October 27th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Seven (The Friendliest Friendly - The War Correspondent's Tale

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I got drunk at a French fete and accidentally signed up to become a professional footballer. And drafted into a friendly. Unfortunately, I knew exactly how friendly a 'friendly' could be...

The friendliest of all being a match I'd seen at Culham, just outside Oxford, where I'd taken a short contract many years ago. Culham was home to the Joint European Torus project - a model of European integration, with scientists from all over the community gathered together to accelerate particles to their heart’s content.

And then someone came up with the brilliant idea to cement European relations further with a friendly game of football between the scientists and the manual staff.

And to make it fair, the manual staff would field a veteran team - no one under forty.

The big day arrived with blue skies and everyone looking forward to a pleasant lunchtime kickabout. A hundred spectators lined the pitch as the cleanest, most elegant footballer I had ever seen strode out into the middle. His kit looked brand new - ironed and pressed, it shone and dazzled - a perfect replica of the West German national kit. He was the head of the project and, as the match began, it was obvious he’d played before - he was comfortable on the ball, he passed with accuracy and strolled the park like an older, slightly overweight version of Franz Beckenbauer.

That is until he tried a run down the left wing. Never have I seen such a tackle come from such an unexpected source. The right back must have been pushing retirement; he was frail and spindly - a bit like Stanley Mathews after a bad bout of glandular fever. The German approached, smooth and silky, the ball twinkling between his feet. And then - wham - no German, no ball, no game.

I have seen hard tackles. I have seen people kicked up in the air. But this was something else. This was football as it used to be played - in the Middle Ages. When heads were used for footballs and fancy-footed foreigners were fair game once they crossed the halfway line.

The game ended immediately. Or, more accurately, as soon as the German came back out of orbit and discovered gravity the hard way. A full five seconds later, he staggered to his feet, grabbed the ball and started shouting and gesticulating. He wasn't playing any more. No one was playing any more. Ever! Sending off wasn't good enough, the match was abandoned.

He stormed back into the building, the ball clenched firmly under his arm.

I never heard what happened to the right back.

But I had a nasty feeling that in three weeks time the whole village would see exactly what happened to unfit forty year-olds who drank too much at village fetes.

I had three weeks to save my reputation - three weeks in which to get fit.

(next instalment: training and the sad lack of heart, lung and leg transplants when you really need them)

International Kittens of Mystery

My Legs: Driving Animals Wild for Half a Century

I did a lot of sheep handling yesterday - I'm a smallholder so I'm allowed to say things like that - and consequently my clothes acquired a ripe sheepy smell. It's tupping time in sheepland so everyone is extra musky.

On my return to the house I suddenly became very popular with the cats. Of course my legs have driven animals wild for half a century ... but this was unusual. Kai leapt on my lap then pushed his face into my thigh and rubbed first his right cheek then his left along my leg. I'd seen dogs do this - our first dog, Zaphod, was a master* and loved nothing better than a roll in a rank smelling piece of ground - but I'd never seen a cat do this. Kai became frenzied, throwing his face down on my legs, pushing with his back legs, and biting my right knee (where the smell apparently was the ripest)

After I wrestled him off, Xena jumped on and started doing the same. I had to leave swiftly and run upstairs while I still had a trouser to change.

Normality - or the state which passes for it in our household - has now returned.

*see tomorrow's post, 'A Dog, a Mother and a Dead Whale,' for the ultimate smelly dog tale.