LOOKING at her clasped hands, Kate McCann went quiet for a moment before looking me in the eye and saying: “If they find a body we will be devastated but it will bring the hell of living like this to an end.
“I just want to know if she’s alive or dead. Not knowing is the worst thing — a never-ending torture. Anyone with a missing child will tell you that.”
For 13 years Kate and husband Gerry, both 52, have endured that long, long hell.
Now with the news that German police have a suspect in prison who they believe killed Madeleine, Kate could finally see some kind of resolution for the family — even if it is not the one they had hoped for.
It would also mean one of her other big fears may not be realised — that her other children, twins Sean and Amelie, would have to carry on the search should Kate and Gerry die before they get answers.
That day we talked about Madeleine’s body being found — the first time we had ever done so — was in May 2014.
We were meeting to discuss a new missing child alert service, launched by the charity Missing People, for whom Kate was an ambassador.
But then had come the news that British police had flown to Praia da Luz, the Portuguese resort where Madeleine was snatched in May 2007, to start digging in four places.
Reports suggested that they were not only looking for evidence, but also for a body.
I sensed that Kate was tense from the moment she entered the room. I handed her a bouquet of green and yellow flowers — the colours of hope in Portugal — and she burst into tears.
For a while we talked about the new child alert service but then I asked her the question I had never asked before.
For the seven years, at that point, since she went missing, Kate and husband Gerry had never countenanced talking about Madeleine in any other way than her being alive.
But as Kate firmly told me that day, they were not blind to the fact that the hope they hung on to may be unrealistic. She said: “There is also the worst-case scenario. That’s always been a possibility and anyone who thinks that we’re blinkered doesn’t know us.
“I have spent days thinking, ‘What would you rather? Not know, or find out something you didn’t want to hear?’
“I’ve spent hours thinking about that and, each time, I still come up thinking we need to know. Regardless now, we need to know.”
Kate’s belief that finding out Madeleine was dead was better than not finding her at all has been cemented through her work with Missing People.
Her campaigning with the charity has also led to dozens of children being reunited with their parents after innovations in tracing them were introduced in the UK.
They include billboard campaigns, smartphone apps, text alert systems as well as successfully campaigning for a child rescue alert system to be introduced in Europe.
But it has also brought her into contact with parents who have lived decades not knowing what happened to their child.
After meeting Kate at a No 10 reception, Kerry Needham, whose son Ben disappeared in July 1991, admitted to me: “I must be her worst nightmare because I prove her situation could go on for years. What possible words of comfort could I ever offer her?”
On the day of my interview with Kate, the PR from Missing People told us it had just been the anniversary of the disappearance of Sandy Davidson, who had gone missing in Scotland aged three.
“How long has he been missing?” Kate asked, then visibly flinched at the reply “38 years”.
She said quietly: “Oh my God her poor family.” There was another reason why that answer upset Kate.
One of her biggest worries has been that Madeleine’s disappearance may not be solved before she and Gerry die.
It would then fall to Kate’s 15-year-old twins Sean and Amelie, to continue the search for her — something Kate does not want at all.
She said that the twins “had grown up essentially without Madeleine but knowing their sister is missing and they want her back”. Kate said: “Their only wish is for their big sister to come home.”
The twins have grown up out of the public eye and are normal, happy, well developed teenagers.
They have inherited a love of sport from their parents, taking part in triathlons from an early age. But as much as their parents have tried to protect them from it, Madeleine’s abduction has always been a feature of their lives.
When he was young Sean, play fighting with a sword, told his parents that he was going to find the “bad man” who had taken Madeleine and rescue her. It hasn’t always been easy for Kate and Gerry to allow them the freedom that all teenagers want.
It was years before Kate would even leave the twins in her car on a garage forecourt while she paid.
So as they got older, she has worried about their use of social media or letting them out on their own with friends.
The disappearance of Madeleine has impacted the McCanns’ lives in many other ways.
At the time Madeleine was abducted Kate was a locum GP, but has never returned to work.
Instead she has spent hours, days, weeks and years sitting at a makeshift desk in her kitchen with photos of Madeleine above it.
On a computer she has pored over the Portuguese police files and other documents, searching for any clue that might lead to Madeleine being found.
Upstairs Madeleine’s pink bedroom remains much as it did before she vanished, apart from big piles of birthday and Christmas presents bought for her over the years.
Sometimes Kate would curl up on Madeleine’s bed remembering how her daughter would say “Lay with me mummy!” when she went to kiss her goodnight. The bedroom was, apart from Praia da Luz, where she felt closest to Madeleine, Kate told me. It was also one of the reasons why the McCanns have never moved from their home in Rothley.
Kate told me that they had contemplated it, but ultimately ruled it out. Kate said: “I could not bear the thought of Madeleine coming home and finding we were not here.”
We have of course been here before. Suspects arrested, homes raided, police chiefs talking about “strong, new leads.”
Even bodies found matching Madeleine’s description, leading to horrific, anxious waits before DNA tests ruled them out. But this time something feels different.
This time it really seems that at last Kate and Gerry may get the answers to the questions they have been asking for so long.
It may not be the miracle that they have prayed for. But at least it will be an end — if they cannot bring their beloved daughter home alive then, at last, they will know what happened to her.
And for them that will be better than not knowing at all.
- TO find out more visit the website at www.missingpeople.org.uk
Letter was a turning point
By Tom Wells, Chief Reporter
THE British police probe that led to the crucial breakthrough began with a letter to the PM — delivered by The Sun.
Nine years ago, on Madeleine’s eighth birthday, we handed over a plea by parents Kate and Gerry to reignite the global search for her.
With no leads or no progress for four years, the McCanns were fearful the investigation was going nowhere. They turned to Britain’s biggest newspaper.
Kate told us: “Madeleine should not be dismissed and brushed aside as ‘just one child from just one family’. She’s a British child, she’s still missing, and she matters.”
The letter asked then-Prime Minister David Cameron to push for a “joint independent and transparent review” by British and Portuguese officials. And on the same day, we launched an online petition for readers.
Two days later the PM replied, promising “new action”. It led to the launch of the Met’s Operation Grange, trawling through hundreds of new leads, and piling pressure on Portugal.
The importance of The Sun's role was highlighted last year by ex-Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson on Netflix series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. He said: “Nothing much seemed to happen, then The Sun picked up the campaign. Suddenly we got the right result.”
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