Precipice deals with both cancer and depression in a sensitive way.
Also within the book are nine short stories with Mandal's characteristic blend of humour and pathos.
Cancer. How was he going to tell Jamie?
"Come in," Dr Patel said, motioning Matt to a seat. It was the last appointment of the day but this time Dr Gita Patel felt none of the customary relief that such an occasion brought. Instead of sitting down immediately, she went over to the counter at one end of the room and poured herself a cup of coffee. She looked round at her patient. "Would you like some? Last cup from the Thermos."
Surprised, Matt said, "Yes."
"Milk and sugar?"
"Just milk, thanks."
"I should give it up, too. Sugar. Come to that, I should probably give up coffee altogether. Still, we all have our weaknesses." She brought the cups over and sat down. "It's been a long time since you were last here."
"Well, I came a couple of weeks ago and Dr Levy sent me for some tests. But, yes, apart from that it's been a long time."
"I was on holiday. My mother dragged me off to Madeira." She looked at Matthew, noticing not only his dark hair and blue eyes but also his pallor. "We've got the results of the tests," she said slowly.
Matt was silent, waiting.
"I suppose you've already guessed that it's bad?"
Matt nodded and Dr Patel told him it was cancer.
How am I going to tell Jamie?
"I'm afraid it's in an advanced stage. It's gone too far to be operated on, and any chemotherapy will just impair the quality of life without having any noticeable impact on the cancer itself. I'm sorry."
"How long … how long have I got?"
"Six months … a year. Sometimes these things go into remission."
"What will it be like?"
"What you've already noticed will get worse. More sickness, more pain. Drugs to control them. Then drugs which no longer control the pain all the time." Or drugs which killed the pain and the patient.
"No hope at all?"
"There's always hope. Perhaps I shouldn't have put it as if it's Holy Writ. Some people do seem to be able to use the power of positive thinking to fight it."
"But if you're being honest …?"
"I am," Dr Patel replied. "At this stage, telling you the truth is about all I can do for you."
"If I'd come earlier …?"
"Maybe, who knows? But I see you came as soon as you noticed something was wrong."
"Will I have to go into hospital?"
"I don't want to be a burden to Jamie. My partner," he explained. "Or for him to see me in pain. I'd prefer to be in hospital."
Dr Patel looked thoughtful. "You'd be on your own during the day?"
"We'll talk about the alternatives. But don't underestimate your friend. If you were at home, he might feel that he was being of more help." And maybe it was easier to reconcile yourself to the inevitable if you had to watch it from close to. She sighed. She never regretted that she'd taken up medicine but there were times when it was difficult. "How did you get here this evening?"
"Would you like to phone your partner and ask him to pick you up? Perhaps you could collect your car tomorrow."
"No. I'd … I'd have to explain."
"Would you like me to?" Dr Patel asked gently.
"No. No, thanks."
"You will tell him, though? Maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon?" She knew that what one partner saw as protecting the other might be taken as being shut out.
"I'll tell him." He couldn't imagine keeping such a terrible secret for long.
"Come back next week. Both of you. Tell our receptionist to give you the last appointment of the day. If they're all gone, get her to put you down anyway. I expect you'll have a few questions to ask. It's difficult taking it all in at once. People often find they forget exactly what it was their doctor said. And there'll be things you didn't think of immediately. You don't mind my discussing your health in front of Jamie?"
"No, of course not."
"What's his surname, by the way?" She wanted to look up his records.
"Are his parents still in good health?"
"So this'll be the first time something like this has happened to someone close to him?"
"Well, my father died last year. But apart from that …"
"Do Jamie and your mother get on well? I take it she's still alive?"
"This sort of thing doesn't always bring out the best in people. The patient's wishes sometimes come a poor second. Families may try to exclude a partner who's not married to their son or daughter."
"No, my family accepted Jamie from the start. They won't try to take over. And I think I've covered the legal aspects. There's a will in Jamie's favour somewhere around the house." I suppose I'd better find it to be on the safe side. And I'll have to tell my mother …
"People don't always react how you'd expect. Sometimes they refuse to believe it's going to happen. They pretend you're not really ill. At other times you may find that you're the only one who doesn't seem to be that affected by it." She looked at Matt shrewdly. "You've not really said much."
"I suppose I've just got to make the best of it."
"I'm very sorry."
"I just wish I didn't have to go home and tell Jamie." Suddenly, all the emotions that he'd kept in check surfaced. He swallowed.
"Would you like a few minutes on your own?"
"No, I'm all right." Matt smiled. "I'll have to get used to telling people. I'll tell him tonight. He knew I was coming here and he's always said I was a rotten liar. Thanks for being honest with me. I appreciate it."
"It's the least I can do."
Matt stood up.
"Are you sure you feel up to driving? I'll get you a taxi if you like," the doctor offered, getting to her feet.
"No, I'm fine."
"Come back and see me next week."