Billy Preston shuffled forwards leaning heavily on his stick. He shrugged off the hands of those by his side and took a deep breath. This was one objective he was going to achieve on his own. The mood of the onlookers was quiet and reflective and the restrained tones of a brass band floated through the air.
Not for Billy. He was hearing the jangly notes of a piano thumping away, the wheezing of a discordant squeezebox and the frenetic plucking of a ukulele. He was watching Jonny Ross, Eric Evans and young Harry Smythe playing their instruments for all they were worth. The smoke filled room was alive with laughter and noise, the singing and dancing of young men and women in uniform crammed into the back bar of the Druid’s Staff. It’s what they always did; afterwards.
The sparkle of moonlight on water caught his eye and then he saw the river spooling across the unfamiliar wooded countryside like a giant silver ribbon and growing broader by the minute. They called nights like tonight a ‘bomber’s moon’, where world beneath was bestowed with an ethereal quality. In the cockpit Billy shivered and glanced at the displays on his dials. Not far to the bridge now.
He was almost there. A few more steps to the cold grey granite plinth of the memorial and the growing sea of red washing against its base. Billy knew the names were there, etched in the stone for all to see. He wanted to trace the letters with his fingers, but now was not the right moment.
Billy adjusted the levers to throttle back and lose altitude. The bridge was looming larger. He knew all hell would break loose and they would be shown no mercy from those below.
He remembered walking along the corridor and his flying boots squeaking on the floor wax.
“I’ve chosen you, Preston, and your boys for this mission. I don’t need to tell you how important it is. The bridge must be destroyed. Good luck.”
Billy smiled as he stooped to deliver his poppy wreath. They were all boys. Most of them were still boys. Only he had grown up. He straightened up, stood to attention and snapped a salute. The music in his head faltered, Eric Evans and Harry Smythe lowered their instruments and returned his salute. Jonny Ross just sat there fingers poised over the piano keys. Then he turned to face him, smiled and arched a quizzical eyebrow before slowly closing the lid. Tears welled and trickled down Billy’s cheeks. A hand gripped his elbow to steady him.
Giant ink spots began to pattern the sky, ugly pools of black pock marking the startled face of the moon. The plane began to pitch and yaw, tugging against the controls. They had been spotted. Billy pushed the throttles to the stops and dived lower. The bridge loomed out of the night swathed in a shroud of exploding smudges. He flew straight and true, ignoring the rocking and buffeting, shutting out the screams of the engines and the sounds from the night. Steel girders and metal rivets filled his view and promptly vanished as the plane soared aloft, suddenly unshackled from its heavy burden. A massive explosion rent the air followed by whoops and applause. Then another, this time closer; and Billy Preston’s war ended.
The hand on Billy’s elbow tightened and a voice choking with emotion stuttered, “Billy Preston. After all this time. Billy Preston. You came through.”
Billy turned. The voice belonged to Jonny Ross. “I thought you were…” His voice trailed off.
“Me too,” came the reply. “Well are you just going to stand there? It must be your round by now. Come on, Billy, we’ve got some catching up to do.”
At the going down of the sun and in the morning.
We will remember them.
Words and photographs Copyright © 2015 by Antony J Waller