Since your last donation, have you been sexually active in Africa? Had malaria or any unexplained fever? A tooth taken out in the last seven days? Body piercings?
I know it well, this form, the questions printed in red, white and black, but a few still puzzle. Have you or any family member come into contact with CJD? Mad cows? No idea. Visited Papua New Guinea? Why there?
I have, however, attended sessions in community centres and halls. Town, church, school.The Friends’ House on the Euston Road, the Freemason’s HQ in Holborn, the United Synagogue in Hendon.
My blood is very common. It will mix with almost anyone’s. Elvis had it; so did Al Capone. Prince Charles has it. Unexpected intimacies. In the Stone Age, everyone had it. I like this link with the deep past; have always been fond of Neanderthals.
Today, in a new January, the red and white vans are parked outside the local football club house. Inside, the nurse has her own form. These questions are less exciting. Name, address, date of birth? A regular donor, health permitting, can go on for years. And so to settle into a deep reclining chair – cool, plastic, a bit like a bucket – and roll up my sleeve. No talent required. No sweat or tears. Blood must be one of the simplest parts of the self to give away; soon, it will replace itself. What is taken from here will be transported in the vans and stored. Shelf life, limited. Final destination, persons and places unknown.
Near me, in another bucket, is a young city type with a ponytail using his phone with his free hand. Nearer still is a Joan Collins look-alike. Her nails painted red, a high-gloss scarlet, she is flexing her fingers, crossing and uncrossing her legs, keeping the circulation going. Her blood group must be more glamorous than mine – rare and rich in champagne and HRT. She too will remember when there were toys to play with, to aid the flow from arm to bottle beneath high leather couches – like wooden ‘pins’ to roll in our palms or multi-coloured balls to squeeze, everyone’s favourites.
It’s time for the tea and biscuits. I only eat chocolate bourbons and custard creams three times a year, on days like these. We sit at the same table, but no one says much. The city type’s going mad with his phone. Joan has gone. We know the Rules for the rest of the day.No operating serious machinery. Tractor, crane or train. No heavy lifting. No extreme sport.
Leave the building, a Penguin in my pocket, feeling lighter, freer, paler, more interesting. Useful. The only dangerous moment comes from a very large, unlicensed man in a mobility scooter heading fast in my direction, in the centre of the pavement. A flash of anger – it’s my path too! Then step aside.
It’s late afternoon. Now for the nearest supermarket and some real food. I am Waitrose, but this is a huge hangar of a place: Tesco Extra. Wear my red and white sticker with pride. Be nice to me, it says, I did something good today! No one notices but it’s all right, because I’ve spotted a bargain for my basket. A creamy cashmere sweater, much reduced. Perfect for the Old Girls’ lunch next week.
A man at the exit is collecting for a heart charity. He’s often there, giving his afternoon. A slight shake of a red tin, a faint clink of coins. Smile back. After all, we could be related. Blood cousins…
A short walk home. Put the shopping away, the use-by dates at the front of the fridge. Make a meal, watch something on Catch-up. A few more things to do before I sleep. A call to make, a message to send. Make-up to remove. Downstairs, two doors to lock; upstairs, a window to open.
The quiet in the house is wide, deep and lovely. The future lies ahead.