In the shadow of the bogeyman

OUR Easter holiday this year was compressed into one night away in a hotel and our two children had a hand in picking somewhere nice. We found one that we all agreed upon and set about booking it. The price was reasonable and my husband wondered, for a split second, if we should get one room or two. "One room," said my eight-year-old firmly and almost without thinking. "Remember Madeleine."

So we got one room and none of us slept particularly well, especially the children, forced to share a bed when they find it hard

enough to share a house. But we had peace of mind, and peace of mind has become something of an obsession since 3 May last year; since Madeleine went.

We should never have known about the blonde-haired three-year-old from Rothley with the ready smile and the beautifully flawed eye, nor Kate and Gerry, nor Sean and Amelie and all their aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends. They should have remained blissfully anonymous; maybe a picture in the local Leicestershire paper when the twins started school; a mention for Gerry or Kate in a medical journal. They should have come back from Portugal on their flight with other British holidaymakers; an ordinary family, a family complete.

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But Madeleine was taken and a personal tragedy became the cautionary tale for our time. It did so because no crime, before or since, has so permeated the public consciousness at every level, nor confirmed, with such awful certainty, our worst imaginings.

I grew up with the story of Harriet and the Matches. But at least, when the lights went out, I could console myself with the fact that Harriet didn't actually burn to death when left alone by Mamma and Nurse because Harriet wasn't real.

There is no such comfort for my children's generation. They know the worst can happen because it did. The bogeyman came and took Madeleine from her bed. And for weeks on end they could not turn their heads nor take a breath without being reminded that he had. The press picked up our fear and shone it back at us.

In the immediate aftermath of her disappearance, friends reported their offspring, who had long since been sleeping through, waking in the middle of the night. Our own sought reassurance. Is it going to happen to me? You wouldn't leave us alone, would you? No, we said, and meant it; but hid the truth that we once had, in a hotel in London, while my daughter was sleeping, to go down to the restaurant for wine and grown-up chat.

And alongside the fears of our children grew a new form of distrust and paranoia, fed by that fact that Kate and Gerry had left the children to have supper with their friends, and by the continued and still feverish coverage.

Parents have always compared themselves to others, perhaps to try and convince ourselves that we are doing the best job possible in raising our children. Now, we looked at our peers with increasingly judgmental eyes.

"They've done a McCann," whispered a friend recently, gossiping about a couple who went to a neighbour's for supper and left their two children alone in their beds. We all tutted in disapproval, even though many of us had done similar things in the past. But of course, we wouldn't do it now, would we? How could they?

Indeed, even last year, academics were starting to talk of the 'McCann effect', a growing reluctance among parents to let their children out on their own for fear of being judged by other mothers and fathers.

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Holiday firms have also noticed that parents are now less likely to use hotel childcare services than once they were. A survey conducted recently found that parents were 62 per cent less likely to leave their children alone in a room using a baby listening service, or in the care of hotel or resort staff.

And speaking at a conference in Edinburgh, Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland, said the instant global coverage of Madeleine McCann had created a disproportionate fear among parents.

She said: "You feel you will be badly judged by your peer group if you do not move to the new norms of being seen to pay more attention to your child."

The thing is that even before Madeleine we were already a fearful culture, seeing shadows on every corner, ready to swallow up our offspring; paranoid about paedophiles, hoodies, devil dogs, drugs. The conference that Marguerite Hunter Blair was addressing heard that children were not getting enough free play, away from adults and in unstructured environments because some of us were too nervous about letting them go.

After Madeleine, many of us won't even consider it.

I have wondered, since it happened, if our newfound suspicion of other parents was what led so many of us to believe the very worst of the McCanns, based on little more than clumsy policing and a rash of increasingly outrageous headlines.

There were always those who suspected the couple from the start, including friends of mine, who said within days of Madeleine's disappearance, 'wait and see, it'll be the mum or dad that did it.'

But then, even sensible adults, who previously rolled their eyes at the worst excesses of the tabloids, began to devour every morsel they had to offer about the McCanns, no matter how flimsy or fanciful; accepted and mulled over headlines such as 'Maddie Mum Sold Her'.

The press has been taken to task for its casual damnation of the McCanns, with the unprecedented apologies on the front pages of the Daily Express and the Daily Star and their Sunday stablemates. But what have we learned from this tragedy, beyond a sharpened instinct to keep our children claustrophobically close, and a new-found tendency to be holier than thou with our peers?

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I like to think it is the ability to pull together when it really matters. Because that's what we did when Madeleine disappeared. We rallied. We wore T-shirts with her picture emblazoned on the front. We ran races to raise money and awareness. We chain-lettered and e-mailed and lobbied anyone who would listen. I remember reading about a mother and daughter, with no connection to the McCanns, who travelled to the Algarve to hand out home-made posters. Misguided maybe, but it can't have hurt and it was done with heart.

And the most remarkable thing, for this increasingly sceptical and distrustful nation, is that sense of a community closing protectively around a child in the direst of need was repeated with Shannon Matthews, no matter how clouded or messy her alleged abduction has now become. It was a very different case from the start. An older girl, trusted with the walk from school, apparently reluctant to return home. But the minute they heard Shannon was gone, Dewsbury turned out to find her, leafleting, searching, marching, lobbying.

And the next time it happens – and there will be a next time – we will hopefully do the same. Be able to see nothing beyond the fact that a child has gone and help is needed.

And what of the McCanns themselves one year on? Gerry is back at work. Kate, we hear, has some good days among the black; the twins still talk to Madeleine as they play.

They have given a couple of interviews to mark the anniversary. Speaking on TV and radio at the weekend, Gerry McCann restated the couple's deep regret at leaving the children in the apartment. "We made a mistake, but we are paying for it more than anyone could possibly imagine," he said. Their 'arguido' status still stands and they have had no direct contact with the Policia Judiciaria, whose investigation remains apparently stagnant and still shrouded in secrecy. Last month the couple were at the European Parliament, pushing for a Europe-wide amber alert system, to help spread the word between nations of abducted children. It's a hugely worthy cause and long overdue. At the moment, only Belgium and France have introduced national alert systems which warn of abductions, and co-operation between the countries of the EU in this area is at best patchy, at worst non-existent.

America has proved that the system can work and work astoundingly well. Hopefully, this new campaign gives Kate and Gerry some crumb of comfort, some sense of action and purpose to help fill the void.

But Kate spoke then of the devastation they still endure, their horror at the pain and fear that Madeleine must have gone through, may indeed still be going through. To watch her talk before the MEPs, you have to wonder where she is getting the strength to keep going, keep functioning. Who do you look to for true understanding and guidance when your child has been taken from you in such a manner?

Maybe Kerry Grist, the mother of Ben Needham, the 21-month-old boy who went missing on the Greek island of Kos almost 17 years ago. She has been called upon since Madeleine's disappearance to try to explain what the McCanns might be going through. She has spoken eloquently of the undiminished anguish, of watching her boy grow up only in computer-generated images released by the police.

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And as she talks, you could see in her face, fainter, but still there, that same look that haunts Kate McCann. The same enduring agony, and the same reckless, desperate hope. But it is hope and Kerry Grist also has a belief that one day she will be reunited with her son, as Kate and Gerry still believe that Madeleine will come home.

"You live every day just thinking someone is going to walk through the door with him," said Kerry. "There is something that drives me on to keep looking, keep looking and keep fighting for him."

It is a mantra that has been repeated by the McCanns. And in that, they are not alone. However we may have judged them, no matter how altered a society we have become as a result of their loss, we haven't stopped looking or hoping either. When all is said and done, we want what they want. We want the fear to subside. We want Madeleine home.

• www.findmadeleine.com

"The feeling you get is, 'what's happened is not our fault, it's down to the parents'"

THE deep blue sea still sparkles in the warm sunshine that gives the resort its name – "beach of light" – and the usual scenes continue to be played out: red-faced holidaymakers lick ice-creams, retired expats sit in bars grumbling about Britain and locals quietly try to make a living.

But there is now an indefinable sadness in the cobbled streets of this former fishing village in the Algarve. Nearly all the posters of Madeleine McCann have been taken down and many people do not want to talk about her disappearance on 3 May last year.

Yet the mystery of what happened to the little blonde girl has deeply scarred Praia da Luz. Locals say they do not want the village to be known as the "place where Madeleine was snatched", but it is now inescapably linked to her vanishing.

In fact, certain locations have become macabre tourist attractions, or at best sites of pilgrimage. Visitors stop to take pictures outside the McCanns' holiday apartment in the Ocean Club resort before moving on to the home of Robert Murat, the first official suspect in the case.

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There is not much to see. Apartment 5A's shutters are all down and the gate to the back door is chained and padlocked. Mr Murat has left the village for the weekend to avoid any more publicity.

A few holidaymakers lounge beside the pool next to the tapas restaurant where Kate and Gerry McCann and their friends were dining on the night Madeleine went missing. They try to ignore the handful of film crews shooting footage for anniversary specials.

The media presence is muted now, another sign that the world is starting to move on from Praia da Luz and its terrible secret.

The pretty white and yellow church of Our Lady of Light near the seafront is the village's focal point – the McCanns were regular visitors in the weeks and months after Madeleine disappeared.

Notices on the board in front of the church in English and Portuguese invite people to attend a service of prayers for the missing girl.

Among the holidaymakers stopping to look at the church were Phil and Sue Walker, from Stockport, Cheshire.

Mr Walker says: "I don't know what people's opinion of Luz is now because people tend to overreact. I'm sure there must be people who say 'I don't think I'll go there', which is a shame because it's as safe as anywhere."

Christine Blair, 42, who moved from London to Praia da Luz last November, says: "The Portuguese are a bit reluctant to talk about the Madeleine case. But if you do get them to talk about it, the feeling you get is 'What's happened is not our fault, it's down to the parents'."

She adds: "I feel sorry for the Portuguese because you can see where it has affected them. Any Portuguese person you speak to, the first thing they say is, 'God bless that child'."