Those Old Gods

Chapter 10. Saturday: that chain which links

Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
But looks through nature up to nature’s god:
Pursues that chain which links the immense design,
Joins heaven and earth, and mortal and divine.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man

The day of reckoning came. A strong breeze blew and small clouds scudded across an otherwise clear sky. When Don opened his eyes at half past seven he felt almost as good as new. Mark was not in the tent. Nor was the god, but there was a message where the god had been.

Back soon. Taking M home. Bob would have kittens if he found him missing.
Luv Mag xxxxx

Soon Mark reappeared, and over breakfast they rehearsed the tactics they had discussed. They would be brazen and hide nothing. Indeed, they would take the bull by the horns. Don would not pack up. They would leave both tents standing, leave Mark’s possessions in Don’s, leave the flap open and the double sleeping bag in full view. But their battleground must be the site, and a showdown in the camping field would be premature. So they would leave a note here for the parents to read first.

As Mark shaved — the extra quarter inch on his right sideburn was more obvious by now — Don wrote out the note. He addressed it to Pop, Mum and Dad, folded it and attached it prominently to the tent with a clothes peg. It was their declaration of faith, and it did not beat about the bush.

You need to know this before we meet.

We are both gay. It is natural and god-given. It is the way we are made. Nobody can change it, or cure it, or suppress it, not without destroying us. And we love each other. We are not ashamed of that either, nor need you be, nor anyone else. We are talking about love, real love, god-given love. Sex may follow on, but love comes first.

We will be on the site, in the temple, and we can talk about it there. Then we can show you round. Mark’s Dad doesn’t know the way, so please wait until you’ve all arrived before coming down.

Love you. Yes, love you,

Don     Mark

They put in the bit about Dad because Pop and Mum would probably arrive first. They were coming from Pucklechurch, not so far away, and they tended to be punctual if not early. Dad was coming from the other side of Bristol and, as Mark said, “he’s always late for everything.”

They took themselves down to the site and set Maponus up in his sanctuary. The smile this morning seemed not so much enigmatic as conspiratorial and encouraging.

When Bob arrived they pulled him into the hut. They needed his co-operation.

“You all right now?” he asked Don. “You were fairly seedy last night.”

“Fine, thanks. It all sorted itself.” With a great deal of help from others, he might have added, but Bob needn’t know about that. “Bob. Will you do us a favour, please? Our parents are coming about eleven. It’s make or break, Bob. If it’s break, they’ll take me away. Probably Mark too. I know you’d normally be polite and hospitable and come to chat to them. But we want them by themselves first. So please would you steer clear until we bring them to you? And if possible keep other people out of the way too?”

“If that will help, of course I will. And good luck!”

He meant it with all his heart. He repented, now, of the half-heartedness he had shown yesterday, of the reservations that had bugged him. He could weather whatever storm might break. It was the boys who mattered, not him.

They mattered particularly because they matched. He had some experience in judging partnerships, in telling which were right and which were wrong. As a solicitor he had met plenty of examples of mismatches. As a father he had foreseen, correctly, that the marriage of one of his daughters would work and the other would end in divorce. All his instincts told him that the boys were made for each other. If they were torn apart now, there would be no justice in the world. No justice at all.

They set to, shovelling more mud out of their new bedroom. After a while Don, sweating despite the breeze and still a little morning-after-the-night-before, stopped and leant on his spade.

“God, this is hard work. But we’re not doing it for us, are we, Mag? Or even for Bob. Not really. We’re doing it for him.” He nodded towards the temple, where Maponus’ head was visible above the wall, watching them.

Mark thought about it. “Yes, I see what you mean. We owe it to him.”

By quarter to eleven they were keeping an eye on the top of the slope where the visitors would appear. Better be early than late. They downed tools and washed. On their way to the temple they passed Hilary and Jeff, who gave them an amused glance — the boys suddenly realised they were holding hands — followed by a kindly smile, as if they had been a boy and girl. Well! If that was the way things were … They had expected to be on tenterhooks, waiting for the crunch, but they weren't. Everyone, everything, was smiling on them. They did not know how it was going to work, but they knew that it would work.

Then a qualm crept to the surface. "We said in that note that it's natural and god-given. We know it is. He" — nodding at the god — "said so. We've got faith in him. But they've got their own faith. A different one. I hope that's not going to be shattered. Their jobs depend on it. If they lost it, it would lead to all kinds of complications."

"And if his cult was suppressed by Christians, he can't feel very kindly towards them."

No sooner had they voiced their qualm than they realised they could trust him to pitch it, whatever it was going to be, at the right level. To confirm their own trust in each other, they hugged and kissed, without concealment. They saw Miss Dinsdale watching them from fifty yards away, and waved at her. She waved back, smiling.

"Dum. It works here in the temple, and in the hut, and in the tent, and it sounds as if it works in the museum, with that Kevin and Harry. What happens when he's on public display there?"

Don took time to think the question through before breaking into a broad smile.

"God, yes, you're right! If people know about him, when they know about him, they'll come flocking!"

They mulled happily over the limitless implications. Then Mrs Prichard banged the tin tray which was her gong, and everyone else trundled down to the hut for elevenses. As if on cue, three heads came successively into sight on the skyline, bobbing up and down as their owners climbed the stile. There was a distant yelp and Don guessed that Mum had laddered her tights. As they came down the slope it was clear that they were not in a mellow frame of mind. They spotted the boys and veered towards the temple.

“Donald!” hissed Pop over the wall as they went round the portico. “If you think this shameless behaviour will succeed in affecting our attitude … ”

They came through the doorway and stopped dead. Mum clutched Pop’s arm. They stared. They saw a Roman column surmounted by a carved head. They saw their sons standing close on either side of it, hands clasped behind the column. They saw their expressions, smiling and radiant. They saw six eyes in a row, like links in a chain — not a chain that shackles, but a chain that joins heaven and earth, and mortal and divine. For a long time they stared.

Then they turned to gaze wordlessly at each other, successively bewildered, enquiring, and reassured. They looked back at the three figures. They saw no trace there of the provocative, the lascivious or the triumphant; only the naked, tender face of love. And as they assimilated their new-found knowledge, the scales fell from their eyes.

They were intelligent people, largely rational, but not wholly so because the Christian religion, like every other faith, steps beyond mere reason. They were aware that revelation can be conveyed in surprising ways and unexpected places. They regarded it as above human comprehension and beyond human questioning. They knew all about the road to Damascus.

Their revelation came to them without drama. It was accompanied by no great light shining from heaven, by no voice asking why they persecuted him. It came to them silently, as if transmitted by those six eyes which returned their gaze. It was clearly god-sent. They acknowledged only one god. Therefore it could only emanate from him, from their own god. And so, without any difficulty, they accepted it.

They opened their arms, and the boys rushed into them. Dad had not hugged his son for years.

“I think I understand now, Mark. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. You’ve been down in the dumps, haven’t you? Was that because you’re gay? And were being given a rough ride at school?”

Mark was too choked up to say much. He nodded. “It’s been … tough,” was all he could get out.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t come to me for help. But I know why. It’s not your fault, it’s mine. I wouldn’t have sympathised, and you knew it. I thought all that sort of thing was wrong, and when the Muirs showed me your note up at the tents I was very angry. But now I’ve seen you happy for the first time since I don’t know when. You and Don, happy together, obviously in love. And that doesn’t seem in the least wrong, after all.”

“Oh Don, we’re sorry,” Mum was saying at the same time. “We’ve been so short-sighted. We haven’t understood. We didn’t like what you and that boy did at Estepona. But you and Mark … well, that’s on a different plane. Now we’ve seen you together, that’s obvious.”

Don couldn’t speak. But he smiled at them.

Pop reacted with typical pomposity but unusual emotion. “There you are. God fulfils himself in many ways. We admit that we have made a mistake, and you do not respond with a ‘high time too’ or ‘I told you so.’ Instead you reward us with a warmer smile than we have seen in years. Proof, if we need it, that your heart is in the right place. In every sense.”

“And there was something else, Mark,” Dad continued quietly, “that stopped you bringing your problems to me, wasn’t there? We haven’t been close enough. Ever since Mummy died, I haven’t been able to give you the time you needed.” He shook his head sadly. “Well, that may be a reason, but it’s a very poor excuse. I’m sorry again. I really am. But now I’ll be able to make up for being such a bad father. That’s why I’ve come here today. To tell you what’s going to happen.”

"Yes, Don, we see it now. Your orientation is natural. Given by God. It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves. You are right, it cannot be altered. Which reminds me, may I use your mobile? I ought to phone Norton Malreward." Don had forgotten about that, and drew in a sharp breath. "Merely to tell them you will not be going after all. That was another misjudgement of ours."

Dad looked across at the Muirs and saw the Archdeacon distracted by the mobile. "Don!" he called. "This concerns you as well. I've some news for Mark. For you too, now. I've got a new job. We're moving."

Both boys boggled in horror. "Dad! Where to? The other end of England?"

Dad laughed and became even more human. “Not quite that far. Still in this diocese. A living that’s been vacant for months. Your father, Don, asked me to take it on, and yesterday I went to Wells, to the palace, and the Bishop confirmed it. It has an assistant priest who shares the workload. That’ll give me more time, for you.”

“Dad! You’re teasing us! Where?

“The church is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket … ”

Don gasped.

“The vicarage is in Pinfold Lane … ”

“Pucklechurch!” yelled Don.

“That’s right. And the vicarage and archdeaconry are next door to each other. And you’ll both be at the same school.”

The boys were beyond speech, again. Dad gathered both into a new hug.

“When will we be moving, Dad?” Mark asked after a while.

“Not till October or November.”

Mark wilted. “So I stay at my old school till then?”

Dad divined his problem, and hesitated. He had not thought of that.

“Not very sensible to change schools in mid-term,” put in Pop, having finished phoning. He exchanged a glance with Mum. “Mark, we will be only too delighted for you to stay with us until your father moves. Assuming that Don can put up with you.”


“That’s very generous of you,” said Dad, getting an emphatic nod from Mark. “Very generous indeed. It really would solve the problem very neatly. Thanks, Kenneth, thanks, Janet. We gladly accept. Meanwhile, Mark, I take it you’re staying on here for the next fortnight? I thought so.”

“Right, that’s settled,” said Pop with satisfaction. “Now, you promised to show us your latest finds, didn’t you?”

Don and Mark dared not look at each other. In the space of a few minutes their parents’ whole attitude had been turned on its head, without any fuss or bother, as if it was the most everyday thing in the world. Nor had they laid down any new laws or stuck up any new notices. It did not seem to surprise them unduly, nor call for any explanation. It was as if their instructions had been ‘You’re wrong. The boys’ line is right. Accept it, apologise, and follow it without argument.’

The boys felt dazed and weak at the knees. Although they knew their trust had been well-placed, the upshot was still mind-blowing, the relief colossal. But the whole extraordinary scene had been surreal. It had ended in anticlimax, and it was now over. A rapid gear-change was called for, as rapid as their parents’.

Don took a deep breath and tried to pull himself together. “OK. Well, you haven’t seen the site before, Mr Bushby … ”

“I think you’d better call me Philip now, don’t you?”

Don blinked. “Er, right. Well, we’ve got this octagonal temple …” He explained the architecture and introduced Maponus.

“What a very fine piece of sculpture!” said Pop as they moved closer to examine him. Up to this point, their minds having been on other things, they had had no chance to consider him as a work of art. Now, behind their backs, the boys could roll their eyes at each other in incredulous delight. “Not unlike the head of Antenociticus from Benwell, is it? Or Mercury from Uley. Very British. And very successful at imparting a sense of the divine. Do you know what his function was here?”

This was the next test. "Yes, we do, now. He was rather like Hymen, bringing couples together. There was an altar right here in the sanctuary — we'll show you, it's in the hut — which calls him coniugator, remember? Uniter. In this case he united young men who asked for his approval. He might say no, if they asked in lust not love. Another find here was a lead defixio. A couple had been refused permission, but disobeyed him. And they were cursed. But he might say yes, if they really were in love. Mark and I've been digging a bedroom in the hostel over there, and we found a graffito made by a couple who had got Maponus' approval."

The parents nodded understandingly, and passed the test.

“That couple got caught there when the river flooded. They escaped, but without their clothes. Which we found on the floor. Let’s go over there next.”

The parents did not bother to look back at the god. But Mark and Don did. As they left the temple Bob, watching anxiously from the far side of the site, saw that they were hand in hand again. He breathed a mighty sigh of relief.

“Here’s the hostel,” said Don. “There’s not much to see at the moment. We’re backfilling the first bedroom now — this one here. The graffito’s been taken into the museum, and the clothes are in Bradford, being conserved. They’re very excited about them … ”

So they progressed around the site. All the right questions were asked, and answered. Elevenses were over and people had drifted back to work, and the boys finished by ushering their parents to the site hut. There Bob was awaiting them, and greeted them warmly. Mark introduced Dad, and behind all their backs Don gave Bob an exultant two-handed thumbs-up. They inspected the altar — with a learned discussion about that interesting word coniugator — and the garum amphora and other finds. Nobody tempted providence by mentioning, let alone showing, the phallic knife or the fascinum. And the defixio was still in Oxford.

“Is it too late, or can we offer you a mug of coffee?”

Dad looked at his watch. “Oh Lord, is that the time? Thanks, Mr Gill, but not for me. I’ve got a wedding at Ubley at half past two. I must be off.”

“We ought to go too,” decided the Muirs, and they all made their farewells.

“We’ll come up to the camping field to see you off,” said Don. “You go ahead and we’ll catch you up in a moment. We just want a quick word with Bob.”

With the parents out of earshot, Bob pretended to mop his brow. “Whew! So it’s all right?”

“Everything’s all right!” They were on top of the world. “Thanks, Bob!”

“What did you say to them?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They had a divine revelation, that’s all. Look, Bob, we’ll come straight back from seeing them off, and then we’ll dig till we drop. We owe it.”

"Oh, and Bob," Mark called over his shoulder, "I will be staying on for the next two weeks. Assuming you want me." He did not wait for an answer.

Perplexed, but in high pleasure, Bob watched the boys run back to the adults and the five of them walk up towards the stile. Mark and his father were side by side, a hand on each other’s shoulder. Don was between his parents, holding their hands. They disappeared over the brow.

Bob lit his pipe and ambled across the site. He was moved by this show of affection — most teenage boys would rather die than display such a thing in public. He was also infinitely relieved, for he had fully expected the heavens to fall. Above all, he was sorely puzzled. He stood outside the temple, puffing his pipe, ruminating, chasing elusive thoughts. He was not a religious man. Divine revelation, eh? But from what divinity? And what did Don and Mark owe, and to whom?

The boys reappeared on the skyline and started down the slope towards him, hand in hand, clearly in seventh heaven. Moved by some impulse, Bob went into the sanctuary and contemplated the god. Maybe it was only the shadow of a cloudlet flitting across the sun, but Maponus seemed to wink at him. It was enough to give Bob his answer, and a glimpse of the immense design. Yes, there was justice in the world, after all. And not merely mortal justice, but divine.