Time in Paradise
by Suhayl Saadi
The snow was coming down hard
and fast, and the pitch resembled a Christmas
cake. Mid-March in Paradise, with the heating
off. No play today. It matched the darkness
of his mood. Studs hitting turf: a silly boy’s
dream. It wasn’t just the apprentices
in Aamir’s Under-21 Glasgow Celtic Squad;
half the nineteen year-olds in the city had
the same fantasy. Slip the hoops over your head
and you were in the First Eleven, the rap of
studs on concrete, singing up through the tunnel…
Aamir Donovan Khan. Fields of Athenry. Sweet
music. The snowflakes made his skin tingle.
He shoved his hands into the
skins of his jacket pockets and moved faster
down the trackside, felt the freezing, still
air burn through his tubes. No booze, no fags,
no clubbing. Days and nights of running around
oval tracks. Seven years aiming for an invisible
goal-mouth. An Irish middle name, Muslim goalposts.
His da had always been Celtic daft and an admirer
of that black-haired minstrel from Maryhill.
Of swirling, psychedelic music.
On good days, Aamir would
climb the metalwork, right to the top of the
floodlight stand, close his eyes, leap off and
Ach. He had to collect Saraid
from her work. The easy genius of the Players’
Lounge. He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes,
extra time. As he was walking past the dugouts,
he saw an old man sitting on the Manager’s
bench. Aamir paused. The man smiled. He had
on a light-blue woollen greatcoat and a black
workman’s cap and scarf. Bags-and-rocks
for a face. But he sat erect and his neck was
a slab of marble. Aamir joined him. The snow
fell in great sheets across pitch and stands,
and he couldn’t see the flags up on the
roof, but down in the dugout, it was quite warm.
The old guy extended his hand.
His skin was unexpectedly smooth.
Snow again. No matches this side of Easter.
Aamir let his breath out. The steam vanished
into the curtain of snow.
I saw you on the Green, the other day.
He thought he’d been alone.
Your very agile, son, and your dribbling and
ball-control are getting there. But you need
to work on the weaknesses.
Aye. You need to grapple with them, throttle
them down on the green grass. Heading, shooting,
timing, disguise. Nobody’s any good at
that any more. In my day, it was a dance.
Malachy’s words rolled like gravel from
deep in his throat.
Sixty-a-day, Aamir thought.
And no birds. They distract you.
Aamir looked at his watch. Still okay.
I’ve not spotted you before, Mister.
I’ve been here, Aamir. Watching every
tackle, since you were ten years old.
Aamir shifted on the bench.
I watched your da bring you to practice.
Aamir laughed, cynically.
In my da’s dream, I’m an engineer!
Malachy shook his head.
Folk never say what they feel.
Aamir’s father had brought him to matches
since before he could remember. All the seasons.
The Jungle Terraces. The blistering wind billowing
his da’s dark coat, the harsh rub of the
wool against his face. Every week, the same
wee, scuffed dimple in the concrete. The swell
and pulse, the wordless embrace, of the crowd.
The turns of the game, reflected in restless
light from their faces. Back in the old country,
in the burning fields of Punjab, his da had
wielded a cricket-bat. But here in Glasgow,
he’d just sold sweeties and henna’d
his hair. Aamir splayed out his long legs, propped
his elbows on the quads and palmed his forehead.
Just a dream, he whispered.
The auld man touched the peak of his cap.
There’s blood beneath this turf.
Aamir looked up. Malachy’s eyes were shot
through with red streaks. The pupils had swollen
till there was hardly any blue left.
Men rose from the waste-boats of the west, and
went to war. Soldiers’ songs. The dead
of the fields. The rush of the Brake Clubs,
the close battles with the Night Men. We cleaned
the sewers and built the tunnels and with the
silver we made, we suppered the poor weans of
the East End. And above deathly mine shafts,
we prayed football. God! Did we play! Rows a
of iron men, 2-3-5, fighting Bears, Thistles,
Edinburgh Greens. And arching over it all, the
Big Boss Maley. The Boss and the Brother dreamed
this place in a wake, and it became real.
I know the history, Mister… I mean Malachy.
Paradise gates, Lisbon Lions and all that. The
smell of silver. It’s a great weight on
my shoulders. All my life, I’ve wanted…
Saraid’s my girlfriend, y’know,
she works in the canteen here.
Malachy nodded. Aamir felt dizzy.
But I mean, even when I’m with her, all
I’m thinking about is the next match,
the trials, stretching myself, my breath, my
bones, till I’m just light.
He glanced around, a wee bit embarrassed. He’d
never talked like this before. Not to his father,
not to Saraid, not even to the bathroom mirror.
Maybe he was too fit. Maybe he’d pushed
himself over the edge.
The snowfall was so dense, Aamir could no longer
see the Jungle terraces opposite. Halfway across,
the pitch vanished into a wall of white.
Malachy slipped his cap up at an angle and danced
the tip of his finger over his right temple.
He almost whispered.
It’s all here.
A red scar swung from his forehead to the silver
threads of his temple. Those buttons, the broad,
flip-up collar. Airforce. The real thing. Aamir
shivered, and hugged his chest. His watch was
dead. He was meant to take her out. Saturday
movies. Immortality - her version. Some love-story.
Kisses and hugs and sore arms from the blades
of her nails. Happy music. Lies. And yet…
This dugout was deceptive. The plastic was turning
the temperature of his bum, down. But somehing
held him. Maybe it was the snow. After all,
he wouldn’t be able to see his way to
the Walfrid lounge, not through this avalanche.
Even the hawks who watched every blade of grass,
even they had escaped inside. Six inches, already.
It hadn’t snowed like this since…
The old man got up and crossed
the trackside. He produced a ball like none
Aamir had ever seen. Dirty-brown and scuffed
like an old face, and Malachy tossed it effortlessly
up into the air and began to head it, and then
to do a keepie-uppie sequence. Jesus! He was
trooping around the pitch in ancient, clumpy,
leather football boots.
Eh, pal, what’re you doing?! he called
out, but Malachy was deaf, or maybe just strange.
Aamir followed, glancing to
left and right, certain that someone would emerge
and toss them both out of Paradise. But nobody
could see them, out there in the centre circle.
There was nothing else. Just him an the old
guy an the heavy ball. And the sky without border.
Aamir was surprised at Malachy’s
agility, coat-and-all. Christ, if he couldn’t
keep pace with this old-timer... He was kicking
a ball around in shin-pad snow: madness, yet
he just had to dribble, and be tackled and charged,
and to dive and leap and lob and volley. Malachy
moved like lightning on ice. At times, the old
man’s boots were circling above his own
head. Back-kicks, high kicks, illegal stuff.
Sixty-a-day? No way. And now he was singing
without opening his mouth. Old songs, dead songs.
The stinking, sweet breaths of Rosie O’Grady
from the wynds an the lanes an the whispering,
Janefield murmur of scratch elevens, the terrible
howls of prison ships and coffin ships and drinking
shops. Dead-speckled ears wafting in the watered
breeze of Lough Swilly, Donegal. Foreign stones.
The songs of his fathers, songs of the fields
of the five rivers in the place where it never
snowed. Punjab. The golden sun, the greening
earth, the sky, burned white.
Maybe he was an escaped nutter.
You saw those guys. Out for a day, to see the
Celts! They would scream things like, left,
left, left! the whole match long. Aamir sloughed
off his jacket. He was getting a real high from
dancing around in this sea of white. The blood
was racing around his body, he could feel it
burn the sides of his arms and legs, he could
hear it tank through the leaves of his brain.
And now every move was near-perfect, the positioning,
the coordination, the timing seemed to sing
from his muscles. His da had told him there
would be a moment when everything would come
together, all the years of practice would rise
like a pyramid from the hard, winter earth and
he, the pitch and the ball would become, one.
His da’s gravestone was cut from white
Italian marble. The mason had said it would
wash away in the cold rain, that black granite
was more sensible, but Aamir hadn’t listened.
His maa minded the shop, while he made sure
the grass around the grave was cut and seeded
to international pitch standard. No weeds, no
cancers. An it was odd, but in the year-an-a-half
since the winter’s day when his da had
been buried, other folk had caught on, and the
white graveslab had become a trend, so that
now, in the Cathcart Muslim graveyard, there
were three long rows of white and green. One
day, Aamir would carry a quaich across the hoops
of the cemetery. One day, beneath the big sky,
he would rest the silver over his father’s
heart an would pray to the gods and angels of
No words, no sound, no smell.
But a fire burned in every cell of Aamir’s
body, every inch of skin and muscle and bone
was in contact with the air and the ground and
the rhythm which they were kicking out. One-on-one.
His da’s last breath. You’re the
best, son! I love you. God be with you. The
stink of cancer. No time. And now, through the
falling snow, Aamir thought he could make out
the wood, though it looked more like white tape.
No nets, but in a wordless place, Aamir knew
exactly where the pyramid hovered. Malachy was
dancing like big Pat Bonner. Twenty yards out,
and still no officials. Freedom! Aamir bounced
and lifted the ball and balanced it on the tip
of his trainer as though it was just air and
skin. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Up in the air, a
world flying, perfect. One step back, swing
the spine and then a full volley, with the strength
of six hundred crying, bleeding nights, compressed,
focussed, directed. Sixty thousand screaming
Hail! Hail! One of us! But he forgot that trainers
were lighter than football boots, and he wheeled
backwards through the white sky and banged his
head. The snow covered him. The last thing Aamir
Donovan saw was the ball sailing through the
freezing air, passing the dark figure midway
between the goalposts.
A face, above him.
The mouth was moving.
Aamir blinked, twice. Saraid was chanting his
name, over and over. Red streaks, and the pupils,
big as the night sky. Movement was pain. He
was on a stretcher on the floor inside. Someone
had rolled up a coat beneath his head. Fussing.
I’m fine, he said, but the words came
out like music.
Her hands were soft on his brow. The bandage
throbbed and itched and blocked out half his
vision. No film tonight! But laughter was pain.
He flopped back, and waited for the ambulance.
Saraid’s long, black
hair swung crazily around her shoulders. It
was strange, seeing the corridors of Celtic
Park from a horizontal position. His lover,
silhouetted against the hard stone walls of
Paradise. Things gliding past; lights, signs
and the gold-and-silver frames of photographs,
fading back as he went on, from colour to monochrome
to grainy. Disembodied voices. Now and then,
a familiar face. The notes of a song, rising
into a raag, of gold, green and white. Aamir
knew that he could never walk alone.
Out on the pitch, when the
snow at last had ceased tae fall, a groundsman
traced his gloved fingers around a crescentic
groove in the turf, right in the centre of the
goal-line. The gash went straight down, through
the neatly-ordered catenaccio blades of grass,
the bone-deep sand, the golden threads of older
pitches, right down to the dark-red earth of
Far away, across the city,
a man dressed in a light-blue greatcoat removed
his cap and knelt before a white marble slab.
He remained there for minutes, his head bent
as though in prayer, and then he rose and walked
slowly away through the snow.