Four weeks ago today, as a sunny Sunday came to a close, I sat in the restaurant of a hotel in Clare. Perched on a clifftop, the view was of huge Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, the surfers long gone as the last light drained from the sky. My husband was putting our children to bed in a family room two floors up. Our two-day break was nearly over. I say break, but as any parent with small children will tell you, ‘break’ is the most ill-conceived description of a holiday with young kids. Tons of fun, yes. A relaxing rest, no. After adventure parks and bouncy castles, beach strolls and round towers (where I managed to convince my son that Rapunzel lived), we decided to grab an hour or two to ourselves for dinner. The babysitter was booked, I ordered our main courses and although the view bordered on romantic cliché, it was insanely pretty. The minutes ticked by, other diners looked at me sympathetically. My wedding ring and the book of short stories I was reading did nothing to dispel she’s-been-stood-up glances of pity. I texted my husband. My normally well-behaved children, bitten by the holiday hyperactivity bug, were having none of it. After milk, umpteen stories and back-rubs, there was outright mutiny. Sleep? No way!
I mentally cancelled the crème brûlée I had seen on another diner’s table. After nearly an hour of wrangling, my husband gave up and sent the babysitter away. The kindly restaurant manager offered to send our food up to our room. My heart sank. I adore my children, and I thought of their impish faces as I wearily pushed the button for the lift – but everyone needs time out. At the time, I didn’t think of Kate and Gerry McCann. A harried doctor couple with three kids under four (including daughter Madeleine) attempting a family holiday, while stealing time for themselves; for the couple they were before they had children. I didn’t think of them, because at no point did my husband or I – as good as the view looked and the steak smelled – suggest to each other that we leave our children in the room alone. The McCanns stayed in an apartment a short distance (but completely separate from) the Tapas bar where they spent that fateful night. Our room was two floors up in the same building, with key card access, 30 seconds from the restaurant, but still the thought was not there. It wasn’t even that it was unuttered – it never entered our collective brains to begin with. Watching the McCanns being interviewed on The Late Late Show recently, I had a flashback to that Clare hotel. How could they have left their children alone?
It’s a question that every armchair critic and news corporation has been demanding of Kate and Gerry McCann. It’s probably the one they ask themselves every night as they go to bed without their daughter. On the last night of their stay in Portugal, they did what they had done every other night. They gambled. They made what they thought (must have thought, as I still don’t understand their rationale) what seemed like an innocuous choice. Food and drinks with friends versus leaving their young children untended. Not only was their decision as catastrophic as it gets, it has made them parental pariahs accused of everything from wife-swapping to sedating their child and much worse. They told Ryan Tubridy the story they’ve told a thousand times to Spanish police, to newspapers, to everyone they know. Clearly, it never gets easier. Kate’s face, as she talked of the horrific moment of realising her daughter was gone, was taut with pain. Online reactions to the interview were harsh. Too harsh. Because they have paid the ultimate price, and will have to live with unquantifiable levels of regret and guilt. I understand their lives were stressful, that they were tired parents, that they were eking out some downtime together in the evenings. That’s where I understand Kate and Gerry McCann. But that’s where my comprehension ends, because of the unfathomable decision they made that night.
In a Clare hotel, the food arrived to our room and we drank a glass of wine. My son and daughter wanted to taste the potatoes, in between bouncing on the beds and giggling. My heart nearly burst looking at them. Half an hour earlier, I could have screamed at them. Tired, I lay down and my daughter cuddled up beside me, her curls tickling my cheek. Her gorgeous face, all big-eyed and cheeky staring at me. Of all the memories we made that weekend, that was the one etched in my mind during the McCann’s interview, thankful that I can feel my daughter’s skin and smell her hair every day of my lucky life. And I feel nothing but pity for the McCanns because they cannot do the same thing.