Friday, 23 March 2012

At the Unicorn Races

It was, as Grandmother said, a nice sunny day for the unicorn races.

“You’ve got to be on your best behaviour,” Grandmother had warned. “I’m not going to put up with any mischief.”

She was a formidable old lady, ramrod-straight and with a face so stern that Jack and Jill were terrified of her. It was perhaps, as Mother had said, remarkably kind of her to take them to the unicorn races, but Jack and Jill had had the feeling that it would be more trouble than fun for them, especially since they had been washed and brushed and made to put on their very best clothes, which they both hated intensely.

All the way to the racetrack, Grandmother lectured the twins on correct deportment and behaviour, and their spirits sank lower and lower. They even wished they’d contracted the ‘flu going round among the other children in their class, so they’d have got out of this.

Their depression lifted, though, when they saw the racetrack. It was a riot of colours, with women in funny hats who talked animatedly among themselves, and men in flat caps and coats with leather patches on their elbows who made hand signals to each other.

“Stay close to my side,” Grandmother said. “I’ll get a list of the runners for the next race and...”

Jack and Jill forgot to listen to what she was saying next, because they were so busy watching the unicorns walk out on the track before being taken to the starting gates. They were gorgeous, each with its long horn covered in a blunt-tipped sheath in the animal’s owner’s colours, green and golden, silver and blue, red and burgundy. The prepubescent jockeys, looking tiny even next to their small mounts, were as flamboyantly clad, and waved their riding crops in salute to the crowd.

“It’s a race for two-year-old mares,” Grandmother said, reading from the list. “Now let’s see which one has the best odds...”

“Look at that one,” Jack said, pointing at a high-stepping black unicorn with a purple and yellow striped sheath on her horn. “She’s gorgeous.”

“Ooh, yes,” Jill agreed. “I’m sure she’ll win. Grandma? Do you think that one there will win?”

Frowning, Grandmother looked up from the paper and peered down at the track. The unicorn wore the number 19 on her saddlecloth, and Grandmother’s long finger hovered over the list, looking for the name against her number. Going up on tiptoe, Jill looked over her shoulder, and pointed.

There she is, Grandma. Horny Lady, that’s her name. Isn’t it a lovely name?”

For some reason, Grandmother went red and her mouth set in a grim line. “Certainly not,” she huffed. “It’s a very improper name. You mustn’t ever repeat names like that. Besides, number nineteen’s got the worst odds in the field. The animal hasn’t a chance.”

“Oh, but, Grandma,” Jack protested. “Just look at that lovely long horn she’s got.” But Grandmother had turned away, her back stiff with disapproval.

“You wait here,” she said, as the unicorns vanished behind the doors of the starting gates. “I’ll go put a bet on...let’s see...Lucky Lucky Lee, here. She’s far and away the favourite.”

“She’s silly,” Jack muttered, as soon as Grandmother was safely out of earshot. “I’m sure Horny Lady will win.”

“What’s that, young man?” someone asked. It was one of the men with flat caps and leather patches on the elbows of their coats. He smiled at Jack and bowed slightly at Jill. “You want to put a bet on Horny Lady?”

“Uh,” said Jack uncertainly. “I’m not sure what...”

“We do,” Jill said, stepping in decisively. “What do we have to do to put a bet?”

“Nothing simpler, young lady,” the man said, grinning. His teeth were stained brown, just the way Jack and Jill had been warned their teeth would get if they didn’t brush properly. “How much money do you want to bet?”

Now it was Jill’s turn to look unsure. “I don’t know,” she said. “How much do you think we should bet?”

“Well,” said the man, “how much do you have?” He watched as the twins searched their pockets and took out all the money they had. “That will do,” he said. “At a hundred to one odds, which is what Horny Lady has, you stand to win a hundred times that amount if she wins.”

“A hundred times.” Jack and Jill looked at each other, grinning with astonishment. “Just imagine!”

“Yes, young sir,” the flat-capped man said. “All she has to do is win. Is it a bet, then?”

“Of course,” said Jack. “It’s a bet.”

“Good,” the man said, taking the money. “Now I’m standing right here, and we’ll watch the race, won’t we?”

If Jack and Jill had wanted to say something, they fell silent quickly, because Grandmother was making her way back to them from the betting counters. She looked grimly at the flat-capped man and took her seat beside the twins, holding her race sheet rolled up like a baton.

“Now then,” she ordered, “when the race starts, cheer for Lucky Lucky Lee as loudly as you can.” An instant later, far off down the track, the traps sprung open and the unicorns dashed out.

Neither Jack nor Jill could make out which animal was which, because except for one or two trailing far off at the back, they were all bunched up together. As they came round the near bend, they were a smear of colour and movement, flashing hooves and jockeys bent low over their necks. “There’s Horny Lady,” Jack yelled in Jill’s ear, pointing at a black unicorn in the middle of the pack. But, actually, it was impossible to tell.

By the time the unicorns had come round the second time, the field had spread out a lot. Of the eight unicorns, only three were now in the first bunch, and Jack and Jill managed to see clearly that number nineteen was one of them.

“Lucky Lucky Lee!” Grandmother was screaming, waving her baton around, all reserve forgotten, pointing at the white unicorn with the silver and red sheath. “Come on, Lucky Lucky Lee!”

Again the unicorns were coming round the far bend, and this time there was no doubt – Lucky Lucky Lee and Horny Lady were running together out in front of the rest of the field, the black unicorn running like the wind but still only just managing to keep up with her red-and-silver clad competitor. The finish line was just in front of the twins’ and Grandmother’s seats, and as the two unicorns flashed past in a storm of hooves and waving tails, there was a great cheer from the spectators. Lucky Lucky Lee had won!

“Too bad,” the flat-capped man said, grinning with his stained teeth. “If only your Horny Lady had been a bit faster, you’d have earned such a lot. As it happens, unfortunately...”

“What’s that?” Grandmother, who’d been in the act of getting up from her seat, turned, staring. “Have you two been placing bets with this bookie?”

The twins were too shattered at their loss to do more than nod miserably.

“How much?” Grandmother asked. “How much did you bet?”

Jill told her.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Grandmother began to the flat-capped man, in a low voice that sounded almost pleasant to those who didn’t know her. “A grown man like you, taking advantage of two innocent children. You should give back their money at once. Do you hear?”

“But, ma’am,” the man said, still grinning, “they made the bet fair and square, and lost. That’s the rule, isn’t it? Besides, you won on Lucky Lucky Lee, didn’t you? Would you have given up your winnings in my place?”

Grandmother looked stricken, suddenly. “I’d better go collect my winnings,” she began, when there was an announcement on the loudspeaker. There had been an objection, and a review of the film of the race. Number Nineteen had got the tip of her horn over the finish line before the other unicorn. Horny Lady had won!

“Ah, well,” said the flat-capped man pleasantly, edging away. “I’ll be off then.”

“No, you won’t.” The light of battle was in Grandmother’s eyes, and she advanced like a battleship, the rolled paper thrust out like a cannon. “You’re going to pay what you owe them, and you’re going to pay now.”

It was no contest. The flat-capped man had never encountered someone like Grandmother before. The grin was more like a rictus frozen on his face as he counted out the money.

“We’d better be going home now,” Grandmother told the twins. “No telling what mischief you’ll be up to if we stay for the next race.”

In the taxi on the way back home, Grandmother was silent a long time. Then, suddenly, she smiled.

“That unicorn did have a long horn, didn’t she?”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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