The Other Half Live by Chris Green
‘I see Flagman has a new flag flying today,’ says Peter Booth, with the distracted air of a forty-something suburban professional, stuck for something to say.
‘Flagman?’ says Lauren Henderson, the flighty new neighbour. ‘I’m guessing that’s the fellow down the road with a flagpole in his garden.’
‘Indeed!’ says Peter. ‘But we’re not sure what the flag is. Levi may know. In the upper part, it has a yellow sun with a dozen sunbeams against a blue sky. The lower half is black with five yellow ovals.’
‘That’s the Donetsk Oblast flag,’ says Levi Gardner, with no hesitation. Levi is a senior lecturer at the university. Theme Park Engineering or something. He is the one with the old white linen jacket and the new black Land Cruiser.
‘Where’s that?’ says Emily Booth. Emily is the one who arranges these get-togethers for the residents of Sycamore Grove. The Booths’ is the last house before you come to open country, arguably the prime spot on the estate. They have Kettler Palmer garden furniture and the best stainless steel barbecue money can buy. Professional landscapers come in to keep the shrubs tidy and the borders in order. Emily just wishes Peter would replace her Audi. With a newer one. A bigger one. A Q7 preferably. A black one.
‘Donetsk, Ukraine,’ says Levi. ‘The People’s Republic. It’s was in the news a while back.’
‘That’s not so good, is it?’ says Emily. ‘Aren’t we supposed to like the other lot?’
‘Who knows what the real story is, Emily?’ says Levi. ‘Anyway, it’s probably better than the ISIS flag he had flying at Easter.’
‘Oh, my goodness!’ says Emily. ‘Did he really? I don’t remember that. That’s terrible.’
‘It was only up for a day. Flagman frequently changes his flag, Lauren,’ says Kirsty Gardner. ‘One day the Greenpeace flag, the next day the Chinese national flag. I think he likes to keep us guessing. We think he may be a retired vexillologist.’ Kirsty is also a lecturer. Consumer Sciences. Matter of fact. Hair cut short. Tortoiseshell spectacles on a chain.
‘Or just a nut,’ says Levi.
‘But he gives us something to talk about.’ says Peter. ‘Little happens around here, most of the time.’
A flag is a piece of coarse fabric usually rectangular, with a distinctive design. It is most commonly cut in the ratio of two to three or three to five. Historically used for signalling, flags are now also used for decoration. Designs include stripes, crosses, circles and divisions into bands or quarters, patterns, and principles derived from heraldry. Alternatively, the flag can display a symbol or logo, or an iconic image of perhaps Ché Guevara or Bob Marley. Sometimes there is a Moor’s head and sometimes there is Arabic script, for instance, on the Black Standard used by ISIS.
‘Let me guess. Flags,’ says Guy Salmon, arriving with his customary swagger. While others might disagree, Guy has not quite reached the stage of life where he considers himself middle-aged. He dresses accordingly. Smart casual, trousers too tight for a man of his build, loud shirts and Converse cut-offs. Guy is not slow to spot that Lauren has come without her husband, Warren. Warren is a pilot. Or is it plant geneticist? Something like that anyway. Perhaps Warren is at work. Or maybe he has taken the children to flying lessons or some extra-curricular sporting activity. Guy sits himself down next to Lauren and pulls his chair up close.
‘I liked the flag he had with the black face in profile with the white bandana around its forehead,’ he adds. ‘That was cool.’
‘Corsican flag,’ says Levi. ‘It’s a Moor’s head, and on the original flag, the bandana used to be a blindfold.’
‘Wasn’t Carlo Rossi, the fellow you bought your house from, Corsican, Lauren?’ says Peter.
‘I’m not sure. Warren and I didn’t actually meet Mr Rossi,’ says Lauren. ‘Briggs and Mortimer handled all the negotiations.’
‘Good old established firm, Briggs and Mortimer,’ says Emily. ‘Not like these fly by nights you hear about today.’
‘I’ve not seen this ….. Flagman, but it does sound as if he’s a bit mysterious,’ says Lauren, pretending not to notice that Guy has moved in closer. ‘He always seems to have his curtains drawn. And there’s that jungle round the side of the house and the old Citroen with the running boards on the drive. All this in the middle of a suburban estate. It just doesn’t fit. Who is he?’
‘We don’t know,’ says Peter.
‘You must have at least seen him.’
‘No, Emily and I have never seen him, Lauren.’ says Peter. ‘And we’ve lived here five years. What do you think, Dorsey? You’ve lived here the longest.’
‘I don’t know anyone that’s actually seen him,’ says Dorsey Otto, looking up from his tablet, where he is researching quantum theory for a story he is writing. ‘We don’t even know his name. If it weren’t for the flags changing so often, we’d think the house was empty.’
‘I’m told he only comes out in the middle of the night,’ says Guy.
‘Then whoever told you must have seen him,’ says Lauren.
‘I can’t remember who told me,’ says Guy.
‘Might it not have been Tom Golfer? He used to live next door to Flagman,’ says Peter. ‘Probably not the most reliable source. That’s a thought. Tom must be out of prison by now.’
‘Anyway, Lauren. You may not have noticed,’ says Guy. ‘But nobody much is out and about around here at three in the morning. This estate goes down at sunset.’
‘Someone told me he is the last surviving progeny of a ruthless clan of sailor monks,’ says Dorsey.
‘Lot of contradictions there,’ says Levi. ‘I heard a rumour that his voice can only be heard by cats.’
‘You don’t have any cats do you, Lauren?’ says Guy.
‘No, just my …… Labradoodle,’ says Lauren. Is Guy imagining it or has she undone the top button of her blouse? Perhaps she has just turned round in her chair a little.
‘Whoever he is, he’s as mad as a box of bats, Lauren,’ says Peter. ‘Look. Enough about Flagman. I’m going to get started on the barbecue. Anyone like another beer? We’ve got Sapporo, Coors or Tiger.’
Flags are put in place for people to see them. Whatever their function, they carry a message – even if the message is there is no message, I just want to fuck with your heads.
‘What do you think of the Sycamore estate, now that you’ve settled in?’ says Guy.
‘It’s perfect. We’re very comfortable here and adore the house,’ says Lauren. ‘Four big bedrooms and a lovely big garden. The conservatory is simply divine. Come and have a look. It faces west and gets the evening sun. And we’ve found a fabulous home help, an eastern European lady who comes in five days a week. I don’t even need to pick my clothes up off the floor, Guy, or empty the dishwasher. And I don’t even have to pay her the minimum wage.’
‘You must let me have her number,’ says Guy.
‘I am glad you were able to come round,’ says Lauren. ‘It can get a little lonely here in the evenings in this big house when Warren is …… away, especially now Tristan and Fabian have gone back to Charterhouse.’
‘I feel the same, Lauren.’
‘You live on your own, do you, Guy? I’m surprised. What with your red Ferrari and all.’
Guy is not sure if he detects irony in her voice or not. ‘Yes I do,’ he says. ‘Geraldine and I now only communicate through solicitors.’
‘Oh dear. I hope you have a good one.’
‘I do,’ says Guy. ‘But so does she and I suspect I’m paying for them both.’
‘So you are at a bit of a loose end.’
‘Everything on an estate is geared to life around the hearth with the family, isn’t it? There’s only so many times you can mow the lawn or polish the …. car. Since Geraldine and I split up I often find myself twiddling my thumbs.’
‘Is that a euphemism?’
‘Ha, ha. Anyway, I’m really pleased you invited me round. I had the impression you were giving me the brush off at Peter and Emily’s barbecue.’
‘A girl has to play a little hard to get. Red or white?’
‘Then later on, mmm …… perhaps much later on, as you’ve not got to get back, maybe we could go and stake out our Flagman. I’m intrigued. I’m sure there must be an interesting story there.’
‘Did I hear you say the other day that you were in publishing?’
‘I used to be a copywriter for a fashion magazine.’
‘Fashion magazine, eh? That explains the ….. cut of the dress you’re wearing.’
‘Not exactly, no. I wore this dress to give you a glimpse of my French lingerie. You men can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes.’
‘Tell me, Guy,’ says Lauren. ‘What exactly is it that you do?’
‘I’m in commodity trading.’
‘Commodity Trading eh? Nothing to do with this Tom Golfer is it?’
‘Imports and exports.’
‘Ah, I see! It’s just that the other day you changed the subject after Peter asked if Tom Golfer was out of prison.’
‘And when you were in the bathroom just now, I was looking at your phone.’
‘That’s not a very ladylike thing to do. I don’t think you should have done that.’
‘Perhaps, Guy. I’m not very ladylike. But you can relax. I just saw that you had Tom’s number on a missed call. I didn’t find anything incriminating. Apart from your colourful …….. browsing history. But you were in the bathroom quite a long time, Guy. Were you getting ready to give me another little …… surprise.’
‘Afterwards, we can go round and see what Flagman is up to.’
A flagpole with a pulley mechanism is generally used to display a flag, The flag is fixed to the lower end of the cord, and is then raised by pulling on the other end. The cord is then tightened and tied to the pole at the bottom. If a flag is raised then someone must have been present to have done so. So where is our phantom flag raiser? …….. Ah, here he is. He is just about to put up a new flag. This is quite a pretty one.
‘Have any of you seen Warren and Lauren lately?’ asks Emily. ‘I thought they might be along, as it’s such a lovely evening.’
‘No. Not seen the Hendersons for a while,’ says Kirsty Gardner. ‘Lovely salad by the way. Where do you get your Parma ham?’
‘I can’t tell you that,’ says Emily. ‘But let’s say it’s not Waitrose.’
‘You haven’t been to that new German supermarket, have you, Emily?’ says Kirsty. ‘That’s not like you.’
‘I’ve never seen Warren Henderson,’ says Dorsey, looking up from his tablet, where he is researching Lord Lucan’s disappearance for a story he is writing. ‘The lovely Lauren always seems to come to these little soirées without him.’
‘Warren’s a busy man, I expect,’ says Emily. ‘Research scientist or something, isn’t he?’
‘MI5 agent, I heard?’ says Peter.
‘The Invisible Man, I think,’ says Dorsey.
‘And what on earth has happened to Guy?’ says Kirsty. ‘Has anyone heard from Guy? His Ferrari’s been parked in the same place on the drive all week.’
‘Hey, Pops,’ says a shrill voice. The Gardners have brought along their geeky fifteen-year-old, Gregory. He has been suspended from school for smoking dope and they are keeping an eye on him. He is trying to show his father something on his phone.
‘Not now, son.’
‘But Pops. You have to read this.’
‘Gregory, Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a conversation.’
‘Flagman’s got another new flag,’ I see,’ says Peter. What’s this one, Levi?’
‘Ah yes. So he has. I can just see it from here,’ says Levi. ‘That’s the Seychelles flag. One of my favourites.’
‘It looks remarkably like the design of that sweatshirt Guy was wearing when he called in with a …… package for me last week,’ says Dorsey. ‘Funnily enough, I think he said he was on his way round to the see Lauren and Warren.’
‘This is important, Pops. You remember what you were saying the other day about …….’
‘OK. What is it, Gregory?’
Gregory thrusts the phone into his father’s hand.
‘I can’t read that without my glasses. Can’t you make it bigger?’
‘You are annoying sometimes. Give it here!’
Levi hands back the phone and Gregory starts to give an overview of the report.
‘It is about what they describe as the alarming number of people who have disappeared without trace in the county over the last three months. They wonder if there might be a connection. Someone who lives on the Sycamore estate.’
‘It’s not one of those spoof sites, is it?’ says Kirsty.
‘No, Mother! It’s not from one of those spoof sites. This is the Examiner website. You know Examiner? A bit like The Huffington Post? …… Now, is it all right if I continue? I’ll make it simple for you. I’ll just give you a summary, shall I? The list of those who have vanished without trace it says includes Muslim journalist, Mohammed Mohammed, some dude with a Russian name with not enough vowels…….. semiconductor engineer, Hung Lo, ………. restaurateur, Carlo Rossi, …… peace campaigner, Dylan Soft, ………, and ….. shit!
‘Yes,’ says Levi. ‘Spit it out, boy.’
‘Sorry Pops. ……. The battery’s just died.’
‘You’re thinking what I’m thinking aren’t you, Levi?’ says Dorsey, logging back into his tablet.
‘I think we might be looking at …….. another flag change or two, very soon,’ says Levi. ‘Can you go into The Examiner site, please, Dorsey? See how bad this is be going to be.’
‘What? You think Warren, and Lauren, and Guy?’ says Peter.
‘And Tom Golfer too perhaps,’ says Levi.
‘All four, by the looks of it,’ says Dorsey, scrolling down the page.
‘My God! Right under our noses,’ says Emily. ‘So that’s what the flags are about.’
‘How is it we miss all these things going on around us?’ says Peter.
‘Yeah! I wonder why that is,’ says Gregory, under his breath. ‘And they’re telling me I live in a world of my own.’
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved