Friday, August 19, 2011


Sales representatives were basically in the ‘people business’ and every meeting had the potential to bring problems. And I do not mean just lack of sales. When staying in contact with somebody, a deep relationship may develop, sometimes deeper than one is at first aware of! For example, in a tiny country town of Edenborough, there was the only floor covering shop for near and far which belonged to Max Whiting and his staff of three.
There, my cup of coffee was made with more love and attention and the biscuits were more generous. The shop was run by a manager, Alf Downing, as the boss did the actual flooring installations - a somewhat unusual arrangement. But the flooring installations were of top standard, of course, having been installed by the boss himself! How I loved calling on this shop, because the welcome was so much more sincere than anywhere else.
There was never a complaint to investigate and everybody seemed to have a permanent happy smile. Every time I called on that establishment, the complete staff assembled in the shop to meet with me: the boss, the two other floor layers, the boss’s wife and her father, a farmer who had nothing to do with floor laying but liked to meet ‘city people’. I always found myself sitting in that shop on a roll of carpet or PVC flooring, a cup of coffee in my hands and biscuits on a plate which was balancing on the roll I was sitting on, with everybody facing me with all attention I had ever wanted. Of course, I always had some knowledge to pass on, installation techniques to discuss, questions or queries to answer, new product catalogues to give out and technical data to hand out. It was sheer enjoyment, sitting there, having their utter attention; it was a circle of real friends and the atmosphere was always relaxed and warm.
Whenever I hit the town at lunch time, I used to phone ahead and arrange with the shop’s manager, Alf Downing, to have lunch with me. There was a little cafe which served simple meals but the seats were actually benches, arranged in cozy nooks, giving one the sensation of utter privacy. Sitting there and enjoying Alf’s company, I always felt that the two of us were the only customers in the shop. (Sometimes we really were!)
‘Here we are, Alf,’ I would say as we sat down. ‘It’s time I had lunch with a real gentleman!’
Alf smiled his relaxed smile ‘Thank you, Peter. Oh, I’ll have a tuna sandwich and a cup of coffee, if that’s alright with you.’
‘Of course it’s alright’, I replied and went to the counter to place my order.
‘You mentioned last time that you had leukaemia? That’s terrible, Alf! Are you in treatment? And what can be done about it?’
‘Nothing much can be done about it, Peter’. He smiled quietly and gave me the impression of utter peace and calm.
‘It is in remission right now and I can lead a normal life. But it can flare up at any time and I could die at any time.’
Seeing my horrified face he smiled and added: ‘But at the moment I am alright.’
‘But you have a young family, Alf - a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. This is a terrible predicament. And you are doing such a good job, managing the flooring shop. What did you do before you joined Max Whiting’s team?’
‘Oh, I am a printer by trade and also used to do a little bit of artwork and layout.’
‘So, that’s why your shop is always so nicely laid out and signs and price tags are always placed correctly! You are an artist as well!’
We always had a chat whilst chewing something and it was very relaxing for me. Alf had this natural, friendly, personality and always seemed to be at peace. At the end of our meals, he would say ‘Now, let’s go to the shop and meet the others! We all want to know what you have for us this time.’
Back in the shop, the whole team was there and, yes, another cup of coffee and more pleasant conversation followed. I always regretted having to move on to another town and getting back into the ‘rat race’.
One day, when walking from the parked car to ‘our cafe’, as we called it, I noticed Alf limping slightly.
‘Hang on, Peter, I am a bit slower today’ he pointed to his right leg. ‘I’ve got this pain in my hip and I do not know from what. But it’ll go away,’ showing again his serene smile.
But it didn’t go away. I had been back in Melbourne, for a week’s work, when I received a phone call one evening at my home: ‘This is Joe here, Peter. You know me; I work for Max Whiting in Edenborough.’
‘Hello, Joe, it’s nice to hear from you. How are you doing? I hope I can help you with something!’
‘It’s about Alf, Peter. He is in the St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, dying of leukemia - will you visit him?’
Never had I received a greater shock! This was a dreadful telephone call, with a very direct question. I felt the blood draining from my face and my hand that held the receiver was shaking and I could not do a thing about it.
‘Whaaat? I . . . er . . . since when?’ I babbled uncontrollably. Then fear set in: First I was losing a dear friend and secondly . . .
‘Will you visit him?’ Joe had more presence than I.
‘Yes, of course!’ I do not know how I had the strength to say that. It was a most dreadful situation. Obviously, his illness had surfaced again to full-blown leukemia! What do you say to a good friend who is dying?
‘He wants you to visit him, Peter. He thinks a lot of you!’ He sounded natural and genuine, with no trace of flattery. Putting back the receiver, I broke down. I could not handle this, I thought. Never had I been in such a predicament. Yet Joe’s voice still reverberated in my ear. ‘Will you visit him?’ spoken with such naive trust. This was another of those occasions where my wife had given me great support. It helped me a lot, feeling her hand on my shoulder and speaking to me softly. We went to St. Vincent’s Private Hospital the following morning.
‘Yes, Alf is on the fifth floor and you may visit him now. Take your time,’ said the sister at the reception with a soothing voice and gentle smile.
I cannot remember entering Alf’s room, as I was still
trembling and pale, but I believe my wife led me in. Alf was in his bed, fast asleep. There were flowers on his bedside table, a jug with orange juice and a dressing gown folded neatly at the end of his bed. The reality was not as bad as I thought, I noted and recovered somewhat.
My wife and I sat on chairs by his bedside and simply waited. I thought of all the good times we had enjoyed together, about his family, his young wife and two lovely girls who used to smile at me from the photo he kept on his side table. I certainly dreaded his waking up, but suddenly, his eyes opened.
‘Hello, Peter, I was wondering when you would come!’ He smiled and his serene face seemed to gleam with joy. He always knew that I would come!
My wife introduced herself and took over the conversation which suited me fine as I was still confused as to what to say. What was appropriate in such a situation? Fortunately for me, Alf had a long and interesting conversation with my wife and the mood was that of a ‘normal’ patient who was recovering. But he wasn’t getting better, I thought. Every now and then a nurse or a nun would come into the room; they all had a nice smile and reassuring manners. At the end of our visit, I had promised to come again the following day, which pleased Alf visibly. Our conversation was just ordinary small talk between friends - that’s all.
When we left I was very glad that I had visited him and relieved that our visit had turned out alright and that I had been able to cope with a situation like this. Somehow, I had come through the occasiont! From then on, I visited him every day for the next five days. Alf always looked forward to my visits and on the fifth day we found him sitting on his bed with his feet dangling and eating a roast chicken with gusto.
‘You are doing well, Alf!’ I greeted him.
‘Yes, Peter’, was his cheery reply, ‘I feel fine and the doctors are sending me home tomorrow. I am in remission again and only need to visit the local doctor back home in Edenborough once a week. Isn’t that great?’
Alf, with his leukemia put on hold, went home to his family and friends. He had to retire from work on doctors’ orders, to look after himself better. I phoned him at home nearly every day and we had great conversations!
However, these daily conversations were interrupted when an urgent business trip took me to Tasmania, but, as soon as I arrived back home I phoned him again.
‘Hello, Jenny,’ I greeted his wife cheerfully. ‘How is Alf today?’
There was a moment’s hesitation before Jenny replied, ‘He died’.
Handing the phone to my wife, I walked away, thinking of everything we have been through together and the many conversations we had about life and the joy of it. And now, there was what he loved most in this world, his family, alone - a grief stricken wife and two bewildered little girls.
Since that time, whenever I had to go to Edenborough or had to drive through it, I always bought flowers and visited his grave. It wouldn’t matter how busy or how late I was for an appointment somewhere, I always had the time for Alf! Laying down the flowers by his graveside I prayed for him and spoke to him. I have since asked people in Alf’s town about his family and was told that they were ‘alright’ and that his widow had found a job in the town and that life was going on as normal as could be. But one person, who knew Jenny well, told me that she had noticed that every now and then there were flowers on Alf’s grave and that she had always wondered where they were coming from.
The years go by and sometimes we, who live, tend to question the purpose of carrying on, but for me, one thing never changes: whenever I have to drive through Edenborough, I always buy beautiful flowers and visit my friend Alf!


Wednesday, August 3, 2011


The radio announcer warned drivers to be very careful when driving in the area of the mice plague, however, I just had to drive to the town of Hurtley. Again, as was my wont, I drove to this location on a warm summer evening in order to be able to meet my client there first thing in the morning.
Hurtley is a small farming town with great grain silos, which are visible from far away. Also, there are huge mounds of grain simply covered by large tarpaulins. The people there are particularly friendly to anybody who calls on them. Unfortunately, they lose their young folk to the city and those who stay, try very hard to make a living and to stop the population drain. I thought of my contact there, a hospital engineer with a craggy face and deep sunburn, which told me that he was also running a small farm in his spare time.
Darkness had set in but in my headlights the roads were clear and there was no traffic at all. I had the feeling that I was the only person in the world driving on that road. The gentle music in my car and the soft glow of the dashboard gave the interior a pleasant ambience. Suddenly, I saw something - a strange vision. Slowing down to almost walking pace, I gazed at what seemed like a gigantic grey carpet on the road - a carpet stretching from one field, covering the road, and continuing on the other side. It was so large that I could not see where it started or where it ended. It covered the ground and billowed as if there were a draft underneath it. Incredible! As I got closer, dread came over me - ‘the grey carpet’ was a plague of mice, migrating across the road and spilling into the field on the other side. They moved in such tight formation covering the left side of the road and spilling onto the middle that they really looked like one gigantic grey carpet. When I wound down my window, I heard them emitting a high-pitched squeaking that continued on and on. It was a clear moonlit night and I could see quite a distance into the land on both sides of the road - and what I saw was wall-to-wall mice. There was no end to them.
I quickly had to make a decision: I had to continue my journey, come what may, as I had people waiting for me: the motel where I had booked a room and my client early the next morning. Driving slowly and gritting my teeth I kept going, into the mass of living flesh. My car slithered and slid and my hair stood on end because I could not see where the road ended and where the fields started. Unlike in floodwater, I could not see the middle line on the road to guide me, yet every now and then a traffic sign indicated to me that I had managed to somehow stay on the road. After about an hour of this gruesome experience I had reached the outskirts of the town and the mice had started to thin out.
I staggered into the reception room of the motel and the manager looked with alarm at my white face, trembling body and wet shirt, clinging to me. I stammered a bit when I told him what I had just been through. He nodded understandingly and his face hardened. It was like a punishment from God and there was little the suffering population could do about it.
Digging trenches with poisonous liquid, trapping them, shooting them; nothing seemed to have had any effect on this plaque. And as for the cats, they were nowhere to be seen. Jim, the motel manager, spoke very slowly: ‘And when this plague is over we can expect a plague of snakes. They normally follow mice.’
‘That is terrible, Jim. How do you cope with all this?’
He managed a forced smile. ‘You city people have no idea what we go through at times. As if the drought was not enough for us!’
I had walked into my motel room in a very depressed state. The next morning, upon seeing my blood spattered car, my stomach churned again. After completing my business with Alan Frosby, the maintenance engineer, I had driven off to the next town and found the roads clear and the land eaten bare, devoid of any plant life. Only occasionally did I encounter mice and the ones on the road were as flat as pancakes. This eerie experience will be with me for a long time, taking its place in my memory, next to some other catastrophes I have encountered in my long years as company representative.