Akira Andrews sat in her office, behind her desk, rejection stamp in hand, browsing Nathaniel Jones’ application just out of curiosity, when the front door was slammed open by the full weight of Gwendolyn Stewart’s plump body. Afternoon. Akira was startled out of her prying merely by the rarity of the sight. Afternoon, Auntie Gwen. Her jaw dropped, her eyes lingered in expectation, her pulse accelerated. Akira would have asked Gwendolyn to sit somewhere had she not been too afraid none of the chairs in her office would fit the size of her unexpected visitor. Yah shouldda tell me yah coming, man. The effort to seem natural made her drop the stamp in her right hand on the floor. She never picked it up.
Ever since her childhood Gwendolyn had enjoyed the privilege of an imposing presence, a commandeering look. The first-born Stewart of her generation, her determination and judiciousness had secured her from an early age the role of matriarch. The absolute and unequivocal control she held over the affairs of the family went disguised by her benevolent disposition towards the wellbeing of her loved ones. Thus, none of her six brothers had ever dared to entertain the thought of dispossessing her of her charge.
Under the guidance of Gwendolyn, the Stewarts had expanded their range of influence from their homely quarters in Island Harbour to a wider, more national network around the island: the Stewarts were partners in the Indigenous Bank of Anguilla; the Stewarts were involved in the seriously important business that was the golf course; the Stewarts had sold some land to Government for little money and much favor; the Stewarts had established a link with the people in charge of developing a system of public transport on the island. Throughout this process of expansion, Gwendolyn’s general attitude had remained the same, if accordingly broadened by the process itself. Thus, Gwendolyn’s goodwill – now extended not only to the members of her family but to the friends of her clan – had earned her the nickname of Auntie Gwen. Everybody called Gwendolyn Stewart Auntie Gwen, even people who had not the faintest kinship to her or any other of the Stewarts.
But since the days when Gwendolyn Stewart had first earned the name of Auntie Gwen, her hair had turned grey, her eyes had grown smaller, her cheeks had given way to the load of time; her haughty back had hunched, her perky breasts had sagged, her wide stomach had grown wider. These days, Auntie Gwen’s overloaded knees struggled to hold the weight of her weathered body; these days, Auntie Gwen’s tired ankles clicked and cracked with every step she took, as if giving out a warning of their imminent expiry; these days, Auntie Gwen’s hips refused to turn, complained with every motion of her legs; which meant these days, Auntie Gwen seldom abandoned the reclining chair on the backyard of her house just north-west of Island Harbour, overlooking the sea.
Nevertheless, on this specific day Auntie Gwen had received the surprising and, in plain terms, desperate visit of the youngest daughter of her sister’s son, Tanika Percy. Tiny, little Tanika had spent many a wasteful night mourning in solitude or evading in bad company the wretchedness of her star for not allowing her to get the man of her dreams. However, the ill luck that for so long had pestered her had suddenly disappeared, allowing her to find in the attention of Antwan Richards, fourth son of former Chief Minister Oswald Richards, the tranquillity it so anxiously sought.
On this specific day, Tanika Percy had come to pay tribute to Auntie Gwen, her eternal benefactor, and to ask for her intervention in the minor matter of the deportation of a seemingly indistinct tourist, who in fact was performing an enviable task at ensuring the happiness and stability of her idyllic relationship with Antwan Richards. Because, if Antwan had decanted his attention onto Tanika Percy, it was only because the real prize of the island, Sheila Rawlingson, was too busy spending her time with a certain Nathaniel Jones, a white man who could still be seen in the bars and restaurants of the island, long after his tourist visa had expired. But if Nathaniel Jones were to be kicked out of the island, who was to say what Antwan Richards might decide to do – a man will be a man always, Auntie Gwen, I ain’ have to tell you dat. But I love me man, and if he go leave me for Sheila, I goin’ go crazy for good, you know. Gwendolyn Stewart listened attentively to the story, reassured her niece, sent her away with a smile.
A matter as delicate as this could only be resolved with a dose of cunning, so she grabbed the phone, made a few calls, asked a few questions. But Gwendolyn Stewart never spoke to Akira Andrews, before she let the full weight of her colossal body storm into her niece’s office. Auntie Gwen had barely said Afternoon, by the time Akira Andrews dropped the rejection stamp she held in her right hand. You ain’ even goin’ offer me a seat? Akira fretted. Her hands flying from side to side, her eyes bulging with nerves, her body moving gracelessly this way and that. You seen you cousin Tanika lately? She doin’ jus’ fine. Tanika Percy and Akira Andrews were unrelated, but Auntie Gwen always said If I goin’ be everyone’s aunt, den dey better be all cousins, becausin’ if not the whole world goin’ be upside down. This time, however, she didn’t say it. In fact, she didn’t even say the name of the white man who was doing a great favor to Tanika Percy. She didn’t have to.
Read about the making of On the Way Back, go back to EXCERPTS, or straight to TAKE 1, TAKE 2, and TAKE 4.