“What did he say?” My mother leans over to me and whispers her question in Italian.
“He thinks we’re behind in the home loan repayments.” I respond just as quietly, “and he wants us to bring the repayments up to date.”
My mother looks from me to Mr Walter, the Bank Manager. She smiles at him compliantly, as if to say “Of course, that’s why we are here.”
“Here”, is Mr Walter’s office. Blank walls, denuded desk, overly tiny chair struggling with Mr Walter’s heft. He is a plump man. As my mother would say later: “he must be eight months pregnant with a stomach like that. The baby would come out smelling of beer.” On the edge of that gut is a sturdy, leather belt. It acts as a thin strip of headland that appears ready to break away.
“Is he an idiot,” says my father, sounding insulted. I look over at Mr Walter, whose face reacts slightly to my father’s tone. His red-tipped ears prick up at the gibberish he hears from the other side of his desk.
My mother, always the politician, smiles at him and then quickly turns to my father with a look that quiets him.
Meanwhile, Mr Walter, seeing the outburst dealt with, sits back regally and observes his supplicants from his quivering throne.
My mother and father have been summoned to appear at the Bank Manager’s office. The date and time are convenient for Mr Walter, but not for my parents. They have taken a day off work and I, still in primary school, have called in sick and then gone on to take on the role of interpreter.
My mother opens her bag and pulls out a bunch of papers. While keeping her face as neutral as possible, she says to my father in Italian, “What on earth is he saying? What does he mean we are behind in our payments?”
“E pazzo” says my father. He smiles up at Mr Walter.
My mother stands and approaches the desk. “Scuza me,” she says in her broken English as she places the papers in front of Mr Walter.
He sits up as his expression turns to affront. He is not happy with this attack on his sovereign space.
“Scuzi, Mr Walter, but no, we’re not behind in payments. We are three months ahead, I think. Look here,” her thin finger points to a table of figures in a bank statement. Mr Walter’s gaze follows it and his gaze changes colour.
He looks up at my mother, who is looking down at him. He dramatically, and with as much drama as possible sweeps the document off the desk and looks closer at the figures, hoping they’ll change in his favour. His face reddening due to the intense concentration.
“You see, Mr Walter?”
“mmm, … well, … yes, ….” Mr. Walter looks over the top edge of the Statement “yes, I do.” He takes a deep breath, stands, hands the papers back to my mother and walks out of the room without another word.
My father’s eyes follow him out. “What does that mean?” he says.
“It means we can go!” replies my mother.
This is one of the memories of my childhood that rears itself now and then. After the meeting, we all walked back home, got out of our Sunday-best and had lunch. The next day my parents went back to work and I to school.
I never heard my parents complain about the Bank Manager or the Bank, or why they had to miss a day’s pay. They were ultimately relieved they would still keep their home loan and their house wouldn’t be confiscated. (Or some such thing).
I certainly never complained. This was a Bank Manager of Australia’s largest bank. This was the Bank that had provided my parents with the funds to buy the house we were living in.
But what had just happened? I remember there was no “Sorry, we made a mistake”, “Sorry for bringing you in at a time that meant you had to miss a whole day of work and the pay associated with that day”, “Wow, you guys are great customers of the Bank. We should have more like you,” “Goodbye, and thank you for coming in, and, once again, apologies for any inconvenience.”
Why do I remember this?
I have said this before. As a child, I remember believing, unquestioningly in roles that had social standing in the community. I had faith in the Priests who conducted mass for Parishioners every day of the week, politicians who governed the country, the police who secured our streets, teachers who taught me, and adults who should be wiser than me, yes even bank managers just like Mr. Walter.
They were important pillars of society. Think about today. How many of those roles do I still trust unquestioningly?
More important, how many of these do my children trust? How many of them will my grandchildren trust? It all leads me to a hanging question at the end of all this thought that I am going to leave hanging: Who do we trust these days and are they pillars of society?