The first day of the rest of her life

Woodward's return: Former au pair arrives in Britain with a message - `I think, in time, the truth will come out'

IN SEAT 1A, Louise Woodward had a choice of eight films on her British Airways flight home. She may have peaked, at least, at Liar, starring Tim Roth. The blurb in the in-flight magazine sounded good. The plot synopsis, all about someone arrested for murder, came with the mini-headline: "The truth will out".

Within four hours of landing at Heathrow she was at Manchester Airport facing the world's press. Yes, she said, answering one reporter's question, she regretted having a manslaughter conviction against her name. But she didn't deserve it. She added: "I think, in time, the truth will come out."

Will it, though? You only have to wait 120 minutes for all to be revealed by Mr Roth. But in the few hours since Woodward waved goodbye to Boston, she has said nothing we have not already heard from her. "Like I've said time and time again," she said in Manchester, "I had nothing to do with the death, I did not hurt Matthew, I did not kill baby Matthew."

How touching was the optimism of the handful of journalists who piled on board the BA plane with her in Boston on Wednesday evening. What were we expecting - that, once the wheels were up, Woodward would gather us all up front to unload a new, definitive, version of what happened on 4 February last year that sent Matthew Eappen to Emergency with a broken skull?

We had no such luck, of course. What Woodward actually did as we lifted into the leaden New England sky was flick on Channel 8 on the in-seat video screen and watch the news. It was a BBC bulletin -- her first taste of home. And, surprise, it was all about her. She did not bother to plug in her headphones.

In any event, media advances, however polite, were decidedly unwelcome. An invisible wall was erected around Woodward, through which no one was to penetrate. The Massachusetts State Trooper, who came along, sitting just two rows behind in 3A, helped see to that.

And so did British Airways, which might have earned itself the moniker: Woodward official airline. `The Spirit of Louise' might look good on one of its aircraft.

When Woodward was whisked into a private lounge at Boston airport before take-off, who should show up to visit her? Sir Colin Marshall, the airline's chairman, no less.

Sir Colin (soon to be Lord Marshall), who said he had been booked on the plane for weeks, resumed his socialising with Woodward on board. True, he was sitting plumb across the aisle from her in 1B. As for reports that his airline had even paid for her first-class ticket, Sir Colin notably failed to come up with any kind of denial. "Not in a position to disclose that..."

And the plane's pilot was not going to tolerate any nonsense. Any trouble, he warned one highly reputable correspondent, and he would arrange for his instantaneous arrest upon arrival at Heathrow.

It was the same journalist who suffered an unprovoked, mid-flight, verbal battering from Gary Woodward, Louise's father.

Mr Woodward actually accused us all of trying to "spy" on him and his daughter as they travelled the skies. Spy? Well, come to think of it. But my sympathy was with the other passengers who had had no notice of the company they would be keeping at 30,000ft. Among them was Dame Shirley Williams, who at least knows what it is to be caught in a Fleet Street swarm.

So, Louise was left in peace. She did not talk and she did not live it up with champagne or, indeed, any kind of alcohol. Hers was an in-flight diet of orange juice, pasta with pesto sauce and no breakfast. Nor did she don the natty sleeping-suit that is available in First Class BA for those wishing to get snuggly.

A last-minute change of plan at Heathrow that sent Woodward to Manchester by car rather than on the 6.45 am BA shuttle was instigated by the airline itself. The shuttles are one-class planes and there was concern that the press containment practised across the Atlantic might not work a second time. The media frenzy that greeted Woodward as she stepped into a Manchester Airport conference room two hours later would have been enough to unnerve even the steeliest of souls. As the photographers bawled at her to turn to their lenses, Woodward looked suddenly frightened, just as she had when she first stepped onto the witness stand in last year's trial. But yesterday, just as she had on the stand, she quickly composed herself. In case we had forgotten, Woodward has no difficulty in articulating herself.

With mother and father beside her, Woodward restated her innocence and urged the "medical community to take up my case, now that the appeal avenues are closed, to help prove my innocence". And she reiterated what her lawyers were saying even before her October trial started - that negative press coverage about her in Boston had prejudiced the jury and the final outcome. "My voice was taken away," she suggested. "I don't think I got a fair trial."

But what now for Woodward, we wanted to know? This October will see the start of the trial in the wrongful death suit filed against her by the Eappen family back in Boston. About that she would say nothing. But she is thinking about the rest of her life.

The homecoming,

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