Monday, November 23, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 21

By Victor Sullivan © 2015       The Wedding Gift

Johnnie was genuinely upset by the consequence of his own carelessness, frightening May so severely on the occasion of their first unfortunate meeting. He was determined to improve his relationship with May, but how best to go about it?
Wedding presents were traditionally either decorative and useless, or mundane, practical, useful things. His gift would have to be exceptional, useful, long-lasting, conspicuous and above all, DIFFERENT. Furthermore, his wedding gift would have to give little or no pleasure to his unpleasant brother while being the absolute life-long delight of his wife. If May's prolonged appreciation of his wedding gift could be a thorn in Richard's backside every time he saw it, so much the better. But what could achieve such a profound specification? 
The solution presented itself as he was having a sorting-out session in The Cell, a month before the wedding, at the fervent request of his mother. He was packing things into a box; his books, his documents and what his mother referred to as 'his flithers.'  A tattered page slipped out from among 'the flithers' and slithered onto the floor. The perfect solution to his problem! Doubtless it would be the most expensive gift May would receive on her wedding day, but thanks to careful management of his his various enterprises, money was not a problem for Johnnie. 
When he first acquired a reputation for repairing sewing machines, Johnnie had occasionally been asked to procure machines for other dressmakers.  He ordered them from the Singer shop in Cork and was pleasantly surprised to receive a generous seller's commission on the sale of each one. All such machines were of the treadle type as they were for professional dressmakers or tailors. The page of the catalogue that had fluttered onto the floor in such a timely fashion did not show a treadle model but a portable, table-top, hand-operated machine.
Johnnie wrote to Singer for the latest catalogue from which he ordered the table-top model, specifying the posh version that boasted a white ceramic crank-handle among its special, attractive features.[ The Author can vividly remember being allowed to wind bobbins on that sewing machine with the white ceramic handle. ] The order included several spare bobbins plus dozens of reels of silk, linen and cotton thread in a wide variety of colours. The machine was enclosed in what was morbidly termed its 'coffin-style' carrying-case. For the journey to Castletown Bere it was additionally protected by a wooden crate. It was sent by rail to Bantry and from there by sea on The Lady Elsie.
Johnnie met the little coaster as it docked at the pier and waited while the passengers disembarked. He asked the man at the gangway to bring him the expected crate addressed to Mr. Johnnie Gill. 'HANDLE WITH GREAT CARE.' was painted on all four sides and 'THIS SIDE UP' on the top. The man gingerly landed the crate on Johnnie's donkey-cart.
"What is it?" he asked with genuine interest.
"Dúlamán!" Johnnie replied as he set off with his crate. "And the very best quality Dúlamán it is too!" he added, leaving the crew-man of The Lady Elsie scratching his head.
Johnnie's next problem was deciding on the most appropriate method of delivery of the sewing machine to the bride. Was there some protocol to be observed in such circumstances? Delivery to her new home or to her childhood home at Adrigole? His bridegroom-to-be brother unwittingly decided the matter for him when he bluntly asked Johnnie not to attend the wedding or to appear at the celebrations. 
"I don't want May upset by your presence. She still hasn't recovered from her first meeting with you."
Johnnie had been expecting such a request and understood the reason for it but he pretended to be surprised, deeply offended and distressed by his brother's demand. Now he knew exactly when and how the sewing machine would play its spectacular part. It would be his proxy, his representative, his ambassador, acting on his behalf. 
Two days before the wedding, Johnnie made an early-morning visit to the Hotel to deliver the carefully wrapped mystery item. The Hotel proprietor agreed wholeheartedly with the idea of a pleasant surprise for the bride and said he had always admired the Gill family and he would be honoured to co-operate. They worked out some strategic details, Johnnie expressed his thanks, left the hotel and turned Ribbon's head towards Eyeries. To be conspicuously absent, as requested by his brother, would be his next contribution to the occasion.
On 3rd May, 1902, Richard Gill and May Harman were married. After the church formalities, the small group of relatives gathered for a family celebration in the Hotel in Castletown Bere. Unlike most weddings, it was a rather sombre event as the Gill family was still formally in mourning following the death of the bridegroom's father. Old Thomas Gill, had died in the last week of the previous November. Nevertheless, there were the usual speeches and toasts. 
Whisperers questioned the presence of a first cousin acting  as Best Man instead of the bridegroom's brother… but that would mean Johnnie… Johnnie would have been able do the job in spite of his handicap and he would tell some very good yarns… Why not Johnnie?
But where was he? Why wasn't he present at his brother's wedding? Surely he ought to be there on such a special occasion. Could he be ill? Could Richard have warned him off…? Nobody seemed to know.
The wedding cake, having been first stabbed ceremonially by the Bride and Groom, was then sliced into precise segments by the waiter and distributed to the guests. That was the moment when the Hotel proprietor chose to make his dramatic entry to the dining room, pushing a serving trolley on which something large and rectangular was hidden under a plain white table-cloth. The buzz of conversation died as all eyes focussed on the mystery object.
"A special delivery for the Bride!" announced the proprietor, bowing to May and quickly sweeping the white covering from the trolley with a flourish, revealing a high quality box. A lady's workbox perhaps? The Hotel Proprieter, after an appropriate delay for dramatic effect, reached out, released a catch and lifted the cover off. The Singer Portable Sewing Machine was revealed, generating gasps of surprise and admiration. The card inside was read aloud: 
"To May from Johnnie" 
The announcement was met with a round of applause and the machine became the focus of everyone's attention. Few, if any, of those present had ever seen a portable sewing machine and they crowded around it. May, in tears of delight and possibly some other emotions, wanted to thank Johnnie and sent the hotel staff searching for him but without success. Word of the wonderful wedding gift the new Mrs. Gill had received from Johnnie Wheels spread around the town and beyond. For months following the wedding, women calling to the Gill's farmhouse would ask to see the sewing machine. May was always pleased to take it down from its conspicuous place on the shelf beside the stairs and show off her machine's impressive features and abilities. 
Such demonstrations sometimes led to an order for a sewing machine and Johnnie secretly shared the commission with his sister-in-law.  What May's husband, Richard, didn't know about wouldn't trouble him; also, what May's husband didn't know about he couldn't claim, demand, get his hands on, and drink! 

Even with such mutually advantageous, secret transactions between them, try as she might, when in the presence of Johnnie, May could not overcome her irrational sense of unease and foreboding,…or  fear … or discomfort? …  and all those words failed to describe May's feelings. Johnnie tried to understand. May tried to understand. They talked about it. Johnnie decided to reduce his presence in the house for May's sake. He abandoned The Cell upstairs completely, stating that he preferred to sleep in the kitchen on Eureka, beside the warm fireplace with the dog for company. He would transfer all his 'thingamebobs and flithers' to the workshop. May felt guilt, gratitude and relief all at the same time. She had enough to do running her new home and the many farm chores that came with it, without having to bother about Johnnie. Her mother-in-law was becoming very feeble and was muttering about not liking to sleeping downstairs in the parlour as it was not agreeing with her troubles. Marriage was not the bed of roses May had hoped it would be!
Soon the first baby was on the way. That sewing machine would be very useful!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 20

 by Victor Sullivan  © 2015       A girl from Adrigole

1901, October.

May Harman, an intelligent, pretty, twenty-year old girl from Adrigole,  watched a cripple drag himself towards her, along the muddy main street of Castletown Bere. She had heard of his existence and knew that he had been badly injured when a child but it was the first time she had actually seen him moving along on some sort of trolley. She experienced a shudder of anxiety, mixed with revulsion as he drew closer and she stepped quickly into a shop door-way to avoid meeting the muck-spattered freak on wheels. The shop-keeper was about to ask what she wanted from his shelves when he noticed Johnnie passing outside and he understood immediately. Most women avoided getting close to Johnnie. Some men avoided him too.
"Ah! That's only Johnnie Wheels. He's fairly harmless. But don't ever cross him. Clever divil he is; he understands complicated gadgets like sewing machines and fixes them for all the dressmakers and tailors."
"But he's filthy!"
"So would you be, missy, if you had to drag yourself around through all the cow and horse-dung down there on the ground, as he does."
"He makes my skin crawl. Ugggg!"
"Say a prayer for him, missy. His must be a very hard life. He can't walk and 'tis said he can neither sit or stand. Dreadful way to have to live, dreadful altogether isn't it? 'Twas a mad sheep that attacked him and crippled him when he was only a young boy."
May continued on her way to the dressmaker, hoping that she would not encounter Johnny Wheels again. Her visit to the dressmaker was for what she hoped would be the final fitting. Although May was quite a competent seamstress and had considered making the dress herself, it was for a very special occasion and best left to the professional dressmaker. It was for her first formal visit to the home of the man that her father had arranged to become her husband. The match had been agreed and, being a farmer's daughter, the prospect of becoming a farmer's wife appealed to her. As May entered the dressmaker's shop her eye fell on the sewing machine near the window and the very notion of it being repaired or even touched by the crippled creature that she had encountered on the street seemed crazy. Surely not! How could anything so filthy and horrible have anything to do with a machine that could produce such neat stitches on those beautiful, fine fabrics or spotless white linen. But her own new dress would have been made with that machine! 
May put on the unfinished dress. As the dressmaker worked her way around her creation, making minor alterations with pins here and there, May asked bluntly, 
"Is it true that the cripple, Johnnie Wheels, repairs sewing machines like the one you've got here?"
"Oh Johnnie! He's great with the sewing machines. I'd be lost only for him. Only last week he was in here giving my machine the once-over as he called it.  Fluff builds up in all sorts of places in the machine and that can cause problems. I'd be scared to open it up myself and poke about in its innards. I was working on your own dress when he called in last week."
May looked down at her dress and shivered slightly. She half-expected to detect streaks of cow-dung on the fabric but failed to see any.
"Was my dress on the machine while he was here working on it?"
"Ah no! Johnnie always makes me clear away all my work before he gets going on the machine. Then he opens it up and picks out all the fluff before he oils it. He gets fierce fussy about cleaning it and polishing it afterwards. I have to keep scrap strips of all the different materials I use for him so that he can test the stitching on them all. He's fussy and funny at the same time. He tells some great yarns while he's working."
Regardless of how fussy and funny Johnnie might be in the opinion of the dress-maker, May was relieved to learn that the freak on wheels hadn't been pawing her new dress with his cow-dung-coated fingers. May left the dressmaker's shop having been assured that the dress would be ready for its final try-on in two days. She went in search of her father and found him, sitting in the pony trap, reading one of the two local newspapers, The Southern Star.
"Two days more." May replied as she untied the pony's reins and passed it to her father before climbing in beside him. On the road back to Adrigole they talked about matters in the Southern Star. May never mentioned the crippled man she had seen with the wheels under him, who could fix sewing machines.  If she had, she might have been better prepared for what followed. 
May's father, aware of his obligation to find suitable husbands for his daughters, had made discreet enquiries and a situation developing to the west of Castletown Bere had caught his attention. A fairly decent farm with a substantial area of commercial peat-bog attached would provide security for his daughter, May. The current half-blind owner was elderly and his wife was becoming quite feeble. The couple's son who worked the farm was in his forties and could probably do with a good, young woman in the house. Letters were written and a visit was arranged.
1901, November. 
 On a fine Sunday afternoon in early November, May Harman accompanied her father in the pony-trap, to meet her future husband. Traditionally, they could expect an invitation to 'walk the land' and had brought their boots for that opportunity. Richard and his blind and feeble father came out into the lane to meet them while his mother waited at the door. May's first impression of the younger bearded farmer who approached her with hand extended, was that he looked older than she had expected.  'Getting on in years,' would be appropriate, she thought. Richard's mother welcomed the visitors and invited them in for tea 'after they had walked the land.' Old Thomas Gill declared that as he couldn't see much any more and would prefer not join them. In truth, he was no longer able to walk far, 'his years had at last caught up with him.'  
May, her father and bridegroom-to-be, Richard set out to view the farm.The livestock consisted of one friendly black and white sheep-dog, a couple of cats, a herd of dry cattle, twelve milking cows, some calves, two pigs, poultry, ducks, a large flock of sheep and one goose. ("there were two but a fox got the other one!"). They walked the farm boundary, part of which included a small river. They saw the large area of peat-bog where cutting rights were sold as measured strips to neighbours and even to some families from the town, who then cut and saved their own year's supply of fuel. From the high, moorland part of the land, the view of Berehaven harbour, Bere Island and beyond it to Mizen Head, was magnificient.  To the west lay the Atlantic Ocean. As they returned to the farmhouse for the promised tea, May, delighted and excited by everything she had seen, was struggling nervously to retain her composure. Richard and her father were getting along well together as they discussed cattle and sheep and the prices they made at the last fair. She, the future Mrs. Gill, would behave properly, politely, respectfully at all times. On reaching the open farmhouse door, May removed the first of her muddy boots, stooping down to replace it with a retrieved shoe. She began to tie its lace.
From the darkness inside the kitchen, at floor level, a large, scrupulously clean hand was suddenly thrust straight towards her in greeting.
"Hello, I'm Johnnie!"
Raising her eyes from her shoe-lace, May saw the hand and a leering face mere inches from her own face. Her piercing scream of sheer shock and terror echoed through the house. It was a moment in her life that she would never forget. Even in her old age, images of that utterly unexpected, face-to-face, close-up, first meeting with Johnnie occasionally disturbed her sleep.
Johnnie was every bit as shocked and distressed by the pretty visitor's reaction. He had meant well. He was just being friendly and welcoming. He apologised profusely to the girl for frightening her so severely. But damage had been done. Richard was furious and, but for the presence of the important visitors, Johnnie would have felt more than the mere chill of his brother's hatred. But nobody had bothered to send Johnnie word about what was about to happen at the Gill farm. He had not been back to his home, or even to the workshop to assemble chairs, for two weeks. The possibility of matchmaking had never crossed his mind. 
He had untackled and stabled Ribbon as usual and then entered the farmhouse on Eureka. There he had found his ageing mother preparing the table in the rarely used parlour, setting out her best china. She simply said that visitors were out walking the land and added that he had time to get rid of Eureka and make himself clean and presentable before they returned for tea, when he could introduce himself to the two visitors from Adrigole. 
Which, he did, with such disastrous effect. 
Johnnie didn't linger for the formal tea. He deemed it prudent to go on an urgent mission to Allihies, or to Bantry, or to China or Russia or to…  somewhere… anywhere!!  

Two weeks later, on on  24th November, 1901,  Johnnie's father, blind Thomas Gill, died peacefully, aged 83.  Johnnie was 31. He followed the funeral procession in his donkey-cart as far as the graveyard beside the North Road, Castletown Bere, where he remained on the roadside, outside the cemetry wall, where he was closer to the grave than most people, as the family plot lies immediately inside the roadside wall. He heard the soil and stones fall onto his father's coffin. He would join his father and Ada and other family members in that same plot some day. But not yet!


[1] May Harman was the author's Grandmother

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 19

by Victor Sullivan   © 2015        Goodbye Brenda

 The residents of Castletown Bere and the surrounding district eventually lost interest in the odd friendship between the cripple, Johnnie Gill and Brenda. The pair met frequently, not only in her uncle's the bar but they would often be seen together, at wakes, funerals and local football matches. They attracted curious stares from Naval personnel and other visitors to the town as they travelled together on Johnnie's donkey-cart. Random taunts were tolerated, rebuffed, or conspicuously and irritatingly ignored. The pair seemed happy in each other's company. Sadly, it was not to last.
Brenda had waited anxiously for over a week without seeing Johnnie enter the bar. Someone told her that he was working in the Urhin area or staying with relatives near Ardgroom. She dreaded what his reaction might be when he learned about what had come from America. As each day passed, her anxiety grew. Imagined distressing scenes were played out in her head. Her own confused feelings were submerged in the melting pot of misery that had overtaken her.  The regular customers had noticed the sombre change in their usually bubbly bar-girl too. Had she and Johnnie Wheels broken up? Or worse…?
As the sun was setting one evening, Johnnie re-appeared, behaving as though nothing was amiss. He ordered his usual with a wave, parked Eureka and waited. Personal delivery of his drink was exactly what he needed, had expected and got. He smiled up at her as best his scarred face would allow, then, as she stooped to hand him his drink, Johnnie saw the distress and the tears.
"Must talk to you. Side door." was all she said quietly and immediately retreated behind the bar, turning her back on everyone, pretending to re-arrange bottles on a shelf before vanishing into the kitchen.
Johnnie set his drink aside and pulled himself out into the street on Eureka. He went to the side-door where Brenda was waiting for him. She said nothing but held out a letter for him to read in the fading daylight. 
It was from Brenda's aunt in America announcing that a well-paid job awaited her in a Boston Hotel. Her room had been painted and furnished and everything had been prepared for her arrival. The tickets were paid for and she was to sail from Queenstown on 27th of the month.
"Is this your father's doing?"
"Who else?"
Brenda was expecting white knuckles and the slam of spiked Horses into the ground at least. Instead, after a long silence, she watched Johnnie change from being the friendly, clever, funny, sometimes cantankerous cripple, into a sad, kindly and very wise, disabled old man. He reached up and grasped her firmly by hand, pulling her down to squat beside him.
"Brenda. Your father's right, of course. I know that… and you know it too, deep down. He knows I could never run your farm after he has gone to join your mother. That farm will need a man, a real farmer sort of man. I can milk a cow in my own way, but I could never plough a field with horses. Nor could I mow oats  or shear sheep. Sheep and me don't get along very well anyway. The truth is, Brenda, if we carry on clinging to each other, it will destroy your entire life. We must increase the distance between us. It will hurt us both for a while but pain fades. I know a lot about pain, so believe me. Go to Boston, see how others live. Do some living for yourself. Then come back to your family farm some day and marry a strong, able-bodied, farmer's son, and don't be wasting yourself on this sewing-machine fixer who drags himself around on a plank with wheels."
It sounded like a well rehearsed speech. Which it was. Johnnie had rehearsed different versions of it over and over again. He had planned to use it many times but at the last moment he could never find either the courage or honesty to express the painful words and logic. Brenda's aunt had provided the necessary key to unlock the unmentionable. 
Johnnie released the girl's hand, spun Eureka around rapidly and returned to the bar, finished his drink quickly and left before Brenda had conquered her emotions sufficiently to reappear before the observant, speculating customers. 
On the evening of the 27th, Johnnie Gill dragged himself onto his donkey cart and headed for the high moorland at the top of Rea, to the spot where, at the age of ten, he had ridden a sheep at speed, crashing into that grey boulder that had crippled him for life. He stopped beside the boulder. It was the first time he had returned to the scene of the sheep accident.  Berehaven Harbour with its usual collection of British Naval vessels warranted little more than a glance. Out to the west, lay the broad horizon of the Atlantic ocean, to the south he could see as far as Mizen Head quite clearly. His careful timing calculation was proved correct. There, visible in the blue haze was a west-bound steamship. Johnnie stared at it, knowing that on board, grasping the starboard taff-rail in both hands, Brenda would be staring towards the flat-topped profile of Knockoura hill behind him, at a spot just a little bit below its crest. They had agreed to say farewell that way at their final meeting. Eventually, distance, haze and the sunset obliterated the last traces of Brenda's ship from view. Johnnie dismounted from the cart and with a hammer and a small cold-chisel, he chipped a simple 'BRE' on the same boulder that had ruined his life. It must have grown too dark for Johnnie to see what he was doing as the  remainder of his girl-friend's name was never completed. 
(The boulder was shattered with gelignite during a land improvement scheme in the 1940s).  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 18

by Victor Sullivan   © 2015   Brenda, Love, Hate and Wills


Johnnie Gill returned twice to the bar 'just to have his face looked over' but on each occasion Brenda's father was present. Then, on his third visit Brenda was serving alone behind the bar counter and her father was absent. Johnnie ordered his usual pint with his usual gesture on entering, positioned Eureka in its usual place and waited for the usual sideways nod from Brenda to one of the usual customers to pass his drink down to him. He waited, longer than usual. Nobody handed his glass down. Then the flap of the bar counter was raised and he watched his drink approaching… in the hand of… Brenda! She squatted down beside him and handed him the glass. Taking his head between her hands she pretended to examine her handiwork on his face but they both knew that there was insufficient light to see anything. Johnnie's free hand touched hers for a moment and she returned to her work-station behind the bar counter. Impossible? A dream? He had vowed to keep his one-pint rule after Ribbon had so embarrassingly taken him to her former home while slept on the cart. 
To hell with vows! He ordered a second pint… just to see if Brenda would repeat the personal delivery service… and… SHE DID!
  It was the beginning of an unusual relationship that was destined to end in tears as they both knew it would.  In the early weeks, Brenda's long chats with Johnnie in the bar were thought to be a mere symptom of the girl's kind nature towards the unfortunate cripple and her interest in the progress of his facial scar. As their warm friendship became more obvious, not only to the bar customers but to the entire town, whispers became more audible: 
'What would her poor mother have said had she had lived to see her precious daughter falling for with that crankie cripple?'
'You'd expect her father to put a stop to it! How could he allow his only daughter to carry on like that while working in her uncle's pub. He'd surely want his only child to do better than Johnnie Wheels!'
'I wonder…  could they… ya know…  God forgive me!… breed?'
The strange friendship of the couple attracted considerable attention and it required strong determination to ignore the innuendo and often cruel, offensive remarks. Brenda, well accustomed to bar-room teasing and scurrilous taunts, would notice Johnnie's knuckles turn white as his grip tightened on his spiked Horses and she would tactfully defuse the situation. Brenda knew there was a limit to his endurance. She had witnessed Johnnie Gill's explosive temper and the consequences of his leg-breaking fury. In miners' jargon, Johnnie was like a blasting charge with a very short fuse. Antagonise him if you dare! 
Before long the pair were to be seen sharing Ribbon's cart. Together they attended the wake of a popular bar customer who had dropped dead in the street for no apparent reason. Richard also attended the same wake and grew angrier and angrier as his opinion was repeatedly sought regarding the antics of the bar-maid and the cripple.
Richard confronted Johnnie on the matter when he stopped Eureka by placing his boot on one wheel as they met on the lane beside the Gill's spring well. 
"Why do you keep disgracing our family by carrying on with that girl from the bar in town?"
"Why do you keep disgracing our family by drinking far too much in that same bar?"
Richard's boot came off the wheel and swung back, but the kick did not make contact with Johnnie's face as intended. Instead, the shin met the prong of one of Johnnie's Horses and it pierced deep into Richard's leg as Johnnie quickly raised his arms to protect himself. Richard bellowed in pain while his intended target backed quickly away to a safer distance. 
"Ask for my permission before you try to kick me in the face again, unless you want the same lesson I gave that sailor!" Johnnie taunted his limping eldest brother. It was mutual open hatred from that moment.

Their father, Thomas Gill, having stretched denial as far as could be expected of anyone, had to admit that his eyesight was deteriorating quite rapidly. He could no longer read a newspaper. He announced that he was 'about to put his affairs in order so as to leave everything neat and tidy when he passed on.' A trip to the solicitor was arranged and he went alone, carrying with him a few documents, one of which was a sealed letter written by his second son, Tommy, who had emigrated to America some years earlier. 
According to an earlier will, (drafted not long after Johnnie's cripling accident with the sheep), on the death of his father, the eldest male heir, Richard, would inherit the farm, the house and the income from half of the peat-bog that formed a large part of the Gill's property. Tommy, the second son, was to receive the income from his half-share in the peat-bog. Financial arrangements were made for the widow and for each daughter. It was a condition that the entire family would have the obligation to jointly care for their crippled brother, Johnnie. That document was drafted before Johnnie surprised everyone with his survival, mobility and independence. 
The solicitor read the earlier draft will aloud to Thomas Gill and then opened Tommy's sealed letter addressed to 'Thomas Gill's Legal Advisor when making his will.'
"This changes things." was his first comment.
"What does?"
"According to this letter, written in the presence of, and witnessed by, a Lawyer, your second son, Tommy, who now resides in America, relinquishes all his rights to his inheritance, assigning it instead to the person he refers to as: 'My disadvantaged brother, Johnnie, whose injuries will be for ever on my concience as it was I who encouraged him to ride that sheep. May God forgive me! Signed Thomas Gill.   Born in Ardgroom, Ireland on 9th October, 1857.'
There was a long, head-nodding silence before the letter-writer's elderly father answered.
"Do as he wishes. Make it legal. The money from that half of the bog will keep Johnnie into his old age. The night before Tommy left for America he said to me that it would be a relief not to see Johnnie dragging himself around on his trolley, day after day. Poor Tommy. I never suspected he was to blame for the sheep accident. We all believed it was Johnnie's own childish mistake. Tommy couldn't stand the guilt any longer."

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 17

by Victor Sullivan   © 2015      An Everlasting Smile

The town was busy as Johnnie turned Ribbon into the Square and tied her to one of the tethering rings in the wall beside the Bar. Inside, six early customers were talking about the battered old sailing ship that had arrived in the inner harbour on the previous evening, its rigging all in a tangle and several spars broken. It had probably run into a storm but nobody knew anything about it. No member of the crew had come ashore yet.
Johnnie, clad in his latest version of Cromwell, entered the bar, looked up from floor level and ordered himself a pint of stout from Brenda. He was wearing Cromwell No.3, made by himself, that had taken over the duties of Cromwell No. 2, the latter having finally been worn to such a state of utter delapidation that he had finally deemed it to be beyond any further patching or repair. Johnnie reversed Eureka into its usual place at the end of the bar counter where six regular customers were seated on the high bar-stools. They greeted Johnnie cheerfully and they all engaged in speculation about what cargo the damaged ship might be carrying and where it might be going to or coming from.
"Nobody's come ashore from it so far."
"No flags showing…"
"Might have all been blown away…"
"Ever heard of the Marie Celeste? The undamaged ship with no trace of the crew?" Johnnie asked?
At that moment the bar door opened and three strangers entered. They looked like seamen, probably from the mystery ship. Brenda greeted them cheerfully as she slid Johnnie's pint along the bar counter towards one of the locals, indicating with a nod towards the floor that it was for Johnnie, a normal occurance in the bar. Johnnie on Eureka was no longer a strange novelty; he had simply become an accepted part of normal life in and around Castletown Bere.
The three newcomers appeared to have appointed one of their members as spokesman on their behalf. He ordered whiskeys by pointing at a bottle and holding up three fingers. It was clear that he spoke little or no English. Had he enough money? … Yes he had. Brenda filled the three glasses and completed the transaction. Attempts at conversation were quickly abandoned. The language barrier was unsurmountable. Meantime, Johnnie had placed his glass of froth-topped stout on the front 'work shelf' of Eureka and lowered his face to take the first sip through the frothy head. The seaman who had ordered the whiskey knocked back his glassful in one gulp and glared around as if challenging his two anxious crew-mates and everyone else present to do likewise. His two colleagues tried to imitate their leader and one ended up coughing and spluttering while the other tried to hide his unfinished drink in his fist. It was clear to everyone in the bar that the two smaller and younger sailors feared their aggressive, bully of a colleague. The atmosphere in the bar became tense. The local men lifted their pint glasses and sipped the contents slowly. Johnny could still reach the dark liquid without having to lift and tilt the glass just yet. He lowered his head to sip his drink. At that moment the bully saw a freak lying on some sort of plank on wheels on the floor. Deducing that Johnnie was trying to drink from the glass, the bully yelled some incomprehensible words and, with his heavy seaman's boot, pushed Johnnie's head down onto his glass.
A gurgling scream turned every head towards Johnnie as his head came up, a mixture of stout and blood flowing from a flap of his face that had been sliced open by the smashed glass. It took only a few seconds for the locals at the bar to realise the enormity of what had happened. Jackets were taken off, sleeves rolled up. Two of them barred the door to block any escape. As they moved in towards the bully with clenched fists, Johnnie yelled something that sprayed blood through his exposed teeth and stopped them. In stunned satisfaction, they stared in surprise as Johnnie's super-strong arms locked around his attackers leg and the twin prongs of one of his Horses were buried deep into flesh somewhere. In the same instant his firewood-breaking technique was applied as if to a branch of a tree, to the the leg of a man. Johnnie's massive shoulders bulged as the bully's bellow of agony drowned the snapping of bones as he crashed to the floor. He made no further attempt to hurt anyone, the twin prongs of Johnnie's left Horse that hovered inches above his eyes ensured that.
One half of the double door of the bar was lifted off its hinges and the whining bully was carried on it to the pier by his two very worried crew-mates, escorted by the bar customers whose menacing body-language required no translator. On the way to the pier other curious and amused bystanders joined the cortege. Having dumped the patient roughly on the pier to await a boat to take him back to his damaged ship, the bar clients returned with the door, replaced it on its hinges and went in search of Johnnie. They found him, still on Eureka, inside the wide bar window where Brenda, kneeling beside him, was availing of a shaft of evening sunlight to illuminate Johnnie's slashed face as she prepared to sew his cheek back together.
"Shouldn't we get the Doctor?"
"I'll go for him."
"Don't waste your time. I've tried. He's out of town for the week." Brenda responded.
"Shouldn't you wait 'till he gets back?"
"No! This has to be sewn together straight away! A bad cut like this must be sewn as soon as possible or 'twill heal with his face all open. I've sewn glass cuts before, but that was on hands and nothing like this. Don't expect any bar service until Johnnie is fixed up. My father has gone off somewhere and won't be back 'till late tonight. I'm on my own here."
Brenda crouched over her patient, armed with an ordinary sewing needle and thread. With only a momententary hesitation, she drew the flap of Johnnie's cheek to where she felt it should be and pushed the needle through the flesh. Johnnie didn't even wince but the result was not satisfactory and she cut the stitch out.
"I need a curved needle to do this. God! Where will I get the likes of that?"
Johnnie tried to speak but found it impossible to make himself understood. He indicated that he wanted to write and one of the onlookers produced a pencil and a piece of cardboard. Johnnie wrote:
The items were procured quickly. Johnnie took the needle from Brenda and pushed it through two twigs. Next he cut a section from a straw and placed one end between the puzzled Brenda's lips, indicating that he wanted her to blow through it while he directed the opposite end of the straw close to the side of the yellow flame of the candle. Brenda blew, creating a thin point of intense flame in which Johnnie manipulated the needle, deftly bending it with the twigs before dropping it with a sharp hiss into the glass of cold water. Pulling off the twigs, he presented the curved needle to Brenda. The helpers standing around looking down at the bloodied form of Johnnie on Eureka applauded.
"I can't stitch him properly down there. 'Twould be better if he was on the bar counter."
Willing hands did as Brenda wanted and Johnnie, complete with Eureka, was hoisted carefully onto the counter. Two men were given candles to hold, the needle was threaded and the stitching began. It was a long, clean gash that ran from the corner of Johnnie's mouth almost to his right ear. The curved needle was an immediate success as it penetrated the cheek flesh repeatedly, drawing the sides of the gash together. It was obvious that Brenda had done such stitching before, even if it wasn't on somebody's face. The stitches were neat and even. Johnnie never even whimpered and appeared to have fallen asleep.
But he hadn't! Each time Brenda leaned close to his face to insert another stitch the neck of her dress drooped loosely just below her patient's eyes affording a unique and rewarding glimpse of her interesting clevage, mere inches from his nose. It happened without embarrassment, awareness, or need for apology.
"That's the last one. Now to clean you up and bandage your face."
The bandage proved difficult. It went around his head and covered his mouth. Starvation and silence threatened to be a possible outcome for a few days. The bar customers joked about the impossibility of a silent Johnnie as they hoisted Eureka, with Johnnie on it, into Ribbon's cart and sent them homewards before returning to the bar to congratulate Brenda and re-commence their interrupted drinking.
Afterwards, word spread about the mayhem in the bar. The reports differed wildly. Some versions stated emphatically that two legs were broken, another account claimed that it was the two shin bones of one leg that were "in bits and sticking out." The repeated and embellished descriptions of the bullying seaman's injuries became more and more gruesome as the day passed. By the time the story had reached and circulated in Allihies, the bully had been beaten to a pulp by the cripple, Johnnie Gill, and would never again be able to walk. If asked what had really happened, Johnnie merely replied,
"Ach shure I only put a bit of manners on him!"
That was all the confirmation that was needed. Nobody would ever again try to attack Johnnie Gill… if they wanted to retain two fully functioning legs.

It wasn’t food or need to speak that troubled Johnnie in the days that followed the leg-breaking incident, it was Brenda. He simply couldn’t get her out of his mind. Each time he ran his tongue along the wound inside his repaired cheek the stitches reminded him of her. Whenever he had difficulty speaking, eating or drinking, he remembered her. Every time he saw his own hands they reminded him of Brenda’s hands and how kind they had been to him, even if those stitches had hurt more than he would ever admit to. Everything he thought about got mixed up with images of her. Brenda had offered to remove the stitches if he returned to her. IF he returned to her?! What had IF got to do with it? How SOON should/could he return? THAT was his next problem.

Johnnie’s gashed face had healed remarkably quickly and the removal of the stitches proved to be a straightforward procedure for Brenda. She undertook the procedure without the presence of any helpers other than the unnecessary, unwanted and unappreciated presence of her father. It was he who passed a mirror to Johnnie that revealed, for the first time, his new facial appearance, an everlasting, lopsided smile. During the following weeks Johnnie practiced various facial expressions whenever he stopped beside a pond of still water. He attempted to practice his new looks in Ribbon’s drinking water bucket: neutral or blank, puzzled, displeasure, intense displeasure, authority, anger, downright bloody fury, laughter, leering, sneering. He finally gave up, conceding that he, and the world around him, would have to accept that a basic component of his facial expression would, for ever, be a lopsided leer, bordering on a smile, no matter how mad angry he might be feeling! What made his new appearance easier to live with was that his leer reminded him of Brenda. Wonderful, beautiful, kind Brenda, who had stitched him up when his face had been split open. Brenda! Brenda…

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 16

by Victor Sullivan © 2015    Mobility & Ghost Stories 

Over time, Johnnie's donkey-cart acquired several money-earning tools. The first of these was a hand operated grindstone that put a keen edge on many a knife and chisel. Johnnie would arrive in his donkey-cart outside a farmhouse and call to the occupants to bring out their knives to be sharpened. Willing children would be invited to bring a jug of water and then turn the handle of the grindstone while Johnnie skillfully honed the blades. Such was the demand for his sharpening services that he was obliged to add a second, coarser, grindstone for sharpening heavy axes and that essential peat-cutting tool, the sleán. 
Word reached Johnnie that one of Castletown Bere's two cobblers had been obliged to give up his shoe and boot repairing services because both of his hands had become 'all twisted with the pains and his only son had run away to sea.' Johnnie felt that a visit to the old craftsman would not be time wasted and so it proved. The man was well aware of Johnnie's reputation for repairing horse-harness, so boots and shoes would be no problem. In fact, Johnnie Gill had, from an early age, successfully carried out boot and shoe repairs. Johnnie bought many of the cobbler's tools and his stock of leather. He also listed the principal clients as dictated by the retiring cobbler. As part of the transaction, Johnnnie was to receive some lessons in the finer points of shoe-making . They then retired to Johnnie's usual bar where he lay on Eureka on the bar floor and the old ex-cobbler sat on a low fish-box beside him. The symbolic cobbler's last was placed on the saw-dust covered floor between their glasses. Many hours later, kind bar patrons unknown hoisted Johnnie and Eureka onto his cart, together with his newly acquired cobbler's last and other acquisitions, and launched Ribbon in the direction of the Gill farm. 
But it was not at Gill's farmhouse that Johnnie awoke. The unfamiliar, neglected buildings and the overgrown bushes seemed to be part of a dream. Then, slowly, his thumping brain cleared a little, realisation dawned and he remembered poor old Molly O'Hanrahan's donkey! That's where they were! At Molly's abandoned cottage. Ribbon, unaided, had simply returned to her old home while Johnnie had most certainly NOT been in control! He vowed that henceforth he would be a 'One-Pint and no more' drinker. It was a vow that he almost kept.

On a trip to Cahermore, five miles to the west of Castletown Bere, Johnnie delivered a set of chairs. While there, his services were called upon to sharpen knives, repair shoes, and stitch harness. It proved to be a long day as word went around that he was working in the area. People were still bringing him more jobs as darkness fell. He was invited to 'stay the night' and was given a substantial meal. That night he slept in his client's kitchen, on Eureka, between the family's big sheepdog and the banked down, open fire. Awake before anyone else in the house, Johnnie ventured outside on Eureka, to find that Ribbon had already been fed, most likely by the same person who had left a pile of harness outside the door that would require at least another day's work. On seeing the surprise workload, Johnnie's generous hosts invited him to 'Stay the night' yet again and the profitable experience became a routine. In the years that followed, Johnnie was welcomed into several houses where he could 'Stay the night' on his work circuit that included the villages of Cahermore, Allihies, Urhin, Eyeries, Ardgroom and Adrigole. However, not every family was willing to have the quaint cripple within their home as many children, and several mature adults, were intimidated by his appearance as he disembarked from his cart and dragged himself about on Eureka, sometimes wearing Cromwell. It was not unusual for very young children to run away from him in tears, much to his regret.

Johnnie's increasing practice of 'Staying the night' had an unexpected social effect. It was considered quite normal for some houses to have a reputation as a Scríocting House where neighbours would gather regularly to play cards, tell stories, gossip, sing ballads, play a fiddle and even dance. A really good evening's entertainment could sometimes continue into the early hours of the morning. Such homes tended to offer 'Stay the night' invitations and Johnnie Gill found the cheerful evenings much to his liking. Thanks mainly to Susan's early tuition and her school reading books, together with the reading material he had salvaged from the Dunboy Castle bonfire many years earlier, Johnnie discovered that he had a flair for story-telling. It was a time when the ability to read was not yet the established norm in the area and a good storyteller was always welcome in a Scríocting House. Johnnie's late-night ghost-stories became notorious for scaring people. He usually set the scenes locally, very locally, so that his listeners, when on their way home, would have to pass the vividly described and easily identifiable roadside boulder or tree at the very spot where the hideous, supernatural event had taken place in his story… and might be about to be repeated …. 
On at least one occasion, and probably on several more, while telling one of his localised horror stories, Johnnie himself became so frightened by the ghastly details he had described so vividly, that he had to stay at the scríocting house overnight. He was simply too scared to pass the roadside pile of stones where he had set the scene of his story. However, there was a genuine historical horror event associated with that particular pile of overgrown stones where Johnnie set some of his yarns. The pile of stones had once been a wretched hovel in which an entire family had died of cholera in 1832. In that grim year the people were so terrified of catching the dreaded disease from dead bodies that, instead of reporting the deaths, procuring coffins and arranging funerals, the neighbours had simply stuffed gorse bushes into the tiny thatched cabin and set it alight with the corpses still inside, then they tumbled the stone walls in on top of whatever remained. Children were warned never to go near, or pick blackberries from around the overgrown remains of the hovel because: "Those blackberries belong to The Others."
Johnnie's story-telling reputation gave him further publicity for his more ordinary, practical services. Many of the younger people knew him as 'Johnnie Wheels' for obvious reasons, a nickname that he was quite proud of. Unlike many able-bodied men in the area, he was always fully employed, in spite of his physical disadvantages. He invariably carried a fistful of coins in a pocket, a rare thing among his peers. 
Johnnie's rota of 'Visitations' meant that he and Ribbon might not appear at the Gill farm for several days at a time. On his eventual return he would quickly assemble a batch of chairs or, if he had no actual orders, he would produce bundles of chair-legs or other components, ready to be assembled at short notice. Harness repairs were often required urgently resulting from some incident such as a cart capsize or a bolting horse. Someone always knew where to contact him in an emergency because Johnnie advertised his travel plans widely.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 15

By Victor Sullivan    © 2015     Shoes for Ribbon

Ribbon had been very carefully trained and well looked after by her former owner, Molly O'Hanrahan. The only thing that Johnnie's newly acquired donkey needed  was some hoof paring and a set of new shoes, requiring another visit to the whip-cracking, elderly blacksmith. Ever since that memorable occasion, ten years earlier, when Eureka had been recovered from the blackguards who had tried to steal it, Johnnie  had often visited the smith's forge. Sometimes old Nancy needed a horseshoe replaced, or her young and skittish, successor, Bessy, but often Johnnie merely visited the aging blacksmith for a friendly chat and to learn and practice new and clever tricks with the long-lashed stock-whip.
It was early one bright June morning when Johnnie proudly drove up to the forge with Ribbon and her cart, but the cheery, jovial greeting he was about to utter didn't get beyond the first word. The feeble condition of his friend, the blacksmith was all too obvious as he emerged from the dark interior of the forge to lean against the door-frame. A racking cough and blood-streaked spitting confirmed his initial opinion that the old man was not going to shoe many more animals. 
"You'll be my final customer, Johnnie. I'm letting the fire go out tonight. I'm not able for it any longer. You've just arrived in time. Is she gentle and quiet?" 
"As gentle as an angel. She used to be Molly O'Hanrahan's donkey, Ribbon. You two met before, I suppose."
"We did indeed. Poor Molly, she was aghh…….." His words ended in a pitiful choking sound and a long coughing bout. After much spitting and panting he seemed to recover his strength and un-tackled Ribbon from her cart.
The hoof paring of the first leg took much longer than was usual. Ribbon may have had unusually tough hooves. Pretending that hoof trimming was a useful skill for Johnnie to acquire, the old smith suggested that Johnnie's powerful hands should perform the paring of the donkey's hooves. Fitting and nailing the shoes took a much longer than was usual but at last the job was done. Little was said. Johnnie paid for the shoes and the blacksmith tackled Ribbon to her cart and watched as Johnnie demonstrated its tipping floor and his mounting technique, with Eureka. He turned Ribbon towards home.
"Wait! I have something for you. It will either keep you out of trouble or get you into it!" 
Johnnie stopped Ribbon and waited. The blacksmith went to the door of his forge, reached up, took down the stockwhip and presented it to Johnnie.
"Here. Take this and mind it for me. It has served me well. Be sure to rub it often with unwashed sheep's wool, fresh off the sheep. That's important to keep it supple. Good luck with it." 
"I'll mind it like a baby … for you. Thanks."
Johnnie flicked the reins and Ribbon plodded awkwardly towards home in her new shoes. aware that he and the blacksmith would never meet again. His old friend would never be forgotten, the whip he was clutching in his left hand would see to that.
As he appoached the Gill's farmhouse, Johnnie's mother was walking towards him, stopping him in the lane before he reached Ribbon's stable. She had been anxiously waiting for his return and had seen his donkey-cart cross the river at the bottom of the valley.
"Johnnie! Johnnie, don't untackle Ribbon. I want you to turn around and take your sister to town. That toothache is killing her all day. She needs the dentist. You and Ribbon take her to town. She's in a lot of pain. The men are all too busy at the hay and need the horse. The two mile walk  to town would be too much. Johnnie, could you take her….? "
Johnnie was aware of his 21 year-old sister's bouts of toothache. Her misery had been a dark cloud in the household for weeks. Now, unable to bear the pain any longer and with her swollen face wrapped in a thick scarf, Ada had, at last submitted to the inevitable and agreed to visit the dentist. The agony of tooth extraction was terrifying even when only being imagined or talked about. Now, in her desperation for relief from toothache, Ada prepared herself for the full reality of the anguish as she travelled towards the dreaded dentist on Johnnie's donkey-cart. They stopped outside the door of the dentist's house. 
"I'll wait here with Ribbon for you. It mightn't be as bad as you think. It will be over quickly."
Ada hesitated to get out of the cart and Johnnie remembered his own dread of anticipated intense pain before it struck and he felt a deep pity for his miserable and terrified younger sister.
"GO! Go now and get it over with!" He encouraged. Ada went, leaving Johnnie to imagine the various stages of the procedure taking place inside the net curtained window, that would culminate with his sister's screams. He waited. There was no scream. He began to imagine possible reasons for the delay. Then the door opened and there she stood, the dentist beside her, holding one arm. He helped her down the two steps and into the donkey-cart. The young dentist grinned at Johnny's bemused expression and answered his unasked question:
"She didn't feel a thing! Latest fashion in painless dentistry. Anesthetics.  She will tell you all about it later. She's a bit groggy right now but that will soon wear off. She might have a bit of a headache too but that will pass." 
It was a greatly relieved Ada who walked, still a little unsteadily, into the kitchen and began to recount her surprising painless tooth extraction. Her joy did not last long. That night her face swelled and a fever followed that every effort by her mother to alleviate failed. Ada grew weaker as the days passed. The doctor was sent for. He diagnosed severe blood poisoning following a tooth extraction, shook his head solemnly, expressed sympathy and left on his horse. Within an hour, Ada was dead, aged only twenty one.  It was 11th June, 1894. Johnnie would be 33 in just over one week later, not a happy birthday.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 14

 by Victor Sullivan   © 2015   Money, Drink and Ribbon


While the demand for rat traps would be everlasting, Johnnie's interest in manufacturing them faded, the same was not true of chairs. Johnnie had sold his chairs as far away as Bantry, having appointed a nephew of the very satisfied Mrs. Lynch to act as his agent, payment strictly on a commission basis. Thomas Gill felt he could no longer lay claim to his own workshop above the cow-stalls as Johnnie's work-in-progress filled every available corner. Wood shavings and sawdust covered the floor and chair-components were tied in bundles that hung from the roof. Johnnie had developed a production line system. No longer did he make one chair at a time from start to finish. Instead, he would make only left front legs for two or three days, then change to right front legs and so on. In the interests of space saving, he only assembled each chair and wove the cording of the seat immediately before delivery to a customer. 
It became clear, even to the most casual observer, that the family cripple was earning substantial money from the combination of his chair manufacturing enterprise, his popular fishing tackle creations and the sewing machine services he provided. His brothers and sisters were getting an irregular pittance from their father for their traditionally expected free, (almost), labour on the farm. Jealousy smouldered beneath the surface for many months and the little acts of kindness that Johnnie had grown used to from his family members could no longer be relied upon. The matter reached boiling point in the Gill household late one evening.
For many months Johnnie had been frequently journeying to town on Eureka, availing of a friendly tow from any horse-cart that passed him. Occasionally he would borrow Nancy and her cart to deliver chairs either directly to local individual customers or to meet the little steamship at the pier for delivery to his chair-agent in Bantry. Whenever he had Nancy and the cart, it became his routine to visit  the Hardware and Timber merchant to replenish his stock of raw materials. It had also become his habit on such occasions to visit the Corner Bar for a pint or two before setting out for home, a practice frowned upon most heavily by both of his non-drinking, pious parents. 
Johnnie Gill undoubtedly had imbibed more than two pints on a cold, April evening in 1892, when he had to be lifted onto the cart by a couple of bar customers who noticed his hesitant predicament with some amusement. Being kindly and helpful men, they untied his horse, placed the reins in Johnnie's hands, turned Nancy towards her home and gave her a gentle slap on her rump.  The old mare ploddingly navigated the two miles competently and safely until, on arrival at the Gill farmyard, Nancy tried to enter the open doorway of her stable with the cart still attached and her intoxicated driver snoring. The front end of one cart-shaft dislodged the stable door-frame and at the same time a wheel of the cart crushed the wooden water-butt beyond repair. Nancy would never  drink from it again. Captain's frantic barking initiated a general state of pandemonium, the outcome of which was a severe chilling of the domestic climate towards Johnnie and he was barred from ever again taking Nancy to town without constant parental supervision.
'Necessity is the mother of invention' and, inspired by considerable desperation and motivated by much ill-tempered frustration, the next big ambition began to germinate rapidly in Johnnie;s head. The solution was staring him in the face every time he took to the road. There was always one to be seen somewhere. In fact they were everywhere, dozens of them, in most cases they were driven and owned by shawl-wrapped women taking butter and eggs to market or going to Mass. On Sundays there would be scores of them lining the roadside hedges near every church. DONKEYS! Donkeys with their carts. A donkey and cart would suit his requirements perfectly. A few modifications to the traditional design of the cart would make life much simpler for loading both Eureka and himself. But it mustn't be just any old donkey. Extremely careful selection would be needed. Some donkeys were known to be very temperamental, obstinate, dangerous even. He would have to choose his animal very carefully. Could there be such a thing as a wise donkey?  The Postman would be the person most likely to be aware of the potential for a quiet donkey transaction. The Postman would know who might have one for sale; he would be aware of those unfortunates who no longer needed their donkey due to permanent incarceration in the Workhouse, in a terminal sick-bed or in a coffin.  
Within a few weeks of Johnnie's first discussion regarding available donkeys with the Postman, the Workhouse door had opened for elderly and feeble Molly O'Hanrahan and, consequently, Molly's donkey, named Ribbon, needed a new owner. Molly had nieces and nephews who drove a hard bargain for Ribbon and her traditional cart. They demanded separate payment for the meticulously cared-for harness. Finally, after much haggling, the transaction was completed and Johnnie arrived at the Gill's farmyard, lying on the floor of the little donkey-cart, proudly driving Ribbon, with Eureka on tow behind. Johnnie announced that this was HIS donkey and cart, not merely something he had borrowed for the day. He reminded everyone that it was the 23rd of June, his 30th birthday, and Ribbon and her little cart was a birthday gift to himself. His sisters, Susan and Ada, admired the placid donkey, stroked its nose and patted its neck; his brother, Richard, seethed with ill-concealed jealousy. Standing in the doorway some distance away, Johnnie's mother wondered how many new problems and embarrassments would follow the arrival of this donkey with the silly name of Ribbon.
Johnnie's father had no objection to the new addition and the seldom-used, thatched, building known as 'The Welcome Inn,' became Ribbon's stable. The adjacent lean-to was cleared of rubbish and rubble and it provided shelter for the donkey-cart. Johnnie devised methods for cart and donkey management that ensured his total independence. He constructed a platform inside Ribbon's stable from which he could handle all the donkey's harnessing requirements. With the help of a couple of modified spade-handles with hooks at the end, Johnnie was able to back Ribbon under the tipped up shafts of the cart, pull  the shafts down, guide the back-chain into it's place across the straddle, then, with the help of a short pole with a hook at one end, he could secure both draft and britchen chains. Result: One efficiently tackled donkey and cart. Ribbon proved to be obedient, gentle and it was obvious that she had been well-trained. She was quickly accepted, befriended and frequently petted by everyone in the family, even by Richard eventually. 
On the days that followed the arrival of Ribbon there was much sawing and hammering going on at the foot of the workshop steps where Johnnie was making modifications to his donkey-cart. Richard, watched the operation for a while and later reported that Johnnie had sawn the entire floor out of the cart and that such destruction of a perfectly good cart shouldn't be allowed. Nobody agreed with him. Johnnie must have had good reason to do such a thing; he always had good reasons for doing the unexpected. And so it was with his donkey-cart floor.
He had arranged the right hand side of the cart floor to pivot like a see-saw so that when it was tipped backwards, with the help of a knotted rope, Johnnie could haul Eureka, with himself on board, up the inclined floor. On reaching the balance point the floor tipped forwards into the usual cart-floor position, placing Johnnie, still on Eureka, in what was to be his prone, Ribbon-driving position. Donkey driving would be like that for decades to come. A couple of wooden pegs secured everything safely while traveling. On releasing the pegs Johnnie moved Eureka backwards until the floor began to tip, and, controlled by the knotted rope, Johnnie, on Eureka, trundled down gently and safely to the ground.
"Didja ever see Johnnie Gill getting in an' outa his dunkey-cart?!" was a common question around Castletown Bere. On his visits to the town he was sometimes followed by a group of children, curious to see how the agile cripple managed the feat. 
 Their curiosity never bothered Johnnie, he seemed to enjoy showing off his strange skills to an appreciative audience. He was proud to be IN TOTAL CONTROL and he became a well-known character as he and Ribbon travelled the roads and lanes, delivering chairs, repairing harness, adjusting and repairing sewing machines and occasionally making fishing flies for the aristocracy.