A mother's nightmare - Denise Fergus's memoir revisits the murder of her toddler son James Bulger
I Let Him Go
Blink Publishing, hardback, 336 pages, €20.49
Denise Fergus's memoir revisits the murder of her young son James Bulger by two 10-year-olds and charts her long search for justice, writes Catherine O'Mahony
The scenario is one so many parents know. You're in a shop. The toddler is beside you. You go for your purse, drop the child's hand for a minute and tell him or her to stay put. Your attention shifts for a moment. You look back down to where the little head was down beside your leg and a cold fear descends. The child's gone.
For most of us, the feeling lasts a nanosecond. The child has just moved a step or two away, can be reached by just extending your arm. Or maybe it's a little worse than that and he or she has grabbed on to someone else's coat and is about to walk away with them instead. If you are very unlucky, minutes might elapse before you glimpse your child in the crowd outside. You grab them and cry in rage and relief.
In 1993, for Denise Fergus, the mother of murdered Liverpool toddler James Bulger, a trip to buy pork chops for tea at the shopping centre set off a train of events whose horror was - until that day - possibly beyond the imaginings of even the most neurotic parent.
Nobody old enough to watch the news back then will have forgotten what happened next. Two-year-old James walked out of the butcher's shop. Two young boys mitching from school - Jon Venables and Robert Thompson - spotted him and led him quickly away. His mother never saw him again. That was a chilly Friday afternoon. On Sunday, the little boy's mutilated body was found on a railway track three miles from the shopping centre.
The boys had tortured and killed the toddler. Grainy images of James trustingly holding their hands as they left the shopping centre played endlessly on the television. Just 10 years old on that horrible day, Venables and Thompson would become the youngest children to be convicted of murder in British courts in the modern era.
Denise's memoir - ghostwritten by Carly Cook - will resonate sharply with those who watched that nightmare tale unfold on their TV screens.
She wrote it, she says, partly to celebrate her little boy, partly to relate what happened the day she lost him.
It makes for tough reading, the only real light coming from her memories of the time before James was killed.
Denise grew up happily at a time of high unemployment in Liverpool. From a 13-strong family, she says she had limited expectations in terms of career or wealth, but a strong sense of community. She married young and she and husband Ralph initially shared a bedsit with baby James. Their first baby - a daughter - had been sadly stillborn, intensifying their extreme relief when James arrived safely.
In the image of James most often used by the media, he looks like a solemn kid. But his mother describes - and the joyful family pictures in this book show it, too - a mischievous character who bounced out of bed each day and loved to try and dance like Michael Jackson (the singer later sent flowers to the family, having heard his music was played at the child's funeral).
He was such a scamp that it was the first day he'd been allowed into the shopping centre without being strapped into his buggy. This proved, of course, a fatal mistake.
Anger and desperation dominates Denise's detailed account of the hours after James disappeared, as she panicked, hoped and then lost heart, by turn. Initially, the realisation that James was with children was regarded as a good thing; it was assumed by everyone, including the police, that they were playing with him somewhere, "feeding him Mars bars".
When police sifted through security footage from the shopping centre, it became clear that events had happened very fast: one frame showed James running out of the shop at 3.39pm; at 3.40pm, Denise followed; at 3.42pm, James was on an upper floor with his abductors; and at 3.43pm, the trio were filmed leaving the centre. Four minutes was all it took. If Denise had turned right when she ran out of the shop, she would have caught him. But she turned left.
Three weeks later, at James's funeral, Denise recalls looking at his tiny casket and thinking: "This is a fucking nightmare and I am going to wake up from it any minute."
But it was real and she started to collapse into grief; she stopped eating and became reclusive, intimidated by the ongoing media interest in her. Her marriage faltered. She had suicidal thoughts. Her husband Ralph initially blamed her for losing sight of James (he later expressed shame for doing so). He started drinking excessively. The unexpected gift of a new pregnancy lifted her mood, but she and Ralph would not survive as a couple.
The boys were tried for murder later that year. Denise offers little detail of what happened in the trial, because she stayed away for virtually all of the proceedings, only attending to hear the verdict, which took the jury just six hours to reach. Guilty of murder, for both boys.
It gave her little satisfaction.
"It is human nature to look for reasons," she recalls, "but I quickly came to terms with the fact that there weren't any… no one could answer my only question: why did my baby have to die?"
But when the two boys were sentenced to a minimum of eight years each in a children's detention centre, Denise was galvanised into action. She owed it to James, she felt, to secure a harsher penalty.
"It had been decided that eight years was all my baby's life was worth... it was nothing and it was a disgrace."
The Sun newspaper took up the cause (she notes it may have been keen to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of Liverpool people after its notorious reporting on the Hillsborough disaster, three years earlier) with coupons to help readers support a petition for harder sentencing. There was a huge response. The then home secretary, Michael Howard, initially raised the boys' minimum sentence to 15 years. But this was later overruled as a breach by the European Court of Human Rights. In 2001, as they reached the age of 18, Venables and Thompson were both released, with guarantees of lifelong anonymity.
Denise, who remarried and now has three grown-up sons (she confesses to having felt extreme anxiety about them as they grew up), has campaigned ever since against what she regards as the leniency of her son's killers' treatment. She wanted them to serve time in an adult prison; to understand what they had done. The system, she believes, "always seemed to put the feelings of two child murderers before James".
The boys did not entirely vanish. In 2012, Venables was jailed for possessing child-pornography images, and he is at present once again incarcerated for repeating that offence.
Denise is now backing a petition for a public inquiry into these events, and to ensure probation services alert victim's families when perpetrators re-offend.
"The fight continues," she concludes, "it just changes as the years go on."