Baptism by Elizabeth Gibson



The water will be gentle on your hair, or maybe apple blossom

if the season is right, or a handful of paper snowflakes, bubbles

or just words, sung as a candle burns, scented with honey and pine.

Your name will be whispered, let go, to disperse like a dandelion

– you can reel it right back in and have it for the rest of your life, 

or pick out a new one like a perfect shell from the shoreline, 

or a piece of pink sea glass – you can keep picking and dropping, 

just tell me how to make you happy. I will bake an enormous cake 

with layers of frosting, white not for purity, but a page to start 

filling with scribbles of colour. I will cut the biggest piece for me.

We will take so many pictures, fill up a wooden treasure chest

to keep under your bed, decorated with crepe paper and feathers. 

You were born a being of utter cosmic wonder, and you will be 

no different after we have done this. But maybe I will be different.



Elizabeth Gibson is a Manchester poet, playwright and performer, inspired by queerness, body image, mental health, city life, nature and folklore. Her work has been accepted by 404 Ink, Atrium, Confingo, Lighthouse, Magma, Popshot, Queerlings, Under the Radar, and anthologies from The Poetry Business and The Poetry School. She was awarded a DYCP grant from Arts Council England in 2021 to further explore queerness through poetry and performance. She debuted her one-person spoken-word play, The Reason for Geese, at Turn On Fest at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, in 2022. She is on Twitter and Instagram as @Grizonne.

Where there’s bread is my country By Christina Carè

It all started yesterday, with the burning. 

Smoke rose in great plumes overhead as the men took to the fields with torches. They tied handkerchiefs over noses and lips; sweat rained down from their foreheads. Afterwards, they washed ash from their eyelashes and inside their ears. Sweetness and smoke filled their nostrils. 

This, the great state of Queensland, where plenty of land means plenty of space to grow the sweet crop. Wind whistles through bright emerald stems; cicadas and crickets hum out of sync. But the machetes sing in unison. Nature is flattened here, subjugated by sweat and blood, soil honeyed with corpses. The land fights back with clouds of beetles, moths, mozzies, and a heat that cuts the throat. If he can endure it, a man can start again with a few good years in the fields. A man can cut his way into a life of his own dreaming. Someday, Big John thinks, but not yet. 

He rings the bell at sunrise, hard as his stiff joints allow. Their shed, red brick and rusted iron overhead, has only one window – a hole, with netting nailed into each corner. Out of hammocks drop five bronzed bodies: taut muscle, callused hands. Jamie, Mikey, Davo, Little John and their foreigner, Jakob. They yawn, stretch, and fill their water bladders before slinging them round their shoulders. George – the old man who helps out – slops six giant spoons of porridge into six enamel plates. Big John says grace, got to maintain dignity, before they shovel oats in, unseeing. The cane awaits them. 

Yesterday’s blisters have popped and shrivelled into flat spongy skin; the men piss on their own hands to keep them rough enough to wield the blade. They’re real blokes.

‘Cutting the new field today,’ Big John says, ‘Get ready, boys.’

They jump on their bikes – rickety, tire treads plugged with stones – their hat strings tied tight under their chins. Cool rushes of wind soothe already sweating armpits and groins, the only moment of comfort in a long day ahead. The swell in the air should break soon, they hope. But nobody dares complain. 

From afar, the woody stems look like soft green grass from the mother country. Wrong shade, but slender and inviting all the same. The men are above temptation, though. They know she’s a false friend. She doesn’t give up her sugar easy. They steady themselves.

Today, charred strands sit ready for the cut, embers cooled overnight. A man can earn twice as much from the cut of unburnt cane, but they won’t risk the vermin. 

‘Easier this way,’ Big John says, ‘Only the kanakas, that lot, did different.’ 

Not Big John’s lads. Free men make choices. 

The men collect their weapons from the truck, each his own favourite. A broad flat blade with a hooked flick to one side. Theirs are bare hands, flimsy against a crop that doesn’t die in fire. Still, gloves are for sissies. They begin: Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top. 

There’s as much water as a man can drink but they know better than to stop too long; every piss will cost you. Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top. It goes on until the worst hours, when the sun pulses vengeful over them. The air itself needs cutting then, and when their smallest, Jamie, looks ready to pass clean out, Big John finally puts his blackened fingers in his mouth and whistles. The heat has dried their sweaty shirts stiff. On their bikes, the metal scalds their skin. They retreat back to the shed.

Off come shirts and trousers into the trough out front; can’t bring any of it inside. George starts the wash. Twice a day they work them, scrubbing charcoal clean from the linen. The men fall naked into their hammocks again, napping till the day eases.

The bell comes too quick – time already to collect their pickings. Swinging great stalks onto the truck, taking turns until the first bleeding of sunset. Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top. Toss her on the truck, tie her down steady. 

When they’re done, it’s a clean bald patch on the crown of the earth.

On Friday, Big John takes the boys for a cold one or six. They crash glasses, gulp it down. Pleased with his lads, he finally notices: One is missing.

‘Where’s that Jamie, then?’ Big John asks. They look at their feet. 

Jakob answers, ‘Gone, John. Back to Sydney.’ Jamie slipped away while the men slept.

‘Bloody oath, these Sydney bludgers,’ Big John looks across the room; them foreign blokes are sitting together, talking too loud in another tongue. ‘Need least five of youse come Monday. Anyone know a man keen for some hard yakka?’

Nobody answers. They drink on, light dipping, moths taking their shift from the day’s flies. Only when Big John’s had a few more does Jakob say into his ear, ‘I know a man, Big John, he works good. Pietro. Just off the Jumna in Townsville.’

Big John looks at the noisy wogs and sighs. Here we go again. Didn’t want a Fritz like Jakob at first, but said yes anyway. The lads keep drinking and laughing, oblivious. 

He already knows. He’s got to get his priorities straight. He must keep the gang earning.


On Monday, it’s arranged. Outside their shed waits a small, sturdy fellow, dark hair carefully combed behind his ears. Hands together, clasping his hat. He’s dressed in tight-laced leather shoes; been a while since Big John saw the like. He does his best to ignore the shoes, coming out with a big swinging handshake: ‘How’s it goin’, mate?’ Pietro looks like a child when he smiles. ‘Did ya bring ya work clothes with ya?’

Pietro looks confused, tugs at his own shirt and says, ‘My clothes.’ He follows Big John inside. 

‘Bit hot for it, mate.’ Big John mimes fanning himself but gets no reply. 

The lads are at breakfast; Jakob and Pietro shake hands, exchanging a kiss on the cheek. Spoons halt halfway to mouths. Silence descends over the chatty lads. Big John gives the room a hard look: don’t say a bloody thing. Soon as Jakob shows Pietro to his bed, they all start hooting. Bloody pooftas!

Big John watches sidelong as Pietro throws down his jacket, rolls up his shirt sleeves, pulls his tie loose, buries it in a pocket. Jakob lends him shoes for the job; Pietro tucks his own neatly away. He looks a wuss, Big John thinks, but Pietro gets his hat on and follows them out, smile never fading.

At the field, Big John says, ‘Pick your weapon, son.’ The machetes are wedged upright in the dry soil. Pietro doesn’t ask for gloves.

Stoop. Chop. Straighten. Top.

It’s an unnatural movement, sure enough, and Pietro only cuts down about five tonnes that day, while Jakob cuts down twelve. Big John still slaps Pietro on the back, ‘Not bad for day one, mate.’ Pietro tucks his bleeding hands into his pockets. ‘That’s the way,’ Big John says, and makes sure the lad gets fed. 

After a week, over yet another dinner of potatoes and gravy, Pietro says: ‘I cook.’ 

George shrugs, but Big John freezes. Pietro reassures him: ‘Good food.’ 

Big John feigns ease, can’t let the others see him panic. 

‘Alright then, mate,’ he says, but if he’s still hungry tomorrow, the man’s a goner.

He steps outside their shed for a ciggie while the men go down to nap, and sees the little man hurry out to huddle with others of his sort from nearby sheds, their tin roofs sparking in the sun from afar. They’re animated, exchanging rich red tomatoes and odd shapes in linen pouches. The chatting goes on too long. Planning to jump ship? Looking for another shed? He can’t afford it; he waves Pietro over.

And the little guy comes, hauling his sack, the hessian frayed at its edges. He’s oblivious to concern, still grinning like a fool; he disappears into their makeshift kitchen. Old George is out cold, snoring from the swing-seat on the porch.

The kitchen is a clanging symphony, but it won’t disturb the cutters, tired from another day on the field. Only when Big John rings the bell in their ears, do the bodies shift. They sniff to find the air filled with the scent of bread baked hot and meat stewed in a mix of spices they cannot place. It’s strange, but it smells edible, Big John thinks, as the lads settle into their places.

Pietro works the ladle quick, pot to plate. Their stomachs groan in answer. Big John starts, ‘Our Father…But the smell just gets better and better. He holds up his hands and says, ‘Let’s eat, boys.’ The men go fast, devouring meat, vegetables, sauce. 

They see Pietro sopping up the red from his plate with a crust and he says, ‘La scarpetta. Little shoe.’ They have no idea what he means, but they copy him, and soon the bread is all gone. They clank spoons, lick plates clean. 

They sit back and smile.

At the end of the working week, Big John gets the paper. The headline reads, ‘Olive-skinned invasion’. He tosses it aside.

In the afternoon, the rains come at long last. Heavy sky erupts with thick drops, turning every hard surface into song. The men stop their game of cricket, whooping, shirts soaked against their skin in seconds. There’s not much warning that far north.

Pietro and Jakob are not with them. 

At dinner, Mikey asks, ‘Them wogs already gone, Big John?’ He frowns at the gravy slop being ladled into his plate.

‘Looks like it,’ he says. They are wogs, after all. With-Out-Guarantee.

But the men do appear, and they’ve got another. An even smaller man, curly black hair glistening in the downpour. 

‘This Marco,’ Pietro says, and Big John huffs. ‘He work, good worker.’

Big John eyes him up. ‘No space for more of yas.’ 

It’s a lie. Since they outlawed blackbirding – the islanders sent back to their own lands, freed men – there’d always been a lack. A need for more hands. He could take this fella, or he could always end up taking one of the blackfellas sitting by the side of the road, their faces drawn and distant. He weighs it up. More hands means more cane, means more cash. 

The new man says, ‘I cook for you.’

They hook another hammock into the back room. That night, they eat macaroni for the first time.

After dinner, Big John lays down the law early: ‘None of that kissing business, got it?’ The new men start to talk in their musical tongue, and he gives them a glare. They stop, push forward a plate of dark salty meat cut into neat circles. Big John takes a bite. 


The men work until their backs groan; build up blisters, let them break, reeking piss and sweat and flies all day, bodies stained in charcoal. When the field is done, they watch the truck go with the glow of satisfaction. One more bit of earth beaten. 

Another field waits down the way. 

His men, Mikey and Davo, leave for easier, cleaner work down south. Instead he has Roberto, Marco, Francesco, Pietro, Jakob and Little John. Each man picks his blade. They cut into the sunset. They clink glasses, filled with ruby wine instead of tea. They cut, they load, they clear.

The wogs start their own shops, selling those meats wrapped in white skins. Big John knows he likes the finocchiona best, the sharp fennel an unexpected pleasure. And for the bread, crusty brown and salty on the tongue, Big John is especially pleased.  

War comes. Willing men can still fight for the King; Big John would rather see his face on a neat pile of notes in his coffer. His voice was only just breaking when men fought on those Turkish shores – grew into manhood on stories of that baptism of fire. A nation of real blokes was born. At memorials for Gallipoli, Big John will tip his hat. Show respect with silence. But to those stories, he now pays no heed. 

His paper reads: ‘Enemy aliens to be interned.’ He tosses it aside. 

‘Whadya make of this Hitler, Jakob?’

Jakob only shrugs.

True Aussies don’t crave great men. After all: what’s in it for them? All that marching and saluting; Big John doesn’t get it. Got enough to do, right here. 

He doesn’t hear the truck rattle up the red road. Too busy eating stewed rabbit and spaghetti. Big John’s slurping when they kick the door in. 

The coppers must drag Jakob out; he’s strong from the cane. Twisting his arms into the shackles, he’s ready to tear a throat with his teeth. 

Big John tries to argue, kicks up the dust outside. But it’s too late, they tell him. Jakob will sit on his hands until the war is over. ‘We’ll be back for youse next,’ one copper points at the shadowed faces within. Big John only growls. It is his colony still, he thinks. 

‘Pay that moron no mind, gents,’ he says, uncertain. 

But he is not the governor-general. The coppers wait until the napping hour, Big John bleary-eyed and slow. The gang of seven becomes two. 

Little John must find another shed; Big John must pack up his swag at last. Not much to it. He says goodbye to old George, who clung to the cane longer than all the rest, but now must stay with family back up in Cairns. All those years they survived that land, but you can’t work land without men. Even the blacks are being dragged to the front lines, Big John reads. They can’t vote, but they can fight, it seems. Meanwhile, his gang are off to rot. Who’s left to argue with?

At the train station, he looks back through the heat’s refraction, the swell in the air fit to rupture. The cane waves goodbye in the afternoon breeze, wind picking up from the east. He knows tonight the rains will come again. It would have been a great day for the cut tomorrow; after the shower, the land softens, just for a moment. He watches the women trading smoked meats from their carts, the few remaining blackfellas standing silent and watchful by the fence. A truck full of men passes by. He holds up a hand; their gloomy eyes meet his. They could be his men, the ones with thickened palms, who he taught to cut clean. 

In Brisbane, the newspaperman is keen for a word with a real white cutter from Innisfail. Here’s his chance, he thinks. Set the record straight. 

The newspaperman says, ‘Cane industry’s losing men, momentum, losing steam in this war. Whadya reckon?’

‘Which war’s that?’ Big John asks. The newspaperman looks at him funny. 

‘The big one, mate. We’re fighting them at home and abroad, yeah?’

‘Are we?’ Big John says, looks down at where the calluses trace ridged peaks into his skin. Where missed strokes sliced white rivers between knuckles. ‘Not out there. Out there, we’re mates,’ he tells him. ‘Don’t matter where you’re from.’ 

The newspaperman frowns, ‘We know where we’re from, mate.’

Big John shakes his head. 

He buys his own farm at last, cold hard cash. The dream. An expanse of wiry gums and thorny wattle. He builds a neat pine porch round the cottage and strings up a hammock in bleached linen. He rips silver shrubs clear from his patch, chases snakes past the fence. Sows veggies in the spring under earnest cobalt skies, has his nap at the same time each afternoon. Everything that Big John plants can be cut with scissors. 

Each night, he does his best to stir the tiny aromatic leaves into the sauce. Says grace before his dinner. What is bonded in blood and bread can’t be undone. He chooses the fattiest finocchiona, the crisp scent of fennel on his fingers. He pours more wine into his cup.



Christina Carè is an Italian-Australian writer living in London. Overly curious, she studied Architecture, Art History and Philosophy before finally leaning into her passion for fiction. She interviewed actors for Spotlight, turned data into compelling stories at Google, and has edited for the F-Word feminist collective. She is published in the City of Stories anthology 2022, was a Faber Academy scholarship winner 2020, a London Writers Awardee 2019, and has been mentored by author Kirsty Logan. She currently teaches on sustainable creativity for Spread the Word while working on her debut novel, represented by Kate Evans at Peters Fraser + Dunlop.

Shiva by Miranda Gold



Tears at evening prayers – they weren’t mine:

hot and strange as the skin I slipped outside 

looking on at you looking on at grief staged

with crystal tumblers waiting for whisky

and anecdotes told by White Rabbits.


A hollow Alice sparkling faint hears 

too late of a woman who was and was not

you – a woman I had never met, introducing me

to my own mother – Mads, Maddy, Madeleine. 


White paws on my arm, mouths move

catching words too long after they’d been said 

words I might have said – not yet conscious you’d come

back and back again for me – not yet conscious of how I should

have loved you as I tried to love you while I had the chance.


Time of death: 1.30. Two days after Christmas tinsel 

draped round beds and paper crowns discarded –


Such a shock, the chorus said –


only you’d been preparing us for thirty years

waited until we’d stopped waiting 

living by your broken clock

tip toes in 


Through the cemetery under winter sun,

noting headstones on the way, names 

ten, twenty years engraved, reopening

lives we can only just begin to grieve 

whose absence we’ve only just begun 

to feel, a fresh coffin lowered

in the milky light.



The Athenian Women make grief seem grand work

not this vague sense of no – the hovering not yet – not 

yet before I’ve loved you as I should have loved you

while I had the chance.



Miranda Gold’s first novel, Starlings (Karnac, 2016, Sphinx 2019) reaches back through three generations to explore how untold stories about the Holocaust ricochet down the years. Her second novel, A Small Dark Quiet (Unbound, 2018) was selected by The University of New Mexico Press for their Best Peace Fiction anthology (2021). In her review for The TLS, Caroline Moorehead commented on its ‘bold attempt to portray the greyness of growing up without roots or identity, cast adrift in an uncomprehending and uncertain world.’ Miranda is a creative writing tutor and workshop facilitator at Skylight, Crisis, supporting members to voice their experiences through poetry and prose.

The Joy of Living by Alexander Hewett

09:37. A late start. Water on his face, quick brush of his teeth, and he’s escaped the room. Walking down Old Compton Street to Charing Cross Road, through the entrance of Foyles. 

He heads to the top floor, to the café he can’t afford, passes a display of new releases, angry books; their enraged titles shouted from bright, bold covers, together resembling a wave of placards held up in unending protest. 

Breakfast of espresso and two slices of white bread smuggled in from Big Bite. He takes a sip, tops up the espresso with hot water from a flask. Another sip. Another top-up keeps the cup filled up to the brim with coffee. Keeps the water tasting of coffee for as long as possible. Get the most for his money. That way he can afford to keep coming to nice places. 

He looks across the café with searching eyes. He’s fairly certain the manager fancies him. Winks at him every time. He had a conversation with him once, said he hated the Chelsea Flower Show because it was too white British. Jack wonders why only gay men have ever shown interest in him. 


The sun is bright; golden rays shine on the customers. The windows look onto a sharp skyline of rooftops. Still, it’s cold outside. 

He watches mouths moving. Sometimes talking, sometimes chewing. Voiceless conversations. A young woman is reading a book with a flashy pink cover, titled, Misogynists Are Also Racists. His gaze drifts again, to the barista he likes to watch. Probably an undergraduate, a couple of years younger than him. Probably lives nearby. Might encounter her in the evening, on her way home. Oh hello. Hi. Nice to see you. How’s your day? Long, can’t wait to get home, do you live round here? Yeah. Me too, why don’t you come up, I’m feeling lonely tonight. 

But he hasn’t come here to daydream.

He removes his notebook and pen from his worn leather satchel and runs his eyes across the words he wrote the previous day. Notes for a novel. In the spirit of Bleak House. Large scale. London. Many POVs. Characters span all levels of society. Think Dickens in the modern day. And he is submerged.

The sound of laughter and he looks up, his eyes aching. Sees a couple sitting on high stools, holding hands beneath the table. They smile as they speak. One glances at Jack, then the other does. Their smiles say, Look at us. We are beautiful, what we have is beautiful, and whatever you think about us, and we’re sure you’re thinking about us, we don’t care. 

He can’t stand the sight of books today, so doesn’t stop to browse on his way back to his bedsit. He lets himself into the hallway and there it is, in his pigeonhole. Takes it up to his room, already disappointed. Sitting on his bed, opening the A4 envelope, a letter reads:


Dear Author,


Thank you for submitting your work to us. We have read it with interest, but unfortunately, we didn’t feel strongly enough to be able to offer representation. We hope this won’t put you off, as we are highly selective. Thank you for considering us and entrusting us with your work. We wish you luck in placing your manuscript. 


All the best


He puts the letter down and lies on his bed. It’s unusual for them to reply. So in some ways this is a pleasant surprise. He thinks about past friends who now have jobs or qualifications, who have achieved things. He remembers a bestselling British writer on Youtube announcing that descriptive writing is unnecessary. The business of literature is defunct because people can just look things up on Google images. As though the point of descriptive writing is to copy and paste images into books. She doesn’t see a future for literature. Perhaps she’s right. After all, nowadays, people want twenty-second-long TikTok videos in which people mouth the words to pop songs, suddenly cutting to show themselves in a different outfit.

He writhes in the injustice of it all, it seems everyone wants light, fluffy novels. Sterile love stories about vacuous teenage lovers. He wonders vaguely if his submission got through to the agents or whether the intern rejected it. 


He sits up. Tired of being miserable. What is the purpose of life if not ambition? he wonders. Perhaps it is simply meant to be enjoyed, has nothing more to offer than sensation. He rolls off his bed and pulls out a box beneath it. There’s £100 inside. His savings. Perhaps he ought to spend it. See if it makes life good. 


22:09. Jack stands alone in Tisbury Court, his arms crossed over his tattered Barbour Pretending to wait for someone, he watches, through the entrance to a massage parlour, down a lighted passage, a young woman sitting behind a desk. 

He senses the passersby watching him as though they know what he is about to do. And he wonders if he will go through with it. He waits as a group passes then, as though knowing instinctively that this is his opportunity, his hesitation falls away, as he is drawn through the lighted tunnel that leads to the young woman.

“You want a massage?” she asks, with an eastern European accent. There is a swelling of spots beneath her skin, beneath the layer of makeup she wears, making her face appear as though it is made from lumpy clay. Still, she is beautiful to him, because the beauty we see in others comes down less to the quality of their appearance and more to the extent of our desperation.

He searches for his words and speaks, but his voice does not project. His mouth is dry. Clearing his throat, he tries again. “I’m not sure,” he announces. 

“Would you like to look at the menu?” she asks, producing a laminated page listing different kinds of massages. He struggles with himself.

“Would you like one?” she asks again. Seemingly embarrassed, her smile glints in the light bringing out some concealed side of herself. 

He chooses the cheapest massage. 

She stands up and says, “Follow me.” Down narrow stairs, the place is not what he expected. Isn’t seedy or shabby. A pleasant perfume hangs in the air and eastern music plays in the background. The wallpaper is pink and floral and the light of a dim, relaxing softness. Off from the corridor, there are three rooms on each side. One of the doors is open, through which he sees paper sheets draped over a massage table. An aesthetic of cleanliness has been carefully cultivated.

The young woman leads him to a desk at the end of the corridor, where a woman possibly in her seventies sits. She tells the older woman which massage he wants, and the older woman demands £35 from him. Jack notices that £5 has been added to every massage on the menu downstairs. He searches his wallet for the £35, finds he has two twenties then hands them over. The older woman claws the money out of his palm, hands him a few coins. Before he can count the change he is led away by the young woman, toward a door, into a small, dark room. She flicks a switch and red mood lighting is activated. On the far wall is a mirror. He sees himself together with her. He looks quite handsome, he decides, his eyes glowing alive with a darkened light. To the side of the mirror is a small sink and table on which oil, hand wash and paper towels are placed.

He asks, “Will you be doing the massage?” she answers that she will. 

“Good,” he smiles nakedly at her. He half expected the masseuse to be the older woman. Have a young woman at the desk to tempt the customers, then reveal the real masseuse downstairs, after you’ve paid, when it is too late. She smiles back at him, tells him to get undressed, that she’ll be back in a moment. She closes the door behind her and he is left alone, in the quiet darkness of the room, listening to the beats of his heart.  Reluctant to take off his clothes when the door is unlocked and anyone can walk in. He wonders how much he is meant to take off. He doesn’t want to make any mistakes, to make any assumptions. He begins to unbutton his shirt slowly, then waits. Undoes his belt, the button of his trousers, then his flies. He waits, unwilling to go any further. 

Finally, the door opens, and instead of a cameraman bursting in to take photographs to send to his parents, like the paranoid side of him imagined, the young woman returns. 

“Hello,” he whispers. He feels a warmth in his chest. Approaching affection for this woman he has only just met. She goes to the table with her handbag while he removes the rest of his clothes. He looks at her and she looks at him. She seems to have no interest in his body, which disappoints him.

“Lie on the table, on your front,” she says and he does so. His skin, sensitive, seems almost brittle against the paper sheets. The air encases him, and something warm lands in the centre of his back. Her hands upon him, rubbing the oil into his skin. He suppresses a tremor that runs through his body in a wave.

“Are you okay?” she asks. 

“Yes,” he whispers. A moment passes. “Are you?”

She hesitates for long enough to smile. “I’m okay,” she replies. 

He wonders what she thinks of him. He isn’t her usual customer, he expects. He is young. His body appears well-toned, not because of exercise but because he is so thin. There’s nothing to conceal the muscles beneath his skin.

He likes to think he is more attractive and nicer than her average customer. He likes the idea that he is her favourite.

“What’s your name?” he asks. 

“Alina,” she replies. 

“I like how that sounds.”

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“London. I was born here. What about you?”


“Do you like it in London?”

“It’s okay.” She pushes her hands down the back of his calves. “I haven’t had time to explore.”

“I see.” There is silence as she continues to work on his legs. “That’s a shame.” Another silence. 

“How old are you?” she asks, suddenly suspecting he’s under eighteen.

“Twenty-one. You?”

“I’m twenty-three. Are you a student?”
“I used to be. I graduated last year. I’m trying to get published now.”

“Really?” she asks. “What sort of thing do you write?”

“Fiction. About London. I like Dickens very much. Do you read often?” He peers over his shoulder at her. Doing so from this position hurts his neck but still he enjoys looking at her. Seeing her standing over his naked body has a feeling of uncanniness about it, as though he is seeing two things that shouldn’t be together.

“No, I don’t,” she replies. “I don’t have much time.”

“I see.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks. 


“Why not?” Her voice is friendly, though it is the quality of friendliness which tries to relieve awkwardness. 

“I don’t know,” he replies. “Perhaps I don’t meet enough people.”

She doesn’t reply to this.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asks. 


“I like your tattoo of the star.”

“Thanks. I got it a long time ago. Before I came here.”

He falls silent and so does she. She works up his torso to his shoulders. 

“Okay, it’s time to turn over,” she says and he does so. She dims the light slightly. 

He asks, “What are the other customers like?”
She shakes her head and says tiredly, “We get all sorts of people. All sorts.”

“I see.”

“You say ‘I see’ a lot, don’t you?”
He smiles. “Perhaps.”

“Where did you hear about this place?”

“I’ve walked past it a few times. I live quite nearby.”

“Did your friends not tell you about it?”
“No.” He looks down at her, notices that he has begun to fill with blood, has left discharge on his stomach. “I’m sorry,” he begins. 

“Don’t worry,” she replies though he’s unsure if she knows what his apology is in reference to. “Just relax and enjoy yourself,” she says. There is something quite relaxing about her voice, almost motherly.

Ten minutes before his time is up she asks what he knows about these places.

“Not all that much,” he replies. “This is the first time I’ve been to one.”

She nods, tips her head, angling her words. “Have you heard of a happy ending?” she asks.

“Yes,” he replies.

“You know what it is?”

“I think I do.”

“It’s not sex.”


“It doesn’t come with this massage.”


“You have to pay extra.”

“How much?”


“Could you hand me my coat?”

She turns, takes his coat from the hanger and gives it to him. He searches his pocket for his wallet, removes the remainder of his money and hands it to her. She takes him in her hand and moves her hand up and down. He watches her eyes, tries to establish some connection. First, she does not look his way, just stares across at the wall. Then she turns to him, making eye contact. She smiles. And he experiences intimacy for a moment.

Later on, she wipes her hands with a sheet of paper towel as he stands up from the table and begins to dress. She goes to the sink to wash her hands as he watches her, seeing himself in the mirror. And he knows that he will remember this image for some time.

Lying in bed that night, he thinks back to this scene and realises that, for a brief moment, for as long as it lasted, he had escaped his frustrations. But as soon as the moment ended they returned to him, and now he has far less money than before, and his situation is all together worse. As well as this, the prospect of experiencing the same sensation again is less exciting. And so, if he is to continue to pursue sensation, he would have to chase still more extreme sensations, each coming at greater and greater expense. Until finally he would become so desensitised that he would be incapable of experiencing the very thing he had spent his life in pursuit of. 

It occurs to him that a life lived in the pursuit of sensation could not be maintained and seems also to provide only a shallow satisfaction. Still, he cannot draw himself away from thoughts about Alina and wishes he knew her better. The joy in doing so seemed far greater, deeper and nobler than the joy of any momentary though pleasurable sensation. So perhaps, if not in ambition nor sensation, the joy of living lay in our relationships with others; perhaps it lay in love. 


12:32. It is astounding what people who have nothing to do are capable of. This thought occurs to Jack as he stands on the street corner, watching the entrance to the massage parlour. The men come and go. He thinks that Alina would not share with them, the intimacy she shared with him. 

She appears and he sets off, walks up beside her, and glances as if spontaneously catching her eye. His face brightens. 

“Hello,” he begins. 

She looks with hesitation, like someone who frequently feels herself to be in danger. 

“It’s nice to see you again.” 

Recognition flickers briefly in her eye and the look of apprehension grows in her expression. “Hi,” she replies. 

“How are you?” he asks. 

“Okay.” She is still trying to draw away from him. 

“It’s nice to see you again,” he repeats for lack of anything better to say, and there’s some feeble sadness in his face. Perhaps he had expected she would want to talk to him; that he would be anything more than a nuisance to her. 

She recognises this rising despair in him and takes pity; decides it is not realistic to believe this sad, skinny creature will cause her harm and that, in fact, it is wrong to assume he intends to. She permits herself to smile. 

“It’s nice to see you too,” she replies. “Did you enjoy your massage?”

He smiles boyishly. “Yes, very much so.”

“I can tell,” she smiles. “What are you doing now?”

“Going for a walk. I needed to escape my room.”

“I know the feeling,” she replies.

“What about you?” 

“Going for breakfast,” she nods towards the convenience store. 

“Let’s go somewhere together. I’ll pay.”

She looks about the street, and the thought occurs to him that she is searching for someone to help her. “Where would we eat?” she asks. 

“There’s a Wasabi just up the way. I like their sweet chilli chicken.”

“Okay,” she replies, “I’ll let you take me there.”

They go back down Tisbury Court to Rupert Street, to the Wasabi on the corner. Alina sits at a long table in the centre of the room while Jack orders their food. As Alina waits, she watches the passersby through the large, sunlit windows and enjoys this feeling of escaping from her routine. 

He returns, sits opposite her and hands her a pair of chopsticks. He has bought them both sweet chilli chicken. She breaks the chopsticks, begins eating the food. 

“So,” he begins, cheery and light-hearted. “What do you want to do?”

“Eat this,” she replies.

“No, I mean in life.”

“Oh, don’t ask me that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a terrifying question. And it involves me asking myself, how am I going to get out of this hole?” 

He nods, picks at his food with his chopsticks. “I understand what you mean. I have no idea what’s waiting for me either. I don’t suspect it’s very good.”

“You don’t seem badly off. Not for someone your age.” 

“Well, I’m not as well off as I seem. I just…” he smiles, “spend money inconsistently. And things… I could be better off, if I had made different decisions. I feel I’ve wasted a lot of opportunities.”

She asks, “Why don’t you make different decisions then?” As though it were so simple. 

“I suppose I’m still hoping to have the life I want.”

She smiles. “Well, things can’t be all that bad, if that’s still possible.” 

He smiles too. “No, I suppose not. Anyway, you haven’t answered my question, about what you want to do.”

She looks up, watches out of the window. The light is a warm bright mask on her face. “I’d like to start a company, making bespoke jewellery.” 

“Really? That sounds interesting.” 

“Thank you. But I have no idea where I’d start. I make no money, I can’t get any loans so I can’t get my foot in the door. I can’t even afford the equipment to make the jewellery. With writing, you just need a pen and paper.”

He nods. “That’s true,” then looks out of the window with her. He says distantly, as if to himself, “The world has gone so downhill.” He looks at her. “No one has any interests anymore. They’re just… all the same.”

She adds, “You’re not the same.”

He smiles. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” A flame burns in his eyes.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

He nods. “Anyway,” he looks at her. “Are you enjoying your food?”
“Yeah. Thanks, by the way.”

She announces that she’d better go, that her shift starts soon, but that she’s enjoyed their time together. At this moment he is happier than he has been for months. Then the moment passes. 

“Perhaps we’ll do this again sometime,” he answers.

“Perhaps,” she says, and he offers to exchange numbers. 

Throughout the week which follows, Alina is the main subject of his thoughts. Having a project that feels achievable makes his life seem less smothering and his own company less oppressive. During this time his main source of happiness is their text conversations. However nearing the end of the week, her replies begin to peter out. She hasn’t responded to his last message for two days and though that is entirely normal, it makes evident the fact that she is more important to him than he is to her. Troubled by these thoughts, as his love takes the form of an ugly obsession, he leaves his room late one night and wanders the streets, hoping to lose himself in the crowds. 

He finds himself at the massage parlour, watches its lighted entrance before seeing her appear. Retreating into the alley’s darkness, he watches as she emerges from the light, passes him, and then waits on the corner. She holds her phone by her thigh before a smile illuminates her face. She puts the phone away and embraces one of the faceless strangers separated from the horde. They kiss then go off, hand in hand. 

Jack remains in the darkness of the alleyway. 


09:37. The following day. Jack sits on a bench in Soho Square Gardens thinking about love. 

The problem with love, which romance stories ignore, is the near impossibility of anyone you love, loving you. Therefore, those who put love before all else, live lives of desperate longing and unmitigated rejection. I think Goethe came to the same conclusion in The Sorrows of Young Werther. But if not in ambition nor sensation nor love, in what lies the joy of living? 

These past few months, his thoughts have been like quicksand, into which he sinks deeper and deeper, with his struggle to escape them only accelerating the consumption of him, until he is completely smothered. 

Then he spies movement. Focuses his eyes. A worm draws itself painfully across a gravel path. And each bit of progress it makes, though barely perceptible, seems won through agony, as its soft body scrapes against the jagged stones. And yet there appears to be no destination, no point in this journey, except to inflict suffering on itself. It seems driven by an invisible whip, which is its will, and to which it is a slave. But why? What does the worm expect is waiting for it on the other side? 

Perhaps that is life, Jack wonders. A blind struggle, a hard journey to an unknown destination, worth making not because of the certainty that we will gain what we earn, for there can be no certainty of that, but because, though living with hope is painful, it is less painful than the pain of disillusionment, than the pain of living after you have given up. The thing to do, Jack decides, is not to be too focused on your purpose, on your destination, but to devote yourself to the journey, to struggle, and find some satisfaction in it.

With some hope renewed, Jack watches the worm, whose existence is his model of life, as it labours on. And just as the worm reaches the centre of the path, the midpoint of its journey, a robin swoops down, kills it and flies away with its corpse.



Alex is a student at Birkbeck, studying creative writing. He wants to be a novelist.

A Chiaroscuro of Hunger by Oisin Breen

A Chiaroscuro of Hunger

It was ten years ago, when she asked me

To serenade her. She sat beside Triton’s fountain, 

In Rome, as the sun-shook air near split with heat,

And small globes of water acrobatically landed

On my cheeks, red with the thought of a kiss.

And I could see the electricity, pulse, somehow, 

In the whites of her eyes, and I knew everything

She wanted, and why she couldn’t want it, 

Even though she did, and she knew, looking at me, 

That all she had to do was ask. 

I was tired then, worn out by hundreds of poor choices,

And passions that burnt red hot, only to turn white hot, 

And sunder skin from bone, prompting the perennial 

Reassembling of fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, 

That, at times, resembles my face. 

Yet I sang to her, a song I learned in the woods that summer, 

It was a love song about a tubercolic country girl, 

In the twelfth century, whose father begged her to marry,

Who told him she would wait until he was dead, 

Because he refused the man she loved. 

And although my voice is patchy, at best, I can carry a tune, 

The way old men do, in bars, where feeling matters more

Than technique. But when I thought of pressing my tongue

Against hers, I was careful in my fantasy to be delicate

And rough, the two extremes balanced by her breath.

We did not kiss, because she was faithful then, to a man

Who promised to take care of her, even when she wept,

As she often did, her ability to cope worn down

By the ministry of a father, who provided everything, 

But could not love, nor teach her how to laugh.  

We left then, to walk among the gardens of Barberini Palace,

And catalogue, together, an alternate history of marble

Statues, which came alive at night and revelled, wine-drunk

Recreating the memories we all must share in want, 

And the tips of my fingers roiled for need of hers.

But we never touched, so careful were we to avoid it, 

Even when we lay down together, on a long leather divan, 

In the great hall, its paintings an excuse to study the artistry 

Of blemishes, you learn through closeness, that fosters thirst beneath 

The bones. Together, we became a chiaroscuro of hunger in the heat:

An instance of fission suspended on the threshold of shared time.


Irish poet, academic, and journalist, Oisín Breen’s debut, ‘Flowers, all sorts in blossom …’ was released Mar., 2020. Breen is published in 69 journals, including in About Place, Door is a Jar, Northern Gravy, North Dakota Quarterly, Books Ireland, the Seattle Star, La Piccioletta Barca, Reservoir Road, and Dreich.

Vincent’s Lost Letter to His Brother, Theo: October 13th, 1873 by Craig Smith

My dearest Theo

It has been several weeks now; how are you settled into your lodgings? I have been in correspondence with the van Stockum-Haanebeeks. They pass on their kind regards. It makes me glad to know they are thinking of me, but you are my preferred confidante. I have much to relate.

Dark nights have come to London. Away from the lamplight, there is danger in the corners of the city. But, though a new train track is laid here every day, still it suits me to walk wherever I wish to go, to be my own movement.

London rewards time and attention. The globes of gaslight of an evening make me feel I’m walking among the heavens. To look into the water from Westminster Bridge is to see the weeds as a widow’s shawl, lank and drawn downstream to the distant darkness. So far from the coast, the tidal Thames heaves its great mass inland or disappears out to sea to leave little but a stream in a bog of mud. I see many broken things on the water’s edge: fractured clay pipes, smashed crockery, discarded bones. The mudlarks make good work on the beaches when the river is gone.

But London fog is not like Helvoirt fog. The heavy soot of the myriad manufactories falls upon the city’s back. It makes my spit dark and thick. The mist shrouds the streetlight, leans in to tell its secrets. These are the streets of Dickens, of the lost children of civilisation, finding places to live in the shadows of ramshackle buildings that seem too derelict to inhabit. It frightens me, and, I confess, at times it excites me, too. Dickens’ old house is not far from Southampton Street, and I walk there at midday as I take my repast. I had the temerity to sketch his house on Doughty Street, but hated my work and threw it away. It was junk.

You know how I adore the work of Bunyan: his depiction of paradise is a Gothic window through which we can understand our fate. Theo, I found where the great man is interred. I walk there after work to the Bunhill Fields in Shoreditch, and sit beside his grave, where his effigy seeks to reassure me. So close to his mortal remains, I attain a rare calmness in my soul, albeit fleetingly. Blake, too, lays within a neighbouring plot, sleeping the great sleep. Defoe and his wife are nearby, consoling. It is hard to imagine being held in such reverence after your passing, though to present humanity with such deep beauty is tantamount to making real the Word of God. It amazes me to think they were once human, and walked these streets as I do.

Yesterday, an unusual incident occurred. A young woman brought to the office a hand drawing in the hope that Goupil & Cie might buy it. It was a sketch of my likeness, drawn through the sliding sash window that overlooks the street: her on the causeway, me at my desk. It was crude but affecting.

She had many drawings in a portfolio. I asked her, why draw, why not paint? She turned out her pockets and showed me the nothing there. Her clothing was of the east end tenement, her skin pallid and drawn. I gave her a few shillings for oils and canvas but she would spend it on food for her family, she said. She told me the poor are divorced from art because art costs money. They have little enough food; art is a luxury they cannot afford. We are wealthy, you and I, rich enough to pursue our fancies.

I asked where she preferred to draw, and she said Upper Norwood, where the light plays havoc with the workings of her heart.

I asked her to return to the office later in order to present her drawings to Mr Obach, but she never did. I placed the picture of my likeness in my billfold in my jacket and walked it home to my lodgings, where I tucked it into the frame of the mirror. Mrs Loyer said I was a fool to give her my money but I like the picture, Theo. I like to glance at it, from the mirror to the drawing and back, over and over, toying with the angles and the light.

This morning, as the dawn took the day, I crossed the street with a graphite pencil and sketched my boarding-house with the light at my back. My German friends complimented my efforts in the same kind way that you encourage me. I gave the drawing to Mrs Loyer’s daughter, Eugenie, who propped it behind the carriage clock on the drawing room mantleshelf. I can barely bring myself to look at it, fearing that I failed.

We used to draw, you and I, as children, do you recall? I wonder if Mother still has them filed away somewhere? They will be worthless now, I’m sure: she probably burnt them for kindling, in which case I’m glad they found good use. Remember how Father offered us coins for our artwork, and you took it and banked it, and used the money to buy berenklauw, but I refused, exclaiming that my drawing wasn’t yet finished. I suspect I would be a poor salesman of my own work. I would want to retain it to continue to work on it, or would give it away, bewildered that someone would want to own it.

I exhorted my German friends to walk with me to the Crystal Palace at Upper Norwood, this afternoon, to remind me of the dazzling light. We watched our first cricket match en route, which was amusing, if a little baffling. I said to a local, ‘My English is not good, how do you describe these positions they stand in?’ But they said my English was fine, not even the English understand their confection. The English love their sports. It is one of the things I love about them.

The Palace itself is astounding. We saw ourselves reflected in the glass, our vision distorted by imperfections in the vast panes. The engineering feats alone left me breathless. And to look to the East, as if looking toward Holland, was to see the connection between all things, including you, Theo. In such places, God appears in nature, humbling me.

As we walked home, with the lamplight left behind, a petty lurcher grabbed my jacket, intent on snatching my billfold. I fought him off with the patterns you taught me in The Hague, that excursion on the beach by the guest house. I lost my top hat as we fought. I held him by his grubby collar, interrogated him, discovered from his explanation that he needed money. I gave him two shillings and sent him on his way. I forgave him. He was poor and needed the money more than I. He called me a name I did not catch, something to do with my foreign status, but we shook hands and I begged him not to take such drastic action again. He promised he would try. The Church should look after these waifs, then they would not need to steal. The Church or the State, either one.

But that was not the first time I’d visited Upper Norwood, nor the first time the place had tested my mettle. I had been there on my own, Theo, this Spring, not long after I arrived in London. And I wept at what I saw. I wept. It was beautiful, it’s true, to get above the fog and breath the clean air, but there was something else. Indeed, I must tell you why I am writing, my Brother, for this has been long in the telling.

From Upper Norwood, I looked north to Muswell Hill to see the new palace named for Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Two weeks it had stood, open to the public, and I planned a trip there the following weekend, early-June, walking through Hampstead Heath, through Highgate, through Crouch End, closing in on its magnificence.

But disaster. Fire ran through the body of the building as I watched from afar as if I were there. The flames through the great windows were the tulips of our childhood, cupped in a vivid, scalding scarlet on the stems of the colossal lead downpipes. I was repelled and pulled forth, transfixed as the flames became tongues of demons in a tumultuous sky scarred by hellish light. The soot, climbing and crawling and creeping across the landscape like a flock of crows, was a harbinger of something I dare not comprehend.

I have thoughts such as those, Theo, that unsettle the darkest reaches of my nervous mind. The event left me changed. Did you ever sit on a chair and understand that, beneath the wild starry sky, you, of all people, were sitting upon this chair of all chairs? I found myself on such a chair tonight, a hazelwood dining chair, imagining the chair as it was, with me upon it. Then I sat upon the bed, looking at the chair without me, the chair as a chair-in-waiting, not a chair until it bore my weight but always with the potential to be a chair. I moved from chair to bed to chair to bed until Mrs Loyer begged me to stay my boots upon the bare oaken boards, so late at night in the fevered darkness. So I watched the chair under the failing circle of candlelight, wondering what is a chair, what am I. I was unable to answer, not even with the woman’s insinuating sketch, trapped in the frame of the mirror, keeping its vigil over me.

Theo, please excuse my poor handwriting tonight. I have been concerned for my thoughts of late, and I write swiftly, startling myself. My hand seems to know what my brain fears to think. I do not want to burden you but my angst gets the better of me when I think of your unfading forgiveness. Outside, I present myself with requisite decorum but within, in private, the crows have not left me. They move toward me, destined for my soul.

I may not post this letter. I may throw it on the fire. Perhaps, in that way, I can rid myself of this deepening darkness plagues me all the while.

We shall see.

Your loving brother.




Craig Smith is a poet and novelist from Huddersfield. His writing has appeared in The North, Blizzard, and The Interpreters’ House, among others. Craig’s three publications so far are: the poetry collections, L.O.V.E. Love (Smith/Doorstop) and A Quick Word With A Rock And Roll Late Starter, (Rue Bella); and the novel, Super-8 (Boyd Johnson). He is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University.

A New Woman at Beowulf’s Funeral Pyre by Laura Varnam

A New Woman at Beowulf’s Funeral Pyre

(After Beowulf, for R.S.)

I, too, have been laid waste.


(That’s the etymological root

of devastation in Latin.

Though women aren’t supposed

to know such things.)


We can bear the grief of a country

if we have to,

and often we do.


I carried you, 

or one like you.


A giving up is a making room.


Here on the headland

I do not steel myself.


For by this pyre,

salt wind and ashes



I see on the horizon


a return to myself



on the word-road.



Laura Varnam is the Lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. Her poetry is inspired by the medieval texts that she teaches, especially the Old English epic Beowulf. Her work has appeared in Atrium, Crow of Minerva, Dreich, Green Ink Poetry, The Oxford Magazine, and Ink, Sweat & Tears (and forthcoming in Acropolis Journal and After…Poetry).

Topsy by Daniel Crute

Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. 1902.

“I ain’t got rickets sir, no. Nor the pox.”

“Yet,” he said, taking hold of my jaw in a hand that was cleaner than any I had yet seen in America, “show me your teeth.” 

I opened up and he rummaged a finger all around the inside of my mouth. Removing and waving it under his nose, he grunted, and an eyebrow crawled north in appraisal, 

“No consumption neither. How long you been on the island?”

“Since last New Year’s, sir.”

“Lucky little tyke ain’t ya? Scrawny as a plucked chicken mind, but hell, so was I at your age, and look at me now!” he said, puffing up a considerable chest and flexing both arms, so the ladies tattooed there danced like marionettes. I did my best to look impressed, and it seemed to work because he announced, 

“Lucky. That’s what we’ll call you. I’m Frederic Ault,” and scooped me up onto his shoulders. 

With that we set off away from the stink of rotting fish. Away from starvation and dysentery and the filthy shoreline where gulls battle for scraps and us kids did likewise. 

Though I had little sense of time then, I did know that it had been summertime when mama smothered me with kisses and shoved me into a throng of za chlebem children, weeping as the sailors herded us up the gangplank at Gdańsk. I knew too, that fall and winter had passed at sea, for it was Christmas time when I first marvelled at Lady Liberty and joined the shoals of lost children clustering around the tourist spots, where coins might fall from pockets more easily than in the bustling city. Where I learnt to avoid the Fagins looking to pressgang us to pickpocketry, and the Bulls that patrolled the esplanade, swinging their truncheons to dissuade us from trying. Where we huddled together for comfort and safety. Neither of which we found. 

The fall breeze was a Fagin to summer’s warmth too, on the day Mr Ault fished me from these dangerous shallows, and I rode his broad shoulders, so I guess I was about nine. 

I felt I had won some kind of jackpot perched up there, my bare feet dangling against his chest, his hair pomade sticking to my picker shirt. Walking towards a life, and away from a putrid death. Wherever he was taking me, it had to be better than here.

The further inland we got, the finer folks grew. Aprons and headscarves gave way to bonnets and fantastic wide-hooped dresses. Overalls and boots became pinstripe suits and snap-brimmed hats, rolled cigarettes to pipes or long, thin panetellas. Fat-cheeked children in britches and check-print dresses gorged on yellow lumps of ice.

“Frozen custard,” explained Ault, “s’like ice cream, but sweeter. Work hard enough and maybe I’ll spring for some.” Watching the children’s rapt expressions, I made myself a silent promise to earn a taste. 

A giant Wurlitzer at the boardwalk’s end played a revolving waltz, cranked by a sad-eyed monkey in a bellhop’s uniform. Wood faded to muddy sand, and we wobbled along like drunk acrobats till we stepped onto the solid sidewalk of Surf Avenue, passing a hotdog stand that set my mouth to watering on sight. I thrilled as dandies moved aside for Mr Ault’s imposing frame, and realised that he was well known around here, perhaps even famous, when a policeman nodded to him respectfully. I’d never seen one smile before.

A short walk later, past the amusement arcades, hotels, and bars, I saw the park entrance rising over the rooftops like a fairy tale castle. Three enormous crescent moons topping a gleaming white edifice, and below, three more, set upside down to serve as archways. On each, flickering lightbulbs spelled out “LUNA”.

“How’d you like it little fella? Not bad, eh?” said my ride, smiling up at me. 

I could only nod in response. He patted my shin, and we entered Luna Park. 

It was off-season, so the rides sat empty and silent, as if hibernating. Still, at close-quarters, the Switchback Railway’s full white-trestle framework was overwhelming to behold. To think that carriages full of people flew atop it dizzied me, and I realised with a start that I had been holding my breath, as the riders must do, imagining myself aboard.

In open ground ahead, a few roustabouts wandered around the base of a half-built big top, laying out ground spikes, while flymen casually walked the beams up high, lashing and riveting the tent’s skeleton together. 

“Home sweet home.” said Frederic Ault. “Say, you know how to say shit in Italian?”

“Sir, merda, Sir.”

“É vero ragazzo mio. Molto buona. You’ve plenty of merda to shovel, and Topsy only knows Italian.”

“Topsy sir?”

“Topsy son,” he said, lowering me to the ground and pointing, “my elephant.”

“Elephant?” My mind balked at the word. Even here, in this fantasy wonderland, it sounded entirely absurd. But there she was, tethered to a caravan, being scrubbed with soapy yard brushes, her deep grey hide glistening in the noon sunshine, the rivulets of water swimming down its cracks like rivers on rocks. 

She was beautiful. Huge. Impossible. 

“She’s…” I tried.

“Ain’t she just? Come on. Let’s see how she likes you.” 

Ault marched me over and nodded to the scrubbers. The four men paused work and leant on their brooms to watch, and I knew at once that I was being tested. Up close she filled your field of vision, like seeing an oncoming ship from the waterline. Her eyes were dewy and the colour of varnished wood, her lashes long and demure. I wasn’t fearful despite her size, she seemed more friendly than most people I had encountered in my short life. Her trunk snaked around my waist, and I felt its strength. I looked to my new master for instruction, but he just smiled and jutted his chin towards Topsy,

“She likes you, so I do too. Knew I’d named you right.”

The trunk continued its glide around my body, and I admit some fear crept in as it began to squeeze, but even then, somehow, I knew it was okay. 

“Sir, I think…” But then I stopped speaking. I was rising from the ground, up over her head. She gave a throaty rumble and seated me gently behind her ears, much like Mr Ault had done earlier. The men dropped their brooms and began slapping his shoulders in congratulation.

I was in.



Dan Crute is a scribbler, waffler, circus monkey, ageing strength disciple, and occasionally, a comic book artist. He’s just completed the second year of the Creative Writing BA at Birkbeck. He lives in London, where you can find him either hunched over a keyboard trying to make sense of his own writing, lifting something unnecessarily heavy, or hanging out with his six-year-old son. Makes a damn fine cup of coffee too. @danielalexcrute