Read by Sarah Feathers & Tony Bell
In walks a unicorn. Me, sitting at the bar, looking at the time on my phone, it’s exactly 7.29. I’d arranged to meet this girl through a dating site, no problem about that, but she wouldn’t send me a photo. We agreed 7.30 here, a very public bar, so if either of us feels wrong about it, we can clear off with no problem.
There’s all kinds of reasons for not wanting to send a photo, but being a unicorn was not one which had occurred to me. Well, not until now.
The unicorn sweeps the room with its horn, then points directly at me. I sent a photo, although I was possibly a little younger then, but it recognises me. It walks, slowly and rather elegantly, across the room to me. Its hooves tap on the floor like stilettos, disconcertingly like two women approaching. A warm, faintly grassy perfume escapes from its nostrils – Jo Malone? I ask myself – and it sits beside me.
‘You’re Stephen, am I right?’
A blissfully refined voice, deep but feminine, that’s one down and twenty-nine to go. ‘Yes, and you are?’
‘Well clearly, I’m a unicorn. Just call me Darling, that will do perfectly.’
‘I wasn’t really expecting ... ‘
‘Nobody does. That’s the problem, people think they know what they want, and then that blinds them to the beauty of the unexpected, the unpredictable.’
‘You could have sent a photo.’
‘Stephen, sweetie, just look at my hooves. The iPhone was not designed with unicorns in mind. I’ve tried clamping it between my two front hooves and tapping it with the horn, but all you get is a giant horn with two beady little eyes at the end of it. I find we look our best in illuminated manuscripts, but all of the pictures show male unicorns, generally with a virgin, if one is available.’
She looks around the bar, and the soft nostrils flare, and she gives a dismissive laugh.
‘Discriminatory, in my opinion. It’s always the same old story, a unicorn is a wild beast that can only be tamed by a virgin, blah blah. I blame Freud. But then, I always blame Freud.’
The unicorn does that Lady Diana thing, dropping its head and looking up at me through flickering eyelashes. She has the eyes and the long nose to perfection, only the foot-long horn detracts from the image.
‘Stephen, do you feel able to calm a wild beast?’
That warm breath again. I sense I am blushing, transfixed by the deep blue eyes surrounded by their long, ridiculously beautiful eyelashes. I take a rather large gulp of my wine, an excuse to look away and think for a moment – here I am, looking for my ideal woman, instead being seduced by a mythical creature. I could complain to the dating site, but I’m worried.
‘Thing is, Darling (this does feel weird), I am very specific about my partner. I have a list, all the desiderata for the perfect partner. I actually carry it with me just to make sure I don’t forget things.’
‘Oh, I see, like a shopping list. In an ideal world you’d probably mail it to Tesco’s and she would be there when you get home, delivered within a convenient time slot.’
‘Well, be fair, Waitrose.’
‘Does it say human on your list?’
‘No, but I hadn’t imagined ... ‘
‘Tell me, Stephen, how do you know what you want before you meet her, or it? Can you actually want something before you have seen it?’
‘Perhaps not exactly, but I plan my life, I have goals. I know I want someone who shares my dreams.’
She kicks me, she actually turns round and gets me right across the shins with a kick from her hind leg.
‘Dreams are private, you don’t want to share them with anyone. Only celebrities and advertising agencies believe in that nonsense about dreams being for public consumption. Anyway, at your age, most of your dreams should be far too disgusting to share with anyone, certainly not on a first date.’
She sits back on the bar stool.
‘You haven’t offered me a drink. You’re not going to get lucky if you can’t do the basics right. Just water please, in a trough if they can do it. Maybe a carrot or two, just to nibble on. Or cheese straws, if they’re not too cheesy. Plain straw would be great. Just keep me away from the sugar lumps.’
I manage to get a bowl of water, while she hums gently at my side and looks down at her immaculately manicured hooves.
‘I’m being a bit harsh with you, my apologies. I do sometimes gallop ahead of myself. Tell me, Stephen, you sweet little biped, what do you do for a living? I’m sure it’s something fascinating.’
Jesus, I hate this question. Or I hate its answer. How do you say Financial Adviser in a bank without people falling around and pointing at you?
‘Finance. I work in finance. I advise people.’
‘And you’re the one setting out conditions and standards for your new partner. Bold, I must say. So how has this strategy of designing your partner before you meet her worked so far? I take it you haven’t had a total success yet.’
I remember one rather horsey girl I met explaining to me how you can tell exactly what a horse is thinking by the angle of its ears. Problem is that the only thoughts a horse seemed to have are flight, fear, and something else which I have forgotten. There was definitely no ear code for intrusive personal questioning.
‘Well, nothing a hundred percent yet.’
The ears point forwards.
‘Have we hit fifty percent yet?’ (A delicate tilt of the head). ‘Twenty? Hmm?’
‘OK, no, it doesn’t work too well. Trouble is that each failure adds another point or two to the list, and sometimes I feel it does get out of hand. I did try sending a checklist to some of the dates beforehand to save time, but nobody sent it back, well, not with the boxes ticked. I did get a couple back with rather explicit drawings on them.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen some of them on the loo walls here. Triumph of hope over experience for humans, although some unicorns I’ve known. . . ‘ (She drifts into a kind of smiling reverie). ‘May I offer you a little advice? ‘
‘Straight from the horse’s mouth?’
‘We really find those comments to be in bad taste. Unicorns take revenge, painful, lasting revenge for horse jokes. Clare Balding hasn’t always looked like that, you know.’
The anger subsides, and she adopts a caring, ‘I'm your therapist’ kind of pose.
‘You have enjoyed meeting me? Yes or no?’
‘Of course, yes.’
‘And I meet very few of your criteria, what with the four legs and so on.’
‘Scarcely any of them.’
‘Show me the list.’
I pull the list out from my jacket, unfold the paper and hold it in front of her. I thought her lips were parting in a sneer, but then slowly they close around the paper, and she eats it.
‘Compost of the Gods by tomorrow. Best place for it. You can’t judge people against a check-list. Life needs an open mind, not the safe, easy things. You have an imagination, Stephen, you imagined me; use it when your date comes through the door, forget this stupid list I just ate. It didn’t even taste nice.’
‘So you’re just imaginary?’
‘Of course I’m imaginary. A talking unicorn meeting you in a bar, that’s totally absurd and incredible. Only a gullible fool who’s out of touch with reality would believe that. But then, you work in a bank ...’
My phone dings. I look down, the time is still 7.29, the message says ‘I’m coming through the door now’. I look back at the bar stool, and Darling has vanished, except, like the Cheshire cat’s smile, I think I just saw a beautiful eye wink at me for a second. And a faint trace of the scent of hay lingering in the air.
And you come through the door. At exactly 7.30.
(c) David Douce, 2014
David Douce’s long and confusing career has involved sneaking creativity into business writing, and teasing very large corporations. Amazingly, they paid for it and came back for more. He has lived in London, Edinburgh, Mexico, and France, before washing up on the Suffolk coast. Metaphorically.
Tony Bell: Evening Standard Award nominee for A Man for All Seasons, he’s performed all over the world with award-winning all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, playing Bottom, Feste, Autolycus and Tranio. TV includes Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders & The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.
Sarah Feathers trained at East 15. Theatre work includes All You Ever Needed (Hampstead Theatre), A Hard Day’s Month (Rose Theatre, Kingston), 26 (BAC), Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse) and The Winter’s Tale (Courtyard Theatre). Film includes Coulda Woulda Shoulda, Feeling Lucky and More Than Words. Television includes The Real King Herod.