The bell on the front door of the florists jangled urgently and a man walked in, youngish, mid-twenties perhaps, wearing stone chinos and a blue check shirt. He was clean cut, neat hair, closely shaved, slightly unusual these days. He saw a girl standing towards the rear of the shop, looking back at him with a slightly startled expression on her face. He immediately noted, in that semi-conscious way that young men have, that she was very attractive in an understated kind of way. She was wearing black jeans and t-shirt and her hair, also black, was tied up in a pony-tail.
‘Hello. Excuse me!’ he said. The girl had started to turn towards the door behind her that presumably led to the rear of the premises. However, she paused and turned to face him.
‘Yes? Can I help you?’
‘Hopefully. I’m looking for some flowers.’
‘What?’ Her response momentarily confused him. ‘Oh, yes. Sorry, what do you mean?’
‘Good. Good start. This is a flower shop.’
‘Yes.’ Whilst true, it seemed a peculiar thing for a shop assistant to say to a customer. A bit rude, even.
‘There are lots of flowers. Good luck.’
This seemed even ruder. Exasperatedly, he said, ‘Good luck? What do you mean?’
‘You’re repeating yourself.’
‘Yes. Sorry.’ Why on earth was he apologising? Still, the girl was very pretty. He moved a step or two closer.
‘Good luck looking for flowers in a flower shop.’
‘Oh. Can’t you help me?’ Now he was completely confused.
‘But you said, “can I help you?”.’
‘That’s because I was well brought up.’
He suddenly realised what was happening. ‘You don’t actually work here, do you?’
‘Do I look as though I work here?’
‘I don’t know. Yes. Why not?’
‘I’m not wearing a uniform.’
‘I didn’t know it was compulsory.’
‘Uniform looks better though, doesn’t it? Makes it a bit clearer for the paying customer.’
This was getting him nowhere. ‘So, just to clarify, you can’t help me?’
‘Well, I probably could, up to a point. I can’t take any money off you though. Well, not without a gun anyway.’ She started to laugh but then stopped and shook her head.
‘A gun?’ Why on earth would she say that?
‘Sorry, poor taste. What are you looking for?’
‘Flowers. I thought we’d established that.’ Now he was being rude. He hadn’t meant to be, but the girl was being deliberately obtuse. Still, she was very pretty, and she didn’t seem to take offence.
‘Hmm, not very specific,’ she replied consideringly. ‘They come in all shapes and sizes. Care to give me a clue?’
The man couldn’t remember if they had fully established whether or not the girl was a member of staff. Either way, flowers were not an area of expertise for him, so he needed some advice from someone and she was the only person there. ‘Erm, roses perhaps? Or, oh, I don’t know, lilies?’ He was running out of options.
‘Roses then. Let’s say roses. I saw what you did there, by the way.’
‘What did I do?’
‘You said “pick one”.’
‘Flowers. Pick one?’
‘Oh, yes, I get it. Clever. It actually didn’t occur to me. What are they for?’
‘For? Oh, I see. No, not a what. A who. My girlfriend.’
‘Why? What have you done?’
Now what was she talking about? ‘What I have I done? Nothing.’
‘You must have. Unless it’s an anniversary. Or is it her birthday?’
‘No, neither. And honestly, I haven’t done anything. I just thought it would be nice.’
‘No, that doesn’t wash. There’s always something, in my experience. Probably nothing very much though if you think a bunch of roses will fix it. Serious misdemeanours, you’d be buying her dinner or taking her to a concert or whatever rocks her boat.’
‘And what experience is that?’
‘Well, lots. I mean, look at me.’ He hadn’t stopped looking at her. After all, she was very pretty. However, he wasn’t sure exactly which bit of her she was inviting him to look at, and you did have to be very careful these days. He needed some clarification.
‘What am I looking at?’
‘Well, what am I?’ She indicated herself, and he realised what she was getting at. It was all quite hard work though, and if it turned out she really was the shop assistant, he imagined she’d put off a lot of customers with her attitude. He though, was prepared to stick it out a bit longer. Particularly as she was very pretty.
‘I know this one. You’re a girl too, aren’t you? Like my girlfriend.’
‘Excellent work. Very observant. Yes, I am. That’s my point. Although I’ve never met your girlfriend, so I can’t really say whether I’m like her.’
In actual fact, she wasn’t much like his girlfriend, he thought. She was prettier for one thing, and his girlfriend wouldn’t answer back so much. ‘What point?’ he asked.
‘Well, I’m thinking that as I’m a girl, and if your girlfriend is a girl too – although, in this day and age, I probably shouldn’t assume that – I might have some experience in the subject of what girls like. And since we were debating types of flower, perhaps particularly when it comes to flowers.’
‘And you are after all, an assistant in a flower shop.’
‘What? No, of course I’m not. Haven’t you been listening?’
He had, but he couldn’t remember that question being satisfactorily answered. And if she wasn’t a shop assistant, who was and where were they? However, he let that pass. Presumably one would appear soon. He tried another tack.
‘So you’ve had flowers bought for you.’
‘Yes, why not? More than once actually. Are you suggesting that no one would buy me flowers? I mean, I’ve never met you before, and yet you feel the need to be that rude? I may not be Miss World, but I’ve never been compared to the back of a bus either. Well, only once.’ He’d thought he was making a polite enquiry but she really did seem to be quite cross. You could never tell with women, he reflected, not for the first time. Still, she was very pretty. He sighed and apologised.
‘I wasn’t being rude. I’m sorry. And you’re not, definitely not.’
‘The back of a bus.’
She shrugged. ‘Okay, thank you. I think. I didn’t mean to kick off. I’m feeling a bit stressed at the moment, truth be told and frankly, men buying women flowers is something of a dying art, if you ask me.’ She took a deep breath and smiled. ‘So, where were we? These flowers. Roses you reckon? Not sure I agree.’
‘Don’t you? Why not?’
‘Well, look at it this way. Have you just met her?’
‘No, we’ve been going out for six months or more.’
The girl raised her eyebrows. ‘Going out? How quaint. I didn’t know people still “went out” any more. You’re sure you don’t mean “stepping out”?’ And she laughed.
‘What would you call it then?’ He was beginning to think there might be other florists’ in the town that he could try, ones containing slightly less confrontational shop assistants. Or non-shop assistants. Or whatever this girl was. Apart from being very pretty of course. And she was certainly very pretty, so he decided to stay put and see what happened.
The girl continued. ‘Roses are supposed to be “romantic”,’ and she made that sign in the air with the first two fingers of both hands that indicated what she thought of the word romantic. ‘After six months, unless, as I suggested earlier, you’ve done something very bad, you’ll have got past the roses stage. Trust me on this. If a man bought me roses six months into a relationship, I’d be very suspicious indeed.’
‘But with all due respect,’ he couldn’t help saying, ’you seem to be a naturally suspicious person.’
‘Do I?’ she seemed genuinely surprised. ‘I don’t mean to be Something to do with the stress I’m under, I suppose.’
‘What are you stressed about?’
She flared up. ‘That’s not really any of your business, is it?’
‘Probably not, but you keep banging on about it, so it seemed only polite to enquire.’
‘And you think you can help me, do you? A complete stranger, and frankly a stranger who doesn’t know his arse from his roses.’
He was beginning to find her sudden bursts of anger quite amusing. Although he fully admitted to himself that he might only feel that way because she was very pretty.
‘Possibly. You can try me. A problem shared and all that.’
‘I haven’t got a problem. Well, actually I have and it’s standing right in front of me.‘
‘There’s nothing stopping you leaving. Unless you really are the shop assistant.’
‘For Christ’s sake, I am NOT the shop assistant.’
‘Yes, I think you’ve now made that abundantly clear. But it does beg three questions. One, where is the shop assistant? We’ve been standing here arguing for about ten minutes and there’s been no sign of her.’
‘Or him, granted. Although probably a her, in a flower shop.’
‘So, sexist as well as stupid.’
‘Neither, but I can see your point of view.’ He went on. ‘Two, why are you here?’
‘Again, that’s none of your business. Why shouldn’t I be here? Has it not occurred to you that you might not be the only person in the town out buying flowers today?’
‘Am I what?’
‘Out buying flowers today.’
She didn’t answer but instead walked past him to the front of the shop and peered out of the window. In doing so, she managed to brush against him in a rather more solidly aggressive manner than seemed absolutely necessary, even in the rather cramped confines of the shop. Then she turned to face him again and said, ‘What’s the third thing?’
‘The third thing?’ He thought back. ‘Oh, yes. Three, why are you stressed?’
‘Not this again.’
‘For all you know, I might be a psychiatrist and you’re about to get a free consultation.’
‘Don’t you mean psychologist?’
‘Do I? Is there a difference?’
‘Ye gods.’ She turned back to the window and he decided to let the matter of her stressfulness pass, at least for the moment. He actually didn’t want to upset her any more. For one thing there was a hint of hidden danger about her, slim, five foot four inch girl or not. And for another thing, she was very pretty.
He backtracked. ‘So, you don’t think roses are a good idea then?’
‘Jesus, are you still asking my opinion? I don’t work here. And apparently I don’t know anything about flowers. What don’t you understand about that?’
‘Yes, I get that, but actually you offered a very persuasive argument against roses. So it seems reasonable to see if you have an equally valid point of view about any alternatives.’ He waved his arms around. ‘I mean, there are dozens of different types of flowers here, possibly hundreds, but I don’t know what any of them are called. And in any case, whenever I try and talk about something else, you shoot me down.’
‘Don’t give me ideas.’
‘Pardon?’ What on earth was she talking about now?
‘As far as I can recall,’ the girl said, leaning against the door to the road with her arms folded across her chest, ‘your only other subject of conversation apart from flowers is my level of stress, and the only thing you’re succeeding in doing is increasing that. Talk about something else, if you must talk about anything. The weather? Sport. I don’t know. Anything.’
He found he was starting to enjoy himself arguing with this girl who possessed more than a hint of mild peril under the surface. And who of course was very pretty.
‘I don’t really care about the weather. And, whilst I care about sport, well some sport, it’s a very subjective thing, like religion or politics, so I think we should leave those conversations for another day.’
‘Oh, you think there’s going to be another day, do you?’
‘I’m certainly hoping so, and when I say “day” I mean “date”.’
She looked at him for quite a long time. ‘Date.’ She repeated eventually. ‘Another date? You can’t have another date without having had a first one, that’s basic English, which must mean that you think that this chance encounter between an intelligent, stressed woman and a complete moron is a date?’
‘You forgot pretty.’
‘What? Pretty? No, I think moron covers it.’
‘Not me, you.’ He said it although he knew perfectly well that she knew perfectly well which of them he was referring to.
‘As I recall, right back in the mists of time at the start of what I hesitate to call this conversation, the purpose of your presence here was to buy flowers for your girlfriend. Let me spell that out to you. Your GIRLFRIEND. And now you’re hitting on me.’
He considered this. ‘Yep, that sounds about right. So, can I have your number?’
‘Your phone number. Can I have it? I’d like to see you again. So we can talk about sport, religion and politics. And psychiatry.’
‘If you say so.’
‘What about your girlfriend?’
‘I see. So, let me get this straight. Whilst buying flowers for your girlfriend, you’re not averse to chatting up another girl in the flower shop? That’s pretty crass, isn’t it?’
‘Probably. Still. Strike while the iron’s hot as they say.’
‘I assure you, this iron’s not hot.’
‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘Thank you. That sounds like a compliment. You can’t have my number though.’
‘For all you know I’m married.’
‘You’re not married.’
‘Well, your finger for one.‘ He pointed at the third finger on her left hand which was resolutely ringless. She held it up as if to confirm the fact.
‘That doesn’t mean a thing. Anyway, I might have a boyfriend.’
He thought it was highly likely that she would have a boyfriend. Possibly several, queuing round the block. After all, she was very pretty. Still, it was worth a try. ‘So, do you have a boyfriend?’
‘No, I do not in fact have a boyfriend. My lifestyle doesn’t fit with having a boyfriend.’
This was intriguing. ‘What lifestyle’s that?’
‘My stressed lifestyle.’
They were back to that again. He decided to let it pass. Things were beginning to go quite well, despite the still-present underlying hint of danger about her.
‘However,’ she was saying, ‘whilst I may be single, we have established that you are not.’
‘I’m probably not going to buy her flowers now, if that makes a difference.’
‘It doesn’t, but why not?’
‘Well, partly because there’s still no one here to sell me any. Also, in the circumstances it might give out the wrong message. If we’re splitting up.’
‘Are you splitting up?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I’ve met someone else.’
‘Who? Oh, I see. No. No you haven’t. But I agree you should split up. She’s too good for you.’
‘How do you know? You’ve never met her.’
‘But I’ve met you. And trust me, she’s too good for you.’
‘And are you too good for me?’
She paused and looked behind her out of the window again. ‘Probably not,’ she said finally, with a distinct sigh in her voice.
‘There’s hope then? So, can I have your number?
‘No, there isn’t. And no, you can’t.’ But she didn’t seem too certain. It struck him that he may actually be in with a chance here, with this small, spiky girl who was very pretty.
He persevered. ‘What about an email address?’
‘I’ll find you on Facebook.’
She laughed. ‘Yeah, good luck with that. And, now, it’s been fun but I must go. Good-bye, moron.’
As she spoke there was the sound of a siren in the distance. They both turned and looked through the window, the man unconcernedly, the girl with a brief spasm of alarm crossing her face.
‘What’s that noise? Is it a siren?’ he asked.
‘Sirens plural I think. As I say, I ought to be off now.’
‘Hang on, you were about to give me some more floral advice.’
The girl looked again through the shop window, hesitated, then started purposefully towards the rear of the shop and the door by which she had been lurking when the man had first entered. As she did so, she said, ‘No, I wasn’t actually, given that you’ve just said you’re splitting with your girlfriend. Lucky escape, I’d say.’
‘But you don’t know what she’s like.’
‘I meant, lucky escape for her. Clearly that’s what I meant. And I really must be off now.’ But the sound of her voice was muffled by the increasing volume of the approaching sirens.
‘I said I’m going now,’ she repeated distinctly.
‘Sorry, those sirens are getting louder. I couldn’t hear you. Anyway, aren’t you here to buy flowers?’
She paused. ‘Not really.’
‘Seems a bit odd that you’re in a florists’ then.’
‘Something else that’s not really any of your business, is it?’
‘No, you’re right, it’s not. So why are you here?’
‘I refer you to my previous answer. Goodbye, it’s been a pleasure. And I mean that with a heavy degree of sarcasm, as I’m sure you’re aware.’
The man could feel his hard-earned progress going up in smoke. ‘Wait a second, at least tell me your name.’
‘It would be nice to know who I’ve been arguing with.’
She shook her head but replied anyway. ‘Ellie, my name’s Ellie.’
‘That’s a nice name.’
‘You’re just saying that.’
‘Maybe, but I’ve heard worse.’ A sudden silence enveloped them, and they realised they were speaking too loudly. ‘Those sirens seem to have stopped. Must be just outside. I’m Johnny, by the way.’
‘Surely not,’ replied the girl. ‘No one’s called Johnny any more, are they?’
‘I am. It’s short for John.’
‘Hardly short for John. Long for, you mean.’ But he had at least regained her attention. Her hand was hovering over the doorknob, but she had come to a stop.
He laughed in what he hoped was an ingratiating way. ‘Yes, I suppose so. What’s Ellie short for?’
‘Nothing. I’m off now.’
‘Nothing? Not Eleanor?’
‘God, no. Bye.’
At that moment, the front door of the shop crashed open accompanied by a loud jangling from the bell. Two men burst in, one middle aged, wearing a crumpled grey suit and a moustache straight out of the fifties, the second in police uniform. At the same time, the door to the rear of the shop also opened to reveal a second uniformed constable.
The mouth under the moustache opened. ‘Not so fast, you. Stay where you are. Hands where I can see them.’ It was obvious he was addressing the girl, but he added, just to be sure, ‘And you, sir.’
‘Damn,’ said the girl. ‘And why am I “you” and he gets to be “sir”?’
The man in the suit ignored her. ‘Inspector Torrington, West Midlands police,’ he said. ‘Constable, if you wouldn’t mind?’
The officer walked up to the girl, their colleague remaining on guard by the rear door, which he had closed behind him.
‘Yes, sir,’ said the first constable. ‘Hello, what have we got here?’ And he produced a small gun from somewhere on the girl. This was definitely the most unexpected and mysterious thing the young man had seen for a long time.
‘A gun is it?’ said the Inspector unnecessarily. ‘Now there’s a thing.’
‘A gun?’ said the man to the girl. ‘You never said you had a gun.’
‘Well, no, why would I? Most people don’t go up to strangers and say, “By the way, I’ve got a gun”.’ She looked at the inspector. ‘It’s not loaded, incidentally.’
‘Makes no difference.’ The Inspector turned to the man. ‘Do you know this woman, sir?’
‘Yes, of course, she’s my girlfriend.’ It seemed a supportive thing to say in the circumstances, and the girl smiled at him.
‘No, I’m not, officer. I’ve never met him before in my life.’
‘Are you Rachel Weissmann?’ asked the Inspector.
‘Her name’s Ellie,’ said the young man. ‘You’ve clearly made a mistake.’ However, he didn’t believe that himself.
‘No, it’s not,’ said the girl.
‘No, it’s not,’ agreed the Inspector. ‘Rachel Weissmann. I’m arresting you on suspicion of the armed robbery of Boyds Bank, Spellford. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
‘You’ve robbed a bank?’ asked the man, astounded. ‘How? There’s nothing of you.’
‘I refer you to the gun,’ she said.
‘Not her first, either,’ remarked the Inspector. ‘Been after Miss Weissman for a few months now. The constable will take your details, Mr… er?’
‘Johnson. Can he pass them on to Miss Weissman?’
‘No, he most certainly can’t.’
The girl laughed. ‘Johnson? Really? Johnny Johnson?’
‘Yes, afraid so. My parents had a sense of humour.’
‘Not sure I agree.’
‘Can I have your number?’ Time seemed to be running out.
‘Oh, I don’t think so, sir,’ said the Inspector. ‘The only number Miss Weissmann’s going to have is a prison number.’ He seemed to consider that this passed for a joke.
‘So where’s this bank you’ve robbed?’ asked Johnny.
‘Please be quiet, sir. Don’t answer that, Miss Weissmann.’
She ignored him. ‘It’s hardly classified. It’s next door, you can’t miss it. Probably closed at the moment though.’
‘And a bit short of cash?’ suggested Johnny.
‘I didn’t take it all.’
‘So you admit you’ve robbed the bank, Miss Weissmann?’
She considered this for a moment before answering. ‘Looks like it. Will an admission count in my favour?’
‘That’s not for me to say.’
‘I’ve decided to go straight now,’ she continued, glancing at Johnny as she spoke. ‘Will that count in my favour too?’
The Inspector looked dubious. ‘Seems like a very sudden decision. Tell us what you’ve done with the money, and you never know.’
‘It’s behind you.’
The Inspector found himself halfway through an embarrassing double-take before recovering himself. At the same time, the first constable said, ‘Oh, yes, sir. There’s a bag down here by the roses. Is this it?’
‘I never noticed that,’ said Johnny.
‘Well, you’re not very observant, are you?’ said Rachel. ‘You hadn’t even spotted the bank next door. Or the gun poking out of my jeans. Quite sweet really.’
‘One more thing,’ said the Inspector. ‘What have you done with the staff?’
‘The staff? I left them in the bank.’ Johnny noticed an encouraging look of concern cross her face. ‘They’re all right, aren’t they?’
‘Not the bank staff. The staff here.’
‘Oh, yes, of course. There was only one. Is only one, rather. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea. She’s locked in the loo.’
‘Okay, constable,’ said the Inspector.’ Release the lady from the toilet, and then we’ll be off.’ The second constable left through the rear door as the first constable produced a pair of handcuffs. Rachel compliantly held her hands out in front of her.
‘I guess this is goodbye then, Johnny Johnson. Or au revoir. Tell you what,’ she added with a gleam in her eye. ‘I’ll meet you here three years today.’
‘Three years?’ scoffed the Inspector. ‘You’ll be lucky.’
‘I’m going to get time off for good behaviour.’
‘It’s a date,’ said Johnny, smiling at her.
‘Yes, this time it is. Oh, and by the way,’ Rachel added over her shoulder as she was marched to the front door. ‘I know you’ve got to fill the next three years somehow, but please don’t buy her roses.’