The girl who rides the motorcycle in the Wall of Death has fallen in love with the ringmaster’s son. Among the colours and lights and sounds of the circus, he fades into insignificance for everyone but her. She flashes him a cheeky smile when he helps her don her blue-and-red helmet and whispers a word of encouragement, a murmur of prayer. From behind the screen of her visor, she looks deep into his eyes for a moment, and then, revving up the engine, she rockets expertly onto the Wall. As her stunts keep the cheering, screaming masses spellbound, she recalls again the prayer in his eyes and she smiles.

The boy who is the ringmaster’s son watches her with a slight pang, though he has seen this act a thousand times and knows she will not fall. A fall means death, and the girl riding the midnight-black bike has not drunk enough of life. She will not fall. She has looked into his soul with eyes full of longing, a longing he cannot return, for his knees turn into water while watching the girl who plays with fire. She is small and lithe, and his heart throbs painfully as he watches her juggle flaming batons and dance with hoops of fire. At the climax of her performance, with the wind in her hair and her arms aloft, the air resounding with the cheers of the audience, she half-turns her fire-lit face towards him and there passes between them a glance so brief and yet so deep.

And the girl riding the motorcycle sees that glance, and it curls softly around her heart like a silk-gloved fist and clenches it hard, but she cannot turn away from the glorious firelight on the petite fire-dancer’s face, the firelight reflected in the calm brown eyes of the ringmaster’s son. In the evening, she will buy pink clouds of cotton candy from the squint-eyed old man parked outside the circus tent, and she will share them with the girl who plays with fire. They will lean against an empty cage, hidden from the milling crowd of pleasure-seekers, and laugh aloud as night devours the last wisps of pink at the edges of the horizon.

But now it’s time for one last round on the bike. She sees him approach, but she tosses her hennaed hair and laughs in his face, shaking her head as he extends the helmet. So the ringmaster’s son stands there, clutching the helmet, as she zooms back up the Wall of Death, her hair flaring behind her in the wind like a flame. She stands and throws open her arms, closes her eyes and throws back her head. She jumps onto the seat and waves to the audience and, at the moment the bike seems to waver, jumps back down to clutch the handlebars and bend her body low over the bike. She ripples like water; her limbs seem to be extensions of her bike, or the other way around. She goes round and round, and each round cascades in an ecstasy of waves and cheers. She cannot fall.


Photo: Wall of Death Riders by Paul Stevenson