By Melanie McFadyean
When Madeleine McCann went missing, in May 2007, from the bedroom of her parents' holiday villa in Portugal while they had dinner nearby, it started one of the biggest international media stories of recent years.
The same photograph of Madeleine, a pretty blonde three-year-old with a distinctive black mark in the iris of one eye, was published day after day, as were pictures of her parents, Kate McCann, a GP, and Gerry McCann, a heart specialist, from Leicester, always close together, with Kate holding Cuddle Cat, Madeleine's favourite toy.
Around the world people watched as they were flown from the holiday resort of Praia da Luz, in the jet owned by billionaire retailer Sir Philip Green, to meet Pope Benedict XVI in Rome; as wealthy benefactors, Sir Richard Branson among them, donated time and money to their cause. They spoke directly to Gordon Brown on the phone. Diplomats supported them. Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC journalist, left his job in the government's
Central Office of Information's Media Monitoring Unit to run "team McCann" and act as gatekeeper to the huge press onslaught. The children's author JK Rowling, the footballer Wayne Rooney and pop entrepreneur Simon Cowell contributed to the £2.5m reward.
When Ben Needham disappeared from a farmhouse on the Greek island of Kos, in July 1991, while being looked after by his grandparents, the reaction was very different. He was 21 months old, as blond and photogenic as Madeleine McCann, but this was before mobile phones, the internet, the instant transmission of news; before Princess Diana's death legitimised the public emotion that accompanies so many catastrophes. And Kerry Needham and Simon Ward, an unmarried couple from a Sheffield housing estate, didn't have the same appeal as the professional, middle-class McCanns.
I met the Needhams in September 1993. By then, their story was only sporadically in the news. I had been in Crete that summer with my two-year-old son. Haunted by Ben Needham's story, I never let him out of my sight. One afternoon, in a small village, I was chatting to two old women outside a café when a child playing nearby caught my eye. He had tawny blond hair, pale eyes and a T-shirt with "Kos" written on it. He didn't look Greek. One of the women said he came from a villa a few yards away, but nobody knew the people who lived there.
I took a photograph of the boy and sent it to the Needhams via South Yorkshire Police. It wasn't Ben. In September, I went to see the Needhams in their council house in Sheffield to interview them for the Guardian. They were easy to find; journalists could ring them directly and go and see them. They've always hoped publicity will keep Ben in the public's thoughts.
In 1993, Kerry Needham, Ben's mother, was 21. She was thin, quiet and withdrawn. Her father, Eddie, did the talking. Her mother, Christine, kept out of the way; she let Eddie deal with the press. Since then I have stayed in touch with the Needhams. In 1996 I worked on a Channel 4 documentary about Ben's disappearance, and I have written about them periodically. Kerry Needham's was never a household name. In some ways this was a good thing - she didn't suffer the constant pressure of media scrutiny that the McCanns did - but it had its downside: the story slipped out of sight, she and Ben were almost forgotten. But when Madeleine McCann disappeared, the press remembered Kerry and bombarded her with calls. The attention brought a rush of emotions.
"I was devastated for the McCanns," she told me last July, "but it wiped me out to the point where I needed tablets again. One day I did 27 interviews. Watching them on television took me back - living that day again. And it made me bitter and angry because the official help that they got was unbelievable: the British ambassador gave a statement at a press conference, British police officers flying over, a visit with the Pope, phone calls from Gordon Brown..."
Gordon Brown was reported to have intervened when the McCanns were frustrated by lack of progress in the investigation. Encouraged by this, Kerry wrote to Gordon Brown. It took him three months to respond and his reply, when it came, gave her no hope. "He told me what the British authorities had done in all these years, but nothing about what could be done. I know what's been done and it's not enough. He wrote that the Greek authorities would reopen the case if there was a promising new line of enquiry." In her letter Kerry told him that a white car had been seen in the area the day Ben disappeared, and the police knew who owned it, but that there has been no conclusive investigation into it. She was surprised Brown didn't pick up on this.
She also wrote to her local MP, David Blunkett, in November, clearly spelling out the uninvestigated lead. He responded positively, saying he would approach the Home and Foreign Secretaries to contact Interpol and pressurise the Greek authorities to look at this "additional potential lead". Kerry then had a letter from the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, in which she said she had passed the information on to the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police.
"I've gone round the houses and been sent back to South Yorkshire Police. It still doesn't give me the answer I want, but I'll continue to push for Ben. They're still not telling me if this can be investigated or if Ben's case can be reinvestigated from the start."
In January 2008 Kerry was contacted by a television director, who was making a documentary about the McCanns. As Kerry remembers it, she was asked if she would like to meet Kate McCann; she said yes, as long as there were no cameras, no reporters, that they could meet as one bereft mother with another. But the meeting never took place. When I spoke to Clarence Mitchell in November 2008, he said that the film director hadn't asked Kerry if she wanted to meet Kate McCann, but whether she would appear in the documentary as the mother of a lost child. "Kate finds the idea of meeting a parent in that position quite daunting," he told me then.
"[Kerry] has been living with it for 18 years and the idea of facing it as long and stoically as Kerry has is a bit daunting. It's not that she doesn't want to meet her, she's sure she's a lovely person and maybe one day she will feel like it. But she doesn't want to face a lifetime without finding Madeleine."
So when a letter arrived out of the blue on 24 January from Kate McCann, Kerry was amazed.
"I thought it was sweet of her. I didn't think she'd ever get in contact with me. I was really moved, it's a really heartfelt letter. She'd wanted to be in touch with me, but had been scared of having to admit that Madeleine's disappearance might end up like Ben's. Nobody wants to think a child could be missing for years and years. If the boot had been on the other foot I wouldn't have wanted to get in touch with somebody whose child had been missing for all these years because it would give you no hope. You'd think, is that me in 18 years?"
As banal as it seems, this is the one question you have to ask: how have Kerry and her family endured the years without Ben? "We've survived," Kerry said. "We've all found a way. I don't know what way it is - but a way of coping with it. We've found the strength to live and cope and we'll never get over it even though we deal with it. But we can never understand it."
This is the story of how these 18 years have been for the family since Ben disappeared. There is never a day, Kerry says, that Ben isn't in her thoughts. If she believed he were dead it might be easier. There would be a focus for that grief, a conclusion. But her family is convinced that Ben was snatched, and Kerry's instincts tell her that her son is alive out there somewhere.
Ben, who in his absence is the epicentre of his family, would now be 19. In 2003 the Metropolitan Police released a digitally enhanced photograph of how he might look at 13: a smiling butter-blond boy who didn't resemble anyone in his family. A second digital photograph, in which he slightly resembles Kerry's brother Stephen, was made in 2007, when he would have been 18. It has the unsettling qualities of both a passport photo and a criminal photofit.
Ben was born in October 1989 when Kerry was 17. She had met his father, Simon Ward, when she was 15 and still at school. The Needhams come from South Yorkshire: Eddie Needham, a builder by trade, is from Chapeltown, near Sheffield, and Christine is from Thorpe Hesley, outside Rotherham. They met as teenagers and married soon afterwards. In the early 1980s, they moved to Chapel St Leonards, near Skegness. At first they lived on the caravan site; Eddie worked on a building site and collected scrap metal; Christine worked in a chip shop, then ran a café. They did well and bought a house.
In 1990, Christine's sister treated the family to their first foreign holiday - on the Greek island of Kos. Christine fell in love with the island and with life in the sun. At the end of that year, the Needhams sold everything, bought an old Land Rover and a caravan, and set off to live on Kos with their two sons, Danny, then 11, and Stephen, 17. Kerry stayed in Sheffield, where she had moved with Simon, missing her family and hating their dingy flat. Simon worked away from home and she was often alone. Eventually, in April 1991, she and Ben, then 18 months old, went to join them. She had never even been to London, let alone on a plane or to a foreign country.
On Kos, Kerry blossomed. She lived in a bedsit, shared the care of Ben with her mother and found work at a hotel serving snacks around the pool. She felt justified in leaving Simon behind. Kerry told me that Simon left when she was five months pregnant. "I had no money, living on bread and jam, no life whatsoever," she said. He didn't come back until Ben was born.
Christine, who had been working with Kerry at the hotel, gave up her job to take care of Ben. Kerry upgraded from the bedsit to a small holiday flat and Ben stayed with her or the rest of the family in the caravan which was parked in an olive grove in an area called Paradisi, near the beach, about 10 minutes' walk from Kos town.
Eddie and Stephen had found work renovating a small farmhouse a couple of miles outside the town in a hilly area known as Herakles. The owner had told them that if they did it up, the Needhams could live in the house rent-free, in return for looking after it when he was away.
On 24 July, Christine, Eddie, Danny, Stephen and the owner of the house, Michaelis Kypreos, were in the farmhouse eating lunch. Ben was playing on the terrace just outside the door. He was running in and out, pouring water over his head and messing about with a stick. They could see through the open door on to the terrace where Ben was playing. There was a tree on which they'd hung his wet shorts.
At about two-thirty, Stephen left on his moped to go for a swim, a beer and a shower at Kerry's flat. Ben wanted to go with him; he'd been on the bike before, and now he wanted to go with his uncle. A few minutes after Stephen left, Christine registered that Ben had gone quiet and went outside. He was nowhere to be seen. She, Eddie, Danny and Michaelis Kypreos searched up and down the lane, in the field by the house, in a nearby orange grove, calling for him, looking anywhere he could conceivably be. When they couldn't find him, they assumed he must have gone with Stephen; it was the logical explanation. They thought Stephen had taken Ben for a ride and would bring him back.
About an hour later, thinking Stephen had gone to the caravan instead of coming back to the farmhouse, or had gone to Kerry's flat, Christine walked back to Paradisi, while Eddie, Danny and Kypreos stayed working on the roof.
In the early evening Eddie went to the caravan expecting to find Ben with Christine. He wasn't, so Eddie went to Kerry's flat, thinking he'd be there. Stephen was there, but without Ben. Eddie raced back to the caravan to tell Christine and then went back to Herakles in the Land Rover. Stephen took Christine to the police on his bike and then joined his father. It was several hours since Ben had vanished by the time the police took Christine to the hotel to tell Kerry what had happened. Kerry had finished her shift and was sitting by the swimming pool when her mother arrived, sobbing, to tell her Ben had disappeared.
The police took them both to Herakles to join Eddie and the boys. They searched, going to places that Ben could never have got to, covering some 15 acres, through olive groves and pomegranate orchards, riverbeds and long grass. The next day Kos police began their investigation and their first questions were directed at the Needhams. They were immediately hostile to Kerry. "They banged their hands on the table," she told me. "They shouted, 'Where is boy? How can you lose a baby? Why do you go to work? You must not love your child.'"
She had been unaware of the image local people had of her. They had always seemed friendly, but, after Ben disappeared, island gossip found its way back to her - she was an unfit mother, a slut. Why wasn't she married? Why did she work and not look after her child? Her family lived like gypsies in a caravan. Kerry didn't love Ben, she'd given him away, she'd sold him...
The sightings started within 24 hours. The first was a child seen buying sweets at the airport, but news of it took three days to get to the Needhams. Over the next few years there were to be hundreds of reports of small blond children in situations perceived as suspicious. It took a few days for the news of Ben's disappearance to filter through to the UK press. The first to knock at the caravan door was a reporter from the Sun. In the next few weeks, reporters came from other newspapers, and from TV news stations; but there was none of the frenzied coverage that engulfed the McCanns.
The family stayed on Kos for two months after Ben disappeared. Then Eddie rang the British Embassy in Athens to ask if they could be repatriated. There had been no progress with the investigation and the strain on them was unbearable. He was told they would have to be means-tested and it might take a month.
So, desperate to get back to England, they sold everything and arrived home at the end of September, broke. They went back to Yorkshire, living with various relatives in Sheffield, before being housed by the council.
The second time I met Kerry was in 1996. I was working on a Channel 4 documentary about Ben. The silent, passive girl who had sat in the lee of her father's body three years before had become spiky and edgy. By this time, she had a daughter, Leighanna. She and Simon Ward had drifted back together and Kerry had got pregnant.
Leighanna was born in February 1994; not long after, Simon went to prison for five years, charged with robbery. It was a long time before Kerry had been able to articulate what those early months had been like after Ben went missing. She and Simon were living together again. "I used to get up in the middle of the night and it was like I was hallucinating that Ben was actually there. We'd decorated a bedroom for him and I used to go in there and pretend to rock him to sleep because I thought I could hear him crying. I had a psychiatric nurse who was wonderful, and she said that having the bedroom there was making it worse. Obviously I was dreaming that I could hear him crying and I was just automatically getting up in the night and going to rock the baby."
She made four suicide attempts. She overdosed on antidepressants and attempted to cut her wrists, but says she knows she didn't really want to die. It was more that edging around death brought temporary relief from the pain. It had been people close to her who suggested she have another baby. "They said those maternal instincts that woke me in the middle of the night would be of use if I had another baby."
She looked at photographs of her son and at snapshots tourists had taken of children they thought might be Ben, but never were. She wrote him letters. A few times she roused herself and went with television crews or journalists following up sightings of Ben. In 1992, for example, she went on a trip to Izmir, in Turkey. The photo of the child had been very like Ben, but the child was a girl. Kerry broke down. The child's mother passed her daughter to her, letting Kerry hold her.
There were hundreds of sightings, none of them Ben: BLOND BOY BEGGING ON ATHENS UNDERGROUND, BLOND BOY CLEANING CAR WINDOW IN ATHENS WATCHED BY DARK-SKINNED WELL-DRESSED MAN. The expectation and disappointment of these trips threatened Kerry's sanity. Eddie encouraged her to stay out of it and let him rove the world looking for Ben instead.
The arrival of a new baby, physically similar to the one who was lost, had brought Kerry out of her paralysis, but Leighanna couldn't replace Ben and Kerry found it hard to be her mother. She went through the motions of motherhood but it brought her no joy. "I couldn't be anyone," she says, "only Ben Needham's mum. But I couldn't be his mum because he wasn't there. I couldn't cope with being me, I couldn't be a real person. I couldn't cope with anything. It was tough on Leighanna and tough on me. I plodded on but it was a really awful time."
By 1996, Leighanna was living with Eddie and Christine. They were looking after their granddaughter but Kerry felt they were furious with her. "We have always been very close," said Christine, "the family has been entwined, the bonds are so strong, and we've cried and cried and hugged and hugged and been almost too close or hated each other." They were afraid it would appear as if she had abandoned her child and public perceptions of Ben's case would suffer as a consequence. They were horrified when a story appeared in the Sheffield Star: KERRY GIVES UP HER DAUGHTER. Two days later, there was another in the Sunday Express: "I DON'T WANT MY SON BACK," SAYS MOTHER AS SHE SHUNS NEW BABY. Kerry had spoken unguardedly to reporters. It was true that she couldn't cope with her new baby, but not that she didn't want Ben back.
For the past few months she had submerged herself in the Sheffield club scene and was working in a club bar. Her parents thought she was selfish and irresponsible. For Kerry it was an escape. But even there she was recognised: "I was in the toilets at the club and this woman was looking at me. 'You're Ben Needham's mum... I wouldn't be out if it had happened to me.' I said, 'What do you know?' I pinned her up against the toilet door."
At that time, she said, people found her cold and hard because she didn't cry when asked about Ben. Her grief had given way to anger: she was angry that he had been taken, angry because not enough was being done at an official level, angry that her life had been destroyed when Ben went missing.
In the spring of 1997, when Leighanna was three, Simon Ward's father died. Although she no longer felt close to Simon (by the time he came out of prison their relationship was over), Kerry suddenly felt a pang about her own father, her family, her daughter.
"It made me realise life is short and I wanted to be with them." She went to her parents' house, frightened she might not be welcome. As she walked in Leighanna glanced up from a book she was looking at and greeted her mother as though no time had passed.
Kerry sat reading to her. Eddie, Kerry says, "huffed and puffed for a bit".
She had to prove that she was capable of having Leighanna back. Kerry was lucky: her daughter came home willingly and they settled down. Even then, Kerry's life was not without drama. A three-year relationship ended badly, and another with a nightclub manager ended when he was stabbed to death in a street brawl. She had a brief holiday romance in Dominica with a man who conned her out of £500.
I'd heard bits of Kerry's story from Christine and Eddie in the years since I'd seen her, but I didn't know how she would be when I went to visit her in Sheffield in June last year. Kerry has always been slight; her face is narrow and delicate and she moves quickly and neatly. In her living room, my eye was drawn to two things: on the centre of the mantelpiece, the last picture of Ben taken before he vanished, and, to the right, a birdcage and a parrot. It screeched, "Shut up! Fucking hell Ziggy!" Kerry laughed. Ziggy the parrot came with Craig Grist, a builder, the man she married in 2006.
I asked Kerry how she feels now when she is interviewed. She said she hates being asked what she would say to Ben if she found him now. But she responds openly to most enquiries because every time a bit of her gets out there it might reach Ben, and it reminds people about him. Kerry has taken the lead in the search for Ben, although there are few sightings now.
Her efforts to have Ben's case reopened mean that she is anxious that all uninvestigated leads are followed up. One of them involved a trip to Kos in July 2000 when she went with her father, Stephen and Leighanna to collect Ben's case file. While they were there, Eddie asked the policeman in charge of the case about the white car seen in the lane in Herakles at around 2.30pm on the day Ben vanished. The policeman told Eddie who it belonged to. To the Needhams' amazement, it was someone they knew, but this was the first they had heard of it. "There may be a perfectly good explanation," said Kerry, but she'd like to know it has been properly investigated and feels it hasn't been. There are other unresolved leads, and Kerry's priority is for the authorities to investigate them.
In the years after Ben's disappearance, Eddie and Christine Needham restarted their lives. They had a friend who ran the local tip in Sheffield and in the late 1990s they started looking there for things to sell at car-boot sales. They graduated to the antiques fair at Swinderby in Yorkshire and from the local tip to bigger tips. For three years, until they left England again in 2004, they ran three tips. To their surprise they made enough money to buy a house in Cyprus.
They had been on a holiday to Turkish Cyprus. Once again they uprooted themselves. They bought a villa overlooking the sea on the side of a hill in the village of Alsancak on the north coast. They renovated the house and Christine made a garden. In June 2008, I flew to Cyprus to meet her. To my surprise she asked me to meet her several hours' drive away in Dipkarpaz, in the north east. She had left Eddie. He didn't know where she was and she was going to keep it that way: she was going to stay there, read and grow vegetables. I met her in a beach café. She looked tanned and her hair was bleached blonde. She was gazing out to sea.
I remembered being with Christine in Greece, in 1996, during the making of the Channel 4 film, and the way she had described what it was like when they first moved to Kos.
"It was sunny, peaceful, there was only the crickets," she said. "It was like living in a free world. Most people wouldn't say, 'Let's just go and live in Greece.' So we'd achieved something. We had money in the bank, not a lot, but we lived simply and had everything we needed... sea and olive trees and lemons growing on trees in the streets, like another world, a dream. And then Ben disappeared."
It was Christine who had taken Ben to the farmhouse that day, while Kerry was at work. In Cyprus she described again what happened; how they'd been sitting inside, eating lunch, and Ben was playing, in and out, and then after Stephen left she couldn't hear him. "I'm thinking - he's quiet. It's an instinct, you just know the quiet bit means trouble. God knows I never thought it would be that much trouble."
She told me how they had assumed Stephen had given Ben a ride on his moped.
"He was mad for that bike," she said. "We've got pictures of him on it. We were waiting for the bike ride to finish, then 10 minutes turned into half an hour and then you're thinking, 'He's a long time'." About an hour later she'd said, "It looks like Steve's not coming back. I'll get off now, get the tea on."
It didn't occur to her that someone could have taken Ben. But if someone had, wouldn't he have screamed? "It depends. If they'd got sweets, that would shut him up straight away. You trust people at that age if they're kind; they hold you by the hand and take you. Like Jamie Bulger [the toddler from Merseyside who was abducted and killed in 1993]. He didn't kick up a fuss. There's just no answer."
The eight weeks they stayed on Kos after Ben disappeared were a blur, she said. "I don't know how we kept alive, but in the first weeks you believe that the next day there'll be news, you're still hopeful and you're on automatic, survival kicks in." She said they wandered round aimlessly, searching, or sat together going over every detail again and again. In the first months back in Sheffield she hankered after the ordinary. The sound of the Hoover and the washing machine soothed her. Eddie was enraged by the domesticity that kept Christine sane. He was obsessed with finding Ben, never off the phone, unable to talk about anything else. His voice, she said, was like a drill in her head.
"All of a sudden life changes," she said. "We had a normal life, then Ben is lost and we are in another world, where people come out of the shadows at you and others talk of guns. All this madness. You can't believe it's happened because if you did you'd probably go insane. Sometimes I bury my head in the sand so I don't feel it.
"Perhaps that's how I deal with it, so it isn't as painful. It's like half-pretending, isn't it?
"We lost our grandson through our stupidity," she said some years ago. "Through not acting quickly, presuming he was all right; we've been irresponsible. It's our fault." Now she says her guilt came from a "failure to be on alert".
"It felt so safe, there was no traffic, no people. I have brought up my family haphazardly, maybe, but they are all safe, and then I get this one job to look after Ben one day and I don't do it properly. I relaxed. There seemed to be no danger. I wasn't vigilant.
"I've said to Kerry, 'Why didn't you shout at me?' And she said, 'Because I never blamed you.' I thought I ought to feel guilty, because if somebody had lost my child, I would be at them. But my feeling isn't guilt, it's more a - what if ? What if I'd done this differently? What if I hadn't gone there that day?"
One theory about Ben's disappearance is that he had somehow fallen into the hands of gypsies. In October 1996, Christine and Eddie appeared on a live Greek TV phone-in show about missing people. A prisoner in jail in Greece called in saying he had seen Ben in March 1992 with a gypsy family in Veria, in northern Greece. Several other people called in independently, also locating Ben in Veria.
In February 1997, I went to Veria with Christine to talk to some of the callers to the show. Most of them were scared, and didn't want to be identified. One woman said she and her husband had seen a striking blond child they thought was Ben in September 1996. She had overheard a conversation between the head of the gypsy family and another man. The gypsy had said, "The kid is here. If they want to take him let them have him." She hadn't gone to the police because she was afraid.
We also went to see a taxi driver who we had spoken to the year before. He'd told us then he was sure that Ben had been in his taxi in January 1994, with a female member of a gypsy family and some other children. When he had asked who the boy was, another child had told him it was Ben or Benzi, and the woman had threatened to smack him. When we saw the taxi driver again, he had been interviewed by the police and changed his mind.
We went to see the police. We were ushered into a room where a group of men were smoking and playing cards. One of them got up to speak to us. He said the prisoner was a "mythomaniac" whose story couldn't be taken seriously.
In Athens Christine met a senior official from the Ministry of Public Order. He told us the gypsy was a criminal, a drug dealer and a car thief and that the prisoner was a liar. Nothing more came of the prisoner's story. It was all disturbing, dispiriting and futile.
At the end of the day I spent with Christine in Cyprus in June last year, as the sun went down, she said, "We all cracked up in our own ways. And we've all tried to be someone else for a little while. But you take on this mother role, holding everybody up, especially Kerry, she was so delicate. I used to jolly them along. I didn't want my family to die. I thought everybody would commit suicide. Everybody thinks that I deal with it better than anybody else, but that is because I know they won't cope if I drop. If I go under, my family will die, I know they will, even now."'
After seeing Christine, I went to visit Eddie. I found him sunk into the corner of a sofa in the living room of their villa in front of a large flat-screen TV with the sound turned off. For years his whole being was concentrated on his crusade, as he called it, to find Ben. The night Ben went missing, Eddie and Stephen had driven to the port on Kos at 3am. There was a line of trucks and cars waiting to board the ferry. Eddie and Stephen peered into the windows. They couldn't believe there were no police checking the vehicles. The policeman who had said he would join them there never turned up.
When they searched the fields around the farmhouse, they heard noises in the dark, like a baby, but never a baby, perhaps lambs or goats. As soon as it was light, Eddie searched sheds and outhouses. He went through bins, pulling out plastic sacks, dreading what he might find.
During the police interrogations he banged his fists on the table, enraged by the suggestion that "our Kerry was a slut" He spent three days next to a digger as it excavated the rubble of a demolished house on the lane in Herakles, bracing himself for the possibility that it would disgorge his grandson's body.
The police told him they thought Ben was alive: if there is a dead body, certain birds flock to it, they said, but no such birds had been seen. A stranger in a taverna told him to get a gun and go to the back-alley bars in Athens. That was where the answer lay. That was where children were bought and sold for illegal adoption or organ transplants.
The police told him that gypsies sell babies and that little blond boys fetch the highest prices. In those first days and nights Eddie said he heard Ben's voice in his head, urging him on, telling him he was nearly there, to go on trying to find him. He remembers collapsing on the road outside the hotel where Kerry worked, weeping. When he walked through a gypsy camp with posters in Greek publicising Ben's disappearance, a woman thrust her pregnant daughter at him, offering her unborn baby for sale.
Eddie feels that his family was ignored by British officials. It still makes him angry. No British representative came to Kos in those first weeks after Ben vanished. Eddie says that when he called the embassy in Athens he was told that since none of his family was in jail they didn't need a lawyer, and since nobody was alone, and there were people around who spoke English, they didn't need an interpreter.
Back in England, Eddie kept up the search, losing count of the times he went to Greece, following sightings, sometimes with TV crews and journalists, sometimes with Christine, occasionally with Kerry, often on his own. He did it on a shoestring, dependent on the press paying expenses or on scraping up a fare by standing outside rock concerts with buckets or selling stuff at car-boot sales. He slept on beaches, or in cheap hotel rooms. He only spoke a few words of Greek and they were mostly to do with building. There were moments when, from a distance, the blond child they were going to see would look so like Ben they'd think they had found him.
At home, Eddie brooded, watched TV and waited by the phone. Unable to work, he signed on the dole. He found himself subject to fits of anger that he had never experienced before. He would listen to anyone - even to the dowsers, clairvoyants and seventh sons of seventh sons who said Ben was in Florida, California, a Scandinavian country, "taken by a man in a leather jacket with an Alsatian dog and he didn't go easily".
Only a few weeks before my visit to Cyprus, the Sheffield police in charge of Ben's case in the UK had been told of a sighting of a young man in Cyprus, thought by a tourist to resemble how Ben might look now. Eddie had been to meet him. "I wish it'd been my grandson, because he was a gentleman and I'd have been very proud of him," he said, "but he was Romanian. Hugged him, kissed him, checked the birthmark on his neck just to make sure, that's how close it was. He didn't have the birthmark."
Eddie seemed to me to be in that state of stupefied sobriety that comes after days and nights alone with the bottle. "I'm just an ignorant person," he said. "I haven't got the intelligence to put the past behind me. Can you understand that?" I said I didn't think it was a matter of intelligence. "Christine understands," he said. "She's got the brains, she can work it out and she knows it's too late, that I'm so thick and stupid I just carry on bulldozing through everything. The thought of Ben is there constantly. When I don't think about it I feel terrible, I feel guilty for not thinking about it."
When I left he was with his younger son, Danny, who lives in Cyprus. A few days later, I went back to see him. He was sober and unexpectedly sanguine about Christine's continuing absence and her insistence that she would never return. Their 39 years of marriage have been punctuated by Christine's intermittent departures, usually sparked by Eddie's occasional drinking. Christine had always returned within a week or two. Later, after Eddie had gone shopping, Danny got a call to say his father had collapsed in the street and been taken by ambulance to Kyrenia, 45 minutes away. He was on a drip and about to be given a brain scan.
I went with Danny to the hospital. He told me that his father had been advised to give up smoking, and that if he didn't he was going to be in trouble. "They said I'd got type 2 diabetes," Eddie reported on the way back, strapped like a sparrow into the front seat. "Got to reduce my sugar intake. Can't smoke in your car can I? Dying for a fag." Christine went back to Eddie a week after I saw them in June 2008.
Ben's uncle, Stephen Needham, lives in the Lincolnshire farm workers' cottage that was his parents' home until they moved to Cyprus. For most of his adult life he has worked on farms, on building sites, or for his father, helping to collect scrap metal. When I visited him last year, he was on disability benefit. He was born with Perthes' disease, a condition that causes the hip joints to crumble. In the last few years it has started to cause him trouble and will need to be operated on again. "So I'm on the scrap heap," he said, ruefully, "but I like pottering and gardening and decorating and drawing."
Stephen looks a lot like Kerry. He has the same blond hair, the same narrow slanting eyes, high cheekbones and slender build. He said his childhood couldn't have been happier. He loved the journey to Kos, when for two months the family and their Corgi made their way across Europe in the Land Rover, dragging behind them a caravan they slept in. "It was funny, it was fabulous," he said.
Stephen was the last of the family to see Ben. "He said: 'Bike, bike,' and I said, 'No chance, go to Grandad.'" Then Stephen got on his bike and didn't look back.
Because of this, when he was questioned by the police he was singled out. They said that his moped looked as if it had been involved in an accident. Stephen told them about a minor crash a few days before, when he'd swerved to avoid some tourists on quad bikes, which explained the lack of indicators and a smashed fairing. But they weren't satisfied. "You fall off, kill the child, bury him?" the policeman said. The questioning had gone on like this for days. "They tried to break him," was how Eddie had put it, "but there was nothing to break."
When the family returned from Kos, though, Stephen got back into a normal pace of life much sooner than his sister and parents did. Within two years he was living with a girlfriend and by the time he was 23, he had two daughters. He was working on a building site, had passed his driving test and was enjoying life. But his relationship with the girls' mother started to break down, and eventually he left. "I know nobody would understand someone walking away from their kids," he said. "It killed me. If I'd stayed I wouldn't have been able to carry on. I'd have given up. I was already going through emotional stress: it was either leave and get away from it or go down with the sinking ship. But I was bonded with my children and that's what nearly killed me."
Ever since the police questioned Stephen, their idea that he might have had a hand in Ben's disappearance has haunted him. "Did I take him, did I pick him up and put him on my bike, did I drive down that lane? I was questioning my own sanity. It was always there. How could a child disappear, how could he just vanish? Did I forget him somewhere or have an accident? Did I run over him or fall off my bike? I've asked myself that again and again."
In 2001, when another TV documentary was made, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Ben's disappearance, Stephen was asked if he would be interviewed and whether he would undergo a form of hypnotherapy on camera. He agreed because he'd heard it might help to retrieve hidden memories. In the film he had to revisit the last moment he saw Ben and confront the doubt created by the police interrogation. It was traumatic but, when the filming was over, Stephen walked away sure that any suspicion that he or anyone else might have harboured that he could have accidentally killed Ben would be dispelled once and for all. Despite this, and although the film exonerates him, Stephen's fears were justified.
A year ago, he was out having a drink with his brother Danny and Kerry's husband, Craig. "One of my mates was half asleep, drunk on a sofa and a group of lads were threatening him, so I went over and said, 'Give up, he's drunk,' and one of them went, 'Oh, aren't you that uncle of that Ben that disappeared?' I said yes. 'You took him on your bike, didn't you?'"
It's taken him years to understand how the trauma of Ben going missing has affected him. "Our feelings were on hold when we were all trying to resolve Ben's case, so your own emotions get waylaid. And then when it starts to fade away, that's when you're left with yourself. If I hadn't been through that experience in Greece, I'd have been mentally stronger and more able to deal with the problems, to work through things." When I asked him how much he thought his adult life has been determined by losing Ben, he said, "It's been destroyed, hasn't it, really?" The one member of the Needham family who never knew Ben is Leighanna, his little sister. As a toddler she resembled Ben so much that they could have been twins. It was this resemblance to Ben that led Kerry to agree, when Leighanna was 21 months old, to go with Christine and Eddie to Kos, to take part in a TV reconstruction. Leighanna was the same age Ben was when he disappeared. Her hair, the same colour as Ben's, was cut short so she would look like him and the TV crew filmed her in Herakles, walking out of the house and on to the lane, to see if it could offer any clues.
She was nearly 14 when I met her last year, but her face still had a childlike quality. She said she remembered going to Kos, and when I asked whether it had felt like a sad experience, she said, "Yep. It was funny, though. There was a cameraman in front of me. I wouldn't go up the road so he told me to follow the duck. I had to follow a toy duck." She went further and faster than they had ever imagined Ben could have done, which chilled her grandparents as they looked on. Leighanna had started to ask questions about Ben when she was around five. "She used to look through the photographs and say, 'Who could be this?'" Kerry said. "Those were her words, 'Who could be this?'"
At school, her missing brother made her an object of special interest. Occasionally she was bullied. Other girls would say they knew where he was, and once, when a hearse went by, a girl said for all she knew Ben could be in it. Leighanna, who says she is "mouthy" like her mother, gave back as good as she got.
She feels protective of her mother. "I've got to look after her. Mum'll think I don't love her if I don't fight for her, or help her with things. I don't want her to get hurt more than she already is. Sometimes I can't tell her everything I want to - where it feels like Ben came first. Because there's been newspaper articles when my mum said she didn't know if she could love me as much as she loved Ben, because of what happened to him. I used to get really upset about it, even though I know Mum loves me as much as she loves Ben. I'd cry and it would make her cry. Sometimes the more we talk about things, the more upsetting it gets."
When I saw them months later, Kerry told me Leighanna had talked to her more openly of her feelings about Ben. She said she thought Leighanna had agreed to be interviewed because there were things she wanted to say to her mother and couldn't. "I think she knew she had to tell me things. I can't help her if I don't know."
Leighanna says even though she's never met Ben, she feels like a sister to him. She described a dream she'd had about him: "I was running, running and running, and he seemed to be getting further away every time I ran towards him. He was running towards me and I was running towards him but it seemed like a never-ending run and every time I would try and grab him he was always a couple of steps in front, so I couldn't, and then I woke up and it was maddening. It was horrible.
"It's the first time I've ever had a dream like that, although I've had loads of dreams before, waking up crying because I've dreamed we were in Kos and the police come to us and say they've found a body they think might be Ben's and we have to go and look at it and see if it is actually Ben's and then I look up just as we walk through to see if it is - and I never find out."
*This is an edited extract from Missing, by Melanie McFadyean from Granta 105 "Lost and Found".
Photo by Gary Calton
Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Melanie McFadyean