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).  

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