Wellington writer Kirsten McDougall’s new novel She’s A Killer is set just slightly in the future – the climate crisis is really biting and with it, inequality. In this excerpt our young protagonist has come into cash and takes it food shopping. (Bonus content: followed by a note from the author.)
The fancy supermarket was just like any other on the outside, an unpromising cold hangar with a tin roof. But there were security guards at the door. They looked me up and down but let me through as soon as three other people had left. As well as guarding against riots, they were there to enforce strict number controls. No one wanted to buy their gourmet produce cheek by jowl. Once inside, the place was a walk-in cornucopia. It smelt different from ordinary supermarkets. People said that the owners were part of a black market, able to stock products that common stores could rarely get hold of. At the entrance, essences of coffee and freshly baked bread, smoked garlic and flaky sea salt met your nose and demanded you fill your trolley. Baskets were stacked with asparagus in three different colours, yams, coconuts, banana shallots, black garlic, chillis with unpronounceable names. There was a whole aisle dedicated to tomatoes and lettuces – cherry, cos, Roma, iceberg, heritage, rocket, bok choy, pompom, endive, radicchio. Then there were the breads of the world. And the meats of the world. All it took was money. Money could buy you edible Eden in compostable packaging.
There were stories about other parts of the world where people were queuing to get a cup of rice. Crop failures due to drought, to old and new brands of pestilence. All my life I’d seen those pictures of malnourished children in aid-funding ads, their wafer-thin wrist bones and distended stomachs. These children weren’t new stories; there were just more of them now than the world could deal with. I blocked their stories, put up stronger filters, scrolled past the ones that slipped into my stream.
Despite the wealthugee situation, the fancy supermarket was still full of food and hot mums in expensive jeans, men in casual suits, tattooed well-groomed people. Joining them now were the personal shoppers of the wealthugees, young people who’d only ever had jobs with short-term contracts, who paid two-thirds of their wages in rent and had been on SSRIs since they were nine. Their grandparents had held up education and social mobility as prizes only 50 years earlier, but now being a PA for a wealthugee family was considered a hot job. Glorified maids and butlers.
The shoppers nursed $11 coffees in bamboo keep cups. They discussed cuts of meat with the butcher, and handed over $100 bills for pieces of sirloin steak without batting an eyelid. Ten-dollar baguettes were angled into the corners of their trollies; $90 bottles of wine wrapped in tissue paper nestled below the baguettes like swaddled babies.
Eggplants, onions and oranges were a decent price, but potatoes were through the roof. It was as if a toddler had gone around pricing stock according to whether they liked it or not. All the absurdly costed items carried an unobtrusive cursive script sign below their per-kilo price tags with ridiculous food narratives. Due to potato blight and supply issues, this product is experiencing a price surge … Due to a new strain of wheat weevil, bread is now a luxury item … Due to suicidal cows, sirloin will cost you a vital organ. It made no sense but no one seemed to mind.
I decided to avoid potatoes and buy rice instead. I’d read that crops in Southern China had failed last season but that rice was still cheaper than the blighted local potatoes. I wondered if Erika would eat pasta, then bought some penne because it was cheap and Erika could eat what she was given. I considered buying meat. Lamb was an OK price, but I didn’t know much about cooking it and didn’t want to learn. In the end I bought a whole chicken for $42 – organically reared by Tony in Levin, said its packaging. I’d never done it, but according to Nick who used to do it all the time, roasting a chicken was easy. I found a $60 bottle of boutique beer and wanted to stab someone in the eye with its luxury cap, so I bought it. I also bought some imported French brie for $36. I could have chosen the $18 New Zealand brie, but this would be the last French brie I’d buy in my lifetime – that’s what I told myself. Bugger the cost. Is that what the other shoppers were thinking? I tried to catch the eye of one or two of them, but they were all consumed with the task in front of them. I considered stuffing a small waxed rectangle of cheddar in my inside jacket pocket but was aware that the assiduous cheese assistants hadn’t let me out of their sight.
I didn’t know what sort of meal the items I was choosing were going to add up to, but the surrounding smells and the packaging of the products held promise. I felt momentarily buoyant, held aloft by the idea that this food would improve my life.
As I moved my trolley around the other shoppers, avoiding eye contact, another feeling in me gathered mass like a storm at sea. I remembered why I never went to the fancy supermarket, even back when Nick and I were together and food wasn’t weirdly priced. What had made me come now? Was it simply that I had $1000 burning a hole in my pocket? Was my conscience actually weaker than I thought? Sociopathic-shopper weak? Was $1000 the threshold at which I could suppress my loathing of this place?
The problem was that I loved and loathed this place. I wanted to rip the end off a fresh baguette and rub it in salty butter. I wanted a giant wedge of runny brie on top. I wanted to eat until I felt the dough and fat forming a glutinous ball in my stomach. And then I wanted to throw it all up and start again. I was the same as all the other shoppers here, moving through the holy land of food souvenirs. Our pantries were shrines, our bodies ruined temples.
I stood stock still by the freshly-pressed-orange-juice guy. I closed my eyes, just like Erika had on my sofa last night. It was possible to meditate in any kind of setting, if you practised enough. The clouds at sea rolled in and lightning cracked.
I inhaled deeply – in and out, in and out – then I opened my mouth and screamed.
Kirsten McDougall writes:
Many people will recognise the fancy supermarket in this scene for the place it is. When I was growing up such supermarkets hadn’t yet been invented in New Zealand, and now there are many. Sheds designed like “farmers’ markets”. A place for the bourgeoisie to buy the very best produce our fair land has to offer. My conflicted feelings about such shops are evident in this scene. My inner socialist would love much tighter monitors and controls on food prices – like they do in France with baguettes. In the last Wellington lockdown, folk were documenting $17 kilo blocks of tasty cheese in their local supermarkets. Seventeen dollars!!
In truth, the supermarket dearest to my heart is Pak’n’Save Kilbirnie. It has wide aisles and an excellent selection, and it’s completely ungentrified. Before the pandemic it used to have “Wacky Wednesday” and “Manager’s Specials”, discount initiatives you will never find at the fancy supermarket. Children run amuck in Pak’n’Save Kilbirnie.
She’s a Killer is set “in the near future” when a massive influx of wealthugees, rich people running from the worst effects of the climate apocalypse, has created havoc in Aotearoa. In the supermarket scene there is no rationale for the crazy price surges and no one really knows if they’re due to genuine pestilence and suicidal cows, or whether it’s just the vendors taking everyone for a ride. I mean, I’d be depressed if I were a cow, but I’ve heard of New Zealand supermarket’s duopoly issue. We all know how much more it costs to fill our trollies these days.
I wrote this novel in 2019 before the pandemic started, imagining a version of life in a few years. But when it came to editing the manuscript last year, after having experienced the first lockdown, details like the security guards limiting shopper entry were suddenly real. It becomes less of a stretch of imagination to see how far prices can go.
The difference between those who can afford the fancy supermarket and those who will never enter its doors, has grown. It continues to grow. My book is about climate change, the havoc it will wreak on our lives, but it’s also about economic disparity, and how we let it happen as if by accident. We can design a way around disparity. It’s called regulation. Perhaps my book is also about why regulation is necessary – for carbon emissions, food prices, housing.
Like the narrator in She’s a Killer, I sort of loathe places like the fancy supermarket but I also want to eat that food. I’m torn like a crusty baguette. Sometimes all I really want is a stinky runny cheese on an artisan cracker and so I go there. I can’t afford to fill my trolley at these places, but appetite is where my socialist principles crumble. But I pay for it, literally and metaphorically. I always leave the fancy supermarket poorer and feeling like a dirty, dirty consumer.
Countdown and Foodstuffs have come under pressure from the Commerce Commission for not being competitive enough. (Again, regulation would help here.) Price surges aren’t only due to shortages or sudden storms. And Tony from Levin with his organically-reared chicken is often not the winner in this equation. Nor is the consumer, though it’s harder to feel sorry for the people who can afford to do their weekly shop at the fancy supermarket. It’s the families living in poverty who suffer the most in the race for greater profits. It’s them bearing the brunt of the duopoly, and those who cling onto the middle class by their bare teeth are not far behind. I hate that we allow people to starve while others can buy $20 cheeses. My novel only pushes the dial out a little; “a few years from now”. I put heaps of jokes in the book to keep the reader entertained, but She’s a Killer is also a warning.
If you ever see me screaming outside a fancy supermarket, you’ll know why. If you feel the same, I invite you to join me. Having a bit of a scream can be cathartic.
McDougall will appear at Verb Wellington next weekend, in conversation with Sue Orr about social realism and politics in their latest books. Chaired by Kiran Dass.
She’s A Killer comes extremely highly recommended by The Spinoff; read our short review here.