Celtic Illumination, part 154, La Cage aux Folles
I was still getting used to life in Germany when I was asked to go to Brussels. The civilian rugby team I played for in the UK, Wymondham, were coming over to play Brussels Barbarians, which was a collection of British civil servants and ex pats who worked in Brussels. I was asked to come down to Brussels and play for Wymondham. Gary Palmer decided that he would accompany me and made sure that everyone in the rugby club understood that this now gave me ‘International’ status.
The match was on a Saturday so Gary and I travelled to Brussels on a Friday afternoon. The team were booked in to stay at the Hotel Van Belle, so I asked a taxi driver to take us there. As we began to travel across the city I asked the driver what the Hotel Van Belle was like. I would relay the information to Gary who could speak German but not French. The taxi driver told me that the Hotel Van Belle was very expensive so I asked him if he knew of a cheaper hotel we could use. Of course he did.
We went into the Arab quarter of the city and I promise you the only thing missing were camels and a pyramid or two. We pulled up at a small hotel and the driver indicated that we should get out. You would think that after my Venice experience I would have learned my lesson and booked a room before travelling but no. As luck would have it there were plenty of rooms available so Gary and I booked in to a double room, which was more like a single room with two beds squeezed in.
We freshened up and went downstairs. It was early evening so we asked the chap at reception if there was any local entertainment available. He pointed to a door. “Give me your passport,” he said, adding that there was a private club in the basement but as we were guests of the hotel we could enter for free. Both Gary and I handed over our passports and went through the door. In Germany if the bars on camp were closed and you wanted a late drink you would go to the local brothel. I didn’t actually know that I was in a brothel the first time I went for a late drink. It was a dimly lit bar and a group of fellows sat around drinking.
I think it was a similar sort of set up in the basement of the hotel. We went to the bar and tried hard not to look about. The barmaid was wearing a pair of thigh high, leather boots and a tiny pair of knickers, nothing else. All the women in the club were in their knickers, they wore nothing else. It was difficult trying to work out how to behave in such a place. We bought two beers and sat at the bar desperately trying not to look stupid or stare at anything. Now and again one of the girls would get dressed and get on to a sort of mini stage and perform a striptease.
Occasionally one would come over and drape herself across you and enquire if you would like to buy her a drink. We weren’t even buying ourselves drinks so the women had no chance. Gary and I had two suitcases full of duty free booze up in our room which we knew the rugby guys would appreciate so we were nipping off to our room and charging our glasses with a fine single malt. All we got from the bar was ice.
It was a very strange experience and I have to say that after a couple of whiskeys I didn’t care how stupid I looked and was able to relax. I’m still not sure if it was a brothel or not, I don’t think I was propositioned so perhaps it wasn’t. The following morning we actually got breakfast in bed. The food was so greasy they should have nailed it to the plate. Despite this I wolfed it down as I knew I had a serious game of rugby that afternoon and would need the energy. It would also help soften my hangover that sat like a damp echo in my head.
We checked out of the hotel and went over to the Hotel Van Belle. With a beer each we waited for the team to arrive. Many of you will have seen sporting teams arriving by coach. All the players will step off usually all dressed in a similar, neat, fashion. This was not the state these guys were in. As they came in to the hotel both Gary and I were fined for not wearing odd socks. Someone was wearing a toilet seat around his neck and most of the guys were quite squiffy.
It was decided that everyone would retire to their rooms and rest, which I think was a euphemism for less booze more black coffee. It was nice to see some old friends like Tim Lort, John Clancy and Jon Hampson. Gary and I remained in the foyer dishing out bottles of duty free whiskey. After about an hour we went back to one of the rooms the team had booked. Tim was looking for someone and when he came across a locked door he simply put his shoulder to it and took it off its hinges.
After a while we all climbed on to the coach and went off to face Brussels Barbarians. They did have quite a plush set up and were quite formidable opponents. I remember the pitch was about four inches deep with mud, which drained the energy out of you, and the game has to be the roughest game I have ever played in my life. It was a stand up punch up from the word go. I can’t remember who actually won the match, all I knew was that I had managed to finish the match and be alive.
Normally after any rugby match anything that happened on the pitch would be forgotten about and all concerned would have a beer or two and a laugh but I can remember that the atmosphere was quite tense because the match had been so violent. In fact John Clancy was concussed during the match and had to be carted off the pitch. If it wasn’t bad enough getting concussed poor old John was court martialled on the boat back to the UK for allowing himself to get into such a condition.
I believe most of the passengers enjoyed watching his court martial. It was just as well that they were watching John getting court martialled, for they would not have seen Tim, who was pulling himself along the giant flag pole that extended over the rear of the ship to steal the flag. I don’t know what it was with Tim and flags but in Brussels he saw a flag flying and decided that he should have it. The flag was fluttering above a police station, well; to the side of the station in a secure compound, and was guarded by two Doberman Pinschers. Tim climbed over the fence and began to approach the flag pole. The two dogs raced towards Tim who simply turned to face them and growled at them. We couldn’t believe the dogs actually stopped, turned and ran away.
Tim even demanded that I take him over to the hotel we had stayed at so that he could experience this private club for himself. He had come across a set of pan pipes, from where I know not, and was enjoying teaching himself how to play them amongst all the naked women. He didn’t buy anyone a drink either. It was some party that night and the next day Gary and I waved wearily at the team as they departed on the coach. I was worn out but the guys on the coach were full of life and singing their heads off. We made our way over to the train station to return to Germany and I began to feel the lumps and bruises I had accrued from the match the previous day. I wasn’t very happy, not because it had been a rough match, it was because I had seen the fixture list for Wildenrath and I knew I would have to come back and play them again.