The snow that had fallen on London over a long cold weekend had been turned to slush and ice by the passing of feet and of cars. Grey, rather than pristine white, it clung onto the pavements with grim determination. Light spilled out of a supermarket, one of the “local” variety, onto the Mile End Road just east of Whitechapel Railway Station. In through the doors walked a family, the parents leading small children, parcelled up in multiple layers like miniature versions of the Michelin Man. Two young ones, alike in pink, and one older one, with a woolly hat pulled down over her ears as protection against the cold.
Once they’d passed the small entrance gates, though, the older one peeled off, her eyes – old for her age – flicking warily from side to side. Her name was Sydney, and she was a Borrible. Borribles were once children, like any you’d meet in any school ever, but, for one reason or another, they got lost. Or got themselves lost, and choose to live on the streets, stealing food and shelter. After a time, their ears grow pointy, and at the same time they stop getting older. A Borrible can live forever – unless they’re caught, and their ears are clipped. Then, they go back to growing up, to getting older, to being a normal responsible adult. Borribles can think of nothing worse, and that’s why Sydney had her hat pulled down low - to hide her pointed, give-away, ears.
Sydney made her way over to the “food to go” counter, glanced to the left and right, then pulled a hand out from the pocket of her duffle coat and grabbed a Cornish Pasty from the shelf, shoving it immediately back into her pocket. Then, as calmly as she could, she turned and walked towards the exit, heading beneath a sign that read “Self-checkout”. “Don’t mind if I do,” she muttered, to herself, as she turned towards the doors out. From behind a pedestal, set back from the entrance gates, there came a shout. The security guard had spotted her on the closed-circuit television. Sydney swore, softly, and broke into a run, nearly knocking down an elderly woman hunched over her shopping trolley, and made a burst out of the door, turning left, dodging and weaving past pedestrians on the street. From behind her came the sound of pursuit. “It’s only a pasty,” she muttered, in between gasped breaths. She skidded into an alleyway, trying to get out of sight, and bowled straight into someone. Someone very much the same height as her.
“Watch it!” the person said, grabbing onto Sydney’s jacket. Sydney made a move to free herself, but something in the voice was familiar.
“Chalotte?” she asked, leaning back to try and get a look at the other’s face, to see if it was her fellow Borrible.
“Sid?” Chalotte replied, shocked. “What are you doing here?” From outside the alleyway came a shout. “Oh!” Chalotte said, realisation dawning on her face. “Quick, this way.” She tugged on Sydney’s sleeve, and the two Borribles ran for the back of the alley, scrambling over a low fence and across the yard of one of the shops that fronted onto the Mile End road. Out of the back gate and across the road they ran, until it was clear that they’d evaded their pursuer.
“I only stole this,” Sydney said, producing the pasty, which had got a little battered in the excitement. “Didn’t think they’d run after me for that.”
Chalotte laughed. “Could have warned you about the pretend Woolly in there,” she said. “He’s got sick of Borribles nicking stuff. Thinks he can catch us. Like a Tesco Value Sussworth.” She took a moment, getting her breath back, her eyes momentarily distant. “What /are/ you doing here, anyway?”
“Looking for you,” Sydney said. “Neasden’s...” she raised her hands, helplessly.
Chalotte nodded in return. “Look,” she said, “There’s a place. Not far. It’s not great, but... we can talk there.”
The place Chalotte mentioned was at the bottom of a block of flats, boarded up and obviously disused. A rusted and graffiti-scrawled sign proclaimed it as “Ocean Estate Youth Club”. Sydney glanced enquiringly at Chalotte, who shrugged. “They’re going to knock it down, soon,” she said, “but it’s OK for the moment.” She pushed open the door, and beckoned for Sydney to follow.
No sooner had they entered the dark hall, which Sydney noticed had a distinct and not entirely pleasant smell, they were confronted by a tall girl with a tough expression on her face.
“What’cha doing, Charlotte?” the girl demanded, her hands on her hips. Sydney noticed that her ears were round, rather than pointed – she wasn’t a Borrible.
“Stick it, Stacey,” Chalotte said, glaring at her. “You don’t get to say who comes and goes. Why don’t you run along home?” Sydney glanced between the two, then relaxed as Stacey backed off.
“Who’s that?” she whispered, as the two Borribles moved further inside.
“Stacey Mug, I call her,” Chalotte said. “She’s a wannabe Borrible. Doesn’t have the guts to be one full time. Comes down here, throws her weight around, then runs back whenever it gets difficult.”
Sydney sighed. “We had some of those. Tried to show them the ropes, but they aren’t interested. Just play-acting.” The two entered a smaller room, obviously once some kind of changing room. There were blankets and makeshift pillows on the floor.
“Here we are,” Chalotte said. “What brings you down here, Sid?”
“Sam’s dead,” Sydney said, taking a seat. “You probably heard. Five years or so ago. He was old... for a horse. We did pretty well by him, no?”
“I thought he would be, by now. You lose track of the time, but... “
“It’s got so hard, Chalotte. I mean, it was never easy being Borrible, but you know what the proverb says. If it’s easy, then it’s a trap.” Sydney looked up , her eyes watering. “And... everyone I know’s gone. They clear whole streets at a time. And there just aren’t the places to go. It’s cameras and fake woollies everywhere, like that one that chased me.”
“I know, Sydney,” Chalotte said. “When they pull this place down... well, I’ll find somewhere. You heard about any of the others?”
“Torreycanyon got caught,” Sydney said. “Twilight’s still around, saw him a little while ago. You?”
“I know Bingo and Spiff got chased out of Battersea. Think they went south, out past Rumbledom.” Chalotte paused, uncertainty on her face. “Did you hear anything about...?”
Sydney shook her head. “Nothing. You?”
“Nothing. I keep looking. Keep expecting. I look at adults, too. If they... if they clipped his ears then he’ll be old by now. But I want to know. And I don’t believe they got him. Not for a second.”
“Some scheme,” Chalotte said, jutting her chin out determinedly. “He’s had to lay low for... however long it’s been.”
“Thirty years, nearly,” Sydney said, quietly. “I’ve been counting.”
Chalotte shook her head, violently. “I /know/ he’s out there.” She clamped her mouth shut, and shook her head again.
Sydney pulled the pasty out from her pocket again, and unwrapped it, splitting it in half and giving the larger part to her friend. “Dinner’s on me,” she said, with a smile. “Where is there to go?” she asked, around a mouthful of food. “It’s all so spotless these days. All the same, wherever you go.”
“I’ve heard,” Chalotte said, her own voice muffled by pasty, “That there’re some places out past Victoria Park, out towards Leytonstone. Got directions to a shop where the guy doesn’t pay any attention to what’s happening in the basement. I’ve been thinking of leaving here myself. I can’t bear to look at more like that Stacy. Or see more places pulled down and more fences put up.”
It had been a fair journey from Whitechapel, all the way east, and more than once the two Borribles, possibly the last of the adventurers who had gone on the Great Rumble Hunt, had to dodge policemen, but they had eventually made it out, skirting around the edge of Victoria Park.
“Whose Borough is this?” Sydney asked.
“Who has Boroughs any more?” Chalotte said. “There’s not enough Borribles to go round. It’s everyone for himself and watch your own back, mate. Ain’t Borrible, if you ask me.”
Sydney nodded, a little disheartened. Her friend had changed, in a way that Borribles weren’t supposed to. She seemed resigned, almost bitter. Like there wasn’t much preventing her from giving up.
“This is it,” Chalotte said, as they neared a shop that proclaimed itself “Roy’s Car Parts”. The window was dusty, and some of the boxes on display were sun-faded. Chalotte led the way around the side, and down a flight of steps to a door, which she knocked on.
“Who’s there?” came a belligerent response.
“Borrible,” Chalotte said, her voice low. Sydney reached to her back pocket, taking out her catapult, just to be ready, but the door opened a crack.
“What’s your names?” The dark face peering round the door had the wariness typical of Borribles.
“I’m Chalotte, and this is Sydney. What’s yours?”
“Good name. I bet there’s a good story behind it, and I’d love to hear it.”
Shovel opened the door, to let the other two Borribles in. “Yours are good too,” he said, grudgingly. “I... wait. Not /that/ Chalotte and Sydney?”
“Probably,” Chalotte admitted. Inside, there was warmth, and the smell of bacon frying.
“This seems alright,” Sydney said, looking around.
Shovel put his hands on his hips.“Yep. Roy looks after us OK, for a normal. And we go and liberate things from time to time to help him out. You’ll meet him, soon enough.”
“Borribles should keep to Borribles,” Chalotte quoted, but without much heat.
Shovel began to reply, but was silenced by the sound of feet coming down the internal stairs. “Here he is now,” he said, as a man, middle-aged in Sydney’s estimation, entered the room. She looked at him, and stepped forward to greet him. Chalotte gasped, and Sydney whirled to face her. The Whitechapel Borrible had gone as white as a sheet.
“What have we here, Shovel me lad?” Roy asked, brightly. “Some new friends?”
“Hello Knocker,” Chalotte said, tonelessly.
“Knocker?” Roy said, blankly. “Knocker? Is that some new slang? So hard to keep up.”
“No,” Sydney said, her heart somewhere in her boots, an emptiness gnawing inside her. “Knocker was your name. Once.”
“Don’t remember...” Roy said, uncertainly. “Don’t...” He flexed his right hand, thoughtlessly, the old burn visible for a moment. “Well, you’re welcome to stay here for as long as you want. Right, Shovel? And we’ll talk more later. You can tell me all about this Knocker.” He turned, to head back up the stairs, a vague, disquieted look on his face.
Sydney looked at Chalotte, worried. The Whitechapel Borrible hadn’t moved, or spoken, or it seemed even breathed since that one sentence. She looked back at Sydney, a wildness in her eyes, and then turned and ran from the room. Sydney took one step to follow her, then shook her head as the outside door slammed.
“Blow me,” said Shovel. “What happened there?”
Sydney looked at him. “Too hard to explain,” she said, and turned away, sitting herself down on a decrepit sofa.
Chalotte was back. Sydney stirred in her sleep, then her eyes flicked open to see her friend sitting on the arm of the couch, cradling a plastic bag against her chest.
“He doesn’t remember me,” Chalotte said. “He doesn’t remember any of it. And I... we left him alone. All this time, he’s been out here. Forgetting. Alone.”
“You didn’t know,” Sydney said, fighting the sleep out of her eyes and the fogginess from her brain. “And what could you do? They clipped him. He’s not Borrible any more. He’s not Knocker.”
“He is,” Chalotte spat back, fiercely. “He is. I spoke to him and I can see that deep down... somewhere... he remembers. He remembers us. He remembers /me/. He’s still Knocker. He just needs someone to remind him. To help him. Twice I’ve left him behind and I’m not going to do it a third time.”
Sydney was suddenly wide awake. “What do you mean?” she asked. “What are you going to do?”
Chalotte opened the bag, and pulled out something metallic. Metallic and shiny and sharp. “I’m not going to do anything. You are, Sydney. For me. Help me go to him. Help me... catch him up, a bit.”
“No!” Sydney protested, her mouth dry. “I... that’s not Borrible.”
Her friend’s cheeks glistened. “I know, Sid.” Chalotte took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be Borrible. Not any more. It’s too hard, and too many have died... gone. Too many good Borribles. Clip my ears, Sid. End it for me.”
Sydney’s own sight was clouded with tears and desperation gnawed within her. “Not... not now?” she asked, clutching for any straw. “In the morning. When I can see properly. Sleep now? Or at least... think about it.”
“I’m not going to change my mind, Sid,” Chalotte said. “But you can sleep for now. I’ll wait. He’s waited so long... a night more won’t hurt.”