Take me to your Paradise
A damp mist hung in the chill December air as the noisy crowd exited the Broomloan Stand at Ibrox Stadium. The 7000 Celtic fans were in good voice having just watched their side beat Rangers by 2 goals to 1. As they poured from the stadium they sang the praises of the player who scored the winning goal…
‘Oh Scotty Sinclair, oh he is so wonderful, When he scores a goal, Oh it is beautiful It's magical, When he runs down the wing, He is fast as lightning, It's frightening and it makes all the bhoys sing, Do do do dodo do doodododododo...’
‘You coming for a pint, the Gallowgate will be bouncing?’ Micky Stevens said to his long-time friend Andy Gallagher. ‘Naw Micky, going tae see my brother, he’s back from Malawi.’ Micky smiled, ‘I always liked Peter, give him my regards. Is he finished wi the missions?’ Andy shook his head, ‘Just back for a month or so. He’ll be helping oot at the local parish till he heads back in late February.’ Micky nodded, ‘Still amazed he became a Priest, he liked a swally and the lassies when we were younger?’ Andy smiled, ‘He did but then I’d catch him praying now and then so the signs were there.’ They boarded the supporters’ bus for the journey through the dark streets of Glasgow. The mood on the bus was euphoric after Celtic’s win. The songs and laughter flowed as they headed for home. Seeing Celtic win was always good; seeing them win at Ibrox was just perfect.
Andy slipped quietly into the church and sat in one of the pews near the back. He glanced around the familiar interior which he had been dragged to by his teachers and parents in those far of childhood days when he’d rather have been playing football or computer games. The Stations of the Cross were still there showing the last agonising journey of a persecuted man 2000 years before. He looked for a long moment at one image bearing the title ‘Jesus falls for the first time.’ The painting showed a blood spattered man in the crown of thorns who lay bleeding under a bulky wooden cross as the Roman guard prepared to whip him again. What was it with the church and these agonising images? The gentle tinkle of a bell broke into his thoughts and announced that the service was beginning. There was old Father John and beside him Andy’s brother, Peter, known to one and all as Father Gallagher, in these parts. Andy regarded him in his Priestly garb, looking fit and tanned after his time in Africa. As the service began Andy felt strangely detached. Like a spectator rather than a participant. How was it he and Peter had been brought up in the same house by the same parents, went to the same school and yet were so different? He watched the service flow in that timeless way mass did and as communion came closer, wondered if he should partake. When was the last time? A long time ago, he thought to himself. He stayed seated as the faithful shuffled forward towards the altar and waited behind after Mass as the church emptied.
After a few minutes Father Gallagher came out to greet him. ‘Andy, I saw you there during Mass. How are you?’ He wrapped his younger brother in a warm hug. ‘I’m good Peter. You’re looking well.’ His brother smiled, ‘You not fancy coming to communion tonight?’ Andy regarded him, ‘You know me Peter he said with a hint of a smile. Celtic is my religion; Celtic Park my church. I’d be a bit hypocritical going to communion when I’ve stopped believing in the church.’’ Peter nodded with a sage smile on his face, ‘you can still believe in God without believing in the church you know.’ The elder brother led Andy to the sacristy and poured some tea for his him. He glanced at the Celtic scarf Peter still had on under his heavy winter coat from his trip to Ibrox, ‘It’s New Year’s eve, I’d forgotten this Celtic, Rangers thing happens every festive period. Did you win?’ Andy smiled, was his brother the only man in Glasgow who didn’t know the score? ‘Yeh, we won Peter, we seem to always win these days.’ The two brothers regarded each other for a moment. They had many disagreements growing up and a few fights as all brothers do but their bond was strong. Andy spoke first, ‘How was Malawi? Still saving souls?’ Peter sat with his tea at the big circular table which dominated the room, ‘Malawi is fine, the people have nothing but then they have everything. Family and faith still mean a lot there.’ Andy’s face changed a little, ‘Well, I gave up thinking I’d ever see Jesus a long time ago, bro. I can’t see that changing.’ Peter smiled, ‘Come and help at the shelter tonight, you’re sure to see him there.’ Andy laughed, ‘Jesus serving soup to the homeless now is he and on New Year’s Eve?’ Andy’s brother looked at him patiently, 'Pick me up at 9 o’clock, it’s the late shift tonight, wrap up.’
Against his better judgement Andy Gallagher found himself walking though the concrete canyons of Glasgow city centre with his brother. Clubbers were heading out in their garishly coloured outfits and the city centre was alive with music and light as people aimed to bring in 2017 with a real party. Peter though was glancing into those darker corners where those struggling just to keep going watched the world pass. They stopped by a city centre lane where a shadowy figure huddled under some damp looking blankets. As Andy watched his brother knelt by the man and whispered to him. He sat up and Andy could see the unkempt beard, straggly hair and thin face of a man who was not looking after himself. His dark eyes regarded Andy, ‘Who’s this guy, fadder?’ Peter smiled, ‘My brother Andy, he’s helping out tonight, big Celtic fan like you, Paddy. You come down to the centre later for some hot food, ok?’ The man nodded before looking at Andy, ‘You giving us a wee tune the night, son? Tommy used tae.’ Andy nodded, ‘Can’t sing tae save my life bit if that’s what you want.’ Andy noticed the thin, damp track suit jacket the man was wearing and without thinking took off his heavy winter jacket. After removing his phone from the pocket he passed it to him saying, ‘Here, stick that on so I recognise ye tonight.’ His brother said nothing as they left Paddy and continued on to the shelter.
The shelter consisted of two large rooms set into what was the basement of a tall office block. One had the air of a cafeteria where a variety of men and women sat quietly nursing tea or eating some warm food. The second room had a row of bedrolls on the floor and some sleeping bags piled up in a corner. ‘The place opens at 9pm and closes the next morning. At least those sleeping rough get in out of the cold overnight and have some hot food,’ Peter said as he showed Andy around. ‘They know not to come if they’re drunk or high. Although if it’s exceptionally cold we can make allowances but most keep to the rules.’ Andy was stationed behind the counter and was soon chatting to the people who came for soup and rolls. ‘Cheers son,’ said a grey haired man as Andy served him, ’It’s a cauld yin oot there the night, saw a brass monkey looking for a welder.’ He guffawed at his own joke before taking his soup from Andy. I could fair dae wi some hot soup the night son.’ Andy found talking to the ‘clients’ as he heard another volunteer call them, easy as they were straight forward unpretentious people.
A thin young woman with eyes that spoke of a hard life smiled at him. Andy avoided staring at the tell-tale heroin tracks on her arm as she spoke, ‘No seen you in here before?’ Andy returned her smile, ‘Just helping out my brother,’ he replied nodding towards his brother who was deep in conversation with an older man. ‘Father Gal is your brother?’ she said with a surprised look on her face. ‘Aye,’ replied Andy, ‘for my sins.’ She looked into his eyes with a penetrating gaze as if reading his soul, ‘Well, he’s a real Priest, no like the ones I’ve….’ Her voice trailed off as if she’d said too much. She took her soup and glanced at Andy, ‘I’m Lynne by the way, hope I see ye in here again.’ Andy nodded, ‘we’ll see, I might not be needed after tonight.’ As she turned to go she said quietly, ‘Good people are always needed.’
Around midnight Paddy came in sporting Andy’s erstwhile jacket. He accepted a bowl of soup and some bread and sat at a table. Things were quiet at the counter so Andy sat by him. ‘Hi Paddy, how are ye keeping?’ The unkempt man of about 50 regarded him, ‘No bad son though my auld back gies me a bit of jip especially on these cauld nights.’ They got talking about football and life in general and Paddy told him of his days as a post man before drink got its talons into him. ‘The bevy ruined the lot son; my job, my family life and my health. Found myself sleeping rough 5 years back and been that way ever since. Fadder Gal helped me oot wi rooms in hostels but I always fucked it up and got fired oot.‘ Paddy told Andy of his days following Celtic all over and how he hardly missed a match in the 1980s and 90s. ‘Good days son, I was fit then and liked a wee scrap at the gem noo and again. Got three months once for fighting wi Hearts fans; never liked that mob!’ He grinned a gap toothed smile at the memory of his wilder, young days. ‘Fadder Gal came tae see me in Polmont. Got me tae think a bit aboot whit ah wis daen wi ma life. I tried hard but the drink’s like a parasite that lives in ye, wantin’ fed every day.’ Andy let him talk without interrupting. Sometimes all people demanded of you, was that you listen.
It was 1am when the two brothers and handful of other volunteers left the shelter in the hands of the overnight staff. A dozen or so homeless people were safely bedded down out of the cold. ‘Did you enjoy your night?’ Peter enquired. Andy nodded, ‘Aye, Peter it was interesting. Some real characters in there.’ He shivered a little in the cold remembering that he now had just his jumper to keep him warm. ‘I’m on the 10 o’clock Mass tomorrow, why not pop down?’ Andy smiled at him as they reached his car, ‘You trying tae convert me? You said I’d be sure tae see Jesus down here tonight but I didn’t.’ Peter grinned, opened the car door and got in, ’No harm in coming down to the church, Andy, Interesting readings tomorrow.’ Andy guided the car through the cold city centre streets. ‘I might if I wake up on time but I’m lost tae all that now, Peter.’ Andy dropped his brother off with a smile, ‘Good night, Peter.’ His brother returned his smile, ‘yeh, it was. Good night and happy new year.’
The following morning Andy was again sitting near the back of the church as his brother led the service in front of a fairly full church. Andy smiled to himself as his brother got to the gospel reading. As he listened his brother glanced up at him as he read…
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
When the service was over he again waited behind for his brother who appeared after ten minutes or so. ‘Nice sermon,’ Andy said, ‘I still can’t believe in all of this though, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Andy, when you do good things in your life, you’re doing all God wants of you. You might doubt God but he doesn’t doubt you.’ Andy smiled, ‘Right, I’ve been in your church, you’re coming to mine before you head back to Africa in February?’ ‘Jeez,’ replied Peter, ‘I’ve not seen Celtic play in 25 years. Are you trying to convert me now?’ Andy laughed, ‘Pushing at an open door, Peter.’ His brother nodded, ‘Right, take me to your Paradise and I’ll put in a good word so you might get into mine.’
Dedicated to all of those wonderful people who work with the homeless in our society.