a story by Ronke Luke
March - April
It was barely 10:02 am on a March morning and Mr. James was hot. Not because of the three-piece suit with white shirt and narrow black tie he wore. Not because the air conditioners in the hallway spouted warm air. No. The heat searing his thinking and speeding his heartbeat, had started as irritation 23 minutes into his wait on a hard, wooden chair outside Mrs. Samuels’ office at the bank. Fed up with waiting, a creeping mild annoyance had lit a slow burning fire in his chest that smoldered as he watched people come and go from Mrs. Samuels’ office. They all ignored him. Mr. James heard time ticking away on the wall clock across from him. Every stroke of the passing minutes, compressed the tension and raised the temperature in his chest. Mrs. Samuels hadn’t beaconed him.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock
Now 47 minutes into his endless wait, Mr. James tried to speak with Mrs. Samuels’ clerk. How much longer? Instead, the clerk brushed him off and walked away. Mr. James, stood mouth ajar, in the hallway. As he watched the clerk disappear around the corner, heat burst through Mr. James’ tightening chest, parched his throat, clenched his jaw, and exploded in his brain, pushing out all but a single thought: He was going to see Mrs. Samuels. Now.
Mr. James! It’s You?
He reached for the handle, as Mrs. Samuels’ office door swung open. Two visitors exited thanking her profusely. Mr. James did not wait to be invited. He strode into the windowless office. Fluorescent light bounced off the wide formica desk that dominated the space.
He didn’t miss the large bronze desk name plate that announced the office occupant in black lettering: Mrs. Victoria Samuels, Division Director Banking Operations. A mechanical hum from the air conditioner filled Mr. James’ ears. Engulfed in his own personal heatwave, he didn’t feel the cooler air.
Mrs. Samuels looked up at him over the rim of her glasses perched on her chubby cheeks. The oversized executive chair dwarfed her so the high back extended six inches above her head. No recognition flashed in her eyes.
Mr. James stood across from her large desk between the two black leather visitors chairs. “Mrs. Samuels,” he said extending his hand. “Jeremiah James. I remember you from years ago when you worked for Thomas. You both helped with my banking.”
“Oh! Mr. James! Jeremiah James!” Mrs. Samuels replied in wide-eyed surprise, planting her fat palms on the desk to steady herself as her shawl slipped down her shoulders. “Is it you? Jeremiah James?” she continued pointing at him with her stubby left index finger.
“Yes, it’s me,” Mr. James replied smiling. Pleased that Mrs. Samuels recognized his name, he felt the heat retreat from his head. His outstretched hand waited in mid air for hers.
“Really? Mr. James! We heard you’d died!”
“Died?” Mr. James’ smile abruptly froze. His heart skipped a beat, as he took a step back.
“Yes. Died! Years back.” Mrs. Samuels leaned forward, her neck straining upwards to Mr. James, as she gripped her chair’s arm rests. “It’s you?”
“Of course, it’s me,” Mr. James replied pointing at himself with his once extended hand, his voice a notch higher. “Don’t you see me standing in front of you?”
How can I help you?
“Yes. Yes. I’m just surprised,” Mrs. Samuels said collecting herself. She pushed her glasses up her nose, straightened the name plate on her desk, and leaned back in her chair. “Ehhmm. Yes. Yes. How can I help you?”
Mr. James produced his bank book from his jacket pocket and handed it to Mrs. Samuels. “I’d like to withdraw funds from my account.”
Mrs. Samuels took the dark green bank book and flicked through its pages. Entries of deposits and withdrawals in black and blue ink flashed by.
I haven’t seen one of these books in years.
“This account is dormant, Sir,” she said looking back up at Mr. James, handing him back the small book.
“Dormant?” He shivered involuntarily. For an instant, the room blurred; everything was out of focus. He squeezed his eyes shut. The drone from the air conditioning sounded louder.
“Yes. We shifted to bank cards many years ago. If you don’t have a card, your account is likely dormant. Why didn’t you get a card?”
“Because I’m retired in America now. No one wrote me about getting a card. I didn’t get a letter.”
Letter! Why is he talking about letters?
“Mr. James, have you got a letter mailed from Sierra Leone since you have been in America?
He knows Sierra Leone’s postal service has long stopped working.
“We had posters here in the bank,” Mrs. Samuels continued waving her heavy arm around her office. “And put announcements in every local paper for three months. Plus, we sent emails. Do we have your email?”
Mr. James didn’t reply.
Mrs. Samuels broke the awkward silence. “You’ll have to come back in a week.”
“A week!” Mr. James reached for the back of the guest chair to steady himself. Shock sent a hot bolt through his chest. “I need money for my lunch appointment today and my stay on this trip. The money in this account.”
“Ah! Mr. James. You’ve come from America. You didn’t bring dollars?”
“Why should I? My retirement goes in here?” he said waving his bank book.
“You have no dollars?”
“I have fifty.”
“Ah ha! Fifty is okay. I’ll take you to the foreign exchange counter.”
Mrs. Samuels made small talk while they walked. Pleasantries about his well-being, his visit to Freetown, his family. It took less than 15 minutes to change the $50 into local currency. Recognizing Mr. James’ surprise at the pile of money, Mrs. Samuels lent him a black tote bag to carry the bundles of notes.
“Next week,” she smiled as they shook hands.
Was Martin right?
Mr. James hailed a taxi to Crown Bakery. His ride wasn’t pleasant. Squeezed in the back with two other passengers, he clutched his bag of money. Smoke from the front seat passenger’s cigarette wafted back towards him. After a decade in “smoking-prohibited” America, this ordinarily, would have annoyed him, but Mr. James was preoccupied. As he replayed his experience at the bank, his son Martin’s voice rang in his head.
I told you so.
Martin had told him not to bother with the bank. A waste of time Dad, he’d argued. “Just take enough dollars in cash,” Martin had said as Mr. James searched for his old bank book. He had countered “I have money in this account. Plus, my retirement is paid there every month. Why should I travel with a lot of cash?”
As the taxi edged its way through heavy traffic in late morning sun, the conversation flooded back to Mr. James’ consciousness blocking out all the sounds of the busy city.
“You’ll just waste your time in that bank, Dad. Compared to dollars, how much retirement money do you have in that account?” Martin had scoffed. “Admit it. Very little.”
That riled Mr. James. “I earned a top civil service salary.”
“In leones, not dollars,” Martin reminded him.
“Nine years I’ve been here in New Jersey, every month money has gone into this account in Freetown,” Mr. James had continued pointing at his bank book. “That’s good money.”
Martin had countered, “Dad nobody knows you there anymore. Trust me, when you show up with dollars, people in that bank will be more interested in talking with you.”
In the end, against Martin’s advice, Mr. James had traveled from America with less than five hundred dollars in cash. He had taken only $50 when he left for the bank this morning.
That $50 had given him easy access to the bag of spending money he clutched in his lap, while a decade of retirement payments were locked in the bank book sitting in his suit pocket.
Hmmm! Martin was right?
He shut down that thought immediately.
Next week everything will be sorted.
You believe that?
Mr. James’ lunch with his old friend Kofi was not satisfying. They had been work colleagues. Kofi at the Ministry of Works. Mr. James at the Public Works Department. They had risen through the civil service ranks and retired within two years of each other.
Crown Bakery’s food was tasty and Kofi was still good company. But Mr. James couldn’t shake Kofi’s reaction to his experience at the bank that morning.
“Dormant account? You believe that?”
“What do you mean?” Mr. James asked.
“They’d declared you were dead! Yet your retirement’s still being paid. Think about it.”
Mr. James fell silent for a minute. “Mrs. Samuels knows me. You remember her, don’t you? She assured me next week.”
“Hhmm! Don’t tell them you’re only here for five weeks. You’ll get nothing out of them.”
Mr. James changed the subject. “Let’s have another drink.”
Back and Forth. Next Week
Mr. James’ trip to the bank the following week was futile. Mrs. Samuels and her boss were out for the rest of the week. Gone to a conference.
No one else can help with dormant accounts the clerk had said.
When he returned in the third week Mrs. Samuels introduced him to the banking operations manager, Jeffrey, a charming man, known to wear slim cut suits, with colorful ties and handkerchiefs that matched. Jeffrey flashed a warm smile as he explained that some of the dormant account records had been computerized. He could check for Mr. James’ account. “Unfortunately, I can’t do so right this moment. It’s a different system and I’m heading to a meeting.” Jeffrey wrote down the account number. “Check back next tomorrow,” he told Mr. James. “What time?” Mr. James didn’t want a repeat of Mrs. Samuels. “Any time,” Jeffrey replied. “I’m always here.”
Jeffrey was out when Mr. James returned two days later. No one could say whether Mr. James’ account had been found.
Over beers with Kofi at a road side pub, Mr. James bemoaned the seeming incompetence of the bank. “Back in our day, things worked in this country,” he complained.
“Don’t think this back and forth with you and the bank is a coincidence,” Kofi offered.
Recognizing his friend’s puzzlement, Kofi clarified his point “There’s often a plan behind the seemingly random chaos here.”
More Back and Forth. Next Week
Mr. James finally caught up with Jeffrey the following week. Unfortunately, Mr. James’ account wasn’t computerized so the records division would have to search the paper archives. But they were in storage. Jeffrey called the records manager, Titus Nichols, who told them “We’ll need some time. Come back later this week.”
Kofi’s words echoed in Mr. James’ head. You’ll get nothing out of them.
Titus Nichols was apologetic when Mr. James returned. The wrong set of records had been retrieved from storage. He wasn’t sure if the records inventory system was messed up or the clerks made a mistake. “But, I’m happy your request has allowed the bank identify this problem,” Titus Nichols said to Mr. James' chagrin. “Don’t worry, we’ll sort it out immediately.”
Immediately! It’s already been three weeks.
“Good news,” Titus, the records manager told Mr. James when he returned in the fourth week. “We located the right archive box. The paper records will be transferred from storage soon. By the end of next week everything will be reviewed.”
“End of next week!” Mr. James spluttered. “Next week, I’ll be gone.”
“Oh!” Titus hesitated for a moment. “We can look when you come back.”
“We need to look now.” Mr. James told Titus before he went in search of Mrs. Samuels.
She's Division Director. She’ll get these people to hurry up.
He found her in her office.
“Ah! You’re leaving so soon?” Mrs. Samuels responded after Mr. James explained his distress. “Maybe we should wait on the archive search until your next trip?” she suggested.
Mr. James shuddered. His temples pulsed.
“Anyway, you’ll have dollars when you go back to America. Really no need to worry then about this old account,” Mrs. Samuels smiled.
Martin’s words rang in Mr. James’ ears. I told you so.
Ever been given the run around where you have a feeling you're being had?
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.