In the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in 2007, I travelled to Sheffield to meet the mother of Ben Needham, the 21-month-old British toddler who had disappeared from the Greek island of Kos 15 years previously.
In the way that an amputee feels the pain of phantom limbs, Kerry Grist experienced the agony of butchered motherhood, her child axed from her life in the most brutal way possible.
Madeleine was the little girl the world searched for – Ben was the little boy it rather quickly forgot.
When interviewing people who had experienced traumatic bereavement, it often seemed grief was so all-encompassing that it became a second skin, stitched so closely to the body that every painful heartbeat, every discoloured bruise and bloody wound, was visible beneath.
Kate McCann had that look. Kerry Grist had it. So real was Ben’s presence after his disappearance that Kerry heard him crying in the night. As clear as if he were still in the house.
She would go to him then, leading her little ghost boy tenderly by the hand, taking him to the kitchen for a glass of milk.
In her troubled mind, he was there still. But the milk was never drunk.
Kerry Grist sympathised with Kate McCann. They shared a unique pain.
Yet there was, understandably, a kernel of resentment that Ben had not attracted the same attention as Madeleine, the same police, government and public support, the millions of pounds raised to search. Yes, she was pleased for Madeleine’s mum. But she was Ben’s mum.
Sometimes, other people’s turmoil is almost too painful to view. It’s like looking into the sun – you are blinded by the ferocity of it and must look away.
I realised that day in Sheffield how unbearable it must be when pain continues but the world stops caring. Kerry’s displayed photographs of Ben were poignant.
He would have been 17 by then but was forever trapped inside the blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler.
Kate and Gerry McCann, back in the news now that a German paedophile has been named a suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine, are caught in that same time bubble.
Our world moved on. Theirs didn’t.
Madeleine, too, would be 17 now. But the McCanns’ pain is particularly hard to confront because it’s also mixed with a shard of shame about how they were treated back then.
Public support turned sour. Empathy gave way to accusation and judgment.
Judgment that was both cruel and unnecessary – the McCanns had already paid the ultimate price for any mistakes they made.
These two doctors became symbolic of those in the middle classes who got social services to remove other people’s children.
Was there schadenfreude in the suggestion they were no better than anyone else?
It wasn’t as it seemed – both had working-class backgrounds. But the story lurched from one media stereotype to another, from grieving parents to heartless villains who supposedly neglected – or murdered – their own child.
It was a story of its time, an insight into a supposedly classless Britain where class warfare was still alive in all its ugliness. Not to mention media warfare.
Many of us wondered why parents left their child sleeping while they went to a restaurant.
What if the child awoke crying? Or was sick? We wouldn’t have done it.
Although…there was that time we left our baby sleeping in the car seat and nipped into the shop.
Or took a similar chance in a moment of stress. Is there any parent who has never taken a calculated risk? The difference? We got away with it.
As a writer, you imagine yourself in so many situations but I wriggle out of the McCanns’ skin when I attempt to don it.
Being named suspects in your own child’s murder? Keeping them alive in the public consciousness while privately fearing their death?
Most disturbing was the inevitability of the negativity. The McCanns were still on a wave of initial sympathy when I met Kerry Grist, but she knew what was coming. “The press will turn against them,” she predicted.
She was right. Madeleine sold papers.
Editors demanded front page splashes every few days – positive or negative.
The Daily Express had to pay the Find Madeleine fund £550,000, a fact that woke us all up from the madness, according to the head of a media thinktank I spoke to back then.
Was this case, he was asked, a weird exception? Or just the way the modern media was going? Both, he concluded.
Seeing the McCanns back on screen is like hearing an old song that takes you back to a time and place.
Unthinkable years in between, both for them and for Kerry Grist, because the worst stories are those without conclusion.
Now the McCanns have been told that the German suspect wrote about “capturing something small and using it for days”.
Grotesque words that prompt nausea and distress even to the outsider. Whatever the outcome now, I hope this time, the McCanns receive the support they need.
For in this story, Madeleine is the principal, but not the only, victim.