Lost in the Temple




Barbara Erskine

(3500 words)


 The first day  of  the cruise  began so normally.

The River Nile was bustling  with boats of every size and shape. Palm trees stood sentinel on the far bank and a graceful minaret rose against the vivid blue sky.   Emma glanced at Gill as they collected cereal and fruit  from the serving table.  ‘I can’t believe we’re really here!’

Gill grinned.  Tall, blonde and   tanned from the sunbed at the gym, she had been noticed at once.  The night before  at their first meal on board Emma, glancing round,  had caught appraising looks cast in their direction by some of the men, not least the tour guide, who after doing the rounds of the tables had finally settled in an empty chair next to them and introduced himself.  His name was Mahmoud and, having established that they were without male escorts and so presumably potentially available,  he hadn’t taken his eyes off Gill.

Emma  sighed.  She was used to this.  Small in stature, shy, her dark hair cut to a shoulder length bob, she had years  ago resigned herself to being outshone by her glamorous friend. Strangely, in the end  Emma was the one who had married - even if it hadn’t lasted.  And after all, here it didn’t matter.  They hadn’t come to Egypt to meet  new men.  They had come to see the antiquities.  Or she had.

Climbing into the bus which was to take them from the boat through the teeming noisy streets to the Temple of Karnak she found herself sitting alone.  Scanning the crowded seats in front of her she spotted Gill’s blonde head.  She had taken a place near the front . Next to Mahmoud.  Emma shrugged.  She wouldn’t let it spoil things.  Actually she was quite pleased.  She didn’t want to talk.  She wanted just to look.

With a hiss of compressed air the bus’s doors closed and it set off, lurching up the track from the river bank towards the road.  On either side, mud brick houses, adorned with brightly coloured rugs and blankets airing in the sunshine, alternated with groves of palm trees and exotic plantations.  As the bus swung out to pass an old man perched perilously on the rump of a small white donkey Mahmoud stood up, holding onto a seat back to keep his balance . Emma saw him glance down at Gill and wink as he launched into his running commentary and with a resigned smile  she sat back and turned towards the window. This was going to be the most wonderful holiday of her life and she was not going to allow Gill to spoil it.

By the time they had disembarked and crossed the dusty car park to enter the temple Gill was once more at her side.  Mahmoud was too busy, buying tickets and passes, ushering his charges through the gates and describing the avenue of  ram-headed sphinxes to pay Gill any attention.  Emma smiled at her as she reached for her camera.  ‘It looks as though you’ve made a conquest.’

Gill shrugged.  ‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’

Emma was staring at the statue of  Rameses in front of them and nodded dreamily.

There was a peal of laughter from her companion.  ‘Not that thing!  I mean Mahmoud.’

Emma shrugged.  She raised an eyebrow.  ‘Each to his own.  It’s the pharaoh I fancy!’

Almost deliberately she found herself dropping further and further behind as Gill hung on Mamhoud’s every word.  The heat was unbearable.  The sun beat down on hats and dark glasses, reflecting from every stone surface.

Huge stone columns rose round her casting black heavy shadows between ribs of vicious sunlight.  Emma stared up at a distant lotus-shaped capital which had once, presumably, supported a roof. A group of Italian visitors passed her and for a moment she was  engulfed in noise and laughter then they disappeared towards the next gateway. Wistfully she watched them leave.  Now they had gone she was surrounded by silence.  Even the cheeping of the sparrows had stopped. There was no one else in sight.  She shivered.  But not because there had been any relief from the heat.  On the contrary, it was hotter than ever.

With a shrug she stepped out of the shade and stared round, trying to reorientate herself.  Suddenly she didn’t like being alone; she wanted to be back with Gill and Mahmoud and the other members of the tour. The Temple of Karnak was teeming with visitors; she hadn’t strayed into some area that was closed.  Only a moment or so ago a tall lithe Italian man clad from head to foot by Gucci had glanced back at her with a smile and lifted a hand with a soft ‘ciao’ as he  walked after his compatriots out of sight.

She hitched her thumb determinedly into the strap of the daysack on her back and walked straight ahead down the avenue immediately in front of her.

So hot it was hard to breathe, the air around her seemed almost solid.  She stopped and stared round again.  Although she had been walking for two or three minutes, she didn’t appear to have moved.  By some strange optical illusion, the same vista of columns seemed to stretch endlessly ahead of her, and behind and to left and right but now, suddenly, there was more shade.  She glanced up.  She had, without noticing it, walked into an area that was still roofed.  Here the sand of the floor had been brushed aside to reveal smooth paving stones and it was indeed cooler at last.

There was a movement in the distance.  Emma’s heart leaped. 

‘Hello?’  Her  voice sounded muted; strange.  It hardly seemed to penetrate the vast shadows around her but  suddenly a young woman appeared, running towards her through the columns. She was wearing a long white dress  with a veil looped around her shoulders  and neck and over her hair.

Emma smiled and raised a hand in greeting then her smile froze on her lips.  The woman stopped, glancing over her shoulder, every gesture  and line of her body denoting fear. There was a man  behind her.  Pounding over the paving slabs in sandalled feet he was dressed in the long loose everyday garb of so many Egyptians, the galabiyya . In his hand he was brandishing a knife. He stopped.  Even at that distance Emma could see he was gasping for breath, the hand which was not clasping the knife clamped to his side as if he had a stitch.  The man and the woman stared at each other for one interminable moment as Emma watched  then he raised his hand towards the woman and Emma saw that it was smeared with blood.  At the same instant the woman turned and started to run again, straight towards Emma.  She was so close now that Emma could see her face, her dark eyes, huge with terror, her long hair, torn free of the scarf, streaming black behind her, streaks of blood on her skirt, her breast, her hands.

Terrified, Emma stepped back out of the way.  Between one second and the next, she was there, close enough to touch, to see the detail of her torn, embroidered neckline, the shredded silk of the veil wrapped round her neck, the bare slender feet soundless on the paving , and then she had run past.  Emma spun round to stare after her, but she had gone.  There was no sign of her.  Trembling, she turned back to where  she had seen the man bending double to catch his breath.  There was no sign of him either.

Hardly daring to breathe Emma crept  towards the place she had last seen him and stood staring down.  There must be traces of blood.  Some sign.  Some sound.  There was nothing.

She turned back towards the spot where  she had been standing.  The sun blazed down between the pillars onto the sand.

‘Oh God!’ Slowly  she turned full circle, staring up.  There was no sign of a roof now.  Only lofty columns.  Beneath her feet there were no paving slabs.  Never had been.   She was beginning to panic. She was imagining things.  It was the heat.  The exhaustion.  The strangeness of it all.

‘Gill?’   Her frightened cry echoed for a moment through the silence.  Mahmoud?   Is there anyone there?  Anyone?’

She took a deep breath, then she froze, listening.  A voice had answered her.  She strained to hear it.


There it was again.  Nearer this time.  A man’s voice.  She spun round, trying to locate the sound.  It was deadened; strange.

And then she saw him. Tall, his shock of fair hair obscured  by a wide-brimmed sun hat, his eyes a clear green, like a cat, he appeared suddenly from behind a pillar only  a few yards  in front of her.  For a  moment they stared at  each other in astonished silence then his face relaxed into a grin.  ‘It’s Emma isn’t it?’

‘Oh, thank God!’

Confused and still unnerved she virtually threw herself at him. ‘Did you see what happened?  The woman? She must have stabbed him!’ To her embarrassment she found she couldn’t hold back the tears of shock.

His arms closed around her, holding her steady, then gently he pushed her away, his hands on her shoulders.  ‘What’s happened?’  He could feel her trembling violently.

‘I saw this woman.’  She could barely get the words out between her sobs. ‘There was a man chasing her. There was a scarf knotted round her neck.  I think he had tried to strangle her!  She  must have stabbed him. He was bleeding!’   She was staring round wildly.  ‘Oh God, why?’

‘And where are they now?’  He frowned.  For a moment she thought he was going to turn away then she realised that his quick glance was as nervous and puzzled as her own.  He took off his hat and pushed his hair out of his eyes with the back of his hand.

‘I don’t know. One minute they were here and the next they had gone!’ She ground the heels of her hands into her eyes, suddenly conscious of the fact that  she had thrown herself into the arms of a total stranger.  A total stranger who had known her name.

As though reading her  thoughts he  shrugged.  ‘You don’t remember me?  I’m Patrick.  We met last night - more or less!’ His voice was deep and mellow. ‘I was at the next  table on the boat.  I saw you stray away from the party just now and I thought what a good idea.  It looks shady in there. I’m a journalist, by the way. I’m writing up the cruise for a travel mag.    I was photographing the columns.’ He had a camera bag slung over his shoulder, a Nikon round his neck.  ‘Then I heard you calling out.’

She gave him a watery smile.  ‘I’m sorry I threw myself at you.  I was so frightened. It was so silent.  It was as though suddenly I was the only person in the world.’

He glanced round.  ‘We still might be.’  He frowned.  ‘There is an eerie atmosphere in here, I agree. Come on.’ He held out his hand. ‘We’d better find someone and tell them what you saw.  I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  Whoever they were, they seem to have gone now.’ There was something reassuring and calm about him which she found immediately comforting.

They walked several paces down the centre of one of the avenues between the columns, then Emma stopped.  She shook her head. ‘The roof was still there, where I saw them.  And the floor was paved.  Somehow I’ve moved away from where it was.’ She turned round slowly.  On every side all she could see was vistas of columns beneath the sky.  She saw Patrick glance at her for one thoughtful second and she grimaced.  ‘You think I dreamed it up.  Heat-stroke or something.’ She shook her head slowly.  ‘Am I going mad?  But it was so real… so clear.’ She bit her lip. 

He stared past her into the distance.  ‘No, I don’t think you’re going mad.  And I don’t think you’ve got heat stroke.  Or if you have I’ve got it too.  There is something odd here.  Something feels wrong.’

He stepped away from  her and cautiously reached out to touch the column nearest  them.

She watched, holding her breath as his fingers traced the lines on the carved stone.  He withdrew his hand and stared at it thoughtfully, then he reached into his hip pocket for a well-thumbed guide book.  ‘This doesn’t look right at all.  I think we should find Mahmoud.   He’ll know what to do.’  He took a few paces forward and stopped with a frown.  ‘There should be people.  Crowds.  I don’t understand.’

‘And the sparrows have gone quiet. ’  Emma put in nervously.  Her voice shook ‘Did you notice?’ Suddenly it seemed terribly important. 

‘There is something very strange going on here.’  He turned back and put his arm round her shoulders.  Somehow the gesture, protective and comforting, made her feel even more scared.  She huddled against him, conscious that her mouth was dry with fear.  ‘This is not in your guide book, is it?’ She stabbed at the open page with her finger.  ‘Look at all those columns.  The hypostyle hall.  It looks like this, but it isn’t.  This goes on forever.  We’re lost!’

‘We can’t be lost, Emma.  It’s not possible.  The site is vast, but not that vast.’

‘Then we’ve fallen through a trap door in time - ‘ She broke off abruptly.  She had meant the remark to be facetious,  funny, sarcastic,  but as their eyes met she saw that for a split second they both wondered if it were true.

‘They were ghosts, weren’t they?’ she said at last.

There was a moment of silence.  ‘It is possible, I suppose.’ His reply was cautious.

‘So you believe in ghosts?’

‘Not until now.’

‘She was real, Patrick.  She ran by me, only a few feet away.’ 

But without a sound,  without a movement of the air around her. 

She managed a shaky smile.  ‘Perhaps we’d better pinch each other!’

She saw him grin.  Saw him reach out towards her.  Felt the tips of his fingers brush against hers.

Then the world went black.

For a long moment she held her breath, unable to think, then the air around them exploded into sound . She felt Patrick grab her wrist, realised they were running, heard the echo of music and the noise of disembodied voices.

 ‘What’s happened?’ She was bewildered.  Terrified.

‘I don’t know.  Come on.  Let’s get out of here.’

At least now there was noise.  Light.  He clapped his hands over his ears as the sound of trumpets and brass echoed round the temple. Stopping, he pulled her into his arms in the shelter of a stone wall. ‘It’s all right, Emma!  It’s all right! It’s the sound and light show.  I don’t know how, or why, but somehow we’re in the middle of it!  Look!’  All round them the place suddenly flared into bright lights.

.  ‘It’s night.  How can it be night?’  Emma found she was still clutching his hand.

‘I don’t know; and I don’t for the minute care.  At least we are out of that place!’ He caught her hand and they ran together, dodging  between  obelisks and statues, through columns and past walls, seeing spotlights playing on the stone near them,  then swinging away to light another area.

There was no one on the gate; the car park was a sea of empty coaches.  Panting they stopped and stared round

‘We’ll find a taxi.’ Patrick glanced over his shoulder as one of the spotlights swung up towards the sky. 

To Emma’s relief he seemed to know where to find one, how to negotiate  the fare with the driver, even where the boat was moored.  As they rattled back through the streets of Luxor she found she was still clinging to his hand.

‘What happened in there?’ She glanced at him in the glare of the street lights as the taxi ground to a halt behind a sleepy man on a donkey. Their driver leant from the window with a string of good-natured invective. And the donkey moved over.

‘Somehow we’ve lost about twelve hours!’ Patrick glanced at his watch and frowned. ‘What time is it, my friend?’ He leaned forward and tapped the driver’s shoulder.   ‘This says 10.40.’   He stared at it for a moment.  It had stopped.

Emma frowned at her own wrist. ‘10.34  .   No one will believe us.’

‘No.’  He sat back in his seat with a sigh.

 ‘I don’t believe it myself.’


They sat in silence.

‘Will they have reported us missing?’

He shrugged.  ‘I suppose so.  Luckily I’m here on my own. My ex-wife would have killed me if I’d disappeared for hours with a beautiful woman!’ He was staring out of the window.

She acknowledged the compliment with a smile.  ‘I’m divorced too as it happens.  I’m here with a girl friend.’

‘I  hope she won’t be too hard on you for disappearing.’

She probably hasn’t even missed me, if truth were known.’ Emma shook her head wryly.   ‘Mahmoud will have though.  He counts everyone all the time.’

The taxi had reached the darker streets now, away from the town centre.  ‘We have several options,’ he said slowly. ‘We can plead insanity.  We can say one of us was ill.  I can say I was following a story and forgot the time or got lost. We could say you came with me and we were  side tracked…’

In the end that was the story they chose. After all, it was in a way true. They stood side by side like naughty children as Mahmoud berated them for being late and causing him worry, then they went together to the empty dining room where, having relented a little, he ordered them a drink  and some soup.

It was there that Gill found them.

‘You sly old thing!’ She sat down on the chair next to Emma.  ‘How did you hook the most handsome man on the boat?’ She smiled dazzlingly at Patrick.

‘I thought Mahmoud was the most dazzling man on the boat,’ Emma replied softly.

‘He is.  OK. The second most handsome.’ Gill giggled.  ‘We are leaving soon and  setting off up river.  See you on deck.’

Patrick waited for the door to close behind her before he reached for Emma’s hand.  ‘So, you’ve hooked me, have you?’

Emma smiled. ‘You must admit my technique is original!’

He nodded soberly. ‘Unique.’

‘We’re never going to know what happened, are we.’

Laughing, he shook his head. ‘Probably not.  But I’m going to have a good try at finding out! That’s the investigative journalist in me. ’ He leaned forward on his elbows, pushing aside his soup bowl.  ‘Will you help?’

She nodded.  ‘Of course I will.’

‘You’re not still frightened?’

‘Aren’t you?’

There was a moment’s silence.  Then he shrugged.  ‘If I’m honest, yes. 

‘I wonder if we could find out who they were.  The man and the woman I saw.’

‘One incident out of three or four thousand years?’ He shrugged.  ‘It will be difficult.’

Beneath their feet the boat rumbled suddenly into life.  He stood up. ‘Shall we go up on deck?’

They stood side by side leaning  on the rail, staring at the reflections in the water and the stark line of the distant mountains against the stars.  ‘This is going to be an interesting holiday,’ he said at last.

‘That’s one way of looking at it.’ She glanced at him sideways.  ‘I haven’t  thanked you for rescuing me.’

‘Is that what I did?’

‘I think I would have lost my mind if you hadn’t turned up when you did.  I’d fallen through a hole in time.’

‘And I fell with you.’  He looked  down and their eyes met for a moment.

Behind them the moon was rising, huge and serene.

‘I wonder what their story was. Were they lovers, driven  to despair by some sort of betrayal?  Did he try and kill her and she defended herself, or did she start it? Or were they priest and priestess of the temple, locked in battle over rival gods?’ She shivered.  ‘I need to know.’

He put his arm round her shoulders and they stood together in silence, watching the silhouette of the palm trees slide by.  Emma found herself very conscious of the solid warmth of the man at her side.  The strange way they had met,  the sudden intimacy  of the experience had brought them together with an intensity  which made her feel she had known him forever. 

She glanced up and found that he was looking down at her again. He smiled  and  she knew suddenly with absolute certainty that  they would go back to the temple.  She shivered.  But she also knew that whatever happened there and whatever tragedy they uncovered she would follow him wherever he went, and that by some strange pact, born from the mystery of this eerie Egyptian night,   they would still  be together at the end of time itself.            










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