'Three years on, the only ones looking for Madeleine are us'
Time, and the public, has moved on since their daughter vanished, but the McCanns have not, writes Sarah Caden
Around this time last year, as the second anniversary of his daughter Madeleine's disappearance approached, Gerry McCann returned to Praia da Luz in Portugal's Algarve. Primarily, he was there to help with the filming of a Channel 4 documentary, due to be broadcast days after the anniversary on May 3. For obvious reasons, it was a difficult trip for Gerry McCann, but made all the more difficult by the reception he received from some.
Already, a renewed appeal for information around the resort had met with some hostility. Posters of the three-year-old had been torn down, apparently by locals sick of the association between their home town and this lost little girl. There were more who heckled Gerry McCann in the street -- "Go home, leave us alone," they shouted. "We're fed up with Mr McCann," another told a newspaper. "We want him to disappear for good from this place."
Last year, two years after Madeleine McCann's disappearance from her holiday apartment bed, emotions still ran high. High enough that a TV documentary was made, re-examining the evidence; high enough that the residents of Praia da Luz worried their town would always be tied to this tragedy; high enough that Kate and Gerry McCann warranted a slot on the Oprah show in the US. This weekend, however, three years on from when the little girl just vanished into thin air, it is all a bit more subdued, and you can't help but agree with the fears expressed by the McCanns on English television last week, that the whole thing has run out of steam and stalled.
Talking to Lorraine Kelly on GMTV last Tuesday, Kate and Gerry McCann despaired that anyone was still looking for their daughter, other than them. Since last year, there is not one police officer on the case, either in the UK or Portugal, and though they have hired private investigators, there have been no major new leads. The money no longer flows freely into their search fund as it once did, forcing them to run a fundraiser in January, and while an injunction in Portugal upholding a ban on the publication of a book by the former head of the investigation there, which essentially discredits the McCanns' story, was a victory, they believe the fuss around it has helped convince people that Madeleine is dead and there's no need to keep looking for her.
The McCanns argue, three years on, that there is a scattering of information on their little girl's disappearance all over the world, which, if it was collated in one place, could possible form a crucial piece of the jigsaw. The argument against this is, of course, that the sightings have proved to be false and that, one hopes, if there was any real lead in any of what was collected, it would have been followed up on. You could say that the McCanns are grasping at straws. And of course they are. That's their duty to their daughter. The problem is, however, their expectation that everyone else can remain equally engaged.
And how we became engaged. On the night of May 3, 2007, Kate McCann walked the less-than-100-yards from the hotel tapas restaurant in the Ocean Club Hotel in Praia da Luz, going to check on her own three sleeping children and those of the friends with whom they were dining. The McCanns, we learned later, had left their apartment to meet five friends at 8.40pm. They hadn't got a babysitter, but none of the couples had, and agreed to take it in turns to peep in at the slumbering offspring in the various rooms. Gerry McCann took his turn at 9pm, another friend went 20 minutes later, and all was well. When Kate McCann took the next turn, however, the windows and shutters in Madeleine's room were open and she was gone.
Later, one of the 'Tapas Seven', as the McCanns and their friends became pejoratively known, said she had seen a man carrying what could have been a child near the apartment that night. Later again, a British ex-pat, Robert Murat, was named as a suspect in the abduction. However, he was cleared of any involvement. Then, in September 2007, after months of criticism of the McCanns for leaving their children alone, libellous scrutiny of the 'Tapas Seven's' behaviour on the night, and DNA reports on
"bodily fluids" found in the car the couple hired weeks after Madeleine's death, Kate and Gerry McCann were named as suspects in their daughter's disappearance. It was a whirlwind of rumour and revelation and, it seemed, leads that were incomplete, inconclusive and ineptly handled. And all led to nothing. The public emotion ran high and then died down and we moved on. Three years later, despite the odd sighting that turned to nothing, Madeleine remains missing. And, it must seem, the McCanns are the only ones who still care.
Looking back on how we became involved in the case of a missing little girl we didn't know, the whole story seems extraordinary, and quite why we engaged with it as we did is hard to understand or explain. Of course, most people feel threatened and troubled by the case of a lost child, but countless children disappear every year and we don't get remotely as involved. It was, perhaps, the sense that if it could happen to these nice, relatively ordinary middle-class people, it could happen to anyone. And then, when those nice, relatively ordinary middle-class people became suspects, it unsettled us and excited all manner of sensation and speculation.
Aside from the obvious pain of losing their child, the McCanns would be justified in feeling a great deal of indignation that the world has gone silent and unfeeling for Madeleine. Because we cared so much at the start, it must seem unfair that our emotion could then diminish, that time, you could say, has healed the public wound.
It was awful and intrusive that the world had such a sense of ownership of their daughter -- and of their daughter as a story and not a human being -- but that was also what kept her name alive. If everyone knew about Maddie, then everyone would have an eye out for her, while now, they must wonder if anyone would even register the mark in the iris of her eye. They emphasised last year, and again for this year's anniversary, that we must remember it's no longer a case of a missing toddler, but that Madeleine will be six on May 12. Time has moved on, the world has moved on, but the McCanns, understandably, have not.
And then, in other ways, of course they have -- they have had to. The twins are no longer the tots who slept in the cots we saw in photographs of the apartment bedroom. They are five and they have been told, the McCanns revealed last week, that Madeleine was taken. They include her in their games and talk about her a lot, Kate McCann said, but given that they can't possibly really remember her, this must be the lead they have taken from their parents -- that Madeleine is still alive and will be back.
"Madeleine is a real girl and she is still missing," said Kate McCann, reminding us that their story wasn't just some crime novel we read three years ago, but real life, with real people.
"We will not be going away," she added, "and we will never stop looking."