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 decide.
‘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.