Never in a million years...

Matthew Oldfield: “It’s just we are sort of fairly similar...we’re sort of from the same background, we have similar issues about child rearing, which is why we sort of get on.”

Matthew Oldfield, despite the anger that could overtake him at their collective fate, was one of the more laid-back members of the group. Not querulous, like Russell O’Brien, who typically spent some hours of his UK police interview making nit-picking and sometimes self-serving corrections to his statement, Oldfield described himself as “somewhere between” the fumbling David Payne and the thoroughly driven motormouth Glaswegian Gerry McCann. Tall and fit, greying, conventionally good looking, the granite face, without a sensual feature to it, speaks of a certain decency, strength and determination in the eyes and mouth as well as a sense of modesty. The latter might well have contributed to the swelling discomfort manifest on the High Court steps: Matthew Oldfield, in contrast to his wife, doesn’t like being the centre of attention.

Not only does Rachael Oldfield look a great deal more comfortable in the limelight than her partner but all the women in the group, with the exception of the virtually invisible Dianne Webster, overshadow their men in one way or another. Fiona Payne’s mother may have been a mindless nonentity but the glamorous Fiona, whose outfits look like they may have eaten up a fair chunk of the family budget, is clearly one of those ladies who straightens her husband’s tie before they step out of doors. Kate McCann’s blonde, ambiguous, looks constantly and notoriously stole the public attention from her husband, whose greyish, pin-eyed and argumentative face is, admittedly, about as photogenic as the River Clyde on a November day. Rachael, the self-possessed networker, an amusing, amused but coldly ambitious lady who looks very happy indeed to be Rachael Oldfield, clearly has enough oomph for both she and partner Matthew, with possibly some left over. As does the dark haired, slightly Celtic looking, Jane Tanner, the least conventionally pretty but in many ways the most interesting-looking, as well as the most thoughtful, of the ladies: pictured in her company the weak and rather unconvincing features of her partner Russell O Brien look as though they’ve had an airbrush run over them. Of none of the ladies, despite their ages, does the word maternal spring to mind.

That this combination of talent, flair and ambition could make such an utter hash of their childcare arrangements once the Millennium restaurant (of which, Dianne Webster said, getting her priorities right as usual, that “the food wasn’t very good either”) had proved its unsuitability, has been a source of perplexity and suspicion for investigators and many of the public alike, particularly among the Latin Catholic Portuguese of the Algarve, where the idea of excluding the children from meal times, let alone leaving them on their own, is, as we have seen, simply incomprehensible.

The choices, after all, were simple enough: with the daytime activities sorted out on the Sunday the sole question was what to do about the evening meals. Given that none of them, understandably, fancied the idea of carting the children to an evening crèche some distance away, the obvious solution was to find someone, either a local person, or one of the off-duty English staff, to act as a patrolling baby sitter with access to their apartments. At between ten and fifteen euros an hour, say, three hours a night would cost the three couples – one does not get the impression that the Paynes were going to hurl money into the kitty – around eighty euros each to cover the remainder of the holiday.

Dr Gerald McCann has made a great many comments about his ill-fated trip and, indeed, about a vast number of other things but explaining just why such an obvious step wasn’t taken doesn’t appear among them. Nor have the 7 felt able to enlighten us. Perhaps it was, indeed, money: they are a notably careful lot and at this stage of their lives may have felt there wasn’t much to spare on top of the holiday costs. It can’t have been intellectual stupidity. And – here come the sleuths! - the idea that it was a deliberate act to avoid outside scrutiny of their activities accords neither with what we know of their personalities, nor with any supporting evidence. Certainly finding and organizing such assistance would have bitten into another day or so of their holiday, just as the inferior alternative of buying more baby monitors would have done, assuming that these were even available in Lagos. Even so the decision to do the evening supervision themselves is hard to explain, contradicting as it does their expressed desire for some – by no means undeserved - “social time on our own”.

The tendency to inadequate judgement outside their own narrow vocational fields which I have described and characterised earlier seems to have been, once again, the cause, coupled, perhaps, with holiday inertia. The way in which they implemented the decision, as we shall see though, involved something more, something relatively unusual in a group of nine adults - the absence, temporary or otherwise, of anyone with adult common sense and concentration. This apparently average “middle-class” group – as our class obsessed UK media love to describe them – was as I wrote before, seriously deprived in imagination and experience and, underneath the apparently conventional surface, rather weird.

Fiona's somewhat blurred mother

Quite where the hazy and indistinct figure of Dianne Webster fits into this pattern is another matter. Subject to none of the constraints of the rest of the group in upbringing and occupation, she should, surely, have provided perspective and perhaps even wisdom for her daughter and her younger companions in their approach to family life. Some hope. At an age when many people are at the peak of their careers with all their marbles intact she gives the impression of a badly worn ninety-four-year old clutching a glass of port, with neither advice, impressions, observations, judgement, a hint of wisdom or even memory, to contribute to anybody or anything.

By the time of the UK interviews this lady may well have been in neurotic fear that something, somewhere, had gone very wrong and that her obvious ability to put her foot in her mouth unless closely watched – one can almost see her husband’s glare - might unintentionally make her daughter and the others look neglectful of their children. Under such circumstances an apparently poor memory is by no means a crippling burden. In any event her recollection of events is comprehensively worthless, typified by the contrast between her May 4 2007 interview and her UK deposition. Had she noticed anything unusual on the holiday, she was asked in May, anything which could be linked to the investigation? Nothing at all. A year later she remarked, with a sort of dull, sit-com, certainty, that oh, yes, they’d clearly been under observation by a potential abductor at all times. He’d chloroformed the McCann children too. The kindest things one can say about her are that she does not seem a liar and that she may well have aged prematurely, and leave it at that.

But the whole question of supervision and “checking” has become so loaded since May 3 that most of the statements made about it by all those involved, not just Dianne Webster, are of debatable value, not because the 7 (I exclude the McCanns) were liars but because the issue was tied up, in both their statements and their own minds, with problems of guilt, shame, self-preservation, loyalty to the unfortunate McCanns and bewilderment. They spoke, for example, about the decision to eat at the tapas bar and look after the children themselves as if it had somehow “emerged” without much discussion.

“We just saw the tapas bar,” said Fiona, “and thought, oh that’s great, we’ve got somewhere to eat, it’s easy, we could keep an eye on the kids, get them to bed when they’re tired and, erm, you know everyone’s a winner really.” And at another point she said, “I think, you know, once we, the following day we got more to grips with the layout of the place ... we sort of saw the Tapas Bar and that well that looks ideal, you know, to eat.” And Jayne Tanner added, "...we sort of thought, at that point we thought we can either do it between ourselves and one night one couple you know stay back and then do the baby listening when we found where we were and the proximity to the restaurant we just thought if we are checking and doing the baby listening as is done in other Mark Warner resorts we should be okay, which it obviously wasn’t, but that was, that was the thought process behind it.”

Just how much the subject, and its implications, were actually discussed is smothered under a certain amount of flannel. It is quite clear that none of the 7 were willing to admit that any one person suggested the idea, or that is was a consciously agreed decision in the knowledge that there were risks. “In relation to the child care issues it was a collective decision made as a group,” said Russell O’Brien to the UK police, in one of his characteristically pompous comments, suggestive of a certain, shall we say, defensiveness. As often in his interviews, Dr O’Brien sounded more like a tight-lipped social worker defending his performance to a tribunal rather than a witness trying to help reconstruct the truth of events. And the line that, far from worrying about potential risk – which implies ultimate legal responsibility - they were simply duplicating exactly what Health & Safety compliant Mark Warner would have done, speaks more about the advice of expensive lawyers than the reality.

“So what sort of arrangements did you come to as a group in respect of checking on the children?” Rachael Oldfield was asked by her police questioner. “That we would just check our own children,” she replied briskly, ( Rachael does a lot of brisk) “we’d go and have dinner [at the tapas bar]and then we’d sort of run back you know every fifteen twenty minutes and have a listen at the door and make sure nobody’s screaming their head off.”

And she added, “Because The Millennium had been a bit of trek and a bit too stressful with all the kids and it was thought it would be quite nice to have dinner by ourselves, so I booked a table for eight thirty in the Tapas...we thought we’d do our own baby listening as if we’d been in another Mark Warner resort where that would have happened.”

All very simple. Like having the kids in the bedroom of your own home while you sit in the garden fifty - or is it twenty? - metres away. Jane Tanner, slightly contradicting her comments above, made it clear that it wasn’t like supper in your own garden at all – after all such homely events are not normally preceded by a Risk Assessment. She admitted, “...we were just weighing it up and it seemed a reasonable risk, well I did think of it as a reasonable risk then it just, we thought it would be fine.”

At this point alert readers may have noted that the McCanns make no appearance at all at this crucial time, which seems, to put it mildly, odd, considering Dr McCann’s firm views on just about everything and considering also that it was he and Kate McCann, as parents of three young children, who were by far the most affected by this “collective decision”. It seems rather unlikely that he was uninvolved, doesn’t it? It is much more probable that, in the absence of Leader Payne - who, with his supportive mum-in-law and baby monitor, was out of this particular loop - Gerry McCann would have been closely, and characteristically loudly, involved in the final decision. No doubt the group subsequently felt that it would be wrong and unfair to say so, hence the other reason for O’ Brien’s disingenuous comments about group decisions.

But the various strangled circumlocutions of the 7, all those “ it was thoughts,” “collective decisions”, “ we sort of thoughts” , disguising the individual responsibility and implying the “emergence” of a decision, as in the election of a pope, cannot disguise the fact that debate did take place. Not only had Jane Tanner assessed the risks but as Matthew Oldfield confirmed:

“...we’d thought about it [leaving the children alone in their rooms] and talked about [it] in between couples and between Rachael and I was, I mean, the worst thing you go well, you know, why are you worrying so much? They’re locked in, they’re safe, the worst thing that can happen is they wake up and not really know where you are for five, ten minutes, and first that’s pretty unlikely, Grace sleeps all the way through nearly, you know, nine times out of a hundred, and at worst she’s gonna be upset for ten minutes and then you’re gonna be, you’re gonna be there err just the thought of something like this is just completely just out of our experience.”

So Rachael Oldfield, for example, did have doubts, and was reassured, or persuaded by Matthew; Jane Tanner was aware that it was risky. Kate McCann had had her premonitions about the holiday; the safety issue was explored between the couples. No, not at all like your average garden supper. And yet they went ahead with the men and with the wrong decision - and then they all worsened it immeasurably with their grotesque failure to secure the apartments, which we shall come to in detail below.

It really does seem that all of them - save Dianne Webster.who was not consulted and was probably making sandwiches or staring into space - were imaginatively incapable of putting themselves in the position of a terrified child at risk, the limitations of their personalities coming once more to the fore. “There’s obviously this image,” concluded Jane Tanner, “that we were like ah, fuck the kids, we’ll go off to the Tapas bar they’ll be fine, and it wasn’t like that at all.” And she was telling the truth: it wasn’t. But using, significantly, a Kate McCann phrase, she added, “We just don’t imagine in a million years.”

Imagine what? Fire? Bizarre and unlikely accident? An intruder? Is it really that inconceivable? People a little less sheltered than these narrowly dedicated - or should it be, especially in the case of Gerry McCann - focused professionals, rich or poor, might find such things all too easy to imagine. For every aspiring Tapasite in the embrace of a safe provincial university and the National Health Service or convention circuit, there were plenty of others who'd strayed beyond Mark Warner and had their pockets picked in Madrid or Athens, or who’d come home in their youth to Moss Side or London, to find a dealer or a hooker in their doorway, vomit in the hallway, or their rented rooms smashed, burgled and ransacked.

“It’s just we are sort of fairly similar,” said Matthew Oldfield, “ ...we’re sort of from the same background.”