Lifting by Damien Wilkins (Victoria University Press, 2016), 202 pp., $30
Cutty’s department store, oldest department store in the country, icon of Wellington city, epitome of tradition, class, gentility, a bygone age, is – shock, gasp – closing. It’s just a shop, you may well think, but no, for Wellington where this novel is set, Cutty’s is an institution, part of the city’s landscape, a destination, almost a hallowed space. For those who work there, many of whom have been there for many, many years, the closure in two short months is a catastrophe. This is the story of what happens when the rug is quite literally pulled out from under those who work at Cutty’s, those who take pride and joy in the work they do and in their place of work.
It is more than obvious that the fictional Cutty’s is based on the factual Kirkaldie and Stains that closed in 2016 after 153 years in business. Like the author, I too grew up in Lower Hutt/Wellington, and have very strong childhood memories of making school holiday visits to the city and going to the big three department stores – DIC, James Smiths and, the best of the lot, Kirks. My mother greeted by the smartly attired doorman, stepping with great trepidation onto the old narrow escalators, a real live lift attendant, afternoon tea with my gran. Then as a student and lowly paid worker in the 1980s, after all the store revamps, daring to tread the great spiral staircase with its gold handrails, the grand piano in the middle of it all, the very posh and beautifully groomed sales people intimidating the daylights out of me as I carefully and delicately trawled my way through the overpriced racks and avoided the even scarier make-up counters. I remember taking my small daughters to the toy department – beautiful toys – vastly more sophisticated and delightful to walk into than the endless shelves at the Warehouse. No matter what my age and stage in life, it was always a treat to go to Kirks.
Amy is 34 years old, a relative newbie to Cutty’s service with only four years’ employment under her belt. She is a store detective, one of maybe four other Ds, and under the supervision of Trevor, chief of security. She really likes her job, likes where she works, is probably not as vigilant in her pursuit of shoplifters as perhaps the management would expect her to be, but still manages to pull in her fair share of POIs – Persons of Interest. She is married to Steve, they have just had their first child, and Amy has recently returned to work. They live in what I am guessing is around the top of Newtown/Melrose in Wellington, as she is close enough to walk to her mother’s place in Kilbirnie. Her mother, like Cutty’s, is also in decline, suffering from the chronic lung condition pulmonary fibrosis. There is plenty going on in Amy’s life then, and the added stress of losing her place of employment and her job is piling on the pressure, with no way to stop the looming crisis.
But she is not the only one. Many of Amy’s co-workers feature in the closing weeks of the store’s life – Billy in Luggage, blind Donal who plays the piano, his partner Timothy who does window dressing, twins Bert and Dougie who share the role of doorman and spiral spectacularly out of control, Rupert in Menswear, Pamela the Cosmetic Floor manager, Kent in Hardware and finally Gertrude Cutty, the last surviving Cutty family member now in her nineties who just cannot accept that her reason for living is shutting its doors. As with Amy, we follow how they cope and deal with the closure, their search for new jobs, their reassessing of their lives.
And the customers themselves, who have been coming to Cutty’s their entire lives, what about them?
The story opens with Amy sitting in an interview room at the local police station. We don’t know why she is there, what has happened, who else is being interviewed; all we know is that it is in some way related to the closure of the store. She is ambivalent about being there, not sure where things went wrong that resulted in her being in the interview room. Much of the dialogue between her and the two police officers seems to revolve around her work in following and apprehending shoplifters. It does become apparent fairly quickly that Amy herself has an alarming past: is this why she is being interviewed?
In her youth she was quite the opposite to the wife/mother, reliable and valued employee, best daughter and all-round good citizen role that she is currently inhabiting. She was once part of a women-only activist gang, going around in the darkness committing some quite nefarious deeds against property and livelihoods. And then there is the huge irony of a guard dog being deliberately killed by one of the activists during a raid. Wonder what PETA and SAFE would say about that. I did find it a little strange that Amy had undergone some sort of monumental shift along the political doctrine spectrum – from destroying businesses to working in the last bastion of traditionalism in Wellington. I am not sure if people change to such an extent and so rapidly.
Even though Amy moves on quite quickly from this destructive lifestyle – she gains a criminal conviction as a permanent reminder of her deeds, becomes a paramedic and finally a Cutty’s store detective – her compassion for those less fortunate than her does stay. It is just that now her attention has shifted from caged pigs and chickens to the POIs she deals with in her work life – ‘the needy, greedy or seedy’, as defined in Cutty’s security manuals. She will be forever grateful to Trevor for employing her despite her slightly dodgy past; these two in a way forming their own little team that does not ‘deal’ to every single shoplifter they come across. Is this why she is being interviewed? Has she not been vigilant enough in her duties, letting people slip through the shoplifter net? It would seem she has a social conscience. Is this really what Cutty’s is looking for in its employees?
But with only two months left till closure it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. As the weeks and days pass, standards in the shop slip. With just ten days to go, stock has been strenuously gone through; items moved from one department to another by customers are not put back at the end of the day; the grand piano has had its last play and is now covered up; the statue of Mercury at the entrance to the store has mysteriously disappeared, as have the fake trees; and some staff have already moved onto other places, jobs. The chaos in Cutty’s directly reflects the chaos in the lives of the staff. Amy is also in chaos: she has had a job interview but is torn between wanting to be with her baby and ill mother, and the family’s need for money with a falling down house and ongoing uncertainty over Steve’s job. Tensions arise between her and Steve.
So, the end comes, the event that leads to Amy being interviewed by the police. There will always be a perpetual mystery around this final act – was it deliberate, was it accidental, or was it in the hands of a third party, conspiring to get back at Cutty’s management in some way? Of course, in the end it doesn’t matter, it is just a shop after all, and as we know new shops always arise from the ashes, and life really does go on – as it does for Amy. The doors close, and new ones open.
Aside from this being a really good book, well written, great characters, being taken down unexpected pathways and shop aisles, what I found endlessly fascinating was the very human condition of shoplifting. According to Amy everyone has a shoplifting story, either about themselves or about someone they know. For me, three immediately come to mind, the funniest one being in a pharmacy with my one-year-old daughter in a pushchair, me frantically trying to return all the nail polishes she was carefully picking off, then getting home only to find she had somehow stashed three away in the pushchair upholstery. She was one! Now she has more nail polishes than there are colours to paint your nails.
Goodness knows where the author got his shoplifting stories from: the acknowledgements are very sparse, so maybe he does not want to reveal his sources. But he has clearly done some great research into all this. We see it all through Amy’s eyes as she goes about her work in the store, trying to behave like a customer, observing and watching ‘customers’ who are not behaving as customers should. And then the moral dilemma of whether she should apprehend the POI, give them a chance to own up and pay, or simply do nothing. Where people put goods they are stealing will make you squirm, as will the brazenness of the shop lifting – the elderly lady in the tea room quietly dropping teaspoons into her handbag; the two women dressed as international cabin crew, as if a uniform makes a difference to how one is perceived. I would be ruining things for the reader if I disclosed more! Since reading this I have noticed I am much more watchful of others when in a shop, and also more aware of how I move around a shop, pick stuff off shelves or go through racks. SO interesting!
I have read two previous Damien Wilkins’ novels – Chemistry and Max Gate. I enjoyed the former, and just could not engage with the latter. But this latest novel I have enjoyed very, very much. A lot of the enjoyment has to do with the setting of Wellington, Lower Hutt and the Wairarapa, and being of the same age/hometown/schooling etc as the author; plus being a fly on the shoplifting wall is brilliant. The last thirty years have seen much change in New Zealand, affecting whole communities, people’s jobs and employment prospects, the resulting pressures on families and social structures. Although we know nothing lasts forever, the closure of something as banal as a shop can easily become the last straw, the thing that finally makes people snap. When Kirks closed last year it was all over the news and social media – last days’ sales, interviews with long-standing staff and customers. This book is a great exploration of what may well go on behind the scenes of all that glossy veneer, written with just the right amount of kindness and compassion, not just for the staff but also for the loss of a city’s icon.
FELICITY MURRAY blogs about books at kiwiflorareads.blogspot.com