Clive snubbed out his cigarette as the small black car speaker that hung from chicken wire around his workbench crackled in to life. The woman’s voice, monotone yet somehow sweet in nature, began calling out numbers like she had done so many times before at this exact hour every day. Discarding the crushed cigarette in the small ash tray on the bench he reached for his pencil and began furiously writing them down before they became confused with the following numbers and lost forever in his memory.
That was it. She was gone again.
Although he knew it was silly to be this excited, Clive’s heart was beating that little bit faster having heard the woman’s voice again giving its cryptic message. It had become almost the high point of his daily routine; 7:45pm every night he would head out in to his garden at his home in Chepstow and make his way in to his shed to sit at his home built amateur radio station. Having been a wireless operator in the Army during his years of national service in the 1950s he had all the know-how and had taken up the hobby at the suggestion of a friend a year earlier.
Clive’s best days were getting further and further behind him. He had worked hard at the factory becoming respected enough to be promoted to floor manager. He had married a good woman and raised three children one of which was now married themselves. As late 50s dawned on him however he had begun to feel that he had somehow missed out on something. Some colourful adventure that would sharply contrast to his otherwise beige existence.
“What you need’s a hobby,” said Ronald, his long-time darts partner at the King George as he revealed his thoughts to him during a practice session.
“What could I do; off road bike riding?” he asked emphasizing his plump physique before he set about hurling his three darts at the board.
“There’s always stamp collecting,” said Ronald jokingly. Clive scoffed at the suggestion before going to retrieve his darts. “What about taking up the radio?”
“What? Become a disc jockey?” laughed Clive who stood aside for Ronald to throw his darts.
“No, build yourself a little radio set. My niece’s boyfriend does it. There’s loads of people who all talk to one another. Truckers and the like.”
It was at that point that Clive was set upon the path to the mysterious numbers. Ronald’s suggestion reignited his interest in wireless communication that had been subdued since he had left the Army. He set about looking for a radio set and during a trip down to Weston-Super-Mare had stumbled across an old shortwave radio set that had been used on a fishing boat. It was lacking a microphone and a working speaker but it did have an aerial. He took it back with him and decided to take the plunge and order a new microphone which cost more than what he paid for the set. He got hold of a simple speaker from a wrecked Datsun he came across while scouring for parts for his Vauxhall at a scrapyard and proceeded to assemble his first amateur radio set. The wife wasn’t having the ugly little thing in the kitchen and with nowhere else to really put it he decided to set it up in their small garden shed where he could at least be left in peace to use it.
His early experiments were hit and miss. He had managed to make contact with a truck driver on a delivery to Gloucester after a few sessions but it seems Ronald’s description of loads of people actually meant very few. After about a week of hearing mostly crackling and whistling he finally made contact with someone who was a regular operator himself. His name was Mark and he told Clive that he lived near Nailsworth in Stroud. Very quickly they struck up a friendship over the airwaves being of similar age and background. Their regular communications soon attracted others and finally after about a month and a half Clive had built up a small but frequent group of friendly voices on his radio.
It was a rather mundane Wednesday night that he found himself down in the shed. The wife had gone to play cards with her friends and the television set refused to provide any entertainment so he retreated to speak to his new almost ghost-like friends. He tuned the radio in to the usual frequency they agreed on and called out but there was no response. Somewhat disheartened, he lit a cigarette before trying again. Still nothing. He looked down at his watch and saw that it was coming up to eight o’clock. He pondered on going back inside but his enthusiasm for the radio that had been fostered over the last month and a half remained and he began to play with the dial on the off-chance someone was out there transmitting.
The voice caught his attention as he quickly withdrew his hand from the dial.
“What the hell?” he uttered to himself.
The numbers stopped and he waited patiently for someone to respond to them but no one did leaving him sat perplexed. He sat for about fifteen minutes waiting for either a reply or for the voice to appear again but there was nothing. After a while he snapped himself out of his almost trance-like gaze at his radio in an attempt to will it to speak to him and brushed it off reasoning that the transmission was probably sending weather information or something to someone. Either way it didn’t concern him and so he called it a night.
It was three days later that he once again began searching the airwaves for a signal. He had made a note of the frequency the numbers had been transmitted on as he did with any frequency he got a signal on and occasionally left the radio tuned in to receive them should they appear again. Now becoming something of an amateur radio veteran, Clive no longer spent hours playing with the dial hoping to get a signal. Instead he would set his radio to one of the frequencies he knew people would speak on, send out a call himself and if no one answered he would just leave the set on and wait for someone while he read a book or magazine under the dim light of the bulb that hung from the roof of the shed.
After about an hour there had been no signal from any of the usual frequencies and he proceeded to switch the radio off when he decided to try the frequency where he heard the numbers the preceding Wednesday. With the crackle of the radio set providing a kind of white noise he found himself slumping in the old patio chair he was sat in. His eyes were becoming heavy and he could almost feel his consciousness slipping away from his body.
He shot up from his chair almost sliding off the end of it as the radio began speaking again. There had been no warning. No introduction. The female voice just began reading aloud the numbers.
She was gone again.
Clive checked his watch and saw that it had not long gone eight o’clock and remembered that it was the same time as when he heard them on Wednesday. He began to wonder if it was a regular occurrence and so the next day at eight o’clock he sat there with the radio tuned to the frequency waiting and sure enough he heard more numbers. For the next few days he went down to the shed and listened to the ten seemingly random numbers being read out by the woman’s voice at eight o’clock precisely.
As she did it was as though she were speaking to him in some way asking him to figure out why she was reading out such cryptic messages every night. Of course he tried to make contact with her by transmitting back but never got a response. It was as if this person only existed for about thirteen seconds a day to just list numbers and then disappear. Accepting the implied challenge, he began recording the numbers in a small notebook. It was not long before he had several pages of the numbers although he was no closer to figuring out their purpose.
More and more as the days went his mind became preoccupied with finding out the reason behind the numbers. It soon became obsessive. He began missing his practice sessions with Ronald because they clashed with the time of the transmission. His wife was particularly annoyed one night when he left during one of her dinner parties with their neighbours to sit in his shed and listen to the numbers. He was forever afraid he would miss that one transmission that would unlock the key to the mystery and soon his life was beginning to revolve around being in the shed for eight o’clock.
As Christmas arrived and he had been recording the numbers for almost six months his mood had dropped considerably. It was less than a week to go before Christmas and he was again in his shed waiting for the numbers to be called out while his family were inside laughing and joking. He had promised himself that tonight would be the night he would break this self-imposed curse but the pull of the mystery was too much and he trundled in to the shed and turned on the radio.
Another wasted evening. He finished recording the numbers and then rubbed his face all the while wishing he could go back in time just one minute and put an end to this nonsense. He looked at the three notebooks he had filled with the numbers and wondered just why he had become so obsessed. Maybe this was that colourful adventure he was looking for? Then he thought that maybe it was only his own desire to break the monotony of his life that he was projecting adventure on some mundane transmission to tell someone…something.
He picked up one of the books and skimmed through the pages before discarding it in front of him. It landed at an angle with one of the middle pages open for him to see and he began staring at it. Lines and lines of numbers from each of the daily transmissions looked back at him mockingly. He winced through tired and frustrated eyes as he again wondered why he had become so obsessed. As his eyes opened fully to compose himself before returning inside the house he saw briefly a line appear on the page.
He gasped as though some unknown force had just offered him a clue and he looked to see where the line had been. Of course there was no line but for a brief second his eyes had blurred together a close set of numbers. He looked at them and realised they were all sixes. He had written each day’s numbers underneath one another and now the sixes, the rarest number, appeared to show a line going across three days.
At first he thought he was imagining it and so he checked other pages and noticed too that the sixes seemed to again draw more lines. He felt a surge of energy in his body as he raced through six months of numbers looking for more lines and sure enough he found them. Some were diagonal while others were horizontal or vertical. Some were just two or three numbers long while others had pages of sixes and it was now he noticed another pattern. They were being used on a two weekly basis. After that they would start again with a new series.
From this realisation he took a clean sheet of paper and began to retrace the lines the sixes were making in the numbers. He followed the numbers like instructions leaving blanks where there were no sixes in the transmissions. He finished the first set and saw that he had drawn the letters O, W and N.
There was a space next and he continued.
The last numbers showed that there was a space indicating the end of the word.
“Unicorn?” he uttered wondering if he was really seeing it or whether his mind had finally broken. Even though the hidden message was right in front of him he again wondered if he was seeing something that wasn’t there. He checked the numbers again and once again he saw, “Own unicorn? Someone owns a unicorn?”
He laughed at the notion of someone going to so much trouble to tell the world they owned a mythical creature. He then began to contemplate that Own was actually the end of another word.
“Clown perhaps?” he uttered. “Drown. Flown – flown unicorn? Do unicorns have wings? No that’s Pegasus. Crown unicorn?”
He clenched his fists and planted them on the side of his temples as his teeth gritted with frustration. This was worse than before because now he was closer than ever to the truth yet it was still out of his grasp.
His hand reached for the microphone and he held it up to his mouth. He wasn’t sure why his hand had done that, it was almost as if it had operated on its own but now he was ready to try and contact whomever was sending the numbers again. He needed to know now more than ever and he wanted someone to explain it to him for the sake of his own sanity.
He pushed the transmit button and said, “Unicorn.”
He contained his breath within his lungs as he nervously waited for a response. Finally, he could hold it no longer and he let it out. There was no response. As if the night had reached a climax he switched off his radio set and finally returned inside his house to be with his family.
The next day he set off for work as usual. There was a light drizzle in the air which was enough to make him dash for his car parked outside his house. He reached in to his long overcoat for his keys but as he retrieved them they slipped from his hand causing him to almost dive downwards to catch them. There was a faint whizzing sound above his head followed by the sound of his car window smashing. Startled, he shot upwards as another whizzing sound saw a bullet land squarely in his chest. He fell back against the car clutching the wound as a third bullet from the silenced weapon landed in his forehead knocking him dead.
Across the road an unmarked Ford Transit van passed by the scene almost uninterested in the sight of death.