Last week, in our first extract from Denise Fergus’s powerful new memoir, she told of the horror of her two-year-old son James Bulger’s notorious kidnap and murder by ten-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson 25 years ago.
Here, in our second extract, she recalls the tragedy’s aftermath and its devastating effect on her marriage and mental health.
In the immediate aftermath of James’s murder, Ralph and I couldn’t really talk about what had happened. He was finding his solace in drink, I was finding mine in silence.
A distance set in between us that just got bigger as time passed – it was like rot setting in. Ralph had never been a man to talk about his feelings and it was particularly hard in awful circumstances such as this. What could we possibly say to each other that could make it any better?
As James’s third birthday approached, just four short weeks after his body had been found, I think we both hit absolute rock bottom, I certainly felt I had nowhere left to fall. Did I try to kill myself? Not quite. Did I think about killing myself? Absolutely. Very often and in great detail.
Denise Fergus (left) has opened up on the horrific aftermath of son James Bulger’s (right) kidnap and murder at the hands of 10-year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
None of this was helped by the fact that, when I was at my lowest ebb, I felt Ralph blamed me for losing James and taking my eye off him. Would I have done the same to him if the roles had been reversed? Probably.
But I also know that, believe me, there isn’t a single person on this Earth who could have added any misery or guilt on top of the mountain I was already buckling under.
I know it was the grief talking, but for him to throw that at me in a row felt unforgivable. How were we supposed to move on if we couldn’t stop hurting each other?
I had lost my son and now I felt like I was losing my marriage. Ralph stopped coming home. I spent nights on end wondering where he was and if he was OK.
When he did come home he wanted to drink to forget and I wanted to go to sleep for ever.
I was drowning in grief. Waking up every morning became a deep and real disappointment. But then I discovered in March I was pregnant again. Obviously it wasn’t planned and I was initially completely stunned.
The shock turned to terror and I began to suffer from extreme anxiety about the new baby. All I’d ever wanted was a family but, with James and the stillbirth I’d suffered, it felt like God had twice decided it wasn’t my path.
Now that I was pregnant again, I was terrified something would happen to this child too.
Denise, pictured with husband and James’ father Ralph after the child’s abduction, has revealed she considered suicide as she tried to come to terms with her son’s death
Once I got used to the news, the idea of holding a baby in my arms again helped lift me out of the deep pit of grief that had been consuming me. Being pregnant saved my life.
It soon became clear, however, that the pregnancy was no magic solution – it certainly didn’t stop Ralph’s love affair with booze. If anything, the drinking sessions became longer and more frequent.
We were pretty much living separately – me at my sister’s and Ralph at his mum’s – and the months rolled by.
When the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson began in November 1993, it was decided between the police, my family and my doctors that it would be best for me to stay away. I didn’t put up much of a fight.
I especially didn’t want to be hearing terrible details about my son’s death for the first time in front of the boys who killed him. I most definitely would not do anything to put my baby’s health in danger.
I did want to be there for the verdict, however. I had to look them in the eyes. It was really important that Thompson and Venables could see I was there and that they hadn’t won – they’d taken my most precious thing, but they weren’t going to take the final bit of strength I had left.
Wednesday, November 24, 1993, was the day that 12 complete strangers decided if my son would get the justice he deserved.
My hatred for those boys was deep and I was dreading confronting them. I had no idea how I would feel and what would happen. I wrapped my big white cardigan around my bump, as I didn’t want anyone looking at my growing baby.
I clutched Ralph’s hand tightly and we walked slowly into the courtroom and took our seats in the front row.
Faces of evil: Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were just 10 years old when they carried out one of the most infamous murders in British criminal history
Suddenly there they were, my worst nightmare come true – two podgy, unremarkable children who had stolen and murdered my baby. I had built the moment up so much in my head that nothing was ever going to feel enough.
Looking at them, it all seemed so pointless, such a waste for such an inexplicable and evil kick. My stomach lurched and I felt sick, but I was determined to show the same restraint everyone else had. I was here to do James proud and I wouldn’t let him down.
I turned to look at their families.
Imagine my surprise when I saw smiles and laughter coming from their supporters as they interacted with Thompson and Venables in the dock. I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I saw their shoulders start shaking and I thought, finally, some tears, but as I looked closer I saw they were laughing at something that had been said to them.
I am convinced his spirit still comes to check on us
Denise, pictured here with James, believes her son comes back to check on the family
There have been several occasions when I feel James has come back to check up on us.
A nurse who cared for my mum in her dying days told me that, as she was taking her last breaths, some of the patients were asking about the little boy who had been running up and down the corridor.
The nurse kept explaining there was no little boy. But two of the patients were adamant. I like to think James was there as Mum breathed her last, so that she wasn’t alone like he had been.
One night, Stuart and I were watching TV in bed and Michael and Thomas were asleep in their own rooms when we heard one of the kids shout: ‘Muuuuummmmm.’
But when we went to check on them, they were both in deep, deep sleep. In a way I wasn’t surprised: the little voice sounded just like James, and it was exaclty the way he used to drag out my name at the end. I was convinced it had been him.
We also get lots of white feathers, which I am certain are a sign my boy has been to visit. I like to think he comes to check in and be part of everything.
I have no idea if they knew who I was, but that image of them is burned on my memory and will be with me until my dying day. My son was dead and they were chuckling without a care in the world.
The jury could not reach a verdict on the killers’ earlier attempted abduction of another boy, Diane Power’s son. I remember thinking, will that mean they will let them off with everything? I held my breath. I just kept thinking, Please God, please, please, please.
The clear voice rang out for all to hear: ‘Guilty.’ I don’t remember much else, apart from a jubilant ‘Yes!’ from someone in my family.
I looked at those boys and, initially, there wasn’t a trace of anything, although afterwards Venables started to sob. I’m convinced not one of those tears was for my son, more to do with the fact he had been caught and was about to be punished.
We were hoping for life sentences but Thompson and Venables were each given a minimum of eight years. That wasn’t even a year for every hour James’s body had lain on the train track where he was found.
My son, Michael James Bulger, was born on December 8, 1993. I had wondered if I’d have enough love for another child. I didn’t have to worry – words cannot describe the joy and relief I felt, as though I had been holding my breath for nine months and could finally let everything out.
Michael could never replace James – but I had a purpose again, a reason to live.
It was the first time I had smiled since February 12. Once we had survived the first anniversary of James’s death it became impossible to ignore the chaos of my marriage.
I hoped the affair I suspected him of having was over and that we could really concentrate on our family. But when we returned home from a short break away from Kirkby, Ralph brought the suitcases in from the car and put them in the hallway before disappearing.
After a while, he came downstairs and shouted that he was popping out and would be back soon – and that was how my marriage ended. I shouted ‘Bye, see you in a bit’ and he left for good.
The first thing I noticed was that the car wasn’t on the drive. I called the police to report it stolen. The police found the car with Ralph in the back seat – and he wasn’t alone.
Ralph was having an affair and I didn’t have the energy to try and compete with her. I was devastated that we hadn’t made it. Those old feelings of wanting to shut out the world descended dangerously again.
Except this time I couldn’t just pull the curtains and climb under the duvet, I had a baby who needed me.
Although I was still only 28, I had no social life to speak of. That all changed one night during the summer of 1996, when I arranged to meet some of the girls at the Cavern Club, Liverpool. We were queuing at the bar when the bloke being served asked me if I wanted a drink.
Stuart Fergus was out for a friend’s 21st birthday and he didn’t have a clue who I was. It was refreshing to have someone talking to me like a normal person, not a victim.
Despite being younger than me – he was 20 and I was 28 – Stuart was really serious about us, baggage and all. I fell pregnant but miscarried the baby before my 12-week scan.
I was devastated that now I had lost a baby in every possible way. Stuart asked me to marry him and a few months after the miscarriage I realised I was pregnant again.
Heart-stopping CCTV footage captured the moment James was led away by the hand by Jon Venables
This meant we pushed the wedding back to September 1998, three months after the baby was due.
Thomas Stuart Fergus was born on July 8, 1998. It was such a wonderful moment – and a year later, we were back at the same hospital having Leon Gary Fergus. Our family was complete, but despite my happiness my anxiety surrounding the kids got worse as the legal battles over Thompson and Venables’ sentence wore on.
Friday, June 24, 2001, turned out to be one of the worst days of my life. Little over eight years after murdering James, Thompson and Venables were released on life licence and my carefully compartmentalised box of emotions went up in flames.
It felt like I was drowning again and it all came down to the fact I hadn’t been able to deliver on my final promise to my son – that I would keep his killers locked up. The guilt swamped me and I became ever more anxious about the kids.
Supermarket shopping was a living hell. I wouldn’t go on my own, in fact I haven’t been shopping alone since James was taken. Our house was like a fortress, surrounded by high fences and locked gates operated by switches inside the house.
I’d fought to get Thompson and Venables longer sentences and, because of that, I thought they were bound to have a grudge.
How did I know they weren’t outside my house as I slept, that they weren’t going to befriend members of my family to get at me? Their new identities and back stories had been painstakingly crafted by the authorities.
They weren’t meant to enter Merseyside but we know one of them came to the city to watch an Everton game; we also know that Venables has been out drinking in Liverpool, which is terrifying.
Denise and Ralph’s marriage broke down but she found love again with Stuart Fergus. The couple are pictured here with her son Michael and their children, Thomas and Leon
When they were first released, I drove around and sat outside buildings I’d been tipped off about, waiting to see if I recognised them. That didn’t last long though, as I realised it was now my job to protect what I had.
When Venables was caught with child pornography and convicted in 2010, it seemed to me the most obvious sign in the world that he had not been ‘fixed’ by the system. Possessing indecent images of children isn’t a mark of successful reassimilation into society as far as I am concerned.
I know there are some people out there who think I should ‘let it go’, especially given how long ago James was murdered. To them I simply say: ‘Would you ever give up on your child, especially if he wasn’t here to defend himself?’
In my opinion, the Government will never be able to address the very real threat Thompson and Venables may yet pose, because that would require it to consider whether or not their rehabilitation has failed.
If it has failed, all the money invested in my son’s killers may as well have gone up in flames.
The time has come for a renewed national conversation around the appropriate length of sentencing for under-age criminals.
I will continue to do all I can for James until there is no breath left in my body – he will always be my son and I will protect him and his memory for ever.
© Denise Fergus, 2018
lI Let Him Go, by Denise Fergus (Blink Publishing), is published on January 25, priced £16.99. Offer price £13.59 until January 21. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the James Bulger Memorial Trust.