When I gave birth to my baby boy, I was full of hopes and dreams for him. But the one thing I didn't ever imagine was burying my son's tiny body after his murder.

No parent wants to outlive their child or say goodbye — it's impossible to imagine — but my final hours and minutes with my beautiful James will be etched on my mind until my
dying day.

Getting my purse out to buy two pork chops for tea was the last thing I did before my world imploded forever. I went into the butcher's holding my little boy's hand, making one final stop before heading home, and I left without James's hand in mine.

That was how our last moments together went: no long goodbye, no last cuddles and snuggles with the baby who meant more to me than life itself, just me letting go of James' hand for a split second, rummaging around in my purse for the right change, and my two-year-old son being led away to his death by the 10-year-old boys who murdered him.
I remember clearly going to The Strand shopping centre in Bootle and parking up. We had a list of what needed doing and we were very efficient. Nicola — my brother Paul's fiancee — had my other brother John's little girl, Vanessa, with her.


We're a close family, and Nicola was looking after Vanessa for the day. As all mums know, you dash around like a mad thing trying to get everything finished while the kids are in a good mood and playing ball. Once they hit that wall of boredom, you have no chance of getting anything done. We got all we needed and decided to buy something nice for tea for the blokes after their hard day of DIY.

We went into A.R. Tyms, the butcher's, happy this was the last port of call. James was restless and running around a bit. He had been so good but was reaching the end of his patience. It was time to get him home so he could play with his toys and have his tea. Then it would be bath, stories, pyjamas and bed — the same routine we had every night.

There was nothing I loved more than tucking him up at bedtime and knowing he was safe and cosy. Because we only had one bedroom, James had a little bed at the side of ours, which was fine by me as I liked him close.

I went into the butcher's and straight to the counter, looking at what there was on offer. I said "hello" before pointing out the chops I wanted, all the time telling James to stand still. The butcher's shop was small so there wasn't much space for James to get up to lots of mischief, but he was playing and dancing around a bit — it was definitely home time. I remember clearly that I was by the counter, he was running around in circles and Nicola was in the corner by the fridge with Vanessa.

James was laughing and I beckoned him over to stand by me. I held on to his hand as the man wrapped up the meat and chatted to me. He was very friendly and said "hello" to James before telling me what I owed him. And this is the last thing I remember: I let go of James' hand and looked at him saying, "Just stand right there by me, don't move, okay?"

He was there right by my left thigh. I smiled at him and pulled my bag from my shoulder, took out my purse and went to open it to get my money. As I snapped open the clasp, I glanced down and James wasn't there. Immediately I looked over to the fridge cabinet and expected him to be playing with Nicola and Vanessa. He wasn't there. I shouted: "Where is James?"

Nicola told me not to worry, that he would be playing just outside the shop and that he couldn't have gone far. I got to the doorway and stopped to look left, right and left again. The place was packed and there were so many people I couldn't see a thing — which way would he have gone?

My heart was thumping and even then I was full of icy dread. It is like fingers of fear grip your heart and crush it so you can't breathe. I knew right then it was bad, I just
knew. It was one of those moments where the world feels like it is turning in slow motion, and you struggle to take in what has happened. I remember this voice in my head, Not James. Not my beautiful boy. This couldn't be happening to me, I didn't ever let him out of my sight.

Denise Fergus has written a memoir 25 years after her son was murdered. Photo / Supplied
Denise Fergus has written a memoir 25 years after her son was murdered. Photo / Supplied

Which way, which way would he have gone? I kept asking myself — left out of the shopping centre doors or right into the crowds. In a way it was a silly question, as he didn't even know his left from his right, he wouldn't have understood what he was doing. I stood there feeling sick to the pit of my stomach and I turned left to start the frantic search.

People often ask me if I blame myself for what happened that day — for taking my eyes off him for that split second.

For letting go of his hand as I looked for my purse. They ask if I blame myself for not seeing what the CCTV footage later showed: Venables and Thompson beckoning James away from my side and out of the shop at 3.39pm?

The answer is: of course I do. There aren't the words to describe how I still feel now, every day. I was the one who let go of his hand; I was the one there meant to protect him. But do you know what my biggest regret is? That I didn't turn right instead of left — if I had taken the right turn and gone around the corner, I would have seen James being led away, just four short minutes after he had left my side, trustingly holding hands with the boys who were about to murder him.

This is an extract from I Let Him Go by Denise Fergus (Bonnier Publishing Australia, $29.99), available February 1.
This article was first published on news.com.au.