Chestnuts House resident Deborah Nash reveals some of the oddities to be found within its walls
It would be easy to believe that there are all kinds of nefarious goings-on behind the iron gates and brick walls of Chestnuts House in Hoe Street.
Is there a cult living there? Could the house really be a hidden bomb-making factory? A couple with a baby in a pushchair told me that each time they passed the building it reminded them of the setting for a Hammer horror film.
Not so our Eastern European engineer who came one day to fix the water heater above the kitchen sink. Passing a silkscreen print of William Morris he nodded in recognition: “Karl Marx,” he said.
After the engineer had cleaned the soot from the boiler and the pilot light had leapt back to life he asked if there were any rooms going. One couple’s horror film is another’s enchanted kingdom, it would seem!
Communal living is not for everyone and proximity doesn’t necessarily build intimacy. You can think a housemate is a friend and know them through and through and then discover it’s all an illusion and you have no idea who they really are. But proximity can build empathy and openness towards different mindsets and points of view; for us the best is shared out in our kitchen, across a table. Over the years, we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, Diwali, Ramadan, held riotous Italian pizza parties, sampled Polish, French, Indian and Ukrainian specialities; all dishes reflecting the people who live here.
The Chestnuts House kitchen is down a corridor on the ground floor between the stable block and the great hall. It is large, industrial-sized with three cookers, two washing machines, seven fridges, and an ice cream freezer. There is no dishwasher. In this room we have funny, foodie, odd conversations, ranging from talk of house gossip (oh yes, we love it!) to cannibal twins and concrete-mixing. You can wander in to make a cup of tea, intending to stay for as long as it takes to boil the kettle, but exit three hours later, perplexed at where the time went; the kitchen eats it up.
Four years ago, two guardians painted a fridge with blackboard paint and since then it has been our black box, recording messages in coloured chalks; to share food or refrain from stealing it, dates for dinner get-togethers and tributes to David Bowie, requests for the return of lost utensils, favourites in the football fixtures, and a list of suggested baby names (among them Goatee, Pamplemousse, Marrow; in the end the baby was called Felix).
The chalk drawings that blow in magically and anonymously on to the fridge are often added to by other hands in what the art world would call ‘an intervention’. I wrote sections of my novel on the kitchen fridge. Set in a fictional Chestnuts House, the opening chapter begins: “The Coiled Chamber: Cicely arrived at Clock House at the end of a summer spent in other people’s beds, in places where she left her toothbrush and her scent behind, as well as her laughter, of the loud abrupt kind. No-one was sorry to see her leave.”
An editorial intervention in yellow chalk made it this: “The Boiled Eel: Steve arrived at Cock House after a summer spent in other people’s sheds, in places where he left his aftershave and his shotgun behind, as well as his bacon slices of the loud rash kind. No-one was sorry to see him leave.”
One guardian explains that as a child she believed every inanimate object could see, hear and feel. She’s always drawing faces with a marker pen on our surplus veg on the kitchen table; once she attached eyes, ears and whiskers to a tapering sweet potato, making it look so like a rat that no-one ever ate it.
At Easter 2015, two cakes landed in the kitchen: G’s apple cake and K’s Ukrainian Penis cake. The latter is a tall narrow sponge with white icing covered in hundreds and thousands. Normally, it should be taller, K says, and presented with a nest of eggs. “Then this is the castrated version,” V remarks.
The most memorable cake is G’s Brexit cake. Baked to celebrate her tenth anniversary living in the UK, it had a smart Union Flag topping made of marzipan. As we sliced into it, cutting away bits of the flag, the news buzzed of the wrecking ball of the EU Referendum, how Scotland might remain in the EU, how Northern Ireland might unite with the Republic, and how Scotland and a united Ireland might club together with Gibraltar and form an alternative UK. Everything seemed to be crumbling and all we could be certain of at that moment was the joyous demolition of our own flag and the sweeping away of its marzipan crumbs.
If food was our bonding agent, mice were the knives that twisted things up. Squabbles broke out as to why the rodent population had increased and whether this was due to a decline in hygiene and cleaning standards or simply the sharp cold snap that drove them in beneath the door.
One new year a corpse was found in the kitchen. It coincided with the death of Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, after eight years in a coma. The tiny dead mouse, drowned in a blocked-up sink of dirty washing-up water, cast a chilly gloom over the house. G, always the practical one, set eight traps in the kitchen, caught two mice in two hours, threw them into plastic bags and bashed them to death with a frying pan.
Mouse-bashing, however, was not a good long-term solution; G said it was bad rodent karma to be killing mice in one room and keeping Russian hamsters in the next. The way forward was to get a cat, and this we did, restoring calm to our kitchen in the twitch of our tortoiseshell’s tail. Perhaps, for the mice at least, we are a Hammer horror house after all.