'What can I say to him?' she said, and I suggested 'Well done.'
But she shook her head. 'For his brothers it is the other way round.'
So I told her that I thought that a child like that would have been cherished as a quiet and dependable member of society in previous generations, and so it should be today. But she shook her head again, and told me that she didn't know what to say. I suppose he suffers from the endless testing and assessment that there is in our education system now. If you cannot succeed academically you are swiftly labelled a failure. It saps us all, I think.
Then we went on to our own plans and I admitted that I didn't have any. She suggested that I did what she did and take a job in a shop and I nodded and said that I might.
'Borders,' she said, knowing that I write, 'because of the books.'
'Good idea,' I said.
When another friend joined us, we talked about raising children, how difficult it was, and how at first we felt so isolated, and the best thing to do is get out, even a voluntary job is better than no job at all, and I agreed and thought about the time very soon when Hodmandod Minor leaves home, and how quiet it will be.
I was still thinking this as I walked through the streets, and although I saw plenty of people smiling, I have to report that I saw no sign of anyone actively being good.
Stepping down into the Roman depths of a city bar I came across my friend, a former colleague from the university, waiting, as arranged, at a table with the covers of his latest books spread out before him for me to see. I inspected them in the candle-light and murmured approval. Then we discussed our writing and books; the superimposition of pictures from a bubble-chamber on images from the Hubble telescope - the smallest on the largest - and how these images are apparitions that no one actually ever sees; whether a metaphor is the same in science and the arts; that the root of the word 'niggardly' betrays its decidedly non-racial origins (despite a congressman's dismissal over the word); Darwin's ideas on facial expression and his experiments with primates; and then my friend's new book covers again; and then that I was still waiting and doing nothing.
It was still light outside, still mid-afternoon, when we said good-bye and for a while my head was still full of Darwin and chimps snorting snuff - but then, as I went down the main street, I noticed this:
He had shifted his site. Normally he is on the town hall square, singing and holding forth, but today he was sitting on an upturned box, apparently exhausted, but still yelling out the Lord's praises to uninterested passersby: red sweat-shirt, sparse grey beard like fungal growth on his polished black skin, eyes looking doggedly ahead, intent on something only he could see, and his bill-board in his left hand, tilting slowly, proclaiming the reassurance that Jesus loves me. Is that goodness? My grandmother would say that it was.
And then there was this: an elderly lady on the bus and a man talking next to her in a loud slow voice.
'I live in a hostel.' I heard him say, 'No not a hostel, a centre.'
And she nodded and smiled and spoke and smiled again.
I, meanwhile, had plugged myself into my ipod and swept up the volume until I could hear nothing but my thoughts.