Always Happy To Help - Ian Adamson
He remembered it with a wistful fondness. The 19th of May, 1948 – the
day after their wedding. On that day they had agreed that while he was
working, she would hold the purse-strings and look after their small
“And if I spend it all on dresses?” she had asked, with an amused
glint in her eye.
“Then you shall be cold and hungry, but look good doing it” he
replied, laughing, giving her hand a squeeze as they walked through
Of course it hadn't been easy, and of course there had been the odd
lover's tiff – he recalled the Debate about the Cooker with a shudder
– but by and large the system worked. When she entered employment in
the mid-50s her now independent wage could have become the proverbial
pachyderm, but they decided that as their singular arrangement was
working fine, why change it?
He sighed as he took the paying-in book from the top of the mantle
piece, carefully moving her photo to one side as he did so.
“Well then,” he muttered to himself, “here we go”.
It was nearly four weeks since that awful day when fate had snatched
from him everything he held dear. He didn't – couldn't – think about
the practical implications at that time, of course. The lawyer had
been helpful enough, but it was a blur, like walking a familiar route
through fog and rain. The realisation that he had to buck up his ideas
came with the jolt of a bill from the gas company addressed to him
alone – he was not yet used to having sole use of the letter-box.
He put on his hat and coat, and set off to the bank alone for the
first time in his 84 years.
The bus was not busy, but there were enough people to make him feel
suitably uncomfortable. He always felt uncomfortable in public
nowadays, as if folk were watching, judging him for having the
audacity of being old and mobile. He tried not to let his discomfort
show, and as a general rule took a book with him wherever he went. He
glanced around as he thumbed through the well-worn pages of 'Greenery
Street' – yes, this bus was atypical in its passengers. A group of
teenagers amusing themselves with their phones, two mothers with small
children chattering away near the front, a few lonely travellers –
unemployed? Students? - and one other man like himself, also trying to
appear unnoticed. He absent-mindedly nodded in solidarity at the
other, then, embarrassed at this show of sociability, turned back to
He stepped off the bus and walked through the centre of the town. A
bustling metropolis, compared to what it once was, although in many
respects identical to every other average-sized town within the
locality. He recalled an article he had read in one of the papers
recently, about “clone towns”. This is not a clone, he thought. A
clone implies the future, science, wonders of the universe. This town
has none of those. He pulled his coat tighter around him as the bitter
wind grew stronger.
Within ten minutes he arrived at the bank. It was not as awe-inspiring
as he'd pretended in the childish fantasies he'd had in the days
leading up to this visit. “Silliness,” he murmured aloud, remembering
the times he had been here before with her, when she was still with
him. When everything was normal.
The baffling array of interest rates, mortgage deals, insurance
packages and pension plans that greeted him as he went through the
automatic doors meant that at first, he couldn't quite be certain of
where he was supposed to be going. He noticed what looked like the
beginnings of a queue forming and decided that would be the safest
“You can always rely on a queue,” he said, jovially, to the woman in
front of him. As soon as he opened his mouth he had no idea why he had
said it, and cursed himself inwardly. The woman laughed, nervously it
seemed, and continued to press buttons on her phone.
Ten minutes later and there were now only two people in front of him.
The woman – the woman who laughed – had left the queue, and he hoped
that it wasn't because of what he had said. What had he said, anyway?
He could barely remember now. Her place had been taken by a young man,
perhaps in his late 20s, who was drumming his fingers impatiently on
the handrail while listening to his music via one earphone. Ahead of
him were a couple who seemed foreign, or perhaps they were just
speaking very fast to one another.
“Cashier number 7, please” - the automated, robotic voice called out
from concealed speakers.
He felt his heartbeat speed up as he moved forward in the queue.
Please, let it be easy, he thought. No questions. Just give me what I
require and I can leave. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and
put it to his forehead. “Eh, warm in here, isn't it?”, he said to the
young man, who had glanced at this action. The young man raised his
eyebrows and nodded, continuing to tap-tap-tap his fingers on the
Minutes passed. All too soon he was at the front of the queue.
“Cashier number 3, please” - the robot demanded his audience now.
He went to the counter and smiled politely. The cashier was a young
woman, a brunette with brown eyes and a kind smile.
“How can I help you today, sir?” she asked, pleasantly. Her voice had
the faint traces of an accent but it was hard to place it. Midlands,
perhaps? Maybe he should ask her. Make small talk. No.
“I need to withdraw some money from my account...” he started.
“And do you have your identification with you, sir?” the young woman
asked. He fumbled in his pocket, embarrassed by the sound of his bus
fare change rattling around.
“Here”, he handed over the book that had been on the mantle piece,
“there may be an issue however...” his voice trailed off. This was
going to be difficult.
“Hm...” the cashier looked through the book, “it seems that there may
be a mistake, sir. The name on this book... is this your wi-”
He banged his hand on the counter and did not allow her to finish the word.
“Sorry,” he said, blood rushing to his face, “it's just...well, she's
not here.” He looked into the cashier's eyes, staring hard and hoping
that he wouldn't need to spell it out to her.
“I see...” said the cashier, looking around her, flustered. “I'm not
sure we can do any-”
“But you must,” he interrupted her again, quietly, nearly whispering
to her now, “we have been customers of yours for many years and we
always had this arrangement, you see...” his voice trailed off again
and he glanced at his shoes. At least they were polished. No shame
“I'll need to speak with my supervisor, sir.” The cashier got up from
behind the counter – standing, she was taller than he'd imagined at
first – and swiftly made her way through an anonymous door that was
behind the desks.
He contemplated leaving. The humiliation he felt at having his life
picked over and poked at by a total stranger was unbearable. He
noticed his hand was shaking and put it inside his coat pocket for
fear of anyone noticing. Could just go home now, he thought, but no –
we've come this far, may as well see it through to the bitter end. He
sighed again. The queue that he had previously been part of was moving
swiftly, but he could feel all eyes on him. A child whispering
something to its parent. About him? He didn't know, and he didn't want
to ask. For god's sake, where is that damned cashier? he thought,
getting ever-more frustrated.
After what felt like an hour – but was in fact 4 minutes, according to
the huge clock with Roman numerals on its face – the cashier returned,
with a middle-aged gentleman who wore a tie-pin and had the demeanour
of someone who was used to things being slightly out of the ordinary.
His shoes looked new and were tied with neat bows, and he wore a
slightly lop-sided smile on his face. Cufflinks adorned with the local
football team's crest suggested a happy marriage.
“Apologies for the wait, sir – would you mind stepping this way with
me?” the middle-aged man gestured towards a door at the end of the
counters. The cashier smiled at him as he walked past towards the
door, his anxiety at the situation unabating. The cashier turned to
face her next customer and he wondered if this kind of thing happened
regularly, or if it would be a anecdote she would tell her partner
when she got home. Doubtful, he thought, the tale of some silly old
fool who can't handle money is hardly worth mentioning.
He entered the office. The sterile blank walls dazzled and the
middle-aged gentleman gestured at a plastic chair. He placed himself
“Now then,” said the gentleman, “I can see what the issue is here.” He
opened a drawer by his desk and pulled out a large quantity of
paperwork. “It's remarkable, really,” he said, pouring coffee into his
baby-blue company mug, “that your particular arrangement went on for
so long. Did you never think of getting a joint bank account?” His
question was genuine and his tone sympathetic rather than accusatory.
He didn't answer immediately. He took a sip of the water that had been
poured for him and took a long look out of the window.
“Of course it came up in conversation,” he began, “but there never
seemed any need, do you understand? We are – were – very much of the
same mind on this point. Would that we had been when it came to
decorating, or landscaping the garden...” he smiled at his own attempt
at humour and the tie-pin wearing man smiled too.
“Naturally we are unable to issue funds to you today, you understand,”
said the gentleman, looking more serious after a brief pause,
“however, I would like you to take these forms” - he passed over the
paperwork that had been retrieved from the desk - “ and once you fill
them in the bank account will be in your name. We will issue you a
personal cash card as well so you needn't come back here simply to
withdraw funds.” The gentleman sat back in his chair, looking pleased
with himself and poured another coffee. Outside a car alarm was
“Yes... thank you...” he said, somewhat taken aback by this prompt
intervention, “but what am I to do in the meantime?” He dabbed his
forehead with his handkerchief again, unconsciously.
The tie-pin wearing middle-aged gentleman looked at him and seemed all
of a sudden very tired. The wrinkles under his eyes were more
pronounced than previously and the balding patch of hair on the top of
his skull appeared thinner.
“I'm afraid that really isn't something I can help you with.” he
responded after a minute or so.
“I see. Well, thank you for these -” he acknowledged the papers that
had been handed to him, “I will make sure they are completed and
returned in no time.” He forced a smile, and swallowed the lump that
had appeared in his throat.
They left the office together and shook hands by the exit of the main
building, like equals.
The air outside was piercingly cold and he pulled his coat once more
around him. He put his hand into his jacket pocket and while feeling
for his keys found what felt like a screwed-up piece of paper. He
pulled it out and unfolded it. It was a five-pound note.
“What a stroke of luck..!” he thought, ironically.
He did not take his usual bus home. He walked for a quarter of a mile
and stopped off at the supermarket – one of the big ones, there was a
campaign against it but everyone he knew shopped there now – and
looked around the store, wondering whether to spend his new-found
windfall or not.
He left the supermarket with a sombre countenance but with an inner
joy illuminating from within.
The graveyard, when he arrived, was quiet but for two blackbirds
serenading one another. He glanced up at them, wondering if nesting
season was just around the corner.
He had made this journey but once before, three weeks heretofore, and
he was in the company of friends at that time. Alone, the cemetery had
a completely different feel. The footpath itself seemed to echo with
his footsteps, and the rustling of the trees sounded like the
whisperings of a crowd. He made his way past the war memorial and the
expensive-looking headstones, took a left at the duck pond, carried on
past the fir trees, until he stopped at one plain-looking gravestone
amidst hundreds of others. The inscription on the grave read:
1926 – 2012
He removed the flowers from the supermarket plastic bag and put the
bag into his pocket. He laid the flowers on the grave, and touched his
lips to the stone.
“Sorry Sylvia, they're the best I can do. Sleep well.” he said,
patting the gravestone as he used to pat her shoulder. He stood up
straight, turned away, and left the graveyard.
Ian Adamson is 28 years old and is a procrastinating songwriter living in Nelson, Lancashire. He likes books and music and can be found tweeting sporadically at @ianplaysmusic or otherwise messing around on Facebook. His music can be heard and downloaded for free from Soundcloud or Bandcamp. This is his first short story.