'I am a century old, an impossible age, and my brain has no anchor in the present. Instead it drifts, nearly always to the same shore: the year I discovered love'. In the early sixties on an East Anglian beach, a fragile wooden hut is harried daily by the sea. It is ignored by the boys from the nearby boarding school who stumble past on their birch-enforced runs. Until the day, one sixteen-year-old boy stops and comes face to face with the hut's owner: enigmatic, beguiling, and beautiful Finn. The hut and the beach - but most of all Finn - provide a haven away from the petty rules and bullies. But they also hold a mysterious, fragile secret. A secret that will be tested by friendship, growing adolescent love and the terrifying fury of the sea.
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Meg Rosoff became a publishing sensation with her first novel, How I Live Now, which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Her second novel, Just in Case, won the Carnegie Medal in 2007. What I Was is her highly acclaimed third novel. Meg lives in London with her husband and daughter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rule number one: Trust no one.
By the time we reached St. Oswald’s, fog had completely smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white headlights merely illuminated the fact that we -couldn’t see. Hunched over the wheel, father edged the car forward a few feet at a time. We might have driven off En-gland and into the sea if not for a boy waving a torch in bored zigzags by the school entrance.
Father came to a halt in front of the main hall, set the brake, pulled my bag out of the boot, and turned to me in what he probably imagined was a soldierly manner. "Well,"he said, "this is it."
This is what? I stared at the gloomy Victorian building and imagined those same words used by fathers sending their sons off into hopeless battle, up treacherous mountains, across the Russian steppes. They seemed particularly inappropriate -here. All I could see was a depressed institution of secondary education suitably shrouded in fog. But I said nothing, having learned a thing or two in sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity, including the value of silence.
It was my father’s idea that I attend St. Oswald’s, whose long history and low standards fitted his requirements exactly. He must have rejoiced that such a school -existed–one that would accept his miserable failure of a son and attempt to transform him (me) into a useful member of society, a lawyer, say, or someone who worked in the City.
"It’s time you sorted yourself out," he said. "You’re nearly a man." But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered. I was barely managing to get by as a boy.
My father shook hands with our welcoming committee as if he, not I, -were matriculating, and a few moments of chat with headmaster and -house-master ensued. Wasn’t the weather ... hadn’t standards ... next thing we know ... one can only ...
I stood by, half listening, knowing the script by heart.
When we returned to the car, father cleared his throat, gazed off into the middle distance, and suggested that I take this opportunity to make amends for my last two educational disasters. And then, with a pessimistic handshake and a brief clasp of my shoulder, he was off.
A bored prefect led me away from the main school toward a collection of rectangular brick buildings arranged around a bleak little courtyard. In the misty darkness, my future home uncannily resembled a prison. As we entered Mogg -House (Gordon -Clifton--Mogg, -house-master), the weight of the nineteenth century settled around my shoulders like a shroud. Tall brick walls and narrow arched windows seemed designed to admit as little light and air as possible. The architect’s philosophy was obvious: starve the human spirit, yes, but subtly, employing economies of dimension and scale. I could tell from -here that the rooms would be dark all year round, freezing in winter, cramped and airless in summer. As I later discovered, St. Oswald’s specialized in architectural -sadism–even the new science lab (pride of the establishment) featured brown glass and -breeze--block walls dating from 1958, height of the ugly unfriendly architecture movement.
Up three flights of stairs and down a long featureless corridor we trudged. At the end, the older boy dumped my bag, pounded on the door, and left without waiting for an answer. After a time I was granted entry to a small dormitory room where three boys looked me over impassively, as if checking out a long shot in the paddock at Cheltenham.
There was a moment of silence.
"I’m Barrett," said the -blunt--featured one in the middle, producing a small black book from his pocket and pointing to the others in turn. "Gibbon. And Reese."
Reese giggled. Barrett made some notes in his little book, then turned to Gibbon. "I give him two terms,"he said. "You?"
Gibbon, tallest of the three, peered at me closely. For a moment, I thought he might ask to see my teeth. He pulled two crisp pound notes out of an expensive calfskin wallet. "Three terms,"he said.
I emptied all expression from my face, met and held his gecko eyes.
"Choose,"said Barrett impatiently, pencil poised. He squinted out from under a school cap pulled low over his face, like a bookmaker’s visor.
Barrett made a note in his book.
"I say four." Reese dug into a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, mainly pennies. He was the least impressive of the three.
Barrett accepted the coins and looked up at me. "You in?"
Was I in on a bet predicting the demise of my own academic career? Well, it certainly offered a variation on the usual welcome. I pushed past them, unpacked my bag into a metal trunk, made up my narrow bed with regulation starched sheets, burrowed down under the covers, and went to sleep.
Rule number two: Keep something back.
I WILL tell you that I’m not one of those heroes who attracts admiration for his physical attributes. Picture a boy, small for his age, ears stuck at right angles to his head, hair the texture of straw and the color of mouse. Mouth: tight. Eyes: wary, alert.
You might say that superficial flaws -were not uncommon in boys my age, but in my experience this was untrue. Stretching left, right, up, down, and diagonally in every St. Oswald’s class picture -were boys of a more usual -type–boys with strong jaws, straight noses, and thick hair of definite color; boys with long, straight limbs and bold, confident expressions; boys with skills, inborn talents, a ge-ne-tically determined genius for politics or Latin or the law.
In such pictures, my face (blurry and unformed) always looked shifty and somewhat imbecilic, as if the flesh itself realized that the impression I was making was a bad one, even as the shutter clicked.
Did I mention that St. Oswald’s was my third school? The first two asked me (not entirely politely) to leave, owing to the deplorable nature of my behavior and grades. In my defense, I’d like to point out that my behavior was not deplorable if by deplorable you mean rude, belligerent, violent, and -antisocial–setting fire to the library, stabbing or raping a teacher. By deplorable they meant "less than dedicated to study," "less than competent at writing essays," "less than interesting to the head and the board of governors." Given my gentle failings, their assessment strikes me now as unnecessarily cruel, and makes me wonder how they labeled the student who opened fire with an -AK--47 in the middle of chapel.
My lack of distinction was mainly restricted to photographs and schoolwork. When it came to opinions, I was (I am) like the sword of Zorro: swift, incisive, deadly. My opinions on the role of secondary education, for instance, are absolute. In my opinion, this school and its contemporaries -were nothing more than cheap merchants of social status, selling an inflated sense of -self--worth to -middle--class boys of no par-tic-u-lar merit.
I will, however, grant them something. Without the first, I would not have ended up at the second. Without the second, I would not have attended St. Oswald’s. Without St. Oswald’s, I would not have met Finn.
Without Finn, there would be no story.
It all began on the coast of East Anglia, past the indentation where the River Ore ran salt and melted into the sea. There, a bit of land stuck out from the mainland, a small peninsula roughly shaped like a rat’s nose. In maps (old maps), this peninsula was labeled "The Stele," after a -seventh--century commemorative stone marker, or "stele," found very close to school property in 1825.
The letter my school sent to prospective parents contained a -three--quarter--page description of the area. Location was a selling point ( "salt air contributes to strong lungs and clear minds"), and elegant italics explained how the stele was found half buried in earth, the stone large and heavy and probably transported from Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. Such markers -were not uncommon in this part of the country, but this one boasted an excellent carved portrait of Saint Oswald, a -seventh--century king of Britain, with the -Anglo--Saxon equivalent of "Oswald Was -Here" carved on it. The stone itself is long gone, moved to the British Museum.
St. Oswald’s School for Boys, which you won’t have heard of, was situated two miles inland. The school road stretched between the A road and the coast in a more or less straight line, with a footpath running parallel for most of its length. At the sea, the road turned left (north), while the footpath turned right (south). Following the footpath, you could reach The Stele in about twenty -minutes–or at least you could reach the canal of deep water that separated it from the mainland. For only a few hours a day, when the tide was very low, the little peninsula could be accessed via a damp sand causeway. All around it, salt marsh and reed beds provided homes for nesting waders and -waterfowl–oystercatchers, little terns, cormorants, -gulls–and had once done the same for Roman, Saxon, and Viking settlers.
A few miles and a million -light--years away was my home from home, Mogg -House, a -four--story building with studies (tiny as tombs) on the bottom floor, communal dormitories in the middle, and bedrooms with living rooms on the floors above. Boys my age lived on the top floor in rooms designed for two, which now -housed four, thanks to our bursar’s desire to maximize revenues. Loos -were located on the ground floor, and to this day I believe I retain exceptional bladder control thanks to the incon-ve-nience of the con-ve-niences. It was something we develope...
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Book Description Penguin Group(CA), 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 141038314