Laughing all the way to the bank

THERE'S a bank in Scotland whose clerks bear on their sweaters the slogan ``A Friend For Life.'' I have little direct experience of that particular bank, yet I find its motto somehow unconvincing. Banks have never struck me as specially friendly places; though ``for life'' does seem rather apt. Once one starts a relationship with a bank, it does tend toward continuance. Actually I suspect that the notion of a ``friendly'' bank, and thus of a ``friendly bank manager,'' may be several hundred percent less credible than that, say, of a ``friendly policeman.'' At least with the latter you have no reason to feel guilty if you haven't committed a crime. With bank managers you never seem to feel entirely innocent, even when you are. Something about them, and it's not just their eyebrows, puts you at a disadvantage. They have that kind of unbudging sense of rightness which belongs to those who know they have more of what you have less of. It's summed up in a parallel drawn by Peter De Vries between Ivy League schools and banks: ``They,'' he wrote, ``will give you an education the way the banks will give you money - provided you can prove to their satisfaction that you don't need it.''

Which is why I was rather pleased recently to find myself momentarily with a branch of my bank (not a Scottish one) eating meekly out of my hand.

To protect the guilty, I will call her Mrs. Wappensoup - though this pseudonym isn't half as unusual as her real name. I first met Mrs. Wappensoup - actually a very nice person - when I was applying for some Italian lire. Lire come by the thousands. Perhaps it was this that confused her. Anyway, about three hours after I returned home, Mrs. Wappensoup was on the phone. ``Could you kindly count the lire I gave you this morning?'' she said, pleadingly. I did.

``Ah, it's as I thought,'' she groaned. ``I gave you far too much. Is there some way in which you could return the extra to us?'' It was a richly novel experience, this. A bank had been overgenerous to me! They wanted their lire back, of course, but the temporary possession of it gave me a fine feeling of tables turned.

The bank was to close within the hour. ``Well,'' I said nonchalantly, ``I suppose that I could come into town again. A book's just come in for me at Smith's. I might perhaps get a taxi and maybe drop the money off on the way ... if there's time....'' Mrs. Wappensoup seemed a little comforted.

Extraordinarily, the taxi driver was also called Wappensoup - though he assured me he had no relative in a bank; he only wished he had. By now the bank was shut to the ordinary public, but since it wanted what I had so eagerly, it elaborately, and with remarkable grace, I felt, unbolted the heavy doors specially for me. No bank has ever shown such pleasure to see me before.

I have encountered Mrs. Wappensoup frequently since - asking, in fact, for such a variety of different foreign bank notes over the last couple of years that now she always greets me with ``Oh, yes - and where are we off to this time?''

She refuses to believe these trips are work. ``Oh, yes'' she says incredulously. ``That's your story.'' Occasionally I remind her of the time she gave me too much - just to keep her on her toes.

And then last week I was in the bank for some Dutch guilders. This time I was served by a young man I'd never seen before. As he checked the exchange rate, Mrs. Wappensoup came by. To me she said: ``You're not off again!?'' And to him, as she pulled a strip of receipts from his till and studied them, sighing loudly: ``Now what've you done? What a mess!''

The young man looked at me quizzically. ``She's always getting at me,'' he said. ``Only because he deserves it,'' she interrupted briskly. ``He writes stories all over this - look!'' The receipts were scrawled with handwritten corrections. They both laughed.

``If she gets too stroppy,'' I said to the young man, ``just ask her about the time she gave me too many lire!''

``I don't believe it! She didn't!''

She laughed and admitted it. As he carefully counted out my guilders, he couldn't stop a smile spreading all over his face.

And what happened three hours later? Another phone call. This time from the young man. Very downcast. ``You're never going to believe this,'' he began. ``You haven't,'' I said. ``I think so,'' he said. I counted the guilders. Fifty too many. ``You have!'' I said. ``Yes,'' he said, ``and I thought it was impossible.''

``Well, I can't come rushing in with it today, and I'm off to the Netherlands first thing in the morning.''

``Just put it in the post, then.''

``And who is responsible if the Post Office loses it?''

``I am,'' he replied gloomily.

It turned out that I managed to drive past the bank late that evening. Into the envelope with the money, I also slipped a postcard of one of my favorite pieces of ancient sculpture from Glasgow's Burrell Collection. It is a terra cotta of a lion head of the Isin-Larsa period.

Whoever made this goofy-looking lion mask with its braided beard, comic ears, crew cut, contour-line mustachios, beady eyes, and enormous gaping mouth presumably imagined he was expressing the most awe-inspiring ferocity. He wasn't. His efforts fell flat. His lion head is dafter than Dopey.

What I wrote on the back of this card was unlike anything I have ever written to a bank before: ``Here's your money! The face on the front says it all. Best wishes.''

Come to think of it, maybe I have made a couple of lifelong friends in a bank after all.

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