The rose coloured façade of the hotel glowed against a blue- green backdrop of massed pines, still shrouded in fragments of mist. It was too early for the strong Provençal sun to bleach the colour from the sea and the village at the tip of the headland flushed pink and cream, its reflection shivering on the shimmering sea. A soft, fresh breeze blew inland snatching away the voices of the hotel staff preparing for the day.
A man emerged from the French windows of the hotel and out onto the stone veranda that ran the length of the building. He was in his fifties, thickening around the middle, straw hat set squarely above a pale, round face. The beach was sparsely populated: a woman beneath a large striped umbrella, two children dashing through the shallows.
The man walked to the water’s edge and kneaded the cool damp sand between his toes. Shading his eyes he watched a distant boat crawling over the smooth surface of the sea. He withdrew up the beach and throwing his towel on the sand, noticed a woman emerging from the hotel. She was wearing an evening gown of vivid green. She walked slowly but purposefully towards the water. As she drew closer he could see a scarlet dahlia which blazed on the shoulder strap of her dress.
Passing him she smiled pleasantly, dipping her head in greeting. Her face was smooth, slightly tanned, which accentuated the fine pale lines at the corner of her eyes.
He watched her with casual interest. She reached the water’s edge and stooped down to pull off her shoes. She paused for a heartbeat and then took a tentative step forward. The foam swirled around her feet, darkening the hem of her dress. She began to walk. The water rose to her calves. He watched her with growing attention. Soon the water had risen to her thighs. The wet silk clung to her legs, impeding her movement but she trudged on, fighting the resistance of the swell. The man was watching intently now, vaguely uneasy. He felt he should call out, see if she was alright. It was all very awkward. She might think he was meddling. She hadn’t, he reasoned, appeared distressed. The waves reached her waist, dipping and rising. A rising sense of alarm began to clutch him but still he dithered. A bubble of resentment rose and burst in his chest. What right had she, a complete stranger, to involve him in this? Whatever she intended, it was no concern of his.
Now the water had reached her breasts. He was in an agony of indecision.
He knew he should intervene but something deep within him, a lifetime of reticence, held him back.
The water had reached her throat, he shouted out but she made no sign that she had heard. He strode to the water’s edge just in time to see her head disappear beneath the waves. Still he waited. But the head didn’t re-appear. Now, at last, he acted. He darted through the shallows and started to swim, an ungainly breaststroke.
He reached the spot and desperately cast about for a trace of her. There was nothing, apart from a tell-tale scarlet dahlia, bobbing gaily in the swell.