I was back in Derbyshire this weekend, and went for a couple of drinks in one of the local pubs. In this particular drinking establishment, there used to be an elderly lady who always sat at the same table in a corner. A tiny, frail thing she was, and - I guessed - in her late seventies.
She would sit there, sipping slowly from a glass, and smoking the occasional cigarette. In lighting up another, her ever-present tremor - which served to heighten her sense of frailty - would become more apparent. Her whole body would seem to shake during the action of putting the cigarette in her mouth and lighting it up. The shaking would then subside, to a significant degree.
I knew nothing about her, nor did I have any real curiosity: for the most part, she was just the elderly lady who was always sat in the same corner. I never spoke to her - the bar staff would exchange a few words with her when collecting empties, and on the couple of occasions when I heard her voice, I couldn't tell what she was saying. She reminded me of my paternal grandmother, in that her voice too was at the mercy of her tremor, meaning that conversation took much effort and concentration.
I do recall her eyes though, which - again, like my grandmother's - radiated character and an independence of spirit which belied her physical frailty.
One evening, I'd ventured into the pub having made arrangements to meet up with a friend for a drink. I'd arrived slightly late but, as I scanned the room, I couldn't see him anywhere. It did come to my notice that the old lady was sat in her usual corner though, and I also felt a little annoyed when I saw that the pub was going to have the first of a regular karoake night, and were just about to get started.
I sat down with my pint, idly people-watching and wondering where my mate was. The karoake was, I had to begrudgingly admit, grimly entertaining: a note-perfect version of "Return to Sender," though sung in the broadest of Derbyshire accents, and consistently half a bar out of step with the backing music, was the most memorable. A Robbie Williams wannabe sang a couple of Oasis songs. Someone did a passable "Disco 2000." Still no sign of my mate.
I was getting ready to finish my drink and leave, and then I noticed something which sat me right back down again. The guy operating the karoake was encouraging people not to be shy, and to get up on stage and sing: the old lady had got out of her seat (something I'd never witnessed previously) and was making her way shakily across the room.
Surely she's not heading for the stage, I thought (or rather, hoped). Maybe she's going to ask to have the volume turned down. But no, she stepped awkwardly onto the stage. This, I was telling myself, is going to be horrible: a real car-crash moment. I realised I was clenching my teeth and frowning a little with tense anticipation of what I imagined I was about to sit through.
As the lady spoke with the karoake man, I noticed that the general hubbub in the room had gradually subsided and all eyes were on the stage. The man was pointing at the selection of songs but she was shaking her head: she was going to sing something unaccompanied. Oh, shit, I thought. This is going to be as compelling as it is painful. I'd still been holding onto some faint hope that she might pull a stunt like a septagenarian man in a bar in Nottingham who had spiked his grey hair up with soap and then got on stage and sang "Firestarter," reducing everyone to stitches.
I was actually feeling quite nervous.
She looked - if such a thing were possible - even tinier and more frail, stood centre stage with all the lights on her. The man had placed the microphone back on its stand and lowered it down for her, and now she stepped forward a little.
She started to sing. Thanks to her shaking, the first few words sounded choked. I was biting my lip, hoping this would be over quickly.
Then something remarkable happened.
She took a deep breath, paused for an instant as if to gather all her strength - her very essence - and then continued. What followed was a song about losing her sweetheart to someone else: heartbreak, sweet sorrow, and jealousy. The words were clearer now, and she was finding her voice: clear in tone, delicate and feminine, and seemingly much younger than she.
Her tremor would noticeably alter the pitch of her voice from slightly sharp to slightly flat, but this just seemed to heighten the emotions that she was conveying. Now, as she got into her stride, she was transformed - she was the young woman experiencing a broken heart for the first time, simultaneously innocent and world-weary, betrayed and lovelorn. No longer was it just her eyes which seemed to transcend her years, it was her whole being.
And when she sang the word "jealousy," it was devastating. Her voice was breaking free from the tremor, finding its pitch, and the combination of notes and those three syllables was one of the most moving things I've ever seen.
She reached the last verse, pausing slightly again for a moment as if to gather her remaining reserves. That lilting voice, those sorrowful words were almost too much to bear, and when she sang the final note she was off-key: which, somehow, made it perfect.
There was a moment of stunned silence, and in that moment she visibly wilted as though transformed back again from the young woman of the song. But the applause quickly came, cheers and whistles too, loud and enthusiastic. She stood for a moment, old and frail again, but with those bright, determined eyes looking round at everyone and taking the whole thing in: and then, having been helped down from the stage, she made her way back to her usual seat, the cheers not dying down until she was back in her place.
I bought myself another drink and went and sat outside for a few minutes, a little glassy-eyed. What I'd just seen left me pretty much speechless for the rest of the evening: I was glad my friend never showed up after all.