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

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