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Authors: Meg Rosoff

What I Was

BOOK: What I Was
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PENGUIN BOOKS

Meg Rosoff had three or four careers in publishing and advertising before writing her first novel
How I Live Now
. She moved from New York City to London in 1989, where she currently lives with her husband and daughter.
How I Live Now
won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers, the Whitbread Children’s Book Prize and the Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. Her second novel
Just in Case
was published to high acclaim and won the prestigious Carnegie Medal.
What I Was
has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Praise for
What I Was:

‘Rosoff’s most perfect novel… It’s already a classic’

Sunday Times

‘Thrilling and sensitively told’ –
The Observer

‘This exquisitely written novel, complete with amazing twist, is
the ‘teenage’ book of the year’ –
Irish Times

‘A wonderfully warm, witty, intelligent and romantic story with
a terrific whiplash in the tail. Textured, nuanced, dramatic and
atmospheric,
What I Was
feels like a future classic’

Daily Telegraph

‘Gently haunting’ –
Metro

‘Compelling and all-encompassing… Sucks the reader whole
into its universe’ –
Time Out

‘One of the best plot twists in a novel to be found this year’

The Herald

‘A beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both
enduringly old and fluently new’ –
Los Angeles Times

‘Highly original’ –
Books for Keeps

Books by Meg Rosoff
HOW I LIVE NOW
JUST IN CASE
WHAT I WAS
megrosoff.co.uk

MEG ROSOFF

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2007
Published in this edition 2008
1

Text copyright © Meg Rosoff, 2007
Map copyright © David Atkinson, 2007
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of
trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent
in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition
including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

978-0-14-191924-9

For my parents,
Lois Friedman and Chester Rosoff
,
with love

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.

Today, as most days, it is 1962. The year I discovered love.

I am sixteen years old.

1

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 England 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 learnt 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 head and housemaster 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, my father cleared his throat, gazed off into the middle distance, and suggested 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 towards 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, housemaster), 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 minute I was granted entry to a cramped 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 at last, 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.

‘Maybe four.’

‘Choose,’ said Barrett impatiently, pencil poised. He squinted out from under a school cap pulled low over his face, like a bookmaker’s visor.

‘Three then.’

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, and seemed embarrassed by the ritual.

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.

BOOK: What I Was
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