Everyone reacts differently to the disappearance of a child. Some husbands and wives look straight into each other’s eyes without needing words, while others are like strangers lying side by side at night, still as corpses, staring at the ceiling.
There are men who want to beat someone so badly they can’t walk right for a month, while others drink themselves into oblivion or pretend nothing has changed. And there are women who can’t look at another child or family without remembering what they’ve lost.
As a journalist working in Australia and the UK, I reported on far too many stories that involved missing or murdered children. Right from the outset, I was thrown into the deep end by a grizzled old chief of staff, who decided that my young, fresh-faced teenage innocence meant I was less likely to be punched.
Back in those days it was up to media organisations to obtain photographs of victims. I was designated as the ‘death knock’ specialist and was sent to knock on doors within hours of the families being informed of the tragedies.
It was a horrible job. I once did twelve in a day after a mining disaster in Cobar in western NSW in 1979. Often, I would vomit in the flowerbed before reaching the front door. One of the things I discovered was that people react differently to tragedy. Some invited me into their homes, sobbed on my shoulder and took me through every photograph in the album, wanting to tell me about their son, daughter, wife, husband, mother, father; how wonderful they were and how sadly they’d be missed. Others showed no emotion at all and appeared almost detached and untouched, as though nobody had told them the news or they were in denial. Grief, I discovered, is an individual as a fingerprint.
It was during this period of my career that I covered the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain in the famous as the ‘Dingo Baby Case.’ Azaria was an 18-month-old baby who disappeared from a campground at Uluru (then known as Ayer’s Rock) in August 1980. Her mother, Lindy, told police she saw a dingo leaving the tent with something in its mouth.
Lindy Chamberlain was convicted in the court of public opinion long before she was ever tried in a courtroom. People didn’t like her. She was cold. Distant. She didn’t look like a mother whose baby had just been snatched. With her Beatle’s haircut and her saucer-sized sunglasses and her stony face, she failed to shed a tear through two inquests and a criminal trial. She blamed a dingo. The entire nation blamed her.
I didn’t believe Lindy either. I trusted the evidence of forensic experts (later discredited) and I thought there was something about her detachment and stoicism that came across as cold and calculating. I was wrong. I should have known better. I had seen how differently people grieve.
This is something I wanted to investigate in my new psychological thriller SAY YOU’RE SORRY, which is about two teenage girls who go missing from a small British village. Their two families react very differently. One is torn apart and the other is bound more closely together. Missing children create a particular silence around them that is filled with a dreadful wondering.
I remember being in Europe with my whole family in May 2007 when Madeleine McCann disappeared from a holiday apartment in Portugal. My three daughters were fascinated and appalled by the case. We were driving through Spain and Italy and they would look at vans, or study little girls to see if they bore a resemblance.
Since then, Maddie’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann have devoted themselves completely to the pursuit of the truth, campaigning fiercely to keep the story in the news. They have grieved in public, written books, made documentaries and lobbied police and politicians.
I have no insight into Madeleine’s whereabouts or what might have happened to her that night, but many people forget there were twin toddlers in the room that night, sleeping only a few feet away.
Kate McCann has admitted that the twins are ‘haunted by the tragedy’ and that they ‘help her grieve’. This disturbs me a little. They were two at the time – too young to comprehend what happened. Why should they have to live in this shadow? Why should they be haunted? Does there come a point when the family must accept what’s happened and say goodbye, or should they fight to keep hope alive, regardless of the cost?
These are some of the questions that are touched upon in SAY YOU’RE SORRY. Piper Hadley and Tash McBain go missing on the last Saturday of their summer holidays and their disappearance captivates the nation. There are prayer vigils, church services, makeshift memories and messages of support. In a sense the missing girls become public property, belonging to everyone, as their fate is discussed over garden fences, water coolers and in post office queues.
This is the emotional landscape of SAY YOU’RE SORRY. The families of the missing girls each react very differently. The Hadley’s are drawn closer together, campaigning tirelessly to keep Piper’s memory alive, while the McBains are torn apart, unable to look at each other without being reminded each other of what they’ve lost.
There is a mystery to be solved, of course, and the trail is dark and twisted, but it is the characters and psychology that fascinated me most. Long after people have forgotten the plot, they will hopefully remember Piper Hadley and Tash McBain.
Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham is published in hardback by Sphere on the 27th September 2012, £19.99