Unicorn: In search of the mythical creature
From the memoirs of Charles Dinglebury, the Victorian inventor and explorer.
I had invited Mrs Wilmslow to my London town house. As I served tea and hot buttered crumpets, we chatted about her latest entrepreneurial initiatives.
‘There is a lot of money in health foods,’ she said, twirling the ribbon that had fallen down from her bonnet with her fingers. ‘My new improved recipe for Mrs Wilmslow’s Triple Cream Blood-Cleansing Butter is selling particular well to hospitals and retirement homes. But I’m always on the look out for new ideas.’
‘Aha!’ I exclaimed, leaping up from my chair, giving Mrs Wilmslow quite a start. ‘That reminds me, I have a surprise. Something I’d like to show you. It’s long and pointy. You’ll never guess what it is!’
Mrs Wilmslow fanned herself and sat forward in her chair, adjusting her petticoat as she did so. ‘Pray tell, what on earth is it?’
‘I will show you without further delay!’ I bent down and from behind the chaise lounge I pulled out the six-foot long ivory tusk of a narwhal.
‘My!’ exclaimed Mrs Wilmslow, one eyebrow raised. ‘But what on earth is it, Mr Dinglebury? And, more importantly, what does one do with it?’
‘It’s the tusk of a horned whale, known as the narwhal. As for its use, I don’t think there is one. But it looks intriguing, don’t you think? Apparently there are hundreds of these blighters swimming off the coast of Japan. Simply lop off the horn and here you have it: a fine novelty curio.’
At this moment, my manservant Kettle knocked and entered the room, enquiring as he did so: ‘Does madam or sir need more crumpet?’ But when he looked in my direction, he exclaimed. ‘Ah! You have big horn! Longest I ever see!’
‘Yes, Kettle! I’m glad you like my narwhal tusk. It’s a beauty, isn’t it? I bought it off Lord Stockport down at the Gentlemen’s Club.’
‘Very nice,’ said Kettle. ‘But why you call “nar-wol-tusk”? It from unicorn!’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I shouted, leaping to my feet, losing both my temper and my good manners, ‘there is no such thing as a unicorn! For heaven’s sake, I can’t believe your ignorance!’
Both Kettle and Mrs Wilmslow were taken aback by my uncharacteristic lack of decorum – and, indeed, so was I. I sat down on the chaise lounge and stared forlornly out of the window. A horse-drawn carriage trundled down the street.
‘I’m sorry. That was rude of me,’ I said, ‘but perhaps if I explain you might understand. When I was a small boy, I was obsessed with unicorns. I would spend my free time drawing them or making model unicorns out of papier mâché. Then one summer I was sent to India to visit Uncle Prakesh. My uncle was full of fun and generosity and I had a glorious time. Most special of all was the day he took me on a long adventure. We journeyed across rivers, through forests, over mountains. I did not know where we were going but, finally, after several days, half-way up a mountain, next to a tarn, Uncle Prak put his fingers to his lips to indicate we should be silent. We crouched down behind a boulder. He pointed up the mountain, his eyes wide with amazement. At first I could see nothing, then a strange pink cloud started to form, billowing as it grew in size. It made its way towards us, extending out like a road. And then, very small at first, galloping along towards us as if in slow motion, suspended only by the cloud, I saw five beautiful white horses, with long flowing manes. They were slender, yet powerful, and – most curious of all – each horse had a single gleaming white horn protruding from its forehead. I simply stared in wonder as they galloped overhead and disappeared into the distance, the cloud evaporating behind them. When the holiday was over, Uncle Prak put me on a ship back to England. I told my mother about the mystical vision, but she simply laughed. “It sounds like one of Uncle’s Prak’s practical jokes,” she said. “Do you get it? Prak-tical jokes!” I tried to protest, but she would have none of it. Eventually she shouted: “I will have no more of this nonsense. Unicorns don’t exist and I don’t want to hear them mentioned again in this house.” Over the years, I’ve come to realise she was right. I was young. Perhaps I was hallucinating, or dreaming, or maybe I saw an oryx – also known as the Indian ox – on a misty mountainside or a white Javan rhinoceros. Whatever happened, the one thing I’m certain of is that I didn’t see any unicorns.’
‘That shame,’ said Kettle, ‘because I see many unicorns and they very beautiful.’
‘That’s not funny!’ I said, feeling hurt at Kettle’s impudence.
‘I not joke. Is true!’ Now it was Kettle’s turn to look offended.
‘What is going on here?’ asked Mrs Wilmslow, looking decidedly perplexed. ‘Because I am very confused. Are you trying to say that unicorns actually exist?’
‘No!’ I said.
‘Yes!’ said Kettle.
I stared angrily at Kettle, who stared crossly back at me. Then I stared at Mrs Wilmslow, who was staring at Kettle until she turned to stare at me. Then I stared again at Kettle, who was now staring at Mrs Wilmslow. Then Kettle stared once again at me.
‘Could we please stop all this staring!’ said Mrs Wilmslow finally. ‘So,’ she said, ‘let me summarise. Mr Dinglebury, you say unicorns don’t exist. And, Kettle, you say they do. Well, it strikes me that there’s only one way to solve this dilemma. You must return to India, Mr Dinglebury, to solve this riddle once and for all. And, if you find a unicorn, you must bring me one of their horns as proof.’
‘Now, just a minute,’ I began, ‘let’s not be too hasty about this. I really think…’
‘I agree!’ said Kettle.
‘Excellent!’ said Mrs Wilmslow. ‘Then it is agreed. You must leave right away. Meanwhile, I will devise a health recipe that requires ground unicorn horn. Methinks an aphrodisiac would fetch a pretty penny. I can see the advertising slogan already: “Mrs Wilmslow’s Unicorn Love Potion will give you the horn!”’ She stood up, adjusted her corset, and declared. ‘I will bid you gentlemen farewell, and await news. Bonne journée!’
And with that she swept out of the room, leaving Kettle and I somewhat stunned. Who’d have thought that an innocent conversation about a narwhal would turn into an expedition to verify whether unicorns existed or not? But that’s the nature of the times we’re living in.
We made arrangements and travelled to India, where the first thing I did was to track down Uncle Prak. I confess he was not the gentle and playful man I recalled.
‘Who bloody hell are you?’ he spat, scowling, having opened his door to Kettle and me.
‘Uncle Prak? Is it really you?’ I was shocked by his ragged clothes and tired slouching posture. ‘It’s me, Charles Dinglebury, your nephew from England.’
For a moment, he stared at me blankly. Then he stared at Kettle. Then I stared at Kettle, who was staring at Uncle Prak. Then Kettle turned to stare at me. As he did so, I turned to stare again at Uncle Prak who was still staring at Kettle. Uncle Prak then turned his attention back to me, and stared.
‘Charles Dingle-ferry?’ he slurred. ‘Who bloody hell, Charles Dingle-ferry?’
‘Do you not recall, uncle? I spent a long summer here in the days of my youth. You took me sightseeing. You introduced me to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of India. It was a magical time. But the most magical time of all was when we…’ I nearly spoke of the unicorns but I stopped myself. After all, it was only make-believe, a chimera, a phantom of the imagination, a lie.
‘Charles Dingle-ferry.’ He stood motionless, dazed. Something at the back of his mind seemed to have latched upon some dim long-forgotten memory. ‘Charles Dingle-ferry,’ he repeated. ‘Charles Dingle-ferry…’
‘Actually,’ I said, growing slightly impatient, ‘it’s Dingle-bury. Bury. B-b-b-bury. With a “b”. B-b-b.’
He looked at me intently, and said: ‘Charles Dingle-ferry.’ Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he keeled over, landing flat on his back with a sickening thwack.
We fanned him and wafted Mrs Wilmslow’s Reviving Sulphur Salts under his nose, but to no avail. I feared he may have fallen into a coma, when he suddenly sat up, eyes wide open, and exclaimed at the top of his voice: ‘The unicorns!’
I was most taken aback. ‘What did you say?’
Now he stared at me with complete comprehension in his eyes. A huge smile spread across his face. ‘Charlie Dinglebury! Beloved nephew! You return!’ He fell upon me and hugged me, kissing me on the forehead. ‘How I longed for day like this. But I fear you forget me.’ He started weeping.
‘But of course not, uncle. It’s just that I’ve been busy, you know, with one thing and another.’ I coughed self-consciously. ‘Being an adventurer and an inventor is extremely time-consuming work. Did you know, I once created a new type of human by stitching together…’
‘Oh, it great to see you!’ He looked at Kettle, his expression now one of suspicion. ‘But who he?’
‘Who he?’ I repeated. ‘He Kettle. He friend of mine. He accompany me on many adventure. He…’
‘Wonderful!’ exclaimed Uncle Prak, and he fell upon Kettle, showering him with hugs and kisses.
Kettle caught my eye and raised his eyebrows. ‘Uncle very friendly!’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’d forgotten how much!’
Half-an-hour later, in Uncle Prak’s small but comfortable mud-walled home, we were sitting cross-legged on exotic carpets, eating curry with our fingers, and drinking goat’s milk, laughing and reminiscing about that long-ago summer. We laughed about this, we laughed about that and we laughed about the other, but there was an elephant in the room (not literally, although, being India, that was conceivably possible). Eventually, the topic could no longer be avoided. We grew quiet as Uncle Prak began. ‘Many great memories, but one memory so painful I forget on purpose – using drink and hot curry to bury pain.’
‘Oh?’ I said, anxious but intrigued.
‘One day I take you to see magical sight. It incredible. You in raptures. Yet, after you go back to England, I get letter from your mother. It tell I must never see you again because I infect you with lies about…’ Uncle Prak fell silent, his eyes filling with tears.
‘Yes?’ I said softly by way of urging him to continue.
‘…lies about…’ Uncle Prak wiped his eyes.
Again, a long pause.
‘Yes?’ I said, ‘Lies about…?’
‘About what?!’ shouted Kettle finally in frustration.
‘Shhh!’ I shushed Kettle. Turning to Uncle Prak, I said: ‘Go on, uncle. Tell us. Lies about what?’
Uncle Prak turned to me, with tears streaming down his face. ‘Unicorns!’
‘I knew it!’ exclaimed Kettle. He leapt to his feet and started doing a jig about the room. ‘I right, I right, I right, you wrong!’
‘Oh, for Pete’s sake, Kettle! Please sit down, this is hardly the moment for undignified self-congratulation.’
Kettle sat down, sniggering. ‘I right,’ he said quietly to himself.
‘Uncle,’ I said, ‘you speak of unicorns. What do you mean?’
‘Your mother write to say I must not lie to you about unicorn, so I must never see you again. But I not lie. Do you remember, Charles? We saw them.’
Now it was my turn for my eyes to water. Within seconds I was weeping, and so was Uncle Prak, and so was Kettle. We wept and wept and fell upon each other, hugging and weeping and crying, and wailing. ‘Yes, I remember,’ I declaimed, ‘I remember it all so clearly. Mother, you were wrong, I was right!’
Kettle sobbed loudly, ‘I right too!’
‘We all right!’ said Uncle Prak.
Half an hour later we had all calmed down. It was evening now and dark outside. We lounged on cushions, exhausted by our tears, but happy. The flickering orange light of an open fire cast dancing shadows on the walls. To our astonishment, the shadows swam and merged together to form shapes of their own, as if they were alive. And before our very eyes, enacted upon the walls of Uncle Prak’s home, the shadows depicted a flock of unicorns [Note: ‘flock’ is the correct collective term for unicorns] galloping through the sky on roadways made of cloud. We looked at each other in awe-struck silence and knew we were destined to return to the very place where many summers previously I had seen that miraculous sight. (Can you sense the drama, dear reader?)
Early in the morning, at the crack of dawn, we were awoken by the combined sounds of a cockerel crying, a goat braying, a cow mooing, an elephant trumpeting, and a man trumpeting an actual trumpet. At the same time, perhaps in shock at being woken by such a cacophony, I let rip with a huge and continuous curry-powered fart. I was lying on my front and the fart generated enough hot air that my bed sheet started hovering in mid-air. ‘Kettle, Kettle!’ I exclaimed in my excitement, ‘look what I’m doing!’
Kettle opened his eyes, raised himself up on one elbow and laughed. ‘Excellent, sir. Very amusing.’ He then reached over to Uncle Prak, who was lying close by, and shook him by the shoulder. When Uncle Prak woke up, Kettle pointed in my direction. Uncle Prak looked over and, having eventually comprehended what I was doing, he burst out laughing and didn’t stop for a full five minutes.
Eventually, my fart subsided and the sheet fluttered back down onto my body.
Half an hour later, we had breakfasted on curry and we were on our way, heading for the location where we had sighted unicorns.
We walked and hiked and climbed and waded and scrambled for many hours. It didn’t help that Uncle Prak had forgotten the way. It seemed we were lost. Uncle Prak did his best to reassure us but, half-way up a desolate mountain, I realised we must have been mistaken all along. Obviously, all those summers ago, we must have been high on curry and hallucinated the sight of the unicorns. That wouldn’t have surprised me. I felt a sudden depression fall on me.
‘It’s no good,’ I said. ‘Let’s just forget it. I guess we are all wrong after all.’
I turned to head back down the mountain but, in front of me, staring past me, stood Uncle Prak and Kettle their mouths fully agape.
‘What are you agaping at?’ I said, annoyed, but they just stood there like statues.
And then, very tentatively, almost too scared to do so, I began to turn around to see what they were looking at. I turned incredibly slowly, hesitatingly, not daring to believe… 11 degrees… 23 degrees… I turned ever so slowly, with a sense that something incredible might be about to happen… 37 degrees… 52 degrees… 81 degrees… The amount I dared to believe was increasing in tiny amounts in direct proportion to the amount with which I turned… 109 degrees… 132 degrees… Surely not? It can’t be…? 152 degrees… 167 degrees… Or could it? Could it possibly…? 180 degrees… I had now turned around fully and was staring in the same direction that Uncle Prak and Kettle were staring.
‘Ha, ha! Fooled you!’ came the voice of Kettle, just as I realised they were staring at nothing in particular.
‘You complete and utter bloody nincompoop…’ I started to scold my manservant, but as I did so, the ground started to shake, the sky darkened, and a strange mystical light filled the ether.
We looked up – in a different part of the sky – and, appearing from behind the mountain, was a strange pink cloud, billowing and growing in size, making its way towards us, extending out like a road. And there, very small at first, galloping in slow motion, suspended only by the cloud, were five beautiful white horses, with long flowing manes. And as they drew nearer, I saw with my own eyes what my mother had frightened me into not-believing: each horse had a single gleaming white horn protruding from its forehead. They were unicorns.
‘Quick, Kettle,’ I shouted, ‘get the machete! Let’s swipe off one of the horns as proof for Mrs Wilmslow.’
‘Yes, sir!’ said Kettle, a look of elation on his face. He rummaged in his knapsack, pulled out our machete and raised it above his head just as the unicorns galloped by, in slow motion, only a few feet from where we stood.
I could see now that Uncle Prak was staring at Kettle in utter disbelief and astonishment. He raised his hands and shouted: ‘NNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!’
At just that moment, as Kettle lashed out with his machete, all five unicorns pointed their horns at Kettle and out of them they each shot a different colour of piercing light – red, gold, blue, green and another colour I had never seen before. The thin beams of blazing light hit Kettle squarely in the chest, sending him flying backwards nearly fifteen yards so that he landed head first in a tarn.
The unicorns galloped onwards into the distance, majestic and unperturbed, and disappeared around the far side of the mountain, the billowing pink cloud evaporating behind them.
‘Incredible!’ I exclaimed.
We fished Kettle out of the tarn. He lay flat on his back, drying in the sun and groaning in pain. ‘My chest hurt,’ he kept repeating.
‘Well, Uncle Prak. What a wonderful sight. I might not have collected one of the horns as proof, but it was wonderful all the same. In fact,’ I added, going out on a limb, ‘I’m glad they shot Kettle! I think it would have been a pity to deprive a unicorn of its horn.’
‘Dur!’ said Uncle Prak. ‘What you thinking! Everyone knows unicorns have laser beams in horns. That why they never captured, you dummies!’
‘Now you tell us!’ said Kettle, and we all burst out laughing. ‘Oh, don’t!’ winced Kettle. ‘It hurts when I laugh.’
We spent several more days in India enjoying Uncle Prak’s company, before sailing back to England, where I invited Mrs Wilmslow round for tea.
‘Well?’ she asked, ‘what came of your quest?’
‘I’m afraid we don’t have a unicorn horn, Mrs Wilmslow. For, although we saw the unicorn and can confirm that they exist, we also discovered that they can be neither captured nor de-horned.’
‘Oh,’ she said, crestfallen.
‘But we did bring you this,’ I added swiftly, indicating for Kettle to give me a hand. And from behind the chaise lounge we produced a pair of 14-foot elephants tusks.
At this we all burst out laughing, although Kettle winced, placing a hand on his chest. ‘Please, don’t!’ he pleaded. ‘It still hurts when I laugh!’