Sweat kept pouring into his eyes and he knew he’d have to stop soon. The air was stiflingly hot, even here in the shadow of the big oak tree. He’d been here for almost two hours, sitting on the warm stone bench, a charcoal pencil in hand.
Evan Lorne hadn’t managed to get a real day off in months, but he’d been grateful when his request for a short leave had been granted. And for once, instead of training or taking his F-16 up into the air to fly for hours on end, he was sitting here, in the picturesque ruins of the Imperial Baths.
He looked down again, scratching the tip of his pencil over the rough paper in his lap. He was out of practice, he knew that, but he was determined to send a picture to his mother one of these days. And constant practice would make him get better again. He’d been great at arts while at school, but he was still glad he’d pursued another career than his mother. Not that he didn’t love painting, he just didn’t love it as much as she did. She was always worried. Of course she was. Having her son in the Air Force, especially since he was regularly flying over a war zone, was bound to be nerve-wrecking for her. He’d never been able to fully express to her what flying meant to him, what working in the Air Force meant to him. Not that she’d ever argued with him over his decision, but her worrying went with him whenever he left her. At least this way he’d be able to let her know that he was really, truly okay.
He stretched out his legs and blinked up into the azure sky stretching out above him. The thin white lines disturbing the clean blue colour told him that his comrades on the nearby airfield in Spangdahlem had just flown over him. Good luck, boys and girls, he thought, imagining the feeling the G-Forces pushing against his body as he started to steer the F-16 towards Bosnia. It was a fairly long distance from here to there, but Evan had to admit that he rather enjoyed the long flight, and looking down on the landscapes stretching out below him rather made up for the fact that he had to remain cooped up in a slim metal tube for most of the day. But still he was glad to have a couple of days off.
He looked down on his sketchbook, at the columns and arches he’d drawn. Tonight, when he got back home, he’d try to colour them in. Why hadn’t he thought of bringing his coloured pencils, or his watercolour paper and the paints? He wasn’t quite sure he’d managed to capture the majesty these buildings held, even in ruins, and the slight touch of red bricks amongst grey stone made his fingers itch to capture that colour. The sheer size of the arches and the high walls managed to take his breath away whenever he imagined how old they were. And he wasn’t the only one. He could see a group of tourists trotting along the side of the building which had, at one point, been the main part of the Imperial Roman Baths in the city of Trier.
He looked up again as he heard the tourist guide talk to the group in German. He wouldn’t have paid attention to her, hadn’t he heard the tell-tale English accent as she spoke. It took him a moment to understand what she was saying. After two years of being stationed in Germany, his German was passable, but he wasn’t entirely fluent. And how could he be, given that he spent most of his working day talking in his native language. But he tried at least. He had to admit, the slight roughness to German consonants was kind of melodic.
She was talking fairly fast and as she spoke, her face flushed from the heat, he could see her enthusiasm for the topic. Right now, she was talking about the sporting events that had been held here, her gestures underlining each and every sentence. About various artefacts which had been discovered here not so long ago, which pointed to a discovery of something he couldn’t understand. Evan couldn’t help but smile. He closed his sketchbook and approached the group. The way her eyes gleamed as she talked about the archaeological digs that had taken place here the previous year, made him want to hear more. “We’ve now reached the last part of our tour,” she said. “If you like, you can go back to exploring the ruins here, or visit the Roman Imperial Throne Room, also known as the Basilica of Constantine, the entry fee is already included in your ticket to the Baths.” She smiled at the group of tourists, several of which looked more like they wanted to head straight to the nearest café and not to the next historical sight. One man even yawned loudly. “Thank you very much for your attention and have a nice day.” She was still smiling, seemingly oblivious to the five people who turned their backs on her as soon as she’d finished, and instead, accepted the soft applause from several other tourists.
Evan stood there awkwardly, as she talked to an elderly couple, explaining to them how they’d best get back to the train station. He wasn’t even sure what he was doing here or what he was waiting for. He almost had a feeling of turning around and following the other tourists.
“I’m sorry you missed the tour,” she said finally, approaching him after the couple had left. “But another one is gonna start in twenty minutes or so.” He noticed now, that she had a tiny red stain on the collar of her white polo shirt. Probably from lunch. She had her blonde hair up in a ponytail and it made him focus his eyes on a beauty mark on her slim neck.
He nodded, forcing himself to speak German. If she could do it, then he could do it. “Yes, I know. I took one this morning.” It was already late afternoon. Had he really been here all day?
She raised her eyebrows. “Canadian?” she asked in English this time and he had to laugh. She was British, that much was certain now.
“Born and raised in San Francisco,” he said, and she grinned, her white teeth flashing in the bright sunlight.
“Sorry,” she said. “I always try saying something a bit less obvious, hoping I get it right eventually.”
Again, he chuckled. “Eventually. Has it ever worked?”
“Nope.” She sighed and, still smiling, put her hands on her hips. “Anyway, how can I help you?”
“Uhm,” he said and cleared his throat. Well done, Lorne, he thought. “You can’t. I just… you seemed so excited about this whole thing.” He gestured vaguely towards the ruins surrounding them with his sketchbook. “Really got my attention.”
“Thanks! Always nice to hear the people I guide through here can still get that after ten minutes. That’s when most people doze off.”
He’d done that. Dozed off. Because the guide he’d had had appeared almost bored.
“You came here to draw?” she asked, pointing at the sketchbook.
“Kind of,” he muttered, suddenly embarrassed. “’I’m on leave, you see? This helps me wind down a bit.”
She nodded. “Spangdahlem?” Everyone around here knew about the Air Force Base in Spangdahlem. Everyone knew where those F-16s must be going.
“Yup… Lieutenant Evan Lorne,” he said, stretching out his hand to her, instantly regretting it. His hand must be too hot and sweaty, and his fingertips were covered in charcoal dust.
But she took it without hesitation. Hers was small in his and incredibly warm, but also dry.
“Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Evan Lorne.”
“Alexandra Woolston. May I see?” Her eyes were still fixed on the sketchbook as she dropped her hand again.
That had not been his intention at all. He neither wanted to brag, nor did he want her to look through those sketches… “I don’t want to keep you from your work.”
She looked slightly embarrassed at this. “Oh,” she cleared her throat. “Okay… well then…” She smiled again, but this time it wasn’t as bright as it had been before.
“Uhm,” he said again, cursing himself for his inability to talk in plain words. “But maybe after your shift? When do you get off?”
Was he really doing this? Asking out a stranger? Was he even asking her out? Did she think he was?
But somehow, he felt like this could be a good idea. And he didn’t have anywhere else to be for the next few days anyway… Stop thinking, idiot.
She hesitated, but only briefly. Her ponytail bobbed slightly. “This was my last tour,” she grinned and she almost looked relieved. “If you want, we could get some ice cream? I mean… I don’t want to drag you away from here…”
“As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about calling it a day. It’s getting a bit warm.”
She laughed. “You could say that,” she grinned and rubbed her hands over the sides of her pants. “Okay, so… uhm…” She cleared her throat. “Right. So, I’ll…. We can go. Now.”
He nodded, still feeling a bit awkward. He still didn’t want to show her those drawings, not really, but he also didn’t want to lose sight of her. “Okay.”
Was he making a mistake here? No, he wasn’t. This wasn’t anything.
He’d only asked someone out. This wasn’t even a date or anything.
He’d only asked someone out. For the first time since joining the Air Force.
“So, how long have you been stationed here?” She asked as they went through the gates. She took off her badge and put it in the backpack she’d collected just before leaving the premises.
“In Spangdahlem or in Germany?” It was nice talking in English to someone who wasn’t military, he realized. Not that talking with his friends on the base was hard or unpleasant, but this was different somehow. Learning German to communicate with locals had been one of his main priorities when he came here, but it wasn’t really the same.
“Well…” What the hell was he supposed to do with his arms? He’d put his sketchbook into the shoulder bag he carried, but that left his hands free. He quickly put them in his pockets before he started swinging them about like a madman. “I came to Germany two years ago and been stationed here since February.” He shrugged. “It’s kind of a nice place, isn’t it?”
“Do you get to go off base a lot?” she asked as they walked along the main path leading away from the Baths, along a narrow road and headed towards the marketplace. He’d been here once before, with Sam and Javier, when they’d first been stationed here.
“I don’t live on the base,” he said. “Got a small apartment near the base though. But no, I don’t get many days off. Not really.” He smiled ruefully. “I like hanging around there when I’m off duty.”
“What made you get away from there today?” She seemed genuinely interested. Was there something wrong with her? No, probably not.
He pointed up towards the half-timbered houses stretching up to the sky on either side of the narrow alleyway. “Well,” he said. “We don’t get a whole lot of this in San Francisco. Not sure about where you’re from, but I guess you Brits are more used to this sight than we are.”
“We even have a castle in Woodstock.”
She laughed again. “In Oxfordshire. Not the concert Woodstock.”
“Ah. Gotcha.” He put his hand back into his pocket. There was a short stretch of silence. Should he say something? He felt like if he stared down at her only a moment longer, he might say something stupid, but the longer the silence lasted, the more likely it was that that was going to happen. Her eyes were the same blue as the sky above, he realized. With specks of green and grey. Was she so close to him already? That he could see the specks of green and grey in her eyes? Lorne, something is really wrong. He hadn’t looked at a girl like this in years. He’d never had the time!
“So!” She said almost too loudly and started walking again. He could feel her breath on his cheek.
Yes, she had been that close…
“Your German is pretty good! Most soldiers who come here don’t really bother with it.”
“Thanks. Nothing compared to yours, though.”
“I work here.”
“So do I.” He grinned. It was true, but that didn’t mean he needed it. If he wanted, he could stay on base and never speak any German.
They’d reached the marketplace and again he couldn’t help but admire these ancient structures. They must’ve been painted by artists a thousand times, but still he felt like he wanted to give this a try too. The greyish cobblestones in contrast to the slim whitewashed building right in front of them, with its arched windows traced in light red. The white and red water fountain in front of it. The water spilling out from the fountain glittered wonderfully in the early evening sunlight.
“There’s a café right there,” she said pointing at something and ripping him out of his dream-like state.
“Right,” he muttered and followed her. The chair was a bit wobbly on the cobblestones as he sat down, but he still liked the view… well, the views. She sat down opposite him and folded her hands on the tabletop.
“So,” she said it again with the very same determination in her voice. “What about that drawing of yours?”
“Why are you so curious about it?”
“I love ancient buildings,” she grinned, leaning back. Their eyes met again and the thought that drawing her would be a good idea as well struck him out of nowhere.
“Why did you come here? Always wanted to be a tour guide?”
“Isn’t it every girl’s dream? I mean-“she stopped as the waiter stopped by them, interrupting their conversation.
“What can I get you?” he asked. Evan hadn’t even had a chance to look at the menu of the ice cream parlour. The colourful card in front of him suggested colourful, sugary delights, however. Just the thing for today, he thought.
“I’ll have a spaghetti ice cream,” she said in her almost flawless German.
“You’ll have a what now?” Somehow pasta and ice cream didn’t mix.
“Try it.” She winked at him.
“Uhm… okay?” He looked up at the waiter and nodded. “I’ll have the same,” he muttered, slightly embarrassed of his flawed language skills.
The waiter nodded, scribbled the order on a note pad and headed off to collect plates on the next table.
“What did I just order?” Evan asked, but Alexandra merely shrugged.
“Wait and see.”
“You were about to tell me why you came here,” he said, leaning back as well.
“Work,” she said simply. “I just got my PHD and right now I’m just trying to get some work. Real work, I mean.”
“PHD? In what?” He had to admit, he was impressed. She couldn’t be older than him. But asking for her age seemed impertinent.
“Archaeology. I studied in Manchester and worked on my dissertation here in Trier. Just applied for a post-doc in the states as a matter of fact.”
“Really? I thought archaeologists only dug up stuff in the desert somewhere.”
“We dig stuff up everything we can. Humans are really messy. We tend to leave a lot of stuff behind.”