Those Old Gods

Chapter 9. Friday: infant crying in the night

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last, far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

Friday morning, though not so warm, was fine again. It helped boost their hopes, and raised a question they had not thought about so far.

“Do you reckon we ought to tell Bob?” asked Don as he lovingly watched Mark dealing with two days’ worth of stubble. “He’s on our side, and we want to keep him on our side, and we can trust him. I think we ought to.”

Mark pondered as he scraped at his jaw. “Yes, I think so too. But just about us teaming up. It wouldn’t be fair to get him involved with our parents and all that.”

“No, it wouldn’t. OK, we’ll do that.”

They were on the site in good time. They refuelled the pump and were in the hut, about to pick up Maponus’ box, when Bob arrived.

“Morning! Everything OK here? Talk about the heavens opening! You’re not drowned, then?”

“We’re fine, thanks. Everything’s fine. But Mark’s tent leaks like a sieve. So he’s moved into mine. Much better.” Don took the plunge. “And we’re sharing a sleeping bag too. Much cosier.”

Bob was not in the least surprised. There was something different about them today. An air of new maturity, of new confidence, of uncertainties settled but also of new anxieties acquired. Since they seemed to expect him to probe further, he raised an obliging eyebrow.

“Bob. Don’t let anyone else know, please, not till we say. But we’ve teamed up. We’re in love.”

Bob nodded, smiling gently. “I thought I could see it coming.”

They were gobsmacked. “That’s more than we could!”

“Well, sometimes it’s least obvious to those most closely concerned.” He could not help adding a mischievous question. “I take it you’ve got Maponus’ approval?”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“You’ve asked him, then?”

“Well, not exactly asked. But he did approve.”


They had said that seriously, not in fun, and he could not disguise his disbelief. He looked down at the back of the god’s head. What they had heard, he reckoned, was what they wanted to hear. Auto-suggestion. Wish-fulfilment. Well, so long as they were happy, it hardly mattered. He was not shocked, any more than he was surprised. But he was still apprehensive.

“I hear your parents are coming over tomorrow. Are you going to tell them? About you?”


“And are you going to tell them about the cult?”

“They’re bound to ask what we’ve found.”

Oh Lord, thought Bob, what have I encouraged? When the balloon goes up I just hope they don’t think I’ve been putting ideas into the boys’ heads. He sighed inwardly.

“Hmmm. Well, you’re starting on a big journey, you know, and I hope it doesn’t turn out too rough. I wish you well. Of course I do.”

He was guiltily conscious of sounding unenthusiastic, but he did not want to dwell on it, not for longer than he had to.

“Look, about today. Could you mop up the floor as best you can, and I’ll take photos while the light’s good. The plaster chap will be here some time in the morning to deal with the graffito. And when that’s done we’ll have finished with that bedroom, and I’d like you to start on the next-door one. Now we know there’s no stratigraphy — the grit layers will be the same — I don’t see why you shouldn’t dig straight down with spades, down to say fifteen inches from the floor, and trowel from there on. It’ll save a lot of effort if you simply backfill the first room by shovelling the spoil straight over the wall. OK?”

So they installed Maponus in the temple and drew encouragement from him. Then they dealt with their floor, which was still awash. The pump was handling most of the water flowing in from the courtyard, but some still seeped through, and they could not get it totally dry. But they did their best, and Bob took his photos. The plaster expert duly came and cunningly removed the square foot with the graffito on, and they started in on emptying the second bedroom.

It was hard labour, not conducive to conversation, and in any event they had to be discreet. The odd look or even touch within the privacy of their trench was one thing. But however blasé old Miss Dinsdale might be about the Roman pricks she specialised in, they still could not risk her or anyone else seeing them kissing. Undemonstrative love was the order of the day.

Shortly before knocking-off time, Bob was with them, viewing their progress, when his mobile rang.

“Hullo … Ah! Already! Of course.” He gestured to Don for his pad and pencil, flipped to a clean page and scribbled furiously. “Yes … Yes … What? … Oh, yes … Yes … Really? … Can you spell that? … That’s superb. Thanks very much indeed. Bye.”

He turned to the boys.

“That was Sarah at Bradford. First report. Actually she called it an initial preliminary provisional report. Cautious so-and-so. Has to be, I suppose. But, knowing her, the final one will be exactly the same, only with much more detail. Anyway, they’ve already separated the items and straightened them out.

“As we guessed, both piles contain male clothing. Both of them include a cloak with a hood, a tunic, an undershirt — I suppose she means a vest — and — can’t read my own writing — subligar? — what’s that, Don?”


“Oh. And socks, hobnailed shoes, and a leather belt and sheath. So that lot’s the same for both.

“Now, the eastern pile, that’s the one in Mark’s corner, Maglocunus’, has not got a knife in the sheath — we could have told her that — but does include a leather purse containing three silver and seven bronze coins, all minted around 380 or shortly before, and a small linen shoulder bag containing two combs, a razor, a little mirror, nuts, the remains of four apples, and some stuff which she thinks is oatcakes and dried meat but needs a lot of work doing on it.

“Now for the owner of Don’s pile. That’s Dumnorix. Sarah reckons from the size of his clothes that he was a few inches shorter than Maglocunus. And he didn’t have a purse or a bag, or presumably a razor. So probably he was the younger. But his sheath does have a knife in. From Sarah’s description, it’s the identical twin of Miss Dinsdale’s from the shop, and the panel on the handle is almost professionally inscribed. It says DVMNORIGIS.”

The boys were thrilled. “Wow!” said Don. “They didn’t have much luggage, then. It doesn’t sound as if they’d travelled all that far.”

At that point somebody called for Bob and he went off to attend to them, in high contentment.

From the word go, Nettleton had proved a marvellous site. The last two weeks had turned it into a superlative one. They still had Lord knows how long before they finished, but he was already looking forward to writing it up in learned journals and the final definitive publication. And when those clothes came back from Bradford they would have a special exhibition in the museum, along with Maponus and the altar and all the rest. It would be a crowd-puller. And at the opening the boys would be in the seats of honour.

The boys were in high contentment too. “Hey, Dum,” exclaimed Mark, “I’ve had an idea.”

What did you call me?”

“Dum. It’s OK, not dumb with a b. Dum, without. Dumnorix. After all, your pile of clothes was his. And you’re shorter than me. And younger.”

Don laughed. He liked it, a lot. “OK, and you’re Mag, then. Right. What’s your big idea?”

“To search the web when I get home. To see if anyone sells knives anything like that one. You ought to have one. I’m wondering if having a knife with a prick handle was a sign of the god’s approval. A rite of passage, sort of, for the younger partner.”

Don liked that idea too. “Maybe other couples were flooded out,” he suggested. “Maybe we’ll find more clothes in other bedrooms, and more knives. And get some sort of pattern.”

But that thought brought him down to earth with a bump. Would he still be here when other bedrooms were emptied? It was in the lap of the gods. An ancient saying, that, and how appropriate. His confidence wavered.

At that moment things began to go wrong. It was five o’clock and time to pack up. Their shovelling had been tedious and they were in no mood to continue. Don reached for his spade and yelped. A wasp taking a rest on the handle had stung him on the skin between thumb and forefinger.

“Shit!” He sucked the place. “That hurt! And I’m allergic to wasp stings. I’d better go and deal with this. Sorry, Mag, do you mind clearing up by yourself?”

He went off to the hut to consult with Christine, who was the first-aider and looked after the cuts and scratches inevitable on a dig. She applied Wasp-eze, gave him an antihistamine tablet and some spares, and made him sit still to slow down the spread of the toxin. Mark, having tidied away the tools, enlisted Bob’s help to put the god to bed and, as they laid him in the sand, received a boost of optimism. When they dumped the box in the hut Don was sitting there, looking pale.

“How’s it feeling, Dum?”

“Still hurts like hell. But I’ll be OK. Just need to rest as much as I can. It’s never lasted more than twelve hours before.”

“But you’ve still got to get to your tent,” Bob pointed out. “Tell you what. I’ll drive you round. Save you walking.”

Mark summoned up his strength, picked Don up like a baby, arms under his back and knees, and carried him the short distance to the Fosse Way. Bob drove them in state to the camping field, little more than a quarter of a mile as the crow flew but a good two miles by road, and delivered them to the tent.

There Mark made Don lie down and stay down. He was concerned but, in the light of Don’s own prognosis, not unduly worried, and he even relished the prospect of nursing his new-found love. He stripped Don of his jeans, fed him into the sleeping bag, and cooked a meal, which Don only pecked at. His hand was now red around the sting and hot and swollen all over, and he was becoming feverish. Mark grew more worried. When he had cleared up and insisted on Don having a long drink, he lay down beside him, stroking, whispering, soothing.

For a while he thought he had succeeded. Don did calm down, and lay back with Mark’s arm over him, flushed and restless but more or less asleep. Mark spent the time pondering the best way of handling the parental invasion tomorrow. He could only work on the assumption that Don would be in a fit state.

A couple of hours later Don woke up properly. “I need a pee.”

Mark did not want to disturb him. “Stay there.” He found an empty milk carton in the rubbish bag and with some difficulty organised Don to pee into it as he lay. He took the carton outside to empty it. It was almost dark. When he came back he found Don crying silently. All of his confidence had evaporated and he had sunk into abject misery.

“Mag, it’s not going to work.” He hiccuped. “They’ll take me away, and you too, and we’ll never see each other again.”

“Shhh. It will work, Dum. You wait and see. Just have faith.”

“But it can’t work. Pop and Mum. Your Dad. They hate gays. They hate us. They’re ganging up on us. They’ll take us away. They’re bound to. Oh, Mag!” He began to howl like a child.

All Mark could do was to comfort him like an child, to hug him and talk gentle words of reassurance. Don gradually quietened down and seemed to be asleep again. Mark debated whether he ought to call an ambulance. He found his torch and inspected Don’s hand. Though still reddish around the sting, it was much less swollen and much less hot. He was encouraged. But a while later Don woke again, in a similar state, sobbing in despair and not even putting his despair into words. He no longer had any language but a cry.

It seemed to Mark that the problem was now more mental than physical. The fever triggered by the allergic reaction, he reckoned, had resurrected Don’s deep-seated insecurity and brought all his submerged fears to the surface. A booster dose of antihistamine would do no harm, and he gave him one. But what Don really needed was a booster dose of trust. There was no doubt, at Nettleton, where that was to be found. Don was in no state to leave the tent. So, since Mohammed could not go to the mountain, he would have to bring the mountain to Mohammed.

About eleven, Don fell asleep again, and Mark could only hope he would not wake up while he was gone. He emptied his rucksack of its contents, all except a couple of sweaters, slung it on his back, and armed with nothing but his torch went out into the night. The torch was hardly necessary, so bright was the moon, but it was an eerie journey. The noisy silence was unnerving, hedges and trees took on strange shapes, the ground felt unfamiliar underfoot and he tripped over tussocks and briars which he had never noticed by daylight.

But the site wore its usual garment of peace. He found the key, opened the hut, and turned Maponus face-up. He had wondered if the god would mind being taken away, but the smile gave him permission. He laid out the sweaters, placed the head carefully on them, and rolled it up. He managed with some difficulty, for life-sized stone heads are heavy, to feed it into his rucksack. With the weight of divinity upon his shoulders he made his way back, this time with surprising ease, to the tent.

Don was lying curled up, whimpering in half-sleep. Mark drew Maponus out of the sack, unwrapped him, and propped him upright against a tent frame. He put a hand on Don’s shoulder and shook him gently.

“Dum! Dum! Wake up!”

Don opened his eyes. “Mag! Oh, Mag! You left me!” His face began to crumple again.

“I had to, Dum. To show you it’s going to be all right. You’ve got to understand that. Look at him, Dum! It is going to be all right, isn’t it?”

He shone the torch on the god’s head. Don’s eyes followed the beam incuriously.

“Sit up, Dum. Look properly.”

With Mark’s arm round him, Don sat up. He looked properly, for a full minute, while the misery faded from his face.

“Yes, you’re right. It is going to be all right.” He gripped Mark’s hand, shook his head as if to clear cobwebs away, and breathed a deep breath. “Thank you, Mag. I’m sorry. I’ve been a baby. I … lost my faith. And you didn’t. You were strong enough for both of us”

Tears were on his cheeks again, but tears of relief now. Mark felt equally relieved. Would things have worked if half their combined faith was missing?

“I didn’t have a fever to bugger up my mind,” he said. “That’s the only difference. How’s your hand?”

It was the hand he was holding. They inspected it. The swelling had gone and it was no longer hot. Don flexed his fingers and arm.

“Fine. I can still feel the sting, but only faintly. What’s the time?”

“Midnight, more or less.”

“Seven hours. That’s about the usual time it takes to wear off. Though I think it hit me harder than usual. I still feel a bit droopy.” He smiled ruefully. “Yes, all right, droopy there too. I don’t feel up to that tonight. But with a good zizz I’ll be right as rain.”

“Dum, can you put your zizz off for a few minutes? A hot drink will do you good. And we ought to think about tomorrow.”

He got the stove going under the tent flap. As they waited for the milk to boil, they kissed, gently. As they sipped the hot chocolate, they discussed how to tackle things next morning. When the drink was finished, they emptied the dregs in front of Maponus. Then they fell asleep, and the god watched over them again.