The snow comes, the snow comes, and when Connor follows Jackie out of their little apartment and down the steps to the world outside, he is struck by how smooth and white and clean the earth looks. The carpenter’s rubbish pile, usually a mass of splintered timber or broken pieces of furniture beyond rescue, has been rounded by millions of tiny white flakes, and is no longer a jagged mash of weapons.
Connor stares at the mound, thinking of the many times he has been comforted by the sharp wooden daggers, taking heart in such ready access to weapons should men with pitchforks come. Seeing the rubbish pile so transformed and now so innocuous shames him. It is just a gathering of wood, after all, made innocent by the snow. And, look, the latrine, such a foul-smelling, dirty wooden shack – has been transfigured into an inviting grotto. The putrid smell carries on the air, though, and makes Connor’s nostrils flare.
Jackie’s boots leave heavy footprints in the snow, white smears going up his calves. It is so deep Connor thinks Jackie’s boots will come off and be inexorably, unavoidably sucked into the powder. But whilst Jackie has to pull and make a deliberate effort to move, his body jerking like a lazy toddler being forced to walk, his boots stay on and he makes slow, steady progress towards the road.
They are going to find Frank. Jackie had suggested it, his voice barely above a whisper. “I have a mind he’s be at Cruden Shay’s,” he’d said. “Just come and listen to him.”
“He’s a storyteller,” Connor had said, redundantly. “It’s how he makes a living, whatever kind of living it is. Not that he gives anything to Hettie or his son.”
“That’s none of our business,” and Jackie had got up, reached for his coat and thrown Connor’s to him. “Just hear what he’s got to say. I promise it will be worth it.”
“What kind of thing will he tell me?” Connor asked, watching himself put on his coat, amazed at the treachery of his body. He did not want to go out again. He wanted to stay where it was warm, eat the stew he’d cooked and, eventually, find a way to forgive Jackie. It was how it went – how it had always been. Before they got to Stokeland, Jackie would sometimes take off, maybe for as long as a week. He’d just disappear and, when he’d return, he’d be different. The way he moved, the way he stood with a tilt to his hips – Connor knew he’d been with other men. But he always found a way to forgive him. It was how it had always been.
But now, trudging after Jackie in the snow, Connor feels frightened. This seems different. There is an urgency, a mobility to Jackie that he is not used to. In the past, when there were other men, Jackie returned home with a languorous kind of air. An indolent ease that rippled out in the way he spoke and moved. As though he were sated.
Connor is not used to seeing such energy in his man after Jackie had been with someone else and, somehow, it gladdens his heart and lifts his spirits. Maybe all Jackie really did with Frank was talk then, Connor thinks. He senses Jackie would be different if some other kind of transaction had occurred. With that in mind, Connor tries to move his bowed legs faster and catch up with the fella.
“Hulloo!” A cry from behind them and Connor turns, awkwardly, joints protesting. It is already too cold for him. He squints into the falling snow and makes out two figures, shadows, gliding towards him. For a mad second he feels panic and remembers that terrifying book Jackie read to him last winter – Dracula. They’d lain their coats on top of their blankets and huddled deep into their bed while Jackie read, black tongues licking the walls as their one candle burned. The book had been too good to leave until the morning so, mindful of electricity costs, Jackie had bought candles at the store and stayed up late, reading outloud. Connor sees the Count now, moving but not moving, making his terrible way towards him, over the snow, not leaving a trail.
He cries out, a yelp, and Jackie turns back, with an exasperated “what is it, man?”
And it is only Hettie and Ernest. Hettie wears her long coat, the one that falls to her feet, and Ernest is wrapped up in blankets. As they near, Connor sees Hettie has tied rope around Ernest’s middle, securing the blankets in place but producing the effect of turning the boy into a trussed up piece of meat. Like a pork joint, Connor thinks, and feels sad for the poor, coatless child. But Ernest seems happy enough – he beams when he spots Connor.
“We’re going to see Dad!” he says brightly. His bare little ears are red and sore with cold. Connor takes off his own hat and forces it down on the boy’s head.
Hettie approaches. She stares at Jackie, anger still raw and blazing. Snowflakes stick to her clothes and melt quickly, the heat of her body obviously too much.
“You lied to me, Jackie.” Hettie’s eyes are wet and bruised, and set too far back in her head.
Jackie looks down, to where his boots are hidden in the mounds of white. “I did. I’m sorry.”
“Why did you? What did I ever do to you?”
“Nothing, Hettie. You’re – you’re a fine woman.”
Jackie has no idea how to talk to women and the words he mutters are, Connor knows, from a book. Yet they seem to have some effect on Hettie, for her shoulders settle and her head bounces forward on her neck, deflated. “I just want to know where he is, Jackie. I can’t remember the last time I saw him.”
“I saw him last night!” Ernest said, joyfully and simply. He looks around him, at the settling and rising earth, wonder on his face. “The houses are disappearing!”
It is not true, of course; it’s just the snow coming down harder than ever, but Connor looks about him with a jump. He has never seen snow like this in Stokeland and realises that, if they don’t move quickly, they’ll never make it to Shay’s Bar.
“We should go, Jackie,” he says, nudging the fella. “Shay’s will be covered before we know it.”
“You’re going to Shay’s Bar?” Hettie’s eyes harden.
“We are. I think, I think maybe Frank will be there. Really, this time.” Jackie offers up a small smile.
“Where was he before? You knew, didn’t you? Why did you lie?”
Jackie breathes in deeply and, when he exhales, the cloud rises upwards, a film of lace stretching above them. “Come with us. To Shay’s. Frank knows about a place. Where he was earlier – when I said he was at the bar – he went to fetch things. He has maps. Directions.”
“Quilaq!” Ernest shouts.
Will they find Frank this time?