Money matters

We have a healthy relationship in terms of money, Ros and I.

She earns it; I spend it.

She worries about it; I don’t.

A happy equilibrium that, I fear, may be lost once she reads this.

Some things are best left unsaid. Not in America though, because in America money speaks. People here wear their salary on their sleeves. There’s none of the coyness over finances that you get back home. No self-respecting Englishman would ever dare reveal their net worth without the lights being turned off. The etiquette of concealing one’s true wealth (or in my case, my wife’s wealth) behind a shambolic façade is one of those quaint British customs that people over here wouldn’t even begin to understand. “He looks like a tramp”, they would say, “he’s clearly a good for nothing bum.”

I’ve tried to smarten up a lot in the last six months. I bought a brand new pair of pants (although my boxer shorts still look as if they’ve been washed in sulphuric acid). I now shave every morning. And I’ve even invested in a nasal hair remover. Have you ever tried to use one of those things? They don’t cut. They toy with strands of hair much as a cat would cuff a mouse around a room. They twist and pull, contorting your nose horribly and causing it to stream uncontrollably for the next twenty minutes. I was in bloody agony by the time it had finished with me. Didn’t look too good either, with ragged bits of semi-severed hair uprooted and hanging helplessly out of each distraught nostril.

The humiliation of needing a nasal hair remover pales into insignificance against the shame of being turned down for a GAP store card. It had been suggested that we should apply for one as a crafty way of getting a credit rating. We need a credit rating because, as far as the American financial community is concerned, we’ve come from nowhere. With no track record, we’re treated as potential financial liabilities. It’s like being sent back to Old Kent Road and not being able to collect £200 for passing ‘Go’. Naively I thought we all lived in a global village. I assumed, from their worldwide advertising campaigns and international names, that the London and New York offices of both American Express and HSBC might actually talk to each other, and that an impeccable financial history (Ros’s, not mine) in one country might actually count for something in another. Silly me. The fact that we own property in London and Switzerland, have an income with a few zeroes behind it and platinum plastic where the sky’s the limit means absolutely nothing. We’re no different, in the mind of our bankers, from an eighteen-year old high school kid living at home on pocket money. And nothing bought this home more than receiving that rejection letter from GAP.

It can be extraordinarily difficult to get our own money out of the bank. It’s not that we don’t have any in our account (in fact we have quite a lot, not least because I now can’t get my hands on it), it’s just that we’re not considered responsible enough to take very much of it out.

This little detail though is lost on a common predator in these parts, a cadaverous American bird of prey called The Fundraiser.

Only a few weeks after Jay had started at Greens Farms Academy, I fielded a call from their fundraising department. They wanted to know if I might be interested in making a small donation, prompting me to think I could probably manage $50 as a goodwill gesture to get off on the right footing. Just as I was about to make my generous offer it was explained that, “most people make donations of $2,000, but if you want to give more that’s okay”.

“$2,000!” I would have spluttered into my coffee had I been drinking one. “$2,000! What the Bloody Hell have you done with the $22,000 we gave you in school fees last month? You can’t have spent it already, can you? What kind of school have we sent our son to?” This is what I wanted to say, but being English I didn’t. In fact I didn’t say anything. I just felt inadequate and quietly kept my $50 tucked away in my back pocket.

The last three pages of the Greens Farms school magazine features a long list of parental donors. Every month. I suspect the true purpose of this newsletter isn’t to pass on school news, but to publicise the generosity of its benefactors and shame those who keep their wallets closed. The Gravatt name is conspicuous by its absence. A couple of families, who want their children go to Greens Farms, have told us that they’ve made particularly generous donations (and I’m guessing here that we’re talking a little more than $50) to help sway what might be a borderline decision in their child’s favour. At the rate we’re going they’ll probably get Jay’s place. In writing this I’ve just thought we should cut out the middleman and sell the place directly to them. I’m sure Jay wouldn’t mind. We could do with the cash and a couple of X-Box games as compensation for a decimated academic career should keep him quiet. I’m sure I could teach him from home. After all, I’m already doing the school run.

I can just about handle being hassled for donations from academic institutions, but when the local police force came on the phone looking for handouts my resistance collapsed. I envisaged the firm, humourless voice at the other end of the line as belonging to a crew-cut, square-jawed ex-Marine. Doubtless he was fingering his gun as we talked. I wanted to know what they would do to me if I didn’t co-operate. Would they deport me, I wondered? Or would they get me for illegally hitchhiking on the Interstate back in 1981? They may have let me off twenty-four years ago, but I’m sure they could change their mind. Would they go into my computer and see from my records that I’ve been illicitly logging into subversive unpatriotic leftwing sites such as The Guardian? Would they tell my wife that I’ve been surreptitiously buying indie rock music from Amazon without her permission? Oh, the shame of it. I readily donated $25 and thanked my lucky stars that they pitched it slightly lower than the fundraisers at Greens Farms Academy. I thought that would be it. That we would be marked down as good law-abiding citizens and free to get on with our lives, safe in the reassurance that we had paid our dues to the Darien Police Force.

A few weeks later they called again. “But we’ve already donated $25”, I squealed. Square jaw was unimpressed. He seemed to think that $25 was our level and expected the same again. I told him that I’d already demonstrated my support for the police and that I pay my taxes (not strictly true given I was still an alien last year). I added that I kept to the speed limits (even when it meant watching old ladies on Zimmer frames pass me on the sidewalk). He said if I increased our donation level to $50 we would get a bumper sticker. I told him I didn’t want a fucking $25 bumper sticker. I asked him if he had nothing better to do with his time, knowing full well that he didn’t (this being Darien, after all, not exactly the crime centre of the western world). He then patronisingly suggested that if we couldn’t afford $50, we could donate $35 (but wouldn’t qualify for the bumper sticker). I told him that he wasn’t listening to me. I lost my head, forgot about the safety of my family and suggested that he watched my lips. He told me he couldn’t see my lips. He asked me if we had telephones in England. He wanted me to understand that it was a non-visual piece of technology. He then said he was putting me down for $25. I told him this was extortion, I might also have said something about Rodney King before slamming down the phone.

With the phone back in its base I reflected that might not have been the most sensible conversation I’ve ever had.

We’ve put extra bolts on the doors and don’t go out much any more.

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