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

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album