It takes them much longer than they all expect, but the snow comes down relentlessly and plays cruel tricks on their feet; a step forward becomes a step sideways, a lurch ahead becomes a staggering fall. More than once, Hettie is helped to her feet by Jackie. Connor holds Ernest’s hand and tugs him on; the man’s gloves on the boy’s fingers and Connor’s now frozen fingers scream his hatred for Frank, a father who couldn’t make sure his
son was properly dressed in the frigid north. The group blunder on, towards town and Shay’s Bar.
“This is a fool’s mission,” Hettie says through clamped teeth, as Jackie props her up again and they struggle alongside a fence. “We should be indoors on a night like this. Is it worth dying out here in the cold to go and listen to one of Frank’s stories?”
“It ain’t a story, Hettie,” Jackie says, his voice cottony in the falling snow. “I’ve heard of the place. You must have, surely.”
If Hettie can shrug, she shrugs now, though there is too much white stuff on her shoulders to make the gesture worthwhile. Inside she rues that fact – she has always been an emphatic shrugger. “Children’s stories. Nothing more than fancies you tell babies at night.”
“I don’t think so. Gerry the Gin – he told me one night that he’s seen the place. Shadows, anyhow. And smelt it.”
“Codswallop!” Hettie laughs angrily. “Gerry the Gin doesn’t get his name for nothing, Jackie. There are so many of his kind in this town.”
“Gerry’s a good man.”
Hettie sniffs dryly. “Well, you may know better than I. But I’ve seen the fellers round here. They work and booze all the time God sends, just so they can earn enough to head south, to Tramper’s Creek. But none of them leave. None of them make it out of here. Instead they sit their hours at Shay’s Bar, lining that greasy bastard’s pockets.”
Jackie’s mouth falls open in a soft “o”; Hettie’s rage has made her coarse. He can see that anyone might stray into the firing line and be seared by her hot tongue. But he wants to speak. Has to speak.
“People do leave, Hettie. Ray Sullivan – he trades at Tramper’s Creek. He doesn’t spend all his time drinking. I think your heart is harder than it needs to be.”
Behind them, Ernest falls over again and laughs. Jackie sees Connor haul the boy to his feet and shake his head; Jackie’s man is incredulous that the boy can’t see that they’re in a bit of a fix. Anxiety is catching; as the snow thickens and crusts about them, Jackie urges his feet on. He doesn’t fancy a night out in the stuff.
“Ray had a fine time in Tramper’s Creek, didn’t he?” Hettie says. Her mouth is a curled smirk. “So much so that Wanda divorced him.”
Jackie says nothing to this, but wonders where Hettie hears her news. She doesn’t come into Shay’s, only when on the prowl for Frank.
“What has he told you about this place that’s so special?” Hettie asks after a time. The moon is out and blazing, sallow light reflecting in the diamond dust piled along the trail. “Frank has lots of stories.”
“I think everyone knows this place, really. If they try to remember hard enough, they’ll know they’ve heard the name. Quilaq. Supposedly it’s a town further north, way past the Kirk Straits. Only it’s not on a normal map, not a map you can pick up at the store.” Jackie grins into the wind, thinking of the storeman’s yelps the time Jackie unfolded map after map – without paying for any of them. “The folk that live there must move, or something. Pack up camp every now and then.”
“So a group of folk want to live out in the snow? What’s special about that? We do, don’t we – here in Stokeland?”
“I can’t quite remember why I came here,” Jackie says, screwing up his face. “I just seemed to make it here, is all. Something bad happened in Gillymore, where Connor and I lived. I was busted up, pretty bad. If you ask Connor he’ll say he thought I was going to die.” He glances again at his man, and at his thick arms; arms that scooped Jackie up that day a gang tried to destroy his face. He’d carried Jackie away, and dug a hole in Laker’s Park where they healed and hid. “After I got better we came north. Must have heard about the mine and the work to be had. Why’d you come here?”
“Frank,” Hettie says simply. “He brought us. I’d had a bad time with Ernest – the lying in, and all that.” She dips her head down and Jackie can see she is embarrassed. “Childbirth is a nasty business, though I don’t suppose you’d know about that. Frank says he thought the baby would die and then me. By the time I came round, we were on our way here.”
She stumbles and Jackie reaches out, to prop her up. His arm is around her waist; he is struck by how slender she is. Her anger makes her big, but that seems to be melting a little. Her splintery ribs move beneath his fingertips; the ridges of her spine make him ache to hold her close, though the desire is one of comfort, not in the same way he aches at times for Connor. Hettie turns in Jackie’s arms and allows herself to be held against him. The snow is white and canvassing, and she shines like a green jewel.
“I did listen to him, in the first days,” she says softly. “Frank would come home and watch me nurse Ernest. We’d sit in that shack, with the snow coming in under the door, and he’d light the stove and watch. He cared a little, back then. Sometimes he’d disappear for days but he’d come back and say he’d been searching for some place, or talking to people who knew about it.”
“What did Frank tell you?” Jackie asks. Warmth creeps between their bodies and their legs stride together.
Another flop from behind and Ernest is over again. Connor curses and Jackie hears a wet thwack as Ernest is pulled up and slung over the man’s shoulders.
“He said that there was a town, or maybe a camp – maybe he said camp – where there always seemed to be enough.”
“Enough food?” Jackie says and thinks of Gerry’s story, about smelling baking and roasting, where the smell of baking and roasting had no business being.
Hettie’s mouth folds at the side; she’s thinking. Dimples appear in her cheeks – Jackie can see she was once a striking woman. “Not food, exactly. But yes, food, you could say. And other things. Enough warmth and firewood, which seems incredible out in the tundra. He said – ” Hettie stops and gives a tired laugh.
“He said what?”
Hettie is shaking her head. “This is when I stopped listening to him. It was one of the times he held Ernest. There weren’t many of them, mind. He doesn’t like to touch his son and I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.” Hettie looks over her shoulder at the boy, dangling across Connor’s back, a dazed grin splitting his wide face. “Frank said he thought he was marking time before he found Quilaq. That here, where we live, is like a holding bay to him. That was Frank, always thinking about what isn’t real.”
Is Quilaq real?