Mary sees the arm first, the limp hand tracing a sickening arc in the air as the body tumbles from the back of the garbage truck. In seconds it’s almost entirely buried beneath the rubbish and a flurry of dust. She has to move fast.
There are other Gulls in the Tip but they’re the least of her worries. It’s the real seagulls that concern her. They’re already circling, riding thermals and spiraling down the gravity well towards the dump. They’ve already heard the beep beep beep of the reversing van—she knows they recognize what it means—and they’ll be on the body in seconds, ripping it apart with their fucking evil beaks. She starts to run.
Running is hard. The oversized boiler suit, stained and greyed and filthy, flaps around her. As she runs it catches the breeze like a sail, acting against her, trying to pull her back. She keeps her head down, but that’s less about aerodynamics and more about watching her step. The bottom of the crater in the landfill is hazardous terrain, an undulating field of small hills carved from decaying plastic and pools of toxic run-off. Strands of compacted ethylene monomers reach out, tendril-like, to grab her ankles and pull her down onto poison-tipped daggers of fragmented tin. But she’s good at this, she’s been doing it most of her life. Keep your head down. It was the best bit of advice she was ever given. Pay attention to your feet. She skips though the devastation.
She allows herself to glance up quickly to check her bearings. The seagulls are on the ground already, gathering in a small, filthy crowd.
Mary hurtles straight into them, swinging her bag in an arc in front of her. Instantly most of them lose their nerve, leaping back up into the air around back. Two of them hold their ground, refusing to let go of whatever it is they’ve found that is poking up through the freshly deposited rubbish they’re tearing at, as if trying to dislodge it from its shallow grave.
Her foot takes care of the first seagull; its squawks as it takes flight convince the other to follow. The birds circle above her, momentarily, before they start to drop to the ground around her once more. They give her space this time, and none of them land closer than a couple of meters away, as though she’s encircled by an invisible shield. She knows they were just startled by her, not scared. Like Mary, they have spent far too long here to be scared of anything in the Tip. Out of the corner of her eye she senses them shifting close again. She needs to work fast.
She looks down at the ground, trying to spot what it was they were tugging at so frantically, and wishes she hadn’t. It’s a hand, a human hand. It’s sticking up out of the ground, as if it grows there. Two of the fingers lie at incorrect, nauseating angles. Skin petals flap in the breeze, surrounding a scarlet flower of ripped flesh. She realizes then that it’s the arm she saw tumbling from the back of the truck, and for the first time she feels nauseous. She shifts her weight and something crunches under her foot, and she loses footing. Panics. Catches herself and regains balance, sees the shape of the body under the mound of fresh trash. She feels nauseous again as a realization hits her: if everything is intact under there, she was probably just standing on the face.
When she was little, maybe seven years old, Mary didn’t mind when the adults called her a Gull. She used to take it as a compliment. Back then she loved the seagulls that were always present in the camp. She even envied them. She watched them circle above the Tip, riding thermals and squawking, and dream of being able to leap up there and join them. She envied the seagulls their freedom, but most of all she envied the fact they had seen the sea. She assumed, from their name, that they all must have seen it, at least once. In fact, she had a theory that it was why they flew so high above the camp: from up there they could see the sea, and they never wanted to lose sight of it for too long.
Of course, back then, there were a lot of things she believed. Like when the adults told her that the sea wasn’t actually that far away, and that she’d be able to go see it herself one day. She’d never seen the sea, apart from in photos in the occasional books or magazines she found. She had to hand them all over in order to get fed, but once she’d snuck a photo into her pocket while nobody was looking, and smiled so sweetly at the guard at the end of her shift that he just smiled back, didn’t even pat her down.
It was a tiny photo, less than two inches wide, and torn from a magazine. Blue sea, grey sky. So clean-looking. In the middle of the picture was a boat, apparently huge. Once she’d shown it to Old Dave, and he’d told her it wasn’t a boat, but a ship. There’s a big, important difference, he’d explained. Boats are small and ships are huge. This ship was special, he continued, because it was a cargo ship. Cargo ships came from the other side of the world, and they brought stuff for the people who lived in the cities outside the camp. Cargo ships used to arrive every day, dozens of them, bringing more and more stuff. Soon the people in the cities ran out of space and they started to throw some of it away, and then it ended up at the Tip. Everything that came from the boats ended up in the Tip eventually, he said. Even though most of the boats had stopped coming years ago, occasionally one would still turn up, bringing new stuff. Back then, Mary had believed this to be true.
But she isn’t little anymore. She believes new things now. Chief amongst them is that Old Dave is full of shit. She’s left the camp, for a start—only twice, admittedly—and she knows the sea is nowhere nearby. Both times she rode with some of the adults to Swindon, and they had to travel for ages. There was no sea. There were fields, which were pretty, she had to admit, but no sea. They traveled for so long, stopping frequently to fix their failing van; it was doubtful anyone from the camp had ever actually made it to the sea. Swindon turned out to be nothing like the cities Dave had described; there was no new stuff there—just the same old, stinking stuff that was at the Tip. She’d seen it piled up in the streets, overflowing out of buildings. There was nothing new there, nothing exciting or foreign, just the same old shit that was everywhere.
She knows now that no ships come anymore; there is no new stuff. A few years back it was obvious. The huge, noisy trucks that carried the cities’ refuse stopped coming to the Tip as regularly, and when they did they were full of rotten food and old paper. These days even paper is rare. Out of desperation some of the Gull leaders had started digging down into the Tip—huge square holes, meters across—to try to find older stuff. Why bother going to all that effort unless you know that nothing new is going to come? It had been a huge effort; they’d had to dig through what some people called the “fabbed layer,” two solid meters of dense, spongy, white plastic. It was like nothing Mary had seen before, and it creeped her out. When she’d asked one of the leaders he’d tried to explain to her that the white stuff was a material people in the cities had made themselves, in their houses, using little machines called printers. They could make pretty much anything they wanted as long as it was made out of the same white stuff. And of course, like all the city people, they’d made too much of it and ended up yet again with too much stuff, so it had been brought here to the Tip. It was all useless, just toys and trinkets, and when it all got buried in the ground, the chemicals from the other trash melted it, broke it down into this layer of useless, spongey, white crap. As unlikely as it all sounded, Mary believes the leader. At least, it seems more plausible than cargo boats bringing new stuff from the other side of the world.
Mary also knows the adults aren’t being kind when they call her and the other kids Gulls. She understands exactly what the name means now. Partly it’s because of the white, paper boiler suits that the men from the cities insist the Gulls wear, as pointless as they are. They never fit right, they are always too big—it was even worse when she was little—meaning she is always tripping over it, ripping the fabric. The holes expose Mary to exactly the chemicals and poisons the leaders lecture them about avoiding. Like the seagulls, the suits became grey and dirty over time, tattered and scruffy.
But mainly the adults call them Gulls because they see them as pests, their presence an unavoidable byproduct of living by the Tip. Most of the adults work away from the camp. They leave in scruffy Land Army minibuses every morning to work at the nearby farms, but the LA won’t take children until they at least look fifteen years old. The men from the cities worry far less about age. They’ve got too much stuff to sort through, and they can’t do it in the cities because it’s not safe for the people who live there, so they dump it on the Tip for the Gulls to do. For decades the cities brought their stuff here to the Tip to get rid of it; now they couldn’t afford to just leave it here. There was too much stuff the cities couldn’t make anymore, and they needed to be sure nothing was wasted. But the people in the cities weren’t stupid, and these days they throw out less and less. That was why the older Gulls had started digging, excavating down into older layers in the landfill, like desperate archaeologists searching for traces of past civilizations.
Mary hates the seagulls. She’s thirteen now, and for over a year she could have been out in the fields, working for the Land Army. Keeping Britain Fed, Keeping Britain Working. On her twelfth birthday she’d stood naked and embarrassed in front of the LA doctor as he shook his head mournfully. The boils and abrasions on her forearms and shins weren’t just from the chemicals in the Tip, he explained, they were also from a virus. He never told her what it was called. A new disease they’d only just discovered, one of a dozen carried by the seagulls. It wouldn’t do her any long-term harm, he assured her, but the rules said she couldn’t work near the new crops. In fact, she couldn’t even step foot on a farm again, and she would need special papers to get into some parts of the cities.
He turned his back on her while she got dressed, and calmly explained to her that those papers were very hard to get, and she should probably accept she would never be able to leave the camp. She did valuable work here, all the Gulls did. If he could hear her quiet sobs, as she knelt behind him tying her shoelaces, he never acknowledged them.
She has to work quick. If the guards or the other Gulls spot anything they’ll be on it quicker than the seagulls were, seizing the body and anything on it. She drops to her knees and starts to dig away with her hands, clearing rubbish from the mound. As she does, the outline of the corpse becomes visible—the once-erect hand now flops over pathetically. She gags again.
It doesn’t smell, luckily. Or if it does, her face mask is doing a pretty good job of masking it. That or The Stench is covering it. Some of the Gulls joke that they can’t smell the stench anymore anyway. They say it’s burnt out the bits of their noses that respond to the stench or the parts of their brains that identify it. Mary isn’t so sure. She can smell it. Always. It’s always on her body. She can smell it when she wakes in the morning. She can smell it when she eats. She can smell it every third day when she’s allowed to shower, and she can smell it while she sleeps. She can smell it in her dreams.
It’s why she has to go. One reason, at least.
She’s cleared most of the top half of the body now. Apart from the face.
She should blow the whistle, raise the alarm.
Instead she does what they all do when a fresh body turns up. The unofficial procedure.
She drops to her knees in the soft mulch next to the torso, and without thinking too hard, sticks her right hand into the dead person’s jacket.
It’s warm, damp. She tells herself the heat is just because the body has been encased in trash for days. She tries not to gag, avoids looking at where the face should be.
Nothing on the right side. No wallet. She pulls her hand out and tries the left side. Warm, damp. Gagging.
No wallet, but something hard, metallic. Angular. Smooth surfaces. Glancing around again to make sure nobody is watching, she yanks it out.
It’s a pair of glasses. She turns them over in her stained, crud encrusted gloves. The lenses are intact. Reasonably valuable, to someone at least. But they see enough pairs of glasses come through the land filter, and they all get diverted to Old Ash up who sits in his van in the camp all day, cleaning them up and fixing them so they can be sent to the cities. He has buckets full of them. Nah, this isn’t the big find she’s looking for. This isn’t the find that’s going to pay her way when she gets to Bristol.
Her shoulders drop, she exhales damp, clammy breath into the face mask. A moment of clarity. Maybe it’s for the best, she thinks. Maybe the adults lied about Bristol, too, and it’s no bigger, no less shitty than Swindon. No closer to the sea. Maybe the Stench is there too.
She turns the glasses over in her hand once more. They’re in good nick, just a little crud. She flicks away a slither of dirt on one of the arms. Underneath, set into the metal, is a small clear lozenge, a fleck of transparent plastic. Tiny, ant-sized. She brushes it with a gloved thumb.
It glows dull red, then flickers and goes out.
She pauses, surprised. Unsure what that means. Electronics don’t mean shit down here—unless they’re really old, like the old-fashioned DVD players, then they’re best ignored. She’s never seen electronic glasses before. At least, not that she knows of. Not ones that worked.
She brushes the plastic rectangle again. Again it glows, weakly. Flickers and dies.
She glances around nervously, still turning the glasses over in her hands.
Without thinking, she slips them onto her face.
The world around her starts to shimmer and flex. Colors strobe incomprehensibly. Something resembling a fog hangs over the crater, consuming the circling seagulls, and as she stares into it she sees it is made of a million things, a cloud of non-existent particles. Black and white. It reminds her of the black and white static of an ancient TV, the large boxy ones the adults let them watch DVDs on up in the camp. It’s a similarly weird, broken non-pattern that appears onscreen when you first turn them on, or when they finally break. It’s just like that, but made huge, real, and three-dimensional, eating the whole world around her: the trash and the crater and the sky and her hands, a never-ending dust cloud. Infinite fucking detail.