This is a story about the house that I used to live in. I have mixed feelings about this house. It was not a great time in my life although the house itself was a very unique house that attracted me. It was built in 1910 which was the same year my maternal grandfather was born. The estate would have originally owned all the land on the hill back when Eltham was most definitely a country destination and not the edge of suburbia that it eventually became. The house had associations with many notable people across various artistic fields. This was interesting but it wasn’t what connected me to the property.
It was a rough diamond in need of gentle polishing when we found it. One evening before we moved in a friend and I drove slowly through the driveway, pausing at the residence to show him our new place. It was unique in that it could be accessed from the north and the south roads. This referenced its past as a larger estate, well known in the area.
It was night time and there were no lights on in the house. I already knew the previous tenants had vacated as the house was empty when we inspected and bought it a few weeks earlier. The large unconventional shape was almost foreboding on the dark evening. My friend and I stayed inside the car as it seemed the right thing to do.
I’m not sure how to describe what happened next. Whilst I knew my friend couldn’t see him, I ‘saw’ an older man stoop to look into the front passenger side window to see who was in the car. His right hand was resting on the car’s roof. He was wearing a mid-brown woollen jumper with taupe slacks. Once he was satisfied that it was only me, he straightened up, turned and walked back towards the house. I wasn’t afraid and I actually wasn’t even surprised. We then continued our drive and I dropped my friend home without any fuss.
Later when we were all moved and settled in, there were times I would sense her in the house. Making some baked goods in the kitchen, she would watch over my shoulder – just to keep an eye on me. “Just watching, darlink. Just watching.” she would say in her strong Russian accent. Nina was short with her long hair pulled back in a bun. Always smartly attired, she enjoyed the company of me and my daughters. She was never able to have children but loved having them around. In fact, both of them loved the life and energy we brought to the house.
There was a spot in the living room where Clem would sit, drink his whiskey whilst reading. He loved his books. He had founded the literary journal Meanjin Quarterly which promoted Australian writing. Nina was the head of Russian studies at Melbourne University. Both scholars, when money got tight they would sell off parcels of land to help make ends meet. The house was basic when we inherited it with some beautiful work done by the architect Desbrowe Annear. When required, rooms were extended in quite an ad hoc manner. Its rambling lay-out was endearing to me but infuriated my designer husband.
Nina became ill and with her strength ebbing day by day, she soon never left her bed. Clem would sit near her bedside reading as Nina dozed. She was grateful for the exciting lives full of love and laughter that she and Clem had shared. Sadly too soon, she passed away. Clem couldn’t cope with the great weight of sadness he felt at this enormous loss. He drank more and more whiskey from his favourite crystal low ball to help blur reality but upon waking each morning, the house was still cold and empty without her. Not long after, Clem moved out and died a few months later. His colour had been gradually draining out of him without his Nina around.
Our family moving in with all the noise and light that two young girls bring with them stirred Clem and Nina. The house that they had poured more than fifty years of their lives into was to be a home once more and they needed to know it was in good hands. I was unhappy not to have stayed there longer but you can never know what strange turns life is going to take. I’m grateful to have known Clem and Nina Christesen.