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!