Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Green Mile

The Green Mile
Paul Sullivan stood with the twenty six thousand other Celtic fans in the huge north stand as the final act of a tumultuous Old Firm game was about to be played out. Despite dominating the game for long spells and missing a penalty Celtic were being held 1-1 and the Referee was glancing at his watch. ‘Last chance saloon,’ he mumbled to his brother Tony as Gary Caldwell picked up a loose ball in the midfield. ‘Sling it in the box ya numpty’ roared a man behind him. Caldwell couldn’t have heard him but he knew time was almost up and if Celtic were to have any chance of winning the title they needed to win this game. He clipped a ball to the back post where Scott McDonald was waiting with the Rangers full back. Paul looked on barely breathing as the ball arced towards the little Australian. McDonald was up early and, given the angle, wisely chose to head the ball back across the six yard box. Paul unconsciously gripped his brother’s shoulder as the ball flashed across the box where a green and white blur in the shape of Jan Venegoor of Hesselink arrived like an express train to bullet a header behind the forlorn and startled Rangers goalkeeper. The roar of utter relief which greeted the goal swept around Celtic Park like a tsunami of joy. Paul grabbed his brother in sheer ecstasy, ‘We’ve done it! We’ve done it!’ he roared, ‘We’re gonny win this fuckin league!’  He and 53,000 other joyous Celtic fans crammed into Celtic Park on that warm April night felt the same at that moment.

The two brothers headed back to the ‘Green Mile’ as some wag had christened the area of Pollokshaws Road which seemed to have a Celtic bar on every corner. The mood in Heraghty’s was euphoric as the brothers entered. There was a cheer from a group near the bar who welcomed the brothers as if they had played in the game. Backs were slapped, hands shaken and pints handed over. Paul’s Uncle John grinned at them, ‘What a way tae win a match! That’ll sicken that mob aw right.’ Paul grinned, ‘I didnae think it was coming John, I thought we’d blown it.’ Before they could continue the conversation a familiar refrain swirled around the packed Bar, ‘We’re Celtic supporters, faithful through and through, over and over we will follow you!’ They joined in with gusto and the song spilled out of the doors of the bar and ghosted along Alison Street to the tenement building where the two brothers had been born and raised. Old Frank Sullivan lay on his bed on the second floor of that tenement, his window slightly ajar to allow the cool spring breeze to air his room. There was no more the Doctors could do for him and he had come home to spend his last days with those he loved. Despite breathing heavily and having his oxygen mask on he could hear the strains of ‘Over and over’ drifting up from the street.  ‘Good,’ he said wearily to himself as he drifted into that half sleep the pain relief drugs allowed him, ‘The Bhoys must have won!’ God, how he missed going to see Celtic! If he could just visit Celtic Park once more, just to say his farewells...

He didn’t know if it was possible to dream with your eyes open but as he lay in the darkness listening to the distant laughter from the street below he could see as clear as day his own father, wearing his familiar long coat and bunnet and holding onto a child’s hand as they waited in a long queue at the turnstile of the old Celtic Park. He knew the child was him and that he had gone with his old man to see Celtic for the first time on a bright August day in 1954. He could smell the tobacco in the air and glancing up saw old Irish flag fluttering above the old enclosure that would one day be called the Jungle. As old Frank lay on his bed he could plainly see his father’s familiar face smiling down at him, ‘Wait till ye see Tully and Evans, Frankie!’  In the darkness, old Frank reached forward as if to touch his father’s face. The man in the bunnet smiled at him, his familiar blue eyes sparkling.

From the street below a lone voice echoed off the sand stone walls of the tenements, ‘and if ye know the history…’ Old Frank glanced around the room, all was dark and still. He drifted off again for what could have been a second or an hour. There was no way to measure time in the world he inhabited. He thought his wife had put the bedside lamp on and turned to his left. Instead of her care worn face he saw another familiar scene. Two young boys stood at the opening of the close on Alison Street, each wearing a Celtic shirt with the Celtic cross badge of the centenary season. They were both around 8 or 9 years old. He knew it was Paul and Tony when they were young and that they were waiting for him. His vision took a strange turn when he saw himself emerge from the close or rather a young and vigorous version of himself emerged into the bright May sunshine. ‘Right lads, let’s get tae Hampden and get this cup won!’ Old Frank Sullivan smiled as he saw his younger self take the boys by the hand and head towards Pollokshaws Road where the supporters bus would be waiting. ‘That was some day,’ he breathed to himself. ‘McAvennie had saved the day and made the centenary miracle real.’

Old Frank was vaguely aware that someone had entered the room. He could feel the weight of another person sitting on the bed and tried to focus his eyes. He heard Paul’s voice speaking in a low tone, ‘We did it Da, we beat them. I’m certain we’ll win this title now.’ Old Frank reached out in the darkness and found his son’s hand. The same hand he had held 30 years earlier as they headed to Hampden in Celtic’s centenary year. He breathed hard, trying to speak but the words wouldn’t come. They held each other’s hand in the darkness and old Frank drifted to sleep as his son told him of the dramatic goings on at Celtic Park that night. His sleep was deeper now, deeper than any sleep he had had before....

When he opened his eyes he was standing in bright sunshine on Allison Street. A tram car rattled past and he could see his father approaching him. ‘Come on Frankie, we’re off tae see the Celts!’ Frankie ran towards his father in a state of excitement. At last he was old enough to go to Celtic Park. He threw himself into his father’s arms, his eyes wet with tears, ‘Are we really going, Da, nae kidding?’ His old man smiled that familiar smile, ‘Of course we are son, wait till ye see Tully and Evans!’ 

At last Frankie was going to Paradise...


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