My father worked in the bank. As far as I know, he started out as a messenger and worked his way through the ranks to management. He retired after over 46 years of service. That’s some kind of commitment.
He never worked with technology. He poo-poo’d the idea of using an adding machine, preferring to trust his accuracy in casting the numbers manually. A bank lived and died on the quality of relationships it developed with its customers, and personal service was unquestionably its biggest asset. Customers would go into the bank to withdraw or deposit funds, would get to know the tellers and would meet with the bank manager to discuss their accounts and requests for loans or overdrafts or new accounts.
A bank manager wielded much power and my father, jokingly, would talk about meeting customers at the doorway to his office. He would welcome them, shake their hands and invite them into his office. As he took his seat, he would invite his customer to take a seat opposite him. The response would be, “Thank you, sir, but I’m quite comfortable here on my knees.”
Apart from visits to my dad’s hallowed office, I, too, enjoyed two brief forays into banking. Although I am clearly my father’s daughter, banking was never going to feature big on my horizon.
My first taste of banking was a short, holiday job I took when I was home from university. Along with a bunch of students of similar ages and persuasions, I worked for a few weeks in the musty, upstairs offices of the Bulawayo branch. I have no clue what our task was, but I do remember loads of boxes of forms and paperwork, and we had to do something with them. Watching paint dry would have been riveting in comparison.
We’d shoot the breeze as we ticked boxes – or whatever it was that we did – and we took far too many coffee breaks and watched the clock till we could take lunch, or knock off. Three weeks passed by in slow motion and, happy with the money we’d earned, we bid each other a relieved farewell.
Another holiday job presented itself during my Christmas holidays that year. The bank was hugely busy and under-staffed during the frenetic Christmas period, so they called in some extra pairs of hands. My job, strange as it was that I chose to accept it, was deposits-only teller. With no training and some brief instruction, I took to the wooden counter like a duck to, um, treacle.
I didn’t suck at maths at school, but it was not a subject that brought me much thrill. I can do things with numbers, but I’ve never really wanted to. So taking on a job that required me to count money and balance the books with monotonous, daily regularity, seemed a bizarre way of spending half of my summer holidays. The money must have been good.
The large, gracious banking hall in Bulawayo was an architectural masterpiece from a bygone era. High ceilings, wood-panelled walls and a sweeping, wooden horseshoe of telling booths welcomed customers into the hushed heart of the bank. A security guard would guide customers to a single line where they waited for one of the tellers to become free. The telling booths were open, allowing face-to-face contact between tellers and customers. This was before the need for tellers to have reinforced, bullet-proof glass protecting them from their customers.
A second line was formed for deposits-only customers. My heart sank as the line grew daily and, as Christmas Day approached, my line dwarfed the other. It might also have been because I was slow. Heaven help me.
I had regular customers who would bring their cloth bags of loot and pour it out on to the counter: “Knock yourself out,” they would say to me. Or words to that effect.
I had one regular customer who worked in a furniture store on the next street. He would mince excitedly over to my counter every day. He would take the money out of the bag, hand it over to me, with his banking book, and then begin his daily gossip. I’m pretty good at multi-tasking but to listen and respond to gossip while I’m having to count money, record it accurately, add up all the totals and try and work out what I’m really supposed to be doing, was beyond me.
He was a delightful character, however. Always nattily dressed with hair over-styled and under-stylish, he would shift his weight from foot to foot as he trilled his long, frilly fingers together and told me what was happening behind the scenes in his store and with his customers, or where he’d partied the night before. He’d always give me an opportunity to “give the goss” from my side, but I usually looked up at him with an exasperated blank stare and wished he’d just be quiet. Fortunately he never got that I felt that way, and, once his book had been tallied and rubber-stamped, he’d twirl round and mince out of the bank like he was walking on air.
I also had regular visits from the newspaper sellers and hawkers who plied their trade on the streets outside the bank. These customers would usually have their loot tied into an old handkerchief and stored in their sock, or at least that’s the impression I got. I called those interactions the “smelly deposits”. Say no more.
One of my most embarrassing moments happened while I worked at that counter. Occasionally – like about a hundred times a day – I would need to leave my telling booth to go and ask someone what I was supposed to do in a particular situation. Or to take money to the safe. Or to fetch something. Each time I left, I’d have to make sure the bank’s rubber stamps were out of reach of the customers, retrieve my keys for the booth door and excuse myself as I went to look for some direction.
On one occasion, I did two of the three requisite things and left my booth. As I closed the door, with its Yale lock, I realised I had not taken my keys. I had just locked myself out of my booth. And I had a stranger-customer at my counter, waiting to complete his transaction. I broke into a cold sweat. I completed my enquiry mission, and then wondered how on earth I could discreetly walk into the banking hall and climb over the counter back into my booth to continue working with my customer.
For one who was not exactly a natural at telling, and who struggled most days to balance her books or do her job even vaguely well, this was a whole new challenge.
I am not the world’s greatest lateral thinker, but occasionally flashes of brilliance do cross my mind. I thought of a less embarrassing way to get back into my booth that didn’t involve pole-vaulting from the banking hall. I grabbed a chair, put it outside the back of my telling booth door, climbed up on to it and leaned up and over the top of the door – on tippy toes and probably groaning as I stretched to reach the lock – to unlock my door. I walked nonchalantly back into my booth to let my customer know what I had just found out for him.
It was difficult to maintain my dignity when I knew that the entire, busy banking hall was watching me. I tried to ignore the muffled giggles and guffaws from customers, security guards and fellow tellers. I glanced fleetingly at my watch and calculated – without the use of an adding machine – that it was only half an hour till closing time and in my mind I defied anyone to breathe one single word to me about what had just happened.
I finished with my customer and prepared to hold my breath; another customer was taking something out of his sock as he walked towards my counter.
Sunshine signing off for today!