The sun was setting over the sea amid luminous veils of low cloud when I saw the horseman appear at the far end of the beach, at first as a fuzzy black shape, the only dark spot in a landscape of light, and then as a swirl of movement, growing larger and more ominous with its inexorable approach.
I wished I had my paintbrush with me at that moment, although I doubted whether I would have had time to capture the scene in any case before it changed again. I tried to fix it in my mind’s eye instead. I could of course have taken a few quick pictures on my mobile phone, but I doubted whether the sharp clarity of the camera could have done justice to the blurry edges and ambiguous shadows of reality.
I should probably have run away then, only I was waiting for the sun to finish setting so that I could experience the full effect for myself. Why should this anonymous horseman prevent me from doing so? It was not as if he were a Viking invader or a highwayman who had lost his way. It was the twenty-first century, and we no longer had to worry about either of these.
I might even incorporate the horseman in my painting. Perhaps I should think about depicting people sometimes instead of the deserted landscapes I had preferred up to then. I didn’t have to go into detail. After all, if Turner had painted a steam train as a big swirl of movement in his Rain, Steam and Speed, then surely I could do the same with a horse and rider.
You’re not Turner, I told myself sternly. Know your limitations.
As I watched, determined to wring the last ounce of inspiration from the sunset, another dark blur appeared further along the beach and took the same route as the other, only moving along the sand slightly faster. The sound of an engine reached my ears. I blinked. The rider I had seen first glanced over his shoulder and diverted from the straight course he had taken, low tide enabling him to ride across the beach from one headland to the other. Now he had vanished among the sand dunes below my vantage point.
The engine sound got louder. The dark blur resolved itself into a motorbike and its rider, speeding across the sand. I frowned. Motorbikes were definitely not allowed on the beach, although admittedly there wasn’t usually anybody about in the late evening to police this ban.
I hadn’t objected too strongly to the horse and its rider, but the motorbike with its noise and speed worried me, not to mention the fact that it would stand out like a sore thumb if I tried to incorporate it into my planned painting.
The horse and rider were still among the dunes, and now the bike was circling round as if the rider were searching for a glimpse of them. I hunched down into my nest of blankets, hoping to become invisible.
Then suddenly everything happened at once.
The horse burst out of the dunes, heading straight for the bike, still circling slowly. There was a flash and the sound of a gunshot. The horseman fell off on to the beach, and the horse turned and galloped off in the direction they had come from. The bike rider, as calm as could be, headed on towards the other end of the beach, the place where the sand became shingle and then pebbles, and the cliffs rose up starkly, defining the edge of the bay.
The sun was almost at the horizon now. I watched the horseman for a moment or two. He didn’t move.
I called the police before getting up from my nest and reluctantly making my way through the dunes to his side. I thought him just barely alive. I called the emergency number again to make sure they were sending an ambulance too.
‘… so there was a swirl of movement and the horse appeared,’ said one of the police officers, apparently trying to make sense of what I had told him. ‘And then a dark blur – was that it? – and the motorbike came after it.’
‘Yes,’ I said, shivering. I picked up one of the blankets and huddled into it again. ‘The sun was below the layers of low cloud by then. It was dark orange, perhaps a touch of yellow ochre and possibly just a trace of green.’
‘It’s a paint colour. The clouds were darker by then too. Sort of indigo in places. And then there were the feathery ones higher up in the sky.’
‘Feathery ones? Some kind of seagull?’
‘No, sorry, it’s just a description.’
He took me through the gunshot too, rolling his eyes when I told him about the flash of silvery light that reminded me of the moon in Turner’s Fishermen at Sea.
‘I don’t suppose you saw his face in this flash of light,’ he said, interrupting my description of the painting I had referred to.
I shook my head.
I half-expected to be arrested for obstructing the police, or whatever it’s called now, but they seemed to accept that all they would get out of me would be further impressions of the scene.
It did make quite a good painting in the end, although I say it myself.