Chilli dries in the matting of Gerry the Gin’s beard and Angie resists the urge to lean across the bar with her cloth and wipe it away. She wonders if he has ever known a woman.
As he pokes an overlong fingernail into his ear and twists it around, leisurely, she doubts it. She doesn’t look at the smear of yellow on his skin when he places his hand back on the bar. The clock above the pool table clicks around to two; the dedicated drinkers, the ones who take it seriously, will be in soon. The anchor that has looped around Angie the past week seems to shift, and her mind turns to barrels and optics, checking she has
enough to see her through to the evening when Cruden will show up. That word, the one she has been unable to leave alone – the one she has returned to all week, like a bird to a nest – that word has gone. It had been something strange. Quiller? Quebec?
She once had a classmate in high school who moved to Quebec…and Angie is off, mind wandering lightly, opening doors somewhere. She gazes at Gerry, who gazes back at her. She wonders where he’s gotten his chilli from.
And then the bar door opens and someone steps inside. A whorl of snow accompanies them, funnelling around the figure, wafting long skirts and laying waste to Angie’s clean, mopped floor. It is Hettie Neil and, before she even speaks, Angie knows she is looking for Frank.
“I ain’t seen him,” Angie says first, words out before Hettie has wiped the hair from her face. The woman wears her usual, oddly shaped hat, the one that looks like a sailboat on her head. At least, it does in dry weather. Now, wet and furred with snow, it hangs down around Hettie’s face, bobbing forlornly as she edges into the bar.
Angie has never served the woman, never raised a glass in her direction and, as Hettie moves slowly into the room, Angie sees again how much Hettie hates the place. The woman places her feet carefully, as though on ice. She wears leather boots that disappear under her skirts.
“You haven’t seen him at all?” and her voice is hoarse and rough. She lives with her son on the edge of the town and Angie wonders how Hettie can care for him.
The boy is disabled, Angie knows, though she has heard Hettie describe it bluntly. When Hettie once came looking for Frank, she said her boy was an imbecile. It was an odd, shocking word that Angie hated.
“Someone said he’d be here,” Hettie persists. A tick flutters in her eyelid, so to Angie, for an odd moment, it looks as though she is winking.
“Which someone? I tell you, he ain’t been in. Not seen him for days.” This is true, though Angie’s dander is up and she knows her response is automatic – she would have lied to Hettie anyway, for shits and giggles. Hettie gets under her skin.
“Jackie told me.” Hettie glares around the room, as though her man might spring out from the wood panelling.
The hem of her long skirt is dripping wet and smears the floor, though she doesn’t notice. What she feels, instead, is cold and, beneath that, the white flint of rage.
Hettie leaves Shay’s Bar and Angie and Gerry in it, the two staring absently at each other. Frank is not there; Hettie hadn’t really believed she would find him so easily, but Jackie seemed so sure. The miner had leaned against the wall of the store and nodded his head: “Oh, yes, I seen Frank in the bar, just as I was passing. He’ll be there now, I reckon.”
And Hettie had taken the odd, sweetly spoken man at his word.
Now she feels a fool. She has tramped all the way across town upon hearing the news, abandoning thoughts of buying yesterday’s stale bread from the storeman – and Frank isn’t even there.
She stands in the battering wind outside Shay’s Bar, flakes licking at her coat, cold settling into the damp creases of her skin. Frank, truth be told, could be anywhere, and she knows the odds are against finding him. He leads me a merry dance, she thinks, longing and hatred trampling her chest like attacking birds.
So she does the only thing she can do, and that is to turn tail and tramp back home, past the store and the mine and the chapel, alongside the stream that runs on the outskirts of Stokeland whatever the temperature. She has yet to see it freeze over and home is about a mile along the water’s trail.
And Hettie hurries. Ernest is not good when left with strangers and, even though he knows Mrs Naylor, their neighbour, he can still act up. Hettie pounds her boots into the snow, urging her bones on, back to her son. She is hungry: the smell of chilli at Shay’s Bar, though unfamiliar, made her mouth sting. But she had not the means to pay for it. Frank hasn’t left her money in an age; whenever she wants to speak to him about it, the man is nowhere to be found.
“But he comes to see me,” Ernest tells her from time to time, cheerful, even though all she can give him for dinner is day-old porridge thickened with sawdust. Hettie remembers her daddy stirring a bowl of the same, in Ireland, when the potatoes went bad and they had to kill their chickens, before they gave up and took a boat to America. She hopes she gave her father the same pleased, unquestioning smile that Ernest gives her when he eats. A smile that says he is hungry and he trusts her to provide.
The honesty shines from Ernest’s face when he says he has been visited by his father, but Hettie has yet to see him. And, even though she does not mean to, she gets angry with her son when he talks about Frank. “You should tell me when he gets here – he shouldn’t be sneaking into your room like a criminal,” and Ernst’s face would fall, and Hettie would feel wretched. It wasn’t the boy’s fault – she sincerely held that his father was to blame for their poverty.
She trudges home, thinking these things, anger filling her belly where food does not. She had fallen in love with Frank’s tales and fancies, but stories about mystical lands and cities in the sky fed no one in the snow.
Will Hettie find Frank and ease her hunger?