My old school friend ‘Derek’ had seemingly fallen on hard times when I met him last week. It pained me to see that he was asking people outside the off license if they had any small change. A life-long ‘Bevy merchant,’ he was always the first one drunk at our teenage parties and as we grew to manhood, he was seemingly unable to break the grip alcohol had on him. I’d spin the records at those parties of yesteryear and he’d be on the hard stuff. He loved the Celts though and on a good few occasions I stood by his side in the old Jungle as we belted out our songs of hope and joy. I remember one particular game when he shared a half bottle of vodka with me in the old Jungle. We were both 17 and as Celtic hit a late winner against Aberdeen we ended up on the damp, concrete as thousands of fans did a demented jig all around us. We got home dirty and pretty drunk but happy, our team had won and that was enough for us to wear a smile.
He greeted me warmly and the years melted away as we talked of people, events and happy times of long ago. His frame seemed to have shrunk and his thin face exhibited what my Mum used to call ‘clapped in jaws.’ As we chatted I asked about his brother, a well-known hard man in his day and not a chap to be trifled with. ‘Jim passed last year,’ he informed me. ‘No surprised, his body took some abuse.’ He wasn’t wrong there as Jim, the quintessential hard man had brawled his way through life and bore the scars of many brutal encounters. We chatted about characters and events from our youth and he said with a slightly more serious look on his face, ‘Do ye mind big Alex? Big hun wi ginger hair?’ I nodded as he continued with his story, ‘Back in the 90s he used tae roll pound coins at me when I was skint and choking for a drink, fuckin demeaning, know wit ah mean? He liked seeing ye desperate that yin, bigoted bastard as well. Anyway, wan night he comes staggering up the road drunk, wearing a fuckin’ England top! I was staunin’ wi Jim and he was tooled up as usual. Jim clocks daft arse singing ‘Let’s all laugh at Celtic’ and sets aff tae chib him. I telt him tae let it go and he did. Daft Alex still has nae idea I saved him fae getting a sore face that night.’
That was Derek, not a bad bone in his body just a weakness for alcohol which had led him up some dark alleyways. I once asked him if he was hungry and down to his last few quid would he buy a fish supper or a pint. He thought and replied, ‘A bag of chips and a half pint!’ Despite his rough appearance and rougher tongue, he was a genuinely decent human being who wouldn’t harm a fly. As schoolboys we used to wait for lorries slowing down outside the Fruit Market near our homes and jump on the tailgate- getting a ‘niggy’ we called it. We’d ride them along to the lights before jumping off. I recall one time we were engaging in this dangerous sport when we decided to look under the tarpaulin on the lorry and help ourselves to some fruit. The lorry passed the lights and rolled onto the motorway! Derek and I got off at Perth and hadn’t a clue where we were. Both being skint we skipped the train back to Glasgow and our folks were none the wiser. He also reminded me that I was the Censor at Secondary school and I knew that it was handed in at lunchtime on Friday and no register was taken on Friday afternoons. I told Derek about this and we skipped out of school every Friday lunch-time and had all sorts of adventures. These ranged from catching pigeons at the old granary by the Clyde in Partick to climbing up the tall floodlights on the railway line in Springburn. They were carefree days in some ways, before the advent of adulthood, work and responsibility.
‘Ye still follow the Celts?’ he said flashing his best gap toothed grin. ‘Aye Derek, I wouldn’t miss going to see the Hoops.’ A memory flashed into his mind and he said, ‘Do ye mind when ye lost yer shoe at Motherwell?’ I laughed out loud remembering of a long forgotten incident from my teenage days, ‘Aye, a big Polis horse stood on it and I lost sight of it in the crowd! Spent the whole game wi one foot in a plastic bag.’ He laughed, and clasped my hand, ‘Remember at Tannadice in the snow I belted a copper wi a snowball?’ I did indeed and we both nearly got jailed for that escapade. ‘They were good times bro, good times.’ I reminded him of the time he fell asleep on the train back from Dundee after a midweek game and he woke up in Leeds! He nodded, ‘That’s the auld Eldorado fur ye! Knock oot a bear!’ In the days before alcohol was banned at football he’d sometimes take a bottle of Eldorado wine to the match. On one occasion the cops refused to let him in with the bottle and I watched him drink the entire bottle of wine in two long slugs before dropping the empty in the bin by the turnstile!
We regarded each other for a second. One sign of real friends is that you’re comfortable with them immediately even after years apart. Derek had been through a lot in his life and had never had it easy but his infectious humour seemed to get him through. Many years ago I watched him being put into the back of a Police van for fixing an Irish tricolour onto the chimney of a local school. He was grinning and singing ‘Armoured cars and tanks and guns’ as they drove him away. He was some guy and some character. As we parted with a handshake that day, he surprised me by pulling me close and hugging me like a long lost brother. ‘Look after yourself, Derek,’ I smiled at him. He nodded, a pleased look on his face, ‘You know me mate, I’m old school.’ I think he meant by that, he’d try but was perhaps too tied to the drink to kiss it goodbye.
As I walked off he shouted down the busy street, not giving a damn what anybody thought, ‘Paddy!’ I looked back to see him smiling and giving a clench fist salute. ‘Tiocfaidh ar la!’ I grinned, he was old school right enough.