I grin at the cashiers as I pat the parcel tucked under my arm. They smile back, serene behind the glass screens. They recognise me. I was here a couple of weeks ago to open my account and today I’m back to attend to the small matter of the package I have with me.
I’m anxious to be shot of the thing. I’ve been carrying it my whole life in one way or another, and my arms are beginning to get tired. I hope this will be the right place to stow it.
One of the managers – his nametag says Paul – catches my attention from the back of the room and beckons me towards him. We exchange pleasantries and slip through an unmarked door, out of the public area of the bank and down a flight of stairs. I check behind but no one’s following us. Good.
I follow him wordlessly down the corridor into what seems like a basement and then through a couple more doors.
“Here we are,” he says, opening one more to what I assume is the safekeeping room. Shelves upon shelves of oddly wrapped objects.
Cylinders of dusty brown paper. A cube broods in the corner. He nods to me and I give him my parcel, suddenly sad to see it leave my hands.
I point at the label dangling from its corner and he nods again.
“Not to be opened until 2053,” I mouth at him, waggling my finger in the air and already on my way out the door and down the corridor, coat billowing behind as I imagine what awaits me in Kiribati in a few days. I’d decided on a whim that I wanted to be among the first to see the new millennium – cast adrift on Christmas Island, fourteen hours wide of Greenwich, I would greet the chimes with the whites of my eyes and upturned palms.
Eric had only been working at the bank for a month but he was already beginning to feel at home. After a couple of directionless years post-graduation pulling pints and telemarketing and bumming around Eastern Europe, he felt he’d found his calling. He got a curious thrill out of providing quality advice on mortgages, ISAs and premium accounts.
Quality, persuasive advice.
Getting out of bed wasn’t as much of an ordeal as it was when he was selling new telephone systems (over the phone, weirdly enough) for that awful company in Doncaster.
The commute was okay. A selection of buses to choose from. If one came along that looked too full he simply waited for the next (or even the next one after that – he always gave himself plenty of time). When the plan worked, the packed bus in front would soak up the less-organised commuters that hadn’t the time to wait for another. It was a finely tuned procedure and it had yet to go wrong.
His first day had been a whirlwind of risk and compliance assessments, management jargon and orientation. By late afternoon his head was all aflutter with the corporate identity of the bank. He was excited to become a part of this dynamic, vibrant organisation.
But there was one thing that he found particularly gripping about his new job. Something that had captured his imagination. An idea, a thought, a blank canvas.
It was whispered of in hushed tones in the staff room over crumbly bourbons and steaming coffees. Someone had left a package in the safekeeping room shortly before the millennium with instruction that it shouldn’t be opened until 2053. But there had been numerous reshuffles in the branch’s roster of staff since – people moved on, promoted, sacked, whatever – so no one could say much of anything about this customer. Whether they were male or female, even. Records had been buried deep in the bank’s system (at the client’s request, according to some strands of thought).
And a strange pseudo-cult of conjecture had sprung up among the staff, with this package at its centre. There were various theories and counter-theories bouncing around, and Eric listened to them all with rapt attention.
“I heard she was Richard Branson’s first wife. It’s something that’s going to blow Virgin wide open – a kind of expose – but she doesn’t want to be around when it destroys the company,” Karen said one lunchtime.
“Oh Karen, come off it. What bollocks! I’d bet my house on it being nothing more than some washed-up writer’s memoirs,” said Oliver. “Thought he was so ahead of his time only the elite citizens of the mid-21st century would appreciate his work.”
Karen tutted and went back to her sandwich. She found Oliver’s dismissive attitude incredibly off-putting and borderline unprofessional. Part of the appeal of The Package was that members of staff could project their hopes and fears onto it – Karen felt like she’d unearthed such a rich vein of intrigue here, but boors like Oliver were spoiling it for the rest of them.
“How many times do I have to tell you lot? He was a chap went by the name of Pete Gibson,” Andrew said. “Got it on good authority from a fella based in the City of London – says he’d heard rumblings about our parcel, checked it out in the secure system and tracked this guy down to Uruguay.”
Eric listened with interest, delicately nibbling a scotch egg next to the window.
I keep forgetting to check who’s on the other side of the door. Most of the bank’s internal doors have these peepholes you’re supposed to look through, to make sure the coast is clear before shuffling down the corridor laden with cash. Posters thoughtfully placed next to the doors provide a handy diagram of the cautious process you’re meant to follow. But these signs make no difference to me. I’m afflicted with a terrible listlessness. A dull fog has descended on me. I’ve grown careless, lax. But it’s not like I’m ever ferrying anything actually valuable. The kitty for the weight-loss club was the biggest thing anyone’s put me in charge of. A cool sum upwards of £10, all grubby coppers and pocket lint – not the sort of bounty likely to catch the eye of any would-be bank thief worth his salt.
And there’s one part of the bank that gives me the heebie jeebies. On the rare occasions I find myself down there my nerves sing and my stomach churns. The basement: where the safekeeping and safety deposit rooms are.
The basement corridor’s woodchip ceiling, with mould stains blooming in its corners, is an unwelcome fixture in my dreams. It is a far cry from the tasteful brushed metal cylinders that criss-cross the ceiling of the public-facing part of the bank. Where those pipes nod towards a hopeful post-industrial future, here is only decay.
Of course, I’m familiar with the stories about the package that had been left in the safekeeping room about thirteen, fourteen years ago. For a period there was talk of little else in the staff room, with everyone eager to put forward and defend their own increasingly elaborate theories on the origin of the parcel.
By the middle of 2007, things were starting to get out of hand. We’d split into three, maybe four factions (although there were sub-sects within each group). Ideas were bitterly contested between these coteries, and tensions began to spill out of the staffroom and into the bank. Scuffles broke out when the customers had left. It was an embarrassing time – we were high on our own wild speculations as to the package’s nature.
Back then I found the catalogue of boxes, parcels and letters within the safekeeping room an intoxicating proposition. I still dream of dizzying rows of sealed envelopes.