The Dark Place
Young Gordon McLaughlin could feel the cold Glasgow rain seep beneath his goalkeeper’s top but was too engrossed in the game to take much notice. He watched the play build in the midfield area, his concentration total. At 12 years of age he was football daft and wanted to be just like his hero Artur Boruc. His two great passions in life were football and drawing. He was developing very well in both areas and typically most of his sketches were of footballers. As the play in front of him switched to the left he focused on the ball as his team’s manager, who also happened to be his old man, had taught him. The skilful little winger clad in the red shirt of the team from Possilpark skinned the full back and headed for the goal but he knocked the ball just a little too far ahead. Gordon was on it in an instant and throwing himself on the slippery ball, smothered it into his mud splattered jersey. The winger sportingly jumped over him to avoid a collision and even mumbled ‘good save, keeper’ as he trotted back up-field. The game was completed in a near gale and both sets of players were thankful to hear the final whistle. Gordon grinned as he trotted off, nothing pleased him more than a clean sheet and the Glen Star Boys Club winning.
After the players were changed Gordon’s Dad loaded them into the minibus and dropped each one in turn at their homes till only he and Gordon were left in the bus. Gordon jumped into the front seat and strapped himself in as his Dad headed for home. ‘You played well today son, just watch the skid of the ball on wet days. Clearing your lines is more important than finding a man with the ball.’ Gordon listened carefully as his old man had played in goals in the rough world of Junior football and but for an unfortunate leg break might have gone higher in the game. ‘ That wee winger was decent enough to jump over you near the end but some won’t so use your legs and arms to protect yourself and never dive head first at a player rushing towards you. Sometimes losing a goal isn’t as bad as losing your teeth’ Gordon nodded, ‘Got ye Da, noo are we going tae see the Celts?’ His Dad smiled, ‘Jesus, football all morning and then more in the afternoon, dae ye never get sick of it?’ Gordon laughed, ‘Naw and neither dae you, be honest.
Two hours later they were in their usual seats in the Jock Stein stand at Celtic Park to see Celtic take on Aberdeen. A victory would put them top of the league as Rangers weren’t playing until the Sunday. The title was in the balance in that spring of 2008 as Celtic had mounted an unlikely late charge and they were putting real pressure on a Rangers side who were beginning to crack. With just a few games remaining, it was clear that Celtic needed to win every one to stand a chance of being champions. All of this was secondary to young Gordon as he watched his hero, Artur Boruc, carefully. He studied his positioning, his diving technique and how he kicked the ball clear. After 4 minutes a rasping shot from Severin flashed past Boruc and struck both posts before being cleared. ‘Jesus,’ winced Gordon’s dad, ‘That was close.’ That rare Aberdeen attack was the precursor to serious Celtic pressure on their goal which seemed to live a charmed life. The game developed into a battle of attrition with Donati, Nakamura and McGeady probing the Aberdeen defence and Samaras and McDonald chasing everything. Eventually Aberdeen cracked and just after half time the 55,000 crowd let out a huge roar as Samaras nodded home Barry Robson’s free kick. Gordon’s Dad hugged him, ‘Yeeesss! We’re gonny win this league wee man I can feel it in my bones.’ The game ended in a 1-0 win and Celtic went top of the league for the first time in months. On the drive home Gordon and his Dad talked about the upcoming cup semi-final the under 13s were due to play. ‘It’s gonny be tough son, teams fae Drumchapel are big, strong and usually a bit mean. We’ll get the boys in for training on Wednesday and talk about it then.’ Gordon nodded, strangely he liked games against good teams as he was busier in goals and got a chance to show what he could do.
The following week dragged past but eventually Saturday morning arrived and the team mini bus was speeding its way towards Drumchapel for the game. The pitch was pot holed and muddy and during the warm up Gordon noted every bump and rut in the penalty box. Some of the opposition looked older than the under 13 limit but then few people bothered checking ages. The game began in bright April sunshine and Gordon was quickly brought into action. He touched a low drive around the post and as the ball was swung in from the resulting corner, a forearm clattered into the side of his head. He winced in pain as the whistle blew and the ref warned the player about his flailing arms. He feigned innocence but Gordon figured it was going to be one of those games. Midway through the first half a ball was lobbed over the defence and a suspiciously offside looking forward raced towards Gordon’s goal. It was the same guy who had clattered him at the corner. Gordon raced towards him and, anticipating that the right footer would attempt to dribble him on that side, dived for the ball. What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion. Gordon saw his hands grasp the ball but simultaneously the forward’s knee struck him forcefully on the cheekbone. As he instinctively pulled the ball under his body and spun away from the other player, the light seemed to get dimmer and his eyes closed as a deep darkness enveloped him…
Gordon could hear his own breathing and the echoes of his father’s voice somewhere in the distance but couldn’t open his eyes. Somewhere a machine beeped regularly and then all was still. After what seemed a long time he heard a gentle voice speaking to him. ‘Gordon, will ye wake up for me?’ Gordon tried to open his eyes but found the effort too difficult. It was easier to sink into the darkness. ‘Gordon, I ken it’s hard but try for me, come on.’ Again he tried to open his eyes and this time he could briefly make out the blurry outline of someone by his bed. He knew instinctively this wasn’t his home. He had to be in hospital but why? He searched his memory but it was as if great iron doors had closed sealing it off. ‘Gordon, look at me son.’ He refocused on the voice which sounded as if the Doctor or whoever it was hailed from Edinburgh or perhaps the east coast. Gordon focussed on his eyelids but they refused to obey him and he slipped again into the all-encompassing blackness.
After what could have been an hour or a week he resurfaced again and as before the man’s voice was speaking to him, drawing him up. ‘Gordon, look at me, open your eyes.’ Gordon slowly tried to open his eyes and after what seemed a gargantuan effort a crack of light flooded through his eyelids. ‘Good lad, now come on, more!’ He opened them fully and saw the man standing over his bed smiling. He was young for a Doctor and didn’t wear a white coat as Gordon expected. Instead he sported a green jumper with a sort of low polar neck. He smiled at Gordon, ‘There I knew ye could do it.’ Gordon tried to speak but no words would come. He raised his right arm slightly and the man took his hand. ‘You rest now, you’ve done well. I’ll be back soon.’ Gordon closed his eyes and slept deeply. He had no idea the number of times the man coaxed him to consciousness but it was many over the succeeding days. Always the same kind voice, always the effort exhausted Gordon who just wanted to sleep. The young man was kind but insistent and each visit Gordon became a little more focused.
Gordon opened his eyes as weak April sunshine streamed into his room. It was the first time he had done so without the gentle voice of the young man to rouse him from his slumber. A nurse with a kindly face was looking at him. Her eyebrows rose and she sped from the room, ‘Doctor Bailey, I think he’s conscious!’ Soon a crowd of people were fussing around him and the many tubes which seemingly protruded from him. The Doctor, an older man with a neat grey beard shone a light into his eyes before asking, ‘Can you hear me, Gordon?’ Gordon tried to speak but only a low gasp came from him. He nodded his head almost imperceptibly. ‘Good lad,’ the Doctor said to himself, ‘Looks like he’s joining the world again.’ As the Doctor checked a machine to his right the younger man appeared at the foot of the bed. ‘Well done, Gordon, you’re doing fine. Keep focussing and let your mind think about familiar things. Your memories will return and don’t you dare give up.’ The man was right because as each hour passed he could picture different aspects of his life, his father, his mum and sister’s faces all appeared in his mind. They came to visit him that night and as his mother fussed over him he caught his father’s eye and they connected again. He could see the tears of love both his parents were shedding for him and was determined to get well for them. Although he couldn’t yet respond to their questions he could now at least gently squeeze their hands.
At night as the hospital quietened and the nurses moved here and there in the half light, Gordon lay awake on his bed. The young man usually came in at that time and Gordon assumed he was working the late shift. The man quietly told Gordon how the stages of his recovery would pan out and as the days passed he was proven to be correct. He emphasised the need for determination and a refusal give in. Gordon spoke again three days after regaining consciousness and could now converse with the hospital staff in short sentences. His parents were of course delighted with his progress and on a bright May morning, the nurses helped him to sit up in his bed so that when they walked in the door they would see him waiting for them. His Father entered first and Gordon could see him fighting back the tears, ‘Son, you’ve come back to us. I’ve prayed so hard for this.’ His mother simply held his hand and quietly sobbed. Gordon spoke to them in a quiet voice, ‘You always taught me to be a fighter Dad.’
After two more weeks of progress, tests and various scans Gordon was allowed to leave the intensive care ward for a small room off the general ward. He knew there was a lot of physiotherapy and other work ahead but he was ready for that. His father had brought him his drawing kit and he would fill the long hours of the hospital day by sketching scenes from the daily life on the Ward. Sometimes he would become grumpy as his old skills returned more slowly than he liked but he persevered and each day saw an improvement. In the small room off the ward he lay on his bed watching Celtic play Dundee United at Tanadice in a game which would decide the championship. The ward was quiet and the lights dimmed as Gordon watched the ebb and flow of the game. Shortly after the only goal of the game had been scored by Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, the door of his room opened and the young man entered. ‘You’re watching the match I see, how is it going?’ Gordon managed to smile, Celtic are winning and it looks like they’ll be champions again.’ The young man nodded with a smile on his face, ‘Celtic is my team too, you see what can happen when you never give up? I’m proud of you too Gordon, you fought so hard to escape the darkness, not everyone succeeds.’ They watched the game draw to its conclusion and the Celtic players receive the cup in front of the rapturous Celtic support before Gordon settled to a contented sleep. The last thing he heard was the man’s voice say quietly, ‘Goodbye Gordon, remember, you never give up.’
A few days later as Gordon prepared to leave hospital for home, he sat with his father writing out a few thank you cards for the hospital staff. His father looked at one of his sketches, ‘That the nurse with the blonde hair? Pretty good son.’ Gordon nodded and handed him another. It showed the older Doctor with the neat grey beard. Again his father smiled, ‘You should give him this one, its brilliant.’ As if on cue the elderly Doctor entered to say his farewells and tidy up the last of the paperwork. ‘We’re delighted with your son’s progress Mr McLaughlin, it was touch and go at the start but the boy is a fighter.’ Gordon passed him a thank you card and drawing and the Doctor smiled, ‘Goodness, you have a budding artist on your hands too; I’ll treasure this always, thank you.’ Gordon then asked about the younger Doctor, ‘Can he pop in to say goodbye? He helped me a lot.’ The older man looked confused, ‘I’ve been the only Doctor attending you Gordon. Perhaps you’ve mistaken a porter for a Doctor?’ Gordon looked confused, ‘No, he came almost every night, talked me through things. He was a great help.’ The older man nodded patiently, ‘Sometimes with head injuries we confuse dreams and reality Gordon, and you’ve had a very serious head injury…’ Gordon didn’t respond as he felt a little unsure about the whole situation. He gathered his drawings together and made ready to go home. He remained certain that the man he spoke too, who helped him escape the darkness, wasn’t a figment of his imagination.
As his father drove carefully out of the huge Southern General complex he turned briefly to his son, ‘You’re quiet son, were you annoyed about what the Doctor said about getting confused?’ Gordon replied quietly, ‘But the man was real, he did come and see me Da, he… he woke me up the first time, the time I was in the real dark place. He got me to open my eyes. I wanted to stay there but he wouldn’t let me.’ His father said nothing. Gordon went on, ‘look I drew him...’ Gordon’s father carefully guided the car to the side of the road and pulled on the hand brake. He turned to face his son and sighed a little, saying, ‘Gordon, head knocks can really cause problems,’ Gordon interrupted his father, ‘Will ye just look at the drawing Da? How could I draw him if he wasn’t real?’ Charlie McLaughlin took the sheet of paper from his son and looked at the image he had drawn, his breathing became shallower and his eyes widened…..
‘Jesus’ he mumbled.
‘Is this they guy you say came to see you?’
Gordon didn’t reply, sensing something was amiss.
‘Gordon, is it?’
Gordon replied, ‘Aye Da, it is.’
‘This is…’ his father’s voice trailed off to a whisper…
‘This is John Thomson...’