Short story ‘Diving’ by Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is a writer, designer and photographer living in west Auckland. Hannah describes Northland as a second home. “Growing up in South Head, I could have swum to Pouto had my parents allowed it.”

Hannah’s whanau collectively own a home in Whakapirau which they refer to as their ‘Marae’ and her Granddad is buried at the local cemetery up the hill. Half of her cousins hail from Whangarei, and half of her childhood clothes came from the dump at Waiotira (where she also lived as a baby for a bit).

 

 

Foraging was Emma’s favorite thing to do.  Fossicking through clearance bins, finding gems on op shop shelves and rummaging through dated items at the dairy were what brightened her days.  She scouted out the free courses she could apply to her degree (Te Reo Māori) and any free night classes she could apply to life (basic computing, cooking on a budget, introduction to mindfulness – all practical skills to have).

But the best feeling she got came from finding food.  Free food.  Cafe throw-aways, pilfered lemons from unwitting neighbours generous branches.  Discovering whether those random sprouting mushrooms were delicious, magical or poisonous, nicking unwatched bottles from exhibition openings – these were the things that really turned her on.  So when she met Eddie sparks flew.

Eddie had a key to a New World dumpster.  Not just any New World dumpster – the New World dumpster.  The one where those rich 60 hour a week $6 coffee slurping suckers shopped.  A former flatmate of Eddie’s was a manager there and ‘lost’ the key into Eddie’s happy hands.  Why this happened, Emma didn’t know.  And frankly, she really didn’t care.  All that mattered was that he had that key – she almost swooned at the thought of it.  She’d hit paydirt.

The first night she used the magic key they came back with a stack of still frozen ready meals: cordon bleu, cannelloni, beef stroganoff and a rainbow of curries – all still days off their best before date.  But she, as any other frugal foodie knows that meant they were fine.  Manufacturers set those dates on the inner limits of ‘best’ to minimise avoidable complaints and a tainted reputation.  They filled their backpacks and snuck back to her place to fuck on Emma’s manky couch, her freezer packed with gold.

The next night they swept the depths of Em’s new favorite store they found a large chocolate mud cake that had greased its casing from the inside leaving an unsightly smudge.  They freed it from its plastic prison and scoffed until their buttons popped then smeared the sticky remnants over their bodies in a hedonistic frenzy.

There were days where they dined on an assortment of cereals topped with lashings of unpopular toppings and sprinklings of nuts.  Occasionally there were cheese nights – where they hauled home still-cold hard fromage suffering from just a light smattering of mould.  They would compete to construct the most creative toasted sandwich and watch psychedelic films borrowed from the extensive University collection to enhance their cheese fed dreams.   And there were the ‘bread-man’ days.

 

It wasn’t all beer and skittles though.  There were a few times she’d sliced herself on broken glass inside the bin.  She’d torn her skirt climbing out once – but that was a rookie error.  She soon crafted a uniform better suited to the task (jeans, a fitted hoodie and sturdy Docs).  She’d had a crook gut from something or other a couple of times.  But this was just part of the risk that accompanied the pastime.  She thought of it as gut-training.  One day she would be immune to all forms of food poisoning and outlive everyone.

Actually, bad foods soon became part of the fun.  Throwing rancid passata and fetid fish off the side of the overpass turned out to be a laugh.  It meant the less successful missions were not completely in vain.  They could still delight in the splat and smash of glass onto the road below while they chortled hidden in the bushes.  It wasn’t your regular dinner and a movie date, but there were worse ways folk could get their kicks.

Until she met Eddie, Emma had never eaten (almost) fresh figs.  She’d never roasted fennel.  Until this point in time her diet mostly consisted of pies, chips, 2 minute noodles and day old baked goods.  She’d never even eaten miso or shitake mushrooms or peas that didn’t come from the freezer.  Being a full-time student wasn’t exactly lucrative.

In earlier life Emma’s family considered spaghetti bolognaise ‘gourmet’ .  And in their house it was when juxtaposed with the usual fare of sausages and frozen mixed veg.  When she was a kid they’d had to scrimp and save to just survive.  She had learnt what local weeds could stave off the hunger pains (nasturtium, puha, dandelion).  They’d mapped out where easy picking fruit trees grew and exactly when they came into season.  She was adept at looking hungry and sad when the primo lunchboxes opened up.

But in spite of Eddie’s endearing qualities (magical key), eventually her interest began to wane.  The truth was, besides the dumpster adventures they had little in common.  He was always ranting about poverty and sustainability and utilising collectives.  She could never go back to his place because he was currently squatting in an abandoned house – it was just too risky for him.  And he was teetering on the edge of going vegan which was just wrong because beggars could not be choosers.

By now her freezer was filled with gourmet meals, day old ciabatta, semi-squashed muffins and bag upon bag of premium dated soups.  Her cupboards homed countless crunchless cereals and snack foods and dented tins of exotic fruits.  She had gained about five kilos and fat sex just wasn’t cutting it.

So she decided to do the decent thing and call it quits.  And Eddie, with a steadfast metabolism, was fully aware of the magical qualities of that dumpster key.  Truth be told she wasn’t exactly the only chick he’d been taking out the back of New World.  And Emma was a bit of a drag.  She always wanted to go home early when he took her to parties, she didn’t take acid and she’d never heard of Heidegger even though he was completely relevant to her found object installation projects.  She’d basically saved him an awkward conversation.

And even though she had done the right thing, Eddie’s magical key was hard to beat.

So when she’d made her way through the snacks, meals and soups she was really hanging out for the next big thing.  She even considered getting back together with him, but having been broken up for a while now and she thought it might seem a bit ingenuine.  She’d also heard a rumour that the supermarket had started sprinkling broken glass liberally through the bin.  That sometimes they even had the temerity to poke slivers into the soft flesh of loaves of bread.  Fuckers.  Did they not understand this was how some people survived?

Having become acclimatised to having her diet so well supplemented, she had cut her food budget right back.  During the heyday of dumpster times she’d only had to invest in basics – the occasional onion, vegetable oil and sometimes margarine.  She resented the return to having to spend the little extra she got on food.  Every cent she wouldn’t have otherwise spent hurt a little bit more.

So she started collecting vegetable seeds from wherever she could bludge them and planted them in seedling trays she’d grabbed from the swaps bin out front of Kings Plant Barn.  She snuck into the community garden at night and filled little buckets with black earth.  Her water damaged window sills bowed with the weight of the multitude of green sprouts in varying states of growth.  She hadn’t really thought any further ahead than that.  I mean, she could keep some of them in pots on the deck.  But the problem with rentals was that you never knew when you’d have to uproot and leave, so her gardening could never go beyond the pot.

Maybe when the seedlings got bigger she would get a stand at the local Sunday market and make a few bucks selling them.  That would at least fund a few weeks of op shop trips.  Maybe somehow, she would breed the next big superfood and never have to worry about money again.  Not that she knew anything about plant breeding.  Yet.  Maybe she should look at changing her major again?

But the vegetable plan was all a bit slow.  There was no adrenaline in it.  Sure, it was kinda cool when the first little sprouts popped up, but after that, meh.  She started revisiting her old haunts at closing time: Muffin Break, Robert Harris, the coffee shop up the street from the flat but the pickings were slim.  There were a couple of soft touch newbies, but she knew this wouldn’t work long term.  And the rush wasn’t quite the same.

And then Emma had an epiphany.

She spent her entire weeks food budget ($16) on a couple of bottles of bubbly to celebrate.  She drank while she rummaged through her pantry searching for the most inedible, the most unusual, the most explosive residual bin foods.  She filled her back-pack with as much as she could comfortably carry, carefully stacking so as to keep everything intact ensuring there was room for her remaining bottle of Chardon.  She waited until dusk then filled with Dutch courage gapped it to the overbridge.

She didn’t need Eddie or his bullshit talk or his key.  She could be perfectly happy alone and this was the perfect way to say goodbye and move on.  She chugged hard on her bottle.  She didn’t need these things – the pomegranate molasses [hiff/splat/smash], the year ago expired red wine pasta sauce [tinkle], the totally stale cassava crisps which floated down to the motorway below like fat salty feathers.

She drank and she threw and she cackled and she drank.

She didn’t even need university.  She already had an education.  She just wanted the buzz and the thrill and all the free, free things.

She didn’t need any of that shit.  She had a new plan.

She threw each jar with purpose hoping for the screech of brakes, the crunch of twisting metal and people screaming.  Each jar bringing her closer to a 100% government subsidised lifestyle.

 

 

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