Denise Fergus is happy. You can hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes and feel it in the easy, loving banter between her and husband Stuart.
Little wonder, given that the pair have just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a renewal of their vows in the same church they got married in, followed afterwards by a big party for family and friends.
It’s more than that, though.
After decades of fighting for justice for her son James Bulger, who was led away from her and murdered by two 10-year-old boys in 1993, Denise has reached a level of acceptance about what she and her family have gone through – an experience that shocked the world and one that no parent should ever have to endure.
"I feel the happiest I have been for some time and that’s been the case for a while," she reveals.
"I am living the life I should have lived all those years ago when I was young; a life that was taken away from me.
"There are so many more positives now, with our three sons and granddaughter; we can sit back and watch them live their lives; get married, have kids. It’s their turn now. Life is an enormous learning curve but here we are – just Denise and Stuart. Renewing our vows was a way of marking that."
As well as being surrounded by a large, loving family, Denise’s newfound sense of peace has also come from writing her recently updated autobiography I Let Him Go.
It was very painful to recall the events that have shaped her life – James was just a few weeks short of his third birthday when he was snatched from her in a shopping centre by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – but it also gave her a chance to bring her little boy fully back into focus.
In her book she admitted that some memories – James’ laugh, his love of chocolate, his smell – had faded and the story of his short life had become overshadowed by that of his murderers and a court case that dominated world headlines.
She still strongly believes the justice system did not treat her son’s killers as the murderers they were because of their age.
But remembering James in a concentrated way for the book helped her reconnect with her boy and find some kind of peace.
And, as her silver wedding anniversary came into view, she knew the time was right to celebrate 25 years of being married to the man she adores and who is "always at her side".
"Things just clicked into place; the time was right for me emotionally," says Denise who has spoken in the book about some of her darkest days – days in which she thought she might not survive her overwhelming grief.
"The years have gone in a flash but so much has happened and we’ve been through so much together.
"At the time we met I told Stuart that if he took me on he would take a lot of other stuff on as well. I told him he had an opportunity to walk away from that; from me. But he didn’t.
"I don’t think I would have been able to do what I have on my own. He’s the one that keeps me together."
Stuart is someone with a ready joke and a calm, easy manner. He steers the James Bulger Memorial Trust, set up in memory of James to support young people who are disadvantaged due to a bereavement or a victim of crime, hatred or bullying – as well as to reward those who have made a positive impact on others or society in general.
And Stuart, 48, clearly adores his wife too.
"If you want to see the definition of a fighter, take a look at Denise," he says.
"People see her on the TV as this determined woman fighting for justice, but behind closed doors we get to see her laugh and smile and be a loving mum and wife; we’re the lucky ones."
To reaffirm that, Stuart presented her with a beautiful necklace and earring set as an anniversary present, which Denise proudly wore as she once again walked down the aisle at St Chad’s Church in Kirkby earlier this month.
The 56-year-old chose a white, cap-sleeved fitted dress – very different to the long-trained creamy one she wore 25 years ago – while her bridesmaids were in cornflower blue.
Their son Thomas, 25, was Stuart’s best man and 24-year-old Leon accompanied her to the altar. Elder brother Michael, 29, escorted his daughter, acting as a flower girl, into the church.
The music on the day was highly personal – Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are and Marry You as well as Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone – an echo of the couple’s first dance from more than two decades ago.
Meanwhile, a big screen inside the church showed images of their original wedding – accompanied by much laughter from the large congregation.
"It was a great day from beginning to end. It couldn’t have gone any better," beams Denise, despite having suffered a slight knee injury from all the dancing.
"I had eight bridesmaids and they all came to the house to get ready. We’d got them matching PJs and slippers with ‘team bride’ on. It was chaos but I wanted them all here with me and it was great fun."
But what about Stuart – was he nervous on the day?
"I knew she’d turn up – I had the house keys for a start!" he grins.
"If you look back at the original wedding photos you can see we’re smiling but in the new ones you can see the smiles are huge; there was so much more laughter."
Afterwards, there was food, speeches – and that dancing – as around 90 family and friends helped them celebrate, with the party finally wrapping up at 2am.
Other poignant moments during the day included putting wisps of thistle in the flower, in remembrance of Stuart’s Scottish dad, while in church the couple lit a candle to "remember loved ones no longer here".
Before setting off for the church the bridesmaids also gathered to take photos in front of a picture of James.
"They said he will always be with us, always a part of our lives. I thought that was lovely," says Denise.
Does she feel she has changed much from that young woman in those earlier wedding snaps?
"I have a different hair colour for a start!" she grins.
"But I think I changed anyway when I lost James – I became a different person. I suppose now I am older and a lot wiser. Now, I can take what life throws at me."
As to what advice they’d give to their younger selves just setting out on married life, Stuart is firm: "Buy shares in Amazon!" he jokes.
"Seriously, you have to remember you will have ups and downs but if you have a lot more ups then you’re doing alright. I think we’ve achieved that."
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of getting ready for their big day but, as ever, there remains an undertone of worry as the next hurdle in the fight for justice for James is not far away. Thompson and Venables were both convicted of the toddler’s murder, but released from their young offenders institutions in 2001 when both were 18. Denise was "heartbroken" at the short terms served.
Both of the killers were given new identities and put on licence for life.
However, Venables was sent back to jail in 2010 and 2017 after being caught with child sex abuse images.
A two-day parole hearing for Venables is now due to take place next month.
Denise believes he will re-offend for a third time if he’s released and the couple have had intense and ongoing talks with a series of senior government ministers to change the law, lobbying for legislation, which would see those on licence for life having no chance of release if they break the licence on two occasions.
None of this spoiled their big day but now Denise is once again preparing to be on the front foot to battle for her lost son.
"If I have to fight, then I get my fighting face on," says Denise simply.
"I know I can come across on the telly as someone who can look a bit miserable, who never smiles but that’s not me. I am determined, yes, but why would I be on TV grinning and telling jokes? I am talking about very serious issues."
And she is passionate when she says her fight is no longer simply her own.
"This isn’t just about justice for James, I am trying to be a voice for others.
"I want the law to change to prevent other families, other mums going through what we have experienced." She pauses.
"I am not a quitter. I’ve never been a quitter. I keep going until I get what I want. And I’ll carry on fighting for justice – even if it takes another 25 years."
Hair: Karl Mathers, Bleach Hair Make-up: Carla Lawson
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