The Dandenongs, the mountainous area just north of the city, had attracted tourists for more than a century, so I was keen to see the area for myself, if only to compare it with the lowlands further south. But when Carmen said, ‘I’m certain Will would have come here – people did, all the time…’ I felt a tingle of anticipation.
With Melbourne far behind us, we drove through aromatic forests to Yarra Glen and Ferntree Gully, and the eloquently named settlements of Gembrook and Emerald. I thought of Will seeing all this for the first time and knew he would have been entranced. It was an artist’s dream of form and colour – with more greens than even Ireland could boast – a magical journey along winding roads arched by extraordinary plants and giant fern-trees, the flutter of bright cockatoos and sound of bell-birds everywhere…
It was a day like no other, and, having come through the Dandenongs in a wide circle, we arrived at Belgrave in the late afternoon. Close by, Carmen showed us the lovely old house where she’d holidayed with her grandparents as a child. Snapping away with the cameras, we were still talking – as we had for hours – about life and the odd connections between people and places.
I told her that here in Australia, in just a few days, we’d had a sense of time and place and people connecting like links in a chain. Every link seemed to resonate, as it did from the beginning in Otley, York and Lincoln. More recently, even that blast of inspiration at the Menin Gate in Ypres had been topped by another strange experience.
Just a few weeks previously, having done some research into the former WW1 hospital at Wandsworth in London, I’d discovered that the old building had recently been renovated into flats, studios and a bistro restaurant.
As I explained to Carmen, my friend Lena and I had planned some research in London with a visit to this place for lunch. It was a miserable day, drizzling with rain, so we took a taxi. Spying the building from across the common, I could see it was grand, but the taxi dropped us at what seemed an ignominious entrance. Inside a soot-blackened gateway stood two concrete blocks of flats. Surely this wasn’t the way in? Uncertain, fumbling with my brolly, I stepped between the gateposts and crossed some invisible boundary – and instantly, everything changed.
‘Honestly, it was like arriving at a Christmas party – still in your winter coat and boots – when suddenly, someone grabs you and sweeps you into the dance…’
Chuckling at the image, Carmen begged me to go on.
‘It was a physical sensation – absolute lightness and joy. I wanted to say, hang on a minute, let me get my bearings, but it was impossible. I was laughing and dancing along. Poor Lena could barely keep up! She kept saying, What’s happening – what’s going on?
‘But I didn’t know, either. I might have doubted myself later,’ I confessed, ‘wondering if I’d imagined it all. But Lena was there – she saw it happening. Apparently, for about fifteen minutes I was utterly transformed – happy and uplifted, but in a way she’d never seen before. Neither of us could explain it.’
Carmen was astonished, but also intrigued. The sensation I described reminded her, she said, of her friend Rosamond Lehmann, the writer. In the early 1950s Rosamond’s daughter Sally had contracted polio in the Far East, and tragically died within days. At home in England, her mother was distraught with grief. But a week or so later, Rosamond had experienced a similar kind of dancing lightness, leading to a discovery that was to change her life.
In her memoir, The Swan in the Evening, she’d written about that time, and the extraordinary events which followed. Carmen promised to send me a copy of the book, re-published under the Virago imprint, once she arrived back in London.
Peter and I flew home the next day, arriving on the Thursday. Three days later, in The Sunday Times, was a piece which startled me – an obituary for Rosamond Lehmann, who had died earlier that week. At once I wrote a letter of sympathy to Carmen on the loss of her friend.
Carmen’s reply confirmed what I suspected – that we were on the road, talking about Rosamond around the time she died. Like me, she thought it extraordinary.
‘You see,’ Carmen wrote, ‘the very next morning I had a phone call from London saying that Rosamond had died the night before, whilst she was eating her supper. Well, we were careering along the road at 11 o’clock that morning, weren’t we? Rosamond would have died about two hours before. I am not the right person to write about this, but I can’t help feeling that Rosamond leapt across the ocean to make sure I was with exactly the right person when she died…’
A few days later, Carmen sent me a copy of Rosamunde Lehmann’s autobiography, The Swan in the Evening. It did indeed contain a similar experience to mine at Wandsworth – different circumstances but a matching sensation. I found the book to be both strange and beautiful, containing far more startling accounts of ‘other-worldliness’ than those I’ve recorded.
I found myself thinking of Brian Inglis, also a friend of Rosamond Lehmann. It was Rosamond who’d suggested he write something about the mystery of intuition. That book, The Unknown Guest, was a precursor to Brian’s book, Coincidence – and that, you might say, is where I came in with this series of blogs.
But the story isn’t quite over yet…