Those Old Gods

Chapter 8. Thursday: priests in black gowns

The gates of this chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

William Blake, Songs of Experience

They were woken by a low peal of thunder. For a minute they were confused and self-conscious at finding themselves lying naked together on the stone floor of a Roman temple. Then, as the immensity of their breakthrough sank in, their shyness evaporated, never to return, and they wrapped each other in their arms and sobbed their relief once more.

More thunder brought them back to the present. The wind was rising and it was twilight. High time to get the god to bed and themselves to their tents. They climbed stiffly to their feet and approached Maponus. As they lifted him they hesitated. It felt somehow irreverent to turn him face-down into the sand, but at that moment a flash of lightning lit him up, and new shadows altered his smile from the enigmatic to the consenting. They laid him in his box and, stark naked except for their mud, carried him to the hut and locked him in.

Side close by side, as if tied together for a three-legged race, they returned to the temple, where they shuffled into their wellies and scooped up their clothes. Rain began to fall heavily. They did not mind. It was warmer than the hose-pipe, and by the time they reached the tents, water sluicing off them, there was no longer any need for the hose-pipe. Don’s early suspicions proved well-founded. Mark’s tent was leaking badly, and they bundled everything from it into Don’s and towelled themselves dry.

They felt no hunger — eating was far down their priority list. They had no urge to talk — they were still fumbling their way through the first wonderment of two-way love. What they did need, above all, was more bodily contact. They needed reassurance, that they were no longer chained alone in their prison cells but free to roam hand in hand through their new-found garden of love. They discovered that their sleeping bags would zip together to make a double one, and wriggled in to renew their flesh-to-flesh togetherness. Their overloaded minds soaring away on a wave of gratitude, they promptly fell asleep again.

They were woken at half past seven by Don’s mobile. It was Bob, phoning from home.

“Morning! What’s the weather like with you?”

Rain was still drumming on the tent. “Cats and dogs,” Don replied blearily.

“And the forecast’s lousy. All right, then, we’ll write today off. I’ll phone round to let people know. Would you mind checking the site as soon as you can? And refuel the pump, of course. And would you drape a plastic sheet over the graffito, to let it dry out a bit? If you need to get in touch, I’ll be at home catching up on paperwork. You’re happy enough by yourselves?”

Don smiled to himself. “Very happy, thanks. We’ve plenty to do, and plenty to talk about.”

“Good. See you tomorrow, then, if the gods relent.”

Don reported Bob’s message. The bag was beautifully cosy, Mark’s body was beautifully cosy, and he had a morning woody. He wanted to snuggle back, and Mark wanted him to snuggle back. But first things first.

“Not yet, Mark. Let’s get our work out of the way. And before that I must have a pee.”

“Now you mention it,” Mark admitted, yawning, “I’m bursting too.”

Woodies deflating, they walked naked into the bucketing rain. Large warm drops splatted seductively on their skin. They were already, by force of habit, turning bashful backs to each other when the penny dropped. What did they need to hide now? Everybody peed, except perhaps Miss Dinsdale. It was not in the least offensive. Why be shamefaced about a natural function? Last night they had done something far more intimate together.

So, as they let the streams fly, they stood facing, smiling, look-no-hands, openly displaying, openly admiring what they had not had time to admire properly before. As he peed, Don farted. He did not apologise. Why should he, now? No longer any need to bottle anything up. Mark took no offence. Why should he? He farted back, and they laughed at their freedom.

“We’ve got a lot to clear out of our systems, haven’t we, Don?”

Don knew exactly what he meant. Not just pee and gas and crap, not just a massive backlog of spunk, but a spring-clean of the horrors festering in the dustbins of their minds.

Meanwhile, duty called. They spread out yesterday’s soggy clothes and towels in the dry warmth of the hay-barn and sallied forth through the wet warmth of the rain, hand in hand, wearing nothing but squelching wellies. No point in getting more clothes sodden, and nobody else would be about in this weather. They opened the hut and stood Maponus up to say good morning to him. The site looked in reasonable trim, but the stream was in spate and water was rising in the hostel trenches. They refuelled the pump, increased its speed, spread a large plastic sheet over the graffito and weighted it with stones on the trench lip.

The next stage in their clear-out took them to the Portaloo. Mark went in first and bolted the door. But as he sat down, water dripping off him, he had second thoughts. Here too, what was the point of traditional modesty when everything else was now open? Why leave a single barrier up? He unbolted the door and pushed it wide. Don was standing statue-like outside, looking into the hut, curls plastered flat, slim smooth body flowing with rain, water trickling off his foreskin as if he was still peeing. A sight to die for. Mark’s cock went hard. Aware that he was being watched, Don turned to gaze at Mark as he sat enthroned in naked glory, beautiful, rampant, arousing. His cock rose too.

Mark finished, washed his hands in the basin, and came out. Don took his place, under Mark’s eye. He agreed whole-heartedly with the unspoken message. No need for coyness now. No need to hold anything back, of any sort. And he urgently needed to purge himself of something other than crap, although, in a quite different sense, it was crap as well.

When he had done he stepped out. He dropped to his knees so that Mark’s equipment was throbbing a foot from his face. He looked up. There was no concealing towel there, only loving consent in the hazel eyes. He leant forward and cradled the whiskery balls in his hand and fed his mouth over the cock, lapping it with his tongue, inexpertly bobbing up and down, tickling his nose on Mark’s forest, a rain forest now, fondling the wet hairiness of the sack and the crack behind it.

An archaeological site in a Wiltshire downpour was a far cry from that hotel room on the Costa del Sol. But no fist thumped into Don’s face. And before long the ghost of Matt was exorcised.

From the pinnacle of his orgasm Mark was aware, though he could not know the details, that Don had just banished some demon and that explanations would come later. He too had a demon to dispose of.

In his case, it was a far cry from Chris’s bed in her auntie’s house, but he asked Don to lie on his back on the grass. He knelt beside him and lowered his face to his, making sure that both tongues were in Don’s mouth. As they wrestled wetly there, he placed a hand on the flat stomach and gently stroked it. Then he inched downwards through the thicket of hair — nothing like as luxuriant as his own — until he met his target.

There it was, brushing the back of his hand as it stood proudly clear of Don’s belly. He stroked it and continued on to the ball-sack, tight and hairless, and, as Don mewed in pleasure and raised his legs, along the corrugated valley beyond. He transferred his mouth from Don’s lips to his cock.

A smooth young body, yes. But no, not incomplete, not genitally challenged. Equipment all present and very correct. And as Don bucked and moaned and presently came, Chris finally released her iron grip on Mark’s soul.

Last night’s loving had been the urgent, necessary, primeval first-fruit of their union. This loving was just as essential, just as urgent, but different. Like their crapping, it purged them, emptied them of stinking dregs whose time was past. In the pouring rain it was elemental, without seeming in the least bizarre. And once again, under the approving eye of Maponus as he watched through the doorway of the hut, it was eminently right.

They put him gratefully back in his sand, locked up, climbed the stile, and waded through the long grass.

“Don’t get a tick on your prick,” said Don. “I’m the only one allowed to suck there.”

Their next needs, now, were food, plenty of it, and talk. They had eaten nothing and uttered very few words since Bob had left last night. They towelled off once more, brewed coffee in the shelter of the tent-flap, and ate greedily. They wriggled back into the sleeping bag. There they kissed deeply again, finding remains of breakfast. There Don could at last stroke Mark’s face, glorying in the soft stubble. Mark could at last stroke Don’s, revelling in its smoothness.

And back together, skin against skin, they were at last ready to talk. They knew they were in love, they knew they wanted to be together for ever, and they did not waste breath on saying so. It was so obvious that words were superfluous: they said it with their bodies. But Mark raised the vital question.

“Don, what happened last night?”

“I don’t know. I knew I loved you. But I wasn’t sure you were gay. And — I’m sorry — I still couldn’t trust you. I couldn’t trust myself to trust you. Then out of blue I saw that you were gay, that we could trust each other, that I wasn’t going to make a bloody fool of myself again.”

“Same here. Exactly the same. I was just standing there with you, wanting to say I loved you but not daring to, thinking how bloody difficult everything was, and suddenly it all fell into place, and I knew that it was right.”

“Yes. It was right. But it hasn’t all fallen into place, Mark. I mean, it’s OK with us now, thank God. Right now. And for the next fortnight. But what happens after that? We live twenty miles apart. How do we meet up then? If we go to each other’s place too often my parents will smell a rat and forbid us.”

Mark was aghast. “They suspect you’re gay, then?”

“They know. I’ve been aching to tell you, Mark.” He needed to say something stronger than plain ‘Mark,’ but was unsure how to do it. He amended it to “Mark my love,” which seemed better. “And I just haven’t dared. But I can now. This is what happened.”

Cans of worms could now be opened without fear of ridicule. Don told the whole of the Estepona story. He left nothing out, and it took some time. All the while, Mark was hugging him hard, aching in sympathy.

“And that’s why I gave you that blow-job, in that way. To get it out of my system. It’s haunted me ever since. I know I made a balls-up of everything. And that Matt did too. I might have got over it, if it had been just that. But two awful things followed on. After Matt had let me down, I found I couldn’t trust anyone an inch, and I lost all my friends. Drove them away. I was horrid to them, I know.

“And Pop and Mum were horrid to me. They made it feel dirty when I knew it wasn’t. Or wouldn’t be. OK, casual sex isn’t the best thing. But they tried to get me to promise not to love, either. They hung up a fucking big notice saying ‘Thou shalt not’. Not literally, of course. Well, I’m free of that. For the moment. Here with you. But when I get back home, back to them, it’ll still be there. They’ll be watching me like lynxes. What the hell do we do about that? And what about your Dad?”

“He’s no better. Not really. He doesn’t know I’m gay, thank God. But about three years ago, when my voice broke, he gave me The Sex Talk. He was as embarrassed as me. He said that I’d probably try jerking off — ‘experimenting with myself,’ he actually said — and I’d probably drool over girls. He said those were natural. But I wasn’t to do anything more, not until I was old enough to love and marry. And the worst sin but one was drooling over boys, and the worst sin of all was doing things with them. He seemed to think proper love wasn’t possible between boys. OK, I can live with that, unless he finds out.

“But, oh God, Don. My real problem is school.”

He told of his loneliness. Of his quest for a boy to love or at least a boy to bed. Of the fateful encounter with Chris. Why he had needed to do what he had done just now, in that weird way, to clear that obsession out of his system. To assure himself of Don’s masculinity. Don felt no desire whatever to laugh. He hugged Mark tighter.

“I know I was a bloody idiot, but the damage has been done.” Mark told of Roy’s treachery and of that hideous last day of term. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, and Don kissed them off.

“Don … I can’t go back to that school. I just can’t. And I can’t talk about school with Dad. He’d go ballistic. Anyway, he never has time to talk about anything. So what the hell do we do about that?”

What indeed? They agonised helplessly. Communing with their bodies, sharing their burdens, purging their souls, had been a relief beyond all calculation. It had resolved their old predicament.

But it had replaced it with another. For all too long they had been in solitary confinement, locked in their dark cells of self-disgust and suspicion and torment. They had now been released for a brief spell in the sunshine and freedom of love, but soon the prison doors threatened to close again. Meanwhile, their only solace was the togetherness of their minds and bodies, while they were still available to each other.


The Venerable Kenneth Muir, Archdeacon of Bath, put down the receiver with a sigh of relief. The phone immediately rang again. He picked it up, listened, replied, and put it down with another sigh of relief. Last things first. He had a word with his wife, lifted the phone once more and dialled Don’s mobile. It was a while before there was an answer.

“Good afternoon, Don. I imagine it is raining on you as it is on us.”

“Hard as ever, Pop. No digging today.”

“What are you doing instead?”

“We’re in the tent, er, talking.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“And how are you getting on together?”

“Oh, like a house on fire.”

There was another pause. “Have you made any more interesting finds?”

“Yes, quite a number.” Don mentally ran through them, sorting out which could safely be discussed with a homophobic archdeacon and which definitely could not.

“Well, we are coming over on Saturday, so perhaps we can see them then.”

“That’s, er, good, Pop. You just coming to have a look round?”

“Partly. But we are also coming to take you away.”


“I have just booked you in for the week on a course at Norton Malreward. That is our diocesan retreat in the Mendips.”

“But I can’t miss a week of the dig!”

“I am sorry about that. But you are fortunate. Your name has been down for a while, and they were on the phone a minute ago to inform me of a cancellation. They have given you the place.”

“But Pop! I don’t want to! What’s this thing about, anyway?”

“We will talk about it when we see you, and show you the literature. The course is designed to help people such as you. People with, ah, your sort of problem. It is run by the diocesan counselling service. With experts, very good ones. Psychiatrists and church counsellors. It will do you a great deal of good, and you will enjoy it into the bargain.”

“Like hell I will! It sounds like brainwashing! I’m not going!”

The Archdeacon lost patience and his temper. “Donald. You will not use that kind of language and you will not take that attitude. We know what is good for you, and you are going whether you want to or not. We will arrive about eleven on Saturday. Please be packed up and ready.”

Don did not answer. The Archdeacon hung up and dialled Philip Bushby’s number.


“Mark! They’re taking me away! On Saturday, for a week!” Don was on the brink of tears.

“Oh Christ! What for?”

“Sending me on a fucking course. To try to cure me of being gay. Fucking psychiatrists and counsellors and things. No way I can get out of it.”

They looked at each other in despair.

“OK, Don, so you’ve got to go. Once you’re there, refuse to play ball. Be polite, but unco-operative. Close your mind to them. They won’t be able to get at you then.”

“Yes. But it’s going to be hell, being there, being away from you. And so soon after … ”

“I’ll be thinking of you. And I’ll still be here when you get back.” Mark was trying to transmit all the comfort he could. Which was not much.

“Yes, but a week away! Oh God!”

They hugged, tightly. Don was now sobbing. Ten minutes later his mobile rang again.


The Reverend Philip Bushby, rector of Chew Magna with Nempnett Thrubwell and Ubley, put the phone down and sat back with a huge sigh. The first thing was to talk to Mark.

He was sadly conscious that he had neglected his son, that he had not given him the time he should have done. He had tried to justify it with the argument that being a single parent and an overworked parish priest were simply incompatible. Ever since Heather died, life had been too hectic to do both jobs properly. But that was a hollow argument. He knew it was hollow, and felt a surge of guilt. He had relied so much on Heather. Her death had left him isolated, ill-equipped to raise his son single-handed. Time was when Mark had been a cheerful boy, but no longer — he was sullen now, uncommunicative, as if bottling something up. And he had never really tried to find out what was wrong.

But this time he had to talk to him. And it had to be face to face, not over the phone. Where on earth could he find the time to drive round to the far side of Bristol, and talk, and drive back? It would take two hours at the very least. He looked at his diary. He couldn’t possibly make it today. Nor tomorrow — he couldn’t miss that. But Saturday morning, if he skipped the local council of churches meeting … Yes, that would fit in well with what Kenneth had just said.

He must let Mark know he was coming, though. But Mark did not have a mobile. When offered one, some months back, he had replied that there was little point as he had nobody to phone, or to phone him. So the rector hunted out Bob Gill’s mobile number.

“Mr Gill? Philip Bushby, Mark’s father. I’m truly sorry to interrupt you, but I’m in need of a word with Mark.”

“Oh, hullo! Look, I’m sorry — I’m at home, not on the site. Rain’s stopped play. But he’ll be with Don Muir — they’re inseparable — and I can give you Don’s mobile number.” He did so. “But while you’re on the line, Mr Bushby, may I say how glad we are that Mark’s with us. He’s a huge asset, worth his weight in gold. On the ball, friendly, intelligent, reliable, hard-working — you name it. Along with Don, he’s the best worker I’ve ever had.”

“Good heavens! I’m delighted to hear it, of course. But I’m astonished too — his school reports have been dismal recently, and frankly he’s becoming more and more of a problem at home.”

“Well, he was very subdued when he came, but he’s blossomed marvellously. I only hope he stays till the end of the season. And comes back next year.”

“We’ll have to see. Mr Gill, would you object to me dropping over on Saturday morning for a chat with Mark? Would that be bad for discipline? I understand the Muirs are going too.”

Bob chuckled. “Mr Bushby, there’s not much discipline at Nettleton! Any time you like, as long as you like. Look forward to seeing you then. Bye.”

The rector dialled again.

“Don? This is Mark’s father. Mr Gill tells me you’re rained off.”

“That’s right.” His voice was barely under control, and he was wary of parents today. All parents. “Want to speak to Mark?”


Mark was wary too, and surprised. “Hi, Dad?”

“Hullo, Mark. You all right?”

“Yes, fine.”

“Mark, this is just to let you know that I’m coming over to see you on Saturday. Something’s cropped up that we need to talk about.”

“Er, what?”

“Not over the phone. We need to be face to face. I hear the Muirs will be at Nettleton too. I’ll try to get there at the same time. Eleven. All right?”

“All right, Dad. Bye.”

Don had been watching the shutters close again over Mark’s eyes. “More trouble?”

“Dad’s coming to talk to me. On Saturday.”

“What about?”

“He wouldn’t say. But it must be something … bad, to bring him all this way.”

“Can he have heard about you? From one of the kids at school?”

“Not very likely. Anyway, he knows your parents are coming. He’s coming at the same time.”

They looked at each other in frantic, renewed, worry.

“They can’t know about us, though! After all, it’s less than a day … ”

“Mark! Did someone see us last night? In the temple? From the Fosse Way?”

“Too far away to identify us, surely.”

“Or Pop might have guessed. About us. And told your Dad, to warn him about me.”

They agonised once more, endlessly, fruitlessly, battered by apprehension and the sense of powerlessness.

About seven the rain stopped. The boys wandered down to the site again to check that all was well. They refuelled the pump and returned the jerrycan of two-stroke to the hut. They were still worrying away at the problems that tumbled relentlessly around their heads.

Then the sight of the god face-down in his box set Mark’s mind speculating. Did his authority run only in the temple, or here too? Authority? Did he really have any? Had he actually played a part in what happened last night, or was it their wishful thinking? When they had started chewing over these questions this morning they had got side-tracked. Might he shed some light on their quandary now? It could do no harm to try. He stood Maponus on his neck in the sand, sat on the floor in front and pulled Don down beside him, their arms around each other.

Their minds immediately began to assemble snippets of information from the last few days and to knit them together.

Maponus’ record of uniting young men and proclaiming that, in the right circumstances, gay sex was entirely acceptable.

Bob, talking about the god’s head — “He turned up the very day we restarted.”

Bob, referring to himself — “Personally, I don’t have any problem with what went on here. I would have done, till very recently, but not now.”

Bob again, reporting old Miss Dinsdale’s conversion — “Well, she’s turned over a new leaf now.”

Miriam, gossiping about those blokes who had cleaned up Maponus at the museum — “Harry and Kevin are now an item. They told us yesterday.”

Above all, their own experience in the temple.

Therefore …

When added together, all this gave an answer that made sense, provided you took an astonishing leap of faith. Nobody else had added it together, as far as they knew. Bob could have done, but he had had no reason to. They gazed at the god for a long time, wondering. He returned nothing but his enigmatic smile. Yet, in the light of their answer, it was clear enough now what they had to do. It seemed a risk, a bloody big risk, but there was no alternative. It involved trust, a massive dose of trust. But in the last day or so they had found that, at Nettleton, trust worked.

In the end they put Maponus to bed again and went back to the tent, where they cooked a meal and spent the night in fretful hope and hopeful love-making.