Don't Bank On It Sweetheart
Chapter One - A journey back in time
For those of you who don’t understand (or don’t want to know) what DVD means – or can’t stand the sight of someone ringing his loved one on a mobile in the middle of a crowded carriage just to say the train is on time – take heart. Put away those blood pressure pills and come with me on a journey back to a time when life was simple and spartan – before the age of computers and email, where you had to use your imagination to amuse yourself instead of switching on the box.
* * *
At last, the war was over, and the world would be a better place for everyone, or so they thought. It was, in that time, a question of what to do to get the country back on its feet again, and how to get started. But with so much competition for jobs, the outlook was bleak for young men of only average intelligence – even less for those like Alastair, George, and Arthur.
Alastair made up for it by sheer egotistical cunning and affecting a lordly appearance that got him out of scrapes on more occasions than anyone would care to remember. Today, he would have won or lost a fortune as a rogue trader or made a name for himself in politics. He had all the right qualifications – a broad, flexible outlook that reminded one irresistibly of that giant amongst men, Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, immortalised by P.G. Wodehouse.
George, on the other hand, had no brains to speak of, just an insatiable appetite, and was completely happy as long as he was left alone to pursue his hobby of stuffing his face. The only time anyone saw him really upset was when a dog sneaked a treble-decker sandwich it had taken him all morning to prepare. He got over it by applying for a job next day as a butcher’s assistant.
Like so many others at that time, Arthur had no university education. It was wartime, and after his parents were killed in the blitz, he was brought up by a reluctant aunt. Any writing ambitions he may have had cut no ice with Aunt Ciss, who regarded it as a complete waste of time and viewed him as a liability.
After sending out a fistful of hopeful articles and getting snowed under by rejects, Arthur emerged from his tiny garret every evening, after making do with a leftover sandwich and a glass of milk, to be greeted by a continuous tirade of complaints from his Aunt Ciss, which did not help to restore his morale.
As she put it, sitting back comfortably in her armchair and tucking into an enormous plateful of chicken pie between gulps of whisky, “Fat lot of good all that scribbling does for you, young man. What you want is a proper job – something that brings in some real money, not all those silly rejects you keep getting. How do you think I can afford to keep you on top of all those bills that keep on coming in? You’ve no idea how much everything costs your poor old aunt these days.”
“But I was hoping that money Dad left me might be enough to keep me going until I’ve built up some freelance work…”
She nearly choked over the thought. “You thought it was enough to keep you going? On what, I might ask? That was only enough to pay for a few measly mouthfuls,” she said, omitting to mention that it paid for a daily queue of delivery vans that attempted to keep up with her insatiable appetite.
“I do my best, but there aren’t enough jobs to be had.”
“Nonsense, you’re not trying hard enough.” Her mind diverted. “What about that nice young girl I introduced you to, Mavis, wasn’t it?”
“Mavis?” He shuddered. “She was so fat she couldn’t get the rings off her fingers.”
“What’s that got to do with it? If you married her, you wouldn’t have to worry; her father’s a merchant banker with oodles of money. I don’t know; there’s no pleasing you these days. And there was that other girl, Frenela something or other,” she added. “She would have made a splendid wife for you. She is a teacher and would have passed on all the social graces you need – of course, her father is well off in the civil service. Not that that has anything to do with it, but if you get in there, you have a job for life.”
“I couldn’t think of anything worse,” argued Arthur. “She was ugly as sin and always giving me good books to read.”
“Well, I don’t know; you’re very difficult to please. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you.”
“Yes, Auntie,” he said, getting up wearily. “I’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings.”
“You do that, Arthur,” she said, bolting down another mouthful, “otherwise we’ll starve – and you wouldn’t like your poor old auntie to be left in that position, I’m sure. If things go on like this,” she warned ominously, “I shall have to take in another lodger and we’ve only got your spare bedroom available, so for goodness sake do something. I don’t think you’ve heard a word of what I’ve been saying.”
“No, Auntie, I mean, yes, Auntie,” he sighed.
But it was no better the next day or the day after. Everywhere he went, there seemed to be queues of ex-servicemen looking for work. Reviewing his prospects, he came to the conclusion that as far as his future was concerned, it was either the army or the bank.
In the Blackheath suburbs where he lived, the city was only a short distance away, so it made more sense to try for the bank. The musty confines of that august building at Fleetgate, only a short tube ride from London Bridge, with all its antiquated habits and characters, would give him all the material he needed as a writer to last him a lifetime.
But the prospect of coming home to find Aunt Ciss holding court in the front sitting room every night, waiting to snap at him in bleary hostility at the slightest excuse, filled him with panic. He had to escape. His first step was to get away, anywhere, and find cheap lodgings where he could scribble down some ideas for an article that would hopefully help to pay off some of his mounting bills.
With the rejection slips piling up thick and fast, and rent day looming ever closer, he was saved from bankruptcy by a lucky encounter with an old friend of the family, Alastair Stringer, who he (and most of the family) had always avoided in the past because of his pompous and ‘know-it-all’ manner.
But he was in no position to be choosy, so on an impulse, he sought Alastair out and asked him humbly if he could help in any way. Adopting an airy manner, his friend waved away any anxieties Arthur might have.
“Lord, yes, I can get you in, old lad. No trouble at all. The manager would do anything for me. Trouble is whether you really want to work in a bank. It’s not the sort of career I was expecting myself, you understand. The family wanted me to go in for the Foreign Office, you know. Uncle Henry begged me to take on Gibraltar during the war, but those blasted apes put me off. Always chattering about the place – couldn’t stand it. Anyway, if you’re sure, I’ll look after you. Just leave it to me.”
But when it came to it, Arthur found work in the bank deadly boring and longed to become a writer. As he entered the building every morning, the drab surroundings did nothing to dispel the general feeling of gloom that surrounded him. The august bust of Joshua Bullett, the family bank’s revered founder, stared coldly down at him from his prominent niche above the counter as if registering his disapproval at Arthur’s presence on the staff, and he would slink past with an averted gaze.
The one person in the bank who seemed to know how he felt and listened to him with understanding was – you’ve guessed it – Alastair. Such a friendly person, Arthur thought. Nothing like the show-off they had always imagined. He was like an elder brother in those first few weeks. Told him all sorts of interesting things about the goings-on in the bank.
“D’you see that messenger of ours, Conrad, old man? You wouldn’t think he owned a string of paper stands around the city, would you? They say he pays Head Office his salary because it’s handy for him to use this as his base. That would make a better story than all those sea sagas your grandfather went in for.”
Arthur’s heart warmed towards him. “Well, actually my name is Conway,” he reminded. “Arthur Conway – not Conrad. Although,” he added shyly, “I do want to write.”
“Course you do, old man. It’s only a matter of time. Your name will be up in lights, you just wait and see.”
By then, Arthur was almost purring with devotion.
“I blame it all on the war,” Alastair sighed, shooting a sly look at Arthur to make sure he had his sympathy. “Killed off all the best ones, and look what we’ve got left. Morrissey, our beloved manager, who’s given up any hope of promotion and pretends he’s a station master playing at trains. Old Jenkins, our blasted chief clerk, who doesn’t think you’re fit for anything until you’ve slaved at the ledger for over fifty years. And Symmonds, our first cashier, who spends all his time dreaming about retirement. As for that slacker Harris, his number two, beats me why he bothers to come in. They’ve been trying to get rid of him for years. He just nods off over his till every day, and we have to wake him up and remind him when it’s time to go home.” He shook his head. “The trouble with this world is all the wrong people are in charge. It’s them or us. You mark my words, Arthur. One of these days there’ll come a reckoning, oh yes. An’ then they’d better watch out.”
“But what can anyone do about it?” Arthur asked earnestly. For he was without doubt very earnest and naive in those days.
“What can we do about it, you mean? Listen, I’ll tell you something I wouldn’t tell anyone else.” He lowered his voice, and it took on a quavery note. “I don’t usually take a shine to people, but I like you, Arthur, I’m not ashamed to admit.” He wiped his eyes and peered mistily. “Something I haven’t done since my old mother died.”
Like an idiot, Arthur grabbed his arm impulsively. “If there’s any way I can help…”
“Good man – I knew I could rely on you.” Alastair laid his finger on the side of his nose and winked confidentially. “This is strictly between you and me mind, but the job of holding the key to the strong room is coming up for review this week. As you know, two men have to open the strong room together to make sure there’s no hanky panky going on. Jenkins, who holds one set of keys, is away with flu and old Symmonds is retiring soon, so they’re looking for someone to take it on before then, someone they can rely on in case he drops down dead in the meantime. If I put a word in for you, don’t let on, will you? Might be something in it for you. But mum’s the word, eh?”
Arthur stared at him, puzzled. “But what’s that got to do with the wrong people being in charge?”
His friend seemed to wince at the phrase ‘in charge,’ then recovered and gave a beam
of encouragement. “All in good time. Now, what d’you say? Come on, it’s your big chance.”
“Why should they pick me? I’ve only been here a few months.”
“Because they trust you, my boy, that’s why. And don’t we all?”
He dismissed the worried look on Arthur’s face with an airy wave of the hand. “Anyway, with Jenkins off sick, they’re short-staffed and it’ll save them getting in a temporary replacement. I know that lot – mean as the proverbial monkeys.”
“Stringer!” bawled a peevish voice at the back of the office. “Where is everyone, today?”
“It’s old Morrissey,” hissed Alastair. “Coming, sir!” he cooed in a disgustingly servile manner, then scurried off down the corridor. His honeyed words floated back, “Sir, may I have a few words?” Following on his heels, Arthur was just in time to see the manager snatch off his station master’s hat and hurriedly hide a red flag in his desk drawer out of sight.
“Ah, Stringer, everything on track?’
“Sorry to bother you, sir, seeing as you’re so busy,” he heard Alastair apologise profusely in his usual smooth manner. “You remember you were asking about a replacement for a key holder the other day… I think I might have the answer.” Then the door closed in his face, and their voices faded away.
The next few days, Arthur was uncomfortably aware of the manager giving him a searching look as he passed his office before throwing up his hands and putting up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ notice on the door. He didn’t cotton on to this at first, but after catching the manager rushing into the Gents one morning in his stationmaster’s hat, he realised his superior was in the middle of retreating into a private world where the Flying Scotsman and the Great Eastern reigned supreme. The second or third time they passed each other, the manager merely shook his head in disbelief. When Arthur mentioned this to Alastair, he looked thoughtful, and soon after, Arthur saw him heading for the manager’s office after snatching up a sheaf of papers.
Anxious to learn more, he hesitated by the door as he paused to fetch the tea tray and heard the manager complain, “But he’s far too young, why can’t you do it – you’re his senior.”
“Ah, I would if I could, but you know how it is with the old ticker, sir. That reminds me, if you could just approve my medical expenses for last month…”
“Here, where do I sign? Don’t you collapse on us,” said the manager in alarm. “We’re far too short-staffed as it is. Dammit, if only Jenkins hadn’t gone down with flu…” Arthur heard him kick at the wastepaper basket in frustration. “How can I appoint someone his age? It took me years to reach that position…”
“Ah, but think how well it will be viewed from above,” murmured Alastair.
“How well?” repeated Morrissey hopefully.
“Just think of it, sir. How many juniors have been promoted to the position of key holder at only seventeen?”
“None, as far as I know…” said the manager fearfully.
“I can see it now,” prompted Alastair. “That intrepid band of directors meeting in the boardroom, shaking their heads in admiration. Such courage, they are saying. Who is this man, Morrissey?”