Fiction

The blood bank: a love story

The city streets were empty except for a few homeless, an empty tram gliding by like a ghost ship and a busker working in the mall. He wailed a suitably sorrowful Hank Williams standard. I was on my way to the blood bank.

Earlier that morning the prime minister had announced that “difficult times call for heroes, heroes in the spirit of the Anzacs”. I’d never been a hero and no one in my family had been to war, so my chances of stepping up for the nation were slim, although providing half a litre of blood to the Red Cross did offer an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Walking through the mall I noticed a homeless man wearing an expensive suit sitting outside a locked and bolted department store. I dropped a $1 coin in a cap at his feet.

“Do you have a cigarette to go with the coin, by any chance?” he asked.

I’d quit smoking six months earlier. “Sorry, I don’t.”

“Would you like one?” He pulled two bent cigarettes and a box of matches from a pocket. The thought of smoking was suddenly appealing, as was the chance for a few minutes of chat with a stranger. He introduced himself as Rex, lit both cigarettes and passed one to me.

“That’s a nice suit, Rex,” I offered.

“Yeah. Some city accountant fleeing to the coast gave it to me.” He scratched his bare chest. “I’d kill for a shirt to match it.”

“And a tie?” I offered.

“Yeah. A silk tie with flowers on it.”

Rex had a handwritten sign in his lap, telling a brief story of woe:

Please Help – I need to get to Queensland – I have sick children waiting for me

I opened my wallet and dropped a $5 note in the cap. “How many kids do you have, Rex?”

He took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette and contemplated the question. “I don’t have any kids, mate.”

“Your sign says you have sick children in Queensland.”

He studied the sign, as if noticing it for the first time. “I’ve never set foot in Queensland. Been single all my life. Take a look at me. No woman would have me.”

I looked down at my $5 note. “Isn’t this robbery? Deception?”

Rex threw his head back. “Of course it’s not. I’m doing good by the community with this story.”

I took a drag of my cigarette. “How’s that work?”

“Well, just now, you gave me a dollar. Then you saw my little sign and you dropped another five. Why’d you do that?”

“Because I felt sorry for you.”

“Right!” he said, clapping his hands together. “And if I hadn’t said a word just now, confessed to you, you’d have walked away feeling good about yourself. Good money for a good cause. That sort of shit. And I’d have a fiver in my pocket.” He winked at me. “That’s a win-win, son.”

I scratched my head, trying to make sense of his remarks.

“Where you off to?” he asked.

“To the Red Cross.”

“Oh, good lad. I offered my blood one time, thought there might be money in it. Turns out they were only offering a cheese sandwich for a pint. Didn’t seem a fair trade. They knocked me back anyway. I don’t reckon my blood could save the life of a street rat. You look fit and healthy; they’ll fancy your blood. The nurse will likely suck it straight out of your jugular with her fangs. That will be two good deeds in one day for you. You’ll be beside yourself with joy tonight.”

 

In the foyer of the blood bank, I was handed an iPad by a nurse and instructed to answer a series of questions, “yes or no answers only”. The first questions related to my health, the illnesses and diseases I’d never experienced, followed by the exotic countries I’d never visited, the tattoos and piercings I’d never had and the cocktail of illicit drugs I managed to avoid throughout my life. The final questions referenced my sexual history, including information about sex with other men, anal sex and “vigorous” sex with sex workers. I completed the form and scrolled through my responses. I’d answered “no” 42 times for each of the 42 questions.

A nurse guided me to a cubicle to verify my answers. By the time we reached question 42, even she was bored. “Have you given blood before?” she asked.

“This will be my first time.”

“Then this might be exciting for you,” she sighed. “I promise not to hurt.”

Soon, I was looking down at my bare arm. A needle inserted in a vein delivered blood through a clear tube into a plastic bag.

In the recovery room a woman, most likely a little younger than me, sat at a table drinking coffee from a mug. She was eating a muffin.

“There are no sausage rolls,” she said.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“The warmer on the shelf, it’s on the blink. There’s no pies, pasties or sausage rolls. If I’d known, I would have waited until they’d fixed it.”

I made a cup of tea and sat at the next table. “Is this your first time here?” I asked.

“God, no,” she said. “I’ve been donating for years.” She pointed to a badge on the lapel of her cardigan. “My lifetime achievement badge. I wouldn’t know the number of lives that I’ve personally saved.” She closed her eyes and appeared to be doing a mental calculation. “It must be in the hundreds.”

She flicked her fringe of hair away from her face in a way that, to my surprise, quickened my pulse.

“You’re a real hero,” I said, without knowing why.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” she smiled. “But I wouldn’t be one to boast about it. We need to think of each other, work together as a community and think of others at this terrible time. Compassion. It’s all we have.”

I was desperate to continue the conversation but didn’t know what to say.

“How are the muffins?” I asked.

She looked at hers with disdain. “Stale.”

We sat quietly looking up at a television screen on the wall. A woman had been caught stealing roast chickens from a food bank set aside for the needy. She was being escorted into a police station, her face covered with a jacket, hiding from an angry crowd hurling abuse.

“Should cut her hands off,” my blood bank companion offered.

“I beg your pardon?”

She took a gouge out of her stale muffin. “Stealing during a crisis like this. I’d cut both her hands off and give her life in prison.”

“Really?”

“No, not really,” she laughed. “Just one hand would do.”

She stood up. “Have you finished your tea?”

I looked into the bottom of an empty cup. “Yes.”

She again flicked her hair from her face. “Maybe we could head out together. Go for a stroll. See where a walk takes us.”

I thought I’d answered “no” enough times for one day.

She took my hand.

“What about distancing?” I asked.

“Don’t you worry about that. We can get inventive with that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "The blood bank: a love story".

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Tony Birch is a Melbourne-based writer. His most recent novel is The White Girl.