April 5, 2013 6:08 pm

Grown up too fast

You can’t just heap praise on people’s heads – there are rules about that sort of thing

I was in a minicab going to meet my godson, who was taking me out for dinner for the first time. Proud wasn’t even in it. I was boring the driver silly, singing this young man’s praises. “He is so this,” I said. “And yet, the funny thing is he is also so that. And, rather amazingly, although he has aspects of x in his character there is also plenty of y, which is, you know, quite unusual, for it’s rare to find both these marvellous traits in the same human person. Don’t you think?”

I remembered Isaiah Berlin saying that moral absolutes were incompatible; for example, absolute mercy and absolute justice simply cannot go hand in hand. Well, maybe, and maybe not. People change.

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Susie Boyt

“We don’t have godparents in my religion, apart from when you are getting married. Is one of your jobs to find the boy a wife?” the driver asked. “I don’t think that’s part of my role. But perhaps I’m wrong,” I answered.

I know at the christening I had to renounce the glamour of evil – at least it wasn’t the evil of glamour, which I don’t think I could have done – but I cannot remember any talk of matchmaking. With 11 godchildren that would pretty much constitute a life’s work. I felt a surge of panic and a line of poetry composed by a man called Phil Dirtbox, or Dirtbox Phil, came into my mind: “I haven’t felt so mental/Since the premiere of Yentl.”

“Your godson, he is how old?”

“Twenty-three-ish.”

“Now is good time,” the driver said. “In Bangladesh, where I am from, we marry very young. We don’t live so long, so we do everything in a hurry. Life is tough. You need to help your family, always. When I was there in the 1970s, everything was so different. It was like in a dream. You didn’t need money before electrics and gas came. We got fish from the river. You could catch two in five minutes and bake them and eat them. We had chickens, so we always had plenty of eggs. We grew all our fruit and vegetables. The only thing we had to buy was sugar and spices. It was such a good life. In the evenings, everyone would go outside and light a big fire and sing and talk and socialise with the neighbours, really unwind before sleeping time. It can get cold at night, so we wrapped up in shawls and blankets.”

“Sounds so lovely. Every night was this?”

“Every night, yes.”

I imagined getting the people in my street involved in such a carry-on. We would have to start with a committee meeting four months before at the very least.

But the driver was still talking: “Then when we got electricity – maybe 1974, gas came later – then we needed money to pay the bills, then we felt poor for the first time. Then everything became hard.” He shook his head.

“How awful that what might be considered progress seemed to spoil things,” I ventured.

“Now life is even more hard there. If we lived to 80, we could take our time, but we don’t. And so a girl must marry at 18 or 19; 25 is too old. By 30, it is much too late, no one would look at her at that age; it would be like, she would be like the equivalent of a 45-year-old woman here.”

“Oh.”

I got out of the car, pulled down the ribbed hem of my jersey, and crossed the road. Standing just inside the restaurant, which despite being good value boasts the nickname “the Colossal Bill”, was my godson. He opened the door to me as though the establishment was all his. He almost had a glass cloth over his shoulder and a fan of menus in his palms. How can I be old enough to have a godson with his own restaurant, I thought?

The evening already had a rites-of-passage feel. But then, I see rites of passage everywhere. I have located them in a particularly lively bus queue experience, or atop a stepladder changing a reluctant bulb. I conjure them up, as thirsty men happen upon little pastel-coloured cocktail-bar mirages, shimmering in the dessert.

We sat down at a table beneath a full-length faded portrait of the queen in coronation clothes, perhaps a giveaway with a 1953 Sunday supplement. The conversation flowed. After 20 minutes we had not even looked at the menu.

In a pause I could not resist coming out with:

“Guess what? I told the taxi driver all about you and he was SO impressed.”

Instantly, I regretted saying it. You can’t just heap praise on people’s heads. I can’t remember why, exactly, but I know there are rules about that sort of thing.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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