Extra Time in Paradise
(Second Version)

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 fly.

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.
      Malachy.
His skin was unexpectedly smooth.
      Aamir.
Malachy nodded.
      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.
      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…
He gestured.
      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 Paradise.

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.

White light.
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 the brickfield.

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.
_________________

 

 


Site designed by David Green, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics (SELS),
Percy Building, Newcastle University, Claremont Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
Site hosted by ISS - Information Systems and Services, Newcastle University
Photography by Piyal Adhikary and David Green
Database designed by Netskills: http://www.netskills.ac.uk/

Click here to view our ethics policy