His jaw is still clenched with anger and his dark blue eyes are haunted with the deepest of sorrow.
The father of murdered toddler James Bulger has suffered two decades of grieving without respite — and he never expects that to change.
But somehow he has managed to find the strength to continue and, as he marks the 20th anniversary of James’s murder, he begs people never to forget his little boy who was at the centre of one of the most shocking and unspeakable crimes in British history.
James was just a few weeks shy of his third birthday when 10-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables abducted, tortured and murdered the bubbly and much-loved son of Ralph and his wife Denise.
It was a crime that left a stain on the nation’s conscience. How could two boys so young carry out such depraved acts of violence, and murder a helpless toddler as he begged for his mummy and daddy?
Two decades on, it still shocks, and for Ralph the misery of losing his son is as fresh as the day it happened.
To mark the milestone anniversary, Ralph, 46, has written a book about his son, his cruel murder and the long, hard fight that he and his family have weathered to try and get real justice.
The book, My James, lays bare Ralph’s emotions, his struggles and his hopes for the future.
“I wanted this book to be all about my son, James. I wanted people to read about the little boy behind the headlines and the way he was before he was taken from us,” Ralph explains.
“James never had a chance to grow up and do all the normal things in life and I wanted to give him a voice all these years later — to remind people about the little boy who was the victim of such a terrible crime.
“His pictures have been seen all around the world but no one really knew what he was like. His family did, and I wanted to share that so people could see what we really lost.
“James brought so much joy to all of us and he was robbed of the chance of a life. I owe it to him to keep his memory alive.”
Those precious memories of his short time with James now mean the world to Ralph.
“He was the most boisterous and fun-loving kid you could imagine. He was racing around from the time he woke up in the morning to the moment he went to sleep at night.
“My favourite memories of him were when we were in the park together — playing football or pushing him in his favourite go-kart. He was a live wire but he was also so kind and caring. If he were alive today I think he would be an absolutely brilliant young man.”
In his book, Ralph details the terrible events of Feb 12, 1993. He describes the searing pain suffered by Denise after James momentarily slipped away from holding her hand in a busy shopping mall in Bootle, Liverpool, and of his family’s desperate but ultimately futile three-day search before James’s mutilated body was found on a railway track in nearby Walton.
“The pain never goes away,” says Ralph. “I carry a knot in my chest at all times and sometimes I find it hard to breathe. I still have nightmares where I wake up bathed in sweat. I will never get the image of what happened to James out of my head because time has not been a healer for me.”
In the years following James’s murder, Ralph tried to blot out the pain by drinking heavily — up to two bottles of whisky a day — but it didn’t make any difference.
“The pain was still there when I woke up from the drink and I knew I was drinking myself to death. But it wasn’t until nearly 10 years after James was murdered that I really tried to change my life,” he says.
The impact took its toll on Ralph and Denise’s marriage and the couple split soon after the birth of their second child, Michael, in Dec 1993.
“I did go through a spell of blaming Denise for what happened but I feel terrible shame about that now,” Ralph admits. “Denise was not to blame. She was devastated by losing James and you can still see that today. She was always a good mum and she was devoted to James.
“We were both torn apart by what happened and I don’t know that many marriages could survive something like this. I couldn’t cope at all.
“The only people I blame for James’s death today are his killers, Thompson and Venables, and myself. I feel as guilty today as I did back then, because I was James’s dad and I wasn’t there to protect him. I’ve tried to stop blaming myself but I can’t. I’m not sure it will ever be any different.”
Today, Ralph is still trying to rebuild his life. He has remarried and has three daughters with his second wife, but is reluctant to discuss his family for the sake of their privacy.
“I was lucky enough to have more children with a new partner and it was my kids that kept me going,” he says. “I knew I had to sort myself out so I stopped the binge drinking and started training. I would go kick-boxing to try and release some of the anger festering away inside me.
“This kind of grief and anger that I carry every day is like a cancer that eats away at me, but I try to face the future for my kids.”
As Thompson and Venables were juveniles when they were convicted, following a 17-day trial at Preston Crown Court, they were ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the substitute sentence for life imprisonment. In 2001, the two were granted anonymity for the rest of their lives and freed from prison.
Venables was recalled to prison for a breach of parole in Feb 2010 when he was caught in possession of child pornography. In Jun 2010 he was handed a two-year sentence for possession and distribution of indecent images. He was refused parole in 2011, but another hearing is due in the coming months.
“As for Thompson and Venables, I always believed and still do that they were evil. I could see it in their eyes,” says Ralph.
“Venables is back in prison now after being caught with child pornography and that is where I believe he should stay. Thompson is still free and I don’t believe that either man has ever been properly punished for what they did to my son.
“I am trying hard to rebuild my life but it is almost as if I have to put everything into separate compartments to cope. I will never get over James’s murder but you do become weathered to it. To feel horrendous has become normal for me and I will never be the man I was before I lost my son.”
Ralph will spend today remembering James and at 8pm will release a Chinese lantern into the sky from the privacy of his garden, alongside family and friends, and invites people across the country to do the same. He says: “I want to light up the sky, in the same way that James lit up my life.”
* My James, by Ralph Bulger and Rosie Dunn, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson.