The homecoming: The McCanns return to Britain without Madeleine

The eyes of the world might have been on their homecoming, but the end-of-holiday mundanities were the same as any when Kate and Gerry McCann tried to put Portugal behind them on their return to Leicestershire yesterday.

First, there were their two-year-old twins to stir from half-sleep after the drive home from the airport. It was left to Kate to unbuckle Amelie and carry her to the oak front door which the GP had last passed through joyfully, with three children in tow and a beach holiday in sight, on a spring day more than three months ago.

There was some help with their four large black suitcases from the Special Branch officers who had chauffeured them the 16 miles from East Midlands airport to Rothley.

But only Mr McCann seemed to have the know-how to unfasten the two child seats from the unmarked police car. Palpably exhausted, he spent three minutes grappling with them – close enough to one of the 100 journalists at the gate to hear his live running commentary, while a TV network's helicopter buzzed overhead. Just a few more dreadful moments in a passage of his life which has been full of little else in recent months.

The McCanns, awakening to their first day in Britain without Madeleine today, are "quite upbeat and quite buoyant" to be home, according to one family friend – their return giving them "a new confidence" that they will clear their names despite their status as arguidos (suspects) in the police investigation into Madeleine's disappearance. But the break in Gerry McCann's voice as he spoke in the heat of the apron at East Midlands airport, his son Sean in his arms, provided a different perspective on quite what it meant to leave Britain with three children and return with two.

"Despite there being so much we wish to say, we are unable to do so, except to say this: we played no part in the disappearance of our lovely daughter Madeleine," he said.

As the 39-year-old spoke, the mysteries surrounding the Portuguese police investigation were as baffling as ever, with reports in the Portuguese press suggesting yesterday that a judge had rejected a police application to keep the couple in Portugal.

Members of the McCann family disclosed on Friday that police had told the couple their suspicions that Kate accidentally killed Madeleine stemmed from an apparent trace of the child's blood found in the back of a Renault Scenic car they hired 25 days after her disappearance. It was said to have been detected by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in Birmingham.

But FSS sources have now cast doubt on that and suggest that DNA samples found in the back of the car were too degraded to provide a complete match with Madeleine's DNA. Portuguese police are awaiting the results of further tests being carried by the FSS.

The McCanns' decision to return to Britain came at the 11th hour. Although a rental agreement on the house they have used in Praia da Luz was due to expire next week, they initially decided after the events of last week to extend their stay in Portugal. In the words of one family friend, they did not want to appear to be "running scared" and as late as Saturday, their resolve was intact. But the growing backlash against them in Portugal and the increasing unpredictability of the police investigation drove their decision, disclosed in the early hours of yesterday, that it would be better for them and their children if they left.

If the beach holiday had run its natural course, they would have returned on a Thomsons flight to Coventry, months ago.

Instead, yesterday's journey started with them driving themselves up the Algarve's A2 motorway, with photographers in pursuit, before catching the 9.30am easyJet flight 6552 to East Midlands. They were given a VIP room during their brief time at Faro airport and were afforded what privacy is available on a budget flight – the two front rows were cleared on the aircraft for their group – though that did not stop curious holidaymakers approaching them with questions as they endeavoured to settle the children.

The couple's family had done what they could to assist their return to their home, Orchard House, a detached mock-Victorian property on a five-year-old housing development. Mrs McCann's uncle, Brian Kennedy, carried in a bag of provisions shortly before they arrived. The front lawn was freshly cut and the laurel hedge neat. A yellow ribbon was visible on the Vauxhall Corsa parked outside the double garage.

But the short drive from airport to house was full of dreadful reminders for mrs McCann, returning to Rothley for the first time. From her seat behind the driver in the Special Branch Ford Galaxy, she might well have seen the image of her child in the local newsagents' window advertising Madeleine "bands of hope". Or else the cluster of cameras around the eternal flame for Madeleine which burns across the road from the newsagents.

Every other telegraph post advertised last Saturday's funfair at the local Bunny's Field – an event which, had fate taken a different course, the five McCanns might have attended.

At the house, Mr McCann asked Mr Kennedy to communicate that there would be no more statements unless the police investigation develops in some way. And so it was left to this most loyal supporter of the couple, who has had his own wife's illness to contend with of late, to communicate the enormity of recent events. "It has been the most trying three or four days of their lives," Mr Kennedy said. "They are very tired, shattered – as anyone would be."

The events of the past few days have affected the people of Rothley, too – with a sense that ambiguities now exist where they didn't before. "I don't know what I think because I don't know the facts," said one villager, who would not be named.

When Madeleine first went missing, that kind of statement would have been considered a profanity in a village where the war memorial was festooned with yellow ribbons and flowers.

"There's a surprising amount of uncertainty among people here," said a local newspaper journalist. "There was anything but, in the early days. We couldn't even gauge people's opinions about whether they felt there was an element of neglect [in the McCanns' leaving Madeleine unattended] without upsetting people."

But empathy for Mrs McCann and what she is going through was also in evidence. "I've been begging them to leave," said Tracey Warburton, from Birmingham, who travelled to the Algarve to join the search for Madeleine, in the early days of the inquiry, and who met Mr McCann in the process. "The last time she [Mrs McCann] drove that road [home] she had her baby with her," Ms Warburton pointed out.

James McDonald, a villager who works at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, said there was "a feeling of warmth" in the village and the hospital. "There's a sense for me that they're kindred spirits, being medics," he said.

Other villagers fear the couple's return will presage an unwelcome switch of media focus from the Algarve to Rothley. "I saw the TV helicopter at the golf club this morning," said Norman Ellis, 62. "It's unsettling. For a time we thought it was a police chopper. It's all taken us a bit by surprise."

Among neighbours, there was also uncertainty about how to approach the couple. Nigel Warner, a financial services executive who lives in the same cul-de-sac and who had grown accustomed to seeing the McCanns with their children in the 18 months since the doctors moved into the village, will wait until the time is right before delivering a card in support.

"I'll be guided by anybody who talks to them first," he said. "No one wants to stand on anybody's toes."

At the McCanns' house, there were friends on hand to help them pass what must already seem like endless hours and deal with the enormity of what they have experienced. "It's just good to have them back," said one friend, Amanda. "We're going to rally round as much as we can, and whatever Kate and Gerry need, we'll be there for them."

There was also a sense that the twins, at least, were relishing the return to normality which their parents crave for them. Both took great delight in removing from the window sill a long line of cuddly toys.

But life is far more uncertain for their parents. Though the couple's Portuguese lawyer expects no developments for several days and has returned to Lisbon, evidence could be passed, in their absence, at any time to the public prosecutor in Portimao, where they have been questioned. The police investigation "is not over by any means", police spokesman Olegario Sousa said. For the McCanns, there is nothing to do but wait.

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