There are a couple of statistics that pop up at the end of Nicholas Connor’s short film Cotton Wool. The first, on the number of young carers in England and Wales (243,000) is shocking enough. The second is heartbreaking: that 22,000 of those young carers are under the age of 9.
And his film shows just how accepted this state of affairs is when two children are given instructions in how to care for their mum after she’s had a stroke – giving the whole process a sheen of normality.
Sam (Max Vento) is only 7; his older sister Jenny (Katie Quinn) looks about 16. She tries to avoid helping, both embarrassed by her mum and determined to have her own life, and another shock was finding myself angry at her for her boundaries.
She has to step up – without her help, the burden disproportionately falls on little Sam, who runs to the local shop along country lanes in the snow for milk, and helps his mum with her speech therapy. But neither of them should ever have been put in that position in the first place.
Single mum Rachel (an exceptional Leanne Best), elegant in her black trouser suit but harassed as she tries to get Jenny to clean her room, is rushing to leave for work when she collapses on the floor.
Her terror is palpable, trying to call for help but unable to as her mouth no longer works. Sam is with her, and Vento absolutely nails that feeling of desperation when you’re little and something happens to the adult you rely on: “stop being a monster” he begs while calling for his sister.
Back home after a stay in hospital, Rachel needs care, and the social worker makes clear that the children have to help. She doesn’t seem to think this odd any more, and no one seems surprised that a teenager is expected to look after her mother and her little brother.
Rachel’s world is reduced to her sofa and her bedroom; clothes are now practical and comfy; her ability to communicate reduced to a few single-syllable words and a voice machine. Not being able to speak fluently has a huge effect on Rachel’s sense of self and it reminded me of something the late John Diamond wrote years ago as he chronicled his struggle with cancer. After surgery on his tongue, the journalist and broadcaster heard himself change from being a person who said “absolutely” to a person who said “yes”.
The voice player’s flat, emotionless tone is deliberately jarring as Rachel uses it to explain her feelings to the social worker. “I don’t feel like a woman any more”, she says, then starts crying with humiliation as her period has started but she can’t get herself to the toilet.
Sam is instructed in how to call the warden if Rachel has a mini stroke. Jenny is often embarrassed and leaves Sam so she can go out with friends.
I recognised both Rachel’s symptoms and the children’s reactions. My mum had a mini stroke when I was staying with her a few years ago, waking up unable to speak. Unlike Rachel she knew what it was likely to be, having suffered a major stroke in 1962 (the joke in my “stiff upper lip” family was that she did at least miss the Cuban Missile Crisis).
She wasn’t incapacitated though she was left with health problems, had to leave her job, and by all accounts she never regained her joy de vivre. She was also ill when we were growing up and though she didn’t need as much help as Rachel, I certainly understood Jenny’s feelings – of her home life being different to friends’, feeling embarrassed and hating herself for it, while also defending her mum.
Quinn is fantastic as the terrified teen, seeing her life slipping away and desperate for some normality, covering up with a heavy coating of teenage grouchiness and selfishness. Vento had me in tears for vast chunks of the running time.
The film is just under 40 minutes, and the number of issues Rachel’s stroke raises would have been well served by a longer running time to explore them more fully. Family friend Marion’s comments to Jenny about how communities no longer rally round sounded rather shoehorned in, and wasn’t necessary – the film is good anyway on the family’s isolation and the sneaky way the situation has become normalised.
The final message about love, while true to Rachel and her family, in some ways negates the issue, which is that society needs to pay for adult carers, and stop relying on emotional blackmail to force children to take on these caring roles.
Still, these are minor gripes. Connor has crafted an absorbing film of wonderful performances that is searingly honest, yet finishes on a note of realistic optimism.
Watch the trailer for Cotton Wool: