In the suburb of Franklin, on the outskirts of Melbourne, I found the shop I was looking for in a small but busy shopping centre. Frank Merton was the owner but when I visited, I found him out on a service call and the shop attended by a lady shop assistant. She looked like a typical spinster, I thought, in her mid-forties, tall and skinny, with a sharp nose and horn-framed glasses that gave her an owlish look. She sat behind her desk, staring at me - she may have returned my greeting but I only saw her lips trembling for a moment.
Ignoring this, I went through my business routine, bringing her samples, pricelist, accounts application forms, a list of specials we had on offer, etc. All the time I tried to engage her in a conversation, trying to find out her name or details of her boss. I attempted to tell her about the technical advantages of our flooring and with a salesman’s cunning I asked her questions that could not be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (A common method sales people apply when the need arises.) But all was in vain; she just wouldn’t talk! Realising that I was getting nowhere, I managed to smile and asked her one more question before giving up and leaving.
‘Would you, perhaps, be the retailer’s wife?’ I wanted to find out whether she was merely employed or married to the retailer. Her long and mournful face dropped even longer and she simply said ‘No’.
That’s all I got and it was disappointing! Most people would answer either ‘Yes, I am’ or laugh and say ‘Him? No way!’ But not this lady. Knowing when I was defeated, I bid my ‘Goodbye’ and left the shop.
Back in my car, the thought had occurred to me that this woman would make a very good secret agent as she would betray nothing! Nevertheless, driving away I had the good feeling of having tried everything - I had done my job!
My next calls were to an architect and two hospitals where the maintenance engineers were waiting for me. They all wanted technical data, which I gave them and I also offered to install test pieces of floorings, free of charge, as there is nothing more convincing than seeing a piece of PVC flooring installed and performing well in the heaviest floor traffic!
Later, sitting in my car and getting ready for my next visit, which was to a again, to a Rudy Werner of ‘Acco Floors’, the phone rang and Norma Hazelwood, our accountant was on the blower, sounding very perturbed and agitated.
This was unusual for a tough woman like her. She spoke fast and, by the time I had answered the phone, was already in the middle of a conversation. I had to calm her down ‘What’s the matter, Norma? You sound upset. Can I help you with anything?’
Norma forced herself to talk in her normal and precise mode, explaining to me something that, at first, I could not quite comprehend.
‘Peter, a man has just phoned us and he was very upset! He is from ‘Medallion Carpets’. Apparently, you have just been in his shop and left samples and brochures and so on. The rest I could not make sense of. He kept saying a representative had been in his shop and had been prying into his private life and he said this was none of our business! What right did we have snooping into his private affairs and everybody should live according to his own fashion and that we have no right to know everything and so on.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I could not make out what he wanted. Strange man, Peter! He was very, very, upset, screaming and yelling at me on the phone.’
I could not believe what I was hearing. ‘Well, Norma, I’m amazed at what you are saying. I’ve been indeed in his shop, at his request, but have only spoken with his shop assistant and she didn’t want to talk to me at all.’
‘What can we do, Peter?’ Norma felt involved in this matter.
‘The man is obviously very disturbed about something, Norma! Leave it with me and I shall find out. I’ll let you know as soon as I have a clear picture of the situation!’
That was strange! I phoned my colleague, Ken, who knows Frank Merton, the retailer, very well and explained to him what had just happened.
Ken’s reply was typical of him: ‘No worries, Pete. I’ll have a yarn with Frank and sound him out. Wait in the Golden Star Pub for me at, say, two-ish and we’ll work this out! It’s your shout!’
‘Gladly, Ken. Thanks for helping me. I am really at a loss here.’
‘No worries, Buddy! See yah!’ There was a ‘click’ and my extroverted colleague was gone.
Sometimes, Ken and I would meet somewhere in a cafe or pub and help each other with advice, samples and information. It was good for us to meet sometimes outside the office - for a more private chat.
‘Hi, Pete! Nice to see yah.’
‘It’s nice to see you, Ken. And I wonder if you have been able to work this out?’
‘Done it, matey. I can tell you exactly what’s going on. But first things first! I’ll have a drink, please.’ Giving me a commanding stare, he sat down and eased himself into a comfortable position before explaining to me the whole situation.
The retailer had had an affair with his shop assistant and his wife had found out and there had been a scandal, their marriage broke up and his ex-wife sued him, taking him to the proverbial ‘cleaners’ and leaving him ‘skinned’. All he had left now was his shop.
‘Now, the shop assistant wanted him to marry her, to make an honest woman out of her, but he was still traumatised from all the past upheaval and didn’t want to know about such a commitment. However, his shop assistant keeps hinting continuously, making his life miserable.’
Catching on, I interrupted his explanation: ‘Now, when I called on the shop, I tried to make small-talk with her but she did not want to. Ready to leave, my final question to her was whether she was the boss’s wife. Her face dropped even more and she said mournfully “No”’.
Ken, having taken a deep draw from his beer, took up his story: ‘She must have told her boss something like: “Everybody is talking about us.” And the boss agitatedly asked: “Who’s everybody?”’
‘”Well, even the reps think we should get married!” she had replied.
‘”Why, just today a fellow - here is his card - came and asked me whether I was your wife?”
‘The retailer, stung at his sorest point, had apparently snatched the card, phoned our office and, being very upset, blasted poor Norma for prying into his private life and passing moral judgement on our customers.
‘That’s the story, Pete!’ We both doubled up with laughter.
‘Honestly, Ken, I don’t care what he is doing with her!’ More laughter from both of us. When we concluded our pleasant little meeting, I had proceeded with my list of calls, not forgetting to relay to Norma what had really happened. She did not find it funny at all. ‘An affair with a shop assistant? Disgusting!’