Five-minute Memoir: Susan Fletcher goes to Jamaica in search of a long-dead relative

 

As a child, there were words that I knew were part of me, and had resonance. My name, of course; 'red-headed', too; also, the word 'April', for while it meant Easter eggs and school holidays, it also meant my birthday – so it was a special word, to me.

And 'Jamaica'. Those seven letters have been part of my life since birth – for my father was born there, as was his father. In 1902, my great-great uncle Jack – a Lancastrian – was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to seek a warm climate to aid his struggling lungs. Of all the world's tropical places, he chose Jamaica: that decision led to three generations of Fletchers being born and raised on a lush, mountainous island in a warm, blue sea.

My father has not lived there since he was 12 years old. But Jamaica has never been far from the stories he tells, the slight accent he has on certain words, or the songs that my grandfather sang to my brother and me. I'd always wanted to go there. I'd wanted to walk on that soil, feel that strong sun. Jamaica felt like a family member I'd wanted, for decades, to meet.

It took a while. But in 2008, seven Fletchers boarded flight V5065 from Heathrow to Montego Bay – a holiday, but more than that – a chance to see the island that played such a part in our own family history. At last, I met Jamaica. For 10 days we drove around the island. We saw the beach that my great-grandfather swam from, the cathedral in Spanish Town where my grandparents were married, the house where my father and uncle grew up. I breathed in frangipani, sat beneath the almond trees. I left sugar on verandas for the bananaquit birds, as my father used to. The poinciana trees rustled overhead, and it felt like a sound I'd heard before.

I found answers there, and calm. 'Jamaica' was no longer just a word.

But there was something else to find. Great-great uncle Jack's tuberculosis was indeed helped by his tropical move: he lived another 12 years in Jamaica. He died in 1914, and was buried in Highgate cemetery to the north of the island, near Port Maria. And so on a fiercely hot afternoon in November, we decided to look for his grave among the pink lantana flowers and mimosa vines. It was not what we'd imagined. The cemetery had been abandoned long ago. Graves were broken, lost in grass; pipes and drains ended by our feet. The higher land was parched and strewn with rubbish; the land sloped down to marshes where mosquitoes hummed. Goats grazed between the headstones, or slept across the flatter ones so that we had to move them in order to read the names. The air was thick, strong-smelling. The light was so bright that we had to shield our eyes.

We searched for an hour or more. As the time passed, my wish to find his grave strengthened. I needed to find it, somehow – I needed to find this one man's grave, as if I owed it to him; as if by finding his grave, I would be finding more. I pushed goats aside; I climbed down into ditches of broken glass and swamp hibiscus to reach a half-lost headstone thinking "Please let this be him". But it was never him: we never found his name carved into a stone. And so we left – sunburnt, dejected, scratched by weeds. We left great-great uncle Jack behind.

It saddened me. That night, as the frogs creaked in the darkness, I wondered why I was sad – for hadn't Jack died a century before? What could he have gained, by being found by us? But I came to understand it. His illness, or rather, the decision he made because of that illness, took him to an island on the far side of the world. There, his brother joined him. There, that brother married and had a family of his own. And so, had a man named Jack Fletcher not crossed the sea to Jamaica, my great-grandparents would not have raised their family there, my grandfather would not have met my grandmother – and my father would not have been born.

I realised, then, that I had been searching an abandoned graveyard in order to thank Jack – for his illness may have changed his life but it had, in fact, made mine.

I could not thank him, or lay flowers down on his final resting place. But perhaps the act of searching was enough; perhaps simply writing of him now are my flowers. And I may not have found Jack's physical remains, but I did still find him – and perhaps myself, too – in an overgrown, sun-baked cemetery in Jamaica, four years ago.

'The Silver Dark Sea' by Susan Fletcher (4th Estate) is out now in hardback. To order a copy at the special price of £13.99, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030

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