Manual mode, by anthony  López Get

For those who can afford it, there’s a whole new market of fancy devices that connect to your phone or smart watch and register your breathing patterns, send you alarms, remind you to refill your oxygen tank, locate the nearest Oxygen Station, alert your emergency contacts if you collapse; they got you covered. Martha knows them very well. She was moved to the smart respirator department six months ago and has been selling them ever since.

anthony López Get

Martha removes her oxygen mask to sip her coffee and lets the bitter taste fill her with pleasure. It has been a while since they closed all hospitality venues due to the emergency, but now that everything is going back to some normality, she will make sure she enjoys every instant of it; she is even trying, with some difficulty, to take the otherwise annoying and now ubiquitous sound of the pumps around her as just “friendly reminders” of the current situation, rather than as bad omens. At least they are mostly indoors, for now, but she knows they soon will be everywhere. It’ll become part of the background eventually, she tries to reassure herself but without much conviction.

What amuses her is people’s creativity when it comes to customising their personal masks. Next to her table, a bloke is wearing one with the tubes painted and arranged to resemble Dalí’s moustache; yesterday, she saw one in the style of Mad Max’s Immortal Joe, with the teeth and the big corrugated tubes, and there are of course tons inspired by Star Wars, Batman, and many others. Even her husband Dave made a Cthulu mask, with tentacles and all. She thought about doing an Alien theme on hers, but she is a bit concerned her boss will not appreciate her sense of humour if she shows up to the office with a juvenile xenomorph wrapped around her face; I need to get me a spare mask ASAP, she reminds herself, or find me a new job; that second part has proved the harder, though.

As the air leaves her lungs, she is forced to focus on her breathing, being mindful of the process, in-out, in-out, in-out until she gets her rhythm back. It is so easy to get distracted, but she doesn’t want to spoil this lovely cup of Costa Rican beans brewed into liquid perfection by taking the mask on and off all the time. Her dad would’ve loved this coffee. He was a connoisseur, and he taught her, or cursed her somehow, as she became intolerant to anything cheap or poorly executed. Dave, on the other hand, was hopeless. For years, she battled with his daily transgressions; how dare he spoiling her gourmet coffee with kilos of sugar and milk! Outside, another person collapses on the pavement. It’s a man, in his late thirties, maybe early forties. The woman at the flower stall runs to him with a manual pump, like the ones used by paramedics. She has aided at least seven people in the past thirty minutes, bless her. The man recovers consciousness, sits down for a few minutes and then walks on, not before thanking the lady for her help.

It’ll take a while for people to get the hold of it, she thinks, it takes some getting used to new things. Like the sound, phughhhh hhhaaaa, phughhhh hhhaaaa, all around you, so artificial, like white noise but so dark, so enveloping, so surrounding, so there. Martha hates the sound. She read some Unis are working on cheap and quieter portable models. That would be great. Specially at night. It’s difficult enough to put your mind at ease when you risk suffocating in your sleep, to add that annoying beat with its perfect tempo. During the day it’s just there for the fainters, and the children, in restaurants and public transportation, and of course it’s mandatory for drivers and those operating heavy machinery, health workers and those in jobs that require a lot of concentration. For those who can afford it, there’s a whole new market of fancy devices that connect to your phone or smart watch and register your breathing patterns, send you alarms, remind you to refill your oxygen tank, locate the nearest Oxygen Station, alert your emergency contacts if you collapse; they got you covered. Martha knows them very well. She was moved to the smart respirator department six months ago and has been selling them ever since. But at two thousand quid apiece for the cheapest model, Martha must stick to her noisy and bulky NHS model for home, or the public ones in shops and stations. For the rest, there are signs everywhere, on the pavement and on toilet walls, on classrooms and shops, so that people won’t forget while doing something else. Some people cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, a joke Martha has made all her life but that now is full of significance. It seems the plan of the government is to train people on how to live in manual mode, without external aid, at least while awake, but so far it doesn’t look promising. 

She takes another sip of her coffee and reviews her plans for the day: first a little walk around the Minster, then to the chippy for a nice meal, and finally the pub. She has been drooling for a pint of Plum Porter and perhaps a nice IPA. Having beer at home is never the same. She wants the pub, the smell of the old, sticky carpet, the conversation, the cheap pint glass, the full experience. She will meet Gareth and Pablo there. It feels like ages since they went out together the last time. It will be nice seeing them, the gang minus one. They will remember Sue, of course, with a toast and a few shots of her favourite tequila. She wants to hug Gareth with all her strength, and to comfort him for his own loss, although it happened months ago, and it might feel way too late now. And they will want to comfort her, for sure; they know what she’s been through. They will cry together at some point, but she hopes there will be more laughter than tears tonight. There have been too many tears already.

Martha unplugs her mask from the pump at her table and leaves the tea-room. At the door, she stops to take a deep breath before heading to the Minster. The timing couldn’t be better for a reopening. Spring is coming, the sun is shining and a couple of degrees up make a difference. As she walks through the narrow streets of York, with the taste of coffee lingering in her mouth, she thinks about all the things she misses – not the people, but the things, the activities, places, food and drinks – and cannot help but feel shallow and privileged. Yes, people have lost everything, jobs and loved ones, millions have died around the world, most in their sleep; she has lost people too, her dad, her friend Sue, and Dave; she has mourned them; it still hurts, but in her immediate reality, in the right here, right now, in spite of her own need for affection and company, more than anything, she wants to enjoy that coffee, and the pub, and a nice beer, and breathing, yes, breathing; such a disregarded process, so underrated and taken for granted until the automatic mode is shut off.

Anthony López Get is an associate professor of English Literature and Language at University of Costa Rica. In 2018, he moved to Lancaster, UK while his wife does a PhD in English Literature. This break from work has given him the opportunity to explore more creative forms of writing beyond academic articles and books. He has been experimenting with poetry, short fiction, short plays and monologues, both in Spanish (his mother tongue) and English. In 2019, he was shortlisted for both the Pint Size Plays Competition and the The Lancaster One Minute Monologue Competition.

Picture credits: Michael Mauger.