Maddie's sad fate terrifies parents because we've all left for 'a moment'
Published 20/10/2013 | 05:00
In August 2007, we managed to blag a week at a relative's villa in France. It was a big place, with a main house, a pigeonnier and other outbuildings.
We invited some friends down and set about planning where we would put them all. There were eight adults and nine kids.
"Let's make the main house an adult-only zone," suggested my wife. "The kids can stay down by the pool."
A few days later, the others arrived. It was a long drive to the house from the airport in Toulouse, taking them over hills and along twisting roads. They were hot and tired.
We showed them to their rooms, explaining where everyone was to sleep. The kids ran around exploring the place, exclaiming over the pool and the table-tennis table.
We retreated to the house and let them settle. We looked out over the fields towards Belveze and Pervillac. The sun beat down over the fields and the place felt peaceful, remote and somehow innocent.
It was a bucolic scene, with sunflowers nodding in the field below the pool and the drone of insects filling the air.
Then we saw one of the mums coming up the path towards the house. "I'm not happy with the sleeping arrangements," she said. "I don't like it that we're so far from the boys."
We told her why we'd arranged it like that, but she wasn't placated. She summed up her worries in two words: Madeleine McCann.
Madeleine had been kidnapped from an apartment in Portugal's Algarve three months before. Everyone followed the story, but parents followed it with an intensity all their own.
This week, the details of the abduction were rehearsed again as new evidence emerged which prompted a complete reassessment of the investigation.
The Madeleine McCann case defined the parenting style of a whole generation. Anyone who had a child close to Madeleine's age at the time was scarred by it.
There were details that would tear at the heart of any parent: the pink pyjamas, the way Madeleine's mum Kate buried her face into her daughter's teddy bear. And we were all haunted by the image of a stranger coming into a child's bedroom, lifting her out of her cot, and stealing away with her.
That summer in France, we talked about the case many times. Should the McCanns have checked on their children – Madeleine and her twin sisters – more regularly? Should they ever have left them while they went to have dinner nearby?
We all admitted to having left our children briefly unattended, whether it was pop to the corner shop, or nip in next door for a few moments.
One dad told of German friends of his who regularly left their sleeping daughter at home while they went to the cinema. "She never wakes up," was their rationale.
But surely nothing could happen in this quiet part of France? And how likely was it, statistically, that someone would kidnap a child from the villa?
Were we over-reacting? The McCanns' case was tragic, but it still didn't mean that our kids were any more at risk than they were before Madeleine was taken.
But parenthood is not about statistics or rates of probability. It is often an instinctive thing. Reason does not work on worried parents; fear does.
When you're a parent, you know what goes in to the conceiving of a child, the bearing of it and the rearing of it. You know how precarious this process is. And when they arrive, you know how trusting they are, how dependent they are on you. The idea of a stranger taking another's child is awful. It is not for nothing that the scenario is a staple of fairytales and horror stories.
This week, as the McCann case returned to the headlines after seven years, parents felt that fear again. This time, the sympathy for the McCanns is deeper and less ambiguous.
Back in the house in France, we moved things around so the mum could be near her boys. Everyone slept peacefully that night.