Prison was never a just punishment for depraved Robert Black
I've been terrified of Robert Black since long before I knew his name. Since Jennifer Cardy, the little girl around my age with the red bike just like mine, bought from the same shop, was taken from a sun-dappled, quiet country road in August 1981. Since he murdered her - and killed childhood. A dark figure just out of sight at every roadside, around every corner, hiding in the hedgerow.
Sometimes events move you almost beyond words, beyond reasoning, beyond theorising, beyond the normal ranges of human emotion. And sometimes you realise - no, you fear - how pure evil exists in the world. That's how I felt, again, when I heard that Black had died in Maghaberry Prison.
In 1994 the serial child killer was found guilty of the murder of three little girls across Britain - Sarah Harper (10), Susan Maxwell (11) and Caroline Hogg (5).
In 2011, 30 years after her body was pulled out of McKee's Dam near Hillsborough, he was found guilty of Jennifer's murder. Black is also prime suspect for the murder of Devon schoolgirl Genette Tate, who vanished from her newspaper round in 1978. Like Jennifer, all that was left was a bicycle, a mystery and an unfathomable heartache.
Black never once expressed remorse. Indeed, he seemed to enjoy torturing the relatives. After his death I spoke to Jennifer's lovely mother Pat for this newspaper. She recalled the sheer malignancy of the child murderer: "I saw a man who relished his memories. When the murders in England, for which he'd been convicted, were disclosed again at the trial, he relished that. He wanted to hold his personal memories of what he had done so that if and when he went to bed that night he would enjoy it. I saw that in him."
Imagine having to live with - really live with - such degenerate evil. Imagine living for three decades with the knowledge that the killer of your child still drew breath. That he enjoyed the simple pleasures, even if in prison - tea, television, reading, snooker, a game of cards. Even in prison a life of sorts can be lived.
But there is worse. The knowledge that he had stored away the memories of vile acts, that they comforted him. With a record of sexual offences dating back to the early 1960s, Black was beyond redemption.
Even to the end he controlled the situation. Nothing else mattered to him - not the pain of his victims nor their families. After being convicted of Jennifer's murder in Armagh, Black showed not a flicker of emotion. There, as yet more of his foulness was uncovered and in unprecedented scenes family members, members of the public, journalists and hardened police officers wept openly, Black remained silent, passive. A killer determined to take his secrets to the grave.
At the sentencing even Black's barrister stood up and said: "I intend to say nothing in mitigation." How can you mitigate pure evil?
For all the chattering round dinner tables, the truth is that sometimes there can be no pat morals, no easy balancing of the books. The unworldly dignity - and, yes, charity - of the Cardys goes some way in making the unbearable bearable.
We can only stand humbled at their forebearance. "We certainly have no pleasure that he has gone," said Mrs Cardy. "I'd like to have known the man, to have had more time to prepare himself for his death."
But while we admire the Cardys' charity, we mustn't ignore their cries of pain. Perhaps, Jennifer's brother Phillip touches upon a raw nerve: "It's a real shame that victims and their families are not remembered as much as the murderer. Everybody knows Robert Black, but not everybody knows Susan Maxwell and Sarah Harper and Caroline Hogg and Jennifer. People forget very quickly. All those wee girls never got a chance to live a life - it's sad."
Words to chill the blood. Four little girls who never got a chance to live a life while Robert Black lived out his to its full natural term. He lived for 68 years. His known victims' combined ages come to only half of that.
No matter how you look at it, that is not justice. And what kind of society do we live in where we leave it to the relatives of murdered girls to make sense of the horror, the evil. To make them make sense of it all. For us.
There is something fundamentally wrong here. Can we really set aside the modest words of Jennifer's father, Andy Cardy? "There is something to be said for capital punishment," he said.
Robert Black was convicted of Jennifer's murder in 1994. He died 22 years later. Twenty-two years when he breathed, ate, existed and in his all-too-twisted terms enjoyed his life. When, as Jennifer's mother said, he was still a man looking for a little girl in white socks.
Is a limited denial of freedom really a fair exchange? Yes, he was unable to do what he did to any more children, but aren't the ones who had their lives cut short at his perverted hands worth more than this?
There are times when the universe screams for justice. It might suit us, it might be ultimately easier for us, but we cannot truly pretend that 20 years of the deprivations of modern prison life and watching afternoon TV is somehow just punishment.