Jackie realises he is hungry: he had not stopped to eat Connor’s stew before stepping out into the snow and stumbling towards Shay’s Bar.
The familiar, empty ache blooms in his stomach like it always does, threaded with a line of panic. Will he eat? Will there ever be food?
But Angie and Hettie come down the stairs – Hettie wearing a monstrous pink outfit, the like of which he has never seen before – and Jackie is reminded that he is not at Gillymore now, nor at Laker’s Park where he lived in dirt. He is in Stokeland, in Shay’s Bar, and there are no men outside with pitchforks. If he wants to eat, he has a feeling that Angie will provide. The world – his world – has changed in the last few hours, and Jackie feels the community and link with the others in the bar in the very fat of his bones.
It is as if Angie has read his thoughts. She smiles dreamily and goes to the little stove at the far end of the bar, and lights a flame underneath a pan. She sets out bowls on the bar, one for each of them. Jackie. Connor. Hettie. Frank. Gerry the Gin. Angie. Little Ernest. The edges of the blue stoneware bowls touch each other companionably. Angie spoons out chilli; the saucepan doesn’t seem big enough to hold enough for them all, but it is. Full bowls are passed around.
Jackie takes his and sits with Connor. It feels natural to edge close to his man and stroke the short fella’s cheek before settling down to eat. Not that he has ever touched Connor in this way in public before – and yet no one in the bar seems to care.
The snow blows hard outside and thickens the air inside the bar. Jackie feels they are inside a bubble. As the chilli fills the hole in his stomach and eases his panic, he wants to wrap his arms and legs around Connor and never let go.
Frank is sitting opposite and watches. Round, owl eyes, slow blinks, and Jackie feels his mind unravel. He has told Frank a little of what happened in Gillymore and Laker’s Park. He has told Frank about the man who threw the first punch, and that it was the same man who had been inside Jackie’s clothes only three days before. Frank had listened as Jackie unburdened himself but offered nothing. Still, Jackie had felt comforted. Cleansed.
Their bowls are empty. Frank stands. The map is in his hands and he has pulled his coat tightly around him. Ernest stands close and Jackie sees the shared blood between father and son; wide space between the eyes, long mouths. Even the identical curl of their hair, stuck tight to their heads. The hum is back in the room again and Jackie feels it deep below his ears, in the funnel between his brain and throat. A coat has been produced from somewhere for Ernst and there are oversized gloves on his hands.
“Would you say we should head for the valley by way of getting to the Kirk Straits, Gerry?” Frank asks. “Or will the road be unpassable?”
“I should say any road we take will be difficult,” Gerry says. “Whether we walk through the valley or take the long way north and then loop west – we’ll face the weather each and every way. There’s something else, though, that troubles me more.”
Jackie feels the breath stop in his throat; the pressure inside the bubble grows.
“Frank, this talk of an enormous stone man confuses me.” Jackie sees that it is an effort for Gerry to speak. Pride lines the crevices of his face; he has taken the narrow tracks and ruts of the earth around Stokeland into his skin. “I’ve never come across it.”
“It’s there,” Frank says, smoothly. “It’s a kind of marker, I believe, between the soft ground around Stokeland and the unknown tundra beyond.”
“And yet I’ve never seen this marker, and I’ve tramped these parts for longer than I can remember.” Desperation creeps into Gerry’s voice. “How is that so?”
“Ray Sullivan may have passed it,” Frank says. He moves the map and the paper rustles. “He is a man that moves easily around these parts, easier than all of us. One moment he’s at Tramper’s Creek, the next he’s as far south as Yellowknife. I don’t quite know how he does it. I’ve never found being able to leave Stokeland so effortlessly, but he sure does have a way. I hope he turns up while we’re on this journey or we find him along the way.”
“We’re going to set off anyway?” Connor asks. He is holding his boots over a small box nailed to the wall, a box that belches out warm air. It is an ingenious invention, Jackie thinks, and watches as Connor slides the boots back onto his feet, a look of pleasure folding over the small man’s face as his feet are warmed.
“We are leaving, yes.” There is no question or argument. Frank speaks simply and with authority. “Gather yourselves and whatever you’re taking. We’re heading out.”
What will be in store for them?