Clinging to the walls like shadows they creep to the end of the corridor, to the big box casually piled with limp heaps of wool and polyester, cotton and nylon. Everyone else has gone home.
"It isn't stealing," says Sufia. "These are clothes nobody wants."
Lost, discarded and abandoned, the pieces of grey school uniform are mounded over the rim of the box like rain clouds. It's a curious choice, thinks Sufia, for the beige skin tones of their classmates in this cold northern place. From head to toe they appear to have taken on the colour of dying.
She fishes out a pair of trousers and holds them against her brother's skinny legs. She's determined they should both dress the same as the other children. She wants to blend in with the grey waves that flood into canteen and playground, that ebb, more cautiously, towards the back of the classroom. The headmistress has said they can wear whatever they like until the uniform vouchers arrive: it really doesn't matter in the least and their own clothes are quite charming. Sufia disagrees.
She stows trousers, skirts and jumpers into her school bag until it bulges alarmingly. Hearing the tap of high heels, she tosses a shirt to Yusef to hide. "Quick!" she whispers.
"Why are you still here?"demands the teacher, rounding the corner.
Sufia cradles her bag. "My brother lost something," she says.
"What is it, Yusef?"
Yusef pulls the edges of his coat together and stares down at the shoes that pinch his toes. He wonders why she has bothered to address him at all—surely everyone knows what he has lost are his words. Like marbles, in a bag that's suddenly burst, they have scattered and rolled away from him.
No one can remember the last time they heard him speak, whether it was in the camp or on the ferry. Or even earlier, as they journeyed hidden in the back of a lorry, in a dark so complete, so hot and fetid, it felt like the inside of a goat's stomach. He used to be such a chatterbox. Their mother used to say his tongue would run away with him. Now it flickers nervously at the corner of his mouth or lies clamped between his teeth when he is concentrating. No one can remember the last time it rolled around the shape of a sentence.
"It's not important," Sufia tells the teacher. "We look tomorrow."
As they turn and flee down the corridor, the white polo shirt embroidered with the logo of the school and the name of another pupil slips from beneath his coat, falls onto the shiny floor. Sufia swoops to pick it up without breaking step. They don't stop running, through rows of red-brick terraces, across a scrap of wasteland, around the back of the pub, until they reach their street and the door that leads to their flat above the bookmakers.
Usually when they get back, their mother is waiting for them. For most of the day she's been surrounded by silence—or the gabble of voices she doesn't understand. Over the hours she has penned in her anxieties and her loneliness; when her children come home the words tumble out in a torrent. She storms through their three rooms like a tornado while they shift quietly towards the bread on the table. The bread is so soft and white it forms a plug in their throats that no sounds can pass. They fold slices into their mouths while their mother unleashes her stored-up thoughts to her only audience.
But today there is no bread on the table and the cold drab sitting room squats in darkness. Sufia doesn't turn on the lights. She lifts the cushions of the old leatherette sofa and lays the purloined uniforms flat underneath, glad that her mother isn't hovering, interrogating or complaining about her day. Only when she has finished and all the cushions are replaced does she catch the low groan of pain from the bedroom and rush towards it.
Yusef, left behind, knots his fingers tightly together. He likes to watch his knuckles whiten, to become as pale and sharp as the face of an English child. When Sufia comes back she's trembling with importance. She shouts at him for standing there still in the dark.
"Can't you do anything?" she hisses violently, snapping on the light switch. "I have to go out and telephone the hospital. I have to find Papa. I have to do all this and you—you're no use at all!" She stamps her foot in frustration, because at eleven years old she has to be in charge of the family. It isn't fair that while other children are eating biscuits and watching television she must roam the windy Liverpool streets in search of her father.
Every morning he goes out, hoping to find casual work. He tells them solemnly that he's a good responsible father, that he needs to earn extra cash because, as everyone agrees, the vouchers are not enough. Sufia knows this is true; she also knows he has discovered alcohol. And sometimes even the noblest of fathers, along with other compatriots emasculated by their circumstances, will find a way to escape in a can of lager.
Yusef can't be sent, of course, because he can't carry messages, and in any case he's too young. He'll have to stay and sit by their mother's bedside and let her clutch his arm when the pain gets too bad. Sufia will be back as soon as she can. Maybe the doctor or the ambulance will arrive first. If there's a knock at the door Yusef must open it. They used to hide and pretend they weren't at home, but this is an emergency. All he has to do is lead the caller to the bedroom: the situation will be self-evident.
As the door bangs shut on Sufia, Yusef gingerly goes to find their mother. She is lying in an enormous heap in the central sagging dip of the bed. She would have preferred her daughter to stay with her—what use is a six-year-old boy with terrified eyes?—but at least she's no longer alone. She bites her lip to stop her cries escaping, not wanting to frighten him, but he has already been reminded of their time in the belly of the lorry. How cold it was at night, how hot by day: the overpowering smells of oil and grease, of sweat and ammonia, of fear.
He had been climbing into the back, into his father's arms, when he'd caught his shin on a jagged piece of metal and yelped. "Another sound," the driver said, "and I'll cut your tongue out."
Yusef had never counted their fellow travellers. Their family stayed close together while other forms heaved and wriggled and tried to find comfort. One day—they knew it was day from the temperature, from the way heat licked their faces and their mouths grew parched—a young man went wild for water. He pounded on the sides of the lorry and yelled for something to quench his thirst. At night when they stopped and the air around them seemed to freeze, the doors swung open. "Who wanted a drink?" the driver asked and was swiftly delivered the culprit. Yusef wasn't sure whether he heard a shot, maybe after all it was the pop of a water bottle opening. But the man didn't come back for the rest of the journey and even with a water bottle he wouldn't get far wandering the desert.
Later, when they'd arrived, when they were threatened no longer by guns or knives, but only by overwhelming ignorance, Sufia took control. She could understand the voices. She could listen and translate and relay information. She became interpreter, confidante and diplomat, building her words into bridges. She explained why they had been dispersed across the country, from Dover to Liverpool. She knew how to ask for furniture from the landlord and how to talk to the teachers at school. She'd shown Yusef how to practise the long sweeping shapes of the English alphabet and how to write his name. She protected him from other children, from the ones who prodded curiously between his ribs or tried to peer into his mouth to uncover the secret of his silence. Once he defended himself by biting; now they mostly give him a wide berth.
He wishes Sufia hadn't abandoned him. When the knocking hammers on the door he doesn't want to answer it; he wants to cower under a chair. But his mother pushes him forward and swings her legs onto the floor in preparation; she has essential possessions ready in a plastic carrier bag. Two men in uniform fill the hallway. They each take an elbow and half carry his mother down the stairs and into the street. They help her into the back of the ambulance and the white double doors slam behind her, and as it drives away at speed he wonders whether he will ever see her again. He can imagine his father sinking into despair, lamenting his loss noisily with his friends, ignoring his motherless children.
Sufia has arrived on the step beside him, scrubs the tears from his face. "Don't be silly, Yusef," she says.
Now, in less than two days, their mother has returned.
She's back in bed again, but this time she's propped upright against the pillows and in the crook of her arm lies a fragile infant: flesh as succulent as a fig, dimples pitting the softness of tiny star-shaped hands.
Everyone is pleased about the baby. At the very least, he will bring them extra money. And Sufia hopes he will even give them a better chance to win the coveted leave to remain. Their father shakes his head when she suggests this, but he looks so proud and happy. He parades the baby on his shoulder and says to Yusef, "Do you want to hold your brother?"
Yusef nods and perches in the corner of the sofa. Clear dark eyes gaze steadily up at him; he sees no flicker of fear or distress. He cups his hand around the warm soft head and watches while the rosy mouth purses and puckers, the lips moving apart and together, but no sound coming out. Who would think that such a small helpless creature, one who couldn't walk or sit or feed himself, could be so powerful? That a person who couldn't even speak might be able to work magic?
In the night they hear wailing, the strong defiant clamour of hunger and impatience. Yusef tenses his body, waiting for his mother's anguished pleas for silence through the partition wall. Instead he hears a snuffling, the greedy sucking of a creature altogether unaware of consequences. By degrees, Yusef relaxes the grip of his hands, the muscles in his calves, and the baby falls into a steady soothing sleep.
On Monday morning, Sufia produces the new uniforms, sharply pressed from their hiding place beneath the sofa cushions, original name tapes safely snipped away. Her skirt hangs loosely over her hips; his trousers flop over his shoes and his shirt collar has a grubby mark.
"Where did those come from?" asks their mother, frowning.
"The teacher gave them to us."
"Did the vouchers arrive?"
Sufia nods, not knowing if she will be believed, but their mother is more interested in the infant tugging at her breast, her new miracle. "Well, I suppose there's room for you to grow," she says carelessly.
Up until now she has taken her children to school. Perhaps she's afraid that if she doesn't deliver them through the gates they will spend the day in doorways or bus shelters as their father sometimes does. She hasn't realised how much they long to dissolve into the scampering crowd, to disassociate themselves from her bulk, from the swathes of material that shroud her and set her apart from the other parents with their jeans and dyed spikes of hair. But today she must stay at home with the baby: her legs are still too weak for walking and he is too small and new for the inhospitable air of the street.
Bold in their new identities, Sufia and Yusef stroll into the playground, wondering if anyone will point and notice, whether they have truly managed to look the same as all the rest. On the asphalt some boys are kicking a football—as they do every morning in this football-crazy city. Their bags and coats are piled into makeshift goalposts. As Yusef stops to watch, the battered sphere of leather soars into the sky and bounces near him, twice. He reaches out, catches it, and cradles it in his arms.
Like a pair of lost marbles, rollicking in his direction, the words jostle for position in Yusef's head. He extends his trophy to the boy approaching him and opens his mouth. "Play ball?" he says.
Copyright © Penny Feeny 2006. Title graphic: "School Supplies" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.