Friday 29 September 2017


I have just finished reading this novel and I have to say that I'm glad that I've finished it. It's not that I didn't enjoy reading it because I did but I didn't feel as engaged with it as I have with other novels.

I was first introduced to Doughty's writing when I read Apple Tree Yard last year, well before the excellent BBC adaptation, and I really loved this novel. Firstly, because the main theme of a middle-aged woman finding sexual excitement when she least expected it appealed to me and secondly, because I really admired her writing style. Envious in fact.

But Black Water is a very different kettle of fish. For a start, I didn't like the beginning which made it clear that something really nasty was going to happen to the main character, John Harper, and personally I don't think it's a good idea to give away the ending at the beginning. I could see Doughty's reasoning as she weaves a story - zig-zagging from different times and different countries - leading to the ending. Clever writing, yes, but perhaps too clever by half.

So, the central character, John Harper, which is not his real name, has had a difficult childhood with a dead father and erratic, alcoholic mother, who drags him from Holland to America where she marries into a lovely African-American family only to drag him back again to Holland after an awful tragedy.

Because he is of mixed race, he is of use as some sort of secret agent in Indonesia but he feels a misfit, belonging no-where. His job is to secretly pass on lists of potential communist members and sympathisers to the authorities in Indonesia. It's dangerous work and at times he has to be ruthless to save himself.

As a balance to this unsavoury work, he has a brief affair with Rita, a teacher, whilst he is hiding out in a shack just outside a town in Indonesia. Rita is everything his wife isn't and for a time we hope that his dream of a simple life with her (buy a small piece of land, build a house and just enjoy being together) will come true but given the beginning, it looks like an impossible dream, thus denying us any sense that at long last he will have a happy life.

I really liked the portrayal of Rita. She's a well-built lady with loads of confidence and understanding. Non-demanding and fun to be with. I could have done with more Rita in the novel. But as for Harper, I couldn't really connect with him. Not my kind of guy and with few redeeming features. And yes, the dreadful thing did happen so no surprise there.

I shall certainly read more of Doughty's novels because she is a splendid writer but for me Black Water didn't really work. Shows just how important character and structure are.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Dog In The Pram

Dog In The Pram
Maggie Knutson

Maggie Knutson ©2011
Maggie Knutson has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is one of my short stories inspired by Archie, our previous dog, who had a very penetrating but endearing stare. It was a runner up in the Exeter Writers Short Story Competion a few years ago.

The dog would simply not budge. I hissed as loudly as I dared: “Scram … Scat … Scoot … Push Off … Get Lost” but he just stood defiantly in my Grass Enhancement Area and fixed me with his gaze. I took my shoe off and hurled it towards the creature. It struck him on the chest and pain flickered across his eyes but still he would not move. I am not given to anxiety but I could feel panic spreading through me like an injected drug.

“Go away,” I breathed. “Please go away.” I sank onto my allocated Square Block of Patio and switched off my mind for a moment to gain some composure.

The dog sank down, too, his back legs sprawling outwards like plump, furry chicken legs and his front paws crossed comfortably, as if he had settled down to watch The Screen or was waiting for supper. But one thing was for sure: he was in no hurry to leave.

In The New World, governed by the only political party left - the B.C. Party (originally the Politically Correct Party, then the Be Correct Party and now just the B.C. Party) - there were three categories of dogs: Working Dogs To Help The Human Race, Laboratory Dogs To Advance Science, and Pet Dogs To Reward Key Workers.

All dogs were chip coded, collared according to type, and monitored regularly by special vets, who had the authorisation to exterminate any dog that showed signs of sickness. All dogs had their teeth and voice boxes removed on birth to eliminate barking and biting, and breeding was strictly supervised. Added to this, no dog was allowed to wander freely and, appertaining to my own immediate dilemma, was to be reported instantly to The Peaceful Life Police. Every moment I delayed, placed me in greater danger.

It, the dog, was locking our eyes together with his penetrating stare and I was not so much hypnotised as mesmerised. I had long learnt not to engage in meaningful or prolonged eye contact. If one wished to progress at work or survive amongst neighbours, it was essential to adopt the Submissive Eye Technique. But, to my surprise, I felt pleasantly exhilarated by this unexpected canine encounter.
It was a contact, a communication with another living being and it was stirring something within me, a hazy memory flittering shadow-like across my mind, of pleasurable times when all creatures, human and non-human, were free to interact. And, shockingly, I knew that by allowing these memories to surface, like a nuclear submarine flouting the rules and taking a little peek at life above the sea level, I was entering extremely dangerous waters.

I sighed. You could get me into a lot of trouble, dog, I thought, as I looked into his deep brown eyes.

I know.

I went as rigid as a corpse.

Can you read my thoughts? A silly question to be sure because he had just done so but it went against everything I had previously known or experienced or even read about.

Yes. This single thought-word scared but thrilled me.

But it’s not possible. You’re just a dog. Still disbelief.

Excuse me! I’m not just any dog!

A thinking dog with attitude – just what I needed!

Obviously! I replied.

This was becoming surreal. I drew within myself and considered the implications. Perhaps my imagination was playing silly tricks on me. But…I was also intrigued. If this was a laboratory dog, and its thin grey steel collar indicated as such, then who knows what kind of experiments he had undergone.
It always chilled me to see the latest advances in science as shown on The Screen. Only last week, we had been told of a breakthrough in the use of DNA from horses to help fybromyalgia sufferers. Although these advances were to be welcomed on a personal level, it often worried me that we had crossed some kind of unnatural boundary.

The mixing of human and animal genes was, I believed, experimenting dangerously with the unknown. I might have called it playing God but religion had been outlawed and it was unsafe to express such views. Still, despite my distaste for such experimentation, I had to deal with the fact that I had a feisty dog-like-no-other lounging on my lawn.

He was a beautiful, too, with soft, short fur, which was predominantly white but interspersed with a splattering of fudge-coloured splodges over his eyes, ears and back, like a child’s inexperienced painting. He was compactly built and certainly some kind of hybrid. In this state of ultra concentration, I could see his nose twitching rabbit-like and one ear stood erect, as if it were an antennae.

His face was amazingly structured, a canine version of a piece of delicate art worked with bones and veins. His small chest was strong and muscular, and fanning out from the base of his spine was a long, pure white, furred tail that I was sure would feel soft, if I did but dare touch it. And here was another memory, even more clearly formed than the last, of the deliciously sensuous touch of rich velvet, rose petals, fine silk, and yes, the naked body of another human.

But, suddenly, the dog tensed. He sat up, all muscles alert. I strained to hear what he was hearing but in the fading evening light, I could only detect the muffled domestic noises of my fellow neighbours.

Turn your Screen back on the dog commanded.


Turn your Screen back on! he repeated, only this time more urgently.

My first instinct was to object. It was bad enough taking endless orders from my Sponsor, Irma, but to do so from a dog rankled. However, it wouldn’t hurt to put the damn Screen back on. It was mandatory, after all, and switching it off was certainly reckless.

To me, The Screen was not only intrusive but often obscene. The latest craze for Murder Reality TV disgusted me, and The President’s Daily Address assumed that we were all gullible idiots. Perhaps we were, but surely we didn’t need to be constantly reminded. So, I had spent one rain-swept weekend sitting cross-legged next to the controls and drinking endless cups of Happiness Tea, learning how to adjust both the vision and the sound so I could turn off either one or the other or both. At least my time as a technician with IBM (now both bankrupt and discredited) had been educational.

What about you? I asked the dog.

I shall stay here.

I was sure I would wake up in the morning and realise that this was just one of those strange dreams you get when you drink too much Happiness Tea. Nevertheless, I dutifully trotted into my living area, readjusted The Screen and settled down to watch.

It was The President: a youthful, well-groomed man who spoke with an air of benign authority although I did sometimes wonder if he were the absolute power he claimed to be. Perhaps the B.C. Committee pulled the strings or even The Faceless Ones who were alluded to in muted tones at work. My speculations were too radical to articulate publicly. And anyway, who would I tell them to? Friendships were frowned upon and so I had no friends.

“I wish to remind you all,” he was saying, “that your Screen is state property and must not be tampered with. The punishment for doing so will be immediate removal to The Correction Area …” and so on. I had heard enough. Adding two and two together and making five, I deduced that there must be others, too, who broke the rules. My spine tingled with excitement at this idea. I was not alone.

It was then that I heard the ominous roar of powerful motorbikes. The Peaceful Life Police had arrived and I was in no doubt as to whom they were to visit. Thank God I had readjusted my Screen.

On gaining total supremacy of the country, The B.C. Party had immediately resolved the on-going problem of too few police and too many prisoners. In a neat and effective move, they had released all prisoners and transformed them into a new, ultra-tough police force, whilst locking up all police officers.

My visitors were two teenage girls: the most brutal of all the police. They might look like caricatures with their black leathers, chewing gum and layers of spiky mascara but their heavy silver chains clanging by their sides were feared by all citizens.

These two looked as mean as hell, so I kept my eyes averted. I could smell their disappointment on discovering the loud flickering Screen. They moodily poked their batons to displace the few possessions I had, but they could find no reason to give me a Chastisement and they brushed out as dismissively as they had entered. I listened as their boots echoed menacingly around the deserted streets (we were now past curfew time) and then the shock of engines as they sped away to some other hapless citizen.

I wondered who could have reported me but that was futile. It could have been any one of my neighbours. Life had become like that. After this unpleasant experience, I was tempted to pop a Diazepam (standard issue for all) but I sought out the dog, instead, inexplicably hoping that he had not been frightened off.

I couldn’t see him but I could feel him watching me.

“Thank you,” I whispered, and the shade of darkness altered by the wall as he emerged into moonlight.

And then, Come on, Dog, I projected. Come inside before any of my nosey neighbours see you.

You called me Dog. Is that your name for me?

I guess so.

I’ve never been given a name before.

And I swear that Dog swaggered inside.

I fed him warm cereal mixed with milk and sat on the floor close by, with a cup of tea, watching as he sucked in his supper, his eyes closed and long, ginger lashes resting gently on his cheek-bones. His chest was rising and falling in rhythm with his heartbeat and it occurred to me that this must be how new mothers felt, before their babies were taken away to their Allocated Homes.

But I checked this impulse of sentimentality and once he had finished his meal, I allowed my rational self to take control.

I could get into serious trouble doing this.

I know.

So, what do you want from me?

I want you to take me to The Land Of No Return.

I looked at him in horror.

That’s impossible.

No, it isn’t.

I’ve got too much to lose.


‘I have a good job…this flat...’

More silence.

I’d be risking everything I’ve achieved and then there really would be no return.

But Dog did not answer. Instead, his eyes became like a pair of secret screens that showed flashes of scenes of unspeakable brutality. I shrank back in shock and my heart, frozen for so long, burned with anger. I was seeing, as if I were there myself, the awful truth about animal experimentation and it was not the painless, cosy scene that we had all seen on The Screen. It was indescribably foul.

Dog showed little emotion but the earnestness of his expression revealed an anxiety for me to know. Yet, still, I demurred.

You’re asking a lot of me.

You are my last chance… as I am yours.

I sucked in breath.

Let me sleep on it.

Sleep was a surprisingly peaceful sensation that night, given all that I had witnessed, for Dog was curled into a tight ball at the foot of my bed, so obviously trusting of me, and the last thing I could remember was hearing the sound of his gentle, controlled breathing, which was strangely comforting.

I resolved to go into work the next day. I needed to be able to think without Dog’s pleading eyes absorbing my every thought. All was normal until lunchtime, when I was leaving the office for my mandatory Teeth Perfection Treatment, and I felt an unaccustomed movement on my cheek. Instinctively, I checked myself in the mirror, which, in magnified form, covered all walls and ceilings.

There was a small black insect crawling over my cheekbone and the instant I realised that it was some form of dog parasite, my eyes locked straight into the puzzled stare of Irma. Irma had a Reward Dog: she would know about such things. I flicked the insect away casually and, with disguised haste, set off for my appointment but, once away from the building, I paused against a wall to regain my breath and to curb the surge of undiluted fear that threatened to betray me.

Irma was a loyal Party member. She would report me for illegal contact with a dog, despite my value as her most senior software creator. I would be arrested on my return, secretly bundled out through the basement and whisked away to a miserable destiny. My flat would be repossessed and Dog returned to the hell that I had seen in his eyes.

I ignored my appointment and headed straight for home. A Young Mother was carrying her baby inside a nearby flat and her brief, miserable glance my way strengthened my resolve. I must escape.

Dog was waiting for me, sitting as alert as radar, eyes bright with expectation. Quick! We’re leaving! I swept into the kitchen and pushed provisions into two plastic bags. Then I hurried to my secret hiding place and retrieved my most treasured possessions, all banned items. There was a well-thumbed photograph of a vase of sunshine yellow flowers, a mouldy bar of milk chocolate, and a battered old brown leather cigarette case containing a lighter and one cigarette.

I shoved them hastily into my pocket and opened the front door, Dog at my side. There, in front of us, was the baby’s shining new pram with sufficient room for one dog under my two bags. The problem of how to smuggle Dog out had been my most pressing priority and yet here the answer was provided for us. It was then that I realised that God had not deserted me.

Dog and I did not need to communicate, our thought patterns now so in tune, even after such a short period of time. He jumped as lightly as a soufflĂ© into the pram, I placed the bags on top of him and thus we set off…

So, that is how the amazing partnership between Dog and myself came into being. And how did we reach the safety of The Land Of No Return (which is actually called The Land Of Freedom)? Now that’s a fascinating story. Perhaps Dog will tell you that one, when you have managed to escape, too.