Soundcheck (A prologue)

Double yellow lines disappear beneath the tread of the wheels.  Both doors of the cab swing open and two men in hooded jackets step out, set the timer and dissolve into the crowds of early morning shoppers.  Outside the department store, the Ford Cargo van idly awaits its fate.  “One hour to leave the city centre.”  The coded warning.  Greater Manchester Police are mobilised.  Anti-Terrorist Squad alerted.  The army bomb disposal team depart Liverpool.  Shoppers squint in the sunlight on Market Street, confusion in their screwed-up eyes as the officers rush towards them, urging them back beyond the hastily erected cordons, raising their forearms, their hands to their brows, shielding their eyes from the brilliant light.  India 99 is airborne.  Cameras close in, pan out, re-focus.  The blades judder through the air above the scampering, above the scrambling.  Up the steps, down the streets, as though the ground is already hot beneath their feet, as though the ground, the flags upturned and cracked, the gum-flecked tarmac, is scorched by the mid-summer sun.  Blue and white bands of plastic stretch like enormous football scarves between the corners of buildings, lampposts, bins, affixed to the wing mirrors of abandoned cars.  Ladbrokes doors burst open: without their bags and purses, without their keys, the women from behind the counter are now taking the stairs two at a time, out of the basement and into the blinding light. The punters gasp and cough, bent over, hands on knees, red-faced and sweaty in Piccadilly Gardens, their mouths dry, the after-image of the subterranean screens flickering behind each eye blink.  They are pushed on, the officers shouting incessantly, voices clamouring from every direction, amongst yesterday’s newspapers strewn across the benches, fast food cartons, crowds of pigeons stabbing at last night’s leftovers.  The team from Liverpool are here, the robot is being despatched.  Eleven seventeen a.m.  She can’t stand still, can’t lie down, can’t keep pacing backwards and forwards.  The officer is trying to speak.  She can hear the voices.  She now knows he is speaking to her.  The sunlight.  The officer is drawing close to her.  She raises her hand to shield her eyes.  From the sunlight.  Eleven seventeen and four seconds.  From the blast.  3, 500 kilos of fertiliser explosive.  Coded warning.  2500 miles per hour.  The huge plume of smoke dwarfs the CIS Tower, white at first then blackening ominously as it billows above Corporation Street.  Always the bravado.  Always the bragging rights. The glass and masonry cutting through the air, through the blackened sky, through the sunlight, through raised arms, through denim, through cotton, through skin, through the bodies that hit the ground.  The first industrial city.  The first modern canal.  The concierge running through the mass of crouching bodies.  The cowering, the screaming amongst the smoke and shards.  Taking the baby in his arms, the sirens louder and nearer, the flashing lights flickering through the thick black smoke.  The first railway.  The first computer.  All the colours are muted by the dust, the dust that covers everything, grey white concrete dust.  The only other colour is red.  The colour of the blood on the thighs, the legs, the forearms, the cheeks and the foreheads of the wounded.  The colour of the post box resolute amidst the debris.  Splitting the atom.  The first industrial estate.  The remaining buildings are exposed skeletons, their frames charred and blackened, the concrete scorched.  The streets are strewn with shattered glass and paper, paper everywhere, office stationary littering the roads and pavements that are roads and pavements no longer.  Within the cordon there is a stillness.  Nothing moves except for the paper flapping in the thin breeze like the twitching muscles of a corpse.  Suffragettes.  The Independent Labour Party.  The biggest bomb on mainland Britain.  The crater is a city centre landfill with debris strewn all around the edge of the vortex.  Barely recognisable remnants of office furniture, paper everywhere, rectangular A4 calling cards brilliant white against the coal black seam of the bomb site itself.  Thick grey pillars are scattered around like the discarded toys of a giant, impossibly aged to evoke the fall of an ancient civilisation, uprights reduced to ruins, the polished surfaces and gleaming glass windows and doors, the entrances and receptions, lounges and open-plan offices are now deep black shadows between the broken teeth mouths of the buildings that remain.  A blue Nissan Micra, faded by the dust that cakes every surface, that covers everything, that eliminates all traces, stands abandoned in a side street, a huge hole in the rear windscreen, used as an impromptu tying post for one of the cordons that slacks away from it, tethering the vehicle to the burnt out city.   A young woman, red hair pulled back off her face, sits in the middle of a pavement, oblivious to the hardness of the broken flags beneath her shorts, lost in concentration, someone else’s coat draped over her shoulders as she dabs her bloody thigh with something in one hand and removes another shard of glass with the other.  Behind the cordons children are screaming, grown men hysterical, flanked by tight protective rows of police shuffling and glancing over their shoulders with each passing moment, defenders in a wall waiting restlessly for the whistle, for the shot, for the cross, for the strike.  Waiting for the signal.  Waiting for the call.  The ambulances arrive from North Manchester, from Hope, from MRI, from Wythenshawe.  Their sirens compete with the children’s cries, with the helicopter rotor blades, with the commentary, the reassurance, the instructions, the directions of the officers.  The sirens make the firemen shout louder to each other as they ready the hoses, dragging them out across the shambling streets.  On John Dalton Street the medics have opened their cases.  They are crouching next to the wounded.  They are cradling the injured shoppers.  The man with the blood stained t-shirt leans forward, his head slumping onto the chest of the medic as the shards are removed from his back.  Now he’s into the back of the ambulance, into A & E, into surgery, into the deep deep sleep of anaesthesia from which the nightmares emerge, from which the nightmares will always emerge until the solace and sweetness of sleep is just a trembling, fidgeting memory.  Already, John Major is on the screens.  Extreme close-up, flashes reflecting in his spectacles.  “This act by a handful of fanatics will be regarded with contempt and disgust around the world”.  The band of men, early twenties to mid-thirties, are ten strong and moving with purpose through Albert Square.  Scarves cover the lower part of their faces.  In their hands are baseball bats, golf clubs, sawn off broom handles.  They don’t have to smash windows, they just reach inside.  Amidst the rubble on Cross Street, medics rush towards petrified, naked limbs protruding from the dereliction to find only mannequins thrown through shop frontages, their cold, dead eyes staring up at them between the lumps of concrete, between the paper, the backs of chairs, the drawers of cash registers, the glass in crumbs, in slices, in slivers.  People without the keys to their cars, without their wallets, begin their long, long walks home towards the outskirts of the city, past the snaking queues of exhausted men and women waiting to get into the phone boxes, waiting to feel the warm hard plastic of the receiver in their hands, to feel it pressed against their ears, waiting for the coins to drop, waiting for voices to speak their names.  There are blown out numerals on the clock face in St Anne’s.  Over the dusty rooftops the paralysed hands project the time when Manchester stopped.

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