The Friendly Banker
Premiered – April Fools' Day, 2004
Despite the nagging thought of losing a generations-old family business, Earl could not help but notice the scene in the small, quaint lingerie shop as he passed by. With the slightest tiff being the great exception to the rule in the fiefdom's peaceful and quaint village, he found the event worthy of note and stopped at the shop's door to look inside. There he noticed the Lady Varenna haggling with the shopkeeper.
Well... perhaps not 'haggling'. The Lady Varenna could not possibly stoop to haggling ! But there did seem to be the hint of a mild disagreement. Earl listened for a moment, straining to catch all the words. Varenna's voice was the first of which he could decipher anything intelligible.
"This is preposterous! You've made some gigantic mistake!"
The shopkeeper was much calmer, a fact that impressed Earl since she was not of royal blood. "I can assure you madam that the latest carrier pigeon has provided me with all the kingdom credit limits which have been exceeded and your name is clearly on the list. It is here on the parchment, just as I have shown you.
"But someone has made a horrendous mistake. My credit limit cannot be exceeded! I am filthy rich! Or at least my husband is!"
"Nevertheless madam, I must insist on cash."
"Don't be vulgar, woman! No lady of breeding would be caught dead with money on her person!"
'I thought it was soiled underwear,' Earl thought. Then it occurred to him that Varenna might be bolting from the store quite soon and it would be best if they did not meet under the present, unfortunate circumstances. Instead, he continued on down the street, taking little heed of the lingerie shop drama, other than perhaps to scratch Varenna's name from the guest list of his upcoming inaugural ball. 'No big deal,' he thought. 'Certainly nothing with which to concern oneself.'
Still... The slightest sense of concern did stay with him. At first, Earl could not quite put his finger on it. As he walked down the street, he felt the first subtle stirrings of being ill at ease, a feeling that he could not remember ever having had before (which in turn explained his inability to recognize it on the basis of his past experience). But something was definitely there.
Then Earl began to suspect the source of his dis-ease. As he glanced around in the manner in which royal folk are prone to do, he began to notice the slightest change in the attitude of the townsfolk. It was as if the quaint citizens of the town were acting a bit more distant, a bit more reserved, and on the whole a great deal less eager to greet their Earl. It was as if they were not eager to catch his notice.
It was then he realized that the entire town must be aware of his family's business failure -- bad news travels incredibly fast in small, quaint townships of the type found in Earl's fiefdom. He also realized the townsfolk would be understandably confused by the apparent breech of his omniscience. It was exceedingly hard for the average citizen of his small, quaint village to understand how someone of Earl's caliber could possibly have erred. Come to think of it, he was a bit shocked himself by the realization of a possible flaw in his character. Small wonder the townsfolk were confused.
Such confusion on their part, however, was no reason for Earl to appear confused. Consequently, he began to meander around the town, as if taking a casual stroll. Instead of walking with apparent great purpose toward his next destination, he wandered. He assumed such randomness in his walk would make it clear to the citizens that he was unconcerned by the recent reversal of his business fortunes, perhaps had even planned to eliminate the business from his portfolio in the first place. At the very least, it would further confuse the citizenry, which from Earl's point of view, seemed to be best under the current (and even long term) circumstances.
It was in this fashion that his wandering took him to his destination, albeit in a very long and round about way.
Earl could not remember ever having gone inside the First Kingly Bank of Fiefdom. On previous occasions the bank's president, Tip O'Hannan, had always made the trip to Cameseldom whenever the two had needed to meet on the business affairs of the fiefdom. Thus Earl had never seen the need to go out of his way and see where and how his quaint and friendly banker operated.
But now Earl stood outside the miniature fortress, assessing the situation. The bank's exterior was the width of a typical storefront in the quaint village, but in those few feet, managed to be noticeably stark and bleak. But, Earl thought, what an opportunity for learning and adventure! Meeting an old friend on his own turf, seeing the interior of an enterprising business! And perhaps, setting a few tongues to wagging at the generosity of their Earl taking the time to drop by and chat in a location far removed from his accustomed luxury.
Not only would it be an adventure, it would also allow Earl, perhaps, to ask for a small, temporary, short-term and purely for contingency... loan .
Earl walked in with his customary confidence, one shaded only by the recent loss of his business. As he entered, he was immediately struck by the fact that the bank's interior was nothing short of ornate -- in strong contrast to the austere and frugal-looking exterior. Triple chandeliers hung down the length of the bank building, with marble desks and immaculate bank officers tastefully spaced along its rectangular length. The walls were gold trimmed in sweeping flower designs, while the polished marble floors were covered in all the right places with expensive and elegant carpets, the floral designs of the carpets being matched by the golden wall designs. Malachite pillars broke up the expanse of the walls and floors, while several other semi-precious stones were utilized here and there in the form of large, very expensive knickknacks. The overall effect was both stunning and surprising. Earl realized that part of the overall effect was that the bank's size was cleverly hidden by the modest storefront-width, while the bank's length was easily three times its lateral dimension.
Then Earl saw the mezzanine floor gracefully hung over the back half of the bank's first floor. The upper floor looked even plusher with a balcony railing of marble and inlaid gold. The upper floor's ceiling contained a dome and the paintings on the ceiling reminded him of the Sistine Chapel. The effect was so striking that even the Czar of Russia would have been impressed.
It was amazing, Earl thought, what the bank's officers could accomplish with such modest, reported profits. Here was a true servant of the community, providing quaint financial services to the citizens of Earl's fiefdom at marginal rates, taking virtually nothing for themselves, nor for the shareholders of the bank. Earl's heart was warmed as he realized the extent of the bank's frugality and care in nurturing such modest profits into such luxurious surroundings. Clearly, this contingent of the merchant class was to be greatly respected.
With nothing more than a deep intake of breath, Earl walked further into the bank, delighting in the surroundings, sensing the aromas of numerous, expensive, fresh flower arrangements, listening to the gentle music from the ten piece orchestra tastefully located in a small alcove on the left, and feeling the lush, deep carpets beneath his feet. Obviously, this was a very nice place to do business.
Then he saw the Lady Varenna, sitting at one of the marble desks (one which was further along the length of the bank's vast hall and raised by a small flight of two intricately carved stairs). The bank officer, a mere Vice-President, was being very courteous and deferential to the Lady. Which was only to be expected, Earl thought. She seemed to be enjoying the attentions… although there was something else.
For a moment he simply watched her. Then he began to see her differently. Somehow she looked a bit less royal. At the same time, she looked slightly more attractive. It was as if she had shed a facade. 'Interesting,' Earl thought, 'but very strange.'
"May I help you, sir?"
Earl turned toward the soft tones of the question and saw what he would have presumed to be the most beautiful woman to have ever walked the face of the Earth. Golden brown, shimmering hair hung to soft, tantalizing shoulders, framing a face of sheer, translucent perfection. Her body was full, vibrant and tastefully done. The eyes sparkled with a thousand points of light (maybe even ten thousand), her smile caressed his very eyes, and her lips promised ecstasy at a whole new level of experience. She was, in a word, DROP DEAD GORGEOUS!!!! (Okay, three words.)
Earl took a deep breath and almost went into to erotic shock. Her scent was the mixture of a hundred glorious perfumes, the combination calculated to drive the male of the species into stratospheric heights of passionate delight. Earl scarcely dared to breathe for fear of losing all control of his sex. But then, this perfect woman, this goddess of fantasies and dreams, pushed him over the edge by asking, with bell-like tones, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Her quarry felt his whole being shake, as she repeated the one, most important word, "Anything?"
Earl lost it on the spot. Fortunately, he was garbed in sufficiently royal, Earl-like clothing that the event went unnoticed by the other inhabitants of the bank. Except for the woman with whom Earl was sharing... whatever it was he was sharing with her. She smiled, lighting up the heavens and making the inhabitants of hell wonder who turned on the lights. She had known full well her effect on Earl and gently took his arm as if to escort him, but in reality to prevent his melting and possibly staining the immaculate marble floor with its expensive carpeting.
"Are you here to see anyone in particular?" She asked.
Earl could only think of changing his plans. "Who are you?"
"I'm Tanta , the bank's hostess. Here to greet you and make you comfortable, to ensure you have everything you need." Then she smiled again, driving the inhabitants of hell into a frenzy with all the additional lighting affects. "Perhaps," she softly whispered, "You would like to make a deposit."
Earl thought, 'ABSOLUTELY! BUT WHAT!? AND WHERE!!??'
"Isn't there anything," Tanta coyly added, "That you'd like to leave with us for safekeeping? Some gold perhaps? Maybe you have some diamonds or other precious stones you'd care to leave in our care. Or then again, possibly a few pounds of flesh?" She smiled at her slight humor.
'A few pounds?' Earl thought, doubting that he had that much intact. But instead of dwelling on such inconsequentials, he recalled his original mission and stammered, "Well..."
"Yes?" She leaned toward Earl, hanging on his every word.
"Actually... I'm here to make... sort of a... withdrawal."
Immediately, the most gorgeous woman in the world's smile dampened. Her demeanor changed, becoming ever so slightly cooler. "Oh," she murmured with tantalizing disappointment. "I'm only in deposits. Here, let me introduce you to our Vice-President in Charge of Withdrawals."
Earl felt Tanta take his arm, and with surprising strength, move him rapidly toward one of the gentlemen seated at the upper level desks. "Jim, dearest," Tanta said, "Could you help me by assisting this kind gentleman?"
Jim was not above acceding to anything the woman might ask. Standing up, he replied, "Of course, of course! I'd be ever so happy. Please sit down."
Reassuring Earl, she said authoritatively, "I'm sure Jim will be able to help you." With absolute clarity, Tanta noted, "Jim's always wright!" Then she added, "You can't fail with Jim!"
"Ah, Tanta ," Jim replied, his face blushing, "You're so kind."
"Don't mention it, Jim dearest." Tanta smiled at Jim, Jim smiled back and Earl thought he detected a wink. With that, she quickly excused herself and went to prepare for the next unwary depositor. Jim breathed a very heavy sigh and flowed and/or melted gently into his chair.
Earl felt the momentary pains of unrequited whatever he might have had with Tanta , and slowly took the offered chair.
The banker was all smiles, most of which came from the fantasies racing through his mind. "Now," he said, with a deep intake of breath, "What can I do for you today? A small withdrawal? Or perhaps, you're merely here to visit your money." Jim reared back in his chair, moderately laughing at his immense wit. Then he returned to more serious matters.
"Actually," Earl began, "I rather expected to talk to your President, my good friend, Tip."
"Oh, I'm so terribly sorry, but... 'Tip'... Is quite busy right now and couldn't possibly be disturbed."
Earl straightened. "Perhaps you don't know who I am..."
"Oh, great Earl, please be assured that I recognized you immediately. Your photograph has been over my desk for years." Then realizing its recent absence, the banker covered himself. "It was just taken down this morning. For dusting."
"Well," Earl stammered, "I've always done business with Tip."
"Confidentially," Jim leaned over to confide, "Tip is quite busy right now with a backgammon game."
"A game!?" Earl was shocked.
With even greater confidentiality, Jim leaned even closer to Earl and whispered, "With the Prince of the People."
Earl gasped, "He's here!!?"
"Oh no, of course not! The moves are being communicated by carrier pigeons. Tip and -- you know who -- often play their games in that manner. Staying at arm's length, if you know what I mean." Jim winked broadly, as only a purveyor of other people's money could wink.
Earl was surprised. The kinder and gentler Prince of the People had never played any games with Earl -- at least none in which he had been a knowing participant. This news was upsetting for Earl who had received many plagues and fancy parchments from the POP, but had never received such individual attention. Then Earl recognized an incongruity. "But if they're playing by carrier pigeon, how could Tip be all that busy!? Can't he be interrupted?"
"It's a heady game," Jim replied. "Besides, there's a great deal more at stake than a mere board game. Tip has been actively nurturing the idea of further reducing banking restrictions within the royal kingdom's banking bureaucracy. Currently, our hands are severely tied by a plethora of restrictions with respect to whom we can loan and under what conditions."
"Is that bad?" Earl innocently inquired.
"Devastating! Our profit margins are minuscule due to the restrictions of having such over-zealous limits as: requirements for collateral on loans, assets in the bank to back up our deposits, bureaucratic insistence on using appraisals and other time-consuming artifacts of a bygone era. The list goes on and on."
"Oh!" Earl brightened. "Then obtaining a loan should be no problem!"
"What?" Jim's face had suddenly lost a great deal of his composure, not to mention, rosy color. For someone with all the physical attributes of a Santa Claus dressed in a pin-striped suit, it was disconcerting for someone like Earl, with even his minimal sensibilities toward the welfare of others, to witness such a drastic change in Jim's outward appearance.
"I was hoping to acquire a small, inconsequential loan with which to start a new business tradition. For my son. It would be purely a temporary expedient, something for unforeseen events or contingencies. You understand."
For a moment, Jim was quite still. Then he recovered. "I'm afraid we're quite limited in our loans right now."
"Really!?" Earl was genuinely surprised. "But I'm aware of several, recent loans made to numerous individuals..."
"Yes, of course! However, those were... Personal loans made to such stalwart customers as the President's brother-in-law. Fourteen different loans as I recall. And of course, Tip has numerous friends, business associates, partners in a variety of businesses. And naturally, his executive-level banking officers. We must not forget the bank's officers now! You understand. It would be detrimental to the morale of our hard-working loan officers if they were unable to walk away with their piece of the pie."
"But if they can receive loans..."
"Why can't you?" When Earl nodded 'yes,' Jim added, "Unfortunately, all of those loans are currently... How shall I say this: Out of phase? The recent difficulties of business, with which I'm sure that you're personally acquainted, has forced slight delays in repayments. Like eight to ten years. On average. And because these quality customers of the bank had such substantial credit ratings, their loans were all made without collateral. Or recourse of any kind. One of those true acts of faith in one's fellow man. I'm sure you know what I mean. But in any case, I'm afraid the bank and its savings and loan subsidiaries are currently in the position of being... Well, let us call it 'ever-so-slightly embarrassed'. Hung out to dry, if you know what I mean."
"But that can't be! Your latest balance sheets show you to be in the pink of condition. Even with a few bad loans, you still have enormous assets."
"Unfortunately, pink is not the precise term. Close, mind you. But not exactly the color most appropriate to our current condition. The truth is that our liabilities amount to slightly more than 80 billion Royal Kingdom Notes. And while our assets are listed at 85 billion, only 2 billion are in liquid assets."
"But what of the other 83 billion assets?"
"Goodwill. Essentially, our good name in the community."
"Oh." Earl thought for a moment. "What about your bank? The building, I mean. Surely..."
Jim laughed as if he were in the best of spirits. "Ah, yes, the bank building. I'm afraid that, as we jokingly phrase it in the business, the building is mortgaged to the hilt. Or just slightly above."
"We mortgaged our building to the neighboring fiefdom's bank for approximately 440 percent of its appraised value."
"Why in the world would they loan you that much money if...?"
"Because we did them the same favor." Jim's tone was that of, 'Surely it's obvious.'
Earl puzzled for a second. Then he got back on track and suggested, "Surely a collateralized loan would not be out of the question!"
"Not out of the question. But with business as it is, we would want to ensure that the bank was adequately protected. Say something on the order of the loan being limited to say: ten percent of the value of the collateral. Of course, it goes without saying that we would want to appraise the collateral quite conservatively."
"No problem," Earl replied. "I have some very valuable investments in tax shelters and limited partnerships..."
Jim chuckled, avoiding an outright guffaw only through the long years of his having to maintain his composure as a bank officer. Coughing slightly at his near embarrassment, he replied, "No, I don't think so."
"And of course, there is my castle," Earl added.
This time the struggle to contain himself was more difficult for Jim, as he grasped the arms of his chair and braced his knees against the marble desk. After a few moments of intense struggle to avoid bursting into uncontrollable laughter, he was able to speak with a moderately decipherable voice. "Came-seldom?"
Earl was miffed. "It's pronounced, 'Cam-ma-sel-dom'."
"Whatever." Jim continued his struggle, even as Earl found that he could pick up on several other snickers throughout the bank. Word was spreading rapidly, and pandemonium was starting to rear its ugly head. He barely heard Jim's finishing remark, "Real estate is I'm afraid, unlikely to see appreciation for the next decade or so."
"But real estate has always been such a wonderful investment."
"That's true. But in deflationary times, being 'land poor' takes on a whole new meaning. In addition, the Kingdom is currently unloading sufficient real estate as to make the value of such investments... virtually nil. It seems the banking and savings and loan industries have been just a trifle over zealous in lending money in this area, and it is now necessary for the Kingdom's bureaucracy to divest, and/or dump real estate on an already shaky market."
"The buildings and the land of the Kingdom are worthless!!?" Earl was shocked to the point of his mouth hanging open in an un-royal fashion.
"Of course not! Their value is still quite high, particularly on our books. In fact, values have never been higher. I just can't recommend that you try to sell anything. Not at least if you want money for the property."
But Earl was not dismayed. Even with real estate in a temporary slump -- like until the next millennium -- he still had other "hard" assets. He would not let himself be discouraged. Yet. Whereupon, he announced, "I also have a very lucrative pension plan."
That did it! Immediate bedlam ensued. Jim fell out of his chair, trying to hold his sides to avoid their imminent splitting. Employees throughout the bank provided a chorus of uncontrolled giggles, outright laughter and roaring merriment. Several let their knees buckle as they slipped to the floor, laughing all the way to the bank... floor. Even the ten piece orchestra collapsed, in the midst of their rendition of Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," one unfortunate clarinet player almost spearing himself on his instrument. In Earl's mind, the entire bank was losing itself to hysteria or going into premature labor.
As the laughter began to subside and Jim had managed to struggle back into his chair, Earl asked, with the air of being mortally wounded by an insult, "What's wrong with my pension plan?"
Jim wiped the tears from his eyes and in the midst of still trying to get his breath, answered, "The Kingdom's pension plan assets were recently stolen. Or perhaps, if you will, 'obtained' by a Mister David Trumpet, by means of one of his famous Limited Buy Outs."
"Who cares how he did it? The end result is that for all intents and purposes, the assets of the Kingdom's pension plans, primarily a large yacht, which recently sank in the last hurricane, have effectively all gone down the drain."
"Surely you jest."
Jim hardly heard Earl's last statement. Turning to another employee still quietly laughing, the Vice-President in Charge of Withdrawals joked, "Next, he's going to tell me that he's going to get social security benefits!" The other employee immediately lost it and ended up back on the floor laughing.
Earl was now physically shaking. With a pained voice, he asked, "My Social Security benefits are in doubt!?"
"Merely bankrupt," Jim giggled. Then, making one last stab at control, he added, "It is, unfortunately, the way of all Ponzi Schemes. You can only rob Peter to pay Paul as long as there are enough Peters and not so many Pauls."
"That's disheartening," Earl murmured.
Jim looked in amazement at Earl for a moment. Then, "You didn't know?"
"No," was all that Earl could say.
For a moment, Jim just smiled. Then he began to chuckle. Slowly, his demeanor collapsed and despite his efforts, he could not regain control. Slowly and inevitably, he fell to the floor, belly laughing all the way.
Earl sat for just a moment, upset and bewildered. It was becoming apparent to him that this wasn't going to work. Getting a loan for his new business was going to be harder than he thought. Maybe even... difficult!
The unsuccessful loan applicant rose and slowly wandered out of the bank. The sounds of laughter did not diminish until he stepped outside and the steel doors shut behind him, slamming with a little more finality than necessary. For several moments Earl just stood there. Then he realized that he was not alone.
Turning, he saw the Lady Varenna, who had been watching him, a look of concern on her face. In a gentle voice she asked, "Are you okay?"
Earl smiled. "Yes. Thank you."
"I saw what happened in there."
"Oh?" Earl felt suddenly uncomfortable.
Varenna grimaced. "You're not alone. I'm afraid I received much the same reception. It seems that my last tiff with my husband has left us estranged. And me slightly without resources." Then she added, "In my case, the bankers didn't laugh. It was more like... excessive rudeness."
Earl's compassion, unaccustomed as it was in his royal blood to being active, was suddenly aroused. For a moment, he looked at his companion, a woman with great breeding and royal confidence, but who now seemed vulnerable and alone. Her auburn hair was no longer arranged with great care, but instead fell in a natural way to her shoulders. Her posture no longer carried the tone of being self-important, but was now one of simple common grace.
Earl smiled as he realized that Varenna was considerably more attractive than he had remembered. There was also the feeling that he now enjoyed her company for its own worth, and not for the potential for gain he might receive from having known her. With genuine consideration, he said, "I'm sorry." Then he added, "Are you okay?"
"I'm not quite sure yet. The whole day has been singularly... well... lousy. Ever since this morning when I saw that pesky bird. Or whatever it was."
"Having a bad day, eh?"
"Yes. And a very strange one. It starts to make you wonder."
"You may be right." Earl was beginning to feel better. And with his feelings, he recalled his optimism. "Still... Things are not all that bad. I still have my family and my home, my friends, my health, and my title. Of course," he added with a touch less optimism, "It would be nice to have some good news when next I return home."
"Well," Varenna added, trying to be cheerful, "We still have calm seas, warm weather..."
"Yes. And a kinder and gentler Prince of the People."
Earl smiled at the comforting thought. And for a moment he and Varenna shared each other's world. Then both heard a loud squawk. Possibly from overhead. They looked up, but neither saw anything. Both of them thought it to be very strange.
Chapter 2 – The Ole Geezer
Chapter 4 – A Flight of Friends
2003© Copyright Dan Sewell Ward, All Rights Reserved [Feedback]