Asked about our itinerary, I explained my confusion about the Dandenongs – the mountainous, forested area to the north east of Melbourne, and the town of the same name, perhaps a dozen miles south of there. I didn’t know where my diarist had lived and worked, but I wanted to take a drive out to the town to see what it was like.
At that, one pulled a face and said, ‘Waste of time – there’s nothing there,’ while someone else explained that maybe there had been, but in the last twenty years or so, industry and suburbs had taken over.
It sounded disappointing, but I had to see for myself. Next morning we took our hire car and drove past the railway station on Flinders Street, and thence to view the army barracks at St Kilda, where Will had enlisted.
Clad in the deep autumnal reds of some type of creeper, the building faced a broad highway – the road to Dandenong and beyond. On the far side was a large park, the Royal Botanic Gardens according to our map. In the distance above the trees we could see what looked like a great pyramid. To Peter, it seemed odd, while to me it spoke of Egypt and Cairo, where Will and his compatriots had done their training before and after Gallipoli. We hadn’t planned it, but I had to investigate.
The building with its pyramid roof turned out to be a memorial chapel standing at the centre of a broad avenue, running straight as an arrow towards the heart of Melbourne. Dedicated to the fallen of WW1, it commemorated the place in the shadow of the pyramids where bands of tough but undisciplined young men had been turned into a force whose bravery was second to none.
Approaching with a view to going in, we were stopped by an official who explained that they were about to hold a civic service, and the chapel was closed to visitors. As we turned away, disappointed, the man hesitated, asked where we were from and why we’d come. In a few brief sentences we said we were tracing the footsteps of my great-uncle who had been in Egypt, fought at Gallipoli and on the Somme, and was killed at Ypres in 1917.
At that, the man asked Will’s name, checking that he was with one of battalions raised in the State of Victoria. I assured him that Will had enlisted with the 8th Battalion, but transferred, after Gallipoli, to the Machine Gun Corps. ‘In that case,’ he said, ‘his name will be here, in the chapel…’
We were dumbfounded – all the research into military records had been done through national archives in Canberra, and we hadn’t even thought of enquiring here, where Will had enlisted.
Glancing over his shoulder, and then at his watch, the doorman reached a swift decision and asked us to follow him. After the bright sun outside it was dim within; I had an impression of a great square with light at the centre, but there was no time to linger. With footsteps echoing – and hearts racing – we followed our guide along one side of the square to where a glass case held a massive book of names. I watched with breath suspended as the case was unlocked, the heavy pages turned, and our guide stood back.
Seeing Will’s name before me, in the Book of Remembrance – just across the road from where he’d been enlisted in August 1914 – was a moment so overwhelming, I couldn’t speak. Choked by emotion, blinded by tears, I just nodded and smiled.
‘The book will stay open at that page,’ our guide said gently, ‘until we’re asked for another name…’
We thanked him for his kindness, and hand in hand retraced our steps. Blinking in the sun, too moved for words, Peter and I walked on, across the grass, beneath the trees, noticing plaques here and there, commemorating battalions, companies and individuals. We even came upon a granite horse-trough, with a bronze plaque and poetic ‘Tribute to our War Horses,’ which had us reaching for handkerchiefs as we read, and laughing at ourselves as we said in unison, ‘Oh, Louise would love that…’
Amongst the trees just off the main avenue, I looked back at the Pyramid, thinking of Will, and the book now open at his name, and the stroke of luck that had taken us to the chapel in time to see it. The coincidence prompted a smile, but I felt sad to think of him coming all this way from York, to have less than a year in this wonderful country before signing up to fight and die in France. And now, as one of the fallen, his name was recorded here, 13,000 miles from his birthplace, just as it was on a War Memorial plaque in York. Not so much beginnings and endings, as circles, links in an unending chain. Here we were, more than seventy years later, following Will’s footsteps, and the journey wasn’t over yet.
Sighing, smiling at Peter taking photographs, I turned and patted the bark of the tree beneath which I was standing. ‘I wonder which one’s dedicated to the 8th Battalion?’
Chuckling at that, Peter threw out an arm: trees were everywhere we looked, lining the avenues, growing in small groups, mature specimens standing like sentinels, younger ones like this hornbeam beside me thriving in the sun. ‘Don’t be daft,’ he said. ‘We start looking now, we’ll here for weeks…’
Laughing, I agreed. As a matter of form I bent to look for a plaque. There didn’t seem to be one – but then Peter saw it, almost overgrown by grass.
I bent to see the inscription: Dedicated to the 8th Battalion…
Peter kept shaking his head. Yesterday Whitby and Captain Cook, today – well! He’d heard about the other coincidences, of course. He’d been bowled over by Carmen being from Melbourne, and that of all the publishers in London she was the first to read my manuscript. But for once he was directly involved – ‘on the spot’ as it were, when a coincidence happened. Or in this case two coincidences, one on top of the other. There was about to be a third.