Nothing in the route they took to murder had marked out the two 10-year-olds as killers. They were conceived in recession, born within 10 days of one another in August 1982. Venables, known as Boy B in court was the elder.
His parents, Neil and Susan, missed only one day of his trial. They sat bowed in the pews of the court, just below their son in the dock. The father is a slight man, sharp-featured, with the look of a man who has learned not to expect many lucky breaks, but never imagined a bad one like this.
He likes a pint, but not too many. He likes watching Everton and mainstream, non- violent videos.
He was always a timid man, neighbours in Norris Green, a Liverpool suburb, said. He spoiled those kids, especially the killer, whom he would collect from school. He got married from that flat near the flyover, and lived there with his mother after the marriage broke up in October 1988, after his father died. Mr Venables is a fork-lift truck driver, and he is unemployed.
He and his wife have been trying to get back together; they think maybe the trauma will salvage the marriage and keep them together. Nobody locally thought they were bad parents. It was a surprise when they separated.
'It proved a fairly amicable separation,' a family friend said. They used to meet regularly for a drink.
She had stayed in the family house, an unremarkable semi- detached council house in a neat working-class area.
The mother is the disciplinarian. She had three children, a 13-year-old boy and a nine- year-old girl. Both are in special schools now. Her dark hair, straight with a curl to tuck it into her neck, her navy jacket, the patent bag with its brass strap, all give a decorous impression to a woman whose eyes and cheeks have sunk into the vacuum inside her since that moment. It came on the afternoon of 19 February, in a police station. She hugged him, he was crying. And her boy, her beloved boy, had said: 'I did kill him.'
'I thought she was a lovely person,' a neighbour said. 'She was a good mother. She always listened to him, had time for him. She made the most of herself.'
She used to work at Littlewoods pools, but the kids came first, even though she could be stern with them, cross if she found them playing out after dark.
Down her road are neighbours, women, who remember her as a good friend, a good listener, the type that keeps her own problems to herself, never let on that there was anything wrong with her own marriage.
Or her children. Venables spent weekends at his father's home a mile away, close to Thompson, known as Boy A. As a parenting arrangement, it was structured, proper. The boy was anything but.
He needed special attention at nursery school. He was disruptive at junior school. Tremors ran through him. He rocked back and forth in his chair, banged his head on desks, moaned and whined, rolled along walls, vandalised displays and paintings, glued paper to his head. He attacked himself with scissors and, two years ago, attacked another boy, pinning him to the ground with a ruler across his windpipe. He was suspended.
He moved in September 1991 to a new school close to his father, and was kept down a class.
'He was loved and he was never allowed to behave badly,' said a relative who had never seen him at school. 'We think this other boy had a hold over him.'
The other boy, at the same school, was also kept down a year; 17 months before they jointly killed a child, Thompson and Venables had a putative bond in under-achievement.
The police have suspected throughout that Thompson's was the more violent, malevolent attack, that his was the mind that turned first to murder, the personality damaged and made deeply angry. It has been only a suspicion.
'There's nothing to suggest why the murder happened,' Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, who led the investigation, said. 'When their backgrounds are analysed, nothing marks them out from any other boys in any other schools - nothing identifies a potential to murder.'
But in Thompson's neighbourhood there was at least the potential to feel deprived. His home was in a badly-built, badly-maintained, badly-kept council red-brick terrace. The immediate area around Thompson's home is rough, there is graffiti on the Victorian church, litter in the streets, nets in some windows, bare light-bulbs visible through others.
The boy has six brothers; one aged 20, the others 17, 15, 14, 8 and a baby of 14 months. The father of all bar the baby left in October 1988 and subsequently had no contact with the family. He had no knowledge of his son's crime until traced by police. The family were rehoused in 1988 to the terrace where they lived until Thompson's arrest. During those years, the boys bullied, the mother lost control. As the boys went into their teens, so they went into care. One implored social workers to take him away. He said his mother beat him. Her critics around there say she is shrill, a big- mouth with a foul temper and a nasty streak. There are neighbours who say it was hell living next door, that anything could have happened with those kids, they ran riot, were playing on bikes at one o'clock in the morning. And the mother? She was often in the pub. She took the kids with her. 'Her kids were a bit wild,' Tom Pines, the landlord, said. Thompson had been abusive to his wife. 'He had a bit of a bad name around here,' one neighbour said. 'He was a little terror in his own way,' Joan O'Brien said, 'but all kids are.'
'He was not half as bad as some of the kids around here,' a shop assistant said. He was not a disturbed boy in class.
And Mrs Thompson has her defenders. 'The house was never what you'd call tidy, but it wasn't squalor. She'd have a cup of tea and a ciggie with you, and she took some pride in herself,' a neighbour with a son the same age as Thompson said.
If she is condemned in the neighbourhood it is for allowing her boys to dominate truant gangs. 'You could complain, try and keep your kids away from playing with hers, but she did nothing. Some people reckon Thompson was fine and polite if you got to know him, but he always seemed mixed up in any trouble,' a family across the road said.
He was sly, that Thompson, and manipulative. He seemed able to prevail on other boys, recruit them to truant and stray, to thieve and play up on the embankment. But, down his street, they blamed the single parent. Just as Venables's folks did.
He had never truanted until he got mixed up with Thompson. Then, in autumn term 1992, Thompson was absent for 49 half-days, Venables for 40. Venables's record improved after his father began meeting him after school. Mrs Thompson tried the same remedy, with less success. Until half- term in February, the day schools broke up and James was killed, Thompson was absent on 37 out of 60 half-days (the teachers take the register morning and afternoon).
On one of those missing afternoons, he was on the streets with his best friend, Michael. They took Thompson's younger brother with them - and abandoned him, crying, by the canal which runs past the Strand shopping centre, the same precinct where Thompson would meet James and discuss with Venables dumping him in the water, or leaving him in the traffic.
They were two bored truants when they met James, sagging off school because they were no good at lessons, bored because the excitement of shoplifting soon diminishes. One, Thompson, was a liar, a bully, provocative and combative. The other was a disturbed boy, easily led. Both were strangers to their parents, almost literally in the case of Thompson, psychologically in the case of Venables.
His interviews with detectives revealed something of their relationship. Thompson was the one who stole, Venables said. Thompson liked trolls, a kind of doll; Venables, frightened of being bullied, thought it was a laugh.
Question: Is Robert clever or something (at school)?
Answer: No, he can't do it, he can't add or nothing. I can.
Q: So he bullies you because you're cleverer than him?
A: I know, he asks me for the answers . . .
Q: Do you think it's exciting being with Robert?
A: Yeah, a bit.
Q: Be honest with me.
Q: Do you do things with him that you wouldn't normally do with your other friends?
A: Yeah. I wouldn't do anything with me other friends.
A: Because they're good.
Q: Would you do these things on your own?
A: I'm too scared.
Q: So, as long as he's with you for a bit of courage, you'll go along with what he does and have a little go yourself?
It sounded plausible in court, even though Venables was lying at that stage in his interrogation about his movements on the fatal day.
Two psychiatrists gave evidence. Both boys have been traumatised by the killing, Venables so badly that he cannot speak meaningfully about the event. It may be too late to get inside their minds. One psychiatrist said she was concerned by the lack of therapeutic care of Thompson. Both were sent into secure accommodation as car thieves. It was meant to conceal their true identity from other children. 'The last thing those two needed was a confusion of their identities,' a defence lawyer said.
Opinions as to what motivated the boys when they abducted James Bulger and led him to his death can only be supposition - like so much of the entire story. The supposition of witnesses was that the child was with a brother, that he was being taken home as the bigger boys said, or taken to a police station. They passed Walton Lane police station, but did not turn back there.
They had walked those two and a half miles and been seen by dozens of people. They had spent the best part of the day as strangers to everyone they encountered. Of all those witnesses, only five identified Thompson, only two picked out Venables, and just one woman identified both. She had seen them at the Strand, trying unsuccessfully to lure a child from his mother.
Perhaps James was killed with bricks and an iron bar simply because they had gone 10 years and got nowhere, save for a strange mutual chemistry. Perhaps Thompson made Venables feel more like a male. Maybe Venables made Thompson feel esteemed, someone he could manipulate and impress for manipulation's sake. You would not leave your child on his own with Thompson, and you would not leave Venables on his own.
Neither could back down in front of the other. Perhaps if James had laid down, they would have gone. He did not, and they maintained the attack, something missing or something malign in their own lives acted out in a murderous idiom.
If one of Venables's relatives had not told police Venables had truanted with Thompson that day, they might never have been caught, though a perceptive observer might have been intrigued by Thompson's visit to the scene of the crime, his admiration of all the flowers.
The two boys are separate now, in the company only of adults, locked away as the most perplexing specimens in British captivity.
Leading article, page 19
Brian Appleyard, page 21