Pip Adam won the country’s biggest fiction prize for her novel The New Animals. Her latest, Nothing to See, releases tomorrow.
Books editor Catherine Woulfe: We’ll have a full review of Nothing to See in the next week or so. For now, know that it’s wildly good – a levelling-up from The New Animals, even. We couldn’t resist this extract as a placeholder. The blurb says the novel is “about life in the era of surveillance capitalism”, which is true, but it’s also a fiery study in class and addiction and the boring exhausting grind of building a splintered life into something whole. It is a rejoinder to pervasive bootstrap takes on poverty, such as “why don’t you just grow your own veges?” and “it’s super easy to whip up a meal from a can of tomatoes; here, have seven”.
In this scene, destitute flatmates, rape survivors and recovering alcoholics Greta, Peggy and Dell are preparing a plate for an AA group picnic, and learning that there’s culinary life beyond grated-carrot sandwiches.
It was a curse of being sober. Everywhere you went you had to bring a plate. Alcoholics loved food. Greta and Peggy brought chips. Dell brought bread. They were vegetarian, so it usually meant they ate chips sandwiched between slices of bread at the potluck meals.
“We could make a quiche,” Greta said, like she was the bravest person on the planet.
“Really?” Dell said, then, “How the fuck do you make a quiche?” Dell had eaten them before, they all had, but they thought they were made in some special quiche factory and only sold to bakeries.
“We saw it in the Alison Holst book,” Peggy said. She went and got it from the kitchen.
The cover was hideous. Some sort of stoneware or aluminium bowl held a terrifying collection of raw things – star anise sat on top of cashews, which nestled against kale sprouting out of an ear of wheat. There were raw mushrooms, and slices of pale cheese, raw pasta, spring onions – someone had taken a lot of time arranging the food. It made them all sick. The mix of sweet (grapes, carrots) with raw and just-picked-from-the-ground. But by far the most awful thing was the single, whole, raw Brussels sprout next to quarter of a boiled egg. “All the fart-smelling things,” Dell had said the night they’d been given the book. It was a long Wednesday night. None of them could sleep and they’d sat in the lounge not saying anything, but the book had been on the coffee table because they”d just been given it and then Greta said, “Fuck. That cover” – and they dived in. Fuck. The cover. Dell made gagging noises that started off sounding like a joke but then they all felt the wheat catch in their throats and smelt the cheese and farts, and started saying “Stop. Stop” and “Why would you put that on the front of a cookbook?”
Now Peggy put the book on the bench and Greta looked up the index.
“Oh,” Greta said.
“What?” the other two said.
“Something’s up with the crust.”
“Do quiches have crusts?” Dell said.
“It’s called ‘self-crusting’,” Greta said.
“Oh,” Dell said.
“All the better,” Peggy said.
“Surely,” Dell said.
“Here it is.” Greta found the page. “Self-crusting Potato and Vegetable Quiche.”
They fell silent and read.
“What’s a flan tin?”
“I bet there’s one at work,” Greta said. There were always tins and things. People brought cooking stuff in all the time. “We could ask?” The person with the keys must know which tin would work for a self-crusting quiche.
“How will we keep it hot?”
“I think we can cook it and then take it to the picnic cold.”
“Or wrap it in tin foil.”
“We should try and make one before Saturday to make sure it works.”
Someone looked at their watch. There was a supermarket up the end of the long road they lived on. They’d started getting their bread and hummus and carrots there because Diane explained it was cheaper than the dairy. It was the sort of place you went for cigarettes, but all of them had given up smoking at treatment, because if you’re going to have several horrible detoxes you might as well have them all at once. The supermarket was small, but they thought it might have the things in the recipe. They could easily walk there in 15 minutes.
“How much will it be?” They were already putting their jackets and shoes on – it was already decided. But they didn’t have much money.
“I think we should take the cookbook,” Greta said. “So we don’t buy more of anything than we need.”
Everyone agreed. It was genius. They all turned out their pockets and wallets. Between them they had about eight dollars and there was seven in the jar for flat expenses, like toilet paper. They convinced themselves it would be enough, but they had no idea.
“If we get there and it’s not enough we’ll just get what we can – the things that’ll keep – and then get more tomorrow.” No one wanted to ask how they would have more money tomorrow, because the quiche was the most exciting thing that had happened in ages. Peggy and Greta were thinking if it wasn’t enough they could probably find someone to sleep with for money tomorrow after work to get the money for the rest of the quiche ingredients.
The night was big. Big sky. Everything was built low around where they lived and the sky was always so big. There were no hills to box them in until the huge hills way in the distance, which seemed to make the sky even bigger. Peggy and Greta always walked with their hands in their pockets. Dell swung her arms a bit more, but they all walked with their heads down. It was dark. Someone honked as they sped past. None of them looked up. The walk was flat and Dell was carrying a backpack to put all the stuff in and the book. They needed 1 large onion – chopped, 2 garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp butter, 3 eggs, 3⁄4 tsp salt, 1 cup milk, 1⁄2 cup self-raising flour, 2 cooked potatoes, 1 cup of drained cooked asparagus or spinach, or mushrooms or broccoli, and 1 cup of grated Tasty cheese. They had none of it. Dell was stealing tea and coffee from her work, and milk powder and sugar in sachets from the café at the mall. Sometimes she didn’t have time for a cup of coffee at work so it seemed fine to take it home – the cup of coffee she didn’t have at work.
“We’ve got the butter,” Greta said suddenly. Into the silence of them walking and the dark of the night and the big, big sky. The others nodded.
“It’s only a tablespoon of butter.”
The store was bright compared with outside. Did they need a trolley, or maybe a basket? Everything was cheaper than they thought it would be and in the end they had enough money for a new flan dish “with a solid (not push-out) base” and they still had most of their money.
“Cooking is cheap,” Dell said.
They paid and walked home. The walk and their success at the supermarket made them feel more awake rather than sleepier. On the way home they talked and talked. Greta held the flan tin above her head. Every now and then they’d get a bit of a run on.
“We’ll never need to buy salt again,” Peggy said, holding up the huge container they’d bought. “We’ll be splitting it up between us at our 50th birthdays when we finally have enough money to move into our own places.” They laughed and then fell silent. The future wasn’t any of their business, and where was Heidi and why wasn’t she here, with Dell?
At home they started getting everything together. They only had breakfast bowls so they made the mixture in three parts. Dell was good at converting everything into thirds. They often had 30% sales at her work. They turned on the oven. They hadn’t used the oven except for making toasted cheese, but it smelt OK. The people before them must have cleaned it pretty well. They didn’t have a cheese grater so Greta used a butter knife to cut up the cheese very small and then not so small as she lost interest in the task. Finally, it was time to put the mixture into the flan dish. It looked good. Then they put it in the oven and turned the light on and took turns looking at it through the oven door. It bubbled and shifted, and a few times they thought they’d fucked it up. They talked excitedly about what else they could make. They took turns looking through the cookbook. There were recipes for bread – could they make bread? It seemed impossible. They’d buy a grater. Maybe they could catch a taxi to the big supermarket across town and buy other stuff. Maybe they could meal-plan? Peggy had seen a magazine article about it.
The time was up. Dell wodged a couple of tea towels into her hands so she wouldn’t burn herself and she lifted the quiche out and it looked amazing.
“Is it cooked in the centre?” It was cooked in the centre.
They looked at it for a moment. It was late.
“It’d be nice for breakfast.”
But they decided to eat it now. While it was warm.
Nothing to See by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30) is available from Unity Books.