Granite and marble strewn haphazardly across the hillside, a flimsy gate and a bent wire fence, assured Meltem she’d reached the archaeological site she was looking for. Her task that day was to find a location and arrange permission for the production company she worked for to film a fashion shoot. She’d seen pictures and thought the pillars among the terraced ruins would offer a startling contrast to the graceful models in their ethereal outfits. Her first step was to get in and look around.
She parked her car in the shade of a silver-grey olive tree and saw a young man sitting at the entrance – the guard, she guessed. With a touch of lip-gloss, a tweak of her long auburn hair and a quick glance in the mirror, she was ready. Black camera bag slung over one shoulder, she walked towards the guard who was now leaning on the closed gate, squinting into the sun as he watched her approach.
‘Morning,’ he said. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Hi. Would it be okay for me to come in? I just want to take a few photos.’
‘Sorry, the site’s closed to the public.’
‘That’s a pity.’ She put out her hand to shake his. ‘I’m Meltem by the way.’
He reciprocated, saying, ‘And I’m Kadir. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Kadir, there’s just me. I’m not a crowd of tourists.’
‘Again, I’m sorry, but only the team from the university’s allowed in.’
Meltem glanced back at the car park, empty except for her car and a motorbike.
‘Please?’ Meltem treated him to her widest smile. ‘Just give me thirty minutes. We both know there’s no one here.’
Kadir hesitated then nodded towards the motorbike. ‘That’s Daniel’s. He’s an Englishman employed by the university to work on site preservation.’
Meltem unzipped a side pocket on her camera bag and pulled out her card. Pointing at the wording she said, ‘That’s me – Artistic Director – and I’m here to check this place out for a film shoot.’
Kadir straightened up. ‘Wow. You’re not going to believe this but I’m an actor – just here till I find work.’ He ran a hand over his cropped hair and smiled at her. ‘I know what you’re thinking. A skinny youth with a bad haircut – not exactly silver screen material – but I’ve only just finished my military service and…’
Meltem waited patiently while he rattled on.
‘You couldn’t get me a job, could you?’ he ended. ‘Even if it’s just helping out on the set.’
‘Well, I could put in a good word for you−’
‘That would be great.’
‘−if you let me in,’ Meltem continued.
Kadir pulled back the gate and said, ‘Would you like me to show you around?’
‘That's so sweet of you, but I’ll be fine. Here,’ Meltem leaned towards Kadir and slipped her card into his shirt pocket. ‘Call me if you need any advice.’
Meltem followed a narrow path that cut along the side of a hill and found the setting she was looking for. She stood on the stage of a small Roman theatre studying the semi-circle of tiered seats. Behind her, like a backdrop, was a line of broken pillars, their shadows lengthening in the mid-afternoon sunlight. Perfect. She left her heavy camera bag on one of the five throne-like marble chairs in the first row, ran up the steps to get an overall view of the space and pulled her phone from her pocket to take some notes.
A slight flicker in the sun’s slanting rays made her look up. There was a man standing perfectly still on the stage as though a statue had been placed there when she wasn’t paying attention. His hair, ruffled by the breeze, was the only thing that seemed alive.
They stared at each other for a second or two, before he lifted a hand above his head and called out, ‘Hello there!’
‘Hi,’ she replied and nodded at him.
She continued with her notes and when she looked up again, he’d disappeared. Puzzled, she walked down slowly, turning her head to take in the whole theatre. She’d nearly reached the bottom step when she caught sight of him again. Broad shoulders relaxing into the curved back of the central throne, a sandaled foot balanced on his other knee, he looked as though he was waiting for the show to begin.
He turned to her, ‘I didn’t know anyone else was on site today.’
Meltem smiled, ‘I have special permission to be here.’
‘You charmed young Kadir, did you?’
‘Maybe.’ She picked up her camera bag and sat down looking across at him. ‘How’s preserving the site going, Daniel?’
‘So you did win Kadir over and he told you my name.’ He laughed. ‘And may I learn yours or do I have to trek down to the gate and ask Kadir?’
‘Meltem,’ she smiled. ‘Have you finished your work?’
‘Not yet, a few more days or even a week or two, if I can spin it out. What are you here for?’
‘I’m seeing if this place works as a possible location for a film.’
‘What sort? I guess not a soap opera, not here.’ He waved his hand at their surroundings. ‘Maybe a history epic?’
‘Just the new season teaser for a well-known fashion house. And don’t ask,’ she said, putting a stop to his next question. ‘Client confidentiality means I can’t tell you who it is.’
‘I don’t know anything about fashion, but I know a bit about Roman ruins. Shall I tell you?’
Meltem stood up. Although she would have been happy to listen to this man talk all day she needed to complete her work.
‘Lovely chatting,’ Meltem took out her camera, ‘but I need to get on.’ She walked across the stage. ‘Sorry, would you−’
‘−get out of the way? Of course. I’ll wait in the wings, shall I? And then, when you’re done, maybe you’d like a guided tour?’
Meltem didn’t reply. Her attention was fixed on her camera screen.
‘By the way, just a guess but probably you need to measure this area?’
Meltem nodded, it was next on her list.
‘You’ll have to get permission to film here,’ he continued. ‘Do you know who to contact?’
She straightened up. ‘Daniel – in the nicest possible way – please shut up. I know how to estimate a few measurements and I can easily find a contact. It’s my job.’
‘Okay then.’ He leant against a stone support giving Meltem a moment of blessed silence but as soon as she put her eye to the viewfinder he called out, ‘It’s just that I have all the dimensions here.’ He held up an iPad. ‘And I know the person you need to talk to.’
Meltem turned to look at him. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really,’ Daniel smiled, ‘Me.’
They burst out laughing and Meltem decided to give in. ‘Okay. Hand over the information, and I’ll come with you. But only tell me the good bits. Don’t bore me with dates and details.’
Half an hour later, they neared the end of Daniel’s tour. He really was knowledgeable, entertaining too, and Meltem felt at ease with him.
‘And for the grand finale− ’
He led her under an arch, their footsteps thudding on the wooden walkway, through two bathing houses and down to the furnace room where the fires to heat the water had been.
They stopped in front of a black-crusted mound, almost as high as Meltem’s shoulders and as wide as her arm span.
‘This,’ said Daniel, ‘is compacted ash from the furnaces. It doesn’t look like much, does it?’
‘I guess not.’ Meltem didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.
‘Feel it.’ He took her hand, and together their fingers sank into the ashes.
‘Untouched for two thousand years,’ Daniel said, smiling at her. ‘We’ve reached into the past!
Together they gazed at the fine film of ancient grey dust on their fingers.
‘What’s next?’ Meltem asked.
* * * * *
When Daniel moved into Meltem’s apartment, it changed her life. After she’d been away finding locations and negotiating permission for access to markets or minarets, underground cisterns or ancient towers, she longed to be with Daniel again. Bottle of fizz in one hand, take-away sushi in the other, she’d head up to their first floor apartment anticipating the sheer joy of time to spend with the man she loved.
She was aware life could be hard for Daniel as jobs in his field were few and far between. When he wasn’t working, he was with archaeologist friends or people he knew from the local museum. Usually, whenever she returned home after even one night away, he opened the door before she could unlock it and hugged her.
Yet her return after a week in Cappadocia was different. She ran up the stairs to their apartment and let herself in. Hurrying down the hallway, as she passed the open bedroom door she noticed some of Daniel’s folded clothes next to his open suitcase.
He was standing with his back to the window, wearing his leather jacket. Meltem flung her arms around him and kissed him, but he didn’t return her kiss or hold her close.
‘Daniel? Are you okay?’ Meltem let go and stepped back.
‘Sort of.’ Daniel’s face was pale and tight-lipped.
‘I didn’t expect you back so soon.’
‘What do you mean? Have I…?'
Daniel didn’t respond.
‘Your suitcase. Are you going somewhere?’
‘Yes…no, I don’t know what to do. I’m in a mess.’
‘What’s going on, Daniel?’ Meltem took his arm and led him to a chair. ‘Come on. Sit down and talk to me.’
The run up the stairs, and now this, meant her heart was pounding. Desperate to make sense of the situation, she reached out towards him,
‘There’s a note for you on the table.’
‘I’m not reading a note when you’re here in front of me. What’s this mess you’re in?’
‘Complicated? You’ve found another woman so you wrote me a−’
‘No, Meltem.’ Daniel raised his voice. ‘It’s worse than that.’
‘Worse?’ She half-smiled. ‘You haven’t murdered someone have you?’
‘Don’t joke, Meltem. I’m scared.’
‘Then tell me.’
Daniel sighed. ‘Remember the Stargazers?’
Meltem remembered seeing them in a special exhibition. Translucent mother-goddess figurines with their heads tilted back so their dotted eyes were gazing into the sky. Sculpted out of marble over four thousand years ago and used in burial rituals, Stargazers were exceptionally rare.
‘Well, this bloke I know – I’ve done some work for him before – he was at that international conference in Antalya.’ Daniel avoided looking at Meltem. ‘He asked me if I knew an expert who could discreetly verify that an object he owned was genuine.’
Meltem felt the slow creep of dread settling in.
‘You know this man from some previous dealings?’
‘He’s my friend and he trusts me. I’m just helping him out, Meltem.’
‘For a fee, right? No questions asked about provenance?’
‘Right. A small fee.’
‘What was the object?’
‘The container it came in was sealed and I didn’t know what was in it. Better not to ask questions. I arranged to hand it over to my contact.’
‘Which period of history is this contact an expert in? Hellenistic? Ancient Roman?’
‘No, a bit further back than that. Anyway he didn’t turn up to the meeting. I tried to contact him but his phone was dead. So after a few days I decided to return the object to the owner.’
‘Owner!’ Meltem spat the word out.
‘I couldn’t find him. He didn’t answer his phone or messages.’
‘Go on,’ Meltem said.
‘Well, today I heard he’s in prison, waiting trial.’
‘On what charges, Daniel?’
‘I don’t know. But I needed to find out what I’d landed myself in, so I opened the container.’
‘And what was in it?’ Meltem asked, although she’d already guessed. ‘A rare and very valuable Stargazer?’
Daniel nodded. ‘I don’t know what to do with her.’ He stood up. ‘If I leave the Stargazer here you’ll be caught up in this mess. But what if I take her and get stopped at the airport? Or I make it into Europe, what then? I’m not a criminal, Meltem. I don’t want to be part of some illegal trade. I just needed to earn a bit of money.’
Meltem walked over and stood in front of him. ‘Daniel, what can I say? You’re an idiot – a lovely, sweet, naive idiot, in trouble way over your head. Actually, to be precise, we could both be in trouble.’ She watched as Daniel blinked away tears. ‘I have a question. If your friend has said anything to the police, will they find that Stargazer in my apartment?’
Daniel reached into the top pocket of his jacket. ‘She’s here.’
An hour later, Meltem was driving along the motorway. Daniel sat beside her, the Stargazer back in his pocket.
‘I’m glad we’re doing this,’ Daniel said. ‘Hiding her until we can find someone we trust, who can get her into a museum here.’
‘You mean someone who won’t sell her for millions, or into someone’s private collection. And since I’m about to do something that makes me complicit-’
‘I know, I’m sorry.’
‘Daniel, in spite of everything, I’ll always help you because I’d really like us to stay together. But I wonder if I can trust you to be open with me from now on?’
‘And seriously, if you ever do want to leave, please don’t just write me a note.’
‘I was trying to go but I couldn’t. I pictured you coming home and knew how you’d feel. And how I’d feel.’
Meltem parked under the silver-grey olive tree and got out of the car. She waited for Daniel to join her.
In the fading evening light they walked side-by-side up a wide track, past dusty mosaics and crumbling walls. Their footsteps echoed on the walkway crossing the bath houses towards the furnace room.
Daniel knelt on one knee so he could reach the base of the ash pile. He felt in his jacket pocket and took out the little figure, his fingers clasped tight around her. Meltem bent down beside him, easing his hand open. The Stargazer lay across his palm. Meltem placed her own hand over Daniel’s and together they pushed the Stargazer into the darkness of the ashes.
In silence they retraced their steps, passing beneath the archway out onto the hillside. Walking back towards the car, they arrived at the top of the amphitheatre. Daniel placed a hand on Meltem’s shoulder, then gently tilted her chin. ‘Look up,’ he said.
Meltem tipped her head back and together they gazed at the beauty of the enormous stretch of night sky.
Daniel took her hand ‘Hey, come on! He led Meltem down the steps to the stage. ‘We’re back where we began. Take a seat?’
Meltem smiled and was about to sit down when she was struck by a sudden thought. ‘Daniel, that Stargazer. It was genuine, wasn’t it? We haven’t just buried a replica?’
Daniel stared at Meltem. ‘What?’ He let out a relieved laugh. ‘You’re right. I have no idea! How can you love an idiot like me?’
Meltem shook her head, ‘I don’t know.’