Stokeland. It sits at fork between two roads: one a thick, commercial highway bedevilled by ice for ninety percent of the year; the other a stripped, frozen weave of a road, impassable for ten months out of twelve and huddled beneath wedges of brilliant white snow. It is a wonder that Stokeland has any inhabitants at all; but it does, over a hundred souls.
Angie Barker is one. She sits in Shays, Stokeland’s only bar, watching the snow come again. It is just before lunch and a few other townsfolk have made it in as well, their snow mobiles parked beside each other outside. They have come for the steamed moosemeat and sourdough, and some will chase it down with whisky; Yukon Jack if they can afford it. Angie has cleaned the bar, ready for them, rinsing out the dirty glasses left from the night before and sweeping the sticky carpet, musky with sweat and the urgency of payday. Men come to the bar and spend their money from trapping or the zinc mines, as soon as they make it. They leave dull fingerprints on the pool table and the shiny surface of the bar, grubby reminders that they have yet to make enough to leave and head south where it is warmer.
Angie is thirty-nine and has been for a number of years. She is too heavy and her skin is too blotched for her to be anything other than a functional barmaid: the trappers and miners do not come into Shays to see her, only to drink beer. She hasn’t had to slap a hand away from her breasts for over six months. Not even after Ray Sullivan’s divorce party. He’d been wanting to leave Wanda for an age and she finally let him after finding out he’d been seeing a stripper over in Tramper’s Creek, where he tried to trade with the Inuit.
Shay’s Bar had been packed the night of the divorce party. Jonesy, the trapper who rarely spoke, was there, made brave and flush by the booze; Jackie and Connor, men who worked down Stokeland’s zinc mine and were never apart, hugged a table, swaying together. Saunders, the man everyone went to when they were in a fix – he sat at the end of the bar, beaming over a line of shots. It had even been the last time Alan and Maud made it over from their isolated farmhouse, before the winter storms poured wet, white cement around their home. Shay’s Bar pulsed and throbbed the night Ray Sullivan’s divorce came through. By the time Angie stepped outside for a smoke, her shirt was damp from the unexpected exercise of running between kegs and optics.
In a roundabout way, Angie thinks as she wipes the bar, Ray’s divorce had led to her being here, right this moment, waiting for one particular feller to show. Today was her day off; she didn’t have to be in. She could have stayed in her room above the bar, where a stove kept the ice at bay and she could watch Days of Our Lives on repeat. Instead she was passing the time, sweeping floors that had already been swept and washing glasses that were already clean, waiting for Gerry the Gin to make his appearance.
“I don’t actually like gin, but it’s a thing that’s stuck.” That had been the night of Ray’s party. Gerry the Gin had traded his furs to the Inuits that day and, like too many Stokelanders, had come to drink away his money before being driven back into the snow to snare more animals. His eyes had the sunken, overbright look of someone pinned into an addled, swilled-in-beer way of life, and the breath coming off him was foul. Angie had hung back at the bar, nudging the stubs of whisky to him. But Gerry’s shirt was clean and he still had a rough edge of an accent It was enough to intrigue, in the washed-up room.
“That so? Nickname like that and you don’t like gin.” Angie nodded conversationally but still kept back from the fetid plumes drifting from the man’s mouth. “Well, what else could it be?”
“Nickname? Hell, I don’t know. Why does a man need a nickname anyway? Foxes and hares I skin couldn’t give a tuppenny whatsit what I’m called.”
“Right,” and Angie was about to move away, recognising the tipping point the men all reached when the booze had sloshed around in their stomachs for long enough.
“When’d you get here?” Gerry the Gin asked.
“When did I move to Stokeland?” Angie paused with her hand resting on a pump and thought hard. Santa Monica had been her home for the first thirty years, then Vancouver, with a man. That hadn’t worked out and he’d left her with a cracked rib and venereal disease. Bar jobs, drifting north. Then Stokeland. “Can’t remember, exactly. Five, six years, maybe.”
“Can’t remember either.” Gerry winked and downed the shot of whisky. “Left Skye in the forties, that much I do know.”
“The Isle of Skye. My dad was torpedoed at the end of 1944. Nothing else for my mother to do but start again somewhere. Canada as good a place as any.”
Someone shouted at that point, Angie remembered, and a glass had smashed. Cruden Shay, owner of the bar and a definite non-taker of bullshit, swore loudly and marched around to where Ray Sullivan and his friends were shuffling their feet. Angie watched, the heads bobbing, slurred promises given. A brush appeared from somewhere and a chastened man began sweeping.
Gerry the Gin chuckled into his glass. “Aye, Stokeland is a good a place as any.” And then, “unless I were to ever find Quilaq. Quilaq.”
Wiping a cloth over a beer tap as she waited for Gerry to show, Angie remembers how she felt when he said that strange word. It was as though someone was rubbing an ice cube behind her bellybutton: her stomach instantly began to ache, although the sensation was not unpleasant. Quilaq. A word she somehow knew but had never said outloud before. Qu-il-ack. And then the cold in her stomach seemed to spread and she felt swollen with a longing to find out more, to understand, to know about Quilaq. Gerry the Gin had left soon after, stumbling out into the night, and so Angie now waited for him to appear again, so she could hear him say that word again. What did it mean? Was it a place? Quilaq.
What do you think Quilaq is? Want to find out more?