13 May 2015


At the Five Ways roundabout in Birmingham, the Islington Row Middleway turns into the Ladywood Middleway in classic West Midlands style, a fixture of 1971 asphalt and concrete. If you go straight on Hagley Road, it becomes Broad Street, lined with clubs and lads and Asian men in taxis, and then the City Centre. This roundabout is, like others in the city, the result and plan of some vision of the world built around the car, when there was peace in the Middle East and oil could never run out. These planners placed a kind of park and walkway underneath the roundabout — the idea was, it seems, that one could sit in the middle of the expressway, the cars flying by above on concrete, and have a moment of peace. A kind of modern peace.

I find myself walking through this park at odd hours, either very early in the morning to catch a bus or train, or very late at night, after having just ridden a bus or train. Today, I walked up to the city early to give platelets, the part of the blood that is yellow and causes it clot. I am healthy and make more platelets than I need, I'm told, and so I can donate them regularly. The last time I did this, which was also the first time, I got terribly ill. The NHS donor support staff were adamant that I should say if my mouth became numb — the machine they hook you up to returns some chemical back into your body to replace the platelets and when your body can't process the chemical quickly enough, the numbness is a symptom. Thinking I was fine, I didn't say anything when it first came: I could solider on. But as I sat there, the machine drawing and returning my blood for 67 minutes, the numbness became nausea and light-headedness. At 57 minutes, I had to pee terribly and I was about to vomit, but no one seemed to notice as the last minutes ticked down. When it hit zero, the machine beeped happily and the nurse came over: You don't look so good, and I said, I need to go to the toilet very badly.

I was determined to miss out on this today, and had been regulating my intake of fluids all morning and practicing the lack of courage needed to admit defeat to the machine. I decided to walk up to the City because I'm fat now and riding my bike in my jeans is too uncomfortable. Plus, I've grown concerned about accidental death in the last three weeks, and the bike feels foolishly dangerous. I woke Naomi before I left to reassure her: she's been unwell before going to school and I told her again that it was okay, she was going to be okay. I didn't say goodbye to Yoko, but saw my father-in-law on his way back from a walk he had gotten very lost on. He greeted me in Japanese and headed to the garden to smoke. I shut the door behind me and I walked up out of Harborne, down into Edgbaston and towards the City Centre to the Five Ways roundabout and that park underneath it. 

There was a man, as there sometimes are, under one of the footbridges, wrapped up in a blanket and I knew he would ask me for change. I could feel my body pull to the right as I walked pass, like I was avoiding him implicitly and indeed he did look up and say something. I mumbled and kept going forward while feeling immediately guilty for stepping over him — Jesus will damn me and people like me for this. I thought about the Tories and the displaced responsibility of society and the government, how there were some problems no individual could solve. This man certainly wasn't my fault after all: Margaret Thatcher was probably to blame in one way or another. I too was suffering, I could have said to him: have you heard of these NHS fees they're imposing now?

They put me on the platelet machine and at the first sign of numbness, I flagged a woman over and she slowed the machine down and called me Hon. Better now? Yes, it was, thank you, I got very ill last time, and she smiled, and I said, I shouldn't eat all the biscuits. I'm getting fat, but it's all stress eating. The woman smiled and adjusted the plastic tube whisking my blood away. I repressed the urge again to go on: did she want to hear about how my daughter isn't settling at school and how tired my wife is of me and how the Tories are trying to force me out of the country?

The machine drew platelets longer than 67 minutes as a consequence of putting my hand up and admitting defeat. I went on more slowly: first it was going to be 94 minutes, but then at 81 minutes, the machine said it was done. I got unhooked: they pulled the needle out and the nurse took apart the hoses filled with weak blood. She had me hold my two fingers on the gauze and sit back and relax. You alright? No, but it's not blood related, don't worry. I got up feeling like I had done something, imagining in some way that my body felt different even though it didn't and wondering what to do with myself. Couldn't I just be alone for a spell, but there was no place to be alone except by walking, so I walked and walked, down past New Street and then back to Five Ways. Perhaps, I thought, the homeless man under the bridge would still be there. Perhaps he had been an oracle and I had failed a test. If I went back, perhaps I could get a second chance.