Those Old Gods

Chapter 6. Tuesday: to feel the chain

O! dreadful is the check — intense the agony —
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

Emily Bronte, The Prisoner

Next day, Bob having gone to Bradford, Christine was in charge. She agreed that, because they now knew there was no stratigraphy, they should clear the mud along the window wall right down to the floor, working towards each other from the corners where the clothes had been. They scraped very carefully, and sieved the silt they removed, and there were no more textiles. But on the floor they did make four discoveries.

First, just on his side of where the bed had been, the right-hand side as you looked at the window, Mark found two things close together. There was a small earthenware oil lamp complete with its wick, and alongside it was a knife. Its four-inch blade was badly corroded, but its plain wooden handle seemed intact. Don told him in detail what to do, but left the actual work entirely to him and sat back to watch him do it.

But he was distracted by Mark’s body. He was kneeling with his back half-turned towards him, bent double, and not much skin was visible. The wellies hid his calves. But the hair stood dark on the side of his thighs, and a gap between tee shirt and shorts exposed a wide strip below his waist. His shorts were stretched provocatively tight over his buttocks and into his crack. Don found himself getting hard, and forced his attention back to what Mark was doing.

He had now recorded the position of the finds and was delicately washing the dirt off the top with a small paintbrush and water. With a hiss of his breath Mark saw an inscription cut into the knife handle, laid bare before his eyes, laid bare by his own hands. He felt an intense glow of ownership.

“MAGLOCVNI,” read Don, venturing close to look. “‘The property of Maglocunus.’ Wheeee! Another British name! I suppose this belonged to the sheath on your pile.”

They summoned Christine to take photographs. That done, Mark did not attempt to turn the knife over, but cut a sheet of plastic to size and slid it under the knife. An elastic band slipped over each end held it in place. He padded the base of a plastic box with wet cotton wool, laid the sheet and knife on top, and covered it with more wet cotton wool before putting the lid on. The lamp went into a smaller padded box.

“Well done!” said Don. “You did that as if you’d being doing it all your life!” Mark grinned at him in pure joy.

Then Don found a small silver coin up against the wall. He washed it and looked at it closely, rotating it in his fingers.

“Valens. Emperor, um, 364 to 378 I think. It’s hardly worn. Can’t have been lost much later. Hardly after the 380s, I’d have thought. Reckon that dates our flood fairly closely. Right, I’ll get it recorded — where’s the tape measure?”

He passed the coin to Mark, who studied it with interest but little comprehension. He had never held a Roman coin before, let alone seen one emerge from the ground.

Finally, as he scraped down through a new area of silt, Don exposed a horizontal circle about nine inches in diameter, of which the quarter up against the wall was missing.

“Pottery,” he said gleefully, tapping it lightly with his trowel.

“Why pottery in here?”

“Well, what do you keep under the bed?” Don was grinning a wicked grin.

Porn mags, thought Mark wildly. My jerk-off rag … What have they got to do with … oh, I see! He laughed.

"No, I don't keep one under the bed. I can last the night. It's the rim of a pissius pottius!" He had no Latin at all. "What is the Latin for a pisspot?"

"Um. Ought to know that. It's in Petronius … yes — matella."

Good grief. Was there anything about the Romans this boy didn’t know?

Don scraped the mud away from around it. It was just like a modern one, though unglazed, and the missing quarter of the rim was there inside it. They reckoned the flood rushing in had dashed it against the wall and broken it.

“Pity. It can’t have been very full or it wouldn’t have moved. A potful of Roman piss would have given the scientists a field day!”

Christine came down to take more photographs before they lifted it and packed it up. Working towards each other, they were now close together, chatting desultorily. Nothing more natural than to look at the other while he was talking. A bit disconcerting, when you looked away, to find you were breathing more heavily than usual. To find yourself wondering about him, again. He’s never mentioned girlfriends. But then he’s never said anything about friends of any sort. Can he have lost them all, like you? Like you … like you … can he conceivably be the same as you? No answer possible. Only an ache of longing, of the sort you thought had been battered out of you. A longing not for quick fun, but for something way beyond that.

That finished their yard-wide strip. Rather than start on a new one, they decided to spend what little was left of the day on cleaning the plaster on the window wall, which they had paid no attention to so far. All they needed was a bucket of clean water and a paintbrush apiece to wash off the mud. The plaster was mostly in good condition. This time, to share the bucket, they started in the middle and worked outwards. They immediately exposed a long horizontal line, fifteen inches above the floor, where the plaster had been dented and chipped. It was about four foot six long, central under the window.

“Made by the bed, surely,” Don observed, “whenever it was pushed up against the wall. Or when it shook, if the people in it were, um, being energetic. Fits the leg marks, doesn’t it? Not much doubt now.”

At that point Christine looked down at them. “You’re out of touch, aren’t you, deep in your burrow? You know it’s after five? Everyone else has gone. I’m going. But stay on if you want to finish your plaster, so long as you lock up.”

“Yes, we’d like to finish. And we’ll lock up. Bye!”

They watched her disappear from their view, and returned to their work. At the very next stroke of his brush, a foot above bed level, Mark let out a yelp, flabbergasted and jubilant.

“Don! There’s writing!”

It was a graffito, scratched through the terracotta paint into the plaster beneath. A few letters were exposed. Don rushed across and watched open-mouthed as Mark carefully washed the mud off the rest, five lines of it. To Mark it was total gibberish, and even Don groaned as it emerged.

“Oh shit! It’s in cursive. Handwriting. Almost as different from capitals as ours is. Same sort of thing as you get on the defixiones. Well, I’ll have a go.”

He set to, copying it letter by letter on to his pad, then transcribing it letter by letter into capitals, and when he had finished he read it through several times.

"Oh my God," he said slowly. "Oh my God!" He looked at Mark with an odd mixture of elation and hesitation.

“Well, come on!” Mark had been nobly fighting back his impatience. “What does it say?”

Don handed over the pad. “Actually, it was easier than I expected” The capitals read


The last line ended in a long diagonal gouge.

“That doesn’t help much, though I can see Maglocunus there, like on the knife. And Maponus.”

Don breathed deeply. He had to tread very carefully. “Mark, it’s … sexual. Explicit. Rather like graffiti in shithouses nowadays. Do you mind?”

In this white heat of discovery, Mark’s shamefaced memories of writing graffiti in the Gents at the youth club melted for once into unimportance.

“I’ve been in shithouses too! Come on!”

“OK. Well, in shithouse language it says ‘Here Maglocunus and Dumnorix, united in love with Maponus’ approval and somethinged with a chain, fucked and sucked’.”

"Christ! Christ!" Mark was bubbling with enthusiasm. "So Maponus was the uniter of young men! They had to get his permission!" A sudden qualm struck him. "Those are both boys' names, are they?"

"Oh yes."

"Good." He was looking speculatively at the graffito and at the floor. "And this is plumb above where Maglocunus' knife was. Don! Look! They were both lying here. They'd just finished … you know. Maglocunus was on this side of the bed, lying on his front, and he was right-handed. He got his knife from his pile of clothes — he could easily reach it." Mark was acting it out. "The lamp was on the floor just below. He scratched this message. But in the middle of that last word he got the fright of his life. Thunder and lightning? The landslide coming down? Or the water bursting in? And he dropped the knife and ran. So did what's-his-name — Dumnorix. Both starkers. And they never came back. Christ!"

For once Don had nothing to add. But it did not escape him that Mark had concentrated on Maponus and on reconstructing the scene with vivid imagination — that he had taken in his stride what Maglocunus and Dumnorix had been up to. They squatted there in the filth, both encouraged in their lonely quandaries. At least, this time, they did look at each other, while still inscrutably hugging their thoughts to themselves.

“What was that bit in the middle?” Mark asked at last. “Somethinged with a chain? Does that mean … um … bondage?”

"I don't think so. It doesn't say bound with a chain. It says catena compuncti. I don't understand it. Catena's a chain. Compuncti ought to mean pricked or punctured. Like compunction, when your conscience pricks you. But pricked with a chain? It doesn't make sense."

“No. It doesn’t.”

“Well,” Don shrugged his shoulders, “shall we finish the wall and call it a day?”

Mark bent double again to brush the base of the wall. His waistband was loose and had now sagged low, revealing almost a builder’s bum. At the base of his spine was a small blue star. Don found himself at first strangely envious, and then suddenly inspired.

“You’ve got a tattoo!” he exclaimed.

Mark looked up, blushing. “Just my bit of rebellion. Where nobody’s supposed to see it. So what?”

“Tattoos are pricked, aren’t they? With a needle and dye. Were our blokes tattooed with a chain, like you are with a star?”

Mark sat back on his heels to consider it. “Well, it makes better sense. They knew about tattooing then?”

“Oh yes. The Picts were tattooed, in Scotland. That’s why the Romans called them Picts, the Painted People. And slaves were sometimes tattooed with their owner’s name.”

“Slaves might be in chains. Can that be a link? Oops, pun not intended. Were these guys in slavery to Maponus? In slavery to love? Or else … was the chain a link between two lovers?”

“Could be. Tattooing was only a thought, anyway. Let’s finish the wall. Shouldn’t take long.”

Nor did it. They found nothing else. They filled up the pump, and as they were putting away their tools they were surprised to see Bob, coming from the direction of the camping field.

“You still here? I expected to find you having supper. What’s kept you so late? It’s after seven!”

“We’ve been clearing down to the floor along the window wall, and cleaning the plaster above it. We’ve found … some rather interesting things. And we’ve been doing some reconstructing of what happened in the flood.”

Bob, of course, demanded details, and they took him into the hut and showed him their finds, which delighted him. “Now come and look at the trench.”

“I’m not going down there! I’m in my tidy clothes.”

“You needn’t go down. Just look. Mark, you hop down and point things out. You found most of them.”

Mark climbed down the ladder. “Right, piles of clothes here and here. Bed here, a double bed. Those marks we found the other day were left by the legs when it was lifted out of the mud, here, here, here and here. The head of the bed wore this line on the plaster. The coin was here, the chamber pot here, the lamp and knife here. And immediately above the knife is a graffito, here. Over to you, Don.”

Don handed Bob his pad. “It’s in cursive, but I’ve turned it into capitals. I’m pretty sure of it all.”

“Hmph. You know the state of my Latin. Oh! There’s Maglocunus, as on the knife. And Maponus. What does it mean?”

In the past, Don and Bob had discussed all kinds of topics, but never anything like this.

“Bob, it’s … obscene. Like you might find in a public convenience.”

Bob looked at him steadily. “I see. Look, Don, I’m not easily embarrassed. But the last thing I want is to embarrass you. Or Mark. After all, it’s not a subject which geriatrics are expected to discuss with young men.”

Mark was fascinated. Here were two highly intelligent people, of wildly different ages, with a deep respect for each other, a deep trust in each other, considerate of each other’s sensibilities, searching for common ground which would offend nobody. He thought he could help.

“Bob, we’re old enough to know what’s what. We’re not far off the age of consent. If you’re not going to be embarrassed, neither are we. Well, I’m not.”

He thought the world of Don, but when talking to him it was still difficult to trust himself. The ice felt so thin. He thought the world of Bob too, and in that direction the ice somehow felt much thicker and safer.

“Nor me,” Don confirmed.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that, really, because I've got something of the same sort which I'd like to show you. Right, go ahead, then."

"But it might embarrass you in … the vernacular," Don warned him. "So I'll use, er, clinical language. OK?"


"Well, it says 'Here Maglocunus and Dumnorix, united in love with Maponus' approval and — we think — tattooed with a chain, copulated and, er, performed fellatio.' But the last word, irrumaverunt, stops short in this wild scratch."

Bob nodded slowly. “I see,” he said again. “Thank you. Thank you very much, both of you. It’s all tying together. Now, on the practical side, we need to get that graffito off the wall and into the museum before it gets damaged. I’ll whistle up the plaster expert from Bath as soon as possible. Meanwhile, it’s getting late, you’re filthy, and we’ve still got lots to talk about. Look, I suggest I drive into Chipping Sodbury for fish and chips for the three of us, and bring them back to eat by your tents. I’d be about half an hour. How does that hit you?”

“Sounds good to us.”

So Bob went, and they locked up and returned to the camping field, where they rapidly and modestly deployed the hose-pipe. By the time Bob came back they were ready.

“Right,” said Bob through a mouthful of chips. “You said you’d been doing some reconstructing. Let’s hear it.”

Mark repeated their vision of what had happened, from the cloudburst to the salvaging of the furniture. Bob listened, nodding approvingly.

“That’s superb. Now you put it like that, it all adds up. And it adds a lot to the story of the site. I know a soil mechanics bloke at the university, and I’ll drag him out here to get his view on the landslide.”

They chewed it over for a bit longer. Then, “How did things go in Bradford?”

“Very smoothly. Sarah Madeley — she’s in charge of the lab — was over the moon about the textiles. And highly complimentary of the state they were delivered in.”

“How long before they get busy on them?”

“Well, she was so excited that I think we’re going to jump the queue, and we might get a very preliminary report in a few days. Which is greased lightning, though the full report will take much longer. But I didn’t come over to tell you that.

“I came because when I got home and opened today’s post I found Tom Rowson’s report on the defixio. He’s worked like greased lightning too, though it’s a simple job by comparison. He’s given it the works. Photograph, drawing, transcription, translation. The translation’s the important one. For me, anyway, and for Mark. And this one’s in clinical language too. Try to read it with the same, um, detachment that you showed over your graffito. It’s the counterpart to it, in a way.” He passed a sheet of paper across.

Lossio and Iliomarus asked Maponus for his approval of their union, but because it was asked in lust the god forbade it. Nonetheless they had sexual intercourse and thereby committed sacrilege. May the god therefore shrivel their penises, burst their testicles, and block their anuses.

“Tom thinks it was probably written by a priest, and hung up as a public warning. Together with your graffito, it adds a lot to what we know about Nettleton …”

He hesitated.

"Look. I've been thinking about this and I'm still in a difficulty. Personally, I don't have any problem with what went on here. I would have done, till very recently, but not now. But the point is, are you happy to carry on talking about it? We're on delicate ground, and I want you to understand my position. You're young, and while you're here you're my responsibility. I've just shown you, um, sexual material which I doubt your parents would approve of. If we're going to pursue this, ought we to get clearance from them?"

Both boys suppressed a shudder and consulted each other with their eyes. “We do understand your position, Bob,” Don assured him. “But as Mark said, we’re old enough to know the score. It isn’t as if you were a dirty old man introducing us to things we didn’t know about before. Or seducing us. What we’re talking about is history, and we’ve no problem with it either. Or with talking about it to you.” Our problem, he added to himself, is talking about it to each other.

"In other words," said Bob, "you trust me. And I certainly trust you. Because all this sort of thing boils down to trust, doesn't it? Is that OK with you, Mark? All right then, on that basis, let's carry on, no holds barred. What do we know about Maponus' cult here?"

Mark swallowed the last of his fish. He had at last met a positive attitude to gay love, he was at last giving and receiving genuine trust, and it buoyed him up no end. Don now seemed intent on pouring out coffee, so he took the plunge.

“In detail, not much. But in general it seems fairly clear. From this defixio, from the graffito, from that bronze plaque, from the altar to the uniter of young men. Even from the things in the shop.

“This place was about gay sex, yes. But it wasn’t just about fu… um, copulation. It was about love. Boyfriends came here to ask Maponus if it was OK to team up. To get his blessing, if you like. He might say no, like in the defixio, if he felt they were asking in lust. Or he might say yes, like with Dumnorix and Maglocunus, if he thought they were in love. Maybe the chain we think they were tattooed with was a sort of mark of his approval, linking them together.

“But there’s all sorts of detail we don’t know. Like how they asked their question and got their answer.”

"Could have been direct to the god," said Don slowly, "or through the priests, like the oracles in Greek temples. And there were temples with brothels, with boy prostitutes as well as girls. But you're right, this wasn't a brothel, um, licensed by the god. The opposite, almost — Maponus only approved of love, not of casual sex.

“And there are other things we’ll probably never know. Like how far away did people come here from? Did it just serve the local area, or further afield? And another thing. We know the god and his priests frowned on gay partners who he couldn’t give his blessing to. But we don’t know if society did too.”

“Well, what was the contemporary attitude to homosexuality?” asked Bob. He had lit his pipe, and was watching the smoke drifting away in the evening air.

“I looked it up not long ago, in Pop’s classical dictionary.” Don did not say why. “In Rome and Italy, it was totally acceptable with a rent-boy or slave. But not, in theory, with free-born males, though in practice it was common enough — there’s plenty about it in Catullus and Petronius and Martial. Though there were rarely long-term partnerships like you get now. But that was in Rome, at the centre of things. Britain was out on the fringe. There was a Roman veneer, but a quite different culture underneath it. What happened here I haven’t a clue. I’ve not heard of any evidence at all. Have you?”

Bob shook his head. “No, I haven’t. I’m quite sure nothing comparable to Nettleton has yet turned up. Mind you, the Romans ruled with a light hand. They were pretty tolerant of local practices, weren’t they? Except when they went too far, like the druids and human sacrifice. They stamped on that. But if this was a purely local, um, custom, or even a wider British one, they might well leave it alone. A few gay yokels wouldn’t be any threat to them.”

“Mmmm. That graffito wasn’t the work of a yokel, Bob. Maglocunus was pretty well educated. His writing’s good. So’s his spelling.”

“But Nettleton wasn’t a flashy upper-crust sort of place, Don. Not posh, like Bath. No frills. We’re pretty sure of that. It seems to have catered more for the plebs.”

“I wonder, Bob. Things like Miss Dinsdale’s knife can’t have been cheap. That altar must have cost a mint. So must the god’s statue. There was money here. But I wonder if the tone of the place, and the decor, was deliberately kept plain and simple. Encouraging modesty in one’s love life. Humility, even. No going over the top. No casual sex — that’s shallow and lustful. But emphasising love, proper love, deep and honest, that doesn’t need frills.”

Don spoke with a conviction that surprised even himself. He was not clear what had made him say that. Perhaps it was Mark’s point about applying to the god in love. He was more conscious than ever that his cavortings with Matt had been in lust. If only he could somehow exorcise their memory, he would be nearer to reaching out to Mark. Love might be only an arm’s length away.

He was already sure, from the way he accepted the goings-on at Nettleton, that Mark was gay-friendly. He was beginning to guess that he was actually gay. But how to make sure about that too, without making a fool of himself again? That was the crunch. After all, he had guessed that Matt was gay, or rather bi, and he had guessed wrong. He could do nothing until he was absolutely sure about Mark. One false move …

Mark, as he listened, understood more and more. He was hardly aware of Bob saying goodnight and driving away. He saw that his fiasco with Chris, and the yearnings that preceded it, had been shallow and lustful. He now saw something deeper and more honest within his reach. It was pretty clear that Don had been through some similar escapade, and the way he talked about lust and love suggested he had learned a similar lesson.

It put Mark in an agony. He now sensed that Don was gay. But he was still not sure. Last time round he had jumped to some idiotic conclusions, and look where they had landed him. This time, he had no idea how to make sure without crude and risky questioning. His pulse, his brain, his soul were athrob and ready to soar free, but his flesh was still shackled by his chains. By his uncertainty about Don. And by his own nightmare memories. What he needed for them — a new metaphor suggested itself — was a massive laxative, so that he could excrete them and flush them away into the sewer of oblivion. But he had no idea how to do that either.