The day the Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna died in a crash, I was stuck in the toilet of a Manchester swimming pool. The door was open, but my thoughts blocked the way out. It was May 1994. I was 22 and hungry. After swimming a few lengths of the pool, I had lifted myself from the water and headed for the locker rooms. Going down the steps, I had scraped the back of my heel on the sharp edge of the final step. It left a small graze through which blood bulged into a blob that hung from my broken skin. I transferred the drop to my finger and a second swelled to take its place. I pulled a paper towel from above the sink to press to my wet heel. The blood on my finger ran with the water as it dripped down my arm. My eyes followed the blood. And the anxiety, of course, rushed back, ahead even of the memory. My shoulders sagged. My stomach tightened.
Four weeks earlier, I had pricked my finger on a screw that stuck out from a bus shelter’s corrugated metal. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and there had been lots of people around. Any one of them, I thought, could easily have injured themselves in the way I had. What if one had been HIV positive? They could have left infected blood on the screw, which then pierced my skin. That would put the virus into my bloodstream. I knew the official line was that transmission was impossible this way – the virus couldn’t survive outside the body – but I also knew that, when pressed for long enough, those in the know would weaken the odds to virtually impossible. They couldn’t be absolutely sure. In fact, several had admitted to me there was a theoretical risk.
Swimming goggles in one hand and blood-stained paper towel in the other, I ran through the sequence of events at the bus stop once again. I told myself there hadn’t been any blood on the screw when I had checked it – or at least I didn’t think there had been. Why hadn’t I made absolutely sure? I looked at my finger. Wait a minute. What the hell had I done? I had put a paper towel on a fresh cut. There could have been anything on that paper towel. You stupid ■■■■■■■. I looked at the paper towel, now soggy. There is blood on it. Of course, it’s my blood. How can you be sure? Someone with Aids and a bleeding hand could have touched it before me. I threw it into the bin, pulled a second from the dispenser and inspected it. No blood. That helped, a little. No blood on the next one either. But they could have done. I pulled the original paper towel back from the bin. It was bloody. If this is someone else’s blood, then why are you picking it up? I quickly washed my hands. I looked in the bin. I couldn’t see any other paper towels with blood on them.
Cycling home later, I was pleased with the solution I had found. Of course I couldn’t have caught Aids from scratching myself on the screw at the bus stop. That was ridiculous, I could see that now. I had nothing to worry about on that score. I pulled my swimming trunks from my bag and placed them on my bedroom radiator. I rummaged in the wardrobe for my winter gloves and put them on to unfold my swimming towel and carefully retrieve the damp, blood-stained paper towel wrapped inside. I placed it on the radiator next to the trunks. It would take about 10 minutes, I guessed, before it would be dry enough to check properly. Then I reached back into the bag and found the other crumpled paper towels, the ones I had lifted from the bin, and laid them out on my desk. I would check these as well, properly (impossible in the changing rooms), and then surely that would be that. I could put all this behind me. I took off the gloves and turned on the TV. The grand prix was about to start.
Those are my strange thoughts. That is my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I obsess about ways that I could catch Aids.