Muriel gray is a writer, broadcaster and journalist, as well as being the joint managing director of one of Britain’s biggest and most successful independent film and television companies, Ideal World Productions, responsible for such popular series as
As a presenter, she has hosted such TV shows as
Along with a non-fiction book about mountaineering,
‘I first became interested in the desert landscapes of huge landfill sites,’ recalls Gray, ‘when my television company shot a film that featured one in Glasgow, and met the real man with hawks employed to keep away seagulls. (Not remotely like the seedy figure in my fiction, I hasten to add.) A few weeks later I saw a rubbish-collection truck sporting a figure sitting up front in the cab that had been made out of refuse by the bin men who crewed it. It was horrific. It was meant to be funny, but the effect of its piecemeal construction was chilling. That was the start of not only “Shite Hawks”, but also my novel
‘I’m interested in how society is childishly desperate to conceal and mask everything we break, use and discard and think of as ugly, and there is a subtext in “Shite Hawks” that suggests how that also applies to people.’
* * * *
I hate the way Spanner watches me when I eat. It’s fucking unnatural. It’s not like he’s looking at me. It’s like he follows the food from the moment it leaves the plastic bag, and keeps his eyes on it as it travels the last few inches into my mouth. And all the time, he’s holding his own sandwich like it isn’t really food at all, but some synthetic approximation of the real thing, the thing that I have and he doesn’t. It bugs the fucking tits right off me.
‘What the fuck are you lookin’ at, you retard?’
Spanner moves his eyes from the motion of the concealed food in my cheeks to my eyes, and affects the look of a scolded child. ‘Aw, hey, there’s no call for that now. No call for that at all.’
Belcher looks up from behind his tabloid and shoots me a look. ‘Mind your language, ye wee cunt.’
He sees no humour in that, and the idle line of latent violence in his eyes tells me that even if I do, now is not the time to display it. I glare back at Spanner whose stare is fixed back on my hand, the one with the remains of the cheese sandwich in it, and I turn in disgust to look out the window of the Portakabin. I have to wipe an arc in the condensation to see out. It drips all day from the bloody Calor gas fire Belcher keeps on, summer or winter, but through the smear I can make out a figure.
It’s not like the hawk guy to be late for his lunch break. That fat moron’s as lazy as a fucking woman. But here he comes, ten minutes into the break and only just appearing over the last mound of steaming rubbish, his scabby hooded bird swaying on his wrist, trying blindly to compensate its balance for the bobbing and stumbling gait of its master.
‘Door,’ is the only greeting he gets from Belcher as he enters, and he shuts it behind him obediently.
I watch as he fetches out the stupid wee folding perch he keeps in the pocket of his donkey jacket, erects it on the table, and transfers the bird from his leather glove onto the four-inch piece of dowelling. It obliges him by dropping a viscous brown and white marbled shit on the table.
‘Aw, Jesus wept, man. We’re eatin’ here.’ Spanner has taken his eyes off my moving jaw long enough to regard the slug-shaped dropping only inches from his Tupperware box of sandwiches.
‘It’s nature. What d’ye want him do? Go to the fuckin’ bog an’ wash his hands?’
Belcher looks up again. The motion promotes an instant and respectful silence. ‘See anyone?’
The hawk guy looks at each of us turn. ‘Naw.’
I look out the steamy window again, this time aware that my heart is increasing its pace.
‘Naebody,’ qualifies the hawk guy, as though we misunderstood him the first time.
The Portakabin is right in the middle of the vast toxic plain of the landfill, and today, as most days, the grey Scottish sky can barely distinguish a horizon against the near-colourless piles of waste. I suppose in reality, if you look closely, there’s plenty of colour in the piles. Mostly primary colours. But it’s funny how when you put them all together like that it just becomes the hue of mud. Sickly, diseased, reeking mud. Only the hooked dinosaur arm of Spanner’s JCB breaks the monotony of these man-made rolling hills, abandoned as it is in a frozen predatory pose to the call of lunch. I stare at it for the visual relief it provides, and when Belcher speaks I can barely force myself to turn back towards the room. Of course I do. It wouldn’t be smart not to.
The hawk guy shakes his head. ‘They sealed up the gap in the fence. Wee cunts cannae get through any mair.’
Belcher looks to Spanner. Tension beats in the air like a pulse.
For a minute we all think Belcher is going to let it pass. He sits back and folds the paper in front of him, examining the walls of the cabin like he’s just noticed it. Instinctively I do the same. I let my eyes wander over his gallery. A ceramic plate with transfer pictures of Corfu around the circumference supports clock hands that have long since ceased to turn. Next to it a life-size plastic vacuum-moulded head of a Vegas Elvis grins down at all four of us like we were stage-side-table guests, and beneath, the Sellotape holding up a silk pennant from Oban is losing the battle to gravity as the red tassels droop and fold back, obscuring the ‘n’.
But of course he’s not looking at all that stuff. He’s looking at that fucking doll, Blutacked to the wall, its feet resting on a little souvenir Swiss wooden shelf specially mounted there for the purpose. I glance at Spanner, who’s also looking at it, and I lower my eyes.
‘I telt ye to open it up, Spanner.’ Belcher looks back lazily at the transfixed man. ‘I believe I telt ye last week.’
Spanner opens his mouth, then closes it again. One long wisp of oily grey hair that he combs across and that adheres to his bald pate shifts from its base and falls across his shiny face. He pushes it back with familiar attention. ‘Ah did.’
He’s lying so nakedly, even the hawk guy looks away.
‘Someone from the estate must’ve fixed it again since.’
We all know it’s a lie. Especially me. I look steadily at Spanner to try and hide that.
There hasn’t been a stranger on the landfill for over three weeks. Not a kid looking for interesting discarded treasure, not a junky or wino, not even the illegal dumpers who case the joint after the gates close. No one. Mind, there’s nothing strange about that. There’s no seagulls either. And that’s no thanks to the fucking hawk guy who’s getting paid a fortune to keep these non-existent gulls off the site with his scabby budgie. I sneaked a look at his invoice on Belcher’s desk one day. ‘East Glasgow Hawks’ it said at the top of the paper.
And then EGH claimed to be owed nearly two hundred fucking pounds a week, just to keep that lazy bastard’s mangy pet flying around all day pretending to keep off imaginary flying vermin. Spanner says the guy’s got a contract at the airport too. Must be coining it in, the fat shite. And the worst of it is, the gulls wouldn’t come here any more even if you were pumping fish out your arse. They wouldn’t be so daft.
The rats went months ago. That leaves us. Only us.
I force myself to look back up at the doll again. Belcher’s had it up there now for three days. That means The Rising is almost here. Like, really really almost here. He wouldn’t dare have it out so long in case one of the Council suits dropped by and happened to ask what the fuck it was. So it must be almost now. Shit. Almost time, and no strangers. I can’t help wondering what the mad cunt’s plan is. You can’t tell by looking at Belcher. You can’t tell anything very much. So I look at the doll.
This is only the third time I’ve seen it, since I’m last in. Only been on the site sixteen months. Been to college, blew out, landed here, and it took me at least three months to murder my bloody vocabulary so they’d even talk to me, the under-educated thick bastards. So now I can talk in words of one syllable, or if it’s Spanner I’m talking to, less. But I fit in now. I fit in fine. Only seen two Risings, and I can’t get the last one out my head when I stare at that thing.
At least the doll can’t stare back, on account of having no eyes. The head is a bleached rat’s skull, delicate, nearly beautiful. It sits on top of a leather body, attached to it by a separate strip of leather that goes over the top of the skull almost like a World War Two flying helmet.
And then that obscene fucking body dangles below it. I can’t even bring myself to think about who might have made the thing, what pair of hands held it and stitched it into that shape, but the thought of the maker is worse than the finished work. I used to wonder if Belcher had done it, but one look at his massive chapped hands would reassure you that those fingers would never be capable of any kind of craftsmanship. He can barely make a roll-up, and his fingers are so fat it’s all he can do to force his forefinger up a nostril to pick the snotter out that ugly nose. Somehow that brings me comfort. No matter how repulsive it is, the doll is a work of art, but the thought that its maker could be in this room would give me the dry boke.
Its upper body has two thin arms dangling from it, the hands — or claws, I can’t work out which — represented by tiny razor-sharp shards of tin cut meticulously from old cans. On the torso are two half-filled pendulous breasts, the nipples made from the ends of condoms, filled with God knows what, that give them a pink fleshy appearance. Hanging below is its distended belly. Maybe it’s supposed to be pregnant, maybe not. But there’s a slit up it leaving an empty oval chamber, about an inch in diameter, that’s blackened and hardened inside like the interior of a bad walnut shell.
Just below is a two-inch-long thick, wrinkled cock.
The legs that try and straddle the massive swollen organ are stick-thin again, and end with the same metal claws; and because they bandy out like an old guy with rickets, those tin claws make the doll’s bottom half look reptilian.
Belcher is looking at me now. I felt his gaze shift to my face as tangibly as if he’d stroked me. I look at the doll for a few beats more, resume chewing my sandwich, then try to look away casually.
He’ll have a plan. We all trust that he knows what he’s doing. The hawk guy makes a wee kind of chucking noise to his bird and strokes its tiny head with a finger, in a kind of affirmation that everything’s going to be okay.
But I don’t know. It feels different this time. I know I’ve done wrong but Belcher can’t possibly know that. I’m just going to sit it out. The cheese in my mouth tastes like wax. I swallow.
‘What about you?’
I blink, then swallow again. ‘What?’
He waits. Not honouring my reply with one of his own. Spanner has moved his eyes to my face. The hawk guy is still fingering his fucking bird. I take the back of my hand over my mouth. ‘Same, Mr Belcher. Not a soul.’
This time, Belcher gives a slight nod. He picks up his paper again, turns two pages, then folds it in half, in half again, and starts to read the fat origamied rectangle of newsprint as though he had never spoken.
No one breaks the silence. Not even the hawk, and that wee bastard can suddenly give an ear-piercing shriek when you least expect it. Even it senses Belcher’s displeasure. We know him too well to think it’s finished.
‘Sun sets at six-fourteen. Meet at the beds at six.’ He smoothes the paper, still squinting at the type. ‘An’ when ah say six, ah mean six, you dozy cunts.’
* * * *
I’ve been driving the dumper all week. I like it fine. Although it’s Spanner who fills me up with his digger, I don’t have to see or talk to the stupid bastard. We’re safe in our respective cabs, the only communication a wave of a hand from a window or a flash of headlights. And this afternoon all I have to do is think about The Rising.
I’m not thinking about what Belcher has in mind. I’m thinking what we all might get this time. I never thought it would work the first go. And I still don’t know if it did, but it felt like it did. And I suppose I need to believe that it did. Yes, I really do.
I wanted that trail bike and I got that trail bike. Maybe it wasn’t quite the way I thought, but I still got it. It was in the auction, the one I saw, sitting up high on its pink shocks the way an Arab racehorse stands on tiptoe before a gallop. I wanted it so badly, and even more badly when it didn’t reach the reserve price and it got wheeled away. And then the one I got, just exactly like the one in the auction, was on the site, a few days after The Rising. Just left there, paint as good as new, even sporting two day-glo mudguards I hadn’t bargained for. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t the exact same one. And so the fuck what that it had no back tyre and the carburettor was shot? It only took me sixty quid to fix, and that was several hundred notes short of what I’d have needed to buy the thing proper.
See, we all want things. Spanner wanted that woman from his estate. Christ knows why. What a dog. Dyed hair, three kids by three different guys, and her tits nearly down at her ankles. And even though she made Mother Teresa look like a supermodel she wouldn’t spit on Spanner if he was on fire. But he wanted her. And one week after The Rising, he told me as we shovelled, that he was getting pissed with her and shagging her from behind in that pit of a flat she has above the shops. You see, that can’t be coincidence, can it? I don’t know what the hawk guy wants and I don’t care. He gets enough for fucking nothing just by chucking that bird around.
But we all know what Belcher wants, and it worries me that it’s too big. He’s not going to get it. The worst of it is, the thing that really eats me up if I’m being honest, is that I think he’ll keep on going, pulling any stunt he can, because he believes that one day his undoable thing will be done.
I saw his face one afternoon and that told me a lot. A lot I didn’t want to know. He brought her in the car to the Portakabin on one of his days off, because he was on his way somewhere else. He must have forgotten something important — normally he’d never have done it.
The engine was still running and Belcher was inside the cabin, but I stopped and looked in the back of the car as I passed. I knew better than to come in because then he’d have known I’d seen her and I know he hates that. It’s an old Ford Mondeo, and it’s shite. There’s rust bleeding all along the underside of the driver’s door that you just know creeps right into the chassis where you can’t see it, and you can hear that the engine’s fucked even when it’s idling. You see, that’s what he should be asking for. A new car. I just think he’d get it. That The Rising could get him it. But like I said, it’s not enough.
She’s about fourteen, his daughter. She was strapped into what looked like a giant child-seat in the back, except it had kind of a headrest thing on either side of her temples with metal arms to position them like an anglepoise lamp. Her face was turned, looking out the window, although it was obvious she couldn’t look at anything, the way her eyes were pointing in different directions and darting around like she was following two different shoals of fast fish. A long thread of foamy spittle hung from her bottom lip and stuck to her chest like a suspension bridge, and on that barrelled chest two thin arms rested, terminating in the clawed spastic hands that seemed frozen in a desire to tear at her own scrawny throat.
Then I glanced up at the Portakabin window and I saw him looking at me.
His face was a mixture of shame and anger, and much worse, a longing that was almost primeval in intensity. I backed away and he never mentioned I’d even been there. But I couldn’t get his face out of my head.
What does he think? Does he think that after fourteen years she’ll just get up out of that padded contraption and walk? That she’ll open her slack twisted mouth and suddenly say ‘Daddy’? That she’ll untangle her misshapen wasted body and join the other teenagers on the street in choosing clothes, in laughing and drinking and living and shagging boys, and one day even make him a grandfather? It’s too much. Way too much.
It’s why I closed up that fence. His face. That empty longing. The knowledge that he’d do anything.
I didn’t see the first guy. At the first Rising, I mean. 1 knew who he was, though. A good choice. They’re all scum, that family of builders that always try and dump when we’re on night shift. They used to drop him off by car at the gate. Didn’t park, you see, so the nightwatchman or the cops who pass regularly couldn’t get a licence plate. And then he’d come in and scout about, choose the site, then scarper with the details for the truck to follow in the days after. You see, we change the main pit every few days. Move it around. You have to know where we’re burying. Fly bastards. Don’t know where they picked him up again, but no car meant we could never spot him.
So they never knew where he went, you see. And when the cops came round, we’d never seen him. Like I say, that was the truth for me anyhow. I genuinely never saw him. Just where he was taken, and of course the bit of him that Belcher has to put in the doll’s slit belly. Looked like the tip of a finger. Maybe not. I could be wrong. It was the tip of something, though.
But I saw the second guy. And all I can say is that fucking junkie was better off wherever he is now than walking the earth with decent people. Junkies make me boke. I can barely look at their sallow sunken faces in the pub where I drink without wanting to walk up and punch their fucking lights out.
So I watched, and I nearly saw it Rise before I had to look away, but I wasn’t shamed that it took the bastard and that I’d helped this time. Those scumbags rob old ladies just to feed their veins. True. I was more shamed I didn’t see what came for him. Because I was afraid. Anyway, that was when I got my bike.
But kids. I don’t know. I just don’t think so. I’ve watched them, the dirty underfed neglected little shits, pissing around on the heaps of rubbish by the fence in their shiny chain-store sports wear, and I could see what Belcher meant. But then you’d chase them, and behind those pinched wee masks of adult defiance that called you things you didn’t know were in the English language, there were still glimpses of something like children. So I closed up the fence.
I took care, of course, to climb over and do it from the other side, so it’d look like one of those hacket hard-faced ‘mothers’ from the estate had done it, the ones with necks so fat their thin-gold-chained crucifixes look as though they’re choking them to death, instead of protecting their immortal souls. Belcher’ll never know it was me.
Course, that’s left us without a stranger for this time, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s the one that really wants something. He’ll find a way.
I let myself think about what I want this time and there’s no contest. In fact I don’t want it, I need it.
Spanner interrupts my dreaming by missing the back of the truck by ten miles, and piles of shit spill over the edge and spew around my cab.
‘You blind, you fucking maniac?’
He can’t hear me. But I shout anyway, and drive off half full just to bug him. On my way to where this pile of crap needs to be I pass the beds, the mechanically smoothed runways on top of the deepest piles of rubbish that Belcher named, where we’ll be meeting in half an hour, and I think about it again.
It’s a Cosworth. Sex and power. Four doors, black, with a spoiler and alloy wheels. Gerry Kelly, the smooth fucker who works at the bookie’s, is selling it for near on seven grand, and never in a million years can I get my hands on that kind of cash. But I want it. And you see, a thing like that can’t just turn up on the site. Cars don’t get dumped on the site. So it’ll be interesting to see how I manage to get it. That is, if The Rising really does work. Maybe I want to know for sure that it works more than I actually want the car. Maybe.
I think about it some more as I dump the quarter-load that the shit-for-brains Spanner has tossed into the back and then I drive back slowly, imagining who I could shag in the back seat of that car and where we could go and how fast.
And before I know what time it is I see the hawk guy and Belcher making their way to the beds, and I pull up the dumper beside Spanner’s digger, parked at an angle that’ll force him to do a difficult reverse, and go and get ready to join them.
Of course there’s no sunset. This is Glasgow. The grey sky just turns a darker grey, then the street lights of the city come on and stain it a sickly orange. That’s how it works. But if Belcher says it’s six-fourteen when the invisible sun pegs out and heads west, then it must be right. The air is thick with methane, so much tonight you can hardly breathe. That happens when the air is still, and even after sixteen months I sometimes think I won’t be able to take it. But you do. You get used to anything.
Belcher is holding the doll casually, letting its legs hang from his square fist the way a toddler would take a teddy to bed, and he stops walking at some unspecified spot and waits. Spanner and the hawk guy stand on either side of him but a step behind, and so when I reach them, I choose the hawk guy’s side and do the same. It’s nearly dark now, but the halogens that ring the perimeter fence are picking us out and lighting up the beds like a football pitch. The shadows are so harsh that the ragged skin of the rubbish almost looks comforting in comparison.
Although it’s been compacted — inexpertly, by Spanner, obviously — you can still make out the variety of human debris that makes up this unnatural surface. Cartons and plastic containers, broken bread crates, bits of abandoned machines, handles, telephone handsets, rotting vegetables, dried coffee grounds, ripped mattresses. It doesn’t ever do to look too closely. It’s best to treat it all like it was one thing. The one big thing that humanity has decided it doesn’t want any more. The thing that’s been eaten and shat on and torn up and soiled, and needs to be buried and covered by people like us, kept well out of sight.
I think I can feel something already under my feet, although to tell the truth it might just be my excitement. I never could wait for things.
The hawk guy hasn’t got his hawk. I notice this and it’s strange. It’s also strange there isn’t a stranger. But I don’t make the rules, and I don’t even know the rules. Maybe it’s not always necessary. I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed. I just know that whatever happens I’m going to watch all the way this time. Not chicken out. Keep looking until it comes and goes.
We wait in silence, hands held in front like we were at church, and then Belcher rubs his face with the hand not holding the doll. ‘Ah fuckin’ hate it when you wee cunts mess me about.’
He says this so quietly and wearily I wonder if he’s talking to himself, or even to the doll. But he stops mashing his face and turns to look directly at me. My head feels hot, and I can start to hear my pulse beating in my ears, the way you can sometimes when you’re pissed and your pillow’s too hard. I stay silent. There might be a mistake. I might be misreading him. The other two are looking at their feet. I wonder if I should also lower my eyes, but Belcher’s gaze is too intense.
‘Ah mean, whit the fuck was a’ that aboot? Ye think anybody would miss wan o’ the wee bastards? Eh?’
I know, and he knows I know that he’s referring to the fence. I try and hold his gaze.
‘Well, do ye?’
He’s nearly shouting. That’s not like him. I have to answer. I start with a shrug. ‘Just thought there’d be a fuss, Mr Belcher. You know, kids an’ that. The cops. You know. The mothers.’
He steps right up to me and I can feel his breath on my face. His voice drops again. ‘Those fat whores dinnae even know how many fuckin’ kids they’ve got. Even if ye could drag them oot the pub long enough tae line them up and show them, there’s no tellin’ they’d recognize them.’
He closes his mouth and his back teeth grind together and make his jaw move. He speaks next in a near-whisper.
‘Don’t know the meanin’ o’ the fuckin’ word “parent”.’
When he says this his voice breaks on the word ‘parent’ and I use my embarrassment as a decent excuse to lower my gaze. This disgusting personal display somewhere between sentimentality and rage is making me more nervous than when he’s just plain mad. I’m praying he’ll stop it and go back to being a one-word fucker. Maybe the prayer works. He’s calming down, the hardness back in his voice when he speaks again. All trace of the break healed. ‘Ah watched ye close up the fence. You stupid wee arse-wipe.’
I think about lying and then he’s saying something chilling. ‘Ye were last in.’
As I look quickly back up again three things happen.
Belcher closes his eyes and nods, like he’s fallen asleep. Spanner and the hawk guy grab me by each arm, Spanner surprisingly strong for such a crap wee guy.
Then Belcher takes out his knife and slices the top of my left ear off.
I don’t even cry out with the pain. I just open my mouth as wide as my jaw will allow and nothing comes out. Just a kind of gasp. Because I can feel it coming. The ground is moving.
I can’t watch as Belcher puts the bit of ear in that oval slit and tosses the doll in front him. I can’t watch because I’m looking at the undulating hump in the beds that’s growing and changing and coming nearer.
The smell of methane is so strong now that a spark would ignite the whole site, and I gag and cough, trying to get my breath and my voice back.
I know stuff now. Here’s what I know.
It makes itself. It just fucking makes itself out of whatever it can find. There’s two dead dogs’ heads melted together to make a thing with three eyes and what looks like all jaws and rotted teeth. The body’s a mess of butcher’s bones, bottle glass, bits of cat, newspaper and broken tiles. But the arms. Oh God, the arms. So much metal. And all ending in blades of tin and steel and rusted pointed broken industrial shrapnel, so that when the first pain comes it’s mixed with a sharp almost fruity tang of oxidizing metal. It works fast but clumsily, like a newborn animal, and I know that we’re helping make it even as it gets bigger.
And all I can think of, as I sink to my knees and drool on the ground in the pool of my own hot piss, is his daughter drooling the same way in her bed, and how this isn’t going to make it better.
If I could ever talk again, if the ragged hole in my throat would close and stop pumping blood on the milk cartons and broken paperbacks, I would tell the stupid cunt again and again.
Shout it. Scream it.
It isn’t going to make it better.