They spend the night beside the Stoneman and when they wake, Frank finds his hands inside Hettie’s clothes, cupping her breasts as she sleeps on. He is shocked but fights the urge to flinch away. He blinks rapidly. He has not held Hettie in this way, not ever. Their transactions in the past have been brief and resentful, almost as if they disliked their physical need for each other.
But Hettie feels so warm and right under his hands. His body doesn’t stir, not as it might, as she murmurs and moves a little, pressing back into him, breasts slipping across his palm; instead a feeling of completeness steals over him and he nestles closer, pushing his mouth against the nape of her neck.
When he wakes again, the rest of the group are up and about and Hettie has wriggled round to face him. She is looking at him, curiously, his hands about her bare waist, inside the awful pink outfit she wears. He can tell she is wondering what has happened and why he holds her so, and he sees his woman fight her natural inclination to lash out and push him away. But there has been a shift within her, too, and she simply pushes the length of her body against the length of his. Neither of them care who sees – they hold each other.
A gentle nudge on his foot – Connor. The toady little man is grinning, sheepishly. “Sorry, you looked too peaceful to disturb. But Ray says it’s time to start out for Quilaq and there’s snow coming.”
Frank sits up and looks at the horizon. He can see further than the others and picks out blue snow clouds a few hours in the distance.
“Let’s move,” he says. “That’s not just snow, but a storm.”
He still has the ability to captivate the group and they move immediately upon his bidding. But Ray leads them, not Frank. Frank can hear the familiar hum in his ears and he steps into the tracks left by Jackie and Gerry. He doesn’t mind that Ray leads the way – the man knows how to get to Quilaq, after all. In fact, he feels lighter than he ever has, now that the group also looks to Ray for answers.
He finds Hettie’s hand linked in his, and reaches out to take the flailing hand of his son. Ernest finds it harder going than the others, being small and the snow being thick, so Frank shoves the boy in front of him, into the steps already taken.
They march on and the storm descends. Soon it is impossible to see each other and they stop, calling to each other in laughing whoops. Gerry produces a rope and they lash themselves together. The rope seems endless, long enough for them to tie it round their waists. They stumble on, still warm, still connected and, Frank realises joyfully, he is still full from the meal the night before.
In the end they cannot make it through the snow so they gather together in a tight circle. Ray won’t let them sit down. “The snow will pass,” he says, though Frank can’t see how that can be true – the sky is thick and white. The snow heaps over their shoulders and Frank pushes Ernest in the middle. The boy smiles round at their hot faces; they have become a turret and he is at their centre.
And then the snow stops, just as Ray says it will. Frank lifts up his head and shakes away the flakes. The rest do the same, rebirthing.
Ray points to a gathering of trees. “We go that way. The walking will be easier, under cover. We’ll get to Quilaq before you know it.”
He is right; the going is easier. Frank can’t remember the forest on his map and puzzles a little as he walks. But Ray sets off purposefully. His briefcase swings at his side and Ernest walks with him, giggling, pointing at clumps of snow falling from branches.
They must have walked for several hours for Frank’s feet start to pinch and Connor has fallen behind. The man’s bowed legs arch painfully as he pushes forward. Jackie has his elbow and helps him along. The men touch each other with an ease and simplicity that makes a lump come to Frank’s throat.
Ray is talking as they walk. They are threaded out but the words carry and they can all hear; it is though his words weave into the ever-present hum linking them together.
“You didn’t really need me to find Quilaq,” he says. “Nobody does, but they don’t believe it. The people I’ve led to this place! I’m supposed to be selling solar panels but all I seem to do is find people whom are lost and take them where they want to go. I must walk the length of the tundra, picking up stragglers. They always want to find Quilaq.”
Frank listens and watches Ray. The man seems to talk to himself more than them, but his words are comforting and the trees slip by as they march on.
“You all know about the place, deep down,” Ray says. “It’s deep in your bones. Some of you are reminded of people you once loved when you say the word -” and here he waves to Angie, gamely struggling on – “and others think of food or water or comfort. Ah, here we are.”
Frank almost misses it – did Ray say they were here? “Where, Ray? You don’t mean Quilaq?”
Ray nods. The group work their way through the last of the trees and come to stand beside him. The rope still ties them, connecting them as they stand in a line and look in the direction that Ray points.
They have exited the forest and stand at the edge of a field. Lights shine in the distance. Frank sniffs: he can smell baking and bread, and spices on the wind. Someone sings.
“Is this Quilaq?” he asks. He feels the pinch of tears and squeezes his eyes shut. When he looks around he sees the others are crying, too.
“Of course it is. Always has been.” Ray waves an arm out. “There’s a place where you can gather, where you’ll be welcomed as newcomers. You’ll know it when you see it. But this is as far as I go. One of you will have to lead the rest of you there. One of you is perfect for the task.”
And then, inexplicably, Ernest starts to laugh.
The excitement of almost being there – at long last! What will they find when they arrive?