Absent friends

Kate and Gerry McCann are about to step forward into the lights.

There has been something blurred and fleeting in their appearances up to now. Yes, they were part of the group, but their days were spent away from it most of the time and they are usually described by the others from a distance: a green and white snapshot on the tennis courts, a glimpse of Kate on a punishing jog on her own above Praia de Luz, finally the cheerful chaos as the children are picked up from the crèche. As a couple they appear private and enclosed, with more than one of the seven saying that they’d never been to the McCann’s apartment before the night of May 3. Later, pressed by the police to say when they’d last seen Madeleine, their friends found it extremely hard to do so, hardly able, indeed, to place the movements of the family. They'd been around, certainly, hadn't been out of sight for long, but it was so hard to recall details exactly...

Few of the group, it turned out, could even claim to know them as friends. One of the men, when asked a question about relations between the McCanns, told the police that their friendships “weren’t like that,” that is, they didn’t stray into areas of emotional significance, once again suggesting, like the "Russell's getting relieved" jokiness at the tapas bar table , that their companionship was more that of a club football dressing room, or a golfing foursome, than of friends bound by deeply felt links. Even allowing for all that it is surprising just how far the McCanns were outside the rest of the circle and how recent or unformed the “friendship” was. The only true friendship appears to have been between the pair and the Paynes, with Fiona Payne clearly close to Kate and David Payne companionably at ease with Gerry. But even the Paynes told the UK police that, in Praia de Luz, “a lot of the time we didn’t tend to see Kate and Gerry - it was Russell and Jane primarily[we mixed with], I remember, and sometimes Matt and Rachael and Grace but generally Kate and Gerry would do their own thing during the day.”

And Fiona Payne, when asked if the only time she really saw Kate and Gerry was at the tapas bar, replied, “We saw them round and about during the day... I remember one afternoon I wandered down to the pool...and had a diet Coke by the pool with them, they’d just finished a tennis lesson...but we didn’t really do any activities altogether”.

Rachael Oldfield said that although they had known the pair for some years before the holiday they only ever met them at the Paynes, not independently. Matthew Oldfield, for his part, said he “didn’t know Gerry and Kate and their children so well,” and, as far as Praia de Luz was concerned, they saw less of them because, “Russell and probably Dave...we knew them better. Gerry and Kate were much more organised about their day and what they did and they had signed up for tennis lessons.”

Jane Tanner said she didn’t know the McCanns well either. Before they went on the trip, she told the police, “they were the two people in the group that - I knew we’d get on with Dave and Fiona, I knew we’d get on well with Matt and Rachael just because they’re our best friends but it was nice to be able to get to know Kate and Gerry better.”
“Your contact with Kate was limited to your tennis lessons and then to sort of just sitting socially?”"Yeah.”
"And with Gerry it was just limited to the social side?”
"It was mainly in the evening that we saw, well, after the high tea for the kids and afterwards in the play area with the kids and then, and then in the restaurant in the evening.”

Russell O’ Brien was supposed to be the friendliest, after the Paynes, but then it turned out that he didn’t know them that well either, although you have to work to discover it. Dr O’Brien, readers may have observed by now, could be very crisp when addressing subjects that animated him, like his treatment by the press, and very clear in his recollections when they concerned such things as the behaviour of the Portuguese police. On other matters he was considerably more vague and a great deal more prolix. He was asked the straight question, put in at the request of those same Portuguese police, “what kind of relationship is there between you and the McCann couple”?
“Yeah, sort of partially explained that there, erm so initially it was a working relationship with Gerry at work, then there was a series of err things, largely meetings at Dave and Fi’s house with the kids, yeah well and the fact that we had the kids the same age, err and it’s become erm you know, a friend, a friendship, although we, we wouldn’t sort of see them or necessarily contact them you know regularly, it was more you know that during, you know during err meetings with, with Dave and Fi at their house”.

So that’s clear then.

And about how often they met during the holiday, he replied:

“Erm it varied day to day, we’d certainly see them erm a number of times each day, err generally, we probably didn’t see them at breakfast time, they were, I say they, they played more tennis than sort of down at the water front I don’t think they did an awful lot down on the water front at all, so erm Jane probably saw slightly more of, of, of, of Kate and Gerry because she did a bit more tennis than me. We, we’d see the children and them often at lunch time on a number of days, we had joint lunches in one or other of the, of the rooms, erm that didn’t necessarily happen every day, high tea we would always see all the children and all the adults together when they were served, they were served their dinner, erm think it was about five or about quarter past five, something like that, err so at least three or four times a day, I mean we, people did do their own thing you know during the week as well and then obviously every, every evening, err we were, you know we, we all kind of congregated together”.

Taking a hosepipe and broom to that answer we can see that his reply was much the same as the others: regularly in the evenings, not very often during the day.

This surprising distance between the couple and others and the fuzziness in recollections of their activities - in very sharp contrast to the seven’s solid certainties about the McCann’s characters and what they were and were not capable of - runs like a leitmotif through what little can be discerned of their lives. Both born in 1968, both the children of artisan families with no particular advantages, Kate an only child, Gerry the youngest of five. The Healy’s from Liverpool, that tough, bitter, city of sentiment and decline, the McCanns Irish immigrants to the equally tough city of Glasgow. Both families Catholics and both attending Catholic schools, something of more importance to Gerry than Kate: Glasgow is still a city where your religion can matter when you're growing up.

Intelligence and determination, and no doubt firm parental encouragement, were the means that took them away from these thoroughly deprived surroundings, using the upward path of the professions and the comforting career structure of the NHS. Kate McCann, a high flier at school apparently, studied at the University of Dundee, her husband closer to home, at Glasgow. Gerry clearly the more ambitious, specialising, after a stint in sports medicine, in cardiology, not as a surgeon but as a diagnostician. Kate qualified as an anaesthetist, eventually going into general practice.

They met in 1995 at the Western Royal Infirmary before both taking posts in New Zealand for a year. Married in 1998. Their first child Madeleine was born in 2002.

Such are the bare facts of an unusually bare joint biography. Their known responses to their experiences, or any projections of themselves as individuals are vanishingly rare. There is a short Facebook entry by Gerry written – in contrast to the oppressive, strangled banality of his later, thousands of words long, “blogs” – in the usual bouncy, brainless Facebook style with limited details of what appears to be, as we have seen before, a rather limited life. There seem to be no records of how they see themselves and who they are. There are no recollections by anyone of why they wanted to go into a healing profession, or whether they had a sense of vocation, or even any interest in healing. Neither of their medical specializations involve the conscious patient very much – an output map from an MRI scanner and associated aids in one case, an unconscious and masked figure in the other. Kate’s later, and brief, experience in personal healing as a GP seems to have left hardly a trace. “Interests,” in the conventional sense, are conspicuously missing, except for sport. On the matter that separates them from the rest of the nine – the desire to have children early rather than late, the failure to do so and the IVF treatment that followed, some of it, apparently, in Amsterdam – almost nothing has been said, by them or others.

As in Praia de Luz, the people around them hardly seem to remember details at all. The newspapers’ routine trawl through their backgrounds revealed a tiny number of individual recollections but almost nothing of what they had ever actually done to strike people, apart from Gerry’s success in the under nineteen’s 1500 metre title championship and Kate’s apparent liking for a drink and a good time as a student. So faint was the trail they left behind that conspiratorially minded sleuths afterwards suggested that the usual suspects – the intelligence services and others – had suppressed their history.

Impressions, on the other hand, rather than description, as in Praia de Luz, were in plentiful supply once the child had disappeared, although, oddly, few of them seem to derive from their ex-patients. Everybody quoted in the media described them as popular or very popular, though few were actually able to say why. Coming to more recent times the universal opinion was that they were devoted to their children and were “brilliant” parents; these opinions, expressed after May 3, are of dubious value since the media will only say saccharine things about victims, but there is plenty of consistency in the accounts and no reason to disbelieve them.

There is also some consistency among the friends in Praia de Luz. Kate is described, with genuine warmth, as laid-back and “lovely,” a “perfect foil” to her more driven husband - the latter opinion receiving some independent confirmation later on, when, after Gerry had erupted at an interviewer’s unsuitable question and stormed out like an angry bull, leaving an empty chair and a manifest sense of unease behind him, Kate McCann remained where she was and murmured placidly to the media crew, “it’s all right, it’s just his way.” Comments by the seven about Gerry are, understandably, slightly different: his habit of talking at you as though you are a public meeting is alluded to a number of times, though there is no malice in the memory and clearly the relationship, except between him and David Payne, is one of respect rather than affection. But even that should be balanced by the seven’s – and others’ – memories of this taut individual, whose voice and manner recall the harsh ugliness of a Northern Ireland town, romping indulgently with his young children, a boyish smile on his face.

So they hover at the side of the stage, dim outlines – hard in Gerry’s case, attractively soft in Kate’s – rather than crisp visions, having left hardly a footprint behind them anywhere in almost forty years, only those impressions. If one of them had ever gained fifteen minute fame or notoriety, for medical triumph or medical misconduct, or anything at all, then their appearance on the stage might have had less dramatic consequences. As it was this strange absence, or ambiguity, of content meant that people, by the million, by the tens of millions, were able to fill in the shapes for themselves as they watched them step forward to confront the lights, Gerry’s shaking hand clutching his first speech, Kate’s holding the child’s soft toy like a dead rabbit: through the deforming power of the media’s cameras everyone was now free to create their own imaginary version of the pair, like a reflection in a cracked mirror.