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The death of hope

In the foyer of Machynlleth Primary School sits a small, brown teddy bear, left on the premises by April Jones last Monday, the day she was last seen playing just a few hundred metres from her home.

Pink bows symbolised Machynlleth's hope of finding April, as hard working volunteers and professionals came from across Wales to help search for April in and around the town, hoping to find some sign of the five-year-old. Now the community is braced for the worst.  Photographs: Getty Images
Pink bows symbolised Machynlleth's hope of finding April, as hard working volunteers and professionals came from across Wales to help search for April in and around the town, hoping to find some sign of the five-year-old. Now the community is braced for the worst. Photographs: Getty Images

Surrounding it, written on a bunting of pink paper hearts, are the poignant messages of children from the school.

"To April – I hope you are safe and I know Harley [April's brother] is worrying about you." "I am sorry you got taken. I know you'll be back soon." "I hope you are safe. I hope you are not hurt. I wish you didn't get taken."

"Hope" features in many of these messages. It is also a word that has been uttered frequently across the town, by April's mother, Coral, by the thousands of volunteers who have participated in the search, donated supplies or offered sympathy, and by hundreds of thousands of people across the Internet.

With the charging of suspect, Mark Bridger, yesterday afternoon, with murder, abduction and perverting the course of justice, however, that hope died. The display, once wishful, now appears a shrine. Like the many pink bows that dress the town, it now no longer looks hopeful or supportive, but, more symbolic of mourning and grief.

What is remarkable about Machynlleth is this town did not let hope fade easily. Even as the days of searching passed, even as it emerged April had cerebral palsy and needed regular medication, even as police began to talk in terms of "finding the body" and even as local man Mark Bridger was arrested first on suspicion of abduction, and later on suspicion of murder, the people of Machynlleth appeared not to be letting go.

Townsfolk almost see the five year old as one of their own family. The word "body" for the last week has been one that has been relentlessly avoided.

The search for April has been described as "unprecedented", not just because of the eight police teams and more than 60 specialist search officers and the various volunteer rescue services, but because of the many members of the public who came to lend their efforts to the search.

Dave Allen drove a minibus of 10 people from Barry Island to help in the search, while Anna Clarke travelled 25 miles on the first night and almost every day after, simply because she was unable to sit "in my cosy home with the door shut, when she might be out there".

From that Monday night, when the news of April's disappearance spread, the response was humbling.

As Geraint Evans, one of a small committee of locals that coordinated the volunteer search, said: "If it were my child, I would wish people would do it for us."

Evans, a highway worker, recalled that he first heard the news when a friend texted him to tell him a girl had gone missing.

Many of that initial search group worked through until 4pm the next day. As the days went by, hope started to fade – though few would voice such a feeling. Yet, there wasn't despair. And even on Friday, the locals were still searching. They just wanted April back.

Nestled in a small valley, among rolling hills, Machynlleth – or Mac as the locals call it – with its slate-stone buildings, appears a rural idyll.

Local parents talk of having moved there from other small towns, partly in pursuit of a place where there was nothing to fear and you could let your children play outside without worry.

The community is a mixed one: long-standing locals, outsiders, English incomers, and eco-minded families. It had, like all places, some minor social problems and a little petty crime, but nothing worse.

The town was also well aware of comments that have raged across social networking sites, suggesting a child of April's age should not have been allowed to play unsupervised outside in the early evening – the time she was abducted.

One 16-year-old, Heini Jones, who lives near the estate said: "People don't understand that we used to play where she was playing – it's not a place you'd think is dangerous. It is a place you'd think is safe and that's what is most frightening."

Many parents echoed this. Some allowed their children, slightly older than April, to play "up the mountain" – a tree clustered hill nearby.

"Coral Jones is a good mum," said one mother. "Kids wander out all the time. They wander around and they play together. They all play out there because it is the normal thing. We're not paranoid like they are out there in the city."

Outside the school, parents share tears and hugs. One mother, collecting money for food supplied for the searchers, tried to describe how she was feeling, but broke down.

Amy Roberts, a member of the volunteer coordinating team, later described the agony of parting from her son, Sam, also April's age, at school over the last week.

"I used to drop him off at school and it used to be a case of I'd leave him at the door and he would just run into the class," she said. "But now I am holding his hand right up to the end and everyone is like that. You see the pain on people's faces. We give each other a look and touch each other for comfort."

Her belief is that she will never be able to let go of her child again.

My husband said to me, 'You've got to let go in the end.' I said 'How can I ever do that? How can I ever let him play out there again.'"

THE school abuts the Bryn-y-gog estate, and April's home is just around the corner. It's easy to walk a short distance from there to the garages, where at 7pm last Monday night, she was last seen, reportedly getting into a light-coloured van.

For the past week, the green outside of April's home has been emptied of children and the whole estate has been grimly silent.

On Friday morning, police swept in, emptying the bins. But there was also tension brewing. By this point, locals were tired of the media. At one house, a sign was posted, warning that if any journalist knocked, a dog would be set on them.

The gloom that has descended on Bryn-y-gog, stands in stark contrast to the beautiful, rolling landscape that rises up around it.

It's partly this territory, and the hostile conditions of wind and rain that have dogged the past week of the hunt, and have driven it to develop on such a scale.

There has been a belief, locally, that what was needed was people who knew this place and its hiding places, and that the challenge of finding April, since they are experts in this territory, was theirs, not just a task for the professionals.

As volunteers combed villages, the police had their own more persistent locations to focus on: the river Dyfi, which was flooded, and the recent homes of Mark Bridger. Boats with sonar equipment searched the river, while the countryside crawled with police, coastguards, rangers, dogs and journalists. Rumours would occasionally circulated, grimly, that a body had been found.

When Dyfed-Powys police announced on Friday that Bridger had been rearrested on "suspicion of murder", a chill swept through the town. "Murder" was what everyone involved in the search were trying not to think about. In the hall of the leisure centre, an eerie silence descended as the news spread.

Around 200 volunteer searchers, muddied and dressed in waterproofs, were left speechless. Tearful and avoiding eye contact, everyone waited for a police official to confirm this news. Chief Inspector Robyn Mason entered the room, and confirmed the news, adding: "We would ask that you no longer take part in searches yourself."

Even this, however, was not, for Machynlleth, the end of hope.

"We are looking for April Jones, not a body," said Geraint Evans, following the announcement. "That is what keeps us here."

Meanwhile, small groups of searchers refused to give up. A gang of four young men, sitting in a white van, described their plan to head up into the hills in spite of the advice.

James Roberts, who lives at the edge of the Bryn-y-gog estate, but, because of work commitments had not been able to help earlier in the week, insisted he would not be stopped, saying: "We can't give up hope. I just think we have to go for it, and I'm not worried about our scents messing up the sniffer dogs, because that's already messed up."

Many working in the police and rescue services also spoke, even at this point, of not giving up on hope.

Police Chaplain, Tom Evans, noted there had been no dip in the energy or commitment of the police or other services. In Machynlleth this week there have been two fears: the most haunting and acute is the dread for this small girl and what horrors may have happened for her.

However the other, lurking in the backdrop is for the world of Machynlleth itself, a fear that a whole way of life may have been extinguished too. One father of a five-year-old, watching the news on television in the pub, said: "The situation now is going to destroy Mac. This is going to make this town a difference place and one of the worst things is that every parent in this town is going to become a lot more possessive over their kids."

As yet, though, the town has managed – just about – to hold itself together. It has cleaved to the idea of itself as a community, connected and supportive. This is a feeling that runs widely through not just the town-dwellers, but also the nearby farmers, the local police officers, the rescue services, and, indeed, almost everyone involved in this investigation.

As awful as this case is, there is some solace for the people of Machynlleth to be found in the fact that they have come together in such force in this time of difficulty.

When the announcement came that the volunteer search was stopping, Reverend Kathleen Rogers, of the local parish church of St Peter's, made a stirring speech.

"Be proud of yourselves," she said, "because you have done as much as you can do. Be proud and when you look back and reflect on this awful situation think what you have done. You have done incredibly well."

Now, with the charging of Mark Bridger with April's murder, it is inevitable that the pride and the hope they have felt will be drowned by horror, despair and recrimination.

The abyss into which Machynlleth peered in that long, drawn-out silence in the leisure centre on Friday may unfortunately become a permanent reality.

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