Under The Table is a novel that embraces the life of Dominic da Silva. The reader first meets him when, in his late fifties, he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dominic receives the news calmly and asks Daniel Green, the nature of whose relationship to him is not immediately clear, to read his diaries.
These diaries, which form the major part of the book, cover Dominic’s life from the time he first goes to prep school at the age of eight until he is in his early thirties. They recreate the textures of various lost tableaux of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s and early 1980s. Some of these are undoubtedly a bit grim (the unremitting severity of Catholic boarding school; emotionally cauterised adults; genteel rural poverty). Others are altogether more upbeat and engaging (youthful energies and excess of all kinds; absurd social climbing; profound friendships and enduring ties of family).
Being thoroughly unathletic and gay, Dominic is not exactly the cardboard cut-out of the public school hero. But he loves life, has huge energy and never quite succumbs to taking himself or others too seriously - even in the more harassing moments of his life (of which there are a good many). He also has the chameleon qualities of the true survivor: by the age of thirty, he has carved out a promising career, is married to a wealthy young female lawyer, herself the very epitome of upward mobility.
A quarter of a century later, it all looks very different. Dominic has undoubtedly lived an industrious and honourable life, but an obscure and, in some ways, a thwarted one. Its austerity and his asceticism stand in stark contrast to the life to which his diaries suggest he aspired.
But the shift is one of circumstances, not of personality. In his late fifties, Dominic remains a man of sharp intelligence. His interior life suggests passions and appetites that have scarcely changed from those of the young man whose energies and hunger for experience tumble out of his diaries.
This ought to be the recipe for bitterness and frustration. But Dominic approaches his own denouement with composure – and with enough irony to kick any weak-kneed sentimentality into touch.
Avila House - January 2014
I may not be an alpha male, thought Dominic, but – really – breast cancer?
‘I’m afraid so.’
He looked down sceptically at his chest which had been stripped bare for the purposes of examination. His left side felt very tender but, as midriffs went, it looked unremarkable for a man in his sixth decade: no moobs, at least, but only an historical trace of the muscle definition it had once boasted.
‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘bugger me. I didn’t even know men could get breast cancer.’
Mr Turnball, the oncologist, sat opposite, looking appropriately serious. He was short and handsome, and looked younger than the ten years which in fact separated him from his patient. Through the garish 1950s redbrick casement, the afternoon blazed with inappropriate optimism.
‘It’s rare, I grant you, but not unknown.’
‘Also vaguely insulting,’ said Dominic, essaying a lightness he did not necessarily feel.
Mr Turnball gave a small, uneasy smile. He was always relieved when the first moment of bearing very bad news had passed.
As a veteran of breaking bad news himself, Dominic could only admire the consultant’s deftness – he had spoken in a measured tone, as one thoughtful man to another. Had he been gauche or flustered, or had he perhaps dropped his papers at the critical moment, Dominic might have had to deflect his own feelings and concentrate instead on feeling protective or sorry for him. Now all he could do was reflect on what he had been told.
A silent fifteen or twenty seconds passed which were broken by Mr Turnball, who suggested in tones of quiet encouragement, ‘You must have some questions.’
‘Must I?’ He thought for a moment. ‘I suppose I must. How rare?’
‘Male breast cancer. How rare?’
‘Ummm, about one per cent of breast cancers occur in men.’
‘And how many are fatal?’
‘There are about three hundred deaths a year. ’
Dominic kept his face impassive. Momentarily, he allowed his eyes to search the room, as though it might provide answers. The sign fixed to the door described it as a ‘consulting room’ and NHS bulk-buy furniture had been deposited within it, without much sign of interest or care. There were two hard chairs opposite the desk, one of which he occupied. Mr Turnball’s was more elaborate – a clumsy recognition of his status as a consultant – upholstered in royal blue cloth and with a swivel mechanism.
‘So,’ Dominic asked, ‘what happens now?’
For the first time, Mr Turnball tensed slightly. Dominic was aware that the nurse, who had been standing fiddling unconvincingly by the sink, was listening intently.
‘Well. As you know, we did the scans because of what we found when we examined your lymph nodes – that is, under your left arm, when we first saw you – what is it? Twelve days ago?’
‘It isn’t good news, I’m afraid. The cancerous cells have metastasised quite aggressively.’
‘I’m afraid we should start discussing treatment straight away.’
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