The atmosphere in the bar changes as the snow-wet bodies step inside. Jackie reveals his face first, wiping away flakes that quickly turn to water in the heat of the place.
His gloves feel sodden; he peels them off, gritting his teeth. They fall with a heavy slap on the floor.
He turns to Connor, who is gingerly pulling Ernest from his shoulder and standing the boy on the sticky carpet. Connor winces and Jackie knows his man is in pain – it has been a long walk. Instinctively he reaches out to touch him, to press down on Connor’s screaming muscles and rub them, but he draws back. He remembers Gillymore and a hole in the ground at Laker’s Park. Conditioned behaviour takes over and he offers a sympathetic smile instead.
Ernest is beaming down at the floor, at the wet circle pooling at his feet. He points and laughs – something about the patterns on the carpet amuses him – and looks up. He spies Frank and, making a babbling whoop of sound, shuffles over. The quilt that Hettie tied around him restricts the movement of his legs and he has to waddle, penguin-like. It only makes him laugh harder.
He nears Frank and, watching, Jackie is struck by the thought that this is the first time he has seen father and son together. In all the time he has lived in Stokeland – how long, now? – he has not witnessed Frank and Ernest in the same room, and now Jackie can do nothing but stare. Both have abnormally round eyes, though Ernest is skinny and underfed – his neck doesn’t look strong enough to support a head with such cue-balls for eyes.
Something strange is occurring between them, standing a foot apart. Jackie feels a puckering in his stomach and arse, as though his body had been flooded with static. It is ripping out from Frank and Ernest. Jackie hears a hum and imagines the air between man and boy becoming charged and white-hot. He glances at Connor, who is steadily stretching his body out but watching Frank and Ernest closely.
“You feel it, too?” Jackie whispers.
“I do,” Connor murmurs back. “Like the noise from the wireless when there’s thunder in the air.”
And then the moment passes, the static is gone, and Ernest has thrown his arms around Frank’s waist. The man winces and Jackie remembers Hettie’s words – that Frank did not like to touch his son. But, slowly, Frank drops his hand, slowly, stroking Ernest’s hair.
Ernest chatters into Frank’s coat. “I told Ma I’d seen you. She didn’t believe me.”
Frank leans over and Jackie hears him whisper. “Ah, but we have a special way of seeing each other, don’t we Ernie?”
“Is that so?” and Hettie sweeps off her hat and shakes out her hair. The snow has melted her clothes to her and Jackie sees again what a fine woman she is. She has a shape that could make men weep. And the room crackles again, but not like before. This time, friction erupts between Hettie and Frank, in a way that everyone in the bar can sense and understand. Jackie cannot stop looking at Hettie’s breasts, the fabric of her dress flat against them. He wonders, once more, almost for old time’s sake, what it would be like to touch a woman.
Frank gently pushes the boy away from him and steps to the side, standing directly in front of his wife. He holds out his hands and, with a fearless motion, sweeps a finger along Hettie’s cheek and down into the cup of her throat. Then, with a fluidity that makes someone in the bar gasp – Angie, Jackie thinks – Frank pulls the woman close and wraps his arms around her waist.
“She’s going to murder him,” Connor breathes, with certainty, and Jackie thinks he is right – he must be right, given the viper that spoke from Hettie’s mouth the whole way over from her shack. She hated him for leaving her to raise their son alone, with no food and no money except for what she got for mending. The bitterness had exploded from Hettie like an ice-storm on their way over to Shay’s Bar.
Except she does not kill him. Hettie does not claw at Frank’s face or knee him in the stomach. Instead she seems to…melt. Jackie flounders a little, to see it; he remembers a book he read a long time ago, though where he got it from he cannot say. A book about a meeting between two men, where nothing exactly seems to happen but a passing of looks, and somehow the men wake up in the same bed. Even now, standing in Shay’s, Jackie can remember the fluttering he felt in his stomach as he read the words, and how, at fourteen, he knew with absolute certainty that he would be with a man.
“So, we’re all here.” Frank gleams around the room. Hettie is still pressed against him and she seems in no hurry to move away.
“All of us? What do you mean by that?” It’s Gerry the Gin’s voice. Jackie sees the old man sitting at the bar, close to Angie. Angie is wearing that garish floral shirt of hers that is unbuttoned far more than it needs to. Her skin is blotched and rough, but the way she looks at Gerry makes Jackie think something had happened between them. He fights an urge to laugh. The absurdity of this night!
“What I mean, Gerry,” Frank is saying, “is that we needed to be together this evening.”
“Did we?” Connor asks.
“Can’t you feel it?” Frank held out his hands, palms up, as though balancing plates. And the hum, the static that they all registered when he met with Ernest, is back again, forceful this time. Jackie can hear it, like the distant rumble of a train. He feels a pull behind his belly-button and his feet move forward. He stands to the side of Frank and sees that Connor is moving, too. Gerry as well, and Angie stepping out from behind the bar.
Soon they have formed a circle, with Hettie and Ernest joining them. Frank stands in the middle. He looks at each of them in turn and touches his pocket. A crinkling sound. “We’re going to set off on a journey, this night. And you, friends, know where we’re going. We need each other to find it – I feel this is true. I feel it here.” And he pressed his hand to his stomach. “Maybe we need Ray as well, but maybe we’ll find him along the way. And you know where we’re going, don’t you, friends?”
They did. Jackie squeezed Connor’s hand and felt he had always known. Then, the group of them – Angie, Gerry the Gin, Jackie, Connor, Frank, Hettie and Ernest – speak as one. “Quilaq.”
Remarkable! Can you feel Quilaq just within reach?