lay by the members-only pool staring at the sky.
Round and round, the helicopters clacked and
roared. Their cameras pointed down at us,
mocking the walled and gated enclave. Circles
rippled out across the pool. It was the morning
after Madeleine went.
earlier we had landed at Faro airport. The coach
was full of people like us, parents lugging
multiple toddler/baby combinations. All of us
had risen at dawn, rushed along motorways and
hurtled across the sky in search of the modern
solution to our exhaustion - the Mark Warner
kiddie club. I travelled with my partner Jes,
our three-year-old daughter, and our
nine-month-old baby son. Praia da Luz was the
nearest Mark Warner beach resort and this was
the cheapest week of the year - a bargain bucket
trip, for a brief lie-down.
were shown to our apartments. Ours was on the
fourth floor, overlooking a family and toddler
pool, opposite a restaurant and bar called the
Tapas. I worried about the height of the
balcony. Should we ask for one on the ground
floor? Was I a paranoid parent? Should I make a
fuss, or just enjoy the view?
We could see
the beach and a big blue sky. We went outside to
We settled in
over the following days. There was a warm
camaraderie among the parents, a shared happy
weariness and deadpan banter. Our children made
friends in the kiddie club and at the drop-off,
we would joke about the fact that there were 10
blonde three-year-old girls in the group. They
were bound to boss around the two boys.
went sailing and swimming, played tennis and
learned a dance routine for the end-of-week
show. Each morning, our daughter ran ahead of us
to get to the kiddie club. She was having a
wonderful time. Jes signed up for tennis
lessons. I read a book. He made friends. I read
Warner nannies brought the children to the Tapas
restaurant to have tea at the end of each day.
It was a friendly gathering. The parents would
stand and chat by the pool. We talked about the
children, about what we did at home. We were
hopeful about a change in the weather. We eyed
our children as they played. We didn't see
Some of the
parents were in a larger group. Most of them
worked for the NHS and had met many years before
in Leicestershire. Now they lived in different
parts of the UK, and this holiday was their
opportunity to catch up, to introduce their
children, to reunite. They booked a large table
every night in the Tapas. We called them "the
Doctors". Sometimes we would sit out on our
balcony and their laughter would float up around
us. One man was the joker. He had a loud
Glaswegian accent. He was Gerry McCann. He
played tennis with Jes.
One morning, I
saw Gerry and his wife Kate on their balcony,
chatting to their friends on the path below.
Privately I was glad we didn't get their
apartment. It was on a corner by the road and
people could see in. They were exposed.
evenings, babysitting at the resort was a
dilemma. "Sit-in" babysitters were available but
were expensive and in demand, and Mark Warner
blurb advised us to book well in advance. The
other option was the babysitting service at the
kiddie club, which was a 10-minute walk from the
apartment. The children would watch a cartoon
together and then be put to bed. You would then
wake them, carry them back and put them to bed
again in the apartment. After taking our
children to dinner a couple of times, we decided
on the Wednesday night to try the service at the
We had booked
a table for two at Tapas and were placed next to
the Doctors' regular table. One by one, they
started to arrive. The men came first. Gerry
McCann started chatting across to Jes about
tennis. Gerry was outgoing, a wisecracker, but
considerate and kind, and he invited us to join
them. We discussed the children. He told us they
were leaving theirs sleeping in the apartments.
While they chatted on, I ruminated on the pros
and cons of this. I admired them, in a way, for
not being paranoid parents, but I decided that
our apartment was too far off even to
contemplate it. Our baby was too young and I
would worry about them waking up.
My phone rang
as our food arrived; our baby had woken up. I
walked the round trip to collect him from the
kiddie club, then back to the restaurant. He
kept crying and eventually we left our meal
unfinished and walked back again to the club to
fetch our sleeping daughter. Jes carried her
home in a blanket. The next night we stayed in.
It was Thursday, May 3.
day there had been tennis lessons for the
children, with some of the parents watching
proudly as their girls ran across the court
chasing tennis balls. They took photos.
Madeleine must have been there, but I couldn't
distinguish her from the others. They all looked
the same - all blonde, all pink and pretty.
Jes and Gerry
were playing on the next court. Afterwards, we
sat by the pool and Gerry and Kate talked
enthusiastically to the tennis coach about the
following day's tournament. We watched them idly
- they had a lot of time for people, they
listened. Then Gerry stood up and began showing
Kate his new tennis stroke. She looked at him
and smiled. "You wouldn't be interested if I
talked about my tennis like that," Jes said to
me. We watched them some more. Kate was calm,
still, quietly beautiful; Gerry was confident,
proud, silly, strong. She watched his boyish
demonstration with great seriousness and
patience. That was the last time I saw them that
day. Jes saw Gerry that night.
Our baby would
not sleep and at about 8.30pm, Jes took him out
for a walk in the buggy to settle him. Gerry was
on his way back from checking on his children
and the two men stopped to have a chat. They
talked about daughters, fathers, families. Gerry
was relaxed and friendly. They discussed the
babysitting dilemmas at the resort and Gerry
said that he and Kate would have stayed in too,
if they had not been on holiday in a group. Jes
returned to our apartment just before 9.30pm. We
ate, drank wine, watched a DVD and then went to
bed. On the ground floor, a completely
catastrophic event was taking place. On the
fourth floor of the next block, we were
At 1am there
was a frantic banging on our door. Jes got up to
answer. I stayed listening in the dark. I knew
it was bad; it could only be bad. I heard male
mumbling, then Jes's voice. "You're joking?" he
said. It wasn't the words, it was the tone that
made me flinch. He came back in to the room.
"Gerry's daughter's been abducted," he said.
"She ..." I jumped up and went to check our
children. They were there. We sat down. We got
up again. Weirdly, I did the washing-up. We
wondered what to do. Jes had asked if they
needed help searching and was told there was
nothing he could do; she had been missing for
three hours. Jes felt he should go anyway, but I
wanted him to stay with us. I was a coward,
afraid to be alone with the children - and
afraid to be alone with my thoughts.
I once worked
as a producer in the BBC crime unit. I directed
many reconstructions and spent my second
pregnancy producing new investigations for
Crimewatch. Detectives would call me daily,
detailing their cases, and some stories stay
with me still, such as the ones about a girl
being snatched from her bath, or her bike, or
her garden and then held in the passenger seat,
or stuffed in the boot. There was always a
vehicle, and the first few hours were crucial to
the outcome. Afterwards, they would be dumped
naked in an alley, or at a petrol station with a
?10 note to "get a cab back to Mummy". They
would be found within an hour or two. Sometimes.
balcony we could see some figures scratching at
the immense darkness with tiny torch lights.
Police cars arrived and we thought that they
would take control. We lay on the bed but we
could not sleep.
morning, we made our way to breakfast and met
one of the Doctors, the one who had come round
in the night. His young daughter looked up at us
from her pushchair. There was no news. They had
called Sky television - they didn't know what
else to do. He turned away and I could see he
was going to weep.
crying in the restaurant. Mark Warner had handed
out letters informing them what had happened in
the night, and we all wondered what to do.
Mid-sentence, we would drift in to the middle
distance. Tears would brim up and recede.
asked us about the kiddie club that day. She had
been looking forward to their dance show that
afternoon. Jes and I looked at each other. My
first instinct was that we should not be parted
from our children. Of course we shouldn't; we
should strap them to us and not let them out of
our sight, ever again. But then we thought: how
are we going to explain this to our daughter? Or
how, if we spent the day in the village, would
we avoid repeatedly discussing what had happened
in front of her as we met people on the streets?
What does a good parent do? Keep the children
close or take a deep breath and let them go a
little, pretend this was the same as any other
towards the kiddie club. No one else was there.
We felt awful, such terrible parents for even
considering the idea. Then we saw, waiting
inside, some of the Mark Warner nannies. They
had been up most of the night but had still
turned up to work that day. They were
intelligent, thoughtful young women and we liked
and trusted them. The dance show was cancelled,
but they wanted to put on a normal day for the
children. Our daughter ran inside and started
painting. Then, behind us, another set of
parents arrived looking equally washed out. Then
another, and another. We decided, in the end, to
leave them for two hours. We put their bags on
the pegs and saw the one labelled "Madeleine".
Heads bent, we walked away, into the guilty
glare of the morning sun.
holidaymakers had started circulating
photocopied pictures of Madeleine, while others
continued searching the beaches and village
apartments. People were talking about what had
happened or sat silently, staring blankly. We
didn't see any police.
was a knock on our apartment door and we let the
two men in. One was a uniformed Portuguese
policeman, the other his translator. The
translator had a squint and sweated slightly. He
was breathless, perhaps a little excited. We
later found out he was Robert Murat. He reminded
me of a boy in my class at school who was
we answered a few questions and gave our
details, which the policeman wrote down on the
back of a bit of paper. No notebook. Then he
pointed to the photocopied picture of Madeleine
on the table. "Is this your daughter?" he asked.
"Er, no," we said. "That's the girl you are
meant to be searching for." My heart sank for
As the day
drew on, the media and more police arrived and
we watched from our balcony as reporters
practised their pieces to camera outside the
McCanns' apartment. We then went back inside and
watched them on the news.
We had to duck
under the police tape with the pushchair to buy
a pint of milk. We would roll past sniffer dogs,
local police, then national police, local
journalists, and then international journalists,
TV reporters and satellite vans. A hundred pairs
of eyes and a dozen cameras silently swivelled
as we turned down the bend. We pretended, for
the children's sake, that this was nothing
unusual. Later on, our daughter saw herself with
Daddy on TV. That afternoon we sat by the
members-only pool, watching the helicopters
watching us. We didn't know what else to do.
our last day. While we waited for the airport
coach to pick us up, we gathered round the
toddler pool by Tapas, making small talk in
front of the children. I watched my baby son and
daughter closely, shamefully grateful that I
We had not
seen the McCanns since Thursday, when suddenly
they appeared by the pool. The surreal limbo of
the past two days suddenly snapped back into
painful, awful realtime. It was a shock: the
physical transformation of these two human
beings was sickening - I felt it as a physical
blow. Kate's back and shoulders, her hands, her
mouth had reshaped themselves in to the angular
manifestation of a silent scream. I thought I
might cry and turned so that she wouldn't see.
Gerry was upright, his lips now drawn into a
thin, impenetrable line. Some people, including
Jes, tried to offer comfort. Some gave them
hugs. Some stared at their feet, words eluding
them. We all wondered what to do. That was the
last time we saw Gerry and Kate.
The rest of us
left Praia da Luz together, an isolated Mark
Warner group. The coach, the airport, the plane
passed quietly. There were no other passengers
except us. We arrived at Gatwick in the small
hours of an early May morning. No jokes, no
banter, just goodbye. Though we did not know it
then, those few days in May were going to
dominate the rest of our year.
"Did you have
a good trip?" asked the cabbie at Gatwick,
instantly underlining the conversational dilemma
that would occupy the first few weeks: Do we say
"Yes, thanks" and move swiftly on? Or divulge
the "yes-but-no-but" truth of our "Maddy"
experience? Everybody talks about holidays, they
make good conversational currency at work, at
the hairdresser's, in the playground. Everybody
asked about ours. I would pause and take a
breath, deciding whether there was enough time
for what was to follow. People were genuinely
horrified by what had happened to Madeleine and
even by what we had been through (though we
thought ourselves fortunate). Their humanity was
a balm and a comfort to us; we needed to talk
about it, chew it over and share it out, to make
it a little easier to swallow.
police came round shortly after our return. Jes
was pleased to give them a statement. The
Portuguese police had never asked.
As the summer
months rolled by, we thought the story would
slowly and sadly ebb away, but instead it
flourished and multiplied, and it became almost
impossible to talk about any-thing else. Friends
came for dinner and we would actively try to
steer the conversation on to a different
subject, always to return to Madeleine. Others
solicited our thoughts by text message after any
major twist or turn in the case. Acquaintances
discussed us in the context of Madeleine,
calling in the middle of their debates to
I found some
immunity in a strange, guilty happiness. We had
returned unscathed to our humdrum family
routine, my life was wonderful, my world was
safe, I was lucky, I was blessed. The colours in
the park were acute and hyper-real and the sun
warmed my face.
At the end of
June, the first cloud appeared. A Portuguese
journalist called Jes's mobile (he had left his
number with the Portuguese police). The
journalist, who was writing for a magazine
called Sol, called Jes incessantly. We both work
in television and cannot claim to be green about
the media, but this was a new experience. Jes
learned this the hard way. Torn between
politeness and wanting to get the journalist off
the line without actually saying anything, he
had to put the phone down, but he had already
said too much. Her article pitched the
recollections of "Jeremy Wilkins, television
producer" against those of the "Tapas Nine", the
group of friends, including the McCanns, whom we
had nicknamed the Doctors. The piece was
published at the end of June. Throughout July,
Sol's testimony meant Jes became incorporated
into all the Madeleine chronologies. More clouds
began to gather - this time above our house.
In August, the
doorbell rang. The man was from the Daily Mail.
He asked if Jes was in (he wasn't). After he
left I spent an anxious evening analysing what I
had said, weighing up the possible consequences.
The Sol article had brought the Daily Mail; what
would happen next? Two days later, the Mail came
for Jes again. This time they had computer
printout pictures of a bald, heavy-set man seen
lurking in some Praia da Luz holiday snaps. The
chatroom implication was that the man was
Madeleine's abductor. There was talk on the web,
the reporter insinuated, that this man might be
Jes. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it all
and then realised he was serious. I looked at
the pictures, and it wasn't Jes.
father looked him up on the internet and found
that "Jeremy Wilkins, television producer" was
referenced on Google more than 70,000 times.
There was talk that he was a "lookout" for Gerry
and Kate; there was talk that Jes was
orchestrating a reality-TV hoax and Madeleine's
disappearance was part of the con; there was
talk that the Tapas Nine were all swingers.
There was a lot of talk.
September, Kate and Gerry became official
suspects. Their warm tide of support turned
decidedly cool. Had they cruelly conned us all?
The public needed to know, and who had seen
Gerry at around 9pm on the fateful night? Jes.
Trevor McDonald, GMTV, the Sun, the News of the
World, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Express, the
Evening Standard and the Independent on Sunday
began calling. Jes's office stopped putting
through calls from people asking to speak to
"Jeremy" (only his grandmother calls him that).
Some emails told him that he would be "better
off" if he spoke to them or he would "regret it"
if he didn't, implying that it was in his
interest to defend himself - they didn't say
began to worry that Jes might be next in line
for some imagined blame or accusation. On a
Saturday night in September, he received a call:
we were on the front page of the News of the
World. They had surreptitiously taken
photographs of us, outside the house. There were
no more details. We went to bed, but we could
not sleep. "Maddie: the secret witness," said
the headline, "TV boss holds vital clue to the
mystery." Unfortunately, Jes does not hold any
such vital clues. In November, he inched through
the events of that May night with Leicestershire
detectives, but he saw nothing suspicious,
nothing that would further the investigation.
this, I have always believed that Gerry and Kate
McCann are innocent. When they were made
suspects, when they were booed at, when one
woman told me she was "glad" they had "done it"
because it meant that her child was safe, I
began to write this article - because I was
there, and I believe that woman is wrong. There
were no drug-fuelled "swingers" on our holiday;
instead, there was a bunch of ordinary parents
wearing Berghaus and worrying about sleep
patterns. Secure in our banality, none of us
imagined we were being watched. One group made a
disastrous decision; Madeleine was vulnerable
and was chosen. But in the face of such
desperate audacity, it could have been any one
And when I
stroke my daughter's hair, or feel her butterfly
lips on my cheek, I do so in the knowledge of
what might have been. But our experience is
nothing, an irrelevance, next to the McCanns'
unimaginable grief. Their lives will always be
touched by this darkness, while the true culprit
may never be brought to light.
So my heart
goes out to them, Gerry and Kate, the couple we
remember from our Portuguese holiday. They had a
beautiful daughter, Madeleine, who played and
danced with ours at the kiddie club. That's who
? Bridget O'Donnell is a writer and director. The
fee from this article will be donated to the
Find Madeleine fund (findmadeleine.com).