By Emma Neale
My grandmother kept natural disaster supplies in her basement. Civil defence had advised citizens to ready themselves for at least three days of total self-reliance, in case of national emergency.
“What the —” our dad said, when he saw the stores stacked along one wall. “Are you prepping for Armageddon, Mum?”
“Or Christmas?” my little brother Otto piped up.
There weren’t just rows of bottled water, cans, packets of dried food, jars of spreads, chocolate bars, candles, lighters, bandages, aspirin, safety pins, four torches, multiple batteries — but also unread books, pristine card decks, shrink-wrapped DVDs.
“You haven’t even opened Brideshead Revisited,” my mother said.
Nan shrugged. “Loved the book so much. Keeping the show for a desperate moment.”
Driving home that weekend, Mum made her concern abundantly clear: “She’s stockpiled sixty pink disposable razors.”
“Perhaps she expects to give the neighbours sanctuary.” Even Dad’s moustache looked wistful, as if the air had gone out of it. He loved Nan to bits, but on our visits, she never hugged him first. When he initiated it, she gasped, as if suddenly smelling burning. “Michael!” She hugged him back, though, so I guess that’s something.
What I found saddest about her survival cache was the tiny, dehydrated man in a transparent tube, tucked far back on the bottom shelf. My parents didn’t know he was there. My brother and I discovered him when chasing missed Ping-Pong shots round her cellar, one snow-bound sleepover.
The man’s almond-brown skin was lightly creased, like a dried apricot; his mouth a thread of smile; his eyes gently shut, as if it was his birthday, and someone had just carolled, “Close your eyes now and count to ten!”
My brother, only seven, was guilelessly direct. “Why do you have a wee pickled man?”
Nan sighed, as if she’d waited an aeon for his question. “I couldn’t remarry right after Grandpa Carl died. He’d have … fretted so. But it felt such a loss …” she bound her fingers together, knucklebones tight knots in white rope, “never to love again. So — I’ve saved Arthur for a special occasion.”
Otto tipped his head, as if the answer already tweaked an ear. “The ’pock-a-lypse?”
“Hmmm?” Nan’s Twitter feed distracted her. “Oh, you add water, and talk to him. They say, for a few days, it’s just like looking after a plant. Until he’s full-sized, that is.”
I thought how love was somehow like pair, pare, see, sea, or even match, match. Long, long. A sound people made, and you thought you understood. But did they mean another thing altogether? I ran a finger over Nan’s knuckle-bumps. “Isn’t that still sort of — betraying Grandpa? Even if you don’t, um, unseal Arthur till the end of days?”
I actually didn’t think Nan wanting another lover was wrong. I was just trying to straighten out her doglegged, drop-stitched logic in my head.
Waving a hand, as if I’d accidentally blown peacock-glittery soap bubbles at her eyes, she said, “But by then, it will all just about be over. Grandad Carl needn’t cry for long.”
Emma Neale has lived in San Diego, Wellington and London, but now lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her novel, Billy Bird, was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. A collection of poems, To the Occupant, is just out from Otago University Press. The current editor of Landfall, she is also the mother of two young sons, one 17, one 9.