There is something rather sad about the faded stuffed animals in Wayne’s* one bedroom studio – especially the one with a stuffed red heart reading “I’m wild about you”. The cat knick knacks on his window sill make me feel sadder still. It's loneliness. Slinking around the door is Smokey – a standoffish cat with bright yellow eyes and an overcast coat. Wayne bends down and she smells his nicotine stained fingers. Wayne is the first person I’ve ever met who is HIV positive. I am aware of all those things we used to think about people with AIDS – said in that kind of creepy, hushed way - 'AIDS' – like leprosy or a hairy back. You could catch AIDS off a toilet seat, we used to say, off a cup. But there is Wayne, making me a cup of tea in a large white stained mug, while talking about how hundreds of people he’s known have died of what was once called ‘Gay Cancer’.
“They dropped like flies,” he says, describing San Diego in the 1980s. “Wards full of them. And the stench.” He fishes the teabag out of my mug with a teaspoon.
You meet some interesting characters in this job. People who don’t know you invite you into their homes to talk about the most intimate things. And not only you – thousands are going to read what they’ve said to me. It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge honour. Interviewing is like walking down a corridor and opening a door. The first door has what their name is, what they look like, all the surface stuff, but then you open another door. And another. The ‘how did you get HIV’ door, and the ‘how my partner was killed in the Gulf War’ door. You keep opening doors until there are ones they just don’t want you to open and you have to force the locks a little. Or doors that are just rusted shut. Like the door that says ‘how do you feel about dying’.
Wayne believes he will come back as a panther. A black panther or a leopard. Once, on a river bank in Colombia, he saw a black panther. They stared each other out.
He loves his garden – a small terraced area he cleaned up and planted himself. He can’t do much physical labour though, his back has had it and HIV saps his energy. He has no fat, he says, some days it's hard to get out of bed. Alcoholism, depression and HIV have driven him to three suicide attempts. But with a wave of his wrist he laughs off “gloom and doom”. The bigger it is, the funnier it is. “You’ve got to laugh,” he says.
Most of us don’t know how we are going to die. And probably don’t want to. Me, I’ve always thought I would die in a car accident, changing the tape in the tape deck or checking out a sign on the roadside. I won’t see the 10-tonne truck or the power pole. But Wayne pretty much knows how he is going to die. He’s seen it happen to his friends. He’s seen them waste away to nothing, which he is slowly doing too. You can keep it at bay, but it will get you. "It's like a black cloud hanging over your head," he says.
When I leave Wayne’s flat, the smell of lavender greets me. Smokey runs off ahead of me, scared of my grown up shoes trip-trapping on the bricks. I wish Wayne a good day.
*not his real name