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This story was originally intended to be a beautifully illustrated traditional paper story book, but I can't draw for toffee. Any offers?

The Jigsaw Unicorn

Guy Inchbald

Claire was walking past a toyshop one day with her Uncle Roland, when she caught sight of a unicorn. It was soft and cuddly, and stared out at her from the shop window with big melting eyes. Uncle Roland had not let her go inside of course, and had pulled her crossly away.

He wasn't really her uncle, any more than Aunt Jocelyn was her aunt, but that was what they were usually called. And they were horrible. They were always shouting at her for doing things wrong, though they never showed her how to do them right. They made her work hard all day long, and they had a nasty habit of finding fault with what she had done and making her do it all over again. Sometimes they hit her. She lived with them because she had never had a mummy or a daddy that she could remember.

Some days later, another uncle and aunt that Claire had never seen before came to tea. She was frightened of them at first because she thought that all uncles and aunts must be horrible, but they turned out to be very nice. Uncle Geoffrey was a round smiling man who wore glasses and laughed a lot. He gave Claire chocolate biscuits when Uncle Roland wasn't looking and asked her if she liked jigsaw puzzles.

"Oh, yes!" said Claire, "I do them at school sometimes, but I have never had one of my own."

Aunt Penny, or "Penelope" as Aunt Jocelyn called her, was almost as tall as Uncle Roland (which wasn't very) but she was thin and graceful with long wavy brown hair. She argued a lot with Aunt Jocelyn about grown-up things like vitamins and wards of court, which Claire enjoyed because it made Aunt Jocelyn cross. Then Aunt Penny forgot that Claire was not allowed sugar in her tea and put two lumps in when Aunt Jocelyn wasn't looking.

"Do you like horses?" she asked.

"I've never met one," replied Claire, "but I'd like to. Especially unicorns. I saw a lovely soft cuddly one in a toyshop window once. I'd love to meet a real unicorn."

"But of course, there are no such things," Aunt Jocelyn butted in with mean satisfaction. "And now, Roland and I have a lot to do. These tea parties can be so tiresome, don't you think?" And she hustled Uncle Geoffrey and Aunt Penny out of the door almost before they knew it.

As soon as the door had closed Claire was soundly shouted at and thumped. Then she was made to wash-up, hoover the carpet and clean the toilet right round the bend. Twice. Finally she was yelled at again and sent to bed without any supper.

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Some weeks later, Claire woke up one morning and remembered it was her birthday. She hoped her horrid uncle and aunt would not remember too, as they would be extra spiteful and tease her because she never ever got a birthday present.

She got up and went downstairs to make their breakfasts as usual. A minute later the doorbell rang: it was the postman. He had a parcel wrapped in brown paper, and it was... it was addressed to Claire! Had somebody sent her a birthday present? But Uncle Roland had heard the postman at the door. He came running down the stairs and snatched the parcel from her.

"Ah-ha!" he cried, peering at the address, "There must be some mistake! Nobody would send anything to you, it must be for me," and he whisked it off to his study in a trice.

That day Claire's uncle and aunt were extra, extra spiteful and teased her because she still wasn't going to get a birthday present, which nobody had sent her anyway of course. "It was for me, but I didn't want it so I threw it away," said Uncle Roland.

At bedtime Claire could not go to sleep, and lay awake for ages thinking of the mysterious parcel. She knew it was really for her. When she was sure her uncle and aunt were sound asleep, she crept downstairs to the study. She knew that she would be punished terribly if she were caught, but she had to find her present! There it was at the bottom of Uncle's wastepaper basket, underneath his daily newspaper, not even unwrapped. She picked it back out and ran back upstairs with it. Her fingers trembling, she struggled with the brown sticky tape that held it fast. Inside was a flattish box shape, wrapped in the most gorgeous paper Claire had ever seen, and with it was a note: "To Claire, with love on your birthday from Uncle Geoffrey and Aunt Penny." Her eyes shining, Claire undid the beautiful wrapping paper.

A unicorn stood gazing out at her from a fairytale forest printed on the lid of a cardboard box. In one corner was the legend, "200 Piece Jigsaw." The unicorn was snowy white with its horn, mane and tail in shining gold. A jigsaw puzzle and a unicorn all in one present! Claire opened the box on the floor and began to sort through the pieces.

The edge of the puzzle was almost done when the faint chimes of the clock in the living room drifted up the stairs. Twelve o'clock! Claire must get some sleep if she was to get through tomorrow. She climbed into bed, working out numbers in her head. Uncle and Aunt never normally came into her bedroom, except when the dustmen were due. Then Aunt Jocelyn would rummage around in it and throw out anything she didn't like. The dustmen were due in four days' time, so that gave Claire three more nights to finish the puzzle. She had done just over forty pieces of edge tonight, so that meant... over fifty pieces a night!

That night Claire dreamed she heard a tapping at the window. In her dream she got up and drew the curtains, and there outside the window was a unicorn tapping with its horn to be let in! It was snowy white with a golden horn and mane, just like the one in the puzzle.

She really woke up then and went to the window to look, but there was nothing there.

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The next night, Claire struggled to do fifty pieces of the jigsaw before her eyes got tired and her head went muddly so she had to go to bed. She had the same dream again as the night before, and just as before woke up to find nothing there. And the same thing happened again the night after that.

The last night before the dustmen came, Claire still had most of a corner to do when the clock chimed midnight. She knew that the puzzle would be thrown away in the morning, so tonight was her only chance ever to finish her own jigsaw puzzle and see her own unicorn complete. It would be worth anything her uncle and aunt could do to her, so instead of going to bed she determined to finish the puzzle.

As the night wore on, she got more and more tired and muddled, but as the puzzle neared completion it got easier and easier, so by half past three the last piece was ready to be put in: it had the tip of the unicorn's horn on it and she had specially kept it til last. She carefully set it in place and sat back to admire the finished picture. The unicorn looked so lifelike and its expression so alert that she almost felt as if it was watching her. And it had a wise, knowing air about it that made her feel comfy inside. Then with a weary yawn Claire climbed into bed and fell straight to sleep.

She awoke to the sound of tapping on her window. At first she thought she was still dreaming, but then with a sudden start she knew that she really was awake and there really was a unicorn tapping on her window with its golden horn! Only this time it was inside her room tapping to be let out! She looked down at the puzzle on the floor, and the jigsaw unicorn was no longer there. There was a hole left behind exactly where it had been - she could see the pattern of the carpet through the hole.

Then the unicorn spoke in a magical, musical voice. "Open the window Claire. Come for a ride on my back and I will take you away from your horrible uncle and aunt for ever."

Claire reached forward and opened the window. The sky was beginning to blush a rosy pink in the east as the fresh breeze of morning wafted into her room. She climbed onto the unicorn's back and clung on tight to its golden mane as it galloped off into the sunrise, over the rooftops and away.

Over shops and factories, offices and houses the unicorn ran. Sounds from below filtered up in the clear morning air; banging of doors mixed with the clatter of milk bottles and revving of engines, giving way to birdsong, the lowing of cattle and the occasional chugging of a tractor as they left the town far behind and flew out over open countryside, over fields and hedges, over woodland and wild deserted moors.

The unicorn didn't stop until it came to the house where Uncle Geoffrey and Aunt Penny lived, far away at the other end of the country. It came down to land neatly in their back garden with a flurry of hooves and a proud toss of its head, tumbling a breathless Claire laughing onto the grass.

Uncle Geoffrey and Aunt Penny were standing there ready to welcome her as she sat up, brushing a daisy from her hair. "We are your real uncle and aunt, you know," said a smiling Uncle Geoffrey. "You can come and live with us now, if you like."

"And breakfast is waiting on the table," added Aunt Penny. Claire turned to ask the unicorn if it had had its breakfast yet. But the unicorn wasn't there.


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Careware Terms and Conditions

© 1987, 1999 Guy Inchbald. You can copy this story, print it, and give hard or soft copies to your friends. You may not obtain payment for the story or for its distribution, or use the story in association with any commercial activity, without the author's express permission. You may not remove these terms and conditions from any hard or soft copy.

If you like my story, a small payment (up to you) is requested - 50% will go to my favourite charities.

Guy Inchbald
Park View, Queenhill, Upton-on-Severn, Worcs WR8 0RE, England

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Updated 13 November 2013. All rights reserved