‘That was murder.’

– William Golding, Lord of the Flies


November 1, bitter dawn-light, and I stand in a square in Preston, waiting for a transit van. Round the corner, in the covered Victorian market, traders are setting up their stalls: toys, children’s clothes, discarded kitchenware, cheap videos, empty golf bags, local maps in dusty frames – but no one yet to buy. An encampment of outside broadcast vans, here for a snooker tournament, sprawls in the other direction – no signs of life there, either. But in the gloom of this cobbled square, under a sky smudged like newsprint, up from the monument to the massacred mill-workers, the first grey souls are flitting through.

Nine months ago, in Liverpool, a two-year-old was killed, and today his killers will stand trial. Half an hour back, in my hotel room, I flicked through the photocopied press cuttings, needing to remind myself what happened, and yet not needing to, since for me, as for everyone, it’s there like a watermark on the psyche, a shadow across the heart: the abduction of James Bulger, the discovery of his body on a railway line, the week of police investigation, the arrest of two primary school kids. Features and editorials, documentaries and special reports have worried away at the case and, beyond it, at a larger fear: that kids are growing up too quickly, are brutalized and beyond control. I’ve read the columns. Some of them use words like ‘brutes’ and ‘little animals’. Some are written by novelists: Anthony Burgess, Martin Amis, William Golding, Alice Thomas Ellis, Piers Paul Read. They scatter the blame at different targets – single mothers, absent fathers, schools, the Church, the Pill, the sixties – but most seem to agree that children, these days, are spoilt. There’s a line about it in the Bible: ‘Cocker thy child and he shall make thee afraid.’ Cocker (I had to look it up), meaning pamper or indulge. By sparing the rod we’ve bred a generation of hoodlums. Cherub-faced muggers. Rapists who don’t have pubic hair yet. Pre-pubescents with glittering knives. What’s childhood coming to? Keep your kids well back. Childhood’s not a place for children.

I buy myself a cappuccino and lean against the window of a toyshop in the shelter of the arcade. Behind the pane are the leftovers of last night’s Hallowe’en celebrations: horror-masks, Dracula fangs, Devil forks, witches’ broomsticks and capsules of blood. Hallowe’en: it didn’t seem to count for much, once. In the north of England, thirty years ago, we had Mischief Night instead – mild pranks with treacle and doorknockers. Now the kids are into stronger stuff. Can I have a death’s-head, Dad, can I have a skeleton? I’ve seen the comics, full of crucifixes and aliens. Last night, from the train, at every station on the way here, I watched the revellers with their black cloaks and pumpkin skulls. The bones aren’t under the skin but fluorescent on the surface. The horror, the horror – give us more.

The coffee smokes in my hand. No sign yet of a transit van. Others are waiting, too, from all over the world. They stand with camera straps and notepads and high-poled furry mikes as big as carwash rollers, impatient for news. In Sefton, back in February, when the boys who killed James Bulger were first charged, several hundred people gathered outside court – grandparents, mothers, teenagers, children strapped in pushchairs. There’s a photograph among my cuttings, a dozen would-be lynchers, young men mostly, a line of screams and angry fists. Retributive justice, the stony verdict of the mob, communitas, locals taking the law into their own hands. The men in the photograph had come wanting to kill the kids who’d killed the kid, because there’s nothing worse than killing a kid. As the police vans with the boys inside drove away, or tried to, the crowd pushed through the cordon. Eggs were thrown, and rocks, until arrests were made. It’s in the hope of similar trouble that journalists have come here, three hours before the trial begins. They’re quite a crowd, but not the kind of crowd you see in photographs – rather, the kind of crowd you don’t see in photographs, the ones laurelled with lenses and light meters, the snappers not the snapped.

A wind blows through the square, kicking up bits of paper. I chuck the empty cup away and stand in a cloud of my own breath. What if the rumour’s untrue of the boys being driven here early? What if they were brought last night? Suddenly, commotion, a stretch of necks. Two white transit vans appear at the far side of the square. They come down past the Town Hall, past the library, towards the cenotaph, not at speed, not too inert and interceptable either, twenty miles an hour or so, making for a pair of high gates. Guiltily excited, I press forward. The entrance to the gate is protected by barriers, and these barriers are patrolled by policemen, in case a photographer should try to leap them, which could happen, which picture editors expect to happen if it means a better shot. When the vans reach the cenotaph, the gates begin to open, as if by magic, while the vans, still doing twenty, come steadily on. Zoom lenses are tracking the barred windows in their side, everyone’s eyes trained there, hoping for eyes in return, or maybe a mouth foaming blood. But the panes are black, the windows tiny and meshed. It’s as if these were zoo vans delivering dangerous animals, and maybe they are. In strict convoy still, the vans pass between the barriers. A machine gun of clicks, a lightshow of flash, and they disappear through the gates, which at once swing shut. The crowd outside loosens and drifts apart, unpenned now and untentacled – like a beast, after its kill, going back to sleep.

Disappointed and complicit, I, too, turn away. I didn’t see the boys. I don’t even know their names.

Three hours later, I do. In an oak-panelled, green-tiled court-room, under a vast skylight, beneath the robed portraits of dead predecessors, the trial judge is speaking – Michael Morland, head of the northern circuit, though the north isn’t evident in his voice. Gentle, greying, unlofty in his red-leather chair, he gives instructions to the press: until further notice, the defendants, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, will be identified in all reporting of the trial as Boy A and Boy B. Thompson and Venables: now their names are out in the open, at least in camera, I feel a strange shock.

Then the great moment. From the dressing room in the pit below, up the stairs to the arena, through a hole in the middle of the court, into the dock, come the boys. They’re not alone. A policeman like a referee walks ahead of them, and two social workers like linesmen sit down alongside. Carpenters have worked to raise the dock by three inches so the boys are high enough to see the judge and jury. They look tiny, all the same – the rails of the dock are like the bars of a cot or playpen. Which boy is which? One wears a navy suit and light-blue shirt, the other a black jumper, tie and white shirt; Venables, Thompson. As the court’s arranged, with most of us sitting behind the boys, it’s hard to see their faces, but it seems, from their furtive sideways glances, that they’re podgy, double-chinned, fat, though also pasty and wan-cheeked. With their neat haircuts, they look like brothers, even twins. They seem uncomfortable in their clothes – stuffed into shirts intended to make them look older, cleaner and nicer than they are. However respectable, the clothes can’t save them from being stared at. Being stared at is bad enough at the best of times, and this is the worst of times. Just because they’re murderers, if they are murderers, doesn’t make the staring easier to take. Even interrogation is preferable: how can you answer a look? Only with an answering stare, or by turning away. Thompson looks levelly back, Venables down at his lap, and in those postures, before even a word has been spoken, meanings are inferred: defiance in one case, penitence the other.

Now the boys are spoken to, directly. On this first morning of the trial, as again on the last day but never in between, they are, very briefly, addressed: this is how long the court sessions will be, this is where they will sit, and they’ve their barristers to talk to if they do not understand. Thompson, on the left, is cooler, less overawed than Venables, who puts his head in his hands and leans against his social worker’s shoulder. Neither has the cool steel of a hardened offender. Neither looks like a murderer. What do murderers look like? What do child murderers look like? Mary Bell, twenty-five years ago: a sweet-faced child, smiling out serenely, who squeezed her victims’ necks until they died. And now Jon Venables, who looks, as she did, rather pretty and vulnerable. Robert Thompson seems tougher and more self-possessed, but before his chins grew in custody neighbours called him ‘cherub-faced’ and he was teased for looking like a girl. A and B, T and V: they look so innocent, if not of the crime. Maybe they are innocent, even of that. No one expects it, but let’s see.

But the barristers for the boys don’t want us to see. They ask for a stay, or deferral. The pre-publicity has been prejudicial, they say: the emotive language and saturation coverage can’t help but have influenced the jury. David Turner, defending Thompson (each boy has his own pair of barristers), has assembled 247 press cuttings, which compare the accused to Myra Hindley and Saddam Hussein. As the pull-out quotes of doorstepped neighbours are read aloud – ‘One kid is like a girl but his pal is a brat’ – I try to measure these words against what I see, the matching neat haircuts, the best-behaviour clothes and sticky-out ears. When people describe criminals, they always speak of eyes (as if eyes were a window to the soul’s depravity), and sometimes noses, too (hooked, bent, beaked, broken). But ears: ears are always young and innocent; only their removal or disfigurement denotes criminality.

Thompson has taken his shoes off now, and his jacket, too, trying to stay cool, or trying to be cool, I’m not sure which, but there’s a nerve and swagger about him. He yawns. The yawn isn’t surprising: it’s been a long morning (that early arrival, to avoid crowd scenes), and even the brightest eleven-year-old would find the legal arguments hard to follow. But I want to shake Robert Thompson and tell him: don’t yawn even if you’re tired; don’t scratch even if the newly bought clothes are itchy. Yawning and scratching make you look cruel and unrepentant. But then, maybe he is.

Behind me, the door of the public gallery screams open: a flustered man with a notepad. To judge from the number of other notepads, nearly everyone in the gallery’s a journalist. We’ve taken over the place – there are only a couple of bona fide members of the public here. David Turner’s last cutting is from the Sun for October 7. I have it back in my hotel room – a report and photograph of the boys arriving in Preston for a familiarizing court visit, a dummy run. A tipped-off snapper saw them coming, and had his scoop: a shot of one of the boys with a lollipop. It was a gift: look, the killers of James Bulger, with their sugar-stick of callous disregard. The cutting describes the thinner of the two boys strolling ‘as though he did not have a care in the world’, while the fatter one ‘casually walked along behind’. There is more in the report about the ‘luxury’ of the boys’ secure units, and the pampered conditions they’ll enjoy during the trial. No one could miss the subtext: the killers of James Bulger, spoilt, swaggering, unrepentant, with toys and computer games to soothe their idle tax-paid days.

For legal reasons, that photograph in the Sun was pixelated – the boys’ faces were a mesh of Mondrian squares. Are they any more visible now, in the flesh, just feet away, listening to David Turner’s representations? Physiognomy: a dubious art. Here we are, scrutinizing, in search of a sign. But it’s hard to learn much from a face that’s on guard (and under guard), among strangers. Macbeth: ‘There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face’. Can the press and public see the boys right? More important, can the jurors? Or has their vision been clouded by pre-publicity? That’s what’s at issue. The argument bats back and forth: David Turner (pale, fastidious, Modern) for Thompson, and Brian Walsh (hearty, big-nosed, a Restoration wit) for Venables, versus Richard Henriques (tall, solid, Victorian) for the Crown. It’s like the sixth form again, the first whiff of adult life – lovely intellectual banter, free spirits talking themselves to death. Easy to forget that ten-year-olds are the object of this, and that they can’t follow the debate. After two hours, the judge reaches his verdict ‘unhesitatingly’: the application for a stay is refused; the trial will go ahead.

We stand like schoolboys as the judge rises for lunch, and peer at Thompson and Venables returning below. They look like brothers: Cain and Abel, little love lost between them, but joining together to murder Seth.

Afternoon and, murder trial or not, a feeling of languor has set in. Another application, another photograph – a police photograph, number 47, the battered head of James Bulger, ‘so emotive and distressing’, claim the defence, that the accused won’t get a fair hearing. There are others in court who aren’t getting a fair hearing, who shouldn’t have to listen to this. Immediately in front of me, in the first row of the gallery, with a good view of the boys (the rear of the boys), are the eight seats reserved for the Bulger family. This morning the seats were empty. Now five of them are filled. Denise, James’s mother, seven months pregnant, has stayed away. But the dead boy’s father, Ralph, chewing gum and wearing a light-brown calfskin jacket, is here with several relations and friends. They are a big clan, the Bulgers: Ralph was one of six, Denise the twelfth of thirteen. They are physically big, too: Ralph and his relations, Ralph and his mates, you wouldn’t want to tangle with them. Lanky, thin-faced, a dad put through the wringer, Ralph reminds me of Liverpool FC’s Ian Rush: someone to keep an eye on, a striker, a danger man. The Bulgers are trying hard to look unthreatening. Silent, dignified, they have the public’s sympathy and they’re not going to forfeit it by rowdiness. All the same, their eyes bore like Black and Deckers into the necks of Thompson and Venables. Have Ralph and Co. been searched for weapons, as the rest of us were on entering court? Even if they’re weapon-free, it wouldn’t need much to leap the rail of the gallery and mete out justice with their own hands. It has crossed my mind. It must have crossed their minds. They wouldn’t be human if it hadn’t. Ralph goes on chewing his gum.

The application to withhold the photograph is refused. The trial begins. A Manchester man and regular here, Richard Henriques outlines the case for the Crown. It takes him all afternoon, till 3.30, when the court must end prematurely, in deference to the child-defendants, whose hours can only be school hours, whose attention spans are short. As Henriques describes the events of that day back in February, and what became of James (a blood-stained scarf, hairs from an eyebrow on a brick), the neck muscles in Ralph Bulger’s neck tighten. Ahead of him, the boys look interested at last. We are out of the greylands of legal nicety and home to a place they know: the shops they stole from in Bootle Strand, the people they met, the kicks and bricks. Jon Venables leans against his social worker and cries. He seems to have a good relationship with this social worker, who’s chubby, cheery, cuddly, whereas Robert’s social worker, lean, agonized and Strindbergian, never looks at his impassive charge. Robert takes his jacket off. He swings his legs. When the afternoon break comes, he carries his shoes out, having removed them earlier – as he didn’t when (so the Crown claims) kicking James Bulger in the head. Only the first day of the trial and already an impression is being formed of Robert – ‘Bobby’ – as ringleader, and Jon as hanger-on. The gallery and jury look stonily at both of them. I’ve heard of criminals so charismatic in court that they’ve charmed themselves off the hook. Not this pair: it’s hard to warm to them, no matter how tender their years.

It doesn’t help that they’re fat. Robert always was (though he liked to describe himself as thin), but Jon has put on two stone in six months. Three solid meals a day and lack of exercise. It does them no good, in here, looking overweight. It feeds bad thoughts: that they’re not too put out by what happened, that they’re happy with their lot. Fatness: a measure of contentment, or slobbery (you don’t get happy anorexics, you don’t get thin slobs). At their age, I too was overweight: the Fat Controller in his last year at primary school. My sister Gillian was fat, too – fatter than me. The memory (slides to prove it) of a holiday in Majorca, when I was ten and she was eight, divebombing the swimming pool. Her jellywobbling splashes and a group of Germans, who guffawed each time she hit the water. My bit for the war effort, circa 1960. I took her hand and led her back to my parents, denying the nasty foreigners (maybe her, too) a bit of fun. Later, like me, she became self-conscious, and suffered from feeling overweight. Maybe Jon and Robert suffer the same – or, spared the teasing of the playground, maybe not. Why do we think fatness means feeling at ease with the world? Because Angst eats the soul, gnaws away at body fat (‘What’s eating him?’)? The racked screwball, the pool-eyed widow, the pining lonely-heart, who eat by themselves and into themselves. But Weltschmerz is not a monopoly of the skinny. Fat people can be anguished, too. They usually are, if only about being fat.

3.20. Like T and V, I yawn and fidget. T and V: it’s the shorthand I use in my notebook, less confusing than A and B. The clerk of the court uses it too. In all the relevant legal documents, this trial – Regina versus Robert Thompson and Jon Venables – is known as R v T & V.

Another point of nomenclature, to end the day. Richard Henriques says that he will refer to the victim throughout as James Bulger, not Jamie. James isn’t just the formally correct Christian name but what the child was called by those who knew him. I wonder what Ralph and Denise felt last February, when their son, in all the headlines, became JAMIE. I wonder how they feel now seeing his name (or misname) in the headlines once again, hearing him always spoken of in diminutive, as if the media, in its intimate wisdom, knew better than they did who he was. Another kind of abduction, another kind of murder: his becoming someone else and someone else’s, not him, not theirs. But maybe it will help them cope: their son is twice removed now, once in death, once by public appropriation. James died back in February. Now only Jamie is there.

At the hotel, I take the lift to my narrow cell: single bed, table, phone, chair. A newsreader is Jamie-ing on screen, over a photograph of that blondly angelic head. It’s the only image viewers have of R v T & V, apart from the meshed police vans crossing the square and the Victorian-style artists’ impressions of the courtroom – whereas in court James’s is the one face that’s missing. Hard for those outside to feel involved with the defendants, when they’re nameless, faceless, rootless Boy A and Boy B; hard for those inside not to, now we’re on first-name terms.

I switch channels to a drab, hoofing football game, and try to remember how old Cain was when he killed Abel and was banished to the land of Nod. Probably about fourteen. Even if it was 100, in the Old Testament you have to divide by ten. And then the other fictional precedents for children killing children. Lord of the Flies: ‘Kill the pig, kill the pig’ – and Piggy, too, the one with National Health specs who died like James, with a rock in his face, though he fell not on rails but in the sea. Teenies toting guns, toddlers tearing butterfly wings, babies gnawing crusts at two hours old. Original sin is enjoying a revival. Films showing children as little devils are now almost a genre – Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist. Children as inherently bad: I’ve had such thoughts myself. Easy enough, in the torture of sleeplessness, to imagine your baby as a devil – that cradle-cap the seedbed for Satan’s horns, those screams straight out of hell. Easy enough, seeing strange, violent children in the streets, to think them capable of evil. Maybe psychopaths, like policemen, are getting younger: if they drive cars at ten, or take GCSEs in maths then, why can’t children be murderers, too? But those boys in court today didn’t appear evil or psychopathic: there are only looks to go on, but they didn’t look the real thing.

Day 2, the first witnesses. They’re women shop assistants, who noticed the boys hanging about that Friday morning in February, suspected them of wanting to nick things and wondered why they weren’t at school. It was a Baker Day, the boys said, an Inset Day, a day off. This was a lie: the boys were ‘sagging’, truanting. Robert, it seems, was an old hand at sagging. In many families, there’s a tradition of siblings going to the same school. In Robert’s family, the tradition was of siblings not going to the same school – his older brothers had all not gone to the same school as him. Jon was more of a novice at sagging, and had an incentive not to sag that day: a note for the teacher from his mother asking if he could take the school gerbils home with him, for half-term. But then he met Robert. And decided to bunk off. The gerbils would have to go home with someone else.

I look at Jon, and he reminds me a bit of a gerbil. A hamster, anyway: the bright, darting eyes; how, when he’s upset, he beds down and disappears in the lapels of his jacket; his soft, hutched blinking at the noise and light. Robert is squatter, porkier, more of a guinea pig. An aggressive one at times. Jon flicks him nervous glances, seeking reassurance; Robert ignores them, putting the squirt in his place. Jon seems to be in thrall to Robert. I know the feeling. I see myself in Jon’s black eyes, idolizing older or rougher boys, thinking the way to their affection is to emulate them at their worst. Jon flicks another nervous glance: what would he not have done to win Robert’s admiration? These short, silent exchanges speak volumes: that Robert is the cool leader and Jon his enthusiastic sidekick; cunning fox, eager beaver. More animals. In some recent drawings for the New Yorker, the artist Sue Coe, never having seen the boys, represents them as hunch-shouldered, long-armed, ape-like. Everywhere animals. But then it’s natural to think of animals, with the boys gawped at all day, as if in a cage.

Hamster, guinea pig, beaver, fox. Little animals. Until the nineteenth century, it was common for animals to be tried in courts of law. Throughout Europe, when crops failed or children were injured, pigs, weevils, cocks, caterpillars, termites, sparrows, locusts, dogs, moles, snails were tried and often executed for their offences. Some animals, like the boar, were considered the devil incarnate. Others, like dogs, because expressing recognizable human emotions like fear and joy, were thought free and intelligent agents. Either view, when something went amiss, justified a trial and execution. Watching the boys, I feel the spirit of medievalism working still in court: the dumb incomprehension and deep silence from the dock. Beneath the slow civility of this trial, the old retributive savagery persists.

Jon looks anxious this morning. Maybe his anxiety (including the anxiety to please) is to do with having his parents here. They sit just behind him: his mother, Susan, smart and brisk in a royal-blue dress and with a gold-chained handbag; his father, Neil, hunched in anguish in a thin suit. Mrs and Mr Venables. Mrs and Mr Average. Your typical couple, no less typical for having separated several years ago and for her looking the stronger of the two. They seem well-matched, or complementary: Vamp, Wimp. Neil cries at times, whereas Susan toughs it out: beneath the neat make-up which she renews each tea-break, only a suppressed anger shows its face. Though they glance occasionally at Jon, they never look at Robert, the bad boy who dragged down their good. Robert’s on his own, unaccompanied by parent or relation. The aloneness makes him seem more sinister – as if he cared for no one, and no one for him. I know little of his life yet, only that he’s a fifth child, which makes me think of Doris Lessing’s novel, The Fifth Child, about a child-ogre, a troll-hoodlum, born into an otherwise perfect family. Some of Lessing’s descriptions of her boy-monster might fit how Robert looks in court. Already, there’s a feeling against him – a feeling that he doesn’t have feelings.

I look at T and V and try to see the court as they see it: the half-familiar witnesses; the stern-kindly judge; the silent, unreacting jury; the barristers so similar – robed in tradition under effacing wigs – you can’t tell them apart. Nothing in their experience could have prepared them for this. Even the courtroom dramas they’ve seen on television will have been wigless, American, and no kind of precedent. Anonymous, synonymous, black-gowned unfamiliars, the judge and lawyers seem to be in with each other – whoever’s side they’re on, they look like the opposition. I’m struck, too, by the overwhelming maleness of the proceedings. The two accused; the judge, barristers, solicitors, social workers; most of the press; nine of the jury; all the police except Mandy Waller, the WPC whose job, after James went missing, was to comfort Denise. Is James’s gender relevant, too? If T and V had taken a girl, might they have acted differently? Did it have to be a boy for them to act at all? Whatever, masculinity dominates the trial. The Roman arena aspect of it, the gladiatorialism, is quintessentially male. And I suspect that if the legal profession had more women in high places, these boys would not have been brought to trial in an adult court.

In the gents, during tea-break, I find myself next to Albert Kirby, head of the police investigation: lean, teetotal, late forties, bright-eyed as a young vicar. He nods at me from his stall. I nod back.

‘How’s it going, then?’ I ask.

‘Fine, fine,’ he says, ‘exactly to plan.’

Small talk from our stalls. This is how it’s supposed to be in the office gents, a chat with a colleague, him with his penis in his hand, you with yours, white porcelain in between.

‘A good man, Henriques,’ he says. ‘Safe pair of hands.’

‘You think it’s cut and dried, then?’ I ask.

‘It should be.’

As we zip up, another journalist arrives in an adjoining stall, a local bod who seems to know Albert well, and next thing they are arranging a drink. I’d guess Albert is an eye-for-an-eye man, which means I won’t see eye to eye with him. To him, the boys are a pair of cunning professionals, tracked down by a highly sophisticated police operation, and convicting them requires ruthless prosecution; to me, the trial has already begun to feel like a sledgehammer used against a nut.

Back in court, more witnesses. They’re good witnesses, from the Crown’s point of view, formidably attentive and with stunning recall. They remember it was dull and cold that Friday (39 degrees F, cloudy). They remember the papers carrying news of the Queen volunteering to pay tax for the first time, of Ranulph Fiennes on a polar odyssey, of a Home Alone girl of twelve left to fend for herself while her mother jetted off for a fortnight’s holiday in Spain. They remember buying Valentine’s cards (last chance to post them), paying the gas bill, going to the doctor, walking the dog, putting bets on horses, drinking tea, looking at magazines, driving home from work, passing the sign by the church that says ‘You don’t have to be on your knees to pray’, drawing their curtains against the dark. They remember all this. And they remember, as they performed these actions, seeing the boys who are now in front of them in the dock.

But how to put this into words? They find it hard. One by one they’re led into the box. They swear their oath. They confirm their name, their employment, why they were where they say they were, what it was they saw. They know before they enter what it will be like to stand here. They have been coached, and are being coaxed. It isn’t much to ask – more a yes–no interlude than a quiz. But they can’t do it. They mumble, they stumble, they choke, they weep. They are requested to direct their words to the judge and jury. They are asked to speak up, over the noise of the air-conditioning. They are advised to hang on while the air-conditioning is turned off. They are offered tissues and drinks of water. They are invited to take as long as they like. They accept the invitation. But still no one can hear.

I feel for them, in their taciturnity. I, too, used to dry up and die. At school, during questions, I kept my hand down, not because I didn’t know the answers but because I was afraid to say. At university, in tutorials, fearful of blushing, I tried to hide in the corner, not easy in a group of four. That fear of outing oneself: how I envied the fluent. I didn’t know then that wordlessness has a power. ‘Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise.’ Glib means untrustworthy; the stuttering are thought to be honest; the silent seem to know. A sign of strong emotion, too: the Bulger family in front of me do not exchange words, because of all they feel. But if you’re a witness, whatever your feelings, you have to have your say. These witnesses are having trouble having theirs.

Class is part of the problem. The judge and barristers speak the same language – the language of the court, not the language of the tribe. It scares the witnesses, who’re scared enough to begin with. Tongue-tied and trembling, they stand there in Sunday-best overcoats and special-occasion suits: shoppers, shop assistants, pedestrians, bus passengers, car drivers, schoolkids, pensioners, all with same story to tell, if you can hear it – the taller boy in the mustard jacket, the chubbier one in the dark jacket, the baby in the blue anorak, walking together, seemingly a family group. One by one they come forward, inaudibly corroborating each other, reliving the same terrible sequence of events.

No one doubts their sincerity, but why is it they all use the same adjective, ‘mustard’, not a colour in most palettes, to describe Jon Venables’s jacket? Why were so many of them wise after the event, wise after the after-event, the Crimewatch television programme, shown nearly a week after the crime? You could say those skippy Bootle Strand video pictures must have jerked their memory, but remembering and imagining aren’t easily untwined. ‘I shouted out loud on the bus “What the hell are those kids doing to that poor child?”’ one woman tells the court, looking fiercely at Thompson and Venables. Yeah, sure. But no one on the bus heard her. And it was ten days before she went to the police.

Still, I mustn’t blame them, these witnesses. They’re only trying to help. They couldn’t have known, when they came forward, that they’d be treated as the guilty ones, criticized for doing nothing at the time. They feel as though they’re in the dock, not the witness box; the witness box is the dock. There’s a new nervousness now: not just fear of speaking aloud in court, but fear of public condemnation. Witnesses against terrorists and ganglanders have been known to chicken out, in case of reprisals. The terror here is not of kneecappings but of headlines: We Name the Guilty. Laceration in print, flogging in 64-point: this is what’s inhibiting them.

The boys, by contrast, look more confident. They’re getting used to it here. Jon has begun to raise his head and look around. Robert, so journalists report, has taken to ‘staring them out’. But while the boys sit tinily in the dock’s cradle, the words still go over their heads. How many of these words do they catch? How much do they understand? They don’t say, since their role is to be wordless. Wittgenstein: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. What we can’t speak of, we must pass over in silence. How much is unsayable or inadmissible here? Everything but the sightings of witnesses, it seems. Already these witnesses have established beyond doubt that the boys abducted James Bulger and took him to the railway line, where – though no one saw this – he was killed. But what they witnessed doesn’t help with the Why. Only the boys can help with that, and they can’t speak yet, and perhaps won’t speak even when the turn of the defence comes. I begin to wonder if it’s worth being in court at all.

Another day gone, 3.30, and the hack pack shuffles out. The early dark seems like a kindness: sealing night, scarfing up the tender eye of day. In the square round the back of court, by the post office, a crowd of photographers has gathered, to watch the boys leave in their transit vans. A handful of shoppers and schoolchildren stand watching the photographers. No one could call them a crowd, let alone a furious crowd like that in Sefton, but a picture editor in London might try. Tomorrow these browsers back of court will appear in photographs as people who came to watch the boys – as tricoteuses in front of the guillotine, eager to see heads roll. But the public gallery has been almost empty today, except for journalists, and now there are just these casual shoppers, as if murder trials were losing their allure. Guilty, collusive, voyeuristic, I turn my back before the vans appear. Whatever the answers, I’m not going to find them here.


Photograph © John Perivolaris 



The above is taken from As If by Blake Morrison. Order your copy here.

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