‘I hate you,’ he thought nastily, glaring across the railway carriage at his unwanted companion.
Hippo was still in full flow, describing all the marvelous treats in store this weekend. A picture show with his Aunt this afternoon, straight after she met him from the train. Then tea in Fortnum and Mason’s. Then the theatre this evening. A pantomime. But not before a little shufti round Hamley’s, so she could pick out her favourite nephew’s Christmas present.
The carriage was painfully cold, and the white fields were flashing by. Banners of hot, noisy steam went billowing past, and sometimes the engine’s noise was enough to drown out Hippo’s endless boasting.
Turlough wasn’t going to London to be petted and spoiled by a doting aunt. He had been summoned to the office of his guardian’s solicitor. (‘And a very strange man he is, too,’ headmaster had said, when signing Turlough’s weekend release form.) It was bound to be something dreadful and dull and to do with money and Turlough’s dead parents. But he was twelve and beyond being upset at being alone in the world. He also didn’t mind travelling into London by himself on important business. Not like Hippo who, he suspected, was jabbering away like this because he was nervous of being out in the adult world.
They went through a tunnel and the train gave an almighty screech. Still Hippo rambled on. All about Aladdin and the Genie of the Lamp. That was the pantomime he was supposed to be seeing. Though now, he noted, the train was thirty-five minutes behind schedule. He started fretting immediately that his Aunt would worry about him.
The train stopped for longer than necessary at a small rural station.
A very peculiar woman came to sit in their carriage. She had lilac hair and a ragged carpet bag on her knee. She slipped a hipflask out of her silver furred coat and drank thirstily. A boozer, Turlough thought, with an amused scowl.
To his astonishment the ancient woman put her tongue out at him.
Still Hippo droned on about his wonderful Aunt Alice.
Then a small, furry Panda climbed out of the old woman’s carpet bag. He glared crossly at both schoolboys, just as the train flew into another tunnel and covered them in darkness.
The old woman said, ‘We won’t get as far as London. Just see. There’s something very wrong with this train.’
Another, gruffer voice said, ‘They think they’re heading straight to the centre, but they’re not. They’re veering off. They’re going off on a tangent. They’re travelling along the borders.’
Turlough gave the two newcomers a hard stare. Hippo was beginning to look frantic, sweating and rubbing at his round glasses with both thumbs and a smudgy handkerchief.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Turlough asked, icily.
‘The borders,’ nodded the old woman. ‘The borders of other people’s stories. You aren’t the heroes of your own, you know. And you’re not really headed for where you think you are.’ She seemed to believe this explained everything, and lit herself a pink cigarette. She turned to stare past Turlough out of the window.
‘Any idea where we are?’ the Panda asked her, climbing fully out of her carpet bag. As he did so, he seemed to expand, rapidly filling up more than his fair share of the already-cramped compartment. The lights flickered as another tunnel was gone through, and by the time they were on again, the Panda was the size of an adult human being.
The old woman didn’t answer his question. She asked him instead to pass her knitting. ‘The snow’s really coming down, now,’ she observed.
‘I say we shall be in London very soon,’ Hippo said, peevishly. ‘Did I tell you my Aunt Alice is taking me to Fortnum’s for tea? I’ve been promised macaroons.’
‘Bully for you,’ growled the Panda. ‘But you’ll never get them, you know.’
‘If we aren’t the heroes of our own stories,’ Turlough couldn’t help himself asking, ‘Then what are we the heroes of, precisely?’
The old woman was knitting very quickly and pretending that she couldn’t hear him.
The view through the window was beginning to look very unlike how it should.
‘Shall we wait until it stops before we hop out?’ asked the Panda.