The inability to make sense of what has happened, and the resentment at the fate that has befallen them for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, runs like a thread through the UK police interviews. And understandably so: they had by then been run through the rumour mill in a particularly crushing way, accused of almost everything, from gross child neglect, through sexual perversion to premeditated murder. Jane Tanner, for example, the most emotional and expressive of this emotionally rather buttoned-up crowd, breaks down as she describes her shock at being called a liar and fantasist. Her partner Russell O’Brien is bitter and talks of getting revenge on the media one day. Mathew Oldfield, on the right of the High Court photo, is clearly still so cross that he might just burst out of his shockingly ill-fitting jacket. Their feelings are reflected to a greater or lesser extent by the entire group: how, they ask, could “anyone in a million years” – a frequent phrase - have predicted what would happen on May 3? Any sense of having helped shape events by their decisions, however well-meaning, or that their own personalities might have played a role in what happened, is absent: instead there is a slightly strange, teenager-like, attitude that the world has let them down. They are, genuinely, innocents abroad.
But perhaps not that strange. Many of us have known one of these tight-knit provincial university groups who somehow manage to keep in touch with each other - sometimes with the dreaded round-robins or their Facebook equivalents - for decades after graduating, and whose aims and interests, such as they are, are deeply entwined. This one seems to have shared, in career terms, the long view, a determination to make the most of their middling talents and a willingness to forgo youthful diversions on the steady upward march to “success”, that beguiling phantom of the future, with children scheduled for the appropriate time, accommodation increasing steadily in size – the McCanns’ Rothley house providing a stunning example of their domestic tastes – and, eventually, no doubt, a Mediterranean villa to linger in or retire to, probably the first in their respective families.
The National Health Service, that vast, over-inflated monopoly bureaucracy, so often more welcoming to its employees than to its patients, was the comforting arena for their dreams and struggles, the latter rarely involving any risk to pocket or possessions. So, single minded, decent, in many ways admirable people these, sharing the slightly mindless interests of medical students, growing apart, in the modern way, from their family origins, sharing also, due to their institutionalization in the NHS and despite their exposure to the sufferings of patients, a certain blinkered innocence about the teeth and claws of real life waiting in the shadows for all of us.
And, indeed, with these interests, their very young children and their collective boyishness, which embraces the ladies as well, with the exception of the aging in-law Diane Webster, it is easy to forget just how old they are. The running joke which caused so much mirth at the chilly dinner table on May 3 - that Jane Tanner was going to “relieve”, snigger, giggle, her partner back at the apartment – seems more suited to a university bar or rugby changing room than to the evening meal of a hospital consultant with receding hair, his colleagues and their partners. Perhaps this collective naivety, now coming under pressure from the realities of approaching middle age, is the key to the first of a series of failures of judgement that they made: their absolute unwillingness to accept that having infants in the family changes everything for ever, including such trivia as the planning of holidays.
Dr David Payne, our consultant on the left of the picture, and his wife - the stance and expression of the latter reflecting a certain admirable je ne regrette rien - were the initiators of the holiday. Clearly comfortable in the role of organiser, if a slightly bumbling one, and accepted as the “leader” of the group, whether through his talent or through a certain lofty, if amiable, presence, Doctor Payne described its origins (the italics are all mine) thus:
"The first ... concept of a group holiday was when we went to Italy for our wedding... we had all of the guests staying there for that weekend, and it was fantastic. We had children staying there and everyone came and said what a fantastic time they’d had so that was the beginning.”
He added, “Subsequently…we had holidays with other people, we went away with Kate and Gerry and other friends to Majorca and …although it was very hard, difficulties with our child sleeping wise and it’s hard work, still you appreciated the fact that there’s a group of you there and we subsequently had been away with Russell, Jane, and Matt and Rachael on another group holiday the year after that, and …it is much easier when you have a group of children, it’s great for the parents and you’re all at a similar stage in life with the way that they’re growing up. We were always looking to continue that yearly holiday.”
To each his own. It is surprising that Payne talked about the work involved and yet still felt that a group of children was “easier” and it is also questionable if the successful Italian weekend in 2003, when only the McCanns had a child, had any relevance to later times, particularly 2007 when five of the children were under three and three of them were only one. “We were looking to go on that type of holiday where we had all the amenities that Mark Warner offer so they’ve got the sporting facilities, they’ve got the crèche facilities for the children... so that, that kind of holiday was what we were looking for.”
Fiona Payne: “all those Mark Warner holidays were very much the same, different resorts but the same sort of layout, the same hypothesis of having kid time and adult time”. She also said, “They all offered a babysitting service. When Dave and I went we didn’t have children, but we were very aware, we met lots of couples that were using the baby listening service.”
And Mathew Oldfield, roped in by the Paynes said, "... some of us had been to various Mark Warner resorts before, the Greek one in Lemnos, originally before Grace was born, a last minute deal and it was great, it was all inclusive, we all like sport and sunshine it was...just a very relaxing place to go, and we were quite keen to do that again because everybody in the group is pretty sporty, if you have a lot of people together you can share sort of the child care arrangements and it’s also very relaxing for everybody.” And then added, bemusingly, “...when we went to Greece it was like the fastest holiday I’d ever been on because there was only about an hour when they [the children] were asleep at lunch each day and a couple of hours in the evening where you were actually sort of off child care duties, so the week went by in about sort of six hours, it was all sort of, it was very quick.”
Jane Tanner was asked the obvious question at her interview – what plans had she made for what she would be doing and what the children would be doing on the forthcoming Praia de Luz trip?
"Er,” she replied, “we didn’t really think. I think we thought Ella would definitely be going to the kids club because I almost felt bad that she wasn’t getting that much kid attention in Exeter. And Evie probably to the kids club in the morning but then stay with us in the afternoon and that morning would give, well me a break you know to do, to do something else but at that point I hadn’t really, I hadn’t really thought about what that would be or, you know, whatever.”
It should be clear by now that none of the group, save possibly Kate McCann with her premonitory worries, were thinking clearly about the holiday, for reasons outlined above and, no doubt, because young children can make you loopy. At no time were they able to answer the question of whether it was a group of families or a group holiday with children attached. There was nothing reprehensible or neglectful about this and clearly there is no evidence of any hidden motives: it was just a lousy, lousy, decision, of the sort that we can all make at different times but worsened, in this case, by the tight psychological similarities of a group that still, deep-down, saw themselves as couples.
It has to be said, however, that the Paynes, having roped everyone into a venture that started with their own inner needs - “we were always looking to continue that yearly [group] holiday” - and having unintentionally chosen a resort which made a bad decision worse, made some pretty appropriate follow-up choices: they took Fiona’s mother with them, they made sure they got a large apartment and they took a highly effective baby-monitor along, neglecting, perhaps, to suggest that the others do the same. The result was that for them the holiday was indeed reasonably relaxing, more or less what they wanted, and they were able to sit at the supper table floating free of the time consuming and frantic silent-movie “checking” routine apparently taking place on all sides.
Looking again at the photo on the court steps it is very easy to picture the chronically unpunctual but otherwise unruffled Dr Payne, sitting, slightly smugly, with his wine glass close to hand,at the misleadingly named “tapas” bar table. One rather gets the feeling that that’s how things have often turned out for David and Fiona Payne, but not necessarily for others around them.