Merchant of Breath

Location,location, location, my old man used to say. When super-storm Zelda swept through a few weeks ago the community safety bunker flooded and it’s going to be another month or more before it’s useable again. As soon as warnings came in for super-storm Archangel, I locked down the house, packed up my family and started the thirty mile trek to the nearest major public bunker, just like everyone else.

“Aw, Dad, just wanna stay…”

No, just no. “It’s not safe, Paul. Get your backpack on.”

Sheila is better at saying no than I am, but she was busy with Paul’s baby brothers. Perhaps one day soon he’ll get over perfecting sibling resentment.

“Be all right down in the shelter.”

“That’s what Mr Hawkins said, remember?”

Paul settled his pack and sulked.

We have our own bunker for ordinary storms, but Nick Hawkins was the last man crazy enough to try to ride out one of the big ones in a domestic shelter. Super-storm Wilderbeast got him when it flooded his air filters. Everyone worries about the wind speeds and property damage, but when you’re hiding underground, close to the coast, and the air is full of sea-spray and rain, you need really fantastic air-con.

We caught the number nine evac bus, me, Sheila, our three boys, my brother Henry and his family, Aunt Edith, Nana May and a couple of cousins.

“Aw, Dad, bus smells funny.”

“Yes, it does.” Damp, mould, vomit and something akin to pig manure. “Safer than driving, though.”

We reached the bunker a good half a day ahead of the storm, because nobody wants to be trying to cram themselves in at the last minute. Even so, the queue from the bus terminus to the outer gates was long.

“Raleigh family… yeah, yeah, we got you… shaft two, level eight, room thirty.” A guy in hi-vis rain gear checked his clipboard. “Any medical issues? Heart or lung conditions? No oxygen cylinders on the wheelchair, right?”

“No. I mean Nana May struggles with her chest a bit, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, fine, just don’t want gas cylinders in there. Oxygen is dangerous stuff. Needs supervision for safe handling. Right, on you go.” He pointed to a queue. “About a ten minute wait time.”

This is why no one wants to be there at the last minute.

“We got a room,” Paul announced loudly. “We got a room.”

“Sort of.” I checked Aunt Edith was OK in her wheelchair. Nana May gave me a thumbs up even though she was turning blue, and the rest of the family clustered around to shield them from the wind. “Going to be sharing.”

“Sharing? Don’t like sharing.”

“No choice, Paul. It’s just like the community bunker. There isn’t enough room for everyone to have their own space.”

“Don’t like the ‘munity bunker.”

“It’s going to be fine, Paul. A big adventure.”

Paul sulked again. I expect in the good old days, before the super-storms, there would have been time for counselling to help him get over this.

“See. At the doors already.” Where it was even more crowded as people pushed to get inside and under cover. “Be at the lifts in no-time.”

The lifts were not working, so cousin John and I had to carry Aunt Edith down the stairs. My brother Henry brought her wheelchair whilst Nana May kept pace, wheezing with every step. One of the stewards found us a place to unfold the wheelchair and we joined fifty or more people in a dorm room designed for thirty.

“Smells funny,” Paul decided.

“Yeah, I suppose, now stay close to Mum.”

Henry and I got Aunt Edith settled, Nana May sat next to her on a folding chair, and before I knew it, the pair of them had spotted an old friend and were deep in gossip.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Need any oxy, mate?” A skinny, bearded guy gave me a friendly smile. He hefted an old polypropylene sack that had probably once been white, packed with gas cylinders that had also once been white. “Two hundred litres, prime oxy, a hundred quid each. Get a good twelve hours out of that if you sit nice and still and keep the flow-rate down low. Thirty quid deposit on the cylinders.”

“No, thanks…”

“You sure, mate? Got a couple of oldies there. Bunker’s running at thirty percent over capacity. Maybe the filters are up for it, maybe not. Got four cylinders left. Sure you don’t need any? Amazing how fast those oldies can start to struggle when the air gets a bit thick.”

Aunt Edith was probably fine – good lungs and bad legs – but Nana May does struggle sometimes. Last time we hid in the community bunker for a smaller storm, she had to be right up close to where the aircon came in. I think some of that’s in her head, but her lungs aren’t great.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Yeah, mate, no problem. Gonna be around a while. You need me, ask for Foxy the Oxy.”

“Wait, the guy at the top… he said gas cylinders need to be supervised, or something.”

“Mate, you got to decide. You going to follow the rules, or you going to get out of here with you and yours all still breathing. Just remember, Foxy the Oxy, and keep it down, right? Don’t want some supervisor telling you what you’re allowed to breathe.”

“What’s oxy, Dad?” Paul asked.

“Something in the air we need to breathe.”

“Plenty air.” Paul sniffed. “Smells funny. Is that the oxy?”

“No, that’s just people. You go sit with Nana.”

I went and caught up with Foxy and bought a cylinder.

“Just keep it out of sight, mate,” he warned me. “Don’t want to get fined. I’ll be outside when it’s all over. Collect the cylinder. Return your deposit.”

I took my sweatshirt off and wrapped it around the battered cylinder. When I got back to the family again, I tucked it out of sight under the wheelchair, but Sheila spotted me.


“In case Nana needs it. She’s still looking a bit…”

I was interrupted by a sudden commotion just outside the door, and everyone hushed to listen to a loud and angry voice.

“Gotcha, Foxy, you little devil… oxy cylinders again… how many have you sold?”

“Sold? Sold? Personal use, mate.”

“OK, Foxy, you are under arrest on suspicion of bringing a hazardous item into a controlled public space…”

“Close your mouth and breathe,” Sheila told me. “And when we leave, that cylinder stays behind. Out of sight.”

That made sense. “What about the deposit?”

“Seriously?” Sheila gave me the look. “The bloke with the deposit just got arrested.”

“Right. Yes. Got it.”

“Now breathe normally. And stop drawing attention.”

It’s amazingly hard to breathe normally when I know I’ve messed up and the evidence is wrapped in my sweatshirt under Aunt Edith’s wheelchair. Especially when Paul is ferreting around under there and likely to haul out an illicit oxygen cylinder at any moment.

“Come sit with me and Nana,” I told him.

The super-storms was due to pass in a day and a half, two days tops. That’s a long time to try to breathe normally when every breath reminds me that I bought an oxygen cylinder off a dodgy bloke inside a public bunker. Any moment now, Paul is going to start asking me about oxy again, and what it’s for.

As Sheila will tell you, I’m the sort of bloke that will buy a three-legged donkey from a dodgy salesman.

“Hey. Paul. Settle down, son. Did I ever tell you about the donkey I didn’t buy?”

# # #

This was written in response to the February #BlogBattle prompt of Merchant.

Pictures from


13 thoughts on “Merchant of Breath”

  1. An unexpected change of tack there Mark. Flows well so is it something you’ve got experience with or was google your friend 🤣

    Nice flow with overtones of the danger of storms when folk ignore the warnings… or habituate to constant media hype and then get hit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amazingly, that was 99% off the top of my head and the only thing I went to google for was a rough feel for the size of a medical oxygen cylinder. (In the end I downgraded a bulk-standard BOC 300l cylinder and, bluntly, Foxy was lying when he said how long it would last 🙂 )

      Really the biggest challenge was going from “Merchant, what can I do with that? Merchant of Death, no way, far too obvious and tacky…. oooh… Merchant of Breath… I like that…” to actually writing the story. The week or more between finding a title and writing the story gave it time to mature in my head. Or at least get grubby and grow some mould so it looks like it’s mature.


  2. This reminded me of when last year a hurricane was barreling toward us and I was considering going to a shelter. I dreaded being in a bunker with a million strangers. I consulted the list of items you could and could not bring and then wondered if people really adhered to that. Solid story!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The mention at the beginning how the community ‘safety’ bunker flooded in a previous storm was a great setup for what followed. One of the constants in the universe is government bureaucracy, and all their shortcomings rang absolutely true. Foxy was a colorful character, and the part where he peddles his wares with an implied ‘buy this, or some of your family will die’ also rang true as a devious method. It does seem that Paul has a nose for trouble!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂
      I did spend a number of years working for the government, where it could cost £70 to raise an order for something that cost £10. And, of course, when you hear on the news that “government experts say that…” I was one of those experts, so I tend not to trust government experts…

      I fear I may have concentrated a lot of my accumulated cynicism into this story.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The theme which struck me was that against the fearful power of a superstorm is set the fatalistic adaptability of Humanity, even to trying to make a coin or two.
    Somehow despite all the pressures they keeping on, even the narrator’s dodgy purchase is handled with quiet exasperation by his wife.
    A most interesting story, quite a different take on the usual Apocalypse narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been scratching my head as to where the inspiration came from on this one.

      I mean, we had covid lockdown… we live on the edge of nowhere, a postcode with a dozen houses spread along a mile and a half and the cattle outnumber the people. We almost didn’t notice lockdown.

      Super-storms… well, we are within being-spat-on distance of the Atlantic, and it can rain enough to overwhelm the gutters, but really, that’s just life around here.
      As for making a coin or two, well there’s plenty of that around here… except for when people just turn out and pitch in because help is needed.

      OK, so my inspiration is all the things that haven’t happened to us here. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        1. We’re in North Cornwall – one of those odd little accidents where we were intending to house-hunt down Falmouth way, and didn’t quite get that far. 🙂
          Now, the plan is to stay here until we’re carried out feet-first.

          Liked by 1 person

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