Writing by Tawney Bevilacqua // photograph by Emily Dozois
Felix sat on a park bench, his hands shaking as he tried to roll a cigarette. He was next to an overflowing bin and the fermented odour mingled with thick wafts of perfume from the people rushing past. His clammy hands made the cigarette paper soggy but he licked along the edge of the torn paper. He knew he couldn’t smoke the cigarette and was only preparing it for later, distracted by the smell of cologne that his dad used to wear, he searched out the stranger passing by forgetting the cigarette. Office workers moved past in droves on their way home from the high rises above. They were masses of black and grey suits coming in waves towards him, orchestrated by the pedestrian lights. With the nicotine circulating in his body, and thoughts of his father having now passed, he butted out his cigarette and laid it on the edge of the bin.
Walking through the city, he passed a row of designer stores, with handbags lit up on display in the store windows. He passed a group of Hare Krishna’s that were chanting and dancing through the streets. He walked onwards until finally stopping before his destination. Entering into the buildings elevator to go up to the blood bank, he noticed he had a dull headache.
The car horns and constant human buzz of the street were now silenced with the closing doors. As he reached the reception desk he mumbled to the woman, staring at the red lipstick that had smudged onto her teeth ‘I have an appointment for 5:30. Felix.’
The woman smiled widely at him as she passed over a clipboard.
‘Thanks for coming today Felix. I’ll just get you to fill out sections B and C, and return them to me afterwards.’
He sat in the hushed waiting area. With each tick on the form his palm left a damp trail. He breathed slow until his hands gradually steadied. His heart rate settled as he put his mind to the questions on the form. Once signed he returned it to the red-lipped receptionist, although he still couldn’t make eye contact.
He sat with a view of her desk and the raised wooden platform at the far end of the space. Electric leather recliners lined the edge of the oblong platform, all turned inwards; their red leather somehow harsh to look at. Television screens hung overhead with the news on channel seven, nine, and ten, muted and subtitled. The monitors next to the recliners beeped messages to the staff as blood travelled from people’s arms. Felix’s headache throbbed deeper when he watched the exposed blood shooting from body to blood bag.
‘Felix,’ called a uniformed attendant, wearing the same greys as the walls.
He followed her to a side room, bare except for a desk and computer, and seats for both of them to sit.
‘You’re feeling healthy and well today Felix?’
‘I am, yes,’ He lied.
‘And this is your first time giving blood?’
‘It is, yes.’
The attendant studied Felix’s form as she stretched latex gloves over her hands. She held his finger, glistening with sweat between the latex, and pricked it sharply to harvest a dark bead of blood.
While running it through a small machine on the desk she said, ‘Your hands are wet with sweat.’
The machine beeped.
‘And it looks like your iron levels are on the lower end of the scale. If you’re not feeling well th-’
‘I’m fine, just nervous. But I’d really like to give blood today. Please.’
‘You can still donate today, but you should be conscious of what you’re eating. Do you think you eat well?’ The attendant asked as she peeled off her gloves and put them in the bin marked ‘hazardous’.
‘I watch my diet closely, very closely. I’m a vegan. I was actually wondering…’ Felix said this as he looked down and scraped the dirt and tobacco from under his nails, ‘Is there a way to request that only a vegan can receive my blood?’
The attendant paused from her scribbles on the forms and looked at Felix for a moment.
‘No. Your blood will go to whoever needs it most.’
Felix was led to one of the leather recliners as staff brushed past with their clipboards, blurs of grey uniforms and lanyards. He sat reading the yellow captions of the news on television overhead and watched images of middle-aged men and women in flannel. The attendant swabbed his arm with disinfectant that stung his nostrils. He concentrated on the struggling farmers on screen, in an unfair deal with Coles. There was a pack of sheep scurrying out of a yellowing paddock, and a needle pierced his skin. His blood sped out, crimson, filling a vial with his barcode stuck on the side. An overweight man on the recliner next to him chewed his gum loud and fast. A clear tube was sticky taped to Felix’s arm. His blood raced through and the tube became purple, snaking around to the bag waiting to be filled. The blood bag see-sawed on the beeping machine, almost synchronised with the man’s constant chewing. Through the windows that wrapped around the building, Felix watched men in suits in the skyscrapers surrounding. Without subtitles to their conversations he imagined their discussions on profit margins and KPI’s, looking back at the blood draining from his arm every now and then. He was reminded of his father again, but only of him in his half-dead state; the tubes in his nose then were the same as the ones brushing against Felix’s arm. His father’s grey skin and hollow skeletal figure lingered in his mind. He was sweating, but the blood travelled quickly as he squeezed the stress ball they’d given him. His machine stopped beeping when the bag was full and an attendant came to unhook the equipment. As Felix was leaving the blood bank his eyes met the receptionists; when she smiled at him this time there was no longer lipstick on her teeth.
The smoggy sunset filtered onto the wooden platform, illuminating the individually wrapped needles next to the recliners. A spattering of lights stayed on in the buildings surrounding. The small barcoded vials were joined to their bags with rubber bands and the receptionist moved them all together in tubs, to the truck in the alleyway downstairs. In the last tub to be moved, she saw Felix’s bag on top. The blood bank closed and the attendants took off their lanyards before moving towards home. The blood moved along the roads, beyond the traffic, to the solid speed of the country highway.
During the evening the truck drove on, with the faint sound of INXS washing over the blood in the back. It reached the medical facility in a slow moving rural town. Attendants in crimson uniforms came out to unload tub after tub, and took them inside the fluorescent-lit space. Workers in lab coats sorted the blood into their types, removing the rubber bands and testing the vials. The blood was surrounded by the familiar smell of disinfectant. Felix’s bag was picked up by a worker in latex gloves, the warmth of their hands not able to penetrate the layers of plastic between the fluid and their skin. Their nostrils were now immune to feeling the acidic sting of the sanitised facility. They emptied the bag into a centrifuge that spun the blood until Felix’s plasma was separated from his blood cells. The plasma was taken away to another area. His blood was re-bagged with a new barcode and placed in a steel refrigeration space, to wait there until it was called on for another body.
‘Now Loretta I’m just putting the needle in so stay nice and still,’ the young nurse said in the yellowing hospital room.
The building had small cracks climbing the walls, Loretta tried to track whether they were growing or not every time she came to receive blood. She was always the youngest person in the ward, mostly surrounded by elderly community members who asked about how the family business was going.
When the blood entered her vein she could feel a wave of cold creep from her arm to her chest and branch out to the rest of her limbs; an internal sense of cold that came from the saline solution also being injected. The skin around the needle was icy to touch, from the inside out.
Loretta laid in the electric leather recliner with the needle in her arm while the radio played loudly behind her. It was tuned to the local station and she heard the owner of one of the town’s pubs. His gravelly voice cut through the gentle snores of the old woman on the recliner next to her as he announced the cricket scores from the weekend match. The numbers were reeled off, creating a drone that sounded musical with the beeping of the machines and the rhythm of the oxygen masks. Antiseptic smells mingled with the earthy manure scent that spread across the whole town. It was housed in the fabric of longstanding locals’ clothes and became uniform, passing from generation to generation.
She watched the tubes hooked up to her arm and knew the foreign blood was already circulating inside her. The same tubes were being used in people’s nostrils around her. While her condition was manageable some of the old people in the same room were postponing death for another day. The man in the recliner opposite her looked translucent, with papery skin and bones jutting out at his joints. She sat studying his state of limbo, with a blanket across her lap that couldn’t warm her blood.
‘All done Loretta. I’ll just take out the needle and dress it up, then you’re good to go,’ said the nurse, ‘By the way, how are your parents? Still travelling in the caravan?’
‘Still going,’ Loretta nodded, ‘I’m getting postcards every few weeks.’
‘Oh beautiful. Tell them we all say hello,’ the nurse said as she finished wrapping a bandage tightly around the tiny puncture.
‘And take it easy for at least a day. I know you work hard but slow down and let your body adjust, please.’
Loretta left the hospital and walked through the town. She passed the bakery, with a faded Printing Plus sign above the shop front from a decade ago. She waved at the women working in the tiny op shop, in a shed on the edge of collapse. She passed her own store, always closed on the days she received blood. She arrived home, ate soup for dinner, and slept early.
Her dream that night was in a paddock, arid and lifeless. There was nothing beyond the crunching twigs and dry grass she walked on, the paddock stretching out in all directions. She came to a wooden manger with an egg inside the size of a baby. Its shell responded to her touch by turning red where she’d made contact. She kept wanting to touch it, instinctively stroking it, and leaving the egg blotchy with red marks like bruising. Cracks formed along the redness and the shell broke away as a gooey lamb uncurled from the centre slowly. When she looked up, the paddock was full of mangers of different sizes, each with an egg that lay snugly inside. She approached manger after manger, the eggs always turning red with her touch. Some hatched sheep, others only hatched the dead foetus of an animal, filling the manger with clumpy blood that overflowed onto the earth beneath her. The largest manger was as big as her bed and she ran to it on the ground that was now damp with blood. She urgently tried to embrace the egg that was bigger than her. Climbing into the manger and laying on top of the egg made the whole shell an iridescent red. It cracked under her weight and she collapsed into a liquid world of crimson. Inside she was face to face with an old man, emaciated, tucked in the foetal position; his skin was transparent and looked as if it would disintegrate like a spider web when swatted away. She reached for him but he was drifting backwards, shrinking to nothing.
Loretta woke during the night with a throbbing headache and fast pulse, not able to fall back to sleep. In the morning she could only remember flashes of the paddock, the mangers, and the old man slipping away. Dreams meant little to her. She felt queasy as she made her bed, showered, and scrambled eggs to eat with toast while reading the newspaper. Her walk to work was unchanged from the day before, although this time the town was slowly grinding into gear and she got wafts of instant coffee along the way.
She unlocked the glass door of her butchery, inspecting the spotless surface for smudges. Inside the cold, grey store the smell of fleshy meat comforted her and settled her stomach. The smell was constantly diffused from the walls, having absorbed years of trafficking the skinned bodies of animals. She walked across the black and white checked vinyl floor, past the empty display case, to the refrigerated back room with pink and red hanging torsos. Loretta gazed warmly at the neat row of upside down carcasses on their hooks as she put on her white lab coat and latex gloves, and her Midnight Oil Greatest Hits album. Preparing the displays was first. She chose the most attractive carcass, the most voluptuous. Before carving at the cold flesh she patted the body and felt all the different sections through the gloves. With precision she sliced and segmented the animal, to present with a sprig of parsley under glass in the front room. Next she prepared the orders for her regular customers; ribs for Cam, tenderloins for Dianne, skillet for Julie. The vibrant red of the soft meat looked stark against the colourless room of steel and concrete. Once they were laid on their polystyrene beds she stretched cling wrap tightly across the top, then barcoded each package.[share]