Friday, 9 May 2014

The Celtic Way

Big Rab eased the steering wheel carefully around as he turned the corner into Gordon Street and his usual pitch outside Central Station. The fog was really thickening and he doubted he’d get many passengers tonight. He glided slowly into the taxi bay and parked behind another of the many black cabs struggling to find customers on this foggy Tuesday night. He stepped out of his cab and wiped down his windscreen with a cloth noticing how quiet it was in the centre of Glasgow. Even the normally busy station seemed deserted. The driver in front stepped out of his cab and stretched in the cool night air. He turned, noticing Rab and called to him, ‘Alright Rab, no much happenin’ the night eh? I’m givin’ it 2 minutes and then heading hame.’  Rab smiled at his fellow driver, ‘No many folk oot in this fog, Tony, worst I’ve seen in years.’  His friend nodded, ‘No safe oan the roads the night mate, you’d be best tae head up the road yerself, big man.’  Rab looked around at the gathering gloom shrouding the city centre, ‘I’ll give it another couple of minutes Tony, see if any punters turn up.’  His friend headed back to his cab, ‘Good luck wi that pal, I’m off to see if I can catch a pint afore they shut.’  Rab watched him pull out into the empty street and turned back to his own vehicle. He was a little startled to see a man sitting in the back of his cab. He didn’t see him enter much less hear the door close.  ‘Jeez, that punter must be wearing slippers, never heard him at all there.’ he mumbled to himself getting into the driver’s seat and slamming the door against the chill evening air.

He revved the engine and glancing in the mirror asked, ‘Where to, pal?’ The man, collar of his long dark coat turned up against the chill and wearing a black fedora style hat answered in a quiet voice with just the hint of an Irish accent, ‘Kerrydale Street.’ Rab nodded, ‘A lot of changes there Pal, Kerrydale Street is part of the new Celtic Way. I can take you there nae problem though.’ With that he pulled out into the murky fog and headed for the east end of the city. The man in the back of the cab remained quiet as the taxi headed through the Merchant City and on to Glasgow cross before swinging left along the Gallowgate. It was Rab who broke the silence, ‘You heading up to one of those restaurants at the stadium Pal because they aw shut aboot an hour back?’  The man answered in a quiet voice, ‘No, I just wanted to look around. I used to live in the area.’ Rab nodded, ‘A lot of changes around here in recent years, the place looks a lot better.’ The taxi turned down the new road before turning again and heading slowly along the London Road, stopping at the kerb in front of the new Celtic Way. The fog swirled in the headlights and the the few lights on in the stadium were only just visible through the gloom. ‘You’ll no see much the night, wi aw this fog aboot. Might be better coming back the morra?’  The man regarded Rab, ‘It’s fine, I can get close to the things I want to see. Will you walk with me, I could use someone with good local knowledge? I’ll pay you for your time.’ Rab was a little taken aback by this odd request but answered. ‘Aye, why not? I’ll be heading up the road after this fare anyway.’

Rab turned off the engine and stepped from the cab, reaching back for his fleece which he pulled on and zipped up to his neck. He then turned to the passenger door of the cab and opened it. ‘Right Pal, will we go look at the Velodrome or start wi Celtic Park?’  The man stepped from the cab and looked around him, ‘I’d like to see the stadium first,’ he said, ‘where’s the old school?’ Rab smiled, ‘They knocked it down this year, I think they’re gonny build the Celtic ticket office and museum on that site.’ They stepped forward onto the Celtic way, the bulk of the stadium looming within the fog like a shadowy mountain. A few lights on the stadium twinkled through the grey mist as Rab stopped and looked down at his feet. ‘They put this Celtic crest here when they built the way.’ The man looked at the large four leafed clover emblazoned on the slabs at his feet. ‘My, that is very impressive.’ He looked at Rab, his pale blue eyes scanning his, ‘Tell me, do you follow the Celtic?’  Rab nodded, ‘Season ticket holder like my Da before me.’ There was something familiar about this man but Rab couldn’t quite put his finger on it. ‘Can we get closer to the stadium?’ They walked between the rows of white poles with their green and white flags hanging limply in the still, misty air.

They stopped before the impressive statue of Jock Stein, ‘That’s big Jock,’ smiled Rab, ‘A better man never drew breath.’ The man smiled a little, reading what it said on the plinth of the statue out loud, ‘Football without fans is nothing. How true those words are.’ The man’s eyes scanned the fa├žade of the stadium, ‘It has changed so much since I was last here. Can we go inside?’ Rab shook his head, ‘Shut noo pal,  ye might get on the tour in the morning but it’s too late tonight.’ The man, seemingly deaf to what Rab had just said walked up the steps towards the front entrance, pausing only briefly at the metal plaque on the wall commemorating Tommy Burns. He stared at it a long moment, nodding and mumbling something quietly under his breath. Rab followed him, a little unsure of what the quietly spoken and, if he was honest, slightly odd man was going to do. When the man reached the glass door at the top of the stairs he stopped, reached for the handle and pushed gently. Much to Rab’s surprise the door opened. ‘Listen Pal,’ Rab began, ‘we canny go in at this time of night.’ The man ignored him and stepped into the foyer, ‘Of course we can it’s our club after all isn’t it?’ As the man walked on Rab had to make a snap decision; wait or follow? He glanced around him at the fog shrouded and deserted Celtic way, he couldn’t even see his cab on the London Road so thick was the mist.  He exhaled and pushed the door and followed the man into the stadium. Security would no doubt show up and throw them out but what the heck?

The man seemed to know his way around and Rab followed, noticing how he stopped momentarily to look at images of the many great Celts adorning the walls, nodding occasionally. He followed him with a slight sense of foreboding but also a little elation that he was deep inside the stadium of the team he had followed all his life. The man turned sharply left and walked down what Rab knew must be the tunnel leading to the pitch. A cold draft of air hit him as he followed him out the tunnel and onto the track beside the pitch. The cavernous stadium stood, still and silent as the man stopped by the touchline and slowly scanned the huge, empty stands of Celtic Park. ‘My, this is a grand stadium indeed,’ he said to no one in particular. Rab stood a couple of metres behind him not really sure what to say or do. The man turned, ‘Tell me, do they still give money to the needy?’ It was an odd question and Rab was slightly taken aback. ‘Eh, aye they have a foundation. I think it helps a load of charities.’ The man continued, ‘How much do they give compared to how much they take in?’ Rab had no idea but spluttered out, ‘I know the turnover was about £75 million last year wi the Champions League money. I read that the Foundation has raised over seven million since wee Fergus set it up twenty years back. They have a collection among the fans once a year.’ The man thought for a moment. ‘It doesn’t seem much compared to their income does it?’ Rab said nothing but he had to admit the man was right. ‘How much do they pay the players these days?’ Rab found these questions a little strange but answered as best he could. ‘Top guys like Commons get about twenty grand a week. Up and coming lads get less.’ The man pursed his lips. ’They must always remember the poor.

A voice somewhere off towards the Jock Stein stand broke the momentary silence and Rab turned, ‘Here Pal, whit ye doing?’ Two yellow coated men appeared out of the mist, walking towards him. As they approached Rab could see their bemused faces and the word ‘Security’ on the breast of their florescent jackets. The bigger of the two, a stout, red faced man with a serious expression and the physique of a nightclub bouncer who has let it go a bit regarded Rab suspiciously as if trying to assess if he presented any danger. ‘How did ye get down here? The restaurants shut ages ago?’ Rab, feeling a little worried, replied, ‘I’m a taxi driver. My fare kinda invited me in, seems tae know the place.’ Rab realised how silly his words must have sounded as soon as he said them. The big man looked sceptical, ‘Yer fare?’ Rab turned, ‘Aye, him…’ He was about to point at the quiet spoken man with the soft Irish accent but he was nowhere in sight. Only the silent stadium with its garland of swirling fog could be seen. ‘Well you need tae leave, we’re locking the place for the night.’ Rab nodded and silently followed the smaller of the two security men towards the junction of South Stand and Celtic end where the big metal doors which were designed to allow emergency vehicle access were closed and locked.  The security man unbolted a small inset door and opened it, ‘There ye go mate, if yer fare is still around we’ll find him and send him on his way.’ The door closed with a metallic clang and Rab heard a bolt inside slide into place. He stood for a second in the cold, foggy air unsure what to do next.  At last he turned and headed back towards the Celtic way.

Rab stopped by the statue of Brother Walfrid and looked at the front entrance of Celtic Park as if he expected the man to wander out at any moment but all was still. A flickering to his left caught his eye and he turned to see a small candle on the side plinth of the Brother Walfrid statue. Beside it was a small white card on which someone had written in a very neat, old fashioned hand…’Always remember the poor.’ Rab glanced up at the statue’s face with its fixed paternal stare. It seemed to be looking down the Celtic Way, still watching out for those who needed help. Something gnawed away deep inside Rab. The man who’d led him here tonight looked a little similar to the good brother. ‘Don’t be daft, Rab,’ he told himself, ‘This foggy night making ye believe in ghosts noo is it?’ he mumbled to himself. He shook his head and walked between the flag poles of the Celtic Way listening to the click of his shoes on the flagstones. He could have been the last man on Earth so deserted and quiet was the street. He reached the London Road and his cab sat reassuringly where he’d left it. He unlocked it with a click of his keypad and opened the door. A white envelope was on the driver’s seat. He opened it, mystified. In it was £50 and a short note written in the same neat hand as the card he had just seen on the plinth of the Walfrid Statue. It read…

‘I trust this is enough for your time. Thank you kindly for guiding me around my old haunts. Things have changed so much.  Tell them not to forget the poor.’

The note was unsigned. Rab sat in the cab and slammed the door shut, unconsciously clicking the central locking button. He suddenly felt cold and a shiver ran up his spine. He glanced up at the fog shrouded stadium, wondering what exactly had occurred this night.  He started the engine and mumbled to himself, ‘Stop it Rab, it was just a guy, that’s aw, just a punter.’ He flicked on the lights and glided silently along the London Road knowing in his heart that he didn’t believe that.

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