Excerpt for Orphans by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




My buddy and her dog April

Me, Lenuta, Ramona and Mariana

Our best friend Alex

Chapter One

1997 – Ruginesti

His shadow appears out of nowhere, disturbing us from our game.

We made a circle out of sand to stop the cockroaches from under the house getting away but now I can’t see them anymore.

I look up to see what is going on.

A nicely dressed tall man is looking down at us.

His behaviour is strange! Whenever we get visitors they say ‘Hi’ or ask for our mother.

But he doesn’t say anything!

Shortly after the shadow disappears, I go back to my game and we have a nice view of the sand circle again.

Adi is bored with the game and wants to go inside. Marinel and I follow him, not wanting to keep playing by ourselves.

In our room, water is being poured into the washing basin. Unsure of what is going on, we sit by the door, waiting for instructions. The man is talking to Mum; while she nods to whatever he says, she is getting the soap and some clothes ready.

We are being rushed into the basin, homemade soap going up and down our backs. It hurts a little bit, but I know the more we use it, the smaller and rounder it will get. It only hurts the first time she uses it. The first pieces are always too big and sharp.

While I’m debating whether I should tell her we are clean enough, the tall man comes closer to her, puts a hand on her shoulder and says, ‘We have to go’.

She starts to cry, asking him not to take us away. She can take care of us, she says. but he won’t listen. His arms are crossed in front of his chest; his cold eyes stare at her.

Trembling hands dress us in our best clothes, the only clothes we have, and she hugs us. She is a lot shorter than both our dad and this man, but still she goes down on her knees to embrace us.

‘I need you three to be very good kids, obey everything Mr Bostan says, and before you know it I will come and take you home.’

Something’s not right; what does she mean we are going somewhere?

Why isn’t she coming? I look at Marinel’s face but he gives nothing away.

We are used to being on our own and we roam the streets every day, knowing that at the end of the day she will be at home waiting for us. But now she’s saying we have to go somewhere without her?

Why are we leaving her? Why is she letting us go with some stranger?

Have we done something wrong?

While I’m trying to work out what is happening, Adrian takes the tall man’s hand and walks out the door while Marinel and I stay put.

He doesn’t move! And I won’t move!

We are waiting for Mum to come with us but she doesn’t look as if she will. Once again she comes close to us and says, ‘Go on, you’ll be fine. Marinel, take care of your brother and sister, look after each other. I will come to visit you, I promise.’

He takes my hand and together we walk out the door.

I look back. The door is still open and I see her sitting down at the table!

The stove on the right of the room is cooling down from the heat of the fire Mum made to boil the water, the large bed right next to it where Adrian, Mum and I slept is still unmade, the table in the middle of the room looks empty with just a small clock on it, and the smaller bed that Dad and Marinel slept in is inviting me to climb on it so I can take the powdered milk from the shelf… We weren’t supposed to touch it but it was so good that we couldn’t help ourselves…

I am being pulled towards the stranger’s car but before I get in I see Marinel staring back at the small house with its black roof and large garden.

We used to climb on the roof so often – our best hiding place when Dad was drunk.

The small vineyard in the back garden is our father’s pride; we even helped him make wine a few times by crushing the grapes we’d collected earlier in the day. Three small kids jumping and laughing as the grapes crushed between our toes. When it was ready, he drank most of it and sold the rest. Once he’d received the money, he sent one of us out to buy a pack of Carpati cigarettes.

Chapter two

The stranger looked very scary, ordering us in a strong, powerful voice to get into the car and not to say a word for the whole journey.

We didn’t talk until we got into a small room with white cupboards and chairs.

The woman greeted him straight away; it seemed that they already knew each other. She was holding a long string and she measured us from head to toe, calling out some odd numbers to him. When she finished with that she asked us to say how old we were and what school we’d attended so far.

‘I am nine and I studied at our local school this past year,’ said Marinel.

‘Why only this past year? You were supposed to start school two years ago,’ said the woman.

‘I don’t know.’

‘How about you two? How old are you?’

‘I am seven and Adrian is six. We didn’t go to school!’

‘You kids are very skinny! I wonder if you ever ate.’

We gave no answer.

I looked at the tall man; there was no reaction or movement from his lips. I looked back at Marinel to see if he understood what was going on, but his face didn’t give anything away, either.

We are being rushed to the car again. I feel something tickling in my stomach and my head gets a bit funny when the car starts moving again. Adrian is lying in my arms, as always nearly asleep; that’s good! At least he’s not feeling sick.

By the time we get to the new place where we have to live until Mum comes for us, I am already tired. The car has been rockier than the horse rides we have been on many times before. It feels as though we have travelled for days, not hours.

With Adrian hanging off me, I walk with heavy feet into our new home. There are three more children at the door but, unlike us, they are being very naughty, screaming and kicking, begging their mother not to leave them here. The woman cries as well, asking them to be patient and saying that one day she will take them back home.

The children are crying even harder now.

She gets up to leave, says goodbye and closes the door behind her. The oldest of the three screams, cries and kicks the door hard until she collapses on the floor.

‘She’s tired herself out with all this crying,’ says the tall man.

‘She’ll be fine!’ answers the woman from behind the desk.

We sit obediently on the sofa while the two of them talk about us, passing on the information he has on us so far.

‘They’re here because my parents, who live very close to them, saw them every day in the village, barefoot, and most of the time naked, eating anything they found on the floor. The father is alcoholic, the mother can’t keep them financially. It’s necessary that their heads are shaved because of head lice and all belongings should be thrown away.

‘After they should join all the other kids in the canteen for dinner, followed by a bath and full head shave. The boys will be sleeping on the second floor and the girls on the first floor.’

The lady finished writing everything down. We are told to wait in line by the door leading up to the stairs.

‘Good evening, children, seeing as there are a few new faces in here, I’ve decided to introduce myself,’ says the man. ‘My name is Mr Bostan and I am the director of this orphanage. You shall do everything I ask you to without comments or delays. Over the next few days you will be meeting all the governesses and fellow colleagues in this building. Please be obedient and don’t cause any trouble. You are here because your parents or relatives couldn’t take care of you. Here you will have everything you didn’t have at home: three meals a day, clothing, education. All you need to do is do everything we ask of you; it won’t be much, don’t worry, but there will be small chores. The room behind me is the canteen. I expect everyone to be here at seven every morning. You can now walk slowly inside, pick up a tray from beside the wall on the right and wait for someone to serve you the food, understood?’

‘Yes, Mr Bostan,’ we say in unison.

The eating room is huge, the table and chairs taking up the whole room. Now I can see where I need to go and pick up the food. We don’t know anyone yet; Adrian clings to me until we take our seats to eat. No one talks. A lot of women are walking around the tables, bending down to say a few things to one boy or another, and then moving around again.

I finish my delicious meal and wait for instructions.

For quite some time no one comes over to give me my chore. I want to get up from this seat, I have been sitting too much today. Just as I am about to move off, I see a woman bending over me.

‘Are you finished?’


‘Good, come with me.’

I look at Adi, who’s still glued to me. The woman notices I haven’t moved.

‘It’s fine, he will go with Marinel to the bedroom soon. You have to go to a separate room.’

We walk in silence the whole way up to the bedroom. There are doors after doors on this floor, all closed.

We stop in front of the last one.

‘This will be your room from now on. Your bed is right here, you can rest for tonight.’

The room is large and empty.

There are lots of beds on each side and small cupboards next to them.

I am on my own for the first time and I don’t like it.

It’s too quiet. I sit on my bed and wait.

Finally, someone comes in. A few girls walk past me, shouting out their names. I’m so tired I can’t hear anything anymore. All I’ve taken in so far is: Simona, Mihaela, Mariana.

I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.

I dreamed of the only winter I remember having.

The village is covered in snow, children with sledges going up the hills wearing many layers of coats, hats and heavy-looking boots.

Between our neighbour’s house and my best friend’s house there is a little road leading up to a field.

Catalina’s little sister Georgiana is just a baby so she has to stay home; it is too cold for her outside which makes it perfect for us – no need to look after her as we have done many times before when we’ve met up to play.

We take it in turns because we only had one sled.

First to go down are me and Catalina and then it’s the boys. The four of us drag the sled up the hill and cheer on the others coming down; we scream with joy as we try to avoid crashing into our neighbour’s fence.

We must’ve been out there for hours because when we go back home our feet, faces and hands are frozen.

Mum is watching us as we sit on the bed with our hands and feet in front of the stove door, going on and on about our day. She isn’t saying much, she never really does; instead she listens and smiles. When we feel our cheeks burning we decide we are warm enough. The day is not yet finished so we put our shoes on and go to Catalina’s house, which is very big compared to ours.

At the back of it, near the garden, there is a smaller house for her grandmother. I ask Catalina why she is back there on her own and she waves it off by saying it’s her choice to be on her own, cook and relax. I’m surprised she can still ride her little white bike with the plastic green basket in the front she uses to put her groceries in.

‘Catalina, take your friends and go and buy me some soda water. I’ll give you all something when you come back.’

‘What will you give us, Grandma?’ Catalina asks.

‘Go and do what I asked and then you’ll see.’

‘Come on, let’s go!’ Catalina says.

Her grandma is waiting for us with hot food, tea and apple pie. It’s the best dinner we’ve ever had.

After dinner, we go to play in the barn. We aren’t allowed to touch the horses because they are dangerous, so we stand on the hay and look through the two holes in the barn wall. We call them eyes because you can see really far from up there.

Everything is white: the houses, roads, gardens. What a beautiful view we have.

That evening we go to people’s homes and sing carols; they give us sweets, food or coins depending on what they have. At one of the houses the lady gives us a candy each but when Adrian opens his hand he realises his wrap is empty and starts to cry.

Without a thought, I give him my candy and we continue on our way. He is always my priority; no matter where we go he always holds my hand and if people feel sorry for us and give us food, we always give him the first bite.

On Christmas Day, we go to see Catalina. She is sitting outside on the bench with a bag of marshmallows; we sit down next to her and share her sweets.

There are other kids to play with in our small village, but their parents don’t allow them to play with us; they kick us out of their houses, calling us filthy gypsies.

Perhaps Catalina’s parents allow us in her home and lets us play with her daughter because our mother used to do some jobs for her around the house, so she knows we aren’t bad kids, nor gypsies for that matter.

Catalina, our only friend. What if we never see her again?

What if Mum will never come back for us?

Catalina will forget our friendship; she will make new friends, I’m sure.

With all these questions in my head I become sadder and sadder. I look around me at my new roommates and don’t feel I can be friends with them.

The girl in the bed across from mine rocks backwards and forwards in her bed while sucking her thumb. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with it if she was still a baby but I’m pretty sure she’s older than me. The sisters from yesterday are still crying, and there are another three girls on my right who don’t talk or look at me at all. The oldest out of all us is too busy with her mirror.

We get out of bed at the same time and go to the bathroom to brush our teeth and wash our faces.

Last night I was too tired to notice how we walked quietly, one behind another, all the time.

Seeing Adi running down the stairs puts a smile on my face. He will be okay, healthy, never starve again. Marinel walks slowly past me with another boy, completely ignoring me. I guess it is a good thing he’s found friends his own age; he is older, after all.

At breakfast in the canteen I’m looking around for where to sit. At the third table there is a girl with dark straight hair and a friendly face. I go and sit next to her and start a conversation.

‘Hi, my name is Ana, I arrived yesterday and I don’t know anybody yet.’

‘Monica, happy to meet you.’

‘Why are you happy to meet me?’

‘I don’t know, it’s something I heard other people saying to one another, so I just copied them. There are so many new kids coming all the time. I can introduce you to some of them if you want. The big kids don’t talk to us, though, so at least you don’t have to bother remembering names.’

‘That’s fine, I don’t think I will be here long enough to make many friends.’

‘Why do you say that? Are your parents rich?’

‘No, but Mum promised to come and take us home soon.’

‘I don’t have a mother and my dad drinks all the time all the time, couldn’t raise me,’ she says, nearly in tears.

‘My dad drinks all the time as well, but Mommy promised, and I trust her.’

‘Let’s finish the food, we have to go to school in a few minutes.’

‘I don’t know what school is.’

‘It is a place where you go to study, if you are seven then you should’ve been already last year.’

‘My older brother was doing that last year, not me.’

‘It’s nice to go to school, we write and read, I like it a lot.’

‘I can’t wait to start, it sounds fun.’

‘Okay, let’s finish the food, we won’t be eating again until we come back from school.’

‘All right.’

As I’m taking my plate to the kitchen Ms Maria comes to tell me I have to go to pick up some clothes and shoes.

‘But Monica is waiting for me at the door to go to school.’

‘You won’t be going to school this week, Ana, you’ve just arrived. We need to enrol you first and then you can go with Monica and all the other kids to school but right now I need you to go and sit on the bench in the front room, understood?’

‘Yes, Ms Maria.’

Within minutes the bench is full of sad-looking kids.

We have a nice place to sleep, enough food, toys, and an indoor toilet, but they don’t seem happy at all. Before I get the chance to ask them why they are so sad, Ms Luminita comes to pick us up.

‘Follow me up the stairs – no pushing, talking or yelling, otherwise you won’t get anything, is that clear?’

‘Yes, Ms Luminita!’

To my surprise the shoes Ms Luminita gives me are exactly like the ones I stole once from a lady.

What a funny coincidence to receive the exact same ones. I cried for those shoes for days even though they weren’t mine. If the lady hadn’t followed me home after I asked her if I could try them on and then I ran home in them without looking back, I could have had my first ever pair of summer shoes. And what a pair they were! Sparkling dark red, so comfortable and shiny.

I looked taller in them as well. I loved them so much – and now I finally have them.

‘These shoes are to be worn only when we say so, Ana, they are not for everyday use. You will have three pairs of shoes from now on: one for school, one for inside and the red ones for when we all go somewhere. You can call them Sunday Shoes if you like because that’s when you will wear them.’

‘Yes, Ms Luminita.’

I walk back down the stairs with Adrian and Marinel; they both seem happy with the new belongings and I’m hoping that I can wear the Sunday Shoes very soon.

‘Are you going to go to school, Marinel?’

‘Yes, I am, and you?’

‘I was told I’m going next week but I don’t know when next week is, and I didn’t ask Ms Maria either, I didn’t want to upset her.’

‘You don’t upset anyone by asking questions, you’re seven and you don’t know the week days or how to count. If you don’t tell them to teach you, you’ll never learn.’

‘I’m sorry, I’ll ask next time.’

‘Let’s join the rest of the group to see what we’ll do now.’

Chapter three

Over the next couple of months we are told to which group room we belong and which of the four governesses will be in charge of us; we make some friends and change bedrooms. I’m now in a room with older girls; they don’t seem to notice me most of the time.

We accommodate fast to the new place. There is always something we need to do or a place we need to be.

I hate school the most. No one talks to me in class except Monica; luckily, we are seated next to each other.

The only time of day any of us can do whatever we want is just before bedtime.

On the floor where my bedroom is located there are four other rooms: spacious, with no beds or wardrobes. They have TVs, tables and chairs, books and school equipment. Each of the four doors has a name on it. I recently learned to read them to make sure I won’t get lost when I’m being sent to one of them.

Groups 1, 2, 3 and 4. I belong to Group 1. I have to be here every day after school to do my homework, accompanied by a couple of other children and one governess. The women in charge of us change daily; if one of them is on shift today I won’t see her around for another four days.

On different evenings of the week I am being taught the traditional Romanian dance, and my partner is Lenuta. On these days, I don’t go to school. I have to dance with four other older girls, and I really don’t like it.

All the people watching us, smiling and clapping makes me feel very uncomfortable.

The worst is when there are trips to Focsani. We have to take a bus to get there. The governesses make us go onstage in front of lots and lots of people to show our dance routine; then I have to go up on my own and recite a poem. I never seem to get it right, even though I know it word by word in my head. Every time I look up and see multiple eyes staring at me, I get so shy I can’t speak anymore. But even though I mess up, they clap for me every time. And the goody bags we receive at the end for doing a good job are worth embarrassing myself for.

I hear children saying very often that we used to eat frogs at home, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

‘We would have been lucky if we ate frogs,’ I laugh. ‘What gave you that idea?’ I ask Marius when he tells me about the frogs.

‘Mr Bostan told the older ones around here.’

‘We ate white paste found on the streets that tasted like the tea we have in the mornings, and chewing gum from the floor. The only time we ate meat was when our dad killed a pigeon, took off the feathers by burning it and ate whatever was left of it.’

‘How can you never have proper food? I don’t understand. Didn’t your relatives give you something to eat?’

‘I remember my godmother giving us a heavy bag with food in it. We weren’t able to carry it so we dragged it along, but because of the long journey we lost most of it on the way home.’

‘How sad,’ one of them replied.

Actually there was another meal we were supposed to have but never did. It was the only day I remember Dad being sober; he asked us to peel potatoes and fry them while he made mamaliga. Everything was ready and warm on the table, but Mum had still not arrived. It wasn’t like her to do something like this so Dad sent us out looking for her.

‘Go to all our neighbours, maybe she’s talking to someone and forgot the time,’ he said.

‘Mum, Mum, Mum.’

We walked around shouting out her name, but no answer came back. We tried a few of the nearest neighbours but they hadn’t seen her.

The next thing I remember, we were walking into a building that Dad said was called a hospital. I waited outside with Adrian while he and Marinel went inside a room. Before the door closed I saw Mum in a bed; she had one leg up in the air, covered in white material.

‘Oh no, what happened to her?’

‘I once saw a scar on Mum’s hip and asked her about it because it looked similar to the ones I have.’

‘Do you remember when I didn’t come home some time ago?’ she said.

‘Yes, Mummy, we do,’ said Marinel quickly.

‘Well, that night I had been attacked by a crazy lady who confused me for someone else. She cut me here on the hip with a knife. I was in front of the police station when it happened, which is why I was taken to hospital so quickly. There they made me better.’

‘Does it hurt when I touch it?’ Adrian asked.

‘No, honey, it doesn’t.’

‘Did it hurt you when she cut you?’ asked Marinel.

‘It all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to react to the pain. I was shocked at what she did,’ Mum replied.

I didn’t really understand much so I just nodded.

‘Oh, that’s horrible,’ replied Lenuta now.

‘I guess so,’ I said.

Chapter four

One thing I never look forward to on Sundays is going outside with the whole group.

All of us dressed the same, holding hands and walking in pairs. There had been times when other children walking past us would shout out ‘orphans’ or ‘head-liced orphans’.

The moment we reached the park I asked Miss Elena why they called us orphans.

‘Orphans are children without parents.’

‘But we have parents,’ I answered.

‘They just don’t know the difference, that’s all.’

‘But why are they saying it if they don’t know?’

‘Because they heard others say it.’

‘So, they say it because other have said it, but they don’t know what they say? Hmm, this is interesting.’

‘I heard you are moving rooms next week.’

‘Yes, I’m going to live with Eva, Cristina, Ramona, Simona, Mariana, and the Borhoi sisters.’

‘They are nice, you’ll like it more than our room,’ said Lenuta.

‘I finally got used to Mihaela’s tantrums,’ I said, laughing.

‘You can never get used to those!’

A year had passed since we arrived, and Mum finally came to see us.

‘I really hope she will take us home,’ I say to myself as I go downstairs to the front room. Adrian and Marinel are already waiting on the sofa; I guess they are more anxious than me.

‘Good morning, boys.’ I lean over to kiss Adrian on the forehead and he clings onto me as if he hasn’t seen me in a long time.

‘Is everything okay, Adi?’

‘Yes, why?’

‘Well, because you’re clinging onto me, I thought now you’re a first grader you don’t do this kind of thing anymore,’ I teased.

‘He’s nervous, you know… because Mum is here.’

‘You remember Mum, right, Adi?’

‘Not so much,’ he says, nearly in tears.

‘Stop being such a baby, it’s fine if you don’t remember, there is no need to cry,’ says Marinel bitterly.

‘Marinel, stop it. Don’t talk to him like this, he’s only seven, there is nothing wrong with crying.’

Before he gets the chance to throw a mean remark we see a short curvy lady walking through the door. The moment she sets eyes on us she starts crying. It seems she flew all the way to where we are standing on the bench because now she’s kissing us all over, saying how much she’s missed us.

‘Erm, excuse me, Mrs Iacob, could you please come and sign this form before you take them?’

‘I don’t know how to write, I’m afraid.’

Some kids passing us to go to the canteen overhear our mum saying she can’t write and they start laughing straight away.

The happiness I’ve felt earlier turns into embarrassment. Surely, she can write! I’m eight and I can write so why is she saying she can’t? Is she trying to embarrass us on purpose?

‘Mr Bostan will help you with the signature, Mrs Iacob, don’t worry.’

Before we know it we are out of the front door and walking towards the station. Mum says we are going home for a few days because Dad has passed away. I look at Marinel for some kind of reaction, but there is none! I don’t expect Adi to remember him at all, so I don’t even bother to look down; instead I’m staring at my mother’s face. She looks older now, with her dark hair hidden under the scarf, and dark circles under her eyes. She doesn’t seem upset at all; she is focused on the journey ahead.

We have taken one train and two buses to get home. I’m exhausted now; it hasn’t helped that I’ve carried Adi most of the trip. I should really start being a bit harsher with him. I took him to kindergarten every day for a whole year and picked him up after I finished my classes. I was lucky his teacher understood us and stayed a little bit after twelve to wait for me to pick him up. He has become very dependent on me because of that.

I quite like it though. There is time for him to grow up and let go – just not right now.

Walking hand in hand with the boys through our gate feels so great! We are home again, even if it’s just for a few days.

On top of the front door there is a black flag, which reads:

Mosunoiu Costica

Father and Husband

Passed on 15.06.1998

What a strange first name. And why is it different than ours?

I know the kids in my class have the same names as their parents, so why has someone changed ours? I can see Marinel is just as confused as I am, but I daren’t ask anything.

‘Let’s get something to eat, we have a long day ahead tomorrow. We will be having lots of relatives around to help us take Dad to the cemetery,’ says Mum.

‘Do we have to carry him, Mummy?’ asks Marinel.

‘No honey, we will put him in a horse carriage.’

‘Why will the relatives need to help us to put him in there?’

‘It’s the tradition – relatives come around when somebody passes away to say goodbye.’

‘Do we have to say goodbye as well?’

‘Yes honey, you do. We will never see him again.’

Not seeing him again doesn’t sound so bad to me; we haven’t seen him in a year and I still don’t feel the need to.

‘Your father is now in cousin Marian’s room. He needs to stay in a different room from us. I don’t think it is a good idea for you go to in there right now, he looks a bit different.’

‘I’m hungry.’ Adi joins in the conversation.

‘He’s always hungry,’ we say at the same time.

‘Let’s get you fed and then to bed with you.’

The next day I wake up to some strange sounds in our home: lots of noisy movements. I get out of bed to check what is going on; some kids are looking for something in our storage room.

Women shout out orders and men carry a large long, black wooden box outside.

I go back inside to dress Adi up and I put on some clothes myself. Marinel and Mum are nowhere to be seen.

The men have stopped just outside the house; from the porch I can see the face of the person in the wooden box.

I study him closely.

He looks a little bit like my dad, but I don’t think it’s him. This man has wadding in his nostrils, his eyes are covered by two coins, and a strange smell coming from him is making me sick.

I look down at my hand to check on Adi but he’s no longer next to me; he’s playing with some kids in the garden.

A dark-haired, skinny boy stares at me with disbelief in his eyes.

‘Why aren’t you crying?’ he asks.

‘Why should I cry?’

‘Because your dad just died.’

‘Just because he died doesn’t mean I have to cry. He looks strange and I don’t feel like crying.’

‘You should feel bad for that, you are a bad child.’

‘I’m not a bad child for not crying, stop saying that. I don’t even know who you are and what you are doing in my house.’

‘I’m your brother, you should know that already.’

‘You are not my brother, Marinel and Adi are.’

‘Yes, I am, I just have a different dad then you do. And we have one more brother.’

‘That is not true, I don’t believe you.’

‘You came to see us a couple of years ago, at Grandma’s house. You came with Adrian and Marinel. None of you said a word the whole time you were there. I asked you all to go outside with me, to the river. We played in the water until Mum came and took you home.’

‘But why do you live with Grandma and not here with Mum?’

‘I told you already, because me and your other brother have different dads then you, so we live with Grandma.’

‘I don’t remember Grandma, is she nice?’

‘Yes, she is. You all came a few times to the house, and she gave you bags of food to take home: mostly jam, potatoes and cherry compote.’

‘Oh, I remember her now, she had a TV and a radio in the room, covered with a white embroidered cloth!’

‘See, you remember.’

‘Dad’s mum lives with us, in a different room at the back of the house. She’s not very nice to us. Always chases us away, won’t let us climb her trees to eat fruits or any vegetables she has in the garden.’

‘Yuck, she sounds horrible.’

‘She is,’ I laugh.

We have been speaking so much I haven’t realised the walk towards the cemetery has started. We follow the crowd.

Two men lift us onto the top of the carriage next to Dad. I try to look at everyone and anything else, as long as is not him. People walk slowly behind the carriage, stopping once in a while for the priest to say a prayer and then moving again, very slowly.

Too slowly for my liking.

I catch Mum’s eyes; there is something inside them I can’t describe. She looks sad, but not too sad. As though she wants to look sad because she has to.

I’m the same when I have to go to school. I smile as my uniform is being checked before I leave the orphanage every morning, but I really don’t want to go.

The ceremony has started, they are slowly releasing the ropes and my dad is going further and further into the hole. People start to throw sand onto his box while the pastor sings his prayers once more.

There is lots of food being passed around with a lit candle followed by yet another prayer, shorter this time.

When a man passes me some food, he says gently, ‘What we give in this life may he have in the next’. And I have to respond, ‘What I receive in this life may he have in the next’.

No one has cried as he went down into the grave. This is very strange; maybe Dad used to chase them around the house with a knife as well. We have seen him hurt Mum way too many times to be sad he’s gone

I’m not scared anymore, not scared of seeing Mum running from him when he was drunk, not scared of what he did to her when he sobered up and realised we were gone, not scared of being his child.

Two days later Mum says she needs to take us back to the orphanage with yet another promise to bring us back home for good once she has enough money to take care of us.

‘I will put more money in my pockets from the jobs I do, I will bring you home again, I promise.’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

We make the same journey back, disappointed at not being able to stay home.

Chapter five

Miss Maria tells me the good news. By the end of the year there will be a small flat within the orphanage, although it is not yet decided who will move there.

We all need to behave, do our homework and in a couple of months a decision will be made based on that.

I have become used to everyone in my bedroom; the older girls frequently ask me to keep their secrets. They love climbing out the window, and sometimes they don’t come back for hours. Whenever the governess on duty asks me where they are, I lie and say I don’t know.

Some nights they take me with them onto the rooftop. All I have to do is climb out the window.

It feels great to be up here with the older girls. I am told to lie on my back and watch the stars.

They share their secrets with me: what they do when they climb out the window.

Mariana comes out to smoke, Cristina to meet Catalin, Gina chats with older guys, Simona also smokes. I am their little toy, who listens to everything they say. Now most of them will be moving into the flat and I will be alone.

A few months have passed since the funeral and we are all back to our routines.

We are doing well in school, obey everyone, don’t get in trouble, but Mum still hasn’t come back to see us.

I once saw Gina and Georgiana’s mum sleeping with them here in the orphanage. Why wasn’t our mum doing the same?

Ms Maria comes over to me and says she has good news.

‘You will be moving into the new flat with the other girls next week.’

‘I am? But I am only nine.’

‘Don’t you want to go?’

‘Yes, I do,’ I say, smiling.

‘The girls chose you to go live with them in there. You will still wake up at the same time, and go to school with the rest of the kids. Everything will be the same, except the room you sleep in. Oh, I almost forgot, you have some visitors, they are outside with your brothers.’

I run as fast as I can, hoping Mum is here, but when I reach the stairs I see my brothers speaking to two boys around his age and I stop.

I can’t move any further. Something is holding me back; I want to go and see who they are but my feet won’t lift off the ground.

They look up towards me. I remember them now!

‘Are you hungry, little girl?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Come inside, we will give you some nice caramelised sugar.’

I love caramelised sugar, it’s so sweet it makes the hunger go away. ‘Give it to me,’ I say eagerly.

‘Come inside and we will give you lots,’ says the other boy.

I’ve avoided that house ever since, I don’t know why. I forgot I’d spoken to them the moment I left, but I had a bad feeling when I approached the faded dark red fence.

Marinel yells at me to come down and say Hi but I don’t want to.

I turn around and run back inside, not knowing why I’m behaving like this.

I have thought about their visit the whole morning; there is something I don’t like about them. Since when are they friends with my brothers?

Lenuta comes running towards me.

‘Ana, Ana, there is a big truck downstairs full of presents for us.’

‘Presents? From whom?’

‘I think it’s from the same people that came last year.

‘Let’s go quickly to get one.’

The joy on our faces as we open the little boxes, loud chatter, cardboard boxes torn apart, laughter and happiness. They look like shoe boxes wrapped up nicely; mine has a man on it, wearing a red suit. He’s very strange-looking with a big beard and a round stomach; it looks as though he’s laughing. My friends have different paper wrapped around their boxes. I would love to have a good look at what they’ve got but I am distracted by the items inside mine: a pink notebook with a fluffy pencil attached to it, a hat with gloves, a small face towel, toothpaste and a toothbrush, but the best of it are the sweeties. Mmm, they look delicious.

I don’t waste any more time, I grab one of the candies and start chewing. Not too long after that I hear candy wrappers being torn off and sounds of contentment from the kids closest to me.

‘All of you please take your boxes with you and keep them in your rooms, please don’t eat everything tonight, there’s another day tomorrow.’

‘Yes, Mrs Aurica.’

‘I don’t want to hear tomorrow morning that anyone has stolen from someone else, you all have a box and you will receive more sweets soon if you behave. Christmas is coming! It is very important everybody behaves properly, otherwise there won’t be any presents for you, understood?’

‘Yes, Mrs Aurica.’

I reach my new room. The bed closest to the door is empty, and next to is Ramona’s bed. I recognise her sleeping bag. I like her, she’s always nice to me. Cristina’s bed is next to Ramona’s, and the last bed is taken by a girl around Cristina’s age. I’ve never really had a conversation with her though; I know her younger brother is in my Group Room but he doesn’t talk much.

‘Looks like it will be just the four of us,’ says the other girl.

‘Thank god we are in here, I hope we won’t see much of the governesses,’ says another one.

‘Yeah, we don’t have to do our homework in the Group Rooms anymore,’ joins in Cristina.

‘I like it,’ adds Ramona.

While I’m doing my homework at the kitchen table in our flat Cristina storms in.

‘It’s been one and a half years since we moved into our small flat, and now they are saying we are going to move again.’

‘Where?’ asks Ramona.

‘I don’t know, I heard the chefs talking in the kitchen earlier on. Apparently, they will start separating us, some girls will go to Panciu and the boys to Odobesti.’

‘Yuck, those places are horrible,’ joins in Lenuta.

‘They will separate us, I know it.’

‘No, they won’t, relax.’

‘I know what I heard, Ramona, they weren’t joking.’

‘When will they start making changes?’

‘Next month, they will choose a few to move into new apartments across the city. Only the ones they think are “good kids”.’


‘Let’s just wait and see,’ says Lenuta. ‘No need to worry just yet.’

‘You should be worried, your brother is always in trouble, he doesn’t even go to school.’

‘Don’t start a fight with me, Cristina, I’m not in the mood for this.’

‘Whatever, you will see.’

And she was right, I think to myself as we are brought into a room to receive the news.

I can hear Gina and Georgiana desperately begging Mr Bostan not to separate them from their little brother, but it is in vain.

‘The decisions have been made, girls, there is nothing I can do.’

‘He won’t survive on his own,’ they plead.

‘He won’t be on his own, there are lots of other boys his age in the orphanage.’

‘He is six, please let us stay together.’

‘I will not talk about this again; your little brother will go to Odobesti and you two to Panciu.’

Cristina and Ramona are coming to the flats but unfortunately Eva, their older sister, and Gabriel are old enough to be in the outside world, therefore they won’t be coming with us.

Thankfully my siblings and I won’t be separated.

On 1 June 2000, the crying and pleading I have been surrounded by for the last couple of months finally dry out as we make our way to the new home.

There are many disappointed faces around me, mainly from the siblings that have been separated. Our governesses talk angrily about the colleagues left behind.

We stop in front of a big building: three groups of eight children, and each group has four governesses.

The Mayor is standing in front of us, speaking, but I don’t hear anything; there is too much excitement about moving into a new place.

When he stops talking he is handed some scissors and cuts the string in front of us. We applaud.

‘We will wait for the girls on the first floor flat to go in first, then it will be us,’ says Mr Paul.

‘Our turn now, follow me.’

We do as we are told, walk up two sets of stairs and stop in front of the first door.

‘Gabi, Alex, Marinel, Ana, Ana and Cristina Bejan, Elvis, Adrian, this will be your apartment. ‘Degetica’, which came from the name of a book about a little girl the size of a finger. We chose this name because we find it fits you well. We do have a rule though, you are now a team, so if one person gets into trouble everyone gets into trouble. So please all of you behave properly, it’s not just you living in this building anymore, there are lots of families and we need to show them respect by being good.’

‘Will they be mean to us, Mr Paul?’ asked Cristina.

She is the youngest of us all, yet she has the most courage, I thought to myself.

‘Why would you say that, Cristina?’

‘Some children haven’t been very nice to us in school, they call us names.’

‘You are not in the orphanage anymore, this is your opportunity to live as your classmates do. There is no need to worry about that, and remember, you live so much better than most of them, you have a chef! What other child your age has a private chef? I will tell you, none! So, don’t worry your little head with what other children say to you, all you need to think about right now is what you’ll have for dinner.’

We all laugh at that.

The apartment smells of fresh paint.

Just as we walk in there is a door leading into a small toilet, and on the right we have a nice large living room. On the left is the kitchen. As we go down on the left we find one small bedroom with two blue bunk beds; next to it there is another room, a little bit larger than the one I have just been in. Another two blue bunk beds! At the end of the hallway is the bathroom. White walls surround us. The overall look is nice.

The other Ana, Cristina and I have a bath together that night; it is nothing unusual for us, as we’ve taken baths together for the last three years, but this time we are unsupervised.

‘Let’s play with the bubbles.’

‘I’m scared,’ I said.

‘Why? We are just playing.’

‘But we will make noise and Mr Paul will get upset.’

‘Oh, stop it, he won’t even notice.’


The water is getting cold, but we don’t want to get out, as we are having too much fun.

‘Are you excited about going to England next month?’

‘Oh, Ana, with all that has happened I forgot all about it.’

‘I haven’t stopped thinking about it, this is so amazing, we will travel by plane and will have parents again, even if it’s only for two weeks.’

‘Just because the other children told you they had fun when they went doesn’t mean we will. Who knows if they will be nice to us.’

‘Ana, stop thinking so negatively, if they had fun we will as well, you will see. All the clothes they brought back, the sweets – my goodness, I am counting the days.

‘I am happy because the boys are coming as well, I wish we were all going to the same family, I don’t like being separated from them.’

‘They will go to the same family, and anyway, Marinel will take care of Adi, which I’m sure it’s what you are thinking about.’

‘I just want us to be fine.’

‘You are ten, behave like a ten-year-old.’

‘And how does a ten-year-old child behave?’

‘Like this!’

She puts her hands in the water and splashes me.

There are still a few days to go before our trip to England when we have some visitors, some ladies bringing us new clothes and shoes to wear while we are there.

We are told to go and pick them up from the first-floor apartment.

I have been in this apartment many times before to play with my friend Nicoleta and I quite like it; it’s more mature in some ways, there aren’t as many toys lying around after school or as much noise.

I am given a tracksuit, two shirts, two skirts and one pair of sandals. Cristina, Ramona and Adriana get one-colour suits and very tall shoes, just like the band A.S.I.A.

There is so much noise everywhere, feet rushing to the bathroom, voices screaming from the kitchen that the breakfast is ready, the chaos is unrecognisable as I am being rushed off to get dressed. I don’t even have time to think about what I’m doing; what is happening?

But the answer doesn’t come.

Very early in the morning, we are asked to get dressed, take a sandwich and go downstairs. When everybody is here we are rushed into two buses.

I count around fifty children as we wait in front of a building; on top of it is a sign saying Otopeni Airport. We run through the big building, towards what, I have no idea.

No one talks to us; there is a group of five women I don’t recognise consulting each other about the bags we are carrying. Apparently, the queue to get ‘checked in’, whatever that might be, is way too long, so there is a risk of missing our flight.

We are being told where to go, how to walk, what to eat. I walk hand in hand with Nicoleta the whole journey, obeying everything I am told to do.

I really do wonder if there is something wrong with me; I have not said a word since we left the flats this morning, I just follow all the instructions given to me.

‘Hello Ana, I am Ms Mihaela, I was given this letter for you. It is from your family in England, they wanted to say something to you before you met.’

‘But I don’t understand anything, Miss, why is the writing so strange?’

‘It’s not strange, it’s how they write in England.’

‘If I don’t understand this writing how will I talk to them? Will you be there to help me?’

‘No, Ana, I’m afraid I won’t, but you will be fine. They are kind, you don’t have to worry. Just remember to call them Mum and Dad, that’s it. They will do the rest.’

‘Thank you, Miss.’

I look at the card again. On the front page there are some cats playing with something similar to balls.

I look inside the card and the whole page is written in their language. I have no strength to even try to read it so I close it slowly and put it in my carrier bag.

On the plane, I am sitting next to Nicoleta and a girl from Panciu. I glance quickly at her and notice she is already looking at me.

‘Hi, my name is Andreea.’

‘I am Ana, and this is my friend Nicoleta. Is this your first time travelling to England as well?’

‘Yes, it is. Are you nervous about meeting your family?’

‘I am a little bit.’

‘I am so tired, I have been in a car, a bus and now a plane, how much longer is it until I get there?’

‘Hopefully not too long.’

The tingling from the earlier nervousness is replaced by hunger. I couldn’t eat the sandwich I was given this morning, the smell of salami made me sick.

The food in the plane is a bit better; I choose to eat just the cake.

We are so loud, uncontrollable. A lot of the people around us complain to the women in charge of us, who try a few times to calm us down, but the excitement takes over.

After the plates get cleared away I get a little bit sleepy. I turn my head towards Nicoleta and close my eyes.

Just as I am falling into deep sleep Andreea wakes me up. ‘We have to get off the plane,’ she says.

We are rushed again.

First to get off the plane, follow the line of children ahead, wait until our names get called, make our way forward, look up to the man stretching his neck to see us, pick up our suitcases from the rolling band and walk outside.

There are two buses waiting for us, and my name gets called. I have to be in a different bus from my brothers and Nicoleta. At least I can stay with my new friend Andreea.

A beautiful blonde lady introduces herself as Barbara, and her friends are John and Pauline.

After we are settled down in our seats, the bus moves off. As some point, Barbara comes around with crisps and fizzy drinks to ‘keep us going until we get home’. She seems nice, but she doesn’t speak much Romanian other than ‘bine’ which means ‘okay’ and ‘Da’ which means ‘Yes’.

Well, that is more than I can say in this language of hers, I think to myself.

I am so tired that my eyes slowly close.

Then Barbara calls out my name!

‘Ana Maria Iacob, your family is here.’

I get up, take my small bag and put it over my shoulder and walk towards the door.

Chapter six

‘Ana, this is your family!’

I look down and see a man and woman staring at me in amazement. I don’t know what to do or say, so I just stare back at them.

The woman seems worried now, still smiling but I notice something has happened to her face. The smile is one of concern rather than happiness.

I knew they won’t like me.

But then I look at the man who hasn’t taken his eyes off of me this whole time, and he opens up his arms. Not knowing what to do, I jump into his arms.

The worried-looking woman takes me from his arms, hugging me and kissing my head.

Wow, they like me after all! She is smiling again, the concern gone. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy, so relaxed as to walk hand in hand with some strangers.

This people are happy to see me, they talk to me, ask questions, but I don’t understand anything they say. Now they talk to each other.

The man takes my little bag and carries it with one hand while his other hand holds mine tightly.

Oh gosh, I am back in a car, and the thought of it makes me sick. I have been travelling for what feels like forever, I just want to get to the house!

The lady seats me in the back and puts some kind of belt over me, and a few seconds later the man starts driving. I don’t know how to say ‘I’m feeling sick’, so I just hang in there without making a sound but the longer he drives the sicker I feel, I’m starting to feel very dizzy now and something weird is happening to my stomach, it feels as if all the food I ate today is coming back into my mouth.

Oh, no, I’m going to throw up!

Everything that came back is now all over the car floor.

Within seconds the lady is next to me handing me a plastic container. When I feel there is nothing left in me to come out I raise my head. I see her eyes locked into mine; she looks worried again.

She points her finger at it, mimicking what I just did. I guess she wants me to throw up in the container, I nod my head for her to know I understand what she says.

My eyes are closing, I try to stay awake, but I cannot fight it anymore. I’m slowly closing my eyes and then opening them again when we go around a corner, and then closing them. It’s hard for me stay awake, but it’s even harder to sleep.

I feel big arms around my body lifting me up but I’m too tired to open my eyes properly. I wake up as I’m being sat in the most comfortable bed I have ever been in.

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