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…

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