Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Band of Brothers


Band of Brothers
The cold rain seemed to seep down the back of John’s shirt as he trudged along Duke Street; head bowed against the blustery Glasgow wind. Winter could be a long haul in Scotland and it hit harder at those, like John, who walked everywhere. Since losing his job three years before he had seen his standard of living slowly decline. No one wanted to hire a man in his mid-50s and he resigned himself to probably never working again. Money was tight and he had been forced to make some hard decisions. The hardest of which was to choose between heating his small council flat adequately or renewing his Celtic season ticket. With his wife Margaret suffering from chronic bronchitis, it was the season ticket which went. It hurt him because he had followed the Celts for over 40 years but it was just too expensive. He’d have to make do with nursing a pint or two and watching games in the pub or listening to the radio. He was old enough to remember getting into Celtic Park for 80p; changed days indeed. As he neared the chemist where he was collecting his wife’s prescription, a passing car hit a puddle sending a wave of dirty, cold water across his already saturated trousers. He could feel the dampness in his shoes and sighed to himself, ‘C’mon God how about the winning lottery numbers this week eh?’ He stopped outside one of the many charity shops which had seemingly replaced the decent shops which once existed here but had lost the fight against the big shopping centres. In the window the young assistant was fitting a decent looking tweed jacket onto a faded mannequin. John watched her, unconsciously jingling the loose change in his pocket. ‘If that’s under a tenner I’m having it,’ he said to himself. The assistant pinned a white card onto the jacket which read, ‘£8.’ John moved fast, it would leave him skint but he recognised a bargain when he saw one. Besides, his lightweight jacket wasn’t keeping him warm or dry and there were a few months of winter to come. A few minutes later the tweed jacket was in a carrier bag under his arm.

He climbed the dark stairway to his small tenement flat and let himself in quietly. He could hear his wife’s wheezing as she slept in the back room. He slipped of his thin jacket and entered the chilly living room. He left the gas fire off, he’d put it on when his wife got up, no point increasing the bill heating the room just for him. He took the tweed jacket from the bag and tried it on. He could feel the jacket’s reassuring weight and its smooth lining. He smiled slightly. ‘Got a bargain there Johnny boy,’ he said to himself. He looked in the mirror above the fireplace and ran his hand down the front of the jacket, nodding contentedly. He took the jacket off and out of habit ran his hand quickly through the pockets. He knew the charity shop staff checked all the stuff handed in but you never know. Both side pockets and the inside breast pocket were empty. He looked at the label inside the collar and noticed that it had the initials ‘RS’ written in blue ink.  As he prepared to place it over the chair beside him, he felt something metallic. On closer examination it turned out to be a zip. The jacket had a half hidden pocket on the inside left hand side. ‘Be a good place for ma phone,’ John thought to himself. He gripped the zip between his thumb and index finger and eased it down. He slipped his fingers into the pocked, checking its size and suitability for his ancient Nokia. As his fingers reached the bottom of the pocket he felt something metallic. He withdrew it carefully and held it up in front of him. It was a key. He walked to the fireplace and located the cheap glasses he had recently bought at the Pound Shop. He studied the silver key carefully. It looked like the Yale key he used for the front door except it was a little longer. It had the words ‘Locker Number 22’ engraved onto one side while on the other was a double arrow logo he recognised as being from Network Rail who owned most of the big UK stations. It was the key from a locker at one of the stations. His curiosity was gnawing at him. He wasn’t a dishonest man but he’d really like to know if the key had a home. What if it was from Central Station here in Glasgow?

The following day the rain had eased off as the air turned colder.  John wore his newly acquired tweed jacket for the walk to the city centre. His new jacket certainly looked the part although his rather worn trousers and scruffy shoes hardly complemented it. He simply had to check out the lockers in central station. He entered the great cavern of the station and looked around. He soon spotted an unusual looking railway employee who sported a fine beard and a professorial air. ‘S’cuse me pal, are there lockers in the station?’ The man smiled at John, ‘They removed them a few years ago friend, still some in Queen Street I believe.’ John thanked him and headed for Queen Street station which was less than a mile away. He entered by the taxi rank and soon located a battery of shiny silver lockers stacked 3 high. Each had a number clearly displayed on the top of the aluminium door. Number 22 was in the centre of the middle row, the keyhole at eye level to John. He looked around a little nervously as if he were doing something wrong but steeled himself and tried the key in the lock. It slipped in with ease and he turned it to the left. For a moment he thought it didn’t fit until he realised that it turned to the right. There was a metallic click and the door opened slightly. He opened it fully and peered inside. A small black suitcase was inside and as the butterflies fluttered in his stomach, he lifted and turned to leave the station.

John McGuinness walked quickly down to George Square and sat on a bench facing the war memorial. One of the great stone lions guarding the memorial seemed to be watching him. He placed the small case onto his lap and slipped the two, silver catches off and slowly eased the lid open. In his mind it would be stuffed full of some criminal’s ill-gotten loot, God knows he could use a few grand, but the contents of the case were a little disappointing to him. There was a neatly folded, green cotton jumper which on closer inspection was pretty ancient. There was also a small box of the sort his wife kept earrings in. He opened this and saw a small rectangular medallion of some sort. It was gold in colour but a blue and red pattern in one corner made him think it was fairly worthless. He strained his eyes to read it and muttered, ‘should have brought yer specs Johnny boy.’ He closed the lid of the little box and replaced it before taking out the last item in the case which was a white envelope. This contained a single black and white photograph. John’s eyes widened as a searing realisation hit home. He dragged the faded green jumper out of the case again and unfolded it roughly scanning the tag on the inside at the collar. There in black ink were those initials again: ‘RS.’ He stuffed the items back into the case and tried to clear his mind. If these things were what he thought they were then he was holding a piece of history.

Two days later John was outside Celtic Park bright and early. The flag sellers were setting out their stalls and here and there the ubiquitous yellow coated stewards wandered around. The game was still three hours away and the only supporters about were those heading for the hospitality suites. John stood by the statue of Jimmy Johnstone, the small case in his hand, watching the lucky people wander up the stairs and into the front doors of Celtic Park. He was waiting for the right person and his wait wasn’t a long one. He saw the familiar figure approaching the front entrance of the stadium. He was older and the beard greyer than it was in his prime but it was still unmistakeably Danny McGrain. John approached him a little shyly, ‘S’cuse me Danny, can I take a minute of your time?’ The Celtic great smiled at him no doubt expecting to sign another autograph or pose for a photo, ‘No bother pal, what can I do for you?’ John quickly outlined his story as the bemused looking ex Celt listened in silence. When John had finished he handed the case to Danny and said, ‘So this belongs to Celtic, not me.’ The bearded McGrain took the case from John and said, ‘Listen Pal, come inside. I think you’d best tell this story to folk with more knowledge of these things than me.’ John hesitated for a moment but the Celtic man, sensing his nervousness, smiled encouragingly at him, ‘Come on, you’ll be fine.’ He followed Danny into the warmth of the stadium. He felt a little self-conscious as he headed up the stairway to the first floor. They walked a short distance along a green carpeted corridor. The walls on both sides of him were replete with photographs from Celtic’s greatest days and glanced at them as he passed... Lisbon, Seville, Larsson, Auld, Jock, Fallon and Dalglish.  Danny McGrain stopped at a light coloured door and knocked it gently, ‘You guys busy? There’s a chap here I think you should meet.’
John McGuinness looked at the familiar faces around the table; they needed no introductions. He felt as if all of this was a dream but it was all too real. Here he was telling his story to 6 of the surviving Lisbon Lions. He told it with the simple honesty he had learned at his mother’s knee. One of them opened the case and took out the green jumper nodding as he handed it round the group. He then took out the box and looked at the gold medal. ‘I always wondered what happened to Ronnie’s medal,’ he said.  He looked at the group, ‘That  jumper look authentic to you Tommy?’  A smiling Tommy Gemmell nodded, ‘I think this is the one he wore in Lisbon, Bertie. He kept it for years.’ They invited John to sit with them and ordered him some lunch.  For two hours they shared their memories of playing for and watching Celtic through the years. Laughter filled the room as they recalled incidents and games from their halcyon days. John was mesmerised by their stories but also by the warmth they clearly had for each other. They really were a band of brothers and for a couple of hours he was part of it too.
John McGuinness was invited to stay for the game that cold day but declined as he needed to get home to care for his wife. He jotted down his name and address before leaving the old friends to their memories and laughter. As he walked back along the corridor towards the stairway he felt a wave of emotion pass over him. ‘Jesus, John, did that just happen?’ He exited the stadium and noticed the crowds milling around outside were much bigger than before. As he walked down the Celtic way he glanced back at Celtic Park, God he missed going to the games. ‘Oh well,’ he smiled to himself, ‘You can never take today away from me.’ He headed up to the Gallowgate with a broad smile on his face.
A week after John had handed the case and its contents to Celtic, a letter dropped through his door. It was a thank you for his honesty and an invitation to go on the tour of the Celtic Museum. He needed no second invite and persuaded his wife to join him. They walked down to the stadium on a bright and cold Wednesday, Margaret puffing on her inhaler as they paused on the Celtic way. He had not yet told her about the case and its contents, nor his visit to Celtic Park.  The tour was magical for them. John saw the gleaming European cup standing proudly between the Inter and Celtic shirts. He listened to the guide who seemed to know everything about every cup and medal on display. Margaret, who was obviously having a great time asked about a green goalkeeper’s shirt on display in one of the glass cases. ‘Ah,’ said the man,’ that was donated by a kind Celtic fan after being lost for a long time.’ He seemed to smile at John, ‘So was the European Cup winner’s medal. They both belonged to Ronnie Simpson.’ The tour continued and for over two hours John was lost in Celtic. The stories, legends and great players of the past filled his mind as he listened and looked at 127 years of memorabilia. When it was over he smiled at Margaret, ‘That was great Mags, best day out we’ve had in years.’

As he was about to exit the stadium the tour guide called him, ‘Mr McGuinness, this is for you.’ John, a little surprised turned and took an envelope from the man. It crossed his mind that they were giving him back the picture of Ronnie Simpson he had found in the case. As he reached the statue of Brother Walfrid he opened the envelope, his curious wife looking on. It contained a card which read…
Thank you for your honesty in bringing Ronnie’s things back to where they belong. He was like a father to us all in those great days of the past. You could have made a lot of money selling that medal but like a true Celt you did the right thing. Enclosed is a small token of our gratitude. You’ll receive new ones every year from now on. God Bless.’
It was signed by Bertie Auld. John investigated the envelope further and saw that it contained two season tickets for Celtic Park. He looked Margaret, tears welling in his eyes. ‘I better fill you in on a few things,’ he said. She smiled at him with the affection she had always had for him, ‘What have you done now John?’


This short, fictional story is dedicated to the late John McGuinness.; life-long Celtic man and one of the good guys.  RIP and Hail Hail


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