Yulian had been a late baby, late by almost a month, though in the circumstances his mother considered herself fortunate that he hadn't been born early. Or very early and dead! Now, on the spacious back seat of her cousin Anne's Mercedes, on their way to Yulian's christening at a tiny church in Harrow, Georgina Bodescu steadied the infant in his portable cot and thought back on those circumstances: on that time almost a year before when she and her husband had holidayed in Slatina, only eighty kilometres from the wild and ominously rearing bastions of the Carpatii Meridionali, the Transylvanian Alps.
A year is a long time and she could do it now - look back - without any longer feeling that she too must die, without submitting to slow, hot tears and an agony of self-reproach bordering on guilt. That's how she had felt for long, long months: guilty. Guilty that she lived when Ilya was dead, and that but for her weakness he, too, might still be alive. Guilty that she had fainted at the sight of his blood, when she should have run like the wind to fetch help. And poor Ilya lying there, made unconscious by his pain, his life's blood leaking out of him into the dark earth, while she lay crumpled in a swoon like... like some typically English shrinking violet.
Oh, yes, she could look back now - indeed she had to - for they had been Ilya's last days, which she had been part of. She had loved him very, very much and did not want to lose grasp of her memory of him. If only in looking back she could conjure all the good things without
invoking the nightmare, then she would be happy. But of course she couldn't...
Ilya Bodescu, a Romanian, had been teaching Slavonic languages in London when Georgina first met him. A linguist, he moved between Bucharest, where he taught French and English, and the European Institute in Regent Street where she had studied Bulgarian (her grandfather on her mother's side, a dealer in wines, had come from Sofia). Ilya had only occasionally been her tutor C when standing in for a huge-breasted, moustachioed, matron from Pleven - at which times his dry wit and dark, sparkling eyes had transformed what were otherwise laborious hours of learning into all too short periods of pure pleasure. Love at first sight? Not in the light of twelve years' hindsight - but a rapid enough process by any estimation. They had married inside a year, Ilya's usual term with the Institute. When the year was up, she'd gone back to Bucharest with him. That had been in November of '47.
Things had not been entirely easy. Georgina Drew's parents were fairly well-to-do; her father in the diplomatic service had had several prestigious postings abroad, and her mother too was from a moneyed background. An ex-deb turned auxiliary nurse during the First World War, she had met John Drew in a field hospital in France where she nursed his bad leg wound. This kept him out of the rest of the fighting until she could return home with him. They married in the summer of 1917. When Georgina had introduced Ilya to her parents, his reception had been more than a little stiff. For years her father, severely British, had been 'living down' the fact 'that his wife was of Bulgarian stock, and now here was his daughter bringing home a damned gypsy! It hadn't been that open, but Georgina had known what her father had thought of it all right. Her mother hadn't been quite so bad, but was too fond of remembering how 'Papa never much trusted the "Wallachs" across the border', a distrust which she put forward as one of the reasons he'd emigrated to England in the first place. In short, Ilya had not been made to feel at home.
Sadly, within the space of eight more years - split evenly for Georgina and Ilya between Bucharest and London - time had caught up with both of her parents. All squabbles were long forgotten by then and Georgina had been left fairly well off - which was as well. In those early years Ilya certainly wasn't earning enough from his teaching to keep her in her accustomed style.
But it was then that Ilya had been offered a lucrative position as an interpreter-translator with the Foreign Office in London; for while in life Georgina's father had once been something of a pain, in death his legacy included an excellent introduction to diplomatic circles. There was one condition: to secure the position Ilya must first become a British citizen. This was no hardship - he'd intended it anyway, eventually, when the right opportunity presented itself - but he did have a final term's contract at the Institute, and one more year to complete in Bucharest, before he could take up the position.
That last year in Romania had been a sad one - because of the knowledge that it was the last - but towards the end of his term Ilya had been glad. The war was eleven years in the past and the air of the reviving cities had not been good for him. London had been smog and Bucharest fog, both were laden with exhaust fumes and, for Ilya, the taint of mouldering books in libraries and classrooms too. His health had suffered a little.
They could have come back to England as soon as he'd fulfilled his duties, but a doctor in Bucharest advised against it. 'Stay through the winter,' he'd counselled, 'but
not in the city. Get out into the countryside. Long walks in the clean, fresh air - that's what you need. Evenings by a roaring log fire, just taking it easy. Knowing that the snow lies deep without, and that you're all warm within! There's a deal of satisfaction in that. It makes you glad you're alive.'
It had seemed sound advice.
Ilya wasn't due to start working at the Foreign Office until the end of May; they spent Christmas in Bucharest with friends; then, early in the new year, they took the train for Slatina under the Alps. In fact the town was on the slopes gentling up to the foothills, but the locals always spoke of it as being 'under the Alps'. There they hired an old barn of a place set back from the highway to Pitesti, settling in just before the coming of the first real snows of the year.
By the end of January the snowploughs were out, clearing the roads, their blue exhaust smoke acrid in the sharp, smarting air; the townspeople went about their business with a great stamping of feet; they were muffled to their ears, more like great bundles of clothing than people. Ilya and Georgina roasted chestnuts on their blazing, open hearth fire and made plans for the future. Until now they'd held back from a family, for their lives had seemed too unsettled. But now... now it felt right to start.
In fact they'd started almost two months earlier, but Georgina couldn't be sure yet. She had her suspicions, though.
Days would find them in town - when the snow would allow - and nights they were here in their rambling hiring, reading or making languid love before the fire. Usually the latter. Within a month of leaving Bucharest Ilya's irritating cough had disappeared and much of his former strength had returned. With typical Romanian zeal, he revelled in expending much of it on Georgina. It had been like a second honeymoon.
Mid-February and the impossible happened: three consecutive days of clear skies and bright sunshine, and all of the snow steaming away, so that on the morning of the fourth day it looked almost like an early spring. 'Another two or three days of fair weather,' the locals nodded knowingly, 'and then you'll see snow like you've never seen it! So enjoy what we've got while you can.' Ilya and Georgina had determined to do just that.
Over the years and under Ilya's tuition, Georgina had become quite handy on a pair of skis. It might be a very long time before they got the chance again. Down here on the so-called steppe, all that remained of the snow were dark grey piles heaped at the roadsides; a few kilometres up country towards the Alps, however, there was still plenty to be found.
Ilya hired a car for a couple of days - a beat-up old Volkswagen beetle - and skis, and by 1.30 P.M. on that fateful fourth day they had motored up into the foothills. For lunch they stopped at a tiny inn on the northern extreme of lonesti, ordering goulash which they washed down with thick coffee, followed by a single shot each of sharp slivovitz to clean their mouths.
Then on higher into the hills, to a region where the snow still lay thick on the fields and hedgerows. And there it was that Ilya spied the hump of low grey hills a mile or so to the west, and turned off the road on to a track to try to get a little closer.
Finally the track had become rutted under the drifted snow, and the snow itself deeper, until at last Ilya had grunted his annoyance. Not wanting to get bogged down, revving the little car's engine, he'd bumpily turned it about in its own tracks, the better to make an easy getaway when they were through with their sport.
'Landlaufen!' he'd declared, getting down their skis from the roof rack.
Georgina had groaned. 'Cross-country? All the way to those hills?'
'They're white!' he declared. 'Glittery with dust over the hard, firm crust. Perfect! Maybe half a mile there, a slow climb to the top and a controlled, enjoyable slalom through the trees, then back here just as the twilight's coming down on us.'
'But it's after three now!' she'd protested.Then we'd better get a move on. Come on, it'll be good for us...'
'Good for us!' Georgina sadly repeated now, his picture still clear in her mind a year later, tall and darkly handsome as he lifted the skis from the beetle's roof and tossed them down in the snow.
'What's that?' Anne Drew, her younger cousin, glanced back at her over her shoulder. 'Did you say something?'
'No,' Georgina smiled wanly, shaking her head. She was glad for the intrusion of another into her memories, but at the same time sorry. Ilya's face, fading, hung in the air, superimposed over her cousin's. 'Daydreaming, that's all.'
Anne frowned, turned back to her driving. Daydreaming, she thought. Yes, and Georgina had done a lot of that over the last twelve months. There'd seemed to be something in her, something other than little Yulian, that is, which hadn't come out of her when he had. Grief, yes, of course, but more than that. It was as if she'd teetered for twelve months on the very edge of a nervous break-down, and that only Ilya's continuation in Yulian had kept her from toppling. As for daydreams: sometimes she'd seemed so very far away, so detached from the real world, that it had been difficult to call her back. But now, with the baby... now she had something to cling to, an anchor, something to live for.
Good for us, Georgina said again, but this time to herself, bitterly.
It hadn't been 'good' for them, that last fatal frolic in the snow on the cruciform hills. Anything but. It had been terrible, tragic. A nightmare she'd lived through a thou-sand times in the year gone by, with ten thousand more to come, she was sure. Lulled by the car's warmth and the purr of its motor, she slipped back into her memories...
They'd found an old firebreak in the side of the hill and set out to climb it to the top, pausing now and then with their breath pluming, shielding their eyes against the white blaze. But by the time they'd pantingly reached the crest the sun had been low and the light starting to fade.
'From now on it's all downhill,' Ilya had pointed out. 'A brisk slalom through the saplings grown up in the firebreak, then a slow glide back to the car. Ready? Then here we go!'
And the rest of it had been... disaster!
The saplings he'd mentioned were in fact half-grown trees. The snow, drifted into the firebreak, was far deeper than he might have guessed, so that only the tops of the pines - looking like saplings - stood proud of the powdery white surface. Half-way down he'd skied too close to one such; a branch, just under the surface, showing as the merest tuft of green, had tangled his right-hand ski. He'd upended, bounced and skittered and jarred another twenty-five yards in a whirling bundle of white anorak, sticks and skis, flailing arms and legs before grabbing another 'sapling' and bringing his careening descent to a halt.
Georgina, well to his rear and skiing a little more timidly, saw it all. Her heart seemed to fly into her mouth and she cried out, then formed a snow-plough of her skis and drew up alongside her husband where he sprawled. She'd stepped out of her clamps at once, dug her skis in so that she couldn't lose them, gone down on her knees beside him. Ilya held his sides as he laughed and laughed, the tears of laughter rolling down his cheeks and freezing there.
'Clown!' She'd thumped his chest then. 'Oh, you clown! You very nearly frightened the life out of me!'
He had laughed all the louder, grabbing her wrists, holding her still. Then he'd looked at his skis and stopped laughing. The right ski was broken, hanging by a splinter where it had cracked across its width some six inches in front of the clamp. 'Ah!' he had exclaimed then, frown-ling. And he'd sat up in the snow and looked all about, Georgina had known, then, that it was serious. She could see it in his eyes, the way they narrowed. 'You go back to the car,' he'd told her. 'But carefully, mind you - don't be like me and go banging your skis up! Start the car and get the heater going. It's not much more than a mile, so by the time I get back you'll have that old beetle good and warm for me. No point both of
'No!' She'd refused point-blank. 'We go back together. I-'
'Georgina.' He'd spoken quietly, which meant that he was getting angry. 'Look, if we go back together, it means we'll both get back wet, tired, and very, very cold. Now that's OK for me, and I deserve it, but you don't. My way you'll soon be warm, and I'll be warm a lot sooner! Also, night is coming on. You get back to the car now, in the twilight, and you'll be able to put on the lights as a marker. You can beep the horn now and then to let me know you're safe and warm, and to give me an incentive. You see?'
She had seen, but his arguments hadn't swayed her. 'If we stick together, at least we'll be together! What if I did fall down and get stuck, eh? You'd get back to the car and I wouldn't be there. What then? Ilya, I'd be frightened on my own. For myself and for you!'
For a second his eyes had narrowed more yet. But then he'd nodded. 'You're right, of course.' And again he'd looked all about. Then, taking off his skis: 'Very well, this is what we'll do. Look down there.'
The firebreak had continued for maybe another half kilometre, running steeply downhill. To both sides full-grown trees, some of them hoary with age, stood thick and dark, with the snow drifted in banks under them where they bordered the firebreak. They stood so close that overhead their branches often interlocked. They hadn't been cut for five hundred years, those trees. Beneath them the snow was mostly patchy, kept from the earth by the thick fir canopy, which it covered like a mantle.
The car's over there,' said Ilya, pointing east, 'around the curve of the hill and behind the trees. We'll cut through the trees downhill to the track, then follow our own ski-tracks back to the car. Cutting off the corner will save us maybe half a kilometre, and it will be a lot easier than walking in deep snow. Easier for me, anyway. Once we're back on the track you can go on skis, a gentle glide; and when the car's in sight, then you can go on ahead and get her going. But we'll have to get a move on. It will be gloomy now under those trees, and in another half-hour the sun will be down. We won't want to be in the wood too long after that.'
Then he'd hoisted Georgina's skis to his shoulder and they'd left the firebreak for the shelter and the silence of the trees.
At first they'd made good headway, so good in fact that she had almost stopped worrying. But there was that about the hillside which oppressed - a quiet too intense, a sense of ages passing or passed like a few ticks of some vast clock, and of something waiting, watching - so that she only desired to get down off the hill and back out into the open. She supposed that Ilya felt it, too, this strange genius loci, for he had said very little and even his breathing was quiet as they made their way diagonally
down through the trees, moving from bole to black bole, avoiding the more precipitous places as much as possible.
Then they had reached a place where leaning stumps of stone, the bedrock itself, stuck up through the soil and leaf-mould; following which they had to negotiate an almost sheer face of crumbling rock down to a levelled area. And as he helped her down, so they had noticed the handiwork of man there under the dark trees.
They stood upon lichen-clad stone flags in front of ...a mausoleum? That's what the tumbled ruins had looked like, anyway. But here? Georgina had nervously clutched Ilya's arm. This could hardly be considered a holy place or hallowed ground, not by any stretch of the imagination. It seemed that unseen presences moved here, lending their motion to the musty air without disturbing the festoons of cobwebs and dangling fingers of dead twigs that hung down from higher areas of gloom. It was a cold place - but lacking the normal, invigorating cold of winter - where the sun had only rarely broken through in ... how many centuries?
Hewn from the raw stone of the hillside itself, the tomb had long since caved in; most of its roof of massive slabs lay in a tangle of broken masonry, where the flags of the floor were cracked and arched upwards from the achingly slow groping of great roots. A broken stone joist, leaning now against the thickly matted ruin of a side wall, had once formed the lintel above the tomb's wide entrance; it bore a vague motif or coat of arms, hard to make out in the gloom.
Ilya, who had always had a fascination for antiquities of all sorts, had gone to kneel beside the great sloping slab and gouge dirt from its carved legend. 'Well, now!' his voice had sounded hushed. 'And what are we to make of this, eh?'
Georgina had shuddered. 'I don't want to make any-thing of it! This is an entirely horrid place. Come away, let's go on.'
'But look - there are heraldic markings here. At least I suppose that's what they are. This one, at the bottom is ... a dragon? Yes, with one forepaw raised, see? And above it -I can't quite make it out.'
'Because the sun is setting!' she'd cried. 'It's getting gloomier by the moment.' But she had gone to peer over his shoulder anyway. The dragon had been quite clearly worked, a proud-looking creature chipped from the stone.
'And that's a bat!' Georgina had said at once. 'A bat in flight, over the dragon's back.'
Ilya had hurriedly cleaned away more dirt and lichen from the old chiselled grooves, and a third carved symbol had come to light. But the great lintel, which had seemed firmly enough bedded, had suddenly shifted, started to topple as the rotting wall gave way.
Pushing Georgina back, Ilya had thrown himself off balance. Trying to scramble backwards himself, he'd somehow got his leg sticking straight out in front of him, directly under the toppling lintel. Still sprawling there as the slab fell, his cry of agony and the nerve-grating crunch as his leg broke and jagged bone sheared through his flesh came simultaneous with Georgina's scream.
Then, perhaps mercifully, he had lost consciousness. She had leaped to free him from the lintel, only to discover that while it had broken his leg, it had not trapped him. The lower part of his leg flopped uselessly and fell at an odd angle when she touched it, but
miraculously it was not pinned. Then Georgina had seen and felt the break, the splintered bone projecting through red flesh and cloth, and the repetitive spurt of blood against her hands and jacket.
And that, until the moment of her awakening, had been the last that Georgina saw, felt or heard. Or rather, she had seen one other thing, and then forgotten it at once as she slumped to the ground. The thing she saw had remained forgotten, or more properly suppressed: it was the third symbol, carved above the dragon and the bat, which had seemed to leer at her even as the blackness closed in ...
'Georgy? We're there!' Anne's voice broke the spell.
Georgina, reclining in the back of the car, eyes almost closed in her suddenly pale face, gave a start and sat upright. She had been on the verge of remembering something about the place where Ilya died, something she hadn't wanted to remember. Now she gulped air grate-fully, forced a smile. 'There already?' She managed to get the words out. 'I ... I must have been miles away!'
Anne pulled the big car into the car park behind the church, braking to a gentle halt. Then she turned to look at her passenger. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
Georgina nodded. 'Yes, I'm fine. Maybe a little tired, that's all. Come on, help me with the carry-cot.'
The church was of old stone, all stained glass and Gothic arches, with a cemetery to one side where the headstones were leaning and crusted with grey-green lichens. Georgina couldn't bear lichens, especially when they covered old legends gouged in leaning slabs. She looked the other way as she hurried by the graveyard and turned left around the buttressed corner of the church towards its entrance. Anne, almost dragged along on the other handle of the carry-cot, had to break into a trot to keep up.
'Goodness!' she protested. 'You'd think we were late or something!' And in fact they were, almost.
Waiting on the steps in front of the church, there stood Anne's fianc6, George Lake. They had lived together for three years and only just set a date; and they were to be Yulian's godparents. There had been several christenings this morning; the most recent party of beaming parents, godparents and relatives was just leaving, the mother radiant as she held her child in its christening-gown. George skipped by them, came hurrying down the steps, took the carry-cot and said, 'I sat through the entire service, four christenings, all that mumbling and muttering and splashing - and screaming! But I thought it was only right that one of us be here from start to finish. But the old vicar - Lord, he's a boring old fart! God forgive me!'
George and Anne might well have been brother and sister, even twins. Toss opposites attracting out the window, thought Georgina. They were both five-ninish, a bit plump if not actually fat; both blondes, grey eyed, soft-spoken. A few weeks separated their birth-dates: George was a Sagittarius and Anne a Capricorn. Typically, he would sometimes put his foot in it; she had sufficient of her sign's stability to pull him out of it. That was Anne's interpretation of their relationship, she being a lifelong advocate of astrology.
Leaving Georgina's hands free to tidy herself up a little, they now took the carry-cot between them and made to enter the church. The twin doors were of oak under a Gothic arch, one standing half open outwards on to the landing at the head of the steps. A wind came up from nowhere, blew yesterday's confetti up in mad swirls and slammed the door resoundingly in their faces. Earlier there had been the odd ray of sunshine filtering through wispy grey clouds, but now the clouds seemed to mass, the sun was switched off like a light and it grew noticeably darker.
'Not cold enough for snow,' said George, turning his eyes apprehensively up to the sky. 'My guess is it's going to chuck it down!'
'Chuck it or bucket?' Anne was still reeling from the door's slamming, her expression puzzled.
'Fuck it!' said George, irreverently. 'Let's get in!'
A moment more and the door was shoved open from inside by the vicar. He was lean, getting on a bit in years, close to bald. His one advantage was of great height, so that he could look down on them all. He had little eyes made huge by thick-lensed spectacles, and a veined beak of a nose that seemed to turn his head as if it were a weathercock. His thinness gave the impression of a mantis, but at the same time he managed to look owlish.
A bird of pray! thought George, and grinned to himself. But at the same time he noted that the old vicar's handshake was warm and full of comfort, however trembly, and that his smile was a beam of pure goodness. Nor was he lacking in his own brand of dry wit.
'So glad you could make it,' he smiled, and nodded over Yulian in his carry-cot. The baby was awake, his round eyes moving to and fro. The vicar chucked him under his chubby chin, said, 'Young man, it's always a good idea to be early for one's christening, punctual for one's wedding, and as late as one can get for one's funeral!' Then he peered frowningly at the door.
The freak gust of wind had disappeared, taking its confetti with it. 'What happened here?' the old man lifted his eyebrows. 'That's odd! I had thought the bolt was home. But in any case, it takes a wind of some power to slam shut a door heavy as this one. Perhaps we're in for a storm.' At the foot of the door a bolt dragged squealingly along the groove it had worn in old stone flags, and thudded down into its bolthole as the vicar gave the door a final push. 'There!' He wiped his hands, nodded his satisfaction.
Not such a boring old fart after all, all three thought the identical thought as he led them inside and up to the font.
In his time, the old clergyman had baptised Georgina; he'd married her, too, and was aware that she was now a widow. This was the church her parents had attended for most of their declining years, the church her father had attended as a boy and young man. There was no need for long preliminaries, and so he began at once. As George and Anne put the cot down, and as Georgina took up Yulian in her arms, he began to intone: 'Hath this child been already baptised, or no?'
'No,' Georgina shook her head.
'Dearly beloved,' the vicar began in earnest, 'foreasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin - '
Sin, thought Georgina, the old man's words flowing over her. Yulian wasn't conceived in sin. This had ever been a part of the service that got her back up. Sin, indeed! Conceived in joy and love and sweetest sweet pleasure, yes - unless pleasure were to be construed as sin...
She looked down at Yulian in her arms; he was alert, staring at the vicar as he mumbled over his book. It was a funny expression on the baby's face: not quite vacant, not exactly a drool. Somehow intense. They had all kinds of looks, babies.
'... that thou wilt mercifully look upon this child; wash him, sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being - '
The Holy Ghost. Ghosts had stirred under those stirless trees on the cruciform hills, but in no way holy ones. Unholy ones!
Thunder rumbled distantly and the high stained glass windows brightened momentarily from a far flash of lightning before falling into deeper gloom. A light burned over the font, however, sufficient for the vicar's eyes behind their thick lenses. He shivered visibly as he read his lines, for suddenly the temperature had seemed to fall dramatically.
The old man paused for a moment, looked up and blinked. His eyes went from the faces of the three adults to the baby, paused there for a moment, blinked rapidly. He looked at the light over the font, then at the high windows. For all his shivering, sweat gleamed on his brow and upper lip. 'I... I...' he said.
'Are you all right?' George was concerned. He took the vicar's arm.
'A cold,' the old man tried to smile, only succeeding in looking sick. His lips seemed to stick to his teeth, which were false and rather loose, and he was immediately apologetic. 'I'm sorry, but this is not really surprising. A draughty place, you know? But don't worry, I won't let you down. We'll get this finished. It just came on so quickly, that's all.' The sick smile twitched from his face.
'After this,' said Anne, 'you should spend what's left of the weekend in bed!'
'I believe I will, my dear.' Fumblingly, the vicar went back to his text.
Georgina said nothing. She felt the strangeness. Some-thing was unreal, out of focus. Did churches frown? This one was frowning. It had been hostile from the moment they'd arrived. That's what was wrong with the vicar: he could feel it too, but he didn't know what it was.
But how do I know what it is? Georgina wondered. Have I felt it before?
'... They brought young children to Christ, that he should touch them; and his disciples rebuked those that brought them...'
Georgina felt the church groaning around her, trying to expel her. No, trying to expel... Yulian? She looked at the baby and he looked back: his face broke into that unsmile which small babies smile. But his eyes were fixed, steady, unblinking. Even as she stared at him, she saw those darling eyes swivel in their sockets to gaze full upon the old vicar. Nothing wrong with that - it was just that it had looked so deliberate.
Yulian is ordinary! Georgina denied what she was thinking. She'd had this feeling before and denied it, and now she must do it again. He is ordinary! It was her, not the baby. She was blaming him for Ilya. It was the only explanation.
She glanced at George and Anne, and they smiled back reassuringly. Didn't they feel the cold, the strangeness? They obviously thought she was concerned about the vicar, the service. Other than that, they felt nothing. Oh, maybe they felt how draughty the place was, but that was all.
Georgina felt more than the cold. And so did the vicar. He was skipping lines now, hurrying through the service almost mechanically, about as human as some gaunt robot penguin. He avoided looking at them, especially Yulian. Maybe he could feel the infant's eyes on him, unwaveringly.
'Dearly beloved,' the old man was chanting at Anne and George now, the godparents, 'ye have brought this child here to be baptised...'
I have to stop it. Georgina's thoughts were growing wilder. She started to panic. Have to, before it - but before what? - happens!
'...to release him of his sins, to sanctify him with...
Outside, much closer now, thunder rumbled, accompanied by lightning that lit up the west-facing windows and sent kaleidoscopic beams of bright colours lancing through the interior. The group about the font was first gold, then green, finally crimson. Yulian was blood in Georgina's arms; his eyes were blood where they stared at the vicar.
At the back of the church, under the pulpit, almost unnoticed all of this time, a funereal man had been sweeping up, his broom scraping on the stone flags. Now, for no apparent reason, he threw the broom down, tore off his apron and rolled it up, almost ran from the church. He could be heard grumbling to himself, angry about something. Another flash of lightning turned him blue, green, finally white as an undeveloped photograph as he reached the door and plunged out of sight.
'Eccentric!' The vicar, seeming a little more in control of himself, frowned after him, blinked at his abrupt disappearance. 'He cleans the church because he has a "feel" for it! So he tells me.'
'Er, can we get on?' George had apparently had enough of interruptions.
'Of course, of course,' the old man peered again at his book, skipped several more lines. 'Er... promise that you are his sureties, that he will renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe...'
Yulian had also had enough. He began to kick, gathered air for a howling session. His face puffed up and started to turn a little blue, which would normally mean that frustration and anger were coming to the boil just beneath the surface. Georgina couldn't keep back a great sigh of relief at that. What was Yulian but a helpless baby after all?
'... the carnal desires of the flesh... was crucified, dead, and buried; that he went down into hell, and also did rise again the third day; that he...'
Just a baby, thought Georgina, with Ilya's blood, and mine, and... and?
'... the quick and the dead?'
The church was thunder dark, the storm almost directly overhead.
'... resurrection of the flesh; and everlasting life after death?'
Georgina gave a start as Anne and George answered in unison: 'All this we steadfastly believe.'
'Wilt he then be baptised in this faith?'
George and Anne again: 'That is his desire.'
But Yulian denied it! He gave a howl to raise the rafters, jerked and kicked with an astonishing strength where his mother cradled him. The old clergyman sensed trouble brewing - not the real trouble but trouble anyway - and decided not to prolong things. He took the baby from Georgina's arms. Yulian's white christening-gown was a haze of almost neon light, himself a pink pulsation in its folds.
Above the baby's howling, the old vicar said to George and Anne: 'Name this child.'
'Yulian,' they answered simply.
'Yulian,' he nodded, 'I baptise thee in the name of - ' He paused, stared at the baby. His right hand - practised, accustomed, of its own accord - had dipped into the font, lifted water, poised dripping.
Yulian continued to howl. Anne and George and Georgina heard his crying, only that. No longer touching her child, Georgina felt suddenly free, unburdened, separate from what was coming. It was not her doing; she was merely an observer; this priest must bear the brunt of his own ritual. She, too, heard only Yulian's crying - but she felt the approach of something enormous.
To the vicar the infant's howling had taken on a new note. It was no longer the cry of a child but a beast. His jaw dropped and he looked up, blinking rapidly as he peered from face to face: George and Anne smiling, if a little uncomfortably, and Georgina, looking small and wan. And then he looked again at Yulian. The baby was issuing grunts, animal grunts of rage! Its crying was only a cover, like perfume masking the stink of ordure. Underneath was the bass croaking of utter Horror!
Automatically, his hand trembling like a leaf in a gale, the old man splashed a little water on the infant's fevered brow, traced a cross there with his finger. The water might well have been acid!
NO! the thunderous croaking formed a denial. PUT NO CROSS ON ME, YOU TREACHEROUS CHRISTIAN DOG!
'What - !' the vicar suspected he'd gone insane. His eyes bulged behind the thick lenses of his spectacles.
The others heard nothing except the baby's crying -which now ceased on the instant. Old man and infant Stared at each other in a deafening silence. 'What?' the Vicar asked again, his voice a whisper.
Before his eyes the skin of the baby's brow puffed up in twin mounds, like huge boils accelerated to instantaneous eruption. The fine skin split and blunt goat horns came through, curving as they emerged. Yulian's jaws elongated into a dog's muzzle, which cracked open to reveal a red cave of white knives and a viper's flickering tongue. The breath of the thing was a stench, an open tomb; its eyes, pits of sulphur, burned on the vicar's face like fire.
'Jesus!' said the old man. 'Oh, my God - what are you?' And he dropped the child. Or would have - but George had seen the glazing of his eyes, the slackening of his body, the blood's rapid draining from his face. As the old man crumpled, George stepped forward, took Yulian from him.
Anne, also quick off the mark, had caught the old man and managed to lower him a little less than gently to the floor. But Georgina was also reeling. Like the other two, she had seen, smelled, heard nothing - but she was Yulian's mother. She had felt something coming, and she knew that it had been here. As she, too, fainted, so there came a thunderbolt that struck the steeple, and a cannonade of thunder that rolled on and on.
Then there was only silence. And light gradually returning, and dust shaken down in rivulets from rafters high overhead.
And George and Anne, white as ghosts, gaping at each other in the church's lightening gloom.
And Yulian, angelic in his godfather's arms...
Georgina was a year making her recovery. Yulian spent the time with his godparents, at the end of which they had their own child to fuss over and care for. His mother spent it in a somewhat select sanatorium. No one was much surprised; her breakdown, so long delayed, had finally arrived with a vengeance. George and Anne, and others of Georgina's friends, visited her regularly, but no one mentioned the abortive christening or the death of the vicar.
That had been a stroke or some such. The old man's health had been waning. He'd lasted only a few hours after his collapse in the church. George had gone with him in an ambulance to the hospital, had been with him when he died. The old man had come to in the final moments before he passed forever from this world.
His eyes had focussed on George's face, widened, filled with memory, disbelief. 'It's all right,' George had com-forted him, patting the hand which grasped his forearm with a feverish strength. 'Take it easy. You're in good hands.'
'Good hands? Good hands! My God!' The old man had been quite lucid. 'I dreamed ... I dreamed... there was a christening. You were there.' It was almost an accusation.
George smiled. 'There was supposed to be a christening,' he'd answered. 'But don't worry, you can finish it when you're up and about again.'
'It was real?' the old man tried to sit up. 'It was real!'
George and a nurse supported him in his bed, lowered him as he collapsed again on to his pillows. Then he caved in. His face contorted and he seemed to crumple into himself. The nurse rushed from the room shouting for a doctor. Still convulsing, the vicar beckoned George closer with a twitching finger. His face was fluttering, had turned the colour of lead.
George put his ear to the old man's whispering lips, heard: 'Christen it? No, no - you mustn't! First - first have it exorcised!'
And those were the last words he ever spoke. George mentioned it to no one. Obviously the old boy's mind had been going, too.
A week after the christening Yulian developed a rash of tiny white blisters on his forehead. They eventually dried up and flaked away, leaving barely visible marks exactly like freckles...