What I Was
School Library Journal Best Book
Finn was a beautiful orphan. H was a prep school misfit. On a September afternoon many years ago they met on a beach on the coast of England, near the ancient fisherman's hut Finn was squatting in with his woodstove, a case of books, a striped blanket and a cat. H insinuates his way into Finn's life-his blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll of their relationship is shaken by a heart-wrenching scandal.
What I Was is the unforgettable story of H at the end of his life looking back on this friendship, which has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century.
The sound of Finn boiling water woke me at dawn. He wasn't much for talking, especially at that hour, and wouldn't answer any conversation I initiated. Like the hut, he warmed up slowly, and I had a feeling his habit of solitude had existed for so long that it surprised him every morning to find me asleep where his granny had once lain.
It occurred to me that I had been at boarding school for a good many more years than Finn had lived alone, so perhaps my social skills were a little on the odd side as well. Whenever I was at home, I watched my mother chat brightly over breakfast the way an anthropologist might note typical social behaviour of the human species.
I hated getting up in the cold, and slept buried up to my eyes in blankets, removing them only to wrap my hands around a warm cup of tea. Finn had added sugar to mine unprompted and I turned away to hide my flush of pleasure. I knew that if I waited in bed for him to build up the fire and perform his morning tasks, the hut would gradually fill with a kind of fuggy warmth, so I lay still, savouring the familiar sounds and postponing reentry into full consciousness for as long as possible.
Nothing in my life so far compared with those first minutes of the day, half sitting in bed, still swaddled in warmth and with no imperative to move, just staring out of the window as the first pale streaks ignited the sky. I watched boats chug slowly past the windows: fishing boats returning from a long night of work, sailing boats from the nearby estuary taking advantage of the favourable tide, little tugs on their way back to port. At night passenger ships twinkled on the horizon like stars, but the daylight made them invisible.
"We'll take the dinghy," Finn said over his shoulder, heading out of the door. Through the window I watched him go, watched his outline soften and blur as he disappeared into the morning haze. The world had not yet come into focus. Even the sound of the sea seemed muffled, as if heard from a long distance away. From where I sat it was invisible, too, lost in a cloak of grey mist. I knew this moment of half-light wouldn't last, that in less than an hour daylight would have burned off the fog and restored the shape of things.
In the Dark Ages, most of life took place out of doors: the planting, herding, cooking, the buying and selling, the weddings, births, deaths, wars. In Finn's version of life in the twentieth century, not much had changed. Despite the cold, we walked and fished, lay on the beach and stared at the sunlit clouds or the stars in the night sky, pulled in the traps, messed about in boats. We walked to market with his fish or his bag of crabs and, like the Angles and Saxons, exchanged these commodities for things we didn't havea hammer, a loaf of bread, a pair of woollen socks.
After only ten days at the hut I could appreciate the advantages of such a world, a world with nothing extra or unnecessary in it. A cooking pot, a place to sleep, a friend, a firewhat more did I require?
I loved the simple richness of our domestic life, the overlapping rhythms, the glancing contacts, the casual-seeming but carefully choreographed dance played out through the rooms of a shared house. I even learned to accept Finn's silence for what it was and not read it as a reproach. It was a lesson that has proved valuable in later life, this acceptance of another person's silence, for I am more the silence-filler sort of person, hopeless on bird-watching expeditions. Despite the effort required to adapt, I became accustomed to whole days or parts of days during which we barely spoke, just drifted side by side in what for me was a dreamy silence, filled with unspoken words that slipped out of my brain and floated up to dissipate in the cold blue sky.
I began to pick up some of Finn's jobs, shovelling sand into the latrine, fetching water from the open tank at the far end of the huts. Neither of us commented on my expanded role, but I could read expressions on Finn's face that I might not have noticed before, slight shifts of the eyes or movements of the corners of the mouth. Pleasure. Displeasure. Impatience. And very occasionally: interest. Amusement. Sometimes I believed I could chart the passage of thoughts across his face, though the content of those thoughts remained a mystery to me, as if written in another language. For the rest of my break we lived together in a boyish ideal (my boyish ideal) of perfect happiness. I became used to the feel and the taste of my own salty skin. My face turned brown from exposure all day to the April sun, and for once in my life my hair felt thick, textured with salt. There was no mirror in Finn's hut, so I could look at him and imagine myself each day growing taller and slimmer and bolder. It was a lie in ways I already suspected, and ways I hadn't yet imagined. But it made me happy, and even then I knew that happiness was something in which to plunge headlong, and damn the torpedoes. Our time together would have to end, I knew that, and knew also that the pain of leaving this place would be intolerable, like death. In all the years that followed, I have longed, sometimes quite desperately, to ask Finn about those weeks, to ask whether they were happy only for me, whether they remained vivid only in my head. I have wanted to ask whether my presence caused any change for the better. Any change at all. But I couldn't ask. It was once again the supplicant in me, the endlessly repentant me who wanted somehow to know that it had all been worthwhile, that destruction and ruin wasn't all I brought to the little house by the sea."A richly patterned work about secrets...how an innocent crush can utterly change everything."
-People (four stars)
"[A] beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new."
-Los Angeles Times
"This whole novel is built on a surprise...beyond the surprise lies the beauty of what it means to live without junk in your life, and the reminder that all of it-the junk and the beauty-will be gone in a twinkling. This is a lovely book."
-The Washington Post
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