Nicola Bulley, 45, disappeared after dropping her two daughters off at school on January 27
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Everyone was trying their best yesterday to keep things as normal as possible for missing Nicola Bulley’s young daughters. Friends rallied, taking the nine-year-old and six-year-old to their usual Saturday morning clubs following a sleepover.

‘It’s to try to retain a sense of routine,’ says a friend, whose children attend the same school in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire. ‘To take their minds off…’ Her words trail away. Contemplating, even fleetingly, the girls’ emotional state is impossible.

At lunchtime the girls are returned by the mother of school friends to their father, Paul Ansell. The 44-year-old gets out of his car and the girls run to him, flinging their arms round his neck.

Sleepovers, sport, hanging out with Dad.

Trying to keep things normal. Any parent would do the same.

Nicola Bulley, 45, disappeared after dropping her two daughters off at school on January 27

Nicola Bulley, 45, disappeared after dropping her two daughters off at school on January 27

Meanwhile, divers, dogs and drones are scouring the area around the River Wyre. A police helicopter hovers low overhead with a clatter-clatter redolent of a war film’s soundtrack.

And how to answer the children’s all-too-easily imagined questions? All the family can do, say friends, is to somehow mask their own pain and stay strong for them. In this, to their enormous credit, they are succeeding.

Surrendering hope is not an option for Mr Ansell, Nicola’s parents, the rest of her family and her army of friends.

The police might be pessimistic but not this irrepressible band. For loved ones in such a situation, grasping the tiniest slither of hope is natural, however irrational it may occasionally seem.

‘We’re not giving up,’ says Nancy Claeson, secretary of the village tennis club, as she pins a ‘Missing’ poster to a road sign. ‘We’re organising volunteers into teams and dividing the 13-mile stretch of the Wyre going down to the Irish Sea into ten sections.’

St Michael’s – population little more than 600 – seems full of spirited, redoubtable women such as Nancy.

Today she is anxious that people see her poster beseeching motorists to come forward with dashcam footage that may help solve the ‘ten-minute mystery’. Thus far cameras have been unable to trace Nicola’s movements on the day she disappeared, January 27, between 9.20am and 9.30am.

Even at night, Joanna Ward, 57, has been using her iPhone torch, hoping to find something the police have missed. ‘We’re trying our best, but it’s so dark,’ she says.

Police officers searched near the River Wyre in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, today

Police officers searched near the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, today 

Friends have been trying to keep things as normal as possible for missing Nicola Bulley 's young daughters

Friends have been trying to keep things as normal as possible for missing Nicola Bulley ‘s young daughters

Folk from surrounding villages – Great Eccleston, Crossmoor, Inskip – and from further afield – Kendal, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool – turn up to help look for clues, many with dogs.

Margaret Walton, from Pooley Bridge in Cumbria, is armed with a stick and uses it to point at a discarded tissue close to the riverbank. ‘Who knows? It might be a clue.’

Dog-walkers speak of their concerns about the riverbank. ‘The bank has got more dangerous, steeper, in recent months,’ says a woman walking a lurcher. ‘The river comes down from the Pennines and its shape changes.’

She points to a stile. ‘See, it’s too near to the edge of the water. She [Nicola] might have been trying to clamber over it and then fell back and toppled into the water.’

Someone remarks that it is not the first time tragedy has touched St Michael’s. He is referring to an explosion at an underground water pumping station in 1984 which killed a number of villagers.

‘They called St Michael’s the village of tears at the time because we all knew someone affected by it,’ he says. ‘If only there could be a happy ending this time around – for the sake of those two girls and their family.’

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