Ernest sees her before Mrs Naylor and is up, up out of his chair and out of the door, thin arms around her waist. Hettie looks down at him, pleased, but feels an ache as she takes in her son’s white face, hunger hollowing out his cheeks. It is as though his skin is emptying, she thinks, shedding the fat and ripples that children have – should have – so that Ernest seems…oh, not real, somehow.
And yet he is real enough to her, and he is patting down her pockets, searching for bread. Mrs Naylor has fed him – Hettie sees a bowl of stew over the boy’s shoulder – and the fact he has eaten some is testament to his hunger. Hettie struggles to get Ernest to eat anything other than porridge, bread and a paste she found in the store, one made from nuts. She hasn’t got that today: her pockets hold nothing.
Ernest is making a noise, a cowl, and she drops to her knees so their noses touch. Mrs Naylor narrows her eyes from her seat at the table but Hettie ignores her. She knows her son better than anyone, has calmed him this way since birth. She puts her hands on either side of his face and pulls him close, feeling his sweet breath slowing.
“We’ll eat tonight,” she says quietly and swallows Ernest’s mewling disappointment.
“There’s food on the table,” Mrs Naylor interjects, and makes a show of rattling the bowls. “Proper food. Milk loaf and peanut butter won’t make a boy grow.”
“Thank you, Mrs Naylor,” and Hettie stands, pulling her son against her. “We’ll be going now. Ernest, say goodbye to Mrs Naylor.”
Ernest mumbles and wriggles inside his woollen jumper. He has resisted Mrs Naylor’s attempts to dress him in a tracksuit, which had belonged to her son. He refused, shying away from the curious, shiny fabric, but not before touching it.
Hettie takes her son back out into the snow and they walk the short distance across a white field towards their house. It is a rough block of wood, a room at the bottom and two above, a window on each floor. Rags are packed around the seams of the building in a futile attempt to keep in the heat. Hettie swings open the door and they enter, and she turns to wad the gap between door and earth with a piece of carpet she found at the town dump. Ice is smeared on the inside of the hut’s window and the stove has gone out.
She takes off her sodden hat and sits Ernest down on the one armchair. Bends in front of the stove, numb fingers fighting to light the kindling. After several attempts she manages, and a mean strip of flame struggles for life. She turns to scoop Ernest up, heart thumping wetly as she notes how light he is, and they hug, the boy fitting into the curve of her side.
A basket of sewing sits by the chair and, once Ernest is asleep, Hettie reaches round and scoops up a ball of mending, though it takes a while to thread the needle with her frozen fingers. She takes what mending she can from around the town and today the basket holds socks. Some of the items shock her, with their bright, garish colours; she wonders how the wool was dyed in that way. The patterns, too – swirls, animals, phrases. She can’t see how the weaver did it, creating such things.
In the dim light Hettie sews. She mends holes, pulling together threads and seaming gaps and tears together with tiny, practiced stitching. She is known as someone who mends well, who can repair where others might have given up. Clothes are precious, here in Stokeland, with the town’s intermittent deliveries. She has found enough work, over the years, to keep her and her son going – just about. As Ernest snores beside her, their bodies melded together, Hettie turns fabric over in her icy fingers, not noticing the sharp prick of the needle.
She remembers how, in the early days with Frank, just a few months after landing in New York, she sewed his clothes. She remembers washing and cutting up an old rag, dragging colour back into the garment. It pains her, now, to think of it; how she started subtly, lining Frank’s trouser pockets with a purple square, so that only he would see when he pulled out his coins. She winces to think of how she added red panels to the inside of his coat, padding it out for winter but, she hoped, letting him know in a silent way that she could do for him – that he would find her a good enough wife. When they married, her father refusing to come to the ceremony, Hettie made her own skirt; thick waistband, green panel almost up to her bust, the kind she had seen the ladies wear back in Ireland before they abandoned their land.
Frank never seemed to see her work, though; never seemed to see her bent over a ball of fabric against the light of the fire. Instead he carried on with his stories, practising them outloud so he’d be ready to entertain those in the bars and saloons of Brooklyn.
Ernest snorts and farts, a sour smell wrinkling Hettie’s nose. The oats and bread he eats fill his stomach with air. She wonders what his guts will be like, later, after Mrs Naylor’s broth. And, again, she thinks how hungry he must have been to eat it.
She remembers that Frank eats anything. Week old fish, seal, even horse. She senses there was little food in his childhood but never asked. He is Irish, too, but debt, rather than the blight, sent him across the water, to New York where he became known as the Story Man. She first saw him standing on a corner, near to the market stalls, holding sway with his wild tales and legends. The Irish around him loved it, loved the way his word-pictures transported them home to peat and broth and family. For the first time in her life, Hettie had been foolish and they married quickly. But there was no money to pay for a doctor when the time came, and she woke to find herself on a cart being wheeled from the city, a new baby tucked in beside her. She wondered if she was lucky to be alive, but Frank, the man who could weave tales from the air, never spoke of those three days she couldn’t remember.
Her own stomach growls. She swallows drily. The memory of the spiced meat from Shay’s Bar; Stokeland has flavours and tastes that overwhelm her. Sometimes she picks up packets in the store, turning the bright colours in her fingers. She can’t understand what they contain and the shouty, garish words on the front make her nervous. So Hettie buys bread, dried eggs, oats, the paste Ernest likes, and what little meat she can afford.
She can’t remember when they arrived at Stokeland, or even if Frank was with them. Ernest had grown a little, Hettie is sure, so they’d lived in the snow for a least a few years. She reaches the end of her mending, thinking back to what Frank had said, how he had persuaded them to come here. A town, north – far north – which had men to entertain with stories, and food, lots of food. It did not take the battering wind and the fall of snow long to hammer home that is was a lie. That it was another of Frank’s fanciful tales and that the city in the clouds was just that. Air.
Will Hettie ever see a brighter day?