The Battersea Miracle

A Cockney whose father was a dealer trading in anything. WOLF MANKOWITZ, on his graduation from Cambridge University, came up to London to score a double triumph: as a dealer he all but cornered the Wedgewood market, and his shop in the Piccadilly Arcade is a honeypot for collectors; as a writer he scored repeated hits on the stage, in films, and with his short novels, A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS and OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE.

WOLF MANKOWITZ

ALL Christmas I hadn’t been feeling quite up to the mark. It’s a hard time anyway for us in Bancroft’s Grand Circus getting everything set up for the Boxing Day matinee, so what with feeling a bit dicky plus the normal fatigue I thought I’d treat myself to a couple in the pub opposite the bombed lot in Battersea where we’ve been pitching our little show ever since the end of the war.

I hadn’t downed the first pint before, tired as I was, I knew I’d made a pickup. Squinting along the side of the glass, I saw him on my wrist. I knew at once he was different, because you don’t spend thirty years of your life training fleas without becoming a fair judge of character. And though I’ve never been more than a cage cleaner and interval clown around what was never a great circus, I run as a paying hobby a fairly distinguished little show of my own which gets a lot of respect among flea lovers. I bow to no one in the flea world. So as soon as that tired, bedraggled flea hopped feebly onto my wrist I knew he was exceptional. Mind, he didn’t have what I call the “hop” of a healthy flea. He was quiet and sad, and I could see why when, back in the boxcar I sleep in, I introduced him to my troupe. I never saw it happen before with fleas, because they’re matey creatures unprone to the pettiness you find elsewhere in life. Yet when I flipped him into the box, like one flea the troupe turned its back on him. I called him Pete.

That night I was just dropping off after a hard session trying to get the troupe to work with Pete in the royal-carriage-drawing act, but no use, they kept shying away from him, so I was just going to sleep when I heard this voice in my ear.

“Don’t panic, Joe,” it said in a soothing chirruping kind of way, “this is Pete speaking.”

I’ve been working too hard, I thought, I’ve been a bit off-color all day.

“I’m Pete the Talking Flea,” the voice said. “And I’ve got to talk to you, Joe.”

“I’ve been flea training for thirty years,” I said, “and I’d be the first to give credit to them for intelligence, willingness, and humanity, but I never heard of a talking flea.”

“We are living in an atomic age, Joe,” he replied. “And I am an atomic flea hatched in the pocket of one of our greatest scientists in our biggest nuclear energy center. In the same historic moment both I and the H-bomb were born.”

Now personally I don’t understand these things any more than you can explain why it takes nine months for someone to get born and only nine seconds for a few million someones to die. But when a flea speaks you listen.

“In every force there are both death and life. I am life’s answer to the Bomb,” Pete continued.

“You’re a bit small in comparison,” I suggested.

“I am,” he agreed, “and though I have superhuman intelligence and the accumulated wisdom of mankind, it is my size that is worrying me.”

I’ve known the nicest, cleverest midgets to suffer with the same problem. “Some very good things come in small parcels,” I said comfortingly.

“Never mind all that,” he replied irritably. “I have to tell men what no man — and I include Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha - has ever been able to get them to listen to for long.” He quickly whistled, piped like an oboe, squealed bat-style, sang a few bass notes, turned treble, and wound up with a sound no human had ever heard before. “Fortunately,” he said, “I have a gimmick.”

All through that night Pete told me about his ideas. “One man is equal to the whole of Creation” was his attitude. “Whoever destroys one life it is as if he had destroyed a whole world. Whoever saves a life has saved a whole world. There are millions of worlds to be saved, Joe,” he explained. “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to another. That’s all I have to say,” he concluded. “The rest is gimmick and gloss.”

“Forget it, Pete,” I told him. “The world doesn’t want to know. You can’t go hopping around telling men to love one another and not expect them to kill you for it. It’s human nature.”

“Who is mighty?” Pete replied. “He who turns an enemy into a friend.”

“But, Pete,”I begged him, “you’re only seven months old and you don’t know what you’re up against. You’re all mind and soul, but I’ve been a man for more than fifty years, and I know some shocking things about the beast that mind and soul will never understand.”

“I know more than I want,” he answered sadly. “ Ever since I was born in that radiant blast of life and death I’ve been running away from what I know. But it runs after me, Joe. The hope of man is but a flea.” A soft tremulous piccolo note came from him.

“You’d better spend the night in my ear,” I said. “You’re all tired out.”

Bancroft’s Grand Christmas Circus at Battersea is an old-style show which normally opens with the March of the Gladiators and the Torino Tumblers as a warmer. But this Boxing Day it was different.

The old ones sat back sucking their humbugs, and the young ones leaned forward chattering over their monkey nuts. It was nearly a full house, and chasing round the ring in my red balloon nose and checkered jacket and trousers with Fred, our chimp, after me, I saw old Bancroft signal the electrician to switch on the Tannoy and give them that opening blast of Sousa which means the show is on. The sparks flicked the switch, but it wasn’t Sousa that came out of the Tannoy. It was Pete’s unearthly twelve-octave voice singing, playing, and chirruping like a huge soul filling the tent.

Pete had ordered me to slip him into the Tannoy and keep quiet about it. And that was really all I had personally to do with what is now being called the Battersea Miracle.

I didn’t quite cotton on to what Pete had in mind until that weird singing of his started. By that time, like everyone else in Bancroft’s Circus that Boxing Day, I just went into a sort of trance without time, listening to Pete’s words.

For after he had knobbled us with his gimmick he started to talk seriously, like a lot of wonderful quotations you had always known, explained by a master teacher with the great art of making you feel and understand. By the time Pete finished we really felt that each one of us was like the whole of Creation. We were convinced that it was worth keeping one another alive. I realized afterwards I had never been too sure about that before neither for myself nor for anyone else.

“You see, Joe,” Pete explained after his first show was over and the public had left more joyful and hopeful than after any other circus in history, “the reason why the Aztecs with all their civilization died so easily was not because the Spanish pirates under Cortes were so wonderful. It was because those Aztecs believed their time was up. They let themselves die inside and annihilation inevitably followed. Man is not destroyed by life. He commits suicide by ceasing to love it.”

With Pete snugly back in my ear, the whole circus was ransacked for concealed tape recordings or such-like by two reporters. All they found were our old scratched Sousa records, so, writing about Pete’s performance (HYPNOTIC VOICE FROM NOWHERE), they raked up what they could and quoted a cranky old lady who said it was the voice of God. “I recognized it at once,” she said, “because I heard it often as a child.”

They were queuing six deep for Pete’s second night. “ I know one thing,” said old Bancroft, as business built higher and higher (matinees included), “nothing less than a bloody miracle could ever have filled this house.”

With thousands of people converging on Battersea day after day to listen to him (because, as we always say in the business, nothing sells a show like good word of mouth), Pete was very happy, and I know it wasn’t just vanity either. Although it is a great satisfaction for an artiste to play to enthusiastic houses night after night, Pete wasn’t getting any good notices for being Pete the Superhuman Talking Flea. He was the Battersea Miracle, the Space Voice, the Voice of God, and the dozen other fancy stage names they pinned on him.

“It says in tonight’s paper,” I told him, “that a well-known ecclesiastic is convinced you’re an archangel. The quality of your voice he says is distinctly described somewhere in the Armenian Apocrypha.”

It also said in the same paper that the Tannoy was going to be taken away from Battersea by Cabinet instructions.

“The laugh will be on them,” I sniggered, “when they find it’s just a rough old Tannoy blaster with not even a flea in it.”

“It won’t be empty,” Pete replied.

“What do you mean, Pete?” I asked.

“I’m going with it,” he said.

“But, Pete,” I spluttered, “be sensible. How will you live without me?”

“The laborer is worthy of his hire,” he replied. “I’ll just have to take a quick nip whenever I can from whoever comes to listen to me.”

“But it says here they’re going to use you exclusively for top-level discussions and Summit conferences. You can’t take a quick nip off gentlemen like the Prime Minister.”

I rubbed my forearm ruefully because, to tell the truth, intelligence was not Pete’s only super quality. I suppose his work took a great deal out of him, but the fact was he had an appetite so super that, even with thirty years of flea training behind me, I felt it.

“Do you mean to tell me,” Pete replied with irritability, “that a full course of instruction in solving the world’s greatest problems is not worth the piddling inconvenience of a few fleabites?”

“My human experience tells me, Pete,” I warned him solemnly, “that leaders who can stand for any number of the people they lead to suffer any amount of agony don’t take kindly to personal inconvenience. I wouldn’t chance it if I were you. Come clean and tell them you are only a little atomic superhuman flea.”

“They wouldn’t listen if they knew,” he replied. “There isn’t a man living, no matter how bestial, craven, and ignorant, who doesn’t believe himself superior in thought and feeling to a flea.”

“But you’re different from other fleas, Pete,” I argued.

“Not so different,” he answered. “Even the dumbest fleas love life more than most men do.”

They carried Pete off in the Tannoy the next morning. For a couple of days now I’ve been hanging around that big bunker in St. James’s Park where they put him, watching the generals and diplomats coming out to their cars discreetly scratching themselves.

Tonight’s paper says that Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Khrushchev are flying in next week to consult the Miracle.

This afternoon it started to snow, and two soldiers with holly in their caps unloaded six cans of special insecticide, no doubt trying to save the visiting dignitaries any personal discomfort.

I hope Pete is strong enough to stand up to it all, because while there’s Pete there’s hope.