Those Old Gods

Chapter 4. Sunday: see another’s woe

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

William Blake, Songs of Innocence

But for a long time sleep was kept at bay by thoughts buzzing, insistent as mosquitoes, around their heads. Mark was thinking of Don. He liked him. Very much. He was intelligent, interesting, gentle, considerate. He had started off with great caution. Mark had seen that, for he had been cautious too. But then Don’s good nature had come into play, and he had gone out of his way to put the new boy in the picture and at his ease. All that despite his problems, whatever they were. He was obviously very vulnerable. Mark wished he could offer comfort.

Yet already Don’s friendly approach had eased some of his own torments. He was already opening up. He was aware of it. But he knew he could only open up so far and no further. He could never unburden himself to Don, never tell of his own shame, because it would invite scorn and derision. And that thought made his mind return, as it always did, to Chris’s bed. Willy nilly his agonies flooded back and he howled inwardly. A sob which he failed to suppress reached Don’s ears.

Don, meanwhile, was thinking along very much the same lines. Mark was so quiet, so thoughtful, so caring, and so obviously had a problem. He wished he could help him. They were friends already. They could be very good friends. But nothing more than that. His old randiness was still dormant. Anyway, there was no sign whatever that Mark was gay. He could not make any assumptions about him, as he had so rashly made about Matt. His face flamed as those rankling memories returned, as he relived that evening in the Hotel Mediterraneo, as he felt Matt’s fist slam into his face. And Mark heard him groan.

Two lonely souls, yearning to help but too scared to be helped.

What with that and the unfamiliarly hard ground, neither slept well. They breakfasted thoughtfully in the morning sun, almost in silence. When they had finished, Mark intrigued Don by bringing out his wash-bag and a small bowl, into which he tipped the remains of the coffee water, and by lathering his face.

“Don’t mind me staring,” Don said. “I’ve never seen anyone shaving before. Not even my father. I’m just curious.”

Which was true. But he suddenly wanted to feel Mark’s face, before and after. Was his old randy self beginning to stir again?

“No problem.” Mark peered into a little mirror as he plied the razor. “It’s a right waste of time. Don’t start before you have to.” He eyed the fine down on Don’s cheeks and lip. Only a month ago he would have been in a frenzy of desire, but all his yearnings were moribund. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen last March. And you?”

“Sixteen next September.” Only six months between them, but it looked more like two years.

“Do you shave every day?”

“Usually. Unless I’m going to be by myself. I don’t bother then.”

When Mark was done, they strolled to the site, in shorts today rather than jeans. Yesterday they had lowered the bottom of their trench by only three inches. Now, in the light of experience and with permission to take off thicker slices, they made faster progress. They talked again, on rather more personal matters now — likes and dislikes, musical tastes, films, telly programmes. An opening came when they could have discussed parents. Neither took it.

By lunchtime they had gone down another nine inches and needed stepladders to climb in and out without the edge of the trench crumbling. Hitherto the walls of the room had been bare stone and mortar with only traces of the original plaster. Now intact plaster was beginning to appear, painted a dark terracotta colour which was probably deepened by the wetness and the silt.

“Much the same as in the reception area,” said Bob, peering down from above. “I don’t expect there’ll be any decoration on it. After all, this wasn’t a four-star establishment. Only a one-star, if that. Plain, not plush. You’ll have gathered,” he said to Mark, “that we haven’t had any mosaics yet. Not even simple tessellated floors, anywhere. It all hangs together.”

But still there had been no small finds, only the occasional sign of successive floods, and Bob now passed down a thin steel rod. “Try probing,” he said. “It’ll be useful to know how far down the floor is. To encourage you. Or discourage you. What’s that? Still another two feet to go? Hmmm. That’ll take you down about five feet all told. A good thing you’ve got those walls round you. If it had been plain mud we’d have had to shore it up. But I’ll find something to slot in outside the doorway, to keep the stuff in the courtyard from caving in on you.”

Soon after lunch Miss Dinsdale, the old bird who had found the phallic knife in the shop, found something else there, this time made of bronze. Like Mr Wilmot, she washed it, gave it a gentle brush, and let out a shrill shriek of delight.

“Better than smelly old fish sauce! I’ve done it again!”

Again people crowded round, and there was much laughter. It was a charm, a fascinum, a miniature phallus, erect, beautifully made, and adorned not only with balls but with wings and with a ring for suspension. Not identical to the one at Sexi, Don saw at a quick glance, but near enough. Again his heart shrivelled, and again he jumped into their trench to escape public gaze. Again, a few minutes later, Mark joined him. Half smiling, this time — something quite unusual for him.

“That’s a sexy souvenir!” he said, and was gobsmacked to see Don’s face crumple before it disappeared behind his filthy hands. Mark could not imagine why. Surely Don was not a prude, to be upset by a model prick which delighted even the old ladies. After all, he had been amused by the phallic knife. Yet there was some hang-up there. Some very raw nerve was being touched. The symptoms were all too familiar. Again, he put an arm round him.

“Don, I’ve put my foot in it, haven’t I? Somehow.”

“Not your fault,” was all Don could manage.

“Please tell me how, so I don’t do it again.”

But Don could not. “Just me being silly. Been reminded again, of something bad. Don’t bother about me. Better soon. But thanks.”

He was better soon, but Mark did bother. Hitherto he had sympathised with Don as a fellow-human in distress. He had regarded him as a potential friend, as an actual friend, because intellectually they clicked. Now that he had hugged him again, he began to think about him physically too. He had not thought that way about anyone since … then. It was not a matter of raging desire, not by a long chalk. It was merely the first recognition that Don had a body, a good young body, as well as a good mature mind. Part of Mark’s brain, whichever part it was that dealt with such things, had been knocked out cold and was just beginning to come round.

It took half an hour for Don to start talking again. This time they compared notes about school. Despite the six months’ age difference, they were in the same year. They discussed subjects and teachers and uniforms and school dinners, but when talk began to veer towards friends, neither pursued it.

School led them on, via games, to football. Don was a Man U fan and waxed lyrical about his team.

“Did you see them playing the Gunners last March? That goal of Becks’? Shot from outside the penalty area, so fast that Seaman hardly saw it? Wow! People say Beckham’s a spoilt brat, and maybe they’re right. But, God, he’s a star!”

Mark tried to disguise the shock by lowering his head and scraping furiously. In vain. Don saw it, and was dismayed. What had he said? Why on earth should praise of the best-known, arguably the best, footballer in the world put Mark in a tizz? But it had done. In his turn he laid a comforting arm across Mark’s back, his hand feeling ripples in the muscle behind the shoulder. He found time, amid the concern which dominated his mind, for surprise at noticing a detail like that.

“I’m sorry, Mark. I’ve done it too, haven’t I? Dunno what it was but, whatever it was, I didn’t mean to.”

Mark raised a scarlet face and made an attempt at a smile. “I know you didn’t. It’s just me.”

He knew all about David Beckham, of course. Who didn’t? But in his private world there was only one Beckham. Roy Beckham. A spoilt brat, yes. But not a star. Quite the reverse. A total bastard.

But he had to be as honest as he could. He sat back on his heels and looked Don in the eyes. “Don, it’s something I have to live with.” If I’m going to live at all, he added to himself. “Just as I reckon you have to live with your problem, whatever it is.”

Don looked back and nodded soberly. “I know. But it helps, somehow, to know you’re not the only one.”

He was right. It did. No way could either unload their shameful secret. But it did help to know they were not alone in having one. It was something else that drew them closer. After a while they shrugged ruefully, and carried on scraping in silence. But during that interval Mark had come to a very important decision. A double decision.

Nothing else remarkable happened, and by five o’clock they had gone down another foot and cleared the whole room down to the bottom of another layer of grit. Like all the others, this one was flat as a pancake, except that, in the surface of the silt beneath it, were four slight indentations forming a large rectangle, as if left by pebbles plopping into soft mud. Between them was a random pattern of wider depressions. They did not understand them. Nor did Bob, but he took photographs and they plotted them for the plan.

The sump was now down to the floor which felt, under the water, like smooth cement. Only one more foot to go.

“Ah well,” said Bob. “At least the end’s in sight. You’ve got the patience of saints, you two, plodding on through this boring old silt. I do appreciate what you’re doing, even if you don’t.”

They were both in need of praise and encouragement, he felt. Don was familiar enough with the slog of unproductive labour, but he obviously had something on his mind and was far from his usual ebullient self. Mark was the quiet but co-operative new boy, still something of an unknown quantity but coping stoically with an uninspiring job. Perhaps he should have started him on a less tedious one. But they did seem to get on well together.

“I only hope your patience is rewarded with something good when you get down to the floor.”

So did they.

“Does Bob tell the local press about his finds?” asked Mark on the way back.

“Not till the end of the season. If the public heard about the altar and Maponus and things, we’d get swamped with visitors. Bob doesn’t want them. There’s not enough space for them to park on the Fosse Way, and it wastes so much time showing them round. Private visitors are OK, like our parents, say. But not the public. Though we do have an open day on the last day of the dig. That is advertised, and Mr Dring allows parking in our field, and we charge an entrance fee to help cover costs, and everyone acts as guides.”

“D’you know, I reckon I’ll still be here then.”

“What do you mean? Was it in doubt?”

“I’m only sort of booked in for one week. To see if I was interested enough to stay on for the other two.”

“So you are interested enough now?”

“Yes, I am. I must be catching the bug.”

“Good. I’m glad.” That was an understatement. A very big one.

What Mark had said was true — he already felt the thrill of the chase, even though his part in it was still humdrum. But there were two other things he could not reveal, his twin thoughts of the afternoon.

One was that he was beginning to be interested in Don as well. He could do without those unnerving reminders of what he had hoped to escape. But now there was this positive weight in the scales, helping to counterbalance them. No, two positive weights. There was the archaeology, and there was Don. He liked him even more than yesterday, there was now this hint of physical interest, and they had this common bond, this fellow-feeling for each other.

He cast his mind back. What had he done to spark off Don’s grief this afternoon? Yes, they had been looking at Miss Dinsdale’s little prick, and he had said something about a sexy souvenir. Did that mean Don’s hang-up was a sexual one? Like his own? If it was, it was something to be ultra-careful about. He did not trust himself in the least. Even less in that department than in any other. But, if it was, it somehow brought them closer still.

It was Don, therefore, who had spiced the archaeology with a stimulating extra savour, who had made him decide to stay on at the dig.

His other decision was much more fundamental. It was Don who had made him decide to stay on in this world.

Don, quite unwittingly, had shown him that he was not alone. Don’s friendliness, together with Bob’s, had shown him that the world was not, after all, totally black and hostile. He had been yearning for someone with whom to share trust, understanding, care, fulfilment, fun. Don had already supplied more than a touch of understanding and care. There was therefore hope of finding the rest, somewhere. Yes, he would stay on and try to unravel the knot of his problems, in hope. Rather than throw the whole tangle under a train, in despair.

The evening passed quietly and companionably, and they slept much better. Except for one short interlude which affected only Don. He was just dropping off when he heard a soft scratching noise, intermittent but persistent. It seemed to be coming from under his pillow. He found his torch and lifted the pillow. Nothing there. He pulled back the loose end of the groundsheet. There in the flattened grass, staring at him with large unblinking eyes, was a field mouse. After last night he had rearranged his sleeping bag, and presumably the weight of his pillow, or of his head on the pillow, had now blocked the mouse’s front door.

For fully half a minute the two looked at each other, before Don smiled and whispered “Sorry!” At that the mouse turned and scampered off, not in panic, but stopping from time to time to sniff. Don replaced the groundsheet and moved his sleeping bag to one side, but the mouse must have had a back door to its burrow, for he never heard it again.

He settled down once more, thinking about it. The mouse had probably never set eyes on a human before, certainly not so close and by torchlight. But surely instinct told it that something so big and strange was a potential threat. Yet it had conquered its fear, and trusted him.

Was there a message there? That what seem to be big threats are not necessarily threats at all? All very well. But once you have been let down, it is much harder to whistle up the trust next time round. Probably that mouse had never been let down. If it had been, like as not it would have paid for it with its life.

So the message might be very different. That once you know the dangers, self-preservation must come first. Never put yourself at someone else’s mercy, unless you have a cast-iron reason to trust them. And to have that, you must first trust yourself to trust them.