The bhoy in Ward 13
He stood in the dimly lit tunnel his comrades lined up beside him. Ahead he could see sunlight slanting into the tunnel entrance and hear the rumble of the crowd like distant thunder. It was a hot one today but he was ready and so were his team mates. This would be their greatest challenge but then he’d faced some tough challenges in his life. As they waited for the referee’s signal, his mind drifted through the years back to a more difficult time in his life…
Doctor McKenzie subconsciously stroked his beard in the manner he did when he had important things on his mind. As he strolled along the corridor leading to Ward 13 of Belvidere Hospital, he put on the serious face he reserved for bad news and entered the ward. He spoke briefly to the duty Sister before he turned to the man lying on the bed to his left. He sat down and looked at the bright eyes of a young man on the cusp of life.
‘Stephen, I want you to listen very carefully. You are suffering from Mycobacterium tuberculosis of the meninges. We often call it TBM for short. The inflammation is concentrated towards the base of the brain and in the membranes which blanket and protect the central nervous system. There is much which can be done but the treatment is somewhat rough and I must warn you that not all the outcomes are satisfactory.’
The young man looked at him trying to take in all of the things he had heard. ‘Not satisfactory? What do you mean, I could be crippled?’ The Doctor’s face betrayed no emotion. ‘That is always a possibility, Stephen. I must warn you that a percentage of cases of TBM prove fatal. Now you’re a fit and strong young man and we may be able to intervene in a satisfactory manner but I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t lay the facts before you and warn you of the risks.’ The young man exhaled a troubled look on his face. ‘Thank you Doctor, I appreciate your honesty.’ The Doctor outlined the process ahead as Stephen listened in silence. Despite what he was hearing a quiet determination was growing inside him. He’d fight this. He’d fight it with everything he had.
The next few months were an extremely difficult time for young Stephen. He forgot all about his football with Kirkintilloch. He had more important battles on his hands now. He grew to dread the days when the young Doctor would enter Ward 13 pushing a small metal trolley with the utensils he needed covered with a white cloth. The curtains would be drawn around the bed and Stephen would assume the position on the bed he had been shown. He knelt on the mattress, face pressed onto the cool surface of the pillow. This allowed his spine to be fully extended. It was only then the agonising business of the lumbar puncture could take place. The young Doctor would produce a large syringe and use it to draw fluid from around his spine. Stephen hated it but he gritted his teeth, determined that he wouldn’t become negative. He’d fight this illness just as he fought every tough defender he’d come up against in the rough world of Scottish Junior football.
For six long months he stayed in Ward 13, enduring the harsh treatment which it was hoped would cure him. He was ordered to stay in bed and have complete rest but as his natural fitness ebbed away he would choose quiet moments to slip his legs from under the blankets and exercise them gently. He loved football and the thought of never playing again disturbed him. On more than one occasion during his months in Belvidere he had watched as curtains were drawn around one of the beds in Ward 13 and Doctors and Nurses rushed in and out. Then there was that ominous calm and they walked away, silence hanging heavy on their lips. Within a few minutes the Porters would arrive and remove the person who had lost their fight. Stephen would roll over in those moments and close his eyes saying a small prayer for the deceased and if he was honest, for himself too.
On some Saturday afternoons as he lay in his bed he would hear a distant roar, like a rumbling train. He knew it was the crowd at nearby Celtic Park greeting another goal. As a boy he dreamed about playing for Celtic, about pulling on that beloved hooped shirt. His old man had made it as far as playing for Clydebank in his football career but Stephen dreamed of grander things. In those quiet moments when the ward was still, he’d imagine himself playing at Hampden in the cup final for Celtic or battling with Rangers defenders in the big Glasgow derby. In those long months in Belvidere such daydreams helped sustain him.
His mind was jolted out of those thoughts of days long past when Bertie’s voice cut through the tension in the tunnel. ‘Right boys, let’s give them a song while we’re waiting!’ Stephen smiled; trust Bertie to know what to do at such a moment. As the astonished Italian players looked on the song spread along the line of Celtic players… ‘Hail Hail, the Celts are here, what the hell do we care….’ It was a moment he’d never forget. As he sang with his team mates he glanced along the line of Celtic players who looked almost as if they were glowing in their pristine green and white shirts; McNeil at the front, imperious and confident. Auld, that gallus streak evident on his Glaswegian face as he sang his heart out. Johnstone, fists clenched, determined. Lennox like a sprinter itching for the starting pistol to fire. Murdoch, a life-long Celt who would run through a brick wall for his club. No player could ask for better team mates. They were fine players all of them and fine men too. As the song ended and the Referee gave the signal to head for the stairs which took them up into the glaring light of a Portuguese summer day, Stephen gritted his teeth. He’d fought so hard to build a career after his brush with mortality in ward 13. He had made it to his beloved Celtic and now he and his comrades stood on the brink of greatness. As they emerged from the tunnel, the sun momentarily dazzled his eyes. As he refocussed he could see that the Celtic supporters were there in their thousands. A low chant drifted across the emerald turf towards him, it grew in volume as more and more voices took it up…. ‘Celtic…Celtic…CELTIC…CELTIC…’
As he began his warm up he could hear Murdoch roaring at his team mates, ‘Come on lads! Today’s the day, let’s do this!’ The Celtic midfielder turned towards Stephen, ‘This is your day, Stevie boy! Get that ball in the net son!’
As the game began Stevie Chalmers was totally focussed. Ward 13 was history and here was a chance to write a page in Celtic’s history which would never be forgotten. This chance might never come again, today of all days, they had to take it.