Friday, May 20, 2011


It was early morning and I was already in  sweat, having just had one of my most unpleasant telephone conversations ever - about flooring that is not my company’s! The caller would not have it and preferred to shout and rant instead of accepting the truth. Trying to relax, I switched on some soothing music - Chopin is one of my favourites - and tried to relax. And as always, I started to philosophise.

One of the fallacies of being a company representative was that outsiders sometimes thought it was a cushy job, driving around all day, wearing a business suit, talking with architects, flooring contractors, Government departments and hospital engineers, sipping coffee and looking stupid! They never seemed to perspire was the general opinion, always had a clipboard in their hand and business came easily to them! These were also my observations when I worked as a retail salesman in carpet shops.
I had lived an harassed existence then, with customers coming to me, several at once, with their flooring needs and the boss was breathing down my neck all the time. Oh, to be a company representative! I had always thought at the sight of one of those privileged creatures entering the retail shop to talk to the store manager. What a shock it had been for me later to experience the reality of being one myself. For example, the worst task for me was to visit, for the first time, a Geriatric Nursing Home or a mental institution. I am not ashamed to admit that I had not been able to sleep properly for a few days after each such visit.
It is amazing how complacent one can become after a while and now I could wander about in such institutions as if I were employed there, or one of the inmates as my so-called friends would tease me.

Strange things have happened to me, like the incident of my visit to ‘Peaceworthy’ a large mental institution in Woodburn, a bustling town with several different types of health institutions.
There were always large building projects going on in Woodburn and I had established a good rapport with the local architects, hospital engineers and project managers. The institution, ‘Peaceworthy’, was a large, sprawling complex of single-storey houses and one tall office block for the administration. The institution was almost like a suburb, nestling in hilly surroundings and looking to me ‘peaceful’ indeed – until one day I encountered something really strange.

Let me first explain the situation and the goings-on there and then the part where I came in. Heading towards the office building, I had walked past inmates (sorry) patients and tradesmen as there were constructions going on all over the place. Some patients seemed to dress according to their fantasy. One person looked like a boxer, with protective headgear and boxing gloves, with shorts to match. His headgear had one ear protection flap pulled up, like a Russian fur cap, and on the other side had the ear padding pulled down, flapping against his cheeks as he walked - as if he’d just lost a fight, I thought. Another one was screaming at visitors about what he was going to do to them: terrible things, he threatened, but never explained the details and never did anything else. However, it was still unnerving to walk towards the main office with him following close and screaming!

One fellow played a foreman or supervisor of workers and he really looked the part with his dust coat, pencils and ballpoint pen in his breast pocket, necktie and white shirt, a clipboard in his hand and an incredibly authentic supervisor attitude. Also, his thick glasses and almost hypnotic stare helped to reinforce ‘authority’. He would go to a plumber who was crouching on the floor, fixing a ducted heating radiator, and say ‘I want a good job, you understand?’ And the tradesman, playing along, nodded submissively. ‘Yes, Sir!’ Then he rushed to a group of bricklayers who were extending a building ‘I want this over there!’ He pointed to another building opposite their  workplace. ‘Sure, of course. No worries.’ Good natured, they knew the game too! Obviously, people who worked there daily knew what was going on and they all humoured him. But what about first-time visitors? I thought. Who would tell them of this place’s peculiarities?

I had called on so many similar institutions that I knew what to expect upon entering the premises, but outsiders? Walking past patients shuffling about, busy tradesmen, and the ‘supervisor’ supervising, I entered the administration block. Once inside, I found myself in a large room with lots of desks and a counter, which was obviously a reception. There was a hum in this place indicating a big workload and intense concentration. A woman looked up from her desk as I bent over the counter for attention.
‘Yes?’ she asked.
‘Where can I find the maintenance engineer?’
Instead of answering, she shot sideway glances at her co-workers and they, too, looked at each other in a furtive way. But nobody said anything.
‘Where is the maintenance engineer?’ I repeated. It became very quiet in the room.
Everybody stopped working but kept looking at each other.
‘I need to see the maintenance engineer,’ I said waving my clipboard agitatedly, as I ran out of patience.
No reply from anybody. They just sat there and gave each other knowing glances. It was really spooky, giving me the creeps. Pulling myself together, I found in my breast pocket my business card.
‘I am from this flooring company and have an appointment with the maintenance engineer. He is already waiting for me in his office - somewhere!’ I emphasised.
The lady at the desk closest to the reception counter reached out, took my card and read it carefully. She looked at her colleagues and nodded. This was the signal for everybody else to nod and resume their activity.
‘He is in the next building, second door to your right,’ she directed, quite friendly, but slightly exasperated.
‘Thanks for helping me.’ Giving her a quizzical look I walked out of the building and found the office of Mr Bob Thwaite, the maintenance engineer. As predicted he was already waiting for me and welcomed me with a cup of coffee.

Having concluded my business with Bob, I left the complex in a hurry. On my way out, the ‘supervisor’ with the clipboard and pen, nodded at me in a collegial gesture. Obviously, since I too had a clipboard, he perceived a kinship!

Bill Setton was the main flooring contractor in the town, with a large warehouse and a number of floor layers employed. He was the only flooring contractor in the town, who, in my opinion, could handle major building projects, ensuring a very high standard.
‘Hello, Peter, you are back in town!’ he greeted me cheerfully.
‘Yes, Bill. And on my way here, I stopped at ‘Peaceworthy’ to meet with their maintenance engineer. As you know, they have a lot of new building projects and alterations going on. However, I had a strange experience there,’ I shuddered.

‘What was that? I mean the whole place is strange, but once you know everybody from the administration, you’ll find they are decent people.’
‘Well, I don’t know, Bill. I went to administration to inquire where the maintenance engineer was and the lady at reception did not want to talk to me. In fact, nobody did. They all looked at each other but nobody answered. I had to give them my business card before they helped me. Why? What’s the matter, Bill . . . what’s so funny . . . hey Bill . . . tell me!’
Bill had broken into loud laughter, leaning back in his chair and would not stop. His mouth was wide open and I fancied I could see his tonsils and beyond. In such a situation, you had to let him be. After a long while, his merriment abated and, wiping his tears, he offered me a seat.
‘Do you know what happened there yesterday? You won’t believe this. It’s a beauty.’ I sat down in a comfortable chair and while his pretty assistant made us cups of coffee, Bill enlightened me as to the previous day’s happenings at ‘Peaceworthy.’

‘You probably noticed how some people there walk around in funny clothes, acting out their fantasies? Did you notice somebody dressed like a foreman - with a white shirt, tie and clipboard? Yes? Well, you’ll never guess what he did yesterday.’ A few more tears of laughter were wiped away before he continued.

‘A large truck with sand arrived and this “foreman” directed it to reverse into a corner of the place, away from the building site. “Back, back” he shouted, waving his arms and his clipboard. “Are you sure?” the truck driver shouted out the window.
‘”Yes, I want the sand over there!”
‘Anyway, the truck driver, reversing as directed, knocked over a fire hydrant and there was water spouting seven metres up into the air. The sand was dumped at the wrong spot and promptly washed away by all that water.’
‘That’s an incredible story. Didn’t anybody . . .’
‘Wait, that’s not the end, let me tell you! That same afternoon a gigantic semi-trailer arrived from Melbourne, which is a five hour trip as you know, and our “foreman” confronted the truck driver as soon as he climbed down from his cabin.
‘”What do you want?” he shouted with booming authority.
‘”I’ve come to deliver the stainless steel kitchen sinks for the new kitchen,” the burly driver grunted aggressively. He was tall and towering over that skinny runt of a “foreman”. But the latter was un-perturbed.
‘”What again?” he yelled. “I got them yesterday - everything!”
‘The truck driver jutted his chin out and, flexing his muscles, he snarled: ‘Look mate, I’m only delivering that stuff!’
‘”Why would I want it a second time? Why? I am asking you!”
‘This was too much for the truck driver. Mumbling “nobody tells me anything,” he climbed back into his semi-trailer and drove off, back to Melbourne on another five hour drive.’

‘That’s incredible, Bill. It is . . .’
‘Wait, let me finish the story, will you? So, this morning, there were furious phone calls going back and forth: “Where are our kitchen sinks?”
‘”Stuff you,” was the answer, we tried to deliver them yesterday but you didn’t want ‘em.”
‘”Says who?”
‘”Your foreman on the building site! He would not accept them!”
‘”What foreman?” they shouted back. And so on. I heard them scream on the telephone because I was there on business.’

Bill took a long sip from his coffee. I did not dare interrupt him this time, but rather waited.
And Bill continued: ‘There was a hell of a commotion about the fire hydrant, the sand delivery and the stainless steel kitchen sinks and it was decided that nobody - and this meant nobody – is to be believed. Everybody had to identify himself first at the office and establish his bona fide.’
He looked at me, this time waiting for my reply.

‘Oh, and that’s when I came in, I guess! What with my shirt, tie and clipboard; they were not going to fall for another trick.’
‘And your phoney accent,’ Bill roared again, ‘they were not going to fall for it - nobody talks like that!’
So we had several more good laughs and I left with a feeling of having been well entertained, except for one nagging question which kept going round in my head:
‘What,’ I thought, ‘would have happened if I had run out of business cards and had been unable to prove who I was?’

Peter Frederick 

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