Copyright © 2020 by Aksel Studsgarth
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I always park far away from the main building. There are plenty of spaces close to the entrance but I enjoy the short walk especially when it’s summer like now. It helps me gather my thoughts. The air is warm but there is a breeze coming in from the ocean and the view is breath-taking, blue sky and waves, and immaculate green grass separated by a ribbon of white sand. My shoes make a crunchy noise against the pebbles in the parking lot. It reminds me of my childhood summers. My brother and I competing to see who could do the fastest barefoot lap around the maple tree in our driveway. Each day a bit faster as the soles of our feet hardened.
feel inside my bag to check I brought everything. I know I did but I really
like to be sure.
The building is a former stately home. It has been expertly renovated and extended, it’s hard to see where the old ends and the new begins, until you’re inside. I read somewhere the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moeller foundation donated several hundred million and the local authorities put up the rest.
I wave at the receptionist behind the large polished hardwood desk as I enter. She smiles and waves back. Behind her is a huge photograph of a cornfield very early in the morning. The photographer used a large aperture, everything is blurry apart from a single row of husks that are pin-sharp. It’s much like the photos I used to take when we travelled. Competent but generic.
Strictly speaking, I should sign-in and all that but it’s easier for everyone that I don’t, and anyway, I long ago perfected my entrance so I’m very rarely held up anywhere. I move with a purpose, as if I am running late and even though I’m just wearing jeans and a blazer they are tailor-made and my watch is an Omega. Most people would say they don’t notice, but subconsciously they do. It makes me look that little bit more important than the common man. The fact that I’m a doctor doesn’t hurt. It does tend to part the waters, especially in places like this.
I pass a couple of the nurses and nod at them. They nod back but we don’t engage. I’m a little early so I sit down in the lounge and pretend to check my notes. It’s important to be prepared, anything else is just rude.
A man and a woman come out of a room with one of the residents in a wheelchair with a red woollen blanket over his gnarly legs. I presume the man and the woman are his children; they look a bit like him. They sit down in a Wegner sofa opposite his wheelchair. The daughter, she must be around 40 and looks like she spends a lot of money on herself, carefully produces a parcel from her bag. It’s covered with a paper lid that she removes with long elegant fingers. Inside, there is a Royal Copenhagen plate with what looks like smoked herring on rye bread, complete with an egg yolk resting in the shell, flakes of salt and chopped onion.
places it in front of the old man and produces a knife and fork. I’m sure it’s
The son, he looks like the kind of guy who would be last man standing in pretty much any crisis but right now he is close to losing it. The smile is too wide, like his face is going to split in half.
“It’s the real deal,” he says. “We had it flown in from Bornholm. From that hotel in Gudhjem you and mum always stayed at. Bertram from the company, he’s friends with the commander at the Bornholm Airbase. He went to the hotel this morning and got the chef to make it especially for you. They put it on ice and flew it over, in an army helicopter.” He pulls out a bottle of beer from a bag and opens it. “And here is a Porter from Wibroe. Old school beer.”
The old man takes the knife and fork and carefully cuts a piece of the sandwich. He puts the fork in his mouth and chews slowly. His two children look at him closely. As though this meal will make the difference. That it will somehow be enough. But we all know that it won’t, it can’t. He puts his knife and fork down after two bites. Pushes the plate away. “That was lovely. Thank you.”
They make a good show of hiding their disappointment. The woman gets her phone out and starts showing the old man some photos of a recent school play. I doubt the man will ask for my services. This is a typical final rally. The patient sometimes gets better right before the end. They wake up, have lucid conversations, even ask for their favourite food.
I check my watch. It’s time. I get up and knock on the door before I enter. I lock the door behind me.
The room is light and airy with high ceilings, no expense spared here either. The side facing the park is all glass. The floor has been done in some easy to clean, vinyl in a muted green surely causing unending despair for the architect. But the ceiling is planks of ash, laid out like an open fan. A large PH pendant lamp hangs from it. In a corner, there is a large wooden basin, like something you might find in a Japanese Onsen.
A huge robotic lift stands idle next to it, ready to lift the resident in and out. A 65-inch TV hangs opposite the bed, with a Soundbar below. I know all this without needing to look, I’ve been in this room and all the others in the hospice before.
Everything here has been designed to give the patient the best possible stay, to make the last few weeks of their lives as comfortable as possible.
The lift and the bed – all wheels, actuators and white metal – are the only things that look like they belong in a hospital. And the man in it, of course. He looks over at me and lifts a wrinkled hand a couple of centimetres from the bed.
You’d never mistake Frank for being an actor in a commercial for a pension plan– all tanned and driving a convertible to the tennis club. He wouldn’t even be able to lift the racket. He used to own a couple of bars in Copenhagen and a restaurant by Hauser Square that my wife and I visited once or twice.
His has been a life of drinking and smoking and late nights.
The smoking caught up with him first. It sounds like he’s trying to suck air through a drink’s straw filled with small pebbles.
“Jacob. Am I glad to see you,” he manages to say between two laboured breaths.
“I am sorry to hear that,” I say and mean it. Dying is hard. He nods with his head towards a side table. Nestled between a vase with flowers and a framed picture of what I presume are nephews and nieces is an envelope. “Nurse did me a favour. Borrowed my card and got the cash out of the ATM.”
I look discreetly inside it before putting it in my bag: 5000 DKK in bills that look like they came straight from the printers. What I am about to do is not strictly legal, but if it ever came out I suspect they would punish me the hardest for not declaring the tax. Denmark is funny like that. But I digress.
I find the remote control for the curtains. I press the recessed button on the slab of faux marble the size of a chocolate bar and they slide out and meet each other perfectly in the middle without making a sound. Just a precaution in case someone decides to take a walk in the garden and looks in.
“So, Frank, have you changed your mind since we spoke the other day?” I ask, while I take my things out of the bag and put them on the side table.
“No. I’m ready. It’s like I am drowning, over and over.”
I nod and get started.
It isn’t much I have to prepare but I do it slowly and methodically. It relaxes people, the ritual of it. A box of matches, a rubber tube, Nitrile gloves, a syringe and a small vial of Morphine. I keep it simple. Should someone for some strange reason demand an autopsy, morphine raises very few flags.
Finally, I take out the box. It’s made of bamboo that has been polished and lacquered again and again to a dark red sheen. I open it and take out the bowl that sits nestled inside. It’s the colour of egg yolk and made of glazed stoneware. The precision of the wooden lid makes a strong contrast to the amorphous shape of the bowl itself. It’s held in place by pieces of interlocking hardwood, like a puzzle box. Unless you know how, opening it is pretty much impossible.
“What’s that?” Frank, who has been following my unpacking with interest, asks.
I smile. “I bought it in Japan in a former life. For my wife actually. It’s an incense burner.”
“No. I don’t want that shit. Give me the smell of a Cuban cigar or a sweaty post-sex woman any day.”
“You’ll like it.”
“I’m the one dying here. Don’t I get to decide?”
“Trust me, Frank,” I say, using my doctor voice, closing the subject as I put on the gloves.
I unscrew the lid of the little vial of Morphine and perforate the membrane with the needle before drawing half the bottle into the syringe. I don’t need to tie a rubber tube around Frank’s arm; his veins are easy to see under his skin. The needle slides in and I push the plunger, sending the milky liquid into Frank’s blood stream.
His breathing slows down a bit as the morphine relaxes the muscle walls of the blood vessels. It’s not enough to kill him. That wouldn’t work at all. It’s just to ensure there is no sudden panic or pain when it strikes. I learned that lesson a long time ago.
I open the lid, strike a match and light the wick inside the bowl.
Smoke starts to rise out of it. It coalesces into a thin but incredibly blue string that vibrates slightly.
Frank’s eyes fix themselves on the string.
“The smoke, it’s moving just like a snake!”
“No, that’s just the morphine.” I take a step back, just to be on the safe side.
But he’s right, of course. The string of smoke is moving back and forth now, like a cobra. It creates complex and impossibly beautiful patterns as it glides slowly towards Frank’s mouth. His eyes go wide but the morphine is really kicking in now and he is unable to do anything meaningful apart from moan softly as the smoke, taking its own time, enters him, looking for that last spark of life. It finds it, in a place deep inside him that I’m unable to comprehend. It scoops it out and snaps back like a whip into the bowl, almost too fast to really see. I’m ready with the lid, timing it perfectly. I secure the lid with the small pieces of wood and pack everything up. I force myself to do it slowly even though my heart is beating like a racehorse on the last stretch. I don’t look at Frank as I leave the room.
I am past the reception and literally stepping into the sunshine when someone shouts my name. I want to run to just get out of there but I force myself to stop and turn around. It’s Stine, one of the nurses. Most hospice nurses and volunteers are marvellous people, doing an incredibly difficult job. They are no good to me. Luckily, some places also have someone like Stine. She’s a bit of a psycho, hidden inside a coating of blue-eyed Danish wholesomeness.
“Aren’t you forgetting something? My cut?”
“Not here,” I whisper.
“You’re so paranoid. No one is looking. Pay up. Or it gets ugly.”
She knows she’ll get paid, I’ve never let her down. But I can see in her eyes that she means it, she thrives on the drama. I hand her three notes from the envelope. She doesn’t even look at them as she sticks them in her pocket. She was the one who got the money from the ATM and she knows exactly how much I got paid.
She takes out a small piece of paper. “Here’s the next one. Mrs Hansen. Her organs are packing their bags in a week tops. She’s a pleaser. I’m sure she will be happy to do whatever the doctor orders.”
She holds my gaze as she hands me the paper, caressing my hand lightly, sending tiny forbidden jolts of desire through me. Then she turns round and goes back to the building with measured aggressive steps.
I detest her. She’s nothing like me. She is doing it for the thrill and the money. I don’t enjoy it one bit.
I have principles. No kids. Never. And I only help people where there really is no hope. I just take a few days of their life, never more than a week.
I look at the scrap of paper. It just says Mrs Hansen, room 3. Her writing’s spidery. I look at the clock. It’s tempting to go back and do the arrangements right now. But I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I try to not hit the same place too often. It raises questions.
The rest of the day is a complete disaster. The next client, someone I had scheduled in Hillerød, has already passed away by the time I get there. The room is wall to wall with grieving family members and I make a hasty retreat. My second appointment in Holbæk has gotten cold feet and wants to let nature take its course. I try to convince her otherwise but, of course, her daughter is right there and the way she looks at me tells me to leave, stat. So, in spite of driving more than 300k across Sjælland, Frank is my only one today. I’m behind on the reaping and I have a nagging feeling that Frank didn’t have that much left in him. Like the remains of a cocktail left on the bar after lights out. Only something the truly desperate would drink.
I check my mails and my messages. Call my contacts. “Tomorrow maybe, end of the week” they all say. I know it’s wrong, but I have no choice. It will have to be Mrs Hansen, today. No initial consultation, no payment.
I drive the 100 km back to the hospice. I park and find the thermos in the glove compartment, the one for emergencies, it’s full of Akvavit. I seem to have emergencies more often these days. I drink. It’s warm and bitter and disgusting from lying in the car. I drink some more. Then I eat a couple of strong breath mints.
Once again I go inside, smile to the same receptionist who’s packing up for the day, pointing to my eyes to indicate that I forgot a pair of reading glasses somewhere, still conveying a reasonable sense of professional urgency.
I grab a stethoscope from my bag and put it round my neck before I knock on the door. I open it without waiting for an answer. Lock it behind me.
The room is identical to the one where Frank was staying. The only difference is the fact that the curtains are already drawn and the TV is on, showing some mindless antiques show from Iceland of all places. A large woman is sitting up in bed. I guess she’s in her thirties. It’s hard to say. She’s truly large, at least 400 pounds. She has a remote control in one hand and the other is digging into a wholesale sized box of mixed sweets. Her arm lifts like an excavator on a building site depositing the contents of the bucket into her tiny mouth. Two more boxes are lined up on the bedside table.
Her eyes almost disappear inside her moon face as she looks at me with a blank expression that changes momentarily when she sees the stethoscope. She smiles with teeth stained in technicolour by the sweets. I now have at least part of her attention though she doesn’t turn off the TV. I sit down next to her, not saying anything for a moment. I don’t try to rush her. Instead I want to reassure her that she is my primary concern, that I respect her and her difficult choice. However, the 65-inch TV is like a black hole and her attention quickly gravitates towards the screen where the oily host is fondling a small Axel Salto vase in a frankly unhealthy way. I can’t help but notice the vase is one of his better pieces.
“Can we turn the TV off?” I say and reach for the remote. She doesn’t want to let go of it but her fingers are greasy from all the candy and I grab it and after searching for a couple of seconds at the ridiculously complex remote–how do they expect terminal patients to want to learn a 100 button interface– I locate and press the OFF button.
“I understand that you are in terrible pain.” I grab her hand as the other one continues scooping candy into her mouth. It’s disgusting really. “That’s not fair. But I also hear that you’ve decided that you want to pass on your own terms. I think you’re incredibly brave.” I squeeze her hand for emphasis before closing the deal. “I can help you with that. Do you want me to? I can do it right now.”
She doesn’t answer but tilts her head a little and smiles. I take that as a yes. My clients are not always at their most eloquent when I see them. Then I get my things out. In the meantime, her hand has located the remote and she turns the TV back on. If that’s how she wants to go, who am I to argue?
I prep the syringe. I have to tie the rubber hose around her arm to find a vein. It’s tricky. I finally manage to do it and push the morphine inside her. I open the bowl and light the flame. The string of smoke rises. Her eyes go wide and she makes little cooing noises. I step back and let the smoke do its thing. Searching, sniffing the air. It strikes within seconds and, as it pulls that final breath out of her, I can see that it shines bright. It’s like a searchlight compared to Frank’s flickering candle. Her body go limp, the remote and the sweets fall to the floor on each side of the bed. The batteries come flying out of the remote and suddenly the volume has gone way up on the TV. I put the lid on the bowl knowing the noise will attract someone within minutes. The little pieces of wood that lock the bowl give me trouble in the low light. Just then, someone tries to open the door and a second later I hear a key in the lock. I curse the overly complicated design of the locking mechanism while I try to think of what I’m going to say. Nothing comes to mind. I just manage to slot the last piece of wood into place but all my other stuff is still out on the table as the door opens.
Thank god. It’s Stine.
She sees me and with a look of alarm closes the door behind her. She rushes over to the TV and unplugs it from the wall. The room falls silent.
“What the hell are you doing here Jacob?” she says.
“I thought I’d do Mrs Hansen today instead. Don’t worry, you’ll still get paid.”
“You total idiot. That’s not Mrs Hansen. She’s in room 5 until tomorrow morning.”
“So who’s this then?” I ask with growing panic.
“Agnete. She is just on a layover. Somebody set fire to a bin at the assisted-living place where she lives. There was a foot of water everywhere after the firefighters had finished and she needs to stay somewhere with a lift because of her size. She’s isn’t dying. She’s just got an IQ in the 60s.”
“Oh crap,” is all I can say.
And that’s when Stine realizes that Agnete is dead.
While I’m just standing there like a full-blown idiot, Stine goes into damage-control mode and starts packing my stuff up. She takes out a small glass of morphine tablets and puts a couple of the tablets in Agnete’s mouth and the rest in the sweet box that she picks up from the floor.
“This place is painkiller central. With a bit of luck they’ll believe she thought the morphine tablets were candy. But this is going to cost you. Give me the other 2K as a start.”
I do as she says. Her eyes are sparkling as she gets really close to me. Reeking of danger and sex. I’m so very tempted, our lips nearly touch, as her red tongue moves like the head of a snake inside her open mouth.
“You can’t leave through the reception. Use the terrace door,” she finally says enjoying the sight of my shameful arousal.
I leave like a common criminal. I pray no one sees me as I take a large detour through the park before I double back to my car. As I get behind the wheel I realize that I’m shaking. I’m terrified and elated. I killed someone who shouldn’t be dead. But the contents of the bowl are the best I’ve ever harvested. I start the engine.
They are playing that antiques show on TV. The one from Iceland. It must be the tenth time I’ve watched it and by now I know every single line, staged surprise and valuation. Sometimes I feel like I have watched everything ever broadcast on TV. On top of that, I have a terrible itch just above my left eye. It drives me up the fucking wall.
Pelle, my daytime helper, who is usually quite good at reading my moods, fails to sense my distress as he exercises my legs. I don’t envy him, they look like hairy breadsticks. Yuk. Pelle is a born-again vegan with a truly terrible fashion sense and a man bun, but he’s all right.
He’s telling me about his upcoming weekend with his girlfriend. They are going canoeing in Sweden with a group of friends. Swimming naked in 8 degree water. He’s bringing his guitar (I’ve heard him, he’s terrible).
I’ve also seen the weather forecast on the TV. It’s guaranteed to rain in southern Sweden the entire weekend, torrential, end-of-days rain. It sounds like an absolutely bloody brilliant time. Infinitely better than wasting your life in this 15 m2 hellhole of Scandinavian minimalism.
I love the outdoors but I haven’t really been for almost 10 years. Not since the accident. Shit happens. One minute I am a newly married graphic designer, on a three month motorcycle trip across Asia. Happily driving down a narrow mountain road in western Japan. Seemingly endless woods cover the mountainside and green waves crash against the black rocks below us, you get the idea.
I didn’t know it but at that moment my life totally peaked. Because seconds after I’m lying on the ground and I can’t feel my body. My husband Jacob is kneeling down next to me telling me not to panic. It’s funny, I was mostly concerned about the condition of my beloved red Ducati. Then I must have passed out.
It turns out I hit a Kei-car, one of those tiny Japanese cars they only really make for the domestic market. The driver, a famous architect no less, had attempted to do a three-point turn by a hairpin bend and gotten stuck. I hit the side of the car and flew right over it, along with the bike, like some X-games contestant who didn’t stick the landing. Jacob, who’s always been the sensible one, had taken the bend slowly and managed to break in time. Not me. As I said, shit happens.
So, it turns out that I broke a bunch of bones that have healed and a couple of vertebrae that haven’t. I’m paralyzed from the neck down. A machine helps me breathe. Once in a while I get some tremors in my right arm and I always think that some miracle has occurred and I will get better, but I never do. I simply cannot overstate how terrible this is. Root canal work, getting kicked full tilt in the birth canal by a skinhead wearing steel capped boots. I could do that all day compared to this.
Dreaming is what I prefer to do. To go really deep into REM sleep and dream that my spine has miraculously fixed itself or that I’ve been selected for one of those far-out gene therapy trials and I can walk, even run again. Sometimes I dream that I can fly. I love that. And then I wake up and I’m not proud to admit it but I cry. Every damn time.
I manage to catch Pelle’s attention and I make the sign with my eyes that means I want the IPad and the stylus. He swings the tablet over and places the stylus in my mouth, like a cigarette. I wish. But the iPad is hands down the Best Invention Ever. The program has learned to recognize my messy shorthand and turns it into whole sentences it reads out with a chirpy British accent. “I have a mofo itch above my left eye and if I have to watch that antiques programme once more, I will send a hit squad to your fucking house!”
“Sorry,” Pelle grins, scratches me over my eye, oh joyous rapture, blessed relief, and finds a programme about a family of five trying to survive without technology somewhere in Alaska. The kids are screaming and everyone’s really cold and wet and deeply unhappy. That’s more like it.
I shouldn’t really be alive, the injuries to my spine are grotesque and it really baffles the doctors. All my organs should have packed in by years ago. A couple of times I have very nearly died: liquid in my lungs, a power cut during a thunder storm, infections. If anyone has questions about the tunnel of white light and heavenly sounds I am the one to ask. I’ve been there a bunch of times. But Jacob has always managed to pull me back. The bastard.
I hear the front door. “Sounds like Jacob,” Pelle says brightly. Like he is Sherlock Holmes. Who else would it be? Ryan Gosling on a surprise visit?
I can hear him drop the car keys into a bowl, he always does that. At least I think it’s a bowl. I’ve never seen it. Like most of the house I live in.
Jacob steps into the room and even though he’s always eager to get Pelle or whoever’s looking after me that day out of the door, today it’s even more pronounced. He literally pushes him out and locks the door. Something’s up. His face is flushed. He’s been drinking again; I can smell it across the room. Probably so that he can face coming home. I don’t blame him. It sucks being married to me. I’m not what he signed up for. But, he’s never given up on me. I on the other hand have, a long time ago.
He checks the oxygen levels, the ventilator, and then he pulls the curtain so the room falls into darkness. Turns off the TV.
“Kristine, it was a really great day today. I was able to help some people and we have enough for several weeks. Maybe even longer.” He starts to unpack his bag, excited like an addict who goes out to score mushrooms and comes home with Quaaludes or some other unicorn drug, not believing his luck. I still have the stylus in my mouth and type “No!”. I look him directly in the eyes.
“Not again. This is not up for debate,” he says and removes the IPad. He is clearly exasperated, giving me that look. Saying I’m ungrateful, considering everything he does for me, what he’s given up. That it’s the same every time, that I want him to let me die but then I get a dose and suddenly I don’t. But what he doesn’t understand is that I really, truly have had enough.
That I know that whatever awaits beyond that tunnel of heavenly light is going to be a damn sight better than this. And even if it that’s just my brain firing on all cylinders providing one last glorious fireworks display before fading to dark, I would still prefer that thank you very much.
He brings out the lacquered box and the bowl. That fucking bowl.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch as he pulls out the small pieces of wood that hold the lid in place, like a life and death game of Jenga.
He’s got the hands of a surgeon. Even when he’s drunk. He places the bowl on the bedside table, lights the wick and soon the familiar beautiful blue smoke is rising into that impossible shape. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but part of me do want it now, my nostrils flare like a racehorse as the string of smoke starts moving towards my face. Tentative at first and then it recognizes me, the receiver. It knows me while I still have no idea what it really is. Just what it does.
And then it strikes, delivering its divine payload deep into my soul. It fills me and it’s stronger than ever before, it’s like purest medical-grade cocaine igniting my brain but infinitely more powerful. The feeling is indescribable and, for a brief glorious moment, I feel my body, lying there in the bed and it’s fantastic! I take a breath, unaided. But I know this is wrong, that Jacob has somehow crossed a line today for my sake. This kind of dose doesn’t come free. I know that much.
There is no way that this is the collected life force of half a dozen terminal patients.
We can’t go on. I won’t.
I know I have one shot at this. That the initial feeling will pass again faster than an orgasm. I concentrate so hard and my right hand somehow seems to get the idea. It shoots out and hits the bowl, pushing it towards the edge of the table. The bowl wobbles for a moment and then comes to rest again.
“What are you doing?” Jacob shouts and moves towards the table to push the bowl back to safety but there is one more spasm left in me. My hand shoots out again and this time the bowl flies over the edge. Jacob dives like a wide receiver but he is too slow and I hear the crash as the stoneware hits the floor. There is silence for a moment.
I can hear him whimpering. And then he screams. I have never heard him make that kind of sound before, it’s truly horrific. I hear the dull sound of him collapsing on the floor and it goes quiet again. All I can hear is the sound of the ventilator pushing oxygen in and out of my lungs. I try to say his name, I try to tell him that I am really, really sorry, but good luck with that when a machine does the breathing for you.
And then I see it, out of the corner of my eye: The blue smoke rising up higher and higher. Released from its prison like the genie in Aladdin.
It’s brighter than I have ever seen it before, more solid. I swear it’s looking around and then it senses me and, taking its time, it starts to move towards me, getting ready to strike, to take it all back. I keep looking at it, not blinking, daring it. Hell, I’m welcoming it. Grateful that Pelle is going to be catching pneumonia somewhere in Sweden and so it will be a random temp opening the door to my room tomorrow.
Because the shit’s going to hit the fan.