How to propose? We were due to fly out to Italy for a few days to lake Como and I had the idea of popping the question there, which would have been as romantic as it gets, but if I was honest with myself, I couldn’t wait that long. Sarah’s birthday was imminent and to celebrate I had planned a trip to London. I therefore resolved that I would propose to Sarah in The Capital.
So, if I was to do it in London I needed a ring and quick. Now, jewellers have a knack of making sparkly stones über bright and shiny, but a quick search on the internet makes one realise that all that glitters isn’t necessarily a golden bargain.
I was due to visit London with work the week before Sarah’s birthday surprise so I took the chance to explore Hatton Garden, London’s diamond district. Hatton Garden is a wide thoroughfare with dozens of jeweller’s shops crammed together on either side of the street. The demographic of the traders is a curious mix of Hebrew and Indian.
Men in black suits and hats stand on street corners either talking into their phones or holding impromptu meetings with other earnest looking traders; these brief conversations would end with a handshake, followed by a scurrying away. I wondered if these men, walking faster along the street than normal pedestrians, did so because of what they were carrying, fearful of being jumped at any moment? Something else struck me, no one was carrying a briefcase or bag. Of course, a bag can be grabbed, they must have them in their pockets. So, I was surrounded by diamonds and diamond dealers and yet I had no idea where to start.
Randomly, I approached a glass door and pulled. Nothing, it was locked. I peered inside. A small man with a white beard pointed to the side of the door. Of course, ring the bell.
He buzzed me inside.
It was a small gloomy emporium with a few tall glass display cabinets. Harry Winston’s it most certainly wasn’t.
I sat in front of the ancient gentleman and explained my dilemma. Now, how many hopeful young (and not so young) men had sat in this chair before me? Hundreds? Thousands? After a lifetime dealing with nervous grooms to be I expected this wizened old chap to be nothing but indifferent.
Yet when I said I wanted to buy an engagement ring, his crinkly old face softened around the eyes. No matter how hard the diamond business is ( and I would imagine it’s one of the hardest) even the grizzliest trader is a sucker for a love story.
Silently, he eased himself back on his chair and retrieved a slim velvet case from behind his head. He placed the box on the dark purple desk and, in what must have been for him a reflex action, ran his age-spotted hand over the velvet and smoothed out the nape for the millionth time, just like you would stroke a pet cat. Then he opened the lid. Inside there were around forty rings, all with an inner iridescence so fiery I glanced up to search for the source of the illumination. There wasn’t any, the dusty light seeping in from the street outside more than enough to give these gems their sparkle.
The old gentlemen picked up a ring. He popped his eyepiece into his left socket as his face scrunched to one side to hold the glass in place. He nodded and hummed to himself, happy with his choice. Then, bizarrely he placed the ring back in its velvet clasp, looked up at me and raised his eyebrow, presumably waiting for my question.
“Er, can I see some rings then?”
“How much you want to spend, my boy?
I gave him my budget. The old man sighed, closed his case and replaced it back on the shelf behind.
In the coffee shop next door, I decided to search Hatton garden on my phone. On the web, I chanced upon a store that gave it’s address as being only a few yards away. I finished my coffee and headed up the road. After pressing the bell I was greeted by a young Indian who eyed me suspiciously.
“You need an appointment.
Not the most welcoming greeting I had ever heard.
“Er, I only have a few moments, I need to buy an engagement ring.
The expected softening of the young man’s face failed to materialise. Maybe he had yet to fall in love, maybe his heart had been broken and my request had reminded him of the girl that got away. Unfortunately, I had to be back in Central London at two so this unknown youth’s love life would have to forever remain a mystery to me.
The kid told me to wait there. Eventually, an Indian woman appeared. Around forty, she had the air of someone who spent their day dealing with diamonds and money. Slight and modestly dressed, she smiled sweetly and turned to open a small green safe next to a desk. She bid me to sit opposite her as she produced a tray of rings. It was after less than thirty seconds that I spotted it.
I pointed to Sarah’s ring. ” How much us that one?
She told me. It was in budget, just. She plucked it from its berth and offered it up to her eyeglass which, just like the old man’s in the previous store, appeared from nowhere.
She smiled to herself, “Yes this is a very nice stone, no flaws, good colour. What is the ladies size?”
She handed me the ring. I imagined handing it to Sarah. It was perfect, a single diamond set in white gold. It shone beautifully under the shop lights, blazing with different reflected hues, purples, reds blues…
“Sir? The ladies ring size?
“Er I don’t actually know, sorry.”
Now how stupid can you get? Fancy not knowing what ring size! How ridiculously stupid of me to not to obtain that vital piece of information.
“This is quite a common ring size sir so it may be ok. You can pay for it now and if it is not suitable you can always bring it back and find something the right size.
Then she gave me a warm, ‘aren’t men stupid’ smile.
And then I had my idea…..
On the train down to London Sarah wanted to know what was with my stupid smile.
“I’m not smiling.” I grinned.
“Well I don’t trust you when you’ve got that look in your eyes. What’s the big secret?
“There isn’t a big secret.
“Well that’s ok then,
“It is ok. And later, all will be revealed!
“There, you’re doing it again, stop teasing
“I’m not teasing you.”
“Or am I?”
Sarah put her paper down and looked out of the window. I did my little silent giggle that makes my eyes water.
We got a taxi up to Jury’s Inn in Islington. An hotel strategically placed for my plan. Everything was ready.
We came up to our room which overlooked Pentonville Road, a busy thoroughfare through North London. Sarah dropped her bag and placed her arms around my neck.
“Well this is all very nice darling,”
I extricated myself from her grasp,
“I’m sorry my dear, but we have no time for any funny business. Come come, we must away
Sarah gave me a puzzled look but followed me out of our room and down to the lobby. We stepped out into the street, past the foreign hotel guests arguing with the taxi driver, along the cosmopolitan thoroughfare; past Indians, Rastafarians, Trustafarians, lanky graduates smoking roll ups, tramps. In fact all of humanity was on that street.
We rounded the corner and grabbed a table in Bills – a shabby chic restaurant famous for its distressed look and superb eggs Benedict.
Sarah looked about her, impressed with the deliberately random, second hand look of the furniture. We ordered coffee and then I slipped her the envelope. She opened if and took out a piece of paper. On it was written ;
The Islington Puzzle
Leave alabaster Aslan
And turn right to where everything is brill
Over the busy Levi’s
To get help for those who are ill.
Next, waddle down a road to
where pen pushers feel so nice
Then go discover the place
Where only the rich buy spice.
And when we sound like a toasty maker
And Derek is just round the bend
Know better than to bargain with a thinning Jim
And meet your very best friend.
“Tom, what an earth is this ?
“It is what it is, it’s a puzzle. Something you have to work out.”
She stared at the paper. It was clear from the look on her face that this puzzle was the last thing she was expecting.
“Ok, it’s a puzzle, but what does leave alabaster Aslan mean? Do I have to walk somewhere?”
I touched my nose and pointed at her with my other finger.
In an instant we were back out on White Lion Street. Sarah looked up at the sign.
“Alabaster Aslan – White Lion Street, I get it now. Well I don’t because I haven’t a clue where I’m going, but…..”
We headed for the next line in the puzzle. Everything is brill – the A1, the main road that ran down to the next clue ‘busy Levi’s’. The A501.
The penny dropped with Sarah, it was a treasure hunt.
She scanned the roads, trying to work out the direction of the next clue.
“Those that are ill…..St. John’s Street! Down here?”
“If that’s what you think my dear.”
“Tom, if I’m wrong, we’ll be wandering around Islington all day.”
“Trust your instincts Sarah, use the force, Luke.”
The waddling clue foxed her. She had never heard of an Aylesbury Duck and so Aylesbury Street was missed. So, after a little assist we were back on track
Clerkenwell Road was negotiated, as was Saffron street. By now we had been walking for about a mile, and Sarah’s confusion slowly began to morph into excitement. Her eyes became wider, her pace quickened, her questions came in shallow breathy pants. “Is it this way, or that?”
My shrugs began to exasperate.
“Sounds like Toasty maker? Breville…Greville Street!”
But who was Derek?
“Derek….Hatton? Hatton Garden!”
Finally, we were here. Sarah looked up and down the street at all the jewellers shops. It was at this point that something funny happened. Something that for a man, is I suppose part of the mystery that is Woman. Realising that something sparkly may be on its way, Sarah had, what can best be described as an instant nervous breakdown. Her hands shook, her bottom lip trembled, she danced on the spot, she displayed all the physical signs of someone in a heightened state of emotional distress.
Then the Gordian knot of the final clue presented itself.
“‘Know better than to bargain with a thinning Jim’? What does that mean?”
“Listen, you’re the one who does the cryptic crosswords, you work it out.”
“Tom, give me a clue, please?”
“You’ve had your clue, no more, sorry.”
“Who is Jim? Is it someone I know?”
“He’s a singer, that’s all I can say.”
I watched as Sarah desperately ran through all the singers whose name began with Jim.
“Jim…Reeves, Jim Kerr, Jim…..Diamond! Jim Diamond! I Should Have Known Better!”
She had got it, but still she was only half way there. All the shops sold Diamonds obviously, but which was the right one?
“Thinning? What does that mean?”
I couldn’t stand it any longer, I had to put her out of her misery. “Think about it, if your hair is thin, it’s…..”
“It’s…..thin it’s …. Fine?”
She followed my eyes to…
“There! Buy Fine Diamonds! There! It’s there!”
Passersby looked up from their phones, staring at this mad woman dancing in the middle of the street.
I buzzed the door, the lady smiled, let me in and in no time I was back on the street, holding a small box.
And so, in the middle of a fairly innocuous street in North London, I eased myself down on one knee and asked Sarah to marry me.