Per Ardua ad Astra
The darkness enfolds me and I take comfort in its embrace. It’s warmer than I expected and I relax a little as my eyes begin to focus in the gloom. I’m in a strange room. Moonlight steals through the net curtains, casting a puddle of silver light on the polished wooden floor.
Blacker against the darkness, I can make out the shapes of a wardrobe, a dressing table and a single bed. It is the outline of the bed’s occupant that draws my eyes as she sleeps, as yet unaware of my presence. I move a little closer and the floorboards creak beneath my feet. In the bed, the sleeper stirs. She rolls over, sighs and sleeps again. I allow myself to exhale. I don’t want to wake her yet. I need to collect my thoughts, to regain contact with reality, but I am so very tired and my leg is hurting.
Near the window, a rocking chair catches the moonlight. I accept its invitation and sit down. I remove my helmet and goggles at last and run my hands through my hair. It feels greasy and I wonder when I’ll be able to wash it. I smile, remembering how they used to call us the “Brylcreem” boys in the old days.
She was the loveliest sight I had ever seen, not pretty in a conventional sense, but radiating laughter and inner beauty. I loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her. It took her a little longer to fall for me but she did, I’m happy to say. The war kept us apart a lot. Well, that’s the nature of war isn’t it?
Home on leave for the weekend, I met her outside the armaments factory where she worked, doing her bit for the war effort. She stroked the pilot’s wings that I’d so recently gained and had hastily stitched above my left breast pocket.
“Don’t you look the part? I’m so proud of you.” We kissed and I was lost in the scent of her hair and the warmth of her skin. Then we walked to her mother’s home, picking our way through the debris of the previous week’s air raids.
Sunday evening came too quickly and there were tears as we waited at the station for the train that would take me back to the squadron. She removed her silk scarf and tucked it into the pocket of my tunic.
“To remember me,” she whispered as she reached up to kiss me.
“As if I could forget,” I returned her kiss and in the distance, we heard the rumble of the approaching train. On impulse, I tugged at the wings on my chest and they came off easily. I pressed them into her hand.
“Keep these safe for me. You can sew them on properly when I come home.”
I boarded the train and we waved as it pulled out, neither of us knowing that this was to be our last goodbye.
She’s stirring again, I’ll have to make a decision soon. I can’t just sit here all night, can I?
The moonlight has shifted while I was reminiscing and now it falls on her face, still as young and fresh as ever. I’m standing over her now, willing her to wake up and see me.
So many years have passed, how can she still look so young? It’s as if she’s been frozen in time, plucked from my memory and placed before me. Perhaps she isn’t real; perhaps none of this is real. I don’t even know how I came to be here tonight. I can only remember longing to see her once more.
She opens her eyes and looks at me. The recognition is instant and she registers no surprise.
“Tom, you’re here at last.”
“You knew I was coming?” My voice is shaking. The arthritis in my knee is throbbing again. She doesn’t reply but sits up and pats the bed, inviting me to sit beside her.
“Does your leg hurt very badly? It will stop soon,” she speaks with authority. I believe her. She kisses my cheek. “I’ve been waiting for you. We’ll be together always now.”
I can’t pretend to understand what’s happening and she senses my confusion. I can’t speak; I don’t know what to say. I just know that I’ve always loved her. She places her right hand on my cheek and I remember the letter.
It breaks my heart to tell you this, but Laura was killed in the air raid last Thursday....
I couldn’t continue. It was weeks before I could read the rest of it. Laura’s mother was distraught and I was devastated. The years that have passed since then did little to ease the heartache. I never loved again. I never married; I just grew old and tired dreaming of my lost love all the time and now, she is here and nothing has changed.
I am still speechless. She looks at me tenderly.
“It’s time, Tom. Your body is dying and your spirit is returning to me. There’s nothing to fear.”
“How did you know?” My pain and confusion are easing fast, replaced by joy.
“I knew you’d come. I had your promise.” She held out her left hand, opening it slowly to reveal the keepsake I had given her – my wings. “They’ve been with me always.”
As I finally take her in my arms, I can hear the steady beep of the monitor change to a solid high-pitched squeal. The hospital fades away and my love and I are reunited for eternity.