I’m bumping this post to the front page for Remembrance Day.
Very occasionally in life an experience will come your way that is so amazing and touching that words seem redundant.
I had no inkling of the journey that lay ahead when I drove to book sale in picturesque Yarragon, in the Gippsland region of Victoria, Australia. Like all good book hunters I was hoping to snare a rare title that I could sell at auction and use the proceeds to retire to a small Caribbean island.
I didn’t find a book that brought me lots of money or got me to a tropical paradise, but I did find a book that brought me immense joy, new friends and – eventually – to a farm in Belgium.
Or maybe, just maybe, the book found me?
Jammed into a country hall complete with the requisite picture of Queen Elizabeth nailed up high, I poured over the spines of the books, selecting those that interested me, or that I knew I could sell for a profit. I have a thing for old books. I love the way they look, and if they look well-loved I like them just a bit more. And that’s why my eye was captured by an old, worn copy of Harriet Beecher Stow’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was old and a title I had heard of, but had never read, and unless I popped it in my bag and bought it I’d never know if it was a First Edition. There’s no time to dither or research in the midst of a book sale, just pop it in your bag and hope it’s a winner. Assessing your catch happens once you’re home and near to a computer.
I re-emerged into the brisk July air and hauled my heavy cargo to the car. My husband and daughters were nowhere in sight so I dived into my enviro bags, eager to have a good look at my finds. Some titles were good, and others indicated I’d clearly got a little carried away. I picked up Uncle Tom’s Cabin and flicked it open to check out when it was published, and the inscription inside brought an immediate lump to my throat:
Tyson Kenneth Bramich
Kenneth was killed in
active in France on
Aug 19, 1919 was buried
at “Derry Farms” Wyschaate
The book came home with me, but I never felt it was mine to sell. It belonged to someone else, or to their family and so it languished in my house for several months until someone asked what was the most interesting thing I had ever found in a used book. I unearthed the book and contemplated what I should do with it. Would it be possible to find the family? Did Tyson Kenneth have descendants?
I don’t have the skills to be a private investigator but I am a fan of ABC-TV’s programme Can We Help? so I sent off an email asking if they could indeed help me. A researcher contacted me within a couple of days for more information, and called back again the next day to tell me they had located Tyson Kenneth’s nephew!
A few weeks later I had a living room full of TV gear and people, and I had the very real pleasure of handing the book over to Tyson Kenneth’s nephew, called Kenneth in remembrance of his uncle. Ken had none of his uncle’s belongings and was pretty chuffed to have the book in his hands after its mysterious travels.
The day gave me a warm feeling deep down in my soul. I had done good. I had done the right thing and along the way I had made some lovely new friends.
I had my 5 minutes of national TV time, which was odd. But nice. But odd.
And then life lead me to Europe.
And to Tyson Kenneth’s grave on a beautiful sunny early-Autumn day.
The fields around Flanders are beautiful. Green and lush and with a tranquility that belies the bloody horrors they saw during both World Wars. Every spring and autumn when the fields are plowed, or during building work, the earth here surrenders reminders of the death and destruction it witnessed in the form of old armaments and human remains.
The other prominent reminders are the many Allied war cemetries dotted throughout the landscape. There are over 100 such cemetries in the region, all easily identifiable by the dignified white headstones and immaculate maintenance carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The cemetery is one of the smaller ones, with ‘only’ 163 men buried there, all of whom are identified. It’s down a narrow country lane on the outskirts of Wytschaete, amidst lush green fields and next to a farm building.
I have been unable to talk since we left Ypres, and tears are queuing to be shed.
We park and I send a prayer of thanks that my 4 year old is sound asleep in the car. I need to do this unencumbered.
I have left the piece of paper with the plot number on it in the car, but my husband locates the headstone quickly. It’s the last headstone in the front row, near a tree that leans towards the grave.
The day I have been blessed with is perfect. Around 20 degrees, a cloudless sky and not even a breath of wind. Butterflies dance their endless ballet amongst the last of the red roses, who fill the air with their dainty perfume.
Hold your breathe and the only noise you will hear is the distant mooing of a cow.
If I had to choose a burial place for a son killed in a war, this would be it.
During the filming of “Can We Help?” I was asked by the producer whether I thought it was destined for me to find that book. I’ve thought about it a lot and I still don’t know.
The chances of someone finding the book were slim. The chances of somebody finding the book and going to the trouble of having the family traced are slimmer. The chances of the person who found the book then finding themselves in Belgium are even slimmer still.
I still don’t know if it is fate, or just chance, but I’m awfully glad I was given this gift.