Source: Review Copy
Publication: 6 September 2018 from Unbound
Meet Dillon, a high-functioning fuck-up who has been keeping some very big secrets from his girlfriend Ramona.
Also, meet Dhilan, a young carer caught in an endless loop of pre-bereavement bereavement for his dying mother.
And then there’s Dylan. The less said about him the better…
These three identities of the same young man have been growing dangerously more hardcore and hardwired, both online and off, thanks to the self-reinforcing effects of social media and search engines, and the uncanny predictive capabilities of his smartphones.
When two creepy old dudes threaten to expose Dillon/Dhilan/Dylan, he is forced to unravel a gut-wrenching mystery that he would rather leave well alone.
Set in a strange greyscape between the digital world and the messy realm of the body, Distortion asks timely questions about what happens when our online data and search histories are crunched up and fed back to us – when they don’t just filter our view of the world, but also our view of ourselves. How can we navigate the tension between emotional truth and factual accuracy? What can we do to neutralise our own toxicity? And what happens in the world of flesh and blood when the roles of parent and child become tragically reversed?
It is a real pleasure to host an extract from Gautam Malkani’s latest book, Distortion, on my blog today.Following on from his critically acclaimed debut novel, Londonstani, Gautam’s second book, Distortion, has been described as“ a brilliant exploration of social media, code-switching and toxic masculinity.” – Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant
So, without further ado, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite:
MAMA’S DYING AGAIN. We’re talking actual end-of-story dying. When she texts to tell me, she sounds like as if I owe her a fiver to settle a bet. Always texts when I silence her calls. Thinks I’m geeking it up in the library. Hiding in some late-night lecture. If I answered then for dead cert she’d start crying. In the taxi, I delete Mum’s texts, stash my fone in the backseat. Ramona next to me, not noticing – ain’t even looking. Her streetlit silhouette. Strobe effect. Pulsing with the passing lamp posts. Each red traffic light a chance for me to stop all the shit that’ll happen later. Turn around. Turn around. Don’t wait for some next signal, just ask the driver to turn the fuck around. Go geek in some library for real. Go read textbooks by her latest deathbed. If you know you gonna regret something in the future, does that mean you already regret it? She’s on her blue velvet shoes tonight – four-inch heels, plunging top-lines, straps like padlocks across her insteps and ankles. Curls her toes before opening her mouth: “Okay, look Dillon, I don’t know what’s worse – completely ignoring me to check your fones or just fading me out while you check out my feet.” Coulda called off this evening – even though fuck knows what “rain check” actually means. Coulda just told her about Mum, I guess. That she got rushed into A&E earlier. That her cocktail of chemo’s too strong for her. After collapsing again on the crapper. And the shit ain’t even working.
Ramona now fixing her eyeliner without no need of make-up mirror or front-lens smartfone. Cab driver flipping on a light for her. Not to leer at her in the rear-view. Tonight our driver is a woman. Happened in our downstairs, disabled-access toilet. Various assorted bodily fluids. Broken hand-towel holder. Tonight, I remembered to hold open the door for Ramona. Held a brolly over her head, made sure her backless dress only flashed her back. Some slit in her dress that giggled as she stepped outta student halls. My fingers on her pencil heels as she climbed inside the cab, just trying to hold shit steady. First time I ever took Ramona out, was on budget so tight I pretended like I was fasting. They keeping Mum in a separate room cos her white blood count is in the red. Charing Cross Hospital this time, not Ealing, West Middlesex or Hammersmith – i.e. visiting hours end at eight. Shoulda told Ramona I could meet her after, just couldn’t join her for this gig or whatever. Single-lane standstill means our driver breaks left, sharp left. Kerb-crawling the homeless hanging round Holborn. One of the homeless makes eye contact with me and starts shouting. Ramona opens handbag then window then gives him cigarettes and multivitamins. Be good to go hold Mama’s hand. One last grasp before the final croak. Ain’t necessary to describe a dying woman’s hand. Ramona’s feet now crossed just above her ankle straps, sinews stretched, heels puncturing the carpet. I mean a dying woman’s hand trying its hand at tapping or swiping or just feeble-style fingering a touchscreen. Her heels the reason for this dipshit taxi; me the dipshit reason for her heels. Gig we headed to is some secret album launch in some poncey West End theatre. Sit-down only, no latecomers, strictly limited capacity to enhance the experience of the live webstream. Can’t just tell her I gotta go see my mum – ain’t even told her Mum’s got the C-bomb. I tell other people, though – other girls, other women. Do women hold it against you if you don’t make them come when they fucking you outta sympathy? Asking for a friend.
Got all dressed up for the gig and that. Her special trainers – the left sole elevated. Wouldn’t ever actually do that to Ramona, though. Wish I could say I wouldn’t even know how to. Just thinking random rebound options for when she wises up and dumps me. Ear plugs and Kleenex. Check. Live music as opposed to what? Digital content ain’t dead. Don’t never dies. Ain’t dying or dead or dying. Only other time I been to a gig, I went with Mummy. Her long-lost denim jacket. Her secret Google mission to school up on John Legend. Stage-side, Row A – for people with special access requirements. Told Ramona I was on some Economics homework that evening. Even texted her questions. A short first gear, a long second. Tarmac and puddles become a mashup of brake lights, rear lights, red traffic lights. Glow from some blood-red backlit billboard. Slashing through wetness – tyres making toilet sounds. Pull out my fone, my other fone – my other fones plural. Different login and password combos permanently stored in my fingers.
@Dillon: Heading to John Legend’s new album launch tonight – gig being streamed live if you wanna join
@Dhilan: Mum sick again. Gonna spend evening and night by her hospital bedside
@Dylan: Tuesday nite is student start-up nite. And we got a private-equity guest speaker
Ramona being too busy to eavesread my touchscreens. Or she just wants to trust me. When the fuck was it? That time it first hit me how trustworthy and truthful ain’t always the same? Allow that bullshit – can’t just tell her I gotta go see Mama. Can’t tell her about the cancer and the caregiving and the mornings. That I ain’t really got conjunctivitis. To begin with, I didn’t tell no one. We’re talking just the first five or so years.
Classified. Need-to-know only. Access-restricted content. Not cos Mum was shamed or nothing – weren’t like she’d got crabs or herpes. And not cos she knew how much other kids’d rinse you if your parent was even vaguely disabled. Most probly it was cos of them three bearded aunties – the ones who’d said her sickness was her karma for being so cleverclogs and carefree and divorced. When she’s done with her eyeliner, Ramona straightens then outstretches her toes. Ankles undulating like my mother’s Adam’s apple – like an ankle got lodged like a tumour in her throat. And what the fuck am I meant to tell her anycase? By the way, Ramona, you know how we always given each other the full friggin download since way back in Year Eight? Well, I totally forgot to mention that for the past ten years my mum’s been battle-axing breast cancer. That for the past six of them years, she’s been dying from it. Guess it just slipped my mind. Didn’t really go to some family wedding in the middle of school term that time. Didn’t really lose that T-shirt. Roadworks, so our cabbie floors it in reverse, spins the steering wheel left, then forward in first. One of the roadworkers makes eye contact with me and starts shouting. Told Ramona about Mum’s divorce, though. All the violin shit about how she worked three different jobs just to make sure I didn’t get no scurvy. That her loneliness was why I spent Fresher’s year still living at home in Acton. If I’d known she’d get readmitted to hospital today, I’d have ducked back to Acton to borrow her car for tonight. Her disabled person’s parking permit. The cold window massaging my head as we pass by Covent Garden. Was a time I couldn’t even go chip shop without worrying so much I’d peg it back home. Allow this fuckness – I don’t even like John Legend. Don’t like R&B, don’t like grime, don’t like hip-hop, don’t like rock, don’t like rhymes, don’t like songs. Taxi pulls up beside a bunch of drunk-and-derogatory posh boys. Doing their whole beige trousers and self-belief thing. One of the posh boys makes eye contact with me and starts shouting. Consider telling our cabbie to keep the change, but cos she’s a woman it feels cheesy. Still, I don’t think twice about umbrellawalking Ramona five feet from taxi to foyer. My dry hand taking her raincoat as we queue at some ticket collection counter. My student discount card, my booking reference. And they say chivalry is just for sex. At counter, check pockets to make sure “Dhilan” handset was left dead and buried in the back of the taxi. Check. But despite remembering to forget it, I can still hear its dumbfuck ringtone. Even though it’s wedged deep in the backseat. Even though I switched it to silent. Even though I powered off. Even though I told Mum to not even think about foning me this evening. Shoulda just buried the thing in some desert someplace. Let future archaeologists get hard-ons over how humans evolved a wireless umbilical cord.
Twenty-four missed fone calls.
Twenty-fucking-four. Probly now nearer thirty.
Forty and still counting.
Tell Ramona I’m sorry but I gotta go. I tell her I’m feeling sick. Sinuses, stomach, eye ducts, brain – various assorted bodily fluids. “But you should watch the gig without me, Ramona – ain’t no sense both of us missing it.” Hand her the tickets, raincoat, umbrella. Tenner for a taxi home. “What the actual fuck?” Ramona calls out behind me. “Dillon, you can’t keep treating me like this.” Tell her again that I’m sorry. Tell her again that I’m sick.
Outside the theatre, you push past the queues of tourists and ponces-who-probly-had-tennis-lessons. Piano tutors, even. Textured toilet roll and cricket practice. Pardon yourself politely for swearing in their faces, but no apologising for your pro-style push and shove. Cos like a child in some school play, your mum’s just dying for you to watch her dying. One of the ponces makes eye contact with you and starts shouting. Doorman telling them to dash inside and take their seats.
Try hailing another taxi but ain’t easy when acting like some police-chased crack addict. Telling tourists and posh boys to get outta your way, hair dripping through all your tears and your snot like you been fucking about with some facial warping app. Yelling, “Stop,” at any taxi that passes, then screaming, “Take me to the fucking hospital.” Shouldn’t be rolling in no taxi anyway – not when not with Ramona. Tube cheaper, better, faster, stronger. Posh boys and tourists still walking too slowly; you quit the pavement to run on the road. Ain’t sprinting, though. Ain’t even running, really. But walking too quick to just call it just walking. Breathing in car exhaust fumes to try and warm your chest and your heart. At 7.30pm, all the West End theatres start sounding their buzzers and beeps and bells in sync, i.e. half an hour to get there – before the nurses become bouncers who won’t let you in. Half an hour would probly be excess if Charing Cross Hospital was actually in Charing Cross, but it’s actually five miles away in Hammersmith. Meanwhile, Hammersmith Hospital’s in Acton. Slam-dunk excuse for turning up too late, but you already used it last year. Man walks outta some restaurant with a foto of his meal stuck to his forehead. Woman walks outta some cinema and starts telling random people what she thought of the film. Hammersmith Station’s on the Piccadilly Line; can pick it up from Leicester Square or Covent Garden. Journey Planner app says Covent Garden.
Sorry it took me so long. My fone got lost.
I got here quicker than I could.
Before you went uni, you thought all West End theatres were strictly for tourists or ponces brought up in private schools. Musicals and operas, grown-ups dropping nursery rhymes; making a song and a dance. Your mum wanted to celebrate being back in remission and was like, “Fuck the Phantom of the Poncey Opera.” Pulled out her fone and started scrolling through random R&B concerts. Said that night was the only night she could get tickets and time off work at the same time. While booking the special Valentine’s-rate intimate-dinner-and-concert deal, she asked you to pick which restaurant. “Be my big man, Dhilan, and make decisions. Whisk me off my feet.”
You decided to pack her painkillers and tranquilators in her pill pouch. You cross a street dodging more taxis, more minicabs. More women on foot, more waiters putting out rubbish. Cobbled Covent Garden roads strictly for pedestrians, but still you get honked at twice. One of the drivers makes eye contact with you and starts shouting. One of the waiters makes eye contact with you and starts shouting. One of the women makes eye contact with you and starts shouting. Gap in the crowd opens, Tube station ticket barriers open, doors to the lift open. Somewhere between all the openings, you fixed up your hair and dried your eyes. And bought her a bunch of flowers. The fuck did you just buy flowers from? Some woman in backbone-friendly flat-heeled shoes smiles at them as if you bought the bunch for her. Then she makes eye contact with you and starts shouting. Day before the John Legend gig, your mum made you fone to confirm the table reservation, her appointment at the hairdresser’s and her special elevated trainers. Soon as you replaced the receiver, phone started ringing again – like there was one more thing you forgot to confirm. Ramona smiling down the landline, telling you she was throwing a last-minute blowout for her birthday tomorrow – her fourteenth on the fourteenth. At first, you was relieved to tell her your butt was busy – that you were sorry, but you really needed to be on your Economics homework tomorrow night. Next morning, you weren’t no longer feeling relieved. Some follow-up Facebook invite from Ramona, a bump on your forehead, a dent in your laptop. And so you told your mum you were feeling sick, real sick – so sick that she should do her Valentine’s thing with someone else tonight. After all, ain’t no sense both of you missing out. So sick and feverish and sick that, look, you even bumped your head. Your mum felt your bump, rubbed it, kissed it. Mixed up some honey and turmeric in boiling-hot milk. “Down it, Dhilan. Turmeric always does the trick.” Made you neck the exact same stuff whenever you coughed, sneezed or sniffled. Even when you got asthma. Even when some fucktard from Year Eleven tore your shirt collar. Tube station platform already a playground. Grown men waving scarves, chanting football-team nursery rhymes. One of the chanters makes eye contact with you, stops chanting and starts shouting. When a train pulls in, you head to the carriage furthest away from them. Later that morning, your mum started with the whole icewater-forehead routine. Sudden role-reversal making your brain hurt. Counterfeit fever and fake face flannels made from her nolonger-needed sanitary towels – the same ones you’d repurposed for her just three months earlier. Cold water dripping down your scalp; you remembered her hair appointment – first since her hair had started growing again. “Don’t sweat it,” she told you. “I already cancelled everything while I was boiling the milk.” Way too wet about the prospect of nursing you – like she couldn’t wait to even shit out, settle some kinda caregiving scorecard. Next thing you knew, you were telling her not to cry – that she hadn’t failed as a single mother just cos you’d caught a fever. That she didn’t need to score evenings out that bust her federal budget, she didn’t need to buy you a Nintendo DS, she didn’t need hair and she definitely didn’t need no left breast. Told her she just needed to smile. (Fuck it – it sounded good at the time.) Tube driver says we gotta “wait here a few minutes” – you clock her exact words cos she’s a she. You check the time on your Dillon handset: eighteen minutes. Double-check it on your Dylan handset: eighteen minutes. Should probly check yourself even. Use your fone as a mirror even though none of your handsets frown or smile or smell like your mum’s face. You sit your butt down and switch off. Shield your flowers from the droplets of coughs, colds and flu. After lowering your phoney fever, your mum combed your wet fringe. Kisses rubbed in like hair wax. “I know what, Dhilan, let’s watch a DVD tonight instead. Just like we did when I was sick. It’ll be fun, darling – we’ll take your duvet down to the sofa. We’ll snuggle up tight and warm together.” You told her that, boom, you were cured. That your warpspeed full recovery must’ve been down to the miracle of milk and turmeric. During something called the “support act”, she took you to this place called the Upper Circle Bar, clutching a dealer’s ounce of turmeric powder in a plastic Ziploc bag. She’d even scored a single-serve sachet of formula milk.
As I leg it through the ticket barriers and outta the Tube station, I for serious still reckon I might actually make it. Dillon handset says 19:55. No point hailing no taxi or hopping a bus – ain’t even one stop. But as soon as straight away, I can tell from the sound of the place that most probly I’m too late. My flowers like they been in some nuclear hurricane. Still, I run up the stairs – to go through the motions at least; at least just to say I came. And, sure as shedding eyebrows, when I knock at the door, they won’t even think about letting me in. When I wave the flowers through small square window, they still won’t.
Finally, I convince them to give her a note from me, but the only lame crap I can come up with is: “I’m here. I’m right outside.” They read the note, change their minds, let my ass in. Hand her what’s left of the flowers then sit down beside her. The seat comfortably uncomfortable – like as if even the furniture’s been waiting for me. “I knew you’d come,” she whispers as she leans in close. “I knew you’d be back.” As she looks back towards the stage, Ramona slips me a copy of some booklet/programme thing and slowly uncurls her toes. Cos fuck what the doctors say, there’s always tomorrow. I’ll go say bye to Mummy tomorrow.
About Gautam Malkani
A former journalist with the The Financial Times, Gautam Malkani is the author of the highly-anticipated Londonstani (2006). Born to a Ugandan mother of Indian descent in Hounslow, London in 1976, Malkani read Social and Political Science at Christ Church, Cambridge while working as a student journalist. The linguistically textured and introspective Londonstani generated huge amounts of interest from publishers and the reading public.
Follow Gautam Malkani on Twitter @GautamMalkani
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