Many years ago I went to the town hall to give blood. I knew the blood bank was visiting that day from signs I’d seen flapping in the wind above the town hall veranda. I had long wanted to offer my blood again. The first time I gave blood I was a student at university. In those days to give blood you took a number and stood and waited your turn. In those days they made a pinprick in your finger to test your blood first for all manner of diseases. Mostly I worried then about the sexually transmitted ones that might show up in my blood.
I stopped giving blood once I finished at university. I never stopped still in one place long enough and then came the babies, the years of pregnancy and breastfeeding when I needed every drop of blood I had. It was a relief then to know that although I would have liked to have given back something to those who might be desperate for extra life blood, I could not, my body’s blood was off limits, it was needed by others, much as my babies needed my milk.
The exchange of bodily fluids between one person and another has long troubled me. I had a friend who hemorrhaged so badly after the birth of her second baby they needed to give her a hysterectomy. She survived but during the long months of her recuperation when she had so much wanted her baby to be breast fed, her older sisters, most of them breastfeeding themselves, banded together to look after my friend’s newborn baby and gathered together a tribe of breast feeding mothers who might offer some of their breast milk. I squeezed out several milliliters of blood into a sterilised jam jag and put it into the freezer. It seemed such a strange thing then to offer my milk to someone else’s baby. I tried to imagine the experience for my friend’s baby: all this mixed mother’s milk going into her system. The difference between one’s self and another.
Now years later when the last of my babies no longer relied on me for her total existence – I had weaned her – I could give blood. My breasts had shrunk back to their pre pregnant state and my body was my own once again. It was time I told myself to give blood.
On this day to my surprise I was not the only one so inclined. The queue to the information desk stretched out to the street. I realised too late that we were across the road from Swinburne University and students are a reliable bunch when it comes to giving blood. They are young and healthy, idealistic and often the offer of a cup of tea and a free biscuit is enough to inspire even the less altruistic among them to donate.
I figured that most of these people in this queue were students by the state of their hair and clothes, not the raggle taggle clothes of the seventies when I was at university, the hippy gypsy look of crushed velvets and calicos, wild hair and beads, but the clean casual look of the modern student, neat jeans, solid walking boots and freshly scrubbed faces. As well there was a mix of nationalities in the queue, no more the straight line of those descended from the English, Irish or European. Many of these students were Asian or from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. It gave the line a cosmopolitan feel.
I tried to hide my impatience as the line straggled on towards the desk. I had only two hours spare before I needed to travel to Mont Albert to collect my older children from school. I had left the youngest with the babysitter, all for this opportunity to give blood. By the time I reached the desk and explained the reasons for my impatience I knew I would not that day lie on one of the canvas couches scattered throughout the main room of the town hall, stretch out my arm and watch as the nurse at my side gently drew out a litre of my glorious red blood.
‘If you have no time now, you can at least fill out the form,’ the nurse said. ‘And make a time to come back another day.’
I watched a young woman in the first row, her eyes glazed with expectation. The nurse had pulled up the sleeve of her jumper and with a white wad of gauze wiped a square of flesh just below the elbow bend. Until now the young woman had been watching intently, watching as the nurse cleaned the area marked as if for target practice. Then the nurse turned around to the little tray on which her implements sat in a tidy pile, syringes sealed in plastic, one of which she pulled out and attached to the tube that led to the bottle that hung from a metal frame on one side of the stretcher. I watched the young woman’s eyes move from the nurse’s face, to the nurse’s hands to the metal frame and empty bottle above her stretcher. I watched as the young woman turned away. The nurse plunged the needle in. I watched the blood suck into the syringe and along the narrow tube, while the young woman winced and screwed up her face as if in pain. She seemed to hold her breath. I watched and wished it were my blood flowing up the line, my blood, my gift to some dying person, my gift of life.
The biro’s ink splodged onto the page as I tried to fill in my details. I took another and another until I found one that did not ooze so much ink as to make my form look untidy. Each time I screwed up the form and started another. Finally I found both pen and form that were unblemished and filled out my details in my best hand.
It was an unconscious gesture at the time, the ease with which I put the biro back into my handbag. See how easily I say ‘back into my handbag’, as if the biro had been mine all along. I folded the form over once and handed it to the woman at the reception desk in between her attending to others still in the long line, others who had more hours to spare than me and walked out into the brittle winter sunlight.
I walked alongside the cyclone fencing that separated the car park behind the town hall from the side street, when the realisation of stolen property in my handbag slipped into my mind. It slipped into my mind as a thought unbidden, unwelcome. I had become a child again.
I was sitting in church during my lunchtime at primary school. I had come inside the church to pray to God for deliverance from the boredom of the schoolyard where I had no friends to play with and the popular girls did not want me on their team because I was too slow in catching the ball. I came into the church to offer up my soul for the forgiveness of sins, the sins of the souls of those in purgatory, those who would never reach Heaven without my prayers. I prayed for the sins on the souls of the sinners in purgatory in one corner of my mind, from the other corner of my mind I stared at the empty seats along the pews. I used this part of my mind to set my legs walking up and down the aisle of the empty church and explored the empty seats for objects left behind from Sunday Mass.
I avoided a direct line with the Altar. God was watching. At best I needed to genuflect each time I moved into the centre of the church in line with the altar, at worst God would strike me down for my disrespect in roaming around the church, filled with evil intent. There were the usual collection of black covered missals; the ones with gold embossed pages and a gold cross on the front cover announcing the word missal. These I ignored. The ones that caught my attention were the colourful prayer books left behind by children. These were the missals of rich children, gifts for their first holy communions, their confirmation, books given to them to inspire them to keep up the work of prayer and penance, books inspired to encourage children to read. I opened one with a pearly cover. It reminded me of the inside of a mother of pearl shell, without the rainbow colours. It was the colour of milk. Inside the front cover, which had been thickened, the manufactures had cut out a square alcove inside which they had laid a gold figure of the body of Christ on the cross. I fingered its rough outline. A small figurine but not so small that I could not see the suffering in God’s uplifted eyes as he gazed towards some imaginary sun, as he gazed towards Heaven. There was no name attached to the inside sheet of this missal, this missal became for me a finders keepers. As I prayed for the sins of the souls in purgatory another side of me fingered the gold metal clasp that held the pages together. I slipped it into my pocket, unconsciously unknowingly, reassured by the notion of finders keepers.
It burned in my pocket all afternoon, all the way home through the leafy streets of Camberwell I struggled with the thought that my find was legitimate on the one hand, that my find was theft on the other. I held my hands over my head as I walked through the magpie park fearful a magpie might swoop down and peck my head even though I knew I would be safe. It was winter. Magpies only swooped in spring. I saw the top of a girl’s head once bloodied between patches of blond hair from the pecking of the magpie’s beak. This magpie had been sure that this girl, not much taller than a rose bush, was about to threaten her babies, about to steal the eggs from her nest. We knew better of course, but the magpie did not.
Outside the town hall the biro was heavy in my handbag. It was heavy in my mind like a stick of dynamite ready to explode. It was only a biro for god’s sake. It was inexpensive. People walk off with biros all the time. But it was theft. I should have returned it, especially as it did not belong to me. But I had no time to go back to the town hall. I was aware of the biro inside my bag for the length of time it took me to reverse my car out of the parking lot and onto the main road. By then it had slipped from my mind, forgotten, insignificant, the way the smallest sins slip away, even without confession.
I buried the missal in the backyard behind the garage where no one would find it. I buried it like a dog buries a bone for safekeeping. I wrapped it in a plastic bag from Myer and slid it into a cardboard box that once held my mother’s new shoes. I dug a hole as deeply as I could in the small stretch of land between the garage and the back fence and set it into the hole as though I were burying a beloved pet. Then I let it slip out of my mind, until today.