“The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfilment of that hope never entirely removes.”

Thomas Hardy in F.E. Hardy, The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1928

Like two increasingly sore thumbs, my mother and I sat in the large ground floor foyer of the hotel, a developing object of curious glances and eventually downright stares from an assortment of young people. We found ourselves on particularly uncomfortable settees, covered in leatherette, with no backrest to speak of, making it virtually impossible to relax. Just as the nurse had observed, whether or not my mother could blend in with the background, I certainly could not. I had assumed that it was not appropriate to wear Levis, since I had heard that they were virtually unobtainable in Romania, and I was simply wearing khaki fatigues and a similar coloured T-shirt, and ankle boots. 

In any event, either my skin colour or my hair marked me out, and throughout the morning I found myself being approached by a variety of young men who, for some reason, thought I might be able to advise them on any number of things, from the quality of architectural drawings which one eager young man in particular insisted on showing me, to the meaning of democracy, which a clutch of young people decided to have me explain. The aspiring designer appeared to have a portfolio of sketches of public utilities, buildings, even streetlamps on which he wanted my opinion, which I was wholly unqualified to give. The overall impression was of designs which appeared to date from the very early 1960s and seemed to my eyes to be very dated, but all I could do, given that neither of us spoke each other’s language, was nod and smile and make what I hoped were encouraging noises. To the questions concerning democracy I gave the only answer I could think of, given that my mind was on other things. 

“For democracy,” I said, “read ‘accountability’.” I was not wholly convinced that this was the best of definitions, or that democracy was necessarily working as well as it might back home, but I recalled that Churchill had said something along the lines that thus far, nothing better appeared to have been found. 

At least my interrogators seemed relatively satisfied and went off to discuss my response among themselves.

I noticed one particular group of young men or, should I say, type of young man. They appeared to take no interest in me and my mother at all, but from time to time, I was able to detect that in fact they were watching us extremely carefully. This group were noticeable by the cleanliness of their clothes – invariably tracksuit bottoms and a clean polo shirt and noticeably clean trainers. None of them approached me, and I avoided catching their eyes, surmising that they were quite possibly members of the allegedly disbanded Securitate.

I had heard of the Stazi, the notorious East German secret police, and a friend back in the UK had had a brush with them while touring Europe in his gap year. He had thought it rather exciting to take a trip into East Berlin on a tourist pass, but had complained when he was required to surrender hard currency for East German marks, and had rather wished, after a rather lengthy and unpleasant interrogation, that he had kept his mouth shut.

I had also heard of the Securitate, although not in any detail. Ceauşescu had managed, I knew, to have everyone inform on each other – neighbours, employees, even family members had felt obliged to co-operate, such was their fear of the secret police. Now that the revolution had removed the dictator, what, I wondered, had happened to the secret police? Had they been disbanded or had they simply slunk into the shadows? 

My suspicions grew when, midway through the morning, a lorry drew up at the back entrance to the foyer. I was able to see what was going on, because the entirety of the back wall was made of glass. The lorry, it appeared, was delivering a supply of beer, a delivery which, by the look of it, was eagerly awaited by a very significant number of men who were now milling around the lorry itself and inside the lobby.

Of course, I had no idea how often these deliveries took place, but there was a sense that beer was in short supply, because no sooner had the lorry pulled up than a good number of men tried to get on board. Arguments broke out, and two or three groups of men began scuffling with each other.

The scene was utterly bizarre, but did not last long, since a number of the tracksuits weighed in and hauled away the protagonists, so quickly and efficiently that had I not been watching carefully, I would not have seen it happen. There was no blood, and the raised voices melted away so quickly that I wondered whether I had been imagining what I had seen. In any event, the lorry driver and a couple of helpers managed to offload the crates of beer, some into the hotel and some around the side of the building, presumably to other outlets, and eventually, the lorry, now empty, drove away and calm returned to the foyer.

I decided that I would keep a surreptitious eye on the tracksuits. And each time I glanced across at them, they appeared to have decided, likewise, that at least one would be able to observe me and my mother.


Fortunately, she had brought reading material with her, and she was able, at least in part, to relax. I, too, had a book, but there was no way I could possibly concentrate, given Sadovici’s promise. Was I really going to receive two infants that afternoon? Looking back, the idea was absurd, but then again, so was the whole endeavour. What on earth did I think I was doing, sitting in a foreign hotel in a strange land, waiting for a man, however apparently reputable, to suddenly produce two children for me to remove to a country three thousand miles away? I was racked with conflicting emotions – on the one hand, the absurdity of the situation, but on the other, my memory of the dreadful television programmes I had seen and the task Carmel and I had set ourselves.

So, we waited. 


The afternoon heat became more and more intense and the lack of air conditioning magnified the oppressive atmosphere. Nor could I detect where I might find a drink, and so I simply sat, in increasing discomfort, waiting for Sadovici’s return. I looked around the lobby and the ground floor of the hotel and, for want of anything better to do, I tried to take an interest in the building. That itself was pretty depressing, since whatever effort had been made to keep up the maintenance of the hotel seemed to have been approached in a pretty haphazard fashion. Thus, the lift did not work in this hotel either, and although the facings on the walls of the public areas appeared to be some form of marble, I took particular notice of a pillar where a careless worker, whether electrician or otherwise, had installed a light switch after making a hole in the marble that was too big for the fitment. Consequently, the plate housing the switch had had to be screwed onto the wall at a crazy angle from the vertical, leaving the hole behind it visible on two sides. 

That switch appeared to me to be a metaphor for the general run-down appearance of virtually every building that I was to come across during my stay, and it seemed to symbolise the reluctance of anyone to complete a job with any skill and with any sense of satisfaction. 

As the afternoon wore on and evening descended, it became pretty plain that there was to be no development. Sadovici simply did not appear, and I was unable to establish what might have happened to him or his promise, because our friendly receptionist was obviously not on duty. And so I sat through the remainder of the day, increasingly frustrated and more and more uncomfortable, until, finally, darkness fell. 

At around seven o’clock, my mother had had enough. She went off to the dining room to see if she could get anything to eat, but I told her that I was not going to give up my vigil and, in any event, I was not hungry. She must have found something, because she was away for a little while, before finally coming back to see me sitting, as before, with my eye fixed on the hotel entrance. 

“I’m going to bed,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t think he’s going to be coming back today and you really ought to get something to eat and go to bed yourself.”

“You might be right, but for the time being, I’m staying put. I’ll be up later. Anyway, in this heat I really don’t have any appetite.”

‘Later’ turned into very late, because I finally elected to go back to our room at 10 o’clock, pretty fed up and enormously disappointed. There was not much I could say, so I simply climbed into bed and tried to sleep. 


Next morning, hardly refreshed, I took my mother downstairs and installed her in the dining room to contemplate another stale roll and black tea. Meanwhile, I went back to the reception desk, having seen that our receptionist was back on duty.

“Bonjour,” I said, greeting her as cheerfully as I could.

She looked at me icily. Her whole demeanour had changed, and I felt as unwelcome, this early morning, as I had felt welcome two days before.

I told her that I had expected Dr Sadovici to have returned the previous day, since that was what he had promised.

“Je vous assure qu’il est venu,” she said.

I wondered if I had misheard her and that somehow I had mistranslated her French. 

“Non,” I said. “Il n’est pas revenu.” 

“Ce n’est pas vrai,” she insisted. “Il est revenu hier, l’après midi.”

I was getting nowhere, and her whole demeanour was becoming more and more hostile.

“De toute façon,” she said, “il vous a laissé un message. Vous devez partir.”

I was stunned. Had I heard her right? Was she seriously saying that not only had Sadovici turned up the previous afternoon but that, having failed to find me, had left me a message, effectively telling me to get out of town? 

“Comment?” I said, asking her to repeat what she had just told me.

“Vous devez partir. On doit aller. Aujourd’hui,” she hissed. The other receptionist looked over at us, enquiringly, before returning to his own business.

Things had become pretty plain. She was telling me to get out, and her message was uncompromising. So also was her body language. It was obviously a waste of time to argue the issue with her and I retreated, wondering what on earth I was to do now. 

First of all, of course, I had to tell my mother, whom I found in the dining room contemplating the remains of a pretty unappetising piece of bread.

“I’m afraid that things have got a bit out of hand,” I said. “The receptionist alleges that Sadovici came back yesterday, which, of course, you and I know he didn’t. And she has told me that he has made it plain that we have to leave. Since Sadovici is apparently someone in authority, and discretion being the better part of valour, I suggest that we take that advice and I go to the airline office and get a ticket for us both so that we can return to Bucharest.”

“I agree,” said my mother after a moment. She appeared relieved to be leaving Bacau. “I’ll get packing and I’ll wait for you back in the foyer.”

I walked straight out of the hotel and made my way to the Tarom office, which I had passed on my way to see Meg Bennett on our first evening, and managed to communicate to the clerk that I needed two one-way tickets to Bucharest that afternoon. For a moment, I wondered whether the flight might be full. Was there even a flight? I needn’t have worried; for the ludicrously modest sum of 300 lei each, I emerged from the building with two small pieces of printed cardboard – rather like old British Railways tickets – and the knowledge that we had only to wait for two hours before the next flight.

I collected my mother and our pieces of luggage and went back to reception. The receptionist waved us away, wholly unconcerned with any check-out procedure, leaving me with an abiding sense that I had somehow acted like some sort of criminal. I felt so uneasy that I imagined that I might have a tap on my shoulder from one of the tracksuits, and I only breathed more easily when a taxi – this time found waiting outside the hotel, and accepting lei as a fare – deposited us back at the airfield.

We both sat out our waiting time in the wooden shed that I had seen on arrival, in the company of a handful of other passengers and under the gaze of a dull-looking young soldier who sported a sub-machine gun. Quite what he was guarding escaped me, and probably eluded him, too; he was clearly as bored as I was frustrated. 

And then, out of the blue, a soft “Bonjour”.

I looked round, startled. Standing just behind me was the curious young man who had approached me at Hotel Moldova. I wondered what on earth he was doing there. Had he followed me? Had he asked at the hotel where I was? Was he rather more than he seemed to be? 

I suppose I was feeling a little paranoid by then, but just as it seemed that I could not trust Sadovici, a professional man with seemingly impeccable credentials, this casually dressed young person, who seemed to me to be just a little shifty, was someone I felt I should be just a little wary of.

He gestured me away from the other passengers and into a corner of the room.

“Je vous ai trouvé un enfant,” he said. 

I have found you a child.

I must have looked pretty perplexed. I had not sent him on a mission and not even agreed that he should find a child. The idea that I would take a child from a family was not just bizarre, it was abhorrent. I had travelled to Romania to bring two children out of squalor, not away from a caring family.

He continued, in French. “I have spoken to the mother and she says that she is too poor to care for the child and she wants you to take him out of Romania.”

This was absurd. I had no wish to meet anybody who simply wished to abandon their child to a complete stranger. I sensed that the conversation would soon turn to money and I felt that it was time to end the discussion there and then. I told him that I was at that moment waiting for the next plane back to Bucharest and that my plans had changed radically. That at least was true, in that I now had no plans of any sort, since all my best endeavours appeared to have come to nothing. I was not, however, prepared to discuss my difficulties with him, and I felt that the least said, the better.

He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “it’s your loss”, and turned away. Even when, later, I despaired of getting anywhere, I did not try to seek him out. 

Not long afterwards, I heard the sound of an approaching aircraft, well in advance of our advertised departure, and I watched as a gaggle of passengers disembarked and their assorted luggage was loaded onto a trolley. A bowser drove across the field and a mechanic fussed around the engine while another saw to the refuelling. They both completed their tasks in short order, allowing us to leave exactly on time, and in due course, we all, the three pilots and the ubiquitous air hostess, were bumping across the grass field, into the air and on the way back to Bucharest. 


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