Chapter One- Through the Orphanage Door

Chapter One- Through the Orphanage Door
medina-steps-tangier

A journey always seems longer when you are unfamiliar with your destination. It was February 23rd, 2006, Friday morning, around 10am, a date and time that will be forever imprinted in my mind. My husband Robert and I were climbing a rocky hillside road in Tangier. The sky was dark grey and it was raining heavily, the sort of rain that drenches you in seconds. Even though it was winter, it wasn’t the kind of weather I imagined for a place like Morocco.

We hardly spoke as we trudged on. There was so much to absorb in the foreign landscape, and so many thoughts in our heads, there was no room for conversation. Robert’s brother Peter walked on ahead, leading the way. Peter, a Christian missionary, had been resident in Morocco for some time, working in a Christian children’s village in the north of the country. He’d been to the orphanage, Le Creche De Tangier, before. It was Peter who suggested we make the journey to Tangier to explore the possibilities of adopting from the orphanage.

The steep incline we were hiking that morning was almost deserted, certainly no holidaymakers in sight. The persistent rain flattened any noise and an eerie quietness hung in the air.

A group of men suddenly appeared striding towards us in the gloom, dressed in typical Moroccan clothes. They seemed to glide like ghosts; all in the same muted, dull coloured floor skimming robes with pointed witch-like hoods and faces mysteriously hidden from view. For a shocking second, their outfits made me think of the Ku Klux Klan and the atmosphere suddenly felt oppressive. My own fitted yellow and black western tracksuit seemed completely out of place and I was struck by the fact there were hardly any women about. I clutched Robert’s hand tightly as my mind raced ahead with anticipation.

On either side of the rubble-strewn road, I noticed the backs of houses, with what looked like garages or sheds at the bases.  The wooden doors to these sheds were flung wide open and inside, shadowy and dim, I spotted men, heads bowed, working diligently on sewing machines.  Most of these buildings were being used as shops, over-spilling with fruit, vegetables, toilet rolls, detergent, and tobacco – all manner of mundane household goods.  Pairs of shoes for sale hung on wire strands like pieces of meat. Boys, no more than eight years old, wandered the slope barefoot trying their hardest to sell little packets of man-size tissues and the odd pack of chewing gum.

As we approached the top of the hill, I saw half a dozen elderly women, sitting crossed legged on the stony pavement on the right hand side, their skirts draped like tents. Shawls covered their frail shoulders and they wore scarves on their heads. They seemed to sit with all the patience in the world, waiting, statue-still, offering their scant wares.  One woman had five withered carrots at her feet lined up on an old Hessian potato sack, another, just a sprig of parsley.  What would she get for five carrots, I immediately thought. She clutched money in one hand and rubbed her stick-like fingers together; her eyes black and vacant in her weathered, leathery face. The old women didn’t seem to notice the rain. I wondered why they weren’t trading down in the hub of the city at the bottom of the hill.  Here, it was certainly calm in comparison to the action taking place down in the streets below and it seemed to partition one section of Tangier from the other. If they travelled down, they probably wouldn’t ever get back up again I decided.

I could sense Robert was taken aback by our alien surroundings, but for me, it actually wasn’t quite so out of the ordinary. I’d spent part of my childhood living in Saudi Arabia, when my father was stationed there with his work. He’d spent eighteen years working in the Middle East.  Yet when I knew I was coming to Morocco, I didn’t think for one minute that this North African country would be anything like Saudi Arabia.  But seeing it now, for the first time, I realised how much the people and the countryside was similar.

So many thoughts of my dad, who had died almost two years previously, sifted through my mind as we trudged slowly up and up. I felt a strange connection.

‘This is meant to be,’ I whispered to Robert. ‘Because of dad.’ He sort of smiled, without saying anything back.

Peter hesitated for a moment when the hill finally reached its summit and our path forked to the left and right.  Sensing we must be close to our final destination, my stomach churned. Nothing I had felt when I was on the stage in the west end waiting in the wings for my first entrance felt as nerve wracking as this. I really thought I was going to throw up. It didn’t help matters that I hadn’t managed to eat breakfast.

Less than an hour earlier, I’d watched with mounting impatience as Robert ordered two poached eggs back at our hotel.  Why did he choose poached eggs, I said to myself. The chef needs to cook them and that will take ages.

‘You should have some breakfast,’ Robert suggested.  ‘It might be a long day.’

Peter had joined us for breakfast before taking us to the orphanage. I knew he and Robert wanted to catch up, because they hadn’t seen each other for a while.  I tried to be patient and engage in their conversation but all I wanted to do was get on with the day. I sat mutely, drinking coffee, as they chatted. I know it sounds selfish, but I didn’t really want to listen.  I didn’t want breakfast either.  I put some toast in my mouth. I chewed, but I couldn’t swallow.  ‘Have you finished your coffee Robert? I asked when he was in the middle of a conversation.

I felt shattered at breakfast. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before at all. Robert and I had chatted until about 2am when he drifted off into a deep sleep, but I was so restless. When I’d climbed into bed hours earlier I thought I’d be out like a light because of all the travelling. But I kept glancing at the digital clock, as the hours crawled through the long, quiet night and through the corridors of my wired brain. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I was up and down like a yo-yo, tiptoeing backwards and forwards to the bathroom, trying not to wake Robert. I spent most of the night pacing the room and standing out on the tiny balcony, in the freezing cold, staring at the stars. The sweeping view of Morocco from the window was quite magical, dotted with lights and palm trees among the tightly packed in whitewashed hotels, villas and flats. The buildings all seemed to glow a pale blue colour in the inky coloured sky and despite the chill, it was a scene that reminded me of holidays past, welcoming and beckoning and so far from home. But this strange night, holidays were the farthest thing from my fidgety mind.

To try and pass the time I sat down at a desk in the corner of our hotel room and started to write a diary. I’d never kept one before, but now it just seemed like the right time to start. I switched on the little desk light and reached for my notebooks from my bag. I was full of emotions – getting them all down on paper could only be a good thing. I knew in my heart this was the beginning of our journey and that the end result would hopefully be our baby and I wanted desperately to be able to recall in future years to our son or daughter, everything that had happened. I needed to know I could provide them with all the details I could about their passage into the world that they would ultimately want to know. I felt like I was doing the right thing, going to the orphanage, but I was still terrified of what I was going to see and how I would feel.

I’d never been to one before, let alone a foreign one and I just didn’t know what to expect.  The pictures I had in my mind were of the pictures I’d seen of those huge, horrible rooms in China with rows of anonymous babies and graphic images of dark-eyed Romanian infants strapped to the rusty bars of their cots in filthy rooms.

Anxious thoughts whirred round and round my head. How do you choose a baby? It’s not like going shopping for a new pair of trousers. I didn’t know how I’d feel. What if we didn’t bond with each other?  Would I be able to find a baby girl and just love her? What if none of them liked me?

Where the road split, Peter steered us to the left. A few hundred yards later, we reached a large, half-open wrought iron gate with railings. Directly ahead of us, on the other side of the gate, stood the Hospital Kortobi. A guard stepped out his tiny brick lookout hut, dressed in a neat police uniform. My palms felt clammy inside Roberts. But we didn’t let go of each other.

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tanger-creche

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La creche de Tanger

‘We’re here to visit the crèche,’ Peter told the guard. He nodded and beckoned us in. The building was square and imposing. There was no immediate indication of what it was – it could have been any building, anywhere in the country. At first glance, it looked almost colonial, like someone’s freshly whitewashed villa, with its shiny terracotta-tiled pathway, lined with clusters of red geraniums gently rocking in the breeze. I noticed light blue grilles on the windows.

Peter rang the doorbell. I stood behind Robert, still holding his hand. I could feel myself shaking. I couldn’t go in front. A few seconds later, the door opened gradually and a tall lady around thirty years old, dressed in a white, knee length buttoned up medical coat emerged. Her hair was the colour of chestnuts and was tucked tidily under a white headscarf. Her skin was light olive with no trace of make-up.

Peter greeted her warmly and she kissed him on both cheeks and smiling she acknowledged us each in turn.  She spoke no English, but her warm smile was enough for us to know we were welcome. The hallway was a large empty oblong central room, leading off from it were doors to other rooms and there was a wide staircase.  It was filled with daylight, even on this dismal February day. Every wall was half covered with ceramic tiles, decorated with ornate, swirling patterns of reds, yellows and blues. The floors were tiled. There were no carpets.  But it wasn’t the building that struck me most.

Time seemed to stand still as I tuned into the noise: babies crying, intermittent shrieks, some shouting, noises coming from somewhere way off. These sounds intensified as they bounced off the tiled floors like the jumbled background commotion you hear at the swimming baths. Everything seemed so loud. I heard some shouting and doors banging upstairs and wave of concern rushed through me as I just stood there, listening. Why they were screaming – I thought? My imagination began to work overtime and all I could think was – poor babies. Are they on their own? What’s the matter? Then it was the smell that hit me: disinfectant, a smell that has lingered with me to this day.

Another woman appeared at her office door, colourful and larger than life.

‘It’s so nice to see you,’ she beamed. This was Naima, the crèche manager and founder. She looked quite different to the woman I imagined when I spoke to her on the phone. She was round-figured, in her late forties, tiny in height, with the kindest oval-shaped face I had ever seen like the face of an angel. We all had to stoop as she stood on tiptoe to kiss us, in turn, on both our cheeks. I breathed in her strong, musky perfume and her face felt cool and velvety. Out the corner of my eye, I saw a young boy poke his head round a door and stare intently at us. But I didn’t get chance to see him properly, because he vanished, as quickly as he arrived, and then Naima hastily ushered us into her room.

Before our visit, Naima had told me about all the paperwork I would need. I’d logged it all neatly into a file and I was now hugging it to my chest like my life depended on it; bank statements, marriage certificates, proof of income, latest pay slips, doctors health reports, copies of our driving licenses, passports, police checks.

‘Come in. Come in,’ she said excitedly, almost jigging up and down. Her liquid brown eyes danced as she continued to smile. I noticed the dimples in her chubby cheeks and her round button nose.  ‘How was your journey? How was your hotel? We are so pleased you are coming to adopt one of our boys,’ she gushed.

Boys? I thought about it, but the word didn’t immediately hit home. Maybe I was too busy taking everything else in to really understand exactly what she was saying to us. Did she not know? I’d even been shopping with a friend just before we flew out here to buy some pink things, including a pink teddy bear and a few items of pink coloured clothes.  I had them with me, in a bag.

Three more women arrived in the room, dressed in headscarves, holding chairs out in front of them, which they positioned gently in a line, for each of us to sit down.

Naima seemed very positive with an amiable and bubbly personality and reassuringly, she spoke very good English, yet in the back of my mind were the horror stories I’d read about people who pay money to adopt and then get completely ripped off, and are left heartbroken.

My eyes strayed to the walls, where there was a large framed board with photographs, faces neatly pieced together, boy’s faces, trapped behind glass, some grinning innocently into the lens, others, I thought, looked quite sad. Gradually, it began to dawn on me. Boys. I also noticed the pictures on the door and next to her desk, which were all of boys too.

As she talked, I couldn’t really concentrate properly because all I could think about was ‘boys.’  Robert shuffled in his seat. Naima stood in front of her desk. She didn’t sit down to begin with.

‘Have you got all your paperwork with you?’ she enquired, snapping me out of my thoughts and evidently keen not to waste any more time on small talk.

‘Erm. Yes,’ I replied. I heard my own voice and it wasn’t normal, wasn’t mine. ‘It’s all here.’

Cautiously, I handed her my painstakingly prepared file, as if it was made of glass or china and would smash if dropped. It contained hours and hours of work.  As she took the heavy plastic file in her hands, I felt sure I spotted a quizzical look in her eyes, as if she was wondering if it was mainly me who was the driving force, and she was questioning what Robert’s thoughts really were. Maybe I was just feeling over tired and sensitive. When you adopt, you are constantly standing trial, on the platform for strangers to assess your suitability and eligibility for parenthood.  I do understand the need for that, but the feeling that every move is scrutinised is hard. I glanced at my husband’s expressionless face. He wasn’t speaking. In fact, he didn’t say a word. But then it’s the woman who gives birth and it’s a similar thing, I guess. I knew Robert wanted a child as much as I did and that’s all that mattered.

Naima leafed through all the paperwork, calling out the different documents, like school names on a register. I ticked them off in my mind, my heart batting against my ribcage, hoping I hadn’t left something vital behind.  She was dressed in a long spotless black tunic, but wore no headscarf. Her dark bobbed hair had been lightened to a shade of caramel and she wore tawny, brown eye shadow, expertly applied.

‘You know you will have to convert to Islam,’ she said presently, smiling again.

Her words dangled in the silence of her little office. When I’d spoken to Naima before, during one of our telephone conversations, she’d told me about bringing the child up in the Muslim faith, but she hadn’t stressed we would need to actually convert ourselves.

‘I’II just call my daughter Monia,’ she said, reaching for the phone on her busy desk, not taking her eyes off us for one second. ‘She will come and take you to convert to Islam. In about twenty minutes,’ she added buoyantly.

It all suddenly seemed so rushed and I could feel a knot of apprehension in my chest and my throat felt like sandpaper again.  We’d only just walked into her office and already we were being lined up to change our religion. I felt as if I’d been pinned against the wall in a clinch.

‘We have to do this now,’ she said calmly in broken English, sensing the startled ‘rabbit in headlights’ look that must have been so transparent on my tired face. I began to muse on everything that had happened to us so far. Our flight had taken an age, catching two planes and enduring lengthy delays; the hike up the hill that had seemed like forever, not to mention the prolonged, bumpy ride in a battered taxi, the breakfast that lasted an entire day and all the drawn out years of disappointment trying for a baby. But now we were caught up in a whirlwind. I thought about my Christianity and what my mum would think. She used to pack me off to Sunday school every week when I was a little girl. However, neither Robert or I actually practised religion. We didn’t attend Church, but we had faith and believe there is only one God. This is something both the Muslim and Christian world believed and we later took strength from that.

‘Now. We go look round,’ Naima announced.

She pushed open a door to a downstairs room. This was the dining room and most of the boys, aged around five years old, were congregated in it. There was a hatch connecting it to the kitchen and a door that led outside to the small, enclosed play yard.  There were about twenty boys, the boys who had slipped through the net, the lost boys and the thought instantly crossed my mind, that in the eyes of these children, Robert and I must look like potential parents standing here in the doorway.

They were dressed in bright, primary coloured tops, clean and smart, ready for boys’ action, but with no place to go. At once, most of them started to shuffle towards us and huddle round, their arms outstretched, and making noises. Others came and just stood quietly alongside us, longing for association and a place to belong. Some just stared, searching our eyes to see if we might yet be an answer to their prayers, while others grinned, cheekily, tugging playfully on our sleeves, every fibre in their tiny bodies aching to be touched back. One boy in particular was desperate to be picked up, but I didn’t pick anybody up. A couple of the little boys didn’t seem to have quite the same sense of hope anymore and I noticed they refused to acknowledge our presence in the room, preferring to hang back, in the corner. So what? They seemed to say without speaking, they’d been in this situation a million times before. They knew the routine. A man and woman arrive who stand and watch for a few moments, and then they disappear, never to be seen again. I felt a stab of guilt, as if our quest for a little, bouncing baby girl was written all over our faces.  I felt they all knew. They weren’t silly. They all knew we were probably going to go and look at the babies, in another room, closing the door self-consciously on our way out.  I sensed they were intuitive and had learnt to read adult faces and see signs other children their age would never see and that broke my heart. I couldn’t bear it. But I didn’t cry then. I couldn’t.

‘They’re lovely,’ both Robert and I said to Naima, through thin smiles. And they were lovely and we meant it but the room started to close in on me.

I stood frozen to the spot. I couldn’t touch any of them back. In fact, I had an overwhelming urge to get out and get away from that look in their eyes. I think they all had the same sad look in their eyes – a look that will haunt me forever.

I caught a glimpse of one of the boys leaving the room, probably to get away from the crowd. He went to sit on his own, on the bottom step of the stairs in the hallway, in front of the light blue prettily painted wooden stair gate. I could see him out the corner of my eye as I stood in the doorway, half in the hall and half in the room. He started to bang the stair gate. I could hear the thud, as it echoed around the building.  He started to bang it really hard, with his back. At this point, I definitely couldn’t concentrate on the room, because I could hear and see the boy who sat on the step, bashing the gate with the full force of his short and sturdy body.  He had podgy knees and a faraway almost defiant look in his brown eyes as he sat hunched, rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. One of the nurses eventually rushed towards him, uttering something in Arabic, and pulled him away from the gate and out of sight. I didn’t want to stay in the room with all the boys. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable with the older boys at first. I found it a little bit scary. I was uneasy, because they all seemed quite intense and I wasn’t prepared. My chest felt tight and my forehead was hot. I knew they just wanted love. Children thrive on love and one-to-one attention. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t pick any of them up, because I didn’t know where to start. They all wanted to be picked up, all twenty of them. They all wanted parents. I felt like I was being pushed. I probably wasn’t, but that’s how I felt. When they’re all coming towards you, it’s overpowering.

I glanced at Robert to see if he felt the same. He appeared relaxed, while all I wanted to do was get out. We were perhaps in that room no more than fifteen minutes, but it felt like eternity.

It was the morning, so some of the children were still busy in the bathroom, washing and brushing their teeth. Naima led us into the television room next, which was virtually deserted. There was a large wooden, painted cot in the corner, pushed up snug against the wall and inside was a seven-year old boy, lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, kicking the wall repeatedly with his right leg. Thump. Thump, he went. He didn’t notice us arrive and he didn’t see us leave and I later discovered he was autistic.  There was another boy in there too, sitting in an alcove, in a pushchair. He just sat there, quietly staring into space.

Our little group moved on swiftly into a bedroom.  It was clean, light and tidy. Each little bed had a pretty patterned quilt placed neatly on top, but it all happened so quickly, there wasn’t enough time to stop and properly take everything in. There were toys scattered around and some children were lying on the floor, doing some colouring in.  In another room, a small group of boys were engrossed in their schoolwork.

‘Come. We go upstairs,’ said Naima breathily, plodding up the stairs ahead of us, her skirt swishing as she pressed her dainty feet clad in embroidered ballet shoes on the cool tiled floors. We followed silently behind her, as if following a mother superior on her guided tour of a convent or a cathedral, or some historic monument, my heart getting heavier with each step.  The ceiling rose high, bright white with elaborate light blue plasterwork.

Upstairs, we were met with another spacious hall area. The setting felt cheery and active; a shelter from the dusty unrelenting streets of Tangier as benevolent looking nursery nurses or volunteers went about their duties, moving from room to room. There was a plastic dining table with six matching chairs in the centre, the type of set that wouldn’t look out of place on a patio back home. I saw a few baby walkers, but there were no children in them. Naima led us into another room, with cots lined up around the edge and there was a large multi-coloured play mat in the middle. Straightaway, I smelt that comforting, sweet familiar smell of baby lotion, a scent normally associated with the baby bedroom in homes, with mums and dads. It made me think, that no matter how bright and cheerful a building is, no matter how many nice staff circulate, caring and feeding, changing nappies, changing sheets, you cannot escape the institutional feel and the soul-wrenching fact that it is impossible to give each abandoned baby the proper stimulation and love they crave. It’s a hole all around that’s impossible to fill. I felt this in this one particular room.  The babies were all over six months old and some were nearly toddler age.

All the babies were in their cots, eleven of them. Some of them sensed us approach and clambered awkwardly onto their hands and knees, moving like clockwork toys, and started to rock, backwards and forwards. They were either lying there, lifelessly, looking up at the ceiling, asleep or rocking. I guessed the lifeless ones had given up crying. I felt nauseous and began to wonder what we were doing, what we were walking into. I knew babies did that unnerving rocking motion at a certain age through lack of stimulation, because I’d read about it in one of the numerous books I’d devoured about children recently. I’d read so many books, both factual and fiction, some about adoption, others about fostering, but all with the same theme of looking after children.

I was surprised to see two baby girls in the room. ‘They’re being adopted,’ Naima said briskly. She obviously wanted to make it clear, before my hopes were raised, that little girls were few and far between, and highly sought after, and that it was the boys who needed homes.  Of course, I couldn’t help but gaze at the girls though. One of them was quite European looking, with fair skin and jet-black hair.

Robert and I paced the room, backwards and forwards, about four times, but we didn’t lift any up out of their beds. We just looked on quietly as Naima pointed out the babies that were going to be adopted soon. One was going to Spain, another to Switzerland, another to Belgium. As she spoke, a shadow of despondency crept over me. ‘There aren’t any babies left,’ I laughed, nervously, trying to ease the tension that was building up all around us, but I didn’t realise there was another room.

Inside the final bedroom, we saw fifteen small cots, like little metal supermarket baskets, packed in, side by side, around the perimeter of the room. The first thing that hit me was the fact they were all babies, very tiny babies, who had no parents and they were just lying there in cots and that their lives just consisted of feeding, changing and sleeping. Naima hovered behind us, watching us, like a guardian angel. There was a nurse in the room when we walked in, cradling a baby in her broad arms that she was feeding with a bottle. She looked up, half smiled, and scurried away.  Every cot had a baby in it; some only weeks old, some only a few inches long, others barely a few months out the womb. But part of me was thrilled to see so many very young babies.

Again, we both moved round the room methodically, starting from the right and ending on the left and then we went all the way round and back again, retracing our steps. Some were lying there, motionless, dressed in pastel baby grow outfits that were too big for them. Their skin was red and mottled and their eyes wrinkled and shut tight. They had manoeuvred themselves into uncomfortable-looking twisted positions and stayed there – fast asleep, oblivious to the world.

Others were wide-eyed and eerily silent, staring into a world only a baby sees, while others whimpered softly.  It was an unsettling feeling, to sense some of their gazes fixed on me, as we walked slowly round the room, on the most surreal journey of our lives.

But I still didn’t pick up any of the babies, I couldn’t, even though my heart ripped in two, watching them, lying there, wriggling their bodies and kicking the air futilely with their thin limbs, yearning to be held, loved, like newborn babies do, but not really knowing what that is. I touched some of them this time though, gently on their soft cheeks, under their chins, tracing their tiny little chests with my finger. They all looked premature. I just kept thinking to myself, this is so impossible, how could I choose? How could I choose from all of these? All I could think was, they all need mums and dads and they all looked sad and alone. How can you choose because none of them have parents? After eight years on the desperate trail of motherhood, suddenly, things started moving very fast, when we never believed they could. Could it now all be within reach?

‘I think this is the one for you,’ announced Naima, out of the blue, striding over to the final cot we looked in. She pointed to the little boy inside; this tiny bundle, wide awake, just staring into space and not making a single sound.

‘You can pick him up. He looks very European,’ she added. He did look pasty, but then he’d never been outside. He was dressed in a pale blue baby grow with a little red emblem of a flower on it. The baby grow was terry towelling and I as I touched his little chest, the fabric felt course, probably from being washed many times. My hands shook, as I awkwardly reached into his cot. He was small, but didn’t look skinny.  Mechanically, I lifted him up and held him lightly against my shoulder and then, gaining a bit more confidence, I held him aloft. He peered into my eyes, and seemed to come alive. He gurgled and giggled and a huge, radiant smile broke on his ashen little face. I held him close to me and he nuzzled into my neck. He smelt of baby cologne.

‘See. He loves you. That’s the first time he’s smiled,’ beamed Naima.

All I could reply was: ‘he’s gorgeous.’

‘Is there something wrong with his head?’ said Robert, touching the balding patch on the back.

‘Most babies have that when they’ve been lying down a lot Robert,’ I whispered. ‘It’s normal.’

‘Put him down now,’ said Robert softly, touching my shoulder protectively.

‘I will in a minute.’

‘Put him down now,’ Robert repeated.

I put him back in his cot.

‘His name is Achraf. He’s four and a half months old,’ added Naima proudly. ‘He’s an abandoned baby.’

‘But I thought they weren’t abandoned until they were six months old,’ I said, feeling confused.

Our telephone conversation replayed in my mind. ‘It’s best to have a baby over six months old because then they are officially abandoned,’ Naima’s voice had bounced over the airwaves and around my brain ever since.

‘Yes. He will get his certificate of abandonment at six months,’ she said in positive tones.

But we needed that certificate if we wanted to proceed with adoption. I began to feel a little insecure. I didn’t know what I was doing. Did I want to go down another potential heartache route? What if his mother came back, today, or tomorrow? And was this to be my baby anyway? Why did I pick him? Because Naima told me to? I took some comfort from the fact she did know us to an extent. Maybe she just knew instinctively what was best for both of us? There was something otherworldly about her, a feeling that she could see things. He was the only one I picked up though. Maybe I would have felt the same if I’d picked up another baby too? I just didn’t know.

It was a wrench, but we eventually left the room and Naima turned to us both and said: ‘What do you think?’

‘He’s gorgeous,’ were the only words I could find.

‘But it’s your choice,’ she added quickly. ‘You think.  You look. Anyway, you go and you do your papers and convert to Islam and you come back later.’

Deep in thought, we traipsed downstairs where Monia, Naima’s daughter, was waiting for us at the bottom. It was only 11.30am. We’d been in the orphanage less than forty minutes. Outside, the rain still came down in torrents, but I was oblivious to it.  I didn’t really know it then, but something inside me had lurched, something I had never felt before. My world had shifted and it would never be the same again. 

Hours later, in a busy, noisy café full of men, Robert and his brother chatted over coffee. It was dingy inside and a thick layer of smoke hung in the dank chilly air. I felt shaky and shivery and the sound of the Arabic language all around us suddenly sounded so harsh. The brothers weren’t talking about anything in particular. I tried to raise the subject with Robert subtly, when Peter was ordering the ordering the drinks: ‘What do you think,’ I whispered to him: ‘He’s so lovely. Maybe we should have a boy?’ But I knew he couldn’t talk about this in front of his brother, so I clammed up. I couldn’t join in and discuss everyday things, not after such an intense day. I was nearly in tears, sitting there with Robert and his brother, but I couldn’t cry in front of Peter, I didn’t know him that well, so I said to Robert: ‘I need to call mum’ and I stepped outside onto the corner of the street. The water poured down my face and ran into my mouth and into my eyes. I fished my mobile phone from my handbag, and frantically typed in my mum’s number. As soon as she answered the phone, I burst into tears. All the emotion that had built up in me during the day came flooding out. Mums are usually around when you give birth, aren’t they – that’s the normal situation – is all I could think. Here I was, in this country, choosing a baby, and my mum was thousands of miles away.

As I paced the bustling streets outside the café, with tears streaming down my face and being hardly able to breathe properly, everyone who walked by must I have thought I was insane. I was sobbing and heaving and trying desperately to relay everything that had happened to mum, telling her about the baby boy who had melted my heart and confusion of finding so many children and the surprise of seeing all the boys. I told her I really didn’t know what to do and she just listened, taking it all in. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have a girl, I kept thinking to myself. It doesn’t matter. It’s not important that I’d bought a pink baby grow and a pink teddy. They all need a mum and dad. I was on the phone for about twenty minutes, I guess. Looking back, I didn’t actually say much, because I was crying so much.  But just before I hung up, I remember mum said: ‘I love you so much Jo. Go with your heart. Your heart will tell you what to do.’

In a daze, I wandered back into the café and sat down. I couldn’t say anything. I just sat there with puffy eyes and Robert held my hand under the table.

Back at the hotel that evening, around 8pm Robert and I ordered some sandwiches, because even though neither of us had eaten all day, food was the last thing on our minds.  Then Peter left us. We wanted to be alone, but we didn’t talk about the day until about an hour later. We were both emotionally shattered. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired as I did that day.

‘If this doesn’t feel right Jo we can go back home,’ Robert said eventually. We were sitting in the hotel bar, unwinding over a couple of gin and tonics.

The whole day had been so draining, a whirlwind of meetings, papers and the Islam conversion. I felt overwhelmed by the whole experience of seeing the orphanage and the sight of all those children who didn’t have parents and the sheer scale of what we’d got into. I couldn’t think straight and I kept worrying about the fact Achraf was only four and a half months old and I what if his mother turned up.

‘I think we should return to the crèche tomorrow, and spend some time with him,’ Robert suggested. ‘Naima felt he was right for us. I know it’s impossible to choose, but Niama has a lot of experience and maybe she’s right.’

That night, we both went straight off to sleep. I felt comforted and contented by our plan to go back to the crèche to see the little boy who had pulled at my heartstrings. The next day would tell, I would either be a mum or we would simply return home.

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