“There exist some evils so terrible and some misfortunes so horrible that we dare not think of them, whilst their very aspect makes us shudder; but if they happen to fall on us, we find ourselves stronger than we imagined; we grapple with our ill luck, and behave better than we expected we should.”

La Bruyère, Of Mankind, Characters, 1688

I felt numb. In my struggle to keep hold of my thoughts, I swore silently to myself, over and over again. Now I remembered that in the backyard in Orphanage Number One something had been missing which I had overlooked. None of the children had made a sound, even when scrambling towards us, except for that one red-headed youngster who wailed uncontrollably as I left. 

Nor were the children in this drab playground at Orphanage Number Two screaming with pleasure or indeed any of the emotions that usually accompany children who are running around, free to enjoy themselves. None of the noises that I could associate with pleasure or distress existed. 

I didn’t know what to say. Indeed, there was nothing I could say. I found it difficult to look this kind young woman in the face. I was so unready for what she had told me that I felt unable, physically, to control my vocal cords. I feared that if I tried to say anything, I would choke, or that I might just manage a squeak.


I made a great effort to look around me, pretending to look at all the children, trying to regain some self-control, but I felt that I had to get away from the scene. Struggling to hide my distress, I thanked her more curtly than I should, and retreated, walking as quickly as I could back down the roadway and towards the gates. 

And there between the tall chicken-wire fences I stood, weeping, hoping that I could not be seen but not caring if I was. 


I had to get back to the hotel, partly to recover and partly to report back to my mother. My head was swimming, and I needed to get my bearings, emotionally.

I wiped my face, and made an effort to pull myself together, and walked away from Orphanage Number Two, into the traffic. I had absolutely no idea where I was, but I was clearly in a substantial built-up area, and I could see bus stops on either side of the road. Adopting the same tactic as a few nights before, I approached the queue at the nearest stop and again asked the one word, “Centru?” A young couple, clearly amused by my appearance and my limited use of the language, smiled and beckoned me onto a bus which was approaching at that moment.

The young man spoke English. “Here,” he said, “you can use this ticket,” proffering what appeared to be the final part of what had been a stub of daily tickets or passes. “Hand it in if the collector comes round.”

What a relief. I had no idea how to buy a ticket, let alone how much it might cost, and the simple and disarming generosity of this young man was something of a tonic.

He and his partner got off the bus before I did and, as he passed me, he said that the city centre was a few more stops down the road, so I stayed on board, disembarking with the bulk of the passengers at my destination. It was then a question of walking back to Hotel Parc, which I decided was better than hitching a ride. I needed to clear my head and make sense of the morning’s events. 


So, I had visited two orphanages and discovered one child out of many hundreds. It was dawning on me that I had no idea what I had let myself in for. Where had the boy come from? What was his state of health? Was he disabled? How old was he?  He was clearly not an orphan, because the social worker spoke of his mother, so how come he was in the orphanage at all? Were any of the children in that dreadful place orphans? Now that I had visited two orphanages, there were probably two more in Bucharest which I could visit before having to go outside the city, but it struck me that any further expedition might cause difficulty with my attempts to sort out the arrangements for the child whom I had already found. These questions and many more swam around my head as I made my way back to the hotel. 

When, an hour later, I got back to our room, I still had no answers.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve found a child. But Orphanage Number One insists that there are no other children there who are available for adoption, and my visit to Orphanage Number Two produced a similar answer.”

My mother seemed more optimistic than I felt, but mercifully she hadn’t been exposed to some of the things that I had seen. “You’ve at least made a wonderful start,” she said. “The question now is where we go from here.”

And that indeed was the question, given that my mother did not appear terribly well. I had already noticed her shortness of breath and her difficulty in getting about, but now she seemed to be in increasing distress.

“Are you quite alright?” I asked. “You don’t look at the top of your game.”

“I think I’ve got something of a tummy upset,” she said, “possibly because of my silliness in taking some of the water in Bacau. But don’t worry, I’ll be all right. Why don’t you get cleaned up and we’ll go back to the orphanage this afternoon and you can show me this little boy.”

So I stripped off and got back under the shower which, for all its inadequacies, allowed me to clean up and get rid of the dust and the smell of urine, so that, fifteen minutes later, I was refreshed, although given the summer heat and the time of day, I immediately began perspiring once more. 

“Tell you what,” I said, “let’s get hold of a taxi or a lift, since I know where the orphanage is now, and I’ll show you round.”

So, as nonchalantly as a native, I managed to flag down a car just outside the hotel, and, for a dollar, the driver happily took us, under my guidance by way of pointing and nudging, to the gates of the orphanage.

I took my mother by the arm, and shepherded her through the gateway furthest from the babushka. To my left the social worker’s office door was shut, and although the door to the opposite gatehouse was open, the custodian did not put in an appearance.

I held onto my mother. “Watch where you are walking, Ma. You have to look up and sideways because of the scaffolding, and also where you are putting your feet, because of the rubble.”

We passed in through the door to the orphanage and, as before, I turned left, making my way to the director’s office. The secretaries’ door was ajar, and I knocked. 

“Direktor, va rog,” I said, rather more politely than earlier that day.

She recognised me and displayed neither pleasure nor disdain but simply walked past us both and knocked on Ursuliano’s door.

The sound of his deep voice, “Intra.” 

The secretary made way for us and in we went, once more into this room of stark contrast to the orphanage itself.

He recognised me immediately, smiling broadly. “Bienvenue.”

I introduced my mother, who seemed very taken by this tall, imposing and hawkishly handsome man. Within moments, she, a better linguist than I, was chatting away with Ursuliano in French. For a moment or two, I left them to it but when, for a second, they ran out of steam, I interrupted, telling Ursuliano that a child had been found who was free for adoption.

He raised his eyebrows, but made no comment.

I asked him if he would be kind enough to summon Zoitsanu so that I could take my mother to see the child.

“Mais certainement,” said Ursuliano, moving to the buzzer on his desk, summoning one of his secretaries. Whatever her typing skills, it didn’t take her long to find Zoitsanu and, moments later, she appeared in the doorway. 

“C’est après dejeuner, et les enfants se reposent,” she retorted when I asked her if she would take us back to the yard. The children were no longer outside, she said, appearing to suggest that the children had had a meal and would be taking an afternoon nap. 

Could I perhaps have my mother steal a look at him, nonetheless? Zoitsanu was not terribly enthusiastic but Ursuliano nodded and she led us out of his room, down the stinking corridors to another part of the orphanage. Made worse by the heat of the day, the smell was almost overpowering, and I saw my mother grab a handkerchief and put it over her nose. Once more, I had no idea where we were going, although I had heard Ursuliano use the term ‘pavilion’, both to the nurses that morning, and to Zoitsanu that afternoon. But as it turned out, however inappropriate the word, no description could possibly ready me for what we found.

Zoitsanu led us into a hallway which bisected two very large rooms, each of them almost the size of a tennis court. On each side of the hallway was a partition, from the floor to waist height made up of either metal or wood, partly covered with flaking paintwork, and above that to the ceiling, of dirty glass.

On the other side of each partition I could see some of that which had been broadcast around the world. Row upon row of cots, jammed together, with just enough room for an orderly to walk up the middle of each room. The outside wall of each room was, from chest height, made up of windows, divided into little squares by rusting frames. Most of the glass, however, was missing. I was to realise, in the days to come, that the red spots which I could see on the exposed parts of all of the children were in fact mosquito bites. However badly nourished they were, they were an easy target for the hordes of hungry insects which descended on them through the broken windows, compounding their suffering in the hot summer nights.

In one corner of one of the rooms was a stone sink with one tap

High up at the end of the hallway was a television from which, bizarrely, came the sound of bagpipes. For some reason, there appeared to be some sort of documentary about Glasgow or Edinburgh, I knew not nor cared which, which was providing a surreal backdrop to this ghastly scene.

It was ghastly because in each of the cots was a child, in varying states of distress. This was not a calm or refreshing afternoon nap at all. The children might well have been fed, although how and with what I did not then know, but they were without exception terribly distressed. Cot after cot revealed a child swaying from side to side, seeking to comfort itself. Some were standing, gripping the bars of the cot, standing on one foot and then the other, others were flat on their back, rocking from side to side. Yet more were kneeling at the end of the cot, banging their head on the cot side. 

The only sound came from the bagpipes.

I was ready for the smell and indeed now knew to expect silence. But yet again I was completely unready for what I saw.

There seemed to be only one orderly there, but Zoitsanu beckoned her over, and, pointing at me and my mother, appeared to ask where my foundling was located.

We were taken to the room on the left of the hall, and there, three-quarters of the way down one of the rows, I saw him. He was flat on his back and in great discomfort. He was just as frail as I remembered him from that morning, but now I saw that his stomach was distended, and his face was dark red. He was not making a sound but he was frowning terribly. Now and then he arched his back and went quite rigid, though whether in anger or pain I couldn’t tell.

I felt utterly powerless to comfort him and didn’t dare to pick him up. My mother, however, did pick him up and tried, unsuccessfully, to soothe him. He went rigid in her arms and threw himself backwards, and she barely managed to prevent him falling back into the cot. 

“This,” said my mother quietly, “is utterly appalling.”

“Haven’t you seen the TV pictures?” I asked her.

“Yes, but they simply don’t convey the horror which we are looking at now.”

I could only agree – even the television pictures were snatched, and could only give a two-dimensional and fleeting glimpse of the problems behind these walls. The broader sight of these poor children and the smell and the utter abandonment was quite overwhelming.

Looking back, despite the scenes being burned into my memory, none of them are in colour. Everything I saw within the two orphanages comes back in utter clarity, but in black and white.

I stroked the child’s head, trying to comfort him, but it seemed to have no effect. His stomach was obviously causing him great discomfort, and he rocked his head from side to side, just as other children were rocking their whole bodies where they lay.

My mother and I decided to leave. I promised myself that I would return as often as possible and I asked Zoitsanu if that would be permitted.

She shrugged her shoulders. She supposed so. 

Not feeling at all grateful for the way these poor children were being treated, I felt nonetheless that I should express some recognition for being able to see him, so, with a muttered “Merci,” I guided my mother back through the corridors and into the open air. I flagged down another car – I was becoming an expert – and got us back to our hotel room, where my mother sank onto the bed.

She looked even more uncomfortable than she had when we had set off and I asked if she was okay.

“Frankly,” she said, “whatever I have caught is getting worse.”

As if to illustrate the point, she quickly went to the bathroom, where I could hear her throwing up.

When she reappeared, looking thoroughly exhausted, my worst fears seemed to be realised.

“I’m afraid that things are coming out of both ends,” she said. “And although I’m letting you down, I really don’t see how I can carry on here.”

It was, in fact, quite plain that she was in a lot of trouble. She had not looked in the best shape at Heathrow airport. Now, looking at her in an attempt to appraise her state of health, it was pretty plain that she would be more of a hindrance than a help. Worse, she did appear to be in genuine distress.

“Look,” I said. “I think the best thing for me to do is to get you on the first flight out of here back to London.”

If I expected her to protest, she did not. To the contrary, she seemed relieved that she would be going home.

“It’s not going to be terribly easy,” I said, “but I’ll find out where the airline office is and I’ll see if I can bring your return flight forward.

She lay down, looking thoroughly miserable. “There’s not much you can do this afternoon,” she said, and indeed she was right . It was now well after four o’clock and I guessed that going back to the city centre, finding the airline office and negotiating a change of flight simply wouldn’t fit into the remainder of the day.

“Okay,” I said. “Try and stay as comfortable as you can tonight, and I’ll get on with it first thing tomorrow morning.”

She grimaced and went back to the toilet, where I was treated to the sound of more eruptions 

Marvellous, I thought. Another step forward, two more steps back. And possibly worse. Clearly, my mother needed to get home and indeed wanted to leave as soon as possible. What could I do? Two priorities were jostling for my attention. Getting the little boy out of the orphanage, and getting my mother out of the country. In fact, I knew that there was not very much I could do about the orphanage, since the social worker had asserted that she was producing the mother on the following Monday. Therefore, I had to turn my full attention to getting to the airline office and sorting out my own mother’s problem.


Next morning, Mircea told me where I could find the Tarom airline office. I worked out that it was very close to the city centre and, given that this was the coolest part of the day, I decided that at least on this first leg of my journey, I would walk into the city.

And the walk was pleasant enough, if, again, overwhelmingly dusty. The occasional heavy lorry rumbled past, spewing smoke and covered in dirt. How clean, I thought to myself, was UK traffic in comparison, something that I had never thought of until I arrived here. I marvelled, again, at the overwhelmingly grimy state of both the buildings and the traffic as, during my journey, I again started to pick up the taste of pollution in my mouth.

It was shortly before mid morning that I found myself in the centre, disorientated and unable to remember the directions Mircea had given me. But passers-by seemed perfectly content and indeed quite knowledgeable, when I approach them with the one question on my lips “Le bureau Tarom?” 

They attempted to give me directions in Romanian, which went straight over my head, but their accompanying pointing and gesturing brought me closer and closer to my destination, until eventually, after a number of dead ends and misunderstandings, I found the Tarom office. 

Inside the main door, I followed the signs, in Romanian and French, to the first floor of a substantial office building, and pushed my way into an open-plan office which was as close to a vision of Babel as I would ever wish to see.

The atmosphere was thick with cigarette smoke so dense that I could see layers of smoke drifting in thin horizontal lines from about head height up to the ceiling. The office was large – the equivalent, I suppose, of a decent-size booking hall – with about twelve desks, six or so on each side, placed in herringbone fashion along the length of the room.

Behind each desk sat what I assumed to be a booking clerk, with telephones, papers and volumes of timetables in front of him.

And around, over and seemingly on top of each desk was a swarm of gesticulating and shouting customers, all vying for attention and all speaking at once. I gave up counting how many people were in the room after it became clear that no desk had less than about twenty people around it. 

There was absolutely no chance of my getting to any of the harassed-looking clerks. Not speaking Romanian, and without the non-queuing skills of the throng in front of me, I imagined that I simply wouldn’t be able to get to the front, wherever that was, of any of the work stations set out before me.

This was no good at all, but what could I do? I surveyed the scene in increasing despair for a few minutes until I had a sudden brainwave. There was an alternative to competing with the teeming humanity in front of me: I should go to the airport. 

So, finding my way downstairs once more, I was able, this being the city centre, to actually find a taxi. “Otopenei va rog,” I said as I collapsed in the back, and wondered, as we headed away from the city, what on earth I would do if this didn’t work.

It took about half an hour to reach the airport, where I paid off the taxi with what I felt to be a pitiful amount of lei, and made my way inside. The main terminal was almost deserted. I had no idea how many flights Otopenei would handle on a daily basis, but I guessed that there were not that many. Romania did not seem to me to be, as yet, a tourist destination of choice, and as far as I knew, none of the major European airlines counted it as one of their prime destinations. 

But this meant that I was able, without much difficulty, to locate the Tarom office, where I found two middle-aged female clerks who seemed to have some time on their hands. There were no other members of the public around, and I was able to approach the office counter without clearing a path through a crowd of potential customers.

Thankfully, one of them spoke French, and almost immediately took to me. I told her that I and my mother had only arrived in Romania a week before, but that she was now suffering some sort of unpleasant stomach upset, and I needed to get her home.

She appeared to appreciate my concern for a sick parent and, from her nods and smiles, it was clear, too, that her colleague shared her sympathy.

They took my mother’s ticket and pored over their flight schedules for a short time, until at last “Voila! Il y a un vol qui depart demain a dix heures pour Londres. Et je vous assure que j’ai trouvé un place pour votre maman.”

I could have kissed her. She wanted no extra money and simply replaced the ticket with a fresh coupon, expressing her hope that my mother would recover as soon as possible after her return home. The two of them smiled broadly at me as I stuttered my thanks and left their office, found my way to the taxi rank, and took a cab back to Hotel Parc.


I told my mother the good news – good, that is, in that I had secured safe passage for her back home, but not so good if I was to succeed in my task for which the two of us had come here in the first place. However, she seemed relieved. Her condition, she said, had not improved since I left her, and indeed, if anything, she looked even more uncomfortable. However, she had somehow secured some bottled water, and at least she had the good sense not to allow herself to become dehydrated.

I decided that I couldn’t simply sit around in our room while she went to and from the toilet, so I decided to revisit reception and maybe get something to eat.

Finding Mircea on duty, I went across to him. “Mircea, I think it would help if I could get hold of an interpreter.” My experience with the social worker and, more recently, my sense of powerlessness at the Tarom city office, was making it pretty clear that I would struggle with officialdom even if, occasionally, I found a French speaker.

He thought for a moment. “I know someone who I think can help you. He is a friend who works at the Israeli embassy and I know that he has done some translating work in the past – and of course, not many Israelis speak Romanian! I’ll try and get hold of him for you and see if he’ll help. I’m back on duty tomorrow afternoon, and I might have some news then.”

Great, I thought. Maybe that’s one step forward again.

I decided to return to the dining room to see if there was anything to eat, and was met again by an empty room. The forlorn-looking waitress put in an appearance and, without prompting, placed some ham and tomatoes in front of me. I settled down to read the one book I had brought with me, The Blind Watchmaker. Not a good idea, for I was hardly in the mood for philosophy and I certainly wasn’t ready for the aggressive atheism of Richard Dawkins. No doubt the emotional rollercoaster of the last couple of days had weakened my powers of reasoning, but as I struggled through the first chapters I found myself disagreeing with Dawkins at every turn. And the more he thumped the pages with his certainty that there is no god, the more I took it that the miracle of life, human or otherwise, could only be the gift of a deity. My struggle was not with that belief, but with my attempts to understand how there could be so much cruelty in the world in the face of a benign creator.

I remembered a sermon at Coventry Cathedral not many years before when the preacher, a survivor of the horrors of Auschwitz, recounted how one of the victims, facing death, plucked at the sleeve of a priest, also a prisoner. 

“Where is your Jesus now?” 

“My son,” the priest had replied, “He is there, next to you in the line for the gas chamber. Do you not see Him? He is dying again for you and me – for us all.”

Not an easy answer to digest, I thought at the time, moving though the imagery was. Now, I wondered to myself, where was Jesus in Orphanages One and Two? I knew that the answer was out there somewhere and was certainly not in the pages of The Blind Watchmaker, which I turned ever more slowly, until eventually I put it down, exasperated.

After staring into space for a while, I moved out into the hotel lobby, where there were a couple of free seats, deciding to watch the ebb and flow of arriving and departing guests. In the immediate reception area there appeared to be a flock of clerics, all dressed in long black coats, some with wide-brimmed black hats and some with skullcaps. I initially assumed that they were some sort of Orthodox order, although the majority language appeared to be heavily accented English. Perhaps they were Jewish?

They milled around the reception desk struggling, it seemed, to make themselves understood and it was clear that my friend Mircea was nowhere to be seen. There was another young man on duty and I knew that he understood a smattering of English, but it was quite plain that he had not taken to this group, and he was making no effort to converse with them in English or indeed in any language other than Romanian. 

I watched them, fascinated, knowing that I should not really have been amused, when there was a sudden uproar from the public toilet. One of the larger clerics burst through the door, clutching what appeared to be two substantial wads of currency. However, it did not take long to realise that what he had in his hands were tightly packed pieces of paper with one or perhaps two valid 100 lei bills at each end. He had clearly been hoodwinked by a black marketeer into believing that he was exchanging what I assumed to have been a good number of dollars for an even greater number of lei.

“I’ve been robbed,” he shouted in heavily accented English. “Call the police. This hotel is harbouring criminals!”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked across at him. There was a momentary silence, broken by the victim yelling, “There he is! Stop him! He is a thief! He has defrauded me!”

At that moment, the receptionist suddenly rediscovered his ability to speak English.

“What do you mean, thief?” he demanded. “And exactly what are you accusing this hotel of?”

The cleric looked at him, angrily. He shook his bundles of paper in his face.

“What do you think these are?”

“They look like pieces of paper to me,” said the young man, remarkably calmly.

“Exactly!” said the cleric, triumphantly.

“And?” asked the receptionist. “What are you going to say to the police if they should come? That you were trying to buy currency on the black market?”

The cleric stood in front of him, his mouth opening and shutting in silence, struggling to contain himself. The conflicting emotions crossing his face were all too plain to see and I felt quite sorry for him, just as I had grudging respect for the unerring logic shown by the receptionist, who was for the moment managing to keep a straight face.

Eventually, stuffing the worthless paper into a large shoulder bag, the cleric turned on his heel and walked off. The receptionist shrugged his shoulders with a wry smile. In the confusion, the black marketeer had silently made good his escape.

Anyway, this Friday night, time for bed. I had to get my mother off to the airport the next day and then regroup. Hopefully, I would be visiting the orphanage and perhaps also I might somehow manage to get hold of an interpreter.


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