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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Wednesday, 03 August 2011 04:46

Mr Wadsworth and the Flea Circus

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I noticed it first at the second meeting. His hands were smaller, and when he held the metal high-dive model complete with board and splash, it appeared much bigger than it did in my hand. He asked, “How much water will it hold?” I advised him against adding water to avoid rusting of the metal, at which point he became very animated. “It must hold water! What’s the point of having a high-dive feature with no water?!”” I told him I could treat it with special paints. “And after you do, how much water will it hold?” he asked. A thimble full, I replied. “Good. Good.”

Rupert Wadsworth, CEO of Wadsworth Pharmaceuticals, contacted me after he saw my Lilliputopia exhibition at the local art gallery. Drawing inspiration from Gulliver’s Travels, I had constructed a 1:12 scale of Lilliput with tiny houses, in which there was tinier chairs, tables, wardrobes and beds. It had taken me three years to complete and had cost me some nerve damage in the tips of my fingers, but the attention to detail and ornate design made him cry, so he said.

At first glance, Rupert looked a lot older than he really was. I’m led to believe he was only in his late forties, but due to his weathered skin and balding head, he appeared to be at least ten years his senior. He also had a slight strain to his voice that gave him maturity beyond his years. In fact, the first time I spoke to him over the phone, the weakness in his voice left me with the impression he was probably wheelchair bound, too frail to lift the handset to his ear, so used hands-free instead. I have never been more wrong of a person.

Rupert held the first meeting at Wadsworth manor. The manor house lay at the end of a long drive with tiny pebbles that crunched when you walked on them. Entry to the grand hall lay behind an oak door, ornamented with a large brass knocker shaped into a gargoyle’s face. Two bronze Doberman figurines stood guard either side, both as tall as I on tiptoes. Surrounded by overly large objects would make the tallest of people appear small, which is why I was surprised when Rupert met me at the door and seemed within portion to all around him. When we greeted each other, my hand was lost within his.

It was during this meeting I found out why he commissioned me. His father, the pharmaceutical magnate, Charles J Wadsworth, and his mother, Penelope, had died in a fatal car crash when Rupert was only seven years old. His only lasting memory of them both was when they visited a circus when he was six. The circus had travelled in from Russia, carrying with it Siberian winds and a swell of mystery normally only reserved for statesman and royalty. Billed as the only circus in the world to have a Death Leap and Human Cannon, both performed by a one-legged pensioner aptly named, Mr. Bizzaro, throngs of families from all over town queued for hours outside a Big Top tent in cold, damp weather. Charles had greased the hand of its promoter two days before the circus opened to the public, securing ringside seats and the promise that young Rupert would be allowed to have his picture taken with the ringmaster. With candyfloss in hand, Rupert and his parents watched while elephants danced to music and people flew through the air above them. When one of the clowns fell off a rolling barrel, his father laughed, which Rupert likened to the first time he heard thunder; both startling and unworldly. When all the circus acts were finished, stalls were wheeled out into the main ring where children could have their face painted to look like clowns or lions. There were hook-a-duck stands and rifle arcades, and Charles hit a perfect score and won Rupert a big teddy bear with yellow fur. But it was a smaller stand Rupert remembered the most. People were gathered three deep, clapping and laughing, and when Rupert finally broke through to the front, he saw a miniature version of the circus they were in, exact in every detail A dwarf with long black coat, beard and over-sized hat, stood on a box and acted like the ringmaster, gesturing to the crowd to gather closer. As Rupert gazed at the small circus, he saw a tiny set of dumbbells rising from its floor, and then a tiny gold chariot being pulled around the ring. As hard as he tried, Rupert could not see what was moving the objects. His father knelt down and told him it was fleas, but with no magnifying glass to prove they existed, Rupert looked on in amazement, enchanted not by the strength of the fleas, but more that there existed worlds within worlds, beautiful and profound in every detail.

At the third meeting, Rupert’s clothes appeared looser, ill fitted. The huge leather bound chair that sat at the head of the glass meeting table seemed to dwarf him, and when I dropped my pencil and bent down to pick it up, I noticed his feet couldn’t reach the floor.

I had finished a minute trapeze made from fishing line and balsa shavings. From behind a magnifying glass, he smiled and said it was perfect in every detail. Running his finger along a wide gap between his neck and the collar of his shirt, he said, “How high off the ground are the swings?” I didn’t understand. “If it was full scale,” he went on to say, “what would be the height from the floor to the swing?” I guessed at approximately fifty feet. “Make it higher. People love a good show.”

I worked most nights, after work. Small clamps held together razor sharp shards of metal. From behind a fresnel lens, I decorated each model with a tiny brush, the hairs fine enough to deliver the thinnest of patterns. Each feature, from the trapeze to the tightrope, from the working carousel to the firing cannon and target, they were all created individually and then taken to Mr Wadsworth’s big house in the country for inspection. When each reproduction met with his approval, they were then set within a cigar box.

By the time I had moulded, welded, assembled, and painted an exact replica of his prized Bentley, Mr Wadsworth couldn’t reach the chair. We had to sit on the floor, legs crossed. He had stopped wearing suits, and was now dressed in Baby Gap cargo pants and white t-shirt. His shoes were fashioned similar to a child’s, rounded at the toe and pebble shaped. While his hair was still white and receding, and skin weathered and as thick as leather, his voice had adopted a higher tone, as if being pushed through a drainpipe. I thought it might have been a genetic disorder, something he didn’t want to acknowledge with a stranger, so I never drew attention, nor remarked on the noticeable shrinking. Plus, he was paying a lot of money for the flea circus, and to jeopardise losing money by pissing him off seemed like a very foolish thing to do.

Rupert was pleased with the car, and wanted to know if the doors could be opened and if the wheels turned. I nodded, and he pushed the car around the polished oak floor, it fitting perfectly in his hand.

Three months it had taken me to complete the flea circus. I gift wrapped the cigar box with fancy paper and placed a gaudy red bow on top. When I arrived at the manor with box in hand, a woman met me at the door. She had long ash-blonde hair, smartly dressed in tweed trousers, white blouse and grey cardigan. “I am Mr Wadsworth’s sister, Beatrice. Is that the circus?” she asked. I nodded and handed it her. She directed me to a door on the ground floor, one I had never noticed before. Inside, there was a strong smell of chemicals, and a small table lit by a Tiffany lamp. The walls were brown, there were no windows. Of all the rooms in the manor I had been in, this was by far the most claustrophobic and depressing. She placed the box on the table, and removed the wrapping. And after making a few noises that sounded like she approved of the design, she reached into the pocket of her cardigan. With hands cupped together, she brought them close to her face and began to whisper. I leaned forward a little, to get a better look, but a floorboard beneath my feet let out a groan and roused her attention. “I’ll be with you in a second, Mr Bloom,” she said before lowering her hands to the circus. She then turned to me and handed over a large envelope filled with money. “There’s a little extra, for all your hard work,” she said. I asked if Mr Wadsworth would be joining us. “Mr Wadsworth isn’t feeling too well, but he thanks you for your time. You’re very gifted.” I was then ushered toward the door. I never saw, nor heard from Rupert again.

Six months later Wadsworth Pharmaceuticals went into receivership, and all assets were seized, including Wadsworth manor and Rupert’s prized Bentley. According to the local paper, company shares had been falling dramatically for months, with many suppliers withdrawing due to inefficient supply and quality assurance. When Wadsworth Pharmaceuticals filled for bankruptcy, Rupert Wadsworth was not on hand to make comment. The factories closed. Employees lost their pensions. The boards went up on Wadsworth manor. Soon after, papers were drawn up to arrest Rupert on charges of fraud and deception. An official statement from the family was released that said Mr Wadsworth had been suffering from nervous exhaustion for months and had disappeared without leaving any note or indication where he may be. They were all very worried and hoped it wouldn’t be too long before he was found. And when I read this, my main concern was not for the many thousands who may have received substandard medication, nor was it for Beatrice losing a brother, but instead my thoughts fell to that high dive feature, and the hope that there was enough water to break Rupert’s fall.


Mr Wadsworth and the Flea Circus was previously published in Sideshow Fables #2.

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Craig Wallwork

Craig Wallwork lives in West Yorkshire, England, with his wife and baby daughter. After leaving Art College he studied to be a filmmaker before becoming a full-time editor for nine years. In his spare time he writes short stories and is working on his fourth novel. His fiction has appeared in various anthologies, journals and magazines. Follow his progress via his website: www.craigwallwork.blogspot.com

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