“Behaviour of such cunning cruelty that only a human being could have thought or contrived we call ‘inhuman’, revealing thus some pathetic ideal standard for our species that survives all betrayals.”

Rose Macaulay, A Casual Commentary, 1925

Monday morning at 9am. Feeling, for reasons quite beyond me, like an errant schoolboy, I arrived at the orphanage. I was not completely alone, for there were a number of people, mainly men in suits, wandering in and out of the gates. Standing there, watching them come and go, it gradually dawned on me that these might well be the lawyers I had heard of.

At 9.30am, true to her word, Beatrice, my faithful interpreter, arrived. She seemed slightly surprised at the run-down appearance of the building in front of which we were standing. It was pretty clear that she, like, I assumed, many others, had no idea what was behind the crumbling walls.

We greeted each other. “How kind of you to come and give up your time.”

“No,” she said, “I promised you that I would be here, and I want to support you as much as I can in your expedition.”

We stood inside the rusting railings, set into and along the crumbling concrete which formed the front wall, extending along the pavement and fronting an area which would once, I suppose, have been landscaped. Standing where we were, looking outwards from the main complex, the gatehouse from which I had seen the fierce-looking babushka emerge when I first came to Orphanage Number One was now on our left. On our right, opposite babushka haus was its twin, a similar building, where I had met the social worker. It was there, I assumed that I would be meeting her today and I pointed it out to Beatrice.

There was not much more we could say to each other while we waited, standing uncomfortably on the potholed ground, there being no seats or bench to sit on. I was on tenterhooks, and Beatrice was clearly ill at ease, not knowing really what all this was about. Small talk was too difficult and I felt faintly guilty for bringing her into these surroundings. I, to a certain extent by then, had been ready for the scene which was clearly making Beatrice so uncomfortable now. I had seen the bricks, the scaffolding, the broken pieces of timber and the weeds. Worse, I had been inside and I’d seen the neglected and broken interior, and at least she had been spared that. 

Ten o’clock came and went. There was much activity in the social work office, but no sign of the social worker. The men in suits appeared to be coming and going from the gatehouse, forming an incongruous moving tableau of smart and well-dressed people picking their way through the ruined forecourt. As I watched them, my impatience rose with every newcomer – impatience which soon translated into unease. 

Eleven o’clock passed, and then noon, when suddenly, in a surreal entourage, the social worker swept in by the gate nearest to her office, pursued by a gaggle of more men in suits.

“That’s the social worker who promised me that she would be here with the child’s mother,” I said to Beatrice. “She’s dreadfully late and I suppose very busy, but I hope, when she finishes talking to all those people, that I will be able to introduce you to her.”

How foolish I was. The social worker came to the door and appeared ready to move off once more. I ushered Beatrice over to her. I was anxious not to lose what appeared to be a dwindling opportunity to continue my dialogue, such as it was, with the social worker.

The social worker, once more heavily made-up and incongruous in her expensive-looking day clothes, which clashed with this background of squalor, spoke briefly to Beatrice. From her body language, I could tell that she was not keen to co-operate. The characteristic shrug of the shoulders, the dip of the head, the half turn away – the now familiar but immediately recognisable Romanian shrug. The discussion came to an abrupt halt.

Beatrice turned back to me, as the social worker pushed past her and left through the gate. 

“I really don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “But the social worker tells me that she might be able to bring the mother here after tomorrow.”

“What on earth did she mean by that?” I asked. “What does she mean by ‘after tomorrow’?” Did it mean the next day, the day after that, or sometime vaguely in the future?

“Well,” Beatrice said, “it could be the next day, but one can never be sure. It’s a common enough term in Romanian but does not specify a particular moment in time.”

I looked gloomily around me. One step forward and two steps back appeared again to be my lot. I realised that I had been foolish to have relied upon the word of the social worker whom I very obviously could not trust.

Worse, I was becoming more convinced that the men in suits were, as I had suspected,  lawyers or fixers, retained by agencies or even hopeful adopters, seeking to buy children with the assistance of the social worker and on the basis, presumably, of kickbacks from which she would profit. I reflected that, of course, she would have taken an immediate dislike to me because first, I was myself a lawyer, and secondly, I had no intention of paying money for a child, mainly from a sense of right and wrong but also because, of course, under English law it was illegal.

At that moment, Zoitsanu appeared, shuffling across the debris in the front of the orphanage. I waved to her and she appeared to recognise me and came over to us. 

I introduced Beatrice to her, and Beatrice, bless her, for her part immediately addressed her in Romanian, relieving me of the task of speaking to them both in my distinctly average French. 

After a moment, Beatrice turned to me. “She says that the social worker will be back this afternoon, but she is unsure when. She also said that the mother would be contacted sometime ‘after tomorrow’.”

I thought I ought to make my feelings clear. I expected, I said, to be treated with at least some courtesy, and despite recognising the difficulties under which they laboured, if I was given an appointment, which I had been, I expected it to be kept or at least, if it could not be, to be given a clear idea of the next step.

She turned back to Zoitsanu and must have said something along those lines, for Zoitsanu suddenly became quite animated. Gradually, her voice increased in volume. She spoke faster and faster and became red in the face. In the torrent of words , I picked out the word ‘negre’. And as she said it she almost spat on the ground.

Poor Beatrice physically recoiled from this confrontation and was clearly very distressed by it. Zoitsanu turned on her heel and shuffled away from us while Beatrice drew breath. She turned back to me, almost in tears.

“This is dreadful,” she said. “That woman clearly does not like the child whom you have found. She has used words which I do not want to repeat to you. And I’m afraid that I can help you no longer. This is all far too distressing for me.”

What could I say? Beatrice had been kind enough to agree to come to the orphanage, and she had done so not only promptly but without charge. She was an essentially good woman who had wanted to help me and I had no right to demand that she stay and continue with the task.

I forced myself to remain calm. “Beatrice, I quite understand and I’m very grateful for your help to this moment. Don’t for one minute feel guilty. I am sure that I will find more help from other quarters. This is an unpleasant place and unpleasant things have happened here. I remain in your debt.”

We shook hands and Beatrice walked away, with her shoulders slumped, clearly very unhappy. She did not look back.


What on earth was I to do now? I had thought that I had been dealt a better hand than this, but my cards were falling, one by one, to the floor. And now, this. No interpreter, and no co-operation from this social worker person. I walked through the gates and turned down the side of the orphanage, walking slowly along the pavement, head down, racking my brains as to what I could do. 

This side street could have been in any suburb in any city of the world. More dusty, perhaps, but with substantial buildings set back behind high walls, trees spaced along the pavement on each side of the road, itself mercifully free of any motor traffic. There was nothing to suggest that on my right, behind yet another high wall, behind the railings and faceless bricks and peeling mortar, there were hundreds of deprived children living in utter squalor

I walked on and saw a telephone box. I remembered that I had had the sense to write down Bogdan’s telephone number and that it was still in my pocket. But it was now after one o’clock in the afternoon. Would Bogdan be at home ? Even if he was, would he be prepared to help me? I pulled open the door and tried to translate the instructions on the box below the handset. Thankfully, they were accompanied by pictures. I needed coins, and I was able, just, to work out the sequence of where to put the particular required denominations. And by a miracle, the few coins in my pocket, which to my mind had been virtually valueless, were enough, it seemed, to place a local call. If there was an area code, I did not know it and so more in hope than expectation, I inserted 20 lei, dialled the number on my slip of paper and waited. 

And to my great relief, Bogdan picked up after just a couple of rings.

“Hello, Bogdan, it’s Tony again.”

“Hey, Tony, how are you?” His cheerful reply lifted my spirits immediately

“I’ve got problems,” I said. “The interpreter whom I told you about on the phone this morning has jumped ship and I’m here on my own. I desperately need assistance.”

“Then I’m your man. Tell me exactly where you are and I will come and meet you. I can use my father’s car.”

I gave him the name of the street on which I was standing, as phonetically precise as I could, and told him where the telephone box was.

“I’ll be there in about 10 minutes,” he said, “so hang on and we’ll sort this out.”

He rang off and I looked at the phone in my hand. Had the pendulum really swung back once more? Was I going to get help after all? There was absolutely no doubt in my mind now. Without an interpreter, and in the face of hostility, simply speaking to officials or professionals in my pretty basic French was not going to help me carry the day, and if Bogdan couldn’t step up, then I really would be in trouble.

I found some shade and stood by the telephone box, trying not to think too hard about the options, waiting for Bogdan and perspiring heavily in the heat. Ten minutes passed and a light-blue Dacia pulled down the road and stopped opposite me. The driver got out and came across to me with a broad smile. Bogdan shook my hand vigorously and introduced himself in perfect English.

“Let’s go and have a coffee and a juice,” he said, setting off at a brisk walk, pausing only to remove the windscreen wipers on the car and lock them in the boot. He smiled apologetically. “They get taken, you know, and it is important that you keep hold of them!”

We headed for a small café where we sat at the central counter, and he ordered the drinks. The ‘coffee’ turned out to be rather weak Nescafe, and the ‘juice’ even weaker orange squash. But we were both thirsty, given the heat of the day and we dawdled over drinks, just like a good number of other young people, scattered around the tables in the café sitting and talking and smoking and passing the time of day. In stark contrast to what I had just left behind, the scene was utterly normal.

Bogdan told me that he had graduated that year from Bucharest University in dentistry, needing only an apprenticeship to become fully qualified. He lived with his mother and father closer to the centre of the city and had no brothers or sisters. He had no idea what employment prospects might exist, bearing in mind the recent revolution and the economic difficulties in the country.

“How come you speak English so perfectly,” I asked.

“Well,” he said, in an Americanised drawl, “it is taught in schools and, of course, I watch videos.”

Another, quite startling, revelation. On the one hand, a country in turmoil, secret police around every corner, neighbour spying upon neighbour, shortages of food, staples, and essentials, visas to leave the country virtually unobtainable, quite extreme poverty and squalor visible at every glance – and yet from within the gloom, flashes of hope, exemplified by the extraordinary intelligence of this young man whose English was quite faultless, learned from a curriculum no better or worse than that available to English schoolchildren learning any European language, and from a meagre ration of American B movies. 

The only downside, and one which we both found hilarious, was that his English was delivered with an incongruous American accent, and peppered with such Americanisms as ‘you don’t say’!

“And tell me, Tony, where do you come from?”

“I come, initially, from New Zealand, but for many years now I’ve lived in England. My wife and I now live near Coventry.”

“Ah,” said Bogdan, nodding sagely. “Moonlight Sonata.”

“What do you mean?” 

“You know,” he said, looking surprised that I needed an explanation. “When Coventry was bombed, Goering called the raid ‘Moonlight Sonata’. And we all know that Churchill knew that the raid was coming and that he took the decision not to move to reinforce the defences that were there, since otherwise the Germans would realise that he had found out in advance and his advantage of surprise, later in the war, would be lost.”

I listened, astonished. How come a young Romanian student knew all this, when it did not even appear in most, or possibly in any, history books available to English schoolchildren of his generation? My respect for Romanian education, and for Bogdan’s intelligence, increased the more we spoke.

And we spoke for more than an hour, getting to know each other, sharing jokes, and telling each other of our recent experiences. Bogdan, I learned, had been in the very first wave of protesters and had been present in what he called Revolution Square when the crowds and the protests finally persuaded the powers that be that the game was up.

He knew that corruption existed. Who didn’t? And he knew that many children were accommodated in state care. 

“Ceauşescu made contraception and abortion illegal, you know. Much of our industrial base has not really recovered from the war, and where he had no industrial base, he decided that workers could take the place of machines. He encouraged childbirth, and if families couldn’t cope, he encouraged them to hand the children over to the state.” 

This was what Graham Prestridge had told me, and it had been repeated by Dominic, the volunteer nurse.

But Bogdan didn’t know the dreadful conditions of the orphanages which had been identified by Western journalists, and he listened quietly and soberly to my own halting description of what I had encountered and what I had yet to do.

I told him about the social worker. “She is a strange kettle of fish,” I said. 

“A what?”

“Kettle of fish … it’s a saying the Brits have when they want to describe a mixed character – usually in less than complimentary terms.”

“You don’t say,” exclaimed Bogdan.

“No, Bogdan, you don’t say ‘you don’t say’.” 

We roared with laughter.

“And what about this Zulu person?”

“No,” I said, “Zoitsanu.”

“Ah, Zoitsanu. What’s her problem?”

I explained how she had spoken to Beatrice and that I had heard ‘negre’. 

“Hmm,” said Bogdan. “You see, Romanians are racist people.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you seen any black people around?”

“Well, no,” I said, “but that doesn’t make the population racist.”

“You might think so, but you’d be surprised. The child was described as ‘negre’ because, in Zoitsanu’s view, he is not white. Probably if he were Hungarian, Albanian, or God help us, Russian, he would be hated just as much.”

I was lost for words and had nothing useful to contribute. But I had to agree that it was time to do something.

“Okay,” he said. “We don’t have a minute to lose. We shall go back to the orphanage and we’ll find out just what is going on.”

And so, into the mid afternoon, we both walked back to the orphanage and, at Bogdan’s suggestion, straight into the social worker’s office. Where we found the lady herself, at that moment free from the attention of any hovering lawyer.

She flashed me a look of barely concealed hostility as Bogdan immediately warmed to his task. He was not deflected by her sour expression, and as she tried to avoid discussion, he followed her around the room, without raising his voice, maintaining a calm delivery with a pleasant smile. If she wanted to provoke him, she was mistaken and the more it was clear that he would not be deflected by her unpleasantness, the more unsettled she seemed to become.

Eventually, as if to try and shake him off, she went to a drawer and extracted a file and produced a small piece of paper which she thrust at him, reading out extracts from the file as she did so. Then, satisfied that she had done and said enough, she closed the file, put it back in the drawer, and glared at us both.

I ignored her and listened to Bogdan.

“This woman says that she knows where the child’s mother is working. She has given me the address and she says that if I make contact with her, she will co-operate in releasing the child for adoption. She will herself contact the mother to tell her that we are on our way. So, I suggest we leave now.”

And that was it? 

Bogdan ushered me away, out of the office and through the gate. Only when we had turned the corner and had returned to his father’s car did he exhale with a sigh of relief.

“Tony,” he said, “that is one unpleasant woman, but we will get the better of her, I promise. And here’s a start.” He dug in his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper that the social worker had showed him and forgotten to take back from him when she shut the file. 

It was George’s birth certificate.


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