Ray drops his hand on Ernest’s shoulder and the boy looks up at him. What a beautiful, gap-toothed little thing, Ray thinks. How perfect for the task he is.
Ray points across the snow-covered field. There is a building in the distance, a sliver of cracked light breaking through the darkness. “That’s where you need to go,” Ray says. “Walk over to the door and knock. Someone will let you in.”
“Why can’t I go with him?” Hettie asks; she is curious, not anxious. She looks at her child, bemused at how straight his back is, how determined he seems though, of course, giggles still burst from him.
“It requires innocence to find your way to Quilaq,” Ray says. “It’s one of the rules. I can’t explain it, and it isn’t necessary for you to know more. And whom is more innocent among you than the child?”
A few snickers. Angie is thinking of a man she spent a summer with, without the knowledge of his wife, and Gerry the Gin is thinking of money, taken from an unattended wallet left on a bar. The thoughts wash through them and they are left with the sense that no, they are not innocent exactly. Then the memories disappear and they can’t remember what they were thinking about.
“Go,” says Ray, giving Ernest a gentle push, and Ernest sets off across the field. The snow comes up to his knees but he doesn’t stop.
The group watch him and they hold their breath. For the first time in days they can feel the cold again and, when Ernest reaches the door and knocks, they exhale together. Warm air escapes from their bodies, spiralling into the night in white clouds.
The door opens; Ernest stands in a glare of light. The silhouette of a man falls across him. It is a huge, big man. He fills the space between the field and building and looks down at the child on his hearth. Then he motions Ernest in and, stepping to the side, the light casts over his face.
The watching group gasp and it is Jackie who says it first. “That’s Cruden Shay!”
They turn to look at each other, confused. “How can it be Cruden?” Connor says. “Has he made it to Quilaq?”
But Ray is backing away, unwilling to answer questions. A serene smile fixed on his face; he is turning back to the trees.
“Wait!” Angie tries to catch his arm but Ray melts from her grasp. Then he is gone.
Cruden’s voice booms across the field. “Come on. If you want to make it, move those legs of yours.”
They do, but each in the group wears a frown. It doesn’t take long to cross the field and soon they are standing in front of the huge meaty slab that is Cruden Shay. He has wild red hair and shoulders that seem to go on forever. He grins at them all and nods when he sees Angie.
“Welcome,” he says and swings back the door.
Warm spiced air; a wooden bar; glass lined up. Hettie gasps. The group glance at each other.
“We’re back at your bar,” Gerry says. His voice is small, as though he is frightened to say what he sees.
“There must be some mistake,” Jackie mutters. He glares at Cruden, who is now chuckling to himself.
“It is my bar, yes” the bear of a man says.
They step into the room. Ernest is spinning in a circle, arms outstretched. When the group nears, he stops, laughing loudly. “We made it, we made it!”
“But we’re back in Stokeland!” Angie hisses.
Cruden Shay is now behind the bar and pouring liquid into shot glasses. There is one for each of them. Angie. Gerry. Hettie. Frank. Jackie. Connor. Even Ernest. The bottle is not one they’ve ever seen before; it is impossible to identify what is on the label. The fluid tipped into glasses is thick, more like honey than whisky.
“Did Ray leave you at the trees?” Cruden shoves the glasses forward with his fat fingers.
“He wouldn’t answer our questions,” Connor says.
Cruden snorts. He sweats into the room, the smell of worked, toiled flesh wafting out. “He doesn’t have all the answers. His work is to bring people here. Now. Drink.”
They eye the yellow liquid dubiously and Cruden motions with his hand, encouragingly. “Drink.”
They drink. The fluid is warm and comforting and tastes differently to each of them. To Angie, it speaks of homemade lemonade, bitter-sweet. Gerry tastes broth and the heavy tang of ale. Jackie tastes coffee, Connor deep red wine. Frank swallows back stout and Hettie sips hot tea. Ernest smacks his lips. “I love milk!”
“Cruden, why are we back here?” Jackie asks. “We’ve walked for days, all the way out to the Stoneman. How is it that we’re back in your bar?”
“Is this Quilaq?” Frank says, suddenly. He places his glass back down on the bar and turns to look at Cruden, squarely in the face. It isn’t easy, given the size of the bar owner, and Frank has to stand on his tiptoes.
Cruden humpfs again. The sound is guttural. “These are the best times for me. When new people make it.”
Angie shakes her head. “You’ve known me for years, Cru. I’m hardly new.”
“This is Stokeland and Quilaq,” Cruden says. He waves a hand around the bar. “There are places like this out in the snow – little towns, cut off from the world, places that you have to suffer to get to. None of you, none of you remember how you got here, do you?”
They all think, brows furrowed. Not one can remember the exact time they arrived in Stokeland.
“Each of you made it here after a time of great danger.” Cruden looks at each of them in turn. “Angie, there was the man who broke your ribs and cut your throat. Hettie and Ernest – at the child’s birth. Such a dangerous time, giving birth. Gerry, you’ve spent nights exposed in the cold, too many of them. And Frank. You’ve owed too many angry men too much money. As for Jackie and Connor – well, the time at Laker’s Park was hard.”
The group is silent, distant in their memories.
“That’s what you went through to get here,” Cruden says. “You came to Stokeland at different times, separated by years, and yet none of you realised. Hettie, Frank and Ernest, you wouldn’t know you’ve been here for a hundred years. Jackie and Connor – seventy winters have passed since Laker’s Park. Years separate you all, and then the time became perfect for you to find each other. And finding Quilaq means different things for each of you. Each of you want to find something – that one thing – that will make your heart stop aching and your mind rest. Am I right?”
They glance at each other. Cruden, with his barking voice and fierce way of speaking, is right.
There is a noise in the room and they look around; suddenly they see people in the bar. In fact, the bar is bustling. Tables are full, booths are taken. But the faces of figures are blurred and, try as they might, the group can’t make them out.
“You’ll be able to see them clearly soon,” Cruden says, as though he can read their thoughts. “Once the drink and understanding has settled in.”
“You said there are other places like Quilaq,” Connor says, tentatively.
Cruden nods. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“But…how?” Frank knows what he wants to ask but, oddly for him, he cannot find the words.
Cruden catches hold of a hand next to him; Hettie’s. Automatically the group link up, fingers entwined, until they stand in a linked circle.
“You found your way to Quilaq by finding each other,” Cruden says. “Stokeland is a holding place. A breath. And when you find each other, you exhale.”
And they do. Their breath funnels out and they hear the hum again.
“What does Ray do?” Gerry asks.
Cruden sighs and they can see he is thinking, contemplating how best to answer. “The thing is, you can only leave Stokeland and set off for Quilaq when the shape of you is right. By that I mean that you have the right group. Like you have now – you needed to come together in order to find Quilaq. You bring different things to each other; I can’t explain what, just as I can’t explain what love is. But when you came together, here, in this bar, as it always happens in Stokeland, you were ready to leave and walk to the Stoneman. Ray’s job was to meet you there and guide you here.”
“Solar panels,” Angie murmurs. “I thought he sold solar panels.”
Cruden bares his crooked grin, his mouth crammed with broken teeth. “He shines a light. When the time is right for him, he will find his own Quilaq.”
Someone bustles by and a drink is spilled. Cruden turns and shouts over his shoulder, and a face appears. A man’s red, whisky-soaked face – they can see him clearly now. He tips a hat in Cruden’s direction and bends down to mop up the spillage with the arm of his coat.
“What now?” Frank asks.
Cruden expands his hands. “Now you find peace, here. You won’t ever be hungry or cold or empty of love. You’ve found each other and found Quilaq.”
“Like these people?” Angie asks, indicating to the bar.
The bar is crammed now; they feel the press of others against them and hot happiness in the room. Each ring with what they’ve been told. Angie melts into the memory of her grandmother; Gerry slips his hand into the bar maid’s, hope and love ignited within. Hettie and Frank embrace, with Ernest between them, whole and strong. And Conner wraps himself around Jackie, as his man leans casually against him.
Cruden Bay stands back and looks at the group, another group safely together. The snow gathers again outside Stokeland but here, in the bar at Quilaq, the light shines on.