I WAS at my in-laws’ home in Malacca recently when the house phone rang. The caller wanted to speak with my father-in-law who was then taking a bath. When I asked the man if he would like to call back, he requested that I take a message instead. With a pen and paper in hand, I told him to begin.
To my surprise, he rattled off with a list of sundry goods. Thinking he was mistaken, I explained that my father-in-law had stopped operating his sundry shop more than five years ago. The caller said he knew that but added he had been ordering provisions from him all these years.
Not knowing what was pre-agreed between the caller and my father-in-law, I took the order.
When my father-in-law was done with his bath, I told him about the phone call and promptly passed him the slip of paper containing a list of several household items the caller wanted. Curious, I asked him about the caller.
My father in law said that the man was a long-time customer who lived 12km away. He had been ordering his monthly provisions despite knowing my father-in-law had ceased his business. When I asked my father-in-law why he continued to fulfil the man’s orders, he told me this story.
My father-in-law got to know this customer forty years ago when he was starting out in the sundry business. At that time, the man was a trishaw pedaller and the sole breadwinner of a family of seven.
He used to pedal his trishaw all the way from his home to my father-in-law’s shop every month to shop for his household needs. Sometimes he had cash at hand to pay for the provisions. Other times, my father-in-law gave him the goods on credit.
When he took groceries on credit, he would settle the payment within a month or two. Sometimes, he took six months, but he never reneged on his debt.
Years later, when his kids grew up and found their own jobs, the combined household income improved, allowing the man to move out of his dilapidated wooden shack into a brick house and lead a better life.
However, he still continued to make the monthly trip to my father-in-law’s shop. Sometimes he would come to the shop with his wife on his motorcycle. Other times, he would place an order through phone. My father-in-law would then deliver the goods. The arrangement has continued till this day.
I asked my father-in-law “wouldn’t it be easier to ask your long-time customer to just shop at one of the big hypermarkets in his area?
“The costs incurred from buying and delivering the goods are hardly worth the meagre profits you make.”
With a laugh, my father-in-law said that he would continue to deliver his last customer’s orders until the latter stopped ordering. He reasoned that it would keep him occupied now, since he was free. But more importantly, he said, he owed this man a debt of gratitude.
“This man bought from me at a time when I needed his business,” my father-in-law explained.
“He could have chose to buy his provisions from other sundry shops in the area, yet, he did not. Instead he would cycle all the way from his home to our shop.
“When I first stopped my business, it was he who bought whatever stock I had left. I thought he would stop once all leftover goods were sold but he didn’t.
“He continued to order from me till this day and I will continue to deliver to him as long as I am able to and as long as he wants to order.”
I was glad I answered the phone call from my father-in-law’s last customer that afternoon. If I had not, like many of his neighbours, I would have missed out on the wisdom in what appeared to be a 75-year-old man’s folly.
These days, how many of us remember to be thankful for the little things we have, let alone show gratitude for the events and people who led us to this station of life?
At a glance, what my father-in-law did was honourable but unprofitable. But the wisdom in it was definitely a much needed lesson on loyalty.
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