In 1934 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night was published. Its reception was muted: Fitzgerald, an almost forgotten figure now, was in the middle of the long alcoholic decline which ended in his death only a few years later and the subject matter, the activities of a group of rich American expatriates on the French Riviera in the nineteen twenties, was not in tune with current preoccupations. People in the depression-hit USA had other things to think about and, in truth, it wasn’t a terribly good book.
It was, however, noteworthy for its opening chapter. Fitzgerald wrote the whole section through the eyes of a young American woman, Rosemary Hoyt, overwhelmed by what she saw as the glamorous couple at the heart of the book, the young doctor Richard Diver and his beautiful blonde wife Nicole, usually seen sitting under their parasols on the beach with their two young children and a group of laughing friends nearby, a sunlit, glittering vision of life achieved.
“Nearest her, on the other side, a young woman lay under a roof of umbrellas making out a list of things from a book open on the sand. Her bathing suit was pulled off her shoulders and her back, a ruddy, orange brown, set off by a string of creamy pearls, shone in the sun. Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful. Her eyes met Rosemary’s but did not see her. Beyond her was a fine man in a jockey cap and red-striped tights; then the woman Rosemary had seen on the raft, and who looked back at her, seeing her; then a man with a long face and a golden, leonine head...”
Only later in the book, as we all get to know the Divers, does it become clear how little her superficial, gushing assessment of the couple had to do with the reality: she knew nothing about their inner lives and their relationship behind closed doors, nothing at all. Her belief, as she got to “know” them better, that they were “the perfect couple” – an essentially childish concept, like its close neighbour “the couple who had everything” - was a trick of the shimmering Mediterranean light and her own shallow and childish assessments. The reality beneath the surface which she had so willingly accepted turned out to be something very different.
“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...”
This extract comes from a lengthy newspaper piece on the McCanns by another holiday maker in Praia de Luz, a M/S Bridget O’ Donnell, described by The Guardian, with 50% accuracy, as a writer and television director. She had also been involved with television crime programmes. Unlike Fitzgerald’s book where events eventually impose reality on illusion, both the “writing” and the level of insight remain at this level of gushing unreality for almost the whole of the article.
“Throughout all this, I have always believed that Gerry and Kate McCann are innocent,” concludes M/S O’ Donnell, “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 was wrong. There were no drug-fuelled "swingers" on our holiday...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 of us. 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 we remember.”
The piece is striking in our context not for its assaults on the English language, nor the inadequacy of its observation, nor because this junk was written by someone who knew the McCanns about as well as Rosemary Hoyt knew the Diver family after watching them for an hour. No, its significance lies in the fact that these comical “assessments” could have - and did- come from the mouths any of the McCanns’ oldest and closest friends.
Meet Linda McQueen and Nicky Gill, described as the best friends of Kate McCann, fellow Liverpudlians who had grown up with her and still see her, it seems, every couple of months.
“She is lovely,” said Nicky, in the recognizable patois of the City of Sentiment, “you could not say a bad word against her. There is absolutely nothing to say that would make anybody think badly of her." Mrs McQueen added that, “They are very together. They have their vulnerable moments, and probably their dark moments as well, but ...they are the most loving, caring, family-oriented couple that you could ever meet. They are absolutely fabulous. Those three children are the world to them, as our children are to them as well." Mrs McQueen dismissed claims that Mrs McCann struggled being a mother. "I have never ever seen Kate run ragged in her life, ever. If anybody was meant to have three children under three it's Kate. She is just cool, calm, laid-back, just very together and very happy - I think because it is everything she wanted."
Nicky and Linda have known the McCanns since childhood. Susan Hubbard, the wife of the Anglican vicar in Praia da Luz who spent a little time with the McCanns in 2007 was in complete agreement. "They are the most unbelievably attentive parents," said Hubbard, adding as proof that, “they slather up their kids with sunscreen—they practically have a sunscreen suit. They say, 'No, you can't have that, eat the fruit." This startling insight into the parents’ family life allowed Hubbard to draw firm conclusions: “There's no doubt in my mind,” she added, “that they had nothing to do with this." Thirty years or thirty days or thirty minutes, the assessments and the conclusions are always the same.
Like Hubbard and the others the Tapas 7 unanimously described the couple as not just good parents but very special ones. Kate was described over and over by them as a “very cautious” mum, always very careful, veering on the over-protective, with her children’s care. But wait a minute, wait a minute, how does this square with what we have seen? Kate McCann simply couldn’t be accurately described as someone putting her children above all other considerations: just in the short period that we have been looking at it simply isn’t true. Kate McCann, as we have seen, put her children, for a few hours a day, well outside the protective parental circle. Even the worshipping M/S O’Donnell includes what little she knows of this bleak reality: almost hidden in the overripe vegetation of her prose we find a clearing, a more restrained paragraph, one which, no doubt, she’d spent much time on.
“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 [BOD’s husband] 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, [my italics] 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.”
There is no moral baggage or criticism involved in the observation that Kate McCann was very much not a “cautious and careful” parent during these few days: it is merely a matter of fact and it points towards a much more complex and human character than the sweet-smelling blonde void that has been so consistently presented to us, by herself and others. Perhaps there is a side of this rather over-determined lady, carrier of her parents’ fond hopes, that wants to throw the dice occasionally. Certainly there are deeper forces at work but what they are we don’t know.
Throw the dice? Consider: Kate McCann spoke of uneasy feelings, a premonition about the holiday even, before she left the UK. “Over attentive” she might well be, but in Praia de Luz, the fears seem to have been forgotten, discounted or very easily overcome. On the Tuesday night a Mrs. Fenn, the McCanns’ elderly upstairs neighbour and, as the only permanent resident of the apartment block, someone who clearly kept an eye and ear on what was going on, heard crying from the downstairs apartment, not babies’ crying but an older child’s, and not just a hissy fit: she described to the police prolonged sobbing and calling out “daddy” lasting from around 10.30 PM until 11.45 or so, ending only when the patio doors were heard being opened, presumably by the parents.
Mrs Fenn, while old, has her wits about her and she was insistent that this had happened on the Tuesday, when, of course, the Mark Warner Model half hourly “checking” was supposed to be in operation. In fact she gave the police the name of a friend whom she had described the incident to that night, so it is unlikely that she had the date wrong. So what had happened to the checking on only the second night of the routine? How could it have missed a child’s crying for over an hour?
The McCanns say that it didn’t, end of story. They have nothing to say about finding a crying Madeleine when they returned that night and nothing at all about missing any checks, something which the reader may believe or disbelieve as they feel fit. By Wednesday, though, there is no doubt at all that this famous “checking” had bitten the dust: members of the group confirm that this was a late night, that they went on drinking at the bar – heavily by their standards - after supper was finished and that for the last “forty minutes” or so – much more likely an hour at least – nobody made any checks.
Just why they all behaved in the same way during that period, rather than some of them, perhaps the “more cautious” ones, going back while the others remained at the bar is a mystery: something to do, perhaps, with the “emergent collective decision taking” so memorably described by Dr O’Brien. Probably it was an innocent enough matter of oh, come on girl, have one more drink, we’re all going up in a minute, as the clock ticked away. But over-cautious, or putting the children at the centre of your life, it was not. That night Kate McCann slept in the children’s room.
While both Kate and Gerry McCann make no mention of having heard their children crying, one person, it seems, confirmed that Mrs Fenn was not mistaken: the child herself. It was one of the very few moments that week that Madeleine McCann actually emerged as an individual with valid feelings of her own, rather than as a vague and unimportant memory – as in M/S O’ Donnell’s article – or a sickly sentimental bouquet of clichés. As Kate McCann told the police in her first statement, Madeleine had asked her on the Thursday morning just why she hadn’t responded to her cries. According to Kate the child never got an answer because she had never heard any crying. She then, according to the police record, “ignored her daughter's words because it was the first time she had talked about it.”
Premonitions, her daughter’s words, the fact that the group’s guard had dropped when the more serious drinking had started the previous night, might well have given Kate McCann – or anyone else – serious cause to brood on whether the evening routine should be changed, with perhaps one of them staying home while the other ate. Another of the couple’s numerous friends did quote Kate as saying in August 2007,”I wish I could roll back time and go back to the day before Madeleine was abducted. I would slow down time.” But no, it wasn’t anything to do with incautiousness, or any fancy acknowledgement of fate – someone else’s fate – tapping her on the shoulder, for she added the much more dramatic and completely unreal, “I’d think, where are you? Who are you? Who is secretly watching my family? Because someone was watching my family very, very carefully. And taking notes."
As she took her seat at the dinner table on the Thursday evening, before most of the others had arrived, she may well have had something nagging at her, though. Jane Tanner told the UK police, “I did have a conversation with Kate about, she’d said that she’d, Madeleine had said something strange about ‘Where were you last night when I woke up’. And, as I say, I can’t remember where in the meal she said this, but she did sort of say, oh I thought she said I thought that was a bit odd when, when Kate said, you know, Madeleine obviously she did say ‘Where were you when’, you know, I think she said ‘When Sean and I woke up’, I can’t remember whether it was when two of them woke up. So I think Kate was more worried that night, you know, whether leaving them was the, the right thing, or so to speak, so. So you were saying then about the frequency of the checks. I was just wondering if that was another reason, you know, why maybe the checks were more often [on the Thursday].”
It was perfectly understandable that Jane Tanner should have tiptoed her way through this passage of her questioning, given her knowledge of what had occurred in the past year, because it was fraught with all sorts of potential contradictions. Surely something as troubling as the “much-loved” Madeleine’s question might have evinced symptoms of serious concern, or even self-reproach in her mother at a time when she was, once again, leaving the child in an unlocked apartment. No, apparently not. “More worried,” than on previous nights, yes, whatever that may mean. But there couldn’t have been any signs of major distress because that would conflict with everything that people, including Jane Tanner, had been saying for a year about Kate McCann’s demeanour on the evening of May 3 - totally calm and untroubled, with obvious inferences to be drawn as to the impossibility of her hiding anything emotionally.
If all these recollections and portraits have established anything with certainty it is that nobody knew the McCanns, then or thereafter: they were a totally closed couple, who gave nothing of themselves, the parts that mattered, to anyone. Only one of the Tapas seven had any sort of friendship with the pair, the rest confirmed that they knew them at arm’s length, or Kate only, or hardly at all, and in any case they all admitted that the friendships within that tight group were on a superficial basis revolving around shared interests, not personalities. The “closest friends” who’d known Kate all her life hadn’t the slightest insight into the pair’s relationship and the real emotions, drives, dynamics, light and shadow within it. Punch Gerry McCann’s closest friend, or even close friend, into Google and you get either a blank or the name of an obscure New Zealander who played football with him a few times. The O’Donnells, the Hubbards, the media and PR people in their hundreds - including Alex Woolfall, their PR guru who said that the couple never even mentioned abduction after May 3 - they all knew the McCanns just as well as those who’d “known” them for decades. The fact is, the only people who have ever been remotely close to that bound and ungiving pair are their clans, from two of the very few clannish cities in the United Kingdom, where the kin structure means only one thing: unity against the outside world, whatever the circumstances. Nobody has ever been allowed in to know the McCanns, or their capabilities.