A Rugby Saga
(from The Forked River Anthology)Madame Py says that Bras de Venus’s rugby-men, Les Farfelus, are nourished on soupe au lait. I thought she meant the hare-brains are milksops. Even though they’re regular transgressors in Le Pub, particularly after a match, the milk metaphor can be made to hold water. When a game is hotting-up the Farfelus come to the boil at the slightest provocation, and the skin is whipped into froth which is scummed away by the referee, and what’s left is skimmed. In short, with their reputation. referees tend to be one-sided, seeing the ensuing free-for-all (bagarre general) as the hotheads’ over-boil. Cards are shown, often red. The team has got used to making do with fourteen or less players.
Rugby on the rocky coast is not for the faint-hearted. The Farfelus’s vice-captain, Jaume, is given to announce in Le Pub that every time you punch an opponent you make a friend. As a niggling scrum-half he is not short of friends. But, the game as war by other means, can serve to prevent resurgence of ancient family feuds (rififis). It’s played between young men who went to school together and married one another’s sisters, and no matter what skulduggery went on before the final whistle, the players leave the field arm and arm. However, with visiting teams from outside the Department the means are more warlike, and the brutalitẽ honnẽte can go over the top. The gendarmes have been known to intervene: ambulances siren-in: hospital helicopters land on the turf.
As the Farfelus’s number one fan, I like to run up and down the terrace in line with the play so I can judge for myself what’s happening. The visitors for today’s match are from mount Canigou. This morning in Le Journal M. Fontaine, the Farfelus coach, invoked Proust, ‘Il ne faut pas avoir peur d’aller trop loin car la vérité est au-delà’. No need to fear going too far for the truth is beyond. Probably ill-advisedly as the ref is Loic Parrot from Toulouse. Last time he officiated the Farfelus, Parrot, not only red-carded three players but in extra time awarded a penalty to Tournefeuille in front of the posts. Thus, Farfelus lost by a point and failed to qualify for the play-offs. He had to be escorted off the grounds by the gendarmes.
The waterlogged conditions suit the Catalans’ stocky, close-to-the-ground, physiques. Fired up, they are first out. But their ardour is cooled as Loic Parrot keeps them waiting in an icy tramontane. Eventually he trots out to sarcastic applause with the visitors behind him. As his red strip coincides with Canigou’s, Parrot could be their captain. The Farfelus, noting with satisfaction how the mountain men sink in the mud-bath as they perform their commando exercises, roll down their socks, chicken-flap half-heartedly, and wait for the battle-whistle.
Parrot didn’t observe the convention of talking to the Farfelus in the dressing room. But at the kick-off he remarks to Jerome Loup, the bald-headed bad boy of the pack, ‘I hope you last longer this time’. Jerome spat, ‘That’s up to you, Loic’. His name is taken for insolence. ‘A card even before the match has begun’, says Jaume’s mother, who sentinels the touchline with a large dog and a pram. ‘A white only’ I say justly. ‘But it won’t be long until it’s yellow’. And the baby begins to yell.
The men from the mountain have more hair than rugby-men should. It offers an extra option for tackling. But the pompadour conceals a wily brain. In the opening minutes all fifteen concentrate on provoking the Farfelus’ soupe au lait. Appeals to the ref for foul play, that they initiated, lead to penalties which frustrates the Farfelus’ forward march. As Parrot’s whistle is yellow, every time he raises it to stop play it seems as though he’s issuing a yellow card. His red jersey is even more ominous. But the Farfelus keep their head, and deploy their famous tortoise, a rolling maul with one of the forwards carrying the ball tucked under his jersey. This improvised scrum runs like a theatrical horse, and when it’s pulled down with the line in sight, Jaume snakes over between the forest of legs. I spot his mother nearby, and shout, ‘He must have been an easy birth’. ‘Yes, she says, ‘for him’.
Canigou rebound with a chain of fake injuries to stall the Farfelus’ momentum. And as Parrot is distracted checking one, Cavelli, the mountainous captain, belts the Bras’s little flier, Fabien Bo, in the face (True, the boy said something, no doubt about his mother). Debaty is sent off for protesting. ‘Tu cause, tu cause. C’est tout ce que tu sais faire. Va t’en’, * says Parrot showing yellow (Talk, talk. That’s all you do). Off. Jaume’s brother, ‘St Gonzo’ the prop, mimics him, substituting ‘Siffle, Siffle’, whistle, whistle’, for ‘talk, talk’. Parrot blows his, and the saint joins Debaty in the sin bin.
Canigou mothers are much in evidence in the terrace, and when Jaume back-heels an oncoming Cavelli, and a bagarre general declares itself, a big blond woman on the railings starts to shout hysterically ‘Ref, that’s my son. He hit my son. MY SON’. Her entourage calm her, and the embarrassed Cav sheepishly shakes hands with Jaume whose off to take an early shower. M.Fontaine’s fool-hardy pep talk may have given the Farfelus’ courage but, down to thirteen men, they finally lose their cool when Parrot whistles back a clean interception, and Jerome eye-balls him, saying ‘Casse-toi, pauvre con’. The Proustian truth that awaits his Sarkozy quote is a red card. And when Jaume’s other brother, the hooker, laughs, the truth is beyond a joke. He too sees red.
On his return from the injury bench, Bo in full flight is spear-tackled by two mountain men, one of them Cavelli, and falls head-first. As he is stretchered off, Parrot restarts the game as though nothing had happened. The Farfelus are too shocked to protest, or play on, and Canigou score an easy try. As the ambulance siren fades, a touchline fight flares up. Binned players, substitutes and both coaching staffs are at one another’s throats. Supporters come down from the stand to join the pitch battle. I see Béa the Spud wielding her tightly-packed brawn with the best. A vanload of gendarmes arrives and they weigh in, elbows flying, booting brawlers aside. It is as though a tuna net has been thrown over the stadium, blood and guts flying as flapping fish are piked.
Meanwhile Parrot has been handing out red cards. Even M. Fontaine gets one. Once more than five are awarded, match officials are obliged call off the game. The Farfelus, though leading 7 points to 5, have six or seven carded. The mountain men promptly make for the tunnel and the swath they cut throw the moiling crowd breaks it up. But the Fafelus dead-march to the middle of the pitch, take off their jerseys and squat down. Someone has furnished them a large bidon of red wine, and they pass it around like an encampment of clochards.
As the flood-lights come on, Mayor Silenti arrives and persuades them to move. They saunter off like matadors with blood on their hands. Ref Parrot has long departed under gendarme protection. The Canigou buses left town as inconspicuously as possible. In the car park Béa has ceased scuffling with the visitor’s bag carrier. She claims victory for herself, and he a handsome one.
Only one team graced the post-match dinner.
*A quote from Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau