• A.D. Stephenson

Chapter 1: The Semi-Final

As a little treat to you all, I thought I'd share the whole of Chapter 1 from A Cloud Can Weigh A Million Pounds. Remember, you can buy it exclusively from Amazon as a paperback or on Kindle - see the links on the homepage for details, or search A Cloud Can Weigh A Million Pounds on Amazon.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

The tunnel reverberated around Paddy, the hairs on the back of his neck erect and tingling against the collar of his deep emerald shirt. Days like this made him proud to be Scottish, proud to be playing for, no, starring for, Claston Celts – a club had been a part of him since the moment he came into the world. An almost imperceptible turn of the head to his left revealed his opponents. Paddy meant no disrespect to the players of Dundee United, but he knew that they had little hope of victory in this match. Paddy knew that many bookies had already paid out on a Celts victory and most had stopped taking new bets on it, such was the overwhelming task that faced the men in orange and black – not that he had tried to bet on his own team; he’d dabbled in that once or twice before, but on the previous occasion had come too close to being caught betting on matches he was playing in (only to win, such was his confidence, he would never have thrown a match). A ban now would signal the end of his career: the ticking on that particular clock was already too loud for his liking.

And then the drum started. A deep booming from the bowels of the stadium that intimidated many a player of lesser stature than himself. For Paddy, the slow, steady beating of a war drum was just a part of a big match day’s festivities. And he’d had plenty of those. From his early days with Claston Celts, to the time spent playing in Hamburg, Paddy had won every conceivable honour, from the team victories of the Bundesliga (four times in the six seasons he was there) and the Champions League (three times), not to mention the Europa League (Hamburg hadn’t qualified for the Champions League before he’d joined the club, but he’d made the best of the situation in his first season there), to the individual honours and triumphs, including receiving the Ballon d’Or five years in a row and vastly diminishing the reputation in Hamburg of their previous British import of the late 70s.

It was seen as insanity by all commentators when Claston Celts made an offer to re-sign their former wonderkid at the end of his contract in Hamburg, and Paddy had had offers from the biggest clubs in Europe: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, both Milans, Paris St Germain, both Manchester clubs and three London clubs, as well as the enormous financial temptation of a move to China. Paddy, however, knew his heart lay in Claston. There would always be a part of Paddy that yearned for the challenge of playing in the biggest leagues against the best players and he had weighed up how much he would miss that challenge very carefully when he made his choice to return home, deciding in the end that his real ambition was to drag the domestically-dominant but perennial European under-achievers of his home-town club back into the big time.

The hit to his reputation of the move had concerned him. Going back to Scotland realistically meant not being a consideration for any further Ballon d’Ors and would take him out of the international limelight, something he had relished for half a decade. And although money should never have been a consideration (he had more than he could spend on himself in a lifetime already), he could not help but think about how he deserved to be amongst the top-earners in the world, something that he always knew Claston Celts could never offer. Upon weighing it up though, he realised that his mother was as comfortable as she would allow him to make her, still living as she did in the small flat that he had grown up in, refusing to leave despite Paddy’s pleas. His ex-wife was living handsomely, much to his frustration, after their bitterly acrimonious divorce many years earlier. And other than that, there was no one else to look after but himself. Yes, the money he had already accrued would see him through. Plus, he would still be earning far more than the Scottish average salary on a weekly basis.

All that was history now, and he had proven himself right (as he knew he would do) when he first pulled on the famous emerald and black stripes of Claston Celts during his homecoming season. And now, as the season drew to a close, there was still a few things to wrap up.

Paddy was well prepared for this match, certainly the biggest of the season so far. It had been frustratingly rearranged twice already, once due to the famous Scottish weather and once due to the more unusual reason of the discovery of a huge hornet’s nest in one of the stands on the morning of the match. The other semi-final, played two weeks previously, had been a turgid affair. The Celts’ city rivals, Claston Wanderers, had eventually ended 1-0 winners over Aberdeen in what could only be optimistically described as agricultural football, although Paddy thought that might be doing a disservice to the essential role that farmers played in the UK economy. He had watched that game with a sense of ennui, his eyes often glazing over as he struggled keep himself awake at the lack of entertainment on offer. He knew that football shouldn’t be played like that, that it was as much an entertainment business as a sport. And he was ready to entertain, as he always was.

He took a sip from his water bottle. The club provided team bottles, but Paddy knew not to trust them, supressing a shudder as he thought back to his youth days and the laxative prank that he had been the sole victim of. No, he wouldn’t fall for anything like that again, and was now well-known for having his own drinking receptacle at every training session and every match. He would take it out onto the field and place it in the bottle holder in the dug-out himself. His teammates knew not to touch it but he was still unwilling to leave it alone when he didn’t have to. The litre and a half bottle (or magnum as Paddy insisted on calling it) was a top of the range Japanese import, fully insulated and resplendent in a glossy black finish on the aluminium outer, the initials PM subtly embossed in dark grey on the side, the company logo in Hirigana in the same shade of grey on the base. Paddy never had learnt how to read or pronounce the company’s name: he just knew quality when he saw it.

The referee strode forward, leading the players onto the field like the Pied Piper playing his merry tune, gently retrieving the ball from its plinth on his way past with a delicacy that would usually be reserved for the handling of fine glass ornaments, baby animals or explosives. The two teams, Claston in their dark emerald and black stripes, Dundee United in their striking orange, followed close behind, ready to do battle. Paddy took a deep breath as he crossed the white lines of this hallowed field, absorbing the cacophony of the crowd, feeling the rumble of the drums seep into his soul. He had played and won in such famous stadia as the San Siro, the Santiago Bernabéu, Old Trafford and Stade de France, all with their own unique atmosphere, but for him, any stadium where Claston Celts fans were singing his name was the real theatre of dreams. He ran toward the centre of his half to prepare for kick-off; he would be playing in his preferred position, as a dominant box-to-box central midfielder today. He had successfully filled in as a marauding full-back or clinical centre forward previously and knew that reprising these roles might be on the cards today. He played both those roles better than anyone else in the squad and only wished he could play three positions at once. Without warning, he shuddered and blinked his eyes twice as an otherworldly feeling swept through him. He didn’t believe in being nervous, so shunned the sensation and prepared for the game to start, absorbing the cheers from the crowd, already at fever pitch despite kick-off still being minutes away.

Without warning, the ball was at Paddy’s feet. He smiled an easy smile and rolled it back to the centre spot, ready for kick off, only to see an opponent seize his caressed pass with a look of surprised glee and start bearing down on him. What was this joker doing? Paddy wondered, letting him have his moment on the ball before the game began. Paddy was alerted by a piercing cry from his manager, the self titled “Big” Jim Fallanks, an overweight, burgundy-faced man, formerly a Scottish international (as he so he proudly crowed, winning a single cap in a friendly match), remonstrating with him for giving the ball away, urging him to win it back. In his confusion, Paddy could only watch in horror as the brightly-shirted Dundee United players played a series of intricate passes, splitting open the Celts’ defence like a machete coming down hard on sugar cane. They would not normally be so exposed, with Paddy their customary shield when defending as well as their outlet to start their attacks. In a matter of seconds that felt like hours, the ball was in the net and the Celts were behind. The stadium fell silent, the air sucked from the lungs of everyone watching on, the tsunami drawback before the deafening crash of water, and then the explosion of sound from the Dundee United fans who could not believe their eyes. The Celts fans simply sat in silent disbelief.

As the ball made its way back to the centre circle for the Celts to kick-off, Paddy was aware of a low droning noise, the hum of conversation from the Celts fans, aghast at what they were witnessing, tentatively allowing the question to rest on their lips but not quite escape just yet: was Paddy McAlpin at fault for the goal, and more worryingly was he past his best? Joel Johnson, the Celts’ young, cocksure centre forward, a brash, prickly young man who seemingly spent as much time coiffuring his hair as he did practising his shooting and wanted everyone to call him JJ, was not so subtle in his assessment of the situation.

“What the fuck was that, Paddy?” he howled as he walked by to take the kick-off. “Ah think ye mebbe a bit old for this game now.” Paddy shook his head and turned away from the young whippersnapper before he lost his temper and acted in a way in which he might come to regret. He still upheld respect for his elder players and was disgusted by Johnson’s vitriol toward him. The boy had always hated when Paddy, playing out of position as a forward, was selected instead of him. At times like these, Paddy knew he had to be the bigger man, and invariably was, much like the elder statesman who listens carefully before weighing in with well-considered wisdom, compared to the brash, newly-elected activist who shouts the loudest to be heard, but then has nothing of substance to say when given the opportunity to speak.

Johnson would mature one day, but for now he seemed intent on embarrassing Paddy, fizzing the ball just beyond his immediate reach directly from the kick-off. Paddy was up to the challenge and coolly controlled the wayward pass, the smile on his face replaced with the look of steely determination that had made him such a fans’ favourite in Germany. As he was closed down, Paddy made to shimmy right, his quick step-over selling his opponent faster than discounted haggis at the Claston Saturday morning market, but before he could readjust his balance and accelerate off to his left he found himself on the floor, his right thigh having given way and the whole of his leg tingling with the numbness of pins and needles. He jerked his left leg to the ball, managing to play it to William Wark, one of the two central defenders that had been so easily dismissed for the goal. An intense feeling of fatigue overcame Paddy as he hauled himself onto his feet again. He tried to move forward up the pitch to join the rapidly-developing attack, though he felt a sluggishness in his limbs, as if he were running underwater. The sounds of the crowd faded; all that remained was the sight of the ball at the end of a long tunnel of haze. Paddy watched on, unfeeling, unmoving, as Johnson received a crisp pass on the penalty spot – surely an instant equaliser – but no: the young striker skied his effort well over. Paddy turned away again, suddenly aware of the saliva flowing freely in his mouth, the sweat beading all over his body. It was all he could do not to throw up his pre-match breakfast of a well-fired roll topped with square sausage and potato scone.

His knees buckled and he went to ground again, this time onto one knee, head down, eyes closed.

“Come on Paddy!” he muttered to himself, “Get it together!” From the technical area, Fallanks watched his star player in bemusement, his loose club tie flapping in the strong breeze that whistled through the stadium. In the distance, the sky darkened and what had promised to be a glorious day of April sunshine for this semi-final now looked to be close to surrendering to the infamous Scottish rain. A quiet word in the ear of his assistant resulted in a vigorous shake of the head, and Fallanks resisted the urge to substitute McAlpin after only 15 minutes of play.

By the time the referee’s whistle pealed around the ground for half time, Paddy looked less than a shadow of the Ballon d’Or winner of last season and more like a man who had been towed into Hound Point by his ankles. It seemed to him as though there had been little more than five or six plays in the whole half, as if the match were only ten minutes old, and he could not help but wonder where the time had gone. Another shudder jerked through his body and the sound of the crowd disappeared momentarily. Again, he shrugged the feeling away, ignoring the obvious signs of his body, his mind overcoming the signals that were desperately being sent to every fibre of his being. He somehow managed to drag himself into the changing rooms where he slumped into his seat, gasping for a drink, lethargically searching for his water bottle. Around him, his team mates looked on, dumbfounded by what had happened. They were only a goal down, but had been totally outplayed in all areas, Johnson’s ballooned effort their only shot of the match so far. Fallanks pulled no punches with his team talk, laying into almost every player in turn, the hapless McAlpin bearing the worst of the barrage of abuse.

“Ye useless sack o' shite, Paddy! What the bloody ‘ell are ye playin’ at?” Flecks of spittle sprayed from Fallanks’ mouth, raining down on the players who sat in silence, heads bowed, carefully watching the floor for an impossible exit to appear and release them from this half-time hell.

“Ye cannae keep the ball, ye hit the ground more times than ye’ve made a tackle. Box-to-box?” he yelled in exasperation, the fury on his face rising like the crescendo of his voice. Paddy didn’t need to look at his gaffer to know what was coming next, but he was surprised by the sudden calm and quiet the furious man raging around the tense and suffocating changing room somehow deigned to summon. If the situation hadn’t been so tragic, Paddy would have been impressed with the rare sophistication shown. The change in tone reminded him of when he saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Barber’s Adagio for Strings in St Andrews, although clearly lacking all the beauty and finesse of that haunting piece. Paddy blinked hard, trying desperately hard to bring himself back into the moment, though he needn’t have bothered, as the next utterance that befell Fallanks’ mouth was one that Paddy had not heard for many a year, one that instantly brought him to his senses. “Ah’m gonnae pull ye off, son. Ye’ve given us nothing this half. Nothing!”

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Flames has been out for a little over a week now and I'm pleased to see that a number of you have finished it and enjoyed it. It is lovely to see some great early reviews on Amazon. As well as me enjo