Story by Lee Su Min

A bouquet is not too late

A bouquet is not too late

Customer Comes First

She comes in at least once a day.

It is not that I am observant. It is just that I always felt her presence. She does not wear perfume, so you couldn't say that her fragrance made me notice her. You’d think that I like her. I can't say that you are wrong. But there is nothing conspicuous about her. It is just that I notice her whenever she comes in.

I have not told any of my colleagues that she comes in so regularly. They should know about this. But there is no cause for alarm. The drawers are locked tight, and unless you have the right keys you cannot open them.

No, I don't think that she is here to steal anything. She looks like any ordinary customer. She is. Yesterday she was wearing the unisex Atlas watch, and today she is looking at the silver pearl earrings. There is no pattern to her buying. She choose her jewels at random.

This woman has an oriental face. And she smiles often. When she smiles, she gives you the feeling as though she has known you for a long time. I like it when she has chosen a piece and she asks me to attend to her. Sometimes Gloria helps her put on the bracelet she has chosen, and that was the most exciting time. I would place my own bet as to whether she would buy that item. Invariably, I am right.

Today she is wearing the Atlas watch again. The Atlas watch belongs to the last season and is no longer a sales item. Our shop also carries pendants with the design of each letter of the alphabet in Apple Chancery font style in diamonds, and I always wonder when she would buy the piece with the letter “J.”

I know her name.

Yes, we have our regular customers. And we have our irregular customers. The regulars, we memorize their names by heart, but we are told not to address them in case they didn’t like it. It is not the practice of our boutique to influence the customers in the choice of their purchase. So, we avoid calling customers by name. We recognize their faces, and we give them the service as though we were their butlers at home.

I am not young. If you look just at my face you would guess that I am somewhere between twenty-five to thirty. But actually, I am already thirty-six. I am not married yet, and I have not been married before. Neither have I any imminent plans to marry. I don't even have a close girlfriend. But I am not lonely.

This job at Stephanie and Co. is my career. It occupies all of my time and energy. There is no retirement age for this job, and I thought I can work here comfortably till retirement age at sixty-two. And so, I am a happy and contented salesman. Yesterday, just before I left for work, Steve Chan, the shop manager, handed me the letter. It is a once-in-a-lifetime offer to be posted to the head office in New York. I would be made a salaried staff, and the take-home would be three times what I get here.

Excited, this morning, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. After I dropped off at Marmalade Turn I walked into Toast Box to have my usual coffee and sandwich. Nobody disturbs me there as I read the newspapers. I wear my cheap clothes before I arrive at the boutique to change into the black jacket, black trousers, and black shoes.

We are all given a set of jewellery to choose from, and we put them on before we start work. This week, I have the “Eternal Circle” ring, and it is really beautiful. Every time I look at it, it makes me happy. I am happy to be working here at Stephanie & Co. The jewels are nice, the shop is nice, and my colleagues are nice.

We don’t fight over customers. We all share the same clientele. If, for example, Joyce makes more sales than me this month, it does not mean that Joyce takes home more. We are salaried staff, and we get paid a fixed sum every month.

But there is one drawback. We are not allowed to buy the jewels in the shop. We could only wear them at work from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. We are to choose our favourite for the week each Monday. And after the last customer has left, we are to surrender all our adornments to the boutique safe and go home without anything.

I have considered resigning. Once I am no longer a staff I am free to browse around the boutique as though I were a customer, and then I could choose to buy anything I like. But I am not sure what I want to buy yet, so I hold my resignation. If I reject the offer to New York, I must resign.

“Excuse me, can you show me this?”

A tall and well-groomed woman dressed in a pink top and black skirt raises her voice a little.

A man and her young child are standing by her side. I quickly walk to the counter and unlock the drawer with the key I am holding. She wants a gold bangle. The bangle has the engraved words “Stephanie & Co.” on it, so that makes it expensive.

“How much is it?” Her husband asks.

I know the price by heart, but I still flip over the tag before I give her the price. We are told to do so, as the act of looking at the tag gives the transaction a trade flavour.

I allow this customer to ponder over it as she swings her right hand in consecutive motions, as though to see if the bangle will drop off by itself. Then her husband says something, and they both walk away, leaving the bangle on the glass shelf. I quickly put the bangle back in the drawer before I forget.

You’d think that there are no thefts in this exclusive shop. No, there are. Every day, one or two items disappear. The manager Steve Chan investigates, and we have to account for our carelessness. So, the stocktaking at night is always very stressful for all of us.

There she is again, walking around. I really don't know what I should do with her. Shall I approach her and offer her one or two designs? Or shall I ask her out for dinner? She is, after all, very pretty, and I am still single.

I try to stay as close as I can get to her. As she moves to the bracelet section, I go to that side of the drawers, so I can attend to her as soon as I can if she spots anything she likes. Every item here is interesting. Stephanie and Co. carries the most exclusive jewellery, and its headquarters are in New York. If I am to accept the posting to New York at all, I must move fast. I must invite her out, bringing her out of the Stephanie & Co. context so that I can speak to her in private.

I want to tell her how pretty she is and how much I am in love with her. I want to tell her about my offer in New York, and that time is running out for the both of us. We can even start a family there and have our child born in the U.S. to get U.S. citizenship. I want to find out all about her. And I want to say now, that I am prepared to buy her the silver bracelet if she would allow me to.

Since I am interested in her, I must announce my intention as soon as possible. I have even saved up enough money to buy her the Stephanie & Co. diamond ring for the engagement. So, I approach her at the counter and I ask,

“Do you want me to pay for this bracelet?”

I expect her to smile at me, but she looks at me blankly.

Then I hear a voice over my shoulder,

“Excuse me, is Brian or Joyce attending to this gentleman?”

Both Joyce and I get a shock. I turn my head, and I see Steve Chan signal me to attend to the male customer who has just walked in. Steve Chan gives us the dirty look, to remind us that the customer comes first.

As usual, Joyce gives her winning smile, as though she has known the customer for a long time. I know that I have lost my chance. I should have asked her just now, as she was walking around. Later on, I will not have the courage to ask her if she wanted to marry me. I am to give Steve Chan my answer by the end of today. I am not sure about resigning, because I don’t want to leave Singapore. If I am in Singapore, I can still walk into Stephanie & Co. to see her anytime.

The new customer wears a Hermes belt and matching shoes, so we know that he could well afford any item in the shop, and we must put on our best sales manner. She always has better skills than I. The customer asks her how much the Atlas watch costs, and

“Is it still available?”

“No, I am afraid not, sir,” she replied.

“Can I order it from your headquarters in New York?” he asks.

“No, I am afraid not, sir,” she is apologetic.

Tonight, as we work over the jewels to be worn tomorrow by the four of us who work at Stephanie & Co. – Joyce Tang, Gloria Yip, Timothy Lim, Steve Chan, and myself – I find that it is my turn to wear the Atlas watch. I am to wear it for one week before my departure from the company. My last day is on 23 January 2011. I can leave at 1:00 p.m. on that day because it is my last day.

At the same time, Steve Chan gives me an invitation card. It says:

Mr. and Mrs. Chan are honoured to invite you, Mr. Brian Wong, to their eldest son Steve Chan Choi Liang and his fiancée Joyce Tang Mei Yin’s wedding dinner reception held at the Dragon & Phoenix Hotel at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, 23 January 2011.

Perfect timing.

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