What I Was – Meg Rosoff

WIW(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

A tale beautifully, wistfully told but with a twist towards the end.

The London group did this book so I thought I would look into it. I am glad that I did.

A lazy boy in a minor public school in the middle of nowhere becomes fascinated by a strange boy who lives alone, fending for himself, in a hut that if often cut off by the tides. The boy’s birth was never registered so, technically, he doesn’t exist and ‘they’, the authorities, social services et al, know nothing about him. The other boy is envious, given the lack of privacy and freedom which mark his life. Escaping from the unheated (character-building) school and the stewed cabbage, he spends the night in the hut, only to have police and coastguards searching for him.

The market is described thus: Kitchen goods were next, steel teapots and cheap tin saucepans, heavy china plates with red marks above the makers’ names to indicate rejected stock. Then the fabrics: great bolts of rough grey suiting made from wool mixed with waste cellulose that would be hell to wear. Further down the road the domestic products gave way to carefully composed pyramids of fruit and veg. It being October, that meant piles of dusty beetroot, huge cauliflowers, cabbages and great wooden bins of runner beans. In two months it would all change — to parsnips, turnips, carrots and spuds.

Nothing about this market set it apart from ten thousand identical others scattered throughout England, but something of the noise and chaos excited me nonetheless. If I squinted to block out the shiny gadgets and trinkets, I could easily imagine myself a century or two earlier in a scene from Hogarth or Daumier. The faces certainly wouldn’t have changed since then — the broken veins, bulbous noses and crafty eyes lifted straight out of A Rake’s Progress….and the market was already starting to thin, so I turned back and walked away from them, past the flowered nightdresses and cheap fabrics, back towards the high street. I paused at the butcher’s where a sign reading Fresh Meat belied the fact that something (everything) smelled of death. Flies had colonized a cow’s shin, and six glassy eyes stared sightlessly out of a trio of gently rotting sheep’s heads. I shuddered and moved on. At the top of the narrow street, there was nothing to do but head back. A few harried, last-minute shoppers bought bruised apples and onions from stallholders anxious to pack up and be off.

Contrasted with school: I stood for a minute, just taking in the colour and noise and the great clamouring chaotic bulk of humanity all busy with everyday tasks. At school we lived with so much order and ritual and so little contact with real life that we might as well have been high-security prisoners or Trappist monks. There were no girls, no pets, no harried shouting fathers or sentimental doting mothers, no old people or babies, no sisters to pick up from ballet lessons, no dogs to walk or cats to feed, no heaps of bills post each morning. As boarders, our basic needs were fulfilled, our brains and bodies stuffed full of texts and truths, but we were desperately, terminally, catastrophically starved of real life.

Anyone who has spent time in a school will recognise the way time dominates everything: minutes were what we lived by: stolen minutes, minutes between lessons, four minutes to smoke a fag, twenty minutes for a pint at the pub, free periods during which forged exam papers or contraband could be purchased. Every minute was crucial in the race from lesson to town shuttle bus, and from town to catch the last bus back (fifteen minutes) or be stuck hitchhiking (thirty-plus minutes), finding a taxi (up to an hour and a near-insane extravagance), or sprinting the four miles back from town (twenty-six to forty minutes, depending on fitness).

There is an insightful meditation on memory and history. We can dig up things belonging to people in the past but we shall never know their memories. Memories stay inside heads and die with them.

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