Angie breaks the circle first, dropping Gerry the Gin’s hand and turning away. Connor watches and sees the woman appears to be crying. He wonders why and then sees Jackie’s face is wet, too. And Hettie’s, and Gerry’s. He lets go of Jackie’s hand and touches his own cheeks, fingers sliding over damp skin, and he holds them in front of them, astonished.
I didn’t feel like crying, he thinks. His chest does not tighten the way it usually does when a good sob is on the way. And yet tears still slide from the corner of his eyes and trace a line into his hair. Connor’s bewilderment doubles; why has his body begun to leak, so? And yet, as it does, he feels a kind of cleansing. He feels the dark marrow of occasional jealousy creep away, shards of mistrust edge away. He feels scooped out and empty, but in a deeply pleasurable way, as though his body is merely making room for light.
Perhaps the slopping of water has been caused by the strange, electric hum he can still hear. He can see no distress on the faces of those around him and yet they all weep. Something is thrumming within them all.
Only Frank stays dry-eyed and he claps his hands together. “Let us find somewhere to sit. We have so much to plan.”
Connor watches as the group do his bidding and finds his own legs moving as well. He can’t understand why his body is compelled to move at Frank’s words. He doesn’t know Frank as well as Jackie does. He has listened to the man’s stories, sure, but only in company, in Shay’s Bar, surrounded by whiskey-blurred men. He cannot say what it is about the man that makes his legs move to the sound of his voice. But they do and Connor takes a seat at the largest table in the bar.
Frank removes a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket and lays it out on the table. It is a map. Connor hears Jackie click his tongue; his man brushes Connor’s arm as he leans forward.
“Does it show Quilaq, Frank?” Jackie asks.
Frank shakes his head, smiling. “Now, wouldn’t that make life beautiful? No. But it does show something that will help us find it.”
The group cranes forward.
Frank points at a place on the map. Angie squints down, wiping her eyes.
“I can’t really see. Could I Xerox some copies for us all?”
Frank looks at her blankly, and Connor sees Hettie and Jackie’s brow crease as well. Ernest hoots.
“You make up words!” the child says. “What’s that you’re pointing to, Dad?”
“It’s a stone man. The kind the Inuits build, though I don’t know if they built this one.” Frank looks round at them all. “It’s huge, bigger than a sail boat.”
Gerry the Gin clears his throat. “I never come across it, Frank, and I’ve tramped and caught in these parts for more years than I can remember.”
“And yet, here it is.”
Angie makes another of her curious pronouncements. “I was on a sail boat once. A regatta at the Santa Monica pier. Some guy got me on a boat, you know how it is. TV crew were there. Caught me on film.”
Connor thinks Angie has been at the whiskey; she makes no sense. He can smell booze from her.
“What’s important about this stone man?” Jackie nods at the map.
“Quilaq is nearby. Sometimes.” Frank smiles at Gerry. “You aren’t the only one who talks to our friends in the snow. I’ve been out to the tribes beyond the Kirk Straits. Some say they’ve seen Quilaq and the stone man on the same horizon.”
“Is it far?” Gerry asks. He still sounds doubtful.
Frank shrugs. “Few days walk. Maybe more in this blizzard. We’d do well to pack shelter with us and plenty of food.”
“We’re going tonight?” Connor looks outside at the thick fall of snow.
“Yes,” Jackie says, urgently. “We’ve waited long enough to find it.”
“Have we, Jackie?” Connor looks at his man. The hair at Jackie’s temple is fuzzy and full of static, and he wants to press it down with his tongue. He wants to pull the man to him and wrap his short, squat body around Jackie’s waist.
“We have. Ever since Laker’s Park, when it could have gone so differently.” Jackie catches Connor’s fingers and for a second, Connor is shocked. They don’t ever touch each other in this way in public. But the group around the table watch them easily, and Hettie is smiling and glancing at Frank in a way that tells Connor she knows about secret love. Jackie goes on. “Do you remember how you dug that hole and we hid in it, and I couldn’t eat because they broke my face? And do you remember boiling corn and making a paste so I could eat?”
“I do, Jackie.” Connor squeezes Jackie’s fingers.
“You said that one day we’d find somewhere that we could be free to love each other, without a gang chasing us out of town with pitchforks. You said that one day we’d be able to walk down the street, arm in arm, and know we were safe.”
“Do you think Quilaq’s that place, Jackie?” Gerry asks. He plaits his fingers together, a twist of vines. “Maybe it is. Maybe it’s where we can all find the love we need.”
“Do you want to know the surest, easiest love of my life?” Angie again. Her breasts rest on folded arms, soft, freckled whiteness. “My grandma. I loved that old buzzard and she loved me. I hope I’ll meet her again. It’s the strangest thing! When Gerry told me about Quilaq, all I could think of was her.”
And for all her oddness, Connor feels a squeeze of tenderness towards the bar maid. She has served him beer, chilli and, on one occasion, let him and Jackie sleep in the cellar after a session. He is too far away to touch her, but he smiles, hoping she can feel his love. She seems to; Angie tips her head to one side and smiles back.
“I’m hungry.” Ernest puts his nose in the air and sniffs dramatically. A scent of spiced meat wafts about the bar. “Will there be plenty of food in Quilaq?”
Frank grins, broadly. “There will. I’m sure of that.”
And Connor sees Hettie, sitting quietly, her eyes fixed on Frank. She says nothing, not a word, as the group crowd forward and study the map.
Will Quilaq be the land of plenty that they’re hoping for?