by Joan Aiken
Her name was Daisy and she was a smasher, the crispest colleen in Killyclancy. Only, as misfortune would have it, old Mr Mulloon said she was unlucky, he having met her once in the street and gone home to find his finest fowl drowning in a puddle; brandy had revived it, true, but anyway those looks weren’t natural, Mr Mulloon said. Whoever heard of hair like spun milk atop of a pair of eyes black as sloes? Depend on it, the girl was an albinoess, cunningly covering up a pair of cherry-pink pupils with smoked contact lenses. And everyone knew albinos had the Evil Eye.
His croaks of warning were much heeded by the mothers of Killyclancy, and three weeks afterwards Daisy found she might as well look for blackberries in April as find a young fellow to take her to so much as a cheeseparing party. After some rebuffs, she began to have a positive hate for the male sex, and never laughed so hearty as when one of the creatures had his car stall on him at the traffic lights, or dropped a bagful of carpet-tacks in the Market Square.
There were two men in the town, though, who took an interest in Daisy. One of them was the doctor. More of him later. The other was Con O’Leary, who ran the Housewives’ Help Service in the daytime and sang in opera at night. Housewives loved him for the bits of Traviata that would come carolling out from under the sink as he scrubbed, or Trovatore from the upper storey.
He had a little helicopter from which he used to clean the windows with a long-handled mop, and thus he was in a position to know that old Mr Mulloon’s theory as to Daisy’s pupils and the possibility of her hair being a wig was wrong: quite wrong. He had seen her in her bath one never-to-be-forgotten Valentine’s eve, and since then he was a changed being; staggered sometimes as he walked, like one in a daze, undercharged several housewives for cleaning down their paintwork, and sang A flat instead of A natural in the middle of Adelaide. He was in love, in fact.
He never missed Daisy’s act. Fortunately the variety turns came on before the townsfolk settled to the serious opera or drama of the evening. Made up as Acis, or Don Pasquale, he could watch enthralled as she came onto the stage in her white silk costume all printed over with huge black marguerites.
The Dome of Death, it was called. Leaping nonchalantly on her motorbike, Daisy would whizz round a couple of times to get warmed up on the lower lip of the great aluminium funnel, and then suddenly—flip!—she’d be horizontal, flying round inside it like a fly in a pudding-bowl and slowly circling upwards, little by little, all the time calm and bored-looking as if she were doing the kids’ crossword in an evening paper, quite regardless of the fact that one sputter from her engine would drop her twisting down to annihilation.
After a while she’d reach the top and swing there, looping like a crazy white bangle on the twirl round an invisible wrist. Then she’d begin to slow and drop, circling lower, until at last she ran slanting onto the ground in a wide curve. Girl and bike came vertical once more and the engine kicked to a halt. Daisy would bow once to the applause and walk off, wiping her hands on a clean bit of cotton waste, unsmiling.
She never changed at the theatre but slung a dark coat on and went straight home. And oh, the many times that Con would have wished to see her home, and he with only six or seven minutes to his call.
One Sunday, though, restless and fretful from his landlady’s good dinner, he put on his best suit that was purple as a Pershore plum and went knocking at her door.
When she opened, he was tongue-tied and stood like a rock gazing at his bootlaces.
“Well?” she said. She was a grand sight to see, with her hair, just washed, spraying out in all directions like a dandelion-clock, but Con was so tangled up in his intention that he had no eyes for her.
“I wondered if I might,” he began, and then he faltered, lost courage, and ended up, “might have left a bucket here last Tuesday week when I washed the distemper?”
“Took you long enough to miss it, faith,” said Daisy, ironic. “Well, you didn’t.”
“Then perhaps,” he went on doggedly, “perhaps a bar of yellow soap?”
“Neither yellow soap, nor pink, nor green, nor white,” said Daisy. “After I’d paid your ten shillings, I had a fine old clear-round getting rid of the muddy footprints of you.”
“Then maybe ’twas my stepladder that I’ve been seeking the length of the town?” he suggested, but with despair in his voice. She took a step back and began to close the door.
“No, wait,” said Con in agony. “Perhaps—perhaps you’d kindly consider marrying me?”
She looked him over from top to toe, her eyes fairly blazing with scorn.
“Shall I tell you what I admire, Con O’Leary?” she said, speaking slow and biting. “What I admire most in the world is courage. Look at you, standing there with your white face and your shaking hand. Begorra, there’s not an inch of courage in the whole footage of ye.”
And this time she did shut the door, and left Con on the outside of it.
Now she was unfair, had she but known it. Though he never went out of his way to show it, Con was as brave a man as any in the town, only for the little matter of the courting. ’Twas common knowledge the way he’d rescued old Mr Mulloon from the church tower, and him with the drink taken. He was bold as a lion with the housewives, did they try to flirt with him in corners or haggle down his price, and the way he cleaned windows was a wonder to all, jumping over the ten-foot gap from his helicopter to the sill for a final polish, leaving the machine to hover by itself, and then jumping back again with the duster the way you’d be thinking he was a chamois, and no notice taken of twenty foot of emptiness under the soles of his boots. Indeed, he had been given free membership of the Daredevils’ Club, though he seldom went to the meetings and thought them great foolishness.
That evening, though, sore and spurned from head to heel, he took a fancy to attend. All the bold young sparks of the town belonged, and he felt the need for company. When he got there they were in a fine distraction and turbulence.
“Look what’s come in it, will you!” exclaimed Michael Whelan. “’Tis herself, the unchancy one, has sent in an application to be considered for membership. Yerra, what then, at all?”
“Is it Daisy you mean?”
“Ah, ’tis. And a fine misfortune ’twould be for the lot of us did she set foot in the club. Many’s the death she’d encompass, whether in the rock climbing or the dirt-track riding or the swimming or the horse-breaking. And a woman, at that! That I should ever live to see the day! ’Tis not to be considered.”
“She must have a trial, though,” said Danny Mayhew, president of the club. “The rules have it so. A fair trial to anyone applying, they say.”
Con sat silent, for he was unhappy in his mind, while the men discussed in shocked voices what trial would ensure Daisy’s failure.
“Look at it this way,” said Michael. “Sure, we wish no harm to the girleen, for what’s a bit of an Evil Eye when there’s goodwill in it? ’Tis how we must be thinking of some grand and terrible exploit will daunt her entirely, the way she’ll not even attempt it.”
“Ah, sha, he has the marrow of it,” said several approving voices.
Danny said, “We could ask her to ride her bike on a tightrope across the Deeps of Kilglore.”
“She might agree,” Michael pointed out. “’Twould be no unaccustomed thing for her, waltzing over the tightrope the way she do when the Dome of Death’s dismantled for the de-rusting.”
“But the Deeps of Kilglore, man! She’d never dare. And the river’s risen lately, with the deal of rain we’ve been having. ’Tis a fearsome place.”
“Supposing she tried it, and fell?”
“Sure then, wouldn’t we have Con here at hand with his grand little broth of a plane to scoop her up like a hurley ball?”
Con was startled, but after a minute he thought, Well, why not? Maybe she’d be grateful then. Maybe she’d run to his arms, crying out, “My hero!” Maybe she’d give up this unwomanish notion. Maybe ’twas not a bad suggestion at all.
The club was unanimous in approval of the plan.
It was a sharp, gray day, the Saturday fixed for the trial. The sky had rained itself out and blown itself dry. Leaves and trees shone with a glitter and heeled over, and a bitter white wind drove a flock of cloud scurrying to the west.
Half the town had assembled near the Deeps of Kilglore, for, since Daisy’s scornful acceptance of the club’s terms, the news of the test had somehow got abroad. To be sure, the club’s activities were strictly against the law, but, as the sergeant said, “A bit of a ducking will do the girleen no harm at all, and maybe souse the Evil Eye out of her. And the more souls there is watching, the more to catch her if she falls.”
It was a fearsome place, indeed. The club members had already strung a cable across the Deeps, the high gorge where the Kildeggan river arched its back before plunging over the falls into St. Piumail’s pool, reputed bottomless. The heavy rains had swollen the river to a torrent and the roar of it would have overshouted Gabriel’s trump.
Daisy was as white as a wand but calm enough, as Danny Mayhew tested the cable and Michael Whelan helped wheel the bike to the cliff’s lip. Con kept himself out of sight, hovering round the windward side of a rock point, for he could not bear the torture of watching her start. The cable ran cut across the gorge, slender and silver as a spiderweb, and on this he fixed his eyes.
All at once it trembled, as the web does when the spiderwife’s at home, and a moment later the little shining toy ran out and down, more like a raindrop on a telegraph wire than a live creature balancing over death and vacancy.
Con brought his helicopter alongside. He had no fear of startling Daisy, for, though he felt he could hear his own distracted breathing, the roar of the falls drowned even the sound of his engine.
Daisy was halfway across now. Just as she began the slow climb to the opposite cliff her bike seemed to slip and stagger.
A sort of a sigh went through the watching multitude as the machine wavered to the right. She brought it back, and then, slowly as a leaf fluttering down, the front wheel slid to the left and the bike dangled crossways over the cable for a full half second while Daisy catapulted head over heels into space and down in a leisurely curve towards the white teeth of the pool.
Con dropped like a stone after her and had her snapped up in his nylon catch-net before she’d fallen more than thirty feet. It was a noble catch. The cheer that went up from the watchers might have been heard from Dublin to Doon Point.
The sergeant hugged Danny Mayhew, Michael Whelan beat old Mr Mulloon on the back and pulled a black bottle out of his pocket. Only the doctor looked thoughtful as Con pitched his helicopter back to the clifftop.
Con had drawn in his net and now gently let Daisy down to the ground while he hovered; the doctor unloosed her and then Con landed alongside.
“All right is she, man dear?” he called.
He was not prepared for what followed.
“Oh! You—you meddling fool!” Daisy stormed at him. “Swooping up like a half-witted hen, you! Puffed with your conceit and insolence! Why couldn’t you let me fall? That would have been better than to live the laughing-stock of the town, rescued like a sausage spitted by the kind courtesy of the cook. What’ll I do now, answer me that? I’ll never be able to lift up my head again.”
And first she broke out crying—then she slapped Con’s face, and then fell fainting to the ground.
“She’s dead!” Con shrieked at the doctor.
“No, asleep,” the doctor contradicted. “Shock’s all that’s in it with her. I’ll take her to my home and give her a sleeping-tablet that’ll settle her sounder than a babe in arms.”
And far from the roystering crowd he took her, though several voices were heard to murmur that a dram from Michael’s black bottle would suit the case better and maybe put some cheer into the colleen.
When she woke up she was on the doctor’s couch in the doctor’s beautiful house, and the doctor was handing her a cup of tea, the strangest-tasting brew she’d ever laid lip to.
“Ah there, poor dear,” the doctor said to his sister. “She’ll be better in the blink of an eye.”
He was a striking-looking man, Dr. Phillimore Madrassi, tall, lean, and black-haired as the devil, with a gleam in his eye. Behind him stood the old-maid sister, Miss Merlwyn, with a flat, square face like the back end of a tin loaf, and a bit of black hair atop, as if the loaf had been burnt. Daisy had the concern on her, looking at the pair of them.
“How are you?” creaked Miss Merlwyn.
Daisy struggled round and sat up. Rare and lovely the doctor’s room was, with Sheraton, Chippendale, and Venetian glass, the walls as delicate as a duck’s egg and the Persian carpet all dove and rose. But the first sight that struck Daisy’s eye was her own feet in sneakers all covered with dust and oil, planted in the middle of this carpet that was worth a queen’s ransom. She tried to hide them out of sight.
“Lie down again now, let you,” the doctor said. “You’re not well enough to be moving yet.”
Daisy wanted to go home, but he said no to this. He wanted to study her reactions, he said.
“Fine goings-on!” exclaimed Agnes, the doctor’s maid. “Half a dozen boluses and a pint of linseed oil, Mr O’Shaughnessy, if you please. He sits by her bed, the poor young creature, questioning away like the Judge himself, and she with no more strength to refuse than a day-old chick. All about did her mother shut her in a dark cupboard when she was a gossoon and suchlike.”
“Is this seemly, Phillimore?” Miss Merlwyn asked her brother gloomily. “Suppose some of our titled patients should come to the house?”
The doctor gave his wolfish grin. “I’ll worry about that when it happens,” he said. “Leave me alone now, my dear, will you, to cure the girl’s man-hate on her, and study the grandest case of obsessive fixation and traumatic syndrome it’s ever been my lot to meet.”
“Oh, traumatic fiddlestick!” Miss Merlwyn barked angrily. “That white-headed piece has you clean bewitched.” And she flounced back to her petit point.
The doctor sat down again beside Daisy. It may have been his questing his way through the whole of her life, or merely the human talk of a male creature, but devil a doubt she was looking better, the eyes brighter on her and the cheeks pinker than they had been for days.
“I feel sorry for that Con O’Leary,” she suddenly remarked. “I’m sorry I slapped his face.”
“Ah, never mind him,” said the doctor. “I want to try an experiment on you.”
“What’s that?” asked Daisy as he strapped a metal band studded with knobs into position on her arm.
“I invented it myself,” said the doctor, easy and affable, switching on a battery. “It’s a little thing to take the measure of your mood. I want to find out are you still in a state of shock.”
In his hand he held a dial with a needle that jerked and flickered, and now, keeping his eye on it, he reached and kissed Daisy’s cheek. She didn’t twitch an eyelid. The needle moved slowly from thirty to forty.
“Still some shock present,” said the doctor professionally, making a note. “We’ll try again.”
This time he kissed her on the lips, and the needle rose up to sixty.
Meanwhile old Mr Mulloon was feeling ill at ease. True, Daisy had put the Evil Eye on his hen. True, O’Leary had been ready to rescue her, so no great harm had been done, but had it been right, he asked himself, to smear axle-grease quite so thickly on that cable? He very much feared not.
Seeking guidance on the matter, old Mr Mulloon returned to the Deeps of Kilglore and sat brooding on the cliff. Maybe some means of atonement would come into his head.
The season’s heavy rains, washing and washing down the falls, had ended by turning St. Piumail’s pool to a whirlpool that swung and turned like a great cone of black glass beyond the dizzying roar of the waterfall. It was a wonderful thing, a thing of portent.
Gazing at it, Mr Mulloon observed something going round and round, and after a minute he recognized this as Daisy’s motorbike.
“All her livelihood, the poor colleen, God save her,” he said, shocked.
“Maybe if I climbed onto that rock and leaned out with my crooked stick I could fetch it to land.”
* * *
“Holy mercy!” exclaimed Daisy. The pointer on the dial leapt and quivered at a hundred and twenty, and she fetched the doctor a clip on the ear. Agnes, listening at the keyhole, decided it was time to intervene.
“Doctor, Doctor!” she cried, bursting in—and wouldn’t this make a grand tale for the town—“old Mr Mulloon’s fallen himself into the awesome great whirlpool! Half the town’s up at the pool of Piumail watching the poor man spinning round out of reach, and he the innocentest creature that ever breathed a word of malice in Killyclancy, bless his evil, drunken old heart.”
While she spoke she eyed with interest Daisy’s scarlet cheeks and furious eyes. The girl was struggling to free herself from the doctor’s contraption.
“You’re cured,” he said hastily, rubbing his ear. “Stay here quietly till I get back. Another night under sedatives—”
“I’m coming up to the pool,” said Daisy, and strode past him to the door.
Up at the pool of St. Piumail the townsfolk were gathered again. There had not been so many free spectacles since King Conor’s dairy show and the events leading up to the war of the Dun Cow.
Old Mr Mulloon went round and round, quite self-possessed—someone had thrown him a bottle of the stuff tied onto a piece of cork—but he was getting lower in the whirlpool all the time, and when he reached the bottom, what then?
“He’s done for,” said the doctor, staring down the long, black glass slope at the little foreshortened figure so far below. “Nothing can reach him down there.”
“Yes, it can!” cried Daisy. “Who’ll lend me a motorbike? I’ll go down for him myself!”
And before anyone could cry “Stop!” she had grabbed Danny Mayhew’s Smith-Rivers, kicked it into life, and plunged onto the lip of the whirlpool.
“Daisy!” shouted the doctor angrily. He had not planned to cure her for this.
But already she was swinging round, vertical to the glossy slope of the water, calm and debonair as ever in her act, and all the time going lower and lower in pursuit of Mr Mulloon, who sat below her as if in an armchair, gazing up with a disbelieving expression on his face.
She leaned over, she grabbed him, she dumped him behind her on the pillion.
“Isn’t it a wonderful thing,” he remarked to himself. “Seized up by the scruff, like she was the young Lochinvar coming out of the west to save him. Eh, it’s a wild age we live in.”
For the spectators above, though, it was plain that the weight of two riders was going to be too much for the aged Smith-Rivers. Daisy herself realized this and tried to coax more speed from the flagging machine. No use. Her despairing glance flung up, and then fixed. Overhead, calmly unloosing his catch-net as if this were old routine, was Con O’Leary, dropped as far down into the whirlpool’s maw as the spread of his rotors would allow.
“Holy Pate,” said the people of Killyclancy, “he’ll save the pair of them yet. Ah, it’s the grand lad he is, entirely. Watch him dangle for them now, ’tis as good as bobbing for apples. Wurra, he’s missed. Try on the next round, boyo! Cunningly does it, the way the monkey caught the alligator’s tail. Ah, he’s got them. Now, will she be dealing Con another of thim great tempestuous slaps? ’Twill be a gradle thing to see.”
But in this respect the onlookers were disappointed. Dropped from the helicopter, Daisy did not wait for Con’s cautious approach. She disentangled herself from Mr Mulloon, rushed on Con with open arms, enveloped him in a smothering hug, and cried out, “My hero!”
In the background the doctor scowled, defeated. His cure had been successful, but he was not the man to appreciate it.
* * *
From The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories by Joan Aiken.