Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin, he will wait until you give yourself to him.
We are getting strange looks, the dozen or so of us standing in front of the row of shops spotlighted by lights from the newsagent’s and baker’s windows. We are making a noise and the curtains are twitching in the flats across the road. We don’t have any respect for anything apart from thinking of the day ahead. At our feet a forest of holdalls, backpacks and blue poly-bags that clink noisily and suspiciously whenever you move them.
The December morning has suddenly got far colder as I visibly shiver, and look around wondering again about why I was there? The two days off work seemed great when I booked them, but that was before we lost to Raith Rovers in the Coca Cola Cup final. Everything since then feels utterly pointless; hopes about the new season, the new owners and new manager have long gone. I love Tommy Burns but this is proving difficult. The move to Hampden has been depressing, a horrible stadium with all the home trappings of a skip.
Any day off work is magic, but It’s been more unbearable since losing that cup final. It’s unbearable most of the time. I have to face all the tradesmen as I work in the front desk at the warehouse. They come in for supplies and endlessly take the piss. There is nothing I can say or do.
And, standing here at 6:30 am waiting on the bus to take us to Liverpool, to watch Celtic play Liverpool in the Ian Rush testimonial, it feels like an utter waste. I stare down at my carry-out and I feel sick rising up from my stomach. I should go and get a roll and sausage, maybe a bacon roll as well before the bus comes. That might sort me out.
The conversations around me belong to another universe, a universe I don’t want to be in but one I’ve actually volunteered for. Heading for the baker’s, I trip over a hold-all and just about manage to keep my feet. Everybody waiting on the bus sees and breaks out laughing, and for a minute or two diverts them from talking about Hans Van Arum. Two days ago they hadn’t even heard of him; in two days time, they will have forgotten about him. That’s the stage we’ve reached. Standing in front of shops at six-thirty in the morning talking about Dutch trialists and ignoring the massive elephant in our heads.
Well, it doesn’t make sense to me.Listen to HARALD BRATTBAKK with A Celtic State of Mind here:
I buy a bacon roll, it seems a better option as the square sausage looks like damaged knee ligaments, and the bus has arrived. The warmth of the engine heats up my legs as I wait to get on. It’s taking an age with folk struggling on with clanking bags that have enough cans for a festive fortnight and not a day trip to Liverpool.
It’s then I notice Graham with his mop of brown hair and a head moving from side to side with hyperactivity. He turns around and I see eyes like a fruit machine that has just hit the jackpot. He gives me the grin that I have seen so many times before. A smile that says today is going to be my day. I sort of smile back, making it look like I’m wanting to engage while deep down hoping to keep out his way for as long as possible.
He hasn’t been around recently. He seems to float back in and out of the group, appearing for a couple of drinks then always having to be somewhere else. He still goes to the games though but we seem to meet him only before games in various pubs around the ground. It’s almost as if he has got bored of us and as if we have served the purpose that he had in mind for us.
Graham is a few years older and the one who influenced the group with a sort of hypnotic hold: clothes, music, drink or drugs like sheep the majority of us hung on his every word. When we first started going to games, he took us under his wing, as the big brother all of us wanted. He would buy us drinks when we were underage, was always on hand, had a supply of drugs we should be taking or talking about taking and what clothes we should be wearing. He was always at the most important raves, always the first to have mixtapes of the hottest DJ’s playing loudly in his white Fiesta XR2 and whose passenger seat was always occupied by the girl you used to fancy from school.
He owned his own removal business and impressed us with guys that he knew all over the country and sometimes he would bring them up to the games. Once he brought up a group of scousers and they introduced us to these ‘Gary Abletts’, which for years would take away our weekends and make Mondays feel like the end of the world. He even gave a couple of the boys jobs. They would tell us tales of long journeys and nights out in strange towns up and down Britain, tales which would always end up with conquests, sexual or violent. Half-truth and half-fantasy but I was never certain.
One lad, Mick, told me after a night out, as we stood alone in the kitchen trying to fight off impending hangovers, of how he thought they were robbing houses of folk who were away on holiday. He said nothing ever seemed to be unplugged and they just delivered the goods to containers in industrial estates just off the many motorways throughout Britain. When he asked about this, he said he was threatened and told to keep his mouth shut or they would be on the dole. He said that Graham felt a bit of regret at this and he got an extra hundred and fifty quid at the end of the week; so he kept his mouth shut. He also told me about the time he found a shotgun underneath the driver’s seat of the van.
He regretted telling me though. The following day he gave me a box full of cassette tapes that had come from a house in North London. He said it was full of that weird stuff that I liked. He was right. It had everything from Television’s Marquee Moon to the Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Every cultural guitar touchstone was polished in-between. New romantic, C86, The Smiths and Madchester. I felt bad for the person that had lost this lovingly created collection. That guilt soon faded as I listened to the jewels in the box and I consoled myself by assuming that the collection probably belonged to some rich kid who had replaced all the albums on CD by now anyway.
I am shouted up from the back of the bus. I was hoping there weren’t any seats by the time I got on but Alan is waving at me. I get sorted and sit down wondering how long it would be before Alan tells me about his pre-season trip to Ireland. I open the first can, boaking at the smell and the taste, and he starts telling me that they drank at least thirty pints a day on the trip. He’s told me this every weekend since he returned. It was his road to Damascus. His life is now in two distinct parts: before Ireland and after Ireland. It wasn’t that he had a cultural or romantic epiphany on the trip, it was just that he drank thirty pints a day and that made him long for its return. His ambition is to reach that peak once more.
I am invited to join in the many conversations. They are all about the same thing: nights out, boasting about drink and drugs; the daft things that being intoxicated would land you in. Everything is exaggerated and mostly made up. If you repeat a myth often enough it becomes fact. The conversational exchanges are like nails being dragged down a blackboard in my head.
I try drinking a can of lager, one after another, deciding to try and get into what was expected from me, to become what people wanted me to be, to be part of it. But nothing’s working. I can feel the alcohol taking hold but it was just dragging me into the black. Graham comes down the bus holding a glass Irn Bru bottle that holds some clear drink that I’ve seen being passed around the bus.
“This one is just for you,” he says, opening the bottle that hadn’t been touched.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Potcheen. Was doing some work with Irish travellers and they brew this. They mix it with some South American plant that tequila is distilled in. Right up your street.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, you took all those cassettes from Mick and it was full of hippy trippy dross; so, this will be for you.”
He knows that I know. Mick must have told him about the conversation. I am going to refuse as he waves the open bottle a few centimetres from my nose with the smell burning my nostrils. I look around at the clones. They are all staring; some are laughing: the Timberland boots, baggy sports sweatshirts with brand logos, from Lacoste to Fila and light-blue baggy jeans. Graham has moved on, though, dressed head-to-toe in Burberry, and jeans less baggy than the others, sitting perfectly on top of a pair of green Gazelles. The others will soon follow. Nothing surer. I’m just a clone like all the others but I’m not going to back down and sheepishly accept this bullying.
I grab the bottle and take a large swally, all the while staring directly into Graham’s eyes. The drink twists and turns, and burns my throat as it travels down into my stomach but my gaze never leaves his. I feel sick, I can feel my eyes beginning to water, but I hold it down … and in. I hand the bottle back to him.
“You take a drink then?”
“I’m not touching that.” he laughs.
“Of course. You don’t want to broaden your horizons or see inside your soul, mate.”
His face goes white and for the first time, I see him flustered. He mumbles something. Suddenly, this is a trip I fancy.
We stop at a service station and the bus empties. These service stations have seen this all before. Football fans behaving like football fans; some go to Burger King, others rob the newsagents, and the more inquisitive are screw-driving the fruit machines. I sit outside disappointed, not so much at the behaviour but at the lack of imagination shown.
Before I got off, I had picked up my Walkman and headphones. I needed some fresh air, some headspace and some music. The potcheen still burning inside, I can feel my heart beating faster, my temperature rising and thoughts beginning to race. I put the headphones on and check the cassette. It came from that house in North London. I press ‘Play’ and the magnetic tape jolts into life. The first song starts, straight away I hit ‘Forward’. I need to hear one song before I slip into whatever was going to be.
Graham walks past as the daunting metallic guitar introduces itself and then the drums and rhythm guitar focus my thoughts before they land in the cushion of the vocal.
Under a blue moon, I saw you, so soon you’ll take me up in your arms, too late to beg you or cancel it.
I’m feeling cold, so cold.
Kevin GrahamWatch A Celtic State of Mind at the Stevie Chalmers Auction here: