It was like leaving an airlock. Alec climbed down from the warm interior of the van, away from Danny’s running commentary on life and the chattering VHF, the stale smell of chips that had lingered since the back shift, his cap, turned upside down on the dashboard to hold Annie’s morning rolls, and stepped into the silence.
There were no signs of life. Nothing moved. The powder blue sky, a perfect dome above, looked as if it had been pulled tight from one horizon to the other. It was 5:45am. The sun already above the rooftops. A beautiful Sunday morning in July.
Alec looked around. He was usually able to spot the anonymous caller. But no curtain twitched. No brief face at a window. No ‘windae hingers’, no close-mouth meerkats, not a cat, or a mangy dog. There was no-one in the street in either direction. No living creature or human. It added to the abnormality.
He walked towards the car. It looked pristine from this angle. A metallic blue Vauxhall Cavalier, an ‘SRi’ badge stamped onto the tailgate. It sat half-on, half-off the pavement, buried up to its neck in cast-iron corporation lamppost. It looked abandoned, like a forgotten prop in a disaster movie.
There was no other traffic on the road. The nightly swarm of taxis that shuttled prostitutes between clients and smack dealers had melted away with the sun. The road stretched out before him, a half-mile ribbon of tarmac, flanked on its southern side by glum tenements and on the other, by the red-brick boundary wall of Ruchill hospital.
Alec reached the car and bent down to the drivers window. He heard the slam of the van door behind him and knew Danny had finished updating the control room.
“Any sign of life?”
Alec grunted. He peered through the window, but could see nothing other than mechanical mayhem. The front compartment was filled to head height with junk. The dashboard and everything attached to it, had been shunted onto the front passenger seats. He could make out the broad curved top of the black plastic dashboard and the tips of the seat headrests, but nothing else. He tried to open the door, but the impact had buckled the frame and it was jammed solid.
“Not looking good Danny…”
“Fire service and ambulance en route anyway”
Alec walked to the front of the car while Danny made his own inspection. The engine was gone. Only the wings remained. An alloy wheel splayed outwards from each. The headlamps had popped out and hung by their wiring like joke eyeballs. The bonnet had been forced back to the foot of the windscreen, reduced to a thin metal strip more like the rolled back lid of a sardine can. Instead of an engine, there was an empty space and the implacable lamppost, resolute and unperturbed. The car with its now redundant wings looked like a squat tuning fork.
Alec looked at the base of the lamp post. There were a few scuffs but little else to signify that a catastrophic collision had occurred. He turned his gaze upwards to the top of the lamp post. It appeared to lean away slightly. As if looking down its nose at the carnage below. The post looked like the remnants of an ancient iron tree, its roots deep in the earth, an implacable monument to Victorian engineering and thoroughness.
He peered at the bulkhead of the car. The impact had torn the engine from its housings and thrown it lock, stock and piston-barrel into the front passenger compartment. There it now squatted, wearing the dashboard as a mantle. A monstrous mechanical beetle with a shiny black carapace. Wiring, hoses and pipework dangled impotently to the ground. Fluids of various kinds dripped onto the pavement and a small puddle had formed. A trickle now issued over the kerb stone and into the gutter. The air smelled of oil and petrol. Alec heard a gentle tick-tick-ticking sound. The engine cooling.
He swung his legs over the wing of the car and stood in the empty engine bay. The engine had lodged itself in the frame of the car, wedged between front roof pillars and the floorpan. It had the appearance of a giant boulder, bunged into a crevice. He knelt down to look underneath.
It was then he saw them. Almost touching the ground. Toes pointing downwards. A pair of training shoes. He lowered himself onto all fours. There were two pairs. One red, the other black. He stood up to assess the dimensions of the engine and compare it with the location of the feet. There were two passengers and they had a two litre engine sitting on their laps.
“Danny. We’ve got a driver and a passenger under here.”
Danny was still peering in the drivers window.
“I think I can see the top of someone’s head.”
Danny stepped back, drew out his wooden baton and struck the window. The impact was like a gunshot. The window shattered, tiny cubes of glass cascading onto the road and into the dashboard.
Alec climbed back over and helped clear away the glass. He couldn’t see the hair at first. It was only as Danny peeled away a flap of plastic that he saw the tuft of blonde. They both tore at the dashboard and tried to heave it backwards, but the combination of plastic and metal would not yield. The huge forces of the collision had melded plastics and metals into a man made aggregate. A scrap yard crusher could not have done a better job.
Alec felt the sweat gather between his shoulder blades as he pulled at the wreckage. There was little room to manoeuvre and they could do little, other than clear a space around the top of the drivers head. A two inch gap opened up. It was enough for Alec to see the drivers face. It was unmarked. He looked no more than seventeen. A boy. Alec reached in and felt along the drivers neck. A feint pulse.
“Jesus Christ Danny. This one’s alive.”
Alec heard Danny call up the control room. A new note of urgency in his voice.
Alec hurried around the rear of the car, intent on smashing the passenger window. He almost stood on the boy, lying unconscious on the pavement at the rear door. He looked like he’d been thrown out, head first, on impact. His limbs lay at artful angles, one foot still in the car, jammed between the hinge of the door and the foot sill. It was facing the wrong way. Alec shouted to Danny. Another update. A developing story.
He reached to the boy’s neck. A pulse. Two survivors. It didn’t seem possible. The boy woke, groggy and disorientated. Alec spoke some words of encouragement. Platitudes and well intentioned lies. There was not much more he could do to help. He left the boy on the pavement and drawing his baton smashed the passenger window. Danny joined him, stepping over the moaning boy with a cursory glance downwards.
“Think so. Broken foot, but he’ll live…”
“Car confirmed stolen by the way. City centre.”
They cleared away the glass and reached in. Alec could see that the engine had entered the compartment at an angle. Here, it seemed further in. Alec tugged at the debris. It yielded small pieces of plastic, but little more. It was enough to uncover the head of another boy, brown haired and the same age as the others. It was impossible to see much more.
The sun was warmer now. Alec could feel it focus on the crown of his head as he redoubled his efforts to free a bigger space around the boy’s head. He was aware of nothing other than the pain in his hands and the laboured breathing beside him, as Danny levered a section of dashboard upwards. It would go no further than a few inches, but it was enough. Alec could see the boy better now. His face was serene and angelic. The boy gave a quiet cough. Pink froth appeared at the boy’s mouth and nostrils. Alec’s heart sank. He felt along the boy’s neck. He could barely make out a pulse and wondered if it was more in hope that he thought he had found one. He heard Danny on the radio. Another update for the control room.
It had been ten minutes since he’d arrived. It felt like 30 seconds. Across the street and fifty yards down, three onlookers had gathered. They stood silent and grim. Alec looked down at his hands. They were black with dirt and oil. He could feel his arms and legs thrum. His mouth was dry and his body hummed like an electrical sub station. He looked back down the street towards Firhill Road. A four hundred yard straight from there to the lamp-post. If he’d drawn the car’s trajectory on a map, with a slide rule and pencil, it would be a perfect straight line. He turned towards Balmore Road. Another straight line. His eyes felt bionic. The junction was a half mile away, yet he could see the two cops who stood there stopping traffic.
Right where he stood, where the two straight sections met, there was a bend in the road. A slight dog leg to the right. The lamppost marked the turning point. Alec looked at the road surface. No skid marks. No sign of collision with anything. Just a pristine section of road, an old lamp-post and a wrecked car. He shook his head and wondered why the driver had driven straight for the lamp post and not turned his steering wheel even a couple of inches to the right.
“Get me out of here. Get me the fuck out of here!”
Alec jumped. It was the driver. The boy, a dismembodied head on top of the dystopian beetle, looked frightened.
“Ah cannae move. Ah cannae move!”
Tears ran down the boy’s face. He looked younger now. Child-like. Alec moved round to the driver window. The boy was alert, eyes huge and bulging, lips puckered with dehydration. As he spoke, white flecked spittle congealed in the crook of his mouth. Alec suspected drugs. He’d seen that look before, but spoke gently. There would be time for recriminations later. The boy listened intently, accepted that he was trapped, but in one piece. Beside him, the passenger coughed. Alec could see more pink froth at his mouth. The driver stared straight ahead. As if his passenger did not exist.
“Danny. Any word on the paramedics?”
Danny shook his head.
Ten or fifteen minutes was the usual response time, but Alec had learned never to set his watch by that. He had his finger on the transmit switch of his radio when he heard the laboured sound of a large diesel truck.
A fire engine emerged around the bend of the road and rumbled to a stop. The pace of the incident accelerated. A sub officer briefed his crew. They had already assembled hydraulic cutting gear. Hand-held machinery with velociraptor jaws went to work on the car. The stillness was shattered by the juddering, wailing and whining noise of metal being chewed and spat. The street became a makeshift scrap yard. The wings were removed and tossed in a heap along with the wheels and other car parts. Alec stood by the window of the unconscious boy, feeling for a pulse. There was still a faint beat. He spoke to him, half hoping that the boy would sub-consciously take in the news that people were trying to help. There was not a flicker of emotion. Just the occasional gentle spasmodic cough and more pink blood.
The paramedics arrived. Two ambulances. The blonde haired driver was assessed. Thumbs up from one paramedic to another. The paramedics moved on. The driver twisted and wriggled.
“Haw. Is that it ya cunts? Ah’m a gonna live?”
The paramedics, seemingly oblivious to the rants, bent their efforts to the boy on the pavement. They stretchered him to an ambulance and returned to the front passenger. There was little they could do other than check for vital signs. There was nowhere to put in a drip. One looked over at Alec, a fleeting, sparkling, glint in his eye. It blinked and was gone, like a faint signal from the depths of the universe. Alec pursed his lips and nodded. The paramedic looked away.
The fire crew jacked up the engine. The sub officer checked the next steps, his crew removed the drivers door. Circular saws screamed at obstinate metal. A blanket was thrown over the driver as molten sparks flew across the dashboard and roadway. More sections were cut away. Pieces of dashboard. The steering assembly. As parts were removed, more of the blonde haired boy was revealed.
“Get me tae fuck outtae here. C’mon. Ahh cannae feel ma legs…Is that petrol? Cunts better no’ start a fire!”
The air was filled with wining. The cutting gear and the boy reaching the same pitch. Alec felt his jaws clamp tight. He kicked himself for having felt any sympathy. The screeching and grating stopped. A gap had opened up, enough to slide the driver out. As the paramedics made one last check, Alec stepped closer and spoke in a voice just loud enough for the boy to hear.
“Take a look at your pal. You better hope he makes it. If he doesn’t…you’ll be going away for a long time…”
The driver glanced at his silent passenger. Alec wasn’t sure what his comment would provoke. Perhaps it would shake the petulance and arrogance from him. That the sight of someone so badly injured, in such close proximity, would subdue him. A recognition that his recklessness had created a catastrophe. Instead the boy began to wriggle with animal fierceness, his face rippled with contempt.
“Get me the fuck oot you, ya cunts. Ah want oot. Fuckin pricks!”
The boy stared at Alec, a vicious sneer on his face, his eyes narrowed, his lips white flecked.
“By the way…Ah never stole nae fuckin’ motor. It wisnae me, so you can just fuck off…”
Alec stepped back. The fire crew and paramedics extricated the blonde boy. He stood up in the street and squinted at the sun, his legs unsteady. A feral bambi. One that had ingested MDMA and driven a stolen car into a lamp post. Alec restrained himself from arresting him there and then, aware that medical care came first, but he loathed the boy. He wished that he could march him to the van, throw him in a cell. As these thoughts coursed through Alec’s head, the boy began shouting at by-standers. A dozen now lined the pavement a short distance away. One or two pointed in recognition.
“Who dae think ye’s ur. Got a good look, Eh? Buncha fuckin fannies!”
The paramedics led the boy away towards the ambulance. Alec went back to the car. The passenger door was off and the paramedics had fed in a drip, but the boy remained unconscious. A small frown crossed his brow each time he coughed. The coughs seemed to come more frequent. More blood foamed at the corner of his mouth.
The fire crew were now in the empty engine bay. The cutting machines had been laid down and the generators switched off. They had jacked up the car and were looking underneath. Alec joined them. There were subdued comments and shaking heads.
The car was two feet off the ground at the front section. Now stripped of wings, doors and other parts, it was a distorted and buckled ghost of its former self. But despite the incisions and amputations, there still seemed to be no way to move the boy safely. The engine was wedged so tightly into the frame it could be moved no more than a few inches.
A paramedic stepped forward.
“We’re going to have to get him out one way or another. I don’t give much for his chances if we leave him there much longer.”
Alec nodded. He listened as the sub master and paramedic ran over the plan. The engine would be hoisted and the boy slid from underneath. Alec looked over at Danny, who raised an eyebrow. Slings and a hoist appeared. A few minutes later, the engine eased upwards. The car groaned and creaked like an old ship. The engine moved a few more inches and stopped. It would go no further. Another examination of the undercarriage. Two feet and a pair of legs. Alec looked in and saw that the boy’s jeans were torn and burned. Blood trickled down his shins.
“You’re long and skinny. Can you reach under and help me?”
It was the paramedic who’d exchanged the look earlier. Alec nodded and knelt down on the ground. He could see the legs and feet of the boy and a small gap up towards the boy’s chest. His white Lacoste t-shirt was torn and bloodied. His arms lay limp on either side. Bruised and useless.
One of the fire crew gave a thumbs up. The engine had been secured. Alec crawled under, the grit and oil of the road rubbing into his shirt. He could smell petrol again. The paramedic wriggled on his back a few feet next to him. They intersected and Alec, feeling gently upward, found contact with the back of the boy’s thighs. He felt the liquid movement of smashed bone and pulverised muscle and his stomach lurched as the loose sections of bone ground against each other. The paramedic had reached under the other leg. He looked sideways at Alec.
“Do we still move him?”
The paramedic craned his neck to look at Alec.
“No choice…Ok…On the count of three…”
Alec was conscious of other hands above, gently cradling the boy by his arms and chest. There was a count of three and, as one, they lifted the boy and slid him forward. More counts of three. Another few inches. More counts of three. The boy was slid from his seat. He sagged and drooped onto the stretcher.
Alec felt along the torso as they laid him down. His body felt broken. There were more counts of three. Alec, now on his knees in the engine bay, hauled the stretcher clear of the car.
Alec took a handle of the stretcher. The boy was hoisted gently upwards. There was no sound. The fire engine had been switched off. There was no conversation. No birdsong. No crackle of radios. They walked on soft feet towards the waiting ambulance. Four men carrying a boy as if he was a feather, hovering on the edge of a breeze.
It was then he felt it. As if an unseen hand had gently added a weight to their load. And in that moment Alec knew, as they all did, that the boy had died.
No one spoke. There was an imperceptible adjustment of step as if each had encountered a sudden gust of wind. They bent themselves forward, like medics on a battlefield.
“Tell them fuck aw Jamie! Tell they fannies fuck aw. A’ll see ye awright.”
The blonde boy had emerged from his ambulance, thin mouth melted into sarcastic smirk. Alec watched as Danny grabbed the boy and marched him to the back of the police van. The small crowd cheered. The boy twisted round towards the stretcher and shouted one last time.
“Tell them fuck aw Jamie!”
The blonde boy disappeared. There was a short yelp followed by the sound of the van door being slammed and then silence. Danny reappeared by the side of the van and lit a cigarette. He caught Alec’s gaze and shrugged.
The boy was loaded onto the ambulance. Flat smiles and nods from the paramedics who closed the doors and bent their actions towards the futile task inside. Within a few seconds, the blue lights were activated and the ambulance disappeared around the bend in silence.
Early shift officers arrived. A young cop, his face soured from having a Sunday ruined by a hospital prisoner watch, led the still snarling driver into the ambulance.
Alec got his notebook out and logged the details. Danny spoke to bystanders and ushered them away. A traffic car arrived to measure the road and take pictures. The roads department would be out. Wreckage taken away, oil and petrol hosed down. The only evidence of the accident would be a halo of golden sand and a leaning lamp post. Posies of supermarket flowers and a few football tops would decorate the lamppost for a week or two.
It was 7:30am. The ambulances and fire engine had gone. Enquiries would be made and names confirmed. Families would be informed. The ordinary lives of two parents would change unalterably that morning.
They had returned to the van. Danny sat down beside him, slumped in his seat, cigarette hanging out an open window. He looked dog tired. Alec felt the same. They gazed out through the windscreen, at the remains of the car in front of them, the clear blue sky and the bag with old Annie’s morning rolls on the dashboard.
Alec pictured her sitting in her bedsit flat, half blind and deaf, hair on end, old housecoat over a thick flannel nightie, tiny piggy eyes squinting over polished, rosie cheeks at the mantle-piece clock.
“Annie will be going mental.”
They delivered her morning rolls at the end of each night shift. Made her a cup of tea, checked she was ok. The collection of the rolls and the drive to her tiny flat, all part of the winding down before the end of the shift. Danny had almost reached the buzzer when they’d got the call. There had been mutters of ‘bloody typical’ and ‘back in ten minutes.’ That now seemed like days ago. Alec pointed at the rolls.
“What’ll we do with these?”
Danny shook his head.
“Early shift can take them. They can take the grief. She’ll give ‘em a roasting.”
Alec smiled. She’d reserve some ire for him and Danny, unaware of what they had been called to and knowing they would never tell.
Danny started the engine and moved off. They had paperwork to do. Then there would be the long drive home and a fitful sleep. And that night they’d start all over again.
They’d collect the morning rolls from the bakery and call in on old Annie.
Normal service would be resumed.
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