Raised on robbery

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Raised on robbery

We arrived on an early afternoon in late 1997 at a squat grey building in the high-rise business sector of town, a mile south of the university campus. Our final year group project involved real work for a real customer; the Whichever Building Society. (Basically, a kind of bank.) Five students including me, accompanied by a lecturer on this occasion only, filed inside to be greeted by a nervous blond-haired woman, who seemed particularly nervous of me (nothing unusual in that) and a heavily built pale fellow in a suit with what I call an “Eee bah goom” northern England accent, which made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. That is not because it was out of place in this south coast seaside resort (the local accent has the same effect on me, but worse) but it just does. Nonetheless, as it turned out, both were clearly highly intelligent and knew their business.

In a century of moon landings and hang gliding, how do such people, who seem condemned to live in a world of drabness devoid of such adventure (an over-simplification I know) find the oomph to get out of bed in the morning? Let alone struggle with large IT business-related problems, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? I digress…

Whichever Building Society

HQ of the Whichever Building Society. Photo by Aaron Girdlestone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link.

The technique I used with the woman was the only one I know: I hung back a bit and said nothing. Oops! At the top of the stairs she stopped everyone and demanded to know who I was. “Oh, yes, he’s one of us,” our lecturer assured her. He was the only one of our group older than I. (I had returned to college at the age of 39 two years before.)

Get this: They had experienced an armed robbery that morning! I guess the blond lady had a right to be on edge. I was surprised that they had not closed for the day, but I imagine it was just someone armed with a knife or a cricket bat and nobody was injured. (I never inquired.)

The upper floor, where their three-man (I think) IT department worked, was as drab and grey as the building exterior and, to add that finishing touch, the windows were barred. “That’s to stop people jumping out,” said the young fellow who was their main programmer, and who noticed my direction of gaze. I gained an impression that I was not the first to react in that way.

And what was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal. And since he was pretending, his performance was not convincing. Where Aron was received, Cal was rebuffed for doing or saying exactly the same thing.

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952

Anyways, as the meeting proper progressed, my mind started to wander and I could not suppress a chuckle, which eventually caused someone to prompt me to ‘share the joke.’ To hell with it. If I offended them, maybe they would chuck us out of this veritable prison.

“The ultimate student prank!” I blurted out. “Hey, haven’t we got a meeting at the Whichever Building Society this afternoon?” The narrative coalesced as I spoke. “Let’s do things in reverse order and rob it in the morning!” I thought it so funny I could hardly get the words out. Fortunately, enough of those present laughed as well, whether at the joke or at me I was unable to tell, but we carried on laughing for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe that is what got us through it without anyone climbing the stairs to the roof and jumping off.

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