Every day he went to work in the attic of the house where he lived. He sat down at his desk and hoped that the words would come. He tried to ignore the sound of his son running about downstairs, or his baby daughter crying because she’d not had enough sleep. He checked emails, browsed the internet and stared at his phone. And when none of that helped he headed out for a walk.
He walked the same routes he had walked as a child, through the streets and the neighbourhoods he knew inside out. He walked past beautiful old buildings that had become shops he never went in and all the empty houses where his friends used to live. He walked past the place that had sold for six times what it was worth and saw no sign of life inside. Then one day the walls were pressure-washed and painted. A scrap of driftwood placed in the window. A grey plaque engraved with a website address. A key-safe screwed to the side of a gate.
People kept telling him it couldn’t continue. That one day it would crash and come tumbling down.
But the days became weeks became months became years. And nothing ever crashed just continued to rise.
Every day he went to work in the attic of the house where he lived. He sat down at his desk but the darkness took hold. Suddenly, he’d be dizzy and struggling to breathe, heart racing, unable to see through the fog. He’d attempt to work his way out of it, convinced that if he could tick off some of the jobs hanging over him he’d feel better about it all. Or that the darkness might lift for a moment.
But the harder he tried, the worse it became. He’d waste entire days sat there without writing a single word. Or he’d write for hours without getting anywhere, saying the same thing over and over.
He found it utterly overwhelming and debilitating. His sense of judgment evaded him. His confidence was shot to shit. He felt like he had failed at everything.
He thought about the reasons they had decided to return. They wanted to raise a family in the place they were from and were saving the money to buy a house of their own. But five years on from when they first moved back and they were living in their fifth different rental in that time. The more time that passed, the more distant their dream. The more that they earned, the less they could afford.
He thought about the cramped attic and the basement flat. The old council house and the cottage in the sticks. He thought about the damp walls, the faulty boilers, the unfinished roof and the ceilings that shook. He thought about the neighbour who screamed her head off night and day as her dogs ran around barking and shitting on the lawn. He thought about the guy two doors up who blasted out drum n bass at a deafening volume, intermittently yelling insults over the fence. He thought about the baby they’d lost in that windowless bathroom underground, and the weeks he spent keeping watch over his brother having confiscated his wallet and phone. He thought about rushing off to meet dealers in the dead of the night to pay debts with the deposit they’d saved for a home. He thought about throwing out the entire contents of their food cupboards because the insides were sodden and everything had grown mould.
He thought about the landlords. Rarely the wheeler-dealer types he’d seen on TV, but the well educated second-homers with income to spare. He thought about the one that split her time between the five-bedroom house above them and the flat that she owned in the city. The one who avoided paying council tax but demanded they put her rubbish in their wheely-bin come collection day. The one who would watch him from her window and cough loudly as he smoked, just to remind him she was there. He thought about the one whose dad was a famous painter, and so all the money he had he’d inherited. The one who didn’t have a job but owned multiple properties, and didn’t like investing in any of them. The one who insisted on carrying out any maintenance himself and took three weeks just to put up a fence round the garden. He thought about the one who wanted to live out her Grand Designs dream in a place where 32 per cent of families were living in poverty. The one who renovated her cottage using methods she’d read about in her fancy magazines but ignored the advice of an experienced builder. The one who rendered a wall with horse hair adamant it would keep out the damp, and ended up with a furry surface covered in blackspot. The one they complained to because water was pouring into the house, who told them they just needed to open the windows more often.
He thought about all the hours he had tried to work in these places. Hunched over his desk with a hot water bottle between his legs and a duvet draped over his shoulders, picking flakes of peeling wallpaper out of his hair. Or piling his belongings into the middle of the room to avoid the onrushing flood. He thought about all the hours of sleep he had lost listening to the insane lady rattling about next door or holding his son as he coughed through the night. The hours of sleep he had lost to worrying, worrying all the time. Worrying about where they were going to live and what they were going to do. Worrying about what was happening and when it would all end.
Every day he went to work in the attic of the house where he lived. And when the time came to stop he went back downstairs. He changed nappies, cooked dinner, put his children to bed. He sat down with his wife and they talked through their day. And every night they returned to the same topic again.
Callum Mitchell is a writer from West Cornwall.
Since graduating from Falmouth University with a Distinction on the Professional Writing MA in 2009, Callum has created work for the likes of the National Trust, Bristol Old Vic, Hall For Cornwall, o-Region, and more. This includes writing extensively for the stage, curating exhibitions, and creating landscape art installations. His documentary film-poem, Gorthwedh (2019), was screened in a purpose-built cinema on in an old quarry on the cliffs in St Just, Cornwall.
In 2020, Callum was the recipient of the Nick Darke Talent Award in recognition of the work he has created for and about Cornwall. He is an Associate Artist at Hall For Cornwall, and spent 2021 developing scripts for television as part of the BBC Writersroom Cornish Voices programme. Callum frequently collaborates with filmmaker Mark Jenkin, and was Assistant Director on the BAFTA-winning Bait (2019) as well as the forthcoming Enys Men (2022). His audio dramadocumentary, Solomon Browne, written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Penlee Lifeboat disaster, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, December 2021, to widespread acclaim and selected as Drama Of The Week.
He lives in Newlyn, in the house he grew up in, with his wife and two children.