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TWENTY THREE



“The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”

Ronald Firbank, Mrs Shamefoot in Vainglory, 1915



Bogdan drove us to the city hall, a dark, brooding building, and parked close to what we took as the main entrance. The double doors were manned by an elderly man who could have been a cleaner or a caretaker, who was standing inside one of the doors which he was keeping fractionally open. He appeared to have appointed himself as some form of custodian, clearly preventing access to anyone of whom he did not approve. Bogdan ignored him, and simply pushed past, with me following closely. Faced with certainty rather than authority, but being unable to differentiate between the two, the door custodian let us pass, and we made our way inside, following some limited signposting which Bogdan was able to make out in the gloom.


We came to a lift, but its condition persuaded us not to take it. The door was open, but the lift floor was positioned a third of the way up the opening and, given the state of repair of much of the infrastructure that I had observed in the country already, I suggested that it might be better to take the stairs.


On the third floor, we came to an unlit wide high-ceilinged corridor, with a series of tall narrow double doors running down its length. We went to the second such door, which Bogdan was satisfied was our destination. It had some sort of title on the door on a dirty brass plaque, and inside we found a large room, with, at the far end, two ornate desks, one at either side, slightly angled towards each other. Behind each desk, illuminated by a large ornate lampstand, was a woman whom I realised was some sort of administrator or social worker. The two of them were engaged in lively conversation and barely glanced at us when we came into the room. In front of each desk were two chairs, but neither woman beckoned us to one or other of them, continuing to talk between themselves.


We stood there for several minutes while they studiously ignored us, until eventually Bogdan began speaking Romanian and went over to the right-hand desk, proffering my translated documents as he did so. The woman interjected from time to time, directing her comments as much to her colleague as to the two of us, while the other woman would respond, sometimes shaking her head, sometimes sucking her teeth, appearing to confirm her general dissatisfaction that they had been disturbed. 


But there seemed, now, to be more to it. “She is saying that she and the authorities don’t care for this sort of application.”


As she heard Bogdan addressing me in English, she looked over at me, scowling. 


“Can you explain that I am trying to rescue a child who is in dreadful circumstances?” I said. 


Bogdan appeared to start, but the woman spoke over him and appeared unwilling to listen.


“Parlez-vous Français?” I asked her. She nodded briefly, looking back at the paperwork. I tried to explain that the children were in a terrible state and that I was simply trying to help by taking a child out of an institution that clearly could not care for him.


She ignored me, and continued reading, making occasional comments in Romanian.


Then suddenly, and triumphantly, she pointed to one of the documents, and announced in Romanian to Bogdan and then to me in French that ‘the woman’ on my marriage certificate was not the same woman whose birth certificate had been produced.


Bogdan and I were both utterly bewildered. The social worker sat back with a satisfied smile on her face and folded her arms. She announced that until that apparent contradiction had been overcome, the application to adopt the child would not proceed. She smiled across at her friend and then resumed talking to her, ignoring us both.


Bogdan took my papers off her desk and brought them over to me. “I don’t understand what she is saying, but she was pointing to this red document here and then to the green one.”


I looked at the papers in his hand. He was pointing to Carmel’s birth certificate and to our marriage certificate. On the first of the two, there was Carmel’s forename and her maiden name. On the second, the marriage certificate, her maiden name also appeared, but there, to my surprise, was another forename. On this document, she had not one, but two Christian names, Carmel Catherine. At that moment, I did not quite understand why the second Christian name should have appeared on the second document but not the first, but it was perfectly plain that she was the same person. Plain, that is, to me, but not, apparently, to the social worker, who clearly wanted to pursue any avenue to obstruct the application; and here, it seemed, at least to her satisfaction, she had been successful.


Bogdan and I beat a retreat out of the room, down the corridor, and back out into the roadway. 


“You know, I have absolutely no idea why a second name should have come onto the marriage certificate, but I will have to ring home to find out what it’s about because obviously, until I do, we are not going to get past that woman.”


“Okay. We’ll go back to my parents’ apartment and we can try and place a call from their telephone.”


It turned out that his parents’ apartment was not that far away, since it was within Sector 1. Bogdan was able to park on the street, and he led me into a tall old apartment building, up communal stairs past some foul-smelling dustbins and into a surprisingly airy apartment, divided into a large living room, partitioned off from an equally large dining room, two bedrooms and a kitchen and bathroom.


In the living room, among an entire wall of books was a substantial radiogram, which Bogdan immediately turned on to impress me. Suddenly, the room was filled with sounds of Elton John, mournfully suggesting that some things looked better “just passing through”. I shook my head at the reminder that our planet was shrinking all the time. Here we were, in post-revolutionary Romania, with all the problems and unpleasantness that I had already encountered, and the radio was broadcasting a current UK top ten hit.


However, to the telephone. Bogdan knew how to get through to the international operator given that there was no likelihood of being able to dial direct, and he found that he had to book a call, which we decided would best be made in the early evening when Carmel had returned from her shop. There was not long to wait, so we decided to stay put and review our progress.


I went through the Marriotts’ checklist with him. I had, as my list required, completed my home study report and I had, within the translated documents, the necessary references, letters from our bank and from the accountant confirming my solvency, photographs of me and Carmel and of our house, and finally, a Home Office letter which confirmed the process which I was pursuing was the one approved by the UK authorities.


For his part, Bogdan was confident that we now had the mother’s consent, even though it was not in writing, and we had some basic information about George’s state of health when born. Obviously, there was more information on the social worker’s file, and we didn’t yet have an up-to-date medical report, but, hopefully, that would be obtained through some sort of medical practitioner who we now knew would be on hand from time to time at the orphanage.


Until we had those remaining documents, and until we had sorted out the current impasse with the city hall, we had to mark time. So the phone call was pretty important.


And remarkably, the call came through at the booked time, and I was able to speak to Carmel.


“We’ve hit a problem here because an official has noticed that when we got married, an additional Christian name was included on our certificate. Have you any idea where that came from and why it isn’t on your birth certificate?”


“You silly man. You’ve forgotten that I’m Roman Catholic, and you probably don’t know that at Confirmation, we are given a special name which we have chosen. And my chosen name was Catherine, after Kate, my mother. That’s why, when we got married, I had two Christian names, but when I was born I had just the one.”


“Hmm, it’s not going to be terribly easy to convince this no doubt godless official, just by my telling her that. I sense that we are going to have to get this set out on some sort of declaration.”


“Just tell me what to do, and I’ll get hold of Tony Coltman.”


Tony was a solicitor in Leamington Spa, who had already been of great assistance in preparing some of our documents, and he had told us that if we needed any logistical assistance, we should call on him immediately. In particular, he had, or had access to a telex machine, and if necessary could make immediate contact with either me, through the hotel, or with Romanian authorities, at the flick of a switch.


“OK, tell him that you need to make a statutory declaration and that it has to be notarised. Explain to him what I have told you and I’m sure that he will put that into a short document and do the necessary. The problem then, is to get it over to this country.”


That indeed was the problem, since I had absolutely no idea how I could quickly get the declaration from England into the city hall in Bucharest.


“Tell you what,” I said. “Ring up the man at Friendly Travel, Harry McCormick, and ask him if he has arranged any flights that are about to come over from the UK and ask him whether or not he can persuade one of his clients to bring the declaration with him, once Tony has done the honours.”


Carmel promised to get on to it straight away and, of course, I knew that she would. She would ring me, she said, at the hotel, the next day, at about this time, with her progress.


So, Bogdan and I had a day to kill.


“I think we should go back to the orphanage and tell that woman that we have found the mother and that she is going to consent to an adoption. And we had better start thinking about getting a passport for him, now.”


“That’s not going to be so easy,” I said. “Even after I’ve completed all the formalities, we need a visa to take us through from Romania into the UK and I doubt we’ll get a passport without a visa, let alone a visa without a passport.”


“We’ve still got to be prepared. To get a passport we need a photograph, and to get a photograph we need the child. So we’ll go to the orphanage, arrange to take him out, and we’ll go round to a photographic studio I know of, and at least get ready for a passport application.”


***


I decided that I ought to spend the night back at Hotel Parc, so Bogdan drove me back and I had another long dribble under the shower before stretching out on the bed in an attempt to get some rest. Bogdan arranged to pick me up the next morning, and I decided that I would try and sweeten the pill for the social worker by taking some deodorant and a packet of tights for her, along with the now obligatory 200-pack carton of Kent, which Bogdan reckoned I should have on me at all times in case the need arose. 


When, next morning, we arrived at the orphanage, we went straight to Ursuliano, who seemed perfectly willing to allow George out provided he was accompanied by one of his staff. He gave orders to his secretary and Bogdan and I decided to wait in the social worker’s office, where we found our friend. 


I went straight over to her and offered her the tights. She forced a sickly smile and turned to Bogdan. I picked up ‘Multu mesc’, but not much else.


“She’s got his file,” he said. “And there’s a short report on it which shows how he came to be here in the first place.”


“Let’s see it then,” I asked.


The social worker handed it to us. It was half a page long. Lily translated it later as part of my dossier. It contained a coldly simple narrative:


Social Investigation, carried out at the mother’s residence. Name Petre Vasilica. Address – Bucharest – number 48, Narciselor Street, Sector II who asks for the child inclusion in the number 1 orphanage. Name of child – Petre George born on 11 V 1988.


Petre Vasilica identifies herself with identity card series S no 4870722. She was born on 3 1 1963. She works as a saleswoman at the Ilfov agriculture sector, with a wage of 2.100 lei monthly.


Out of wedlock three children aged 9, 6 and 5 have resulted.


Petre George (4th Child) is at the Doctor Cantacuzino Maternity Home.


Dwelling – a flat with three rooms with annexes, modestly furnished.


Given the condition of the above mentioned the internment of infant George into no.1 Orphanage is suggested.


Signed – Social Worker – 23 05 1988


And that short, depressing, report effectively consigned George to the revolting establishment where I had found him. And he was approaching his third birthday, when he would face the beginnings of a downward spiral as ‘incurable’, to an even more unspeakable existence. 


There didn’t appear to be any other documentation or social enquiry report. Certainly, since the social worker had told us that the mother worked in Stanesti, there might have been some more recent communication, but there was no record of it, and, of course, it was out of date anyway. But our collection was growing. 


A care worker appeared in the doorway in a cleanly pressed uniform. She was holding my foundling, who had been dressed, incongruously, in some sort of white smock. She spoke to Bogdan who translated. She was going to accompany us out of the orphanage and was not allowed to let George out of her sight.


The four of us got into the car, and the little chap got to his feet on the rear seat, holding onto the backrest for dear life, looking out of the rear window. As we found ourselves in heavy traffic, it was clear that he had become transfixed by the movement around us and the cars following behind. He remained utterly silent.


After about five minutes, Bogdan parked against the kerb and led us to an unremarkable doorway which appeared not to have any identification on it at all. We went inside and found a bare room in which stood an ancient-looking camera on a tripod, with a rickety-looking stool in front of it. The proprietor came in from a side door, and fussed about the camera, while Bogdan again translated for me.


“He’s going to take a passport photograph for us and he’ll also do a photograph of the three of us if you want him to.”


“Brilliant,” I said. “Let’s get the passport photograph done first.” 


This turned out to be something of a problem, because George was unable to sit up. 


“No problem. I’ll lie down behind the stool and hold his back up straight so that he doesn’t topple over.”


And so, with me lying down on the floor, with one arm on the boy’s lower back and the other arm supporting the base of his neck, and doing my best to keep him as still as possible, the passport photographs were taken.


As the photographer went to his darkroom to develop the pictures, Bogdan ran to his car and got his jacket, just to improve the presentation, he said, of the tableau of the three of us. And in due course, the photographer delighted us by taking a group photograph of Bogdan, me, and our little boy. Meanwhile, the orderly who had accompanied us sat outside waiting, making inroads into the packet of Kent that I had slipped to her.


Driving back to the orphanage, George was again transfixed by the surroundings, which I realised he had never seen before. All this information was suddenly flooding into his little mind and he was observably amazed by it. When we parked at the orphanage gate, the worker picked him up and took him away from the car. As she did so, he made the first sound I had ever heard from him, no more than a squeak but nonetheless a signal of disappointment as an indication at least that he was responding to outside stimuli. 


I could hardly bring myself to think that he was ‘safely’ back in the orphanage, but we were making headway. 


We sat outside the orphanage in the ruined semicircle taking stock of our progress, which seemed, marginally, to be picking up speed. As we chatted, I realised that we were not alone. A dark-haired man, who turned out to be English, was hovering a short distance from us, listening to our conversation. He introduced himself, and asked if we were having any success in our endeavours.


“Well, up to a point,” I said, “but it’s a struggle. At least we have identified a child, and we seem to be making headway. What about you? Have you found a child?”


“Oh yes,” he said. “One, and one yet to find.”


“Really? How long have you been here?”


It transpired that he had been in Bucharest for six weeks.


“I’m looking for the next child,” he said.


“I don’t understand. How many have you seen?”


“Oh,” he said, airily, “I’ve looked at lots. But I haven’t seen another one I like the look of yet.”


I was lost for words. This wasn’t a supermarket. What on earth did he think he was doing?


I shot a look at Bogdan, who seemed to be finding it harder than me to keep his temper. I got up and walked away, taking him by the elbow.


“I think we’d better leave this chap to his own business. We’ve got a job to do.”


We left in silence and climbed into the car and sat for a moment in silence.


“I can’t believe what I’ve just heard,” Bogdan said eventually.


Another silence.


“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “But there will be many people who don’t know where to start or how to find a child – and I’m not sure that I can judge that chap, since I don’t know enough about his motives or what he can offer to the children. It’s a hell of a thing.”


That was pretty inadequate, but I wasn’t in the mood to question the behaviour of the Englishman we had just met. I was thinking about poor George. For him, as well as the other wretches inside the orphanage, the clock was ticking. 


Bogdan started the engine, and as we moved off, we snapped out of our silence. 


“OK, now we have to sort out this contradictory name problem. Let’s hope your lawyer can come up with an answer.”


And with the help of Tony Coltman, the task proved not to be as difficult as I had first thought. 

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