Last Tuesday we witnessed the spectacle of a couple of thousand largely under-educated, but probably very nice, country folk spatter their blood at the gates to Parliament House. A Brahmin priest dressed in unflattering white danced and chanted and painted evil curses in blood on the four corners of the House. As the sun went down the red shirts went back to their camping ground at the Royal Plaza, and I went home wondering if they were remaking Monty Python here in Thailand.
Back in the mid-1980s I was an attractive young journalist working in Melbourne, breaking hearts and filing stories on a daily basis. I worked in what was called the "Interstate Bureau" representing a Queensland paper. One of the other guys was John, a rep for a Sydney paper, and one day he said to me: "D'you wanna donate blood with me?"
This was the same guy who'd ask: "D'you wanna go to the pub with me?" every single working day of the week. The answer was always yes. Ten minutes later we'd be at the bar rapidly downing beers with a dash for an hour or two, or three, before returning to write keen balanced insights into the day's news. So it was something of a surprise to hear this new invitation. I'd never donated blood in my life, and despite some hesitancy owing to a fear of needles, I went along.
There is nothing I remember about the actual process of donating, except that on the way home I purchased the 12-inch single version of Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill. It was a song that profoundly influenced my life, as did my decision to donate blood that day.
A few days later I received a call from the Blood Bank. "We'd like you to come down and see us," a young woman said in that slightly irritating Melbourne accent they have. "It's about your blood."
My blood? Whatever they wanted to say about my blood, it was certainly running cold at that instant. I put the phone down and pretended nothing was wrong, but even five beers with a dash in rapid succession an hour later couldn't silence that voice in my head whispering over and over: "You've got Aids. You're gonna die."
The next day I was back in black at the Blood Bank, pallid, perspiring and willing to perform any superstitious act to reverse the news I was about to hear. A friendly Victorian lass in a white coat and clipboard hit me with the news.
"You're O Negative," she said.
I desperately wanted to answer: "What do you mean by that?" like the one idiot lab assistant in any B-grade '50s sci-fi movie, enabling the esteemed doctor to explain to the viewers why exactly a meteor is going to strike the earth within 48 hours. But she explained anyway.
"Your blood is rare when compared to other blood types," she said, pushing away a few wisps of fringe with fingers that I noticed were dry and flaky; a good description of myself that day since I hadn't made it to the pub. Was working at the blood bank that hard on the skin? "O Negative blood is special in that in an emergency it can be used for any other blood type. The reverse isn't true. So you can see," she concluded, sunlight bouncing off her irises, "You're quite special."
Dammit, I knew it! Ever since I was a kid I suspected there was something that elevated me above my fellow Sunnybank classmates. Here was a dermatologically-challenged Blood Bank employee confirming what I'd secretly known all along! But as John Lennon or Michael Jackson would tell you, being special had its price.
"We'd like you to donate plasma," she said. "This requires your coming in weekly. We take blood out of you. We then spin the blood to extract the plasma, then return the blood to you. The whole process takes a little while, but as you can understand, it's for the good of society."
It is to my eternal shame that I nodded weakly, made an appointment with the Blood Bank the following week - and never showed up. It was hard enough for me to think of something else as that needle plunged into my arm whilst donating blood normally. To come back week after week to have blood taken out, then put back into my body, was too much for an alleged special person like myself. The weakling in me won out and I never saw the Blood Bank lady again.
Let's skip into the early 1990s, where I am a little older and wiser, and in Bangkok. There was a call for O Negative blood from the Thai Red Cross, and I figured it was time to give something back to society, even if it was only my blood.
I went to the Thai Red Cross and donated a big bag of blood to help somebody who'd been in a car accident. I felt good about myself as I left Henri Dunant Road that night, and resolved to donate every three months until some Siamese version of that Melbourne lady would ask me for my plasma - after which I'd have to disappear to Cambodia.
They never did. But next time I donated, and picked up my Donor Card, under Blood Type they had typed "O Positive".
Now I am not the type to rant and rave when life deals me a dud card - not unless I've had a few beers with a dash. I went to the counter and calmly pointed out the mistake. "I've been donating for years in Australia and I've always been O Negative," I said, stressing "Australia" so that the assistant understood it was an advanced Western country and thus always correct and always better.
Me and my big mouth. I had to get another blood test requiring another agonising needle prick and reassurances that next time I'd have the results. I was, indeed, O Positive. And have been ever since.
Can blood types change? Is our blood like the Earth's magnetic poles, which switch every 250,000 years? Could I have been O Negative when Running Up That Hill was in the Top 10, but O Positive when Take That were first taking off? Hardly likely. The Victorian lady, in between soaking her fingers in Palmolive dishwashing liquid, somehow had my blood type wrong. I only pray I didn't inadvertently hurt anybody through the mismatch.
I write all this literally half an hour before I make my way down to the Thai Red Cross clutching my donor card. Last Tuesday's spectacle of grown men in Brahmin outfits dancing and splashing buckets of blood on the steps of Parliament House, at a time when the Thai Red Cross desperately needs blood, made me think of all sorts of adjectives I need to teach in my English class. "Obscene", for example, or even "inhumane".
Now imagine if the red shirts had protested by donating blood. Imagine the photo in the paper of thousands of red shirts lining up at the Thai Red Cross. My goodness. If that had happened we would have all cheered them on, me included.
Alas, juvenile curses win out over responsible action, but don't curse me for disagreeing with your motives. If your protests get violent, and god forbid you are rushed to hospital and require a blood transplant - my blood is there for you.