Empathy

Victor Beautule is known as the ‘coming man’ on his way to the top. He isn’t from a humble background nor has he the studied insouciance of the English aristocracy. He’s a man from the middle, the lower middle, and bitter about the elites he perceives above him. His contempt for the lower orders is unbounded. 

When Vanessa, one of his many girlfriends, whose heart he knowingly broke, accuses him of being emotionally illiterate, unable to put himself in the place of ‘the other’, and having the compassion of a stone gnome he takes this as a challenge. When he receives a personal email promoting a very expensive two-day residential course ‘Empathy for Success’ he sees a way of meeting that challenge and quickly enrols.

Once inside Wandelsham Hall, he discovers, with delight, that it’s even more exclusive than he had hoped: there are only four participants. The therapist, Melvyn, will lead the participants who are Rupert, Nigel, Victor and Natasha – no surnames are shared. Natasha looks vaguely familiar to Victor, but she’s not pretty enough for him to remember who she is, even though she reeks of entitlement. 

There are two sessions a day, structured around role plays based on counselling scenarios: each participant will be, in turn, ‘the sufferer’, the counsellor and observer. 

On Saturday, Victor first plays the role of ‘sufferer’. He’s pleased with his performance but worries he’s revealed too much of himself. Natasha plays the role of counsellor; her condescension, verging on boredom, irritates him, but he bites his tongue. Later, as an observer he thinks he’s done a fine job. Natasha, the other observer, tells him his observations are trite.

On Saturday evening he dines alone. There is no sign of the others; he’s perplexed, Perhaps they couldn’t afford full board? I can, so that’s fine.

During the last session on the Sunday he is counsellor and Natasha ‘sufferer’. Her portrayal of a betrayed utterly bereft wife is superb and, alarmingly, touches a nerve, reminding Victor of how women have reacted to his behaviour toward them. Natasha screams, Help me! Victor shouts, For fuck’s sake, woman, pull yourself together, you pathetic spoilt upper class cow! I don’t blame him for shagging someone else. 

Natasha holds up her hand. Hush. Hush. It’s role-play, Victor. You’ve forgotten that and also forgotten who I am, haven’t you? I’m the wife of the minister, your boss, and, as it happens, Vanessa’s sister. 

The penny drops. Who are you people? 

Vanessa’s brother, Rupert says.

Her other brother, Nigel adds.

I’m their uncle, Melvyn says.

That’s why you weren’t at dinner? 

Natasha smiles. Yes, this is our family home. We were in our own quarters, while you were feeding your face. Vanessa’s right, you’re an utterly self-centred prick and I think I can fairly say that your career is fucked. I’ll see to that. You can go now.

I hate you privileged bastards!

That’s to be expected. Gladly you’ll never be one of us. Goodbye.


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
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© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

Emily

I went into service in a country house in Yorkshire when I was fourteen. I could read and write, and my employers, the Bellinghams, unusually, allowed me to use my limited time off to extend my education in their library. It was no Catherine Cookson novel: I worked hard and rose to become their housekeeper; learning along the way that it was best to do your job without fuss and, somehow, to be invisible.

The Bellinghams fell on hard times and they had to let me go; it almost broke my heart. Having no family of my own, I had nowhere else to be; they let me stay in one of the cottages on their estate until it was sold. Despite my excellent references it took months to find new employment with everything being done through the Royal Mail.

Finally, Arthur Broad, a widower and master gardener, employed me as his housekeeper. I was anxious as I moved into his large house as his only servant:a widower and a spinster, whatever next? Tongues wagged in the village – I didn’t care; I needed the job. We became the best of friends – I learnt how to garden and he learnt to be tidy – a miracle. He always kept a diary of his crops and a notebook for his poetry and encouraged me in these new habits. I was no longer invisible.

When he died he left me the house and his wealth. I was both sad and grateful but I also thought there must be some mistake and feared that I would once again be homeless. I was needlessly frugal; I determined to make the money I inherited last all my days. Anyway, I was too old for another job. I grew my own fruit and veg and had meat and fish once a week. I made do and mended my clothes until they looked wretched but I wasn’t going to buy new clothes at my age. My only luxuries were my television and a cream sherry on a Friday night.I lived alone for many years until my arthritis was too painful and I was no longer able to care for myself and reluctantly moved into this care home.

I should have married, had children, but, alas, it never happened. No one visits me, ever. The staff are kind, they know my name, but they don’t know me, and they never will. Despite my arthritis, I still try and write my poems, and for that I thank Arthur.

Once again invisible
I lack the nurture of company
Bereft in my high backed chair
Amidst the piped music of care
I’m quietly avoiding
The embarrassment
Of being visible
I embrace myself
For lack of others’ arms
I wait at idle leisure
For what they call passing
As if it were a game of football
Or an exam to take
To rise victorious
My own arthritic hands
Raised in Pyrrhic victory
Sitting in the waiting room
Invisible at my ending.

 


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

God

Simon is lonely, but how could he have a companion living, as he does, on the street. He uses a metal dog’s bowl for donations because he likes the sound coins make when they fall. There have been no coin sounds, so far, today; the bowl is empty. 

It’s a winter’s morning as he sits in his wheelchair in the shelter of the Stonebow arches holding a hand made sign – ‘For God’s sake’. The leafleting Jehovah Witnesses, who share the same space, ignore him – they know who God wants – and it isn’t him. They feel no need to share their vacuum-flasked tea with someone like him: in their terms a worldly failure, and, as such, deserving to be cold, hungry and a beggar. 

He is known. He’s done no harm – just an eyesore. He’s been on the street for nearly two years, sleeping rough in an NHS wheelchair. He can’t walk because of his swollen ulcerated legs; the bandages could do with being changed and the ulcers dressed. He wears a woolly hat and all the clothes he owns to keep warm. At lunchtime, a friendly PSCO brings him a hot coffee and a cheese sandwich and tells him, apologetically, that he’ll have to move on. He counts the money in his bowl; not even enough for some chips and a small bottle of vodka to keep out the cold.

By ten o’clock he’s back under the shelter of the arches, parked out of sight in a dark doorway. The High Street is noisy with young men and women out on the town. At eleven a group of five drunks arrive under the arches and one of them starts to piss. Simon, from his wheelchair, protests. 

Look what we got here, the pissing man shouts, a fucking cripple. Within seconds their laughter intensifies as the men dump Simon out of his chair and give him a good kicking. One of them gets into the chair and another pushes it as they race off into the night cheering. He crawls to the roadside – it takes him twenty-three minutes.

Two hours later he’s in A&E in another wheelchair; he’s grateful for the warmth of the welcome given to one of their regulars. It’s almost like the old days before he fell from grace, when he was respectable, had a job and a house. He’s always known that he, like everyone else, is but a hair’s breadth from the fall. But somehow he never imagined he could go this far down.

Simon sees blue flashing lights through the window and two police officers enter. 

Excuse me, Simon says, as they walk past him. Are you looking for my chair? Some lads nicked it.

They laugh. Call 101. 

I was attacked. They stole it. It’s an NHS chair.

They walk on. He hears them, their words going back and forth. 

Serves him right. 

Fucking asking for it. 

Lazy bastard, should get a fucking job. 

Who does he think he is? God?


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

Cabin Fever

Since 2008, when his property was repossessed in the midst of the subprime market crash, Bob has lived totally off-grid in a cabin in Oregon, east of Oakridge between the Willamette Highway and Hills Creek Lake. He is glad to be out of the America he has come to detest. How, in the land of the free and the brave, is abortion legal? How come blacks are so uppity? Why is buggery legal? Why wasn’t he, a civilised white man, allowed to live in comfort? How come Hispanics take all the jobs? Who allowed inter-racial marriage? And after what the Muslims did on 9/11 why are they still walking our streets? He has an answer. All these American disasters came because the USA had a President who wasn’t God’s agent. America must be redeemed.

Bob avoids contact with people and uses the seclusion of the forest to protect him from discovery. Every few months he walks into Oakridge to purchase essential supplies with his remaining cash; otherwise, he lives off what he can kill or forage. 

He isn’t lonely; after a decade of isolation his God, bible, beliefs and evolving obsession with the colour orange keep him company. He knows some people believe orange is the colour of joy and creativity. Others think orange promotes a sense of general ‘wellness’ and emotional energy. Yet others believe it may even heal a broken heart. But it is in the bible that he finds the truth that orange is the colour of fire, of wrath, of ambition and determination. He believes that orange represents the power and presence of God and to dream of forging a weapon with fire represents purification and perfection. He knows that if he has such a dream it will be an omen for the arrival of God’s agent and that he must act. He longs for such a dream. Instead, at night, in his head he hears Satan’s laughter at America’s gullibility. It makes him angry. His gun is always loaded; he is ready to fight Satan’s emissaries.

One morning he awakens from a deep sleep. He’s drenched with sweat. It has happened; he has dreamt the dream. He must leave his isolation to witness the arrival, of God’s agent, and that time is now.

Bob walks to Oakridge and sees a poster; the photograph is enough – it’s tangible proof. He hitches a ride to Eugene. At the rally at the Lane Events Convention Center people carry placards ‘Make America Great Again’ – this pleases him. 

Outside the Center police unsuccessfully try to keep supporters and their opponents apart. Fighting breaks out. 

Bob repeatedly chants, God’s Agent Orange! 

A man, next to Bob, punches him in the head. Dumb fuck – we used that to kill Charlie in ‘Nam. Fucking fascist Trump! 

Bob shouts. Agent Orange! 

Dumb fuck! Fuck Trump! 

Bob shoots the man stone dead, screaming, Agent Orange!

A single bullet from FBI agent Maloney brings Bob’s dream to an end. 

Trump doesn’t notice. 


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

Bottle of Drink

At the age of eighty-five Doria Winchester (her maiden name) is spritely. She doesn’t own a car, uses public transport, shoe leather and shank’s pony. She lives alone, having dispatched two husbands to a ‘better place’ – though in the case of the first husband, she still hopes, sixty-four years after his death, that he’ll continue ‘burning in hell with a red hot poker up his hairy arsehole’. She tends to shout when in conversation; she’s deaf. Her hair is not permed but black and close cropped. She doesn’t use cheques or credit cards but deals entirely in cash from the village post office. She thinks of herself as ‘weather-proof’, but allows she has begun to feel the cold in the winter. She has a large collection of original vinyl albums of musicals. Her favourite is ‘The Sound of Music’ that she plays, as the mood takes her, at any time of the day or night at full volume on an enormous 1950s Grundig Radiogram. 

This has not found favour with her new neighbours, Mr & Mrs Gob Shite (as she calls them) who hate Julie Andrews and who had thought that moving to a quiet country lane would be idyllic.

It’s 10.49 on a Monday morning. PCSO Popinova sits on the sofa opposite the Grundig nursing a mug of tea. Open-mouthed, she watches Doria pour a hefty dose of brandy into her mug of tea. 

Isn’t a bit early for that, Doria? PCSO Popinova asks.

If you don’t mind, I’m Ms Winchester, she replies, stirring her tea with her spectacles. 

Why are you doing that?

To mix the brandy in.

With your glasses, Doria?

I like a bottle of drink. Is it any of your business? 

It’s not normal.

A police state, is it?

No, Mrs Winchester, I’m just thinking about your welfare and being friendly.

It’s MS MS MS Winchester. No, you’re not. You’re here because the Gob Shites have complained about the sound of music. That’s quite funny – the sound of MY music. You don’t get it, do you? … No sense of humour. 

What are gob shites? Your neighbours are going to court to stop you playing the Sound of Music. You’re in trouble, Ms Winchester.

Good girl, you got there in the end. Doria pours more brandy into her mug. A gob shite is a shite who speaks shite from their gob.

That’s disgusting.

Ain’t that the truth? So … if I play South Pacific, Oklahoma or Oliver, I’m fine? Doria laughs.

No, Ms Winchester. Playing music loud in the middle of the night is out. They’ve had enough.

And what makes you think I haven’t?

What do you mean?

Doria goes to the telephone answer machine and presses play.

A man shouts. You fuckin’ wogs are all the same. Black cow! We’ll fuckin’ drive you niggers out.

Doria presses stop. I have two hours worth of this shite, officer.

That’s evidence of racism.

Yes, from racist Gob Shites. Please tell them I’ll see them in court.


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

Barking Mad

Poe is asleep and dreaming.

A telephone bell rings in the large hall of an Edwardian house. As Poe picks up the black Bakelite handset electric light casts his shadow on the faded vermillion wall behind him. With the receiver against his ear he hears an incomprehensible voice distantly babbling from somewhere unfathomable. What are you trying to say? Poe asks. 

The babble continues. Poe slams the handset back in the cradle as a Westminster doorbell chimes. He opens the front door. An elderly man, gallows white, stands shaking in a roaring wind. Dad is that you? Poe asks. The man’s ragged Harris Tweed overcoat flaps, cracking in the gale to reveal blue and pink striped winceyette pyjama bottoms held up with a length of sisal. His chest is a dense jungle of curly jet-black hair and his metre length Rasta beard whips and lashes all about him in the storm. He opens his mouth to speak; his lips move in silent slow motion. An elderly woman bursts out from the open flies of the old man’s flapping pyjama trousers as the wind whisks him away into the night. 

The woman is no more than four feet tall with fiercely permed white hair, brown eyes, rouged cheeks and bright red lipstick. A fluffy caramel coloured, poodle-like knitted coat reaches down to her tiny shiny brown court shoes. She smells of paper and frantically chatters like toy clockwork teeth. 

A small, white, barking dog, a Westie, scurries into the hall past the old woman who enters, and tries, but fails to slam the door behind her as a pack of barking Westies rush into the hall. The hall shudders. The front door bangs incessantly in the wind. The dogs bark.

As Poe struggles to shut the door against the wind another elderly woman, identical to the first, appears. Another materialises, identical to her predecessors. The woman duplicates. Replicates. Now there are five of them. The old women keep reproducing until the hall is full of them, their deafening chatter, and the barking dogs; the front door is invisible through the raucous throng. 

They all smell of paper. Paper? How can that be? Terrified, Poe struggles for breath as he seeks to escape. 

A sudden silence. Poe is alone in the hall. 

The front door is now a red telephone box and within it a telephone rings. Poe enters the box, picks up the Bakelite handset and dials 999.

Poe awakens. Stares.

An elderly woman, carrying a Westie, stands at the end of his bed. She taps it on the end of its nose. Bad boy, your barking just has to stop. Look, now you’ve woken Poe.

Mum, what are you doing in my bedroom? 

You were having another of your night terrors.

Why do you smell of paper?

You’ve forgotten, haven’t you, Poe? It’s the dog, love. It’s not me. It’s Arkwright. It’s not paper you can smell – he’s stuffed.

As his mother’s carer, he thinks, That’s two of us.


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

White Chairs

The white waiting room chairs in A&E are bolted together in sets of five or ten, in lines. They are no longer new, nor are they comfortable, and have a 1970’s Habitat look with round holes in the metal seats and backs. Some chairs carry word-processed notices: Please don’t sit on me I’m broken. There is no irony in this, nor is it a metaphor, it’s merely a statement of fact. 

 During the day the chairs that are not broken are always fully occupied. Often, when there are no vacant chairs, patients lean on the walls, sit on the floor or loiter outside for a chat or a fag.

At night, this A&E is closed. In the dark, unanswered telephones monotonously ring and ring, sick with tinnitus. No people suffer. No people are in pain. No parents panic. There is no blood. All is spick and span. No doctors fight to save lives. No nurses tend the ill with compassion and care. No one gasps for air. No broken bones needing repair. Sounds echo from far off-stage, safety lights faintly glimmer – a theatre without a play. 

The noise of an electric floor-polishing machine grows as Janita pushes it into the waiting room. As she polishes, she sings to the white chairs as if she wants to cheer them up from their loneliness, All you need is love, love, Love is all you need. She looks out through the windows.

Heavy rain falls in sheets through the radiance of high car park lights. A car skids to a halt. A middle-aged man leaps out, opens the rear door of the car and helps an old lady out. He protects her with his coat and helps her stagger to the doors. He rattles them. On the inside, Janita tries to let them in. Outside, the man pounds the doors with his fists and shouts, It’s my mother. Janita shakes her head, there is no way in. She shouts, Try the main doors, and points in their direction, Round there, round there. She stares at the car, the driver’s door is still open. She waits. 

Rain falls. The man and his mother return to the car. He helps her in. The car drives away. Janita, unable to sing, weeps as she continues to polish the floor.

In the deserted car park, Austerity, the Grim Reaper, watches.


I hope you enjoyed this story.  Remember, I publish a new story every Sunday.
Please feel free to pass them on to others you know who may be interested.
You can read previous stories from “Behind the Plague Door” here >>>More

© Phil Cosker 2020
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.


 

Saul Bellow ‘Herzog’

Herzog

I’ve been reading Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ (1964) and it’s given me pause for thought, not least because the intensity of the writing is overwhelming; the way Bellow works with the conjunction of improbable partners in misunderstanding and even (imagined?) malice reveals the plight of the creative mind. His prose is aggressive, sharp, staccato daggers as they pierce me with the uncertainty, challenge of life, but tempered, still softened, made conditional, by the salve of familial memory, love, and Moses’ Father Herzog.

And also pause for thought because it has made me, yet again, think about what I write and how I find the ‘right’ form to do that.

The constant commentary provided by the ‘letters’ Herzog writes captures the duality of writing one thing at exactly the same time as thinking about something quite else, of being something, or somewhere, else, evidencing the struggle of setting down the complexity of inner and public life in words, and not, moving images.

And he’s funny! But it’s funny that’s humourless;  the bone jolted in your elbow; the ‘humour’ engendered by the latest pogrom – but still funny!

Though it’s a book of its time it feels, somehow, like a work from the nineteenth century  set in the twentieth in the USA and not Europe in the ghetto (where it actually feels it’s set) from which it stems. Where does success, self worth, achievement and respect exist?

Bellow, aka Herzog (?), is erudite to a fault. Amidst the ‘academic’ arguments, the endless dropping of names that give Herzog purpose, validity, authenticity, everything, so that every memory and thought and plan collides with every other idea in spontaneous combustion as smoke and flames burst from the page leaving me exhausted and astounded hiding from the heat.

The personal becomes universally crucially relevant so that Herzog’s dilemmas are those  we all face in trying to make sense of one existential crisis after another whilst, in Herzog’s case, inflicting yet another upon oneself until the finale.

He asks. Am I this? Am I that? Is it me? Is it her? Is it? Is it real? Is it? What? What is my life? What is the point? What am I? Herzog bellows!

His life unravels, as it must, a tragedy, and it made me weep. Inevitability. Loss. But, also hope. That we, readers, may … do what?

What a writer – that isn’t interrogative (as he might say) but a statement of fact.

When I am, once again, ready, I shall read this book again – unhurriedly, ignoring plot, sustained by the joy of Bellow’s writing, laughing, frustrated, delighted and inspired. That’ll do for me.

News from somewhere

Things have changed.

In a conscious attempt to make it more interesting and provide better navigation – aye, aye Captain! said the gnome. The website now:

  • Is up to date
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  • Includes a new piece of writing on Cormac McCarthy
  • Includes information about what I’m up to
  • And much more…

Come have a look at what’s available now. You can follow me using the blue “follow Phil Cosker” button on the homepage (on the right, just under the picture).