Aged thirty-one, Catrina Davies was renting a box-room in a house in Bristol. Working several jobs to make rent, she felt like she was falling apart. Homesick tells the story of Catrina’s personal housing struggle, a story which reflects a country-wide crisis and touches on class, mental health and economics
Before I wrote the following pages, or any pages, I rented a room in a house in Bristol, which I shared with four other adults and a child. Before that, I lived with my ex-boyfriend in a static caravan, just outside the town where I went to secondary school. Before that, I lived in a yellow Iveco van. Before that, I lived for two months in a room in a cottage near my primary school, while the person who actually lived in the cottage was on holiday. Before that, I lived in a room in a house near the static caravan. Before that, I lived in a tent outside the backpackers’ hostel where I worked as a waitress, because the person I was renting a room from before that suddenly got a new girlfriend and kicked me out.
The house in Bristol belonged to a family who were travelling the world on our combined rent. From their perspective, this probably seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. They were maximizing their assets in order to get the very most out of their lives. From my perspective, it was upsetting, not least because they had put the house in the care of a letting agent, and the letting agent had his own key. He used his key to spy on us, and these regular intrusions were legal. Because my room was technically a box room and not a bedroom, and this was written into the tenancy agreement (which did not include me), I had to eradicate all traces of my existence in preparation for these inspections. Eradicating myself was so annoying, I fell into the habit of staying permanently eradicated. The walls were bare. I kept my books in old plastic daffodil crates I had used for moving since my days as a flower picker for Winchester Growers. I didn’t unfold the sofa bed, but slept on it folded. It gave me a bad back. My room had one window, which looked straight out on to a red brick wall.
Rent was a monthly trauma. My housemates and I argued a lot over bills. My thirtieth birthday came and went, then my thirty-first. I’d busked my way through life, hawking a bizarre and random set of skills that ranged from circus bands and cello lessons to writing for websites and DJ’ing in clubs and bars. I had moved to Bristol because there were things I felt I needed to do, but, now that I was there, everything was slipping from my grasp. I couldn’t think straight in the box room. I definitely couldn’t write a memoir about busking from Norway to Portugal, which was, at that time, top of my list. Instead, I obsessed about housing.
Once I had decided what to do, it all happened very fast. My plan was not sensible or wise or legal or financially sound. It was a castle in the air, made of images from Google Earth and half-forgotten memories from childhood, and a yearning so strong it had no name. The forces within me, which had been gathering and building like the steam in a pressure cooker, finally overwhelmed the forces bearing down on me. I found someone to sublet my room, told my various clients I was leaving, and tried and failed to get hold of Dad. The rising tide of desperation drowned out the voices of anxiety. I told myself that, if my half-formed plan didn’t work, I could come back to the box room. Or go back to living in a tent. Or save and save and buy another van like my beloved Iveco, which had been crushed into a cube and shipped to China because its bodywork fell apart.
The girl I had found to sublet the box room was younger than I was. She had seemed excited at the prospect of sharing with four other adults and a child.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked me.
‘I’m going to squat in a shed that used to be my Dad’s office,’ I said.
I bit my lip. Please let the key be in the same place it always was. Please let the water not have been turned off.
‘Just for a bit. I’m going to write a book.’
Fake it till you make it.
‘That sounds cool,’ said the girl, who had dark curly hair and freckles. ‘Where is it?’
‘It’s on the far side of Land’s End,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Wow.’
The far side of Land’s End is a long way from anywhere. It was dusk by the time I finally parked the silver Peugeot next to the black and white chevron signs that had been placed in front of the shed by the council to warn drivers about the ninety-degree bend in the road. The sky was light around the edges, as it often is at dusk in early spring, as though the sun is limbering up, getting ready to breathe life back into the comatose world.
I kissed the steering wheel again, out of gratitude, even though the right-hand indicator was still flashing, which meant the battery would probably be dead in the morning. I climbed out of the car, stretched my legs, smelled the salt in the air and took a deep breath. This was the moment of truth, the moment when my plans would become reality – or not. I felt a rush of adrenaline. It was hard to breathe. I felt like I’d swallowed a stone and now someone was squeezing me around the waist. If the key wasn’t in its place under the granite boulder, then I would try to break in, and if I couldn’t break in, I would call my big sister and ask if I could sleep on her sofa until I got myself sorted out. I took another deep breath, clasped my shaking hands together and said, ‘Right.’
Catrina will be sharing her story at the Idler Festival 2020. Buy Early Bird tickets here.