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We were asked to write about a circus. I considered writing a story about a boy who ran away from the circus to become an accountant -- but since that's pretty much what John Major (the UK prime minister) did in real life, I decided against it. But that idea did get me thinking about someone (or, as it transpired, some thing) escaping from the drudgery of the circus life. Meet Aristotle...

Roll Up! Roll Up!

Aristotle was the big attraction of the Gerrard Brothers Flea Circus. His name was emblazoned on posters, and people came from miles around to witness his amazing feats of strength and agility. Aristotle was the latest of many generations produced by a careful selective breeding programme and he was the largest, strongest, heaviest and most intelligent flea that had ever performed in a circus. His body measured nearly two inches from head to tail and his mightily thewed legs could propel him over vast distances in gigantic leaps that made audiences gasp with awe and wonder. When he was strapped into his specially tailored harness, he could pull model cars tirelessly round and round a carefully prepared track. But his greatest trick, which always drove the crowds wild with delight, was his ability to dive from a four foot high platform and land safely in a teacup of water. In short, Aristotle was the star of the show in the small top.

But even during his most daring feats of skill and bravery, Aristotle was always tethered to the small top with a fine, steel-reinforced nylon line. It was sturdy enough to resist anything except industrial strength bolt cutters while, at the same time, remaining far too thin for the audience to see. The tether terminated in a padlock to which only the Gerrard brothers had the key. All of this was carefully designed to prevent Aristotle from taking a bold leap to freedom. The brothers had no intention of ever losing their star attraction.

One day David Gerrard, the ringmaster and part owner of the Flea Circus, came to get Aristotle so that they could start rehearsing a new trick. As he entered the small top he stumbled over a snoring and rather smelly man who was lying unconscious on the ground with a can of strong lager clutched in his hand. Several other empty cans were scattered on the ground around him, which almost certainly accounted for his prostrate state and his loud snoring. David could clearly see Aristotle sprawled on the man’s face, half in and half out of the his left nostril. Aristotle too appeared to be comatose, and if fleas could snore, David was sure that Aristotle would have been snoring even more strongly than the smelly man. David felt quite out of his depth and in need of advice, so he raced round to his brother George’s caravan and went straight in without knocking. "We have an Aristotle crisis," he blurted out. "Come and see!"

George looked up from the accounts he was falsifying and frowned. "That could be serious," he said. "Let’s go and see what’s what." He put down his pen and the brothers hurried over to to the small top. "Hmmm," said George, taking in the situation at a glance, "this man must have staggered in overnight. It looks like Aristotle jumped on him as soon as he came within range and he appears to have been biting the man and sucking his lager-saturated blood. Look, you can clearly see the bites on the man’s face where Aristotle has been feeding."

"So Aristotle is blind drunk, just like the man himself," said David.

"Almost certainly," said George. "Even if we can sober him up in time for this evening’s performance, I suspect he’s going to have one hell of a hangover. He might even miss the water when he dives into the teacup. He’ll probably be seeing double and he won’t know which one to aim for."

"Perhaps we should give him a teacup of coffee to dive into instead," suggested David.

George shook his head. "No," he said, "giving coffee to a drunk only results in a wide awake drunk. It does nothing to sober them up. I doubt if anything short of a liver transplant will do much for Aristotle in his current state. We’ll just have to wait for nature to take its course and hope that he’ll be sufficiently compos mentis to stagger through his part of the show tonight. We don’t want to disappoint the punters. They might ask for their money back, and that would never do!"

He pulled on Aristotle’s tether and dragged the flea out of the man’s nostril. "Get this man out of here," he said to his brother. Obediently David took hold of the man’s arms and pulled him out of the small top. He dumped the man under a hedge and then he returned to find George attempting to get the semi-conscious Aristotle to run through his repertoire of tricks. Aristotle was still more than a little tipsy and he kept getting his legs tangled in his tether which made him trip and fall over in a rather ungainly manner. "This simply isn’t working," said George. "Aristotle just doesn’t have the coordination to do his tricks and cope with his tether at one and the same time. If we want to get a decent show out of him tonight I think we are going to have to remove his tether."

David shook his head dubiously. "I don’t know about that," he said. "It’s quite a risk."

"I don’t think we have any choice," said George. "Look at the state of him!"

As the time of the evening performance got close, David went into the small top to check that everything was ready. The ordinary fleas that made up the chorus line were bouncy and excited, little black blobs jumping up and down at the end of their tethers. Aristotle himself still looked very hungover and listless. As David watched, Aristotle staggered to his feet, hopped across to his favourite model car, tripped over his tether and fell in a tangled heap. Shaking his head at the magnitude of the risk he was running, David carefully unlocked Aristotle’s tether and rolled it up. Aristotle didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t tethered any more. He appeared to have collapsed over the steering wheel of the model car. He hiccuped. David picked him up and cuddled him protectively. Aristotle snuggled up close to him, basking in his warmth. For a time they comforted each other but eventually David had to put him down again – the audience was starting to file in and David had to go and change into his ring master’s uniform. When he got back to the small top he cracked his whip to settle the audience down. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he thundered, "I bid you welcome to the Gerrard Brother’s magniloquently magnificent Flea Circus starring, for your entertainment and delight, Aristotle – the flea who surpasses all other fleas. Take a bow, Aristotle."

Aristotle stood tall and, swaying drunkenly, bowed to the audience. That earned him a huge round of applause. Out of the corner of his eye David noticed the homeless man slip into the small top. As the crowd fell momentarily silent, the homeless man yelled, "Now Aristotle! Now!"

Aristotle, who no longer seemed even the slightest bit inebriated, launched himself into the air with one swift thrust of his huge leg muscles. Every eye in the audience followed his trajectory as he soared across the vast space inside the small top and landed safely on the homeless man’s neck. The audience cheered and applauded Aristotle’s gigantic leap. The homeless man pumped the air with his fist in a gesture of triumph and then slipped quickly out into the night.

"Fleanapper!" yelled George. "Bring him back, you swine!" But Aristotle and his new mobile home had vanished into the darkness. Aristotle was gone. With one mighty bound he had gained his freedom.

David looked shocked. George came up to his side. "This was obviously carefully planned," said George. He was white with fury. "I think we’ve just been outwitted by a flea. I don’t believe that Aristotle was drunk at all. It was just a ploy that he concocted with the homeless man to get us to release him from his tether."

"How humiliating," said David. He scratched his armpit thoughtfully. "I think he’s left me a souvenir," he said.

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