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Three Fetes
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As the woman turned towards me with her hands outstretched, I waited for my life to flash in front of my eyes. But my life had to wait as it was elbowed aside by fleeing alcohol molecules. Two car loads of strange men may sober a person up fast but a head-grabbing woman turning peoples' faces black has the edge every time.

Two hands fastened upon my cheeks. Still no sign of past events or bright white lights. How long did it take to die? How many more alcohol molecules were there?

As the last droplet of intoxication waved goodbye, I plucked up the courage to ask what was happening. I'd been initiated, apparently. As had everyone else around me, it being the local custom to blacken everyone's face with ash from the bonfire. This may have been something symbolic about the ashes of Joan of Arc. Or, possibly, the last vestiges of Al Jolson worship in continental Europe. My French was not good enough to enquire further.

I was given a beer and introduced to Racing Club's captain, possibly to discuss tactics for the coming season, but seeing as neither of us could understand what the other was saying, nothing of great import was decided.

I rued my lack of French. And vowed to do something about it. Perhaps getting involved with the local team would be the catalyst I needed.

And I suppose I should have used the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. But the alcohol had established another beachhead and I was starting to look forward to playing again - after all it had been a dream for a long time. And I wasn't likely to be given another chance.

And besides, I didn't see myself as forty. Like most people I had an inner clock which ran much slower than chronological time. I had been seventeen for ages, twenty-three for about six years, clung on to twenty-eight during most of my thirties and was now settling down to a young thirty-five. What were a few games of football to a young thirty-five year-old?

And besides, there'd be a couple of weeks of training sessions to iron out any problems. And if at the end of that I wasn't good enough, I'd know and the door to my boot cupboard would be firmly nailed shut.

I staggered back up the hill. Not so many zigzags this time. Above me the stars shone bright and the cicadas hummed Al Jolson medleys.

Climb upon my knee - chirrup - sonny boy - chirrup, chirrup.

I turned into the drive of the little crayfish cottage on the corner and disappeared inside.

At the Football fête, I was under strict orders - one glass of wine and no Al Jolson songs.

Life can be tough.

But it does have its compensations. As a jouer, I wouldn’t have to pay a penny; all the food and drink was free.

And there was shade; a grove of huge horse chestnut trees provided a thick green canopy over the picnic area - a much more sensible arrangement.

Otherwise it was very similar to the fête at Tuco; masses of food and drink, the whole village decked out in their summer clothes and a grassy riverbank nestling in folds of fields and hills.

It was strange seeing such a diverse assembly of people at a football function. A football meal in England would have been a lad’s night out. The more liberal might have invited wives and girlfriends. But here, everyone was invited - the whole village, young and old. And, just as at Tuco, everyone sat down together, everyone enjoying themselves, not caring if they were sat next to a stranger, a toddler or a grandparent. No sullen groups of teenagers sulked in the corner, wishing they were somewhere else. Everyone mixed in together; all ages, all social backgrounds. If the village had been called Stepford, I’d have panicked.

And if anything the food was even better than at the Tuco fête. A huge cauldron of cassoulet gently simmered on the edge of the picnic area as the early courses came and went. Wine flowed, flutes and dishes were passed around; cured meats of every description, a huge green salad that had just about everything imaginable in it, more wine.

It was a brilliant fête.

Although I couldn't help but feel a mite self-conscious as I overheard scraps of conversation about the English professional who'd been signed up for the coming season. Expectations of certain promotion mixed with incredulous stares and the occasional "C'est Bobby Charlton?"

And then along came the cassoulet, ladled from cauldron to tureen and passed around the tables. And passed around again a few minutes after that. I had a feeling that no one would be allowed to leave until everyone had taken at least three helpings – it was the regional dish, after all.

I was just spooning the last haricot when a brightly-coloured mountain of a man appeared by my left shoulder. After a frenzied bout of hand shaking that somehow managed to involve the occupants of at least four tables – handshaking being contagious in France – we were introduced.

He was Remy, the club’s chef.

"The team has a chef?" I asked incredulously. Surely I’d misheard, what kind of team has its own chef?

A French team, of course. And Racing Club had Remy, who cooked the after-match meal.

"After every match?" I was amazed.

"And after training as well."

I was doubly amazed. Most English teams I’d played for disappeared straight down the pub after a game - and six pints and a packet of peanuts later, we all staggered home. But a sit-down meal? And after training as well?

This was definitely the team to play for.