“We learn from experience that not everything which is incredible is untrue.”

Cardinal de Retz, Memoirs, 1673–76

Carmel and I share a similar characteristic, that of impatience. In many people, that is translated into brisk efficiency. In our case, however, it translates into getting on with things at a rush, without necessarily considering tangential or, indeed, any consequences. From the moment that young doctor appeared on the screen, our minds, our common aim, became fixed, and by unspoken agreement, we were not prepared to tolerate any obstruction. 

Initially, we had no plan, but at least we knew that every stage of what we were about to undertake was sequential and that until we had completed one stage, it was pointless proceeding to the next.

We were prepared to take our cues and follow directions from any contact we could find, anyone with experience of Romania and even of bringing a child out. And so, quite fortuitously, it seemed, we had found within a matter of days that an English newspaper, the Daily Express, was itself following the fortunes of a young couple who had travelled to Romania with the declared intention of adopting two babies.

Their story was already provoking considerable interest and was obviously good ‘copy’, but it was short on detail. Of course, the average reader would not be terribly interested in the nuts and bolts of the expedition, but I needed detail and I needed to know exactly what steps should be undertaken if I was to be successful.

This being before the gloomy days of data protection, the Daily Express news desk was prepared to give out the telephone number of the couple, Ian and Paula Marriott, and they, for their part, did not immediately hang up when I made contact.

“It’s chaotic,” Ian told me. “There is no adoption legislation in place and the government is at sixes and sevens. You have to rely on local government, such as it is, to provide you with the necessary documentation to enable you to get out of the country and back here with a child.”

“So, is it right that you have actually managed to bring two children back into the UK?”

“Yes, we have, and we’re very relieved that we have managed to rescue them. But if you think that this was just an adventure, and we did it as a knee-jerk reaction, then think again. Adoption is a serious commitment which must not be undertaken lightly.”

I wondered if I was going to be treated to a lecture on childcare, and whether I was expected to explain my own motives. However, I bit back on my response and let him carry on.

“I promise you that this isn’t a frivolous enquiry. I absolutely agree that this is not a time for adventure; it is a mission partly to rescue and partly to look forward and provide nurture for children who are currently abandoned with no future whatsoever. My wife and I realise that the challenge is probably immense, but the reward will be greater. Not a reward for us, but for the child or children.” 

I told him that I had already heard of the need for a Home Study report by my own local authority and that I would have to make contact with the local social services office. 

“I understand the need for social enquiry reports when adoption is being undertaken either in this country or from abroad, and I can assure you that my wife and I will allow ourselves to be subjected to the necessary scrutiny to satisfy the childcare authorities in this country and, hopefully, in Romania.”

That seemed to satisfy Ian, who, it turned out, was more than anxious to help. I immediately regretted my initial but thankfully unspoken reaction to his questions – it became clear as we spoke that he had the best interests of his and the remaining children at heart.

“Okay, this in general terms is what you have to do, and is best described by what we did.

“We travelled to Romania without the faintest idea of where we might find a child. To give us some guidance, we made contact first of all with the Romanian embassy in London and they, for their part, appeared willing to give us a list of orphanages which might be prepared to co-operate with us. 

“For the privilege of entering the country and following up our enquiries we had to pay some sort of visa fee, which seemed pretty pointless and designed only to produce some foreign exchange.

“In fact, there’s a travel agent in Hertfordshire, trading as Friendly Travel,  a chap called Harry McCormick, who’s prepared to offer special deals to couples travelling to and from Romania on these adoption missions.”

He gave me the address and phone number of the agent, and went on:

“When you get there, you must decide on the area which you wish to investigate and then, as we discovered, it would be a good idea to find yourself a taxi driver who can act as guide and interpreter. That is exactly what we did, and we spent a day moving between orphanages, seeking to identify the babies whom we could bring back to the UK.”

“When you have found the babies, you need the consent of the mother to the removal and adoption of the children. Then you need the authority of the local mayor, and once you have that, you get hold of the President, who signs it off, and when that’s been done you can return to the United Kingdom, provided you have entry clearance from the British consulate.”

I was writing furiously as he described this remarkable process. The lack of formality seemed more than a little surprising and fraught with snares. But I was assured that the process was actually as simple as it sounded. And the mayor and most of officialdom, according to Ian, were particularly amenable to staples which were only found with great difficulty in Romania – vodka and American cigarettes. 

There was evidently no formal procedure and it was, he said, a usually pretty straightforward task to find the mother, obtain her consent, and then, having obtained the necessary documentation from the mayor, make one’s way to the President in Bucharest, produce the documents to the British embassy and obtain clearance to bring the children back into the United Kingdom.

“And that’s it?”

“Well,” he said, “it worked for us and it should still work for you. So, the best of luck.”

And that was it. He promised to write to me with all that he had told me – and I for my part now had a scattering of scribbled notes taken during our conversation. I hung up the telephone in a pretty bewildered state. Was it really possible to extract a baby from an orphanage, find and effectively bribe an official, and then, with the approval of the President and, after him, the British embassy, simply load the child onto an aeroplane and end up back home in the UK?

Stranger things have happened, I supposed, and there on the pages of the Daily Express, I could see a delighted young couple with two babies who had at one stage shared an open suitcase on the trip back to the UK, looking not only none the worse for the experience, but very much the better for it.

So, more things to do. Contact the Romanian embassy; badger my local authority to progress a report on our circumstances at home; identify possible areas to pursue in Romania; establish just how I could travel, investigate and return and complete the trip without Carmel.

This last issue was likely to be something of a problem. I was a Registrar, a judicial post in the County Court, employed by the government. I was to discover that my line manager,  Robin Holmes, the Courts Administrator, was remarkably sympathetic to my need to take time off, but Carmel was self-employed, working virtually single-handed in her own clothing boutique in Leamington Spa. The clothing trade had not been particularly buoyant for some time, and relied, season by season, on maintaining sales before the stock became unsaleable, as ‘dead stock’. Customers at her end of the market were extraordinarily fickle. Each season (for the purpose of buying, that is,) lasted only a number of weeks rather than months, and it didn’t take very much, either in terms of weather or economic decline, for sales to fail at a crucial time, leaving the retailer no choice but to discount heavily in a desperate attempt to remove stock from the shelves.

Throughout the existence of her shop, Carmel, like an enormous number of small independent retailers, had to remain at the helm, hands on, with a keen eye to her business overdraft, making visits to London to purchase the following season’s stock from a host of independent labels. If she didn’t, and given that we both would have to be away from the UK for a good number of weeks, there was little doubt that her business would fail.

Added to that, she couldn’t fly. And if she and I were to travel to Romania either by road or train, it was clear that each journey would take two or even three days. I had picked up a complicated-looking volume of European train timetables at our local main train station and established that the rail link to Bucharest from England followed the route of, or even was, the original Orient Express, although the timetable suggested that it was very much a shadow of the romantic transportation described by Agatha Christie. Indeed, it halved in size somewhere along the route, one set of coaches going off in one direction, the other continuing on towards the east.

This was to be no Wagon-lits romance. It was not, as I had protested to Ian Marriott on the telephone, an adventure. It was a mission and it had to be undertaken as efficiently as possible, which meant, in particular, speed, and if I were to find one or even two babies, nursing them on a two- or three-day rail trip would be extremely difficult.

Of course, I did not know the half of it.

But what I did know was that Carmel could not accompany me and I would have to make the trip with someone else. My immediate thoughts turned to my mother – not a woman with the greatest maternal instinct and one who had effectively left much, if not all, of my care to surrogate foster parents and boarding schools while she, for her part, pursued a lifestyle which was not suited at all to either matrimony or child rearing. In her sometimes chaotic travel through life, she had married no less than four times. I was her firstborn, and Lucy, my half-sister, was born to my mother’s marriage to my second stepfather. Lucy herself had been left mainly to fend for herself, and although, for a good part of her younger life, she had had to share a home with her mother, it was an unhappy and difficult experience.

But my mother had many attributes, some quite surprising. In my late teens, I recall that she was an assistant governor at Holloway prison in London. Later, she became the first woman to be appointed an assistant governor at a male prison, in Maidstone. She did not stop there and was sent by the Home Office to assist in or, as far as I knew, even run, the women’s prison in Kowloon, Hong Kong. In between her third and fourth marriages, she had bought a tiny apartment on a Greek island, and would drive from London, through Europe and into Greece in her battered Austin Allegro without any thought of danger or mechanical breakdown. 

I remembered that, when I was about ten, she obtained a pilot’s licence, and although I never saw her at the controls of an aeroplane, she had admitted to me that on her maiden solo flight she ran out of fuel and had to crash land, to the delight of the local press, which published a picture of her Tigermoth nose-down in a country ditch.

She had a remarkable brain – she played bridge for Sussex and, indeed, her second husband was also a county player. So also did she have an extraordinary gift for languages. Her second husband was an Israeli, and her third, although not Israeli, was Jewish, and whether for the hell of it or not, I do not know, she learned Hebrew. When appointed to the prison in Kowloon, she learned Cantonese.

Above all, she loved to travel and she loved a challenge.

I had not seen her for ages. After I left university, I had found my own accommodation in a garret in London, while she embarked on her remarkable career changes, moving between partners, some of whom she married, with a rapidity which matched her undeniable speed of thought. Her fourth husband, Freddie North, whom I had met some years before, was an international bridge player and author, with an enormous reputation among the bridge-playing fraternity, but  I had only seen the two of them together once since their marriage – the third such ceremony to which I had not been invited.

I could think of nobody else, and so, with some trepidation, I telephoned her.

“Darling,” she exclaimed breathily –  I imagined I could hear her exhaling streams of cigarette smoke, although I knew very well that she had, remarkably, given up a 50-a-day habit at a stroke some years ago – “how exciting. Of course I will go with you.”

Naturally, I was grateful. I gave her the basics and told her that I would be in touch.

What I did not bargain for was her state of health.


This is a web preview of the "Nobody Comes: The True Story of the Rescue of a Child From a Romanian Orphanage" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App