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"Big Top" by Cath Barton

It was the brightness of it I saw first, red and yellow radiating stripes, forming and dissolving in front of my eyes as we galloped towards the sea. Always towards the push and the pull and the sparkle of the sea then. That was where Karol wanted to go, and where he wanted to go I went. Except that day. I pulled on his reins and we turned to the east, towards the colours and the billowing of the canvas and, as we got nearer, the sound of it. It was a kind of trumpeting that swelled and spiralled. I had never heard the like.

We watched from two fields away but we saw no animals, just heard their calls as doors opened and closed in the ring of caravans that surrounded the Big Top and people in overalls moved back and forth, as purposeful and mysterious as the ants back home in the farmyard after rain. Karol lifted his nose, twitched his nostrils, snorted, his hot breath condensing in the cool of the morning.

‘Maybe there are horses in there too, boy,’ I said into the velvet of his ears. Maybe, I thought to myself, there are elephants and tigers too. Maybe there are painted clowns and men who can tie themselves in knots and featherweight women who can swing high in that Big Top.

But I cast the maybes away, turned the big horse round and headed for home.

I could smell the bacon from outside the house. Mother didn’t turn when I came in, just tightened her back.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ I said, though I wasn’t. ‘We saw the circus. In Mr. White’s field.’

She muttered something. Stupid girl, it sounded like, or maybe it was stupid man.

‘Eat,’ she said, waving her spatula at the bread. Focussed on the frying, for the men. I was supposed to have had my breakfast before they came in from the fields. To leave the space for them.

‘Please could I go to– ’ I started.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Just eat.’

I knew there was no point in asking again.

I went to Mr. White’s field, on my own, on foot, after dark. I crouched under a tree and watched the people queuing at the gate. I watched them all go in. I listened as the Big Top swelled with a drum-roll and the roaring of the big cats and the cheering of the people. I listened till it was done and I kept on listening after that, my chest so full I thought I would burst.

That night I dreamt of a circus parade coming through our town. I dreamt that I was in the parade, high on an elephant’s back, waving to the crowds, and that even my mother was there, smiling at me. Next morning as we rode out I told Karol, as I told him all my secrets. I told him we could turn and gallop to the east and join the circus. But he just whinnied and kept on track for the sea and I knew then that it was silly to think that a circus would take a cart-horse, never mind a farm girl like me.

Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. She is the author of three novellas: The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review), Inthe Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books) shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2021, and Between the Virgin and the Sea (forthcoming, Novella Express, Leamington Books). Her short stories are published in The Lonely Crowd, Strix and a number of anthologies. Cath is also active in the online flash fiction community.

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