The town of Lambrington, which I always mispronounced Lamington, is located in the dry parts of north-west Victoria. Despite water being scarce, it is a well-kept town with well-irrigated fruit orchards. In fact, when driving towards this town, the fruit trees on either side of the road seem to form a welcoming guard of honour.
Upon reaching this town, the palm trees seem to take over. Much taller than the fruit trees, they keep waving one on and into the town. Suddenly the road widens and has an immaculate surface, with modern shops and offices lining the sides, indicating a vibrant local business and trade.
One day I called on the local floor covering shop, Stanley’s Floor Coverings, expecting to meet the boss himself, smiling at me as usual and offering me a strong cup of coffee. To my surprise, I found myself being welcomed by a friendly middle-aged lady who introduced herself as his wife, Mary.
Stanley had to go out ‘on a job,’ as they used to say which could mean anything from obtaining new business to collecting money from a reticent customer.
Mary offered me the same hospitality as her husband and because there were no customers in the shop, she started to talk to me a bit about herself. Business was very quiet at the moment and because Stan could not afford to employ anybody for the shop, his wife offered to give up her career at the hospital to assist her husband.
‘A brave thing to do, Mary!’ I exclaimed. ‘As you know, there is a recession on at the moment and most businesses are struggling.’
‘Yes, Peter, I was the matron in the hospital and know everybody in the town. In turn, everybody knew me and we got on so well together.’ Something was depressing her and it was time for me make an uplifting remark: ’But together with Stan, you are surely an unbeatable team!’
Her eyes suddenly seemed to swim: ‘You have no idea what we have been through, Peter! Nobody pays anybody, these days. Our business would not be so bad if we have money coming in – but only on paper.’
Of course, I knew this very common reality!
‘We, too, have bills to pay and sometimes have troubles doing so. And that shouldn’t be that way as we have a lot of money outstanding.’
‘Yes, Mary, most businesses have special people employed to do nothing but chase payments from tardy customers.’ Whilst I was conveying empathy, it did nothing, of course, to alleviate her business’ predicament.
‘You have no idea, Peter, how people can change. They are not the same people I’ve met and cared for at the hospital! They are completely different. And terrible!’ She broke into tears and sat down at her desk.
Sitting opposite her, in front of the desk, I cupped my coffee mug and desperately thought of something to say.
‘They all tell lies, Peter, about the cheque being in the post, about the husband dropping off the payment when he picks up the children from school….’ She shuddered at the thought of the many untruths she had been told.
‘Peter, one day I sat here, trying to balance my books and couldn’t do it. So, I broke down and cried and in my desperation I prayed to God: “Please Lord,” I prayed, “You do the books for me for I cannot! Business-wise, Stan and I are working very hard, in an honest way and are getting a fair amount of work, but nobody wants to pay us. I cannot do the books any more – You do it, Lord!” And I closed my ledger book and went home.’
‘That is a terrible situation to be in, Mary, you and Stan do not deserve this!’ I confirmed.
A weeping woman is always difficult to handle. You cannot simply put your arm around her shoulders ‘There, there!’ But what could I say?
But Mary continued: ‘Would you believe it, Peter, the next day we received a long outstanding cheque from a factory out of town. It was a large amount and suddenly we could keep going and struggle on for another month!
‘I cannot understand how people avoid paying for a good installation, Mary. I could not live like that!’
‘Yes, I cannot understand it either. They were all different when I met with them as Matron at the hospital.’
To help Mary and Stan a little bit, I promised to speak to my boss about the possibility of extended trading terms, if only temporarily, till they were financially over this squeeze.
Thanking Mary for her hospitality and assuring her that I would support her any way I could, I left this struggling retail establishment, in a depressed mood, despite the strong coffee.
Of course, the payment morality in general has worsened since then but I like to think that good, honest, people can turn to God and receive help when they can’t turn to anywhere else!