Angie doesn’t answer Frank at first, but presses her hands, palm-first, down on the bar. Gerry can see her fight to reign her anger in; Frank is drinking whisky he hasn’t paid for, and that isn’t how it goes in Stokeland. Transactions are conducted; maybe not with money, but exchanges occur. A sack of coke for the fire is swapped for a crate of potatoes, a side of caribou for a set of good winter blankets.
It is possible to lie with a woman, Gerry has heard, for a pair of boots.
Sometimes, Gerry knows, Frank has bought his drink in Shay’s Bar with stories, his words as honey-flavoured as the booze. But such an understanding is with Cruden Shay, not Angie, and Angie is looking at him as though she wants to bury her fingers in his strange, perfectly round eyes.
And, for no reason he can fathom, Gerry the Gin is suddenly very sure that such an act, such an outburst of fury on Angie’s part would be calamitous. He can’t understand it, but certainty pounds his temples, step for step with the whisky-headache. Frank is important tonight. Frank is very important.
Gerry leans over and covers Angie’s hands with his own. She looks down in surprise and he feels the flutter of her fingers as she tries to break free. But Gerry holds on and, over his shoulder, speaks to Frank.
“We were talking about Quilaq, Frank. Not very often I say the name outloud, but there it is.” Gerry feels Angie’s hands become still and, feeling that she has also recognised the significance of Frank being here tonight, lets her go.
Frank has set his glass down on the bar and rested his chin on a criss-cross of fingers. He blinks in that way of his, once, twice.
And then it takes Gerry a while to realise Frank is talking. He thinks he hears music, at first; a rich loamy sound, sliding into the bar. Words tumble out and take shape, and Gerry shakes himself. Frank’s mouth is moving.
“…in Hell’s Kitchen. In a bar on 39th Street, the smell of the tannery mixing in with the beer. That’s where I’d first heard of it. An old-timer, on the make just like me – he had them wrapped round his finger, so he did. Tramped to the Canadian North, he said, where he’d found Quilaq. I tried telling Hettie about it but…that woman. But why do you talk of Quilaq?”
Angie shifts behind the bar, transferring her weight lightly from one foot to the other. “I can’t really remember how it came up, Frank. But Gerry and I – we both knew of the place. Somehow.”
“Where is Quilaq, Frank?” Gerry asks. “Have you found it?”
Frank shakes his head. “Not I. I might have found a map that can take us there.” He pats his breast pocket and there is a crinkling sound. Gerry thinks of percussion, a crush and shake of sound that he heard in an orchestra once. “By God, I hope it does.”
“What is it about this place?” From Angie. “Why do you want to find it, so?”
Gerry is aware that his body has tensed, skin feeling tight around his bones. He remembers mumbled conversations with the Inuit, the old chap he’d stumbled across on one of his hunting trips – the fella had whimpered with gratitude beside Gerry’s fire and talked through chattering teeth. He’d been on a hunt for a mysterious place in the snow, a town that was not really a town but not really a camp, either. A place so close the Inuit and his friends could smell the roasting of meat and the brazen, ripe smell of baking bread. A place called Quilaq, drawing the Inuit to it, though he had yet to find it. In Shay’s bar, waiting for Frank to speak, Gerry is very aware he wants to know the answer to the question – just what it is that pulls men to the invisible place.
“I think,” Frank says, slowly, “that Quilaq is a place where no one ever goes hungry. Do you know what it’s like to feel empty and know there’s nothing to eat, that there won’t be for days and days? When the potatoes rotted, my father killed our chickens. And then the cow. And then he pushed me into the bars to tell stories while my sisters ate grass.”
“Where was this?” Angie asks, and Gerry sees she has softened a little.
“In Ireland. Hettie felt hunger, too.” Frank circles his fingers round the glass and Gerry is surprised to see his eyes are wet. A faint tremble comes into Frank’s voice. “I think anyone who finds Quilaq never has an empty belly. I want to find such a place and never leave.”
Gerry understands and knows that hunger, having eaten only when successful with a snare. But, listening, he cannot help but feel a ripple of disappointment. Quilaq a place of abundant food? Is that all?
He sees the confusion in Angie’s face, too. She is chewing the side of her mouth, her forehead a crease. “I’m not sure that’s all there is to this place,” she says.
“There’s more, I’m sure. I talked to Jackie about it – he has this life, you know.” Frank looks at her. “Quilaq might be a place where he can live it, truly. With Connor or whoever. Where did you hear of it?”
“I can’t remember,” and Angie halters. Gerry can see she feels foolish. “It’s a place I’ve always known about it, I think. I thought – ” she gives a short, embarrassed laugh – “I thought of my grandmother when Gerry first said it. I have no idea why – the old bird died years ago. I am sorry for you, Frank, for knowing that kind of hunger. I haven’t.”
“The question is,” Gerry says, clearing his throat, “where is it? I’ve walked the land for miles around Stokeland and never found it.” He holds up his hand. “I’m not saying it’s a story though, Frank. I think I was close enough, once, to smell cooking and mighty fine it was, too. I talked to Jackie about it, too.”
“What about Ray?” Angie says, suddenly. She looks at the puzzled expression on Gerry’s face and falters. “Ray Sullivan? He travels more than anyone I know, even more than you Gerry. Goes down to Tramper’s Creek, at least once a month. Tries to sell the Inuits electrical appliances, he says, though what they would want with a vacuum cleaner beats me.”
Frank’s face screws up, as though, like Gerry, he cannot understand. Angie sighs.
“He’s maybe heard something about where this place is. From the Inuits he talks to? If you have a map, he should take a look.”
Frank’s face clears and becomes serene once again. His voice becomes mellifluous. “Ray, then. We should talk to Ray.”
“He was in here a week ago,” Gerry says. “His divorce party.”
Angie opens her mouth to speak when the door to the bar bangs open, and a wall of white powder sweeps into the room. There are figures amongst them: wet, black shapes shivering into Shay’s. The door closes, is forced shut, and the screeching wind outside is muffled. The interlopers gather themselves, shake water from their shoulders, and push back damp hair.
A boy’s voice rings out. It is Ernest. “Dad!”
Is a confrontation about to start?