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Thank God for 999 #1
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

In the 70s I lived at 8 Alexandra Mansions, an Edwardian mansion block comprising of three red brick buildings fused together, extending from West End Green, up West End Lane, West Hampstead, London NW6.

My third floor intimate one bedroom flat overlooked the Green and the fire station opposite. Next to the fire station was the local pub which I did not frequent, as I didn't drink, visiting only once in search of acquiring a cat.

I was very friendly with both my wonderful neighbours on the third floor.  Angelo Cinque, a shy but talented graphic designer working for Saachi and Saachi, the number one advertising agency in London and Rona Grischotti, an older divorced  ex actress who often spoke about her abusive Italian ex husband but praised her only daughter who was living in Abu Dahbi  with her husband, only to be badly treated by him when she moved in with his family. He too, quickly became an ex.

Rona did not have my keys. Nobody did. One summer Sunday morning dressed only in my nightgown, I knocked on her door as I had run out of milk for my usual morning Nescafé. It had been warm that night and thus I had not slept too well and opened my sash window to get some air in despite the noise from the traffic on the ever busy Green. West End Green was also the terminus for the 159 bus into the West End where I worked as a TEFL teacher for the prestigious St Giles school of languages in Oxford Street.

I knocked gingerly on Rona's door because it was only about 8.30 on a Sunday morning and, horror of horrors, the front door shut catching the wind from the open bedroom window. What to do?  No spare keys with my neighbours. I was in my night dress, bedroom slippers and dressing gown. Hair ruffled and Angelo away for the weekend. Using Rona's phone, I called a 24 hour locksmith hoping he could help with a skeleton key. He laughed saying it was illegal to have one, giving me an outrageous quote for a locksmith to come out on a Sunday.

I took the bull by the horns and went down three flight to the old fire station built in 1901 across the road. The big red doors to let the fire engine out were closed but I noticed a side door and boldly entered.

About 6 or 8 men were having breakfast sitting at a large communal table. I must have looked like the madwoman of Chaillot. One of the men, with a twinkle in his eye, stood up and patiently listened to my tale of woe.

Looking at me straight in the eye he asked me if I had left the gas on. 'No' I innocently replied. He loomed right over me and repeated slowly with piercing eyes,  'Are you sure you haven't left the gas on?'
I got his message. 'Why yes, I put the kettle on to make my coffee.'
'So the gas flame is still on then?' He concluded speaking slowly and loudly for all to hear.
'Yes.' I smiled knowingly.
With that he picked up his walkie talkie.
'Emergency gas left on at 8 Alexandra Mansions. West End Green.'
Then he told the men to get the fire engine out. More men came down the pole from above with special leggings on knowing full well it was a hoax, moaning and groaning.

Out came the big red fire engine just to go to the other side of the Green! Worse, the siren was switched on full blast. I watched in awe as the ladder cleverly unfolded and extended to reach the third floor. By this time a big crowd had gathered to watch, commenting that they couldn't see any smoke. They almost sounded disappointed.

The man in charge whispered to me to go up to the third floor and the fireman, who had pushed my bedroom window open and vanished inside, would let me in. Perhaps I left the front door to the building on the latch, I don't recall as I was in such a panic.

999 saved me that never to be repeated day. I made duplicate keys for Rona and Angelo later in the week and when the shops opened at 11.00 that Sunday morning, I went out fully dressed and bought a big tin of the ever popular 'Roses' chocolates for the West Hampstead fire brigade team with sincere thanks from the madwoman of Chaillot!

Viva 999!

Written in Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain on 5/2/17.


Wikipedia - The madwoman of Chaillot
Google images of West Hampstead, London fire station