Ira and the Lion
The Cycling Club was bang in the middle of Keighworth. No one there cycled any longer; though it would have done its raunchy paunchy members a power of good had they cycled more and drank less. Somewhere about the turn of the century (the 20th) the Keighworth Cycling Club had metamorphosed into a ‘gentlemen’s drinking club’, used daily by tradesmen: builders, farmers, shopkeepers and the like. Upper-crustian townsfolk like lawyers, doctors, accountants and bankers, were members of the Masonic Lodge in the same block as the Cycling Club but at the other end. The Freemasons rented their luxurious rooms from them and it was a constant source of friction between them.
The Keighworth Cycling Club had started life in a little hut built by its members in the 1870s when Keighworth had stopped being a village and was mushrooming into a grimy industrial town with its own mayor and corporation. The early cyclists had shrewdly bought a patch of ground just outside the old Keighworth village centre, and as the town grew around it, the price of land rose sky high and the club thrived.
It struck gold when the land was built on. First, a row of shops, followed by the Keighworth Building Society, then the Northern Bank, both of which had tried unsuccessfully to buy the land from the Club. When the Masonic Lodge took up residence, the Cycling Club was in clover. Rents poured in and heavily subsidised the booze of its members, now limited to just one hundred.
The Club built itself a splendid new suite with its name carved in fine lettering on the façade. Though its clientele changed, nostalgia for the past remained and an ancient photograph of the original Club hung over the bar, showing the cyclists in their Victorian jockey outfits with two of them stood proudly by their penny-farthings.
It was – and still is – a men only Club, a haven for hen-pecked husbands, a second home for bachelors. It was also a rung on the ladder of success for thrusting young executives who joined before moving on to the Masonic Club round the corner.
Early on, the Club opened its doors to the theatricals performing at the Hippodrome Theatre just across the way. The theatre put on a variety of performances from standard rep. plays to music hall turns. And it is one of these turns involving a lion tamer and his lion that this tale is all about.
It’s also about Ira Fotheringill, a Keighworth auctioneer, who liked his beer and the company that went with it. Having a Thespian cast of mind, he immediately befriended the theatricals who visited the Cub after morning rehearsals to fill in the time before the matinee, or between the matinee and evening performances. Some idled away these intervals so well, they were incapable of acting at times and the show had to be cancelled.
You could understand why. The club had a very cosy atmosphere, the sort you could drink yourself to oblivion in if you weren’t careful. The seating round the four walls was plushly comfortable, where the members played cards or dominoes or simply chattered the night – or day – away with their beer. There were two full sized billiard tables at the further end and an old telephone booth with concertina doors. Near the door was the long bar from which drinks and sandwiches were served.
Ira was a regular patron. He ate his lunches there and did much of his business there. He was a big man, rounded nicely by ale and good eating. A Falstaffian character who liked good company to tell his tales to. One of his companions was The Great Leone, lion tamer par excellence. He owned a huge lion called Achilles, a fearsome brute to look at but in reality a gentle timid creature which he’d reared since it was cub. It wouldn’t have harmed a mouse.
But what a change when he appeared on stage with Leone. He’d stride on roaring like mad till he had the audience cowering in their seats. Round and round the theatre his roars reverberated till he had those sitting nearest the stage shivering with fright. Then Leone took his pet through their routine, jumping through hoops, walking along tight ropes and finally dancing a waltz together. They were real pals.
He exercised the lion each night around midnight behind the theatre when all was quiet. He’d once walked it round the Town Hall Square, but the coppers on the beat there objected. They’d found it off-putting to turn a corner and be confronted with fully grown lion. After that, Leone used the alleyway behind the theatre, which Ira had to pass on his way home from the Club.
The first time he saw Leone there with Achilles, he approached them carefully. The lion tamer was having a quiet smoke with Achilles at his feet. “Leone,” called Ira from afar, “is your lion safe? I mean, he doesn’t ever turn nasty, does he?”
Leone smiled and flicked way his fag. He turned the lion on its back and rubbed its chest with his toe. The brute purred like a bus engine idling, contented and catlike. “See?” said Leone. “He’s as soft as they come.”
Ira pursed his lips, then grinned and said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Let’s take him to the Club an’ have a bit o’ fun. Come with me and I’ll buy you a pint.”
“You’re on,” said Leone and off they went back to the Cub, Ira on the opposite side of Leone well away from Achillles.
They reached the street door and went up the stairs quietly. Then they paused outside the swing doors leading into the clubroom. “How d’you make your lion roar?” whispered Ira.
“Like this,” said the tamer, slipping Achilles off his lead and touching him under his jaw. Then he opened the doors and pushed his lion in.
As it entered a deathly hush, a disbelieving hush fell on the crowd inside. Those round the walls gaped, the billiard players stopped in the middle of a stroke squinting at the lion down their cues, the barman ceased pulling pints. Only the dense cigarette smoke moved.
This hiatus lasted for about five seconds, then disbelief gave way to terror, the terror to panic as the entire room bolted to get behind the bar. Beer glasses, dominoes and cards went flying in the rush to get away from Achilles, and when they were all safely behind the bar, the barman drew down the grille.
The billiard players, alas, couldn’t make it. Achilles was between them and the bar, so they jumped into the telephone booth and pulled the door to. It jammed and they were shut in noses and foreheads pressed flat against the window till the fire-brigade came to release them.
That wasn’t all. Achilles stood a moment in the midst of all the shouting and shooing, wondering what the fuss was all about. Then with a look of disdain, he jumped onto the nearest billiard table and pissed all over it. That done, he leapt across onto the second and pissed all over that, too, till he was called off by Leone.
The Cycling Club Committee were a humourless lot. They couldn’t see anything funny in a lion being brought into their Club and frightening folk to death; still less, pissing over the billiard tables. Ira was hauled before them and had to pay for the re-covering of the tables, while Leone was banned for the duration. But when word got around what had happened, the theatre was packed full each night for his act and he never wanted for drink in the bar.
Along the walls of his office, Ira had rows of signed photos of theatricals going back years. Many of them famous. But pride of place was one of Leone and Achilles standing outside the Cycling Club with the committee inside glaring through the window.
John Waddington-Feather ©