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Sunday September 22, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday September 22, 2013 MYT 9:28:46 AM
by suzlene zakariah
WHEN I was working as a part time retail assistant in a handbag shop in Melbourne, Australia, four years ago, there was one character I will never forget who used to frequent the shop.
She walked in on my first week there, slowly rummaging through the made in China handbags, observing in detail each handbag and asking me questions on the make, etcetera. She was always dressed in black, with her hair unkempt, with no make-up on while the smell of stale coffee and cigarettes permeated her. What was most obvious on her person was a locket of the Virgin Mary, which hung loosely around her neck.
After much haggling over the price of a handbag, she finally purchased one, reluctantly parted with her money, and left the shop only at closing time, so I had to drive like a lunatic to pick up my sons from school. It was exasperating having to wait for the lady to make up her mind over which bag to buy, but with 16 years of customer service experience behind me, I patiently persevered so that the very least I made a sale, and without being pushy, either.
The next day, to my surprise, she walked in again, this time to return the handbag she had purchased in exchange for the cash she paid me the day before. I returned her money and she then continued to look at other handbags in the shop while I served other customers, eyeing her discreetly in case she decided to nick one and run away. She did not, thank God, but stayed on until it was closing time again, showed me another handbag that was the same price as the previous one she returned earlier, paid me and left.
Strangely, this exchange and purchase of handbags continued every other day for nearly a month, and during that time, I managed to ask her name, which was Antoinette. I discovered that she dressed in black because she was still mourning her dear mother’s passing after a long illness. The Virgin Mary locket was her late mother’s and she lived alone and did not have any friends.
Somehow, we had come to this bizarre understanding: that in that tiny handbag shop, two strangers could meet, have a chat, and seek solace in each other’s company.
When the time came for me to leave Melbourne and head home to Malaysia, I told Antoinette that we may never see each other again. She was aghast to know that another assistant would soon man the shop and she lamented that no one else would be as patient or as kind as me. I tried to reassure her by saying that, of course, the new assistant would help her but she just shook her head sadly. She gave me a small kiss and wished me good luck for the future, and I did the same.
I watched her walk away slowly and get into a tram on Elizabeth Street, a new handbag tucked under her arm, possibly to be exchanged for another one a day or two from now.
I still wonder to this day whatever happened to Antoinette. I hope she did not exchange the last handbag she purchased and kept it as a remembrance of our brief but meaningful acquaintance.
No exchange of mobile numbers (I don’t think she had one) or home addresses were made between us, but this has made me realise that we can sometimes lose our way in life only to find it again, in as mundane a place as a handbag shop, through the kindness between strangers.
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Lifestyle, Reader submission, Heart & Soul
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