The following year. So good we went back.
For many, France has been a proving ground for adventure. It’s so close, and yet so far, a foreign country that’s next door, a culture that’s so familiar and yet so different. Getting there is easy, as is escaping if it all goes wrong. It’s safe, with an edge brought by language, misunderstanding and mutual trust and distrust. We are as alien to them as they are to us: incomprehensible, frightening, friendly, fun, playful.
So, for the slow road adventurer, especially the new one,
it’s perfect. A chance to get far enough away without being so far that an
overnight drive couldn’t whisk you straight back home. It was the place myself
and so many other young guns, surfers and searchers made their first forays
into the forests of Aquitaine or attempts on the girls of Bordeaux. It was wild
and free and I loved every moment of it. Mostly.
It’s 1985. We’re fresh off the boat, having arrived at Roscoff
after a rough 5 hour crossing spent laid out on the floor of the restaurant
feeling sick. After hours of driving we arrive at a small bar on a back road,
somewhere in southern Brittany and are sitting around outside waiting for our
friend Paul to come home from work. We sit on the bumper of the white VW beetle
that had brought use here, with barely a grumble, with the exception of a
windscreen wiper spindle that refuses to keep hold of its c clip and sheds it
into the cavity behind the instrument panel with alarming regularity. Still, I
think, It’s France. We don’t expect rain.
With me are Guy and Andy. Guy, my best friend, is with me to
explore the west coast, guided, as we were, by an article in a tatty old surf
magazine. It would provide enough clues to take us on a surfing safari to
shores unknown. Andy is here, a friend of Paul’s, merely for the lift. Guy and
I have met him just once before, at the Crown, when we agreed to carry him with
us. Andy’s plan is to meet up with our mutual friend paul, and then see what
happens. We click with Andy and have become a little gang already, sharing
unlikely adventures already on our way here: wading across to Burgh Island in
the middle of the night, drinking in the pilchard, searching the hard shoulder
of the M5 for the last spare c-clip.
Paul’s alcoholic uncle, a small man with wild thick grey
hair and stubble and a tatty woollen jacket worn over a collarless shirt, tells
us to wait outside. He asks, because of the rips in my jeans, if we are poor in
England, and laughs. He shows us Paul’s accommodation, a messy single room
above a shed, around the back of the bar, that’s filled with junk, weeds and
mess. There’s a hole in the floor toilet and a sink, but no shower. Paul’s bed
is a horsehair mattress with filthy sheets. The floor of the bar, panelled in
dark, austere wood, is dirt, trampled by the feet of the regular customers who
we see coming and going as we wait. They arrive in a series of old French cars
we’d call classic today: a 2CV, a Renault 5, a Dyane and Ami. A few arrive on
motobecaines, motorised bicycles with petrol engines and pedals. We see them go
in, drink a few glasses of wine or pastis, and then leave, loudly, legs
wobbling, shouting to those left in the bar about something or other,
filterless French cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. If it wasn’t a cliché
it would have been a scene from a French film that precedes a horrific accident
and the arrival of a trenchcoated detective in a Traction Avant.
We wait. Smoking cigarettes we’d bought on the ferry, we
play guitar at the side of the road, clearly a spectacle for passers by.
After a while we see a motobecaine weaving its way towards
us. The rider is wearing a Macintosh and a helmet that’s too big with a pair of
lopsided sunglasses. It’s Paul, looking like he’s just been in an accident. His
knees are holed and is coat is ripped. He looks shocked, as he often can. He
stops, takes off his helmet and says ‘What are you doing here?’ His hair,
offended at having been incarcerated in a hat, sticks up wildly in all
directions. It’s his trademark.
‘What happened to you?’
‘I had an accident. I came off my bike.’
He steps out of his scooter and stands in front of us. He
looks a real mess. A bit shocked and shaken.
‘Where have you been?’
‘I thought you worked here.’ Paul’s job at the bar was
supposed to be his after-school adventure, a time to decide what to do with his
life. He wasn’t going to university and needed a direction. So he came here, to
‘I have another job picking melons. I think I’m in a bit
of a mess.’
Paul unbuttons his coat and opens it. Beneath his coat his
white shirt is bright red, with flesh spattered all over his chest and stomach.
It looks like he’s been ripped open by a shell or some kid of bomb. Or an alien
has burst out of his stomach. We are shocked at this: unable to quite put
together the pieces. The accident must have been worse than we thought. As he
takes off the coat pieces of the flesh fall to the floor. It smells sweet and
sickly. There are dark black bits, the colour of congealed blood. His shirt is
sodden, sticking to his skin in angry red patches.
‘I nicked a melon for my dinner.’
‘We’re taking you with us.’
In a few days we pack up Paul’s stuff, cram it into the car
and head south, stopping only to fill up with fuel and sleep. We settle at
Carcans, on the west coast, in a campsite by a lake where we surf, eat and
drink until we run out of money and have to come home. The petrol goes on the
credit card and takes years to pay off. And the memories, of which there are
many, persist until now and pervade our lives. We still talk about the trip
that set the scene for so many adventures in the years that followed. Paul,
Andy and I repeated it the following year and I’ve been repeating it ever
since. Andy spends his summers in Cap Ferrat. Guy, his in the mountains. Paul
disappeared to Paris, then off the map.
Almost 25 years later I knock on the door of a house I know
belonged to Paul’s family, down the road from the bar, which is now a pizzeria.
His mother answers the door and seems surprised and not surprised to see me.
Paul is in town, she says, for a week, to check on some property he now owns. He
lives in Malaysia and has been travelling for years.
Paul turns up later that day at the campsite I am staying at
with a bottle of wine. I introduce him to my children as ‘The Melon Man’.
‘Wow,’ they say, incredulous that they are meeting a legend
they have heard me talk about so many times.
He stands there, in a Macintosh, with wild,
just-come-out-of-a-helmet hair sticking up all over the place, sunglasses
slightly skewed and a look on his face as if he’s jus come off his bike and
isn’t really sure what’s happening.