This is a short character piece, inspired by something heard on the radio. It is slightly longer than originally intended.
“A United Nations representative has today confirmed that Islamic State forces appear to have destroyed the Temple of Bel and other major sites in the ancient city of Palmyra. Satellite images show signifi…”
Richard reached over the desk and turned off his radio. He usually listened to the one o’clock news while working, but it was simply too depressing to bear today. Carefully, he replaced the cap on his fountain pen and put it down on the desk between his notepad and the dusty leather-bound volume of French archaeological notes that he was using in his latest research. The sun was blazing through the old leaded windows of his college rooms, warming the dark wood and worn leather of the furniture and causing dust motes to twinkle and catch Richard’s eye whenever he looked across at the bookshelves opposite.
Sitting back and relaxing for a moment, he suddenly caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the polished glass door of one of the bookcases. There was the mousey hair, now thinning slightly and going grey at the temples, but always worn short and neatly trimmed. The face below the hairline was oval and pleasantly enough proportioned – forehead neither too high nor too low, the dark eyes slightly sunken beneath the brows, the nose straight and the mouth shapely without being too full, set above a slightly dimpled chin. A middling, average sort of a face, not desperately handsome, but by no means ugly and setting the tone for the rest of his body. Slightly taller than average, but not reaching the six feet or more of his father and brothers; a medium sort of build, solid but without excess muscle and, thankfully, without excess fat even now in middle age; all-in-all a medium, sensible, capable sort of a man.
As Richard continued to sit, staring at the face in the glass opposite, his mind returned to the news on the radio and, ranging further, it made its way back to Palmyra all those years ago. No one knew how old Professor McKenzie had managed to arrange the expedition, but arrange it he did and made his way with a small team of archaeologists and historians to the shining deserts of Syria and the breath-taking ancient beauty of Palmyra. Over thirty years ago now, but it really did feel like it was only yesterday. Richard was one of the two postgraduate students who had been given places on the trip. The other was Rachael.
Oh dear Lord, Rachael, Rachael, Rachael. Even now, he remembered every detail. The long bronze-brown hair that flowed in the breeze behind her as she walked. The perfect hazel eyes and soft lips that turned every brief conversation and every smile into a perfect moment to treasure. The slender, shapely figure and movement of her and the kind gentleness of her very soul. If ever anyone deserved to be raised up as the paragon of feminine beauty and virtue, it was she.
The evenings that they spent together, simply sitting and talking as they watched the sun dip behind the House Tomb before it disappeared completely into the desert and the fading twilight and growing chill in the air forced them back to their tents. The days walking around the ancient city, taking notes of the buildings and their locations. Even the occasional dry and dust-choked tutorial with Prof McKenzie, all of these things combined to make up the most precious memories that Richard carried in his heart.
Was it any wonder that, as he sat there, lost in his reverie, a tear slowly made its way down his cheek and dripped onto his shirtfront?
Of course, he could never have told her how he felt. She was just too far above him, too beautiful, too perfect. So he kept his deepest, dearest thoughts and dreams to himself and was glad to be her friend. After they both finished their postgraduate studies, he had remained in the college to become a Fellow and, ultimately, Professor of Classics. Rachael, meanwhile, had left to become an independent expert, working for governments and corporations all over the world advising them on archaeological and historical issues. He had seen her once or twice at conferences or other events and they had always found time for a drink, to reminisce and to share their latest discoveries, but he still wondered what might have been if he had only found the courage to say something all those years ago when a chill desert wind hissed around their shoulders and the stars began to shine above Palmyra.