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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. They 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. 'This 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.'
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 staff 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 fibreglass 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 treatment 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. The doctor seems to be thinking about something.
'What about your lifestyle otherwise?'
'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 flat. 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 effusively, why I have to talk about Taina in such detail. The 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. The 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.'
The 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 combination 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 exceptionally highly developed levels of tolerance. If this were a case of specific, one-off 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. There 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 final word. The word must surely be in the wrong place. I must be in the wrong place. I came here with a simple bout of the flu, 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. Then 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 finally snuffs out like a candle. There'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.
The 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. The doctor casts me an inquisitive glance, all the while fiddling 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.
The asphalt seems to puff and shimmer. The wind has forgotten its only function: to create a breeze. Everything around me is so green and the air so stifling that it feels like I've been plunged into a bath of thick moss. I grip the sweaty telephone in my hand. I don't know why; I'm not calling anyone. You don't tell people these sorts of things over the telephone. I peel my shirt from my skin, but it glues itself back almost immediately.
I sit in the car, turn on the ignition and set the air conditioning to the coolest setting available. The steering wheel feels moist and limp in my hands. If my sense of calm is merely because I'm still in shock, that for the moment suits me fine.
I turn left out of the hospital car park. The most direct route would have been to take a left. I need a few minutes; I want to gather my thoughts.
Our premises are situated on the other side of the prominent water tower in the suburb of Hevoshaka. I drive as far towards Salmenvirta as the road will allow, take a left and follow the shoreline towards Savilahti. Flashes of police-blue sea glint between the trees and the houses. Someone is mending a series of already flawless garden paving stones; a woman with fluttering hair is returning from the market, the basket at the front of her bike laden with groceries. It's five to eleven. Morning in the town of Hamina.
I arrive at Mannerheimintie and turn left. From Mullinkoskentie I take a left onto Teollisuuskatu. The suburb of Hevoshaka is small and its vistas are staggeringly heterogeneous. There you can find all forms of business and dwellings of all shapes and sizes – everything from detached houses to blocks of flats, from fast-food kiosks to industrial warehouses.
Our business is located in a brownish-yellow, single-storey building with a small loading bay at one end and sauna facilities and a patio at the other. I can't see Taina's car in the forecourt. Perhaps she's still at home or gone into town for lunch. She does that sometimes. I don't like to go home in the middle of the workday. It messes up my internal clock. It's far easier, far more structured, to stay at work during the day and come home in the evening. In that way the two remain separate: work is only for work, and home feels all the more like a home.
I turn the car round in the forecourt and drive towards Pappilansaari. The phone is in my lap, between my legs.
Hamina is often called a concentric town. However, this is only true of the town centre: the Town Hall and the blocks immediately surrounding it. Otherwise its streets are every bit as angular as they are in other towns.
The market is bustling.
In addition to the local stall keepers, there are the trinkets common to every summer market square in the land: hardened strips of liquorice, unashamedly overpriced cotton sauna towels, stiff underwear in boxes of ten, twenty and a hundred.
I sometimes think about death, but even thinking about it is all but impossible – especially your own death. A second later I'm thinking about something different altogether: today's shopping list, the business's outgoings.
A few minutes later I reach the bridge across the Pappilansalmi strait. Hamina is a small town dotted across islands, peninsulas and heathland, in clusters of a few houses here and there. The sea reaches its long tentacles between the houses and their inhabitants, snatching up blue segments of the green landscape.
I see Taina's wine-red Hyundai from a distance. Behind that, one corner at a time, I make out the shape of a black, shining Corolla. It looks as though it has just been washed. Well before the end of our drive, I pull in by the side of the road and switch off the engine.
Had Taina said anything about Petri popping round?
Sometimes Taina stays at home testing new recipes, and Petri gives her a hand. Petri was our first full-time employee. He knows all our machinery and equipment and he can install and mend everything we need. On top of that he knows every road, and every hill and dell within a fifty-kilometre radius. He also helps to solve the company's various logistical problems.
Very well, I think as I step out of the car, I'll tell Petri to go back to the office, tell him the cleaning equipment won't start up. I'll think of something. Then I'll sit Taina down on the sofa and tell her ... I don't know what I'll tell her. But you can be sure I won't have to make anything up.
Ours is the last house at the end of a narrowing gravel road. Its lively yellow front faces the street; behind the house there is a verdant garden decorated with currant bushes and age-old flowerbeds, which rolls down towards the reeds and bulrushes along the shore. In the middle of the garden is a patio ten square metres in size, where you can sit and look out at the sea in peace and quiet; only the opposite shore is visible, and that too is at a suitable distance.
I walk up the steps to the front door. These last few weeks I've felt constantly out of breath. I thought it had something to do with my flu, that it might be bronchitis or at worst a bout of pneumonia. I place a hand on the railings and steady myself for a moment. I hear the sound of an approaching hydroplane.
Affluent Russian tourists have bought up enormous fortresses along much of the local shoreline, and in addition to the yachts moored at their private jetties, many of them have their own light aircraft too. They roar around in the things, causing a nuisance for a few summers, before becoming bored and putting everything up for sale. Of course, it's impossible to sell villas that size, let alone hydroplanes. In a recessive and ageing community with high unemployment there are relatively few impulsive millionaires.
The hydroplane glides closer.
The railing suddenly feels cold. I pull my hand away, open the door and shout out a hello. Nobody answers. Maybe they're in the kitchen. I walk along the hallway to the other side of the house, where the kitchen is situated. The wooden floorboards creak beneath me.
Excerpted from "The Man Who Died"
Copyright © 2016 Antti Tuomainen.
Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART ONE: DEATH,
PART TWO: LIFE,
PART THREE: LOVE,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR,