The bar door is thrown open – it seems an appropriate, dramatic gesture, now they are finally leaving. Connor feels as though it has taken forever to get to this point – he feels a pull behind his belly button towards the open door and pressure in his calves to move, his body throbbing forward. Snow swirls in unremittingly; the outside is inside and Connor is momentarily confused. He doesn’t know
where he is, exactly. He steadies himself and holds a scarf to his face. Instinctively, he looks for Jackie. His man is nearby, stepping out into the white with an assuredness that startles Connor. It is as though Jackie knows where he is going, though none of them really do.
Connor’s legs move, and Angie is behind him. He wonders for a moment what Cruden Shay will say when he comes to open the bar and finds his barmaid gone. And all of the chilli eaten. Angie looks up at Connor and he senses her thoughts. She smiles brightly. He feels it, too – happiness, joy, in the lining of his heart. Unmistakable and bewildering.
The snow is thick and peaked in drifts, but the group stays together. Jackie leads the way, Frank just behind him. Ernest is between Angie and Hettie, and Connor sees how one of the women has a hand on the child’s shoulder at all times. Then there comes Gerry and himself. They wade towards the edge of town and, without a glance behind at the bar and the store and the carpenters, step off into the blizzard.
They laugh as they do.
It is not long before Connor stumbles; his legs are not built for walking long distances, but Gerry is beside him in an instant. Hettie helps Ernest stand, too; Jackie has his arm on Frank’s elbow, dragging him up. They cannot see but they feel their way along, sensing each other, feeling the hum again, the hum that united them in the bar.
Connor cannot remember straying this far from town before. He knows his route, to the mine, back to the rooms above the carpenter’s, the path to the store. He does not know this part of Stokeland, out beyond the border. The happiness leaks a little from his stomach and he turns to look back, but the buildings are already hidden. There is no choice now – they have to press on.
They walk and stumble and fall and get to their feet, and walk again. Amidst the billows and swirls it is impossible to tell how long they have been going. Connor knows his coat is wet but he doesn’t feel cold, not like before when they made their way over to Shay’s Bar. The chilli sits in his belly, warming him through.
At some point they sleep. Connor has a moment of fear and wonder – it is foolish to lay down in the snow. Even he, who grew up in a land of dust and heat, knows lying down in the snow to rest is a bad idea. But the group does it without question. Frank digs out a hole with his hands; Jackie helps him. Before long they have built a shelter, a round circle into which they all fit. They shape the sides to rise up so they curve over their bodies and the centre is open to the sky. Gerry lights a fire, producing flint and kindling from a bag wrapped inside his coat, and Angie has food. Just plain biscuits, but there’s enough to go round. They all eat their fill and lie down. Jackie bends his body behind Connor, his long legs scooped around Connor’s shorter ones. No one says anything or judges them. They all wish each other goodnight and, before long they are all asleep. And still it snows.
When they wake it is morning and Connor is hot. The fire has burned down to embers and snow has fallen on the arched walls of the shelter. It is as though the group is in a white, warm womb. The others stir, all waking at around the same time. Frank sits up – he has been holding Ernest all night and flexes his arm, ruefully, cramps making him wince. His fingers finally working, he spreads out the map and he and Gerry crouch over it, muttering.
Angie has a kettle on the go – where it came from, Connor doesn’t know, but there’s coffee before long and Connor feels hotter than ever. He starts to shrug off his coat when Jackie stops him. “Don’t,” Jackie says. “As soon as we step outside, you’ll freeze.”
He’s right. It is icy and raw beyond the shelter. As they pack up and leave, Connor looks back at the little mound regretfully – it has given them protection and comfort. He does not know where they are headed.
But they make another shelter that night, in much the same way. And one the night after. They march further away from Stokeland, miles away now, and Frank seems more confident the Stoneman of the map is close by.
They see very little on their travels. The trees thin out until they are on bare tundra, snow falling even here. The air is wadded and still; Connor can’t hear the call of a bird or the drum of an animal. He wonders how Gerry made a living out here and what possible creature he was able to trap. The group stay close together, filling each other’s footsteps. Occasionally Ernest chatters, cheerfully, about whatever thought is in his head. Connor is becoming fond of the boy and his sweet stubbornness. They hold hands from time to time, Connor pulling the child on.
And then around noon of the fourth day, Frank stops. He is in the lead as usual, with Jackie behind him. He holds the map in his hands as he always does. They all stop, crowding together. The sun is pale yellow in the sky and Connor thinks ice will form on his tongue if he pokes it out. He does, just to see, winking at Ernest and making the boy giggle.
“What is it, Frank?” Jackie asks.
Frank frowns. He is not looking at the map but is staring out in the distance. “There. To the west. Can you see it?”
Connor strains but, as a small man, it is difficult for him to see the horizon. He edges to the side of the group, to get a clear view.
Jackie gasps. Gerry, too. Connor looks again. What is it? What have they seen?
Then Hettie and Angie both make a sound, a high-pitched squeal. Hettie has her hands to her mouth.
“What is it?” Connor asks, exasperatedly. He still cannot see a thing and feels excluded. But then Ernest tugs at his hand.
The boy pulls him down to his level. Ernest is grinning, widely and loveably. “Look, Connor. It’s there!”
And then Connor sees it. Standing grey and still, a shape. A man made of stone. The Stoneman of Frank’s map.
Amazing! They are on the right track.