“Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him,” said Lady Macbeth; we sense her unrelenting ambition beginning to ebb, and I reckon that Shakespeare must have been painfully conversant with both the spiritual and practical import of spilt blood. It can be a cathartic sight, and it makes a spectacle totally disproportionate to the amount bled.
Just the smallest drop can masquerade as a life threatening haemorrhage. “Don’t be such a big baby, it’s only a wee scratch,” we say, coincidently both withering and reassuring, but even as we speak the mess on the floor, palpably sufficient to turn the multitudinous seas incarnadine, is making a barefaced liar out of us.
I was a casualty officer in the early 80s and in those days unless you were steeped in gore up to the armpits you weren’t cool. Blood held no atavistic terrors for us doctors, if somebody vomited blood over you it was a lot less revolting than somebody vomiting vomit. AIDS was as yet unknown, the first reports of GRIDs (Gay Related Immunity Disorders) were just coming though from the west coast of the United States, the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic.
The bogey then was hepatitis B, especially after the junior doctors in Colin Douglas’s novels started dying like Greek flies who have indulged in multiple sexual indiscretions with blood relatives in a play by Aristophanes. Even so, we wore gloves even less often than condoms, and would ridicule the lab technicians who, if they pricked themselves, would need months of sick leave, counselling, cuddling, cosseting, and ultimately compensation. In contrast, we were real men, we were immortal, invulnerable, too important and too vital to get sick, or so our dysfunctional culture told us.
The last time I shed blood myself, however involuntarily, I was almost proud. It was rich and crimson and sumptuous, a dark rose triumphant, a stark defiant shout of virility, a reaffirmation of the sheer indomitability and exuberance of life, the Red of Red Riding Hood, the biological equivalent of a Pepsi Cola advertisement. “Lo, see what a miracle I am,” it trumpeted, “I live, I breathe, I bleed, look on my haemorrhage, Ozymandias, and despair.”
It is, after all, the second most romantic body fluid.