Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Celtic Spirit 

The lounge in Terminal One was quieter as it usually is at night. Heathrow never sleeps but sometimes it slows down to a walk after a day of frenetic activity at the world’s busiest airport. Cal put his bag and cane down and sat in a quiet seat by the big picture window which framed the hypnotic lights of the runway and beyond them the lights of the London skyline. Not that Cal could see the lights having lost his sight in an industrial accident some years earlier. It was strange learning to use his other senses to navigate the world but he wasn’t one for giving up. Life was for living. The Glasgow flight was delayed and Cal knew he’d have at least two hours to kill before heading home. As usual, one of the airport staff had met him and lead him to the lounge where he would wait. The nice young woman with the sympathetic voice and slight Asian accent said she’d return for him when it was time to board the flight. He thanked her and listened as she clicked away on her high heels. Cal’s hearing had become keen and sharp as he used it more to compensate for his loss of sight.

The chill November sunshine had given way to darkness and cold rain which ran down the huge glass window like a million tears. ‘Is this seat taken, son?’ a gruff Scottish voice inquired. ‘Naw, sit down Pal,’ Cal answered in his best Glaswegian accent. ‘Ankles sore again,’ the man went on in a strangely familiar voice, ‘Old injury from my playing days.’  Cal smiled, ‘You a footballer or a rugby man?’I was a footballer, nothing special Son, long time ago but sometimes the old injuries still give me a bit of pain.’ Cal enjoyed having someone to chat too on the various modes of transport he used although he knew that some weren’t comfortable talking to a blind man. He wasn’t the sort of guy to become a recluse just because he’d had an accident and lost his sight. ‘Heading home?’ Cal enquired. ‘Aye,’ replied the man, ‘Heading home right enough. What about you?’ Cal replied, ‘I know it sounds odd for a blind man but I’m going to the Celtic Barcelona match tomorrow night.’ Cal knew from experience that conversations either warmed or cooled once he declared himself as a Celt. On this occasion it warmed. ‘Should be a great game’ the man said warmly, ‘I recall a lot of big teams going down at Celtic Park. Best atmosphere in Europe on those big nights under the lights.’  Cal smiled and turned to face the man despite the fact he couldn’t see him. ‘Do you think Celtic have any chance? I mean Barcelona are some outfit these days.’ The man’s voice sounded a little more excited, ‘Listen son, I saw Jimmy Johnstone destroy Red Star Belgrade in half an hour at Celtic Park. I saw Leeds, the invincible Leeds, go down at Hampden. Anything is possible in football, especially where Celtic and that support are involved. You just need enough belief and enough talent.’ Cal smiled again, ‘I love your optimism, I just wish I shared it. We could get battered by Barca tomorrow.’ The man replied in a slightly irritated tone, ‘Ach, son this is Celtic we’re talking about. They raise it on these night’s Lenny will get them motivated and organised. Never doubt the Celtic spirit.’

Cal and the man talked for over an hour reliving great European nights from the distant past as well as more recent history. ‘O’Neil’s team gave us some great night’s,’ Cal said at one point, ‘Beating Liverpool was classic. Celtic were total underdogs and beat them in their own stadium too.’  The man laughed at Cal’s enthusiasm, ‘You know your stuff Son, I can see you’re a real Celtic man.’  Learned it all at my Da’s knee,’ said Cal. He was a great Celtic man and passed it on to me.’ The man’s tone changed slightly, ‘Is your Dad still alive son?’ Cal’s smile faded a little, ‘Naw, lost him a few years back. He was a miner. Lungs were ruined in the pits.’  The man sighed, ‘Ruined a lot of good man that industry, a dark and dangerous place to make a living.’ But it forged strong bonds too. You had to depend on each other down there.’ The man stopped for a second before continuing, ‘Do you mind telling me how you lost your sight son?’ Cal liked his straightforwardness and said in a matter of fact voice, ‘I worked in the petro-chemical industry and some sloppy work and stupid cost cutting led to a chemical leak. Stupid really, I thought I could sort it without wearing the oxygen suit and I was wrong. A cloud of mixed gases, mostly phosgene and hydrogen cyanide built up, took my sight, lucky to survive it really.’ The man nodded, ‘And you’re travelling on your own to see Celtic? That takes some bottle son, good on you.’ Cal smiled, ‘I’m not one for lying down to these things. My Dad taught me that. Not the Celtic way, giving up, is it?’ Cal smiled.  The man laughed, ‘Ach yer a true Celt right enough. I’ll need to go now son but here’s something for you.’ The man pressed what felt like an envelope into Cal’s hand. ‘Yer Da would be proud of ye.’  Just as Cal was about to respond the kindly girl with the light Asian accent cut across him, ‘Your flight is boarding in 20 minutes Sir, would you like a coffee while you wait?’ ‘Tea would be lovely,’ Cal replied, ‘Can my friend have one too?’ The girl hesitated, ‘Friend? There’s no one here Sir. You’re the only person in the lounge.’ Cal felt a little odd, ‘Are you sure, I’ve been talking to a man for the last hour.’ The girl sounded a little sceptical, ‘I’ve been at the desk over there all night Sir. No one has been sitting by you. Perhaps you nodded off and dreamed it?’ Cal said nothing, his hand pressing his jacket to see if the envelope the man gave him was there… It was. 

The following evening Cal was in Celtic Park beside his brother in the huge North Stand. The stadium was rocking as the sell-out crowd awaited the arrival off the teams. His brother described the scene to him in detail as he had done for every game Cal had attended since he lost his sight. Cal felt the chill November air caress his face, what would this vibrant night offer Celtic’s legions of fans? Surely they couldn’t topple this great Barcelona team, could they? This was Celtic, he thought, anything is possible. ‘Ten minutes to kick off Cal, the place is packed, the big Champions League logo is covering the centre-circle’ Sean said. He was very descriptive, helping Cal build a mental picture of the scene he could hear, smell, feel but not see.  Cal could hear the excitement in his brother’s voice, tonight was going to be a special night. ‘Do me a favour Sean, will you?’ said Cal, fishing the envelope from the airport from his pocket. ‘Could you open this and tell me what it is?’ He handed the envelope to his brother and listened as Sean tore it open. After a moment Sean said to him in a rather surprised voice, ‘Where did you get this Cal?’ Cal replied a little impatiently, ‘Why? What is it Sean?’  His brother replied, it’s a picture Cal, an old style black and white photograph.’ Cal pushed his brother, ‘A picture of what?’ he said tersely. Sean hesitated, ‘It’s my Da when he was young. He’s in his mining gear, helmet on standing outside one of those pit lifts. His face is dirty with coal dust but I would recognise him no problem.’ Cal was a little stunned, ‘Anything else?’ ‘Aye,’ replied his brother, ‘He’s standing beside another miner who looks like…well he looks like a young Jock Stein!’ The picture was passed among the fans sitting around the brothers and an old man with grey hair protruding from his bunnet placed his glasses solemnly on his face like a judge about to pass sentence. He carefully studied the photo and pronounced, ‘Aye,’ that’s Jock all right. He was miner before he became a professional player.’  Cal was feeling a little bewildered by this as a huge roar announced that Celtic and Barcelona were entering the field of play. Sean described the scene as tens of thousands of coloured sheets were held up to create a stunning mosaic to celebrate Celtic’s 125 years in football. The game got underway amid a crescendo of noise.

Sean described Barcelona’s probing play as they flicked the ball around with practiced ease. ‘They’re looking good Cal but no penetration at the moment.’ Sean said. Later as Cal’s mind wandered back to the airport and the man who gave him the photo he tried to remember his voice. Did he know him? Why did he ask after Cal’s da? ‘Corner to Celtic, Mulgrew is trotting over to take it,’ Said Sean. Cal switched his thoughts back to the game just in time as Wanyama bulleted his header into the Barcelona net. The place erupted, ‘Yeeesss’ roared Sean, hugging him for all he was worth. Cal celebrated with the rest and as he jumped for joy he lost his footing and stumbled forward. Strong hands held him and stopped him falling into the people in front.  A voice spoke to Cal through the uproar of the goal celebration, ‘Steady Son, you’ve got enough to contend with without breaking your neck too!’ It was the voice from the airport. Cal knew it in an instant. Before he could ask all the questions he wanted to the man released his grip. ‘Enjoy the game son and never doubt the Celtic spirit.’  Cal mumbled quietly amid the raucous noise, ‘I never would, not once.’Good’ the voice said, ‘Your Da would be proud of you.’ Sean was at Cal’s side in that instant. ‘Who are ye talking to Cal?’ he asked through the broadest of smiles. ‘No one Sean’ Cal smiled as he hugged his brother, ‘Let’s win this thing, let’s see how the mighty Barca stand up to the Celtic Spirit!’



  1. Nice story, well written. What literary short story was your inspiration? Hope Cal is at Heathrow on Monday night. HH

    1. Hi elbhoy, no literary inspiration for this comes to mind. I read the excellent book 'The Road to Lisbon' recently and enjoyed the first person writing about Stein before Lisbon.I recognise the contribution Jock made to the modern Celtic and I guess the metaphor of him still being with us in spirit is at once inspiring and comforting? Cal is every one of us, we sometimes can't 'see' or remember Jock's greatness so the tale is a reminder of that great Celt. Hope that makes sense?