It’s nap time in a children’s hospital, but Frank Gold, the new boy, sneaks out of bed and into his wheelchair, knowing that the nurses will be dozing in the afternoon heat. He peeks into the girls’ ward, hoping to cat a glimpse of his friend Elsa, whose golden hair is usually visible through the crack in the door. Today, she’s not there.
Right away, it’s clear that Frank seeks out opportunities to be alone, even if he’s breaking the rules. This suggests he’s alienated from the other people at the hospital, but also that he values solitude.
Unobserved by any adults, Frank rolls outside and produces a cigarette that he stole from his mother, Ida, the last time she visited. For a moment he feels bad, thinking of his mother searching for her cigarettes after a stressful afternoon at the hospital. But he also takes pride in his sneakiness; to him, it’s an act of privacy and even maturity, a “resistance” to a place where he’s treated like a baby and has no personal space.
It seems like Frank is close to his mother; he’s even attuned to her small gestures and smoking patterns. However, he’s actively striving against that closeness by doing things he knows she won’t like. To Frank, becoming mature means subverting outside control, whether by stealing from his mother or violating the hospital’s babyish rules.
Frank briefly recalls his arrival at the hospital. Even though Sister Penny was friendly and almost naively cheerful to him, he knew it was impossible to test or rile her. Compared to the other, mostly younger children, he felt like a “pirate” surrounded by “little maimed animals.”
Even though Frank is sick and uses a wheelchair, he sees himself as stronger and more vital than the other children around him. His metaphor shows his tendency to set himself apart from others, as well as his fundamental confidence in his own strength and capabilities.
Frank finally stops by the clothes line, where he can hear the noise from a nearby factory. He’s happy to be outside in the strong light; ever since he caught polio, light has seemed “less bright to him, older, sadder.” However, he can’t light the match properly and becomes frustrated. The hospital gardener, Norm Whitehouse, suddenly sees him, but rather than confiscating his cigarettes, he offers him a light and walks away without questioning him.
Frank’s reflection on the light shows how much polio has changed not only his body but his inner life, propelling him abruptly into a more sensitive but sadder maturity. The novel’s first chapter makes clear that polio has significantly accelerated the process of growing up for it’s young victims.
After one pull on the cigarette, Frank has to toss it away and lean against the fence, nauseous. He’s not used to smoking and his body, while older than those of the other patients, is still weak from polio. Frank feels satisfied at having accomplished something private and forbidden, and grateful for Norm’s complicity. Still, he wonders where Elsa is.
Frank often forgets, only to be harshly reminded, that his fraily body cannot keep up with his mental acuity. Norm’s unquestioning offer of the light is an odd gesture from an authority figure; it shows that the hospital’s atmosphere is unconventional, and perhaps not as infantilizing as Frank likes to think.