Europe, late 1976
Melbourne, late 2013
In October 1976, Dave Gilligan and I caught an overnight train from Paris to Biarritz, seeking warmth, a woman and the legendary waves of south west France. We’d hitch hiked around England, Ireland and Scotland carrying O’Neil surf mats, wet suits and flippers and were determined to use them in proper surf after a frustrating afternoon in two foot mush in Cornwall.
Joan Pollock was a beautiful French Canadian girl we’d met in London and arranged to meet at the Biarritz youth hostel.
The train was late, we got off at the wrong stop and trudged for miles in misty rain through the outskirts of town, finally sleeping under an upturned fishing boat. We were delirious with hunger and exhaustion, soaked to the bone and completely lost … but elated. There was something in the air … a hint of humidity, a whiff of Basque country and the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
We eventually found the hostel and Joan and fell in with a lively bunch of travelers, including Ian, a fresh faced, chirpy, seventeen year old from Hawthorn who Joan found particularly hilarious. “Oh Eeean, speak some more about this fooot-baller Peeter ‘Udson”.
All of us from somewhere else, chasing dreams, telling tall stories and playing games. All of us well and truly under the spell of Joan Pollock. Bewitched by her laughing eyes, cheeky smile, long hair, exotic accent and chic dress sense … army pants tucked into short leather boots, silk shirts, bangles and bows.
After a week in Biarritz, Dave, Joan, Ian and I decided to hitch hike to Barcelona. Ian and Joan were gone in a flash, while Dave and I had to do hostel chores. We then slowly hitched, bussed, trained and walked across Spain to Barcelona where we were reunited and had a fine time. A week later Dave and Ian went back to London and Joan and I spent the next two months in Valencia, Ibiza and Morocco.
By late December we are in deep Morocco, staying at Cafe Le Hippie in the coastal town of Essaouira. Joan and I have stopped speaking to each other. There is a chilly atmosphere between us that I never fully understood. Probably I was paralysed by the clash of her striking foreign beauty with my North Balwyn plainness, coupled with the weirdness, intensity, isolation and hashish of Morocco.
After one more silent journey south to a rocky, wreck of a town called Sidi Ifni, I wake in the middle of the night, fevered and confused, listening to distant gunfire in Mauritania and realise I have to get out. Joan sighs, Joan nods and Joan agrees. I think. We travel on a ricketty bus through deserts and snowy mountains, catch a ferry to Cadiz and hitch hike north, finally scoring one lift all the way to Paris with some French students in a Kombi.
I remember a broken heater, jammed windows and one cassette that was stuck in the player … Frampton Comes Alive. I must have heard Baby I Love Your Way and Show Me The Way a hundred times each. Did the album actually have any other songs? I remember sliding on icy roads and wishing I was in Melbourne buying useless presents at Doncaster Shoppingtown. We drove through the deserted streets of Madrid at 3am on Christmas Day, me trying to keep the driver awake, feeling stupid and lonely, while Joan and the students swapped stories and told jokes and laughed and sang French carols in the back.
We get out somewhere in Paris and just as I’m about to say the things I’d been planning to say to Joan in the Kombi van, the things I’d been wanting to say for two months, the things I’d been wanting to say since I first set eyes on her, Joan hoists her pack, flicks that shiny luxurious hair and walks towards the Metro.
I never saw her again.
Melbourne, late 2013
Thirty seven years later I’m kicking the football in Albert Park with a few mates, including Ian, who Joan found so hilarious all those years ago. We’re having one of our misty eyed and breathless chats about Biarritz and Barcelona. And Joan Pollock.
Ian: So you and Joan. Did you ever, you never … y’know … you and her … did you ever, y’know, did you … you must have, y’know …
Me: Not ever.
Ian: Jeez. I did. She was unbelievable. Magnificent. That first night after we left Biarritz. You and Dave caught up with us after you’d wiped out the bloody hostel fridges. We all stayed in one room in a pension and you and Dave slept in one bed and Joan and I shared another and when you were asleep and snoring she got under the blankets and …
© Brian Nankervis. Brian and The Stereo Stories Band presented this story, and We Can Work It Out, at the Newport Bowls Club, Melbourne in October, 2014 and at the Williamstown Literary Festival in June 2016. He also appeared with us at the Willi Lit Fest in 2018 and 2019.
Photos by Nick Gadd