End Of An Era, No Error

The old couple stood side by side and blankly stared into the empty building. It was empty for the casual bystander or a passerby rushing somewhere to a late appointment. It was empty for a group of rowdy aboriginals who showed no sense of decorum as they staggered waywardly down the street. One stocky bloke with angry red eyes held a half empty bottle of rum in one hand and his mate, a scrawny chap with a pronounced limp was emptying something from a flagon into his wide open mouth that faced the sky. Their women were a step or two behind them, both talking and laughing loudly between themselves. They meandered down Gilbert Street towards West Terrace as if they owned the place, in a carefree and careless way; as if without a worry to prick their minds. Perhaps they were right to feel that way – they were from an ancient lineage of the true first arrivals on Terra Australis. The European claim that they discovered the continent was not only false but blatantly wrong by fifty thousand years.

But, the building wasn’t empty. The air looked hazy but it was dust that had settled for years that was finally being unsettled, swept up and sucked out of the building. A walkie stacker was parked in a corner in solitary confinement. Having moved 76 pallets of goods out in recent days, it finally justified its owner’s investment in it. An empty wooden rack stood tall and miserable next to an iron staircase, unable to promote the goods it once held with pride. A messy tangle of power cables were clumped together next to two black screens, their lights permanently switched off, their fate determined. Next stop, a skip bin to cart them for burial in a landfill, their final resting place. Jeffrey the cleaner was the only busy person inside. It was his task to rid the place of its thick layers of grime and dirt that had caked onto the surfaces of everything and in all nooks and crannies. His job was unenviable not because he was always the one to take the trash out or clean up everyone’s mess in the toilets but because he was the only one who had to do that. If the others had to clean up their own mess, they would not have been so dirty.

The old building wasn’t empty of course. The occupants had long known of the resident ghost and accepted that those of the two worlds should live together peacefully. She was a friendly ghost anyway. No one was ever harmed by her. She may have moved the chair to and fro across the rubber coil mat many a windy night, making the castor wheels go GRA GRA GRAAA in the dark but it only scared the old man into believing that ghosts exist. She may have flicked the tea cup onto the tiled floor, breaking the cup and spilling hot tea in the reception room but that only forced Robert Sicolo, the bubbly salesman, to have to mop up. She may have walked down the iron staircase like a black shadow in absolute silence and startled the packer who looked up at the most inopportune time but that didn’t kill him. She may have locked the rear roller door with its rusty and sticky latches, the manual locking mechanism previously unknown to the other occupants who were befuddled by the sudden failure of the remote control to open the door but that only wasted half an hour of everyone’s time to figure out why and when they did, they struggled to slide the iron tongues off the sides of the walls.

The old building definitely wasn’t empty even after it was emptied. A building could not be empty when it was forever filled with memories. The old man stood and watched Jeffrey from afar. His mind cast him back to eleven years earlier. He was stronger then and so worked a lot faster. Back then, he worked alone and without complaint. He did all the work by himself. The Mrs helped a little and also briefly. She had her own job to cope with. Without her, he was on his own. Day and night, night and day blended seamlessly. He answered the phones, handled the complaints, prided in negotiating the sales, always remembering to sell up and sell more to a customer. He did the data input into the computer system, created the product skus to upload them to the website. He was the picker and packer also. His personal best would remain at 56 parcels in a single day for pickup by the courier driver whose clockwork discipline was so rigid he always hooted his horn at exactly 3 pm outside the roller door. The old man’s job was far from done after the courier driver had left with a van full of goods. There were the boxes of goods received that had to be ticked off against the suppliers’ invoices and then put away in their proper compartments, all the while interrupted by the phones ringing. Sometimes, he had to apologise to the people on the other end of the telephone line for making them wait for too long to pick up the phone. More often than not, lunch was a non-event, never a highlight but a mere act of sustenance so that work could continue. When the day is done for the office workers nearby and the local rowdy aboriginals who had partied enough in the parks were making their way back to the housing trust cottages somewhere, he’d make himself a cup of coffee to keep his mind fresh. There would be at least another two to three hours’ work ahead for the old man who was young and fit then. There was the accounting and clerical work to finish before he could say the day’s work was done. Suppliers had to be paid, the inventory had to be replenished with stock purchase orders and the profit and loss statements had to be maintained. Day and night blended, and then seasons changed and sometimes also blended. Winter was long, bleak and cold, the days got shorter, darkness arrived early; from his office window on the first floor, he would pause briefly to look at the black sky pelting large drops of spit on his window pane and at the tiny cars on distant roads with their headlights on zigzagging their way across the streetscapes. Often, he caught himself admiring the occupants inside who were on their way home to their piping-hot dinners and Netflix movies. Often in the dead of the night when traffic is at its lightest and faith is at its lowest, with the wind howling and the moon hiding, the old man would pause and ponder his fate. Born in the year of the dog, he wondered how the Chinese sages of old knew the fate of those born in those years would work like dogs till the end.

The old building, after a year or so, began to be slowly filled with people. Robert Rees, a nephew from London came to help for a few months until his mum saw how hard he worked and how bad the working conditions were and pulled him back home to England. The old man’s son returned home after ten years on his own in Perth. With his arrival, the intent was clear – they had to not only make their business work but grow it quickly too. The old man was still toying with the idea of giving it all up and venturing into a totally different field. His first love in fact, that of real estate investments but since he didn’t make his millions, he couldn’t be an investor but, “hey, I could sell them!” he said aloud. The industry was ripe for brokers who could speak mandarin, the drive then was to sell to the Chinese who were flocking to Australia at the time. This was at a time when business and trade with China was important and even seen as vital to the Aussie economy. This was at a time before America turned China into an adversary and believed in the Thucydides Trap that the rising power challenged their hegemony and dominance over the world. With hindsight, the old man was thankful his son talked him out of going into the real estate game. The Chinese weren’t coming back to invest in Australia, AUKUS had seen to that and the politicians on both sides of the parliament were frantically beating the drums of war, parroting the voice of ASPI who parroted the voice of the American institutions famously referred to by their three letters. “Those who want war should send their loved ones to the frontlines first,” said the old man who spat out the four-letter word silently.

Together, father and son worked on their core values and emphasised to everyone in the building the importance to live and breathe them.

Their Core values

  1. Strong work ethic.
  2. Listen to our customers.
  3. Be humble. No egos.
  4. Always improve and innovate.
  5. Be efficient. 
  6. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  7. Always deliver more than promised.
  8. Be honest and reliable with each other and our customers.
  9. Be frugal.

A lot of memories began drowning the old man as he stood there, tears forming in his eyes stung him into wiping them away surreptitiously. He did not want the others to see an old man cry. He forced his lips to stop quivering, picked up Murray, his son’s dog, and walked away to greet Jeffrey. The cleaner who had become a good friend did not offer to shake his hand. The old man understood, having noticed his filthy hands and dusty clothes. Jeffrey wore a mask not for Covid precautions but to stop the thick clouds of dust from entering his lungs. “It’s the end of an era,” the old man said to his friend. Jeffrey did not know what to say, so he said nothing. Jeffrey had a lot on his plate that afternoon, so the old man quickly said his goodbye. “Don’t forget to send me your invoice,” said the old man unnecessarily. No one ever forgot to send their bill for work done.

Herson whose alias is Jordan of Nike fame cracked open a beer bottle for his boss. He would be their last employee recruited to worked in that building, joining them during the peak of the pandemic when lockdowns forced everyone to stay home, so they stayed home and bought stuff online causing sales to tripled. Scotty Rufnak came over and hugged the old man. Scotty whose appearance showed he was a rough-neck in his younger days, only worked for them since 2018 but there was a close attachment to the family he worked for. He went over and hugged the old man’s wife too. The old man’s mind was flooded with memories. Memories that the old building would never be empty of. He told his story to Murray, a little bit louder than a whisper, perhaps with the intention of letting the resident ghost know it as well, since she was destined to remain a key character in the history of the building.

The business began trading in the late 60s with a store in the Regent Arcade in the CBD but the old man and The Mrs were involved in the business only from March 1987 as a partner in the store located in Northpark Shopping Centre. Their partner, a bald headed petrol head soon got impatient, wanting to splurge their meagre profits on a swimming pool and a second hand Merc rather than pour more money into the business and since he couldn’t buy out the old man, he was bought out instead. In 1991 the couple opened their second store in Parabanks Shopping Centre and soon after they went into Westfield Tea Tree Plaza, Westfield Marion and Myer Centre. They began franchising in 1995. More stores were opened in South Australia; Elizabeth City Centre, Hollywood Plaza, Munno Para Shopping Centre, Westfield Arndale and Westfield Westlakes.

In the late ’90s they expanded into Sydney, franchising three stores – Westfield Burwood, Westfield Hornsby and Westfield Mount Druitt.  
By the mid 2000s the couple had opened four stores in Perth – Westfield Carousel, Morley Galleria, Midland Gate and Whitford City Shopping Centre.
In 2006 The Mrs’ “baby”, Northpark store, was relocated to Sefton Plaza and they opened their last store, the 17th, in Colonnades Shopping Centre.

The advent of online retailing into the mainstream of Australian households from 2007 saw a paradigm shift in the behaviour of consumers. The Global Financial Crisis struck in 2008 and it became apparent soon after that the concept of having their retail stores in shopping centres was no longer viable. They lost almost everything but thankfully they had started their venture into online retailing a couple of years earlier, selling on eBay. Their online sales were growing steadily and this allowed them to close unprofitable stores and consolidate. Their website was turned into an ecommerce store in 2011 and the business became a pure-play online retailer selling on their website and other platforms including eBay, Kogan, Catch, and Shop.com.

The Mrs walked to the old man just as he had finished telling his story to Murray and the ghost. He bent down to let Murray go back to his owner but Murray whined like a lost child. He got up on his strong hind legs and hugged the old man’s thighs. The fully grown miniature poodle at four and a half years old was becoming heavy to carry for long periods. “Down, Murray,” the old man said, barking to the dog in a voice that it understood would not get its way. The Mrs said, “I’m sorry.” She suddenly burst into tears and her body shook involuntarily as she began to sob. “Come, come, doe, don’t have to cry,” he cooed, calling her by their shared term of endearment for each other. The old couple, once upon a time quite cold to each other, suddenly became whole again as one. They hugged each other and wiped away each other’s tears. Their journeys, together and separately, had been arduous if not tortuous. Once upon a time, a young couple, they stood there old and broken. Every sinew in them had been stretched, twisted, deformed. Every telomere frayed, tangled, broken. Every cell dividing ever more slowly, and would eventually stop. Ageing is a cruel disease perhaps only the likes of Lindsay Wu and David Sinclair would one day successfully reverse.

The old man no longer cared about the elixir of life. He lacked the strength and the will to carry on. Totally exhausted in his quest to be successful, he belatedly realised the real meaning of success. It wasn’t about the numbers in the bank account or the number of houses they owned. It wasn’t about how many coins he accumulated, whether they jingled and jangled or not. It wasn’t about gold or digital gold. Success was always about peace and happiness. It was about contentment and gratitude. It wasn’t an aberration, not an error. It was the end of an era.

The old man and Murray, outside the warehouse for the last time.