Day one of the lockdown, the old loner across the street ran a tricolour up a flagpole in his back garden. The street curves so his house sides onto ours. Apart from glimpses as he disappeared in his doorway, it was the first time we’d seen him properly since we moved in six months ago.
It’s not a Davy Keogh Says Hello or John 3:16 flag. So it’s not defaced. But it’s big. Official state function big. Unmissably big. From any spot in our lounge it dominates the bay window. It’s forty yards away.
I’m slightly OCD. My shoelaces are the same length. My vinyl collection goes genre, artist, year. (I tried explaining to my wife that women have music, men have collections. She laughed; I think with me.) Order wants rules.
There are rules for flying the tricolour.
It must be raised at dawn, lowered at dusk. I know the times the official guidelines prescribe. It cannot fly at night, unless illuminated. I know how it should be handled, folded, flown at half-mast (it’s not how you think). There are so many rules I’ve never wanted a flag. You don’t disrespect rules.
I said it to my wife.
She said: you’re overthinking it.
We were returning from a night-time walk. The flag was lank with rain.
I said: maybe.
He also has a house alarm that goes off randomly, like last night.
I should’ve been glad it woke me. Perspiration and pain had conspired a nightmare: it’s the lurgy. (I didn’t know I knew the word.) Awake, the night air was muggy, the aches were from digging in our neglected front garden yesterday morning. I’d dug half, then quit.
I should’ve been glad. Instead I fumed, even after it stopped, expecting the ringing again.
Next I knew, I was in my pyjamas and silk dressing-gown on the street screaming abuse at his house: you’re too stupid to have an alarm if you can’t use it properly. If it’s broke and you’re poor, I’ll pay for repairs. It has to stop.
And there, framed in a gyre of sunlight: the flag.
It dawned on me, what hadn’t before. I didn’t understand his need to fly the flag. I didn’t have to: people are strange. What I hadn’t thought was, what kind of odd-bod has a twenty-foot flagpole in their garden?
(I’ve never had a silk dressing-gown. I don’t know what a gyre is, if it’s a soft g or not.)
I said it to my wife at breakfast.
She said: you’re overthinking it. Finish the garden. It’ll take your mind off it.
She was right. I loosened up in twenty minutes. There was a rhythmic ease in aligning the spade, pushing on its step, hefting roots and dried-out worm tunnels into the light. Lockdown and lurgy diminishing in the moment.
The double side-gate to the house across the street was open. I glimpsed into what could have been a show-garden, the flagpole centred in a flowerbed.
He leaned over my wall: weeds don’t be long growing.
I thought, are you shaming me?
I said: I think the last owners disliked gardening. We cut down twelve Leylandii before moving in. The roots are everywhere.
He said: I’ve a pick-axe will dig them out if it helps.
I said: if this needs a pick-axe, I’m paying someone when the virus is gone.
I wasn’t joking, but I smiled with him: I’d like a hedge. For privacy.
Tall enough so I don’t see your flag, I didn’t say.
Happy digging, he said.
My wife brought out coffee around eleven.
Were you talking with him across the street?
I summarised. No, I didn’t mention the flag. No, or the alarm. Why?
Because he’s coming back.
He placed a tray of eighteen-inch plants on the gate pillar.
Red Robin, he pointed: top it at four foot, low maintenance. They’re from cuttings off my own hedge. I’m a disgrace, taking this long to say hello.
My wife said: how lovely. You must come to lunch when this is over. We don’t know many people around.
I said: yes, you must.
I looked at the plants.
Not half high enough, I didn’t say.
Kevin Hora lectures in the School of Media, TU Dublin. His non-fiction has been published by Routledge and Oak Tree Press. He has been shortlisted for the Mid and North West Radio Short Story Award, New Writing from Roscommon, the Over the Edge award, and for flash fiction in the Bray Literary Festival. His work has been broadcast on Mid West Radio and has appeared in the Roscommon Herald, The Roscommon Anthology and New Writing from Roscommon 2014-2018. He was the winner of the inaugural Roscommon Chapbook Award for his short collection of stories, The Pornographer’s Model.