Runner-up: Fifty-four

By Alan Bryant

Alan says: I live in Mumbles (yes, it’s a real place), South Wales, and have had a few short stories published in anthologies. My characters seem to be getting zanier all the time. Or maybe I am?

I have dropped only one aitch in my life. It caused me so much bother I needed the help of financial experts. It was a revelation to see the automatic door swing open as I entered the bank. My limited experience of city life had shown that its doors can be more polite than its residents. If one bumps into a door one might get hurt or worse, embarrassed, but one can be certain it will not utter a stream of expletives and smear one’s new tie with ketchup from a part eaten burger. 

I timed my visit with precision, a nine minute walk each way. This gave me twelve minutes to sort out the problem and get back to my office. As my old friend, Mr Phittard, would always say: “The world spins on punctuality, Henry Littlelob, and lateness is a sin against morality.” Good manners and etiquette were not included in the Ten Commandments only because God was too polite to keep everyone waiting on Mount Sinai longer than necessary. “The Lord, more than anyone, realised the weather might change faster than the blink of clenching buttocks,” he would say. As a mentor on life, I relied on Mr Phittard for impeccable advice.

Inside the bank a queue of four people waited as one lady served behind the counter. A paradox of working life is that bank staff take lunch at the same time as their customers. I looked at my watch and checked the letter was safe in my pocket. 

Nine minutes gone. Everything was going well. 

While I waited, I whistled a silent tune Mr Phittard and I once composed during one of our many pastoral rambles. A man of unusual talents, his ability to make music out of household items was extraordinary. I believed his comb and paper melodies to be of concerto quality. 

Within three minutes there were two people before me, then only one, a young man with the unfortunate image of a clockface tattoo on the back of his skull. I kept whistling silently, trying not to look. I had no time to become obsessed with time. The young man asked to open an account. This concerned me as the procedure can be protracted. 

Six minutes. 

There appeared to be some difficulty with his identity photograph as he had since been tattooed with a sundial one side of his face and an egg timer on the other. Also, his address had changed eleven times in the past three years and his memory for street names proved less than reliable. 

Four minutes. 

He then wanted a joint account with his girlfriend. The bank lady asked why she did not come in person. He said she was in Wales, doing a sponsored bog snorkel while counting leeches for an invertebrate charity. 

The memories flooded back. Mr Phittard and I once camped in North Wales. The rain hammered down and we played fourteen games of Scrabble in one day. In times of crises the man’s reputation for entertainment was countywide. His expertise playing ‘Donald Where’s your Troosers’ with a hollowed-out parsnip was so emotive. He blew with such gusto his exertion brought tears to my eyes. 

Three minutes. 

She gave the young man forms for his girlfriend to complete. He left without a ‘thank you’. How typical.

Two minutes.

When I reached the counter, I was stunned. The bank lady left her chair and walked away without even apologising. She returned wiping her hands on her skirt and sat down behind the glass.  

My allocated time had finished. 

However, I am a man of inborn perseverance and I’m sure Mr Phittard, with his finely-tuned organisational skills, would have advised me to stand firm. I decided to get the job done.

The bank had sent me a photocopy of a cheque I had written for fifty-four pounds. I slid the paper under the glass between us. “The cheque has been returned,” I said. “Why is that, please?” 

She inspected the copy. “I can’t see anything wrong here,” she said. “But the bank has refused it so you must write another one.”

I said, “The cheque was payment for a new limited-edition, hand-finished Scrabble game. I’m in urgent need of it. My old set is useless as I’ve dropped an aitch down the toilet. I need to find the mistake otherwise I might make out the next cheque with the same fault.”

She sighed, left her chair again and walked off with the paper. “I’ll ask my colleagues,” she said.

I stood waiting until she returned and sat down again.

I’m minus two minutes. There was no going back.

“It could be an f,” she said.

“An f?” I said. 

She pointed at the copy. “That f there, the f in fifty.”

I hesitated, then with great deliberation I said, “Which f in fifty?”

“It might be the capital F.”

“What’s the matter with it?”

“Did you cross it out?”

“No, it’s one line down, two lines across, F.” 

“Are you trying to be funny? I know what an F is.”

“Please, I just want to clear a cheque.” 

She looked again. “Perhaps if it isn’t the capital F in fifty maybe it’s the small f.”

“Well, if it is the f in fifty, and there are two of them, which f in fifty is it? I have to be certain.” Possibly I sounded a tad irritated.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “It might even be the f in four.”

Her dithering strained my normally inexhaustible patience. “Please, is it the f in fifty or the f in four?” I realised that as my speech was being rushed its clarity was being eroded.

She leaned back in her chair glaring at me. “You can’t talk to me like that,” she said. “I was April’s cashier of the month.”

Although I tried to appear suitably impressed, a quick calculation revealed that her presentation had been made eight months earlier. “Congratulations,” I said. “But is this month’s recipient readily available? I must know if it’s the f in fifty or the f in four?”

“Don’t use that sort of language here, or I’ll call security,” she said. 

Our conversation was obviously heading for shaky ground. Taking a deep breath, I tried to think what Mr Phittard would do in this situation. Yes. He would be ultra courteous. I gave a wistful gaze into her eyes and smiled. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I really do respect your position and I’m grateful for your deliberations on the f in fifty and the f in four.” 

She slid the paper back to me. “You’d better leave.”

I stared at her in disbelief.

“And take your letter with you,” she said. 

I felt a note of miscommunication creeping in. “But I can’t,” I said. 

“Then I will call security.” Her voice rose an octave higher.

I am minus five minutes. 

Behind me were six people. Number four was most belligerent, complaining about being late back from his lunch break and ravaging a cheese baguette which dripped brown sauce down his bare arm. 

I tried to reason with the cashier. “Look,” I said. “The numbers in the box say fifty-four pounds, so it must be fifty-four. Why can’t it be cashed? I need that Scrabble game desperately.” I realised my voice was rising.

“The cheque has been refused.” she said. “So that’s final.” Her hand went under the counter. “Are you leaving or not?”

Normally a placid man, my dander was now coming up fast and hard. When I spoke next my hand might have banged against the glass by accident. “But I need to know,” I said. 

I believe she then pressed the alarm button. The queue scattered and two huge security guards appeared in a rush of truncheons and shiny helmets.

I landed outside face down. She stood in the doorway, scrunched up my letter and threw it at me. “Take this and fill out another cheque,” she said.

I tried to smile. “Of course,” I said. “Thank you.”

I think I was minus ten minutes. I could not be sure as my watch had smashed on landing. Some faintly remembered profanities drifted through my mind. I dismissed them as a temporary lack of personal mental hygiene and made a note to pay by credit card in future.

After breaking Mr Phittard’s unwritten commandment I should have been overcome with guilt, but somehow I felt enlightened, liberated from shackles of time and routine. Of course, I was disappointed with my mishandling of the enquiry, and pondered on how Mr Phittard would cope in the same circumstances. We would discuss it over cocoa at bedtime. If he was in a musical mood, possibly we could compose a song relating to the day’s events. The resulting opus might even help him forgive my indiscretion.

I wondered if I had time to buy a parsnip.