And here he is again, Gerry the Gin.
Angie has been waiting for him most of the morning, and finally sees him through the window of Shay’s Bar, his form braced against the snow, arms wrapped around his body in resignation as he climbs down from his battered old truck, which looks incongruous next to the snow mobiles. He tramps towards the door.
A blast of cold air, white flakes skidding haphazardly across the floor, and the man is inside. It’s been a week since Ray Sullivan’s party and Gerry has been trapping again.
When Gerry first said that word, the night of Ray’s divorce party, Angie thought she’d misheard, or he really had toppled into the space laid bare by booze, the space where words make no sense. Quilaq. That wasn’t a word.
But he said it again and his face took on a dreamy yet clear kind of expression that pinned Angie to the floor.
“Quilaq. The Inuits say it’s a real place. A city in the clouds. Sometimes I reckon I seen it. Shadows, ken. And the smells. Baking. Meat, roasting. Quilaq.” Gerry’s eyes closed softly. He smiled. “Shangri-La. You never heard the stories?”
She has been waiting to see him all week. The night of Ray’s party, a moment after Gerry spoke, someone else had broken another glass and Cruden Shay had started shouting. He was intolerant of breakages: glass was expensive to buy in Stokeland. Angie had to come from behind the bar to smooth things over and, when she was done, Gerry had folded into a heap on his barstool, a mozzarella thread of drool sliding down his arm. He had left soon after, blundering out into the night.
And now here he was, after seven long days spreading the length of his weight onto the snow, setting his snares so he could catch the ptarmigan. Angie had spent that time with the word thrumming through her brain. Quilaq. When she cleaned the beer pumps. Quilaq. When she cooked up vats of chilli for the regulars. Quilaq. When she tried to sleep in her narrow bed, the television blinking out rolls of grey static.
Quilaq. It seemed to speak to a part of her that she had tucked away so deeply she had forgotten it existed. It cracked open a compressed vault, allowing other memories to flow out: egg custard, the smell of rose water on fresh towels. The crease of her grandmother’s neck. With the scent of the old lady’s talcum powder in her nose, Angie searched for Gerry the Gin’s face each night amongst the men propping up Shays Bar, disappointment when he didn’t show folding her stomach into a hot crush.
Now, after a long week, the old man crunches into Shay’s Bar and peels back his wet coat. His bones protrude from his pale skin and he has the look of hunger Angie has seen on other men who spend too long on their own. He pulls himself up onto a stool and raises an eyebrow when she pushes a plate of chilli across the bar.
“In all my years, a woman has never given me food freely,” he says.
“I want to talk about Quilaq,” Angie replies. She turns away and reappears with two shots of whisky.
Gerry whistles when he sees them. “You really do.”
“It’s just – I haven’t heard the word before, I’m sure. But then I must have. Since you said it, I’ve not been able to think of anything else.”
Gerry says nothing until he has cleared his plate and knocked back the first shot of Yukon Jack. He breathes out heavily, gales of spiced foulness billowing into Angie’s face. She does not step back, though, and grips the beer pumps.
“I haven’t eaten for over a day,” and Gerry accepts an offered cigarette. “That was mighty welcome.”
Angie shrugs. They look smoke, odd companions for a cold, snow-bitten afternoon.
“Most folk round here will have heard of Quilaq,” Gerry says, eventually. “But they’ll likely think it’s a story. Stuff you tell a kiddie at bedtime. You know. Like the big bad wolf or the witch. Those kind of tales.”
“You didn’t talk the other night as though you thought it was a tale,” Angie says.
Gerry shrugs. “I spend too long out on the tundra. Sleeping on the ground, dirt for a pillow. Earth and moss in my mouth when I wake up.”
“But what about the Inuits? You said they believe Quilaq is real.”
“Girl, why do you want to know so much?”
To which, Angie does not have an answer. She cannot unlock the ravel of her tongue to smooth out a straight, linear answer: the truth – that Quilaq makes her think of her grandmother’s house, the one place she felt safe – sounds crazy. She can imagine a cautious look coming over Gerry’s face, falling shutter-like over his eyes. She can see him edge carefully to the door, waving away the offer of another drink or smoke.
So instead she picks up a cloth and begins wiping down the bar. “I thought I knew most of the places round here, is all.”
Gerry studies her for a long moment, rheumy eyes leaking down his cheeks. The glare off the snow can be eviscerating; Angie does not venture outside without her sunglasses. But the crows feet around Gerry’s eyes show he wears no glasses and hunts his animals with a screwed-up face, a grimace against the balls of fur and feather giving him a livelihood. He peers at Angie in silence until her cheekbones ache with keeping still.
“Yeah, the folks I meet believe it’s a real place.” Gerry accepts another cigarette. “Not like our kind of real, ken. Not like being-on-a-map real.”
“What kind of real, then?”
“I don’t know. Look, this old native I see from time to time. One of the Inuits who live beyond the Kirk Straits, amongst the caribou. Well, you get this feller drunk enough, or cold enough, and he’ll tell you about it.” Gerry glances at the whorls of snow gathering pace outside the window. “Put a frozen man by a fire and his mouth will warm up with his soul. He’s told me things about this place, Quilaq. The way it’s timeless.”
“It was hard to understand, ken. I don’t talk much in their way and he knew only bits and pieces of our way. But that’s what he meant. The years don’t matter there.”
Angie sighs and places a gathering hand over her face. The trapper made no sense.
What kind of “real place” do you think Quilaq is?