Cover image for The world's smallest unicorn
The world's smallest unicorn
Mackay, Shena.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Wakefield, R.I. : Moyer Bell, [2000]

Physical Description:
223 pages ; 20 cm
The world's smallest unicorn -- Crossing the border -- Death by art deco -- The wilderness club -- Trouser ladies -- The index of embarrassment -- A silver summer -- The day of the gecko -- Barbarians -- The last sand dance.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Shena Mackay is frequently and copiously praised -- Elle deemed her "the best writer in the world today". It's no wonder, considering the gallery of strange and memorable characters who populate the stories in The World's Smallest Unicorn. These include a would-be biographer who visits a home for retired clowns; an expatriot who returns from Hong Kong to find his family and London dramatically changed; an elderly woman, once a fearless journalist, paralyzed at the thought of meeting the daughter of her dearest friend; and a budding writer who becomes an amanuensis for a famous woman novelist -- with disastrous results. In these feisty new tales, Mackay combines the mysterious and the everyday to scintillating effect.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Scottish author Mackay has an eye for the small moment and quirky detail, which helps define her characters, many of them a bit off-center themselves. In story after story in her new collection, pretensions are deflated, expectations are thwarted, and the ordinary is juxtaposed with the exotic and even absurd. In the title story, the glamorous sheen of Teddy's life in Hong Kong seems to offer his sister-in-law Fan a brief respite from her ordinary middle-class existence. In "Crossing the Border," when Flora goes to visit her great uncle at the Grimaldi House for retired clowns she is greeted by a staff that is briskly efficient in dealing with death. Several of Mackay's characters inhabit worlds of their own, such as reclusive Uncle Bob in the "The Index of Embarrassent," obsessively compiling his masterwork on embarrassing moments. Although her characters are often foolish and almost always disappointed, Mackay is never cruel; and her inventive use of colors, clothing, food, and the jumble of interiors and surroundings serves to enliven the prose and sharpen the view. --Mary Ellen Quinn

Publisher's Weekly Review

Londoner Mackay's brilliant collection of stories about life's odd pots should add to her reputation as a brilliant satirist of social behavior. The 11 stories about life's lost souls and losers, scarred by drink, money, power or any number of other follies, capture a wide range of voices, settings and styles within finely tuned tales bearing one commonality: their excellent surprise endings. In the hilarious "Barbarians," Ian and Barbara Donaldson own an eponymous, fabulously successful children's clothing company, which has spawned a mail-order empire as well as a bevy of political, racial and labor issues. The punch line here lies in young Jack Donaldson's innocent rhyme about babies, unaware that both his parents are silently hoping that their extramarital liaisons have not resulted in any additional offspring. In "The Index of Embarrassment," Freddy, a gay man, visits his eccentric and prickly Uncle Bob out of pity and guilt. Bob is the author of The Definitive Index of Embarrassment, an obscure chronicle of all things gross and disgusting. When Bob's neighbor Dennis is discovered dead, the other characters are swamped in grief and contemplate their own mortality. Meanwhile, Uncle Bob's pressing concern is getting his ladder back, lent to the now expired Dennis some weeks earlier. A broad range of charactersDincluding the publishing executive who takes a nightmarish trip to India in search of an author whose next novel will undoubtedly be a bestsellerDtestify to Mackay's remarkable empathy for quirky people trapped in mundane circumstances. (Oct.) FYI: Mackay's 1996 novel, The Orchard on Fire, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One `There's a parcel for you, Fan.'     `It'll be the toad lilies from the Spalding's catalogue,' she replied listlessly.     Teddy put the package addressed to his sister-in-law on the kitchen table, disappointed in his hope that some pleasure or good will might rub off it on to him and redeem his failure in the gift-bearing stakes. He hovered uneasily in the hostility emanating from Fan, aware of an antagonism caused by something more than his arrival the night before, with only two suitcases to show for his twenty years in Hong Kong. One contained his clothes, and the smaller held papers, a few books and socks and the sort of gewgaws you could find in any Chinese supermarket in London.     `Do stop hovering, Teddy. Sit down and I'll make some fresh toast. Tea or coffee? There's some green tea somewhere if you'd prefer. Or jasmine.'     `Coffee, please.'     Teddy sat on a chair too small for him, a fat man in a kingfisher-blue shantung suit. Fan's reaction to the parcel reminded him uncomfortably of a brown envelope and a clip round the ear long ago.     `Daddy! Dad! There's a letter for you.'     It was the raw noon of a motherless, shapeless Saturday. Teddy tugged his father awake from tangled sheets, while his younger brother watched from the doorway, thumb in his mouth. Willie swore, snatching the letter. It turned out to be the final demand for the electricity bill and he ripped it in two, caught Teddy a stinging blow to the head and buried his face in his pillow again. In the light of experience, and Teddy wasn't feeling too good himself this morning, he could see that Willie had a hangover, but the stupid thing was he had known at the time that he was being disingenuous, a sly eleven-year-old who ought to have known better. He had hoped to earn his father's thanks by posing as a well-intentioned if mistaken lad, and he had got what he deserved. After Delia, the boys' mother, had left, the house was always cold, a snivelling cold that made them pull the sleeves of their jumpers over their hands and drag their cuffs across their noses, cold that chapped their lips and hurt their hair when they brushed it. Nothing was ever quite clean. The towels were damp and sticky and didn't dry you properly. Dirty clothes piled up in comers and homework was not done. Women came and went, and now and then the boys were treated to a slap-up meal at Bunjie's, that haunt of hobbits and folkies from time immemorial, but it wasn't the same.     Teddy and Webster Shelmerdine were the children of two musicians, Willie `the Weeper' Shelmerdine and Delia MacFarlane. They grew up in the English jazz and folk revival of the Fifties and early Sixties, and although they had been named after Teddy Wilson and Ben Webster, they were weaned on skiffle and cut their teeth on Trad. Willie played the clarinet and sang, while Delia was primarily a singer who accompanied herself on washboard. She was also a semi-skilled harpist and harmonica player who could break your heart in the Gaelic at a ceilidh and twang out mouth-music when required. Willie and Delia were part of the scene, minor household names along with Pete and Peggy Seeger, Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, partners in the tightly knit world of performers and fans on the jazz and folk circuit of gigs, festivals and clubs. Everybody knew all the gossip, and there was not a dry eye in the Green Man the night Willie bawled out `Delia Gone' for the first time after she had run off with the jew's harp player from the Colin Clark City Stompers. Beryl Bryden, who was topping the bill, enfolded the weeping boys, Teddy and Webster, in the wings of her striped tent-dress like a hen comforting her chicks, but when they got home bleakness drifted like dust; `Delia Gone' remained a crowd-pleaser, though. He comes down our alley and whistles me out. Before I get down there, he knocks me about. Still I love him, I'll forgive him, I'll go with him wherever he goes ... Delia used to sing, before Willie hit her one time too many and she rode that freight train, the 5.15 to Charing Cross, out of his life for ever. `Don't bother with toast, Fan,' Teddy was saying, just as the bread jumped.     `You should have said if you didn't want it. I've made it now.'     `I do want it, thanks. I was just trying to save you the trouble.'     `It's hardly any trouble to bung two bits of bread in a toaster.' Her tone hinted at a hundred toastracks stretching as far back as the eye could see, all stacked with troubles caused by Teddy.     `I guess Web's gone to work. What about the girls?'     `Still in bed. Wasting the day.'     Fan wiped down the Dualit toaster and snapped at the cat as he came warily through his door, trying not to let it flap.     `And where do you think you've been, Mister? Sneaking in with your tail full of burrs, demanding breakfast at all hours.'     The cat, Rastus, attempted to catch Teddy's eye with a blokish wink, but he wasn't having any.     `Selfish little beasts, aren't they? Still, I suppose that's why we love them. The Cat that Walks by Himself and all that. Takes me back, I remember reading it to the kids years ago, last time I was home on leave. They've grown up into beautiful young ladies, Fan. A credit to you. A pair of real stunners, with the brains to match. You must be very proud of them.'     `I am.'     Fan ripped the lid from a tin of cat food, leaving Teddy feeling that he had said the wrong thing again. Of course, this time he was not home on leave, but redundant, an ex-employee of the Pink Panda Stationery Company billeted on Fan for the foreseeable, until he got back on his feet. The summer holidays were almost over for Fan, a school secretary, and the girls, Bethan and Megan. Bethan was camping in Megan's room because bad Uncle Teddy had taken over hers. The spare room, where Teddy had slept nine years ago, was now a study filled with the family's computers and files and Webster's rowing machine. Teddy felt so tired as he replaced the lid on the Marmite and carried his plate and mug to the sink that he longed to crawl back into Bethan's bed, beneath the posters of vapid white boy bands and angry black gangstas, pull the duvet over his head, and sleep for a year. Perhaps for eternity.     `What are your plans for today?' Fan asked. `You can leave those, I'll stick them in the dishwasher.'     Couldn't a man be allowed five minutes' jet lag after flying a quarter of the way round the globe? Did she have to make him feel completely useless by not even letting him wash up a few dishes?     `I -- well, I thought I'd just -- reorientate myself for a day or two -- or re-occidentate myself, perhaps I should say. Put out a few feelers.'     `Like a beetle.'     Fan stared at Teddy in his suit, shot and nubbled with peacock threads.     `I suppose you had that suit made. In Honkers. I always wanted to do that, you know. Go shopping in Hong Kong and choose the material and have something made up just for me, to my own design. Something unique. Oh well, silly of me, I suppose. The paper's there if you want to have a look at it.'     `Thanks.'     Teddy picked up the newspaper obediently as Fan left the kitchen. What was he meant to do, turn straight to the Situations Vacant? How was he to have guessed that Fan had expected to be invited to stay? Perhaps that was what was eating her. Well, the stupid cow had had twenty years in which to suggest it. He wasn't a mind-reader. Just as well, though. Honkers! They would have wanted to eat in fancy restaurants and nightspots, demanded to see the `real' Hong Kong and hoped to be taken to the Jockey Club or the FCC, where there was a waiting list for membership and where Teddy had dined only once as a guest in all the years he had lived there. He certainly wouldn't have wanted to introduce them to his own watering hole, the Hong Kong Skittles Club, a sporting establishment mostly in name, with its sour clientèle of disappointed ex-pats. The Skittles' dullness suited him; he had become accustomed to it, and protective of it, and he shuddered at the thought of Web and Fan fumbling with their chopsticks in its little dining room, before contracting food poisoning, or sitting at the bar in shorts and sandals, Fan sipping some touristy cocktail with a parasol and Web droning on about small-bore cooling systems for automatic hand-dryers and hustling for orders for his light-engineering firm. Even so, Teddy could kick himself for not having brought Fan a dress or a jacket, or even a length of silk. A bad move to present her with that plastic fan last night, whipping it open with a flourish, `A fan for Fan, from your greatest fan.' He winced at the memory, and that obsolete Pink Panda stock, the rulers and rubbers and little notebooks and cute panda stickers, had proved quite unsuitable for two young ladies who had done so spectacularly well in their exams, although they'd liked the miniature cameras with scenes of Hong Kong by night and the fortune cookies, waterflowers and joss sticks, unless they were just being kind or sending him up.     `How sad to think of people spending their lives making these things,' Fan had remarked.     Even if he had brought Fan something to wear, he'd have got the size wrong, knowing his luck, because he couldn't help noticing she'd put on the beef a bit. Fan was fair and slimmish now rather than skinny, and still favoured the droopy English look of faded Aertex blouse, or polo shirt, cotton skirt and cardy. Teddy could never quite decide whether it was sexy or not. It was a world away from the gloss and gilt and sharp edges of the women he was used to. He turned the pages of the Independent abstractedly. Maybe he could pick something up for Fan in Chinatown and pretend he'd had it in his suitcase, although he'd have to be careful; his pitiful pay-off from the Pink Panda Stationery Company wouldn't stretch far. Teddy's only lasting contribution to the firm which had `rationalized' him in preparation for the Chinese take-over was to be found in its name.     `With respect, Mr Tang, a company that designates itself "stationary" is a company that is going nowhere,' he had told the firm's founder at his interview. `No wonder Pink Panda's profits are at a standstill.' Well, he could see it was a tinpot outfit, but gradually they had turned it round and moved the factory into better premises. The trouble was, as young Tangs, sons, daughters, and cousins, grew up and the extended family was brought into the business, Teddy was passed over for promotion time and time again. It was only Mr Tang's residual loyalty that kept him in the office at all, and by the time he left he was an anachronism known simply as `the Gweilo ', a word meaning ghost as well as foreigner; a bad spirit to be exorcised.     Fan's head poked round the door, saying, `If you've got any washing, dump it in the dirty-linen basket in the bathroom. I'll be doing a mixed load later.'     Notes from a flute spiralled down the stairs.     `Who's playing? Not the kids, surely?' said Teddy.     `Oh, the twins have been tootling on their flutes since they were two jampots high.' Fan was dismissive, as though he ought, as an uncle, to have known that.     `Ah well, blood will out,' said Teddy.     Delia's grandfather had been a Nigerian-Scots seaman from Port Glasgow, and her granddaughters Bethan and Megan had taken her pale delicate features and replicated her dark eyes and charcoal cloud of hair in blue and gold. They wore their own hair in cascades of long thin braids, but, as Fan's father had put it at their christening, you would never guess that those two little English rosebuds had a touch of the tarbrush. Unless you had a more educated eye than his. Webster was green-eyed and freckled, while Teddy was white, with disconcertingly opaque eyes like black olives under heavy lids, and their hair, the russet and the black, kinked into wool from unravelled jumpers if it was not kept short.     Teddy was thinking about his nieces. Sixteen years old. It didn't seem possible. So many birthdays he had missed. He couldn't get over how they'd changed, the sheer length of the pale golden legs and thighs in tiny black shorts and the briefest swirl of skirt, the smooth distances of flesh between croptop and navel and waistband, the long, long slender arms flailing from tight-ribbed short sleeves. Even for twins, between them they seemed to have more than their allocation of limbs, and was there really any need for them to be so tall, he wondered. After all, it was not as though they had to reach up to pull the topmost leaves from a drought-stricken tree in order to survive, was it? `How tall they've grown,' he had said on meeting them last night, and reminded them how he had once read The Jumblies to them, one perched on each knee in their pyjamas. And in twenty years they all came back, In twenty years or more, And every one said, `How tall they've grown! ... Except that it was he who had come back after twenty years, minus a couple of short breaks, he who was the Jumbly, or some poor toeless Pobble or wandering luminous-nosed Dong, shuffling home like a disgraced Behemoth. And everyone thought, how fat he's grown. There was an Edward Lear print, of a salmon-crested cockatoo, in the dining room. He had remarked on it during one of the silences which had fallen between the clash of eating implements and the twins' fits of the giggles.     `What's it like in Hong Kong, Uncle Teddy?'     `Well, depends where you mean. There's Hong Kong side and Kowloon side and --'     `Can you speak Chinese, Uncle Teddy? Cantonese and Mandarin?'     `And Satsuma and Clementine? And Grapefruit?'     `That's enough,' said Fan. `Be your age.'     Teddy said, `In Wan Chai, where I live, lived--'     `That's the old Suzy Wong district, isn't it?' put in Webster, with what Fan perceived as a leer.     `That's right. You've got lots of narrow streets and bars and clubs. There's the Pussy Cat and the Hotlips, they're mainly pick-up joints, topless, I believe, and the Wanch, which is a mock pub run by gweilos , foreigners, for gweilos .'     The girls were stuffing napkins into their mouths.     Fan said, `There must be more to it than that. A more salubrious side. It can't all be sleaze.'     She heard the tinkle of temple bells above the traffic's roar in a street teeming with limousines, rickshaws, buffalo-carts and bicycles ridden by people in conical hats under skyscrapers festooned with ideographed banners.     `Oh, of course. There are the artisans' streets where you can buy anything in the world you might want. The street of the coffin-makers for example, the street of the metal-beaters, the street of the tailors, all sorts. And people sitting on chairs on the pavement who do every kind of repair, shoes, rattan furniture, clothes; and old grandmothers selling matches, watchstraps ...'     `Fake Rolexes,' said the twins.     Teddy glanced at his watch, acknowledging his dereliction of avuncular duty.     `The architecture's fascinating, Fan, you'd love it. And it's a very safe city to walk about in.'     `Oh, good.'     `What about the Triads?' Megan asked.     `We've got Triads at our school,' said Bethan.     `Don't be so ridiculous!' Fan lost patience. `As if Miss O'Nions would tolerate such a thing! I don't know why you're showing off like a couple of three-year-olds.'     The twins rolled their eyes heavenwards with pitying sighs.     `So have you got many Chinese friends now or did you mostly hang out with the ex-pats?' said Webster.     `Well, a few. The Chinese don't really like us much. And most of the ex-pats are a pretty dull bunch. The sort of people who knew they would never make it here and imagined they'd be big fish in a small pool, and then became embittered and turned to hard drinking when they weren't.'     Teddy realized that they might think he was describing himself. Fan thought of fish bumping each other in crowded tanks in Chinese takeaways. She burst out harshly, `But they're a cruel people, aren't they, the Chinese? Cruel to each other, and to animals. I mean, look at all those endangered species they grind up for their herbal medicines.'     `They're very fond of birds,' Teddy told her. `Devoted to them. Everywhere you go, in the streets, on buses and the MTR and the ferries, you see people with their pet birds. Little finches mostly.'     `You mean they carry them on their shoulders, or walk them on leads? I suppose they have to, if they've eaten all the dogs.'     `In cages,' said Teddy.     `Mum rests her case,' said Megan.     Bethan said, `Mum, I never knew you were such a racist.' Now, in the bedroom, Fan stared out of the window and remembered the unpleasant evening. The girls had been at their silliest, embarrassingly middle class. Not that she thought they should be working in a sweatshop or topless bar like girls half their age in Hong Kong, but you never knew where you were with them these days; one minute they were clamouring to be allowed to stay at clubs until six o'clock in the morning, the next behaving like spoiled brats. She didn't know what Teddy would think, not that she cared about impressing him. She saw that the Michaelmas daisies, those harbingers of autumn, were in flower and it occurred to her that they always seemed to be out nowadays. Everywhere you looked, people were going on about the melting of the polar ice-cap, and hurtling towards the Millennium, but maybe the Michaelmas daisies only indicated the swift passing of her own years. Whatever, it appeared likely that she would spend her personal fin de siècle , picking up other folks' dirty clothes. No sooner had she shaken the sand of Cyprus from the holiday suitcases, than along came Teddy, the bad penny, the hole in the head, to dump another peck of dirt on her. She had returned from their self-catering villa looking forward to pottering about in a leisurely way before the start of term, and now here was this succubus squatting in her kitchen, expecting to be fed. She wondered if he had found yet the item in the paper which she hoped he would encounter with a shock. A double-take of disbelief. A stab of grief. A pang of guilt.     She watched Rastus shredding the trunk of the lilac tree with his claws. The garden was full of seed-heads, thistledown, parachutes, exploded pods and burnt-out rockets. The green bunches of ash keys were tinged with red and mildewed damsons lay scattered on the grass. It would soon be time to put the bulbs in. `Forever Autumn', she thought, but another song was playing insistently through her head, one she had always hated, about Willie the Weeper who made his living as a chimney sweeper. Well, if Willie Shelmerdine had ever swept his own chimney, that terraced house in Blackheath, so convenient for the Green Man, might be standing now. As might Willie. What a dead loss as a grandfather he had been. And as for that reprobate runaway grandma, Delia Gone, the out trout, now finally departed and good riddance, she had become a romantic figure to the twins, who insisted on claiming their one-sixteenth part of African heritage, apeing the hairstyles and speech of their black classmates and spelling Africa with a k.     Fan sat on the bed, averting her glance from her reflection in the wardrobe door. Trust Teddy to pitch up when sun, salt and sand had frayed her hair to rope, and haloumi and feta and Cypriot wine had taken their toll. The irony was, she had been feeling relaxed and attractive, languorous and at ease with Webster in their late-summer lovemaking, until Teddy had arrived to diminish her. And yet he was no oil painting himself, no spring chicken either. She had been practically at screaming point last night, waiting for a moment alone with him, and had gone bitterly to bed at last, leaving him and Webster chortling over old times with the bottle of duty-free Jack Daniels, and Teddy stubbing out cigarettes in the saucer Webster had provided, one of the few left from their wedding tea service.     And this morning, when they were at last alone, he had just sat there eating toast in that bright blue suit. Enraged as she was by Teddy, Fan despised herself more, because she had to admit that if Teddy had shown by a word or a look or a covert touch of his hand that he desired her still, she would have forgiven him. He was pathetic. All the fat fool had to do was to tell her she hadn't changed a bit, or that she was more beautiful than ever, and he was too dumb to realize it. Of course she was proud of the girls, but to have Teddy Shelmerdine, an adulterer who had slept with his own brother's wife, treat her like some mumsy hausfrau was more than she could bear. It was a sultry day, nine years ago, the grey sky full of static electricity and little grumbles of thunder. The children had been taken to the cinema by the mother of one of their friends. With the passing of time, Fan had managed to put that afternoon out of her mind, but every now and then her conscience, responding to some stimulus, flashed an ugly scene into her mind. In a red desert landscape, two beasts, coarse-haired, four-footed, ungulant, were pawing the dust, raising their snouts to sniff the scent of distant rain, circling and circling a tree, whose uneasy leaves shivered in the dry wind that ruffled a ridge of bristles along their spines. They got closer and closer, tusk to flank, until with a grunt they were coupling blindly in a stinging red sandstorm of tumbleweed and broken cactus spikes, and raindrops as flat and heavy as stones.     But it hadn't really been like that at all, ochreous, ruttish, with nostrils dilating in the sulphurous air, splayed hooves, and curved tusks gripping her back, the afternoon that two palish mammals had sheltered from the storm in the spareroom bed. Teddy had been tender and sweet; Fan had cried, and for a while imagined that she had married the wrong brother. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Shena Mackay. All rights reserved.