They pour out into the rainy October afternoon all at once, rupturing the silence with their shrieks and shouts; the clatter of patent leather shoes on tarmac and the palpable sense of excitement of bright young things unleashed at last into the wild.
They swarm through the gates laughing and chatting, walking home in pairs or threes, or queuing up for the school bus at the corner.
Joseph sits on a bench outside holding up a newspaper that he is not reading. Anyone paying attention would see that the newspaper is at least a week old and that it is the same newspaper Joseph has been reading here on this bench every day this week, every day since he finally got out. He peers over the top of his dog-eared paper, a flickering urgency behind his bright eyes as he scans the crowd. They move together in shoals, a bubbling mass of rucksacks and acne and energy.
Not that he knows what he is looking for. Would her hair be brown, like his? Or red like her mother’s? Would she be tall for her age? Popular, or a loner? Something deep in Joseph’s chest tells him that when he sees her he will know her instinctively. There are some things you just know, aren’t there?
He pictures the moment often. She will come out alone, maybe, and look up at him, noticing him immediately, their eyes catching. He will stand up and she will know him at once. He will take her for ice-cream and of course they’ll get on like a house on fire. It will have to be a secret at first, but once her mother sees how well it worked she’d soon change her mind and let him see her properly. Maybe she could even come to stay with him sometimes...
But none of the children looks his way. He peers into faces looking for evidence of his nose, or of Ruth’s pale freckled skin, her upturned mouth. But all these children feel like strangers to him.
He sees a crowd of parents eyeing him warily from across the road, all Joules coats and Radley bags. Well sod them. He has as much right to be here as them, let them stare.
Gradually the crowds of kids begin to drain away, as they do every day, the shouts and laughter growing fainter, the belching school bus labouring its way around the corner and out of sight again. Was she on it? He doesn’t know where Ruth lives now, isn’t allowed to know, they’d told him.
Finally when every child is gone and the light is beginning to fade, Joseph stands resignedly to make his way back to his little room in the hostel. But he makes sure to neatly fold up his paper and slip it into his back pocket so he can use it again tomorrow.