On Monday I’m flying to Jamaica, for research, of course, but also because it is morally wrong to have snow in April. (Dear British Weather, can you sort it out? Thanks.)
Last time I was in Jamaica, I was thirteen. My parents and Dan (brother) flew to Montego Bay where my dad’s “long-lost” half-brother Ken met us and drove us off to Discovery Bay, where Columbus did not discover Jamaica, as is commonly cited. What do I remember of that trip? Jerk chick roasting in iron drums at the roadside, lovely sweet pineapple, and Miss Con, Ken’s girlfriend, who ran the local restaurant and welcomed us that first day with platters of lobster and seafood. But in case you think all I did was eat, what I also remember are the long drives all over the island, my dad at the wheel, searching for his past.
He’d not been back to Jamaica for thirty years by then, but he still hoped to find people he had known before, like Auntie May, his mother’s sister. He was delighted and amazed to find her still in the small house in the hills where he had spent some of his childhood. But others had gone. One day we drove miles along the island’s north coast to Negril, looking for dad’s old friend, Mr Ricketts. But the house, when we found it, was empty, and it didn’t look like anyone had lived there for a while. And so we turned back, and that was that. I never did find out what happened to Mr Ricketts.
On one of our last days we drove to Yallahs, where my dad had grown up, where his father had run a village general store, as many Chinese did in Jamaica. That name “Yallahs”, I’d known throughout childhood, so it was strange to finally see the place. My memory here is hazy, but what I can recall is my dad’s bewilderment as we walked around. Things didn’t look the same. Yallahs didn’t match his memory. He thought the streets had been moved around. We trailed behind as he walked on looking for old landmarks, not finding them, until finally he said he wanted to leave. We got in the car and drove away.
On Monday, I will be taking his ashes with me to Jamaica. My mum has asked me to and she thinks Yallahs is the right place to scatter them, a place he always talked of as home, even after returning and feeling he didn’t recognise it. A month ago I sent a letter to brother Ken, via the Discovery Bay post office. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since that trip in 1989. Imagine my surprise to get an email from him, saying yes, he was still there, and yes, he’d love to meet. I asked him where a meaningful place to scatter the ashes would be. He said on Yallahs Beach, where my dad had played as a boy. So after a week in Kingston I’ll be heading off to the rural corner of St Thomas, taking my dad home.