saw, with surprise, that their account manager was actually trembling.) "I'll help you, naturally. But I would very much appreciate it if you could do something for me."
"Of course!" Mabel said, before Arthur had time to answer. "After all you've done for us we'd be glad to." Arthur mumbled his less-enthusiastic assurance.
Edwin looked relieved, and quickly got out a form which he asked them to sign. It concerned the monthly purchase of the bank's mutual funds. That done, Edwin explained that if they wanted to trade stocks they had to open a fresh account, as their present one was authorised for both internet banking and phone banking.
Mabel, when she had understood this, asked to withdraw her application for phone banking, but this, apparently, could not be done. Only opening a fresh account would do.
So there was nothing for it but to join the account-opening queue again.
"I feel I should queue this time," Mabel said glumly as they descended the escalator. "It's my fault."
Arthur, glancing down, saw another corpse on the floor below them. "I'll do it," he said, "I've done it once, after all." Yet his heart was heavy as they crossed the marble floor and passed through the great doors of the bank.
As they walked down the steps outside, Mabel stopped and turned to him. "Why don't we just give up the account? We can be perfectly happy without it. Who needs to trade stocks anyway?" She staggered slightly on the steps, and clung to his arm.
Her frailness only strengthened Arthur's resolve. "I have to do it," he said. "I can't give up now."
That night, as Arthur stood outside the bank, chatting to other queuers, he wondered why he was doing it. It wasn't to prove himself - he had done that with the ordeal of the first application. Nor was it for Mabel, nor even - although he had to convince himself of this - to impress Chris. No, it was really because of Edwin and his belief that they were no ordinary account holders. He didn't want to let the young man down.
Opening the second account proved almost as arduous as opening the first, although this time they had no illusions about how difficult it would be. But some months later all had at last been done - and the authorisations, risk-profiling and due diligence enquiries (all of which had expired) had also been refreshed. In the process, Arthur felt he had aged, while Mabel was quite stooped under the strain. Little Johnny cried when brought round to their house, and as they left Arthur heard Andie say that it was too bad, the bank staff would never let them alone, she wished they'd never seen 'that man' (meaning Arthur).
And when they met Edwin, even his hair was less buoyant than before, and a frown had engraved itself on his formerly smooth brow. "It's a fine dance you've led us," he said, a trace of bitterness entering his voice. Then he shrugged heroically, "But that's what we're here for."
Working doggedly at his computer night after night - and sometimes through the night - Arthur gradually mastered the operation of their account. And when the final securities authorisation came through, he had Mabel, with Chris supporting her, beside him as he proudly conducted his first trade. "Now I shall rest in peace," his wife murmured.
Sadly, it was not to be. The trade did not settle, and as an increasingly desperate Arthur dug into the details, he found that his current account had been shuttered so that he could not access it, for securities trading or for anything else. Arthur had to borrow from his own son to pay for the trip into town to meet Edwin. And although the harassed account manager did all he could, the account remained closed. In the end, Edwin opened his own wallet and gave Arthur the money for the fare home.
Mabel never recovered from the ordeal. Her funeral, which Edwin attended, took place in pouring rain, and Arthur got soaked as he lingered at the cemetery. In his weakened state, the ensuing flu quickly turned to pneumonia, and after a brief struggle, the doctors pronounced him a hopeless case. Chris hung around the ward as long as he could, but Andie demanded that he come home, for Johnny's sake.
The faithful Edwin, his hair now greying, was the last visitor that Arthur received. "I am sorry that our time together wasn't happier," Edwin began, holding his client's limp hand, which was now almost bone. "But it was a meaningful time for me."
Arthur stirred himself from the depths of a drug-induced sleep. "No ordinary... account holder," he managed to croak. It was the last thing he was to say.
Edwin bowed, tears already running down his cheeks, and whispered, "You were the best."