by Anne Goodwin
I open the door to a sea of expectant faces. Ashen with anxiety, illness or winter’s dribbling sun. On the wall above my head, the counter clicks over to the next digit. A man in a donkey jacket, jeans and steel-toed work boots rises to his feet.
He hands me his ticket and a couple of request forms in see-through polythene bags. He says the queueing system is like the cheese counter at Tesco’s. I smile as if I haven’t heard that joke a thousand times before.
Inside, he seems to shrink, as many do, at the sight of blood and needles. Or perhaps it’s the antiseptic smell. Whatever has caused hesitation, he’s the burly type who wants me not to notice. Attuned to the strain of masking fear, I’m willing to oblige. I don’t even wince when he cracks the one about vampires. It’s in both our interests for the patient to relax.
‘Make yourself comfortable, Mr…’ It’s not like me to have to check the details a second time. ‘Mr Cunningham.’
He settles his bulk into the chair. ‘I might get the wife one of these for watching telly.’ He laughs. ‘Don’t suppose you get them from John Lewis’ though.’
I try not to fret about his boots leaving mud on the footrest as I line up the sample tubes with their rainbow-hued lids. I strap a tourniquet around his upper arm, pull on a fresh pair of gloves and set about finding a vein.
This is the part of the job I love. The social side, welcoming the patient and setting them at ease, could be mastered by anyone with a smidgen of humanity. But the technical side, inserting the needle and drawing the blood with the minimum of fuss and discomfort, demands dexterity: the ability to split off from all distraction and a super-steady pair of hands. My sister wasn’t the only one who had to drop out of training because she couldn’t channel the right mental vibes.
Sobbing in the shower this morning, I thought I’d have to call in sick. But I knew I’d feel better once I could focus on the job. Swaddling myself in the duvet wouldn’t undo that one mistake.
I slide out the needle and press the puncture with a cotton wool ball. Indicating for Mr Cunningham to take over, I loosen the tourniquet and discharge his blood from the syringe into the tubes. After checking he’s okay, I tell him he’s free to go. He gets up quietly – no need now for his comic façade – and exits the room.
Completing the paperwork before collecting the next patient, I wish I could be as orderly in my personal life. The sad truth is that, up until recently, I thought I was. If it doesn’t arrive in the next few days, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t even remember the guy’s name.
I open the door again to a sea of ashen faces. When the digital counter ticks over, a woman pushes a boy off her lap. As she leads him towards me, she bends down to whisper in his ear. Whatever she says to him, I can tell it’s not what he needs to hear. Rather than calming him, the tension jumps from her body to his like an electric charge. One of those mothers.
The loop of a leather lead slips to her wrist as she passes me a ticket and a sheaf of request forms.
‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘but you can’t bring the dog in here.’
‘But Dr Siddiqui said …’
She won’t appreciate me telling her Dr Siddiqui might be one of the top paediatricians, but he doesn’t run the phlebotomy clinic. ‘Guide dogs only, I’m afraid.’ The shaggy creature at the end of the lead is definitely the wrong breed.
‘Zach’s an assistance dog. Riley’s got …’ When she mouths the words special needs, I don’t know if her delicacy is to protect the boy or to prevent the other patients in the waiting area from listening in.
With his mop of blond curls, the boy looks angelic, if a little scrawny. Not clumsy or vacant at all. I’ll bet his biggest handicap is her overprotectiveness. ‘I’m sorry, but we need to maintain extremely high standards of hygiene.’ In fact, I’m surprised they let it through the main door. I offer the boy my hand. ‘Come on, Zach, it’ll be over before you know it. And I’m sure you’d like a badge for being brave.’
Mother and son stare. For a moment, I suspect they both have special needs until I sneak another glance at the request form. ‘Silly me. Come on Riley.’ Obediently, the boy takes my hand.
‘What shall I do with Zach?’ whines the mother.
It strikes me that Riley might cope better without either of them, so I tell her about the iron rings on the wall beside the main door where she can secure the lead. I ask the boy if he’d like a blue badge or a yellow one and usher him inside.
My colleagues look askance as I lead him towards one of the junior size chairs. It’s a little unorthodox to bring in so young a child without a parent or guardian. Yet Riley’s responding well to a no-nonsense approach. Maybe I’ve got a knack with children. Maybe it won’t be a total disaster if my period doesn’t come. I’ve got the patience to bring up a kid on my own. I’ve got the steady hand.
I’m pleasantly in the zone when Riley erupts. A piercing wail that hits me physically, floors me almost, like a punch to the gut. Without thinking, I pick him up and plonk him in the chair. If anything, his crying gets stronger.
I try the Donald Duck voice, the finger puppets, the cuddly bear. His face is puce, his mouth a shrieking cavern, his nose a snotty spout. I realise I’ll have to admit defeat and bundle him out to his mother, but I can’t get near enough for the kicking of his legs.
I’m relieved when his mother enters. She scoops him up, squeezes into the chair and rocks him on her lap. Even as she croons to him and strokes his hair, his screaming continues. As does the ache deep down in my gut.
They’ll have to leave. We’ve got targets to meet. But my colleagues hurry their patients out and hang around, embarrassed, reluctant to expose another patient to Riley’s tantrum. Nor can I send mother and son back out when he’s so traumatised. It wouldn’t make the best advert for the department and, besides, Dr Siddiqui wants the boy’s blood, or at least the results of the laboratory analysis.
The mother glares at me. ‘For God’s sake, go and get Zach!’
Red-faced, I hurry out. Dressed in thin cotton scrubs, the chill air makes my teeth chatter. My hands shake – my treasured steady hands – as I fumble to untangle the lead from the iron loop. Although he looks the right shape and size, I can’t be certain I’ve released the correct dog.
Trotting back to the department together, the animal certainly has the temperament for an assistance dog. With him by my side, I’m already more tranquil. Even so, I cringe when he patters his muddy paws across the floor. When he jumps up and tongues his doggy germs across Riley’s face.
Yet his impact on the boy is enormous. In less than a minute, Riley’s tears have dried, mood converted from inconsolable to cheerful and calm.
‘Perhaps you’d like to take his blood now?’ says his mother.
I’m beginning to assemble the phlebotomy tubes for the tests the doctor’s ordered, when another stab to the abdomen makes me flinch. Dampness oozes between my legs. Excusing myself, I ask a colleague to take over, dash to the staff room and grab my bag from my locker, pausing only to ensure there’s a packet of tampons inside.
Racing to the lavs, my mind’s such a muddle this morning I don’t know whether I’m relieved or disappointed. But I’m resolved of one thing. I’m going to see about adopting a dog like Zach to soothe my own anxieties.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, to be published May 25 2017 in e-book and paperback will be available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA with a pre-publication Kindle reduced price offer (£1.99 / $2.48). Anne is author of over 70 published short stories and is also a book blogger. Blood is her second story for Fictive Dream. Across the Table was published in 2016. Catch up on her website annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.