The flag appeared overnight. The man saw how the townsfolk looked up at it, decided not to notice, pulled their coats up around their ears and hurried across the square like leaves scattered by the wind.
The thing to do would have been to forget all about it, but that wasn’t easy for the man, not the way things were. His flat was small. The flag unfurled against the white clouds at his window like a fresh wound. He might have gone out, but he didn’t have anywhere to go, and no money, either. He could have closed his curtains but he’d never thought to buy any - never had need of them, before. He was a light sleeper, and was content for his day to begin with the rising of the sun. So for sometime, they lived together, him and the flag. He’d lie with his eyes closed in the morning and think: will it still be there? The exercise was pointless. Of course it would be. It always was.
Sometimes he was almost able to forget about it, to go on with things as usual, but never for long. He’d be doing his washing up and catch it in the corner of his eye; he’d be at the toilet masturbating and he’d suddenly spot it and find himself unable to finish. It was like a particularly pungent air freshener installed by an overzealous aunt to conceal body odours that other people might not find offensive - might like, even. After you’ve been inside with it for a while, you might forget about it, begin to think of the smell as no smell at all, but then something would happen: you’d make a sudden movement or a breeze from an open window would remind you of it and it would infuriate you with a renewed vigour. So it was with the flag.
The weeks passed. Each time the man though of the flag the anger lurched in his chest. Very little of note ever happened to him, and so it came to occupy all of his thoughts, bringing him out in virulent rashes that clung on for days. One morning, otherwise indistinguishable from all the others, he reached a decision. He’d do it. He’d do it that very night.
The first thing was to borrow a ladder. Since no one could be trusted, he invented an explanation. He furnished it with the kind of detail that no one would ever make up.
He walked down the corridor of his block, past the bare flower boxes, his footsteps echoing in the vacant hall. A pungent smell of fresh urine swelled inside his nostrils- one of the kids, probably, marking their territory. He came to the home of his neighbour, lifted his fist and knocked with a confidence he didn’t feel. The door was pulled open, snapped against a chain. A grey eye peered out at him.
He cleared his throat.
“Could you lend me a ladder? A boy has got his kite stuck in a tree.” The eye twitched. “It is a blue kite.”
The door slammed shut. A couple of flakes of green paint fell softly to the floor. He stood for a moment, considering his options. Somewhere in the building overhead, a rat moved. He swallowed, walked along past the broken lift, and descended the empty stairwell.
He came out of his building, turned left, and walked to the end of the road, past the park, the supermarket.
It was the first time he’d been this far in a long time, and it was okay. He walked as close to the edge of the curb as he dared, caught his breath as the cars skimmed past him. At the top of the high street, there was a post office. Not that people tended to send each other many letters anymore, but somehow it had survived.
The postmistress, Miss Green, was a large, hard woman, the kind of person it would be difficult to move. The man had chosen the post office because of her. She’d known him since he was young, was an old friend of his mother’s, and so he hoped there’d be a part of her that still thought of him as a child.
He stood there, nonchalantly turning the creaking postcard stand while he waited for Miss Green, who was doing something in the back room. After a while when it seemed she wouldn’t emerge he moved back to the door and opened it fast, insuring a good jangle of the bell, at which moment she entered the room behind him and saw him slamming it deliberately, so as to make a racket.
“Can I help you?” She asked, frowning. She didn’t seem to recognise him.
He summoned a smile that he hoped was charming. “Ah, hello, Miss Green,” he said. “Could I perhaps trouble you to lend me a ladder? A boy has got a blue kite stuck in a tree.”
She looked quickly out into the street. “A ladder? What would I have a ladder for?” she let out a sharp bark of laughter. “You always did have funny ideas.”
He walked out, scuffing the toes of his plimsolls on the broken paving stones. This was a problem. What to do? There were few other people he could ask: the fishmonger had long since boarded up his windows and moved on, and the librarian, the one who was so sweet to him when he was young and always read to him, she had disappeared.
He had one friend. Oliver worked at the municipal headquarters. When they were kids they’d played football together, gone shoplifting on Saturdays. One summer they had broken into the school swimming pool when no one was about and filled it with bottles of bubble bath. When it didn’t foam up as they had hoped they stripped off and jumped in, splashed about, laughed at each other as they worried the water into a lather. Then they heard the sound of gravel beneath car tyres outside so they bolted, still giggling, grabbed up their clothes and rushed towards the raised dormer window they came in by.
The man often thought about it: how Oliver had bent down to give him a leg up, somehow managed to propel his slippery, soapy body through the gap, and then he had pulled Oliver up behind him just in time, so both of them fell back on the grass: exhilarated, happy and terrified.
But that was a long time ago. To turn up at his office, after all of these years, endure the polite enquiries about his personal life, the reminiscences of their school days. It was unthinkable. Anyway, what call would Oliver have for a ladder now? Perhaps this was the true measure of how far apart their lives had taken them: for he was, after all, a person in urgent need of a ladder.
For want of a better place to go and for fear of being accused of loitering, he made his way back home. Unfastening the latch he was almost surprised to see it there, fluttering at his window, the colour undimmed. He sat down in his armchair and watched it. The wind poked at it, whipping it up into a frenzied dance. It was an inanimate object of course, mad to think of it as defiant, to imagine it laughing at him. But even as the light drained in the sky it glowed there.
He couldn’t stand it any longer. Ladder or no ladder, he would find a way. He would scale the walls of the hall, and then he would grasp it between his hands, rip it into shreds with his teeth. With the pieces he would make a fire in the centre of the square, douse it in petrol, set it alight and then leap into the flames, fill the town with his burning and his shouting. It is not so easy to decide not to notice such a thing.
He had a balaclava that he’d bought years ago for just such an occasion as this, and never worn. He slipped it on. His battered old jeans would suffice, but in the cupboard he found a pair of solid black boots that had belonged to his father, and a thick dark sweater with a polo neck. He caught a glance of himself in the mirror, and, instead of turning his head quickly away, he liked what he saw, and stood there for several moments, arms folded, getting the measure of himself.
When midnight came he slipped out. The streets were empty now, everyone shut up indoors. He clung to the inky shadows at the edges of the buildings. No chunk of light crept beneath a door, no TV screen flickered blue behind a curtain. He became aware he was frightened. But he thought of his reflection in the mirror, and he carried on.
His boots crunched on the rubbish that littered the pavement. The noise set off a single note of animal howling somewhere in another street. It rose up above the town and sought him out, came falling down on his head like a sorrow designed just for him.
It was difficult to remember when the dogs had first arrived, but now it was as if the town belonged more to them than to the people. It seemed they multiplied hour by hour. By day, they could be seen gathering like flies in areas of shade, heavy teeted mothers surrounded by grubby pups, dusty pieces of raw meat dangling from their mouths. The man would give them a wide berth, maintaining eye contact until they were almost out of sight. He had always been frightened of dogs.
At night they took possession of the streets, barking, fighting, fornicating, upsetting litter bins. Now the noise of the howling began to swell as other dogs joined in, ululating and swaying. It seemed it was all around him, that he was at its heart.
He felt the bile rise in his throat and his mind spin. He moved faster, forgetting himself, nearly shouting out. He began to run in a blind panic, not looking where he was going, just wanting to be far away from the noise, the wildness in the darkness. Before long he was lost and he felt, to his surprise, a cold tear driving down his cheek in the wind.
At last, up ahead of him, he saw the flag, curling up at the corners like a smile. He grinned right back, pushing the air out through his teeth, for once actually feeling pleased to see it. He propelled himself through the streets towards it, out into the bright square, leaving the dogs skulking in the murk behind him.
Once he had gathered his breath, he straightened himself and looked up at the town hall. It was beautiful now, the stone bleached by the moon. The huge pillars looked like something from another age, a testament to the power of man. In the pediment there were people carved into the stone- scholars perhaps, with scrolls and laurel wreaths, and words in a language he didn’t understand.
The flag fluttered in the gloaming. He gazed up at it. He tried to grasp the anger from the pit of his stomach, but suddenly it seemed strange, something that had belonged to somebody else, and a hollow sort of calm settled in its place.
He thought of the townsfolk, tucked up beneath crisp sheets and thick feather eiderdowns, peacefully bound by the quiet uniformity of sleep. He was tired and far from his bed.
He would go home now. He would be back before dawn and he could fall asleep, wake up the same as everybody else and forget it all as quickly as a dream.
The flag would still be there, of course. Well. He could buy curtains.
He was about to move off when he saw a movement behind the pillars. There was someone there, watching him.
The person tilted their head forward so the light touched their face. The man recognized a pair of large grey eyes.
His heart jumped and he stilled his desire to run. She was mostly hidden in shade but he was certain- it was his neighbour, the one with the green front door.
He held his breath, wondering if he had been seen. Then, as he looked closer, he saw she was smiling at him. She stretched out her boney finger towards him and beckoned him over, put her finger to her lips in the ‘shush’ sign.
He hesitated; then, glancing around him, he went over and ducked into the gloom beside her. As his eyes adjusted he saw that she was not alone. There was a group of them. He could just about make out their faces.
There were people he hadn’t seen in years. The librarian was here, even his old scoutmaster. His neighbour touched him lightly on the shoulder, moving him forwards into their midst.
The people began to crowd towards him, surrounding him on every side, but holding back a little, as if wary of getting too close. A young girl reached out to slip a hand into his, but she was grasped by the shoulder and pulled away.
How strange it was to see them all here. Once more he was struck by the instinct to flee, but looking behind he saw how he’d been surrounded.
“Thank you.” His neighbour’s voice was close at his ear, her lips almost touching his flesh. He looked at her mouth, the sharp white teeth, felt a stirring of something distant, the beginnings of a fever. He wanted to ask what she was thanking him for, but the words dried up in his throat.
There, in the middle of all of them, stood Oliver. It was years since the man had seen him, and he’d forgotten how tall he was, how he stood with his feet planted to the ground like a great tree that held the secrets of another age. He saw the man coming, and his eyes flashed with light.
Oliver was by the building, just underneath a thick decorative lip that ran around its edge, below a first floor windowsill. A can of petrol rested on the ground beside him.
A wave of nausea passed through the man, so strong it almost made him pass out.
“Come on then,” Oliver said.
High above them, the flag unfurled like a fresh wound on the night sky.