Of all the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, the unending agony endured by parents whose young children are missing – quite suddenly, not there – must without question be among the most unbearable.
That has been the burden carried by the parents of Madeleine McCann who, aged three, was last seen alive in a Portuguese holiday resort in May, 2007.
Their suffering has been compounded by suspicions – and sometimes allegations dangerously close to explicit accusations – that they were somehow involved in whatever fate befell their daughter.
At an early stage in the investigation into her disappearance, Portuguese police named the McCanns as "suspects" and suggested they had faked the child’s abduction and hidden her body.
The police had in fact manipulated the results of DNA tests to get the answer most convenient for them. Vital forensic evidence might have been lost because the crime scene had not been protected.
Anti-social media has been used by trolls to vilify them with sick postings to which users were invited to answer this outrageously loaded question: “Do you think Madeleine McCann's parents were responsible for her death?”
Celebs in search of the cheapest of headlines and spots on television chat shows have found Maddie’s parents irresistible targets. “Anyone who says McCanns are innocent,” one of them pronounced, “just remember they left three children under the age of four alone to go out. Either way they have guilt!"
Thirteen years on, and after many false turns and police investigations ending in cul-de-sacs, it’s possible that the McCanns might soon be able to have a degree of closure – or an end to interminable hope – with the news that German police appear to be sure that their daughter was murdered, and that their suspect is currently serving a prison sentence in Germany, where the case is considered a homicide inquiry, unlike its status in Britain, where – because no body has been found – it remains a missing person file.
Although it’s estimated that 250,000 children across the European Union are reported missing each year, stranger abduction remains rare, which is why the McCann case has never been far away from the headlines. It’s been matched in longevity only by the disappearance in 1991 of a 21-month-old British boy, Ben Needham, during a family holiday on the Greek island of Kos. There have over the years been numerous claims of sightings, many searches by Greek and British police, and persistent reports that he was kidnapped, but to this day his fate remains unknown.
Ben Needham’s parents wait for an answer goes on, but it’s possible that the coming days will bring for the McCanns an end, if only in part, to their anguish … if not their heartbreak.