Rugby Cafe Writers have completed their 2020 writing project, inspired by Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. We created a fictional set of characters living in a small block of flats in North-West London. Each meeting, someone in the Cafe Writers was challenged to write 300 words (maximum) about one of the characters, bearing in mind what has happened to them in previous weeks. The contribution had to end with some kind of cliff-hanger to be resolved by the next writer.
This diagram shows the layout of the fictional flats. The first part of the story introduces Klara in Flat 1.
LOFT APARTMENT ?
|Flat 6 – Genevieve and Dmitry Lebedev.||LANDING||Flat 5 – Dr Elinor Cartwright|
|Flat 4 – Margaret Muldoon||LANDING||Flat 3 – Sir Richard Umbrella Davies|
|Flat 2 ?||LOBBY. Small room off this for committee.||Flat 1 – Klara Gleibnitz|
Chapter One by John Howes
Thursday was bin day. So Klara knew one thing, at least. A helpful notice had been pinned to her door when she moved in. It was addressed to ‘Miss K.Gleibnitz’, but signed, rather mysteriously, ‘the committee’. Amongst other useful nuggets of information were a few vaguely threatening reminders. No pushchairs or bicycles to be left in the downstairs lobby. No wet umbrellas – and the playing of musical instruments after 10pm was strictly forbidden.
It had been a trying day for Klara. The removal people were an hour late and there were copious intakes of breath when they’d spotted her mini-grand piano. Temporary traffic lights on the Finchley Road had made parking a nightmare and, worst of all, she couldn’t find a single teabag for her afternoon cuppa.
Still, she was in. Thrapston Mansions was the rather flattering title of her 1920s-built art deco home: three storeys of flats with a loft apartment, and all within striking distance of St John’s Wood and Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Klara was a petite woman in her late fifties. A man once said she was unremarkable looking but with a remarkable mind. This hadn’t bothered her a bit. Better that way round.
She sighed and looked around her. Books sat in piles waiting for their new home on her fabulous white wooden shelves. The piano, after putting up quite a struggle, waited mutely in the corner for the soft touch of her fingers. Things could be worse. It was time for a break and, well, a coffee would have to do.
She put her feet up and picked a book at random from the top of the pile. Aah, Jane Austen, she thought.
But as she opened its delicate leaves to the first page, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. First it was soft and repetitive. Then it became more urgent, louder, on the verge of being deafening.
Chapter Two by Christine Hancock
“Please, I need help.”
It was a woman’s voice, and it sounded desperate. Klara opened the door but prepared to shut it if threatened.
“Please come, they’re causing problems again.” The woman paused and peered at Klara. “You’re not Mr Blenkinsopp.”
“I’m sorry; was he the previous tenant?” Had they mentioned a name? Only that he had left suddenly, which was why this flat had become available at short notice.
“Oh dear, Mr B was always helpful when I had problems.” Frowning, the woman glanced over her shoulder towards the stairs then back at Klara. “Who are you? Can you help?”
“I’m Klara, I’ve just moved in.” She held out her hand.
“Margaret Muldoon, but everyone calls me Margo. She clutched at Klara’s hand and pumped it several times, then turned it and bent her head to study the palm. Alarmed, Klara tugged to regain possession, but the surprisingly strong fingers only squeezed tighter.
“Hmm, you might do.” Margo’s grip loosened but retained its hold of Klara’s hand. Dark eyes studied the new arrival at Thrapston Mansions.
Klara returned the inspection. Margo had long grey hair, streaked with white and, in her opinion, in need of a good comb. It was held back from her face with a scarf, dark blue with silver stars that glittered, even in the low wattage of the lobby light bulbs. Klara intended to bring that matter to the attention of “the committee”, whoever they were.
Margo wore what could only be described as a dressing gown, or a reject from some Egyptian souk, a swirl of competing colours.
“I live at number four, upstairs, on the other side.” She gave another glance towards the stairs. Somewhere a door slammed. “Come with me; I’m sure that between us we can deal with them.”
Chapter 3 by Kate A.Harris
‘I’ll grab some shoes,’ Klara said and Margo pulled her multi-coloured dressing gown belt tightly around her ample waist.
Klara found her flat black shoes and hurriedly put them on before Margo could see her untidy apartment, littered with packing cases. Then she carefully locked the front door with her newly-cut key.
‘There I’m ready. Thanks for waiting.’ Klara followed Margo.
‘Where are we going? I haven’t met anybody yet and don’t want to upset people.’
‘Follow me. We are going up two flights of stairs to Flat 6, directly above my flat. Here we are. Look at the rubbish around the door. You can see how they eat with filthy takeaway cartons and dozens of empty plastic coffee mugs. It’s not good enough. They are lowering the standards of Thrapston Mansions,’ said Margo taking a deep breath and allowing Klara to reply.
‘Yes, it’s a terrible din and 11pm. It’s too late for that deafening racket. Call that music?’
‘Now you can see and hear the problem. It’s every weekend. They are contravening the rules as laid down by The Committee. Be warned they are not nice people!’
Margo thumped on the door of Number 6. Nobody answered. She took off her shoe and banged even louder on the door.
‘Come on, answer this door!’ Margo shouted.
Slowly the door began to open, just slightly to reveal a scruffy, unshaven young man. Behind him a slender woman, scantily dressed in a diaphanous, low-cut dress who pushed him into Margo and Klara.
The woman spoke: ‘Who are you lovely ladies? I’m Genevieve and this is Dmitry Lebedev. It’s his flat. He is Russian and doesn’t speak any English.’
Dmitry and Genevieve roughly grabbed Margo and Klara and dragged them into Number 6.
‘Whatever is that funny sweet smell?’
Chapter 4 by Chris Wright
The Russian was short but strong and both ladies were swept into a man-cave.
Girls barely in 90s clothing on motorcycles on the wall where Klara would have had a Constable print or a London street scene: a sofa of burgundy leather; books on black shelves to the ceiling behind it. A collection of favourite beer bottles displayed on a low shelf, a laptop, big speakers, but no TV. A scent of engine oil?
Observing Dmitry, Klara saw him as a Bacchus figure minus horns and goat feet, contrasting with the dryadic Genevieve with long brown hair and green eyes.
“Loud was it, Babes? Dmitry loves his AC/DC, full volume”.
“That is what we wanted to talk about”, stated Klara firmly.
Genevieve responded, oblivious, “All that macho blaring while in your school uniform… hilarious.”
Was Genevieve on something? Pupils normal, face pale but attractive; late twenties.
Genevieve turned to Dmitry, “им не нравится шум.” Klara knew the word “shum” meant noise.
“Ха-ха! Тогда они возненавидят это …” Dmitry laughed, stood up and beckoned toward the guests.
All the Thrapston flats boasted spacious kitchens big enough for a 6-seater dining table. Klara and Margo followed Dmitry into the Kitchen with Genevieve hovering behind them .
A Triumph motorcycle was on the menu, almost cooked with just the petrol tank to fit, the floor a mess of rags and spanners; even a hydraulic jack.
Klara wondered about Dmitry’s plan to get the bike out of the flat.
“Steve McQueen!” he sniggered.
“We live on takeaways because we can’t use the kitchen, Dears. Somebody say Just Eat?” still seeming a little zoned out.
“The Committee won’t like this,” Margo muttered and collapsed in a heap, unconscious, just missing the only chair.
Chapter 5 by Fran Neatherway
Klara rushed to Margo’s side. “Quick, call an ambulance! She may have hit her head.”
“Oopsie.” Genevieve giggled. She threw a glass of water in Margo’s face. “Don’t worry, dear. She does it all the time. She’ll come round in a minute. If you’re bothered, Number 5’s a doctor.”
Dimitry turned back to his motorbike and picked up a spanner.
Klara ran out of the flat, across the landing and rang the doorbell, several times. The door opened and a tall elegant blonde stood in the doorway, holding a pencil and looking annoyed.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late,” Klara said, “but it’s an emergency. Margo from number 4 has fainted and Genevieve opposite said you’re a doctor.”
Dr Cartwright stared very intently at Klara as she spoke. She picked up a pad of paper from a hallway table and started to write, then thrust the pad at Klara, who was wondering if all the inhabitants of Thrapston Mansions were mad.
PhD IN ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES
GENEVIEVE PULLING LEG
Klara felt like an idiot. “I’m so sorry. I only moved in today. Klara Gleibnitz, Flat 1.”
ELINOR CARTWRIGHT, the woman scrawled. She pointed to her ears and shook her head.
Klara turned red, realising that she’d been had: Elinor was not a medical doctor and she was deaf.
MARGO FAINTS ALL THE TIME!!!!!! Elinor wrote.
“I’m really sorry to have bothered you. Please come and have a cup of tea with me when you’re free.”
From number 4, the engine roared. Klara had to flatten herself against the wall as Dimitry, on the motorbike, shot out of the flat and down the stairs, shouting, “Yippee-ki-ay!”
Genevieve followed him more sedately. “Margo’s fine, she’s gone back to hers.” And she was signing to Elinor as she spoke. Klara was miffed.
Chapter 6 by David J. Boulton
That much for a pizza? Klara wouldn’t be doing that again. Thrapston Mansions must be in a more expensive area than she’d realised. She was just opening the box when she heard someone at the door.
He pushed his way in… well not quite… Klara would have preferred their conversation to have been conducted across the threshold, but somehow, he was standing in her kitchen.
“You’ve been visiting upstairs.”
He was every inch the petty official; instantly recognisable, bristling with authority. As he leaned forward she could smell the stale sweat.
Paranoia was not a psychiatric symptom where Klara came from; it had been a necessity for survival during the first twenty years of her life. Only when the wall came down, and she moved westward did she learn she could live without it, but suspicion of authority still lurked, beneath the civilised surface of her life, ready to spring to her defence.
“Wer bist du?”
Her native German appeared unbidden and served to discommode the pushy little man.
“Who are you?”
Klara’s sudden switch disorientated him further.
“I’m… Chairman of the Committee,” he replied, speaking very slowly, as if to a foreigner, leaving him off balance as she continued in her perfect English.
“It’s not convenient to talk just now,” she waved a hand in the direction of her pizza. “Make an appointment next time.” He was almost out the door “and I’ll not be spied on. Do you understand?”
Watching his retreat, she noticed a security camera covering the lobby. So that’s how he knew where I’d been, she thought; there’ll be one on each floor.
Back in the flat now, she abandoned the pizza and started searching. Klara had been under surveillance before. Those cameras outside were only the tip of an iceberg.
Chapter Seven by Oliver Pawsey
She spent over an hour searching for hidden listening devices or cameras.
She checked in the lightbulbs that were already in the flat and found nothing, not even dust. She even took a screwdriver to the plug sockets but to no avail.
If they were watching or listening, they were better at hiding it than she expected.
After her cold pizza (ham and pineapple) Klara retired. She hadn’t set up her bed yet and so was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a surprisingly spacious bedroom. It reminded her of similar nights from her youth. Vastly different times.
It was around 2am when she heard it… a drip… drip… drip… drip… With a huff she clambered out of her make-shift bed and began to investigate. First she checked the bathroom. The taps in there were bone dry, as were all the pipes.
She checked the taps in the kitchen as well, and they were also dry.
Perhaps she imagined it.
She let out a huge sigh and went back to bed.
She could hear it again, a slow and steady drip… drip… drip… she was so annoyed that she complained out loud to no one in particular.
“Where is that drip coming from?”
No answer of course. The flat wouldn’t give up its mysteries that easily.
She searched again and just as she was giving up, she found it – the radiator in the bedroom. A small but loud drip. Unable to deal with it, she put some earmuffs on and returned to sleep.
She was rudely awoken at 6am by a knock…
Chapter 8 by Pam Barton
“Oh, not again.” Klara had thought that she would have a quiet fresh start here, but this was the third visit in 24 hours. She opened the door to a complete stranger with a surprised expression at the sight of her in a dressing gown.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I live here.”
“No, Blenkinsopp lives here and he’s expecting me.”
“I’ve just moved in, and my only knowledge of Mr Blenkinsopp is that he was helpful.” Klara was feeling quite unnerved now and tried to close the door, but his foot was blocking the movement.
“Where is he?” The man was getting more agitated. “Has he left a message for me?”
“No. The flat was cleared before I moved in, and would you please leave? You could ask the building committee. They do the renting and should have a forwarding address.”
At this point, the figure of the committee man came into sight in the hallway.
“There he is, ask him.” The stranger turned, moving his foot blocking the door. As quickly as she could, she pushed the door, closing it with a feeling of relief. Too late to go back to bed, she poured a cup of coffee, only to be interrupted again by another knock on the door. This time, very warily, she didn’t open it, but called out only to hear the stranger who had called earlier.
He spoke quickly, apologising for the previous visit.
“Please let me explain. This is very urgent and you must help me. I have a life and death situation, please listen please.” He did indeed sound desperate, begging for help. “You see Mr Blenkinsopp was supposed to give me something and without it I’m in trouble.”
“I’m so sorry. I really can’t help. Maybe if you ask one of the other residents. They knew him and I was told he was very helpful.”
“No. He wouldn’t have let it out of the apartment. Let me look at least.”
“I’m sorry, I really am. Leave your telephone number and name and if I see anything I will let you know.
Chapter 9 by Madalyn Morgan
Klara put her ear to the door. She listened for sounds of the main entrance door opening and then closing. It did neither. There was no sound at all. The man must still be in the lobby, still outside her door.
She caught her breath and stepped back in shock. Why would a stranger say, border crossing point? He must know who she is. Klara slumped against the wall and closed her eyes. So much for her new home being a safe-house. Would she never escape her past? Calmly but quickly she moved back to the door and opened it. “Come!” she whispered, ushering the man inside. Holding the door slightly ajar she looked across the lobby as the door to the committee’s office closed.
“I know Blenkinsopp is not here.”
“Shush!’ The man looked in all the places that she had already looked for listening devices. There were none. “I do not want the committee to know who I am, there is a traitor among them. They must not know our plans.”
“Our plans? I have no plans other than to live a quiet life. I gave the BND twenty years of service, working in East and West Berlin – and then British Intelligence ten years. I’ve earned my white-haired, middle-aged-little-lady status and I am going to enjoy it here in London. The next twenty years belong to me.”
“Blenkinsopp’s cover was plumber. I will look in the toilet water tank.”
“Too obvious.” Klara sighed and then smiled. “A plumber would not ignore a leaking radiator, and the radiator in the bedroom is leaking.” She led the way. Leaving the man looking nonplussed, Klara went to the bathroom and brought back a towel. She then took the bleed key from one end of the radiator and laid the towel over the other end.
A hiss of air was discharged as the man turned the bleed valve. He lifted the valve and took a small piece of paper covered in glassine from it. “The passports,” he said, “I know where they are. Danke Blenkinsopp! I am saved.”
Chapter 10 by Simon Grenville
An hour later, as dusk fell, a hunched figure was glimpsed in silhouette, slowly crawling with grappling hooks across the high tiled roof of Thrapston Mansions.
“I know where the passports are! How clever of Blenkinsopp to hide them in a near inaccessible place.”
As the moon rose the stranger reached his destination, the first chimney stack.
The instructions are clear, he intoned to himself, two meters down will I find a package. Freedom!
He was not a large man, but not small either. At 55, he had let himself go a little. So inevitably, as he edged himself over the brow of the chimney and into the darkened recess inches away from the yellowed stained package before him, he got stuck. He could go neither up nor down.
“Who the hell do you think you are, Father Bloody Christmas?”
The voice shook him, twisting his head slightly around he glimpsed an apparition at the apex of the chimney. A tall figure wreathed in shadows.
With some difficulty he attempted to return the greeting.
“Sir, may I ask you the same question? I was not expecting to meet any fellow travellers this evening, least of all on a rooftop in London at midnight.”
Damn cheek of the fellow, thought the tall featured man, but, English to the core, he replied: “I, sir, reside at Flat no 3 Thrapston Mansions, Sir Richard Umbrella Davies, legendary mountaineer and explorer. These damn Covid restrictions have played havoc on my training schedule so I’m forced to climb damn cartwheels across the rooftops of London. Merely to stay fit.”
“Sir, could I ask you as a favour to lower me just a fraction of an inch further into this chimney well. You see, as a precaution against theft, I left my passport and other papers here.”
Curiosity got the better of Sir Umbrella Davies. He did as he was asked. Moments later, soot sodden, the two men leant against the brickwork. Seconds later rotor blades were heard.
Chapter 11 by Simon Parker
Alex Thiel manoeuvred the small rented Robinson R22 helicopter, metres above the rooftops of Thrapston Mansions. He only had a few hours on the type at a flying school in his native Leipzig, but they were enough to convince the chief instructor at Elstree to rent him the aircraft for 24 hours. To make doubly sure that the school weren’t suspicious of his motives for taking an aircraft at short notice, he’d sealed the deal with a mix of slightly affected mittel-European sophistication and a winning smile. A disarming technique, perfected at the Stasi Hochschule in Potsdam, where he’d graduated with honours. Upon first impression, he came across as a well-educated and wealthy young German businessman with a penchant for the high life.
The young ossi pilot flicked the switch on the Russian-made PN21-K night-vision monocle mounted to his helmet. What had been a dark chasm between the chimney stacks was transformed into daylight, albeit with a green hue. He initially squinted at the intensity of the image, then could clearly see the shape of his human target for tonight. The job was not to end a life this time, but to scoop one up and deliver it safely to the helideck of the 75.5m motor yacht Northern Star, moored at Gravesend Sailing Club, barely a ten-minute diagonal flight from his present position. “Sehr einfach, kein problem!” The words of his superior officer rang in his ears.
Alex lowered the spindly aircraft to within easy reach of the stranger’s grasp. With practised precision, the man caught the left-side skid with both hands and gestured with his head for Alex to pull up. He lifted the collective and the rotors bit more keenly into the dense night air. At this, Alex felt the thud-thud of another pair of hands grabbing the opposite skid. He had collected an unintended passenger and they didn’t seem to want to let go any time soon.
Chapter 12 by Wendy Goulstone
Miss Elizabeth Hargreaves woke with a start. What was that terrible noise? It sounded as if the roof was falling in. There was a rattle in the chimney and a cloud of soot burst out, settled on the rug and puffed over the bed. Miss Hargreaves pulled the sheet over her head until the rattling stopped. She swung her legs out of bed, groped for her slippers and dressing gown, and surveyed the damage. Never in the fifty-six years of her residence in the tiny one-room attic bed-sit had the chimney been swept. Since central heating had been installed, there had been no reason to light a fire.
But what was that other noise? Surely not a helicopter? And so close. She would go down and ask the Chairman of the Committee for help.
Someone was shouting on the other side of the door. They must have heard the noise, too. She picked up her door key, tip-toed through the mess and opened the door to the stairs.
On the landing that Russian chap was arguing with that flouncy woman he lived with.
‘All right, all right, I’ll go and find out.’ Perfect English. Strange. On the rare occasions she had spoken to him he had muttered something in Russian. Now there was no trace of an accent.
Miss Hargreaves followed him down into the street. The Chairman of the Committee and the new woman from Blenkinsopp’s flat were already there, as were Margo and the deaf and dumb woman, Eleanor What’s her name.
Miss Hargreaves kept herself to herself, but she knew all the residents by sight, had watched their comings and goings from her attic window. Odd people. She had not formed an attachment to any of them. She caught snippets of conversation as she passed their doors on her way upstairs. They rarely noticed Miss Hargreaves, a little mouse of a woman, as she went past. But Miss Hargreaves had excellent hearing and eye-sight.
The Chairman was speaking into his mobile phone.
‘Yes, it’s urgent. Yes, I know it’s the middle of the night. They’re up there with a helicopter and they’ll get away if we give them half a chance. Look, just get here now and get here quick. And bring a long ladder. I think we’ve got them.
Chapter 13 by Lindsay Woodward
Klara stood agape as the crazy events unfolded before her. It had been the strangest of times since she’d entered the doors of Thrapston Mansions.
‘You need to come with me,’ a woman suddenly instructed.
‘Who are you?’ Klara asked.
‘I’m Miss Hargreaves. It’s urgent.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘It’s about George.’
A chill spiked Klara’s skin. ‘Don’t say that name.’
‘I’m serious. Come with me.’
Klara hesitantly followed Miss Hargreaves back into Thrapston Mansions and back towards her flat. As soon as they turned the corner to face her door, she placed her eyes on him.
The chill intensified as Klara’s heart began pounding.
‘Hello Klara,’ George said.
‘You can’t be here. You’re dead. You died in my arms.’
‘That’s what they wanted you to believe. It’s taken me all these years to finally get free.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Klara said.
‘They know how dangerous we are together. Everyone in this building is here to keep us apart. But Miss Hargreaves has helped me to arrange this elaborate plan to get us both away from them. The only person they want more than us is Blenkinsopp. Now we have about five minutes before they realise you’re alone. You must pack what you need and we have to go.’
Klara knew it was madness, but she’d dreamt about this moment for so long: to once again be with the only man she ever loved.
She thought no more about it. She unlocked her door and threw a few important items into a bag.
George grabbed her hand. How she’d missed his touch.
‘Ready?’ he asked. Klara nodded.
They raced through the back exit of the building and lost themselves in the city of London.
Who knew what would happen now. Would Klara finally get her happy ending? It seemed so.
Those involved in the Writing Project: 1 David, 2 Chris, 3 Kate, 4 Christine, 5 Wendy, 6 John, 7 Simon P, 8 Maddy, 9 Fran, 10 Lindsay, 11 Simon G, 12 Oliver, 13 Pam.
FLAT ONE: Miss Klara Gleibnitz – plays a mini-grand piano. Likes to drink tea. Petite. In her late 50s. Has a “remarkable” mind. Keen reader of Jane Austen. Has just moved in to Thrapston Mansions. Wears flat black shoes. Spent first 20 years of her life living behind the Berlin Wall, presumably in East Germany. Flat’s former tenant was Mr Blenkinsopp. Worked for 20 years for the German Intelligence Service and then for British Intelligence. Has now retired.
FLAT THREE: Sir Richard Umbrella Davies – describes himself as a legendary mountaineer and explorer. Climbs the roof at night to practise.
FLAT FOUR: Margaret Muldoon – known as Margo. Dark eyes. Strong fingers. Wears “a dressing gown, or a reject from some Egyptian souk, a swirl of competing colours”. Long grey hair, streaked with white, held back from her face with a scarf, dark blue with silver stars that glittered. Faints regularly.
FLAT FIVE: Dr Elinor Cartwright. Phd in Environmental Sciences. Tall, elegant blonde. Deaf.
FLAT SIX: Dmitry Lebedev – Russian and does not speak English. Scruffy, unshaven young man. Short but strong. Rubbish around the door. Also in residence (?) is Genevieve – slender woman, scantily dressed in a diaphanous, low-cut dress. Long brown hair. Green eyes.
Chairman of the Committee – no name yet, no location. Petty official; instantly recognisable, bristling with authority. Smells of stale sweat.
Stranger – no name yet. Wants to retrieve something from Klara’s flat.