Kerry Grist heard about the abduction of Madeleine McCann ten days ago. She was in the car with her husband, listening to the radio. “I didn’t catch it at first but Craig said, ‘Did you hear that?’”
She went home and turned on the TV, and the rolling news about the three-year-old girl, abducted in the Algarve, has been on screen virtually ever since. “I can’t switch it off,” Kerry says. Indeed, she keeps it on throughout our conversation. “I want to see what is happening.”
If there’s anybody who knows how Madeleine’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, feel right now it’s Kerry, whose toddler Ben disappeared in similar circumstances on the Aegean island of Kos 16 years ago.
In the years since then she’s attempted suicide, walked out on her daughter, and watched her family fall apart. Gradually, she and her family started to put their lives back together but the news from Portugal has been overwhelming.
“It brought it all back. I broke down, a couple of days ago. I was in pieces. I felt helpless and useless. And nobody can help.”
I can’t say I was looking forward to meeting Kerry Grist. For more than a week, I’ve scrupulously avoided newspaper and TV coverage of Madeleine disappearance, and wondered why my wife followed with avid horror this parent’s worst nightmare.
Like most parents, I’m incapable of reading such stories without projecting myself into them, and feeling a terrible pang about my own three-year-old daughter.
My wife has found a particular resonance. Some time ago, we booked a holiday in the Algarve, and all week she’s been hinting that we should cancel it. For several days I’ve responded with the cool voice of reason: a) no resort could possibly allow such a thing to happen twice, b) it’s just as likely to happen in Italy, or France, or even at home in London, and c) we must simply keep a close eye on our daughter at all times.
Furthermore, I had misgivings about the endless news coverage. I could see that Madeleine’s disappearance was awful, but surely it was a one-off. The rolling news and endless commentary creates a climate of fear. The result, I pontificated, will be a generation of children never allowed to taste independence and danger.
But then I was assigned to interview Kerry. I read as much as I could about Ben’s disappearance, and Madeleine’s. As a result, I’ve changed my mind about our holiday. I still don’t think anything would happen to us in the Algarve. But a holiday there would feel distasteful – like swimming in the Indian Ocean after the tsunami.
And I didn’t only change my mind about the holiday. Even before I’d visited Kerry, at her council house in Sheffield, I ceased to fuss when my wife got up in the night to fetch our sleeping daughter and plonk her in the middle of our bed.
“It’s like a car accident,” says Kerry. “You think it can’t happen to you. But it can.”
We talk in her sitting room. Her hair is sleek. She wears a dazzling white top with black spangled jeans. The varnish on her fingernails is crimson. She smokes a great deal indeed, and did so before Ben was born. On a shelf, she has a photograph of him with an unlit fag jauntily dangling from his lips and the remainder crumpled in a box. “He was mischievous, he was cheeky. He got that from my brothers. I told him, ‘Mummy needs those,’ but he scrunched them all up. You couldn’t be cross with him.”
The miserable story of Ben’s disappearance began in 1990, when Kerry’s parents Eddie and Christine Needham left Britain for a new life in Kos. They took with them two of their three children, Stephen, then 17, and Danny, 12.
It didn’t take long to persuade Kerry, a 19-year-old single mother, to join them in the Greek sunshine with Ben.
On July 24, 1991, Kerry was working at a bar and the rest of the family were at a remote cottage they were building. It was lunchtime, Ben ran in and out, pouring water over his head, by way of entertainment for the grown-ups. Stephen decided to go off for a swim and went outside to get on his scooter. Ben asked him for a ride – he’d been on the back of the scooter before. But Stephen said no. He told the child to go in to his grandpa and grandma and drove away. He didn’t look back.
Three minutes later, when Christine looked outside, Ben had gone. She assumed that Stephen had taken him. As a result, the police weren’t informed of Ben’s disappearance till the early evening. If he had been kidnapped, the culprits had a head start of at least five hours.
Racketeers are known to have abducted toddlers in Greece to sell to wealthy, childless couples. Police told the family that blue-eyed, blond youngsters are particularly valuable, often ending up in Australia or the US.
Kerry is constantly tortured by the idea of Ben crying for her as he was taken. Was he hysterical? Did they have to put their hand over his mouth to stifle his screams?
Over the years there have been more than 300 sightings of boys thought to be Ben. Often the Needhams hear about them only months after, adding to their feelings of helplessness and anger.
Kerry has said in the past that if her family had been influential rather than working class all the stops would have been pulled out for them. I point out that the McCanns, both doctors, seem to have had fuller support from the British officialdom.
“I’m pleased for the family that they had a lot of support with British police going out. We didn’t have that.
“And the British ambassador has helped them. We didn’t get anyone from the British embassy.
“And I know that the Portuguese police haven’t interrogated the McCann family. We were interrogated for days.” (The Greek police were convinced Ben had been murdered, possibly by a member of his own family.)
Is she, despite her best intentions, jealous of the McCanns’ treatment? “It’s not jealousy. We just didn’t have any help. But maybe the officials have learned from our experience, and that’s helped the McCanns.
“If we had had the help and support that Madeleine’s parents have had we might have stayed in Greece longer. But we were ill. My mum lost weight, she dropped to six stone. My dad didn’t eat for days on end. We had gone there to work for a living, and when the food and the money ran out we had nothing.”
They sold everything they had to pay their way home. That included many of Ben’s possessions. All Kerry kept were a few teddies and a set of farm animals. She’s still got them.
Returning to Britain homeless, penniless and broken-hearted, she was put up by the council. She created a room in readiness for Ben’s return, painstakingly cutting out pictures of his favourite, Winnie the Pooh, to stick all over the walls.
It did her no good. She’d wake in the night thinking she could hear Ben crying. Counselors advised her, when she moved house, to avoid making another such shrine. (She complied, but still keeps a spare room, ready for when he returns.)
It would be easier, she says, if he’d been found dead. “It’s only because I think he is alive that I carry on inflicting the pain on myself. If he was dead you would never forget him but you can go through the process of grieving.”
Years ago, Kerry tried to kill herself, overdosing on anti-depressants. “I just wanted to be numbed. My life just seemed worthless. There was a big hole in my life, and nothing filled that. I thought, my Mum had my dad and my brothers had each other. It was not that I didn’t love them. But I thought they would all be OK because they had each other.”
Mercifully, she was found in time by a friend.
“Some days you think you are coping properly, but the next day you are knocked off your feet. Some of it is guilt. When it consciously hits you that you are living a normal life you feel worse.”
Grief counsellors have explained that Kerry must overcome that guilt, for the sake of her daughter, Leighanna, who was born after Ben disappeared, to the same father. “They say, ‘Leighanna is the child that is here, now, and she needs to live a normal life.’”
(Kerry split up with the father, Simon Ward, years ago. She was subsequently engaged to a former boxer, and recently married builder Craig Grist.)
These days, Leighanna thinks of herself as Ben’s big sister. “She’s only seen Ben as a toddler. In our mind he is still small.” In fact, Ben will be 18 in October if he’s still alive – older than Kerry was when she gave birth to him.
On his birthday, Kerry and Leighanna light a candle to Ben, beside his photos, and write him a birthday card. As often as not, Kerry spends the whole day in bed, seeing nobody. She tries not to commemorate the anniversary of his disappearance – making herself busy instead with lots of ironing or tidying up.
When Leighanna was two – the same age as Ben at his disappearance – Kerry vanished. “I tried to be somebody else. Instead of ‘Kerry Needham, Ben’s mother’, I wanted people to know me as me.” She’d left Leighanna with her parents and simply stopped answering their calls. What made her go back? “I got a message from Simon telling me his father had died and that brought it back to me that I still had a family.” She went to see her parents, who welcomed her without recrimination. “And Leighanna looked up and said, ‘Mummy! Mummy!”
When she meets people now, does she tell them about Ben?
“I tend not to meet people now! I don’t trust anyone. I’m suspicious of people. You trust people and they let you down.” A succession of opportunists, conmen and ill-wishers have latched on to the family. “My brother’s Danny’s girlfriend burgled my mum’s house and took the money we needed for Ben. Why would she do that?”
Kerry’s brother Stephen has also suffered. He was 17 when Ben disappeared, and he was the last person to see him. After Ben’s disappearance, Greek police repeatedly suggested that Stephen had been involved in a motorcycle accident with Ben, causing the boy’s death, and had buried him. “It really haunts him, that anyone could even think that about him.”
Today, one of Kerry’s darkest fears is that if she finds him he will think that she gave him away on purpose. She’s also aware that he will have no feelings for her, and may not even speak English. “He doesn’t know me or love me. He doesn’t know I’m his mum. But he deserves to know that I didn’t give him up for adoption.”
I’m impressed that she seems never to have blamed her parents. “They blame themselves. The guilt nearly destroyed my dad. He was really sick, really poorly. They don’t live in England now, they’re in Cyprus, but when they were in England the whole topic of conversation was Ben.
For a time, her parents separated – an all-too-common outcome when a family is struck by this kind of horror.
“It drives a wedge between people because they have different opinions. My dad became paranoid about everyone. He ask friends, ‘Did you take Ben? You showed interest in him, you liked him…’ And that upset my mum. She’d say, how can you say that? It was driving him insane. But they thought it was their responsibility to get Ben back, even if that meant asking friends questions like that.
Couples have different ways of dealing with grief. You feel helpless and nothing can be said. Nothing that Gerry McCann says to Kate is going to help her and nothing that she says to him will help either. So even though you’re together you can’t help each other. You are too busy – no, you’re only equipped to deal with your own pain. So both of you feel alone, even though you’re a couple.”
Does she have any advice for the McCanns? “Stay strong.” She drags on a cigarette and adds. “But if you stay calm and collected you get criticised for that. People want to see you crying.”
A few years ago, when she was sitting on a bus, laughing with a friend, a woman tapped Kerry on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t be laughing,” the woman hissed. “You should be at home grieving.”
“Madeleine’s parents have been criticised for leaving the children but that is not what they need now. The pain they are going through is horrendous. At the back of their minds they’ll be frightened, thinking, ‘what if…’ Kate McCann is starting to crumble. The family needs to keep supporting her, because once you lose control it’s very difficult to get back up.”