A few moments later Harry gave me a shove and I made my first entrance as a stand-up comedian to a chorus of the Eton Boating Song gleefully delivered in thick Geordie accents by the ramshackle house band. There was a faint ironic jeer from the body of the room and loyal applause from Hilda and Vivienne behind the bar as I launched into the routine that Harry & I had put together. There was nothing post-modern in the act, most of the jokes were as tried and tested as a Morris Minor. There was the one about the Geordie polar bear that goes into a chemist to buy condoms, there was the hardy annual about the three blokes in a shipyard and the encyclopaedia, and of course there was the classic Geordie prostitute and the poltergeist gag, though the punters being thick northerners I had to explain what a poltergeist was which rather took the edge off the joke. I quickly realised that the simplest way to get an audience reaction was to say the word Arsenal which immediately drew a hostile growl. We had chosen a Tuesday night, the quietest of the week, for my debut and there were only a few more customers in than on my first visit, but I got some response and as I went off a solitary scampi basket was hurled at the stage.
“Not bad lad” said Harry as I tottered weak kneed into the wings. “We can sharpen it up a bit but they were starting to hate you. Well done”.
Over the next few days we tinkered with the act, cutting set piece gags and putting in more snide comments about northern beer, barmaids, table manners, women in general and as audience numbers and my confidence increased, so did the volume of abuse and the number of missiles that were hurled at the stage. From Harry’s point of view we were achieving our aim in gingering up the audience and the response to the rest of the bill was much better than before. By Saturday night word had got round the local pubs that there was sport to be had at “Harry’s Place” and at closing time we filled up with drunks ready to let fly at the “Southern Bastard”. During the week I had taken a couple of direct hits from ashtrays and had to duck the odd bottle but nothing prepared me for the Saturday show when virtually anything that wasn’t screwed down (luckily the tables were) came my way. I battled on out of sheer Home Counties pride (the spirit of Woking runs deep in the Irwins) and finished the act with “Fuck you, you northern shits. Up the Arsenal! Goodnight!” Not exactly Noel Coward but effective nonetheless.
Harry was ecstatic, takings were well up on previous weeks and the local press were starting to take an interest. I however had a problem as I found as I peeled off my sweat sodden tux that Saturday night, I was black and blue, bruised from head to toe. There was no dressing room for me in the club so I had taken to changing in the area at the bottom of the fire exit stairs, where George, the backstage handyman, used to store empty crates, beer kegs and so on. George was there that Saturday and said “Bloody heck lad, you’ll not be able to take much more of that. Hang on I’ve got an idea” and he disappeared down into the basement. He returned a few moments later with a heavily quilted canvas coat that apparently riveters in the shipyards used to wear to protect themselves from flying rivets and from being scorched by neighbouring welders. It was incredibly heavy and stank of sweat and sump oil but it covered me from neck to ankle. A moment later Vivienne appeared from Front of House, “Here pet you might find this useful” and she handed me a bright orange cycling helmet that she had found in the Lost Property box. Thus in a couple of minutes the trademark costume of “Ted Irwin – The Irritating Southern Bastard” was created. It’s funny how ‘Art’ sometimes works that way.
I settled into life at ‘Harry’s’, I was earning a living and it was a change from watching stage crews unload trucks. The club staff and artists were friendly (apart from Audrey who maintained her glacial cool) and Harry treated me like a. son. Audrey though haunted my waking thoughts and most nights when I had changed out of the riveter’s coat into my street clothes I would stand in the wings and watch her sing. One night in the middle of Funny Valentine she turned and sang the lines
“Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favourite work of art”
straight at me and half smiled before turning back to the audience. It was a heart stopping moment but later as she came off she brushed past with her normal hauteur.
The following night I had just come off and was chatting to George when we heard the clack clack of high heels coming down the fire exit stairs. It was Audrey in her pink silk dressing gown.
“George be a pet a get us some ciggies will you? 20 Capstan Full strength please” George looked a little startled but took the money from her and went out into the street. As soon as he was gone she turned to me and said “Hello southern bastard”, the dressing gown dropped to the floor and she stood there naked apart from her 4” heels. “Let me help you out of that”, she said starting with my top button and we began our affair right there on the floor among the beer barrels and Newcastle Brown empties, right there on the riveter’s coat which forever after smelled of sweat, sump oil and sex.
As I left the club that night Harry tapped me on the shoulder and said “Hey lad come to Sunday lunch tomorrow. The missus and I would love to see you.”
I readily agreed and floated out into the night.
The following day I drove to Harry’s place a couple of miles out of town on the Morpeth road. It was a bit more tasteful than I had expected, it wasn’t called ‘Dungaggin’ and there were no gnomes, in the drive was his pride and joy, a red Humber Super Snipe. Harry himself opened the front door to my knock and called over his shoulder, “He’s here love” and Audrey came out of the kitchen wearing rubber gloves and an apron with a map of the Costa Brava printed on it. At that moment I realised that there was one momentously, earth shatteringly, fundamentally, important and crucial fact that no one in the club had ever made me aware of. Audrey was Harry’s wife and I was in deep shit.
Audrey simply smiled and said “Hello Ted. I hope you like your roast beef well done.” She never looked more beautiful to me than at that moment in her apron and Marigolds.
We pursued our affair through that summer with relentless passion and with great care. Audrey told me at the outset “Harry’s old fashioned, he’ll kill both of us if he finds out.” When I replied that surely that was a little extreme Audrey said “You don’t understand, Harry’s not just a comic, he knows some very bad people and he didn’t get to own all his clubs by just telling jokes. He’s a bloody gangster.” I took her word for it and we met at lunchtimes in distant pubs out on the moors and at the seaside, but best were Tuesdays and Thursdays which were my landlady’s bingo afternoons and we could lie together in a sweaty contented heap at my digs.
During the summer Harry took the show on tour, mostly to his own venues in the north-east but we also ventured further afield, as far as Workington in the west, and to a few scabby working-men’s clubs in Manchester (where I made an appearance on the Parkinson show as a late stand in for Tarby who cried off after a freak golfing accident) and we played a club in Hexham where there were more sheepdogs than humans in the audience. In early September we fetched up in Roker (Sunderland’s Riviera!) playing at ‘Harry’s Showbar’ a few yards off the prom.
Audrey and I used to sneak off in the afternoons and find a secluded spot on the sands, she would puff away at her Capstan Full Strengths and sometimes we would share a jar of pickled onions, Pedro, Audrey’s Schnauzer, would chase the seagulls.
It was on just such an afternoon that I felt Audrey suddenly tense.
“Don’t move!” she said, and said it in the tone that in the movies means that there is a scorpion on the back of your neck.
“What is it?”
“Harry’s standing on the Prom right behind us. Oh shit! Look do you see that man in the donkey jacket by the ice cream van?”
“That’s Eddie ‘Razors’ Docherty…”
“…and do you see the man in the dark suit over to our left by the Conveniences?”
“That’s Joey ‘Mad Dog’ McKlusky. Jesus! Look! Coming along the beach it’s Andy ‘Whitley Bay’ Norris.”
“Why is he called Whitley Bay?” I asked
“It’s where he lives…”
“….and where he dumps the bodies.”
“Ah. What shall we do? Can’t we go and stand next to a policeman for a bit?”
Audrey was contemptuous “Harry buys policemen like bags of crisps. We’ll have to run for it. Where’s your car?”
“In the lane behind the club”.
“OK. Now listen. Razors has had trouble with his knees for years, he’s our best chance. You go to the right of the ice cream van and I’ll go to the left then we’ll both head through the amusement arcade, out the back, turn left and the car is only 100 yards away”.
It didn’t seem to be the moment to mention that my aging Ford Escort was not the snappiest starter or any of the dozen other flaws in this plan that immediately occurred to me.
“One. Two. Three. Go!” and with that Audrey grabbed Pedro with one arm, hitched her skirt up with the other and sprinted towards Razors. I was a bit slower off the mark and for a girl of her excessive smoking habits she could really shift when she put her mind to it. Razors put out an arm to grab her, but was promptly bitten by Pedro, I followed up with a good public school style shoulder charge which flattened him and we were up the steps, across the prom and into Funland. Weaving past the Penny Cascades, I looked back, I could see Whitley Bay, who had no obvious knee problems, closing fast and Harry striding calmly behind. I grabbed a giant plastic walking stick full of gob stoppers off the sweet counter and whacked Whitley Bay across the head with it. He reeled and gob stoppers flew like shrapnel, they also acted like ball bearings on the floor and he went arse over tit into a ‘Lucky Balls’ pintable. Up to that moment I had never in my life hit anyone in earnest and it was a deeply satisfying (if reprehensible) thing to do. Harry came remorselessly on and I ran for the back door. Mad Dog was already there, grinning as Audrey came towards him, she paused as if she was giving up and then suddenly thrust Pedro at him who dutifully sank his teeth into his nose. She left Pedro hanging and ducked under Mad Dog’s arm and into the lane behind, as I passed Mad Dog I grabbed Pedro and dragged him and possibly a part of Mad Dog’s nose away and sprinted for the car. As I ran I fumbled for my keys and shouted to Audrey “Do they have guns, do you think?”
“Of course they’ve got guns, they’re fucking gangsters you pratt”
We were at the car, Razors and Whitley Bay were only 50 yards off and I was sorting through the 20 odd keys on the ring and in a rare moment of clarity it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to have the keys to my old bicycle padlock, my mother’s front door, the Fiesta I wrote off 2 years before, and the allotment shed all on the same ring as the Escort’s.
“For Chrissake open the door” shrieked Audrey
I did and threw Pedro onto the back seat and in a startling reversal of Sod’s Law the Escort started first time. As we pulled away I could see Razors and Whitley Bay running back towards Harry who was getting into his Humber at the other end of the lane.
What to do? Where to go? All I could think of was that as long as we kept moving they couldn’t get us. I couldn’t believe that they would start shooting on a busy Saturday afternoon with crowds of eager pleasure seekers thronging the streets wondering what they were doing in Roker. At the end of the lane I turned right only because the road seemed clearer that way and then right again but Harry’s red Humber Snipe loomed large in the rear view mirror. I also noticed that as I looked back that Pedro had a wild look in his eye which I put down to his having tasted human blood for the first time. We turned left at the prom and headed north with the sea on our right. For a while the road was clear and we got up speed but then I saw a coach up ahead disgorging OAPs, zimmers and wheelchairs, traffic was backing up and the only way out was hard left across a shallow ditch and onto the golf course. Bizarrely dressed golfers queuing at the 13th tee scattered (why on earth is it that perfectly normal people think that it is necessary to wear a lemon yellow sweater and tartan trousers in order to play this stupid game?) and I gunned the Escort down the fairway. Harry followed and reasoning that there must be a road by the distant club house away to my left I headed in that direction. Audrey was unhelpfully screaming “Faster! Faster!” Harry saw what I was up to and headed over to his left to cut me off but in doing so he made the same mistake that many golfers on Roker’s 13th hole must have made. He didn’t notice the concealed bunker to the left of the green. There was a resounding “Crunk” and we looked back to see the Humber’s front bumper firmly embedded in the sand and the rear wheels spinning in thin air.
“They’re buggered” said Audrey concisely and delightedly.
We got back on the road and I turned to her and said “Where shall we go?”
“South. Let’s go south” she said.
So we did. With only the clothes we stood up in and a wild eyed Schnauzer on the back seat, we headed south down the A1, branching off at Leeds to join the M1. At one point Audrey asked me “Have you got somewhere to live in London?”
“Yes. I’ve got a place near Victoria”
“Who’s she?” she asked suddenly concerned.
I realised then that Audrey had never been to London and that life was going to be interesting.
At about eight-o-clock that evening, with the sun low in the sky we pulled into Leicester Forest Services for petrol and food. On the first night of our new life together we should have been toasting the future in champagne, as it was we sat down to saveloy and chips, I had coffee and Audrey had a bottle of Vimto.
When she finished she got up saying “I’m just going to buy some knickers and a toothbrush” and went off to the shop. A few minutes later I felt a kiss on the back of my neck.
“Did you get everything you needed love?” I asked
“Yeah I got you” said a deep Geordie voice. I whirled round and there was Mad Dog McKlusky, his nose shredded and with a kitchen knife in his hand.
“Get up slowly. We’re going to the car. Do as I say or I’ll fucking fillet you”.
I got up, McKlusky took my right arm and Whitley Bay the left, in the doorway stood Audrey, eyes wide with terror, flanked by Harry and Razors.
We all moved awkwardly out of the cafeteria and into the broad corridor that led towards the car park. On the right of the exit doors was a plump woman in a headscarf selling AA membership and on the left was a tall bespectacled man selling RAC membership.
“Gosh I’d like to join the AA please” I announced loudly. The plump lady leapt forward with her clipboard.
“Certainly sir! I just need to take some details”
“Ooh the RAC! I’ve always wanted to be a member of that” cried Audrey who was always quick on the uptake.
“Now then my good woman, tell me what the AA has to offer” I said.
“Well sir! Where to start? I could offer you our premier package which includes Relay, Home Start, Full Breakdown Cover, European Breakdown…”
“Hey big feller, you can offer a better service than that fat bitch over there can’t you?” said Audrey seductively to the RAC man.
“Er well the RAC are UK leaders in…” he began hesitantly.
“Who are you calling a fat bitch? Is she with you?” the AA lady demanded of Harry. “You should keep her under control”
Harry and his hitmen were unsure of what to do and we were starting to collect an audience of interested spectators.
“Listen” I said to Audrey “that long streak of piss next to you wouldn’t know a breakdown from shit in a bucket. You should stick with plumpy here and the AA”.
The RAC man finally started to lose it. “I’ll have you know that I am a fully qualified..”
“Pratt” I finished for him. “Give me that clipboard sweetie. You want details! I’ll give you details!” I shrugged off Whitley Bay and Mad Dog and snatched the AA lady’s clipboard and pen. Harry’s men were starting to show their natural desire for anonymity and were stepping back into the crowd, only Harry stood firm.
“Here’s one detail for you! This is Harry Ackroyd the famous one-eyed comedian” and with that I poked him in the eye with Plumpy’s biro and Audrey and I were through the doors and sprinting through the car park. Harry and his men didn’t take long to disentangle themselves from the fracas between the UK’s top motoring organisations but then they hesitated, not sure whether to come after us or to go for the battered Humber which was at the other end of the car park but by that time we were in the Escort heading for the slip road to the M1 and the south.
Foot to the floor the Escort had a fair turn of speed, but the Humber was certainly faster but how much faster?. How much of a lead did we have? Could I risk turning off or would they catch us on the roundabout at the top of the slip road? If we stayed on the motorway would they just shunt us off the road or shoot out our tyres? Did they really have guns? Why had I decided to have an affair with a gangster’s wife?
“Can you see them?” I asked Audrey
“No. No sign”. She and Pedro stared back up the M1.
“Keep looking. Harry won’t give up”
By the time we had gone about 15 miles from the services I was starting to relax but then Audrey swore “Fuck! They’re coming”
“How far?” I asked.
“Way back but they’re gaining. Can’t this thing go any faster?”
“Nope this is it”
We were on a long stretch with no exits, Watford Gap services were coming up in about 12 miles but that would effectively be a cul-de-sac.
All we could do was keep going and hope that something would turn up. Eventually I could make out the Humber clearly in the rear-view mirror and as it drew closer I could see Harry was driving, his trilby silhouetted against the setting sun.
“Shit what are we going to do?” I asked no one in particular.
Audrey looked across at me. “I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what Southern Bastard. I’d do it all again”.
What would Harry do? If they rammed us they were as likely to die as we were. No they would probably try to draw alongside and shoot us from close range. I started to swerve from side to side across the motorway to prevent them doing that but other traffic started to get in the way and a couple of miles short of Watford Gap the Humber started to creep up on the inside. Audrey opened her window and started to fling anything loose that she could find at the Humber’s windscreen, her shoes, my AA book (yes, I was already a member), a can of de-icer, the previous weekend’s Sunday papers, a packet of Fisherman’s Friends, but to no avail, I could see Razors, gun in hand, ready behind Harry. Then a miracle, the Humber vanished, or to be more accurate it peeled off into the slow lane and turned into Watford Gap services.
“Where’d they go? What happened?” I gasped.
“I don’t know” said Audrey “We’re OK aren’t we? We’ve done it!”
Then she stopped talking and started laughing. It took a while before she could speak. “I’ve just remembered something. On his deathbed Harry’s Dad made him swear never to go further south than Watford Gap unless Newcastle were in the FA Cup Final. Harry always kept that promise.”
So we were saved by an old man’s loathing of the South and all it’s works. Excellent!
Did we live happily ever after? No of course not. About six weeks after we set up home in London, Pedro, the window cleaner, after whom the dog was named, turned up while I was out and Audrey ran off with him to Malaga. They have run a successful Bar-Cabaret there for the last twenty five years, I get a card every Christmas. She did leave Pedro, the dog, behind with a label on his collar saying “Please look after this Schnauzer. Thank you” which I thought was quite witty by Audrey’s standards and of course I have the riveter’s coat hanging at the back of the wardrobe and it still smells of sweat, sump oil and sex.