The swirling rain-clouds rushed on revealing the bright moon, and the two Borribles dodged behind the bushes and kept as quiet as they could. There was danger in the air and they could feel it. It would pay to be cautious.
‘Strewth,’ said Knocker, the chief lookout of the Battersea tribe, ‘what a bloody cheek, coming down here without so much as a by-your-leave.’
Lightfinger, Knocker’s companion, agreed. ‘Diabolical liberty I call it . . . nasty bit of work, covered in fur like nylon hearthrugs . . . snouts like traffic cones . . . like rats, aren’t they?’
‘There’s a big one, just getting into the motor, he’s shouting at the others, he’s the boss all right. Tough-looking, do you see?’
‘Yeah,’ answered Lightfinger, ‘they do what they’re told, don’t they? Look at them move.’
Presently the two Borribles saw the large car drive away in the moonlight, passing along the shining tarmac which led between the trees to the limits of Battersea Park. The car stopped for an instant at the gates and then turned left into Albert Bridge Road and disappeared on its way southwards into the quiet streets of the outer London suburbs.
The two Borribles stood up and looked around. They weren’t too happy in parks, being much more at ease in crowded streets and broken-down houses. It was only occasionally that the Borrible lookouts checked on the green spaces, just to see they were still there and that everything was as it should be.
When Knocker was sure they were alone he said, ‘We’d better see what they were up to over there. Something’s going on and I don’t like it.’
All at once the patch of ground at his feet began to tremble and clumps of grass began to pop up and away from their roots. There was a noise too, a scraping and a scrabbling, and a muffled voice swore and mumbled to itself. The carpet of grass rose and fell violently until a squat protruberance established itself between turf and top soil. The bump hesitated, as if it didn’t know whether to continue upwards or retreat downwards. It grunted, swore again and, as if undecided, took off on a horizontal course, forcing the turf up as it wriggled along.
At the first sign of trouble Knocker and Lightfinger had taken refuge behind a bush but as the bump moved away they came from cover and followed it.
‘It’s got to be . . .’ said Knocker. ‘It can’t be anything else, and down here in Battersea, it’s bad, double bad.’
The mound stopped and shook and struggled and became bigger, and as it grew more clods of grass fell from it. ‘Watch yourself,’ whispered Knocker. ‘It’s coming out. Get ready to jump it.’
Lightfinger and Knocker crouched, their minds racing. The turf rose higher and higher till it was as tall as the Borribles themselves, then it burst and the grass fell away like a discarded overcoat and revealed a dark and sinister shape of about their own size.
It looked like a giant rat, a huge mole or a deformed rabbit, but it was none of these for it stood on its hind legs and had a long snout and beady red eyes, like the things that had gone away in the car.
Knocker gave a shrill whistle and at the signal both he and Lightfinger leapt forward. Knocker got an armlock round the thing’s head and pulled it to the ground while Lightfinger fell onto the hairy legs and bent one over the other in a special hold that could dislocate a knee. The thing shouted so loudly that it would have woken the neighbourhood if there’d been one in Battersea Park. Knocker squeezed it round the neck and whispered, ‘Shuddup, you great fool, else I’ll smother yer.’ The creature shuddupped.
Knocker levered the prisoner into a sitting position and got behind it so he could tie its arms back with a length of rope he took from his waist. Lightfinger moved so that he was sitting on the thing’s legs, looking into the eyes, which were like marbles rolling around at the wide end of the snout.
‘All right,’ said Knocker when he was ready, ‘give it a duffing.’
Lightfinger grabbed the beast by the scruff of its fur and pulled its snout forward. ‘Name?’ he asked gruffly.
The snout moved a little and they heard a voice say in a distinguished tone, ‘Timbucktoo.’
‘Tim who?’ asked Lightfinger again, shaking the snout good and hard.
‘And where are you from, you moth-eaten overcoat?’ asked Knocker, in spite of the fact that he knew the answer.
Timbucktoo shook himself free of the two Borribles and, though his hands were bound, he got to his feet and glared haughtily down his snout, his red eyes blazing.
‘Why, I’m fwom Wumbledom of course, you dirty little tykes. You’d better welease me before you get into sewious twouble.’
‘I knew it,’ said Knocker turning to Lightfinger with excitement. ‘A Rumble from Rumbledom. Ain’t it strange as how they can’t pronounce their rs?’
‘So that’s a Rumble,’ said Lightfinger with interest. ‘I’ve often wondered what they looked like – bloody ugly.’
‘It’s the first time I’ve been this close to one,’ said Knocker, ‘but you can’t mistake them – nasty.’
‘You wevolting little stweet-awabs,’ the Rumble had lost his temper, ‘how dare you tweat me in this fashion?’
‘ ’Cos you’re on our manor, that’s how, you twat,’ said Knocker angrily. ‘I suppose you didn’t even know.’
‘I only know what you are,’ said Timbucktoo, ‘and what I am and that I’ll go where I like and do what I like without having to ask the permission of gwubby little ignawamuses like you. Untie me, Bowwible, and I’ll forget about this incident.’
‘He’s a real pain,’ said Lightfinger. ‘Let’s throw him in the river.’
The moon was clear of clouds again and glinted on the nearby Thames. In spite of himself the Rumble shivered. ‘That will do you no good. I can swim, you know, like an otter.’
‘So you should,’ said Knocker, ‘you look like one.’ And he cuffed the Rumble once more and told him to hold his tongue.
Knocker thought deeply, then he said, ‘I s’pose the river’s the best idea for getting him off our manor, but maybe we ought to take him back and find out more about him, what his mob are up to. I don’t like the look of it; suspicious this is, Rumbles down here in Battersea, it’s wrong. We ought to give Spiff a chance to give this thing the once over.’
‘You’re right,’ said Lightfinger, and they hauled the Rumble to its feet and pushed it towards the park gates.
When they reached the sleeping streets they kept to the dark shadows between the lamp posts and marched rapidly in the direction of Battersea High Street.
Borribles are generally skinny and have pointed ears which give them a slightly satanic appearance. They are pretty tough-looking and always scruffy, with their arses hanging out of their trousers. Apart from that they look just like normal children, although legions of them have been Borribles for more than a lifetime – as long as a Borrible remains at liberty he or she will never age.
Most of them have sharp faces with eyes that are burning-bright, noticing everything and missing nothing. They are proud of their quickness of wit. In fact it is impossible to be dull and a Borrible because a Borrible is bright by definition. Not that they know lots of useless facts; it’s just that their minds work well and they tend to dislike anyone who is a bit slow.
The only people likely to get close to Borribles are ordinary children, because Borribles mix with them to escape detection by ‘the authorities’ who are always trying to catch them. Any child may have sat next to a Borrible or even talked to one and never noticed the ears for the simple reason that Borribles wear hats, woollen ones, pulled down over their heads, and they sometimes grow their hair long, hanging to their shoulders.
Normal kids are turned into Borribles very slowly, almost without being aware of it; but one day they wake up and there it is. It doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they’ve had what is called a bad start. A child disappears and the word goes round that he was ‘unmanageable’; the chances are he’s off managing by himself. Sometimes it’s given out that a kid down the street has been put into care: the truth is that he’s been Borribled and is caring for himself someplace. One day a shout might be heard in a supermarket and a kid with the goods on him is hoisted out by a store detective. If that kid gets away he’ll become a Borrible and make sure he isn’t caught again. Being caught is the end of the free life for a Borrible: once in custody his ears are clipped by the police surgeon and he begins to grow into a malevolent and adventureless adulthood, like any ordinary child.
So Borribles are outcasts, but unlike most outcasts they enjoy themselves and wouldn’t be anything else. They delight in feeling independent and it is this feeling that is most important to them. Consequently they have no real leaders, though someone may rise into prominence from time to time, but on the whole they manage without authority and they get on well enough together, though like everybody, they quarrel.
They don’t get on with adults at all, or anyone who isn’t Borrible, and they see no reason why they should. Nobody has ever tried to get on with them, quite the contrary. They are ignored and that suits them down to the ground because that way they can do what they want to do in their own quiet and crafty way.
Knocker and Lightfinger had been on night patrol in Battersea Park when they’d stumbled across the Rumbles and the discovery had made them uneasy. Borribles like to make sure that no other Borrible tribe is encroaching on their territory, that’s bad enough. They live in fear of being driven away from their markets and houses, of seeing their independence destroyed; that is why scouting round the frontiers of their borough is a regular duty.
Unearthing a Rumble was a calamity. They are the real enemies of the Borribles and the Borribles hate them for their riches, their power, their haughtiness and their possessions. If the Rumbles were coming all the way down from Rumbledom to colonize the Park, what price Battersea High Street?
Knocker and Lightfinger harried Timbucktoo along in front of them. They went through Battersea Church Road, by St Mary’s down by the river, and then into the High Street. They saw no one and no one saw them, it being well into the early hours of the morning. They were making for an empty house standing opposite the end of Trott Street. It was tall and wide and the bottom windows were boarded up and a sheet of corrugated iron covered the main doorway. The facade of the building was painted over in grey, and in black letters was written, ‘Bunham’s Patent Locks Ltd. Locksmiths to the trade.’
It was a typical Borrible hideaway, derelict and decaying, and Knocker and Lightfinger lived there. Borribles live where they can in the streets of the big cities, but they like these abandoned houses best of all.
The two Borribles halted on the pavement and glanced up and down the street. Nobody. They opened a gate in the railings and Knocker pushed Timbucktoo down some stone steps that led to a basement. The two lookouts followed, opened a door and dragged the Rumble into the house by the neck. Once the door was closed Knocker switched on the light.
The Borribles had entered a large room furnished with orange boxes for use as chairs and tables. Two doors opened from it; one into an underground larder, which served as a storeroom, the other to some stairs which led to the rest of the house. The bay window was covered with scraps of old blanket to prevent light shining into the street and alerting the police that someone was squatting in a dwelling that was supposed to be empty.
‘What we gonna do with him, now we’ve got him here?’ wondered Lightfinger, and he pushed Timbucktoo down into a seat.
‘Yes,’ said the Rumble, looking up, his eyes glinting crimson, ‘you won’t get away with this you know, it’s iwwesponsible. You Bowwibles must be insane. I’ll see you get your ears clipped.’
‘Clip me ears, will yer?’ said Knocker tight-lipped, and he went into the store cupboard. A second later he was out again, carrying a roll of sticky tape. He went over to the Rumble, grasped its head and wound the tape round and round the animal’s snout so that it could no longer speak.
He stood back to admire his work. Lightfinger sat and cupped his face in his hands and rested his elbows on his knees.
‘There,’ said Knocker, ‘that’s the way to deal with a talking mattress.’
‘I’m glad all animals can’t speak,’ said Lightfinger. ‘We’d have meningitis within the week, or run out of sticky tape.’
‘I’ll go and get Spiff,’ said Knocker. He ran up to the ground floor of the house and tapped on the door of a large room that overlooked the back garden, a back garden that Knocker knew was a wilderness of weeds; a dangerous dump of rusting oil drums and broken bicycles.
The door opened a crack and another Borrible appeared. He was perhaps an inch taller than Knocker and his ears were very pointed. He was dressed in a bright orange dressing gown made from new warm towelling. His carpet slippers were comfortable.
‘Who are you? Ah, Knocker, what do you want then?’
‘Sorry to wake you, Spiff,’ said Knocker, ‘but me and Lightfinger found something in the park and think you ought to have a look at it. It’s down in the basement.’
‘Oh Lor’,’ groaned Spiff, ‘can’t it wait till morning? You haven’t got the law on your trail, have you?’
‘No,’ said Knocker, ‘it’s nothing like that. What we’ve got is worse. It’s a Rumble! There was a whole lot of them in a posh car and we caught this one tunnelling. Cheek, ain’t it, coming down here without a by-yer-leave and digging?’
Spiff had become more and more intent on what Knocker had been saying until finally he seemed quite beside himself.
‘A bloody Rumble, in the park? You get back downstairs, me lad, and I’ll come right away. I’ll put me hat on.’
He closed the door and Knocker darted back down the uncarpeted stairs. He understood Spiff’s caution; no Borrible ever left his room without putting on a woollen hat to cover the tops of his ears. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of them, quite the contrary, but they liked to be prepared for an emergency. Any unforeseen circumstance could force them into the streets and it wouldn’t do to be spotted as a Borrible.
‘He’s coming,’ said Knocker as soon as he re-entered the room. ‘He’s a good bloke, you know . . . short-tempered sometimes, but they don’t come any craftier than Spiff.’
‘You can’t get anything past him and that’s a fact,’ said Lightfinger. ‘They say he’s pulled more strokes than the Oxford and Cambridge boat race put together. And they say that he won dozens of names in fights with the Rumbles, and we’re only s’posed to have one. Nobody knows how many names, nobody . . . He’s a mystery, but one thing’s for sure, he hates Rumbles.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ said Knocker. ‘There’s millions of stories about his names and some of them not very Borrible either, but I’d rather have him for me than against me.’ He sat down and looked at Timbucktoo and thought about names and the gaining of them, something that occupied his every waking hour.
A Borrible name has to be earned because that is the only way a Borrible can get one. He has to have an adventure of some sort, and the name comes out of that adventure – stealing, burglary, a journey or a trick played on someone. That was the rule and Knocker was against it; it made it difficult, if not impossible, for a Borrible to join an adventure once he was in possession of a name. The first chance was always given to those who were nameless and this infuriated Knocker for he had a secret ambition to collect more names and have more adventures than any other Borrible alive.
A noise on the stairs disturbed Knocker’s reflections. He stood up and at the same moment Spiff flung open the door and strode theatrically into the room. His head was adorned with a magnificent hat of scarlet wool and he clutched the orange dressing gown tightly to his chest. Spiff had the clear face of a twelve-year-old child but his eyes were dark with wisdom: the wisdom, so it was rumoured, of a hundred years of existence. His nose was prominent; the kind of nose that smelt out trickery with ease.
He stopped short as soon as he saw the Rumble and he pushed his breath out over his teeth and made a whisper of a whistle.
‘At last,’ he said, like he was praying, ‘at last. It’s been a long while since I had my hands on one of these stinking rodents.’ He turned and beamed at Knocker and Lightfinger. ‘You lads have done marvellous, you’ve captured one alive and well, though he won’t be for long, the little basket. Found him in the park, eh? With hundreds of others, digging holes! That’s how it starts. Down here on our manor, taking it all for granted, think they’re the lords of creation, don’t they? Go anywhere, do what they like, we don’t count.’ He prodded and screwed the Rumble with a rigid index finger as he spoke. He turned to Knocker. ‘You know what this is?’
‘Yeah, a Rumble.’ Spiff was bitter. ‘No better than you or me for all their la-di-da manners. Years of them I’ve seen, sneerin’ at us down their hoity-toity snouts . . . lords of creation, moving in on our space whenever they think they will.’
Knocker and Lightfinger looked at each other. They had never seen Spiff so angry.
‘Oh, come on, Spiff,’ said Lightfinger, ‘it can’t be that bad; the Rumbles have never done me any harm.’
Spiff jumped a foot from the floor. ‘You don’t know you’re born. You know nothing about the struggles and fights we had to win free. It weren’t easy to stay alive even.’
‘Oh, I know about it all right but that was your time, not mine.’ And Lightfinger leaned against the wall, crossed his ankles and shoved his hands into his pockets.
‘Don’t care was made to care,’ said Spiff sententiously, ‘and history repeats itself; in fact it don’t repeat itself, it just goes on being the same.’
‘Well anyway, what are we going to do with this rabbit?’ asked Knocker.
‘Shove it in the cupboard,’ said Spiff, rubbing his chin. ‘I’ll call a meeting tomorrow. You two can run down the street with the message right now, before you go to bed. I know Borribles don’t like meetings but this is an emergency, and we will have to act and think together for once!’
Spiff took one last look at the Rumble, then he pulled his Borrible hat further on to his head, spun on his heels and left the room. Knocker got the prisoner to his feet and locked him in the store cupboard, then he and Lightfinger left by the basement door and spent the next few hours informing all High Street Borribles what was afoot. Finally the two exhausted lookouts got to their own room at the top of Spiff’s house and climbed into a bundle of old blankets and sacks that formed their bed.
‘Argaah,’ yawned Knocker, ‘what a day.’
‘Goo’ night,’ said Lightfinger, and was immediately asleep.
A Borrible’s main business is to stay alive. This is an occupation that takes up most of his time; getting food from wherever he can discover it, finding things before they are lost, stealing his provisions from barrows and out of superstore warehouses: stealing because the fundamental Borrible rule, the rule that is primordial to the way they live, the mainspring and motivation of their very being – rule number one – is that they must never have dealings in money. They have been brought up without it, and they must never touch it. If they do, bad luck and loss of freedom will follow as sure as night the day. That is why Borribles steal, and why they prefer to live near shopping centres and street markets like Brixton and Petticoat Lane, where food is easy to come by.
So important is that aspect of their life that they have many sayings that deal with it and they are all gathered together in the Borrible Book of Proverbs. Some of these maxims are very ancient, like, ‘that which falls off a lorry belongs to him who follows the lorry,’ and ‘That which is found has never been lost.’ One of their favourites is, ‘It is impossible to lose that which does not belong to you,’ and Borribles use that one a lot to people who complain about their thieving.
By eight o’clock on the morning following the capture of Timbucktoo Rumble, Battersea High Street market was in full swing. There were barrows and stalls along each side of the road and so little space was left for traffic that not a car dared venture down there. The barrows had been shoved very close together and it was easy for a Borrible to crawl underneath them from one end of the street to the other, picking up fruit on the way. It was a good way to get breakfast.
The costermongers shouted at each other and at prospective customers, urging them to buy. There were barrows selling fruit, ironmongery, fish and large crabs; the shops had their doors wide open and people were drinking tea in Notarianni’s cafe, talking loudly, making wild gestures with their hands. Brown’s, the pie and eel shop, was doing a brisk business and the inhabitants of the buildings – Archer House, Eaton House and White House – were loafing on street corners and thinking about passing bets in Ernie Swash’s, the bookmaker’s. The noise was so great that it rose right up the side of the house where Knocker and Lightfinger were sleeping and woke them from a deep slumber.
Knocker rolled over and woke his companion. ‘Come on, breakfast.’
He stretched his arms above his head; he hadn’t slept enough. The two Borribles had been out so late the night before that the coster-mongers had been loading their barrows as they came home; finding breakfast had been no problem and it was there beside them: one grapefruit, an orange and two large doughnuts dripping with jam.
Lightfinger rubbed his eyes and the old sacks and blankets dropped from him. He reached for the orange, bit it open and sucked hard, making a lot of noise. The orange was wonderful, fresh-tasting, chilled to ice crystals by the lorry journeys to and from Covent Garden.
‘Ooaagh,’ he groaned with pleasure, ‘that’s lovely.’
‘We’d better hurry up,’ said Knocker, ‘or we’ll miss the meeting.’
Halfway down the High Street was a disused brick-built hall. It had last been occupied by a firm of photographers called Scots of London, but they had departed long since and now the shop fell within the province of the Borribles. It was here that Spiff had asked the members of the Battersea tribe to gather; decisions had to be made and everyone was allowed a say.
Inside the hall, on a kind of podium, stood Spiff in conversation with a score of his cronies. Other Borribles, ragged, dirty and inquisitive, slipped in through broken doorways, and, talking furiously, waited in groups to see what might happen.
The moment he thought enough people were present Spiff stepped to the front of the stage and held up both arms like a politician. He shouted several times and gradually the hubbub of voices became less and less until eventually a kind of excited silence hung on the air, then Spiff began to speak, relishing the occasion, for he took a delight in speechifying.
‘Brother and sister Borribles, I am pleased to see so many of you here, for today is a day of decision. Our way of life is in jeopardy and we must either act together or perish.’
The hall became quieter and the tension rose.
‘Not to beat about the bush, I’ll give you the facts, then anyone who wants a say can have a say. Right, the facts. Last night, our chief lookout and his assistant . . .’
All heads turned to Knocker and Lightfinger.
‘. . . while on a routine inspection of the Battersea area, discovered that we had been invaded by the Rumbles.’
The crowd drew in a deep breath and then let it out again in a long explosion and Spiff looked round for effect and more silence.
‘It seems that a large force came down here, all the way from Rumbledom, and occupied the park for several hours. They were digging! Now, in my opinion, this can only be a preparation for a takeover of Battersea, an attack on our freedom, a new and subtle kind of slavery and a clipping of ears. Things have been bearable as long as the Rumbles have stayed in Rumbledom, where they belong, but this is something else.’
Murmurs of assent came from the assembly but Spiff held up his hand and went on.
‘In my opinion there is only one answer, my friends, pre-emptive defence. We must attack before we are attacked. We must destroy the Rumbles at the heart of their organization. However—’
Spiff broke off for a second and admonished the ceiling with a grubby finger.
‘—to carry out this plan we shall need to search carefully among the ranks of the nameless. From those who have not yet had their first adventure we must select the bravest, the slyest, the craftiest and the most resourceful. It is not only the enemy we have to fear, but the enormous distance between us and him, dangerous terrain. The Rumble is confident in his stronghold, blinded by his own conceit, safe, so he thinks, in the security of his own riches and comfort, but that is where we shall strike, with a handful of chosen Borribles. We shall need dedicated volunteers, but remember, those who go may never return. Blood will be spilt.’
At this there was a terrific hush in the hall and the Borribles looked at each other with trepidation. An adventure was one thing, death another.
‘We feel,’ went on Spiff, ‘that Battersea should not bear this brunt alone. All London Borribles are threatened. To this end messages will be sent out over the city and certain tribes will be asked to send their likeliest un-named champions to us for training and instruction. Likewise, from among the ranks of the Battersea nameless, we shall choose one who shows the greatest promise. We intend to approach the following groups: the Totters of Tooting, the Wendles of Wandsworth, the Stumpers of Stepney, the Whitechapel Wallopers, the Peckham Punch-uppers, the Neasden Nudgers and the Hoxton Humpers. Details of the raid will be worked out when all the candidates have arrived.’
Spiff stopped for breath and the hall became alive and words buzzed like bees. Who, people wondered, would be chosen as the Battersea representative on the expedition? An honour, yes, but a danger too.
Knocker swore to himself. ‘Why do I have my name already? What an adventure it’s going to be.’
Spiff called for quiet again. Now he prepared for his moment of high drama. He made a sign to the side of the stage and the prisoner was brought on for all to see. There was silence. The Rumble was still taped round the snout but its beady eyes glowed a fearful red and it stood upright and unmoved.
‘This,’ shouted Spiff, ‘is the enemy, no braver than us, no more dangerous; but they are difficult of access, living underground as they do, well-protected in their burrows. They are rich and they are powerful, and think themselves superior to all Borribles by divine right. This is the enemy who wants to take Battersea into its grasp. Even now they may be digging under the streets to emerge in your very backyard, even now they may be undermining your way of life, silently; dirty and evil, moles of the underground.’
Spiff took a deep breath and shook his arms in front of his body as if he was emptying a sack of cement; the crowd stirred with emotion. Spiff raised his voice a further notch.
‘This is the enemy, and we all know that they must be stopped at all costs. Yes, but more than that, they must be eliminated, and who are the Borribles to do it? Why we are!’
An enormous cheer rose from the audience. ‘Throw it in the river,’ came a voice from the back of the hall, ‘with a bicycle round its neck.’
This suggestion was so popular that it was taken up on all sides.
‘Yeah,’ came the shout, ‘in the river, steal a bike someone.’
Spiff smiled indulgently. ‘I understand your feelings,’ he looked at the Rumble, ‘but I have a better plan. Let me explain. The one thing that these objects fear above all others,’ he touched the Rumble lightly with a disdainful finger, ‘is disclosure! They would hate to be unmasked and shown for what they really are. In their mythology the greatest possible disaster is what they call the Great Rumble Hunt – an attack on their citadel of power – and we, the Borribles of Battersea, will start that Rumble hunt. But,’ Spiff had to shout across the cheering, ‘this is also to be a war of nerves; we want them to know that something really nasty is on the way – us! And that is where this little rodent comes in. We propose to stick a notice on to the fur of this carpet bag, and send it back to Rumbledom, living proof that we mean business. The message will say, “The Great Rumble Hunt is on. Beware the Borribles!” All those in favour say “Aye”.’
Another enormous cheer rose from the assembly; Spiff’s oratory had done its work, that was what he wanted. Borribles clasped each other, jumped up and down and shouted, ‘We’ll show ’em, we’ll teach them rabbits to come down here.’
As the cheering died away Spiff and his cronies left the building with the prisoner, and the hall gradually emptied as the Borribles went back to their squats, eager to discuss the morning meeting and to wonder who would be chosen as the Battersea ‘no-name’ for the Great Rumble Hunt. Those who were not known for their bravery kept very quiet and decided not to call attention to themselves, for a few Borribles manage to pass through life without ever earning themselves a name. But most are of a different stamp, and they ran to the market without delay, stole paper and wrote directly to Spiff, begging for the position.
But Knocker was disconsolate. He returned home alone, thwarted. He knew there was no chance of him being considered for the expedition to Rumbledom. He went into the basement of the deserted house and made his way upstairs. As he passed Spiff’s door it was thrown open and the cunning face of the most cunning of Borribles appeared, beaming.
‘Right, lad,’ he said, ‘in here. Just the bloke I want, look lively . . . Want a word with you.’
Knocker stepped inside the room, and removed his woollen cap; he had good pointed ears, a sign of high intelligence and alertness. Spiff smiled and settled into an armchair that must have fallen from a very expensive furniture lorry.
‘Sit down, lad,’ he said. ‘I wanted to thank you for your good work last night, champion that was, champion . . . but now I want to ask your advice. As you know, there are eight Rumbles in the Rumble High Command. I’m sure that if we can eliminate them, the rest of the Rumble set-up will fall to pieces, they’ll be too busy even to think of us any more. So that’s why I thought of sending eight Borribles only, one for each High Rumble. There will be one from Tooting, Hoxton, Wandsworth . . . You heard all that already. But, Knocker, who are we going to send from Battersea? The point is, you are out and about a lot, you see a lot of Borribles in action, who do you think would be a good choice?’
Knocker thought for a while. ‘It’s tricky,’ he said at length. ‘There’s quite a few who are good. There’s a bunch of bright lads down by the river, some others under the railway arches at Battersea Park station, but I think the brightest of the lot, out of the whole borough, is one who lives up on Lavender Hill, bright as a button and smart as paint.’
‘Whereabouts does he hang out?’ asked Spiff.
‘Underneath the nick,’ said Knocker.
‘Underneath the nick!’ cried Spiff. ‘He must be mad.’
Knocker laughed. ‘Oh, no. Bright. There’s a stack of rooms up there that are left empty every night. It’s centrally heated, blankets galore, constant electricity. You name it, he’s got it. In fact he’s very friendly with some of the coppers – the Woollies.’
‘Hmm,’ said Spiff, ‘and he’s a no-name?’
‘Right,’ Spiff went on, ‘that’s settled then. Send a runner up to Lavender Hill and get that wazzisname down here. As soon as the other seven come in from across London we shall have to begin a training session. As well as that, I want you to get some volunteers to do some spare-time thieving. We’re going to need lots of things for this expedition: grub, weatherproof clothing, high-quality catapults, watches, compasses, anything that might be useful . . . so get that organized. I know you’ve got your own thieving to do, and so have the others, but do what you can . . . We can’t afford to fail.’
Knocker nodded. His heart was bursting with pride, he was being involved in the Great Rumble Hunt, which was more than he had dared to hope.
‘Is there a chance of anything else, Spiff?’
‘What do you mean? You can’t go on the expedition, you know, that’s a rule.’
‘I know that. It’s, well, you said they would have to be trained. I’m a good Borrible lookout, well, I could train them . . . couldn’t I?’
Spiff gave Knocker a long look, a look that went right through him and saw everything. ‘Hmm,’ he said, smiling a secret smile, ‘you are keen, aren’t you? How many names have you got?’
‘Just the one,’ answered Knocker feeling uncomfortable.
Spiff chuckled. ‘You know what Knocker, you reminds me of me. You didn’t have to ask, I’d already thought of you . . . yes, you can train the team.’
Knocker got up to go, feeling proud of himself.
‘Here, take this envelope,’ said Spiff, ‘it’s instructions about the Rumble; he’s downstairs in the cupboard. Send him packing. Try not to let anyone see him, they might still chuck him in the river.’
Knocker ran downstairs and opened the cupboard. Sure enough the Rumble was there, his paws tied behind him and a notice glued on to his fur. Two other lookouts came into the room and leant against the wall to watch as Knocker read his instructions. When he had finished he removed the tape from the animal’s snout and sat it on a grape barrel.
‘You are being sent home, Rumble, alive. Take that message to your leaders and tell them what you have seen and heard.’
Knocker turned to the lookouts. ‘You two can escort him on the first stage of the journey. This envelope has instructions from Spiff. Take him to Clapham Junction and hand him over to the next Borrible tribe. Then he can be taken to the Honeywell Borribles, and they can take him up to the Wendles beyond Wandsworth Common; from there the Wendles will take him to Merton Road. This letter goes with him and explains what should be done at each stage. Finally, he should be released as near Rumbledom High Street as possible and allowed to find his way home. Any questions?’
The two lookouts shook their heads.
‘Right,’ said Knocker, ‘as soon as you’ve got rid of him report back to me. It is very important that he gets home in one piece, though it doesn’t matter what he looks like; the rougher the better. We’ve got to frighten the fur off every Rumble in existence.’
Timbucktoo jumped to his feet at this. ‘You don’t fwighten me, Bowwible, nor your fwiends. You don’t know what you’re taking on. We’ll be keeping a watch out for you; you’ll be skewered on our Wumble-sticks before you get a sight of Wumbledom Hill. You may be safe down here in your gwimy stweets and stinking back-alleys, but Wumbledom is a wilderness with twackless paths that only we can follow. This means war.’
Knocker swiped the Rumble round the ear, almost affectionately. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘you old doormat, before I knock that snout of yours through the back of your bonce.’
At a sign from Knocker his two assistants hauled the Rumble from the room on the first stage of his long and perilous journey, a journey on which he would be passed from hand to hand like a registered packet in the London post.
The Borribles is being re-released by Tor UK with an introduction by China Mieville
New ebook from Amazon (UK) • Current US edition