Juliette doesn’t consider herself to be the type to involve herself in other people’s affairs, but there’s something extraordinary in the man’s furious expression which punches at her curiosity as he gallops along Padulone Beach at such a reckless pace.
It’s not the wild look in the horse’s eye, nor the awareness that the sound from the horse’s hooves is absorbed by the sand and is strangely silent until the horse is almost beside her, nor the uncertain notion that the rider is not in control of the horse, one beast’s will pitched against another’s, with the horse winning, or, at least, simply too terrified to heed its master. Nor is it, though she’s a lover of animals, the handsome coat of the horse, dappled grey, that attracts her attention.
No. It’s the image of the rider that strikes her, sitting high in the saddle like a jockey, the look in his eyes as wild as those of the horse, his complexion florid, warning her out of the horse’s path as they approach, “Attention, s’il vous plait!”, and calling again as he passes, “J’ai perdu… ” the last words scrambling in the wind.
“What, Monsieur?” Juliette cries loudly after him. “What have you lost?”
“My own dear little Ninette…” he shouts back, without hesitating or slowing, the notes of his voice funneling away again.
And already he’s disappearing on down the beach at the same furious pace.
“Oh dear,” she says to herself, her heart thumping in her chest and suddenly feeling queasy. “Oh dear.”
And then she is left alone once more, a gentle breeze ruffling her hair, only her little Spaniel, Chipie, standing there on the ground beside her, gazing up at her, giving a tentative wag of the tail. There’s no sound but the whisper of the sea, and for a moment Juliette wonders if she has seen a ghost or imagined things; there’s no trace of the rider apart from soft scoops in the dry sand which might have been there for days. Nothing around her but sand, sea and, behind her, the tapestry of bright yellow broom, lavender, pale rock rose and aloe vera against a green bouquet of spring growth.
And then, just as suddenly, she turns and begins to rush back along the beach, back in the direction of rider and town, almost dragging the little dog on its leash behind her.
“What am I thinking of, Chipie? The man has lost his daughter. I must help to find her!”
And she breaks into a kind of jog along the sand, wheezing and panting as she goes, unused to such activity, the loose flesh of her jowls and her steatopygous thighs flopping rhythmically with her pace.
As she approaches the town, she begins to encounter a straggle of people enjoying the Sunday afternoon sun.
“Did you see the dappled grey horse and its rider?” she cries with unprecedented urgency. “He has lost his daughter – we must help him to find her.”
“Of course we’ll help,” comes the response. “Where was she seen last?”
“I don’t know,” Juliette replies, failing to stop. “We must enquire…find out where best to search…”
“My God,” someone says, “d’you think she’s been abducted?”
“She might have been murdered!” cries someone else.
“We must join the search party!”
And soon there are twenty or thirty people running along the beach, catching up with and then overtaking the by-then flagging Juliette.
“See you at the police station!” cries a young man as he sprints past.
“If you see him,” she wheezes, “talk to the man on the dappled horse…”
By this time Chipie is whimpering. Suddenly aware of the little dog, she catches him up in her arms and continues hurrying towards the town.
By the time she arrives at the police station a large crowd has already gathered.
“Here she is,” shouts the young man from earlier, and people turn their focus upon her.
Juliette blushes deeply. She is not used to being the centre of attention – it’s not something she craves. But there is work to be done as a matter of urgency, and she pushes such a small matter of vanity to one side.
“Where is the man who has lost his daughter?” asks a police officer, making his way through the crowd towards her.
“I thought he would be here.” Juliette gazes around as if she might suddenly see his face among the crowd. Adds limply. “He will be looking for her, without a doubt…” And suddenly with more verve: “We must help him, Monsieur. At all costs…”
“And do you know the man?” asks the officer.
“Not at all. All I know is, that he was riding past on his horse, galloping furiously. He looked most distressed, officer, said that he had lost his own dear little Ninette…” Adding importantly, “Yes, those were his words…his own dear Ninette…”
But the conversation is curtailed – Juliette catches sight of the hapless rider not a hundred metres away, dismounted from his horse, leading it along through the pine trees by the car park at the end of the beach.
“There he is, officer!”
She rushes towards the man, followed by the policeman and, behind him, when they realise what is happening, the crowd of helpers.
Seemingly oblivious, the man is mounting his horse once more, and even though she shouts, and the policeman too, the rider seems unaware that they are shouting at him, and he canters off in the other direction.
Juliette turns to the policeman.
“Can’t you do something?” she asks. “His daughter may be in grave danger…”
“She might be in the hands of a paedophile,” adds someone else in the crowd.
“We must find her,” adds someone else, “before it’s too late!”
The policeman shrugs.
“There’s nothing, Madame…”
“Mademoiselle,” Juliette corrects irritably. Even in these circumstances she prefers not to let pass a chance to advertise her availability.
“There’s nothing, Mademoiselle,” adjusts the policeman, “that I can do. After all, the man hasn’t reported anything wrong.”
Juliette turns with an exasperated gesture towards the crowd.
“I am telling you that there is something wrong,” Juliette insists. “A little girl…You must scramble a helicopter!”
“At least!” someone else chips in.
“You’ll have murder on your hands if you don’t!” yells another.
But the police officer has shrugged and begun to walk away.
It’s just then that someone in the crowd spies the rider returning.
“Monsieur, monsieur, stop! We want to help!” a large woman cries out to him, still holding her sandals in one hand from the frantic run along the beach.
The rider approaches, and to Juliette’s surprise, smiles broadly.
“You’ve found your daughter, Monsieur?” she says.
“My daughter?” he asks. “I hope not, because otherwise I’m in for a big shock, seeing as I wasn’t aware that I had one.”
“But your own little Ninette…” says Juliette, baffled.
The rider throws his head back and laughs loudly, startling the horse so much that he has to rein it in to avoid it veering off into the crowd. When he has done so, he walks the horse back towards Juliette.
“Ninette is not my daughter,” he grins, “though sometimes she might as well be for all the attention I bestow upon her.” Holding the reins carefully with his left hand, he fishes into the inside of his jacket with his right, and retrieves a small Chihuahua. “She couldn’t keep up with the horse, and I thought I’d lost her for good, but all is well, I found her waiting by the sun-bed station. So you see,” he adds, stroking the small dog, “all is well.”
The police officer raises his eyes to the sky and walks off, shaking his head and muttering, “Helicopter indeed…” whilst a general murmur of hilarity ripples through the crowd.
Juliette releases the by then struggling Chipie from her arms, and walks off with the Spaniel pattering alongside, in as dignified a manner as she can muster, which, given the circumstances, is not very dignified at all.