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A Trick of the Light

by Cornelia 

Posted: 09 July 2012
Word Count: 1234
Summary: A mystery story with a twist for TSBFF's 'Spine Chiller' category

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The car tyres splashed through ruts in the narrow lane and the windscreen-wipers kept a steady beat. Jo peered out into the blackness beyond the headlights as her friends, Cheryl and Andrea, dozed on the back seat.

Suddenly, a patch of red flashed past, above the level of the car roof. A sound like galloping hooves thudded in her head.

‘He'll be chasing smugglers, no doubt’.

It was only when her friends in the back laughed that Jo realised she’d spoken aloud. They were suddenly wide awake and asking questions.

‘Not now. I need to concentrate on driving.’ Jo’s answer put an end to their enquiries.

Besides, it was true: Jo was relying on reflected light from the headlights to spot the cottage. With only an address to go on –‘Coastguard Cottage, Frenchman’s Cove’, and a map she couldn’t see on the seat beside her, it wasn’t easy.

She was exhausted, having driven from London on a rainy October night and began to regret she’d agreed to spend the weekend in a seaside cottage. It had been Cheryl’s idea, but Jo was the only driver.

‘Bound to meet some hunky fishermen types in those cable-knit jumpers,' Cheryl had said in the staffroom that afternoon. She’d only just dumped the latest in a string of boy-friends and hoped the trip might supply a replacement.

The black panes of the cottage windows looked menacing; the shiver that crept down Jo's spine had nothing to do with the cold.

Once inside, Cheryl couldn’t wait to question Jo. ‘So, go on! Don’t keep us in suspense. What did you see?’ Jo managed to persuade her to wait at least until they’d unpacked.

The owners had left basic supplies in the modern kitchen. There was even a microwave oven which helped speed up cooking of the food they’d brought with them. While Cheryl and Jo prepared the meal, Andrea started a blaze under logs in the fire-place.

After dinner, the rain was still pelting at the windows, but hot food and wine had restored them. Logs crackled in the grate and threw up flames that made the corners of the room brighten and then disappear into shadow.

It was late, but they were all set, or so Jo thought, to continue with staffroom gossip and moans about boyfriends. But Cheryl wouldn't let her forget what she’d said in the car.

A typical drama teacher,Cheryl over-reacted at the best of times. Now she sat on the sofa with a blanket round her shoulders, rolling a wine glass between her hands. Her silver ear-rings gleamed among her dark curls and her brown eyes reflected the firelight.

Andrea murmured, ‘Cheryl, leave her alone. She doesn’t want to talk about it.’ Andrea probably sent herself to sleep most nights with a nice book of maths equations.

‘Oh, come on, Jo! If you don’t tell us, I won’t sleep for wondering.’

Jo shrugged. ‘Well, smugglers used this coast in the past. Customs and excise men on horse-back tried to catch them as they landed their barrels on the beach.They were red coats, probably so they didn't shoot one another in the dark. It’s nothing, really…’

‘Yes, but it sounds as if you actually saw one!’

There was nothing for it. Jo needed to explain. Maybe then they could all get some sleep.

‘OK. I’ll tell you. She glanced at her friend in turn. ‘It’s just that since I was twelve I’ve had the knack of latching on to things … things that happened in the past. I see things and people that nobody else can. How can I explain? It’s like when you stare at something and then close your eyes. You can see a sort of shape left behind…'

‘Ooh! You mean ghosts?’ Cheryl’s eyes widened. Andrea frowned.

‘ I saw a man in a red coat riding a horse. But the car main beams were dazzling; it could have been a trick of the light.’

Jo was too tired to talk anymore; they all were. As Andrea raked the ashes, the silence outside told them the rain had stopped, though the wind still stirred the curtains.

Tomorrow, first thing, they’d visit the tourist information centre in the town, and find out more about about smugglers.

Next morning dawned with a sea-reflected brightness. Any doubts or gloominess disappeared and the friends were keen to get out walking by the sea, to explore the quaint old town with its historic pubs, and forget all about work.

Andrea was already in the kitchen setting out bowls when Jo came down to breakfast.Cheryl’s feet made muffled sounds on the boards above.

‘You know, I’ve been thinking about that the story you told last night…’ Andrea spoke slowly. ‘I’m sure it comes from reading all those novels you have to teach’. She laughed, and added in a low voice, ‘Last night I dreamt of Manderly …’

‘Yes. Or maybe it was something I saw in a brochure…’

As Jo drove them towards the town, all memories of the night before seemed washed away by the coastal brightness. Narrow and winding in places, the lane was lined with an untidy hedge of brambles and hawthorn. Gaps revealed placid sheep grazing in fields. Soon a row of cottages came into view, their gardens bright with Chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies.

Suddenly, Cheryl laughed out loud and pointed. ‘Oh, look, there’s your man in red!’ Straight ahead, fixed to a telegraph pole at chest height, was a bright red mail box.

Andrea patted Jo's arm. ‘You know, a lot depends on a place, and how we feel about it. It made sense to think you saw a man last night, when you glimpsed something red. You were right –it was just a trick of the light.’

Jo didn’t mention the beating of hooves, so loud that she felt rather than heard them. Could it have been thunder?

At the tourist information office, Cheryl and Andrea examined postcard racks and lifted shells and tiny model boats. Jo approached a tiny grey-haired woman perched on a stool behind the counter.

‘Excuse me, but are there any old smugglers’ caves round here?’

‘Caves?’ The wrinkled face lit up at Jo’'s question. ’Bless you, m’dear, no caves; just places for boats to land on moonlit nights.’ She seemed pleased to be asked. ‘In fact …there’s one not far from here, called Frenchman’s Cove. Just a minute…’

She turned to consult a calendar on a rack behind her, then let out a heavy sigh.

‘Ah, what a shame; you’ve just missed him.’

‘Missed who?'

The old woman gave a lop-sided smile, and unfolded a paper map on the counter. Her gnarled finger pointed to a cove. Sure enough, Frenchman’s Cove was clearly marked, and a line of cottages. Leaning towards Jo, the old lady lowered her voice.

‘ The Excise Man - ambushed and killed he was, in the days when smugglers roamed the coast. Some claim they’ve heard his horse galloping along the lanes and some say they’ve glimpsed his red coat – always on the last Friday of October.Yes, m’dear; you’ve missed him by a day.Maybe just as well... ’

‘Right, then, where’s this Mermaid Inn?’ asked Cheryl, holding up a picture postcard of a quaint old tavern. ‘It’s not too late to meet up with a real hunk, and I don't mind what colour coat he's wearing!’

Jo decided her news could wait.

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Comments by other Members

Freebird at 10:45 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
What a wonderful premise for a story - makes me want to go on holiday to cornwall or somewhere like that!

I think I would have liked to linger a bit more in some places. I know you're keeping an eye on wordcount, but in the section where Jo sees the excise man, it's slightly confusing. I found myself wondering to start with whether Cheryl and Andrea were children, and how the red flash could pass Jo's shoulder and yet be above the height of the car. I understand that it's a sunken lane and the field level is above them, but I did have to read two or three times to visualise it.

She’d only just dumped the latest in a string of boy-friends.

Once inside the cottage she couldn’t wait to question Jo.

I felt there was too much of a jump here. With the cottage having such an intriguing name, I felt I wanted more of a build up as they approach it, and enter it. What does it look like? Smell like? Is there an atmosphere that gives Jo goosebumps?

The plot is great, but I think if you just allowed yourself more words to set the scene and the atmosphere a bit more, then it would be much more of a spine chiller. As it stands, it's quite a cosy story. And I think the tension would be increased if Jo doesn't know it's the excise man - it seems a bit too manufactured, that she would know his exact title and that he would wear a red coat.

How about she sees the red flash and doesn't know what it is, but then it haunts her dreams or she glimpses it again from the window of her cottage bedroom?

Then they find out that the coast was used for smugglers.

And then the old woman reveals that some people see the ghost of an excise man. Still the connection isn't made, until at the end she says 'He always wears a red coat.'


love the title, by the way!

Freebird at 10:48 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
Or she could get up in the night for a drink and thinks she sees a red coat hanging up on the door (I presume the excise man lived there in the past?) She thinks the previous occupants must have left it, but in the morning it's gone, and neither Cheryl or Andrea know anything about it.

You can tell this story has really captured my imagination! Definitely a good sign

Cornelia at 12:41 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
Freebird, thank you for reading and for making such helpful comments. I hope I've ironed out the question of identity at the start and the placing of the red coat. I've also tried to get over the sudden transition to the cottage.

I think Jo needs to mention the coat is red so the mail box can be a possible explantion.

Lol This is based on a real incident, but on a family holiday to the south coast in Sussex. I did see the red coated rider and the post box next morning.I think I'll have to change the name of the Mermaid's Inn because there is such a place in Rye, the town with the information office. I read somewhere that editors like places to be generalised so as to include the reader more. That's why I changed to Frenchman's Beach to Frenchman's Cove, because there is an actual Frenchman's Beach, where we had a caravan.

I'm a bit confused, now, about word-counts because I thought TABFF required either 700 or 1,200 words but someone wrote they's had a 1,000 word one accepted.

It would be good to fit in a dream in which Jo hears the horse's hooves and then maybe spots the red coat through the cottage windows.


Bald Man at 17:05 on 10 July 2012  Report this post

Atmospheric, with a neat ending and a good sense of the English South or West coast (although could be Robin Hood's Bay in Y'shire too!).


"...she was aware of " This slows the sentence, why not "a patch of red flashed past" ?

The 'thunder' of hooves is a bit of a cliche. And do they 'thunder'? More likely clatter or beat.

"Jo was relying [on] light reflected from the trees to spot the cottage." I don't think this quite works, as the trees themselves don't reflect light. I think you mean as the car headlights reflected off the trees?


Cornelia at 19:26 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
Thanks, Colin. You spotted some good ones here.

It's near Rye in Sussex, a place I know very well from caravan holidays when my children were small, but mags apparently like it kept neutral, to be more inclusive.

I think reflected light means light bounced from another source, in this case the headlights. Like when you drive along a lane with the headlights on, the light on the trees must be reflected light because if you look through the rear window there's only blackness. But I'll make it clearer that the light is coming from the headlights.

Thanks again for reading.


fluffyduffy at 21:09 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
Hi Sheila,

I think I remember this story. Did you write and upload this a year or so ago? I enjoyed it back then too

I thought this was very atmospheric and I could picture everything so clearly. Very well done

I agree with Freebird that this could be more of a spine chiller, by incorporating a dream of the exercise man or little spooky moments (such as wet footprints on the kitchen floor or a figure at the end of the bed, smells and sounds during the night, etc) to get the readers heart racing. I know you are trying to keep to a word count but you have set the story up so well that I think a few spooky moments would really give the story a boost. If you see what I mean

I have read spine chillers in tabff that have been longer than 1,200 words so you could lengthen this to make it more spooky, if you wanted to.

Now she sat on the sofa with a shawl round her shoulders

This could just be me but the mention of the shawl gave me an impression on an elderly lady rather than a youngish woman. Maybe she could wrap one of those cosy blankets around her shoulders or pull a dressing gown tighter around her body.

You know, I’ve been thinking that the story you told last night…

You are missing the word 'about' between 'thinking' and 'that'

I hope these comments help, Sheila. really enjoyed this story

Alana x

Cornelia at 22:17 on 10 July 2012  Report this post
Thanks, Alana. This is really helpful.


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