Those Old Gods

Man’s feet are clay and they halt and stay
With the graveyard worms and clods,
But his plumed thought flings to the wind its wings
In the haunt of the careless gods —
For those old gods live, and they weave and give
New meanings to old myth;
And blossoms and gleams of the world-old dreams
Flower fresh from the truth at their pith.
So the tales that twine round the ruined shrine
Where Maponus’ priests have sung,
They were true, they are true, they are born anew
In the speech of a younger tongue.

Don Marquis, Wireless Telegraph
(the original has Hermes, not Maponus)

Most of this tale unfolds near Bath and Bristol. The reality of those noble cities cannot be denied. But the lesser towns and villages mentioned are only half-real. Readers who do not know the area will notice nothing amiss. To those who do, I apologise for commandeering places whose names I am fond of, and then nonchalantly changing their size and their position on the map. The Roman temple at Nettleton, however, is real, although I have altered some of the details and even, sacrilegiously, the name and function of its god. But I must emphasise that the characters who excavate it in this story bear no relationship to those (myself apart) who excavated it in fact.

I confess to making the archaeology less tedious by speeding up some of its procedures, and it seemed best (with apologies to the metric-minded) to translate the metric measurements which archaeologists actually use into the feet and inches with which the majority of English speakers are more at home.

If eyebrows go up at the revelations of the final chapters, blame it on the title poem and its assurance that ‘those old gods live.’ And for a great deal more about our particular old god and his powers, see my Ashes under Uricon, which is a historical novel about the Romans who patronised the very same temple. But although that story is in a sense a prequel to this, it is probably best to read Those Old Gods first.

This tale is dedicated, with fellow-feeling, to all who have trusted and been let down; for it tells of implicit trust incautiously bestowed, of bleak desolation when it proves misplaced, and of painfully rebuilding it in maturer form for worthier recipients. Grasshopper contributed to shaping the characters, someone who does not want to be named helped to fulfil them, and Neea and Hilary have read drafts and made their usual valuable comments.

19 May 2003, revised 25 April 2007

Chapter 1. Mark: the vast shipwreck

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost,
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes —
And yet I am, and live — like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.

John Clare, I Am

Was there no justice in the world? Some people had only to hold out their hand for fruit to fall into it. Yet, search as he might, no fruit whatever had come Mark Bushby’s way. It was not as if he did not try. But they seemed to get what they were after without any effort at all. He was not exactly embittered, or at least he persuaded himself that he was not. He did know there had to be winners and losers. He simply ached with a persistent loneliness, with the frustration of the perpetual loser.

At the door of the Chew Magna youth club he lingered, one foot on the step, pondering these questions for the umpteenth time. As always the answers, if there were any, eluded him. Chattering youngsters jostled past him into the cacophony inside, but he was in no hurry to join them. Tonight’s DJ must be an enthusiast — one more decibel, surely, and the neighbours would complain, three more and the roof would lift off.

He sighed. He did not much like the dancing, he did not much like the music, he certainly did not like the volume. It was not for any of those that he came here. What he was desperately yearning for was someone with whom to share trust, understanding, care, fulfilment, fun — everything he did not have. It was a tall order, he knew. Far too tall. After two years of searching, he would settle readily for someone who would merely satisfy his physical needs. But he had not found even that lesser someone.

He was not dumb, he reckoned. He read a lot. He thought a lot. There was plenty of time for both, for he had virtually no social life these days. He even wrote. Gloomy stuff, mostly, but he knew he had a creative imagination. Too creative, maybe. Maybe that was where the trouble lay, that his fantasies were too vivid, too urgent. It had not done him any good at school, either. Even the teachers seemed to sideline him these days, and his grades had slumped from the high to the mediocre.

And he knew his looks were not against him. To his embarrassment, all the girls thought he was cute. Several of them he could have bedded by now, if he had wanted. But he did not. He yearned for a boy, preferably a year or two younger than himself. He could not say why. He just did. You’re warped and perverted, he told himself, you’re a cradle-snatcher. But that did not quench the yearning.

And even if you find a likely candidate, how the hell do you break the oh-so-dangerous ice? You need to trust, and be trusted. It was not easy for a fifteen-year-old, quiet, shy and a loner, to broach the subject. So far it had proved downright impossible. But constant disappointment did not quench the yearning either.

He had searched at school, of course. There were a few openly gay boys there, but too old for his needs. And too unappealing. Think of that zit-spattered nerd Derek. And Ross the hunky rugger bugger. No younger ones, as far as he knew. None, even, whom he could risk chatting up on the off-chance they might be interested. ‘Excuse me, I rather like the look of you. Are you gay?’ Well, maybe not quite as blatant as that. But however you put it, if the answer was no, you would die. How for God’s sake are you supposed to know if someone’s in the running? Everything’s stacked against you.

If only …

If only people wore labels — ‘gay and available’ — how much easier life would be.

If only you lived in a bigger town than Chew, one that offered more opportunities.

If only you had the sociability, the confidence, you might have been set up long ago.

If only you had someone to talk it over with. Not Dad, no way. After all, he’s the rector, and he hasn’t got time for you, and you know what he thinks about gays.

If only Mum hadn’t died. Where Dad’s become unsympathetic and remote, she’d been warm and close. He remembered her with a catch in his throat. She’d have understood.

If only you had friends. Not your casual school friends (or do you mean acquaintances?) but real friends, to accept you for what you are. Precisely one other person in the whole world knows your secret, and what does he do? He laughs at you for it.

If only, if only …

Anyway, the whole set-up at school was wrong for a quest like his. The barriers between years, and ages, and cliques, were too hard to break through. He needed somewhere more open, less … less stratified. But the public toilets were populated by dirty old men, not by dirty young boys. He had tried the scouts, but the troop was too small and unchanging. He had lurked in the shopping centre, checking out mouth-watering youngsters aplenty, but how the hell did you open negotiations with them?

At the youth club, at least the atmosphere was relaxed. The trouble was that all the boys there were after girls, and the girls were after boys … including him. He had been haunting it for a while now, with no success so far and little hope for the future. But it remained the best bet. The least bad bet. Mark sighed again, and summoned up the energy to force his way in against the torrent of sound.

As he did so, he became aware of someone behind him, and turned. What confronted him, an arm’s length away, made him catch his breath. An apparition from his randiest dreams. A slim figure — despite the baggy sweater, the tight jeans showed it was slim — of middling height. Longish straight blond hair. A smooth oval face, haloed with the dull red disc of the setting sun. A slightly upturned nose, a spattering of freckles, and a wide and mischievous mouth. Eyes, glinting in the light reflected from the glass doors, of a brilliant blue. Cheeks, silhouetted against the sun, showing the faintest dusting of faintest down.

And the apparition grinned at him, and spoke. “Should have brought my earmuffs!”

Hardly profound, but genuine music to Mark’s ears. It was said so softly, without trying to compete with the din, that the mere difference in pitch made it audible. And it was said in a sexily husky young voice, like a voice that has not quite decided whether it is time to break for good. God in heaven, he can’t be more than thirteen at the most. On the threshold of adolescence. Way up to specification in every department, or at least in every department that was visible. But he had been goggling in silence, and too long. With a huge effort he pulled himself together and found his voice.

“Hi! I’m Mark. Haven’t seen you around before, have I? We don’t often get new boys here.”

The effort brought him out in a sweat. But it was not a bad effort, he felt, and his confidence rose. In return, he got a long look of appraisal and interest.

“No, I’ve never been here before. I’m Chris. Just a visitor. Staying with my cousin. Roy Beckham. Dunno if he’s here yet. D’you know him?”

Mark did, only too well. A year or so back, before their ways parted, Roy had been his best friend, and Mark had incautiously confessed to him that he was gay. A mistake, that, a serious mistake. Roy had let him down badly. He was one for the girls, one of those types who did not have to try, and had reacted with openly sarcastic amusement. They were friends no longer.

“Yep. I do. He arrived a few minutes ago — let’s go in and look for him.”

Hoping that hospitality might anchor Chris to his side, Mark insisted on paying both their entry fees and bought a Pepsi apiece. Roy, in the company of a gaggle of girls, was gesticulating from the other side of the hall, and they wove a zigzag course towards him between the dancers.

“Hi Chris!” yelled Roy when they were in shouting range. “Find your way all right? Look, you’ve met Zoe and Claire before, haven’t you? But this is Dawn and this is Ruth.” He totally ignored Mark, but the girls waved a welcome.

Chris said hullo and sat down to chat with the girls. To hear each other through the noise, they put their heads together and abandoned Roy, who turned to Mark for want of anyone more interesting.

“Met Chris on the way in, then, did you?”

“Yep. He tells me he’s your cousin.” And, without stopping to think, he blurted out, “God, he’s cute, isn’t he? Bet he’s hot, too.”

An idiotic thing to say, totally idiotic, especially to Roy, and he blushed scarlet. But instead of some wounding reply, Roy gave him a long considering look.

“Y-e-e-e-s,” he said slowly. “Come to think of it, just your cup of tea. I’d forgotten about that. Yes, you’re right — cute and hot. Er, like me to put in a word for you?”

“Jesus, Roy.” He was gobsmacked. “Would you? You’re a star.”

“OK then.” Roy smiled benignly. “Look, you push off for a bit, so I can talk to Chris. Don’t want you breathing down my neck.”

Mind whirling, Mark obeyed. Butting in on the girls’ conversation, he asked Zoe to dance. He had nothing against girls, as such. Some of them he rather liked. What he didn’t like was the thought of what you did with them. It was just that their anatomy was, well, incomplete. Genitally challenged — good description, that, he must remember it. Not their fault, poor things. But those wobbly boobs, and the part that mattered most, were no substitute whatever for a boy’s equipment. That, to him, was infinitely more alluring. If only girls had that, he thought with devious logic, then he needn’t be gay.

Zoe here, for example, was very attractive. He fully admitted that. And she seemed to find him attractive too. She had even shown him once how to kiss, properly. Disconcerting, that had been, but highly educational. Yet, set alongside her, Chris won hands down. He was not only seriously beautiful but had everything that Zoe did not. That was the difference. And whenever he looked back from the dance floor, he saw Chris and Roy deep in conversation and occasionally glancing across at him. Good old Roy. He had misjudged him badly.

When the music stopped, Roy beckoned him.

“Since you’re up, Mark, would you show Chris where the loos are?”

And the boy gave him an inviting smile. Dear God, thought Mark as he guided him down the corridor to the Gents, it’s working. You’ve never had a chance like this before. Perfect opportunity for each to see what the other has to offer. And if you play your cards right, then … His heart might be thumping, but he felt unexpectedly in control as he made for the middle urinal of the three, so that Chris would have to use an adjoining one.

But the lad confounded him by slipping demurely into a cubicle and bolting the door. Oh, bugger it, thought Mark as he unzipped and peed. Is he just shy? But no, it was not that. He heard plops in the pan, followed by the whisper of paper. Oh well, if a man’s gotta go … But then there was silence. A long silence.

“What’s holding you up?” he called when he could bear it no longer. “You having … ?”

Christ, no! You almost asked if he was having a quiet wank. Can’t do that. Far too familiar, far too crude, far too early. You only met him quarter of an hour ago. Don’t go over the top.

The cubicle door opened immediately.

“Sorry,” said Chris, heading for the wash-basin. “Didn’t realise you were waiting. I was looking at the drawings and graffiti. All about, um, you know, gay sex. Wheeee, haven’t seen any as hot as that before!”

Mark knew. He had seen them too. Indeed in his desperation he had written one of them himself. And as the boy turned round to dry his hands, Mark could not fail to notice that his long sweater was half-caught in his belt, revealing an unmistakable near-vertical bulge in the jeans beneath. Trying not to stare too obviously, Mark swallowed hard. At last, his moment of truth had arrived. No mistaking it. Must get this right.

“Er, that sort of thing turn you on?”

“Well, I’ve never, um, done anything like that.” The blue eyes looked up bashfully under their long lashes. “But I’ve often thought about doing it. Not with … just anybody who only wanted a quick, you know, blow-job or whatever. But with someone who’s, um, good-looking. And the sort of person I could, er … be friends with too.” The invitation in those eyes was hardly to be missed.

“Oh God. Same goes for me. Exactly the same. I’ve not done it either. But I’m desperate to try. I want a friend too. You’re cute, you know.”

Mark realised he was babbling, pulled himself together and forced a smile which he hoped was not inane or leering. Things were getting positively uncomfortable inside his briefs and he rearranged them, rather more ostentatiously than he had intended.

“So … er … shall we … would you like to … ?”

Before he could work out an ending to this crucial question, he was answered with a dirtily conspiratorial grin.

“Wicked! I was hoping you’d say that. Yes! Let’s! Look, let’s dig Roy out, then, and go back to my auntie’s. The coast’s clear there.”

He adjusted his own crotch and put his sweater to rights, and his grin grew wider still. He was already moving tentatively towards Mark as if for a warm-up round, when the door swung open and another boy came in. Self-conscious and thwarted, they hurriedly left. Chris scampered ahead to the hall where he had a quiet word with Roy, who nodded and brusquely detached himself from his harem. The three of them exchanged the shindig of the club for the blessed quiet of the evening.

As they walked, Mark was conscious of Chris’s eyes on him and, lost in wonder, he returned the gaze. Daringly, he fumbled for the boy’s hand and squeezed it, and found his own being squeezed back. His dream was coming true. Basking in a heaven of anticipation, he said not a word. Nor did Chris.

“Mum and Dad are away for the night,” Roy explained, doing the talking for them. “Good thing too. Chris is in the spare room, by the way. It’s a double bed. Use that. Don’t mind me. Just enjoy yourselves. I’m beginning to envy you, Mark. I’m sorry I … laughed when you first told me.” No argument, he was a real friend after all.

A few minutes brought them to the house. Though his heart might be a-flutter, Mark felt his hormones and adrenalin surging. He knew, more or less, what to do. So he should — he had rehearsed it often enough in his fantasies. He must keep the momentum going. The instant the front door closed he drew the slender body to his own, looked down at the expectant face and, drawing on his one and only lesson, pulled Chris’s head towards him until their lips met. The boy, to his astonishment, grabbed the initiative, and all the action took place inside Mark’s mouth. No complaint about that, for Chris kindled fires far hotter than Zoe had ever done. Yet it left Mark a trifle uneasy — surely he should have taken charge.

“That was awesome! But, hey, you’ve done that before!” he protested, panting happily as they came up for air.

Chris was radiant too. “Yes, I have. But never with a gay … man.” He might have said ‘boy,’ but the ‘man’ restored Mark’s self-confidence. Then, modestly and hesitantly, “Mark, look, I’m, er, new to the rest of it. I’m feeling … a bit shy about this. D’you mind if I undress by myself? Please?”

Understandable for his first time. Mark felt much the same, but did not want to seem the novice.

“Course. No problem.”

“And you undress by yourself? Can he use your room, Roy?”

“Sure. Help yourself.” Roy had been watching the performance with a kindly eye.

“I’ll call when I’m ready, right?” Chris murmured once they were upstairs, and slipped into the spare room.

Roy led Mark to his own bedroom and tactfully vanished. Mark slowly stripped, went to the mirror to check and double-check his face for zits, and stood back for a full-length view. Not a bad sight, he admitted. If he was still nervous, it was over-ridden by an odd mixture of lust, humble gratitude, and hope. At last, at long last, he had made the grade. Fulfilment was just round the corner. And on hearing a faint “I’m ready” he marched without hesitation into the spare room, his manhood proudly saluting the ceiling.

Chris was lying on one side of the bed, half under the sheet, on his back, naked and provocative. His arms were folded across his chest, and the sheet was pulled down precisely far enough to expose a bush of fair hair, but to conceal what came next. His eyes, as they took in Mark’s body, seemed wide and scared. Understandable again, thought Mark. Probably why he hasn’t got a stiffy yet. Never mind, that’ll soon look after itself. Athrob, he knelt beside the bed and smiled down.

“Said it before, you’re cute! Let’s take this slowly, shall we? Kiss again for starters?”

He lowered his face to the boy’s, this time making sure that both tongues were in Chris’s mouth. As they wrestled wetly there, he placed his hand on the lad’s flat stomach and gently stroked it. Then he inched downwards, through the thicket of hair — as luxuriant as his own, astonishingly plentiful for a boy so young — until he reached his target, that magic place still hidden beneath the sheet.

But … but … there was nothing there. Well, there was something. But only a warm damp slot, flanked by hairy ridges.

The shock of understanding hit him like a sledgehammer. Reflexes clamped his jaws together and he bit his tongue viciously. Chittering with pain he leapt up, his erection deflating like a balloon with a terminal leak. Numbly he watched her mouth, lipsticked like a vampire’s with his blood, widen in a fit of uncontrolled giggles. Numbly he watched her unfold her arms off her small firm breasts. Numbly he noted a rolled-up handkerchief beside her, and numbly realised it had recently done duty as a bulge in her jeans. He understood, but did not yet react. All his emotions were on hold.

The door flew open, and in pranced Roy, grinning like an ape, rampant, stark naked except for a condom. He leapt on to the bed beside Chris and clung to her, quaking with laughter. The dam of Mark’s emotions burst. There was no justice in the world. He’d been fooled, he’d been betrayed. This bastard and this bitch would broadcast the joke to everyone in town, and he’d be dead. He sank to his knees again, buried his head in the mattress, and howled his grief.

“Oh, shut up, you pathetic poof,” growled Roy. “Get out and blub somewhere else. We’ve got things to do, Christine and me.”

He tried to pull her head towards his, but she was looking away now, resisting, giggling no longer, frowning.

“Leave it, Roy.” Her voice was strained. “We’re being cruel. Oh God, what have we done?” She laid a hand on Mark’s head.

“Christ! He only got what was coming to him. Sissy queer. Don’t bother with him. C’mon, I want my fun.”She turned a furious eye on him. “But we’ve hurt him, Roy. Don’t you see? Hurt him. We shouldn’t have done that. Oh God, I wish I hadn’t. But we’ve got to help him now. Or I have, even if you won’t.”

Roy boggled at her. “Help that … prat?” he spluttered. “You’re joking!”

“You fuck off, Roy. Get out! NOW! Or it’s all over between us. GET OUT!”

Grumbling peevishly, but recognising real feminine anger when he saw it, Roy went.

“Oh, Mark, I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.” Genuinely stricken, she put her hands on his shoulders. “That was a bloody horrible thing to do, stringing you along. We thought it would be so funny. But it wasn’t. I can see that now. Oh, Mark, don’t cry. Can I give you a hug? Please?”

She moved her hands under his arms and encouraged him up on to the bed, where he collapsed inertly on his side, still racked with sobs, cheeks wet, a trickle of blood dribbling from his mouth. She snuggled up to him, arms around him, flesh against flesh. He roused her, she found, more than Roy did.

As she lightly stroked his back, his sobs gradually died away. But he still quivered from head to foot, and did not respond. Even down below there was no response at all. She wondered how to right this monstrous wrong. Tonight he had been on the brink of something he had been yearning for, who knew for how long, and she had robbed him of it. The anticlimax must be shattering. On top of that was the shame of being tricked, of making a fool of himself. She was desperate to repair the damage. But when she pulled back her head and offered him her lips, he shook his head dumbly. She ground her pelvis against his; but there was still no response, only another shake of the head.

Then intuition showed her the answer. Femininity, feminine equipment, did nothing for him. He was trembling not only with the mental anguish of humiliation, but with physical anguish at being in close contact with a girl. She could not soothe his body. She could only try to soothe his mind.

“I understand now. Don’t worry, Mark. I won’t tell anyone, and I’ll make sure Roy doesn’t blab. I can twist his arm. I promise. OK?”

Mark believed her. He had to.

“Look, you nip into the bathroom, and I’ll get Roy in here and tell him that if he breathes a word of this, I’ll ditch him. While I’m doing that, you get away. And Mark. I’m sorry.”

Mark still uttered no word. He threw a final anguished look at her slim genitally challenged body, so unalluring now that the whole of it was visible, and obeyed. He slipped into the bathroom, waited until the coast was clear, and as he mechanically got dressed he heard voices raised in argument. He slunk home, mortified to his innermost being, and wept himself to sleep, to a sleep racked with nightmares.

When, next morning, he forced himself to review the shipwreck of his self-esteem, it looked no better. Things had gone from bad to worse. With luck he would not become a public laughing-stock, but his self-loathing had never been greater. He was in the shit, and it was his own fault. How could he have made that first crashing, toe-curling, gut-wrenching, mind-shrivelling blunder? Having made it, how could he have fallen into the trap they had laid? It was a classic case of wish-fulfilment. Driven desperate by his fantasies, he had jumped to all kind of conclusions. He had been ludicrously naïve, idiotically hasty, criminally over-trusting. He hated himself.

He could not even say he would handle things better next time, because there would not be a next time, would there? He could never try again. He could never trust anyone again. Anyway, there was nothing to drive him now. All his lusts were smothered, buried deep under the landslide of his shame. He would never even jerk off again. He had lost all interest in everything. Was there any point in carrying on? The main-line railway ran nearby, with frequent high-speed trains and a handy bridge …

Like a zombie Mark struggled through the last three weeks of term, a prey to nightmares, communicating with the outside world less even than before. Like a tortoise under threat, he retreated inside his shell. His friends, such as they were, drifted still further away. Roy sneered surreptitiously. At least he was spared public humiliation. Until, that is, the last day of school, when he knew that Roy had blabbed.

As he arrived in the morning he was confronted by Zoe — Zoe, of all people, whom he had trusted and respected — posing fatuously with her latest boyfriend.

“Hey, Mark!” she taunted. “Can’t you tell the difference?”

At break it grew worse. At lunchtime, when school ended, he fled home with an orchestrated chorus of derision ringing in his ears. Had it not been the end of term he would have kept his appointment with the express train there and then.

As it was, there was one saving grace, just one. He was going away, away from those bastards, away from the chill of home, into the company of people he had never met, who knew nothing of him or his humiliation. For a week, or more if it suited him, he would be in a totally different environment. A haven, with luck, where he could think in peace, and decide whether to stay put in this godforsaken world or to wave it goodbye.

It was Dad, surprisingly enough, who had suggested this break, a couple of weeks ago. Maybe that was a coincidence. They rarely had much to say to each other, and he was not sure if Dad had noticed any change in him. If he had, he had made no comment. But it was no secret that Mark had long been interested in the distant past. He read Current Archaeology and was an avid watcher of Time Team and Meet your Ancestors. The Archdeacon, Dad reported, had been telling him about this Roman excavation near Bath which his own son went on as a volunteer. Would Mark like to go too?

Although he had never been on a dig before, he jumped at the chance. All his other interests had guttered and gone out, but this one flickered back to life. Anything to get him away from home, from non-friends, from reminders of his shame. The present and the future were write-offs. His only hope of finding equilibrium lay in communing with the past.