I’ve come into some money. Twenty grand. Nice. Best not to shove it straight in my permanently overdrawn current account, though, I thought. My laptop is riddled with computer viruses. It would be just my luck if, after holding off for years, the hackers strike the moment I go into the black. So I decided I’d open a new current account with a different bank and put the money in there while I decided how to spend it.
More or less at random I took the cheque to a branch of the Alliance & Leicester in the high street. There were no other customers. As I approached her window, the cashier was staring out of the window at the empty high street, stupefied with boredom. Her mouth sagged open to let out a yawn, none came, and she shut it again.
I’d like to open an account and deposit a cheque for £20,000, I said. This simple transaction was beyond her powers of jurisdiction, unfortunately. She swung heavily down from her chair and went away. Then she returned, climbed back up on to her chair and told me to take a seat and the manager would see me in a moment. Before she’d finished the sentence a very young man — he looked about 17 — appeared in the doorway of a side office and motioned me to follow him inside.
His office was windowless, small, grubby. It was more like a night cleaner’s cubby hole than a bank manager’s office. I chose one of the plastic chairs arranged around the desk and sat down. This was his chair, he said. I stood up and we swapped places by manoeuvring around the furniture and each other in a kind of stately pavane.
Although the cashier must surely have informed him of the nature of my business, he said, ‘What can I do for you?’ as though completely innocent. I repeated my good news. I want to open a current account and deposit a cheque for 20 grand, I said. I already had an account with NatWest, I said expansively, but my laptop was riddled with viruses. Better, I reminded him, to be safe than to be sorry.
The manager began diddling his keyboard and looking anxiously at his computer screen. The diddling increased in violence and his anxiety turned sharply to irritation. His computer was playing up again this afternoon, he explained.
Then his irritation turned to undisguised joy as the computer began to obey, and he was able to log in my ‘details’, as he put it, on screen. He asked me for my name, my address, my age and my occupation and carefully typed in my replies. Then he asked me whether I was a tenant of the property I lived in, or whether I owned it. ‘Tenant,’ I said. And was the property furnished or unfurnished?
I stared at him. Then I said, ‘I’m trying to think why you are asking me questions about my furniture.’ ‘We have to,’ he said. ‘It’s part of the procedure.’ ‘But why?’ I said. On reflection he thought that perhaps it was a security question designed to catch criminals. If, for example, I was a money launderer, he said, and at some point in the future, on a similar form, I stated that my home was furnished, when earlier I’d stated that it was unfurnished, then I would be caught out.
Yes, but if I was a money launderer, I said, it could well be the case that, since opening my Alliance & Leicester current account, I’d said to the wife, to hell with it, and I’d taken her down to World of Leather and we’d bought some nice furniture for the flat. Well, maybe, he said. He hadn’t thought of that.
When he’d finished his trick questions he whacked a key to send the screen page to the printer. But there was a problem with the printer — a gigantic, ink-stained cube that looked as if it had been around since the last recession. It was a recurring problem, he said. Turning in his seat he wrestled off a section of casing and realigned something delicate inside with the end of a wooden ruler. That done, the problem righted itself and in a couple of minutes I had the printed sheet in front of me to sign.
My chequebook would take up to three weeks to arrive, he said finally, in conclusion. But three weeks was no good to me, I said. Why three weeks? He patiently explained that type had to be set up and that each chequebook had to be individually printed. ‘What, like a John Bull printing outfit?’ I said.
I thanked him and took my cheque 50 yards down the road and shoved it in my current account at the NatWest instead. On reflection, better the Devil you know and all that.