Extra Time in Paradise
In Loving Memory of Claire Dawar (1953-2001)
The snow wis comin doon hard an fast, an the pitch resembled a Christmas cake. Mid-March in Paradise, wi the heatin aff. Nae play the day. It matched the darkness ae his mood. Studs hittin turf: a silly boy’s dream. It wis no jist the apprentices in Aamir’s Under-21 Squad; hauf the nineteen-year-aulds in the city huid the same fantasy. Slip the hoops ower yer heid an ye wur in the Furst Elivin, the rap ae studs oan concrete, singin up through the tunnel… Aamir Donovan Khan. Fields of Athenry. Sweet music. The snowflakes made his skin tingle.
He shoved his honds intae the cauld skins ae his jaikit poakets an moved faster doon the trackside, felt the freezin, still air burn through his chubes. Nae booze, nae fags, nae clubbin. Days an nights ae runnin aroon oval tracks. Sivin years, a slave tae the gym, aimin fur an invisible goal-mooth. An Irish middle name, Muslim goalposts. His da huid always been Celtic daft an an admirer ae that black-haired minstrel fae Maryhill. Ae swirlin, psychedelic music.
Oan guid days, Aamir wuid climb the metalwork, right tae the tap ae the floodlight stand, close his eyes, leap aff an fly.
Ach. He huid tae collect Saraid fae hur work. The easy genius ae the Walfrid Lounge. He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes, extra time. Okay. As he wis walkin past the dugoots, he saw an auld man sittin oan the Manager’s bench. Aamir paused. The man smiled. He huid oan a light-blue woollen greatcoat and a black workman’s cap an scarf. Bags-an-rocks fur a face. But he sat erect an his neck wis a slab ae marble. Aamir joined him. The snow fell in great sheets across pitch an stands, an ye cuidnae see the flags up oan the roof, but doon in the dugoot, it wis quite warm.
The auld guy extended his hond.
His skin wis unexpectedly smooth.
Snow again. Nae matches this side ae Easter.
Aamir let his breath oot. The steam vanished intae the curtain ae snow.
Ah saw you oan the Green, th’othur day.
He thought he’d been alane.
Yer very agile, son, an your dribblin an ball-control are getting there. But you need tae work oan the weaknesses.
Aye. Ye need to grapple wi them, throa’le them doon oan the green grass. Bury them in the mud. Headin, shootin, timin, disguise. Naebdy’s any guid at that ony mair. In ma day, it wis a dance.
Malachy’s words rolled like gravel fae deep in his throat.
Sixty-a-day, Aamir thought.
An nae burds. They distract ye.
Aamir looked at his watch. Still okay.
Ah’ve no spottit ye afore, Mister.
Ah’ve been here, Aamir. Watchin iviry tackle, since ye wur ten years auld.
Aamir shifted oan the bench.
Ah watched yer da bring ye tae practice.
Aamir laughed, cynically.
In ma da’s dream, Ah’m an ingineer!
Malachy shook his heid.
Fowk nivir say whit they feel.
Aamir’s faither huid brought him tae matches since before he cuid remember. Aw the seasons. The Auld Jungle, stondin room only. The blisterin wind billowin his da’s dark coat, the harsh rub ae the wool aginst his face. Iviry week, the same wee, scuffed dimple in the concrete. The swell an pulse, the wordless embrace, ae the crowd. The turns ae the game, reflected in restless light fae thur faces. Back in the auld country, in the burnin fields ae Punjab, his da huid wielded a cricket-bat. But here in Glesga, he’d just sold sweeties an hennaed his hair. Aamir splayed oot his lang legs, proaped his elbows oan the quads an palmed his foreheid.
Jist a dream, he whispered.
The auld man touched the peak ae his cap.
Thur’s blood beneath this turf.
Aamir looked up. Malachy’s eyes wur shot through wi red streaks. The pupils huid swollen till thur wis hardly ony blue left.
Men rose fae the waste-boats ae the west, an went tae war. Soajers’ soangs. The dead ae the fields. The rush ae the Brake Clubs, the close battles wi the Night Men. We cleaned the sewers an built the tunnels an wi the siller we made, we suppered the poor weans ae the East End. An above deathly mine shafts, we prayed fitba. Goad! Did we play! Wee Grit Patsy, Napoleon McMenemy, Alec the Icicle, Trooper Joe, Big Jimmy McGrory an Greetin Malky wi his twa feet. Rows an rows ae iron men, 2-3-5. Fightin the Bears an the Thistles an the Edinburgh Greens. An archin ower it aw, the Big Boss Maley. The Boss an the Brother dreamed this place in a wake, an it became real.
Ah know the history, Mister… ah mean Malachy. Paradise gates, Lisbon Lions an aw that. The smell ae siller. It’s a great weight oan ma shooders. Aw my life, Ah’ve wantit nuhin else.
Saraid’s my girlfriend, y’know, she works in the canteen here.
Malachy nodded. Aamir felt dizzy.
But Ah mean, even when Ah’m wi hur, aw Ah’m thinkin aboot is the next match, the trials, stretchin masel, ma breith, ma bones, till Ah’m jist light.
He glanced aroon, a wee bit embarrassed. He’d nivir talked like this afore. No tae his faither, no tae Saraid, no even tae the bathroom mirror. Mibbee he wis too fit. Mibbee he’d pushed himsel ower the edge.
The snowfall wis so dense, Aamir cuid no longer see the Jungle terraces opposite. Haufway across, the pitch vanished intae a wall ae white.
Malachy slipped his cap up at an angle an danced the tip ae his finger ower his right temple. He almost whispert.
It’s aw here.
A red scar swung fae his foreheid tae the siller threads ae his temple. They buttons, the broad, flip-up collar. Airforce. The real thing. Aamir shivered, an hugged his chest. His watch wis deid. He wis meant tae tak hur oot. Saturday movies. Immortality—hur version. Some love-story. Kisses an hugs an sair airms fae the blades ae hur nails. Happy music. Lies. And yet…
This dugoot wis deceptive. The plastic wis turnin the temperature ae his bum, doon. But somehin held him. Mibbee it wis the snow. After aw, he wuidnae be able tae see his way tae the Walfrid lounge, no through this avalanche. Even the hawks who watched iviry blade ae grass, even they huid escaped inside. Six inches, already. It huidnae snowed like this since…
The auld man goat up an crossed the trackside. He produced a baw like none Aamir huid ivir seen. Dirty-brown an scuffed like an auld, auld face, an Malachy tossed it effortlessly up intae the air an began tae heid it, an then tae do a keepie-uppie sequence. Jesus! He wis troopin aroon the pitch in ancient, clumpy, leather fitba boots.
Eh, pal, whit ye doin?! he caw’d oot, but Malachy wis deif, or mibbee jist strynge.
Aamir followed, glancin tae left an right, certain that someone wuid emerge an toss them both oot ae Paradise. But naebdy cuid see them, oot there in the centre circle. Thur wis nuhin else. Jist him an the auld guy an the heavy baw. An the sky withoot border.
Aamir wis surprised at Malachy’s agility, coat-an-aw. Christ, if he cuidnae keep pace wi this auld-timer, how in Goad’s name wuid he be able tae run wi the cosmo bhoys. He wis kickin a baw aroon in shin-pad snow: madness, yet he jist huid tae dribble, an be tackled an charged, an tae dive an leap an lob an volley. Malachy moved like lightnin oan ice. At times, the auld man’s boots wur circlin above his ane heid. Back-kicks, high kicks, illegal stuff. Sixty-a-day? Nae waye. An noo he wis singin withoot openin his mooth. Auld soangs, deid soangs. The stinkin, sweet breiths ae Rosie O’Grady fae the wynds an the lanes an the whisperin, Janefield murmur ae scratch elivins, an the roupin howls ae prison ships an coaffin ships an drinkin shoaps.Deid-speckled ears waftin in the wattered breeze ae Lough Swilly, Dun na nGall. Foreign stanes. The soangs ae his faithers, soangs ae the fields ae the five rivers in the place whur it nivir snowed. Punjab. The golden sun, the greenin earth, the sky, burned white.
Mibbee he wis an escaped nutter. Ye saw those guys. Oot fur a day, tae see the Bhoys! They wuid scream things like, Left, left, left! the whole match lang. Aamir sloughed aff his jaiket. He wis gettin a real high fae dancin aroon in this sea ae white. The blood wis racin aroon his boadie, he cuid feel it burn the sides ae his airms an legs, he cuid hear it tank through the leaves ae his brain. An noo iviry move wis near-perfect, the positionin, the coordination, the timin seemed tae sing fae his muscles. His da huid told him thur wuid be a moment when ivirythin wuid come thegethur, aw the years ae practice wuid rise like a pyramid fae the hard, winter earth an he, the pitch an the baw wuid become, wan. The same skin. His da’s gravestone wis cut fae white Italian marble. The mason huid said it wuid wash away in the cauld rain, that black granite wis mair sensible, but Aamir huidnae listened. His maa mindit the shoap, while he made sure the grass aroon the grave wis cut an seedit tae international pitch standard. Nae weeds, nae cancers. An it wis odd, but in the year-an-a-hauf since the winter’s day when his da huid been buriet, othur fowk huid caught oan, an the white graveslab huid become a trend, so that noo, in the Cathcart Muslim graveyard, thur wur three lang rows ae white an green. Wan day, Aamir wuid carry a cùach across the hoops ae the cemetery. Wan day, beneath the big sky, he wuid rest the siller ower his faither’s hairt an wuid pray tae the gods an angels ae Paradise.
Nae wurds, nae soun, nae smell. But a fire burned in iviry cell ae Aamir’s boady, iviry inch ae skin an muscle an bone wis in contact wi the air an the groon an the rhythm which they wur kickin oot. Wan-oan-wan. His da’s last breith. You’re the best, son! Ah love ye. Goad be wi ye. The stink ae cancer. Nae time. An noo, through the fawin snow, Aamir thought he cuid make oot the wood, though it looked mair like white tape. Nae nets, but in a wordless place, Aamir knew exactly whur the pyramid hovered. Malachy wis dancin like big Packie Bonner. Twinty yards oot, an still nae officials. Freedom! Aamir bounced an liftit the baw an balanced it oan the tip ae his trainer as though it wis jist air an skin. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Up in the air, a world flyin, perfect, roon an roon aw the way, nae deficiencies, nae cancers, nae deith. Wan step back, swing the spine an then a full volley, wi the strength ae six hundred cryin, bleedin nights, compressed, focussed, directed. Sixty thoosand screamin Hail! Hail! Wan ae us! But he forgoat that trainers wur lighter than fitba boots, an he wheeled backwards through the white sky an banged his heid. The snow covered him. The last thing Aamir Donovan saw wis the baw sailin through the freezin air, passin the dark figure midway between the goalposts.
A face, above him.
The mooth wis movin.
Aamir blinked, twice. Saraid wis chantin his name, ower an ower. Rud streaks, an the pupils, big as the night sky. Movement wis pain. He wis oan a stretcher oan the flaer inside. Someone huid rolled up a coat beneath his heid. Fussin.
Ah’m fine, he said, but the words came oot like music.
Hur hands wur saft oan his brow. The bandage throbbed an itched an blocked oot hauf ae his vision. Nae filum the night! But laughter wis pain. He flopped back, an waited fur the ambulance.
Saraid’s lang, black hair swung crazily aroon hur shooders. It wis gae strynge, seein the corridors ae Celtic Park fae a horizontal position. His lover, silhouetted aginst the hard stane wa’s ae Paradise. Things glidin past; lights, signs an the gold-and-silver frames ae photographs, fadin back as he went oan, fae colour tae monochrome tae grainy. Disembodied voices. Noo an then, a familiar face. The notes ae a soang, risin intae a raag, ae gold, green an white. Aamir knew that he cuid nivir walk alane.
Oot oan the pitch, when the snow at last huid ceased tae faw, a groundsman traced his gloved fingers aroon a crescentic groove in the turf, right in the centre ae the goal-line. The gash went straight doon, through the neatly-ordered catenaccio blades ae grass, the bone-deep sand, the golden threads ae aulder pitches, right doon tae the dark-red earth ae the brickfield.
Far away, across the city, a man dressed in a light-blue greatcoat removed his cap an knelt before a white marble slab. He remained there a few minutes, his heid bent as though in prayer, an then he rose an walked slowly away through the snow.
The author wishes to thank Shami Ahmed, Jim Craig, Paul Cuddihy, Adam Dawar, John Fallon, Gerry Loose, Sam Mirza, Nadia Mirza-Saadi and Professor Willy Maley.