The Dome by Katherine Mezzacappa

Norfolk, England

The Dome is not a building, nor even a specific place. It was months before I realised they called it that because the word really means house, a corruption of domus. Later, much later, I hazarded asking where the Dome was. My companion waved an arm in the general direction of the derelict church through the minibus window.

“It’s here, everywhere.”

Let me try to explain.

The only women of the Dome I was allowed to see were those aged fifty and above, and the eldest living girl not more than ten years old. Their young men I first saw harvesting corn with long scythes in large, silent teams, dressed in old “good” clothes: suit trousers gone shiny and long parted from their jackets, palely striped collarless shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Dressed this way and using hand-tools, they resemble Amish, but they have not eschewed other benefits of modern life, like, for instance, travelling by minibus.

Should you pause to watch these men at work, they’ll stop, one by one, and watch you. Then, one will detach himself from the group and come and ask you what you’re doing there. In my case I just said it was because I was interested in their community. This is how it always starts, they respond to interest shown. Unlike other cults they don’t go canvassing members.

“There was a wedding here yesterday,” one of them told me.

Like the others, he was fitter and stronger than me. I’m taller than most men but slenderer. My wife once said, when she still loved me, that I don’t quite know what to do with my long, spindly limbs.

“Hilda, your mother’s cousin” he added.

Hilda, I hadn’t seen for years. How old would she be now? I did a rough calculation─at least sixty-seven. I wondered about her bridegroom. Her first husband had been packed into Norfolk clay at least twenty years ago. I cannot remember him.

“Go and have a look.” He pointed to the little church standing in its graveyard two fields away, muffled by yew.

I thanked him and walked off in its direction, being careful to skirt the corn, feeling their eyes on my back.

On reaching the little flint-built church I saw that it was really not much more than a chapel or oratory, the sort you might find in a city cemetery. Oddly, its entrance was not at ground level but up a row of four or five steps, crumbling and overgrown. Couldn’t someone at least have sprayed some weed killer over them, in honour of this elderly bride’s poor stumbling feet?

The panels of the door were bleached and warped as timber long tossed by the tide, greenish rot encroaching at its foot. I pushed it open, expecting despite this unpromising exterior the usual English church mixture of mustiness and polish: a Victorian tiled floor perhaps, some damaged brasses, poppyheaded pews, kneelers, neat piles of hymnals and a flyblown display of photographs of smiling Africans, members of a sister parish that they would never meet. Instead, a scene of utter desolation: crumbling masonry, a denuded altar table covered in bird-shit, crevices of light in the roof, some broken stacking chairs against the walls, and whatever was strewn across the floor crunching under my feet.

I fled. Knowing I looked ridiculous, I nevertheless kept a field’s breadth between them and me, struggling over barbed wire fences that plucked at my clothes, tumbling into mud, whilst they swivelled and followed my haphazard progress. I saw them do this out of the corner of my eye, for I didn’t dare give them any indication by the tilt of my head that I noticed them.

By the time I reached my car I was sweating, though the September afternoon was mild. There was a panicky moment in which I couldn’t find my car keys, my dancing desperation observed from three fields away.

Finally my frantic fumblings produced a faint rattle. My jacket pocket had given way (my wife had always complained that I stuffed too much into pockets. I think, absurd as it sounds, that this was one of those minor irritations that led her to kill our marriage). Almost weeping with relief I winched the keys out from where they lay within the lining of the jacket.

There was another cold moment when I couldn’t manage to turn the ignition. For some long seconds I convinced myself the battery was dead.

***

At my lodgings in Aylsham my landlady looked searchingly at me but contented herself with, “It’s a messy business this bird-watching.”

I smiled briefly, saying nothing, and fled to my room as soon as I’d eaten, and rang my mother.

“I didn’t hear from Hilda at Christmas,” she told me. “She was on her own, of course. Her daughter moved up to Ilford about ten years ago. We’d thought she’d never leave her Mum, but what’s there to do down there? You can have her address if you like…” She eyed me with a slight frown. “I still don’t understand what you’re doing there.”

“Doctor’s orders,” I said.

Afterwards, I looked up the church in my Pevsner for North-East Norfolk and Norwich: Emmington. St. Wilgefortis. Village disappeared at Black Death. Late Norman nave, one S window with a just-pointed head but a round-headed rere-arch.

Chancel of C13 with one lancet in each wall. W bell-turret on the ridge, timber substructure medieval. Restored almost to extinction 1866. Monument: John Chittleborough + 1714.

Wilgefortis?

A massive Catholic database in Sacramento, California, provided this explanation.

The curious story of Wilgefortis, (Uncumber;Liberata), who never existed, is simply an erroneous explanation of the crucifixes of the C12 and earlier which depicted Christ fully clothed and bearded…according to legend, Wilgefortis was daughter to a pagan king of Portugal. Her father wanted her to marry the king of Sicily, but she had taken a vow of virginity (some sources suggest Wilgefortis is a corruption of vierge forte). She prayed to become unattractive and miraculously grew a beard and her suitor withdrew. Her father had her crucified. On the cross she prayed that all those who remembered her should be liberated from all encumbrances and troubles. Images of her were to be found at Worstead, Norwich and Boxford (Norfolk), despoiled in the reign of Edward VI…there then followed a characteristically pithy comment from Thomas More concerning the custom of offering oats at her image: ‘Whereof I cannot perceive the reason, but if it be because she should provide a horse for an evil husband to ride to the devil upon, for that is the thing that she is sought for, insomuch that women have therefore changed her name and instead of St. Wilgeforte call her St. Uncumber, because they reckon that for a peck of oats, she will not fail to uncumber them of their husbands’.

Nowhere, I think is more desolate than a seaside town out of season. I know though why Mundesley had appealed to Hilda, it was the scene of so many childhood holidays, and the chance to exchange a terraced house in crowded Tottenham (next door’s radio audible through the sitting-room wall) for life in a bungalow.

16 Clunch Road was one of a string of lonely squat houses, huddled down against the elements, spattered along this coastal road without plan or design. Glass porches or verandas had erupted on most of their façades, providing places to sit when going out into the naked strips of garden seemed too exposing, too public. In Hilda’s porch I saw a flurry of unopened envelopes, mainly junk mail, and several issues of Reader’s Digest magazine. A pair of dusty Wellington boots lay on their sides and I remembered Hilda saying to my seven year-old self, :that way if the mice get in, they’ll be able to get out again.”

I couldn’t see much else. Hilda had net curtains. They even hung across the French windows. The back of the house gave onto a cracked, overgrown patio, some tangled, sprawling rose-bushes, and a green-house where bloated, split and mildewed tomatoes weighed heavy on their stalks.

Next door the woman in sweatshirt and trainers with the tangled hair looked at me unsmilingly. A smell of Brussels sprouts and elderly meat clung about her. “Hilda? Not seen her for ages. My Leanne saw her go with her sons. They wouldn’t speak to her. Just looked through her when she said hello.”

“I wouldn’t have thought Hilda would have brought them up to have no manners. She was always so polite. When was this, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Who wants to know? You family?”

“Well, yes, but not close. Hilda’s a sort of aunt.”

“You’d best come in then.”

Her front room was as disorderly as I remembered Hilda’s to be neat. She nudged a pile of newspapers to one side on a fake leather settee. I sat on its edge.

“Cuppa tea?”

I said yes automatically, and then wished I hadn’t.

“No milk, thank you.” I normally take it, but thought I’d better minimise the risks. In the flotsam on the chair opposite a half eaten sandwich was stiffening on a plate. The rays of sun that lay across the carpet highlighted a fine mesh of hairs, dust and crumbs. The dark brocade curtains looked as though they were seldom moved. They sagged where their hooks were missing.

I stared into my oily tea. It wasn’t warm. It felt viscous on my tongue.

She talked without stop, “It would need a lot doing to it of course. Can’t have been touched since she moved in. Needs rewiring, then central heating put in. Those metal window frames are getting rusty─they were never much good so close to the sea. She didn’t have much stuff, of course, but Leanne’s boyfriend knows someone who’ll take it away for free. He’s like that, likes to do favours for people. Anyway, it’d be like keeping it in the family, wouldn’t it? I mean, Hilda knew Leanne from when she was a baby. You wouldn’t need to bother about solicitor’s fees and all that, would you?’

On my feet, the half-drunk tea on the floor, I said sharply “My aunt’s not dead yet,” and stormed out.

I knew Leanne’s mother would be watching me from the mildewed kitchen window, but that she’d only see the top of my head over the listing fence panels. In Tottenham there’d always been a spare key in the toolbox in the hut in the back yard.

I gave the door of Hilda’s garden shed a shove and a rusted hinge gave way. Inside were some faded plastic children’s toys─perhaps Hilda really had befriended Leanne.

They didn’t look quite old enough to have been her daughter’s. A rusting bicycle with flaccid tyres was propped against one wall, alongside trays of daffodil bulbs which had sprouted palely and uselessly in the half dark. There was also a blue metal toolbox. I found the keys lying in a tray of nails.

The house smelt damp. It had new occupants. I found their droppings first on the nibbled copy of the Daily Mail on the silly occasional table in the sitting room, a Saturday edition from the previous May. Beside it sat a tea cup in its saucer, flowering with mould.

In the bathroom the doll in the knitted crinoline covering the spare toilet roll put her plastic arms out to me imploringly. The mice had laid waste to her skirts and their contents. One of them lay in the bath, its flesh dry and split. The products on the glass shelf testified to an inescapably elderly toilette: hair rinses, shrink-wrapped lavender soaps, a third-used bottle of Eau de Cologne, denture cleaning solution.

I pocketed a brown bottle of capsules prescribed in April. The Camberwick bedspread had been pulled straight and smooth. I traced my finger a moment along the velveteen grooves of its pink surface. I think this is something I may have done as a child. The sheets underneath felt damp, the intervening blankets synthetically harsh. A slight indent on the pillow contained one grey hair.

Empty suitcases were piled on top of the wardrobe. Inside was what my mother would call “a good winter coat,” some beige polyester blouses, checked skirts with elasticated waistbands. Her two hairbrushes lay face to face in a chaste missionary position on top of the chest of drawers. Her smalls, along with her surgically pinkish-brown tights in little bags, lay undisturbed inside, kept faintly fragrant with lavender bags.

I thought, No one else was meant to see these things. Yet the bureau downstairs had been arranged as though Hilda anticipated someone else settling her affairs. The sweeping copper-plate of her birth and marriage certificates lay alongside the daisy-wheel printed card that identified Hilda’s right to whatever resources the National Health Service could offer her, via her access to a GP.

***

“They all look a bit like that round here,” said the Asian boy at the newsagents-cum-grocer’s. He wasn’t discourteous, just bored and uninterested. How, anyway, do you describe a woman you have’t seen in decades, of whom you don’t have a photograph?

I had to wait two days before I could get to see her doctor. The first time I couldn’t get past an officious receptionist. “Doctor cannot possibly discuss confidential patient matters with anyone other than notified next of kin.”

The queue behind me was growing restive. I was conscious of a mother with a struggling baby behind me, repeating to the child, “Just be patient, it’ll only be a minute.”

I hate a scene, so I left. The next day I saw a different receptionist, and feigned illness to get an appointment.

“I’ll put you in with Dr. Munday at 11.”

“No, not Dr. Munday. It has to be Dr. Wilson. I like the name,” I smiled madly at her.

She looked away quickly, back to her screen. “3:30.” She refused to look up.

“These are for blood pressure,” said Wilson. “But haven’t you checked her whereabouts with the rest of her family?”

“She’s gone to the Dome,” I said.

The skin of the doctor’s face seemed to tighten and become shiny, as though someone were pulling all the loose flesh together at the back of his head. “Do you work, Mr…?”

“Doctor,” I said, a mite facetiously (I enjoy such exchanges.) “My PhD is in Restoration comedy.”

“I see.” He sneered. “And what kind of employment is there in Restoration comedy?”

“I work in a call centre. That is to say I did. Before that I worked in a bank, until they re-engineered.”

He stretched his lips, then stood up. “Your aunt will turn up. Try to enjoy the rest of your holiday.”

***

I wanted to observe them first so parked some distance away. They were dots in the field when I raised the binoculars.

They were looking at me.

As I climbed over the first stile the one who had told me of my aunt’s marriage stepped out from behind the hedgerow. He motioned to me to go back.

“But I need to speak to you!”

“You will. I’m coming with you.” His directions took us to a sprawling former council estate on the outskirts of Norwich. 17 Wensum Gardens had retained its local authority appearance when others all around had been “improved” and thus looked more original, more solidly designed, than all its neighbours. My companion led me through to the spartan kitchen.

“Sit down.” He nodded at the formica-topped table.

“Where’s my aunt?”

“She’s married, I told you.”

“Who on earth is her husband then?”

He smiled patiently. “She has no husband. There are no husbands among us, and no wives either. Those who come to us married abandon such ties. Hilda has sworn herself to us, to love us, to honour us, to obey us, and to endow the Deity with all her worldly goods. Our solicitor is drawing up her will.”

“Who are you?”

He shrugged. “We’re all kinds…farmers, teachers, bankers, council workers─we have a doctor. He’s particularly helpful to those who falter at the rigour of our rule. We’re happy to take from science whatever will help us in our life.”

“This Deity, then…is this some sort of cult?”

He paused. “Our Deity precedes all cults. She looked on as Mithras killed the bull. She heard the mothers’ shrieks in Nazareth when the soldiers came. She poured oils on Akenhaten’s bandages. She sang amongst the stones at Callanish. The Christians took her as theirs, but then they disowned her. They never really understood her. Christians accept pain, suffering and disappointment as though these are virtues. She frees us from all that. She accepts only what is her due in return.”

He stood up. “Your room is upstairs, the one above the front door. You’ll be able to live alone after a while, but you aren’t ready yet. There is everything you need here’. He nodded in the direction of the small fridge, the microwave on the worktop, tins on a shelf.”

After her left me, I watched him drive off in my car. I looked for my telephone and found he’d taken that too. Looking for a way out, I found there wasn’t one. They’d changed every pane of glass. They seemed to be made of the same stuff as the windows of high speed trains.

Much later, two more of them came. I’d already crept into the bed I found ready along with two ragged but clean towels laid out for my use. I saw the shadows of their movements in the sliver of light under the door, and heard them murmuring.

I don’t know what time it was when the light came on. A tight-skinned face came between me and the naked bulb, followed by a sharp pain in my upper arm. W ilson smiled, the light went out, and I dreamed of scything, my arm moving back and forth to ease the stiffness.

They woke me just before daylight, leaving me other clothes to wear─like theirs. Overnight my own things had gone. Breakfast awaited me on the formica table: two slices of buttered bread, a mug of weak tea.

They stood in the door whilst I ate, watching me.

***

“Time to go.” The door of the minibus swung sideways, and I felt a hand in the small of my back.

There was something the same about my six or seven companions. I don’t know a better way to describe it. They didn’t resemble each other as do relatives, because what stands out there is what distinguishes one brother from the other, what makes him different. A shared, silent, intentness was what linked them, a deliberation in their movements.

There was another oddity. They were smooth, as though their limbs and faces were formed of hairless wax, or latex. They were like images of locally venerated saints you find in southern European churches, bland effigies.

They put me to bundling the corn into sheaves, three laid against each other and tied round, to let the air in. I was slow. My bones enervated, my muscles slack as though they still slept. You might ask why I accepted this.

Understand that if you have some purpose in life, even if it is not enough to have you bouncing off your mattress at dawn or scribbling feverishly far into the night, then you can shrug off many things. You can affectively not notice the man asking for “any spare change” because you can look as though you’re going somewhere in a hurry, or are so deep in thought that you are beyond distractions.

If instead you live in a bedsit where muffled music thumps around you much of the night, where other tenants must talk loudly whatever time they come in at─if instead you took revenge on your patronising ‘pod-leader’ (and how are we today, Doctor?) by signing up every poor purchaser of bread-and-circuses that morning to the adult channels (with the exception of those that wanted them─I gave them Nickelodeon instead)─if instead your wife left you for the man who fired you from the Bank after giving you an assignment he knew was bound to fail (Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die)─if instead, even your own mother thinks you can’t ‘frame’ yourself, and in any case you want to leave her in peace with her new husband after she has endured years of your father’s infidelities, well, they found it easy to make me one of them.

I could believe this was my home. Ah, the freedom of not having to make any more decisions. It wasn’t as if I was giving up anything for this… or was I?

Dr. Wilson repeated his home visit two nights later, and in the same manner. The morning afterwards I realised that one of the few companions to my solitary life had deserted me.

I had no erection, my poor, hopeful, optimistic erection that nudged me most mornings of my newly single life, was gone, and could not be revived. I tried unsuccessfully to summon interest by recalling the few pornographic images I have seen. 

I’ve never been a highly energetic person, but as Wilson’s injections continued (for they did, although I was never able to predict his visits) a creeping lassitude took hold of me. In the fields I walked as though on the sea-bed, with feet of lead. Every action pushed against the weight of water. I watched my companions, their every move seemed to be studied, measured, timed, with that slow deliberateness of a Tai-Chi class I once stumbled upon in a church hall (I was looking for a second-hand book fair, but had got the wrong church).

With the coming of winter, I was brought to work in a vast barn where we sat at greasy trestles scraping the flesh and fat from sheepskins and cow-hides with flints, before these were then cured above the great fire that heated the place. Where I am now they brought me a pork pie for lunch once. I first separated the clear, solid jelly from around the meat, then tried futilely to pick out the pieces of fat. In the end I ate none of it. Clip-board man wrote notes about this.

Then one morning I was taken back to the church.

You too will have read those accounts of pyjama clad prisoners having to dig the pits they are to be thrown into. When life is lived at that extremity, then all that matters is that it is someone else you throw in the pit. 

We dug on the side farthest from the road, shielded from view by the yews. I believe yews can be very ancient indeed, and these had been plentifully nourished. Here the pestilence that had laid waste to Emmington had been folded into the earth, bones tangled indiscriminately. We dug deep, but not tidily, the clay sticking to our shovels.

“Come,” said my companion. I never knew his name. I never knew any of their names, and they didn’t use mine.

He held the church door open for me. The high stone lip of the threshold held in the stalks strewn all over the floor, crunching under our feet as I was nudged towards the chancel arch.

He caught me by the upper arms at my first shriek, and held me hard, laughing. The bruises where his fingers pressed stayed for days/ Clip-board man continues to ask me about self-harm.

“It’s not for you,” he kept saying, “It’s not for you.”

I believed him, because I wanted to. Peel back our acquired layers of civilisation, of values, of compassion, of courage, even, and we are revealed as naked, snarling beasts. Do you think that the priest who once ministered in this church resisted when the iconoclasts came and tore down the statues and smashed the stained glass? 

Threatened with a partial throttling, eviration, and the dragging out of his reeking bowels, do you think he backed against his altar and clutched the monstrance in his arms?

Of course not.

Yet when I thought they’d come for me that night in front of Wensum Gardens, I fought back. I wrestled in the darkness of the dusty blanket that engulfed me, but my arms felt as weak as sparrow-bones in the other man’s grip. I wept for their betrayal, the way they had brought me back to the place I had to think of as home, a place where I had begun to feel safe, even in the expectation of Dr. Wilson’s needle, only then to grab me from behind, throw a blanket over me and then to fling me into a deeper roaring darkness, the boot of a moving car.

When the noise stopped, I became aware of a babble of voices. I couldn’t make out words, just that peculiarly complaining cadence of the Norwich accent. Some of the voices I heard were female, young I thought. There was a rattle of keys, the sigh of the door lifting upwards.

“He don’t look too good.”

Their features loomed at me. Fleshy faces, stubbly faces, one olive-dark face, disgusted faces, kind faces. Hands reached for me. Then the swish of the automatic doors, the swivel of heads as all turned to look, the duty sergeant’s pen poised over his book.

A thin bearded man patted my shoulder. “Sorry to have given you such a fright, mate. When Leanne gets an idea in her head, there’s no persuading her otherwise─is there, my woman?”

Leanne smiled at me. I gaped at her mutely. When you’ve not seen an unfeigned, a real smile in months you want to reach out and touch it, to understand how the muscles move under the skin.

“Your aunt Hilda was always very kind to me,” she said.

This room where I am now is decorated to soothe: dove grey walls, a white cornice and ceiling, a pale mint green cover on the bed. I wonder if the man with the clip-board will come again today. I don’t want to have to tell him my story again. Clip-board man keeps asking me where I got the androgen blockers, though he’s said that chemical castration is reversible. I’ve told him already about Wilson, and he’s told me about my rescue, how Leanne had always insisted that Hilda had no sons, and that when I she heard I’d been to talk to her mother she decided to act.

I repeat to him what I saw in that church, but with every telling, it becomes somehow less believable though never less vivid. That vast rough-hewn cross propped against the chancel arch, the sheaves of corn piled around its base, the rents and gouges caused by the driving in, and the pulling out, of nails.

Blood glistening on wood, shining like varnish, those great dried brown-red gouts, layer upon layer, built up until it could be chipped away. My companion becomes technical. He explains that the nails must go through the wrists because if they were to go through the palms they’d would simply tear through the hands with the weight of the body. Those are the nails that bring death, that cause lifeblood to gush. The others are there only to still the kicking and trembling.

He urges me to look at the blackening wounds in those contorted feet, the sagging face beneath the hair hanging forward matted and stiff with blood. He explains what an honour this is, that the girl vied for this, hoping all year that she would be the one chosen to join the Deity. She must be the most beautiful, but to make sure that she remains unsullied, he and his companions submit willingly to Dr. Wilson’s ministrations. He asks me if I enjoy the freedom this has brought me too.

My binoculars have reappeared overnight. I climb down from the bed and go over to the window. It’s quite high up, so my shoulders are on a level with the window frame. I’ve tried moving the chair beside the bed over to the window, but it’s been screwed down, like the rest of the furniture.

I’m in Chittleborough Villa. Looking out, I can see three other villas dotted about, all built of Victorian patterned brick. On a veranda I see a man on a bench rocking back and forth, striking his knees, standing up, then sitting down and starting the whole process again. I train the binoculars on him; his eyes are closed and he appears to be talking.

Someone is wailing, but nobody takes any notice. I knock gently on the glass, not because I want to attract attention, but to hear what noise it makes, a dull sound, as of some kind of tough plastic, like that in Wensum Gardens. So if anyone throws a stone at my window, it’ll probably just bounce back again.

 I’m pleased about this, just as I’m pleased the door to my room does not open. This might sound odd given where I was before, but it makes me feel safe.

I see three figures on the path. One of them is in a uniform. He is just ahead of two women. The older one leans quite heavily on the other’s arm, and she shuffles. In her outer hand is a stick. Despite her slowed pace, I recognize something in the carriage of the other, in the tilt of her head, and then I see it is my mother.

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. Writing as Katie Hutton, her historical novel, The Gypsy Bride, was published by Zaffre in 2020, with a sequel to follow in 2021. As Kate Zarrelli she is the author of Tuscan Enchantment (2019) and The Casanova Papers (2020), published by eXtasy Books. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Katherine reviews for the Historical Novel Society. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Canterbury Christ Church University in addition to an MLitt in Eng Lit from Durham and a first degree in Art History from UEA.

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