“Men are generally more careful of the breed of their horses and dogs than of their children.”

William Penn, Reflexions and Maxims, 1644–1718

I returned to Hotel Parc with my spirits pretty low. I trudged, rather than walked, my way back to the hotel, without any great enthusiasm. I now had the address of an orphanage, but the unenthusiastic messages from the front line were now reinforced by nurses with first-hand experience. I couldn’t share this with my mother. When I got back to our room, she was already asleep and so I lay, in silence, wondering what the next day would hold.

And I was up before her, washed and ready to leave, by 8am.

I decided that I would take some, but not all of my remaining supplies. Two of the industrial-looking tubs of E45 cream, and one of the swimming pools seemed to fit the bill as much as anything else, and with them in my rucksack, I went back down through reception and out into the front of the hotel.

In fact, I was lucky enough to find a taxi driver, or rather the driver of a car with a taxi sign clinging precariously to its roof from which a family was disembarking into the hotel. I showed him the address that had been given to me by Liz, the night before, and he nodded and gestured me to get in.

As it turned out, it was not that far away and we arrived well before nine o’clock. But the question was, where was the orphanage? The driver had brought me to the right street but had no idea at all of the whereabouts of any orphanage and we had to agree to part on the corner of the street.

I got out and looked around me. I was on a wide road, with large turn-of-the-century buildings on either side, with broad pavements punctuated by a number of regularly spaced trees. There was no hint or sound of anything that could remotely be labelled orphanage.

I walked up and down the road for about a hundred yards without any clear idea of where I was, until, on the other side of the road, I saw a middle-aged professional-looking man in a short-sleeved shirt and slacks, carrying a briefcase, walking, I surmised, on his way to work. He was the only pedestrian I had seen in the last 15 minutes.

I went across to him and asked him if he spoke French.

“Mais oui,” he said, “un peu.”

What a relief.

I had no idea, however, what the French word for orphanage was. Embarrassed,  I found myself asking whether he had any idea of the location of the children’s hospital.

He frowned. “Un hôpital? Pour enfants?”

Well, I said, a sort of hospital.

He paused and looked up and down the road. Apologetically, he said that the closest match he could think of was a building further down the road and round one of the corners. He pointed further back to where the taxi had gone. There was nothing more he could tell me and so I thanked him and he and I went on our separate ways.

The sun was already well over the rooftops and the day was starting to warm up, but I stayed in the relative cool of the shady side of the street and made my way round the corner which my informant had identified. And, sure enough, there, on the other side of the road, was a large building which looked as if it was about to fall down.

The building itself was festooned with scaffolding which was itself rusty and, in parts, looking as if it would fall apart. It might well, in earlier times, have been comparatively handsome in that there were two gateways leading to and from a large semicircular driveway but which was itself now pocked with holes and small valleys and, in parts, blocked by fallen scaffolding rods.

Between the gateways was a long low wall, into which were fixed railings, some 10 feet or so high, all of them revealing peeling paintwork and rust from top to bottom. Set to one side of each end of the fencing and the gateways were two large gate houses, themselves linked to the main building, but with doorways leading onto the drive.

In the middle of the semicircle there was rubble, broken bricks and more scaffolding poles, all heavily overgrown with weeds.

There was a dirty sign painted on a board midway along the fencing. It was so old and decrepit that it was virtually impossible to make out the writing, save that I did see one word that I could just make out and which I recognised. Copii. 


I shouldered my rucksack and approached what I reckoned must be the orphanage. For no particular reason, I chose the right-hand gateway and, as I approached it, the door of the right-hand gatehouse opened and a fearsome-looking woman in a headscarf, dirty apron and floor-length skirt of indeterminate colour appeared. She folded her substantial forearms across her equally large stomach and glared at me.

“Da?” she demanded, more by way of a challenge than a question.

I decided that I would not let her face me down and I looked at her coolly, without breaking stride.

“Director?” I replied, as firmly as I could, gesturing vaguely towards the building, but making it plain that I wanted to find my way to the head of the establishment.

Discomforted by my self-assurance, the babushka retreated marginally and pointed to the corner of the building furthest from us both, where I could see a doorway under an apron of scaffolding. 

“Multu mesc,” I threw at her – a curious word which seemed to be part Latinate and part French. I had already heard a number of Romanians splicing French words into their conversations, such as ‘Merci’. In any event, it seemed to satisfy her, and she turned on her heel and disappeared back into the darkness of her doorway.

Left to my own devices, I picked my way through the detritus and weeds and pushed through the doorway into an unlit corridor. Not knowing which way to turn, I chose left, and was just able to find my way to the end of the passage by the dim illumination which pierced the few grimy windows along one side of my route, breathing in the musty air, and kicking through scattered rubbish ahead of me.

There was even scaffolding inside the corridor, let alone outside the building, and loose plasterwork littered the floor. I could just make out holes of varying sizes both on the ceiling and the side walls from which the plaster was continuing to dribble. 

At the very end of the corridor was a door without any sign or indication of what lay behind. It was not locked and I went through it and found myself in a cleaner hallway, with another door ahead and a door to my right-hand side. This door was open, and I found that it opened into a small office in which there were two dark-haired, rather attractive young women, in starched white figure-hugging uniforms, chatting to each other. There was a desk and a typewriter in the office, and I guessed that these figures were unlikely to be nurses and that they were probably masquerading as secretaries. 

They turned to me enquiringly.

I decided to adopt the same strategy as with the gatekeeper.

“Director,” I said, as imperiously as possible. 

One of them, marginally prettier than the other, got up, pulled her skirt down to her knees and walked past me to the door at the end of the corridor, knocked, and went in. A moment later, not looking best pleased, she re-emerged, and beckoned me through.

I walked into a room which turned out to have all the appearance of a good-sized drawing room, with bay windows on two sides. It was dominated by a large partner’s desk which was almost bare except for an incongruous-looking Sony radio and cassette player – something akin to an upmarket ‘ghetto-blaster’.

To my left was a large bookcase, with artfully placed glossy magazines, and on shelving along the wall behind the desk was a coffee machine. The bay windows had seating and cushions, and in each of the bays were Liz, Anna and Dominic, my Romanian Orphanage Trust nursing acquaintances from the previous night, together with about six others, who I assumed were their colleagues, all dressed in their own nursing fatigues.

Facing them, behind the desk, was an imposing-looking man with aquiline features and a substantial shock of dark hair, greying at the temples, wearing a starched white coat, shirt and tie. And in the middle of the room was a young woman, again attired like the two in the office, looking extremely uncomfortable.

I assumed that I had managed to find my way to the director’s office, and he silently ushered me to a seat close to the door, where I sat and waited. 

The scene was quite bizarre. Not only was the young woman in the middle of the room looking pretty uncomfortable, but so were all the British nurses. The director seemed perfectly calm but appeared to wear a general air of puzzlement. Part of the reason became clear pretty quickly.

The young woman was doing her best to interpret from English into Romanian, but she was obviously struggling, bearing in mind that her grasp of the English language was close to zero. Clearly, none of the nurses spoke Romanian, and the director most certainly did not speak English. 

I had a brainwave.

“I wonder if I can help out by translating through French,” I whispered to Liz.

“Anything,” she said. “We’re getting nowhere.”

I turned to the director. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, mais, si vous parlez Français, on vous aide, si vous voulez. Je puis traduire de l’Anglais alors en Français.”

He smiled, obviously relieved, and said something to the equally relieved-looking young woman, who promptly left the room.

I set about my task as best I could, introducing the nurses to the director, whose name, I learned, was Ursuliano. The breast pocket of his white coat proclaimed that he was a doctor but I was soon to conclude that that was not an accurate description. However, for the time being, I did my best to act as interpreter, despite the difficulties that immediately presented themselves.

There was no difficulty with translation or language. The problem seemed to be that Ursuliano was wholly unready for the offers of help which the nurses were pressing upon him. They had told me the night before that this was their first visit to this particular orphanage and they were desperate to be of some use to the overstretched personnel.

Where could they apply themselves? 

“Anywhere you want to,” he replied, in French.

But where was the greatest need?

“I’m sure one of my assistants can show you around,” he said.

A number of nurses clearly had specialist qualifications, some with disabilities, some with breathing disorders, and all with paediatrics. Could he suggest where they might make themselves the most useful?

He had no suggestions at all, and seemed wholly unaware both of the needs of the children within the orphanage and how any of the nurses might be able to help them.

I explained to Liz that I was not getting very far with him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I assure you that he is giving nothing away. I’m giving you the answers that he is giving me, and although they seem pretty empty, I don’t know how or whether we’re going to get any better information from him. It’s most odd.”

“I agree,” said Liz, “but it seems that the most we can do we is get to work and do the best that we can, and find our own way around the orphanage.”

And in due course, Ursuliano whistled up another assistant, who led the nurses out of the room, leaving the two of us together.

Quite apart from the curious exchanges in which I had become involved, the physical scene remained bizarre, if not shocking. I was sitting in a cool, nicely decorated drawing room, surrounded not by medical texts but by the comforts of a well-ordered study, while outside, I had already seen evidence of decay and abandonment.

“Voulez-vous un café?” volunteered the director.

Certainly, I said, I would love one. He turned to his coffee machine and after a moment produced a small cup of bitter-tasting black liquid.

Now that the nurses had gone, he asked, after a moment, what I was doing there.

I took out the document which I had shown to Dr Sadovici in Bacau, my statement of intent or declaration, translated into Romanian back in England. Passing it to him, I sat back while he read it to himself.

When he had finished, he gave it back to me with a frown on his face. He did, he said, have a good number of children in the orphanage, but he very much doubted that any of them were available for adoption. 

I listened to him in stunned silence. I knew that there must have been more than six hundred children in this orphanage and I simply could not believe my ears.

Anyway, he continued, he would call one of his assistants to take me around the orphanage just to see if a child was available. He pressed a buzzer on his desk, summoning his pretty ‘secretary’ into the room.

He spoke briefly to her, and after she had left, I decided to at least offer him the supplies which I had brought from the hotel. First, I took out the swimming pool which, in its boxed state, was easy enough to understand. He seemed vaguely pleased.

Then I took out the tub of E45 cream.

He looked at it, uncomprehendingly. Of course, on this tub, there was only English script and no illustrations as to the use or application of the substance, but I had imagined that any clinician would know immediately what it was, since the chemical formulae were clearly displayed on the lid. 

Ursuliano unscrewed the lid and looked at the contents. His look of puzzlement was almost comical. Finally, before I could prevent him, he dipped his forefinger into the cream, extracted a dollop, and put it straight in his mouth. 

“Non, non,” I said. “C’est médication pour les maux de peau. On me dit que les enfants souffrent de maux de peau entre les jambs.” I was unsure how I could make it more graphic. All I could think of at that moment was sore legs. Anything more intimate was beyond my vocabulary.

Ursuliano replaced the lid and put the tub on his desk. He was about to thank me when there was a knock on the door, and a tired-looking youngish woman shuffled in. She too wore a white coat, although in rather less of a starched state. On her breast pocket was stencilled Doctor Zoitsanu.

I was puzzled as to just how many doctors frequented this establishment and suspected that, on the contrary, these titles were meaningless. However, Zoitsanu was able to communicate with me in French and, after a few words with Ursuliano, she indicated that she had been deputed to take me around the orphanage to see whether or not a child was ‘available’.

I said goodbye to Ursuliano, who made it plain that he would very much like to see me again and I should call in once more to share a coffee with him. I promised that I would, and followed Zoitsanu into the corridor, where we found two rangy American women and a young Romanian man who was clearly acting as their interpreter.

I did not introduce myself to the Americans, who were very much tied up in their own conversation, but I spoke briefly to the interpreter who said that he had come over from America with them, having left Romania some five years before. In the brief moment I had to speak to him, he made it plain that he was not at all comfortable with the task he was now undertaking, and that he found the state of the building quite shocking.

The four of us moved off, following Zoitsanu down the corridor, avoiding the scaffolding poles as we did so. For her part, she trudged, with a noticeable limp. I caught up with her and asked if she was all right.

“J’ai eu la polio quand j’étais un enfant,” she said. I made sympathetic noises and fell back, into our mournful crocodile.

We negotiated a maze of corridors, each one of them in a similar state of disrepair. I assumed that we were moving into the main part of the orphanage, not just from the number of corridors we negotiated, but because of the oppressive smell which assailed our nostrils. Everywhere we turned, there was a dreadful stink of human excrement. It was so bad that the initial onslaught almost made me gag, but I found, eventually, that the smell became part of the backdrop which my senses just had to, and eventually did, cope with.

Halfway along one corridor, I came across a window just above head height. I thought I saw misshapen arms of disabled children pressing up against the glass. Zoitsanu opened the door immediately next to the window but had barely got it ajar when it was shut very firmly in her face, accompanied by some sort of expletive from inside the room. She looked around, embarrassed. The Americans were still deep in conversation. The interpreter and I shared a look of surprise but said nothing.

Zoitsanu led on.

More corridors, more twists and turns, more rubble and more scaffolding, until we came to another door, this one leading into the open air. Zoitsanu ushered us through, on to an open area about the size of a tennis court. My immediate impression was of baked earth and occasional tussocks of grass. In the middle of the area was some sort of rusted contraption which might have been an intricate seesaw that had long since collapsed. There was a bedraggled tree and a small swing with no seat.

This appeared to be some sort of backyard, entirely surrounded by high walls, three of which were the walls of the orphanage itself, the other a wall of about 15 feet in height. In the corner furthest from us sat two forlorn-looking orderlies in scruffy white uniforms, smoking.

And coming towards us, some stumbling, some crawling, and some managing to run, twenty-five or so infants, those who were able to walk, with their arms raised towards us. 

The scene was utterly desperate. The children were not begging. Rather they were imploring us to pick them up. I knelt down on one knee in the dust and was immediately festooned by a heap of filthy children. One, perhaps a little stronger than the rest, climbed onto my arm and surveyed me solemnly.

I became almost detached from the scene, observing myself and the American women, who were wandering around the yard with a video camera making inane and thoughtless comments. Over the heads of the children, I saw the interpreter turn on his heels and leave by the one door through which we had come. The orderlies did not react at all and simply sat and continued smoking. For her part, Zoitsanu hovered around the outskirts of the throng of children.

Kneeling there, I had no idea what was going on. The yard was hot and oppressive, without any hint of fresh air. The children were dressed in a variety of tiny sweatshirts, baby-grows and vests, all terribly grubby and, without exception, smelling to high heaven. The variety of slogans and designs on a number of the vests made it pretty obvious that the children were dressed in clothes which had been donated from across Europe. How long each of them had worn their particular trophy was open to question, but it was pretty clear that there was no such thing as a laundry.

Growing stiff, I got to my feet. The little boy who had clambered on to me right at the start was still clamped to my arm.

Zoitsanu came over to me. “Aimez-vous lui?”

In fact, he was quite a handsome little chap, still looking at me, with a half-smile on his lips. Unusually for this part of the world, he had fair hair, with remarkably long eyelashes.

“Que s’appelle-t-il?” I asked.

“Ticci,” she replied, her pronunciation making the name sound like ‘Titch’.

Sensing that I approved of the little boy, she motioned me to put him down and follow her out of the yard. We would have to speak to ‘the social worker’, she explained. Bemused, I followed her, leaving the Americans to their chatter as they continued to wander around the yard, filming.

As we left the yard, one little boy, rather taller than the rest, and clearly able to walk faster than the others, scampered over to us, and stood wailing by the door. He had red tightly curled hair and a very marked divergent squint, and, like all the others, was covered in dust and dirt. His distress was palpable and quite shocking. I stood for a moment, desperate to find some way to comfort him, but feeling totally powerless.

Zoitsanu beckoned impatiently, and I turned away, but with a dreadful sense that I was abandoning the poor child all over again.

I did my best to concentrate on Zoitsanu, who led me with her shambling gait back through the corridors and to the front of the orphanage. We walked out into the open air once more, and over the potholed driveway to the gatehouse on our right, opposite the lair of the babushka. I followed her into what turned out to be an office, where at that moment there was just one occupant, a well-dressed woman, heavily made-up, and with a substantial head of permed red hair.

Zoitsanu went straight over to her and began talking, while I stood in the doorway, unsure where to put myself.

The conversation between Zoitsanu and the woman, whom I took to be the social worker, began very quickly to get out of control. I was able to detect that the social worker was becoming more and more angry with Zoitsanu, who, ultimately, retreating from the onslaught, came over to me with a hangdog expression on her face.

“I’m very sorry,” she said in French, “but that child is not available for adoption.” 

Bewildered, I remained silent, not knowing quite what to say.

There was a further exchange between Zoitsanu and the social worker. 

“But,” she said, turning back to me once more, “there is one child who is available.”

“Yes?” I said.

“Il s’appelle Petre George. Avez-vous lui rencontré?”

What on earth did she mean? Of course I hadn’t met him. I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about or who she was referring to. I would have thought that that was pretty obvious, but then again, the situation was becoming more surreal by the minute.

Zoitsanu cast something of a fearful look over her shoulder at the social worker before turning back to me.

Would I like to meet him, she asked?

Certainly, I said, and so we retraced our steps once more through the foul-smelling corridors and eventually to the same backyard.

The scene was just as before, save that the American women had disappeared. The orderlies were still smoking and, as we came through the door, the children again did their best to rush towards us. Once more I found myself surrounded, although this time I remained standing, wondering what would happen next.

Zoitsanu went over to the orderlies, chatting to them, seeking, I assumed, to identify the one child of whom she had spoken. Reluctantly, one of them got up and carefully put her cigarette on the bench before coming across to the group of children milling around me.

At the very edge of the group, she picked up one of the weaker-looking children, who had been either too slow to keep up with the others or had been shouldered aside by the stronger infants, and, pushing her way through the throng, she handed him to me.

I put him on the crook of my arm and did my best to examine this offering who was wearing a stained and grubby vest which was rather too big for him. Like the other children, he had no shoes. 

Unusually, his head was not shaved to the skull like many of the other children. Instead, he had long dark hair which was plastered over his forehead. His head tended to loll forward, and I was quite unable to engage him with any eye contact, even while moving the forefinger of my free hand in front of his face. There was no reaction at all.

His face had a deathly pallor, while from his nose, two green parallel lines of thick green mucus moved down from his nostrils, across his mouth and onto his chin. He had painful-looking red spots on his cheeks and neck, and, as far as I could see, many more on his arms and legs.

He made no sound whatsoever. I, for my part, found it impossible to engage him in any way, even to the extent that clicking my fingers close to each of his ears produced no perceptible response.

Indeed, the only outward sign of life, other than that his eyes remained open, was a warm trickle down my forearm as he urinated, soaking both my arm and the side of my T-shirt before I realised what was happening.

Zoitsanu came up to me.

“Ça suffit?” she said. 

What on earth did she mean by that? Certainly I had had enough experiences that morning to last a lifetime, but that wasn’t the point. Had she meant to translate something rather different from Romanian? Did she intend to ask whether I was satisfied? 

Struggling to make sense of the situation, I thought back to David Rapley, the family GP at his surgery in leafy Warwickshire. What was it he had said? “Try,” he had told me, “to find a child no older than 18 months.”

I looked from the child to Zoitsanu and back again. 

“Quel âge a-t-il?”

She looked at us both. “Il a presque deux ans.” An assertion which later proved to be palpably false. 

Really? He could have been any age to my untutored eyes, but at least the addition of ‘almost’ seemed to be roughly within the parameters set by David.

“Voulez-vous lui prendre?” she said.

Does time ever stand still? Certainly, in my experience, it speeds up and slows down at the most inappropriate times. Now, however, it slowed down to freeze-frame pace. 

I could feel the sun on my back, burning my neck and sucking the air out of this dreadful place. The yard was eerily silent and, apart from the shuffling children, there didn’t seem to be any sign of life. The orderlies were taking no interest in the scene at all, and Zoitsanu simply stood in front of me, squinting against the sun and waiting for my answer.

What on earth was I committing to? Where was the nearest paediatrician? Was this child disabled? He was not responding in any way to any of my endeavours, which might suggest some sort of neurological deficit or that he was deaf. I was not even sure that he could walk properly. Did he have Aids? How old, in fact, was he, given that it was quite unlikely that Zoitsanu had any information on him at all? Could anyone give me an objective medical or clinical opinion? This little scrap of humanity appeared to be in a perfectly dreadful state, but the extent of his difficulties was wholly beyond any assessment that I could bring to bear at that moment.

His head drooped down to his chest as he wobbled slightly on my arm. 

I looked back at Zoitsanu.

She stared first at me and then at the yard. There was the vaguest hint of a sneer on her face – or was she as uncomfortable as I was? 

Again she asked me in her formulaic French. “Will he do?”

Again the silence.

Dear God in heaven, what was wrong with the world? Could no one help me? 

I had to snap out of this. I glanced once more at the child and then looked straight at Zoitsanu. 

“Bien sûr.” 

Of course.


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