My nurse is South African and freckled and she insists I call her Joe. After I sit down she kicks a bucket of used syringes near me, and begins to explain what she’s going to do.
“First I’ll take some blood from your vein for the syphilis test…”
“How much?” I interrupt.
“This much.” She holds up a small glass vial.
“Then we’ll do the HIV test. All we do is prick your finger and use a little of the blood to wipe on this indicator. It’s like a pregnancy test – after 15 minutes it tells us your status.” She puts on latex gloves after we decide to use my left arm. Joe places everything neatly in a tray in front of her.
“Where are you from?” She asks, swabbing my forearm with cotton wool.
I know she’s going to distract me by talking, so I go with it, staring off into space so I don’t have to see the needle or the blood. I feel the prick in my arm though.
“…and then I left to move to Auckland and that’s where I lived for a few years before I came to London and London is a really great place in the summer, don’t you think, I mean I bet every city is beautiful in the sunshine but I think there’s something about London that really comes alive and…”
I let out a sigh. It’s over. I’m so relieved that I don’t notice that the room is quietly warping and that Joe’s voice is muffled. Instinctively I lean forward and put my head between my legs until the room stops swimming.
“Would you like to lie down?” Joe sounds worried.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“I think you should lie down.”
She’s lovely, I think. Joe takes me across the room and I have a few issues negotiating the lying down bit, mostly because someone has attached stirrups to this particular bed.
“You don’t need to put your feet in those” She adds helpfully, “I’ll go and get you a glass of water. I’m just going to turn the light off too. There’s no rush. Just lie down and breathe.”
She turns off the light as she promised, returning a few minutes later with some water and the white haired lady, who’s holding a box of biscuits. After eating three I feel much better, well enough to try the next part. As I sit up I leave a dark blue patch of sweat on the bed’s paper cover. Joe turns the light on and I sit back down in the leather chair.
“People always say that I must see all sorts of things in here,” she says after washing her hands, “but it’s funny because nothing can turn my stomach like someone cutting their toe-nails.” She grimaces and I grin in appreciation, still slightly dopey.
“Are you sure you’re fine?”
“Absolutely. Big burly kiwi boy like me?”
“OK. Now we’re going to do the prick test. I only need a little bit of blood so this should be easy. Hold your hand out like you’re about to shake mine. I’m going to do it on the side of your middle finger because that parts not as sensitive.”
I comply obediently but still have to turn away. Joe is squeezing my finger hard, but the pressure is reassuring.
“You’re very quick to clot,” she tells me after a time.
“Is that good? Does that mean I’m healthy?”
“It’s a good thing if you’re ever in a car crash. I can’t quite get enough. I’m going to have to try another finger I’m afraid.”
“No problem.” I say, between gritted teeth.
A second finger is punctured and she applies greater pressure.
“How’s it going?” I ask, still not looking at my hand.
“You’re still clotting.”
I have a panicked thought that she might have to use another syringe.
“Squeeze harder if you like, it doesn’t hurt. Shall I pump my hand? Will that help?”
I clench my hand, while keeping the one finger dead straight – easier that it sounds.
“I think… we… have… enough. How do you feel?”
“That was no problem.” I tell her, but even as I’m saying it I can feel myself start to slip. Joe’s quick this time and we make it to the bed. But in the back of mind I realise that we must’ve taken quite a long time and I’m worried about my friend. I try to explain this to Joe - I’m a support person and that my friend will be getting his results at any moment - but she won’t hear any of it.
“Lie still,” She instructs me, in her clipped South African accent, “I’ll go get him.”
She turns out the light. I start to giggle, a nervous reaction I guess. Another nurse comes into the room to see why the lights are off and finds me lying semi-supine and laughing to myself in the dark.
“Whoops, sorry.” He says, darting out again.
Joe returns with more biscuits. By the time my friend arrives, my mouth is stuffed with two coconut creams.
“What are you like?” He says, sitting down in the chair next to my bed.
“It’s not my fault. I clot really well apparently.”
“Well that’s something. Oh, I’m fine by the way.” He says, helping himself to a biscuit.
A weight in the cavity of my chest gets released like a flock of doves.
“That’s wonderful! I’m so happy!” I try to give him a hug but Joe has given him strict instructions not to let me move.
“But you know what that means? If this was a Made-for-TV movie, I’d definitely have it now.”
He gives me a stern look.
“Drew, don’t be silly.”
That’s rich, I think, what with me lying on a stretcher bed in a blackened room, eating shortbread and drifting in and out of consciousness at whim.
But he’s right, and twenty minutes later, after Joe’s given me the all clear to use my legs again, I’m given a clean bill of health too.