It’s Palm Sunday, around 10am, and I’m on my way to the station to catch a bus to Siracusa. I know I’ve got enough money to get my bus ticket, and the people I’m meeting in Siracusa have offered to buy me lunch, so I don’t really need any extra, but I swing into the bank on my way past anyway. I don’t like the thought of turning up with an empty wallet. It seems rude, somehow.
As it’s Sunday, the main door to the bank is locked unless you swipe a bank card. Forgetting that I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, I swipe my English credit card through the slot, first one way, then the other. It does absolutely nothing. I pull my Italian bancomat card out of my wallet instead. Despite the fact that there’s been nothing much more than cobwebs in the account for at least two years, it opens the door. I laugh to myself: the laziness which has meant I haven’t closed the account yet may be costing me in bank fees, but there are times when it comes in useful.
Inside the lobby there are two cash machines, one on either wall. I go to the one on the right and insert my credit card, going through the rigmarole of entering my PIN by touch alone, with my free hand shielding the keypad in case there are any hidden cameras above the machine. A message flashes up on the screen: this service isn’t available for your card. Rolling my eyes at the pointlessness of cash machines which don’t have cash in, I move to the other machine and enter all the information again, jabbing at buttons automatically. Withdrawal. Italian. X euros. PIN. OK. The machine starts to chunter and I wait for it to spit my card and money back out at me.
It seems to be taking longer than usual. I glance impatiently at the screen. The machine’s whirring, but it’s not doing anything more than that. No sign of my card being pushed back out of the slot, and no sign of any money either. Then the screen flashes, and the message changes. Rather than telling me to take my card and that my money will arrive shortly, it says that the machine is out of service.
Out of service with my card still trapped inside.
I gape, open-mouthed in horror, like a goldfish. Then I start jabbing at the cancel button, in the vain hope that my card will be ejected. Result: nothing. Feeling sick, I grope in my bag for my phone, scanning around the lobby for a number to call to report a faulty cash machine.
It’s at this moment that I see the two policemen climbing out of their car and heading towards the bank.
My first thought is that they’re going to arrest me. It’s the only conclusion my panicked mind can draw at this moment. One of the policemen peers through the glass outer door, shading his eyes with his hand to cut out reflections. He sees me and points towards the door release button, asking me to open it for them. I don’t see what else I can do; I press the button and the door slides across.
The two men enter. “What happened, signora?” asks the one who was peering through the glass. I start to jabber the facts as I remember them, words spilling out of my mouth with surprising coherence, considering that I’ve just lost my credit card and I’m speaking in Italian to a policeman who may or may not be about to arrest me. He nods, listening carefully. “Which machine did you use?” I explain that I’d tried both of them, but that it’s the one on the left that has my card. The peering policeman’s silent partner pulls out a torch, turns it on and shines it into the card slot, squinting, one-eyed, after it. He then takes hold of the outer section of the card slot and pulls hard. It doesn’t budge. The first policeman pulls out a mobile phone and calls a number. “Massimo? Yes, we’re at the bank. No, we can’t see anything.” He looks up at me. “I’m going to give you a number to call, Signora.” I fumble for my phone as the policeman carries on talking to Massimo, whoever he may be. “Yes. OK. Yes, I’ll tell the signora to report it now. She should come back in the morning? OK.”
He hangs up the phone and focuses his attention back on me. “OK. Call this number …” He dictates it to me quickly; in my current stressed state of mind, I fail to register it. Numbers aren’t a strong point for me in Italian at the best of times. He repeats, more slowly, and this time I get it. I show him the screen and he nods. “Call that number, tell them what happened, then come back in the morning to get your card. You do live in Catania, don’t you?” I tell him I do, then jump as an alarm starts to sound. We’ve been standing in the lobby for too long with the door closed. A robotic voice sounds from a speaker somewhere above our heads, telling us to get out. I’m not sure what the consequences will be if we don’t, but the policeman seems keen to obey. He ushers me ahead of him, speaking smoothly as he does so. “Well, the good news is, Signora, that your card’s definitely not in the slot – it’s properly in the belly of the machine. However, call that number I’ve given you, OK?” I press the dial button and put the phone up to my ear, too dazed to do anything but exactly what I’m told. The policeman holds up his hand in parting salute. “Buona giornata, signora.” I mumble the appropriate response, while thinking privately just how unlikely it is that a good day is now on my cards.
The phone rings and rings. Every minute or so the ringing is interrupted by a recorded message: ‘Lines are busy. An operator will be with you shortly.” I continue standing outside the bank, waiting for the phone to stop ringing and a person to answer. A woman arrives at the door to the bank and starts to pull her bank card out of her wallet to swipe herself in. I hold up a hand to stop her. “Signora, it’s dangerous.” She eyes me with suspicion. “What do you mean?” I explain that the machine’s taken my card for no reason, that the police have just been here and that I’m on the phone waiting to report it. She gives me the fish-eye. “Well, which machine did you use?” I tell her both, repeating my advice not to use the machines today. If I’d been expecting thanks for an act of Good Samaritanism I’d have been disappointed: she walks away, chuntering under her breath as if it’s my fault.
The man selling woven palm leaves by the door of the bank – who was hanging on every word of my conversation with the woman – watches me surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye. Another police car patrols, slowing as it passes the bank, the men inside looking across the road to see what’s going on. Presumably the alarm that went off when I was inside with the other policemen has set off an alert. I’ve been standing here for a good ten minutes now, waiting for someone to answer the phone. It’s clearly not going to happen, so I decide to cut my losses. With a final scan of the lobby to check that my card hasn’t, by some miracle, been spat back out of the machine, I head home to call my credit card provider, in the hopes that they’ll be more responsive than the Italians have been.
“Hello, this is the Halifax lost and stolen card line. You’re speaking to Sarah. May I take your name, please?” I give my name and Sarah’s disembodied, lightly-London-accented voice thanks me. “May I call you Kate today?” I’m so surprised by this thoughtful addition to the usual helpline script that I forget to be stressed for a moment. I smile. “Yes! Of course.” She thanks me again. “What can I do for you today, Kate?” I start to babble out an explanation. “Well my card was swallowed by the machine but the thing is I’m in Catania, in Sicily – ” There’s a squeak from the other end of the line. “Ooh, lucky you! Sorry – go on …” I laugh and continue, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen to get all the relevant details in before she gets another chance to interrupt me. I finish on a gasp of breath “… and so, anyway, the police said I could go and get my card tomorrow, but I just wanted to make you guys aware of the situation, you know?”
Sarah pauses before speaking. “So, do you want the card blocked, Kate?” I chew my lip. “I don’t know. What happens if I do that?” She launches into a scripted spiel, telling me that it’ll be blocked with immediate effect and that a new card will be sent to my registered address within five days. I screw up my face, knowing the probable answer to my next question but asking it anyway. “So, um, can you send it to a different address? Abroad, for instance?” She thinks for a moment. “How long are you going to be there?” I tell her I’m probably not going back to the UK for a couple of months at this point in time, and she hems and haws a little. “I see. OK, well, it’s possible, but you’d have to change your permanent address, and I can’t do that over the phone, unfortunately.” We both pause; me while I think about what to do, and her while she waits for me to say something.
In the end, it’s Sarah who breaks the silence. “What do you want to do, Kate? Do you want me to block it?” I squawk in agonised frustration. “I don’t know! Thing is – if I cancel the card and then it turns out that the bank have got it safe, then it’s going to be really difficult to get hold of the new one.” She makes a sympathetic noise. “I know. It’s so hard!” Her tone changes to one of decisiveness. “If it were me, I’d cancel it. Just to be safe, you know? But I absolutely understand where you’re coming from.” I gnaw on the edge of my nail, thinking about the best course of action to follow. I can see her point – but if it turns up OK at the bank in the morning and I’ve already cancelled it then I’m going to be kicking myself.
Sarah’s sympathetic voice breaks into my thoughts. “Kate …?” I make the decision. “OK. I’m – I think I’m going to leave it for now. But if I get to the bank in the morning and it isn’t there …” She finishes my sentence. “You call us straight back, OK?” I let out a whoosh of air, relieved to have made a decision. “OK.”
Tension lifted, we both start to laugh. I make a flippant comment about the life of the traveller and Sarah sighs. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I went all round Italy last year but we didn’t get to Sicily. What’s it like?” I grin. “I love it here. It’s amazing – you should definitely come sometime.” She laughs. “Stop it! You’re making me jealous!” I laugh with her. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s grey and drizzly here right at this moment.” I can almost hear her beaming wickedly down the phone at me. “Actually, that *does* make me feel better, believe it or not, ‘cos it’s sunny here.” It’s my turn to be jealous – and I tell her so – but I finish the call feeling infinite times better than I did when I started it.
(To be continued …)