"Do you turn to Christ?"
"I turn to Christ."
"Do you repent of your sins?"
"I repent of my sins."
"Do you renounce evil?"
"I renounce evil."
Alice murmured the familiar responses mechanically, heavy with fatigue and the weight of the sleeping baby in her arms. It was so hot in the tiny church. A lone fly was droning overhead, and Alice wondered fleetingly whether it would land on Jonathan and be baptised with him. She'd be glad when it was all over, and she could escape.
She came to with a start as her father gently removed Jonathan from her arms.
"Jonathan David, I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Alice waited for the screams. Jonathan David had barely emerged from the womb before emitting his first piercing shrieks, and had progressed from strength to strength, mostly in the middle of the night. Maliciously, Alice prayed he’d embarrass her father and the new grandmothers, although she couldn’t remember ever having heard a baby cry during her father’s baptisms. Had it not been for him and the grandmothers, Alice wouldn’t be here now. But you can’t spend your entire life growing up in a vicarage and not have your first child baptised. Or at least, Alice couldn’t.
Was Jonathan going to wail? Perhaps if the new grandparents heard something of Jonathan they’d stop cooing for five minutes and realise their first beloved grandson was a monster. But inevitably, Jonathan chuckled and gurgled as the holy water poured over his head, a picture of innocent baby perfection.
The congregation welcomed Jonathan into the flock with applause. Alice glanced at them cynically. She’d known most of them all her life. The congregation didn’t change much in small villages. They were full of smiles and nods now, but none of them would care if they never saw Jonathan or herself again. She had no doubt tongues had surpassed themselves wagging a few months back.
A movement towards the rear of the worshippers caught her eye. Alice stared. Why was that youth here in church at the baptism? Alice couldn’t remember ever having seen a more incongruous figure. His hair, which was probably blond although it was difficult to determine, was shaven on one side of his head but hung down in three long, greasy, plaited strands on the other. His clothes, a kind of bomber jacket in some strange silvery material, and denim jeans with odd patches which changed colour every time he moved, added to his bizarre appearance. Alice presumed it was the latest fashion, although she’d never seen anything like it before.
The strange young man caught her gaze, and held it. Alice shivered, despite the heat. His eyes were hard and angry. Alice felt a touch of fear. He was glaring at her with some intensity, as though she had injured him in some way. There was something horribly familiar about him, yet she knew she’d never seen him before. He could hardly be a regular member of the congregation, most of whom were over eighty, so why was he here? Perhaps he was a newcomer to the village, or more likely, an escapee from that remand home in Norwich. Escaped before they got the scissors to that dreadful hair, Alice mused. She resolved to mention him to her father.
Her attention returned to her father, now tracing the sign of the cross in holy oil on the baby’s forehead, then stooping to kiss him before handing him back. That was an inspired touch which the elderly ladies of the congregation always loved. Alice sighed. She’d seen the ritual so often before, it held almost no meaning for her. Yet she was aware of a faint sense of loss, of the whisper of a desire to return to those irenic childhood days when faith was taken for granted and nothing had happened to cause her to question the existence of God.
She glanced up again towards the stranger, certain in the depths of her being that he didn’t believe in God. But the young man had disappeared, had slipped out unnoticed. The service was nearly over now. Just the christening bash in the church hall to endure, then Alice would be mercifully free to return to her own little cottage. She resolved to withstand all pressure to stay the night at the vicarage. There’d be no bad dreams tonight. She felt so exhausted she was certain she’d fall asleep immediately, if Jonathan let her.
Alice wandered through to the church hall, smiling and nodding to well-wishers, Jonathan held securely in her arms.
Daphne materialised silently at her elbow. “Shall I hold him for you while you get something to eat? I’ve had mine.”
Alice was about to respond, “I’m not hungry, it’s too hot to eat.” But she recognised the impassioned plea behind her mother-in-law’s timid words, and thrust Jonathan at her with a smile. She felt sorry for Daphne. It was bad enough to spend most of your fertile years as a widow, but to lose your only son in a horrific accident was beyond what most people could bear. Alice jerked her thoughts away from Daphne. Thoughts of Daphne were too uncomfortably close to thoughts of David, and she wasn’t yet ready to tread those appalling depths of darkness.
She wandered over to the long trestle tables, covered with white sheets and laden with the customary buffet food produced, as ever, by the willing hands of the Mothers’ Union. Picking up a limp cardboard plate with its attendant paper serviette, Alice chose at random a few sandwiches, curling now in the heat, and the obligatory sausage roll. She had no intention of eating anything, but a full plate tended to stave off comment.
It was as she reached over for a stick of celery filled with cream cheese that a gaunt, male hand stretched towards her. It was a bony hand with unkempt, grimy fingernails and a huge skull ring on the middle finger and this time Alice was as close to the stranger as breathing, and it frightened her. She could detect a faint sweetish odour about him which she couldn’t immediately identify, but which stirred some dim memory below the surface of her mind and made her wrinkle her nose in disgust. Now she could see the pallor of his skin, thrown into sharp relief by the burning intensity of those eyes, the same baby blue as Jonathan’s, but which were boring into her as though he would question her very soul.
Alice abruptly spun about. She threaded her way through the guests towards her father, who was dispensing sparkling wine in paper cups. She plucked at her father’s sleeve.
“Did you see him, Dad? That chap with the hair?”
Her father frowned and shook his head, concentrating on the task in hand. Alice sighed. “Oh Dad, surely you noticed him? He stands out enough in this lot!”
The vicar raised his head fleetingly and skimmed the room. “Must have gone now, Alice. I’ll look out for him, though. Your mother may have spotted him.”
As Alice circulated amongst the guests, it became disturbingly apparent that nobody had seen him.
As soon as the speeches were over, Alice made her excuses. It had been a long day, and she was anxious to get to bed, for fatigue was making her feel slightly peculiar. She’d noticed for some time now difficulty in concentration, which she was convinced was due solely to lack of sleep. Perhaps the young stranger had been a mirage, due to the excessive heat and her exhausted condition.
Alice wound down both front windows of the car to induce some circulation of cooler air for herself and Jonathan, and drove slowly through the winding country lanes. She’d only been driving again for a couple of weeks, and still felt very shaky. Had she been living anywhere other than Norfolk, she suspected she might never have braved the wheel again. But five or six months in the village without transport, had forced her to return to the driving seat despite her terrors.
She had stopped at the crossroads, leaning forwards to peer carefully left and right round the overgrown hedgerows, when without warning, a dishevelled head with its caustic eyes thrust through her open window. Alice screamed. The baby woke and began to cry, with loud, rending wails.
“Go away! Get out!” shrieked Alice. She made to push at the head with its strange, greasy hairstyle, but even as she lunged, the head vanished. Alice put her foot down, and the little car shot forward, narrowly missing a holiday-maker travelling at a leisurely pace on the other road. Heart pounding and limbs trembling, Alice didn’t dare stop until she reached her own little drive.
She gathered up the baby and ran into the house, slamming and locking the door behind her. She took the baby into bed with her, for company. The trembling hadn’t stopped, even after a large gin. Who was that guy, and what did he want with her? And whom did he resemble, despite his bizarre appearance? He had Jonathan’s eyes, and – and David’s nose! Why, he was a little bit like her dead husband!
Alice shuddered, and closed her eyes. She must have slept, for she awoke feeling cold. She was about to get up and close the window when she became aware of the figure half hidden in shadow. She screamed – hopelessly - for she knew there was no-one within earshot of her tiny cottage.
The young man glared at her, with his angry, accusing eyes.
“Who are you?” whispered Alice. “Are you a ghost? What do you want with me?”
The eyes slowly swung until they focussed on the baby, peacefully sleeping beside her. In a flash, Alice understood. She understood everything with a deep clarity. This wasn’t some spectre of David, a ghost of the past. It was an apparition of Jonathan their son, a ghost of the future. This was what Jonathan would be like in nineteen years’ time, this awful specimen with the smell of cannabis or some such hanging round him, unrecognisable apart from the eyes. And those eyes, accusing, always accusing her of causing his father’s death.
Alice knew what she must do. She hugged her baby tightly to her, and kissed him gently. “I love you so much,” she whispered. Then she picked up the pillow and held it firmly over Jonathan’s face. And as the writhing limbs slowly stilled and the whimper gradually died away, so the phantom in front of her slowly vanished from her sight.
Alice sighed deeply, and lay down to sleep.