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MARIE PHILLIPS

Gods Behaving
Badly

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VINTAGE BOOKS
London

Contents

Cover Page

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

About the Author

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Epilogue

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781407091488

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Published by Vintage 2008

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Copyright © Marie Phillips 2007

Marie Phillips has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 2007 by Jonathan Cape

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ISBN 9780099513025

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For MY PARENTS

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GODS BEHAVING BADLY

Marie Phillips was born in London in 1976. She studied anthropology and documentary making, and worked as a TV researcher for several years. More recently she has worked as an independent bookseller whilst writing Gods Behaving Badly.

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One

One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.

The tree was standing alone in a sheltered part of the slope. To the untrained eye, the casual passer-by, it probably just looked like a normal tree. But Artemis’s eye was far from untrained, and she ran through this part of Hampstead Heath every day. This tree was a newcomer: it had not been there yesterday. And with just one glance Artemis recognised that it was an entirely new species, a type of eucalyptus that had also not existed yesterday. It was a tree that should not exist at all.

Dragging the mutts behind her, Artemis made her way over to the tree. She touched its bark and felt it breathing. She pressed her ear against the trunk of the tree and listened to its heartbeat. Then she looked around. Good: it was early, and there was nobody within earshot. She reminded herself not to get angry with the tree, that it wasn’t the tree’s fault. Then she spoke.

‘Hello,’ she said.

There was a long silence.

‘Hello,’ said Artemis again.

‘Are you talking to me?’ said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.

‘Yes,’ said Artemis. ‘I am Artemis.’ If the tree experienced any recognition, it didn’t show it. ‘I’m the goddess of hunting and chastity,’ said Artemis.

Another silence. Then the tree said, ‘I’m Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.’

‘Do you know what happened to you, Kate?’ said Artemis.

The longest silence of all. Artemis was just about to repeat the question when the tree replied.

‘I think I’ve turned into a tree,’ it said.

‘Yes,’ said Artemis. ‘You have.’

‘Thank God for that,’ said the tree. ‘I thought I was going mad.’ Then the tree seemed to reconsider this. ‘Actually,’ it said, ‘I think I would rather be mad.’ Then, with hope in its voice, ‘Are you sure I haven’t gone mad?’

‘I’m sure,’ said Artemis. ‘You’re a tree. A eucalyptus. Subgenus of mallee. Variegated leaves.’

‘Oh,’ said the tree.

‘Sorry,’ said Artemis.

‘But with variegated leaves?’

‘Yes,’ said Artemis. ‘Green and yellow.’

The tree seemed pleased. ‘Oh well, there’s that to be grateful for,’ it said.

‘That’s the spirit,’ Artemis reassured it.

‘So,’ said the tree in a more conversational tone. ‘You’re the goddess of hunting and chastity then?’

‘Yes,’ said Artemis. ‘And of the moon, and several other things. Artemis.’ She put a little emphasis on her name. It still hurt when mortals didn’t know it.

‘I didn’t know there was a goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon,’ confessed the tree. ‘I thought there was just the one God. Of everything. Or actually, to be honest, I thought there was no God at all. No offence.’

‘None taken,’ said Artemis. Unbelievers were always preferable to heretics.

‘I have to say you don’t look much like a goddess, though,’ added the tree.

‘And what does a goddess look like, exactly?’ said Artemis, a sharpness entering her voice.

‘I don’t know,’ said the tree, a little nervously. ‘Shouldn’t you be wearing a toga or something? Or a laurel wreath?’

‘You mean, not a tracksuit,’ said Artemis.

‘Pretty much,’ admitted the tree.

‘Times change,’ said Artemis. ‘Right now you don’t look like somebody who works in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs.’ Her voice indicated that the clothing conversation was closed.

‘I still can’t get over the fact that you’re a goddess,’ said the tree after a pause. ‘Wow. Yesterday I wouldn’t have believed it. Today . . .’ The tree gave an almost imperceptible shrug, rustling its leaves. Then it seemed to think for a bit. ‘So does that mean, if you’re a goddess,’ it said, ‘that you can turn me back into a person?’

Artemis had been expecting this question.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but I can’t.’

‘Why not?’ said the tree.

The tree sounded so despondent that Artemis couldn’t bring herself to reply, as planned, ‘Because I don’t want to.’ ‘A god can’t undo what another god has done,’ she found herself saying instead, much to her own surprise. She hated admitting any kind of weakness, especially to a mortal.

‘You mean that guy was a god too? The one who . . . did this. Well, I suppose it’s obvious now. I kind of hoped he might be a hypnotist.’

‘No, he was a god,’ said Artemis.

‘Um,’ said the tree. ‘Could you do something about that red setter? I don’t really like the way it’s sniffing around me.’

Artemis pulled the idiot dog away.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘So what happened exactly?’

‘I was just taking a walk yesterday and this guy came up to talk to me –’

‘Tall?’ said Artemis. ‘Blond? Almost impossibly handsome?’

‘That’s the one,’ said the tree.

‘What did he say?’ said Artemis.

The bark on the tree seemed to shift slightly, as if the tree was pulling a face.

‘I, um . . .’

‘What did he say?’ Artemis asked again, allowing a hint of command to enter her voice.

‘He said, “Hello. Do you want to give me a blow job?”’

A blow job. Why did people do these things to each other? Artemis felt faintly sick.

‘I said no,’ continued the tree, ‘and then he said, “Are you sure, because you look like you’d be good at it and I think you’d really enjoy it.”’

‘I’m very sorry,’ said Artemis, ‘about my brother. If it were up to me he would not be allowed outside unsupervised.’

‘He’s your brother?’

‘My twin. It’s . . . unfortunate.’

‘Well, anyway, I just walked off, and he followed me, and I got a bit scared and I started running, and then the next thing I knew . . . Here I am.’

Artemis shook her head. ‘This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,’ she said. ‘Rest assured we will be having words about it.’

‘And then he’ll turn me back?’

‘Absolutely,’ lied Artemis.

‘No need to tell my family back home what happened, then,’ said the tree. ‘Good. Maybe I should call in sick at work though. I can’t really go in like this. I had my mobile with me; it should be around here somewhere. Could you dial my boss’s number and hold the phone to my trunk?’

‘Mortals aren’t going to be able to understand you, I’m afraid,’ said Artemis. ‘Just gods. And other vegetation. I wouldn’t bother talking to the grass, though. It isn’t very bright.’

‘Oh,’ said the tree. ‘OK.’ Artemis gave the tree time to absorb this information. ‘Why aren’t I more upset about this?’ it said eventually. ‘If you’d told me yesterday that I was going to be turned into a tree, I’m sure I’d have been really, really upset.’

‘You’re a tree now, not a human mortal,’ explained Artemis. ‘You don’t really have emotions any more. I think you’ll be much happier this way. And you’ll live longer, unless it gets very windy.’

‘Except your brother’s going to turn me back.’

‘Of course he is,’ said Artemis. ‘Right then, I’d best be getting on. I’ve got to get these dogs back to . . . my friends.’

‘It was nice meeting you,’ said the tree.

‘Likewise,’ said Artemis. ‘Bye then. See you soon. Maybe.’

The pleasant look on her face vaporised before her back was even fully turned. The dogs saw her expression and whimpered as one. But they had nothing to fear from Artemis. It was time to go home and find Apollo.

Two

There was a time, thought Apollo, thrusting rhythmically, when sneaking an illicit bathroom shag with Aphrodite would have been exciting. He scrutinised her as she leant away from him against the peeling back wall, one dainty foot up on the stained toilet cistern, her toenail-polish the only paint in here that was perfectly applied. She was exquisite. He couldn’t deny that. Simply the most beautiful sort-of woman ever to have sort-of lived, though Helen of the ship-launching face had given her a run for her money. Eyes (thrust), hair (thrust), mouth (thrust), skin (thrust), breasts (thrust), legs (thrust) – he could not fault an inch of her. Though this was hardly an achievement on her part. She was the goddess of beauty after all. But still, thought Apollo, sublime as she was, did she have to look so . . . well . . . bored? True, Apollo was so bored with Aphrodite that he could almost scream. His pride, however, demanded that she did not feel the same way.

‘Right, I’m turning around,’ announced Aphrodite.

‘OK,’ said Apollo. At least he wouldn’t have to look at that passively indifferent face any longer.

Aphrodite detached herself from him and turned so that she was facing the wall. She arched her back, pointed the flawless ivory spheres of her buttocks at her nephew, and supported herself against the wall with her slender, elegant hands. Apollo reengaged himself and resumed thrusting. Looking down at the back of her head, her glossy black hair curling down over the alabaster slope of her shoulders, he could almost imagine that he was screwing Catherine Zeta Jones. He wondered whether he could persuade Aphrodite to speak to him in Welsh. Just for the novelty. Anything for some novelty.

Apollo wanted out. Out of Aphrodite, out of this bathroom, out of this house, and out of this life. He was sick of London. The family had moved there in 1665, when the plague was keeping property prices rock bottom, and just before the destruction of the Great Fire sent them spiralling upwards again. This had been a typically canny piece of financial engineering by his sister Athena, the goddess of wisdom. At the time, though, he had foreseen that they would never actually be able to sell the house that they had bought so craftily, and he had tried to warn the rest of the family, but they hadn’t listened. It was true that he had been known to lie about his predictions just to get his own way, and everyone knew that he didn’t want to move to London in the first place, but even so, this time he had been right, and he’d known it from the start. It was putting the property in Zeus’s name: that had been the problem. But even he could not have foreseen what would happen to Zeus.

‘I was thinking of redecorating my room,’ said Aphrodite, interrupting his thoughts.

‘Again?’ said Apollo.

‘I could do with a change,’ said Aphrodite. ‘I’m sure Heppy won’t mind.’

Heppy was Hephaestus, god of smiths and Aphrodite’s husband, as hideous as she was beautiful. Treated with contempt by the rest of the family, he nevertheless did all the refurbishment and repairs in the house. As they had been living in the same place for over three hundred years, that was a lot of refurbishment and repairs. Even so, in Apollo’s opinion, he could have done with spending more time on things like patching up this damp, crumbling, leaking bathroom, which would be in the interests of the entire household, and less on adding further unnecessary levels of luxury to their bedroom every time Aphrodite had one of her increasingly frequent whims.

‘So what are you going to do this time?’ he asked her. ‘More gold leaf ? Hang some diamonds off the chandelier? Get rid of the roses at last?’

Aphrodite looked sharply at him over her shoulder. Even her glare was calculated to be sexy.

‘There’s nothing wrong with roses,’ she snapped. ‘No, I just thought I would change them from red to pink again.’ She turned back to the wall, picked up a passing cockroach and crushed it between her thumb and forefinger. ‘Do that more slowly,’ she said.

Apollo obediently changed pace. He thought of thousands and thousands of years of living with Aphrodite, thousands gone, and thousands yet to come – and that was the best-case scenario. And she never changed. Never, ever. But sex with Aphrodite was better than no sex at all. And none of the other gods would sleep with him. If only he could get a decent mortal lover, someone like one of his old lovers in Greece or Rome, who worshipped him and everything that he did . . . but he refused to let his thoughts stray in that direction. It was too depressing. Things had all been so much easier in the years that they were now obliged to refer to as BC.

There was a knock at the door, a distinctive grumbling thumping like the falling of distant bombs. It could only be Ares, god of war: Apollo’s half-brother, roommate, and, gallingly, Aphrodite’s favourite lover. Apollo paused mid-thrust.

‘Can you get a move on in there?’ came Ares’ voice. ‘I’ve got a Start the War demo this morning, and I need a shave.’

‘Bugger off,’ shouted Apollo, resuming his activity. ‘I got here first, you’ll just have to wait.’

‘Oh, let him in,’ drawled Aphrodite from beneath him. ‘He can join us. It’ll be fun.’

‘Didn’t you hear him?’ said Apollo. ‘He’s going out. He doesn’t have time for you.’

‘Everybody has time for me,’ said Aphrodite.

This was almost certainly true. But Apollo felt no need to be sexually outclassed by his brother.

‘This bathroom is first come, first served,’ said Apollo primly. ‘If Ares doesn’t like it he can get Hephaestus to build another one. It would be about bloody time that he did. And your frigging new wallpaper can just wait.’

‘OK, I’m done now.’ Aphrodite orgasmed quickly and tidily, and removed herself from Apollo.

‘I hadn’t finished!’ protested Apollo.

‘Well, you should have been nicer to me then.’

Aphrodite stepped over to the cracked enamel bath and switched the shower attachment on, as Apollo watched his tumescence disappear. He limped over to the sink and splashed cold water onto his genitals. Aphrodite had no respect for him. Glancing at himself in the mouldy mirror above the basin, he wondered whether she might think more of him if he had a tattoo.

‘I don’t believe it,’ said Aphrodite.

‘I was just thinking about it,’ said Apollo. ‘I wasn’t actually going to . . .’

Aphrodite spoke over him. ‘There’s no hot water. Again!’

She marched over to the door and opened it, sticking her head out into the cold, empty stairwell. ‘Who used up all the hot water?’ she yelled. There was no reply. She pulled her head back in and slammed the door.

‘I hate this family,’ she said.

‘The feeling is mutual,’ said Apollo.

Aphrodite spun around. Apollo was expecting her to bite his head off – possibly literally – but instead, unexpectedly, she had one of her best smiles on her face, the one that looked like dry land to a drowning man, like water in the desert, the one she saved for only the most special of occasions, or, rarer yet, for times when she was genuinely happy. It had been perfected over the centuries to be irresistible. She wants something, thought Apollo, slowly and numbly, but the words refused to take meaning in his head.

‘Apollo darling,’ said Aphrodite, her eyes suddenly shining with what Apollo couldn’t help but think must surely be unfeigned warmth, ‘seeing as we’ve just had such a lovely time together, I don’t suppose you could just use a teensy bit of your power to heat up a tiny little bit of water for me? Just enough for a quick, quick shower. You’ve made me so . . .’ and she trailed a delicate finger down between her breasts, ‘. . . sweaty.’

Apollo blinked twice and swallowed. He told his penis sternly to stay where it was. He waited until he was quite sure that his body and mouth would obey his brain, and then he said, with all the nonchalance he could muster, ‘Sorry, but no.’

‘Please, darling,’ said Aphrodite. ‘I’d do it myself, but you’ve worn me out. You could join me if you like . . .’ She stepped closer to him, gazing up at him from beneath the undulating black of her lashes.

Apollo looked down at the ground. ‘The answer is still no,’ he forced himself to say. ‘If you want hot water, use your own power.’

‘Suit your fucking self,’ said Aphrodite, dropping the smile like a cold, dead fish, and she stepped beneath the icy beam of the shower, pulling the curtain shut behind her with the sharp rattle of a snake.

It was the wrong decision and Apollo knew it. According to everything he’d heard about the place, hell had no fury like Aphrodite scorned. Improbably, though, he felt slightly cheered. Her revenge would be swift and no doubt deadly, but at least it would pass the time.

Three

Once Artemis had returned all of the dogs to their ungrateful owners and accepted her derisory pay, she did not, as was her usual habit, return to the park to catch some squirrels, but instead headed straight for home.

She paused outside the front door. The once-glossy black paint was peeling off in long, jagged streaks, and the knocker, in the shape of a laurel wreath, was so tarnished that it was impossible to tell what kind of metal it had been originally. Artemis always waited a few moments on the doorstep before heading inside, to shrug off the disdainful world and regain her rightful stature. And also because it was the last peace and quiet she was going to be getting for a while.

This time, before she had even opened the door she could feel the elephantine stamp of a heavy beat reverberating in her chest. She pushed into the house against the tidal wave of music and forced her way down the front hall into the kitchen at the back of the house. Her half-brother Dionysus had set up his decks at the kitchen table. Beside him on the floor was a stack of records, and in front of him an empty bottle of wine and another which was a fair way gone. Dionysus was busy cueing up another record, headphones on, a blissful smile upon his goat-like face.

Behind him, Athena was shouting. She was barely audible above the music.

‘Have you any understanding of the duties other members of the household are performing at this hour?’ she screamed. ‘I am undertaking a groundbreaking research initiative in the upper rooms! The amount of noise that you are producing is rendering that task impossible! I would move that your so-called hedonism is merely a mask for deep selfishness!’ Athena was getting so agitated that her glasses had steamed up. She didn’t actually need glasses, but she wore plain lenses in order to enhance her air of wisdom.

‘Have either of you seen Apollo?’ said Artemis.

Dionysus carried on mixing (or perhaps scratching – Artemis didn’t know the difference). Athena carried on screaming.

‘My research is not just performed for the pleasure of it! It is undertaken for the good of the entire deistic community! Including yours, you pickled lump of goat meat!’

Artemis left them to it and surfed the wave of beats back down the hall and into the living room at the front of the house. All of the sofas and chairs in there were torn or broken, so Ares was sitting on a cushion in front of the rickety coffee table, his maps and charts spread out before him, a pair of callipers in his hand. His brow was furrowed: he appeared to be performing some complex calculation. He didn’t look up as Artemis came in.

‘You need a shave,’ said Artemis, standing in the doorway.

‘Mmm,’ said Ares, without turning his head. ‘This War on Terror isn’t producing enough casualties. Bringing in Iran is the obvious choice, but I don’t think they’ve got enough firepower yet. I wonder if I could somehow antagonise Japan?’

‘Have you seen Apollo?’ said Artemis.

‘Bathroom,’ said Ares. ‘Tell him to get a move on. I need a shave.’

‘Yes, I just said that,’ said Artemis.

‘There’s always Russia,’ said Ares, ‘but they’ve been harder to provoke since the end of the Cold War. Why are mortals so hung up on peace?’ He shuffled through his papers. ‘Or maybe it’s time to broaden out some of the African civil wars?’

Artemis slammed the door and went upstairs to the first-floor landing, where Hephaestus had installed the bathroom in what had been Athena’s old study – a decision that had not gone down very well with Athena. Artemis didn’t knock. Artemis never knocked. She merely kicked the door open and swept inside.

Apollo was naked and sitting, legs mercifully crossed, on the toilet seat, painting his fingernails with clear varnish. Before Artemis could speak to him, though, the shower curtain was yanked aside to reveal Aphrodite, glistening wet and smiling a serpent’s grin.

‘Shut the door, would you?’ she said. ‘You’re letting in a terrible draught. Look, my nipples are all erect.’ She fingered one as if testing a cherry for ripeness.

Artemis refused to rise to the bait. She knew that Aphrodite delighted in trying to shock her. Instead she grabbed a towel from the rail and threw it to her aunt.

‘Wrap yourself up, then,’ she said.

Aphrodite caught the towel and coiled it around her hair. Artemis turned away from her and faced her twin.

‘I need to have a word with you, Apollo,’ she said. ‘Is now a good time?’

‘No,’ said Apollo.

‘Good,’ said Artemis. ‘I was out running on the Heath today, and guess what I found?’

‘Two men rogering each other in the bushes?’ suggested Aphrodite, who was now perched on the edge of the bath.

Artemis suppressed a shudder. ‘I wasn’t aware that I’d invited you to join this conversation,’ she said.

‘You didn’t,’ said Aphrodite.

‘Apollo,’ said Artemis. ‘Any suggestions of your own?’

‘Not a clue,’ Apollo said, but he looked a little pale. He knew what was coming, and he rather hoped that he was wrong.

‘Allow me to jog your memory,’ said Artemis. ‘Does the name Kate mean anything to you?’

Apollo was genuinely surprised. ‘It doesn’t, no,’ he said.

‘Typical,’ said Artemis. ‘That makes it even worse. Kate is the Australian mortal that you turned into a tree yesterday.’

Apollo’s face went from pale to white. He looked like a statue of himself.

‘You did what?’ said Aphrodite, rising to her feet. If anything, she sounded even angrier than Artemis felt.

‘I . . .’ said Apollo. ‘I . . .’

‘You wouldn’t heat up so much as a cupful of water for me, and yet you were willing to waste gallons of your power on transmogrifying some stupid mortal slut?’

‘She wasn’t a slut,’ said Artemis. ‘Not with him anyway. I think that was the problem.’

Artemis and Aphrodite shared a rare, complicit laugh. It was the final straw for Apollo, who leapt up.

‘It’s none of your business what I do with my power!’

‘Actually,’ said Artemis, ‘I think you’ll find that it is. It’s all of our business.’ She stalked over to the bathroom window and yanked up the blind. ‘Did the sun come up today?’ she said, squinting outward. ‘I think it did. Lucky for you.’ She closed the blind again and turned. ‘Did it come up on time though, or maybe it was slightly late? Is it shining as brightly as it usually does? Is it as warm as it should be? I’m not so sure. Maybe the sun is fading. Maybe it’s going out. Because the god who’s supposed to be in charge of it is too busy throwing away what’s left of his power on inventing a humanoid species of eucalyptus to do his job.’

‘Don’t be such a hypocrite,’ said Apollo. ‘What about you? They’ve just banned hunting in this country you know. And chastity? What kind of an outdated concept is that? It doesn’t sound to me as if you’re using your power where you’re supposed to. Or maybe you’re the one who’s got none left.’

‘That’s not fair,’ said Artemis, her eyes appealing to Aphrodite to back her up.

‘Two words, Apollo,’ said Aphrodite to her nephew. ‘Global Warming.’

‘Don’t you start,’ said Apollo, spinning to face her. ‘Goddess of beauty? That’s going very well, isn’t it? Aren’t you aware that there’s an obesity epidemic sweeping this planet at the moment? Is that what you call beautiful?’

‘The difference between us,’ said Artemis, ‘is that Aphrodite and I don’t go around wilfully wasting our power on unnecessary procedures just because some mortal won’t let us . . . let us . . .’

‘Stick it in her,’ finished Aphrodite helpfully.

‘You mean you don’t get caught,’ said Apollo.

‘You,’ said Artemis, ignoring his comment, ‘are going to take an oath that you’re not going to do anything like this ever again. No more squandering your power turning mortals into trees or anything else like that.’

‘An oath on Styx,’ added Aphrodite. Oaths sworn on the river Styx were absolutely binding for gods, which was why they hated taking them so much.

‘That’s not fair,’ said Apollo. ‘You have no right to make me swear an oath. I won’t do it.’

‘Fine,’ said Artemis. ‘I’ll just call the rest of the family in here and tell them what you’ve been up to. Then we can decide democratically what to do about it. If you really think you’ll get a better deal from them . . .’

‘No, no,’ said Apollo, ‘don’t do that. There really isn’t any need for anyone else to know.’

‘So make the oath,’ said Artemis.

‘Hang on, no,’ said Apollo. ‘You’re not making sense, you can’t just make me swear an oath like that. None of us know what’s going to happen in the future.’

‘Not even you?’ said Aphrodite.

‘Athena might come up with something to make us powerful again,’ Apollo continued. ‘And what is the point of being powerful if you can’t use your power to do whatever you like?’

‘Until Athena figures out a way to turn back time, we are stuck with the power that we’ve got, and when that’s used up . . .’ said Artemis.

Beside her, Aphrodite’s lovely face turned ashen at the thought.

‘Face it, Apollo, we’re getting old,’ Artemis said. ‘You just can’t go around using up all your power on frivolities. You won’t have any left. And we need you. We can’t run the world without the sun. You have to cooperate.’

‘So I’ll cooperate,’ said Apollo. He made a move to go.

‘That’s not good enough,’ said Artemis. ‘I need a guarantee.’

‘Which means you have to swear on Styx,’ smiled Aphrodite.

They were between Apollo and the door. He knew that both were stubborn enough to wait there for years, if needs be.

‘So what do you want me to swear?’ he said eventually.

Artemis took a few moments, then announced gravely: ‘Apollo, you must take an oath on Styx that you will not use your power unnecessarily until such a time when our strength is regained.’

‘Wait a second,’ said Apollo.

‘What now?’

‘I’m not swearing that. It’s a totally disproportionate restriction of my abilities. We don’t know what Styx is going to define as unnecessary. She’s a river. There isn’t a huge amount that’s necessary to her.’

‘He has a point,’ said Aphrodite. ‘All she does is flow.’

‘OK,’ said Artemis. ‘This is what we’ll do. You’ll have to swear not to use your power to harm mortals, unless we get our power back.’

‘No,’ said Apollo. ‘That’s not fair either. I might need to harm mortals. Sometimes it’s important, you know that, you’ve had men torn into tiny pieces for watching you get undressed.’

‘True,’ admitted Artemis.

‘Plus, you said yourself we might never get our power back and I don’t think you have the right to make me swear to do anything which could last for ever. All I did was turn one little mortal into a tree. This is getting totally out of proportion. Harming mortals is fun. We’ve all done it.’

‘You still deserve to be punished,’ said Aphrodite. ‘Artemis, he still has to swear something.’

‘I agree.’ Artemis thought carefully, then said, ‘Right. You will swear not to harm any mortals unnecessarily for a century, or until we get our power back, whichever is sooner.’

‘A year,’ said Apollo.

‘A decade,’ said Aphrodite.

‘Done,’ said Artemis.

Apollo looked sulky, but he knew that he had no choice.

‘I swear that . . .’ he said.

‘On Styx,’ Aphrodite reminded him.

Damn. ‘I swear, on Styx, that I won’t cause any unnecessary harm to mortals for the next ten years or until I get stronger again, whichever comes first. Satisfied?’

‘Satisfied,’ said Artemis.

Four

‘So what do you think?’ whispered Alice.

The door was shut; there was no risk of them being overheard. But Alice never liked to speak loudly in case it drew undue attention to herself.

‘It’s very nice,’ said Neil. ‘Very tidy.’

He had the reward of Alice beaming at him, her cheeks flushing pink with pleasure and embarrassment.

‘When I first started working here it was terribly messy,’ she confided. ‘The cleaning products were all over the place and some weren’t properly sealed. That can be dangerous you know. With children, for example, or pets.’

Neil nodded. It was unlikely that children or pets would find themselves inside the locked cleaning storeroom of a TV studio, but Alice thought of everything.

‘And the mops and brooms were just here and there. Here and there,’ Alice repeated, with a faint look of horror. ‘Now I have a system so I can find everything I need straight away. It’s far more efficient that way.’

‘They’re very lucky to have you,’ said Neil.

‘Oh no,’ said Alice, shaking her head vigorously. ‘No no, not at all.’

Neil looked around the room – was it a room, or a cupboard? There was some basic furniture and Alice had described it as her office, but in reality it was narrow, dark and cramped, dominated by neatly stacked piles of cleaning materials, so carefully sorted by size, type and function that it was like being in the archives of a cleaning museum. The air was thick and stale, but not a single dust mote swam around the bare bulb that dangled at a height that would have been dangerously low, had Neil and Alice not both been unusually short.

‘Does it get warm in here?’ asked Neil. ‘Without any windows?’

‘Oh, they let me bring a fan,’ said Alice. ‘It’s under the table.’ Indeed, there was a small electric fan underneath the table, unplugged, with its cable modestly curled around it in deference to the month of February, even though the room was already unbearably stuffy. On top of the table, Neil noticed a selection of the small china figurines that Alice collected, adding a homey touch to the room. Last Christmas, Neil had bought her one, a little shepherdess leaning forward to gather up a stray lamb, and Alice had been so happy that he had thought she might kiss him, but she hadn’t. But she had put the figurine right in the middle of her mantelpiece, moving aside the dancing fawn that he knew was her favourite, which was almost like a kiss, after all.

‘So are you going to tell me what we’re seeing yet?’ said Neil.

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘It’s a surprise.’

‘Should we go straight to the auditorium, then?’

‘Not yet,’ said Alice. ‘I’m sneaking you in. Cleaners aren’t really supposed to go into the audiences of programmes. It’s bad for the company image.’

‘I can’t believe you would be bad for anyone’s image,’ said Neil.

‘It’s just a policy.’ Alice looked down and tucked a stray blonde hair behind her ear.

‘You’re not going to get in trouble are you?’ said Neil. ‘I don’t want to get you in trouble.’

‘No, no,’ said Alice, looking back up at him. ‘Please don’t worry. It’s OK. Nobody notices me. I’m just the cleaner. And anyway, it’ll be fun. I don’t usually break the rules.’

‘Well, as long as you’re sure.’

‘I’m sure,’ said Alice. She smiled, and Neil felt his heart jump. ‘It’s nice of you to be so concerned,’ she whispered, even more quietly than usual.

They stood stiffly opposite one another as if carrying an item of bulky furniture between them. Their eyes didn’t quite meet, and neither made a move to sit. There was only one chair, made of orange moulded plastic, clashing with the sticky yellow varnish of the tabletop that it was tucked beneath. Alice had hung up her cardigan on the back of the chair, the same sensible navy blue that she used to wear when she cleaned the office where Neil worked, before the maintenance had been contracted out to a larger, cheaper company. Then, as now, he had wanted to pick it up and bury his face in it, inhaling deeply, to find something in her smell that would give him some, any, information about this mysterious woman, this enigma that was Alice.

‘Do you want to sit down?’ said Alice.

‘No,’ said Neil, ‘I was just . . . I . . .’

‘Only you were looking at the chair.’

‘I was wondering if maybe you wanted to sit down,’ said Neil.

‘No, I’m fine,’ said Alice.

The silence resumed. Neil could see himself reflected in Alice’s glasses, a small, mole-like creature with wiry brown hair that stood straight up like a brush. He wondered whether Alice ever thought about him for even a single second when he wasn’t around.

Suddenly Alice’s face fell. ‘Oh dear. I hope you’re not going to get bored in here, with only me to talk to.’

‘No!’ said Neil. ‘Not at all. Please don’t think that. Actually, I was just thinking the same thing myself. I mean, you, about me. I mean, you getting bored.’

‘Oh, no,’ whispered Alice. ‘I don’t find you boring at all, Neil. Not a bit.’

In the kind of novels that Neil sometimes read in secret, this would be the moment when the hero took the heroine in his arms, pressed his lips roughly to hers, and then ravaged her.

‘I’ve got Scrabble on my Palm Pilot,’ he said. ‘Multiplayer.’

‘Neil, aren’t you clever,’ said Alice, restored to animation. ‘And I think I’ve got –’ and now she looked slyly naughty as she rummaged in the big quilted holdall she carried everywhere, ‘Yes! Some orange juice.’ She pulled out two individual-sized cartons with straws and handed one to Neil. ‘It’ll be like a party. Only we’ll have to sit on the floor unless you want to share the chair.’

Before Neil could say that sharing the chair was fine with him, she lowered herself onto the ground, leaning back against a metal stepladder and pulling her skirt down over her knees.

‘Do you want to play with the replaceable blank?’ said Neil, sitting down opposite her. Catching the near-imperceptible widening of her eyes, he quickly added, ‘Because I don’t.’

‘Oh good,’ said Alice. ‘Me neither. It makes the game so unpredictable. And are you happiest with the SOWPODS list of permissible two- and three-letter words?’

‘The, ah . . . ?’ Neil swallowed. ‘Um, of course. Here. I’ll let you go first.’

‘It’s a double-word score advantage,’ said Alice.

‘That’s fine,’ said Neil. ‘You start.’

He handed over the Palm Pilot and took a long, deep swig of his orange juice.

Five

In a dilapidated Portakabin in the car park of the television studio, Apollo sat at his dressing table, an entourage of nymphs, graces and demigods fussing around him. He was trying to hide it, but Aphrodite could see that he wished he hadn’t invited any of them. Being the centre of attention was, of course, something Apollo adored, but the dressing room itself was not quite as impressive as he had made out it would be. And now all his hangers-on had seen it, which meant that he wasn’t going to be able to lie about it to the rest of the gods later.

Stacked at one end of the room was an obstacle course of props and possessions related to a programme that wasn’t even Apollo’s, some wrapped up in splitting black bin liners as if awaiting incineration. Covering the floor was a rough carpet in a dull, office beige, which was coming away at the corners and had worn right through in front of the tuftless patch of faded brown that had once been the doormat. The windows, rounded at the corners like those of a caravan, were made of some kind of double-glazed reinforced plastic, with a light growth of mildew between the two layers that no amount of assiduous cleaning would ever get to. Some of the plastic chairs wobbled; others had no backs. The mirror that Apollo was looking in was carefully polished but cracked, fracturing his beautiful face into something approaching cubism. Even the sign, written in Biro and Sellotaped to the door, had been misspelled: ‘Appolo’s Oracle’.

Apollo affected not to notice any of it, but Aphrodite knew him better. ‘A little more foundation on the jaw line,’ he commanded one of his attendants; but Aphrodite heard his voice tremble, oh so slightly. This was his big debut and he was being housed like second-class vaudeville. It was marvellous.

‘Are you sure I can’t get you anything?’ Aphrodite purred. ‘A little nectar, some ambrosia? A bit of hand relief ?’

‘Maybe later,’ said Apollo, not even turning his head. ‘I don’t want to sweat through the powder. A shiny face is the enemy of the television professional.’

‘Of course,’ said Aphrodite. ‘Silly me. I wouldn’t want to ruin your special day.’ It was an effort to keep her voice sweet and level. ‘I’m so excited,’ she continued. ‘I can’t wait to see you in action.’

She watched his face in the shards of the mirror, wondering if he could possibly be buying this act, but the god was so arrogant that he genuinely believed that she cared two hoots for his stupid, tedious programme.

‘You can watch from backstage if you like,’ said Apollo.

‘Oh, wow! Really?’ said Aphrodite.

Then she worried that this had come across too blatantly as sarcasm, so she clapped her hands together in feigned excitement. Another surreptitious glance in the mirror, but there was no need for concern. The cool water of her attention was making him bloom like a flower in the desert. Little did he know that she had a sandstorm planned.

The phone in her handbag began to ring: ‘Venus’, the Bananarama version. She pulled it out and glanced at the display.

‘Sorry darling,’ she said to Apollo. ‘It’s work. I need to take this.’ She spoke into the handset. ‘I’m so horny,’ she said. ‘What do you want to do to me?’

‘Mum, it’s me,’ whispered a voice at the other end. ‘Eros.’

‘That feels good, big boy,’ said Aphrodite. She signalled to Apollo that she’d take the call outside. ‘Touch me all over.’

She went out into the drizzle, shutting the door behind her.

‘Mum, please,’ said Eros. ‘Don’t be disgusting.’

‘Oh shut up,’ said Aphrodite. ‘You’re no fun any more.’

‘Why can’t you get a decent job?’ said Eros. ‘You could be a model . . .’

‘Modelling’s boring,’ said Aphrodite. ‘“Stand here, stand there.” Phone sex is much more fun. And you wouldn’t believe how much mortals are willing to pay for a spot of deep breathing and a fake –’

‘Believe me, I don’t want to know,’ said Eros.

‘Don’t take that self-righteous tone with me,’ said Aphrodite. ‘My choice of job doesn’t seem to bother you so much at the check-out of Marks and Spencer’s. Maybe you should get your own job if you’re so disgusted by mine.’

‘I have a job,’ said Eros.

‘What kind of job doesn’t earn you any money?’

‘You know how important the volunteering is to me,’ said Eros. ‘I thought you understood that. Money isn’t everything.’

‘That’s easy to say when you’re spending mine.’

‘The children rely on me,’ Eros persevered. ‘In fact if I don’t leave soon I’m going to miss archery practice. They’ll be really disappointed. They don’t get a lot of fun in life.’

‘You mean aside from breaking and entering, and mugging old ladies.’

‘You’re not funny,’ said Eros.

‘I’m not joking,’ said Aphrodite.

There was a pause at the far end of the line, and Aphrodite knew something unwelcome was coming.

‘Listen, Mum,’ said Eros, delivering as expected. ‘I’ve been giving it some thought, and I’ve decided I’m not going to do it.’

‘Yes you are,’ said Aphrodite, her voice a red light.

‘No. I’m not doing it,’ said Eros, driving straight through. ‘It’s wrong. I’ve been thinking about it all day.’

‘Wrong? Who cares about wrong? You promised me you’d do it!’

‘Well, I’m unpromising,’ said Eros.

‘Breaking a promise is wrong too,’ said Aphrodite.

‘It’s all relative,’ said Eros.

‘It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve done it,’ said Aphrodite.

‘That time was before,’ said Eros.

‘Before what?’ said Aphrodite. ‘No, don’t tell me. Before Jesus.’

‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand,’ said Eros.

‘I understand perfectly,’ said Aphrodite. ‘You prefer that upstart carpenter – that thief of faith – to your own flesh and blood.’

‘He’s a better role model,’ said Eros.

‘That depends on your point of view,’ said Aphrodite. ‘From what I remember he didn’t have much to say about falling in love or having sex or dressing well or any of the other important things in life. It’s all about being nice. Who wants to be nice?’

‘I want to be nice.’

‘Well then be nice to me,’ snapped Aphrodite. ‘I’m your mother.’

Silence at the other end of the line. Aphrodite shifted position a bit, so that the falling rain would splash more flatteringly on her top, making it cling to her breasts.

‘Where are you?’ she said.

‘I’m here,’ said Eros. ‘I’m in the building.’

‘Are you wearing the disguise?’

‘Yes.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

Eros mumbled something.

‘I’m sorry?’ said Aphrodite.

‘Whatwouldjesusdo.’

‘What would Jesus do?’ said Aphrodite. ‘Let me tell you something. Jesus was a very good boy. He would do exactly what his mother told him to do.’

‘But –’

‘Jesus was supposed to be a god, right?’ said Aphrodite. ‘Ergo, he did revenge. All gods do revenge.’

‘Not exactly. He said you should turn the other –’

‘What else does your Jesus say?’ Aphrodite interrupted.

‘I thought you didn’t care.’

‘Let me see,’ said Aphrodite. ‘I remember. “Honour thy father and mother”.’

‘One, that wasn’t Jesus. And two, it’s hard to honour your father when there are so many candidates for who he might be.’

‘That’s not very nice,’ said Aphrodite. ‘You know who your father is. It’s your cousin Ares.’

‘You can’t force me to do this,’ said Eros.

‘Remember what else the Bible says: “Charity begins at home”.’

‘That’s not in the Bible.’

‘Look, I just want you to do this one thing for me,’ said Aphrodite in a new, wheedling tone. ‘After all the thousands of years that I’ve supported you. You owe me.’

There was no reply to this, so Aphrodite pressed home her advantage.

‘Allow me to phrase it another way,’ she said. ‘If you don’t do what we agreed, I am going to come and find you, and when I do, I am going to pull down your overstarched, permanent pleated, man-made fabric, smart-casual slacks and turn you over my knee, and I am going to give you the spanking of your life in front of your vicar, his uptight wife and the entire congregation of Christian brothers. Does that clarify things for you?’

It wasn’t an empty threat. She had done it before. There was a very long silence.

‘I wish the Virgin Mary was my mother,’ grumbled Eros eventually.