by Dave Wakely
My angel, that’s what I used to call you. If they did irony up here, I guess the last laugh would be funnier. But I’m just one of His foot soldiers now – capital H, of course, wouldn’t want to seem impertinent. Cloud Nine’s an over-rated billet, though. And it’s really Cloud 371b, only that don’t sound as fancy, do it? More like a council flat.
The view’s breath-taking, mind, even if I can only watch. I can’t hear a word – not unless someone specifically calls on me, asks by name. It’s like being back in the army – you need a bloody chitty for everything. Peace and harmony run on rules like everything else, it seems. And heaven forbid we should grumble. Big ‘h’ or little.
Down below they say it’s love what gives you wings. I’ll take their word for it. But when I got mine, whatever it was ran through my heart, it weren’t love. Eighteen inches of German steel, more like. And whatever I saw for a moment in his eyes, down in that Berlin U-bahn tunnel, it weren’t passion. More like fear, I reckon. And he hadn’t picked anywhere you might call romantic, rats and God knows what else – pardon my language – scurrying about in the darkness.
He didn’t even stop to ask my name, or me his. Fritz, perhaps, or Hans. Wolfgang, maybe. But it was him or me, and it weren’t me what got lucky. Billy Tomkins, 3 May 1926 – 1 May 1945. Not something a bloke expects to find himself reading, not on the proverbial tablets of stone. His own name.
So I never quite saw nineteen. The last things my eyes took in were a sign that read Friedrichstraße and your picture as I pulled it out of me tunic pocket. Whatever his name was, he’d pierced your heart too. I’d always dreamt I’d die in your arms, even if they’d only ever held me for a few minutes, and even then with your dad’s eyes looking on with a warning in them. He’d squint down at his pocket-watch like he was tallying the seconds, checking I weren’t claiming more than me ration.
But it was Tommy Burrows’ arms I died in. We’d only been trying to find a corner to kip in while Berlin crumpled over our heads like a kid’s sandcastle. Every few seconds, the rat-a-tat of guns, echoing down like Death hisself had come a-knocking. Like he knew he’d find someone home. At least Tommy was respectful, grazing me forehead with his lips as he closed me eyelids and whispered, ‘Godspeed, Billy. Godspeed.’ It were the only time he ever called me William.
That night, new wings hanging heavy as a limb in plaster, I watched him hiding in a burned-out house, my blood still on his shirt. Heard him praying for me, lips barely moving. Saw him wash his fingers in a broken gutter before he counted through his rosary beads. Tommy always wanted things to be proper, dignified.
The next day, as vans crawled through the ruins announcing the ceasefire, I saw him again. Crouching down in a corner of the Tiergarten, digging a hole to bury one of my tunic buttons with your photograph. I saw him tuck my No. 2 disc in his pocket to send home. ‘At least this way, they’ll know,’ I heard him mutter as he got up to go. ‘Better that than ‘missing and presumed’.’ As he put his hands together, I could hear him wishing me peace too.
Peace? I ain’t supposed to think it up here, but it’s been bittersweet. I should have learned after me and Tommy escaped from Plötzensee nick during the air raid, our own side dropping bombs on our heads. Oh, we was free alright – free to scuttle from one shelled-out hovel to another, stealing smokes off the dead while Tommy crossed hisself and whispered his apologies. But we was still in chokey as far I could see. Still prisoners of war, just not of the bloody Germans.
As we broke out that night, Tommy said to me ‘If this is freedom, I ain’t buying it.’ And I remember telling him, as we scrambled through the rubble, ‘Well, best make sure you don’t, then. Buy it, I mean.’
Famous last words, eh? Since then, it’s been one long silent movie.
They treat us nice here, I’ll say that for them, and the rations are pukka. ‘Stay optimistic,’ they tell us, and I ain’t ungrateful. Or least I don’t mean to be. But back then, I’d have swapped all the manna they could offer for bread and dripping in a cosy kitchen, or to walk you home eating chips in the rain. ‘Look and learn,’ they tell us, and I do try. When I dare to look down.
And look at me now – seventy-one years dead, and not a single day older. Eternally young, I am. Forever inexperienced and forever hopeful. Hair still black and glossy, parting like a ploughed field. Brylcreem shining in the starlight and a dab of cologne behind each ear. I only wear it to cover that smell trapped under me feathers; that stink of blood and death and rat droppings. The moment I can’t seem to ever quite leave. I’m always just a second or two past all that. Back then, down there.
I watched as Mum read the telegram and wept into her bowl of carrots, getting all her clean tea-towels sodden as she tried to stop her tears. All them weeks she’d waited, saying her prayers in the dark and hoping someone was listening, and I could only hear her when it was too late. I looked down as Dad cycled to your house. As he stood on your porch with his trilby in his hands, staring at his feet as he told your parents. And then as he sat with them in your parlour, sipping bootleg whisky till they’d almost found the words to say.
Four days after VE Day that was, when you’d partied all night in Trafalgar Square, waltzing with total strangers. Did you but know it, you danced the Lambeth Walk with Princess Margaret and her smiling bodyguard. I saw how you lost your hat, and how you held on tight to your hopes. ‘Oh Billy,’ you said to yourself, ‘I wish you could be here to see this.’
And I granted your wish, didn’t I? Well, as best as I could. Stayed in your thoughts and steered you gently through the crowds, kept you away from the handsome soldiers with beer in their veins and ambitions in their trouser pockets. I saw it all, Mary.
And I have seen…all of it. Spooling past like an old film as eternity ticks on. No captions, no soundtrack, and me craning to see every detail, trying to figure it out. I’ve witnessed every change of fashion, every shift of mood. Watched as empires rose and hemlines fell. Whole garments too, sometimes, the nights you undressed by lamplight. I saw, Mary. And wished my arms could reach that far. I’ve seen how you tucked my photo behind your ration card in a long line of purses, and how you kept your engagement ring – our engagement ring – in your stocking drawer. Heard you call to me on dark nights, and in the mornings as you tiptoed across the bombsite to the bus-stop.
Or at least you used to call, most nights. And then slowly, month by month, a little less. I told myself you still longed for this, for reunion. Reassured myself that’s what those silent expressions meant, all them words you spoke into your pillowcase. That you’d kept the faith.
I…well, I haven’t. Couldn’t. Not stuck here in this endless now, my heart no longer beating. Every day, as you forgot me and I slipped further into history, I’ve watched. First the days without stockings, then the days with brighter lipstick. With rouge and powder. With a second Babycham, or a third. And then with the other man, the one you married. The one who made me bury me head under me wing every time your lips turned to his, whenever you turned my picture to the wall or slid it into a drawer.
I heard how you whispered to me when he proposed. ‘Forgive me, Billy,’ you said, under your breath. And then you told him ‘Yes.’ I was there at your wedding too. Wanted to tell you how confetti looks as fine and cold as falling snow from this far up.
And then came the years when you left the light on. I started to miss the blackout, didn’t want to see the grisly details. Did you keep your eyes open for me too? I never saw. I only ever kissed you under the railway arch, in the dark.
All my days have memories of you – minute by minute, hour by hour, concertina-ed up like a scrap book. I dare myself to flick through them sometimes, but it always feels like taking the third light. Like whistling in the trenches. Making myself vulnerable. I try not to look.
I’ve seen you bloom, and seen you wither. Lose a husband and gain a stoop. Collect grey hairs and hoard wrinkles at the corner of those baby blues. I smiled the first time you cried my name at night again. Just a whisper, but I heard it. The next time it was loud enough that the nurses came running down the corridors, ready to stroke your hand and soothe you back to sleep.
But you weren’t coming back to my time. You were drifting away from your own, your milky eyes showing me how every silver lining has a cloud.
Seventy-one years I waited for my bride, and now you’ve come. Forever here and forever old. I stay watchful, making sure you’re cared for. Eighty-nine and frail, too forgetful to kiss me, withered dugs hanging inside your robe like empty Christmas stockings.
‘Chin up, Billy,’ I tell myself. ‘God knows, we’ll be a long time dead.’ And I keep myself occupied, nudging the ambrosia round its bowl with my silver spoon. But it’s sickly stuff after a while.
So now I’m standing on the end of the wooden bench, turning towards the cloud’s edge, leaning forward a few degrees. Down below, the world goes on feverish as ever, everyone hoping to be standing here one day. Or their version of it, whatever they might believe. Telling themselves they’ll be free. That they’ll be happy.
I fold my wings tightly to my sides, lift one foot up ready to jump.
‘Billy! You’re already…we’re already…I mean, we can’t…’
I pretend I can’t hear you, raise my knee higher.
‘Billy, please. The worst’s behind us – trust me.’
As you fold your wings softly over mine, I can feel the love in your heart as surely as you can feel the guilt in mine.
Dave Wakely is a jazz musician and freelance copywriter, living in Buckinghamshire with his civil partner and too many guitars. His stories have appeared in Glitterwolf, Ambit, Chelsea Station, Token Magazine, MIROnline, Prole, Shooter, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and Holdfast Anthology #2, and he will appear in the Lethe Press anthology, Best Gay Stories 2017. He tweets as @theverbalist.