Community Service

Matt Mulcahy, copyright 1994

She lay on the cot, staring at the fibres within the page of the book she was supposedly reading. Cot? No, that was a place where infants slept, or wailed, or whatever it was that infants did. Stretcher? No, that was a place where the sick or dying or just plain dead people lay upon, being jostled by well meaning but overly anxious ambulance officers. Bed? No, a bed was a place where one slept, or dozed, or dreamt, or was made love to, but a bed was not what she was lying on. A fold up bunk. A fold up bunk had just the right sense of improvisation, of practicality, that described the unlikely piece of furniture on which she lay.

So there she was, lying on the fold up bunk, trying desperately to concentrate on the book that she had brought along. In retrospect it was a bad decision. Not the bringing of a book, but the choice of book. It was large and cumbersome, an omnibus edition. A hardcover, the spine was missing, and it was only by strategically placing all of the fingers on her left hand around the volume that she could hold it at a readable angle without straining her neck. Not the sort of book that prompted reading while incapacitated. Not that she was incapacitated, but she felt like it as she lay unmoving upon the unyielding, yet soft, bunk. As much as she knew that it was simply bad planning, she also knew that she wouldn't learn from her mistake. She would just keep on picking up whatever book she was reading at the time, whenever a book was needed for another such occasion. She could, of course, only read light, paperback, books once every three months, but then there was also a danger of her getting too interested and finishing the book too early, leaving her in an even worse predicament: having nothing to read. She could also set aside such a book to read, every trip. However, she knew that what she wanted was something into which she could immediately dive, to take her mind off other things (such as the nurse with the beaming smile, who despite the paternal facade, persisted in sticking sharp, evil looking lengths of metal into one's arm). She did not want to be starting a new book. Alternatively, she could pick up a magazine as she left the house, perhaps one of the glossy ones that came with the weekend papers that she enjoyed reading for no particular reason at all. No, they are too flimsy, too hard to keep in two dimensions, rather than bent and folded, either away from the face or on top of it. A newspaper would be easier to support, but she dreaded turning the pages one handed while lying uncomfortably within the confines of the fold up bunk.

Not that she was confined. She just felt confined. It was also that she was slightly intimidated by the huge room, full of people, obviously built for some other obscure function, perhaps basketball, or community gatherings or something. But it wasn't the room, with its high, well lit roof, modern colouring scheme, and vast waxed floorboards that was intimidating. It was the fact that it was full of people. Not, either, that the people were doing anything particularly intimidating. They were all doing precisely what was expected of them, to a person. They were all divided up in distinct groups; there were the ones, who, like her, were laying down on their own fold up bunk, some staring at the ceiling, some with walkmans, and some (obviously veterans) making a great show of not being worried about holding their reading material in one hand; there were the people over the other side of the large room, sitting down, relishing the time that they had with two hands to hold their book, going through a series of tests to see if they were eligible to lie on the fold up bunks and let the nurse have their vampiric way with them; and, finally, there were the nurses, strolling between bunks with important looking folders under their arm, doing not much at all, telling people to clench and unclench their fists, occasionally putting something in or take something out of people's arms. But it was not this that intimidated her. What really intimidated her was what she was doing. Which was, like the nurses, not much at all: she was lying on the fold up bunk, pretending to read, and ignore her arm, while she imagined the plastic bag behind her shoulder filling up with the blood that she was unsuccessfully trying to forget about.

She didn't know exactly why she was intimidated. She just didn't feel that it was the sort of thing to be done in public. She had been brought up by a society that believed that one's bodily functions should be kept to oneself. And bleeding, however simple or chaotic, was a bodily function. Imagine, anyone could walk through the large double doors at the far end of the room, absolutely anyone, and watch her bleed. It could be her grandmother, it could be someone very famous whom she had dreamed about meeting all her life (strangely enough, no-one fitted this description), it could be the dark haired boy at school who she didn't know, and would have liked to know, but could never be bothered. And all she could do was lie there bleeding. This thought, strange though it was, unsettled her.

She knew that it shouldn't unsettle her. Bleeding was a natural thing to do. And she certainly shouldn't be ashamed that, rather than bleed in a disorganised, haphazard fashion, as was normally the case, she was bleeding in what could only be described as a clean, orderly manner, collecting it all in a bag to be presented to someone desperately in need of it. Waste not want not. She seemed to be the only person in the world not to have a grandmother who said that. The simplest of requirements, and her grandmother failed miserably.

Ah, that's it, think about gran. No, gran's boring, just read the book, anything to take your mind off... D'oh!... the dull pain as the blood flowed from her right arm.

Wait a minute, there was something, something else to concentrate on. A slight twitching deep inside her nose. She knew that feeling. It signified the curse of hayfever, and preceded a sneeze.

A sneeze! She couldn't sneeze here! It just wasn't the done thing. As much as it would distract her fellow bleeders, it would be rude to disturb them as they tried, as much as was possible, to concentrate on something other than their blood in private, while lying on their own individual fold up bunk in full view of people. And then there was the fact that after spending the previous half an hour waiting in line to go through a series of tests to see whether she was physically fit enough to let some poor sod somewhere partake of her vital bodily fluids, telling the nurses that no, she'd never been to Trinidad, and no she'd never had sex with a prostitute, getting the small prick on the finger to check her haemoglobin level, the prick that hurt only because she knew it would, after all of that, it would certainly be poor form to do something so obviously unhealthy as sneezing, even if none of the forms that she had signed, not even the pink one, had mentioned hayfever.

However, this wasn't the main reason that she suddenly starting taking long, deep, breaths, in through her nose, out through her mouth, while energetically (or as energetic as was possible while lying as still as possible on a fold up bunk with one arm bleeding into a bag) resuming her reading of the book precariously balanced in her left hand, which she could no longer feel, due to the weight of the book and the bizarre positioning of the fingers. The main reason was that she knew from long experience that even a small sneeze involved a brief erratic movement of the head, and more often than not this momentary spasm would manifest itself throughout her upper body. And while the thought of her torso and arms jolting slightly whenever something even remotely irritating got up her nose was something that she normally just had to live with, the idea that her right arm might make a violent motion, however minuscule, while there was a large, sharp, metallic object deeply embedded in it at the elbow filled her with an irrational fear. She wasn't so much afraid of the physical damage, as she knew that that would eventually heal, but more the pain. It was not even that she hated pain, if that were the case she would never had made to this, her second bleeding, but that she hated the anticipation. It was also the fact that the exact path that the needle would take through her arm was totally unpredictable, and that meant that she couldn't visualise what would happen to her, and her head was momentarily filled with all sort of grotesque images. It was also the fact that she would be the only person in the entire room not to do her bleeding in a nice orderly fashion, without troubling anybody else, that she couldn't even follow the simple command "keep your arm still". And then she would have to tell her friends when they saw the scar that it would make that she had sneezed while donating blood. The whole concept was silly, yet it was about to happen to her.

Where was that nurse? She had surely been bleeding for at least fifteen minutes, wasn't that enough? She could feel the sneeze approaching, as her nosed worked itself up to it. The irritation was more prominent now, and she tried to fend it off, or at least delay it until the pointy thing was safely out of her arm. Both her arms were busy, and so she started to contort her face, in the vain hope that this might prevent her from violently expelling all sorts of things from her sinuses. It was no use, it wasn't working. In desperation she returned to her book.

Just her luck, it was at a boring bit. Oh well, she had to make do with what she had, so she shut the sneeze, and the images of her elbow impaled on a fishing-hook-like needle, out of her mind, and concentrated on the book. And so she continued, reading the novel while she could feel the sneeze slowly, excruciatingly, gaining momentum. It seemed an eternity before the nurse plodded over, inspecting her progress. Her relief was almost audible.

"Clench your fist, love. That's right, now unclench it."

And he left.

So she hadn't finished bleeding yet. She supposed that she should have gotten angry, but she found it hard, as she knew that the nurse was only doing his job, and that the bag was obviously not yet full. And so she resigned herself to her fate, and she knew that she was destined to be the only person in history to have done themselves a seriously injury while giving blood. She thought about the sneeze, and she thought of what it would sound like. She never went ah-choo, in fact she didn't know anybody who ever went ah-choo while sneezing, except for her mother. She wouldn't be surprised if the only reason her mother went ah-choo when she sneezed was because she had been told that was what it should sound like.

The nurse came over again. This time, he checked the bag, did a few things that she couldn't see, and didn't want to see, especially as it would involve leaning on her bleeding arm, and then pinched the tube leading to the blood- filled bag, before cutting it. Putting a cotton ball on the wound, he held it down lightly before removing the needle. That hurt, but she had known it would and wasn't perturbed by it, as she also knew that the pain would soon pass, to be replaced by a dull numbness that would last for about half an hour. He asked her to hold down the cotton ball, and as she did, he used gauze bandage to attach it to her arm.

She got off the fold up bunk, her fold up bunk, and meandered over to the table where the old ladies were giving out coffee and biscuits. She never drank coffee, normally, but she did now. It was a very un-teenage thing to do, not drink coffee, but she found that in almost every occasion that teenagers imbibe coffee, she found that a glass of cold water would suffice. But she drank it now, for no real reason, perhaps because they weren't offering water, only that polluted with sugar, under the innocent guise of cordial. She sat down and waited for her coffee to cool, as she didn't like milk, it had always just seemed like water with an ugly precipitate in it. Of course, before she had done three years of chemistry, it was just water with something ugly floating in it.

So she hadn't sneezed. It was an anti climax, but she was glad. Off course she knew that the sneeze would not go away, would not give her any peace until it had physically manifested itself. From a lifetime's experience, she knew that the strange workings of the nose always considered it their responsibility to react violently to foreign intrusions, even if the offending matter had long since departed.

As soon as the coffee had cooled, she started sipping, and began to nibble her biscuits. Suddenly, she felt an influx of sensory information from her nose, and before she could react, she had sneezed into her coffee. The entire contingent of adults at the recuperating table stared at her accusingly, and she buried her head in her hankerchief, quickly stood, and hurried out of the hall.

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