Monday Story No. 29
By Cassie Parkes
Arthur O’Malley: father, husband, steelworker, Doomsday prepper. They left the last part out of his eulogy, of course, the only reference the vicar made towards it being to briefly mention my late father’s “great love of the outdoors and of all nature that God had made for him.”
I understood it, though, it’s far more funeral-friendly to think of my father enjoying a nice peaceful night under the stars rather than feverishly rigging snare traps and counting his jars of dried lentils for the thousandth time. A man with a hobby for hiking and camping is a fun, adventurous sort. My father was anything but.
As I took my first steps up the tall hill forty miles from my childhood home that we knew he liked to forage blackberries from, I found it hard to conjure up any particularly pleasant memories of him, or of my childhood. The first thing that came to mind was the most dreaded of all days: food expiration day.
My Dad had stockpiles of all kinds of canned and dried foods, from seemingly endless rows of baked beans to dehydrated pouches of sticky toffee pudding. He checked these stocks with military precision, noting everything down in his inventory (that would of course be destroyed once Hell broke loose, so no other survivors could get wind of our supplies), and when anything was close to expiring, it became our meals for the next week.
Of course, I had to loathe him for the cans of cold ravioli and rehydrated beans which made up my dinners, when there was a perfectly good McDonald’s within walking distance, and supermarkets stocked full of fresh food all around us. But, I somehow always shoved it down my gullet, and my Dad replaced our pantry stocks with new, disgusting foodstuffs.
As much as I was annoyed at my Dad, my Mum was just as much to blame. I thought of her too as I hiked, back at home, probably watching Antiques Roadshow. “He’s only doing it because he loves us”, she’d say, as we watched him fill up the old Rover with tarpaulins and lengths of paracord, “he wants to make sure we’re safe.” Then we’d watch him drive away, off to his secret location, out somewhere in the woods. We couldn’t know where, in case we were compromised.
As I finally reached the peak, I took off my backpack and placed it down upon the ground. I reached in to fish out the large, black urn, and then tipped the last remnants of my father out, into the morning wind. He didn’t stop to say farewell to me, his dusty grey remains quickly tumbling downwards, settling on the rocks below. I watched them for a moment before slipping the urn back into my backpack. What was I going to do with it now? Dad would probably want me to use it as a rain collector, or to store more bloody beans in.
As I started to make my way back down, I pulled out my phone to call my Mum: at least being on this stupid hill meant that I had good reception.
“Hello…?”, she said, the distant voice of someone appraising a vase in the background.
“Mum, it’s me, Caroline. I…um, I did it. He’s back on Stanworth Hill. Overlooking the woods.”
“I’m glad. He’ll be happy there.” There was a slightly awkward silence before she continued: “Have you taken any video with the video camera yet?”
“Not yet, Mum, but I will, I promise,” I said, trying to feign enthusiasm.
During my Dad’s later years, he had somehow convinced himself that everyone except his family should have his knowledge of wilderness survival, and had started a YouTube channel called “Prepping with Arthur”. Granted, it wasn’t especially successful, gaining around two thousand subscribers in the eight years he’d had it live, but in his will, he’d specified that a goodbye video was to be uploaded to the channel, with some explanation that he’d passed away.
Mum was keen for me to take some footage outside for it, and I was having a hard time reckoning with the fact that his YouTube subscribers—mostly fifty-something Libertarians from Red states—had been thought about as part of my Dad’s last wishes in his final days, whilst myself and Mum had been mostly ignored.
“I just think it would be nice, you know? See if you can find some nice birds to video. Or some nice colourful flowers.”
“I will Mum, I promise.”
We said our goodbyes and I hung up, pausing to catch my breath on a small mound of what I hoped was dirt. I swigged some water from my stainless steel bottle and rooted around in my bag for the video camera. It was a fairly ancient thing, a product of the early 2000’s obsession with making everything clunky and silver, and it had a little flip-out screen and faux leather hand strap. It was really the kind of thing you’d use to shoot videos of your kids playing on the beach in Margate, not to inform a global audience of what to do in case of a cyber attack on their city.
I flipped out its small rectangular screen and turned it on. It flickered into life, and I played around with it for a few moments, filming some shots of the blue sky and the passing clouds with its terrible 480p resolution. I had mentioned to my Mum that my phone was capable of capturing much better recordings, but the will specified using the old camera recorder, so I had no say in the matter.
Once I saved the footage, I was surprised to see a folder named “Do Not Post” pop up on the navigational menu. For one, I was incredibly surprised that my Dad had the technological knowledge to be able to even change the folder name, and two, I was baffled by the fact that my Dad might’ve filmed something he didn’t want posted online.
He posted everything he recorded, from videos of how to tie a proper clove hitch to how much protein you could get out of a bag of dried crickets.
I tapped on the folder and saw there was one video in there, which clocked in at just over two minutes. I tapped it and turned up the volume on the side of the camera with its clunky directional buttons.
My Dad popped up on the screen, in his usual gear: camouflage jacket and combat trousers, with a bandana to hide his balding head.
“Hello, everyone!” he said, through the tinny holes on the side of the camera, “Arthur back today with another video for you all.”
Even then, you could see him struggling with his words and his breath, the cancer starting to take its toll. He’d always dreamed of the horrible wrath of nature or the total collapse of society, but in the end, it was his own body which betrayed him.
“Today we’re talking about bug-out bags: I’m testing out the current capabilities of my seventy-two-hour bag, to see how it holds up in a last-case scenario where I’ve been forced to leave my home.”
He spoke for a few moments about the contents of his bag, and how he had removed the tent pegs in favour of a better multitool which he could use to fashion wooden stakes from foraged tree branches. All fascinating stuff to someone somewhere, I was sure.
I was about to turn the camera off when I heard my Dad’s voice halter as he spoke: “And of course, I have bags ready for… my family.”
I saw him break, then, the YouTube persona of a hardened survivalist reduced to the truth of a frail man in his fifties, whose own body was beginning to fail him. But then, I saw my Dad do something I’d never seen him do before: he began to cry.
“Shit, sorry,” he said, quickly pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his cheeks, “It’s just… you know, when I think about my wife, and my daughter. We do all we can to prepare for every scenario, but, it’s just… thinking about them being in danger, or hurt. You can’t guarantee their safety, no matter how much you try.”
And then, inevitably, I started to cry with him.
He loved me so much and wanted to protect me so deeply that he had ended up pushing me away. He couldn’t get close to me, because that would have just hurt him more. He had to see me as an asset, just a piece of cargo to be protected once what he saw as the inevitable finally happened, or he would break down every time he looked at me.
I reached out to the video screen, my Dad looking smaller than ever, and my chest ached for him. I wanted more than anything to hold him, to tell him that I loved and forgave him, and to smell his horrible cheap aftershave and the sour scent of fresh dirt upon his fingertips. And, beyond that, I wanted to tell him how fucking angry I was with him for never opening up to me. For never telling me how much he loved me. For never showing me how to do any of the stupid things he thought were so important.
He didn’t say anything else, I just saw him reach forward to turn the camera off, and then I was back on the menu screen, his backlog of videos all stored in their neat beige folders. I closed the camera and took another swig of my water, taking a moment to let my shaking, breaths come back to a normal pace. Then I pulled out my phone, and called my Mum again.
“Who is this?” she replied, once again clearly distracted by the impending knowledge of the value of an old painting.
“It’s Caroline. Mum, I’m going to stay here tonight.”
“What? In a hotel?”
“No, in the woods.”
“What?! Did you bring enough stuff with you?”
“I’ll be okay, I promise. And Mum?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I hung up, and flipped open the video camera, tapping through to the folders. I took a moment to look up to the sky, and then I crouched down to get to work as the ghost of my Dad started to tell me how to make a secure campsite.
Thanks for reading!
This week’s Monday Story was written by Cassie Parkes.
Cassie is a writer who currently lives in London, trying out a little bit of everything until something sticks.