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  • Guy Burchett

The Question

Of course he'd been thinking about it before, for months and weeks and days before, but the nerves only really began to kick in when they stepped off the boat together at Cannakale.


It had to be perfect. Nothing else would do. Hell, he had to imagine that nothing else would even work, though he liked to think he knew what the outcome would be already. Actually, no, he had to assume that the result was still in the balance unless he got it perfect. That way, the heightened fear would sharpen his senses.


He'd been going over and over it again and again in his mind during the long drive down the peninsula, as she slept on his shoulder. Looking out over the parched, rolling landscape, broken here and there with a glimpse of the dark straits, he'd refined it down to a few lines, trimming out unnecessary embellishments and flourishes, focusing on the critical things and repetitions he wanted, setting up the crux and the climax as well as he could. It was good. And so he'd repeated it over and over and over again as she slept and the apex of the headland and the dark straits beyond drew closer. He'd checked his bag again, probably for the thirtieth time that morning. Once he was reassured (again), he reminded himself that the more he checked and fussed over the bag, the more suspicious it would get. While she slept it's fine; but don't let the nerves undo this. That's why he kept on repeating the lines, to make sure they'd cut through the nerves perfectly, whether he was trembling or not, whether everything else played out like he wanted.


On the last leg, a minibus from Cannakale to the ruins, he went quiet, and he knew it. This was it: nearly five years and then, within an hour or two, he'd know. Well, he'd always known; but in an hour or two they'd both know. And that would be a great thing. A fine thing.


After picking up the guide just outside the main entrance to the ruins, it was all looking good. The ruins were quiet, meaning lots of secluded spots to get her alone, away from the other seven people, and their guide, Rumi, after the tour had finished. He couldn't get Rumi alone to check they'd have ten or fifteen minutes free at the end, to explore by themselves, and so on. But he'd just make that bit up - the finding the spot, hopefully somewhere near to or up on the walls - at the moment when it seemed right. Leaving that last bit to the Gods made him feel sick, but there was no other way to do it. And the most important thing was that they were there, where all stories began. And all for the most people woman in the world.


Their first stop was between the east and the south gate. He made a mental note of the high bank to the right, outside the thick stone walls front of them, as Rumi reeled off the layered history of the site. The bank to the right was the Roman wall - too new, not the right place. It had to be the right era, the right place. Besides, the viewpoint was at the far end, a cul-de-sac on the gangway, too prone to trapping them in the awkward glare of their fellow tourists. He'd have to wait for a better spot somewhere else on the circuit around the ramparts of the ancient walls, and then find their way back to it when they had their ten or fifteen minutes at the end.


Rumi knew his stuff. As the guide poured out his knowledge and the history, he made a mental note about which parts of the ruins were the right era. There was a great viewpoint, between a fig and an oak tree, scoured by the wind blowing in across the plain that spread out broad and golden to the straits in the distance. But that viewpoint was also narrow and could get choked with tourists, even though the ruins were still quiet now. So, all being well, if the ruins stayed quiet, he had a contender for a good spot.


Then they stopped at the great gouge torn in the walls by the infamous treasure hunter, and he felt his strength wither in the scorching sun and the wind as Rumi related the unabridged history of the discarded Prince of Troy. She was nodding as Rumi spoke, fine with the heat as she always was, her black hair gleaming in the sun, her forehead furrowing with intense interest, asking questions at each intriguing twist in the ancient tale. But he needed shade, and there was none on the gangway.


And then the tourists came. A fusilade of putonghua, espanol and Nihongo from both directions, forward and back along the gangway, north and south converging on them close to the ramp at the West Gate. They'd reached the gate before the rush, but now the rush was here. They were ruining everything, these rumbling crowds. With their expensive cameras and walking shoes, their lurid clothing and floppy hats, their babble and bad manners. Damn them all. How dare they come here too? Didn't they know what he was here to do? Couldn't they have gone someplace else for the day? Or broken down en route, and then blocked the road to keep everyone else away? Damn tourists, foreigners, coming here and ruining it all.


After Aeneas had fled, they moved on to the West Gate and the treasure in the wall, but it was too busy and his eyes were searching ahead for a new refuge. It had to be wide, open, offering a chance for privacy but also scenery. What the hell was around the next curve in the walls? They moved up the slope and the crowds seemed to thin, spreading out across the plains to take their photos, along the walls, to the viewpoints, to the shade of the whispering trees. And then, turning east, back towards where they'd started, was a wide dusty pathway sheltered by trees - who knew what kind, his eyes were swimming now - with a ruined courtyard and the stumps of marble columns to the right, a low rise and then the amphitheatre to the left.


Rumi explained something about where they were, that here was the Roman amphitheatre, up there their senate meeting room, here was the blocked up southern gate of the right era's walls. And then Rumi said that that was it. The tour was over, thank you very much, we'll meet back at the bus in two to three minutes.


This was it. It had to be here. It didn't work anywhere else, and there was no time to retrace their steps and find somewhere else, possibly crowded with tourists. It had to be here.


The other seven of their group left them, glad for the chance to seek some shade and coolness in the minibus. Thank God she stopped to take a photo. She was always stopping to snap a photo, and normally it annoyed him, but today it was okay. Right now, it was perfect, meant to be. She skipped over to the base of a marble column, snapped off around three-and-a-half feet from the ground, and put her bag on top of it. She arranged her camera to capture the south gate and the reconstructed walls behind. Putting his bag beside hers, he unzipped it and checked its contents again, fumbling to unwrap the cloth around the box, trying desperately to act natural.


She told him to run over to the gate so she could frame the photo, and he did as he was told. He started rehearsing the lines again, but there was no point now. If he didn't know them now, he never would. She set the timer on the camera and skipped over to where he stood. The red light flashed on the camera, flashed quicker, the shutter closed. And this was it, the moment he'd been planning and fretting over for nearly a year. He'd planned for how to get her attention when she began to wander off halfway through his few lines - he knew she might, and he was ready for it, but the pressure for them to get back to the minibus made it worse. He had to reach up and into his bag to grab the box, and he began,


"You know, what I find remarkable is that all the stories start here. All those in western literature. With a story about a thousand ships being launched for the sake of the most beautiful woman in the world..."


She nodded at the innocuous observation, just another one of his historical anecdotes and references that didn't immediately seem that relevant or interesting, as she quickly packed her bag and moved in the direction of the minibus, past him, where he was fumbling with the box, trying to work out how to withdraw it from the bag before opening it, so he could present it to her open. She was passing him, and he turned his back to shield the small lacquered cube of the box as he quickly whipped it out and hid it in front of his belly.


"And that story has lasted forever, for thousands of years. I mean, Anna... Anna! Come here for a second, please."


His eyes were swimming, his hands trembling, the sound of his blood crashing through his temples, his knees actually weakening and shaking.


"I'd love to be part of a story that lasted that long. And I don't have a thousand ships, Anna," he flipped open the lid and turned to face her, where she stood looking disinterestedly at him through her aviator sunglasses, too large for her face. "But I've got this."


She gasped very slowly, and the slightest of furrows creased her brow as the eyebrows rose behind the dark glasses and gold rims. Shaking, and with that actually helping him now as he sank onto one knee, he said, looking up at the love of his life,


"So would you help me write a story that'll last the ages? Will you marry me?"

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