… Till the Fat Lady Sings

Regrettably, the fat lady is not yet ready to sing for me. Having suffered, without warning or pity, a massive surge of inflammation in the major muscles of my body, a surge the medical profession can’t explain, I am now in a sort of remission enabling me to function to a significant degree. I’m not bedridden any more, I can walk and drive, and the terrible brain fog I’ve been enduring is becoming less and less frequent.

I’ve found that the medical profession takes this type of event very seriously. It can be alleviated almost overnight using a massive dose of a steroid known as prednisone. That’s the stuff they prescribed for me. The problem is it’s not easy to come down from such a massive dose of steroids. Serious withdrawal symptoms lurk just round the corner and, quite rightly, medicos like to monitor the process they call ‘tapering’, which means lowering the dose slowly and carefully while organizing regular blood tests to see that the inflammation really has disappeared.

That’s the point I am at as of now. The treatment may not be worse than the ailment itself, but it certainly isn’t benign. I am in the second stage of a two-stage recovery.

But nobody listens to a whinger, so let’s change the subject.

Back in the dark ages, in the second half of the 20th century, I was a green young pup living for an extended period in London. Naturally, I found it imperative to visit English pubs. At one of those that I frequented, I met and befriended a young Japanese man of about my age, whom I shall call Hideki. That’s not his real name. I’m not sure I ever knew his real name. So, as a name, Hideki will serve the purpose. To me, Hideki – despite his limited English – was a useful and engaging drinking partner for a time, and I was glad to have him in my orbit.

I never found out how Hideki made his living in London, but always assumed he played a junior role in either journalism or the diplomatic service.

This pub was Hideki’s regular haunt every evening, when he could always be found sitting on a pint by himself in a secluded corner. It was not my regular haunt, but when I paid it a visit, I always sought out Hideki.

What we had in common was we both harked from distant shores on the other side of the world. But Hideki was feeling homesick to a greater degree than I. The distance he felt could not be measured purely in kilometres. He missed the comfort of his familiar Japanese culture.

But, in competition with this negative feeling, he felt an overwhelming fascination with the foreign culture he now felt himself immersed in. I heard the excitement in his upwardly-inflected verbal language and saw it in his restive body language. His eyes would dart around the room in which we sat, taking everything in, as if he were witnessing a strange new ritual never seen at home. This was nothing like the izakaya he frequented back in Tokyo.

The characters who crowded the bar were rough, and treated the middle-aged barmaid to a persistent stream of ribald derision. Her response to this was total disdain. No. This would never have happened in Hideki’s izakaya back home.

More of the woman who pulled the beers later.

The room in which we sat? Maybe you can, or maybe you can’t, conjure up a picture of a typical London pub – an essential watering hole its clients called ‘the local’ – an example of which seemed to be on the corner of every little backstreet in Inner London. It usually had an absurd name, like Toad and Hole, of obscure origin, perhaps harking back centuries.

Inside, it was the very definition of cosy. Having secured your pint of best bitter from the crowded bar, you could retire to one of many nooks available for the purpose, to sip your beverage, and engage in intimate and civilized conversation under its benevolent influence. The furniture we sat in, and all the trimmings round the room were of a dark wood – walnut perhaps – that was ever so easy on the eye. By day, the lighting was the weak London sunshine that was the deal in this part of the world and, by night, it was a soft and warm artificial concoction barely able to penetrate to the nook we sat in.

Yes, cosiness was assuredly the order of the day (or night) in this neck of the woods.

Not so cosy, perhaps, was the woman I mentioned behind the bar pulling beers. You would not want to meddle with this woman. I imagined that, instead of cereal for breakfast, she would eat a bowl of two-inch flat-head nails.

The aspect of the Anglo-Saxon pub rites that fascinated Hideki more than any other was closing time which, from memory, was 10 p.m. At five minutes to this hour, the woman at the bar would announce sternly, ‘Last drinks, gentlemen’, regardless of whether or not there were any female drinkers present. This would sent a shiver of pleasure mixed with terror through Hideki’s body. He had been waiting for this moment, and the sheer thrill of it was evident in his features.

That woman is very terrible, Hideki would say as a shudder of fear and delight rippled across his face.

We have a saying in English, I said, that goes ‘It’s not over till the fat lady sings.’

Does she sing too? asked Hideki. That would be very very terrible.

I don’t believe she actually sings, I said. And she’s not fat.

Hideki seemed a little disappointed, but nothing would dampen his vicarious anticipation of what might happen in the next five minutes.

At precisely 10 p.m. the woman placed her hands flat on the bar, leaned forward, and announced with an authority not to be brooked, Closing time, gentlemen.

Hideki was excited beyond all reasonable bounds.

That women is very terrible, he said.

I responded to her edict by leaving the bar, hanging around in the lane-way outside waiting for Hideki to emerge. He was staying around for the crunch, obviously determined to see how terrible this woman could really get.

He emerged, bright-eyed. He was like a schoolboy in thrall of a spanking by his school-ma’am. I’ll never know the circumstances of his final encounter with the woman, but I’m sure he would have behaved throughout with the impeccable politeness characteristic of Japanese people.

Terrible, he said. That woman is very terrible.

We went our separate ways. I imagined Hideki turning up tomorrow night and each night after that for further encounters with the very terrible woman, a sequence of encounters that brought to mind Nietzsche’s eternal returns. For Hideki, the (not so) fat lady never ever did sing.

I’m hoping, late in 2022, on my bed of pain, the fat lady shall deign to sing for me.