They could all see it. The grey flesh, luminous with decay, in stark contrast to the dark earth beneath. Alec composed himself and let his breath out slowly. The vapour formed a thick column past his eyes as he crouched lower, thighs burning with the effort of holding still. With his gloved hand he teased at one end, but it clung obstinately to the earth, flesh and dirt fused together in the extreme cold, so that he had to tug a little harder. It gave way – like a strip of velcro and lifting it higher Alec 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’d asked her to go inside, but the old woman had remained on the lawn and watched, her face pinched in the razor thin cold of a late December afternoon; an archetypal rural Scottish spinster with lilac hair and matching mohair cardigan, hands clasping and unclasping at the waist of her heavy tweed skirt. She knew fine well 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.”
He eased the remains into the bag as Ronnie stepped forward with the evidence label, his face businesslike and solemn. The old lady made a fuss of rubbing her hands together before taking the pen and signing, all the while muttering about ‘those poor souls’. There was nothing to be said that hadn’t been said already, so Alec stood in silence as she returned card and pen with a sad smile. Ronnie thanked her and said they’d be in touch, but the truth was they wouldn’t. The remains were just an atom in a universe of human carnage. It was unlikely anyone would be asked to account for this one piece among the many thousands.
“You’ll be wanting a wee cup of tea?”
Alec shook his head. A half hour in a warm house would’ve been welcome but they had other duties and been away long enough. With a wave of a hand he retraced his steps across the immaculate lawn before easing through the gap in the scorched hedge marking the boundary between unscathed suburbia and the devastation beyond. There was no close trimmed sward on the other side, no manicured garden, just a thick carpet of bricks, plaster and roof tiles through which pieces of broken furniture poked at random intervals. As Alec stumbled over the wreckage, a CID officer, shoes covered in white dust, gingerly picked his way towards him on a converging trajectory. They met in the midst of the debris and in a rendezvous shorn of ceremony the detective took the remains, carefully put them in a large bag and walked away. The encounter was brief, with an off-hand allusion to a court citation they all knew would never come.
The shattered remains of a bungalow before him. Such was the devastation all around that there were no conventional routes back onto Sherwood Crescent. It was simpler to walk over the rubble and through the shell of the house, but it felt odd walking through the wrecked home and Alec picked his way through with head bowed, all the while conscious of the house they’d just visited, untouched save for a singed boundary hedge that gave the impression of having saved the old woman’s house from destruction. No less surreal than the other things he’d 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. 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, in a deep hole in the middle of a street in a small council housing estate, overlooked by a primary school and a bored cop. Two young boys had gawped at it from their bikes, the first townspeople Alec had seen. Until that moment he’d been convinced that Lockerbie had been evacuated, leaving only the emergency services to wander the streets.
After that it was the burnt out petrol station, houses with missing roofs, the eerie silence and the absence of people, their doors and curtains closed. It was nearing Christmas but there were no street decorations or twinkling lights in sitting room windows. Only the vertical pyres of coal fires gave away the existence of the townspeople huddled in their homes in a state of communal melancholy where a perpetual sadness hung over everything.
They made their way through the hallway of the bungalow, the floor submerged under several feet of bricks and plaster dust. Though the walls were largely intact the blast had destroyed the upper storey and the roof was gone. Just a few short days since the disaster the house looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The absence ceiling or roof was unnerving and the proximity of such destruction to the old woman’s unscathed home added to the dislocation. Alec stepped onto what had been the front porch and emerged onto Sherwood Crescent.
From the centre of the road the incremental nature of the destruction was clear to see. The bungalow furthest away, the first in the crescent, stood unscathed, evidence that a pretty little street in a quiet market town once existed there. But framed against the uniform grey of a pale winter sky the remaining houses demonstrated their ever closer proximity to the cataclysm. A missing chimney pot here, chimney stack and ridge tiles there. And then chimney stack, ridge tiles and missing slates, then whole roofs until the street ended in clutch of scorched ruins like a Little Stalingrad, homes smashed, gardens obliterated, littered with bricks, shattered glass and furniture, only the ground floor walls remaining, like blackened crooked teeth. Here and there, broken furniture and toys, personal papers and photograph, curtains and guttering, bedsheets and doors, clothes and books, all mashed together with mud and cement, plasterwork and grass. Ronnie, his raincoat bulked out with multiple layers of clothing, turned and nodded towards the crash site .
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 indeed unbelievable that houses once stood there, that families had lived 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. There were only blackened stumps to mark where homes once stood. Everything torn away in a maelstrom, picked clean by the blast. Just flattened earth and jagged pieces of wall. Ronnie prodded a brick with the toe of his boot.
“Who do you think that ‘find’ came from?”
Alec thought of the remains and the tattered piece of lace. An image of a little girl rose up in his mind and his heart shrank from it. He knew the casualty list for the street, but there seemed little point speculating. There was nothing anyone could do now.
“Who knows Ronnie…I’m guessing we never will.”
While Ronnie wrestled with his thoughts Alec looked beyond the crater to the A74 and the green countryside beyond. A weak breeze whispered around his face and brought with it an overpowering mix of aviation fuel and generator fumes. The call to the old lady’s garden had provided some respite, but now he was forced to acclimatise himself with the sickly smell again. The crater was theirs and since dawn they’d wandered around the site deterring sightseers and souvenir hunters. A dispiriting task, but not nearly as bad as those that lay waiting in the hills above the town. Alec gave Ronnie a nudge and they walked closer.
The pit 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, while others formed human chains and passed metal up the steep slippery slope. Strips of tortured aluminium were arranged around the lips of the crater where men in overalls catalogued the debris while others stood and watched waiting for their turn in the slurry below. The men in the crater looked exhausted, their navy blue overalls coated in the red-brown of fuel and mud. It was growing dark and the arc lights, spaced at intervals around the crater doused the scene in an antiseptic light, throwing stark shadows within the depths of the pit.
The recovery team, at work since since the pre-dawn, looked like ants clambering inside the bruised lids of a giant earthen eye. An end of days scene. Spectral sub humans scavenging for aluminium and rare metals, pouring 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 sat at the site of the crater. A young family had died there and others had died in the adjacent houses. Atomised, never to be recovered. Eleven had died in the crescent, over two hundred from the plane, now scattered around the Borders countryside.
On the far side of the crater, on blackened earth, stood a charred chimney stack clad in American ranch style stonework. Alec imagined a cosy sitting room with roaring fire but of the original house nothing remained. Only the chimney had survived as evidence that a substantial bungalow once stood there. Beside it, the ruins of another, its walls scorched, like the others, overlooking the jaws of the red-brown pit. Alec looked around the annihilation and tried to think of a comparison, but there was none, not in peacetime. As if emphasising the surreal, further on stood a bungalow, white harled walls pristine and unscathed. Alec shook his head. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the random nature of a disaster that had wrought such absolute destruction on some and spared others. Ronnie jutted a chin towards the pit.
“Something else eh?”
Alec watched the ants in the crater.
“Yeah. Who would’ve thought the wing of one plane could do all this.”
Ronnie pointed above his head and instinctively Alec looked up, though there was nothing to see but the shrouded sky.
“Wings broke off the jumbo…then scythed down… tanks full of fuel…”
Ronnie twirled his right hand, index finger circling the air, before turning to face the unscathed end of the crescent.
“…then broke apart and one came down low over these houses…”
Ronnie lowered his twirling hand and turned round at the last moment to line it up with the crater and bring it down with a low karate chop.
“…then, it hit the crescent…right there…”
Alec pictured the giant blade, a metal sycamore seed, scything through the blackness. He imagined the scream of the engines and the thunderous roar they must have made, the cutting motion as it finally grazed the last houses in the street and the final impact. He tried to picture what it must have been like for the people in the final house, but could not.
“Excuse me Officers. Can I have a wee word?”
They’d been so lost in thought that they’d missed the man approaching them. He was dressed in the uniform of a Salvation Army captain and pointed towards a vehicle at the other side of the crater.
“Would you like something to eat?”
A small catering van, painted in Salvation Army livery, stood near the crater’s edge. Steam rose from a little chimney in its roof and the glass fronted cabinet was stuffed with cooked chicken. Alec had counted at least a hundred people on site. Police, military and other emergency services, but all had stayed clear of the catering van while 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. It’s for you, this is what we’re here for.” The Captain looked Alec up and down. “And you look as if you could do with something hot.”
It was true. They were inadequately dressed for the weather. Following advice some from older hands Alec’d put on multiple layers, but they consisted mainly of polyester and his police issue nylon raincoat. The cold had penetrated within the first hour and he’d 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, but they’d agreed to avoid eating in public. It didn’t seem right when so much misery lay around. Alec explained as much to the captain who smiled and shook his head.
“I’ve just spoken to the military. They’ll eat in a few minutes. Perhaps after that?”
Alec accepted the offer with good grace and the captain looked satisfied he’d broken an impasse. As he watched him walk away Alec felt a prod at his arm and looked round to see Ronnie nodding in the direction of the motorway a few yards below them down an embankment of churned up earth. Only the north bound carriageway remained open as the nearest was under several tons of earth. More arc lights had been set up to illuminate the remaining carriageway which had been separated into opposing lanes.
“There’s another one of those pricks…”
A southbound car had slowed down to a crawl and the passenger window wound down. A flash bulb lit the air. Yet another rubber-necker who’d slowed to take a photograph of the scene. There had been so many that afternoon Alec had labelled it ‘Disaster Tourism’. Tailbacks had developed and now traffic department Ford Granadas harried back and forth issuing tickets. As another flashbulb went off in the darkness blue lights were travelling down the carriageway towards it. Ronnie grunted.
“Another one bites the dust.”
“Serves them right. Ghoulish bastards.”
The RAF crew had downed tools and were gathered in huddle to eat some food from the catering van. Alec joined the queue, took some chicken from the visibly relieved catering ladies and retreated behind the van. He’d just finished the last drumstick when he heard engines starting up and craned around to see the RAF recovery team loading up their vehicles with the same efficiency that had marked their actions all day and within fifteen minutes they’d driven off. The Salvation Army van followed a few minutes later and soon the site was empty save for a fire engine and it’s glum crew. A military helicopter appeared out of the blackness it’s undercarriage lit by the arc lights from below. It clattered overhead, the roar of its engines competing with the percussive bucka-bucka-bucka of its blades and then it was lost to the darkness as quickly as it had appeared.
“Looks like everyone’s standing down.”
“Aye. Time we were gone too.”
Ronnie radioed for transport and a van appeared to take them to the rendezvous through streets that were empty, save for one or two hunched figures, faces bent towards the pavement, coats buttoned to their necks. The only other signs of life, the muted lights of sitting rooms behind heavy curtains and the steady rise of smoke from chimney pots as a freezing fog drifted in from the hills behind the town, fingers curling round deserted streets.
The rendezvous was the high school where rows of dilapidated buses commandeered for the operation were lined up, blue smoke billowing from rusty exhausts. Officers embarked ancient single deckers, while others gathered up kit and checked off lists. Alec listened to their voices, soft and low, stories of fields and hillsides, golf courses and forests. Bodies. Young and old. Whole and in parts. The cops looked exhausted and those who’d worked in the makeshift mortuary made their way to buses with haggard expressions, sloped shoulders and downcast eyes speaking of a burden more than physical.
Alec gave silent thanks that he’d at least been spared that as he found his bus and climbed on board. It filled quickly. Quiet men with drawn faces, each carrying his memory of the day to himself, but 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 chorus of denials and sea of blank faces. It appeared no one had. The Sergeant jerked his head towards the school buildings..
“The ladies of the town have baked you lot cakes and they’re upset that you’ve taken none of 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.
“Take something. It’s the one way these ladies have of showing their thanks and it is a kindness to accept it. I know you’ll thank them in return…”
Alec left the bus with all the others and made his way to the gym hall where rows of trestle tables had been 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. Some took cakes and handed them out while 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 and Alec took his gift with awkward thanks and retreated unsure what else to say.
The bus filled again and moved off. Lockerbie disappeared from sight. The driver, silent and morose, switched off the internal lights and turned up the heating. Some drifted off, others stared into the distance while the bus rumbled and roared along the motorway, each man lost in their own dark thoughts, a million miles from the quiet speculation that marked their journey down that morning.
Alec gazed beyond the grimy window to a world clothed in impenetrable darkness; nothing for him to see but his own reflection.
And a girl in a white petticoat.