Ian McMillan: Robberty with violets... my scenes of the crime

It was as though an exotic butterfly had flashed across my field of vision: bright colours, fast-moving shapes, a sense of urgency.

I stared and tried to make sense of what I’d seen, tried to order it into some sort of narrative. I was in Sheffield and my mate was driving me up one of its many hills and he’d slowed down at a zebra crossing to let some people across. He had no choice, actually, because they were running very quickly. Very quickly indeed.

I shielded my eyes from the bright autumn sun and realised that a butterfly wasn’t fluttering by. Two lads, archetypally dressed in dark hoodies, were sprinting across the road clutching bunches of flowers; they were the bright colours I’d seen.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For a split second I thought they were late for a double blind date and they’d bought the flowers to appease a couple of girls who were standing under a clock tutting and checking the time on their mobile phones. Then my mate said “robbers!” and made as though to get out of the car but there was no point; before he’d clicked his seat belt off they were long gone down the hill, scattering petals and leaves in their wake. One petal floated for longer than the others in the light wind; like confetti, like a feather. It landed on the windscreen of the car.

I imagined the lads with their stolen bunches of flowers, hiding round a corner, their breath heaving, sweat prickling their brows, one of them scrabbling for his inhaler. In films and TV programmes and books, crime is often glamorous: a handsome man and his handsome mates will turn up at a bank and hold rich folks up like Robin Hood did.

A beautiful woman in a tight pencil skirt will lift fat wallets from the pockets of unsuspecting chaps in wine bars that smell of dosh and private jets and where the music is muted and impeccably cool.

In real life, crime is usually like this: a moment outside a flower shop planned for a couple of minutes in a bus shelter then executed quickly: hoods up, sprint across the road, grab the flowers then run, run, run down the hill as fast as your legs will carry you as the flower shop lady stands shouting and pointing and a man tries to get out of a car to help but can’t.

Run so fast that you almost drop the flowers and some change bounces out of your pocket and away into the gutter then down a grate. So you’ve gained some flowers but you’ve lost about 80 pence, a harsh lesson in economics.

The flower shop lady is on the phone to the police, gasping out the details of the crime, the real crime, the true crime. Yes, there were two of them. No, she didn’t get a good look at them. They had hoods up. Young, yes, they must have been young because only the young can run that fast. The policeman writes it all down and suddenly, jogged by the report of the nicked blooms, he remembers that he should get his mam some flowers for her birthday.

That’s how things work, I guess, on this sunny morning when a crime happened in a South Yorkshire town; there’s an interconnectedness between everybody involved, and there’s a blissful ignorance on the part of everyone else. It reminds me of that famous painting by Breughel, where Icarus, having flown too close to the sun, falls into the sea but nobody notices. Somebody is ploughing, a boat sails by, Icarus’s limbs bob unobtrusively in the water. It’s a big moment for Icarus, that’s for sure, but not for the rest of the world.

The lads pull down their hoodies and look at the flowers, tattier now than they were in their bucket in the shop. In the distance there’s a siren but it’s moving away to some other trouble somewhere else, somebody else falling from the sky. The thieves, robbers, hooligans, try to decide what to do with the flowers. Sell them? Nip down to the middle of town and try to sell them? Funny how your name changes, your title changes, so quickly. Half an hour ago they were boys; they were potential passengers because they were waiting in a bus stop. They were boy passengers. Now they’re robbers.

And the flower shop owner? She’s a victim. She wasn’t a victim this morning when she got up; she was a woman who owned a flower shop, who was struggling to make ends meet, who knew that a couple of extra bunches sold today might make all the difference. Or a couple of bunches nicked. She’d rather be a shop owner than a victim, that’s for sure.

One of the boys takes the flowers and throws them in the air. The other one laughs and does the same. It’s as though it’s raining flowers on this November day. Flowers or exotic butterflies.