Before the Beginning...
Long ago, in far off times, unicorns roamed freely across the lands. These kind and noble creatures could be found in dense woodland, only leaving their homes to
find and protect those most in need. Each unicorn was unique, with its own features and personality.
Many people believed that if they were lucky enough to see a unicorn, they would be blessed with good fortune. The hungry would find food, the lonely would find friendship, and the poor would be rewarded.
However, over time, these harmless superstitions took on a sinister twist. A single sighting was no longer enough to satisfy some people. They wanted more than luck. They came to believe that the unicorn’s horn was magic – that it could cure the sick, even those who were at death’s door.
This put unicorns in grave danger. Specialist hunters would track and kill them with a single arrow to the heart. Once caught and killed, the hunter would chop off the unicorn’s horn and grind it into a fine powder. This powder would then be sold to the highest bidder.
Eventually, when only a few unicorns were left, a harsh winter swept the world. It was known as The Deep Freeze. The icy conditions and plummeting temperatures drove the surviving unicorns into hibernation. Easily camouflaged in the snow, they were finally safe from hunters.
The Deep Freeze lasted for many, many years. The unicorns slept on, safe under their soft, snowy blanket. By the time temperatures started to rise and the snow began to melt, no one had seen a unicorn for so long it was widely believed that they had become extinct.
Waking up from their endless sleep, the surviving unicorns found themselves in a world full of forests and fields and tall grassy hills. Taking no chances, they used the magic from their horns to weave an invisible barrier that would protect them from the evil hunters and their deadly arrows.
With spools of transparent twine wound tightly around their horns, they set to work spinning and sewing and knitting and lacing – the fibrous thread leaving a faint, spiral pattern on their once-smooth horns. They didn’t stop until they had created a membrane that stretched from the forest floor to the tops of the trees, separating the human world from the unicorn world forever.
From 'The Lost Unicorn', author unknown.
Today was Granny Rae’s funeral.
Everyone came dressed in black and sniffed into lace hankies and talked in these really hushed voices as if they were at the library (apart from Baby Boo, who screamed the church down). Granny Rae would’ve hated it. She would have rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue the whole way through.
Mum invited all the relatives back to ours for tea and cake and even more sniffing and whispering. She said it was a good opportunity for the whole family to meet Boo all in one go. She’s been putting it off for ages, ever since he came home from hospital. Hardly anyone’s been round to see him, apart from the weekly visits from the doctor.
The house was crammed. It was impossible to take more than two steps without some random aunty I hadn’t seen for ages saying ‘Haven’t you grown, Ariella!’ when everyone knows I haven’t grown at all and I’m still the smallest in the class even though I’m in Year 6.
Most annoying of all was my big sister, Trish. She’d tied back her messy, streaked-blonde hair into the neatest ponytail and was busy handing round cups of tea and slices of Victoria sponge, pretending to be perfect, when she wasn’t even close to Granny Rae.
I lasted for half an hour before escaping upstairs to my room. This was the first funeral I’d ever been to and I hated everything about it too. Granny Rae should be downstairs, drinking tea and eating cake with the rest of the family. She loved Victoria sponge. We should have thrown her a party before she died.
My new room overlooks the back garden and fields beyond. The garden’s divided into three sections with a big terrace at the top, a lawn area in the middle and a tangle of ancient trees, tall shrubs and blackberry bushes at the bottom. Dad had grand plans for it when we first looked round the house, but it’s been left to grow wild.
I stood at the window, watching the clouds scuttle across the autumn sky. I didn’t think anyone would notice I’d disappeared, or be bothered, but a few moments later there was a knock on the door. I ignored it at first, hoping they’d go away. I wasn’t in the mood to chit-chat to some relative I didn’t even know. But they knocked again, harder.
“Excuse me, Ariella, may I to come in?”
It was Uncle Boris, Granny Rae’s oldest friend from Russia, the only one of her close friends still alive. “Those stairs are much more steepier than they look,” he said, shuffling into my room, coughing and spluttering into a large, crumpled handkerchief.
Uncle Boris lives in Russia but he comes to England every Christmas to stay with Granny Rae. We’ve always called him ‘Uncle’ even though he’s not related to us. He’s actually more like a grandpa than an uncle, with his thick white hair and matching fluffy beard.
“I have here something for you, Ariella,” he said, when he’d got his breath back. “Something from your grandmother.”
“Really? From Granny Rae?”
He nodded. “Yes. Something very much precious. She gave it to me before she was dying. Three weeks ago, maybe four, I lose track now.”
He reached into the faded satchel he was carrying and pulled out a small velvet jewellery box. “She left it for you with special message: it must not to be opened until after funeral.”
I stared at him. “What, she actually said that?” Uncle Boris nodded again.
The last time I saw Granny Rae she was lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a million wires and loud, beeping machines. She looked small and frail like this injured bird I found once on the way home from school. She didn’t say anything about a gift, or leaving me something, or special messages.
It’s strange when someone dies. You know you’re never going to see them again, that they’ve gone forever. But then you start to think about forever, and how it’s longer than anything you’ve ever imagined, too big to work out in your head – like the sky, or the ocean, or outer space. It just goes on and on and on.
Boris handed me the box and I eased it open. For a moment it felt as if Granny Rae was in the room with us. I glanced up at Boris. He was watching me closely. I wondered if he could feel it too. Inside the box, sitting on a satin cushion, was a long, silver chain with an antique unicorn charm hanging in the middle.
“Granny Rae’s unicorn charm,” I breathed. “She showed it to me once when I was at her house.” I lifted it out of the box and Boris helped me to clasp it around my neck.
“It look lovely,” he said. His eyes were blurry. “It will be bringing you luck. Where I come from, it is a sign of luck.” I felt like crying too. Granny Rae knew how much I loved unicorns. She knew all about the unicorn games I used to make up with my best friend, Neve, before we moved away. Our unicorn universe where anything could happen.
“But I don’t understand. Why didn’t she give it to me herself? Why did she wait? Now I can’t say thank you or tell her how much I love it.”
I went over to my dressing table to look at the necklace in the mirror. It felt warm against my skin. I ran my fingers over the unicorn’s miniature, swirling mane. “Sometimes it’s like Granny Rae’s still here.” The words burst out of me. “Not just now. Other times as well. And I’m not imagining it.”
I knew Uncle Boris wouldn’t laugh at me, not like Trish. He smiled through the mirror, his eyes still damp. “If you are needing her, Ariella,” he said, “she will never be far.”
I helped Uncle Boris back down the stairs, stopping every few steps for him to catch his breath. Close up, I could hear his lungs gurgling like old water pipes. He asked me how I was coping with the move to Baywood, and starting my new school, and living in the countryside. I liked how he asked. Like he was properly interested.
We stopped halfway down for a longer rest and I told him how changing schools was the hardest thing I’d ever done. That I hated my new teacher
and I missed my friends, especially Neve. That most mornings I wanted to hide under my covers and pretend I was in my old bedroom in our old house.
I told him all that, but I didn’t tell him everything. I didn’t tell him how scared I was. I didn’t say, ‘I know very old people have to die, but do babies sometimes die too?’
My hand went up to the unicorn charm while I was talking. It still felt warm.
“Anyway, I’ve got this now. You said yourself it would bring me luck. Maybe it’s even magic...”
“Magic?” said Uncle Boris. “Is that what you think, Ariella? A magic charm from your Granny Rae?”
When we got to the bottom of the stairs he leaned in close and said something else. I think it was Russian. The only Russian word I know is Babushka, which means Granny. I was about to ask him what it meant when Mum popped up next to me, carrying Boo.
“Give me a hand, would you, Ariella? I left the changing bag in the car and he’s done a stinker!”
She placed Boo in my arms, warned me to hold him carefully, and rushed off before I could tell her I was in the middle of talking to Uncle Boris. Boo wriggled to get down. He was sticky, as if he’d been at the Victoria sponge, and very smelly. He really had done a stinker. It’s something to do with the medication he’s taking. If anything could clear the room it was one of Boo’s poos. I hoisted him back up, willing Mum to hurry. She was ages. Long enough for two aunties to tell me how much I’d grown and for Uncle Sid to give a big sniff and say Boo might need his nappy changing, as if it wasn’t totally obvious. Boo buried his face in my neck. He wasn’t used to strangers. I pulled him closer, kissing the top of his head. The smell didn’t bother me.
By the time Mum came back there was no sign of Uncle Boris anywhere and I had absolutely no idea what he’d said. I helped change Boo’s nappy, distracting him with his favourite beany bear, swooping beany bear down to blow raspberries on his tummy, over and over. He squealed and squirmed and kicked his legs, but at least he didn’t start crying again.
People began to leave at around six, but it was another hour before the house was empty. Trish did her best vanishing act the second Mum mentioned clearing up. She suddenly had homework to do, or a test to revise for, or something else vitally important, and poof! she was gone. Dad took Boo upstairs for his bath and Mum and I stood at the sink.
The new dishwasher hasn’t been plumbed in yet and there were piles of jammy plates and empty tea cups. Mum said she would wash and I should dry. I wasn’t sure whether to tell her about the unicorn necklace or to see if she noticed it first. I was worried she might say Trish should have it because she’s the oldest.
“Do you think we’ll see Uncle Boris again before he goes back to Russia?” I said instead. “He whispered something to me in Russian before he left and I can’t
remember what it was.”
Mum shook her head. “It’s too late, he’s gone.” She
handed me a plate to dry. “He had a taxi waiting to take him straight to the airport.”
“Gone? Already?” My tummy tightened. “But do you think we’ll see him again?”
Mum leaned against the sink. She looked even more exhausted than usual. “Of course we’ll see him. What do you mean?”
“It’s just that he’s not our real uncle, is he? We’re not actually related. He only came to England every year to see Granny Rae and he might think he’s not welcome here anymore now that...”
“Ariella! For goodness’ sake! Calm down! I’ve just said, we’ll see him. It might not be this Christmas. I doubt he’ll come back so soon after the funeral...”
Just then Dad staggered into the kitchen as if he’d survived a great battle. He was just as worn out as Mum. “Boo’s bathed and in his cot, but he’s so overtired I’m not sure how much milk he’ll take.”
A look passed between them. They thought I didn’t notice, but I did. It was the look that meant Boo had to have some milk, no matter what. “I’ll try, if you like,” I offered, even though I knew Mum would want to do it herself.
“It’s okay,” said Mum, peeling off her rubber gloves. “You finish up here with Dad.”
Dad plunged his hands straight into the soapy water. He made a silly joke that if washing-up was an Olympic event, he’d definitely win gold. He handed me a plate to dry, his eyes falling on the necklace. “Ooh, that’s pretty, Ariella.” He peered at it more closely. “What is it? A horse?”
A horse? Was that another joke? How could anyone mistake a unicorn for a horse?
As soon as the washing-up was finished, I left Dad in the kitchen and went upstairs. Trish was coming out of the bathroom. She had her earphones in and she was mouthing the words to a song. “What’s that?” she said, eyeing the necklace as she passed me. She pulled one earphone out, waiting.
My hand went back up to the charm. “It’s from Granny Rae. She gave it to Uncle Boris to give to me.”
She made the face she always makes when she doesn’t believe me. “Are you sure you didn’t just find it in her room?”
Granny Rae came to stay with us a few weeks before she died. Dad cleared the dining room downstairs and put in a bed and chest of drawers. I helped him make it look as much like a proper bedroom as possible, with a new bedspread and pretty pouches of lavender to help her sleep. I haven’t set foot in there since she died.
“Why would you even say that?” My hands curled into fists. “Do you really think I’d steal something out of Granny Rae’s room and then lie about it? You’re the only one who would do something horrible like that!”
“Girls!” Mum stuck her head round her bedroom door, where Boo sleeps. “Please! I’ve just got him off! Keep it down!”
Trish pushed her earphone back in and flounced off, not exactly slamming her door but not shutting it very quietly either.
“For Christ’s sake,” muttered Mum. “Could she be any more selfish?”
Mum ducked back into her room without waiting for an answer. It was cold on the landing. I pictured her watching over Boo while he slept. Watching his little chest rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall.