On the surface it looked as wholesome and innocent as any other community centre. The noticeboard stabbed with posters for seniors Tai-Chi. Old metal chairs that scraped and clanked. Young hoodlums in beanies clustered round a half-size pool table. An urn and a stack of polystyrene cups. But today, for me anyway, the community centre was the embodiment of evil. It was Blood Donor Day.
When Gareth first asked if I wanted to give a pint, I flatly refused. I don't have a problem with blood, it's just all the paraphernalia they use to extract it. The big bitey needles, the tourniquet thingy, those vile plastic bags and little tubes. Especially the big bitey needles. When I last got a tetanus shot the doctor had to hold my hand and promise me jelly beans, and I was twenty years old. I hate the needles. But at the last minute I decided to go out of pure pride and stubbornness. I couldn't have him thinking I was too wimpy to donate blood, especially afterward when he'd be all smug and righteous and full of free biscuits.
It seemed I was the only person in town who had a problem with the process. The queue stretched down the hall and halfway out the door. Were they all here out of a sense of caring and community, or had they heard about the free biscuits? As we shuffled to the front I could see the neat rows of metal trolley beds, the donors with narrow tubes spiraling from their outstretched arms. My stomach lurched.
A nurse smiled from behind a clipboard. "Is this your first time hen?"
I nodded meekly.
"You're going to be fine!"
There is nothing less reassuring than someone blatantly trying to reassure you. And as usual, my nerves transformed into a desperate need to pee. "Gareth! Where's the loo?"
"Down the back and to the left."
"Back and to the left. Just like JFK."
I perched on the loo, muttering to myself. You must do this, you big pussy! It's easy! It's painless! Millions of people do this every day and they're totally cool with it! And then I heard frenzied footsteps, a gagging sound and a cubicle door slamming shut. There was a groan. Then a moan. Then, "BLLLLLLLLLUUUURGH!"
After hearing that vomiting concerto I almost ran home, but I skulked back in for my interview with the nurse. I tried my best to flunk, emphasising that I was an Evil Foreigner and lord knows where I've been. But I hadn't travelled to any of the countries on the Dodgy list, I had no recent piercings or terrible diseases and my iron levels were healthy. It seemed my blood was ripe for harvesting.
"And finally, has your partner had sex with another man?"
"No he hasn't," I said, tempted to add that he does have these very tiny lycra shorts that he says are for mountain biking…
"Okay you're fine, just wait on the chairs over there."
I'd conjured this whole hellish image of how it would go. I'd be chained the bed and there'd be a giant empty bag hanging from a meat hook while a fanged nurse stood over me screaming, "Bleed more! Bleed more!". But instead the nurses were friendly and chatty and said "ken" a lot.
"Mary, d'ye ken my boyfriend?" said one nurse to another as she directed me to the bed. "He's always snowboarding, right, always getting bruised or breaking his legs and I was getting sick of it. So I made him a pair of shorts out of bubble wrap! Hold out your arm, love."
My veins were even wimpier than I was. As soon as she started squeezing and prodding they disappeared under the surface, refusing to surrender my precious blood. "They looked quite smart! I couldn't keep my hands off his arse, just popping that bubble wrap! Pop pop pop! Ooh, I cannae get a vein here. Mary, we'll need a left arm here! Have we got a left arm free?"
"One over there!"
"Okay, we'll have to move you Shauna, but did I tell you that I got a new phone delivered today? My boyfriend called me to say it had arrived and I asked him to look inside the box, and he says 'Ooh it's covered in bubble wrap, you can make me another pair of shorts!' Isn't that funny? She's not laughing, Mary. Do you think she thinks we're crazy? Off you go hen, over there, you'll be fine!"
My new bed was right near Gareth's. He was already half done, laying back looking calm and relaxed; the seasoned veteran. Bastard. The guy next to him was furiously texting with his non-donation arm.
I had a different nurse, but equally friendly and reassuring as she fired up the needle. My left arm was completely obliging, rolling over and offering her an assortment of plump veins. I scrunched up my eyes and before I knew it the needle was in and I was bleeding for Scotland!
It was a rather strange sensation. I willed myself to think of un-bloody things, rather than wonder what would happen if the nurse decided to go out back for a smoke and forgot to turn off the tap. Would I just drain and drain til I was just a bag of skin and bones and blubber and undigested lunch laying on the bed? I looked over at my husband instead. He was gazing up at the ceiling all sweet and serene. I felt a great rush of tenderness. He has this way of encouraging me to try new things even though I whinge and complain and worry things out of proportion, then he'll just smile and not laugh when I finally discover for myself that it wasn't so scary after all. What a guy. What a catch! And then he looked over, screwed up his face at me and made his lips curl and eyes bulge in what could only be called The Gollum Face. Charming!
Ten minutes later the nurse declared she had the required 568 mililitres and I could now proceed to the refreshment area. PEOPLE OF SCOTLAND, listen up. If you surrender just one pint of blood you can freely select from a range of quality biscuits. I thought they'd just plonk down a shitey packet of Tesco Value Assorted but there was Walkers shortbread, McVities digestives, Tunnocks Tea Cakes and something new to me – the Jacobs Club. Apparently they were an 80s lunchbox staple and not as good as they used to be, but to me it was the euphoric meeting of mint and chocolate AND biscuit. I ate two.
Now that I'm over the fear and feeling smug, I'm quite excited about this blood donor business. They only ask you to do it three times a year, and apparently just three tablespoons of your ruby fluids can save the life of a premature baby! Not only will you feel good for doing something helpful, the nurse will order you to go home and DO NOTHING all evening. Which is quite possibly the most convoluted excuse I've ever used for skipping the gym!
So even if you're a complete and utter wimp like me, why not give a pint? Just lay back and think of the biscuits!