“Beyond a certain pitch of suffering, men are overcome by a kind of ghostly indifference.”

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1865

In fact, the next day, while my mother seemed not to be in such bad shape, it was reasonably clear that she had lost all enthusiasm for Romania in general and our expedition in particular, and although there was no suggestion that we had to be at the airport more than an hour before the flight, I made sure that I had secured a taxi and we had departed from the hotel by eight o’clock.

I took her through to the departure hall and kissed her goodbye. “I’ll let you know how I get on, and maybe, if you’re fully recovered, you can pick us up from the airport and drive us home, assuming, that is, I ever make it out of here with any child.”

“You know you will,” she said, smiling weakly. “I’m terribly sorry I’ve let you down and I suppose we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

The irony of her use of “we” was lost on her, but I didn’t think it was fair to point it out, and I simply handed over her suitcase and watched her as she went through the departure gate.

I thought that I should perhaps stick around until I saw the plane take off, just in case yet another mishap befell us, and so I wandered round the departure hall, looking blankly around, killing time until I heard the engines of the plane readying for take-off.

Satisfied that I now only had myself to look after, I found a taxi and decided to go first to the hotel and then perhaps walk to Orphanage Number One to see if I could see the child and even make myself useful in some capacity. I wanted to pick up some of the supplies I had brought to Romania to give to the orphanage staff, in the hope that that would keep me, at least to an extent, in their good books and that this might, somehow, permeate down to their care of the little boy. Back in my room, I loaded up a few tubes of toothpaste, some bars of soap, and yet another 200 pack of Kent into my rucksack, and made my way down to reception. Mircea, however, was not there, and I remembered that he had said he would be on duty in the afternoon, so I strolled out of the hotel and walked on to the orphanage.


When I reached Orphanage Number One once more, the social worker’s office was again locked up, presumably because this was a weekend. I saw the babushka appear in the doorway of her gatehouse, but I didn’t break stride and simply waved a brief greeting to her. She looked dolefully at me but did not come out and simply watched me as I went through to the orphanage door.

Out of courtesy, let alone necessity, I felt I ought to make my presence known to Ursuliano, and I went straight to his door and knocked

“Intra,” again.

In fact, he was not alone. There was a young man, casually dressed, sitting in one of the bay windows, who seemed friendly enough, but at the same time vaguely sinister. Initially, I could not put my finger on the sense of unease that I felt, until I realised that he had exactly the same look about him as the men whom I suspected were members of the Securitate in Bacau. 

“Voulez-vous prendre un café?” asked Ursuliano.

“Vous êtes tres gentil,” I replied, “mais pas a ce moment, merci.”

I explained that I would very much appreciate being allowed to go back to the pavilion to see the child and perhaps make myself useful.

“OK,” said Ursuliano, and he immediately summoned an assistant whom I had not seen before, and instructed her, I assumed, to take me back into the main orphanage, which she did in complete silence. I thanked Ursuliano and promised that I would call to see him again in days to come.

It turned out that it was now feeding time for the children. I could not dignify what happened next with the description of lunch or indeed of anything remotely civilised, and what I saw left me feeling profoundly shocked. 

There now appeared to be two orderlies shouldering the task of giving the children their midday meal. They went about their task with brutal efficiency, devoting just a moment’s attention to each cot. When it came to my foundling’s turn, the orderly produced a bottle with some horrible-looking gruel in it. I wondered how on earth the liquid could pass from the bottle to the child, until I realised that the hole in the teat had been artificially enlarged before being thrust into the infant’s mouth. He was lying on his back, and the orderly simply stuck the bottle into his face, thrusting the teat into his mouth, and holding it vertically while the liquid gushed into his throat. 

As it passed, and as the bottle emptied, I saw his little stomach distend once more, and I saw how distressed and angry he became, his face reddening and his eyes closing tight together as he frowned and struggled with the onslaught. 

The orderly simply stood there, holding the bottle upright until it had emptied, which, given the enlarged hole, seemed to take only moments.

It was now pretty obvious why the boy had been in such discomfort when I saw him the previous day, but I was quite powerless to do anything about it. I simply looked numbly at the scene, before turning back to try and offer my assistance, to someone, anyone.

But what could I offer? I had no medical qualifications, and it was perfectly plain that I was not offering my services as a plasterer or the like. I was simply a T-shirted individual with no obvious qualifications, making pretty senseless offers of help with the task, if it were to be measured, of doing something to physically shore up the orphanage, or somehow help to provide nurture and care for the children. 

I found an orderly and tried to explain that I was prepared to do whatever job, however menial, that might provide some support to the staff, even if it wouldn’t immediately improve the lives of the children. 

I offered her some of my supplies, some toothpaste, soap, and cigarettes, and tried to explain myself. She took my offerings almost furtively, but at the same time, in broken French, she made it clear that while she was almost overwhelmed by what she saw as my generosity, there was nothing I could do, and that perhaps I might like to return the next day outside feeding hours to be with the boy.

I felt utterly powerless. Powerless to do anything to help, powerless to protect the child from what I felt to be abuse. But grateful for small mercies, I decided that I would indeed come back the following day and I found my way out of the orphanage, out of that awful smell, and back to the surrounding roads. Dusty and dirty they might be, but they did not match the filth of the orphanage.


I remembered that there was a large park at one end of the long road that I had taken into Bucharest on my first walk into the city, and I decided to investigate and see whether I could at least relax in halfway decent surroundings. And, in fact, the park turned out to be delightful, with an enormous lake, trees, and walkways within long grassy avenues. I settled down by the lake and stretched out in the sun, listening to the chatter of families and the screams and giggles of little children as they scampered around their parents. 

But it was not a happy experience. I raised myself on one elbow and looked around me. Within a stone’s throw were a couple of families sitting and playing with their children in a scene of utter normality. Infants were toddling around, being followed closely by one or other parent, who lifted them into the air from time to time, while they screamed in delight. 

I looked on, contrasting the view with what I had just left behind me. I could see children just learning to walk, tottering around sometimes with and sometimes without the support of a parent, chuckling in delight and yelping in pleasure as they tumbled onto the grass and then found their feet again. How different, I thought to myself, from the children less than a mile away, many older than those I was now watching, but still unable to walk and still confined, and in some cases tied, within their cots in those foul-smelling rooms.

I should have been able to rest in that park and take pleasure in the surroundings of family life and normality. I could not. I felt an urge to approach those parents and demand how they could ignore the plight of those abandoned children in the nearby orphanage. Relaxation was beyond me and so, with a mixture of emotions, sadness, even bitterness and frustration, I trudged back to the hotel where I stood under the dribble from the shower, trying to wash away the taste of pollution and the smell of excreta. I toppled onto my bed, eventually, and tried to get some sleep.


In the early evening, I returned to reception, where I found Mircea. Had he had any luck in contacting his interpreter friend?

“No,” he said. “I’m very sorry but I think he must have been away for the weekend and he has not replied to my messages. I’ll keep trying and maybe I will have some better news for you tomorrow.”

I turned away disappointed before I remembered that I had arranged for Carmel to ring me that evening. 

“Mircea,” I said. “My wife has promised to ring me this evening, and I would be very grateful if you would ensure that I can receive a call when it comes in.”

“Sure,” he said, “there should be no problem. It’s better that you try and take the call at the front desk, since I wouldn’t like to have the call cut off because of a bad connection to your room.”

I couldn’t quite understand why it was that the call might get lost, but I didn’t have a problem receiving the call anywhere, just as long as I could hear her voice. 

“It’ll come in at around 7pm Romanian time,” I said, “and I’ll make sure that I’m close by.”

With that, I wandered back to the dining room and settled down for another modest meal. The waitress appeared once more and I felt that it would be kind if I gave her a pack of Kent. She brightened up immediately, and I asked if there was any possibility that I might have a bottle of wine. I knew the Romanian word was vin, just like the French, but I had absolutely no idea how to pronounce it, so I accompanied the word by pointing at the glass on my table and making drinking gestures.

It seemed to work, because shortly she brought out a tall thin bottle, reminiscent of a German ‘hock’ bottle. It was already open, with what looked like a pretty battered cork protruding halfway from the spout. For all I knew, it has simply been refilled, although with what I was not entirely sure. I poured a glass of yellowish liquid and held it up to the light. It was, at least, clear, although horribly sweet tasting. I thanked her as graciously as I could, and sat back once more, trying to make head or tail of the Watchmaker.

After about a quarter of an hour, a husband and wife and a young boy of about seven came into the room with an older woman and sat down at a table behind me. Since there was no one else in the room, and since there was otherwise complete silence, I could not help but overhear their conversation. It was immediately apparent that the couple and the boy were Danish. The older woman, clearly, was an interpreter, provided, presumably, by the government tourist agency. I gleaned all this immediately because their conversation was carried out in English. Clearly, Danish was not a language high up on the menu of common languages in Romania, but equally plainly, given that Danes invariably have a good grasp of English, they had taken the sensible choice of securing an English-speaking interpreter for their visit.

I wondered, initially, what on earth they were doing in this rather second-rate hotel when, I assumed, the three of them were on holiday. It then became plain. They were on their way to the Black Sea, to, presumably, a popular coastal resort, and had had to break their journey in Bucharest, given that there were no direct flights from Denmark.

I listened, fascinated by their conversation with the interpreter. They clearly expected that there might be some rather better food and drink available during their stopover but they were to be sadly disappointed. 

“Can I order a Coke for my son?” I heard the father ask. 

I could sense the embarrassment in the interpreter’s voice when she explained that that was not possible in this hotel.

I sensed an opportunity and decided not to be embarrassed. I waited a few moments and then got up from the table and took the bottle of wine across to the family. 

“I hope you don’t mind me intruding,” I said, “but I couldn’t fail to overhear that you would rather like a drink of something rather more substantial than just water.”

I carried on before they could interrupt me or protest. “Please,” I said, “with my compliments have the rest of this wine which I ordered tonight. I have no more use for it and you might enjoy it.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said the father.

“It’s nothing at all,” I said, “but I wonder if in return I might ask you a favour?”

He looked at me quizzically.

“You have an interpreter with you,” I said. “As it happens, I need an interpreter. At the moment, I’m struggling to find one, and I would be most grateful if I could have a word with this lady shortly before she leaves this evening.”

“But of course you may,” he said. The interpreter herself nodded and said that she would see me later if I might wait in the reception area.

I left the dining room and sat in the reception area, patiently waiting for the interpreter to emerge, which she did about forty-five minutes later. I went across to her and immediately noticed that in her lapel was a Christian ‘fish’ brooch. 

I introduced myself and told her straight away that I recognised the pin in her jacket. She looked down at it and then back at me. 

“You see,” I said, “I am a member of the congregation of a cathedral in England. In fact, I sing in the choir and have done for some years.”

She relaxed. “That’s wonderful,” she said, “and how nice to meet a fellow Christian.” This was a sentiment which I shared, notwithstanding my modest embarrassment at being identified by my faith. She told me her name was Beatrice and that she worked part-time for the government tourist office.

“Look,” I said. “I realise that this is rather impertinent, but I need the help of a translator, an interpreter, to help me with my endeavour to adopt a child from one of the orphanages in Bucharest. I have an appointment, on Monday, to meet a social worker and quite possibly the mother of the child, and without an interpreter, I think I’m going to have problems.”

“To be honest,” she said, “I don’t know much about these orphanages but I will be very happy to help you, and if you can give me the address and the time, I’ll meet you there, and…” as if to forestall my next suggestion “…you must not think of asking me to accept any money.”

I was so grateful, I didn’t know what to say. So I thanked her and, giving her the address, I promised to meet her on Monday. 

I sat down to wait for the promised phone call and, sure enough, moments after seven o’clock, Mircea beckoned me over. “There’s a phone call for you and I suppose it must be your wife since it has come from England. You can take it on that phone down at the end of the desk, where you should not be disturbed.”

He pointed to the end of the counter, where there was some sort of open phone booth, and I went across and picked up the telephone. The line was pretty crackly but I was able to hear Carmel’s voice.

“I had to put my mother on a plane this morning,” I said, “so I’m here alone. I’ve found a child but I’m very worried about him. I can’t seem to get any response out of him, and for all I know, he might be deaf, let alone what else might be wrong with him. I expected some eye contact, at least, but nothing I could do seemed to register. I can’t tell you how ghastly this all is and how insecure I feel. What if the poor thing is brain damaged or so developmentally delayed that we end up with a hospital case?”

I realised that I was babbling and not making much sense. Yet at the same time, I was horribly confused and still shocked by what I had seen in both the orphanages. Carmel was the only person I could share this with, and yet here I was, not making a great deal of sense on the phone, unloading my insecurity without any compensating suggestions, let alone sensible alternatives. 

“Any sort of paediatric overview is simply unobtainable. I really am stuck and don’t know what to do for the best.”

Carmel did her best to sound sympathetic. “Just make sure you bring him home,” she said. “Failure is not an option.”

Wow. She knew just how to rally the troops! I realised, of course, that this was not a time to feel sorry for myself and that I was imagining things if I thought that this would ever be an easy ride. Of course I had to get him out of that place and, as Carmel said, failure was not an option.

I told her I loved her, and reluctantly rang off, marginally encouraged. I decided that I would go back to Hotel Lido and make contact with the nurses, thinking that it might be a good idea to perhaps swap one of my supplies for one of the many toys poking out of sacks that I had seen in their room, in the hope that I might generate a spark of something in the little boy. So, with a bottle of Hibiscrub in my rucksack, I set off for the city once more.


Walking rather more briskly this time, I was at Hotel Lido shortly before eight o’clock, where I made my way to the nurses’ room. Liz and Anna were there, and seemed pleased to see me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I need to share this with you. I’m very worried about the little boy I’ve found. He shows no response, and is so out of it that he could be deaf. He can’t walk properly and he seems to find it difficult even to hold up his head. There’s no eye contact, and…” I tailed off, miserably.

“I understand completely,” said Liz, “but trust me, these children are like little flowers who’ve never been given the chance to open. As soon as you show this little chap the love and affection that he’s never had, the transformation will be miraculous. You need to believe that. I came across a woman a few days ago who actually changed her mind at the airport and left this poor little girl behind, saying that she didn’t believe that the child would ever improve. That was a dreadful thing to do and so unjustified. The child was just waiting for love and care and would have responded so well. Don’t let that happen to this little boy, whatever you do.”

I remained silent, trying to digest what she was saying. 

“Okay,” I said, finally. “But I just had to share this with somebody. I need somehow to keep a grip on reality, and at the moment I’m in something of a daze.”

I said that I was planning to go back to the orphanage the next day to try some sort of bonding exercise. I needed to see whether he would respond, however modestly, to a display of affection aimed solely at him, and I wanted to see whether, somehow, I could start helping him.

I asked whether she could let me have one of the toys from the sacks scattered around the room. 

“Of course,” she said. “Here, let me help you choose.”

Immediately she came up with a plastic toy consisting of five rings, all increasing in size, like multicoloured doughnuts, all of which fitted on to a small rod, itself embedded into a plastic base. 

“Try that. It might show that he has some manual co-ordination and perhaps that he understands what to do with the rings, and in what order.”

I tried to tell her how kind she was, but ended up simply swapping the toy for the Hibiscrub, before I wished them goodnight and said that I hoped to see them again.

Back, then, to the hotel and bed. Mircea was no longer on duty so I went straight to my room and put my head down to sleep – not an easy task, given my experiences that day. But I managed to sleep, and woke vaguely refreshed the next morning.

After managing a couple of cups of black tea and some stale bread, I went straight to the orphanage. It was Sunday, and Ursuliano was not there; I decided to go straight in.

I came across the orderly to whom I had given my small offerings the previous day, and she beckoned me to the backyard and told me to wait. A few minutes later, my foundling was brought into the yard, wearing a tiny T-shirt and a pair of small blue nylon shorts, although without shoes or socks. He appeared comparatively clean, and tottered uncertainly towards me.

There were no other children around, and the orderly smiled at me and retreated back to the door, leaving me to my own devices.

I looked at little Petre George. I knew that in that part of the world, names were, to English ears, back to front. So, this was George. 

He did not return my stare. Having picked him up, I had put him gently down and I sat on the ground watching him as he wandered around me. He clearly found it difficult to walk, but for the most part, he remained upright, pausing every now and again to examine a brightly coloured insect which was scampering through the dust at his feet.

I spoke to him softly, but there was no response.

Gradually, although his face had clearly been cleaned up, green mucus started to appear from his nose. Then, to his apparent surprise, he began to urinate, allowing the warm liquid to trickle down his leg onto the ground to form a puddle where he stood.

He appeared only vaguely interested in his wider surroundings and seemed to pay no attention to me at all, even when I held out my hand and tried to hold one of his.

I decided that I would take out the toy and see whether that might generate any interest at all. Holding the rod at its base in one hand, I showed him one of the coloured rings and very slowly and deliberately placed it on to the rod and let it slide down to the base. I repeated that with every ring and watched his face as I did so.

Did I detect a flicker of interest? I tried not to imagine it but repeated the exercise several times. I made sure that I placed the rings in order, the fattest one on the bottom, and the thinnest, smaller ring, on the very top, forming a cone of rings on the pole.

Eventually, taking one of the rings off but leaving all the others on the pole, I handed it to him.

“Come on, old chap,” I said softly. “Show me what you’re made of.”

He took the ring, and let it drop onto the ground.

I picked it up and very slowly and deliberately put it back on the pole. Trying to ensure that he did not look away, I repeated the exercise. He, too, repeated his response, dropping the ring on the ground.

I did it again – and so did he. So I changed tactics. This next time, I emptied the pole of all the rings and simply held one of them in my right hand and placed it slowly and carefully onto the pole, held in my left.

He looked intently at what I had done. I pushed my left hand towards him, holding the base of the pole, and pushed the one ring to the very top before letting it fall back to the base. 

For the first time, he reached towards the ring, and pulled it off himself.

“Now,” I said, “let’s see you put it back on again.”

He looked at the ring in his hand, and very slowly pushed it against the tip of the pole, twisting and turning it until it slid back on, and on down to the base. I could have hugged him, but sensing that he was still unready for tactile contact of that nature, I gently cupped his face in my two hands.

“You are a beautiful, clever boy.” I tried to look at his eyes but he looked at the ground and at the dust on his feet. I felt a tear form at the corner of one of my eyes.

I sat back and gave him another ring. Emboldened by his success, he immediately put it on the pole, then another, until all of them were on the pole in varying positions. So I took them all off and gave him the biggest one which he again put on the pole until it slid down to the base. Then I gave him the next size and so on until he had built the perfect cone. Now for the big test. I took them all off and laid them on the ground, in order, to see whether he might follow the logic of that order and put them on sequentially. 

This, of course, was too much. He put them all back on, but not in order. I told myself not to be too ambitious, but to take comfort in what was already an amazing step forward.

We played together, like this, for about an hour. He would wander off from time to time, barely keeping his balance, and then totter back, to pick up either a ring or the pole which he would then put together and pull apart. It didn’t take him long to discover that it was possible to make the ring roll on its side, but unfortunately, given the uneven and dusty state of the yard, all his attempts to have a ring roll for more than a few inches would come to grief.

Eventually, the same orderly appeared. What, I wondered, were her qualifications? Was she an orderly or a nurse for just some sort of assistant? She was wearing something approximating a uniform, but I doubted that she had any clinical qualifications. However, whether because of my small gifts, she appeared to be offering some kindness to us both, presumably as powerless in the face of these conditions as I was.

She lifted up the little boy, smiled at me, and said it was time that all the children were being fed. I decided to leave her to it, since I simply could not bear the sight of feeding time. 

But it made one thing terribly clear in my mind. I had to get him out of there, and soon.


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