They are ready to go and Jackie thinks – this is it, we’re really off. But Ernest stumbles; Connor catches him. Ray pauses.
So they turn back to the Stoneman and Jackie unfurls a rug. There is no shelter, but the group doesn’t miss it. He and Connor sit down, warm as toast. Gerry lights a fire and they all circle it, near to the Stoneman. Angie fishes out a cooking pot from a bag, Ray takes out a couple of hares, wrapped in brown paper, from his briefcase of surprises. Gerry skins them quickly, accepts the skewers Ray offers and roasts the animals over the fire. Soon a tasty, rich smell fills the air and Jackie feels hungry for the first time in days.
Ernest is drawing circles in the snow and Jackie sees that the boy’s finger has become white with cold. He leans over and folds his hand gently over the child’s. “Let’s not lose them, eh?” he says and the boy grins, dreamily.
He feels Connor lean against him and his man’s breathing slows; Connor is tired. Ray grins over and Jackie feels momentarily unsure. Since leaving Stokeland he has slept beside Connor, legs tangled together just as they might in their private space, and they’ve held hands when sitting around the fire. No one has muttered or moved away. Jackie has felt acceptance like he has never experienced before. Now, with Ray smiling so openly, he takes pause. Has Ray seen their closeness back in Stokeland, in Shay’s Bar?
“Cruden Shay’s place isn’t like most others,” Ray says. “All kinds of folk have gathered at Shay’s, one time or another.”
Jackie is shocked, and it takes all of his control just to nod. His forehead feels pulled back, as though Ray has opened his skull and rummaged around in his brain. There is a taste of spice on the air and the smell of strong, gamey meat.
“But I bet if you stopped to think about it, you can only remember these folk at Cruden’s bar,” Ray says, waving at the group, sitting quietly and starting into the fire. “They won’t all have been there at the same time – not before you left to find Quilaq, but you remember them.”
Jackie thinks. Ray is right. He has drank with Connor, of course, and been served by Angie. Frank has held fort at the bar, entrancing all comers with his stories, though the faces of those listening are grainy and blurred, and Jackie can’t see through the fog to identify them. Gerry the Gin has slumped over the bar from time to time. Even Hettie has come in on odd occasions, looking for her man. But never Ernest. And never the group together.
Ray chuckles. “That’s right. Never all together until tonight. Cruden’s bar is a place where, when the right group come together, magic happens.”
“And you know this how?” Angie pipes up. Jackie didn’t think she was listening; she is sitting next to Hettie and they are whispering and giggling together, as they have done these past days. Jackie and Connor have marvelled at it. The companionship between the women is unexpected and deep. Jackie was sure they hated each other before, before they started on this quest.
Ray leans over and helps Gerry turn the hares over above the fire. “I’ve travelled all about this land selling solar panels. Shining a light. I’ve met enough people to know magic when I see it.”
Hettie snorts. “I’ve heard about the sort of people you met.”
A chill descends and Jackie shivers. The low hum, the one that seems to sit beneath his ears when they are all together, fades away. The corners of Ray’s mouth turns down.
“And you heard that from my wife, I suppose?” he asks. “Can you remember her name?”
Hettie falters. She edges against Angie, seeking comfort. “For the life of me, I cannot.”
“Then it doesn’t matter.” Ray spreads out his hands. “We’re here, together, right now, at this place. That’s what matters. Gerry, I think those are ready.”
The hares are cooked and Ray strips meat from their bones, not appearing to be bothered by the heat of the animal’s flesh. Meat is put in the pot and the group gather round, sitting even closer than before.
Angie takes a piece of meat and chews, contentedly. She laughs, softly. “In all my life, I’ve never felt amongst such friends.”
Jackie feels tears prick the backs of his eyes. He is usually uncomfortable around such sentiment. He doesn’t like to hear Connor say he loves him. But Angie speaks honestly and cleanly and he believes her.
“I hope when we find Quilaq I will be with you still,” Angie says and her eyes shine.
“Yes,” Gerry says, quietly. “I hope to find someone to love.” He glances at Angie and a warm zip links the group.
“And you, Hettie?” Ray asks. He has a skewer in his hand and points it at her, as though he is conducting an orchestra.
“Frank,” she says. “I will be there with Frank.”
“And I will have a belly full of food!” Frank says, slapping his stomach. They all laugh and he turns his moon-like eyes on them. “To never starve again would be a fine thing.”
“Connor?” Ray twists the skewer to point at Jackie’s man.
“I’ll be with Jackie,” Connor says. No blush, no bluster. His twisted little legs edge next to Jackie.
Eyes turn to Jackie and he winces, momentarily, a worm of fear crawling through his skull – they will beat Connor and I, now they know. They will beat us for being deviants.
But there are smiles all round – even Ernest is grinning, happily.
Jackie knows that what he has to say might puncture the warm bubble they have created, but he has to say it. “I hope I can be free in Quilaq,” he says. “I have hidden who I am for so long. I want to be free to be with anyone I want.”
He wonders if Connor will move his leg away, but he doesn’t.
“And Ernest?” Hettie asks. “What do you wish to find in Quilaq, Ernest?”
The child doesn’t answer but eats. Another wonder.
Ray laughs. “He is the key. He will lead you to Quilaq.”
How is Ernest the key?