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ELEVEN



“The child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.”

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989



The walk back up the main street in Bacau took us some time, with several stops. The heat, and my mother’s lack of stamina, turned this second trip to the other end of town into something of a route-march, but we finally arrived, tired and dishevelled, at the reception desk which I had left earlier that afternoon. The friendly receptionist was still there and welcomed us back. She was sure that we’d want something to eat and she would arrange that for us. What would we like, steak and chips? 


I began to salivate just at the thought. At last, things appeared to be looking up and the picture brightened even more when she asked the purpose of our visit.


“I have travelled here,” I said, relaxing into increasingly confident French, “because in England we have heard of the conditions in orphanages in Romania and we are hoping to offer two children a home.”


“But that is lovely,” she said. “And how do you propose to start?”


I told her that I been given the name of Dr Sadovici.


She interrupted me. “Dr Sadovici? But I know his wife. I speak to her every day. I will contact her immediately and arrange for you see her husband.”


Things were definitely improving. I told her that we would go to our room, unpack and come back down to tea and she could perhaps then tell us of the outcome of her call to Mrs Sadovici.


I was dying for a shower and quite obviously my mother needed to cool off too, so we made our way to our room and unpacked.


The room was very much like the room in Hotel Parc, a sort of battered 1960s style, all dark wood and angles, and not in the best of repair, despite its outwardly modern appearance. There was a bathroom, but on turning the tap on, all that came out was a couple of brownish drips and nothing else. So too with the bath. A shower was quite obviously out of the question.


My mother lay down on the bed, exhausted. For my part, I was more excited than tired, bearing in mind that suddenly we had a breakthrough.


“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get something to eat.”


At least the thought of food generated some enthusiasm in my mother and we found our way to the tiny dining room, just off the reception area, where the receptionist herself waited on our table.


Sure enough, she produced steak and chips which we set upon immediately. The steak was probably horse but was succulent enough, and after two days of eating virtually nothing, I was absolutely ravenous. That, with ice cream to follow was, at that moment, a meal fit for a king. 


The next step, of course, was to make contact with the English nurse who had been identified to me as Meg Bennett by the Romanian Orphanage Trust. She had a room in a Hotel Dumbrava, somewhere in the area, and I showed the address to our friendly receptionist. She knew exactly where it was and gave me directions to get there, on foot, from the hotel.


“And,” she said, “I have good news. Dr Sadovici will come here at nine o’clock tomorrow morning and will meet you at the hotel.”


I thanked her profusely and, while my mother made her way slowly upstairs, I walked out of the hotel to find my next contact. 


***


The directions were not that difficult to follow since, as I had thought, Bacau was not that large a town. Although the address I had been given was that of a hotel, it was more of a block with small self-contained apartments. Meg Bennett’s was on the first floor. And when I got to her door, it was open, and I could hear a young man’s voice, speaking in broken English, offering to give help to transport children to activities which he would be pleased to supervise once he had come back, with his girlfriend, from a trip to the seaside. 


I wondered to myself why he should have been planning a trip to the coast when it seemed rather a long way for what appeared to be a day trip, given that we were some considerable distance from the Black Sea coast. Perhaps his outing seemed even odder because of what I was then to be told by Meg. She saw me standing in the doorway when I knocked and put her finger to her lips and gestured for me to sit down and, effectively, to remain silent. 


Mystified, I sat through the remainder of her conversation with the young Romanian and when, finally, she was satisfied that he had left and was out of earshot, she turned back to me.


“You’re English, aren’t you,” she stated, almost as a fact.


Surprised, I said that I was.


“It is obvious from your clothes and your hair, and the colour of your skin that you are at least not Romanian. What are you doing here?”


I told her that I had written a lengthy letter, care of her address, to Dr Sadovici, and that I and my mother had come to Bacau in the hope that, with his contacts and his support, we could adopt two Romanian children.


“Frankly,” she said, “I wouldn’t even try. The Romanians don’t care for these adoptions and they don’t like the idea that children will be removed from their country.”


“Come off it,” I said. “You must know more than anybody how deprived and damaged these children are becoming as a result of the failure of the Romanian state to provide them with adequate care.”


“Maybe. But removing them from the country takes them away from their birthright.”


I had heard quite enough about birthright, and my impatience got the better of me.


“What is this about depriving the Romanian children of anything? Haven’t they suffered enough deprivation already? Birthright comes a long way behind the need of the child for the love and care of a family. A child has the right to be cared for and nurtured by a parent. This ‘birthright’ thing is, in these circumstances, absolutely meaningless. A child who has suffered emotional, social, and intellectual deprivation of the kind that these children are facing wouldn’t understand the first thing about the word.” I found myself transported back to my meetings with Graham Prestridge in England and again I felt the same sense of frustration.


“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m allowing my feelings to get the better of me.”


“Look,” she replied. “I’m just warning you about the attitude that the Romanians have. You will find that they don’t like you and don’t like what you are about. Don’t expect them to welcome you with open arms, and be ready for an unpleasant reception.”


When I told her that I had written a letter by way of an advance introduction, she told me that, in fact, she had not received any correspondence for forwarding to Dr Sadovici, and it was obvious, therefore, that on meeting him the next day he would be wholly unaware of my background or my motives. That, perhaps, given what she had just told me, might not be such a bad thing.


“We’re meeting tomorrow morning,” I told her. “I have copies of my proposals and my home study report and I’ll show them to him. Maybe I can persuade him that my motives are the best and that any child I bring out of Romania will remain Romanian and will be able to return as and when they want.”


“Okay,” she said, resignedly. “Just don’t say that you haven’t been warned.”


“And by the way,” she continued, as I got up to leave, “you’ll need these.” She dug into one of a collection of boxes which seemed to take up a good portion of her room and brought out some tablets. “These are water purification pills. Under no circumstances must you touch the water until it has been purified by one pill for every glass. The pollution here is dreadful. The water is drawn from a river which has been destroyed by at least one factory upstream, and it is thoroughly poisonous. And, as you have probably been told, not only is the water polluted, but it is only turned on twice a day, for an hour in the morning and an hour in the early evening.”


In fact, I didn’t know anything of the sort. Water restrictions were news to me, and there had been no suggestion of that at the hotel, but it explained why nothing came out of the taps. Anyway, grateful for that information and pondering the rather more sobering description of the reception that I was likely to receive, I wished her goodbye and retraced my steps to our hotel.


I walked slowly, in a state of some confusion. I had now been warned twice about antipathy toward adoption in Romania, and now by someone with hands-on experience of life in a Romanian orphanage. What was it that could possibly justify this insistence that the children should not be taken out and cared for in a loving home? I could understand it if there were queues of Romanian families offering care and nurture to these children, but there was not a hint of any help at all from that quarter.


The only person who had appeared at all positive about my plans was the friendly receptionist at our hotel and she at least appeared to be a close friend of the wife of the director of three such orphanages. I took some comfort from that and tried to dismiss the warnings which I had now received.


Back at the hotel, I desperately wanted a shower or bath and I found that my mother had had exactly the same thought. Whether by luck or design, she had discovered that the taps were running again, and she had endeavoured to fill the bath. Unfortunately, she had succeeded in half filling it with a revolting-looking liquid which appeared to be a brownish effluent that could hardly be dignified by the term ‘water’. There was an oily scum on the surface, and a faint smell of petrol filled the bathroom.


“Sorry, Ma, but there’s no way either of us is going to get into that. I have just been warned of severe water pollution in this area, as if that warning were needed in the light of what we can see in the bath.”


It was so unpleasant that I could not even stand the thought of scrubbing myself down with a flannel, and I elected, simply, to get out of my grubby T-shirt and lie down on the bed thinking about the meeting I had just had and the meeting to come. I decided that it was probably better not to tell my mother of the warning I had received. It was better, I imagined, that she should share my initial optimism about the next day’s encounter with Sadovici. So we both settled down to get as much sleep as possible in the clammy heat of the summer’s night.


Next morning, I got up and went downstairs and begged two glasses of water from reception so that we could at least clean our teeth. I had told my mother of the need to use the purification tablets, and I told her not to drink anything which had not been purified. 


She shot me a stricken look. “I think I may have taken some water without having it purified,” she said. 


“Well let’s hope nothing happens, and let’s get some breakfast, if there is any.” And down we went to the dining room.


There was breakfast of a sort, comprising black tea and stale rolls of bread with jam, which I simply could not face. I took a sip of tea, hoping that the water had been boiled sufficiently to take away the pollutants, and then suggested that my mother and I should wait in the foyer for Dr Sadovici, since it was approaching nine o’clock.

Our friendly receptionist appeared not to be on duty, but given that my Englishness stood out, it seemed, like a sore thumb, I decided that a formal introduction was probably unnecessary.


My assumption proved right. Shortly after nine o’clock, a smartly dressed middle-aged man, every inch the clinician, appeared next to us. The contrast between us could not be greater. Dressed in a suit, and carrying a small attaché case, Dr Sadovici sat down next to me, already scruffy in jeans and a T-shirt, not quite the professional that I had wanted to present. My hair was a mess, I was unwashed, and I had not had a shave. However, there was no point in presenting excuses and instead I introduced my mother and decided that I should immediately indicate the purpose of my visit.


Sadovici spoke perfect English, and I was able to explain to him that I had written from England, hoping that he would at least have some idea both of my identity and my mission. I realised, of course, that he had never received my letter, but I was able to pass him a copy which thankfully I had brought with me. 


“I prepared a letter of introduction in England, and sent it to you, addressed to Meg Bennett, whom I think you know. Unfortunately, it seems that it hasn’t arrived. But this is a copy, and I hope it will convince you of my good intentions.”


He took the paper from the and read it carefully. After some minutes he asked me what I thought he could do.


“I gather,” I said “that you have adopted two children yourself.” He nodded. “So you know how important it is to take the children from these orphanages and give them a loving home.”


I was not choosing my words well. Of course he knew how important it was, and again, he rather than I had first-hand experience of the conditions these children were enduring. However, he ignored my presumption.


“What you are suggesting is not popular,” he said. “You know, Ceauşescu sold children to the French.” I didn’t, in fact, know that, but then anything was possible under that man’s dictatorship. “And some children,” he went on, “were taken by traffickers. None of us in Romania wish to see our children removed, to be denied their heritage.”


And there it was again, the birthright thing. I tried to reassure him. “I hope you can see from that document that my motives are entirely pure. I have made sure that I have been properly vetted by our own social services. And I can assure you that any child to whom I give a home in England will know where he comes from and will know that he will be supported in returning here at any moment that he chooses.


If Romanian families would come forward and care for the children themselves, if the country could care for the children, I would not be here. Do you honestly feel that care can be found for these children within your country, here and now?”


Sadovici pursed his lips and appeared deep in thought. Eventually, he turned to me.

“Very well, I believe you. I am sure that I can find two children for you. Just wait here and I will return this afternoon, and I will have the children with me.”


Much later, in my darker moments, I was to wonder, on reflection, just how that was supposed to work. Was he literally going to hand over two babies in the hotel to me and my mother? Was there to be no formality, no paperwork, no official oversight of any sort? Was it really as simple as that? But at that moment, given his assurance and his apparent sincerity, I asked no questions. I was overjoyed at having convinced him of my good faith and I said, certainly, I would stay where I was, without moving, and I looked forward to seeing him that afternoon.


With the utmost courtesy, he wished me and my mother good day, and left the building. 


I was never to see him again.

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