Excerpt from I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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I Am, I Am, I Am

Seventeen Brushes with Death

by Maggie O'Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell X
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 304 pages

    Mar 2019, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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Print Excerpt

The headmistress was an object of awed fear. Her sinewy neck and bird-claw hands. Her scarves skewered to sweaters with a silver pin. Her office with its dark walls and wine-coloured rug. If called there to demonstrate skills with coded reading books, I would look down at this rug and picture having to stand there, my skirt pulled up, awaiting my fate, bracing myself for the blow.

It filtered down to the pupils, of course. Chinese burns were particularly popular, when the skin of your forearm could be wrung like a damp cloth into vivid ellipses. Hairpulling, toe-crushing, head-locking, finger-twisting: there was a large and ever-expanding range at the bullies' disposal. I had the misfortune of not speaking with a local accent, of being able to read before I got there, of having an appearance that, I was informed, was abnormal, offensive, unacceptable in some way, of wearing skirts that had been taken up and let down too many times, of being sickly and missing large chunks of school, of stammering whenever called on to speak, of having shoes that weren't patent leather and so on. I remember a boy in my class trapping me behind the brick shelter and wordlessly yanking me up by the straps of my sundress until they cut into my underarms. He and I never referred to this incident again. I remember an older girl with a glossy dark fringe materialising from the playtime crowd to grind my face into the bark of a tree. In my first term at comprehensive school, in the middle of a chemistry lesson, I was punched in the face by a twelve-year-old skinhead. If I probe my upper lip with the tip of my tongue, I can still feel the scar.

So, when the man put the binocular strap around my neck, even though he was saying something about wanting to show me a flock of eider ducks, I knew what came next. I could smell it, I could almost see it there, thickening and glittering in the air between us. This man was just another in a long line of bullies who had taken exception to my accent or my shoes or godknowswhat—I had long since stopped caring—and he was going to hurt me. He meant to inflict harm, rain it down on my head, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I decided I must play along with the birdwatching game. I knew that this was my only hope. You can't confront a bully; you can't call them out; you can't let them know that you know, that you see them for what they are.

I glanced through the binoculars for the length of a single heartbeat. Oh, I said, eider ducks, goodness, and I ducked down and away, out of the circle of that strap. He came after me, of course he did, with that length of black leather, intending to lasso me again, but by this time I was facing him, I was smiling at him, gabbling about eider ducks and how interesting they were, did eiderdowns used to be made of them, is that where the name came from, were they filled with eider-duck feathers? They were? How fascinating. Tell me more, tell me everything you know about ducks, about birds, about birdwatching, goodness, how knowledgeable you are, you must go birdwatching a lot. You do? Tell me some more about it, about the most unusual bird you've ever seen, tell me while we walk because is that the time, I really must be going now, down the hill, because I have to start my shift, yes, I work just there—you see those chimneys? That's the place. It's quite close, isn't it? There will be people waiting for me. Sometimes if I'm late they'll come out to look for me, yes, my boss, he'll be waiting. He walks up here all the time too, all the staff do, he knows I'm out here, he certainly does, he knows exactly where, I told him myself, he'll be out looking for me any minute now, he'll be just around that corner. Sure, we can walk this way, and while we do, why don't you tell me some more about birdwatching, yes, please, I'd like that but I really must rush because they are waiting.

Excerpted from I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell. Copyright © 2018 by Maggie O'Farrell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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