A Very British Letter of Complaint
I met you today in a popular High Street bank.
You were an employee. I was a customer.
Between us was a counter.
I waited for fifteen minutes, in a long and tedious queue of long and tedious people, for the privilege of your undivided attention.
You are sat on a very high chair, with an air of self-satisfied dignity, like Queen Anne surveying her court.
I explain to you, as calmly as I can, that my debit card has stopped working, for no reason. I explain, as calmly as I can, that I have come in to request a new one. The situation is stressful. It has been a stressful week.
At your request, I give you my full name. My phone number. My address. My mother’s maiden name. My favourite teacher. My first pet. My overdraft limit. Two different standing orders that leave my account every month. My favourite member of the 80s band Wham. My order at the local Chinese. My biggest insecurity. My bra size in expensive shops. My bra size in cheap shops. The colour of my aura.
Finally, when the questions finally end and I pass through all the levels to arrive at fucking Mordor, you ask if I can provide a form of ID.
I drop my ID - a driving licence - onto the surface.
You look at the licence very carefully. You say
Is this your current address?
Well. It’s my parent’s address. I don’t live there anymore.
So you don’t live there?
Well no. I don’t live there anymore. As I just...mentioned.
I’m sorry. We can’t accept the ID if the address doesn’t match what we have on our system.
Helpfully, you turn your computer around, to show me that the address on the system - indeed - is different from the address listed on your screen.
You smile with smug satisfaction, as though you have just solved the Da Vinci code.
It’s not the same. The address on your license and the address on my system. Do you understand?
Something about the way you refer to your system triggers a volcano explosion in my chest.
I try to breathe.
Yes. I think I just about understand the subtlety of what you’re saying, I say, trying to keep my voice level, trying to be calm and reasonable because I am a nice, middle class woman from Chiswick.
More than anything, I am trying to keep my voice level so I don’t sound like my parents. My lovely parents, encountering a bureaucratic situation like this, would burst into a righteous kind of world-is-against-me rage. I’d watch and swear to myself I’d never be the same way.
I try, I try, I try.
I used to live at the address on the card. Do you not have that on your system?
You shake your head.
Do you have your passport on you? You say brightly.
No, I say, I don’t think I have it on me today.
(I don’t have my PASSPORT, Annette, because I don’t carry my passport around on the off chance that you, Annette, will require it.)
We need your passport.
Because it’s protocol.
But my passport doesn’t have my current address on it either.
Yes. That’s why we need it. Because it doesn’t have your current address.
I am not proud of what I am about to admit.
But there is something about the statement you have made, Annette, the bald, unbridled illogic of it, that fills me with more hot rage than the press treatment of Syrian migrants or the government shut down in the USA.
I try to breathe.
So you want a document with LESS INFORMATION than the one I have just given you?
Yes, you say nodding, as if I finally understand. That’s exactly it. Protocol.
The word “protocol”, by now, has lost all its meaning and integrity. The word “protocol” has been stripped bare, humiliated, whipped, left for dead. Pro - to - col have become three stupid, repetitive syllables that add up to nothing at all.
Helpfully, you open up some kind of bank-issued rule book on your screen, wherein the rule you are referring to is listed. Helpfully, you point this out to me, running your fake blue nail under the relevant line. Helpfully, you smile with a serenity that makes me want to smash your name badge into a billion tiny pieces, that makes me want to rip the stupid barrette out of your still pinecone hair.
Instead, I nod.
Annette, I say, glancing at your name badge, trying to relate to you on a woman-to-woman level, trying to remind you that we are both human beings with flesh and blood and veins and hearts, let’s just be straight with each other here.
We both know that THIS -
I hold up the blue card.
- is my card. WE BOTH KNOW - we both know - it’s my account. There's £37.50 in the account, Annette. What efforts do you think I'd go to for that?
Hmm, you say, I understand, even though everything you are saying suggests the exact opposite of understanding.
Our conversation has all the integrity of two rabid chimps shrieking across a ravine.
We can do a signature check, you suggest, helpfully.
Oh wow, I say, thrilled, wondering why this is just coming up now, okay.
You place a small rectangular piece of paper on the desk.
You ask me to sign my name.
Matilda Lee Curtis, I write, trying to remember my own handwriting.
You take the piece of paper. You look at your system.
You shake your head.
I’m sorry. That’s not gonna work for me, you say.
I start to laugh.
I try not to, I really do, but something about this situation, the queue of tired people snaking back through the bank behind me, the stupid amount of time I have been in this place for a very basic request, the clinical light, the earnest expression on your face, is so absurdly funny I don’t know what to do with myself. I'm not sure where to look.
What do you mean? I say, trying to stop laughing.
The signatures don’t match, you say.
I try to remember when I would have signed my card on the system, and realise it probably would have been when I first received my own bank account at the age of 10, fifteen years ago.
The signature I gave, I imagine, was probably some baffled approximation of a ‘Grown Up Signature’, with curled letters and scrawls. Now, technically an adult, I am attempting to capture this strange adolescent imagining of what the person, the proper, sorted person, I believed I would become.
Write it again, you say, but without your middle name.
The volcano inside me stirs with life.
But I breathe in. I breathe out.
I write out my name again.
Write it again, you say, but make it curlier. More joined-up.
It feels like there has been a glitch in the Matrix. We will be trapped in this loop for eternity, you advising me on my signature and me following your instructions. I feel sure I will never leave this bank. I try to remember my life before this conversation but it's hazy and distant.
But I follow your instructions once again.
Hmmmm, you start, examining the paper like a Christie's art dealer, nope.
Finally, my parents burst out, my frustration peaks. I throw the piece of paper at you. Unfortunately, the paper is so thin it barely moves. We both watch it flutter down to the counter.
For heaven’s sake. This is ridiculous. I was ten years old when I wrote that signature. YOU’RE the ones who f- ... screwed up, not me.
Yes, I realise that, she says, but I have to do what it says on my computer.
I say nothing.
But I’ve come in here so many times - SO MANY TIMES - and I haven’t had to do all of this, I say.
They weren’t following protocol, you say.
You and me, Annette, we are just two people on this mad, chaotic slice of rock that is hurtling through space for reasons neither of us can understand. Against all odds, against all reason, we have been gifted with a tiny scrap of time, a little window of opportunity with which to eke out a happy, comfortable life, searching for meaning and love where we can find it.
You - like me, like so many of us - cling to the parts of your world that you can control, desperately stick to the landmarks of life you understand, trying with all your might to make the world make sense.
I can’t really blame you.
You have a job to do. Protocol is a wonderful thing, in some ways, probably the only thing between a civilised society and a terrifying state of nature.
But they don't matter, really, these arbitrary rules. They're just something some person, somewhere, once decided.
I look at your face very closely. Your hair is curly and blonde, your eyes vast orbs of The One Show and Zizzi’s and nothingness.
I try to imagine what you once looked like.
You weren't always a miserable jobsworth, Annette. Once upon a time, you were a little girl who pirouetted through a ballet studio or ate a whole advent calendar in one sitting or watched the teacher roll in the TV at the beginning of the lesson with a trilling heart.
If we had met in another context, we might have been friends.
Well - not friends exactly. I mean, you are in your late fifties, and have the personality of a vat of cement. And I am quite sure - nay, hopeful - we don’t have the same taste in music. But we might have had a fond, neighbourly kind of affection for one another. We might have chatted about the unseasonable February weather, or how much we’re looking forward to the Easter weekend. You might have made me your signature casserole; I might have taught you how to dab or use Snapchat. I mean, I can’t do either of those things, but I could have tried.
I understand that you have a job to do.
But there must be more than this. This bank, this counter, the words on your screen. Isn’t there? Do you ever wonder that too?
After all that we’ve been through, all the words we have said, all the tears we’ve cried, I understand. I must concede.
Within this small world, you reign victorious.
So there’s nothing that can be done, I say, my voice a flat monotone.
No, you say, there’s nothing that can be done.
Your burst into a joyless, affected smile.
I am very conscious of the long line of tired people curled back through the shop behind me, watching my back with annoyance. You look behind me to make eye contact with the next person in the line. I am being played off stage, ushered away from the mike.
My audience with you is over.
I back away.
On the way out into the wide, open world, a big burly guy who sits on a high umpire chair above the queue for no apparent reason asks me if I need any more help. I give him a blow-by-blow account, careful not to seem self-pitying but the emotion of the situation bursting out of me in spurts. He nods. He presses something on his iPad.
He doesn’t speak much, this bloke, but there’s something beguiling about him, a devil-may-care nonchalance, I can’t help but like.
The new card will be with you within 1-2 working days, he says, with a quiet dignity.
As I leave the shop, I try to catch your eye. I so want to have my Pretty Woman moment where I tell you what a huge mistake you’ve made with a devilish smile, head-to-toe in designer clothes, flush with the attention of a rich and beautiful businessman.
But you are talking to another customer. So I turn the other way and I walk out the door.
I receive an automatic text, asking me to rate the service I received at the bank out of 10.
10, I write, without a second thought.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustration by Noelle Turner-Bridger