An excerpt from

Distortion

Gautam Malkani

Chapter One

Mum is dying again. We’re talking actual end-of-story dying. When she texts to tell me, she sounds like I owe her a fiver to settle a bet. She always texts when I don’t answer her calls. Thinks I’m in geeking it up in the library. Or sitting in some late-night lecture. If I answered then, dead cert, she’d start crying.

In the taxi, I delete Mum’s text then stash my fone in the backseat. Ramona next to me, not noticing – ain’t even looking. Streetlit silhouette. Strobe effect. Pulsing with each passing lamppost. Every red traffic light a chance for me to stop all the shit that’ll happen later. Turn around. Turn around. Don’t wait for the next signal, just ask the taxi to turn the fuck around. Go geek it up in the library. Go study by your mother’s latest deathbed.

She’s rocking blue velvet shoes tonight – four inch heels, plunging top-lines, straps like padlocks across her insteps and her ankles. Curls her toes before opening her mouth: “Dillon, I don’t know what’s worse – you completely ignoring me to check your phones or just fading me out while you check out my feet.”

Could’ve called off this evening – even though fuck knows what “rain-check” actually means. Could’ve just told her about Mum, I guess. That she was rushed into hospital 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 aid of make-up mirror or front-lens smartphone. Taxi driver flips on a light for her. Not to leer at her in the rear-view. Tonight our driver is a woman.

Apparently it happened in our downstairs, disabled-access toilet. Various assorted bodily fluids. Broken hand-towel holder.

Tonight, I’d remembered to hold open the door for Ramona. Held a brolley over her head, made sure her backless dress only flashed her back. That slit in her dress that giggled like a girl as she stepped out of student halls. My fingers on her pencil heels as she climbed inside the cab – trying to hold shit steady. First time I ever took Ramona out, my budget was so tight I pretended I was fasting.

They’re 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 8. Should’ve told Ramona I could meet her after, I just couldn’t join her for the gig.

Single-lane standstill means our driver breaks left, sharp left. Kerb-crawling the homeless hanging round Holborn. One of the homeless men makes eye contact with me and starts shouting. Ramona opens handbag then window then gives him cigarettes and vitamins.

It’d be good to go hold Mum’s hand. One last grasp before the final croak. Maybe even hug and smell her scalp. No – just to hold her hand. Ain’t necessary to describe a dying woman’s hand.

Ramona’s feet now crossed just above her ankle straps, her sinews stretched, the four-inch heels probably puncturing the upholstery beneath.

I mean a dying woman’s hand trying its hand and texting or typing or fingering a touchscreen.

Her heels the reason for this taxi; me the reason for her heels. The gig we’re headed to is a secret album launch in some posh-ass West End theatre. Sit-down only, no latecomers and strictly limited capacity to enhance the experience of the live web-stream. I 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. No one holds it against you if you don’t make them come when they’re fucking you out of sympathy.

First time I ever went to a gig, I went with Mum. She even tried to impress me by schooling herself up about N.E.R.D. Title of their first album: In Search Of. Full form of their name: Nobody Ever Really Dies.

A short first gear, a long second. Tarmac and puddles become a mash-up of brake-lights, rear lights, red traffic lights. Glow from blood-red backlit billboards. I pull out my fone, my other fone – my other fones, plural. The different login and password combos permanently stored in my fingers.

@Dillon:

“Heading to N.E.R.D’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 night is student start-up night. And we’ve got a private-equity guest speaker”

Seriously, how can I tell her I gotta go see my mum when I ain’t even told her Mum’s got cancer. To begin with, I didn’t tell no one. We’re talking just the first five or six years. Classified. Need-to-know only. What-happens-in-chemo-stays-in-chemo. Not cos I was embarrassed – it weren’t like she’d got crabs or herpes. More cos of those three bearded aunties – the ones who’d said her sickness was her karma for divorcing my dad.

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 anyway? By the way, Ramona, you know how since schooldays we’ve always told each other the full fucking download? Well, I totally forgot to mention that for the past nine years my mum has been battle-axing breast cancer. That for the past four of those years, she’s been dying from it. I guess it just slipped my mind. I know you’ve told me all about your mum – about how she kick-slapped the crap out of your real dad. About how you walked in on her and your stepdad. You even told me about your mum’s yeast infection – like I really needed to know about her yoghurt-based routine for feminine hygiene.

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. Obviously I’ve told Ramona about Mum’s divorce. Even the violin shit about how she’d worked two different jobs just to make sure I didn’t get scurvy. About her permanent home improvement programme that calls 24/7 for my height, my hammer action and my general sawing, screw-driving and soldering skills – that DIY was why I’d spent our first year of uni still living at home in Acton. If I’d known she’d get re-admitted 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 I watch as we pass Covent Garden.

The taxi pulls up beside a bunch of drunk-and-derogatory posh boys. Beige trousers and self-belief. One of the posh boys makes eye contact with me and starts shouting. I consider telling our cabbie to keep the change, but cos she’s a woman it feels cheesy – condescending. Still, I don’t think twice about umbrella-walking Ramona five feet from taxi to foyer. My dry hand taking her raincoat as we queue at the ticket collection booth. My student discount card, my booking reference. And they say chivalry is just for sex.

At the counter, check trouser pockets to make sure ‘Dhilan’ handset was left dead-and-buried in the back of the cab. Check. But despite remembering to forget it, I can still hear its frickin ringtone. Even though it’s wedged deep in the backseat. Even though I’d switched it to silent. Even though I’d turned it off. Even though I’d told Mum to not even think about foning me this evening. Should’ve 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.

Probably now nearer thirty.

Forty and still counting.

I tell Ramona I’m sorry but I’ve got to 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 – no sense both of us missing it.” I hand her the tickets, raincoat, umbrella, a tenner for a taxi home.

“No way, Dillon,” Ramona calls out behind me. “No bloody way. You want to treat all those Sociology sluts you sleep with like this, that’s up to you, but you don’t just bail on me.”

I tell her again that I’m sorry. I tell her again that I’m sick.

Outside the theatre, you push past the queues of tourists and ponces-who-probably-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 a 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 hurry inside and take their seat.

You try hailing another taxi but ain’t easy when acting like some police-chased crack-addict. Telling tourists and posh boys to get out the way, hair dripping through the tears and snot now matted on your face. Yelling “Stop” at any taxi that passes, then screaming “Take me to the fucking hospital.” Shouldn’t be rolling in a taxi anyway – not when not with Ramona. Tube cheaper, better, faster, stronger. The posh boys and tourists still walking too slowly; you quit the pavement to run on the road. Not sprinting, though. Not even running, really. But walking too quick to just call it just walking. 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, then – before the nurses become bouncers who won’t let you in. Half an hour would be more than enough if Charing Cross Hospital was actually in Charing Cross, but it’s actually five miles away in Hammersmith. Meanwhile, Hammersmith Hospital is in Acton. Perfect excuse for turning up too late, but you already used it last year.

A man walks out of a restaurant with a photo of his meal stuck to his forehead. A woman walks out of a cinema and starts telling random people what she thought of the film. Hammersmith station’s on the Piccadilly Line; you can pick it up from Leicester Square or Covent Garden. Journey Planner app says Covent Garden. Before you met Ramona, you thought theatres were all about those musicals that tourists go to – grown-ups dropping nursery rhymes and dance routines. That time in Year Ten when your mum was back in remission and wanted to go “catch” a West End show with you. That night the only night she could get tickets and time off work at the same time. While booking the special Valentine’s rate dinner-and-theatre deal, she asked you to choose the restaurant. Be my big man, Dhilan, and make decisions. Whisk me off my feet.

You cross a street dodging more taxis, more minicabs. More women on foot, more waiters putting out rubbish. The 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. A gap in the crowd opens, the Tube station ticket barriers open, the doors to the lift open – the lift doors not sliding so much as bursting open like shirt buttons on some Spandex-wearing superhero. Somewhere between all the openings, you fixed up your hair and dried your eyes. And bought her a bunch of flowers. From where the fuck did you just buy flowers? A woman in flat-heeled feminist shoes smiles at them as if you’d bought the bunch for her. Then she makes eye contact with you and starts shouting.

The day before the West End play, your mum made you fone to confirm the table reservation and her appointment at the hairdresser’s. Soon as you replaced the receiver, it started ringing again – like there was one more thing you’d forgotten to confirm. Ramona smiled down the landline and told you she was throwing a last-minute blowout for her birthday tomorrow – her 14th on the 14th. At first, you were relieved to tell her your butt was busy – that you were sorry, but you were going to the theatre tomorrow evening. With some mates, not with my mum.To see a play, not a musical – not some three-hour nursery rhyme for tourists, a proper play like how ponces from private schools go to when they ain’t going to the ballet or opera or reading novels.

But the next morning, you no longer felt so relieved. A follow-up Facebook invite from Ramona, a bump on your forehead, a dent in your bedroom desk. And so you told your mum that you were feeling sick, real sick – so sick that she should hit the theatre with someone else tonight. After all, no sense both of you missing it. So sick and feverish and sick that, look, you’d 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, she said, Turmeric always does the trick. She 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. By the time you got home, even your trousers and school blazer were ripped. What have they done to my baby? Dhilan, what has happened? You look like you’ve been having sex behind the bike shed.

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 ice-water-across-your-forehead routine. Counterfeit fever and fake face flannels made from her no-longer-needed sanitary towels. The cold water oozing down your scalp; you remembered her hair appointment – the first since her hair had started growing back again. Don’t sweat it, she told you. I already cancelled everything while I was boiling the milk. Next thing, you were telling her not to cry – that she hadn’t failed as a single mother just cos you’d caught a friggin 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 a left breast. You told her she just needed to smile.

The Tube driver says the train has to “wait here a few minutes” – you clock her exact words cos she’s a she. You check the time on your Dillon handset: 15 minutes. Double-check it on your Dylan handset: 20 minutes. That means a doable 25 minutes for Dhilan. Sit down, breathe in, zone out. Usually when you zone out in Tube carriages, it’s to stop yourself checking out women – their opposing line-ups of feet and footwear. Ankle tattoos and toe-rings. Shielding your mum if she’s travelling with you; if not, shielding the flowers you’ve bought for her.

After lowering your phoney fever, your mum combed your wet fringe. Kisses rubbed in like hair gel.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 warp-speed full recovery must’ve been down to the miracle of milk and turmeric.

And during the interval, she took you to someplace called the Dress 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 out the Tube station, I seriously still reckon I might actually make it. Dylan handset says 19:50, Dillon handset says 19:55. No point hailing 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 probably 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.

I hand her what’s left of the flowers then sit down beside her. The seat comfortably uncomfortable – 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 her copy of the programme and slowly uncurls her toes. Cos fuck what the doctors say, there’s always tomorrow. I’ll go say bye to Mummy tomorrow.