The Man Who Died – Reading Sample

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‘It’s a good job you provided a urine sample too.’
The oval face of the doctor sitting behind the desk exudes seriousness and gravitas. The dark rims of his spectacles accentuate the blue, almost three-dimensional intensity of his gaze.
‘This…’ he stumbles. ‘This requires a little background. I’ve contacted my colleagues in Kotka and Helsinki. ey said essentially the same as what we’ve been able to deduce here. Even if we’d picked this up the last time you visited, there’s nothing else we could have done. How are you feeling?’
I shrug my shoulders. I go through the same information I told the doctor the last time I was here and give an account of the latest symptoms. It all started with a sudden, powerful wave of nausea and vomiting that quite literally knocked me off my feet. After that my condition seemed to stabilise, but only for a while. Sometimes I feel so dizzy that I’m worried I might faint. I have coughing fits. Stress keeps me awake at night. When I finally fall asleep, I have nightmares. Sometimes my headaches are so intense it feels like someone is scraping a knife behind my eyeballs. My throat is constantly dry. The nausea has started again and it hits me without any warning.
And all this just when my business is getting ready for the most important time of the year, the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced in the short time we’ve existed.
‘Right,’ the doctor nods. ‘Right.’
I say nothing. He pauses before continuing.
‘It is is not to do with prolonged, complicated flu symptoms, as we thought at first. Without a urine sample we might never have found out what was wrong. The sample told us a lot, and that’s what led us to conduct the MRI scan. With the results of the scan we’ve now got a fuller picture of what’s going on. You see, your kidneys, liver and pancreas – that is to say your most important internal organs – are extremely badly damaged. Given what you’ve told us, we can deduce that your central nervous system is severely compromised too. In addition to that, you may have experienced some amount of brain damage. All this is a direct result of the poisoning that showed up in your urine sample. The levels of toxicity – that is, the amount of poison in your system – would be enough to knock out a hippopotamus. The fact that you’re even sitting here in front of me and still going to work is, in my estimation, due to the fact that the poisoning has taken place over an extended period of time and in such a way that the poison has had time to accumulate in your body. In one way or another, you’ve become used to it.’
In my gut it feels as though I’m falling, as though something inside me tears free and hurtles down into the cold abyss beneath. The sensation lasts a few seconds. Then it stops. I’m sitting on a chair opposite the doctor, it’s a Tuesday morning and I’ll soon be on my way to work. I’ve read stories of how people act with great clarity in a fire or of how they don’t panic after they’ve been shot, though they’re bleeding profusely. I sit there and look the doctor in the eyes. I could be waiting for the bus.
‘You mentioned you work with mushrooms,’ the doctor says eventually.
‘But the matsutake isn’t poisonous,’ I answer. ‘And the harvest is just around the corner.’
‘The matsutake?’
I don’t know where to start.
I decide to tell the short version: back in Helsinki my wife worked in institutional catering, and I was a sales officer. Three and a half years ago the recession hit both our workplaces, and we were made redundant at around the same time. Meanwhile Hamina – like dozens of similar small Finnish towns – was desperately looking for new commercial activity to replace the empty harbour and recently decommissioned paper factory. We had a series of quick negotiations, secured a generous start-up grant, acquired premises that cost next to nothing and sta who were well acquainted with the local woods and terrain. We sold our one-bedroom apartment in suburban Helsinki, and for the same money bought a detached house in Hamina and a small breglass boat that we could tether to the jetty a mere seventy metres from our post box.
Our business idea was simple: the matsutake – the pine mushroom. The Japanese were crazy about it, and Finnish forests were full of it.
The Japanese would pay up to a thousand euros per kilo of mushrooms in the early, sprouting phase. To the north and east of Hamina there were forests where picking pine mushrooms was as easy as plucking them from a plate in front of you. In Hamina we had treat- ment facilities, a dryer, a packing area, chilled spaces and employees. During the harvest season we sent a shipment to Tokyo once a week.
I have to catch my breath. e doctor seems to be thinking about something.
‘What about your lifestyle otherwise?’
‘My lifestyle?’
‘Your diet, how much you exercise, that sort of thing.’
I tell him I eat well and with a good, hearty appetite. I haven’t once cooked for myself since I met Taina, and that was over seven years ago. And Taina’s meals aren’t the kind in which a teaspoon of celery purée stares dejectedly across the plate at a solitary sprig of wheatgrass. Taina’s basic ingredients are cream, salt, butter, cheeses and plenty of pork. I like Taina’s food, always have done. And it shows around my waistline. I weigh twenty-four kilos more than when we first met.
Taina hasn’t gained weight; it might be because she’s bigger-boned than I am and has always looked like a weightlifter in peak physical condition, ready for a competition. I mean that in the nicest possible way: her thighs are solid, round and strong. Her shoulders are broad and her arms powerful without being masculine; her stomach is at. Whenever I see pictures of female bodybuilders who are not ripped and grotesque, I think of Taina. Besides, she exercises too: she goes to the gym, takes aerobics classes, and ever since we moved here she goes rowing out at sea. Sometimes I try to keep up with her, though that too is becoming a rare occurrence.
I don’t know why I’m speaking so quickly, so e usively, why I have to talk about Taina in such detail. e next thing we know, I’ll be giving the doctor her measurements down to the nearest centimetre.
Then, as it seems the doctor isn’t focussing his healing eyes in the right direction, I ask him what we’re going to do about it. e doctor looks at me as though he’s just realised I haven’t listened to a single word he’s been saying. I notice his eyes blinking behind his spectacles.
‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’
e overexposed room is so full of summer and sunshine that I have to squint my eyes at him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. We can’t say for sure what kind of poison has caused this. It appears to be a combi- nation of various natural toxins. And like the poison itself, judging by your symptoms and the account you’ve given, the extent of your poisoning seems, from a toxicological perspective, to be an optimal combination of exposure over an extended period of time and excep- tionally highly developed levels of tolerance. If this were a case of speci c, one-o poisoning that we were able to attend to promptly, there are a number of measures we could have taken – antidotes we could have administered. But, in your case, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. ere is nothing that will return your body to its normal state or that will change the … how should I put it? … the direction of travel. It is simply a matter of waiting for the body’s functions to shut down one by one. I’m sorry, but the condition will inevitably lead to death.’
The brightness of the summer’s day streaming through the window only serves to heighten the luridness of his nal word. e word must surely be in the wrong place. I must be in the wrong place. I came here with a simple bout of the u, I tell myself, with a few stomach cramps and occasional dizziness. I want to hear him tell me that all I need is rest and a course of antibiotics; or that, in the worst-case scenario, I might need my stomach pumped. en I’ll recover and get back to…
‘I might compare this situation to a patient with pancreatic cancer or cirrhosis of the liver,’ the doctor continues. ‘When a crucial organ exceeds its capacity, it never returns to normal but runs down, as it were; it burns itself out until it nally snu s out like a candle. ere’s simply nothing to be done. An organ transplant would be out of the question, because the surrounding organs are damaged too and would be unable to support the new organ; on the contrary, they would likely cause the new organ to malfunction too, in my opinion. What’s more, in your case every organ appears to be in an equally advanced state of degeneration. On the plus side, that might be the secret of your relative state of wellbeing – a balance of horror, if you will.’
I look at the doctor. His head is nodding, barely perceptible.
‘Of course, everything is relative,’ he says.
e doctor is sitting behind his desk. He’ll be sitting there for the
rest of the day, tomorrow and next week. It’s a powerful thought, and a moment later I understand why it occurred to me.
‘How…?’ I begin. It hits me that this is a once-in-a-lifetime question. ‘How … when … Should I…? How much time do I have?’
The doctor, who will help save lives for at least another decade before retiring for another ten, perhaps twenty years, suddenly looks grave.
‘Judging by the combination of factors,’ he begins, ‘days; weeks at most.’
At first I want to yell, shout anything at all. Then I want to lash out, to punch something. Then I feel nauseous again. I swallow.
‘I don’t understand how any of this is possible.’ ‘It’s a combination of everything that—’
‘I don’t mean that.’
We both fall silent.
It seems as though summer turns to autumn, to winter, spring and back to summer again. e doctor casts me an inquisitive glance, all the while ddling with the blue document on his desk bearing my name and details in large letters: JAAKKO MIKAEL KAUNISMAA. SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER – 081178-073H.
‘Do you have any requests?’
I must look confused, because the doctor continues his question. ‘Crisis therapy? Psychiatric help? A hospice place or a home carer? Painkillers? Sedatives?’
I must admit, I hadn’t thought about things like that before. I haven’t exactly spent time thinking about the practical aspects of my final days, so there’s no to-do list, as it were. Death only comes round once in a lifetime, that much I realise, and maybe I should have put a bit more effort into it. But I’ve always avoided the subject and everything to do with it. Now I understand quite how immense it is. Big questions, big decisions. And for the last seven years I’ve always made big decisions with my wife: the move from Helsinki to Hamina; from the mundane to the matsutake.
‘I’ll have to speak to my wife.’
When I hear myself, I know it’s the only thing I can do: I must speak to her, and after that I’ll know everything there is to know.


copyright Antti Tuomainen and Orenda Books, translated by David Hackston