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by DJC 

Posted: 25 January 2006
Word Count: 1956
Related Works: Spin Cycle • 

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

‘It was that arrogant Dutch woman, do you remember? We were up on the slopes and she was talking about her adopted daughters, Chinese I think, about how wonderful they were, and she got onto talking about her teaching and how they’d never find a better Dutch teacher than her as she was just so over qualified for the school. And then she sneezed. You do remember, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I remember.’
‘She was the one that gave this to me. I know she was. Sniffing and sneezing all over the place. She sneezed all over me. Made no effort to cover her face. It was her fault.’ Saskia took a tissue from a packet in her handbag and blew her nose. She examined the tissue before stuffing it back into her bag. ‘It was definitely her.’

We were in Lausanne, on a day out as we’d needed to get off the mountain. It was freezing – it didn’t feel any warmer than it had done over a kilometre higher.

Saskia was struggling with her cold. She wasn’t very good with any sort of illness. When she had a headache it was best to stay away from her for a while. She became very unpredictable when she was feeling poorly.

She ordered an Amaretto. ‘For my throat,’ she said. I ordered another coffee. It didn’t do me much good, drinking coffee in the afternoon, but there was nothing else I could think of having. When it came I could hardly drink it. There is something about the smell of coffee when you don’t really want it. I only managed a couple of sips. ‘That was a waste,’ Saskia said.

After the meal we walked up to the cathedral, which sits at the top of a steep hill. There was an exhibition of photography Saskia wanted to see. We looked at the photographs which were positioned around the walls, like the stations of the cross. Some of them were of the cathedral. My favourite was the shadow of the cathedral’s cross on a nearby office block. Saskia sniffed. ‘They’re terribly badly mounted,’ she said, examining one more closely. ‘There really is no excuse for it,’ she said. ‘For poor presentation. No excuse at all.’
I lost interest in the exhibition after that.

We went to the front of the cathedral and sat down. Saskia knelt and closed her eyes, and her lips moved as if she were testing out the best things to say. I looked around at the people coming and going. It was a Saturday so was quite busy, by Swiss standards anyway. Nothing is ever very busy in Switzerland. There was an elderly couple to our left, who were in conversation about the photograph of the shadow. I would have liked to have gone across and listened to what they were saying. A young woman about Saskia’s age, maybe younger, was sitting a couple of rows in front of us on the other side of the aisle. She was staring ahead of her, at the image of Christ on the cross. A mother chased her child towards the font. The child had her hands raised and was squealing with excitement.

Afterwards, we took a tram up to the Musee d’Art Brut. Saskia loved this place – it was full of art by mad people. That was the criteria for selection – that you had to have lost your mind in some way. There were exhibits by paedophiles and suicides and even the whole wooden wall of a prison cell, that one man had carved into with a spoon while he was in prison for doing something unspeakable. Hanging from the ceiling was a roll of wallpaper, covered in doodles. The comment read that the woman who did the doodling would never have seen her whole creation, as she’d had to keep rolling up the wallpaper as she went. To me it looked like a lot of doodles on wallpaper. To Saskia, it was genuis. I often wondered whether I was missing out on something when I went to art galleries with her. What she saw that I didn’t.

We went for a drink, in a little café near the gallery. A small man was sat in the corner, smoking a cigarette. He kept looking over at us. Saskia turned her chair away from him. ‘So rude,’ she said.

We saw the dog as we were heading back to the car. It came out of one of the side roads below the café and turned towards us. It kept stopping and starting, as if it were changing its mind about which way to go. When it got closer, Saskia crouched down to try and get it to come to her.
‘Is that wise?’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ She was crouching quite low and had her hands out in front of her, in the way you’re supposed to do to show you’re not a threat.
‘It might be dangerous.’
‘Oh don’t be ridiculous.’ The dog had stopped a little way short of us. It was looking at Saskia, perhaps trying to measure her up. Or wondering which bit to attack first. The dog looked like a mongrel. He was medium sized and fit-looking, and was mainly brown apart from a black patch on his back. His ears were crooked and made him look quizzical. I had to say he looked like a friendly dog, but you could never be too sure, even in a fairly safe place like Lausanne.

Saskia sniffed. ‘Look at him. Poor doggie. He’s lost. Where’s your owner, boy? Where is he?’ The dog moved a little closer and cocked his head to one side. He had on a collar, and definitely didn’t look like a stray. He was too well-kept. ‘Come here, boy. Come on. We won’t hurt you. Come on then.’

The dog was almost within reach. Its head lowered a little, perhaps out of curiosity or perhaps something else. I didn’t know much about dogs. As a family we’d never had them, as my brother Joe was allergic. Some people say that if you’re allergic you should get a dog, but Joe had spent six months in hospital once after cuddling a puppy, so it was always out of the question. So when this dog lowered its head, I wasn’t sure what sort of a sign it was giving off. Saskia didn’t seem too bothered. She just kept crouching, her arms out, waiting for it to get closer.

Just as she was about to grab hold of its collar, she sneezed. The dog darted away to one side of her and stopped a few paces away. ‘That fucking Dutch woman,’ Saskia said. ‘Shit.’
‘Perhaps we should let the police know,’ I said. ‘Let them deal with it.’
‘We just have to get hold of its collar, then we can find out where he lives. That’s all we need to do. We can’t just walk away from him, not here. He might get run over. It’s so busy round here. Too busy for dogs to be running around on their own. Here boy, come on, I promise I won’t scare you again.’ She stood a little, and moved slowly towards the dog, her arms outstretched. The dog trotted off away from her, back up towards the café. ‘Fuck.’ Saskia turned to me. ‘You’ll have to help me. Do something to draw him closer, then I can get hold of him.’
‘I don’t think he wants to be got.’
‘How do you know? He’s just scared. If I can get hold of him then he’ll feel safer. Then I can find out who he belongs to. If you had a dog and he was lost, wouldn’t you want to know where he was? Wouldn’t you want someone to try and rescue him?’

I put my hands in my pockets. Saskia blew her nose. It really was very cold. All I wanted to do was get back to the car and go home. But Saskia was having none of it. I knew what all this was about, even if she didn’t.

The dog looked like it was about to cross the road. I could see that this was not the best option. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to try and do.’

I headed up towards the dog, keeping close to the kerb. Saskia walked towards the dog in the middle of the pavement. Neither of us looked at him. Saskia said that if it didn’t look like we were interested, he might ignore us, then I could grab him before he noticed. If not, he might run towards Saskia, and she could grab him. The plan didn't seem foolproof.

As we moved closer, the dog began to move away from us. ‘It’s not working,’ I said.
‘I can see that.’
I remembered something I’d seen on TV a while back, about what to do if your dog runs off. The programme said that if you ran after your dog it would probably keep on running, as it thought you were following it on a hunt. But if you called its name then ran in the opposite direction, the dog would follow you. It was all about who was the alpha in the pack. Who was in charge.

I suggested this to Saskia. She immediately saw a hole in this plan. ‘We don’t know the dog’s name. Jesus, Sam – you’re really not helping matters.’
‘You have a better idea?’ I said. I was beginning to feel foolish, stood there in the middle of the pavement, shivering with the cold, trying to get a dog who didn’t want to be got.
‘Please don’t start,’ Saskia said. ‘Not now.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Just don’t start. This is not the best place.’ She blew her nose again. ‘Oh this fucking cold.’

She began to walk towards the dog, who by now was at a busy crossroads. He didn’t know which way to go. He was looking all over, his tail between his legs. I didn’t hold out much hope for him. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the dog run over, seeing it all mashed up on the road. If he got caught under a trolley bus there wouldn’t be much left of him. He reminded me of Schrodinger’s cat, stood there on the corner, both alive and dead at the same time. I followed Saskia towards the crossroads.

‘What if we got some food to tempt it with. Maybe that would work. Do you have anything in your bag?’

I didn’t think so, but I looked anyway. There was a half eaten Mars Bar that had been there for weeks, and a packet of gum. Nothing a dog would like. ‘We could go back to the café and get something there,’ I said.
‘Finally, a good idea,’ Saskia said.

The small man was still sitting in the corner. He said ‘bonjour’ as I went in. I told the fat woman behind the counter about the problem, and asked if she had anything a dog might like to eat. My French wasn’t very good so I wasn’t sure whether I’d said the right thing. It made the small man laugh, whatever it was I said. The fat woman disappeared into the back and came out with a piece of bacon rind. She didn’t charge me for it.

I went back outside. There was no sign of the dog. Saskia was standing on the corner, where the dog had been. She was crying. ‘You’re too late,’ she said. ‘You’re always too late.’

I stood in the middle of the pavement, the bacon rind still in my hand.

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Comments by other Members

Cholero at 19:05 on 25 January 2006  Report this post

You know how much I like your stuff. I read the first third of this with a feeling that I am in good hands and it builds well, with a simplicity of style that works nicely against the complexity of what is going on between Saskia and the MC. I like the way you use the characters' differing responses to art to inform their relationship, and I got a delicious sense of foreboding here, knowing that later on this would be expanded/exploited. I find it hard to fault anything here, it's a lovely slow build, multi-layered and sophisticated. I like the way the opening dialogue puts us right in the scene with all the explosiveness of the sneezing with which saskia is inflicted. The dialogue here nicely conveys a hint of their dissatisfaction with one another.

But I find the incident with the dog (no joke intended) didn't live up to my hopes of what was to come, it didn't seem powerful enough, or is perhaps too long-drawn out- I don't know. Or perhaps there needs to be more of a build of disent between them o0ver the course of the scene, or hints of dissent, hints of repression, whatever.

I guess I kind of missed the lucid, crisp moments you've created before -most memorably the grandfather in the doorway- and I was looking forward to those pleasures, tho it's unfair to criticise on this kind of a basis!

As usual, I'm impressed by what you do, and I think the story is contained and well shaped apart from those provisos... again, you make it look easy and artless.

Best wishes


DJC at 20:59 on 25 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Pete - easy it ain't! I've sweated over this for a number of days, mainly due to the point you make about the dog. This happened, to my wife and I, but not in Lausanne, and not with the same sort of tension. We were trying to get hold of this dog but it was just a bit out of reach. I know that this bit of the story doesn't quite do it, and that it maybe needs extending, or at least rejigging a bit, as it is over before it starts.

Should the story begin with the dog, then fill in the blanks? Not sure, as I quite like the way the dog just appears, and long with it the sense of tension in the relationship. What I was trying to get across was that we can keep things held down, but that when external things rock the boat it's quite hard to stop it rocking. This just isn't rocky enough, so I'll go back and see what I can do.

Thanks as ever for your generous and constructive comments, Pete - they mean a great deal.

Heckyspice at 08:34 on 26 January 2006  Report this post

Keep the dog where he is. It is important that we get to know Saskia and Sam. The opening scenes convey they trouble with their relationship. If you bought the dog in earlier, it would ruin the chance to show Saskia's core - which is why don't you behave like me, think like me, act like me, I am best after all.

One picky point, are they on holiday? I don't think it is important but you could pepper anecodotes into the opening paragraphs to illustrate the polar opposites of the Sam and Saskia.

Ah, I have had another thought (and forgive me if I am being rude, if the name is that of your wife) but the name Saskia conjures up the image of woman that would be the bullying team leader in some firm of accountants - or maybe I am thinking of that irratating faux celebrity wannabe that was on Big Brother last year.

Best wishes,



I mean irritating.

DJC at 08:42 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
No, my wife's name is Sally - if I'd called the main character after her I may have a divorce on my hands... Thanks for the advice, David - I think you're right - I need to think more about the relationship before the dog arrives, as it somehow represents the sense of futility both feel in their relationship - that neither can help this dog, both know that it is in danger and so on. The name Saskia came from nowhere - but it does sound like a bully's name. THe title, 'Alpha', links to both the dog, and to her. I think I may need to make that clearer.

Cholero at 08:54 on 26 January 2006  Report this post

It feels awkward suggesting stuff; your work is tight, therefore hard to unpick. What I'd say is that the way Saskia and her husband deal with the dog should reflect more the established aspects of their character... although, as is your way, not too blatantly. That was the pleasure I was looking forward to. Maybe the facts of the real event are informing things too much and you could bend them to more thoroughly skewer these people.

I got the alpha thing, but took it more to be about his failure to be an alpha rather than her dominance, if that makes any sense.

All this in the context of thinking this is well written and constructed.

Best again

Pete C

Nell at 09:05 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
Darren, this is good. I like the way you've shown us the characters of Sam and Saskia and the condition of their relationship - a fine balance in that showing too, neither too little nor too much, although whilst reading the first paragraphs I was questioning whether the story would have been better with some editing of their day before the event. The fact that the sneeze played a part in the story pulled it all together.

I thought that line

He reminded me of Schrodinger’s cat, stood there on the corner, both alive and dead at the same time...

used to describe the living animal quite horrendous, shattering and terrible in its brilliance. It'll be in my head for ever.

You’re too late,’ she said. ‘You’re always too late.’


It was all about who was the alpha in the pack. Who was in charge.

say so much, say everything.

A few repetitions that need hunting down; I noticed lots of instances of 'photographs' in an early para., at least one of which could go.

A couple of typos: 'curb' (kerb); somewhere a missing question mark and a missing hypen I can't find now as I was too involved in reading to make a note of it.

A memorable story.


Just read others' comments - no disappointment with the dog at all - IMO it works marvellously - a metaphor for their relationship, which I feel is about to come to grief too. I just hope the real dog was OK.

DJC at 10:19 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
Pete - I like the idea of 'skewering' - I'll remember this, as it is exactly the sort of thing I like doing to characters - hoisting them by their own petard, so to speak. Perhaps I was Vlad the Impaler in another life.

Nell - thank you so much for your kind words - they do mean a lot coming from an expert like yourself, and your hawkish eyes (not the way they look, I hasten to add - you look like you have kind eyes on your website!) always notice such tiny details.

I'm really keen to start sending stuff away, as I've never done this before (not seriously, anyway - I once sent a chapter of a novel away to a number of agents, and received polite replies, which is amazing considering how crap the writing was). Would any of you know of the sorts of publications which would accept my sort of stuff? Any ideas gratefully received.

Oh, and Nell - I've reposted the confessional in the poetry seminar - I feel like I'm finding my poetic voice as well now, which is great. At least for this week, anyway.


Not sure about the real dog - he buggered off before we had time to catch him. Last seen skirting around behind the baker's after snaffling the pastry we'd bought for him. Honestly, no gratitude at all.

Cholero at 10:28 on 26 January 2006  Report this post

I don't know much about it but I imagine you would get a lot of interest.


DJC at 11:16 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
Cheers. Oh how I wish I could change my username...

Cholero at 11:38 on 26 January 2006  Report this post

How about an interim change '<newname> formerly JCD' then later just the new name. I reckon david would sort it out.



Oh yeah got it, Vlad

DJC at 12:23 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Nell - I'll have a look.


On first glance, the style does suit my own, which is really important. I'll get a couple of stories together and see what happens. How exciting...

Nell at 12:27 on 26 January 2006  Report this post
Darren, fingers crossed!

Cholero at 15:52 on 26 January 2006  Report this post

For what it's worth if someone told me the stuff I've read of yours was published work I wouldn't doubt it for a minute.


davedave at 04:32 on 27 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren,

I see you you've got lots of lovely feedback already. My two cents/pence:

I found it easy-to-read and satisfying. I wouldn't change too much, to be honest. I 'got' the title and thought that the awkwardness of the relationship really came through. (That said, I found it hard to imagine why the narrator would stay with her. Maybe that's the point.)

There are a couple of paragraphs where her name is repeated again and again - I would've preferred more pronouns.

Is Schrodinger's cat a reference I should get?

This bit -
"It didn’t seem like the most foolproof of plans."
I felt would work better with 'it didn't seem foolproof' but that could just be me.

I liked the final image - her criticising, him with the bacon rind - lovely.

But I'll say again - it's really very good - a lot of a relationship packed into a short story - a big achievement.


DJC at 06:21 on 27 January 2006  Report this post
Cheers, Dave - you're right - perhaps 'the plan didn't seem foolproof', as the original is a bit awkward. Schrodinger's cat is a thought experiment. I've culled the net for a better explanation than I can give:

We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that it can never be known what the outcome would have been if it were not observed.

All makes perfect sense. So in relation to the doggie, the MC is reminded of the cat which is both alive and dead. I hope this makes sense.

Xenny at 13:36 on 29 January 2006  Report this post
I read this a few days ago but had to rush off so didn't have time to comment. I've printed it to read again so it can be fresh in my mind.


lang-lad at 12:58 on 30 January 2006  Report this post
Your writing has strength and vitality and a lot of people like the story. Its pace was at times, for me, not so much tight as rushed. Sorry. Blunt perhaps but ... well ... I am in the minority of one here. My instinct was to say nothing at all BUT that's not what we're here for in the end so here goes ... I found myself asking as I read "is this a memoir/travelogue or a short story? It seemed to veer between the two. The dog story read like a real event recalled from memory, for me. That's before I read the comments and found it was. What creeps in, somehow, is your own actual recollection rather than the narrator's. Of course you can, who doesn't, use real events but for me the voice telling the story morphed into your own rather than the character's.

(By the way, the sentence that takes us into the dog story would have been a good first sentence for the whole thing, it seems to me. It's something I seem to find in reading first drafts of lots of stories, my own included, that the opening turns up later down the page. Perhaps it's just me but anyway ... it's what I thought as I read.)

A little more confidence that the story will hold the attention will also, in my opinion, deepen its appeal and readability. I could have done with being taken into the cathedral, for example. At the start, we were up a mountain, well told, well drawn, but then suddenly we were down in the town or in the cathedral, jumping fast through events and conversations. It's not a bad thing to do that but it seemed hurried to me.

Good luck with it - where it takes you and how it develops. I'll be looking forward to reading more of your work.
all the best,

DJC at 14:25 on 30 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Eliza - I really appreciate comments like this. I'm only just revisiting the short story form and your comment aboug having confidence in the story holding attention is very succinctly put. I have a problem with describing things in detail - I try to rush through the narrative without leaving time to build a scene first. I'll take very seriously your ideas. Thanks again.

Xenny at 01:02 on 31 January 2006  Report this post

How much I want to burst in with some criticism. Partly because I feel I've been a little cautious with it in general (espacially with being new to the forum), but mainly because of your comment about my name. I'm joking.

But honestly, I do find this very hard to criticise. Your style is so good to read - it's simple in a way I try for (yes I know, not with that one) but which seems to lead too easily to barrenness when I do. But you do it so well.

If I had to fault anything it would be something I think someone else has mentioned. If it wasn't for the way you handle it I might have found myself thinking, 'why would someone want to read about this?' But the attention you paid the characters and your other observations carried me through more than easily. And I even wonder if it would be wrong for it to build to anything more eventful than this - this level of happeningness seems to fit with the moods of the characters, and with what you're showing about them. If the focus shifted to more of an event than the dog, something might be lost. I actually hope you don't change it at all.

And I agree with what Nell said about the Schrodinger’s cat line. This and one or two other bits seemed to me enough to raise it from good writing to something that really stands out.


p.s. I liked it when the main character said, ‘I don’t think he wants to be got.’


p.p.s. I went back to try and work on my last poem and only just saw your request to borrow my name... oh ok go on then. And I can say to all my friends, "I got published - look! Look at my book! Aint it great?"

DJC at 15:39 on 31 January 2006  Report this post
A ha, I see your game, Adeline... It'll be your name, but my big fat royalty cheques. I'll send you a gift with all my lovely money, when I'm famous...

Thanks for the kind words - I'm so enjoying writing at the moment, and it means a huge amount to know that people like you enjoy reading it. I'm trying to stay away from stories where much happens, instead concentrating on building character and mood.

Darren (friends call me Adeline)

scoops at 08:24 on 08 February 2006  Report this post
Hello DJC There is so much between the lines of this story, and you show it very well. What made it particularly interesting for me was that I started off assuming the narrator was male and was Saskia's husband/partner, but found halfway that I was no longer sure. The looking in the bag made me think it was a woman, and even the name Sam is not gender specific. It's possible I've missed a clue further up in the piece, but if so, I'm glad I have, because the 'not knowing' made it work for me at several levels - they could be lovers, old friends, siblings, anything... What you've drawn is a universal picture of unexpressed emotional conflict that can be recognised from a number of perspectives:-) I don't think the issue of showing and telling is that important in short stories, but there is a greater need for brevity and this could be edited down without anything being lost in the process. I also thought the naming of the brother somehow broke the spell at a point where it was just about Saskia and the unnamed, at that point, narrator. If you dropped it, I think the piece would benefit. Well done. Shyama.

DJC at 07:10 on 10 February 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Shyama - I really appreciate this. It's nice to see that it works on different levels, as I often think when you write something you're not always aware of that.


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