Back to the future: 1979-1989
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Testing times

A personal experience of going for an AIDS test in the 1980s.


It looks like the last full-stop from a Biro that's been on the way out for ages — barely bigger than a pore but perfectly, medically, round.

Impossible to remove, it sits in the crease where my right arm bends — the blue is a vein fluttering beneath the tiny puncture of private white. Unlike my birthmark — mortifyingly by my collar, exactly where you'd get a love-bite, or the twin freckles locked in a slowly expanding orbit on my right forearm — I wasn't born with this. Barely visible, I can find it instantly, far more easily than I can put my finger on the words to tell you how I got it.

In 1987 the plummy voice of the government spreads the danger of AIDS from every telly in the land. I'm 11 and sit cross-legged on our living room floor surrounded by squabbling cousins all momentarily shushed by the doom unfolding on the screen where words are being chiselled on a giant black gravestone.


'There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,' intones the English man's voice I recognise from something else embarrassing — the film I started with my Mum before she clicked it off saying 'I feel sorry for them'. My fingers reach for my birthmark, sure it's really one of the lesions I read about in the 'News of the World', the ones that covered the black and white film man my Granny Mac liked. A church bell tolls on the telly: 'It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure.' My cousins snigger at the next bit: 'The virus can be passed during sexual intercourse'. I kid on 'join in' but really feel the way I do before an asthma attack. 'Anyone can get it,' the voice threatens. 'Man or woman, so far it has been confined to small groups. But it's spreading.'

I'm in that small group — I've not admitted it but I know. After all the stuff me and my Mark do when I stay at his we've probably both got it. He's getting all these spots, even there. I'm still waiting for pubes. It's not fair. On the telly the epitaph is complete: AIDS.

Next morning, I wake sticky from nightmares of being buried. Soon the official leaflet arrives and somebody at school says night-sweats are a sign. The mark on my neck is scabbing but I can’t stop clawing and imagine pulling it out trailing long thin bloody roots. Mark and I promise to stop but soon we're bored and back in the bushes down by the burn. 'We might as well,' he laughs and it's not funny, really not, but what can you do?

The test is the only way to be 100 per cent. But the only person who can do it is our doctor and she'll tell. The news is full of skeleton men pinned under blankets thinner than their skin. My Mum says Princess Diana is brave for touching them. I nod along and she kisses the top of my head saying she won't be able to soon because I'm getting like my Dad.

Following the trail of phone-numbers found on the wall of the toilet in the new McDonalds, Mark and I discover 'the scene' in Glasgow. School in the week, Bennetts at the weekend. Everybody's older than us 'chickens'. Mark loves the spotlight but I don't, even when it shines on lanky, speccy me. When some of the faces we see those spinning Saturday nights disappear AIDS is whispered. We dance on determined to find boyfriends so at least somebody will feel properly sad for us when we die. When 'Beaches' comes out, we sob and rewind, sob and rewind, vowing to be the wind beneath one another's wings. Nobody will come to our funerals.

We hear about a clinic that will do the test but you've got to be 16. I count down the weeks and months. Me and Mark take turns phoning the number we found in the book then hanging up. We toss a coin to see who will do the test because if one of us has got it we both have. Heads, I win. Mark says he'll book it so we crowd into the old red phone box far from both our front doors. Even so he keeps his voice down. 'Leighton Barr,' he says, giving my middle name. Cunning.

Tuesday is test day. 16 years and one day old I get the bus to Motherwell saying I'm going to the library. I get off the stop after the health centre then walk back. Like every council building, like our house, it's pebble-dashed like it was made in a factory. I kick my feet outside till there's nobody about then bolt in. Screaming signs for Sexual Health all point up the only flight of stairs and I scurry-blush through the packed waiting room sure they all know exactly where I'm going and why.

Upstairs the nurse at reception has boy-short black hair and looks about my mum's age. She smiles and hands me a black clipboard with a form gripped on it and a pen. I start filling it out where I stand. 'Over there, son' she says, gesturing towards an empty row of plastic chairs that look bolted down. I don't want to sit because who knows who else has but I do. I tackle the form like an exam only sure I've failed. Have I done this, have I done that, how many times and with whom? One box is 'Homosexual'. I leave it unticked. As soon as the nurse leaves reception I dash over and lay my clipboard down where it won't slide on to the lino then zip back to my seat. I'm the only one here and I'm glad.

The nurse returns and slips my form from the clipboard scanning it wordlessly before taking it over to a door where she knocks and waits. 'Yes?' despairs the man's voice from within. In she goes then out she comes asking for 'Leighton Barr'. When I remember that's me, I jump up — back sticks to my t-shirt which peels off the plastic seat. The nurse pats my shoulder as she ushers me in.

Ahead an old bald man sits scalpel straight in a white coat, his hands clasped together on a clean steel table. My form is the only piece of paper in front of him.
'Mr Barr?'
I nod. Nobody has called me Mister before.
The nurse stands to the side. She's left her smile at reception.
I sit.

The doctor's not got a name badge. He places one hand on my form and holds it down it while he pulls a biro from his pocket. Then he asks me all the questions: anal, oral, active, passive? Words I've never said out loud. 'Speak up,' he says. I cross my legs and wish I'd gone to the toilet. After all my answers he talks over my head to the nurse and she squeaks across the lino to some drawers.

'What do you want to do?' the doctor asks, standing up and tugging gloves from a box on his desk. 'After school?' He pauses, looking right at me for the first time. He can see all the things me and Mark have done. He knows. 'Hairdresser?' he wonders, pulling on the gloves. 'Journalist,' I stammer. He looks surprised. The nurse hands him a packet which he opens standing over me.
The needle.
It looks bigger than the packet it just came out of.

'Arm,' he commands. I lay my right arm across his desk and the metal feels cool. The nurse snaps a sort of elastic band round my arm just below my t-shirt sleeve.
'Come on,' he says, standing there, syringe in hand. 'Make a fist!'
The nurse shows me with her hand and I copy but before anything can happen the doctor leans across me and pulls the band tight like a Chinese burn. This is the first time he's touched me. I am unable to look away as my veins make themselves visible, flooding like the burn in winter.

'Right,' he says, his breath hot on my face. Without warning he flicks my new blue veins. I yelp and he tuts again. The nurse lays a hand on my shoulder then lifts it off. Without warning he flicks me again and I push myself back in the chair 'Shy,' he says stretching my skin taut over the biggest bluest vein. I close my eyes.
'Hold still.'
I'm not moving.
'Hold still.'

The bottom of my stomach falls as the needle goes in. When it digs about I scream. My eyes are open and there's blood — my blood, but darker and thinner than I imagined. It spurts in a neat arc like school milk from a carton and the doctor says nothing just turns surprisingly gracefully to keep his coat white. The needle is sticking out of my arm, steel among red. 'Snapped,' he sighs, taking his hand off my shoulder to click his fingers at the nurse who holds out a little silver dish that he drops the still-empty syringe in. She hands him another packet while my blood pools in my elbow.

'Fist,' he says, bunching his fingers in my face.
I do as I'm told and as I screw my eyes shut I realise I'm crying. Air whispers where it shouldn't as he pulls out the first needle. I hear him open the second packet but there's no pause. The next needle slides in cold and I feel something like release as the syringe fills. 'Done,' he says, finally. 'Dry your eyes.'

I didn't even feel him taking the other needle out. He stands back unscrewing the syringe then drops the vial of my blood in a clear plastic bag. The nurse presses on my arm with a ball of cotton wool like the ones my Mum takes her make-up off with then takes my hand and places it over hers before gently slipping her own away so I'm pressing it myself. I watch the cotton go from white to red to brown while the doctor finishes his notes and the nurse takes everything I've touched and puts it in a black and yellow bin by the door.

'Two weeks,' he says without looking up and waves me towards the door which the nurse is opening. 'I'm sure we'll be seeing you again.'

See also:

Further reading

  • 'AIDS don't die of ignorance' (London: Department of Health and Social Security, 1986) [National Library of Scotland shelfmark: GHA.1/10].
  • 'Is it time to test?: A guide to HIV testing issues' by Jeffrey Williams (London: Terrence Higgins Trust, 2000) [shelfmark: SP1.201.0494].
  • 'Maggie & me' by Damian Barr (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) [Shelfmark: HB2.213.5.304].
  • 'The development of risk politics in the UK: Thatcher's 'Remarkable' but forgotten 'Don't Die of Ignorance' AIDS campaign' by Adam Burgess in 'Health, risk & society' vol. 19, no. 5/6 (Basingstoke: Routledge, 2017) [available as a National Library ejournal article].


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