Meet Dillon – a high-functioning fuck-up otherwise known both as Dylan or Dhilan. The spelling of the 19-year-old’s name and its corresponding online identity depends on whether he’s being a libidinal undergrad at the London School of Economics, the celibate CEO of his own student tech start-up, or caring for his perpetually-terminally-ill mum beside her latest prospective death-bed. None of these identities are imaginary. All his lives are equally real and equally ridiculous. He’s been his mother’s primary carer since the age of ten and together they’ve sat through nine years of mother-son marriage guidance therapy and pre-bereavement bereavement counselling.
"On the plus side, being Mum's carer has been sweet for my career. Kept me off the streets, made me do good in my GCSEs, got me into some big boss uni. Today's lecture's about something I already taught myself – I blitzed the whole reading list the last time she was rotting in hospital. My brain like a Tampax for textbooks and the side-effects of her Tamoxifen tablets. Whatever it takes, OK. Whatever grades I needed to attain for her to carry on smiling and fighting and live-blogging parents' evening. My positive exam results = her negative test results = forget fucking chemo, just intravenously administer my academic accomplishments. Well, good for me, yeh. All this shit's been good for me. I ain't ever told Mum this, but I even tried getting my ass into Cambridge – after all, that would've been one way to justify going to uni outside London. One way to justify living in student halls and draft-dodge having to hold her tighter than Spandex every morning-sickness morning."
But although Dillon has worked his Oedipal bollocks off to escape to uni, there’s no getting away from all the complicated family-related crap, with its lashings of intangible guilt and all-too-tangible bodily fluids. Like many young carers, he has kept his twisted and distorted domestic life a secret from his friends – and even from his long-suffering girlfriend, Ramona. His various double lives have now grown hardwired, leaving Dillon stuck somewhere between love and resentment and fixated by the physical horror of his mother’s sickness in order to drown out the emotional pain. But the appearance on campus of two strange men who seem to know everything about all Dillon’s different identities forces him to track down his shady and long estranged father. And that’s when the shit gets really real...
There are estimated to be anywhere between 200,000 and 700,000 young carers in the UK – a hidden army of children or teenagers who are looking after a sick or incapacitated parent. This is the story of one of them. Thank you for your support.
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.
“Heading to N.E.R.D’s new album launch tonight – gig being streamed live if you wanna join”
“Mum sick again. Gonna spend evening and night by her hospital bedside”
“Tuesday night is student start-up night. And we’ve got a private-equity guest speaker”
This story originally appeared in 'Four Letter Word' an anthology of fictional love letters published by Chatto & Windus.
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