Touched by a Poet by Bruce Costello

An emotionally vacant obstetrician in Soviet Russia seeks solace in the downbeat poetry of Mikhail Lermontov; by Bruce Costello.

His last patient's presence lingered in the room, along with the body odour of her druggie partner.

The state should not permit such people to breed, thought Dr Zhukovsky. One more woman to see, then lunch.

His receptionist entered. "Your next appointment's had her bus money stolen and can't get here. You should take the rest of the morning off, comrade." She attempted a smile. "You are reciting tonight at your Mikhail Lermontov Poetry Circle, remember. And you don't look well."

"I feel perfectly healthy," Dr Zhukovsky snapped.

He opened his newspaper, scanned the headlines, all lies, and closed his eyes.

He thought of his wife with her downturned lips, reading romances, yearning for goodness knows what, while isolating herself behind angry tears.

You are the problem, she says. You, the great doctor, you know everything but you feel nothing!

The door opened. The receptionist's head appeared. "A woman on the phone says she hasn't peed for twelve hours and she's getting sore. Should I make an urgent appointment?"

"Please. Ask her to come straight in."

The summer sun was high in the Moscow sky. The air conditioning had failed again. The surgery was stifling.

It was true what his wife said. He felt nothing. He was a man with no remaining love or libido, no sustaining fantasies or uplifting illusions, no elevating romantic ideals.

He took a vodka bottle from a filing cabinet, poured a glass and drank. He leaned back in his chair, looking at the ceiling.

Love, what is love? A trick of biology, testosterone in drag, an obsession with going back into a female part like the one you came out of.

And the life of an obstetrician is nothing but an endless parade of pregnancies, troubled mothers and ailing babies, flesh, blood and bone.

He shook himself, wiped his brow with his sleeve, and took a book from a shelf beside his desk. It was 'The Collected Poems of Mikhail Lermontov.' He opened the book at random.

"I am bored and sad and there's no one to give my hand to when my soul is in anguish," Dr Zhukovsky recited, then fell silent as he absorbed the rest of the poem, lips still moving.

There was a strange look on his face. His fingers tapped against the arms of the chair.

Ditto, my friend. Youth, ideals and desire, vanished, as if they'd never been. All that remains is tedium and loneliness. The years slip away, the best years. Nothing left is worth yearning for, not even love. Forever is impossible and anything less not worth the effort. And when you look around, you see life's nothing but an empty, stupid jest.

He poured another vodka and gulped. A door opened in his mind and a tall figure stood there, dressed in the uniform of an officer of the Imperial Guards, red tunic with gold braid and white breeches, a sword at his side.

"Greetings, Sir. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Mikhail Lermontov."

His eyes were warm and alive.

"You are a doctor of Soviet Russia and I am a soldier poet of Imperial Russia. But we are brothers."

He extended his hand. "Prose is a tool that people use to hide their feelings. Only poetry reveals to each other how we feel."

The doctor looked at the soldier and saw himself. He reached out and took his hand. It was warm, and enveloped the doctor's soul like a fur glove.

Mikhail smiled. "You and I, at heart we are both poets," he murmured, saluted and departed.

The doctor gazed straight ahead for several minutes, eyes bright and blinking, lips smiling. The receptionist knocked loudly and entered. Her face seemed blurred.

"The pee problem has arrived."

Dr Zhukovsky beamed. She stared, leaned towards him, sniffed and stepped back.

"I'll see her immediately," said the doctor, brightly. "By the way, my dear, did you notice the person who just left?"


"A soldier in a red tunic and white breeches, with a sword."

"No, I didn't, comrade," she replied, without expression, but there was a gleam in her eye as she turned away.

When the patient failed to come through after five minutes, the doctor walked into reception to see what was causing the delay. His receptionist was whispering into the phone.

The patient was not in the waiting area and nowhere to be found. Dr Zhukovsky returned to his room, puzzled. Nothing seemed to be making much sense. But he was still smiling.

The poet's touch lingered long after the police came to take the doctor away, and even in the padded cell he did not feel alone.

A man cannot begin to blossom, he reflected later, soberly, until he has felt understood and accepted by at least one other living person, even if that person is a soldier who is alive only through the poetry he bequeathed to the world.

In the cell there was no paper and no pencil, and nowhere to sit to write poetry, except on the bucket. Dr Zhukovsky seated himself as comfortably as he could, closed his eyes and began.


  1. Nicely written. I enjoyed the read.

  2. very clever Story, something to think about!

    Michael McCarthy

  3. Oh gosh, you had me at the line : he scanned the headlines, all lies, and closed his eyes.
    That's exactly what happens whenever I attempt to read the news.
    So many other brilliant lines. The same way he felt about the poet is how I feel about an author, a man who's books made me realise that I was not alone. The ending wasn't what I expected but I like it.

    Ethan Regal
    Well done.

  4. Imagine being locked up without being able to write.

  5. I wish Lermontov's ghost would visit me. The broken air-con in Soviet Moscow summer was a nice touch.