My mother, Valerie Lester, was a prolific writer, first of poetry and then of plays, but when she made her mark she did so as a historian-biographer. From time to time she’d start writing a novel, but she only completed the one that, over many decades, wouldn’t let her go.
I remember when she started it, in the 1980s, aged around 50. The summer she finished her first draft, I visited my parents at their little fisherman’s cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Perimenopausal heat launched Mum out of bed in the very early hours, and I woke up to the thundering of her fingers on her keyboard, resounding in the wood ceiling above the sofa-bed. I read that draft suffering from a fever, and dissolved into tears at the end. It was called Cinchona, and was a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1770s. I adored it. Apparently my judgment was clouded, though, as the writing still needed some work. Like me, my mother put everything and the kitchen sink in her first drafts.
The novel asserted itself between her other projects. There were always other projects, not because she made a living as a writer – she lectured in the humanities department at George Washington University – but because she had such a curious mind, and was a very gregarious extrovert. These projects all became published books, with hardly a connection among their subjects other than that they had grabbed my mother and held her for long enough. They are:
1995 – Fasten Your Seat Belts: History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin
2004 – Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens (Mum was Phiz’s great-great-granddaughter)
2009 – The Magnificent Meaulnes (a translation of Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier’s lovely coming-of-age novel)
2015 – Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World (You might recognise ‘Bodoni’ from your font list. He was a notable 18th-century typographer. Mum heard at a dinner party about the theft of an important Bodoni book from a university library, and taught herself Italian in order to do original research)
2018 – Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell, Botanist, Archaeologist, Artist
Whenever the novel asked for attention, she worked on the structure, added characters around the core, sent it out to her most helpful, critical friends, and changed the title. After Chinchona it was Peter Mason, then Spanish Town. It always had the same first line, though: ‘All night Peter hears the screaming’. Any novelist can imagine just how that line got its hooks in and refused to let go. But I also know that it was Jamaica’s hooks that were in her. Had she not been the child of an officer of the British colonial government, this book would not have been written.
Mum was conceived in Barbados, and her mother returned to England for the birth, which took place in Bromborough, Cheshire (now Merseyside) in 1939. I think Mum was nine months old or so when my grandmother boarded ship for the return journey. My grandfather was posted to Jamaica when Mum was four, and this was where her memories of her life began. Sunshine. Swimming pools. Pawpaw and mango. Drawing faces on dried mango seeds, letting the fibres be their hair or beards. Loving, laughing nannies as primary caregivers. School at The Priory House, founded in 1944 by Jamaican political activist and patron of the arts and educational causes, Henry Fowler.
But then my grandfather was told he would next be stationed in Nigeria, and my grandparents deemed it better for their only child to begin the next stage of her education in England. Aged ten, she was sent from Kingston to her Scottish maternal grandparents in Nottingham, and thus began the darkest, loneliest, most difficult year of her life. I suppose the silver lining could be that when she was installed at age eleven in a mediocre boarding school in Sussex, where the girls spent much of their time cold and hungry, it was actually an improvement for her emotionally. She was surrounded by other girls in similar situations, and she was away from the cousin who had set fire to her hair.
At seventeen there was finishing school in Switzerland, at eighteen there was secretarial school in London. And that was to be her education. There had never been talk of university; it was time to earn a living and find a husband. After working as a secretary in Jamaica and then Canada for short spells, she swerved, and took a New York-based job as a Pan Am stewardess. She met my father on a plane.
During their 46-year marriage my parents lived in San Francisco; Los Angeles; St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; Bridgewater, Massachusetts; London; Scituate, Massachusetts; Washington, DC; Annapolis, Maryland and Hingham, Massachusetts. They were both rolling stones – Mum had escaped British conservatism and Dad had escaped that of the American Midwest. They made the very best of wherever they stopped, but Mum was happiest if she had access to the ocean. ‘I don’t like it if I can’t find the edge,’ she said.
When my father died, in 2009, I was living in Singapore, and my mother began spending a good chunk of the winter with me there. She revelled in the humid heat, the flora, the food. She got herself a senior-citizen bus pass and went to the local library to work. From the top of a nearby hill she could see the harbour. She shopped in local ‘wet markets’, swam languid lengths, consulted a specialist about her glaucoma, and was told by another that a mole she was concerned about was fine.
The last time my mother re-read her novel and decided it was well worth working on again, she was managing melanoma, and when she asked me to help come up with a new title in December 2018, she knew she would most likely die of it before long. She was still feeling well, though, and went at the task with joy. She had energy, a sort of boyfriend ten years her junior who happened to be a wonderful book-designer, and working on the manuscript offered a return to her tropical childhood as she faced her end.
The final version would not only be, as the back cover describes, ‘a mystery, a romance, a slice of historical fiction, and a narrative of colonial life in Jamaica.’ To those who picked up on the hints, it could also be seen as an origin story for Heathcliff. It would be titled The West Indian. For its cover, she would use an image of a painting she woke up to every morning – A View of the Blue Mountains, by Jamaican artist Albert Huie. Inside, she added four woodcuts also by Huie, and a 1755 map of the island. She inserted ‘It is June the thirtieth, 1770’ before ‘All night Peter hears the screaming’. There were two more pages or so that she felt she needed to add, upon reflection, and she and Bruce set a date for him to visit and finalise the text and design, before a mid-April self-publication date on Amazon.
On March 16th, however, the brain tumours that had been causing the occasional technicolour lightshow before her eyes suddenly asserted themselves more forcefully. When doing her morning crossword, she could neither think straight nor write properly.
Knowing her life might end sooner than she had expected, the desire to finish The West Indian became more intense. Bruce scrambled to get down to her in Massachusetts from his home farther north and Mum gathered together all her remaining mental resources. She dictated the remaining pages to him, then he transcribed them from notebook to Word document. Mum sent them to me to proofread. (Her spelling had always been impeccable, but she typed the word as ‘prufrede’.) They published the novel on March 22nd, 2019 – an expression of her love for her childhood memories, and for the terrific classical and literary education she had arranged for herself, having started university part-time, aged 40, while working as a secretary at Harvard.
My brother and I moved Mum into her choice of residential hospice on April 5th. She died, aged nearly 80, after a peaceful, love-filled, satisfied decline, on June 6th.
It is June the thirtieth, 1770. All night Peter hears the screaming, and just before dawn he creeps out of bed, tiptoes down the stairs, softly crosses the dining room, and tugs open the doors to the gallery. Cool air streams in. He pads past the rocking chairs and down the steps into the garden. He picks up a stick and drags it all the way to the tamarind tree, scuffing his feet on the pathway and making a wake of dust behind him. He hauls himself onto the lowest branch, and it sweeps the ground with his weight; then limb by limb, he makes for the top. The sky is grey but shifts to rose in the east, then orange, and Peter watches the colours slink around the horizon.
The screaming stops.
For more about Valerie Lester’s work, and a wonderful photograph of her jumping into a swimming pool in Jamaica, go to www.valerielester.com.
Alison Jean Lester is the author of the novels Lillian on Life and Yuki Means Happiness, and the short-story collection Locked Out: Stories Far from Home. www.alisonjeanlester.com