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 forming a thick column past his eyes as he crouched lower, thighs burning with the effort of holding still. With a 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. Only then did it give 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, 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.”
As he eased the remains into the bag Ronnie stepped forward with the evidence label, 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’d other duties and been away long enough. With a wave of a hand he retraced his steps across an immaculate lawn to 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 picked his way over the wreckage, a CID officer, shoes covered in white dust, gingerly made 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, 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 detective gone, Alec surveyed the shattered remains of the bungalow standing before him. Such was the devastation there were no conventional routes back onto Sherwood Crescent and it was simpler to walk through the roofless shell of the house, though it felt odd walking through the wreckage of someone’s home. Alec picked his way through with head bowed, conscious of the unscathed house they’d just visited, untouched save for a singed boundary hedge. No less surreal than the other things he’d seen that day.
Like the jet engine they’d 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, the burnt out petrol station, houses with missing roofs, the eerie silence, the absence of people, their doors and curtains closed against the world. It was 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, the silence broken by the snap and crack of broken roof tiles under Ronnie’s size ten boots. The walls were intact but the blast had destroyed the upper storey and the roof was gone. It looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The absence of ceiling or roof was unnerving and the proximity of such destruction to the old woman’s unscathed home added to the dislocation so it was with a feeling of relief Alec stepped onto what had been the front porch and emerged into 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 chimney pot missing here, chimney stack and ridge tiles there. And then chimney stacks, ridge tiles and missing slates, the damage progressively worse 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 houses had once stood there, that families had lived 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 mud covered slope. Now, only blackened stumps marked the boundaries where homes once stood. Everything torn away in a maelstrom, picked clean by the blast leaving 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 respite, but now he was forced to confront the sickly smell again. The crater was their beat 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 around in a swill of fuel and mud. Some probed and dug, some pulled torn shreds of aluminium from the mire, while others formed human chains and passed buckled metal up the slippery slope. Around the lips of the crater strips of tortured aluminium were arranged in neat piles. 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 doused the scene in an antiseptic light, throwing stark shadows within the depths of the pit.
The recovery team, at work since since 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 humans it had scattered onto the southbound A74.
Alec thought of the house that had stood where now there was just a crater. A young family had died there. Others had died in the adjacent houses. Atomised, never to be recovered. Eleven had died in the crescent and over two hundred from the plane, now scattered across the countryside.
On the far side of the crater, on blackened earth, a charred chimney stack clad in American ranch style stonework. Alec imagined a cosy sitting room with roaring fire but of the original house only the chimney survived as evidence that a bungalow once stood there. Beside it, walls scorched like the others, more jagged ruins overlooking the jaws of the red-brown pit. Beyond that, as if emphasising the surreal, a white harled bungalow stood on the other side of the crater, walls pristine and unscathed. There seemed no rhyme or reason why the explosion had wrought such absolute destruction on some but spared others just a few feet further away. Gazing round the annihilation he tried to think of a comparison, but there was none, not in peacetime.
Ronnie jutted a chin towards the pit.
“Something else eh?”
Alec watched the human 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…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. 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…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 catering van, 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. 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. 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 hungry, but it didn’t seem right to be filling their gobs 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?”
They 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 down an embankment. 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 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 downed tools and gathered in huddle around 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, taking them to the rendezvous through misty streets, 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 tour buses buses 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. Quiet men with drawn faces filed in, each carrying his memory of the day to himself, but just as the last officer sat down a Sergeant appeared on the steps.
“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.
“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 the others and made his way to the gym hall and rows of trestle tables laden with cakes 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 and moved off. Lockerbie disappeared from sight. The driver, silent and morose, switched off the internal lights and turned up the heating. Some cops 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 the 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.