December 11th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Thirteen (Ricard, Cœur de Old Lions)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I get drunk at a French fete and accidentally sign up to become a professional footballer. Three weeks later I'm thrown in at the deep end. A match in front of 300 people and, amazingly, I both survive and leave the pitch without the aid of medical intervention. But can I survive the after match celebration?

It was the second day of the Cassagne fête, and another night of celebration beckoned. Both teams were invited to drinks and a meal in the old square and, being France, the invitation was extended to all supporters and all villagers as well.

It was a superb location; the old church flanked one side, the Mairie and Village Hall another, a row of old stone houses formed the third side and a low wall completed the square. And beyond that wall, a grassy bank led down to a tree-lined river.

We arrived just before eight, Shelagh having insisted we go home first - not to change, but to keep me away from the bar. Thirst and restraint never sit well together and she wanted to make sure I was fully hydrated before being allowed anywhere near a bar.

A restraint not shown by any of the other footballers’ wives.

As we walked into the square, it soon became obvious that, as the Irish so aptly put it, drink had been taken. A corner of the square was awash with celebrating jouers and assorted hanger’s on. The Ricard was flowing, the conversation bouncing and somewhere hidden behind the pack of bodies was a bar dispensing drinks. What more could a person want?

How about a barbecue?

That was there too, over by the Mairie, a selection of steaks and chops laid out on a large grill propped up on stones over an open fire. Remy stood in attendance, a spatula in one hand and a Ricard in the other. Resplendent in T-shirt, shorts and apron, he flitted between the barbecue and the kitchen of one of the small stone houses opposite - which I later found out was the team’s clubhouse. Was there any end to the advantages of playing for Racing Club?

Before I could find out, I was spotted and a glass was thrust in my hand from one direction as a bottle of Ricard appeared from another. I was still trying to find the words for "I’m not sure if I like Ricard," when I discovered I had a glassful.

And so did Shelagh.

In fact, as I scanned the square, the only people who didn’t have a glass of Ricard in their hands, were those who had two. There was Ricard naturelle, Ricard with green menthe and Ricard with grenadine - clear, green and red - undoubtedly some country’s flag, one of the more aniseed-loving Caribbean nations perhaps.

And it kept coming; from all directions - even Shelagh couldn’t block them all and as for me, well, I didn’t try. Around us, the conversation rose and fell with the bottles of Ricard. Great feats from the match were analysed and exaggerated. It had been a classic game, one of the best, two teams of heroes, everyone agreed.

Above us, the clouds had pushed away and the early stars were twinkling through the fading sunset pinks and blues. The smell of wood smoke and grilled meat filled the square, and laughter echoed from every wall.

When the food was ready, we adjourned to the lines of benches and trestle tables that had been set up next to the church. And on came the floodlights. The whole square illuminated; two huge artificial suns in a deep black sky, and all around us the yellow, stone walls of antiquity - the high-walled knave, the church tower, the gargoyles.

I couldn’t think of a better backdrop for a meal.

The Ricard was finally put away and out came the wine, litre after litre. The football stories grew in both telling and volume, everyone had a story to tell, an amazing feat of skill to eulogise. A passer-by would have been incredulous to learn the score had been only 3-1. How was that possible with so many shots on goal, so many great players, so many action-packed incidents?

By the time the last steak had disappeared, we were not so much heroes as lions. Two teams of lions pitched in monumental combat, the like of which hadn’t been seen since the last time we’d played.

Ah, alcohol, coach to the Gods.

It was about this time that the eldest lion tried to get up from the table and found the exertions of the afternoon had finally caught up with him. His legs had seized. I’d been a little stiff walking from the car to the square but, plied with Ricard and given a bench to sit on, I’d forgotten all about it. But now, as I tried to stand up, the pain hit me - from the back of my thighs all the way down to the large number of pain receptors I’d suddenly discovered in my calves.

And my back didn’t feel that good either.

Leaning on his lioness, the eldest lion left the table and limped homeward, his mane threadbare but head held high. Above him, moths flitted like dark shadows against the floodlights and cicadas harmonised to a chorus of ‘Wimaway”.

This lion would definitely sleep tonight.

(next instalment and a new chapter in which I discover that my identity has been stolen and our life savings cleared out. And then it gets worse)