Red Light, Green Light
by Ed Dearnley
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When I was a child, Mum always said I slept like the dead.
Once, when we were on holiday, the Red Arrows came screaming over our house at six in the morning, their Hawk jets almost scraping the rooftops. At least that’s what Mum told me, as I never woke up. Through my childhood, I slept through thunderstorms, smoke alarms and music festivals.
And I slept through exams. Specifically, GCSE French.
With mock A-Levels coming up, the memories of that debacle sent me searching for an alarm clock. Mum sometimes worked nights and, as I couldn’t rely on her to wake me, I decided to use a two-alarm strategy. Alarm number one was my phone, obviously, but that left me in need of alarm number two. So, I dredged through my memories and decided to have a look in The Box.
I bet every kid has a box like that one. The box that lives at the back of their wardrobe, collecting memories. Where everything that was once loved, but is now unwanted, gets thrown, forming a geological record of childhood.
The top layer of The Box was recent stuff: old phones, unwanted PlayStation games, headphones with one working ear, holiday mementos and a cat’s cradle of wires and chargers. Below that was the age of toys. First came the Transformers, tiny remote-controlled drones and hundreds of Pokémon cards – mostly fakes unfortunately. Then, tucked in amongst the bottom layer of Paw Patrol figures and random pieces of Duplo, I found it.
The clock light.
It was the same size and shape as a child’s football, flattened on one side. The casing used to be white but was now yellowing with age. In the centre of the flat face was a cheap looking digital clock, with triangular s buttons to set the time and alarm. Around the edge was a thick, opaque white band under which, I remembered, lay a dense array of coloured lights.
There was a story behind the clock light. When I was two, I kept getting up in the middle of the night, jumping into Mum and Dad’s bed and asking, Is it morning yet? After two months Dad cracked, biked down to Argos and blew fifty pounds on the light.
The idea was that it gradually lit up like a sunrise when it was time to wake up: a dim red to start, then the oranges and yellows of dawn and, finally, the bright blues and greens of daytime. I’d stay asleep in my dark, double blinded room, and get out of bed when the artificial sunrise told me to.
It didn’t work. I loved the clock and never again jumped into their bed at four in the morning to ask, 'Is it morning yet? 'Instead, I jumped into their bed at four in the morning and asked, 'When is my clock going to light up?'
If finding the clock light was easy, finding the power supply proved much harder. Unlike modern gadgets with their USB-C ports, this one took a long, needle like plug. Eventually, I found something suitable in Mum’s box of wires and chargers downstairs and plugged it in.
The digital clock lit up with an orange glow, the digits flashing away to tell me to set the time. It took a while to work out which buttons to press – ease of use didn’t seem to be its strong point – but eventually I managed to set the time and an alarm. It turned out to have audio as well, so I chose the sound of a digitised dawn chorus to wake me, along with the most blinding green light the old thing could put out. Then I placed it on my bedside table, right next to where my sleeping head would lie.
Mum spotted it later that afternoon when she brought me up a snack. “Oh Will, you found that old thing,” she laughed, “You used to love it - you wouldn’t sleep without it. We left it behind at Grandma’s one time, and Dad had to drive all of the way back to fetch it.”
And then she left me to study, alone in my bedroom with my books, a cup of tea and two digestive biscuits.
I was still studying when the clock light began to play up. My first thought was that someone was shining lights through my bedroom window - my friend Andy playing a joke or something - but when I turned around it was the clock light, flashing through its bright range of colours.
I couldn’t study calculus with that kind of distraction, so I got up and walked over to my bedside table to turn it off. I thought it might be an old alarm, stored away in its memory for all those years, but when I picked it up it was obvious the stupid thing had just crashed. The time on the orange numerals said 19:04, but rather than flashing as usual, the colon between the hours and minutes was frozen. I fiddled with the buttons, but they didn’t respond.
As I mashed away at the buttons, I realised that the flashing lights weren’t random. Maybe it was the maths revision sinking into my head, but the blinking colours seemed to form a pattern. Deciding calculus could wait for a minute, I studied the pattern instead.
Six short white flashes.
Red, orange and green.
Three long red flashes.
After the last red flash, it went dark for a few seconds then started the cycle again. I stood there watching it for a couple of minutes, then decided it must have got locked in some kind of test mode. I whipped out the power cord, counted to three and plugged it back in again.
The orange digits lit up and began to flash. Normal serviced had been resumed.
I returned to the books.
Mum gave me a lift to college the next morning. I was doing my A-Levels at BASVIC, a sixth-form college in the middle of Brighton. Supposedly it wasn’t selective, but it sure was hard to get into - most of the other kids had been to exclusive private schools. It was a cool place, the vibe more like a mini-university for teenagers rather than a school. Mum kept telling me how proud Dad would have been.
The downside was the journey took a lot longer than the short walk to my local school sixth-form. But on a day like that one, I didn’t care. The road into Brighton ran straight along the clifftops, with only a narrow strip of grass and a rusty wire fence separating the speeding traffic from the sheer drop down to the sea below. The sun sparkled on the waves, and it felt like I was on holiday. Maybe in Spain, or France.
Mum didn’t say a word as she guided the car along the busy road. When the road dipped into the city and the ugly concrete blocks of Brighton Marina began to blot out my view of the sea, I turned around and saw that she was in one of her moods. Her attention seemed fixed on some point in the sky, to the far west over Worthing, although hopefully she was paying some attention to the traffic. After every gearchange she raised her left hand to her mouth and chewed on her ragged nails.
I knew that look well. It meant she had something on her mind, usually a problem at work, or a money worry.
“Are you ok, Mum?” I asked.
She didn’t reply for a moment. She didn’t like dumping her worries on me. But, eventually, she answered. “She died yesterday.”
“Madeline Wilson. She threw herself in front of a train.”
Madeline Wilson, I thought. The woman who killed my dad.
One of the few things I remember about Dad is that he loved riding his bike. I remember sitting in a child seat on the back of his bike as we crested a hill and plunged down the other side, both of us screaming with delight. And I remember him coming in from a ride, covered in mud, with a big red scrape down his arm and a huge great grin etched on his face.
Dad was riding his bike home from work on the day that he died. He always rode to work, rain or shine, cranking over the green hills of the South Downs to get to his office in the nearby town of Lewes. He’d pulled a late one, making his way home in the dark. The bike lane was shut for resurfacing, so he was slowly grinding his way up the long, shallow climb of Falmer Hill on the unlit road.
Madeline Wilson was coming home from work too. She’d been at a boozy work meeting, where she’d sunk two bottles of wine whilst schmoozing a hedge fund manager down from Battersea. As she pulled off the Brighton bypass and accelerated her silver Mercedes up Falmer Hill she made a phone call to her hairdresser, booking a cut and blow dry for the following Thursday.
During the court case she claimed she never saw Dad. Her solicitor suggested he was wearing dark clothes and had no lights. The prosecution showed the jury his shredded reflective jacket and the cracked cases of his powerful rechargeable lights. She drove all the way to the top of the hill before a red light at the crossroads brought her to a halt. At which point, another driver jumped out of their car and frantically banged on her window.
Dad had been dragged behind the car for at least a mile. The coroner wasn’t sure whether he’d died in the initial impact or during the journey up the hill, but he’d certainly slipped away by the time the paramedics untangled him from the chassis of the car. The mangled remains of his bike were found by the road the next morning, along with the Mercedes’ front numberplate and left hand wingmirror.
At her sentencing, Madeline claimed that she’d suffered enough, that the damage to her mental health from the social media shitstorm that followed the case was worse than anything the judge could do to her. The judge disagreed and sent her down for ten years.
She served six. Just after she got out, Madeline sent a letter to my mum. It went straight into the shredder, unread. That was the last I’d ever heard of her.
I turned it all over in my mind. I felt nothing at all for Madeline - it was a fittingly selfish end for a horribly selfish person. If there was anyone to feel sorry for, it was the train driver.
“Good,” I said to Mum, “The world’s a better place without her.”
Mum didn’t say anything. She just continued with her hundred-yard stare all the way into Brighton. Then she dropped me at the roadside outside of college and drove off without saying a word.
I went for a quick drink in the Good Companions after college, then jumped on the Number 12 bus home. If the journey into town was pretty, the return trip was even better. From the top of the double decker bus, I had a panoramic view of a spectacular sunset, with the sky and sea turning turquoise, then orange and finally a deep, crimson red as the bus dropped me off on the seafront near my home.
Mum had tea on the table when I arrived and seemed to have recovered some of her usual cheer as I wolfed down my sausage, mash and beans. Afterwards, I went upstairs to my room and hit the books. Exams started the following week with a three-hour long psychology paper. I had a lot of cramming to do.
I’d just started to worm my way into the theory of operant conditioning when the clock light began to flash again. This time I didn’t wait around: it obviously had some kind of fault that was throwing it into a test mode. I got up, walked over to be bedside table and pulled out the power cable.
It didn’t stop flashing.
The clock was frozen at 19:04.
My heart skipped a beat for a moment, then, as I turned it over in my hands, I realised the blindingly obvious.
It had a battery backup.
I ran down the stairs, liberated a screwdriver from Dad’s old toolbox and unscrewed the battery compartment. Inside was an old Eveready C-type battery, long past its best days. It looked like it was leaking, so I used the screwdriver to lever it out and dropped it straight into the bin.
The clock light still didn’t stop flashing. I stood there staring at it, entranced by the flashing band.
'How can it be doing this?' I thought. And then I frowned - the pattern had changed.
Five short white flashes.
Red, orange and green.
Three long red flashes.
One less white flash than yesterday. No sooner had I spotted it, than the lights faded and died. The orange numerals of the clock flickered off.
The logical side of my brain kicked in, the bit that studied physics and maths. There was a rational explanation for this. The clock light must have large capacitors, or even an internal battery. When the external power was removed, it survived for a minute or two on the remaining charge, then it died.
The explanation made sense, but it was still creeping me out. I opened the wardrobe and returned it to the bowels of The Box. I’d order a cheap alarm clock from Amazon before exams started.
The next day was a Friday, and straight after college I went away for a camping weekend with a couple of friends. It wasn’t ideal, being so close to exams, but we figured it would help us relax and let off some steam after weeks of a routine that went, college, home, study, sleep, repeat.
We filled Andy’s old Vauxhall Corsa with tents, cooking gear, food and beer, and headed out to the wilds of Crickley Hill camping site thirty miles to the east. We’d tried camping before, with disastrous results. It had rained all weekend, a steady stream that puddled in our tents and soaked into our sleeping bags. The nearest pub had been shut for renovations, and we forgot to bring a can opener.
This weekend, we had better luck. Much better luck. The sun shone, the local pub was great and, best of all, there was a group of girls pitched right next door who wanted to hang out with us. On the Saturday night, we all huddled round the campfire as the sun went down, and I enjoyed a long, passionate snog with a pretty red-haired girl from Horsham. She gave me her phone number the next day as we packed away the tent, and seemed keen to meet up again.
I didn’t think about the clock light for the whole weekend.
Andy dropped me home on Sunday evening, my skin painful and red with sunburn. Mum called after me as I dumped my bag in the hallway and rushed towards the stairs, asking how the weekend had gone. She winked at me when I stuttered a reply. Sometimes, she seemed to know what I was thinking without me having to say it, which I guessed was par for the course when you’d single-handedly raised someone from the age of three.
It was time to face reality and hit the books again. I got halfway up the stairs before Mum poked her head round the side of the banisters and stopped me.
“Just one thing,” she said. “There was a noise coming from your room on the last couple of evenings – like birds tweeting. It stopped after a while, and I didn’t want to go into your room, so I don’t know what it was. Maybe an old phone?”
Or the clock light, I thought, as I tentatively pushed open my bedroom door. But how could it turn itself on again? Surely any tiny spark of power left inside would have long since leaked away.
I opened the cupboard door and fished the clock light out of The Box. It was dark and dead, cold to the touch. But I wanted to be sure, so I carried it over to my bedside table and placed it gently down on the wooden surface, the clock face pointing towards my bed. I pulled out my phone and looked at the time.
19:02. Two minutes to go. I sat on the edge of my bed and waited.
19:04 arrived on my phone, but the clock light stayed dark. I began to relax - this was all in my mind. The tweeting noise probably was an old phone. Or maybe an actual bird - we’d had a magpie in the loft last year.
Then the clock light burst into life. I was so shocked that I jumped into the air and fell off the bed, scraping my back against the wooden bedframe and landing with a bump on the floor. As I got to my feet, I could see 19:04 frozen once again on the clockface as the edge of the device cycled through its colourful patterns.
This time, there were only two short white flashes.
The weekend beers must have connected some neurons in my brain, as suddenly, I understood. Six white flashes on Wednesday, five on Thursday and two today, Sunday.
It was a countdown.
But a countdown to what?
The whole thing was freaking me out. I picked up the clock light, walked down to the kitchen and unlocked the back door. The lights stopped flashing as I crossed the patio in front of the kitchen. I walked to the back of the garden, opened the door to the shed and slammed the clock light down onto the workbench. I grabbed a rusty old hammer and raised it up above my head, ready to smash the old, brittle plastic into a million pieces.
And then I hesitated. What if there was something weird inside, like brain tissue. Or maybe just a cold cloud of mist, ready to rise into the air like a sigh from a newly dead corpse. I thought I’d rather not know. Instead, I picked up the clock light and threw it into a crumbling cardboard box of old drill bits and saw blades. Then I slammed the door shut and walked back to the house.
On the way back through the kitchen I found Mum’s album open on the kitchen table. I’d seen it there on my way out but, in my haste, I hadn’t realised what it was. It was the album that I’d repeatedly told her to burn. The one where, for some morbid reason, she kept all of the press clippings about Dad. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, she’d break the bloody thing out and weep her way through the pages.
That year, the demise of Madeline Wilson seemed to have inspired a second appearance.
It was open on a big story from the Brighton Argus, the newspaper coming away from the page as the old, dried-up glue lost its battle with gravity. The grainy black and white photo showed a grinning Dad dressed in his bike gear, holding up a medal. Mum said it had been taken from his Facebook feed, a record of the time he got second place at a local hill climb race.
'Solicitor Killed in Falmer Road Bike Accident,' said the headline.
'Some accident,' I thought. You didn’t need a PhD to understand that getting mown down by a drunk driver gassing away on the phone to her stylist was no accident.
My eyes darted down through the text of the article, then settled on a familiar figure.
19:04. The police thought that Dad had been killed at 19:04, and asked anyone who had been driving along the road at the time to get in touch.
I slammed the album shut and went to join Mum in the lounge. She was watching old repeats of Downton Abbey, but at that moment I really didn’t want to be alone in my room.
I didn’t sleep well that night.
“So, it just lights up? All on its own,” said Andy, staring at the clock light.
“Yep,” I replied, “All on its own. No plug, no battery.”
Andy took a swig of his beer. San Miguel, not one of my favourites.
I’d thought about the clock light all day at college. If it was a countdown, what could it be? Or maybe I was just going mad and there was some entirely rational explanation to this.
When I got home, I retrieved the clock light from its graveyard in the shed and walked it round to Andy’s house for a second opinion. By the time I’d given him the whole story it was 19:00. By my phone, four minutes to showtime.
“That’s just weird Will,” said Andy. “Are you sure those girls didn’t slip you some pills or something?”
I just smiled at him. We watched as the time counted down, the only sound a few soft belches, the result of Andy’s gassy choice of beer.
And then, a few seconds after my phone hit 19:04, the clock light lit up again. This time, there was just one white flash.
“Bloooody hell,” exclaimed Andy, peering in for a closer look. “Bloody hell, bloody hell, bloody hell. Show me there’s no battery again.”
I picked up the clock light and flipped open the battery door. Still empty.
Andy stood there, staring at the flashing lights for a few seconds, then started nodding his head.
“I’ve got it mate; I know what this is.”
I knew it. There had to have been something I was missing.
“It’s a countdown to you finally losing your virginity. You need to get on the phone to that Horsham girl right now - hook yourself up for tomorrow.”
“Piss off Andy,” I said, but I couldn’t help myself smiling.
“It’s probably powered by all of the farts lingering around in your room.”
“Seriously, Andy, piss off,” I said, but I was starting to laugh. The tension had gone, evaporating into the air like the bubbles in Andy’s beer.
Eventually, the flashing stopped. Andy agreed to let me leave the clock light at his place, as long as I promised to take home the ghost of my dead dad.
I slept a bit better that night. But I still dreamt of flashing lights. And of Dad, gasping in the darkness as he pedalled up some endless hill.
I had a few free periods the next morning, so I had a driving lesson booked. I didn’t really want to learn as I figured cars would drive themselves in a few years’ time. And, anyway, the bus service was good where we lived. But Mum insisted it was a valuable life skill that was best to learn when you were young, stupid and wilfully ignorant of what could happen when two tonnes of steel meets another solid object.
It was another beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I took the wheel of the little Ford and practiced three point turns and parallel parking on the quiet roads of my village, the instructor keeping up a steady banter of lurid speculation about our camping weekend. He was a dirty old bastard, but I liked him, the mindless chitchat taking me away from driving tests, mock exams and haunted electrical appliances.
The manoeuvres completed, we headed down to join the coast road into town, off to practice the joys of the Brighton one-way system. We sped past the old windmill at Rottingdean and accelerated towards the city, the blue sea to our left and the green hills to our right.
Approaching the city limits, we came up on a set of traffic lights controlling the traffic joining from inland. The instructor had warned me about these before – an accident blackspot apparently. The lights turned from green to orange when we were about sixty meters away, so I put my foot on the brake and gently slowed the car.
The black Land Rover behind me did not like this one little bit. The driver flashed his lights and waved his hands in the air, obviously thinking I should have just floored the accelerator and gone straight through.
'Tosser,' I thought, but it was hard to be angry on a day like that one. Sitting at the lights, I watched the sun shining on the blue water. There were surfers out there, riding the break formed by the waves driving against the long arms of the marina.
The red light turned to orange, and then green.
I didn’t move.
“Green light Will,” said the instructor, “You can go now.”
I still didn’t move. Red, orange, green, red, red, red, played on a loop in my head. Red, orange, green, red, red, red.
The Land Rover driver lost patience and swung into the filter lane, flying past with a squeal of tyres and a loud blast of his horn.
“Are you ok, Will?” whispered the instructor, his rough voice gentle for a change.
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes tightly shut. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Land Rover about fifty meters up the road, accelerating hard. Further down the road was a dark green lorry, approaching at speed from the opposite direction.
As I watched, the lorry began to drift across the solid white line separating the two carriageways, its wheels edging into our lane. The Land Rover driver spotted it, too, but far too late. The lorry struck the corner of his car with a colossal bang, just as he started to swerve.
The impact of the huge lorry flipped the black car onto its side, then sent it skidding across the road and onto the grass in a shower of bright orange sparks. In the blink of an eye, it smashed through the wire fence and disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
The lorry fared better, veering back into the left-hand lane, the driver struggling to regain control as he shot past our still stationary vehicle. It skidded to a halt in a huge cloud of black tyre smoke, coming to a rest about a hundred meters behind us.
I looked at the muddy mess the Land Rover had made of the grass verge, then at my hands, gripping white against the black leather steering wheel.
“Holy… holy shit,” stuttered the instructor. “If you’d have gone, that would have been…”.
“It would have been us,” I said, finishing his sentence.
Cars came to a halt all around us. The instructor hit the big, red hazard lights button and we got out of the car, our legs shaking. Joining the growing crowd, we walked over the ruined grass towards the crushed remains of the fence, then got down onto our bellies and inched our way forwards towards the cliff top.
The Land Rover had crashed down onto the concrete pathway that ran between the cliffs and the sea: the Undercliff Walk, a popular path for cyclists and walkers. Its rear wheels were still spinning, whilst smoke rose from the mangled bonnet. Standing to one side of the smashed vehicle was a cyclist in a bright orange jacket, staring up towards us with a look of total shock.
The falling car must have missed him by inches.
Amazingly, nobody died in the crash. The Land Rover driver was rushed to Sussex County Hospital with serious injuries, including two broken legs, a fractured skull and a punctured lung. His recovery was long, but complete, a testament to the engineering prowess behind his car and the medical skills of the men and women who saved him. The Land Rover only just missed the cyclist, and three dog walkers, down on the Undercliff Walk. They didn’t receive a single scratch.
The lorry driver claimed to have been blinded by the morning sun, but video footage from his cab suggested he’d simply fallen asleep. He was given a three-year suspended jail sentence at Lewes Crown Court.
I retrieved the clock light from Andy’s house a couple of days later. I plugged it in and waited until 19:04, but neither the orange clock face nor the lights around the outside ever worked again. I took it to a repair shop in Hove the following week, but the technician said the circuit board was corroded beyond repair and all of the capacitors had blown. He said it was cheap Chinese junk - he was surprised it had lasted more than a year.
My mock A-Levels went surprisingly well, and I aced the real thing a few months later. I had a year out, then got a place studying physics at Imperial College in London. I often came home during the holidays and, despite what happened, I still loved that journey along the coast from my village into Brighton.
I never took my driving test. I bumped into my driving instructor in the local pub a few times afterwards; he’d buy me a drink and jokingly ask me for next week’s lottery numbers.
I often wonder who or what saved me that day. Was it Dad, reaching out from beyond the grave to save the son he never saw grow to a man? Or maybe the remorseful spirt of Madeline Wilson, determined not to let tragedy strike our family once again? Or could it just have been a random fault in an old electrical appliance, that by sheer fluke of luck saved my life?
All I really know is that these days, when an electronic gadget develops a fault, I don’t follow the standard advice to switch it off, then switch it back on again.
And look for patterns.
Ed Dearnley lives in Sussex, UK, where he works in climate change mitigation for a local authority. He is the author of the non-fiction book London to Brighton Derailed. In 2022, his flash-fiction Homework was published by Bag of Bones Press in their collection 206 Word Stories.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.