Thursday, October 17, 2019

Outside the Dome

Like the Millennium Dome, my short story for James River Writers was dogged with delays and overwrought. The title was supplied. The rest was my own work without the assistance of opium.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 
A stately pleasure-dome decree: 
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
Down to a sunless sea. 

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like Coleridge, Brett saw Mongolian emperors in his dreams. The desert’s long and level sands stretched away to an indistinct horizon of mountains folded into the dust, curiously beautiful but as hard as iron. Out there beyond the walls, the herdsmen carved their fleeting lives from the sun-dried mud. 

Not so the emperor. Every morning the lights of the walled city glittered above wasteland and the fires leaped high in the ruler’s vast pleasure dome where gladiators fought and dancers caroused while the screams of men and women at wine-fueled rituals pierced the star-hung canopy above.

Unlike Coleridge’s exotic opium-filled fantasies, Brett’s dreams were fueled by cheap lager from the King’s Head. On nights when he was feeling particularly daring he’d get a pickled egg. He still ended up outside the pleasure dome. 

He woke and clutched at the cold white sheets. He felt like an outsider now and he wanted a warm body. Acres of sterile whiteness stared back at him. Lynda had slipped out.

Two hours later, Brett was pounding the streets in his running shoes. There was no sign of his wife. That wasn’t unusual. He felt better now, pulling in energy from the street vendors and the mishmash of accents in Whitechapel. It often seemed sunless here. Tall buildings snuffed out the light in the narrow alleys and a green fog from the Thames claimed these streets for its own. The west end had been sunnier but nobody could afford to live there, certainly not a writer whose last big scoop had been a piece about musical Shih Tzu collars in Day of the Dog magazine.

Brett took it all in, the smells of coriander and cardamon in the street market, the distant hum or buses and the ragged man on the street corner. The Blind Beggar pub was streets away with its bullet holes where the Krays shot George Cornwall dead. Brett didn’t dwell on the past. He reached into his pocket and touched the tickets. His editor hadn’t wanted them. He had no intention of spending Millennium Eve in a “colossal white elephant” when he could be at home with his family. The tickets were Brett’s if he wanted them. Notwithstanding his editor’s reticence, he felt like Charlie Bucket clutching a golden ticket.

Two days later, Brett looked on as Lynda stood in front of the mirror. The lighter flecks in her raven hair danced around in the horizontal light of the lamp and the velvet shimmer of her blue dress set off her sapphire earrings. He was transfixed for a moment. He couldn’t recall ever seeing his wife this way before. Even his jangling misgivings about the cost of the dress subsided. Perhaps it was all worth it, he thought. Had he been wrong about everything? Still he wondered if he had ever taken time to know the woman behind the dress.

She turned and looked at him, a half-smile playing across her features. He smiled but realized her glance went past his shoulder to her reflection in the mirror.

“So you are looking forward to it?”

Her cheeks hardened. He thought how powerful she looked in the half-light, although her beauty seemed other-worldly.

“I still don’t see why we can’t go to the Chelsea gig.”

Brett sighed. “You can go to a house party every week. This is history being made.”

Lynda’s clipped words sent the doubts flooding back. What had happened that night at the party? Why were his friends looking at him so curiously when he opened his eyes? He recalled the way his wife looked at his friend Allen. The room swayed from all the cocktails but it wasn’t a warm and cozy intoxication. He felt left outside the walls of their conspiracy.


Brett had before never seen so many well-dressed people in such shabby surroundings. A long line of velveteen ladies and men in dinner jackets wound up the escalators from Greenwich Station. They crushed cigarette butts with the weight of their polished shoes. Even the homeless people on the margins of the station quit begging to look on in awe. This was no normal night on the Isle of Dogs. The scene was on the cusp of a New Millennium and a different world order. The gleaming canopy of white teflon had risen from a wasteland of toxic ash, tar pits, and unexploded World War Two bombs. 

The lines wound on into the night. Seemingly, nobody had thought about security. But this was a new world order, a world without war and bombs.

Only Lynda’s face harked back to primordial times. Her mascara ran a little down her cheeks. Brett thought her beautiful and severe. Striking bur raptor-like.

“God Brett. How much longer do we have to wait. I missed Chelsea for this?”

Brett was just happy to make it under the great canopy where sturdy steel gantries reached up to the spangled roof. An army of servers walked the floor. He found a glass of champagne thrust into his hand. 

He was relieved to see Lynda slugging it down fast. He hoped the bubbly would smooth over the sharp lines appearing on her face.

He was buzzing by the time they entered the Body Zone two more drinks later. A man called Jeff introduced them to the human body. Jeff was some kind of public relations guy. Brett wondered if he had been drinking too.

“So roll up for a fantastic trip into the human body; walk down the passages of the mind. Wind your way up the intricacies of the human arm.”

Brett stared at the giant plastic walkway up the arm and then at Lynda’s. He was more interested in his wife’s shapely arms but their beauty felt remote. She was an alabaster statue, a fragile Greek vase. He touched her to steer her up the walkway. 

Just two hours from the start of the Millennium the people were still filing slowly into the dome. Police officers rushed around the margins of the Dome and Brett overheard talk of a bomb scare. He saw an animated private secretary waving his arms at one of the police officers.

“We couldn’t possibly allow the Prime Minister in before this is cleared up.”

The Minister of Culture had no such qualms. Brett was due at a press conference at 10.30 p.m. He filed into the back of the Play Zone and witnessed the minister resplendent in a pinstriped suit next to giant Lego figures. He thought of a circus clown as the man conducted the guests under the big top.

“We have a show for you like no other. There are barges on the Thames positively loaded with thousands of fireworks. This is a young country again, a new country. When I was a child my parents took me to the Festival of Britain, We still bore the scars of the war in our buildings, our hearts, and our memories. The festival featured the largest dome in the world at the time, rising 93 feet into the South London sky. We know we are the lucky ones tonight. So many of our fellow countrymen and women are outside the dome tonight. But this event is being broadcast on TVs across the nation. We will spread the light, the warmth, and innovation of the Dome.” He couldn’t take it in. The promises were buses, coming into the bay, one after another. You don’t know which one to ride.

Nobody mentioned the cost overrun.

For a few dizzy moments, the minister’s words carried Brett’s thoughts high into the air, into the purple emptiness of the Dome. He wondered if it really would be a new era. His fellow news hacks next to him brought him down to earth. “Bertie’s clearly been taking something in the bathrooms.”

“And what terrible bathrooms they are too. Hate to see them by the end of the night.”

Brett felt light-headed. The bomb threats were unnerving but not serious enough for him to call his newspaper and ask them to hold the front page.

He headed to the Time Zone, his agreed rendezvous point with Lynda. He grabbed another glass of champagne in passing. He had doubts about the Millennium but it was getting better.  The walkways had filled up. He saw Lynda’s sapphire shimmer and found her pressed up against a giant timepiece, reading a note. The crowd blocked his view. When he saw her again she was empty-handed. He met her glance and they glided down the walkways together, gathering up glasses of bubbly to the left and the right. It was almost time.

They took their seats on benches overlooking the central arena. Away to the east Brett recognized the diminutive figure of the monarch. Her head wagged obediently at the Prime Minister. 

The speeches began. The speakers described how the Dome was far greater than a party venue. It was an inclusive space, a harbinger of a brave new world that would bring together the diverse elements of the nation in a “brave, new fusion.” The years of war, strife, and poverty would be banished. The IRA was a forgotten acronym. Trish McIntosh, the Environment Secretary, described how the Dome was a metaphor for renewal. The country would be populated by mini biospheres that would contain a wealth of diversity. They would develop new foods and plants impervious to global warming. The future would wrap them up in its soft, green arms. Still, a chill crept into the Dome from the mirky river left outside in the cold. Brett slipped his hand around Lynda’s waist and she moved obligingly. Midnight came and went and the fireworks flashed above their heads, high over the estuary.

“Do you ever think of Dubrovnik?” he asked.

“Yes. It was magical.”

The drinks had merged into one cheerful cocktail, the bubbles into a great overwhelming circular warmth. He felt closer to her now than he had for many years. Perhaps the distance between them had been illusory. He recalled the emerald green water of the Adriatic below their honeymoon suite a decade ago, the bell towers and the twisted alleys. The nights of love he thought would never end. They kissed suddenly and he caught his breath on the unexpected passion, as if the simple gesture captured years in the cold.

Yet even as Brett cupped her head, the outside world intruded. A small, red-faced man in a uniform was instructing the partygoers to clear the gallery.

“The party’s over folks. Go home.”

As zones dimmed, stewards ushered them towards the gaping flap in the tent that served as a door. Now the cold breath of the Thames reached out to them, ancient and foul-smelling. Two millennia ago the river had welcomed the blacked corpses of the Roman legionaries set on fire by Boudicca’s savages. Outside the Dome, the world in 2000 looked remarkably similar to the one they left behind in 1999. Trash blew past the brownstones and police sirens wailed across the city. The bold new world did not run to an improved train service. Hordes of drunken people pushed and shoved down the platform to the last train out west. They contemplated the grim prospect of finding an overpriced cab.

Brett spied a familiar figure in a sharp black and red dress on the highway. Trish McIntosh was arguing with a cab driver.

“Bloody hell. Cut the crap and just get me to Pimlico,” he heard her say.

Lynda punched his side. “Hold my bag, Brett. I need the toilet.”

He held onto the over-heavy leather appendage that cost half a monthly salary as she headed for the station toilets. The overhead signs flashed the word “delayed.” Groans issues from revelers camped across the station. If he called a cab it might arrive in a couple of hours. Brett remembered his wife had a mobile phone. He reached into the bag to search for it. Something hard nudged his fingers and slipped away from his grasp. Then a piece of paper came away in his hand.

Brett pulled it out into the orange light and read the words. They cut away at the fuzzy warmness; they scraped at the cocoon he felt earlier.

“Lynda. Sorry, we could not be together tonight. I wanted to see it in with you. Til the Mermaid.”

Always A.

Brett recognized his friend’s spike writing. He didn’t need to see the initial to know the letter was from Allen.  He knew the Mermaid too, a place of cheap beer and cheaper bedrooms.

Brett dropped the note back into Lynda’s handbag. Suddenly the street got darker as someone turned off the lights in the Dome. He looked again over that great surface of Teflon, more like a dead whale now than a place that ever lived and breathed. Although the light was dying in the Dome, another band of brightness appeared above it. Brett saw the first milky light of morning over the city to the west of the dome. Soon the dawn would bath the towers and Medieval spires.

Lynda’s fixed smile had returned. She was in set and hold mode as she took back his bag.

“When’s the train babe?”

“It’s later Lynda. Look, I need to visit the bathroom too.”

Brett passed her back the heavy bag and walked to the station. Instead of turning right at the turnstile and dropping in a coin, he kept on walking. A train struggled down Platform 5 but he walked on by. He left the station by the back entrance and a wide vista of the river opened up in the half-light beyond a jumbled of masts where seafarers had embarked on long and dangerous voyages for centuries. Now he felt the cold mud and grass on his toes. He knew there was a path here by the river. He kept walking, heading ever for the salmon-colored sliver of morning in the sky. The Dome grew small behind him. It shrunk into the bustle of the docklands, the old warehouses and the slums of the workers. By the time he arrived at Bishopsgate, the sun would be rising on the river and they would be brewing coffee at the Abbey.

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