22. The Cayenne Pepper Incident

London Welsh Occies 17   Dorking Derelicts 9

It wasn’t clear whether it had been his fate or just bad luck that meant Gerbil had first encountered and then swallowed the full, medium-sized pot of cayenne pepper on the restaurant table after a long day on the sauce. Fate had lead him there, for sure, but was this a case of bad luck or just awfully bad judgment?

“I think these shysters have watered down the red wine, Juggler,” said Gerbil with a look and slow wobble of the head from side to side that seemed to be saying: “You can’t trust anyone these days pfff…”

“Not sure about that Gerb, tastes ok to me if a little thin, but Italian wines can be like that,” said Juggler, himself more at home on the Vimto. Meanwhile Cliffy, a tour expert on beverages of choice, and often a voice of reason in a sea of stupidity, confirmed it: “What on Earth are you talking about Gerbil?”

“I’ve had loads and I’m not p*ssed Cliff,” Gerbil blathered, with one telltale lazy eye starting to wander out of true. “But I am bl*ody hungry. Where’s my pizza? Calzone? Foldy over? Luigi? Luigi? Pizza??”

The overworked waiter had had the misfortune to be on duty when the Derelicts Tour party arrived out of season at his currently sleepy parlour on Venice’s Lido De Jesolo. And suddenly all hell had broken loose. He’d had to send out for supplies – beer, wine, olives, anchovies and even extra dough plus a variety of salamis to satisfy the large party. And now some p*ssed up horse’s a*se was hassling him. He pursed his lips, gesticulated with closed fingers by his lips and began cursing loudly in Italian.

Not that the tour party gave a hoot. Time passed amid  gales of laughter. Crates of beer got quaffed and pizzas arrived, rather fine pizzas, but not in time to save Gerbil, who had jumped the gun and eaten all the bread sticks he could muster, sounding a little like a demented fox in the process of slaughtering a hen house.

And in a moment of inebriated lucidity Gerbil spied a pot of condiment intended to perk up pizzas with a light dusting and declared: “This cayenne pepper must be old.” Dabbing his finger into the pot and sucking it, he boasted: “See! Look… I can hardly taste it and it’s not got much of a kick.” He then, for reasons neither clear nor advisable, unscrewed the top completely and swallowed the thick end of half a pint of deceptively fiery extra hot cayenne pepper.

Moments passed. Then alarm began to register in his red-rimmed, wandering eyes. The Italian waiter stifled a snort and shook his head laughing “molto caldo, malto caldo” he said gently as if speaking to a child, meaning very hot, when in fact he meant “e troppo caldo” meaning too hot. In fact far too f*cking hot for Gerbil who realised with mounting dismay that his luck was out, his fate had been sealed and he would be cooked from within –from his oesophagus right through to his now quivering anus – for several days to come.

I was reminded of Gerb’s bad luck with the cayenne pepper again on Saturday over at London Welsh when the fickle finger of fate gave us a bit of a fisting with the stiff-bristled brush of bad luck. Some mentioned bad karma and there was some finger pointing going down, but if it were that simple who among us would be spared?

A glorious day, plenty of players, a good attitude and great oppo at the proper Old Deer Park ground, rather than a fetid rumpus amid the deer sh*t in the local parkland. Potentially, nothing but good fortune really.

And in the lively early exchanges our bovine pack worked hard to secure an advantage over the Welsh boys who were clearly more used to having it all their own way. Inevitably there were squeals and tantrums from the oppo (Occies No10, you’re a blouse!) as we turned the screw. So there was nothing fortunate about Greg slotting a brace of choice penalties as the Welsh were forced into killing the ball, awards that it clearly pained Mr Screech The Referee and his shrill penny-whistle to give to us. The Welsh then snaffled a fortuitous try when our otherwise lively backs had one of those “now where did I leave my common sense?” defensive moments and left a sizeable gap to march through.

However, a monster Noddy clearance punt got fumbled in their 22 and we had the scrum not far out, a position from which we’ve marched over the line week after week. But this time we got the shove on, the oppo pack splintered … and then the wheel of fortune turned and our luck ran out, scuppered by a poor decision.

Unbelievably, given that the pack try was on, the ball went wide. What? Say it aint so Joe? Instead of a pushover try, the ball found its way to The Challice a few yards from the line whereupon he decided to… chip the ball over the onrushing defence. That’s right. The dipstick forward kicked the ball away. Always an option for a back, less so for a gnarled old ruminant like The Challice.

There followed one of those freeze-frame moments when everyone involved stood still, open-mouthed. Then the moment was broken by a clunky thud as the ball hit his shin and doinked up, up, up and way beyond the dead ball line and into the Kew Road where it unseated a surprised cyclist and child. Chance gone. Still, at least nobody mentioned it after. Chipper Challice. Chipper Challice. Chipper Challice…

By now, Mr Screech was properly swayed by the squeals from the Valleys’ finest exiles and from that point on he gave virtually every split decision to them, a point their skipper was gracious enough to concede afterwards. Luckily Greg, having a stormer of a game, took matters into his own hands and dropped a goal to give us a deserved 9-7 interval lead.

The second half saw a raft of personnel changes and the Occies pulled themselves together to come back with a try and a penalty. And still we got no breaks from Mr Screech, indeed only Noddy got a break when he intercepted a promising move, laid the ball back and a defender dropped onto his exposed side with both knees. Result? Three breaks, all of them Noddy’s ribs. Cheap shot.

Still, we were soon being thoroughly entertained by a grainy old black and white newsreel as Wingnut made a rare but spritely appearance at hooker and Broomy, back for the first time in 18 months, displayed all his old methods against his sheep-worrying brothers. An obstruction here, a sly cuff there, an elbow, standing on the scrum  half’s toes. Tidy stuff. There was even a creaky run-out for good old Wolfie, our senile winger.

The 40-minute half – “but I’m playing 45 because of rolling substitutes” declared Mr Screech – eventually petered out in a disappointing loss, but fair play to the Occies, a decent outfit who stuck to their task.

And with that, our recent run of good form had evaporated as mysteriously as it had arrived, and we traipsed through the tunnel to the familiar and cordial sound of the Welsh boys singing us off once again with a chorus of Cwm Rhondda… which was met, poetically, as always, by the Derelicts’ swift retort of “you can stick your f***ing bread of Heaven up yer *rse…”

Still, it wasn’t as though some fool had swallowed a jar of cayenne pepper or anything. This disappointment would dissolve over a couple of pints and some giggles in the London Welsh clubhouse. Unlike old Gerbil who never fully recovered from that momentary lapse on tour… and has never quite lost that fiery sensation in his a*se after all these years at the mention of the word ‘condiment’.

Squad: Mozza, Farmer Dave, Scud, Wingnut, Oddjob, Ginge, Kinger, Buzz, Chipper, Botty, The Count, Broomy, Rodders, Greg, Fast Graham, Wolfie, Lord Greed, Gazza, The Juggler, Gerbil, Noddy.

NEXT: 23. Buttering Our Parsnips   Previous: 21. Digging For Victory With Punchy Mr Oddjob