AT THE STEAM FAIR • by Kip Pratt

The engine shed is a hive of activity. Pistons must be greased, drive rods cleaned, regulator valves stripped down.

Madern sits in his overalls, hunched over his unit, inspecting boiler seals through the magnifier. Arthek peers over Madern’s shoulder. “If there’s any doubt, weld them,” he says.

“I will.”

Arthek returns to his station and swings his magnifier aside. The unit below is finished.

Madern walks over. He holds up a pipette. “Have you armed her?” he says.


“Ready to fire her up then.”


Arthek picks up the tweezers, slides open the firebox, lights it with a taper, and slides it shut. 

They stand back, waiting. Pressure builds. Steam begins to force its way through the valves, hissing through imperfections in the tiny vulcanised seals. She wobbles, then begins to stir, lifting off the bench, wings buzzing, rising maniacally, antennae searching for the open skylight, a single drop of lethal venom glinting on her tin stinger. Arthek races outside and locates the thin black vapour trail against the clouds. 

“Bound for Eglos Cove,” says Madern, coming up behind.  


“Bare flesh. Rich pickings.”


“Best get back to work. Mister Trevithick wants ninety out by dusk.”


“Ninety… and every beach in Kernow seeded by month’s end.” Mister Trevithick; the great entrepreneur. They were working for the right man.


The sun sinks over Trevithick’s Inland Steam Fair. Fairy lights flicker. Multiple steam organs pipe their mayhem into the filthy air. Trevithick himself stands beneath the entrance hoarding in his tatty silver waistcoat, collecting pennies in his crumpled top hat. The revellers are pouring in. Surf’s up, but the beaches and coves are crawling with malevolent steam wasps.

Trevithick’s monopoly is complete; there is nowhere to go for entertainment but the inland fair. He palms a handful of coppers and feels their weight.


Madern and Arthek, their shift in the shed over, are tightening coupling rods, shovelling coal, firing up boilers and greasing bogies. The Dodgems stand ready, their smoke stacks puffing. The Waltzers begin their dizzying spins. 

At the apex of the Sky Lift, circling gently above the acrid smoke, Jago proposes to Loveday.

“Yes,” she says.

He parts her bleached hair and kisses her. “Honeymoon on the beach?” He points out to the coastline and the empty horizon.

“When will that be possible, my love?”

“When the deed is done.” He holds up a vial of deep blue liquid between forefinger and thumb. She caresses it with her fingertips.

“We’ll surf again?” she says. “We’ll ride the waves?”

“We will.”

“No more wasps?”

“No more wasps.”

The descent begins, the gondolas swinging out as they circle the tower. Jago slips the vial into his jacket pocket and buttons it tightly. The ride comes to stop with a jerk, in a cloud of smoke and steam. A whistle sounds. The attendant unhooks the chain. Jago and Loveday disembark, down the plywood steps, walking casually across the parched grass, then creeping behind the engine shed and ducking into the shadows. “Wait here,” whispers Jago. He ducks down and slithers beneath the corrugated iron. Loveday sees the soles of his boots disappear. He comes up behind the forge; men bent over their work, soldering thoraxes to abdomen, attaching cam belts with tweezers, filing couplings, filling miniature boilers with a thimble-full of water, stingers with a drop of venom.

Jago creeps around them, unseen, to the venom vat. Then, mounting the steps, he lifts the heavy lid just a couple of inches and pours in the antidote. It is an elixir cooked for a dual purpose; to nullify the venom and solidify the grease points. The wasps, their stingers inert and wing joints jammed, will crash to earth.


The lovers leave the fair by the main entrance, laughing, brazen heads held high. Trevithick spits tobacco through his broken teeth and proffers the hat. “Enjoyed yourselves, did you?”

“Oh yes,” replies Loveday. She drops a shilling into the hat.

“Thank you, pretty lady, thank you,” says Trevithick, “please come again!”

Kip Pratt is a musician, celebrant and writer based in Devon, England. He has completed an anthology of 25 science fiction short stories, Little Things, 2 novels (Tarn House and The Seventh Wave) and a number of flash fiction stories. Five of his stories have been shortlisted and published online by Tortive Theatre 101. He recently won the Totnes Map Story award for a fictional history of his local town. Kip also plays the fiddle in a Ceilidh band.

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