Thank God for
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
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
in Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain on 5/2/17.
Wikipedia - The madwoman of Chaillot
Google images of West Hampstead, London fire