They could all see it. The luminous grey of decay, a stark contrast to the dark earth underneath. Harry composed himself and slowly exhaled. His breath formed a thick vapour trail as he crouched lower, thighs burning with the effort of holding still. With a gloved hand he lifted up one end. It clung momentarily to the earth, flesh and dirt fused together in the extreme cold. He tugged a little harder and felt it give way. Like a strip of velcro. Harry lifted it higher and saw the shard of bone around which the flesh still clung. And a tattered piece of white lace. Like a girls petticoat.
“Is it from one of those poor souls?”
He had asked her to go inside, but the old woman had stood on the lawn and watched him. Her face pinched white in the razor thin cold of a late December afternoon. An archetypal rural Scottish spinster with lilac rinse hair and matching mohair cardigan, hands clasping and unclasping at the waist of her heavy tweed skirt. He guessed that she knew fine what lay in her manicured back garden. And it was clear that no instruction would make her go indoors.
“No way of telling Mrs Wilson. We’ll send it off to the lab and see.”
Harry eased the remains into the evidence bag. Alec stepped forward with the witness label, his round face businesslike and solemn. They watched the old lady sign and hand it back. There was nothing left to do but thank her and tell her they would be back in touch. The truth was they wouldn’t. The remains were just an atom in a universe of human carnage. It seemed unlikely that anyone would be asked to account for this one piece among thousands.
“You’ll be wanting a wee cup of tea?”
Harry shook his head. They had other duties and they’d been away long enough. The old lady’s offer had been sincere, but she looked relieved when he declined.
They crossed the lawn and passed through the scorched hedge that marked the boundary between unscathed suburbia and the devastation beyond. There was no garden on the other side. Just a carpet of bricks, loose masonry and roof tiles. As they stumbled over the wreckage, a CID officer, shoes covered in white dust, gingerly picked his way towards them. He took the remains, carefully put them in a large bag and walked away. The exchange was brief, with an off hand allusion to a court citation they knew would never come.
Harry crossed over roof tiles and broken furniture into the shattered remains of a bungalow. There were no easy routes back onto Sherwood Crescent. It was simpler to walk through the shell of the house. Alec had assured him that no one had died there, but it felt strange picking his way through someone’s home. He stole a glance at the place they’d just visited, only twenty feet away and untouched. The scorched hedge gave the impression of having saved the old woman’s house from destruction. It was no less surreal than the other things he had seen that day.
Like the jet engine he’d passed en route to the impact site. The first evidence of the disaster he’d seen with his own eyes. Still half asleep in the fug of a crowded mini bus he’d almost missed it. It looked serene. As if it had always been there. Sitting in a deep hole in the middle of a street, in a small housing estate, overlooked by a primary school and a bored cop. Two young boys gawped at it from their bikes. They were the first townspeople Harry had seen. Until that moment he was convinced that the town had been evacuated, leaving only the emergency services to wander the streets.
After that there was the burnt out petrol station. Damaged houses. The eerie silence and absence of people. Doors and curtains closed. No one in the shops. It was Christmas, but there were no street decorations, or twinkling lights in sitting room windows. No children showing off their toys. Only the tiny vertical pyres of their coal fires gave them away. The townspeople had huddled down in their homes. Christmas had been cancelled and a perpetual sadness hung over everything.
Harry shook himself free of his thoughts and stepped through the bungalow. The lower walls were intact, but the roof was gone. The blast had destroyed the upper storey and the internal features. It looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The rooms were several feet deep in plaster and dust. Harry looked up at the sky. The absence of a ceiling unnerved him and the proximity of such destruction to the old woman’s unscathed home added to the dislocation. He stepped through what had once been the front porch and emerged into the crescent. It was still carpeted with masonry and churned up earth.
From the centre of the road Harry could see the incremental nature of the destruction. The furthest away bungalow was unscathed. Evidence that a little street in a quiet market town had once existed there. Against the uniform grey of a pale winter sky Harry could see the rooflines of the remaining buildings. Each a testament to their ever closer proximity to the cataclysm. A missing chimney pot on the first damaged house. A chimney pot and some ridge tiles on the next. Then chimney pot, chimney stack, roof tiles and garden debris. After that, more tangible illustrations. Sections of roof. Then whole roofs and partial sections of building. They looked as they had been struck by a tornado. Gardens littered with bricks, glass and furniture. On down the street to the place where they now stood. Just the ground floor walls left. Broken and charred in places. The fabric of the buildings smashed and pulverised. Furniture and toys. Personal papers and photographs. Roof tiles and guttering. Windows and doors. Clothes and books. All mashed together with dirt and cement, plasterwork and grass. Alec, his cheap raincoat bulked out with multiple layers of clothing, nodded in the opposite direction.
The end of the cul de sac lay a few feet away. Except that there was no cul de sac left to see. It was gone. Obliterated. Harry nodded. It was unbelievable. That some houses once stood there in bucolic quiet on the edge of a small rural town. The only indication of a wider world the occasional drone from a lorry on the A74, a short distance down a grass covered slope. Now, there were only blackened stumps to mark where homes once stood. Everything torn away in a maelstrom. Picked clean by the blast. Just flattened bare earth and jagged pieces of wall. Alec prodded a brick with the toe of his boot. Lost in thought.
“Who do you think that find came from?”
Harry thought of the remains and the piece of lace. An image of a little girl rose up in his mind. He fought it off. It was now a few days after the disaster. He knew the casualty list for the street, but there seemed little point speculating. Whoever it had been was beyond earthly cares now.
“Who knows? I’m guessing we never will.”
Alec said nothing. Harry looked over the green countryside beyond the crash site. A weak breeze whispered around his ears. He was downwind of the crater and the smell of aviation fuel and diesel generator fumes was overpowering. The call to the old lady’s garden had provided some escape, but now he was forced to reacquaint himself with the smell. The crater was their beat for the day. Since dawn they had wandered around the site deterring sightseers and souvenir hunters. It was a dispiriting task, but not nearly as bad as what lay waiting in the hills above the town. Harry gave Alec a nudge and they walked closer to the impact site.
The crater was thirty feet deep, thirty feet wide and over a hundred feet long. At the deepest part, men in overalls clambered up to their knees in a swill of fuel and mud. Some probed and dug, some pulled aircraft parts and torn shreds of aluminium from the mire. Others formed human chains and passed metal up the steep slope. Piles of tortured aluminium formed around the lips of the crater. Men logged and catalogued the finds. Others stood and watched.
Those who slid around in the pit looked exhausted. Their navy blue overalls coated in the red-brown of fuel and mud. It was getting dark and the arc lights, spaced at intervals around the crater, doused the scene in a blinding light, throwing stark shadows behind the men inside. The recovery team had been there since dawn. Soldier ants clambering inside the swollen lids of a giant earthen eye. It was an end of days scene. Spectral sub humans scavenging for aluminium and rare metals. Under probing arc lights they poured over a scar gouged from the earth by a giant clawed creature. A mechanical colossus, indifferent to the tortured atomised column of earth, habitation and human it had scattered onto the southbound A74.
The house that had once sat at the site of the crater was gone. A young family had died there. Others had died in the adjacent houses. Some of them would never be recovered. Atomised. Harry had been briefed that morning about the casualties. 11 in the crescent. Over 200 from the plane and now scattered around the Borders countryside. He hoped they’d known nothing.
He looked over the pit to a chimney stack on the other side. It stood alone, the base clad in ranch style stonework. He pictured a cosy sitting room with roaring fire. But of the original house, only the chimney stack remained. Beside that stood the ruins of another, its walls charnel scorched. Black broken teeth, around the jaws of a red-brown pit. Harry tried to think of a comparison. But there were none. Not in peacetime at any rate. The cul de sac looked like a bombed city in miniature. Just five or six houses but Harry was dumbfounded there hadn’t been more. Beyond the chimney stack sat a white bungalow. Modern, harled, pristine, unscathed. There was no rhyme or reason to the random chance that had wrought such absolute destruction and spared others. Alec spoke first. He had been there before. He took pride in sharing what he knew of the wider operation.
“Something else eh?”
Harry watched the human ants in the crater.
“Bonkers. Who would have thought the wings of a plane could do all this.”
Alec pointed to the sky above them. Harry looked up, though there was nothing to see but the grey shroud of sky.
“Wings came down in one section…broke off the jumbo…then scythed down… tanks full of fuel…”
Harry watched as Alec twirled his right hand, index finger circling the air. He turned to face the unscathed end of the crescent.
“…came down, low over these houses…turbulence ripping off the slates and stuff…”
Alec lowered his twirling hand and turned round at the last moment. He lined his hand up with the crater with a low karate chop.
“…then…bang…it hit the crescent…right there…”
Harry could picture it. A giant blade, descending at horrible speed from the night sky. He imagined the scream of the engines and the thunderous roar it must have made. The cutting motion as it finally grazed the last houses in the street and then the final impact. He tried to picture what it must have been like for the people in the final house. But he could not.
“Excuse me Officers. Can I have a wee word?”
They had not noticed the man approach them. He was dressed in Salvation Army uniform. Harry guessed he was a captain.
“I’m sorry to bother you but would you not like something to eat?”
Harry followed the captains outstretched arm. A small catering van stood nearby, painted in Salvation Army livery. Steam rose from a little chimney and a glass fronted cabinet was stuffed full of cooked chicken. Harry counted at least a hundred people on site. Police, military and other emergency services. All stayed clear of the catering van. Two ladies stood at the counter. They looked glum. The Captain smiled.
“It would be terrible if the food wasn’t eaten. It is for you… this is why we’re here.” The Captain looked Harry up and down. “And you look as if you could do with some.”
They were improperly dressed for the weather. Harry knew it would be cold. He’d put on multiple layers, but they consisted mainly of polyester and his police issue nylon raincoat. The cold had penetrated in the first hour. He had spent the rest of the day flapping his arms and stamping his feet for warmth. Now he felt miserable. His feet were numb and he was very hungry. He guessed Alec was too, but both had avoided eating in public when so much misery lay around. He explained this. The captain shook his head.
“I spoke to the military folk. They’ll eat in a few minutes. Perhaps after that?”
Harry was grateful. It was a good compromise. He thanked the captain who looked satisfied he’d broken an impasse. As they watched him walk away Alec prodded Harry’s arm and pointed to the motorway. There was only one carriageway open. The nearest was still under several tons of earth, thrown there during the impact. More arc lights had been set up to illuminate the remaining carriageway.
“There’s another one of those pricks…”
Harry looked down the slope. They had watched earlier as cars slowed to take photographs of the scene. There had been so many that Harry had called it ‘Disaster Tourism’. Tailbacks had developed and now traffic department Granadas harried back and forth issuing tickets. They watched as yet another flashbulb went off in the darkness. Within seconds blue lights were travelling down the carriageway.
“Another rubbernecker bites the dust…”
“Serves them right. Ghoulish bastards…”
They watched the car drive off, the driver hoping to avoid further sanction. The traffic car gave a blast of the siren. The car slowed down and pulled into a lay-by further down the road. Another ticket would be issued.
The RAF crew downed tools and ate. Harry joined the queue. There was enough food to feed an army. He took some chicken and retreated behind the van. It was from there he heard the engines start up. Harry walked out to see the RAF team loading up their vehicles. It was done with the same efficiency that had marked their actions all that day. Within fifteen minutes they’d driven off. The Salvation Army van left a few minutes later. Soon the site was empty save for a fire engine and the two officers. A military helicopter appeared out of the blackness. It clattered overhead, its blades made visible by the arc lights. They watched as it disappeared back into the night.
“Looks like everyone’s standing down Harry.”
“Time we were out of here too.”
Alec radioed the control room. A few minutes later a mini bus arrived. It was now 7pm. They had been on site for ten hours.
The journey to the rendezvous took them through the town once more. It was empty, save for one or two hunched figures, their faces bent towards the pavement, coats buttoned to their necks. The only other signs of life were the muted lights of sitting rooms behind heavy curtains and the steady rise of smoke from chimney pots. A freezing fog drifted in from the hills behind the town, it’s fingers curling around the deserted streets.
The mini bus dropped them off at the high school. As Harry entered the car park, officers embarked ancient single decker buses, while others gathered up kit and checked people off lists. They looked exhausted. Harry listened to their voices, soft and low. Stories of fields and hillsides, golf courses and forests. Bodies. Young and old. Whole and in parts. Those who had worked in the makeshift mortuary made their way to the bus with haggard expressions. Their sloped shoulders and downcast eyes spoke of a burden more than physical. Harry gave thanks that he had been spared that. He found his bus and got on board. It filled quickly. Quiet men with drawn faces, each carrying their memory of the day to himself. Just as the last officer sat down, a Sergeant appeared on the steps.
“Has anyone taken anything from the cake stall inside the school?”
Harry looked around. A sea of blank faces stared back. It appeared no one had. The Sergeant nodded.
“The ladies of the town have baked cakes and other food. They’re upset that you have ignored it.”
There was a mumbled chorus of explanations. No one wanted to take advantage of any kindness, or profit in any way. The same spirit of bereavement that had settled over the town had settled over them. The Sergeant stretched his arms wide.
“Take a cake. It’s the one way these ladies have of showing their thanks. It is a kindness to accept it…”
Harry left the bus. In the gym hall stood trestle tables laden with food. Cakes, breads and pies of various descriptions. In other circumstances it could have been the school fete. A group of women stood to one side, a look of relief on their faces. Some took cakes and handed them out. Others provided vocal encouragement. Harry had never seen officers act so backward and shy. A young dark haired woman on the edge of tears handed him a fruit loaf wrapped in cellophane. He took his gift with an awkward thanks and retreated to the bus. There was nothing else that he could say.
The bus filled up and moved off. The town disappeared from sight. The driver switched off the internal lights and turned up the heating. The bus rumbled and roared along the motorway in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts, a million miles from the speculation that had marked their journey down. Harry gazed out of the window. The outside world was clothed in blank cold darkness. Nothing for him to see but his own reflection.
And a little girl in a white petticoat.
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