At 1.30 I head back to the bank. Again. I’m beginning to feel like it’s an unhappy second home. As I reach the outer door, there’s a girl just leaving the lobby, having used the cash machines. Her head’s down as she walks towards the exit and she nearly bumps into me. She jumps and babbles breathlessly: “Oh! Oh no – oh, just so you know, the machines aren’t giving out money at the moment – um – they’re closed.” I smile back. “It’s OK. I need to talk to someone inside the branch.” She giggles. “Oh. Oh, OK then. Well – bye …” We cross in the doorway and I ring the doorbell of the inner door.
Through the glass, I see dark-haired woman standing up. She spots me, too, from across the room; she’s already shouting as she stomps towards the door. “We can’t give you the card back! We’re closed.” She stands, combatively, on the far side of the glass door. I wait for her to open it, but instead she just carries on railing at me. Through a closed door. It would be farcical if I weren’t so enraged at her rudeness. I interrupt her in my haughtiest voice. “The manager told me to come back at 1.30.” She shrugs insolently. “Yeah? Well, the manager isn’t here. She’s at lunch.” Every phrase she utters is punctuated with Sicilian sign language – a flick of the fingers under the chin, a hand cutting through midair, a templing and wagging of fingers. “We can’t give you the card back.” I turn on my heel, sick of listening to her. “Fine. I’ll come back tomorrow morning.”
Her tone changes on being met with equal aggression to her own. She still doesn’t open the door, but she does at least sound a pinch more conciliatory. “Signora!” I pause, my hand hovering in front of the door release button. She continues. “Signora, we have to check the records of the machine. If the card issuer has reported a problem we’re obliged to cut the card up.” I turn back to face her. As calmly as I can, I tell her that the problem isn’t with my card, it’s with their machine. But that yes; if the records haven’t yet been checked, I’ll come back in the morning. “Better the afternoon,” she retorts. She stands, chin jutted with belligerence, as if daring me to say anything more. I take a breath and meet her stare, then plaster a fake plastic smile onto my face. “Fine. Grazie, Signora. Until tomorrow, in that case …”
At 11am the next morning I’m back in the bank for the fourth time. I’m half-hoping that the dark-haired woman won’t be there, but it seems the bank’s staff is constant. Farrah Fawcett is still at her table; curly blonde woman is still staring at her computer with a ‘counter closed’ sign on her desk, and dark-haired woman is dealing with customers. The manager doesn’t appear to be in. I take a numbered ticket with a feeling of dread and sit down to wait.
The numbers climb closer and closer to my own. My palms sweat: there’s only one number to go before mine is called and I’ll have to speak to my nemesis again. I start to plan polite – and not so polite – strategies for dealing with her.
A movement in the lobby catches my eye. Praise be! It’s the manager, returned from whatever she’s been doing outside. I offer up a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of banking and smile at her as she walks across the room to her office. She smiles back. “Good morning, signora.” She nods a welcome to the man sitting outside her office. “Doctor. How lovely to see you.” They pass a few pleasantries and she disappears into her inner sanctum. I roll my eyes heavenward and mutter an inward mantra. “Please let me not have to talk to rude woman today. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease …”
Somebody somewhere is listening. The manager comes out of her office and walks over to the dark-haired woman, gently but firmly interrupting her conversation with the customer at the desk. “Laura. Do you have the cash machine records and the Signora’s card?” Dark-haired woman looks up. Her face turns sour as she sees me, but she heads to another desk behind her and unlocks a drawer, pulling out a sheaf of paper to which I can see is paperclipped my card. It’s still in one piece, I’m pleased to note. She hands the entire bundle over to the manager and sits down again, avoiding my eye. The manager heads back into her office, smiling at me as she goes past. “One moment, please.” I wait, breathing a huge sigh of relief and hoping that I’m not about to be called into her office to have the card destroyed in front of me and be clapped into handcuffs for reasons unknown.
“Meess By-ill-vard?” I don’t hear the manager’s voice at first, but the doctor outside her office waves at me to attract my attention. “I think she means you?” I wake up and nod my thanks at him, before walking into the manager’s office and shaking her hand. She tries my name again. “By-ill-vard? It’s correct?” I smile. “Not quite. Bailward. But it’s strange even for English people, so don’t worry.” She gives a small smile and gestures to the seat in front of her desk. “Please. Sit down.”
I do so, eyeing my card on top of the pile of papers on her desk. She picks them up and looks at them. “Around ten o’clock yesterday, yes?” I nod and smile. “That’s right.” She runs her finger lightly down the printout, stopping by a highlighted entry. “I see that you tried twice to take out money. Was there a problem?” My heart thumps painfully as I explain about the first machine telling me that services weren’t available and my therefore trying the second. I have a horrible, sick feeling that dark-haired woman has been right all along and they’re really not going to give me my card back. The manager nods thoughtfully. “I see.” Her eyes are enormous behind her glasses as she pulls out two – what seem to be identical – forms and starts to fill them out without further comment.
I entwine the fingers of both my hands together and clench them together hard, feeling my nails digging into the skin on the back of them. The manager copies my name carefully, as well as the type of card. She looks up at me, her pen hovering over an empty field on the form. “Where is the card from, Signora?” I look at her in confusion and she clarifies. “From which city?” I stumble over my explanation. “Well, not from any city, really. I mean, I just got it online – it’s not from my bank.” She looks at me and blinks. “So – a Mastercard is a credit card? Like American Express?” I’m as mystified at her confusion as she is at mine, but the words ‘American Express’ seem to have put her mind at ease so I just nod my confirmation. The time for unravelling the vagaries of international banking systems is definitely not right now. The manager pushes one form across the desk towards me, indicating where I need to sign, and I scan the text on the document, hoping I can understand any relevant details.
A foolish grin spreads across my face as I work out that it’s a form to say that I’ve received my card in good order. I exhale shakily in relief and scribble a wobbly facsimile of my signature with a hand that’s shaking with adrenaline. The manager chats quietly as I do so. “I was studying English, but I had to give it up because my mother was recovering in hospital.” I look up and meet her eyes. “I hope all’s well now, Signora?” She nods and smiles. “Yes. We hope. Both for her and for me!” She laughs, a tiny, soft sound, and I beam back at her. She stands up. “I’m very sorry for all of this, Signora.” I brush her apology aside. “Don’t worry. I understand that there are certain protocols that need to be followed.” She bobs her head at me in agreement. “Yes. Yes indeed. Well … good day, Signora. Arrivederci.” We shake hands and I walk out feeling as light as air.
As I leave the manager’s office, dark-haired woman ducks her head and stares fixedly at her computer screen. I’m tempted – SO tempted – to go over to her desk and pile gushing, insincere thanks on her for all of her help. The satisfaction of watching her squirm would be enormous. However, winning with dignity is priceless, and for everything else – despite her best efforts – I’ve finally reclaimed my Mastercard. That’s good enough for me.