Those Old Gods

Chapter 7. Wednesday: heaven in hell’s despair

Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.

William Blake, Songs of Experience

On Wednesday the god came home. But it was a long Wednesday before he did. Some time in the small hours, Mark found himself back beside the bed, sliding his hand down through Chris’s pubic hair to the grisly discovery beyond. He relived the pain of the shock, the pain of his bitten tongue, the pain of Chris’s laughter, the pain of Roy’s derision.

“You bastards!” he yelled, and howled his grief.

He was vaguely aware of the tent flap opening and of someone crawling in. He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a calming voice.

“It’s all right, Mark. It’s all right. Just wake up, gently. It’s all right.”

He forced his eyes open and sat up, quivering. Enough moonlight was filtering in to reveal shadowy outlines.

“Don! Oh God, I’m sorry. Did I wake you up?”

“Never mind. You were having a nightmare, weren’t you?”

“Yes. I do, sometimes.” Quite often, actually. Too often.

He was still trembling, just as he had been then. Don sat down on the groundsheet and put an arm round him. The night was warm. Neither of them had a top on, and the touch was hugely comforting.

“Never mind,” said Don again. “Give it five minutes, then go back to sleep, and the nightmare will have gone.” He did not ask what it was about. “Just think of something good, like our finds.” He waited patiently until Mark stopped trembling. “There, that’s better now, isn’t it?” He might have been calming a child. “You’ll be all right now. Night!” He gave him a gentle squeeze and went back to his own tent.

Mark reflected guiltily that he had not thanked him for his comfort. He was better now, in a way. But he saw more clearly than ever that he was in love, which made it all the more impossible to reveal his shame. After that performance, he could trust himself even less. Whether or not Don was gay. Even if he was gay, how could he foist himself on him while burdened with this trauma, this stigma? It would be grossly unfair, despite Don’s kindness. Because of his kindness. To spill the beans might scupper everything. Could easily scupper everything. Would scupper everything. He sighed, part sigh, part groan.

He tried wrenching his mind away from himself, towards something good. As instructed, he conjured up images of their finds, and enjoyed them. The clothes. The pisspot. The knife. The graffito. The graffito. Maglocunus and Dumnorix, together, all that long ago. He envied them their togetherness. They merged into an image of Mark and Don, together. That was something good too. Very good. Something he would give anything for. But … but it wasn’t possible, was it?

That brought him back, full circle, to where he had started. He had been dropping off. Now with a jerk he was wide awake again and back in despair. He let out another sigh, this time more than half a groan, and wished Don had not left.

A few feet away, Don also lay awake, wondering. Did I intrude too much, or not enough? I wish Mark would say what his trouble is. If I understood, I might be able to help more. But I can’t probe, if he doesn’t want to talk. And I can hardly complain about that — I’d never be able to spew out my own miseries to someone else. I thought mine were bad enough, but he seems to be in a worse hell — at least I don’t get nightmares. If he was gay — if I knew he was gay — I might take the plunge. But I don’t. So I can’t.

He heard Mark’s second groan. No, he thought, I left him too early. The job’s not finished. He went back. Mark was now lying on his front, head sideways on the pillow, shoulders outside the sleeping bag. Don lay down beside him, also on his front, on the groundsheet. Without a word he laid an arm over Mark’s shoulders. Mark gave a small surprised grunt of relief and welcome and presently, to judge by his breathing, he slept. The air might be warm, but the ground was chilly and hard, and it was a long time before Don, giving his ease for another, found sleep too.

It was full light when he woke, as usual with a woody. It took a minute to recall where he was and why. Neither of them had moved. His arm was still over Mark, and Mark’s face was not much more than a foot away. He studied it. A small pulse beat in the temple. The mousy hair was tousled. The cheeks and chin showed a faint and patchy haze of stubble. Don longed to stroke it. The wide mouth was fuller than usual, relaxed in sleep. Don longed to kiss it.

He closed his eyes to let the picture sink in, and when he opened them again he found Mark awake and studying him in turn. And, little did he know it, longing to kiss him too. Both blushed at being caught in such close proximity and thinking such thoughts. Don removed his arm and pulled away.

“Well, you did get some sleep, then,” he said awkwardly.

“Yes.” Mark reassembled memories of last night and the shutters came down over his eyes. “Er, thanks to you. I was in a right state, wasn’t I? You were very kind.” He knew his words were stilted, but they were the best he could do.

“That’s OK.” Don wanted to end the awkwardness. “I need a pee.”

He rolled over and crawled stiffly out, taking care to hide his woody. He went first to the trough to splash himself fully awake and let his cock subside. Only then could he pee. It was another minute before Mark emerged. He had presumably needed time too. Still embarrassed, they prepared and ate a silent breakfast.

Don had the uncomfortable feeling of being carried along on a tide beyond his control. He could only swim with it, though he did not know where it was taking him. Taking them. Wherever it was, there might still be a long way to go. This was only their fourth breakfast together. Already, in that short time, both of them had changed greatly. There were still — he counted – seventeen breakfasts to come. How far might he have travelled by the seventeenth? What might Mark be like then? As he watched him lathering his face, a quirky idea crept into his mind, for a yardstick to measure another sort of progress by.

“Mark. Leave a bit unshaved. Please. I want to see how fast it grows.”

Mark was startled. “You’ve got a fixation, haven’t you?” Then he laughed. “OK, why not? It’ll be days, though, before you see much difference.” He started his scraping a quarter of an inch below the bottom of his right sideburn. The awkwardness was broken.

The air felt sultry this morning, as if the dry spell was coming to an end, and they were lethargic. It was just as well, perhaps, that their day’s work turned out to be routine and demanded little concentration. They cleared the rest of the bedroom, finding absolutely nothing else on the floor, and nothing else when they washed the rest of the wall plaster. They worked for the most part in silence, but in no way a negative silence. Each was deeply entangled in his own perplexities, and saw that the other was too.

They measured up what they had not measured, and held the staff for Bob when he took the levels. He took photos of the graffito, but left photographing the whole room until he had better light and the floor had been mopped up. By now it was half past four and too late for either, and both Mark and Don were feeling the worse for lack of sleep. Anyway, the god was expected. At that point there was the toot of a horn and they saw a figure waving from the Fosse Way.

“It’s Miriam at last!” said Bob. “We’re going to need a couple of sturdy porters, please, boys.”

They went down to the road and were introduced to the deputy curator of the Bath museum. In the boot of her car was a stout wooden box eighteen inches square with a carrying handle either side. It was fairly shallow and nearly full of sand. Face-down in the sand and secured by a sturdy canvas strap lay the god’s head, revealing no more than a mass of snake-like tresses.

“Well, here he is, Bob,” she said. “We’re sorry to say goodbye to him, even if only temporarily. We’ve become very attached to him. But he is yours. Kevin and Harry have spent ages cleaning the incrustation off, and I think you’ll approve of the result. But better not undo him now, not till you’ve got him on site. That sand box is a nice safe way of carrying him. And for standing him in. His neck’s broken a bit diagonally, and he can’t stand up by himself.”

As the boys lifted the box carefully on to the verge they overheard Miriam talking under her voice to Bob. They were not meant to hear, but they could not help it.

“Latest news from the museum. Harry and Kevin are now an item. They told us yesterday. Keep it under your hat.”

“Ho! Thanks. Right, will do,” Bob replied quietly. Then out loud, “Want a quick look at what we’ve been up to here?”

“I’d love to, Bob, but I’ve got to get back before the museum closes. It’s been a crazy day. Can I come next week? I’ll give you a ring.” She turned her car with difficulty in the narrow road and, waving, roared off back to Bath.

The boys carried the god in his box the short distance to the site, slowly, almost reverentially. He was heavy, and they could not risk dropping him. Bob paced priest-like behind them.

“Let’s have a go at setting him up,” he suggested. “A trial run, ready for tomorrow. In the temple, surely.”

They lowered the box on to the floor against the west wall, opposite the door. The god was still face-down.

“No, that’s too low. He couldn’t see out properly from there. People couldn’t see him.”

“What about that column in the portico?” suggested Don.

It lay where it had fallen centuries ago off the portico wall, intact, four feet high and thick in proportion. It was no great problem to roll it into the inner shrine but hard work to heave it upright. They tested it, and it was as firm as a rock. They undid the god’s strap and lifted the box on to the column where it sat like a large capital, perfectly steady.

Everyone else was on the point of leaving and crowded in to watch. One on each side, the boys lifted the head, turned it and lowered it, wiggling its neck into the sand until it was stable, its eyes level with their own. There was a murmur of approval, and a couple of cameras clicked. People were glad to welcome the god back, cleaned of encrusted dirt and set up in an appropriate place. But they had all seen him before. By the time the boys had adjusted the head to face more squarely out of the door and brushed some loose sand from its cheeks, everyone but Bob had gone.

They stepped back to study him at leisure. The photograph had not done Maponus justice. It had not lied. But it could not fully capture that almost tangible feeling of presence, as if he was alive and gazing back at them, serene, compassionate, understanding. They were transfixed.

“That’s splendid, isn’t it?” remarked Bob happily, lighting his pipe. “Couldn’t be in a better position. It was right to bring him back. Well, shall we take him down and put him to bed? We daren’t leave him out by himself.”

The boys broke the god’s gaze and exchanged a glance. “Bob, can we stay here a bit longer? We want to … look at him properly. We’ll take him back to the hut. We’ll be very careful. Promise!”

Bob was nobody’s fool. For the last day or two he had sensed that something wholly beyond his control was spilling over into the present from the distant past. He was still not entirely comfortable with the thought of these teenagers being caught up in this ambience of ancient gay love. Not because he was in the least repelled by it, not now, and if the boys had been his own sons he would not have worried. But they were not. They were someone else’s, temporarily in his charge, and he was uneasy about how their parents might react if his suspicions proved correct.

Yet, yet. They were responsible lads, and sensitive. He had been impressed, even moved, by what they had said last night, and how they had said it. He saw a maturity there, not only intellectual — that had long been obvious — but emotional too. Maybe it was only dawning, but it was unmistakable. The whole of today they had been withdrawn. He had noticed that. It was not a hostile withdrawal, but as if they were thinking hard. Maybe it had been prompted by last night’s conversation.

Above all, he sensed that they were now facing their moment of truth. They had to face it by themselves. The best way to help them was to leave them alone.

“OK, then. You do that. See you tomorrow.” He walked to his car as briskly as he could, without looking back. Good luck, boys, he thought. You both deserve it.

They were standing shoulder to shoulder, eyes turned doubtfully sideways to each other. Fidgeting restlessly in their minds were the same unhappinesses, the same uncertainties, the same hopes. They looked back at Maponus.

They framed no conscious questions, they received no recognisable answers, but they knew. The choppy sea of their doubts was stilled into a millpond of calm certainty. They were both gay, they were in love, and it was right.

They turned to face each other, shyly, in wonder, as if meeting for the first time, and discovered they were holding hands. They had not been aware of it happening, but it did not seem strange. They smiled with a mixture of surprise and delight. They embraced awkwardly, heads over each other’s shoulders, and their throats grew tight.

After a while they pulled apart, gave each other a questioning smile, and looked at Maponus again. Beyond him the low branch of a tree was swaying very gently in the evening breeze. To them it seemed that his head was nodding against a stationary backdrop.

Armed with his approval, they kissed. First tentatively, then with growing passion while body ground against body. Once more they broke apart, looked at each other and at Maponus, and again he nodded.

Wellies were kicked off. Dirty shirts were pulled over tousled heads. Filthy shorts were dropped down muddy legs. Strained briefs were freed. They hugged again, skin to skin, cock to cock, humping hard, in full view of the Fosse Way. Then they lay down, sixty-nining urgently on the warm hard flagstones of the god’s sanctuary, under Maponus’ benevolent eye, and brought each other to ecstasy.

Not only physical ecstasy. Months of bottled-up frustration and loneliness gushed out as well. The ache of rejection and alienation fled howling away, to be replaced by the infinite peace of love and fulfilment.

“Oh, Mark!”

“Oh, my God!” It was not clear who Mark was addressing.

He stirred himself first. He fished in his mouth for a bit he had not swallowed, and smeared it on the paving in front of Maponus. Don followed suit. It was their thank-offering.

In exhaustion of body and exhaustion of release they collapsed once more into each other’s arms, and the god watched over them. First as they wept, then as they slept.