The chocolates on the marble pedestal inside the chic red shop window held our rapt attention, but not for good reasons.
"Three thousand, three hundred and thirty two pounds and ninety eight pence?!" My friend Rick uttered in disbelief, "Raphi, remind me again why we're looking at this monstrosity?"
"Because Mickaela said she really really liked them and I wanted to get her them for our third anniversary." I replied, not taking my eye off the price tag.
"Third anniversary of dating you mean. Besides, who uses the term 'anniversary' to describe dating? You're 23, not 13."
I didn't respond, I was transfixed. I hadn't blinked in a while and my eyes were beginning to tear up. Perhaps if my vision went wavy those numbers might resolve into something less frightening.
Rick continued: "Why can't Mickaela be like other normal woman? Can't she just want a fat piece of carbon? I know a dealer who can set you up with a shiny piece of quartz - looks like the real thing but for a tenth of the price. You could get some real fun out of her for that."
"Okay okay, mr.no-intimacy-before-marriage."
"We are intimate, but we just share respect for the sanctity of marriage."
"You sound like a politician during an election year."
"I don't ask that you understand them, but can you just respect our beliefs?"
"Fine. But seriously, couldn't she settle for something standard? A car sized boutique of flowers? How about a car? Something sane, because this is crazy."
I turned to him, breaking the staring contest between myself and the price tag for the first time: "So I don't get it, why did you ask to come along?"
"Because you're my mate and I know how to get a good deal around the city. Plus, when it comes to taking care of ladies, you need a bit of advice."
"Mickaela doesn't need much caring. She's independant, free minded and non-materialistic."
"Sure she is. Which is exactly why she pointed you in the direction of that overpriced...thing. Look, every girl I've dated says the same thing, and then throws a fit when the handbag I got her isn't the exact same one that costs five times more."
"Have you ever bought her the more expensive handbag to make her happy?"
"No, but I know guys who did for their girlfriends."
"They're now unhappily married."
I rolled my eyes at my friend and half way during their roll they found their way back to the price tag.
"Perhaps we can haggle with them? Pretend you're the cousin of a duke and so by law we need a price drop of around 3300 pounds?" Rick offered.
I stood back and looked at the whole of the store. Stylish, bright red wood adorned all three stories of the shop front. The sign that was positioned just over the doorway was designed to look like it was made out of thousands of pieces of chocolates.
"You want to haggle with The Red Shop?" I asked, stunned.
"Sure, why not? Every shop sets its prices by negotiation and thus can be re-negotiated."
The Red Shop wasn't just well known, it was a national landmark and in every tourist booklet. It was famously let out for periods of 6 months at a time and whatever was within its red walls was always in huge demand.
"You'd have an easier time convincing the prime minister that he should take a break and let you run the country for a week." I answered before venturing, "Perhaps we should ask inside, maybe the chocolates are worth it."
"Great. Then once we've heard some cattle-fodder reason why you should hand over your liver for some milk and coca, I'll take you to tesco's where we can pick up something identical for a tenner. She won't notice the difference and you'd get all the rewards any normal three year relationship would."
"Is that all you ever think about? How you can get the most fun for the least price?"
"I see it as a cycle of commercialism. They petition us for expensive little things in return for 'favours' and so, like any savvy businessman, I find ways of increasing my profit margin."
"You know Rick, you have a really twisted view of the world."
"Is my view twisted or is it yours?"
We stepped through the entrance into The Red Shop. The interior didn't just look classy, it even smelt classy with a faint aroma of strawberries and milk. Chocolate lined the walls. Cute little red tables held cute little boxes with less than cute price tags. The store was busy, it looked like a heaving ocean of clothes and body parts. And the madness did not end. If you looked up, you'd be able to see a massive chocolate ball they had hanging from the ceiling like an eccentric tuned mass-damper. I was fresh meat in the bears cave of supply and demand.
"Hello, welcome to The Red Shop. My name is Robyn. Can I help?" A female voice asked from our side.
I quickly turned and tried to rapidly make myself appear like a calculating man in charge of his world. It didn't work and when I hesitated Rick took over, sounding like the man I wanted to be.
"Yes, my friend here is interested in a specimen in your front window."
The girl in the distinctive red outfit, probably 19 or 20, looked over to the window in the direction Rick had nodded.
"Those are the marigold lilly-petals. One of The Red Shop's specialties."
"Yes, those lilly-pad things. My friend here is interesting in purchasing a box but has a few reserved matters to discuss."
She paused, focusing on me. I could feel my ears blending into the shop's background. I was furious at Rick. I was going to kill him.
"Certainly, we can have a discussion in the private room."
Rick could live for another day.
Robyn smiled and led us through the crowd and up the stairs to the top floor. People packed every floor, looking at every variety of chocolate out there. As we came out of the doors to the top floor the wrecking-ball chocolate was right in our faces. I made a point of trying not to read the price tag, it might give me nightmares.
We came to, would you guess it, a red door that read 'private consulting'. Robyn turned and clasped her hands in front of herself shyly.
"I'm sorry gentlemen, only one customer may enter at a time."
My stomach tingled nervously. Rick shrugged at me. I took a few steps forward into a room that in blatant contrast had black walls, floor, ceiling and velvet over the table. A square panel in the ceiling bounced soft light around the room. The door clicked shut and the tingle increased dramatically. I felt alone. Alone with a girl in red.
"Please sit, mr..." she said, gesturing to the black chair.
"Raph...Raphi Beryl." I said.
I sat down and Robyn brought a rectangular prism out from under the table. Six or seven inches long, three or four wide and one deep.
"So Mr. Beryl, what are the reserved matters you wish to discuss?"
"Erm...could you...would it be possible..." I lifted my eyes from the chocolate and found myself looking into two deeply concentrating pupils, "To tell me what's inside the chocolates?"
Robyn responded: "Certainly. The chocolate truffle is laced with gold flakes with a core of exotic champagne. It is shipped here in special containers that preserve things which don't matter because you don't really care."
I had been zoning out and this caused me to sit up sharply.
"The way I see it, you're here to negotiate the price of the chocolates." Her eyes had yet to leave mine but I found it hard for mine to remain connected with hers.
My mind blanked and I blurted out, "I didn't want to negotiate. I just...I don't know. My girlfriend really wants these chocolates and I just want to make her happy."
An awkward silence stretched out before Robyn asked, "Raphi, tell me about your relationship."
"Isn't that a little personal?"
"Personal? I suppose so. But this room is private. No-one is listening and once we're done I won't breath a word of this to anyone."
I sighed and quickly decided that if it would help me get the chocolates for Mickaela then it was worth a shot.
"We've been going out for three years and we really like each other. Tonight is our third anniversary." I ended the sentence and thought about what to continue with. I then realized that nothing particular came to mind so I just sat back as if I had explained everything.
Robyn looked at me incredulously, "Is that all?"
"I suppose so. Isn't it?"
Robyn drummed her fingers on the table before asking, "What happened for your first two anniversaries?"
I thought back: "Well for our first one we went on a cruise, but unfortunately Mickaela was sea sick and so spent most of her time on the deck."
"Don't you mean time in her room?"
"No, on deck. She said the sun would help her recover. So I looked after her. She said it was really romantic."
"I bet...So what about last year?"
"Barbados. Also fun, but we missed out on a lot of the water sports parts because Michaela enjoyed the beach. So I sat with her."
"She called it romantic?"
"And who paid for the holidays?"
"We both do. Though Michaela is only a part-time secretary so she can't put in too much."
Robyn laid her hands out on the table and spun the chocolates around on the black velvet. Then she turned her attention back to me.
"What's your job?"
"I'm a computer assistant at a PC World help desk."
"Raphi, run a diagnostic and tell me what your problem is with buying these chocolates, because I see no reason why you shouldn't. You've done it for two years. Why not now?"
I thought about it before answering, "Because I want her...to show-"
"To show love back to you without huge gifts." Robyn finished, "So why don't you take her out to a musical or a nice restaurant? What about getting her jewelery or flowers?"
"Michaela isn't that sort of person. She's an independent, free minded and non-materialistic person."
"Are those your words or hers?"
That question stung. Only because I knew the answer. "Hers."
Robyn nodded, "Your problem is that you're a nice guy. Tell me, what is it you really want to hear from her?"
"That...she's happy and happy with me."
"But what about yourself? What do you want to be?"
"I want to be happy too."
"Would you like to eat in a fancy restaurant?"
"Would Michaela go along to see you happy?"
"Well...maybe. I could ask her, I suppose."
"No, wrong answer. You've been in a relationship for three years, the only answer I want to hear is 'yes'. You go home and take Michaela out to a nice restaurant. You get a table in the corner and the whole evening you whisper to her. It makes the room feel smaller, more intimate." Robyn said, whispering the last few words. The black room did indeed feel much smaller.
"But what if Michaela doesn't like it?"
Robyn lent forward, lowering her voice even more causing the black room to become tiny, crushing me. "If she's not happy then maybe you should think about moving on."
I sat back surprised, forcing the dark space to be a little bigger. Robyn toyed with the box on the table. She opened it up and plucked out a lilly-pad chocolate before popping it in her mouth and then offering the box to me. I hesitantly took a piece and ate it.
"Good?" She asked.
"Yeah, it's nice. A bit like quality street." I said with my mouth still full and she laughed.
I swallowed and met Robyn's gaze. "I'm just a little confused, why are you telling me to break up with Michaela?"
"I'm telling you to make her show you some respect and 'find you romantic' without breaking the bank. The way I see it, either she'll agree to have the dinner or she'll shout at you. Then you'll know if she's worth it."
In my pensive silence Robyn continued: "Also, is Raphi your nickname? I thought as much. Raphael is a nice name, it sounds intriguing and strong. Are your parents Italian?"
"My mother is."
"Awesome. Italian history is fascinating."
I smiled before looking at the opened box of chocolates. "Erm...Do I have to pay for that?"
"No, it's fine. It's not like the shop owners would care. They make a killing on these things anyway. It takes a real idiot to buy them." Robyn said, winking.
We left the private room a few minutes later. I decided this time to take a look at the price tag of the chocolate wrecking ball, cocking an eyebrow at the number that some office monkey had put on it. We met up with Rick and left the shop.
Rick gave me an odd look, "Raphi, are you okay?"
"Feeling great. Also, call me Raphael."
Rick fell behind a few steps. "So, what are you going to get Michaela?"
"Well, I figured I could use your expertise round the city to get a short-notice reservation at a sleek restaurant, preferably Italian. I need a table for two in a corner."
This caused Rick to stop walking altogether. "You sure you're fine? Won't Michaela throw a fit and break up with you? Three years of pain for nothing."
"I've put in enough effort. I figure Michaela can either be non-materialistic or she can go."
Rick shook his head, amazed. "What the heck happened to you in that room?"
"I think I found a lovely independent, free minded and non-materialistic girl."
Rick was for once lost for words. Eventually he found them. "Raphi - Raphael - No offence, but what makes you think you'll have a chance with her? Also, she looks 18."
"She's 22. And that's not the only thing she told me." I said briefly tapping my mobile, "So either way, two people are going to be sitting in a quiet corner of a nice Italian restaurant this evening."
Rick went through 50 shades of shock before grinning, "You're finally talking like a normal human. Follow me, I've got a great place you'll love. And hey, who knows what you'll get up to in the evening after?"
"Not happening Rick."
"Shame, not quite normal yet. Oh well, worth a try." He said with a smile before we walked off into the maze of London, a red shop with overpriced chocolates in its front window shrinking into the distance.