Odds and Gods


By Tom Holt

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This is a comedy set in the Sunnyvoyde Residential Home. Wagner got it wrong. The Twilight of the Gods isn’t really that cataclysmic. After all, there’s a comfy chair, a welcoming fire and three meals a day.


On the cloudy heights dwell the gods. They are spirits of light, deathless and ever young. They feast continually in palaces wonderful beyond description, and theirs is a happiness which mortals could never possibly attain.
Indeed. Pull the other one for a veritable feast of campanology. The true facts of the matter are as follows.
In the Sunnyvoyde Residential Home dwell the gods, the whole miserable lot of them. They are cantankerous old buggers, deathless but decidedly no longer young. They witter and bicker continuously in day rooms painted that unique shade of pale green used only in buildings set aside for the long-term storage of the sick and elderly, and they hate it like poison.
All except for Ohinohawoniponama, a vegetation spirit formerly revered by a small tribe of Trobriand Islanders. Since the entire tribe died of influenza a century ago, taking their language with them, nobody can understand a word he says; but it doesn’t seem to matter. He smiles a lot, is no trouble at all to anyone, and spends most of his time in the television room watching Australian soap operas.
‘Of course he’s happy,’ commented Marduk, over lunch in the dining room. ‘Poor bloody savage, he’s never had it so good. Probably thinks he’s died and gone to Heaven.’
Marduk had been the warrior god of the ancient Sumerians, which made him one of the oldest gods in Sunnyvoyde. He was, by his own reckoning, six thousand years old, crippled with arthritis, and (in the words of Mrs Henderson, the matron) a bit of an old crosspatch. Which is like defining death as feeling a bit under the weather, or describing the Second World War as a free and frank exchange of views.
‘Let me just stop you there, Mardie,’ interrupted Lug, shadowy and enigmatic god of the pre-Christian Celts, as he walloped the bottom of an inverted ketchup bottle. ‘Died and gone to Heaven. I mean, we are talking about an immortal god here, and I just wondered if you’d care to clarify . . .’
‘You know perfectly well what I mean.’
‘Ignore him, Mardie,’ said Freya, the Germanic Queen of Heaven, surreptitiously polishing her fork. ‘He’s just being insufferable.’
‘I thought I was being enigmatic and shadowy, Fre.’
‘Your tie is in the gravy.’
There had been a, let us say an understanding, between Freya and Lug ever since the World had been created out of the bones of Ymir the Sky-Father (or, in Lug’s case, scooped out of the churn of the stars into the butter-pat of Time; the Creation is a highly personal thing to all gods and they get very embarrassed if you ask them to talk about it). Obviously, since Freya’s people spent most of their time massacring Lug’s people and driving them into the sea, nothing could ever come of it; until now, when it was really rather too late.
‘I don’t know why they let his sort in here,’ Marduk carried on. ‘Lowers the tone, I say.’
‘His sort?’ Lug asked, ignoring the kick on his shin from the other side of the table. ‘Footnotes, please.’
‘Wogs,’ Marduk replied. ‘In my day, we’d have had his lot up the top of the ziggurat and tied to the altar in three minutes flat. Now, of course, we’ve got to have them in here with us, which I say is wrong. And they get special food.’
‘Live and let live, I say,’ mumbled Adonis, Greek god of spring and beauty, through his few remaining teeth and a mouthful of soup. As usual, nobody paid him any attention, and he continued his noisy struggle with the Spring Vegetable.
‘Special food, Mardie?’ Lug smiled at Marduk over a forkful of lemon sole.
‘It’s only the Hindu lot,’ Freya said. ‘And that’s just because they’re vegetarians.’
‘Vegetarians!’ In his prime, Marduk had feasted on the hearts and entrails of prisoners of war. Nowadays virtually everything except plain bread and butter gave him wind. ‘Stuff and nonsense. What do they want to be vegetarians for? It’s just attention-seeking, that’s all.’
‘I think it’s something to do with their religion, Mardie.’
Marduk scowled. ‘What the devil do you mean, religion? They’re supposed to be gods, for crying out loud. Gods can’t have religion. Makes you go blind.’
‘Would you pass the salt, please?’ said Freya briskly.
Gods do not possess eternal youth; they grow old, just like everybody else. Only rather more slowly.
It is also a fallacy that gods are better than anybody else; quite the reverse. Since there’s absolutely nobody who dare criticise them, for fear of being blasted with thunder, they are free to behave exactly as they see fit, which is usually very badly.
It therefore follows that Sunnyvoyde is even trickier to run than the average, run-of-the-mill old folks’ home. The fact that Mrs Henderson manages it at all is little short of a miracle. That she runs it with a rod of iron only goes to show the quite devastating force of personality she has at her disposal.
For example, when Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs, finally and reluctantly agreed to let his godsons book him in, he was implacably determined to have his own bathroom with hot and cold running blood, all his meals served up in jewel-encrusted skulls and his own retinue of seven thousand dog-headed fiends to devour the souls of anybody foolish enough to give him any lip. After five minutes of negotiations with Mrs Henderson, however, his demands were rapidly revised to staying in bed an extra half-hour and being allowed to substitute a fresco of souls in torment for the framed print of happy kittens above his bed. The happy kittens have, by the way, now crept back to their rightful place, and Quetzalcoatl is usually in his seat in the dining room for breakfast by 7.15.
Only one resident of Sunnyvoyde, therefore, is allowed to have his meals in his room. When asked, Mrs Henderson explains that he’s not as young as he was and it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to make the effort to come down to the dining room three times a day. Which is, indeed, part of the truth.
‘Just put it down on the table, Sandra love,’ said Osiris, ‘and pass me the remote control thing while you’re there.’
‘Huh.’ The nurse feigned irritation. ‘And what did your last servant die of?’
‘And the one before that was eaten by crocodiles.’
‘Sacred crocodiles, naturally.’
‘It’s apple crumble again today,’ said Sandra cheerfully. ‘You like apple crumble.’
Osiris sighed. ‘Sandra pet,’ he said, ‘I’m an omniscient god. Lying to me is the proverbial hiding to nothing. I can’t abide apple bloody crumble.’
‘Then turn it into something else, Mr Clever,’ Sandra replied, arranging the napkin tastefully in the shape of a pyramid. ‘Go on, say Whoosh! and turn it into chocolate mousse.’
‘I’m not allowed chocolate mousse, and well you know it.’
‘There you are, then,’ said Sandra. ‘Go on, you know you like it really.’
‘Get out,’ Osiris said, ‘before I turn you into a hedgehog.’
Sandra grinned at him and shut the door. A nice girl, that. Pretty too, if you like them a little bit on the plump side. Ah, thought the erstwhile Egyptian god of plenty, if only I was two thousand years younger.
The reason why Osiris got his meals in his room instead of having to come down and be sociable wasn’t because he was more powerful than the other gods, or more sublime, or even particularly older. It was just that he owned the place and could, if he so chose, give Mrs Henderson the sack.
Several millennia of being ritually murdered each sunset by his brother Set, torn into small pieces and reassembled in a hurry and pitch darkness by his slightly-less-than-nimble-fingered wife Lady Isis in time for his daily resurrection at dawn had left the old boy a physical wreck. Several of his component parts were palpably in the wrong place; and even now he still had nightmares about the many times Isis had finished the reassembly job, sewn him back up again and then turned to him and said, ‘Ooh, I wonder where this bit was supposed to have gone.’
His mind, however, was as sharp as ever, or so he kept telling himself; and he attributed this to the fact that it had spent so much time out of his body, while the good lady wife had been rewinding the intestines and poring over the wiring chart. Osiris was firmly of the opinion that a mind in a body is like a racehorse pulling a brewer’s dray, or a girl with three Ph.D.s becoming a housewife and dissipating her talents on ironing shirts and buying groceries. All that time and mental energy burnt up in operating limbs and keeping the senses ticking over took its toll, and eventually you were left with something barely capable of working the heart and keeping the bladder under some semblance of control.
He contemplated his lunch.
Apple crumble. You knock your pipes out for thousands of years re-enacting the primal struggle of light and darkness, and at the end of it, some chit of a girl tells you that you like apple crumble and expects you to believe it. And hot custard! If he had a shilling for every time he’d told them he couldn’t be doing with hot custard . . . well, he’d still be the richest being in the cosmos, only more so. Hot custard!
He paused, slamming the door on his train of thought.
I’m going soft in the head, he said to himself. Here I am, the embodiment of sublime wisdom, having a paddy over a bit of hot custard. This is worrying. I’ve been here too long.
Instinctively, he stretched his back and tested his legs against the floor. There was no strength left there at all, only pain. Damn.
Osiris had never been a solar deity. If there was one thing that irritated him more than hot custard, it was being confused with a glorified tram-driver who had nothing to do all day but lean on a dead man’s handle and try not to bump into too many clouds. His eldest boy, Horus, did that job (hence the name of the family firm, Osiris and Sun) and it suited him perfectly. Horus had, of course, retired long since and lived in the opposite wing of Sunnyvoyde where (as Osiris liked to think) they put the old people. They rarely met these days, although whenever they did Osiris never missed the opportunity to get up his offspring’s aquiline nose by shouting out, ‘Hello there, young ‘un,’ across a room full of people. Isis too lived a separate life in a small room in the annexe, which she had decorated with an extensive collection of photographs of the British royal family. Good riddance to them both, Osiris felt. If he hadn’t had to drag out his life surrounded by idiots, he could really have been somebody.
There was a knock at the door; which meant it was Sandra back again. None of the other nurses bothered to knock.
‘A visitor for you, Ozzie,’ Sandra said.
Osiris blinked. ‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘I don’t have many visitors. I was inoculated against them years ago.’
‘Well, you’ve got one now, isn’t that nice? It’s your godson.’
‘Oh bugger.’
The meek shall inherit the Earth.
Eventually. When everyone else has quite finished with it, and the meek have stopped saying, ‘No, please, after you.’ Until then, the cocky little bastards shall inherit the Earth; which means that by the time the meek get their hands on it, they’ll wish the old fool had left them some money or a clock or something instead.
Hence the institution of the godchildren. Everybody knows that when it comes to affairs of the heart, gods come second only to the characters in a long-running soap opera for spreading it around. At the height of the Heroic Age, the average god scarcely dared set foot outside his own temple for fear of process-servers with paternity suits.
And the mortal children of the gods had children, and so on, and so forth; and eventually the divine spark became sufficiently dilute to allow the ultimate descendents to pack in minotaur-slaying and damsel-rescuing and become chartered accountants instead.
But in each generation there are throwbacks, particularly where the bloodlines of two or more gods happen to coincide; and from this genetic sump Humanity has always tended to draw its statesmen, its generals, its social reformers, its idealists, its princes of commerce and all the other unmitigated pests who have contrived to make a ball of wet rock spinning in an infinite void into the camel’s armpit it is today.
These are the godchildren. And, sooner or later, they find out who they are; and, more to the point, what they stand to inherit, if only . . .
‘It’s not supposed to do that.’
Predictably enough, there was a moment of complete silence.
‘Yes, George, we know that,’ said Sir Michael Arlington, breaker of awkward silences to Her Majesty’s Nuclear Inspectorate. ‘That’s why we sent for you, all the way from bloody Iowa. Do you feel up to hazarding a guess as to why?’
‘You could do really good baked potatoes in it,’ said a white-haired scientist at the back of the gathering. ‘I mean, a quarter of a nanosecond in there, add a knob of butter and there you go.’
‘You could indeed,’ replied Sir Michael. ‘And when it was ready it’d probably be able to walk out on its own. Any sensible suggestions would be very welcome.’
‘It’s gone wrong.’ Professor George Eisenkopf, resident nuclear genius at the University of Chicopee Falls, Iowa, and the State Department’s leading authority on civilian atomic power, scratched his nose with the plastic coffee-stirrer he’d been given on the plane. ‘It isn’t working properly,’ he added, in case there were any laymen present.
Sir Michael winced. ‘Please, George,’ he muttered, ‘don’t worry too much about blinding us with science. In what way has it gone wrong?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Great. Is it about to blow up?’
‘Too early to say.’ Professor Eisenkopf leaned forward and tapped a couple of keys on the computer keyboard in front of him. The screen flickered, flashed a few columns of figures and announced itself ready to play Monster Nintendo.
‘Sorry,’ mumbled the baked potato enthusiast, nudging past and pressing some other keys. ‘Only my wife’s nephew came to see the place the other day, and I haven’t had time to . . .’
‘Don’t worry about it.’ Professor Eisenkopf studied the data he’d called up, and pursed his lips. ‘You’re going to find this a bit hard to relate to, guys, but there’s something alive in there.’
‘In where, George?’
‘In the core,’ the professor replied. ‘As far as I can tell from this box of tricks, sitting on top of the goddamn pile.’
Sir Michael nodded. ‘Probably grilling a few sausages,’ he said.
‘Pardon me?’
‘To go with the potatoes.’
Not all the gods retired. Some of them still soldier on, mainly because they’re horribly overworked and never had time to train a successor.
Just such a one was having a well-earned sit-down and a cold beef sandwich in the infernal heart of Bosworth Pike power station. His name was Pan, and if you add -ic to his name, you get his portfolio in the sublime Cabinet.
‘Knit one,’ he said to himself, squinting at the diagram, ‘and pearl two.’
He was knitting a matinée jacket for Truth (who, as is tolerably well known, is the daughter of Time) and he had an uneasy feeling that he’d gone wrong somewhere. He had a further unpleasant suspicion that the faint brown check which had crept into the pattern about twelve rows back was in fact his beard.
‘Nuts,’ he said, and let go of the needles. The knitting flopped, suspended from his chin. He reached for the scissors.
The fact remained that his analyst had recommended knitting as tremendous therapy for hypertension and stress, and over the last few millennia he’d tried just about everything else, several times.
Under him, the ground started to glow green. He licked a fingertip, pressed it ever so gently against the side of the pile, and was rewarded with a loud sizzle. Just nicely ready, in fact. He stood up.
Pan is, of course, a nice god; or at least it’s wise to believe so, because our beliefs have a profound effect on the divine self-image. This isn’t a comfortable thing for the gods themselves - the Egyptian deity Serapis, for example, never tries to eat a piece of toast without cursing the Faithful for believing in the existence of a crocodile-headed god - and it’s by no means unknown for a god to wake up one morning to find himself a totally different shape or species simply because of some thoughtlessly imaginative revival meeting held on the previous evening. Mortals believe that Pan, although an incurable practical joker with a sense of humour that would have appalled Josef Goebbels, is fundamentally one of the good guys and incapable of doing anything that would actually result in lasting harm.
He was going to have his work cut out this time, though. On the other hand, he was a god; and to the gods, all things are possible, at least in theory. Thus it was that when the emergency repair squad broke into the reactor cell three days later, wearing their lead suits and clinging like covetous limpets to their lucky rabbits’ feet, their Geiger counters showed up a radiation level several points below the normal ambient reading.
What they did find was a toasting fork, an unopened pat of butter and five stone cold baked potatoes.
There are some people who like lawyers.
For example, Ashtoreth, the antediluvian moon goddess of southern Palestine, was thrilled to bits when her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-godson Hyman was made a partner in the leading New York firm of Kaplan and Hart, and drove the other occupants of Sunflower Annexe to the brink of violence by talking loudly and incessantly about Her Godson Hymie, The Lawyer.
Other deities with whom lawyers are popular include: Ahriman, the Father of Darkness; Hermes, patron god of thieves; the Scandinavian Loki, god of lies and deceit; and Belenos, in whose honour the Druids burnt men alive in wicker cages. You can’t beat a lawyer, according to Belenos, for the generation of plenty of hot air.
Osiris, for his part, had always reckoned that he could take them or leave them alone, with a marked preference for the latter option. Visits from his current godson were therefore as welcome as a rat in a morgue.
And that, he felt, remembering where he was, is no bad analogy. I really shouldn’t be in this place. Hellfire, if only the dozy old bat hadn’t had the exploded diagram the wrong way up the last night we did the reassembly, I wouldn’t be. I’d be out there, bombarding snotty little tykes like Julian with meteorites.
‘How do, Julian,’ he said, as his godson entered the room. ‘Brought me some grapes, then.’
‘Can’t stand grapes.’
‘No matter.’ There was a gonglike sound as the bag of grapes hit the bottom of the tin wastepaper basket. ‘Look, I’ve got to be quick, I’m due in a meeting in forty minutes. How’s life treating you, anyway?’
Osiris paused, stroking his chin. ‘Life,’ he pronounced, ‘is a bit like mashed swede. A little bit’s nice for a change now and then, but you wouldn’t want to live on it.’
‘Yup.’ Julian stared at him for a few seconds and blinked twice. ‘The leg still playing you up, then?’
‘Aren’t you going to write it down?’
‘Write what down?’
‘What I just said,’ replied Osiris testily. ‘That was a Teaching, that was. You’re supposed to write down Teachings.’
‘And don’t give me that boiled cod look, because there’s been dafter things than that said out of burning bushes, take it from me. How’s Phyllida?’
‘Your wife.’
‘Oh.’ Julian glanced at his watch. ‘Fine. I’d have heard if she wasn’t. Look, I hate to rush off like this but it really is a very important meeting . . .’
‘And Ben? And little Julia?’
‘They’re fine too. Ask after you all the time. Anyway, it’s been great seeing you.’
‘Your children,’ said Osiris icily, ‘are in fact called Emma and Clinton. Keeping busy, are you?’
‘Yup, thanks. It’s been an uphill job, holistically speaking, with the recession bottoming out, but the medium- to long-term overview of our bedrock client base is definitely more positive than negative, and . . .’
‘Just remind me,’ said Osiris, ‘what it is you do.’
Julian sighed. ‘I’m a lawyer, Oz,’ he replied.
‘Oh,’ said Osiris. ‘Oh well, never mind. You’ve just got to try not to give up hope, that’s all. I heard a good joke about lawyers the other day.’
‘I know them all, thanks, Oz. Look, I’ll call you. You look after yourself. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, okay?’
‘Son,’ replied Osiris with conviction, ‘I wouldn’t do anything you would. Shut the door on your way out.’
Julian looked at him. ‘You feeling okay, Oz?’ he asked.
Osiris looked up, startled by his tone of voice. ‘I believe so,’ he replied. ‘As well as can be expected for someone whose small intestine now runs slap bang through the middle of his bile duct. Why?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ Julian replied absently, as he picked at the handle of his briefcase. ‘You just seem kind of odd today, that’s all.’
‘Odd. Right.’
‘Not quite, you know, a hundred and ten per cent.’
‘Julian, my boy, if I was a hundred and ten per cent, there’d be a seven-and-a-quarter-inch-high replica of me standing beside me on the hearthrug. Go on, now, sling your hook.’
‘You haven’t been, for example, hearing strange voices or anything?’
‘Yes,’ Osiris snapped, ‘yours. Now piss off.’
‘Okay, okay. Same time next week, right?’
‘Right.’ Osiris sighed. ‘Unless, of course, I’m in a meeting. The doorknob is the round brass thing about three feet up from the floor. A half-turn to the right usually does the trick.’
As Julian retreated down the corridor, he played back his mental tape of the interview, ignoring the crackles. Yes, the old fool had sounded strange; but on reflection, no stranger than usual.
Julian stopped, standing on one foot; and suddenly grinned.
He’d just had an idea.

Once, long ago and far away, a bard sang in the mead-hall of King Hrolf Kraki.
There was dead silence from the King’s warriors, his carls and servants as the poet traced the intricate pathways of kenning and metaphor, trope and simile, in the still, tense circle of the tawny glow of the hearth. Nobody moved, and the dark yellow mead glistened untasted in the drinkhorns, as the words of the lay sparkled in the air like frozen dewdrops on a spider’s web. This moment, this splinter of time, caught like a fly in amber, mounted in a ring of golden firelight.
It was an old song, so old that nobody knew where it had come from or when it had first been sung. It began at the beginning, when Ymir the Sky-Father had first opened his eyes and seen nothing, nothing but the cold and the wind and the loneliness of the first day. On it swept, gathering pace as the singer peopled the shadowy corners with ghosts: Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer; Arvarodd, who once strayed into the land of the Giants; Weyland the craftsman without equal, whose skill brought him only sorrow; Brynhild, who slept for a thousand years on the fire-girt mountain. And now it crawled on to its terrible end, this song without pity, under the control of no singer; the last days, the rising of the Frost-Trolls, the swallowing of the sun and moon by the Wolf, the last battle on the Glittering Plains, the going-down of the gods themselves. As the poet sang, the world seemed to grow tight and brittle, and King Hrolf nervously motioned for more logs to be heaped on the fire.
And then the poet told of the new dawn of the gods; how they rise again from the ashes of the burnt Valhalla and build a new castle that will never be thrown down, a shimmering, sublime fortress of golden stone where Odin and Thor and Tyr the One-Handed and Frey, who is the friend of wretched mortals, will reign for ever, feasting and delighting in the song and restoring vintage traction engines. And there will be no more winters in this . . .
‘Doing what?’
The poet shut his eyes. For one blessed moment he thought he’d actually got away with it.
‘Um,’ he said, ‘restoring vintage traction engines. And no more shall hoar-frost fasten on hawthorn . . .’
‘Vintage what?’
Sod, fuck and bugger this stupid, lousy song, muttered the poet to himself. Because some bastard always stops me and asks What’s a traction engine? and I don’t sodding well know. And neither did my father nor his father before him, and does it really bloody well matter anyway?


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
350 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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