A figure passes the window and Hettie looks up. Night comes early to Stokeland, but the gloom is not so thick that she cannot make out a man’s shape, wrapped up against the cold. Short, stout, bowed legs poking beneath a heavy coat. She can see it is Connor, the fella who is never far from Jackie’s side. Hettie watches Connor make his lumbering way past. She sees how his legs barely hold him and how they buckle outwards, in a way that makes her wince. She wonders how he manages working down the zinc mines, and if Jackie does the lion’s share of the work. She knows they live in town, sharing a couple of rooms above the carpenter’s.
Hettie is angry. Connor, she thinks, is making his way home, where Jackie will appear at some point. The same Jackie who lied to her, who told her Frank was in Shay’s Bar when he wasn’t. She wonders if Connor will start dinner and if Jackie will pick up meat from the store. She can see the kind of friendship they have. There were men, back in Ireland, who had similar friendships. It is not completely shocking to her, though Hettie’s father used to steer his daughter into the nearest shop if their paths crossed, in town, with those kind of men.
Unlike her father, Hettie is not angry that these friendships exist. Instead, she is angry because Frank is nowhere to be seen and she is hungry and Jackie told her a lie.
So she gets up. It disturbs Ernest, who wakes and calls out, but that cannot be helped. She swings open the door to their shack, knowing the meagre, damp heat emitted by their stove will soon dissipate in the frigid air. But she doesn’t care and steps out onto the snow.
She wonders if he will hear her, for the wind is blowing now and it seems to pillow her shout back to her in a damp wave. But the bowed man does hear and turns. She sees his wide jaw and long mouth, and thinks that he looks like a toad, or what she remembered of toads back in Ireland.
Ernest has sidled out of the house as well, and stands in his socks. Hettie resists the urge to bark at him and tell him to go back inside.
“Hettie?” Connor squints in the darkening light and plods back across the snow-bound field. “Are you all right?”
Hettie clenches her fists, quickly, hiding them inside her sleeves. “Going home, Connor?”
“I am, that. I was down that mine at four this morning. I’ve finished for the day.”
“And will Jackie be waiting for you?”
Connor’s step slows. He is shorter than Hettie and he looks up at her. He tilts his head. Curious. “Not yet, I imagine. But soon.” He brings his square hands around to his middle and Hettie sees his thumbs press against each other, making an anxious kind of steeple.
Ernest folds himself against his mother’s side and she feels a tremble pass through his body. He’s cold, she thinks, and wraps an arm around him.
“Tell Jackie,” and Hettie swallows, “that I don’t like his games. He told me an untruth, and it was not kind.”
Connor’s eyes shoot up, an inverted reflection of his mouth, which has turned down. “I don’t understand, Hettie.”
“Just tell him that.” Her voice is shriller than she’d like and Ernest sighs.
“Well. All right.” Connor hesitates and makes to turn away. The dark spreads out, ready to swallow the man whole, and fill in the space Connor leaves like blood flooding into a wound. But then he swings back and Hettie sees how cruelly his legs move; how his knees twist almost back on themselves. It makes her bowels feel loose and hot, just to see. He speaks again. “Hettie, I don’t know what Jackie said, but he isn’t an untruthful man. I know him, better than anyone. He’s the type to speak the truth even when he would do well to hold his tongue.”
Hettie clenches her fists again, squeeze squeeze. “He said he’d seen Frank. Said he was in Shay’s Bar, but he wasn’t. Angie, that slattern who pulls the beer – she couldn’t wait to tell me Frank was nowhere to be seen.”
Connor tilts his head and his brown, almost amber eyes open and settle. He is thinking hard. Hettie can see that connections are being made in his mind, that understanding is weaving itself together like the pattern on a rug. “Jackie made a mistake, then. But it is true that Frank is in Shay’s, most nights. Telling his stories.”
“Maybe I’ll come and see him,” Hettie says suddenly. “Maybe I’ll bring his child along with me and interrupt his tall tales. Let those who crowd around him hear how he explains away what it is like for a child to be little and hungry.” She pulls Ernest’s sleeve, trying to swing the boy from her side and in front, between her and Connor.
Ernest resists. He makes a small noise and twists handfuls of his mother’s skirt up beside his ears. Then his head pokes out, rabbit-like. “I saw him last night, Ma.”
Connor looks down at the boy. He is not much taller than the child and can see how fragile Ernest’s bones are, how his jaw is not rounded with smooth plump, like a child’s should be. The boy’s face is too wide and his eyes are out of focus. And yet Connor sees something else in the boy. A glint in Ernest, like a light in the distance.
The way Hettie clicks her tongue makes it clear that she does not see this light, in spite of the savagery of her love. She feels angry and thinks her boy is growing up to be like his father; full of stories. “And how did you manage that, Ernest? Did you walk all the way into town? Stand at the bar and drink ale while waiting for your father to finish with his bullshit?”
It is a hard word and Connor sees the line of steel through Hettie; a line, no doubt, she has relied upon during her years in the Stokeland wilderness. He wonders if Frank has shaped her, whether in those first hot moments of love, or the empty years after.
Ernest, though, seems to glide under his mother’s anger. He becomes languid, and relaxes his hold of his mother’s dress. Dreamily, he says, “but I saw him. He came into my room and sat on the end of my bed. He told me about Quilaq.”
Hettie shakes her head, snorting. He’s so hungry he’s lost all sense, she thinks.
She turns to Connor, eyes blazing, mouth open, ready to shout – and, suddenly, Connor wants to be away. He wants to leave this furious woman and make his way back to the rooms above the carpenter’s store, where it is calm and peaceful. In those rooms, a bed stands behind a curtain and there is a couch, surrounded by books. They pile up like a fortress. He and Jackie read them all, ankles locking together in the evening as they sprawl.
Connor aches to be there now, and he nods swiftly, cutting Hettie off just as more words spill from her mouth. He turns and stumbles into the black, lumbering across the field towards home. He leaves her to shout into the air, to stand with her strange son and his strange memories.
Do Frank and Quilaq really exist? They both seem quite elusive…