By Victor Sullivan Captivity and Hope
The Doctor had declared that Johnnie would be dead by morning. The injuries inflicted by the sheep-riding accident were so severe. But the boy wasn't dead by morning; or by the morning after that. He was still alive two weeks later by which time the neighbors were reporting that they no longer heard him screaming in his intense waves of agony, day or night, as they passed the Gill's house. His mother and sisters nursed him as best they could over the following weeks and months and those months eventually became years. They had tried to straighten his leg but it seemed to be locked in position with the knee close to his chest. He could neither stand or sit. He seemed to be most comfortable when lying face-down on the floor. To lie on his back was painful and rendered him helpless. He was destined to remain face-down on the ground, hauling himself along on his elbows with his one straight leg dragging uselessly behind him.
On one occasion, as his mother pulled bedclothes over him, Johnnie yelled out in pain. A bone splinter had suddenly protruded through Johnnie's thigh and snagged in the blanket. His mother pulled it out, inch by inch and eventually held up the long piece of her son's thigh-bone for him to see. Not sure what to do with it, she kept it for a few days before throwing it into the kitchen fire.
To add to the domestic pressure, another daughter was born the following year. They named her Ada. Meanwhile all the daily farmyard routine duties of milking cows, collecting eggs, feeding calves, poultry, two pigs and the horse continued.
Gradually Johnnie's pain diminished and it became clear that he was going to survive, even though he would be seriously crippled. One knee was drawn up almost to his chest and was locked in that position. He was able to drag himself slowly along the floor. Captain seemed to understand the situation and willingly shared his bed under the stairs with Johnnie. But Captain had regular cattle and sheep herding duties to perform around the farm and Johnnie envied the big dog's mobility and freedom to go outside.
Ignoring his mother's rule that he was never to go outside, one morning Johnnie decided to follow Captain. Dragging himself across the hard clay surface of the front yard, he experienced the frustration of not being able to see over the hedge and across the valley as he remembered being able to do. There was no hope of climbing onto the stone wall in order to watch the many ships of the British Navy coming and going in Berehaven Harbour. His new adventure lasted until he reached the lane where, as he progressed slowly over the muddy surface, he met his mother returning from the cow-shed carrying two buckets of milk. For a fleeting moment he smiled up at her, expecting her to be pleased to see him outside in the fresh air at last. Her look of shocked horror mixed with fury was not what he had expected.
"JOHNNIE! What do you mean by going outside! Where do you think you're going? What if someone passing by sees you dragging yourself around on the ground like that? Look at the cut of you. You're filthy! You're all mud and cow-dung. You aren't fit to be seen by anyone!"
It took time for the thirteen-year old crippled boy to realize fully that he was now a thing of shame within his family. Something to be hidden away, never to be observed by casual strangers. It was a cruel fact that children or adults with a mental affliction or physical deformity were kept hidden from public view as far as was possible. Many such unfortunates would be eventually erased from memory by everyone. It was not unusual in those times for people to hear of the surprise death in their community of someone whose hidden existence they had forgotten or had never even known about.
Rather than risk any further excursions into the open air it was decided that a special area would be prepared, upstairs, for Johnnie. It would be comfortable and warm, being almost directly above the big kitchen fire-place. The room had a small window set at floor level in the back wall of the house. It overlooked the orchard behind the house and nothing else. His bed, a straw-filled mattress on the floor, was on one side and on the other side of the tiny area, his father installed a couple of planks at floor level to serve as a low work-bench and provided a few tools. A couple of pencils and a shelf for books completed the arrangements.
What were his thoughts as thirteen-year-old Johnnie allowed himself to be carried up the narrow stairs by Tommy and Richard, watched by his three sisters and his mother? His father made some excuse about a cow that required his attention outside. Initially, Johnnie was pleased with his new accommodation but the novelty soon wore off. He missed sleeping with Captain and the dog was not allowed upstairs, EVER! The girls named it 'Johnnie's Den'. He persisted in referring to it as 'The Cell'.
Months dragged boringly and painfully by in the Cell, then years. Gradually the intense waves of pain had eased, but not completely. No longer did he wake the entire household by screaming in his sleep. He could drag himself around the floor of The Cell without regretting attempting such action. An experiment to descend the stairs proved to be sheer torture and was not attempted a second time. Yet, Johnnie desperately longed to escape from the confines of The Cell. He wanted to be free like Captain. He said that he wanted to go with the family to the Church on Sunday; No. He wanted to go to Dunboy Castle in the horse-cart with his father. NO. He wanted to go to school with his sisters. NO! Certainly not! But someone might find the time to help him to keep up with reading and writing and arithmetic and whatever else was going on in the class he used to be in before his accident with the sheep.
It was his sister Susan who rescued him. His mother simply couldn't find time to look after him. Two years older than her crippled brother, Susan took it upon herself to keep Johnnie in touch with the world outside. While she attended the local school, Susan routinely climbed the stairs each evening to report on the day's events. She did her best to lead him through her old school books, setting him homework and supervising his efforts while sitting on the floor beside him. She was already planning to somehow bring her invalid brother up to her own class standard at least. To her amazement she found this far easier than she had expected. Her mother had admonished her with, "You can't teach him that yet, he's too young and not able for it." Susan found her mother's negativity to be highly motivating and both Johnnie and his sister accepted the challenges with grins of determination. The dull school reading books specified for his age-group were soon treated with scorn. Grown-up's books were demanded and were found somewhere. Susan's former School Master, a wise and kindly man, knew about the crippled boy in the Gill family and about Susan's tutorials. He offered to help, setting problems, guiding Susan occasionally and setting and marking Johnnie's more advanced homework. Susan would sometimes find Johnnie working on really challenging mathematical problems, requiring calculations completely beyond her own abilities. His father added his technical knowledge occasionally. Johnnie had the good fortune of having three very caring and excellent teachers!
The restrictions imposed by the Cell were becoming unbearable after his fifth year of entombment. Sheer boredom, broken only by spying on the family activity in the kitchen through a couple of secret holes he had carved in the floorboards, seemed to be his long-term destiny, relieved only by whatever he could dig from books. He learned to sew and to knit, he made candles and carved rough looking but serviceable egg-cups from a tree-branch. Out there, the big wide world was carrying on each day without him. As each month crawled by, Johnnie became more determined to liberate himself from his imprisoned existence in The Cell. Two major obstacles he became determined to defeat was his fear of the stairs and his fear of his mother's reaction to his bid for freedom. Many attempts had resulted in excruciating failure to navigate the stairs, sometimes requiring embarrassing rescue by his mother or other family member.