world people watched as they were flown from the holiday
resort of Praia da Luz, in the jet owned by billionaire
retailer Sir Philip Green, to meet Pope Benedict XVI in
Rome; as wealthy benefactors, Sir Richard Branson among
them, donated time and money to their cause. They spoke
directly to Gordon Brown on the phone. Diplomats
supported them. Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC
journalist, left his job in the government's
Central Office of
Information's Media Monitoring Unit to run "team McCann"
and act as gatekeeper to the huge press onslaught. The
children's author JK Rowling, the footballer Wayne
Rooney and pop entrepreneur Simon Cowell contributed to
the £2.5m reward.
When Ben Needham
disappeared from a farmhouse on the Greek island of Kos,
in July 1991, while being looked after by his
grandparents, the reaction was very different. He was 21
months old, as blond and photogenic as Madeleine McCann,
but this was before mobile phones, the internet, the
instant transmission of news; before Princess Diana's
death legitimised the public emotion that accompanies so
many catastrophes. And Kerry Needham and Simon Ward, an
unmarried couple from a Sheffield housing estate, didn't
have the same appeal as the professional, middle-class
I met the Needhams in
September 1993. By then, their story was only
sporadically in the news. I had been in Crete that
summer with my two-year-old son. Haunted by Ben
Needham's story, I never let him out of my sight. One
afternoon, in a small village, I was chatting to two old
women outside a café when a child playing nearby caught
my eye. He had tawny blond hair, pale eyes and a T-shirt
with "Kos" written on it. He didn't look Greek. One of
the women said he came from a villa a few yards away,
but nobody knew the people who lived there.
I took a photograph of
the boy and sent it to the Needhams via South Yorkshire
Police. It wasn't Ben. In September, I went to see the
Needhams in their council house in Sheffield to
interview them for the Guardian. They were easy to find;
journalists could ring them directly and go and see
them. They've always hoped publicity will keep Ben in
the public's thoughts.
In 1993, Kerry
Needham, Ben's mother, was 21. She was thin, quiet and
withdrawn. Her father, Eddie, did the talking. Her
mother, Christine, kept out of the way; she let Eddie
deal with the press. Since then I have stayed in touch
with the Needhams. In 1996 I worked on a Channel 4
documentary about Ben's disappearance, and I have
written about them periodically. Kerry Needham's was
never a household name. In some ways this was a good
thing - she didn't suffer the constant pressure of media
scrutiny that the McCanns did - but it had its downside:
the story slipped out of sight, she and Ben were almost
forgotten. But when Madeleine McCann disappeared, the
press remembered Kerry and bombarded her with calls. The
attention brought a rush of emotions.
"I was devastated for
the McCanns," she told me last July, "but it wiped me
out to the point where I needed tablets again. One day I
did 27 interviews. Watching them on television took me
back - living that day again. And it made me bitter and
angry because the official help that they got was
unbelievable: the British ambassador gave a statement at
a press conference, British police officers flying over,
a visit with the Pope, phone calls from Gordon Brown..."
Gordon Brown was
reported to have intervened when the McCanns were
frustrated by lack of progress in the investigation.
Encouraged by this, Kerry wrote to Gordon Brown. It took
him three months to respond and his reply, when it came,
gave her no hope. "He told me what the British
authorities had done in all these years, but nothing
about what could be done. I know what's been done and
it's not enough. He wrote that the Greek authorities
would reopen the case if there was a promising new line
of enquiry." In her letter Kerry told him that a white
car had been seen in the area the day Ben disappeared,
and the police knew who owned it, but that there has
been no conclusive investigation into it. She was
surprised Brown didn't pick up on this.
She also wrote to her
local MP, David Blunkett, in November, clearly spelling
out the uninvestigated lead. He responded positively,
saying he would approach the Home and Foreign
Secretaries to contact Interpol and pressurise the Greek
authorities to look at this "additional potential lead".
Kerry then had a letter from the Home Secretary, Jacqui
Smith, in which she said she had passed the information
on to the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police.
"I've gone round the
houses and been sent back to South Yorkshire Police. It
still doesn't give me the answer I want, but I'll
continue to push for Ben. They're still not telling me
if this can be investigated or if Ben's case can be
reinvestigated from the start."
In January 2008 Kerry
was contacted by a television director, who was making a
documentary about the McCanns. As Kerry remembers it,
she was asked if she would like to meet Kate McCann; she
said yes, as long as there were no cameras, no
reporters, that they could meet as one bereft mother
with another. But the meeting never took place. When I
spoke to Clarence Mitchell in November 2008, he said
that the film director hadn't asked Kerry if she wanted
to meet Kate McCann, but whether she would appear in the
documentary as the mother of a lost child. "Kate finds
the idea of meeting a parent in that position quite
daunting," he told me then.
"[Kerry] has been
living with it for 18 years and the idea of facing it as
long and stoically as Kerry has is a bit daunting. It's
not that she doesn't want to meet her, she's sure she's
a lovely person and maybe one day she will feel like it.
But she doesn't want to face a lifetime without finding
So when a letter
arrived out of the blue on 24 January from Kate McCann,
Kerry was amazed.
"I thought it was
sweet of her. I didn't think she'd ever get in contact
with me. I was really moved, it's a really heartfelt
letter. She'd wanted to be in touch with me, but had
been scared of having to admit that Madeleine's
disappearance might end up like Ben's. Nobody wants to
think a child could be missing for years and years. If
the boot had been on the other foot I wouldn't have
wanted to get in touch with somebody whose child had
been missing for all these years because it would give
you no hope. You'd think, is that me in 18 years?"
As banal as it seems,
this is the one question you have to ask: how have Kerry
endured the years without Ben? "We've survived," Kerry
said. "We've all found a way. I don't know what way it
is - but a way of coping with it. We've found the
strength to live and cope and we'll never get over it
even though we deal with it. But we can never understand
This is the story of
how these 18 years have been for the family since Ben
disappeared. There is never a day, Kerry says, that Ben
isn't in her thoughts. If she believed he were dead it
might be easier. There would be a focus for that grief,
a conclusion. But her family is convinced that Ben was
snatched, and Kerry's instincts tell her that her son is
alive out there somewhere.
Ben, who in his
absence is the epicentre of his family, would now be 19.
In 2003 the Metropolitan Police released a digitally
enhanced photograph of how he might look at 13: a
smiling butter-blond boy who didn't resemble anyone in
his family. A second digital photograph, in which he
slightly resembles Kerry's brother Stephen, was made in
2007, when he would have been 18. It has the unsettling
qualities of both a passport photo and a criminal
Ben was born in
October 1989 when Kerry was 17. She had met his father,
Simon Ward, when she was 15 and still at school. The
Needhams come from South Yorkshire: Eddie Needham, a
builder by trade, is from Chapeltown, near Sheffield,
and Christine is from Thorpe Hesley, outside Rotherham.
They met as teenagers and married soon afterwards. In
the early 1980s, they moved to Chapel St Leonards, near
Skegness. At first they lived on the caravan site; Eddie
worked on a building site and collected scrap metal;
Christine worked in a chip shop, then ran a café. They
did well and bought a house.
In 1990, Christine's
sister treated the family to their first foreign holiday
- on the Greek island of Kos. Christine fell in love
with the island and with life in the sun. At the end of
that year, the Needhams sold everything, bought an old
Land Rover and a caravan, and set off to live on Kos
with their two sons, Danny, then 11, and Stephen, 17.
Kerry stayed in Sheffield, where she had moved with
Simon, missing her family and hating their dingy flat.
Simon worked away from home and she was often alone.
Eventually, in April 1991, she and Ben, then 18 months
old, went to join them. She had never even been to
London, let alone on a plane or to a foreign country.
On Kos, Kerry
blossomed. She lived in a bedsit, shared the care of Ben
with her mother and found work at a hotel serving snacks
around the pool. She felt justified in leaving Simon
behind. Kerry told me that Simon left when she was five
months pregnant. "I had no money, living on bread and
jam, no life whatsoever," she said. He didn't come back
until Ben was born.
Christine, who had
been working with Kerry at the hotel, gave up her job to
take care of Ben. Kerry upgraded from the bedsit to a
small holiday flat and Ben stayed with her or the rest
of the family in the caravan which was parked in an
olive grove in an area called Paradisi, near the beach,
about 10 minutes' walk from Kos town.
Eddie and Stephen had
found work renovating a small farmhouse a couple of
miles outside the town in a hilly area known as
Herakles. The owner had told them that if they did it
up, the Needhams could live in the house rent-free, in
return for looking after it when he was away.
On 24 July, Christine,
Eddie, Danny, Stephen and the owner of the house,
Michaelis Kypreos, were in the farmhouse eating lunch.
Ben was playing on the terrace just outside the door. He
was running in and out, pouring water over his head and
messing about with a stick. They could see through the
open door on to the terrace where Ben was playing. There
was a tree on which they'd hung his wet shorts.
At about two-thirty,
Stephen left on his moped to go for a swim, a beer and a
shower at Kerry's flat. Ben wanted to go with him; he'd
been on the bike before, and now he wanted to go with
his uncle. A few minutes after Stephen left, Christine
registered that Ben had gone quiet and went outside. He
was nowhere to be seen. She, Eddie, Danny and Michaelis
Kypreos searched up and down the lane, in the field by
the house, in a nearby orange grove, calling for him,
looking anywhere he could conceivably be. When they
couldn't find him, they assumed he must have gone with
Stephen; it was the logical explanation. They thought
Stephen had taken Ben for a ride and would bring him
About an hour later,
thinking Stephen had gone to the caravan instead of
coming back to the farmhouse, or had gone to Kerry's
flat, Christine walked back to Paradisi, while Eddie,
Danny and Kypreos stayed working on the roof.
In the early evening
Eddie went to the caravan expecting to find Ben with
Christine. He wasn't, so Eddie went to Kerry's flat,
thinking he'd be there. Stephen was there, but without
Ben. Eddie raced back to the caravan to tell Christine
and then went back to Herakles in the Land Rover.
Stephen took Christine to the police on his bike and
then joined his father. It was several hours since Ben
had vanished by the time the police took Christine to
the hotel to tell Kerry what had happened. Kerry had
finished her shift and was sitting by the swimming pool
when her mother arrived, sobbing, to tell her Ben had
The police took them
both to Herakles to join Eddie and the boys. They
searched, going to places that Ben could never have got
to, covering some 15 acres, through olive groves and
pomegranate orchards, riverbeds and long grass. The next
day Kos police began their investigation and their first
questions were directed at the Needhams. They were
immediately hostile to Kerry. "They banged their hands
on the table," she told me. "They shouted, 'Where is
boy? How can you lose a baby? Why do you go to work? You
must not love your child.'"
She had been unaware
of the image local people had of her. They had always
seemed friendly, but, after Ben disappeared, island
gossip found its way back to her - she was an unfit
mother, a slut. Why wasn't she married? Why did she work
and not look after her child? Her family lived like
gypsies in a caravan. Kerry didn't love Ben, she'd given
him away, she'd sold him...
The sightings started
within 24 hours. The first was a child seen buying
sweets at the airport, but news of it took three days to
get to the Needhams. Over the next few years there were
to be hundreds of reports of small blond children in
situations perceived as suspicious. It took a few days
for the news of Ben's disappearance to filter through to
the UK press. The first to knock at the caravan door was
a reporter from the Sun. In the next few weeks,
reporters came from other newspapers, and from TV news
stations; but there was none of the frenzied coverage
that engulfed the McCanns.
The family stayed on
Kos for two months after Ben disappeared. Then Eddie
rang the British Embassy in Athens to ask if they could
be repatriated. There had been no progress with the
investigation and the strain on them was unbearable. He
was told they would have to be means-tested and it might
take a month.
So, desperate to get
back to England, they sold everything and arrived home
at the end of September, broke. They went back to
Yorkshire, living with various relatives in Sheffield,
before being housed by the council.
The second time I met
Kerry was in 1996. I was working on a Channel 4
documentary about Ben. The silent, passive girl who had
sat in the lee of her father's body three years before
had become spiky and edgy. By this time, she had a
daughter, Leighanna. She and Simon Ward had drifted back
together and Kerry had got pregnant.
Leighanna was born in
February 1994; not long after, Simon went to prison for
five years, charged with robbery. It was a long time
before Kerry had been able to articulate what those
early months had been like after Ben went missing. She
and Simon were living together again. "I used to get up
in the middle of the night and it was like I was
hallucinating that Ben was actually there. We'd
decorated a bedroom for him and I used to go in there
and pretend to rock him to sleep because I thought I
could hear him crying. I had a psychiatric nurse who was
wonderful, and she said that having the bedroom there
was making it worse. Obviously I was dreaming that I
could hear him crying and I was just automatically
getting up in the night and going to rock the baby."
She made four suicide
attempts. She overdosed on antidepressants and attempted
to cut her wrists, but says she knows she didn't really
want to die. It was more that edging around death
brought temporary relief from the pain. It had been
people close to her who suggested she have another baby.
"They said those maternal instincts that woke me in the
middle of the night would be of use if I had another
She looked at
photographs of her son and at snapshots tourists had
taken of children they thought might be Ben, but never
were. She wrote him letters. A few times she roused
herself and went with television crews or journalists
following up sightings of Ben. In 1992, for example, she
went on a trip to Izmir, in Turkey. The photo of the
child had been very like Ben, but the child was a girl.
Kerry broke down. The child's mother passed her daughter
to her, letting Kerry hold her.
There were hundreds of
sightings, none of them Ben: BLOND BOY BEGGING ON ATHENS
UNDERGROUND, BLOND BOY CLEANING CAR WINDOW IN ATHENS
WATCHED BY DARK-SKINNED WELL-DRESSED MAN. The
expectation and disappointment of these trips threatened
Kerry's sanity. Eddie encouraged her to stay out of it
and let him rove the world looking for Ben instead.
The arrival of a new
baby, physically similar to the one who was lost, had
brought Kerry out of her paralysis, but Leighanna
couldn't replace Ben and Kerry found it hard to be her
mother. She went through the motions of motherhood but
it brought her no joy. "I couldn't be anyone," she says,
"only Ben Needham's mum. But I couldn't be his mum
because he wasn't there. I couldn't cope with being me,
I couldn't be a real person. I couldn't cope with
anything. It was tough on Leighanna and tough on me. I
plodded on but it was a really awful time."
By 1996, Leighanna was
living with Eddie and Christine. They were looking after
their granddaughter but Kerry felt they were furious
with her. "We have always been very close," said
Christine, "the family has been entwined, the bonds are
so strong, and we've cried and cried and hugged and
hugged and been almost too close or hated each other."
They were afraid it would appear as if she had abandoned
her child and public perceptions of Ben's case would
suffer as a consequence. They were horrified when a
story appeared in the Sheffield Star: KERRY GIVES UP HER
DAUGHTER. Two days later, there was another in the
Sunday Express: "I DON'T WANT MY SON BACK," SAYS MOTHER
AS SHE SHUNS NEW BABY. Kerry had spoken unguardedly to
reporters. It was true that she couldn't cope with her
new baby, but not that she didn't want Ben back.
For the past few
months she had submerged herself in the Sheffield club
scene and was working in a club bar. Her parents thought
she was selfish and irresponsible. For Kerry it was an
escape. But even there she was recognised: "I was in the
toilets at the club and this woman was looking at me.
'You're Ben Needham's mum... I wouldn't be out if it had
happened to me.' I said, 'What do you know?' I pinned
her up against the toilet door."
At that time, she
said, people found her cold and hard because she didn't
cry when asked about Ben. Her grief had given way to
anger: she was angry that he had been taken, angry
because not enough was being done at an official level,
angry that her life had been destroyed when Ben went
In the spring of 1997,
when Leighanna was three, Simon Ward's father died.
Although she no longer felt close to Simon (by the time
he came out of prison their relationship was over),
Kerry suddenly felt a pang about her own father, her
family, her daughter.
"It made me realise
life is short and I wanted to be with them." She went to
her parents' house, frightened she might not be welcome.
As she walked in Leighanna glanced up from a book she
was looking at and greeted her mother as though no time
Kerry sat reading to
her. Eddie, Kerry says, "huffed and puffed for a bit".
She had to prove that
she was capable of having Leighanna back. Kerry was
lucky: her daughter came home willingly and they settled
down. Even then, Kerry's life was not without drama. A
three-year relationship ended badly, and another with a
nightclub manager ended when he was stabbed to death in
a street brawl. She had a brief holiday romance in
Dominica with a man who conned her out of £500.
I'd heard bits of
Kerry's story from Christine and Eddie in the years
since I'd seen her, but I didn't know how she would be
when I went to visit her in Sheffield in June last year.
Kerry has always been slight; her face is narrow and
delicate and she moves quickly and neatly. In her living
room, my eye was drawn to two things: on the centre of
the mantelpiece, the last picture of Ben taken before he
vanished, and, to the right, a birdcage and a parrot. It
screeched, "Shut up! Fucking hell Ziggy!" Kerry laughed.
Ziggy the parrot came with Craig Grist, a builder, the
man she married in 2006.
I asked Kerry how she
feels now when she is interviewed. She said she hates
being asked what she would say to Ben if she found him
now. But she responds openly to most enquiries because
every time a bit of her gets out there it might reach
Ben, and it reminds people about him. Kerry has taken
the lead in the search for Ben, although there are few
Her efforts to have
Ben's case reopened mean that she is anxious that all
uninvestigated leads are followed up. One of them
involved a trip to Kos in July 2000 when she went with
her father, Stephen and Leighanna to collect Ben's case
file. While they were there, Eddie asked the policeman
in charge of the case about the white car seen in the
lane in Herakles at around 2.30pm on the day Ben
vanished. The policeman told Eddie who it belonged to.
To the Needhams' amazement, it was someone they knew,
but this was the first they had heard of it. "There may
be a perfectly good explanation," said Kerry, but she'd
like to know it has been properly investigated and feels
it hasn't been. There are other unresolved leads, and
Kerry's priority is for the authorities to investigate
In the years after
Ben's disappearance, Eddie and Christine Needham
restarted their lives. They had a friend who ran the
local tip in Sheffield and in the late 1990s they
started looking there for things to sell at car-boot
sales. They graduated to the antiques fair at Swinderby
in Yorkshire and from the local tip to bigger tips. For
three years, until they left England again in 2004, they
ran three tips. To their surprise they made enough money
to buy a house in Cyprus.
They had been on a
holiday to Turkish Cyprus. Once again they uprooted
themselves. They bought a villa overlooking the sea on
the side of a hill in the village of Alsancak on the
north coast. They renovated the house and Christine made
a garden. In June 2008, I flew to Cyprus to meet her. To
my surprise she asked me to meet her several hours'
drive away in Dipkarpaz, in the north east. She had left
Eddie. He didn't know where she was and she was going to
keep it that way: she was going to stay there, read and
grow vegetables. I met her in a beach café. She looked
tanned and her hair was bleached blonde. She was gazing
out to sea.
I remembered being
with Christine in Greece, in 1996, during the making of
the Channel 4 film, and the way she had described what
it was like when they first moved to Kos.
"It was sunny,
peaceful, there was only the crickets," she said. "It
was like living in a free world. Most people wouldn't
say, 'Let's just go and live in Greece.' So we'd
achieved something. We had money in the bank, not a lot,
but we lived simply and had everything we needed... sea
and olive trees and lemons growing on trees in the
streets, like another world, a dream. And then Ben
It was Christine who
had taken Ben to the farmhouse that day, while Kerry was
at work. In Cyprus she described again what happened;
how they'd been sitting inside, eating lunch, and Ben
was playing, in and out, and then after Stephen left she
couldn't hear him. "I'm thinking - he's quiet. It's an
instinct, you just know the quiet bit means trouble. God
knows I never thought it would be that much trouble."
She told me how they
had assumed Stephen had given Ben a ride on his moped.
"He was mad for that
bike," she said. "We've got pictures of him on it. We
were waiting for the bike ride to finish, then 10
minutes turned into half an hour and then you're
thinking, 'He's a long time'." About an hour later she'd
said, "It looks like Steve's not coming back. I'll get
off now, get the tea on."
It didn't occur to her
that someone could have taken Ben. But if someone had,
wouldn't he have screamed? "It depends. If they'd got
sweets, that would shut him up straight away. You trust
people at that age if they're kind; they hold you by the
hand and take you. Like Jamie Bulger [the toddler from
Merseyside who was abducted and killed in 1993]. He
didn't kick up a fuss. There's just no answer."
The eight weeks they
stayed on Kos after Ben disappeared were a blur, she
said. "I don't know how we kept alive, but in the first
weeks you believe that the next day there'll be news,
you're still hopeful and you're on automatic, survival
kicks in." She said they wandered round aimlessly,
searching, or sat together going over every detail again
and again. In the first months back in Sheffield she
hankered after the ordinary. The sound of the Hoover and
the washing machine soothed her. Eddie was enraged by
the domesticity that kept Christine sane. He was
obsessed with finding Ben, never off the phone, unable
to talk about anything else. His voice, she said, was
like a drill in her head.
"All of a sudden life
changes," she said. "We had a normal life, then Ben is
lost and we are in another world, where people come out
of the shadows at you and others talk of guns. All this
madness. You can't believe it's happened because if you
did you'd probably go insane. Sometimes I bury my head
in the sand so I don't feel it.
"Perhaps that's how I
deal with it, so it isn't as painful. It's like
half-pretending, isn't it?
"We lost our grandson
through our stupidity," she said some years ago.
"Through not acting quickly, presuming he was all right;
we've been irresponsible. It's our fault." Now she says
her guilt came from a "failure to be on alert".
"It felt so safe,
there was no traffic, no people. I have brought up my
family haphazardly, maybe, but they are all safe, and
then I get this one job to look after Ben one day and I
don't do it properly. I relaxed. There seemed to be no
danger. I wasn't vigilant.
"I've said to Kerry,
'Why didn't you shout at me?' And she said, 'Because I
never blamed you.' I thought I ought to feel guilty,
because if somebody had lost my child, I would be at
them. But my feeling isn't guilt, it's more a - what if
? What if I'd done this differently? What if I hadn't
gone there that day?"
One theory about Ben's
disappearance is that he had somehow fallen into the
hands of gypsies. In October 1996, Christine and Eddie
appeared on a live Greek TV phone-in show about missing
people. A prisoner in jail in Greece called in saying he
had seen Ben in March 1992 with a gypsy family in Veria,
in northern Greece. Several other people called in
independently, also locating Ben in Veria.
In February 1997, I
went to Veria with Christine to talk to some of the
callers to the show. Most of them were scared, and
didn't want to be identified. One woman said she and her
husband had seen a striking blond child they thought was
Ben in September 1996. She had overheard a conversation
between the head of the gypsy family and another man.
The gypsy had said, "The kid is here. If they want to
take him let them have him." She hadn't gone to the
police because she was afraid.
We also went to see a
taxi driver who we had spoken to the year before. He'd
told us then he was sure that Ben had been in his taxi
in January 1994, with a female member of a gypsy family
and some other children. When he had asked who the boy
was, another child had told him it was Ben or Benzi, and
the woman had threatened to smack him. When we saw the
taxi driver again, he had been interviewed by the police
and changed his mind.
We went to see the
police. We were ushered into a room where a group of men
were smoking and playing cards. One of them got up to
speak to us. He said the prisoner was a "mythomaniac"
whose story couldn't be taken seriously.
In Athens Christine
met a senior official from the Ministry of Public Order.
He told us the gypsy was a criminal, a drug dealer and a
car thief and that the prisoner was a liar. Nothing more
came of the prisoner's story. It was all disturbing,
dispiriting and futile.
At the end of the day
I spent with Christine in Cyprus in June last year, as
the sun went down, she said, "We all cracked up in our
own ways. And we've all tried to be someone else for a
little while. But you take on this mother role, holding
everybody up, especially Kerry, she was so delicate. I
used to jolly them along. I didn't want my family to
die. I thought everybody would commit suicide. Everybody
thinks that I deal with it better than anybody else, but
that is because I know they won't cope if I drop. If I
go under, my family will die, I know they will, even
Christine, I went to visit Eddie. I found him sunk into
the corner of a sofa in the living room of their villa
in front of a large flat-screen TV with the sound turned
off. For years his whole being was concentrated on his
crusade, as he called it, to find Ben. The night Ben
went missing, Eddie and Stephen had driven to the port
on Kos at 3am. There was a line of trucks and cars
waiting to board the ferry. Eddie and Stephen peered
into the windows. They couldn't believe there were no
police checking the vehicles. The policeman who had said
he would join them there never turned up.
When they searched the
fields around the farmhouse, they heard noises in the
dark, like a baby, but never a baby, perhaps lambs or
goats. As soon as it was light, Eddie searched sheds and
outhouses. He went through bins, pulling out plastic
sacks, dreading what he might find.
During the police
interrogations he banged his fists on the table, enraged
by the suggestion that "our Kerry was a slut" He spent
three days next to a digger as it excavated the rubble
of a demolished house on the lane in Herakles, bracing
himself for the possibility that it would disgorge his
The police told him
they thought Ben was alive: if there is a dead body,
certain birds flock to it, they said, but no such birds
had been seen. A stranger in a taverna told him to get a
gun and go to the back-alley bars in Athens. That was
where the answer lay. That was where children were
bought and sold for illegal adoption or organ
The police told him
that gypsies sell babies and that little blond boys
fetch the highest prices. In those first days and nights
Eddie said he heard Ben's voice in his head, urging him
on, telling him he was nearly there, to go on trying to
find him. He remembers collapsing on the road outside
the hotel where Kerry worked, weeping. When he walked
through a gypsy camp with posters in Greek publicising
Ben's disappearance, a woman thrust her pregnant
daughter at him, offering her unborn baby for sale.
Eddie feels that his
family was ignored by British officials. It still makes
him angry. No British representative came to Kos in
those first weeks after Ben vanished. Eddie says that
when he called the embassy in Athens he was told that
since none of his family was in jail they didn't need a
lawyer, and since nobody was alone, and there were
people around who spoke English, they didn't need an
Back in England, Eddie
kept up the search, losing count of the times he went to
Greece, following sightings, sometimes with TV crews and
journalists, sometimes with Christine, occasionally with
Kerry, often on his own. He did it on a shoestring,
dependent on the press paying expenses or on scraping up
a fare by standing outside rock concerts with buckets or
selling stuff at car-boot sales. He slept on beaches, or
in cheap hotel rooms. He only spoke a few words of Greek
and they were mostly to do with building. There were
moments when, from a distance, the blond child they were
going to see would look so like Ben they'd think they
had found him.
At home, Eddie
brooded, watched TV and waited by the phone. Unable to
work, he signed on the dole. He found himself subject to
fits of anger that he had never experienced before. He
would listen to anyone - even to the dowsers,
clairvoyants and seventh sons of seventh sons who said
Ben was in Florida, California, a Scandinavian country,
"taken by a man in a leather jacket with an Alsatian dog
and he didn't go easily".
Only a few weeks
before my visit to Cyprus, the Sheffield police in
charge of Ben's case in the UK had been told of a
sighting of a young man in Cyprus, thought by a tourist
to resemble how Ben might look now. Eddie had been to
meet him. "I wish it'd been my grandson, because he was
a gentleman and I'd have been very proud of him," he
said, "but he was Romanian. Hugged him, kissed him,
checked the birthmark on his neck just to make sure,
that's how close it was. He didn't have the birthmark."
Eddie seemed to me to
be in that state of stupefied sobriety that comes after
days and nights alone with the bottle. "I'm just an
ignorant person," he said. "I haven't got the
intelligence to put the past behind me. Can you
understand that?" I said I didn't think it was a matter
of intelligence. "Christine understands," he said.
"She's got the brains, she can work it out and she knows
it's too late, that I'm so thick and stupid I just carry
on bulldozing through everything. The thought of Ben is
there constantly. When I don't think about it I feel
terrible, I feel guilty for not thinking about it."
When I left he was
with his younger son, Danny, who lives in Cyprus. A few
days later, I went back to see him. He was sober and
unexpectedly sanguine about Christine's continuing
absence and her insistence that she would never return.
Their 39 years of marriage have been punctuated by
Christine's intermittent departures, usually sparked by
Eddie's occasional drinking. Christine had always
returned within a week or two. Later, after Eddie had
gone shopping, Danny got a call to say his father had
collapsed in the street and been taken by ambulance to
Kyrenia, 45 minutes away. He was on a drip and about to
be given a brain scan.
I went with Danny to
the hospital. He told me that his father had been
advised to give up smoking, and that if he didn't he was
going to be in trouble. "They said I'd got type 2
diabetes," Eddie reported on the way back, strapped like
a sparrow into the front seat. "Got to reduce my sugar
intake. Can't smoke in your car can I? Dying for a fag."
Christine went back to Eddie a week after I saw them in
Ben's uncle, Stephen
Needham, lives in the Lincolnshire farm workers' cottage
that was his parents' home until they moved to Cyprus.
For most of his adult life he has worked on farms, on
building sites, or for his father, helping to collect
scrap metal. When I visited him last year, he was on
disability benefit. He was born with Perthes' disease, a
condition that causes the hip joints to crumble. In the
last few years it has started to cause him trouble and
will need to be operated on again. "So I'm on the scrap
heap," he said, ruefully, "but I like pottering and
gardening and decorating and drawing."
Stephen looks a lot
like Kerry. He has the same blond hair, the same narrow
slanting eyes, high cheekbones and slender build. He
said his childhood couldn't have been happier. He loved
the journey to Kos, when for two months the family and
their Corgi made their way across Europe in the Land
Rover, dragging behind them a caravan they slept in. "It
was funny, it was fabulous," he said.
Stephen was the last
of the family to see Ben. "He said: 'Bike, bike,' and I
said, 'No chance, go to Grandad.'" Then Stephen got on
his bike and didn't look back.
Because of this, when
he was questioned by the police he was singled out. They
said that his moped looked as if it had been involved in
an accident. Stephen told them about a minor crash a few
days before, when he'd swerved to avoid some tourists on
quad bikes, which explained the lack of indicators and a
smashed fairing. But they weren't satisfied. "You fall
off, kill the child, bury him?" the policeman said. The
questioning had gone on like this for days. "They tried
to break him," was how Eddie had put it, "but there was
nothing to break."
When the family
returned from Kos, though, Stephen got back into a
normal pace of life much sooner than his sister and
parents did. Within two years he was living with a
girlfriend and by the time he was 23, he had two
daughters. He was working on a building site, had passed
his driving test and was enjoying life. But his
relationship with the girls' mother started to break
down, and eventually he left. "I know nobody would
understand someone walking away from their kids," he
said. "It killed me. If I'd stayed I wouldn't have been
able to carry on. I'd have given up. I was already going
through emotional stress: it was either leave and get
away from it or go down with the sinking ship. But I was
bonded with my children and that's what nearly killed
Ever since the police
questioned Stephen, their idea that he might have had a
hand in Ben's disappearance has haunted him. "Did I take
him, did I pick him up and put him on my bike, did I
drive down that lane? I was questioning my own sanity.
It was always there. How could a child disappear, how
could he just vanish? Did I forget him somewhere or have
an accident? Did I run over him or fall off my bike?
I've asked myself that again and again."
In 2001, when another
TV documentary was made, to coincide with the 10th
anniversary of Ben's disappearance, Stephen was asked if
he would be interviewed and whether he would undergo a
form of hypnotherapy on camera. He agreed because he'd
heard it might help to retrieve hidden memories. In the
film he had to revisit the last moment he saw Ben and
confront the doubt created by the police interrogation.
It was traumatic but, when the filming was over, Stephen
walked away sure that any suspicion that he or anyone
else might have harboured that he could have
accidentally killed Ben would be dispelled once and for
all. Despite this, and although the film exonerates him,
Stephen's fears were justified.
A year ago, he was out
having a drink with his brother Danny and Kerry's
husband, Craig. "One of my mates was half asleep, drunk
on a sofa and a group of lads were threatening him, so I
went over and said, 'Give up, he's drunk,' and one of
them went, 'Oh, aren't you that uncle of that Ben that
disappeared?' I said yes. 'You took him on your bike,
It's taken him years
to understand how the trauma of Ben going missing has
affected him. "Our feelings were on hold when we were
all trying to resolve Ben's case, so your own emotions
get waylaid. And then when it starts to fade away,
that's when you're left with yourself. If I hadn't been
through that experience in Greece, I'd have been
mentally stronger and more able to deal with the
problems, to work through things." When I asked him how
much he thought his adult life has been determined by
losing Ben, he said, "It's been destroyed, hasn't it,
really?" The one member of the Needham family who never
knew Ben is Leighanna, his little sister. As a toddler
she resembled Ben so much that they could have been
twins. It was this resemblance to Ben that led Kerry to
agree, when Leighanna was 21 months old, to go with
Christine and Eddie to Kos, to take part in a TV
reconstruction. Leighanna was the same age Ben was when
he disappeared. Her hair, the same colour as Ben's, was
cut short so she would look like him and the TV crew
filmed her in Herakles, walking out of the house and on
to the lane, to see if it could offer any clues.
She was nearly 14 when
I met her last year, but her face still had a childlike
quality. She said she remembered going to Kos, and when
I asked whether it had felt like a sad experience, she
said, "Yep. It was funny, though. There was a cameraman
in front of me. I wouldn't go up the road so he told me
to follow the duck. I had to follow a toy duck." She
went further and faster than they had ever imagined Ben
could have done, which chilled her grandparents as they
looked on. Leighanna had started to ask questions about
Ben when she was around five. "She used to look through
the photographs and say, 'Who could be this?'" Kerry
said. "Those were her words, 'Who could be this?'"
At school, her missing
brother made her an object of special interest.
Occasionally she was bullied. Other girls would say they
knew where he was, and once, when a hearse went by, a
girl said for all she knew Ben could be in it. Leighanna,
who says she is "mouthy" like her mother, gave back as
good as she got.
She feels protective
of her mother. "I've got to look after her. Mum'll think
I don't love her if I don't fight for her, or help her
with things. I don't want her to get hurt more than she
already is. Sometimes I can't tell her everything I want
to - where it feels like Ben came first. Because there's
been newspaper articles when my mum said she didn't know
if she could love me as much as she loved Ben, because
of what happened to him. I used to get really upset
about it, even though I know Mum loves me as much as she
loves Ben. I'd cry and it would make her cry. Sometimes
the more we talk about things, the more upsetting it
When I saw them months
later, Kerry told me Leighanna had talked to her more
openly of her feelings about Ben. She said she thought
Leighanna had agreed to be interviewed because there
were things she wanted to say to her mother and
couldn't. "I think she knew she had to tell me things. I
can't help her if I don't know."
Leighanna says even
though she's never met Ben, she feels like a sister to
him. She described a dream she'd had about him: "I was
running, running and running, and he seemed to be
getting further away every time I ran towards him. He
was running towards me and I was running towards him but
it seemed like a never-ending run and every time I would
try and grab him he was always a couple of steps in
front, so I couldn't, and then I woke up and it was
maddening. It was horrible.
"It's the first time
I've ever had a dream like that, although I've had loads
of dreams before, waking up crying because I've dreamed
we were in Kos and the police come to us and say they've
found a body they think might be Ben's and we have to go
and look at it and see if it is actually Ben's and then
I look up just as we walk through to see if it is - and
I never find out."
• This is an edited
extract from Missing, by Melanie McFadyean from Granta
105 "Lost and Found"