They could all see it, the luminous grey of decay, a stark contrast to the dark earth underneath. Alec composed himself and slowly exhaled, his breath forming a vapour trail as he crouched lower, thighs burning with the effort of holding still. With a gloved hand he gently pulled at one end. It clung momentarily to the earth, flesh and dirt fused together by the extreme cold. He tugged a little harder and felt it give way, like a strip of velcro. As he lifted it higher he 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.”
Alec eased the remains into the evidence bag as Ronnie 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 an atom in a universe of human carnage. It was unlikely that anyone would be asked to account for this one piece among so many thousands.
“You’ll be wanting a wee cup of tea?”
Alec shook his head, they had other duties and they’d been away long enough. The offer was sincere, but the old lady had looked relieved when he turned it down.
They crossed the lawn and eased their way through the gap in 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 picked their way over the wreckage, a CID officer, his shoes dusted like caster sugar, gingerly made 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.
Alec carried on over the debris and into the shattered remains of a bungalow. There was no easy route back onto Sherwood Crescent, it was simpler to walk through the empty shells of the houses that lined the broken street. Ronnie had assured him that no one had died in this particular house, but it felt strange walking through what had been someone’s home. He stole a glance back to the place they’d come from, only twenty feet away and untouched by the catastrophe next door. The scorched hedge between them gave the impression of having saved the old woman’s house from destruction. Alec shook his head, it was no less surreal than the other things he had seen that day.
Like the jet engine they had 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 narrow street of a small council housing estate, overlooked by a primary school and a bored cop. Two young boys gawping at it as they’d passed were the first townspeople Alec had seen. Until that moment he had been 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. The houses with broken windows and missing slates. The eerie silence and absence of people. Doors and curtains closed, no one in the shops. They were in the middle of the Christmas holidays, but there were no street decorations, or twinkling lights in sitting room windows. No children showing off their toys, just the vertical pyres of coal fires giving the game away, of townspeople huddled down in their homes in a state of communal melancholy. Christmas had been cancelled and a perpetual sadness hung over everything.
Alec shook himself free of his thoughts and picked his way through the rest of the bungalow. The lower walls were intact, but the roof was gone. The blast had destroyed the upper storey and the internal features. The rooms were all several feet deep in plaster and dust. It looked like it had been abandoned for decades.
Up above, a blanket of unbroken grey sky hung over the town. 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 Alec could see the incremental nature of the destruction. The furthest away bungalow stood unscathed. Evidence that a little street in a quiet market town had once existed there. Against the pale winter sky he 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 house, ridge tiles and a chimney pot on the next. Then chimney pot, chimney stack, roof tiles and garden debris. After that, more tangible evidence of their proximity to the impact site. Sections of roof, then whole roofs and partial sections of building. These houses looked as they had been struck by a tornado, gardens littered with bricks, pieces of shattered glass, smashed furniture. On and on it went, down the street to the place where they now stood. Here, only the ground floor walls remained, broken and charred in places, like the houses in an old World War Two movie. The interior fabric of the buildings were smashed and pulverised. Furniture and toys, personal papers and photographs, roof tiles tiles and guttering. Windows and doors, clothes and books, all mashed together with dirt and cement, plasterwork and grass. Ronnie, 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. Alec 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 away down a grass covered slope. Now, only blackened stumps marked the places where homes once stood. Everything had been scoured clean by the blast. Where once there had been gardens there was just flattened bare earth and jagged pieces of wall. Ronnie prodded a brick with the toe of his boot. Lost in thought.
“Who do you think that ‘find’ came from?”
Alec thought of the remains and the piece of lace. An image of a little girl rose up in his mind and he fought it off. He knew the casualty list for the street, but there seemed little point speculating.
“Who knows – I’m guessing we never will.”
Ronnie said nothing. Alec 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 smells. The crater was theirs for the day and since dawn they’d wandered around the site deterring sightseers and souvenir hunters. It was a depressing task, but not nearly as bad as what lay in the hills above the town. Alec gave Ronnie a nudge and they walked closer.
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 were heaped around the lips of the crater. Men in uniform catalogued the individual items of debris. Others stood and watched. 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.
Those who slid around in the pit looked exhausted, their navy-blue overalls coated in the red-brown of fuel and mud The recovery team had been there since dawn, but there had been no slowing of pace. Soldier ants, clambering inside the swollen bruised lids of a giant earthen eye. It was an end of days scene. Spectral sub humans scavenging for aluminium and rare metals. Under the probing arc lights they poured over a scar gouged from the earth by a giant clawed creature. A mechanical colossus, indifferent to the tortured column of earth, habitation and human it had scattered onto the southbound A74.
Alec thought of the house that had once sat at the site of the crater. A young family had died there. Others had died in the adjacent houses. Some of them would never be recovered. Atomised. Eleven had died in the crescent. Over two hundred from the plane, now scattered around the Borders countryside.
He looked across the pit to a chimney stack on the other side. It stood alone, the base clad in American ranch style stonework and 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, walls charnel scorched, like black broken teeth around the jaws of a red-brown pit. Alec tried to think of a comparison, but there was none, not in peacetime at any rate. The cul de sac looked like a bombed city in miniature. Beyond the chimney stack sat a white bungalow, modern, harled, pristine and unscathed. There was no rhyme or reason to the random chance that had wrought such absolute destruction and spared others. Ronnie spoke first. He had been there before and took pride in sharing what he knew of the wider operation.
“Something else eh?”
Alec watched the human ants in the crater.
“Bonkers. Who would have thought the wings of a plane could do all this.”
Ronnie pointed to the sky above them. Alec 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.”
Alec watched as Ronnie twirled his right hand, index finger circling the air.
Ronnie turned to face the unscathed end of the crescent.
“It came down, low over these house — turbulence ripping off the roof tiles — “
Ronnie 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.”
Alec pictured a giant blade descending from the night sky, scything through the air. 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 uniform of a Salvation Army captain and was pointing towards a vehicle at the other side of the crater.
“I’m sorry to bother you but would you not like something to eat?”
Alec followed the outstretched arm. A small catering van, painted in Salvation Army livery, stood near the craters edge. Steam rose from a little chimney and a glass fronted cabinet was stuffed full of cooked chicken. Alec had counted at least a hundred people on site. Police, military and other emergency services, all had stayed clear of the catering van. Two women in Salvation Army uniform, glum faced and redundant, stood at the internal counter. The Captain smiled politely.
“It would be terrible if the food wasn’t eaten. And it’s for you. This is what we are here for.” The Captain looked Alec up and down. “You look as if you could do with something hot.”
They were inadequately dressed for the weather. Alec had put on multiple layers, but they consisted mainly of polyester and his police issue nylon raincoat. The cold had penetrated in the first hour and he had spent the rest of the day flapping his arms and stamping his feet for warmth. Now his feet were numb and he was very hungry. He guessed Ronnie was too, but both had avoided eating in public, it didn’t seem right when so much misery lay around. The captain shook his head.
“I have just spoken to the military. They’ll eat in a few minutes. Perhaps after that?”
It was a good compromise. Alec thanked the captain who looked satisfied he’d broken an impasse. As he watched him walk away he felt a prod at his arm. Ronnie pointed to the motorway. There was only one carriageway open, the nearest was 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.”
Alec looked down the slope. They had watched earlier as cars had slowed to take photographs of the scene. There had been so many that he’d labelled it ‘Disaster Tourism’. Tailbacks had developed and now traffic department Ford Granadas harried back and forth issuing tickets. A flashbulb went off in the darkness and within seconds blue lights were travelling down the carriageway. Ronnie grunted.
“Another rubbernecker bites the dust.”
“Serves them right. Ghoulish bastards.”
The RAF crew downed tools and ate. Alec joined the queue. There was enough food to feed an army. He took some chicken, thanked the catering ladies and retreated behind the van. It was from there he heard engines starting up. He craned around to see the RAF team loading up their vehicles with the same efficiency that had marked their actions all that day and within fifteen minutes they’d driven off. The Salvation Army van followed and the site was soon empty save for a fire engine and its crew. A silence descended over the site, shattered only when a military helicopter appeared out of the blackness. It clattered overhead, the roar of its engines competing with the percussive bucka-bucka-bucka of its blades. Alec watched as it disappeared back into the darkness, lost to sight as quickly as it had appeared. Ronnie looked around, a hopeful look on his face.
“Looks like everyone’s standing down Alec.”
“Time we were out of here too.”
The journey to the rendezvous took them back through the town. The streets were 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 rendezvous was at the high school. As he arrived, cops were climbing into ancient single decker buses, while others gathered up kit and checked people off lists. They looked exhausted. Alec listened to voices, soft and low as they told of fields and hillsides, golf courses and forests. Bodies. Young and old, whole and in parts. Those who’d worked in the makeshift mortuary made their way to the bus with haggard expressions, their sloped shoulders and downcast eyes telegraphing a burden that was more than physical.
Alec gave thanks that he had been spared that. He found his bus and climbed 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?”
Alec looked around. A sea of blank faces stared back, it appeared that 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 Sergeant held out 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 and I know you’ll thank them.”
Alec left the bus with all the others. In the gym hall stood trestle tables laden with 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, each a look of relief on their faces. Some took cakes and handed them out, others provided vocal encouragement. Alec 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, there was nothing else that he could say.
The bus filled up and moved off. The town disappeared from sight. The driver, silent and morose, switched off the internal lights and turned up the heating. Some drifted off to sleep, others stared into the distance.
The bus rumbled and roared along the motorway in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts, a million miles from the curiosity and speculation that had marked their journey down.
Alec gazed out of the window. The world was clothed in impenetrable darkness, there was nothing to see but his own reflection.
And a girl in a white petticoat.
(C) Brian Cook and AbsentMindedScribe.com 2019. All rights reserved. 😊