To haggle is an ancient art - a calling, a song, a dance-off in the street. You must trace your opponent’s next steps in your mind as you circle each other. Never underestimate or patronise, never give them a clue as to your next move. Be vigilant and primitive, attuned to it all and ready for anything. If they tremor or twitch, it’s likely some devious plot or ploy which you must guard against with your life. And we do not want to die today.
To commence, I go low - for I have played this game before.
“I’ll give you…” I sniff arrogantly, pausing, as if I am genuinely pondering how much I will offer. Little does she know it’s a ruse - I know exactly how much I will say! I may well be a master of the art.
I tap my fingers on my chin in a silent repetitive rhythm. I am either sculpture or sculptor, lost in perpetual thought, but also fingers braced dextrously and ready for action. The planets rotate, tides rise and fall, stars implode millions of lightyears away and heavenly choirs sing.
And still I stand, deep in thought.
“Two pounds…. fifty-three pence.”
I cast out the pence as an afterthought, almost callous, certainly casual, and not a little indifferent to the outcome. I could just as well spend my money elsewhere - I am honouring my opponent with any offer at all. They would do well to take the money and run.
She recoils - presumably eager to maintain my attention and my interest in her wares. I prepare for the inevitable and immediate acceptance, and open my face and mind to gratefully embrace it when it comes.
“Sir, it’s £17.99, as you can see from the sticker.”
She thrusts a finger at the item I hold to a garish piece of paper plastered there. It does indeed say the mentioned amount and I see now that I have underestimated her. She is fully prepared, possessing a dangerous artillery including this ‘sticker’ which seems to be so convincing.
I must take heed, and respond in kind.
“I see,” I muse, outwardly confident and assured. But in the depths of my mind, the panic has set in. I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared for her confidence, her dismissiveness, her sturdy correctness. Damn her, and all her assertions.
I’m on a slope now through a thickening forest and I don’t know which way to turn. Before, there were a great many paths open to me, each offering a languorous and relaxing Sunday stroll to my destination of a price I determined. Now all I see is crows and other rabid woodland creatures scuttling up tree trunks and laughing maniacally at me.
The haze thickens and I revert to early childhood, I am lost and alone - inconsolably uncertain of how things will ever be the same again. I feel myself shrinking to the height I was when I was three years old, and I stare up at her, open-mouthed and loomed over.
“Sir?” she continues.
My god, the affront! The aggression! Can she not see that I am down, in the midst of an existential crisis of uncertain adulthood. Still she insists on stamping down hard on my prone form - she’s probably enjoying this, the merciless sadist. It’s too much to bear.
I’m reeling, I know, but I must respond. I must pull myself from this pit of despair and pluck triumph from defeat’s malevolent grasp. Remember who you are, I tell myself quietly.
“Hmmm…. interesting,” I begin, before the ground swallows me again and I start weeping aggressively.
I had thought that my own speech would restore me, coax me back and undissipate my sense of self. But it’s hoarse and whispery, choked and non-existent. If anything, it dissuades, and makes me realise the shell I’ve become. There is nothing physical that this can be attributed to - I don’t have a cold or even a sniffle.
“Sir, please if you don’t want the item, then can you please step aside - there are other people waiting.”
She truly is relentless. I turn and there is indeed a gathered mass, each of them murmuring to one another quietly as if engaged in some bizarre and chaotic game of Chinese whispers.
“Don’t you people know the rules!” I cry, falling to my knees in despair.
“Sir, again, I must ask you to step aside if you’re not going to buy the item.”
“Alright,” I whisper, “I’ll give you five pounds.”
She points to the sticker with a cold unblinking glare. I clutch the item to me now, as I know our fates are intertwined.
“Ten?” I wonder hopefully, all childlike innocence and curiosity.
“Sir, I’ll be calling security if you don’t either buy this product or leave in the next ten seconds.”
Ah, of course, I should’ve known a time would come when she would call for back-up. The heavies, the muscle, the reinforcements. At least I can take solace in the fact that she has resorted to this. But I must now, I suspect, accept defeat. I’m only one man - after all.
“Right,” I swallow, “seventeen pounds ninety nine it is.”
I reach out with my card an extension of my digits. The plastic which I’ve come to cherish trembles gently in the artificial light. Broken, I brush the machine and it beeps instantaneously, the cruel God of capitalism sated briefly by the movement of tokens from one imaginary place to another. It belches out a receipt in contentment, and I tear it off meekly without another glance.
“Thank you,” I murmur chastened and abashed. The whisperers behind continue to do so as I shuffle through the automatic doors, past the heavies who are braced and ready to crush my skull without a care.
How terrible the haggle is, when you’ve forgotten how to win.
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