Those Old Gods

Chapter 5. Monday: Cupid’s dart

If when Don Cupid’s dart
Doth wound a heart,
We hide our grief
And shun relief;
The pain increaseth on that score,
For wounds unsearched but rankle more.

Sir John Suckling, Love’s Offence

Monday morning was uneventful too, until almost lunchtime. The stink of ancient mud was stronger still. Each worked along a side wall, scraping away a strip a yard wide and three inches deep, starting from the courtyard end. As Mark was approaching the corner by the window wall he was startled out of his mechanical scraping. Something was different. There was a different sort of resistance. Delicately he scratched at the silt with the trowel point and gently prodded with his finger.

“Don! There’s something here!”

“Hang on a mo. I’ve got something too.”

After a bit more poking in his own corner, Don came over to Mark’s and poked there.

“Yes, yours is much the same. Want to have a look at mine?”

For the first time for weeks, Mark grinned properly. He could not have done that even yesterday, and it was an unpractised grin. But for the first time Don saw a face without strain, and those hazel eyes without shutters. He felt strangely confused and could only half-smile back. “Gutter mind!” was all he could say.

So Mark looked at Don’s, and then at Don. They knew they were on to something good. Don stood up, not much more than his head above the trench. He located Bob, waved to attract his attention, and beckoned him over.

“Looks like cloth, Bob. Two lots. And one seems to have some leather too. You’d better come down.”

Bob lumbered down the ladder and lowered his bulk protestingly on to a kneeler. “I’m too fat for this game!” He peered closely. “Ye gods and little fishes! You’re right! Good grief!” He felt with a finger, sat back on his heels, and thought. “Look, it’s lunchtime. You go and wash your hands and grab some sandwiches while I have a look at the other one and have a ferret.” He saw their faces fall, and smiled. “It’s all right, I’m not going to steal them off you. They’re your finds, and you stay with them. But this could be big-time stuff, and I’ve got to work out how best we tackle it.”

They obeyed, and came back with their sandwiches to a council of war.

“Phew,” said Bob. “Can’t think how you work down here, in this pong. Right, this is the way I see it. We’ve got leather and what looks like lots of textiles. They’re almost certainly Roman. Leather’s not uncommon in wet conditions. But cloth is rare. If you find it at all it’s normally only in tiny bits. In the western provinces, anyway. It can survive if it’s been kept totally dry — most of the Roman cloth that we do have comes from the Egyptian desert. But it can also survive if it’s been kept totally wet, without any oxygen, and undisturbed. Like here. For maybe sixteen hundred years this stuff’s been sealed in this repulsive goo. Perfect anaerobic conditions.

“The problem is that we’re now exposing it to air. We’ve got to act fast, one way or the other. But it’s delicate stuff, only to be handled by experts … Look, both of you stay in your own corners. What I want to see is if we can take each lot out in a solid block, without disturbing it. Slide a metal sheet under it, and lift it bodily for them to untangle and clean up and conserve in the lab. But we can only do that if it’s small enough.

“So your first job is to get the mud off round it, down to the floor. Don’t disturb the stuff itself at all, don’t try to clean it. It’ll be pretty fragile. Simply discover how far it extends. If it proves too big, we turn the pump off and let it flood again while we scratch our heads. So be very very careful, but don’t waste time.”


“And boys. I don’t want to put you off. Or raise false hopes. But if this is what I think it might be, it’s a very important find indeed. You’re dealing with it not just because you found it, but also because you’re the most meticulous and dextrous people we’ve got. It’s all in your hands.”

An accolade and a challenge. Both boys glowed, and rose to it. They discussed details and collected more equipment. The site hut was a junk shop of everyday things which archaeologists press into unexpected service. Tablespoons — blunter than trowels and better for scooping. Big sponges to mop up residual water — most of it was intercepted by the sump as it came in from the courtyard, but not all. More buckets to store the mud they scooped out, until they had time to sieve it — they would now have to sieve the lot. They experimented with positions. The work was low down and getting lower, their eyes needed to be close to it, and squatting and kneeling both proved awkward.

“Best to lie down,” said Mark, eyeing the claggy mud with distaste. “OK if we strip off?” he asked Bob.

Bob chuckled. “OK by me. You’ll get a crowd of old ladies admiring you, though.”

Mark blushed. “I didn’t mean strip right off.”

“No. But you’ll still get a fan-club.”

So Mark stripped to his briefs, after a moment’s hesitation Don did too, and they lay full-length on the cold and clammy mud as they scooped. Sure enough, an audience appeared and compliments rained down. “Heehee! A nudist colony!” said Miss Dinsdale’s voice. From above, nobody saw Don’s face turn scarlet; but Mark, on the same level, did. Before long, Bob shooed everyone else back to work.

Three hours of careful spooning around each corner took them down to the floor which, as in the doorway, proved to be smooth cement covered with another layer of grit. They had now discovered that in both cases the textiles were in a sort of mound roughly eighteen inches across and nine inches high. Bob was much relieved. He came down to take photographs.

Then, while the boys sketched and measured the mounds for the record, he collected his equipment. He had some deep plastic trays two feet square, and he had some thin steel sheets he had salvaged from a skip. He sheared two sheets to fit the trays. The rest was surprisingly easy. Both boys now worked together, one easing his outspread fingers under a mound, the other sliding the sheet in under the fingers as the mound was freed from the floor. They then lifted the sheet and mound together and lowered them into the tray, and repeated the performance on the other mound.

They heaved the trays to the surface and regarded them in triumph. From what they could see through the adhering silt, each mound consisted mainly of crumpled cloth, black from centuries in wet mud and compressed tight by the weight above. But toes of shoes and other bits of leather were poking out of the sides, and near the top of Mark’s mound was what looked like a sheath for a small knife.

“Bob, I think I know what you thought they might be,” said Mark cryptically. “And if I’m right, I think you’re right.” Bob cocked an eyebrow at him. “It’s a bedroom, big enough for a double bed. I think the last people in that bed got flooded out. They escaped, but had to leave their clothes behind. If that’s right, we’ve got two complete sets of Roman British clothes.”

Bob smiled. “Cross fingers,” was all he said.

He covered the mounds with clean tea-towels requisitioned from Mrs P, and packed wet moss from the stream bank on top and all round. He watered them liberally and put the trays in bin-liners to stop them drying out. Meanwhile the boys resumed their wellies, sieved the contents of their buckets, refuelled the pump, and tidied away their equipment. Then they carried the trays to Bob’s car. Everyone else had long since left.

“I’ve been on the phone,” said Bob, “while you were slaving down there. To Bradford. That’s much the best lab for textiles. And I’ve arranged to drive the stuff up first thing in the morning. So clear the rest of the room tomorrow, would you? I doubt you’ll find any more textiles. In fact I rather hope you don’t. If I’m back in time, I’ll drop in here at the end of the day. And boys, thank you. You’ve been blinking magnificent!”

He beamed at them with genuine gratitude, and with affectionate amusement at the sight of two slender and elated figures, standing in the evening sunshine on the verge of a Roman road, wearing nothing whatever except briefs, wellies, and much mud.

Mark’s an acquisition, he thought as he drove off. He had long known that Don was utterly reliable. Now it looked as if Mark, quieter and less experienced but just as bright, was the same: ready to do not only mind-blowingly tedious chores in foul conditions without complaint, but also highly responsible ones with intelligence and infinite care. He devoutly hoped Mark would stay with them. He only had daughters himself. No offence to them, but he wished he had sons as well. Like these two boys.

These two boys wandered slowly back to the camping field, still on a high, grinning openly at each other for the first time, sharing their delight. This afternoon had deepened their bond. At the time they had been too intent on their work but, looking back, they recognised it now. Once they had climbed the stile, Mark unthinkingly put a comradely arm round Don’s shoulder. Bare skin on bare skin, for the first time.

“Today’s been great, Don. Thanks.”

Don was thinking the same. Though he was reminded of Matt’s arm on his shoulder on the Costa Natura, his own went round Mark in acknowledgement. The contact felt good and, as they waded side by side through the long grass at the edge of the wheat-field, their legs were sensuously tickled. He glanced down and found his eye dwelling on the mud-matted trail of hair below Mark’s navel.

He became conscious of a tightening in his briefs, and his contentment evaporated. Oh God, he could not allow that to happen. No way. It might lead to a replay of Estepona. Reluctantly he took his arm off Mark and wondered vaguely why he had never felt the grass tickling his crotch before. Oh, of course …

“Bugger it! We’ve left our clothes behind!”

“Ackkk, so we have! Let’s leave them till after we’ve washed. And eaten. This mud’s drying out and it’s getting uncomfortable.”

“I think there’s a hose-pipe in the barn. Might be better than sluicing in the trough.”

Yes, there was. Mark fixed it to the tap, turned it on, and found that a finger over the end produced a spray of a sort.

“Right, you first.” He did not know if he dared drop his briefs, and was passing the buck.

Don could not trust himself either. As it happened, the coldness of the water discouraged things from misbehaving further and, as Mark moved round his body with the spray, he relaxed and scrubbed himself vigorously with his flannel. Then he towelled himself and took over the hose.

Mark had had quite a close-up view of Don’s smooth body as he hosed it, and had felt stirrings in his own briefs. Now, as the spray moved down to his own legs, he saw Don’s eyes fixed on his crotch. Oh Gawd, surely not? But a glance showed that things were properly limp. So is he checking me out? How do I deal with this?

Don seemed to read his mind. “It’s OK, I’m not checking you out. But is that a wart on your thigh?”

On the inside, just below the bulge of the briefs, was a dark knob the size of a small pea. Don had not noticed it when he had surreptitiously checked him out in the trench.

“What? I haven’t got a wart. Where?”

Don turned the hose away and pointed, without venturing too close.

Mark peered down and pushed his bulge to one side. “Eeeewww! It’s a tick!”

“Don’t try and pull it off. It’ll only leave its head behind. Look, let’s finish swilling you off. There’s only your legs left.”

That done, Mark stood drying himself, hair first, his head hidden in the towel. Don knelt down to inspect the tick more closely. This was almost a replay of that time in the Hotel Mediterraneo, though Mark was not naked as Matt had been. Nor stiff. He yearned to do what he had not been allowed to do then. But of course he couldn’t. Matt had been all right, up to that point, but Mark was on a different plane. He knew that already. And he still had no reason to suppose that Mark was gay.

“You must have picked it up in that long grass. But I know how to get rid of it. We need that meths for your stove. Where do I find the bottle?” He had once had a tick himself, and this was how Mum had dealt with it.

“In the cardboard box.”

Don found it and handed it over. Mark had finished drying himself.

“Sit down and drip the stuff on. One drip at a time, and wait for that to evaporate before the next drip. As it evaporates, it cools, and the critter won’t like that.”

Mark sat, legs provocatively wide apart, in nothing but his filthy wet briefs, and dripped. Don wanted to do it for him, to rest his hand on Mark’s thigh with its fine dark hair, or even on his bulge. But of course he couldn’t. Within a few minutes the tick decided it was too chilly and fell off. Don put a toe on it, and Mark’s blood squidged over the grass. Now Don wanted to suck the bite, as one does a snakebite. Ticks carry infections. Lyme disease. Typhus. Suck any germs out. But of course he couldn’t.

Having dressed and cooked and eaten, they went back to collect their clothes. Once again they stopped beyond the stile and looked down at the site.

“I don’t understand that flood,” said Don. “When it went down, why didn’t they just shovel the muck out, clean up, and go back to business as usual?”

“I’ve been wondering that too, and think I’ve worked it out. Yes, they would have done, if it had been a flood which came and went. But this one came but didn’t go. The water level stayed up. Permanently. It must have done — we’ve got two piles of Roman clothes, which must have been wet ever since, or they’d have decayed.”

Don’s eyes had lit up. “I think I see where you’re going. Carry on.”

“Somehow the stream got dammed. Well, they’d hardly dam it on purpose, so it must have been by accident. A landslide sort of thing. And look.” He pointed to the far side of the valley. “It’s steep there. And there’s that big sort of gouge in the hillside, with bedrock sticking out. And right underneath it the stream suddenly drops down. At that waterfall place, just below the hostel. Is that where the trouble started? A big bit of hillside slipped down and blocked the stream, and everything upstream of there’s been filled up with mud and water ever since, getting deeper and deeper. One landslide after another. New floods.”

Don was excited. “Yes! You’ve got it! It makes sense. A local cloudburst which caused the landslide. And caused a flash flood. Which brought down all that silt and dumped it in the hostel.”

“That’s right. Something just like that happened near us, in the Chew Valley, thirty-odd years ago. Dad told me about it. Six inches of rain in a couple of hours, or something ridiculous. Did a hell of a lot of damage.”

“So the people in the hostel got out, but in such a hurry they left their clothes behind. And because the landslide was too big to shift, the hostel was abandoned for good. The temple and the other buildings were OK, because they stand higher. So does the reception area in the hostel. But hang on. If the clothes were there, why isn’t the bed?”

“Because the management salvaged the furniture. Anything that was still visible above the silt, once it had settled. Beds. Doors and things. That last layer of grit, the one dumped by the next flood — that was a foot above the floor, wasn’t it?”


“So the first flood buried those clothes under a foot of mud. Not surprising nobody salvaged them. Even if they knew they were there.”

“Yes. Yes. And Mark! Those indentations! The four in a rectangle — were they left by the bed legs? If a bed’s stuck in a foot of mud you can’t drag it out lengthways. You’ve got to lift it up. So the other depressions in between could be the footprints of the blokes carrying it. The mud was only semi-hard then, and they sank in with the weight of the bed, and then the mud sort of slumped into their footprints. And into the holes left by the bed legs. I’ve think you’ve got it, Mark. We’ll check the dimensions on the plan.”

They grinned at each other again, in delight at having deduced the fate of a bed sixteen hundred years ago. But Don had not finished.

“And hey, something else I’ve only just realised. About the last people in that bed. There was a sheath for a knife on your pile of clothes, right? Well, I’m pretty sure there was the tip of a sheath sticking out of mine.”


“Women wouldn’t carry knives.”

Their minds swung to Maponus, uniter of young men, and visualised what the last people in that bed might have been up to. But they did not dare to spell out their images. Nor did they dare to look at each other.

“Well, we’d better get our clothes.” The light was fading. “Where are they?”

“Bob said he’d put them in the hut.”

It was locked, of course, but everybody knew where the key was hidden. While they were there they checked their field notes for the indentations.

“Yes. That’s it. About six foot long and four foot six wide. Up against the wall under the window, centrally. They must be the marks of the bed legs. Wheeee! Let’s go.”

“Hang on,” said Mark, “I’ve got a stone in my shoe,” and he sat down on the tall stool to deal with it.

The sight of Mark sitting on the stool jostled with an image already in Don’s mind — an image of what the occupants of the bed might have been up to. They coalesced to put him in a mood that he had not been in since half term. The randy Don was already part-way to rejoining the serious-minded Don. Now a bit of the mischievous Don came back too. He giggled.

“What’s so funny?”

“Just being weird. Reminded of a joke.”

“Let’s hear it, then.”

Don hesitated, not at all sure how Mark might react and wishing he had not giggled. But he took the risk. “Um, how do you get four gay men sitting on one stool?”

Mark gaped at him, taken aback. “How?”

“Turn it upside down!”

Apart from that brief whimsy in the trench this morning, it was a long time since Mark had seen anything funny in any aspect of gayness. On the verge of resentment, he gaped for several more seconds before doubling up and bellowing with laughter, helplessly, on and on. Don was astonished, then worried. He seemed way out of control. How do you deal with hysterics? Slap him in the face?

To his relief Mark pulled himself together and wiped tears off his cheeks.

“Sorry. Got carried away. Eh dear.”

They picked up their clothes and locked up. On the way back, Don took another risk.

“Mark, can I ask you something? Why did you nearly bust your guts over that joke? It wasn’t that funny.”

Mark’s answer took a long time to come, because he had to screw up courage to admit even this much. “Because … today’s the first time I’ve been really happy for months. And that was the first excuse I’ve had for a good laugh. I’m out of practice, that’s all.”

“You’ve been unhappy because of … whatever it was? That bad thing you have to live with?”

Mark nodded, slightly and slowly.

Don took an even bigger risk. “Want to tell me? Get it off your chest?”

There was an even longer pause. “Thanks, but no. You’d laugh at me.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Everyone else has.”

“Mark, you can trust me.”

Mark gazed at him for a long time. “But can I trust myself? Look at it this way. You’ve got, um, bad memories too. I know you have.”

Don nodded reluctantly. He could see what was coming.

“Like to tell me about them?”

Could he summon up enough trust? No. Once bitten, twice shy. He dared not risk being let down again. He shook his head.

“See?” Mark managed to muster a wry smile. “I can’t show you mine. And you can’t show me yours.”

They had stopped and were facing each other in the dusk, in the long grass beside the golden wheat-field. Each of them was already in love. Far from fully aware of it yet, and totally unaware that the other was too. With no real inkling, in fact, that the other was gay. Desperately wanting to help, but not allowed to. Desperately wanting to be helped, but not allowing it. Convinced that if that festering, shameful, can of worms were opened it would bring down ridicule or revulsion or even hatred. To open that can would destroy their friendship, a friendship that was new but already immensely valuable.

It hurt to keep the can closed, it hurt like hell. Hide the grief and the pain increases. But that was the only way. So they thought.

They were so near, but yet so far. And they did not know it.