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Viking Flights of Fiction
Winter 2008
Cover image of What I Was
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What I Was

A Novel
Meg Rosoff

A piercing and magical story about friendship and humanity

In the not too distant future, a one-hundred-year-old man called H sails the eastern coast of England with his godson. H recalls when he himself was sixteen—his godson's age—as they search for the site of H's life-altering friendship with a boy named Finn.

Finn lives alone on an isolated slip of land and follows no rules: he spends his days swimming, fishing and collecting driftwood for his tiny beach hut. H, on the other hand, is an upper class boarding school boy stifled by monotony and endless rules. They meet by chance on the beach, and H is immediately awed by (and jealous of) Finn's way of life. They strike up an unlikely friendship but the gap between their lives becomes difficult to bridge, and before long the idyll that nurtured their relationship is shattered by heart-wrenching scandal.

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston and had careers in publishing and advertising before she moved to London in 1989, where she lives now with her husband and daughter. Her first novel How I Live Now won the Michael L. Printz Award, a Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Branford Boase Award. Her second novel Just in Case won the Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Award.

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 have—a 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 fire—what 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.

—from What I Was

release date: January 2008