Mrs. Bitterswitch was her first client. Today, she was the second to be seen to, her bag swollen with her merchandise.
Penelope checked the busy street, pedestrians clambering over each other in the early evening traffic; newspapers hugged the curbs, as exhaust fumes of idling cars filled the air with drowsy smog. She rolled her shoulders against the brick wall of the downtown café, smiling at a pair of girls heading inside, before sliding off of the corner and into the alley.
A Doorknocker meant many different things to many different people; merchants, weasels, gifted, and criminals. Most of which Penelope had heard at length from Aggy and her parents, none were fond of their nicknames, but she didn’t mind so long as she helped someone; like Mrs. Bitterswitch, she believed Doorknockers were of great use to both worlds.
The streetlamp barely made a dent across the dusky tarmac, grit crunched beneath her leather boots, with silhouettes of broken bottles, like discarded fingers, tossed up against the walls. She ignored the hubbub of the city and concentrated on the icy metal tucked in her pocket, fingers wrapped loosely around it. Her heart beat smoothly, so unlike her first time when it threatened to burst from her ribcage and fly off into the starry sky; if it weren’t for her father’s firm grip on her wrist, she wouldn’t have made it past the first knock.
Thoughts tiptoed their way through Penelope’s mind, hidden by the depths of her dull grey eyes and expressionless features. Aggy had taught her how to fit in but not disappear, fresh clients needed to find her after all.
So why wasn’t it working now? She must’ve done something wrong; for the past three months barely a withered old man had sidled up to her in the coffee shop and asked for a dog let alone a handful of buttons. If it weren’t for her regulars then she’d be out of pocket and out of her flat quicker than a troll could fart!
Mrs. Bitterswitch, one of her first and few remaining clients, suffered from acute indigestion. She had tried all known tinctures and pills, herbs and ointments but no cure worked. Had she not known of Doorknockers, Penelope was sure she would have shrivelled up a long time ago. But then, a nymph excreted a gelatinous substance when at deaths door and that alone could be sold for three times the amount of anything she offered.
If she was more of a Doorknocker then maybe she would’ve brought a jar with her on each visit. Earn a bucket load of cash that would buy that pixy from Gundersnatch’s stall she’d wanted for three months, or the new iPhone her friends had been flaunting.
‘Paper, gold, coins and gems. S’all money, Penelope. Don’t you forget that.’
Aggy had leered at her through his grizzly beard through her first year of service, sat upon his throne in the office of his manor and reiterated the Doorknocker law until she and Sebastian were plagued by rumbling stomachs, the sun long set. That was the last time Sebastian spoke of helping others.
But she had seen the good in her work and thought only of her client’s welfare. For two straight years on every Tuesday evening, she popped her Knocker on a wall and delivered her package to Mrs. Bitterswitch. Gradually her clients multiplied and sometimes, if she were lucky, Penelope passed through the Market on Aggy’s errands; but those were usually reserved for her brother.
Penelope slid to a halt, glancing left then right, satisfied when no pedestrians gave her a glance, and then placed the doorknocker against the wall. Rough brick rubbed against the back of her fingers, tickling the fine hairs.
The wind grabbed her coattails, slapped against her thighs, and the lapels to reveal the neck of her blouse beneath, as her hair swirled and danced. Her fingers prickled with an electrical current rushing through her veins into her heart and prickling her brain, the fine hairs on her arm standing on end. She bit her lip and dropped the ring thrice against the bricks, the sharp clack-clack-clack grating over her bones. She prayed it worked, because if it didn’t then Aggy wouldn’t be pleased.
‘We get one chance at Doorknockers, Penelope. Lose it and you ain’t having another.’ A rampaging Troll had ended Augustus Impervious’s days as a Doorknocker, binding him to the trade books in his manor.
Slowly at first, a spark fluttered against the red brickwork. Copper trickled over her tongue, as her teeth gnawed on the inside of her cheek and air expelled from her flared nostrils. Another spark flared and sputtered on the other side of the doorknocker hinge; the pair burrowed into the red terra cotta clay, a smouldering line branching out and down forming a doorway.
Penelope freed her hand from the silver ring and planted it flat against the bricks. The simmering line flashed a blinding gold, before the newly formed door swung inward, the frame barely cresting the top of her head.
Damp vapours coiled around her boots, silky fingers racing across the tarmac, before she stepped forward and the door swung shut behind her; the doorknocker tucked safely in her pocket.
Mrs. Bitterswitch’s flat had been consumed over the years by ornate cages of brittle copper and polished gold and the occasional silver should she be fortunate. Her powder pink walls and matching carpet were mottled and faded in places where the damp took hold. Yet, beneath the sharp perfume of water-lilies, there was the dank and saltiness of an elderly nymph. Penelope dreaded to think what it was like for the other tenants in the building.
Mrs. Bitterswitch hadn’t risen from her chair. Bogged down by pearlescent blue goo, she greedily raised her spindly arms, as her ivory stomach swelled and trembled. Her head of lank green hair was draped over the back of her armchair, cheeks sunken and eyes as large and as green as moss, avidly watching her every move.
‘You’re late.’ Her gaze never moved, but a hand rose and gestured to the clock upon her mantle. The fireplace was swamped with moss and grass, a spider web dancing across the stained white marble.
Penelope stepped further into the room, unbuttoning her jacket; her waistcoat caught the light and shone with runes embroidered in silver, a pocket-watch chain hooked on a button hole.
‘Five minutes won’t kill you.’
‘It might,’ Mrs. Bitterswitch retorted.
The buckle worked free in quick fashion, Penelope withdrew a small finely crafted cage from her satchel, dangled on the tip of her finger. She’d taken care on choosing this one, pristine copper swooped to a teardrop point at the bottom with a bar across the middle and ornately tooled ivy leaves surrounding the door. The yellow canary within, its feathers mildly ruffled and eye unblinking, sat with its beak tucked beneath its right wing.
Mrs. Bitterswitch trembled, her loose skin wobbled like ripples across a lake and trilled in the back of her throat. Life seemed to return momentarily, as she sat up straighter on the pink velvet chair and beckoned Penelope away from the wall.
She deposited the bird in her palms with practised precision, scooping up the bag of money from the coffee table by her feet before a new wave of goo sloshed over it.
‘Ah. Sweet, my sweet,” Mrs. Bitterswitch cooed.
The bird twitched and chirped in her gnarled fingers; its beady black eyes were wide and searching, as its beak nibbled at her saggy skin. She giggled and ran a stained fingernail down its head.
Penelope eyed the growing puddle surrounding her chair. ‘A pleasure…’ It really wasn’t, she’d gotten used to the smell over the years but there were days like today when damp carpet and rotten leaves hung in the air, giving her a migraine.
‘Don’t lie.’ Mrs. Bitterswitch snorted, cradling the canary against her bosom; the bird struggled then quieted with a few distressed squawks. A fresh wave of goo glistened on her skin, pores pumping it steadily down her limbs, through her dressing gown and into the pool around her slippers.
Penelope cleared her throat and discretely shuffled back, putting the table between her and the sea scented gunge. Her favourite pair of purple Doc Martins had been stained by the stuff, not even industrial bleach had removed the splotches of mottled indigo. Tooled dwarven leather cost an arm and a leg, she wasn’t going to test its resilience.
‘How’s your father?’ Mrs. Bitterswitch enquired. She blinked sluggishly, a half-smile curling her lips over needle sharp teeth. ‘Been years, years, since he came.’
‘It’s been a year and nine months,’ she answered. ‘But he’s been well…he sends his regards.’
Mrs. Bitterswitch laughed from deep within her stomach, the croaking of a bullfrog joined in a second after. ‘I doubt that dear, I doubt that. I’m old, seen too much and too little of these worlds.’ She sighed and tickled the canary beneath its chin. ‘Great battles, of wars unsung and wares not even you Doorknockers can hope to peddle.’
Penelope hesitated, hand already reaching for the doorknocker in her pocket. It wasn’t often that Mrs. Bitterswitch spoke to her for more than salutations and farewells, let alone of the past. She glanced back, noticing the settee didn’t appear too riddled with mould and perched lightly on the edge.
‘Did you know we Fae walked once with you?’ Mrs Bitterswitch hummed, gaining a rhythm in her words like a childhood lullaby, drawing Penelope in.
‘We of the woods, the sky and the ocean stood by you humans once in time. We aided you in living with the land, of explaining things you couldn’t understand.’ Her brow wrinkled further. ‘After the tide of change you all became the same, greedy and hungry for more. We couldn’t provide what you desired, so we fled and were heard of no more.
‘We followed the rivers of our home, deep into The Faed and opened the doors to none. Many knocked, many searched and many deserted their hopes. But there were some, some of you remained steady and strong, knowing where we belonged. You dear Doorknockers found us again, bartered and bargained until we all know of your name. Soon, soon will come a time where we shall walk as one again…’
Penelope exhaled, rubbing her clammy hands across her trousers. The words still echoed in her mind, Mrs. Bitterswitch’s eyes trained upon her a moment longer, before they dropped and remained once more on the canary.
‘Now my pretty, how about some dinner?’
She didn’t loiter a moment longer, already having seen Mrs. Bitterswitch eat and it wasn’t a sight she wished repeated. She rose, murmured a hasty farewell and knocked her doorknocker against the wall, intent on her next client.
Mrs. Bitterswitchs’ drooping lips and wrinkled cheeks would slope further down over her sunken chest and her tiny needle sharp teeth would appear from between the red flesh. The ingesting of the screeching bird took only a single gulp, trembling hands cramming the squawking bird into her cavernous mouth. Her beady green eyes would sparkle afterwards and a rosy tint returned on her cheeks.
Perhaps if Penelope had stayed, then she would have noticed the tremors rippling along Mrs. Bitterswitch’s stomach and the horror swelling her eyes. As it was, she heard of the nymph’s death through a different client over a shared cup of tea a week later, her own absent of the freshly bought copper shavings. A cage adorned in ivy leaves hung in the boggart’s window.