From the seaside village of Collieston, an eerie light glints on the horizon. This entrancing short story captures the intensity of the dark North-East winters – bobbing boats and flashing lights in the wintry darkness.

Light. No light. Quick light. Slow light. Slow light… and so this went on. This message coming from the sea was cryptic, that much was sure. It was three nights ago; I had awoken from a nightmare about which the details are now quite muddied. It was pitch black outside, being a moonless night, and a faint gale announced itself through the windows. My wife lay sound asleep, breathing softly, my children lay asleep in their own homes, scattered across the country. It was close to three in the morning. Too early to begin the day. I quietly got up and shuffled through to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. As the kettle boiled, looking out of the east window, I first saw it. Through the sleeping lights of our little coastal village, Collieston (half the houses empty outside the summer holiday season) I could see a blinking point of white light on the horizon, far out to sea. It wasn’t appearing with any seeming regularity. It would flash for a second and disappear for few more. Sometimes it would flash several times in quick succession. Something about it though captured my imagination. The water had long boiled, and I found myself still searching for something in this. I did wonder what it could be: was it a fishing boat bobbing up and down, obscured by offshore swells? Was it a vessel in distress? Was it some form of communication? Was it a buoy? I stood until the cool of the kitchen tiles chilled me to the bone and I returned to bed. I found sleep hard to come by. Something had beguiled in that simple pulsing light. I don’t know how long I lay there ruminating on what I saw out at sea, but I awoke to a rose-coloured sky still with it on my mind. I was at a loss to explain what I had seen. Had I witnessed the distant foundering of a ship? Was someone in distress, vainly trying to contact the shore? Had I ignored this and gone back to bed without a care in the world? Well not quite, something had taken root in me. Those lights, what were they? 

I didn’t think to trouble my wife with them that day. I decided after all it was probably nothing if anything. I tried as best I could to put it out of my mind. But that night I did find myself after supper, just as night had fallen, searching the eastern horizon for signs. Nothing could be seen, and when I went to bed around 11, there was still no sign of the mysterious lights. I went to bed content that whatever it had been, it was no longer there. The day’s news had no mention of ships going down, or bands of seafarers in peril. I decided to consign it to the ‘unsolved’ folder in my mind and to try and have a more settled night. But it wasn’t to be.

I awoke again about three. I hadn’t been dreaming but I was now wide awake as if in anticipation. I lay on my back. Eyes circling the dark above me; I tried closing them, but my lids weren’t heavy enough. They fell back open, and I was alert. Curiosity got me out of bed, taking me back to the kitchen. The wind had died down during the day and the night was still and moonless. At first a pang of disappointment struck me when I saw an empty horizon. All I could see were the faint outlines of the cliffs and the harbour wall reaching out into the sea. But there it was! It blinked once, twice, and a third time, all in a uniform manner. Then a pause. Then it began flashing in a scatterbrained way. Sometimes it shone for a second, sometimes it disappeared for a few. Sometimes it was the briefest of flashes. The sea was a millpond tonight. I discounted offshore waves throwing a boat about like I’d thought last night. It couldn’t just be a coincidence. It had to mean something. Unwittingly, it began to put me in mind of morse code. Perhaps the fast flash was the dot and the slow blink the dash. Was someone out there communicating with someone here? Somewhere anywhere along these miles and miles of empty coastline. But to what end? Surely these days there was easier means to pass messages and information. I reproached myself for jumping to such a wild conclusion. But still there was this light. It hadn’t been there a few hours before. But here at the same time as I’d seen it last night. At nearly the same point on the horizon, this light was now flashing in a manner that gave the impression it was somehow meaningful. There had to be some reason to the pattern. 

Feeling a rising curiosity, I thought of waking my wife, to ask her to come and verify that I was seeing what I was. To see what she thought. But then what would she think of me? What if there is the simplest of explanations for this and she thinks me conspiratorial or paranoid? Was it worth disturbing her? No, I left her to her slumber and stood at the sink, transfixed by this light on the horizon. I don’t know quite how long I watched it for, but eventually sleep caught up with me and reminding myself I had to be up for work in a few hours I had to turn in. But those lights… it appeared to be communicating something. Long flashes, short flashes, a few seconds of darkness, and so this went on. I went to sleep more convinced that night, that what I was seeing was no mere accident. That some real agency, or indeed someone was behind these lights. 

The next day I was serious about deciphering what the meaning behind the lights was. I spent the day at the office totally ignoring any responsibilities and instead tried to understand the language of morse code. Codes and cryptology have long intrigued me, and I must have made a decent fist of my studies as that night I was finally able to start picking out isolated messages. Or I thought I was. Much like the night before I found myself awakening at the back of three. I crept through to the kitchen and there, sure as anything was the light. It was blinking away on the horizon, a new fingernail moon hanging high above. Slowly, I began to pick up an odd letter. The first letter that jumped out was an ‘r’, but then there followed flashes I couldn’t make head nor tails of. A ‘b’ was deciphered, then nonsense, a ’t’, more nonsense, an ’s’, and so this went on. I followed along for as long as I could, but nothing came together. At one point I interpreted an ‘h’ and an ‘e’… help? Was that what this spectre was trying to tell the coast? Again, I was jumping to conclusions. Perhaps there was messages being transmitted through this static of lights, that somewhere somebody in the know could decipher the meaning. Perhaps this was all just random. Perhaps much like pressing a keyboard haphazardly, eventually you will put two letters together which follow one another naturally. I just didn’t know what this was. I vacillated between being intrigued, maddened, apathetic, and occasionally frightened. Just after four that morning, the light stopped. The horizon was suddenly clear again. The sea, a featureless expanse. I was certainly perplexed.

And now it’s another night, after three nights of nothing, and again the light was back. I was up before three this time, and when I first came through the light was nowhere to be seen. At almost three on the dot, it began flashing. ‘H’, nonsense, ‘x’, ‘m’, nonsense, ‘4’. I read about number stations today; these Cold War throwbacks, where seemingly incomprehensible messages, in morse, or just lists of random numbers, were transmitted at certain radio frequencies. Apparently, these transmissions could be picked up by anyone, but only those in the know, spies and the like, could interpret them. Was this anything along those lines? Were there even spies anymore? What possible use would a spy be in this part of the world? But reading about these stations; I found it oddly chilling. Perhaps the messages I was seeing were purposely nonsensical, perhaps these odd letters I could pick out correlated to a secret cipher. Perhaps it wasn’t making sense to me because it was messages in another language. Perhaps I should have written down the letters I deciphered to see if any pattern emerges. Perhaps this was nothing at all and there was a natural phenomenon at work, and I was losing my grip and should just go to bed.

I was on the point of turning in, taking my own advice, when I saw something so simple in-itself, but which made my blood run cold. One of the flashes was red. Suddenly it seemed as if the nonsense had ended, and letter after letter, number after number, came through; ‘u’, ‘q’, ‘8’, ‘d’, ’s’, ‘2’, ’n’, ‘r’, ‘z’, ‘u’, ‘3’ and on this went. This must surely be something meaningful I thought, though what it all meant, I had no idea naturally. It went on, ‘t’, ‘b’, ‘6’, ‘5’, ‘f’, ‘v’. ‘x’, ‘a’, ‘a’, ‘r’, ‘1’, ‘g’, ‘5’, ‘c’, ‘o’, ‘l’, ’s’, ’t’, ’n’…. I nearly exclaimed aloud. I felt my blood turn black; my gut was slugged by a prizefighter. Had this code just transmitted an abbreviated ‘Collieston’? Did someone, somewhere know I was watching and was deciphering the code? Was someone on their way to my sleeping village by the sea? Not knowing why exactly, I dropped to the floor and tried to compose myself. Surely, I was being paranoid. How could anyone possibly know where I was and what I was doing? Leaning into the intrigues, I slithered across to the back door and made sure it was locked. I shuffled back to the window, and the lights continued, ‘h’, ‘f’, ‘2’, ‘8’, ‘y’, ‘p’, ‘4’, ‘7’, ‘o’… Surely that was a blip, what I saw. A coincidence. The infinite monkeys, hammering at their infinite typewriters getting a line of Shakespeare. But what if it wasn’t?

I stood there till I felt an affectionate hand on my back. I turned to find my wife and catching a glimpse of the clock on the oven I saw it was now nearly four. I had been there an hour. “Are you alright” she asked, seeing the rather fraught, sleepless man before her. “I had a bad dream. I thought I saw something out at sea” I offered vaguely. “Ok, well, come back to bed, darling” she said gently, soft in her sleepiness. Without argument I followed her. Going through the motions, I lay down next to her and shut my eyes, knowing full well, sleep wasn’t coming tonight. I waited until I heard her slow restful breaths as she eased back into her dreams. Gently, I slid out of bed, and tip-toed back to the kitchen, heading straight for the window, and the horizon. Nothing was out there.

I was both relieved, and frustrated. I wanted an answer, needed an answer. Something concrete. It was to remain a mystery for another night, possibly for good. But those letters kept coming back to me, ‘c’, ‘o’, ‘l’, ’s’, ’t’, ’n’. What were the odds of those letters appearing in that order? I shuffled around the kitchen table, hands up imploringly, deliberating with myself. I could feel the blood turning yellow, I was getting panicky. I couldn’t shake the feeling something was coming. I don’t know what, but something that made me feel uneasy; something that sent me to the floor, to check the back door. Something that kept me from blissful slumber next to my beloved wife.

I have since been sitting here at the table, writing this which you now read. Sunrise is still an hour or two away. Should anything happen, I want this letter to be a document of what I saw, what I knew. What little I actually knew.