Love is Part 3/3 of the first short story, exploring life and emotions as lockdown eases. Drawing from characters featured in the Solo Lockdown Short Story Series, What’s Normal?, is a weekly series published every Sunday. Part 1 of Story 2 starts next Sunday, the 5th of August.
As it turned out, the week from hell was exactly how Ashley imagined it. Worse, even. Working double shifts some days left her feeling exhausted, more like a corpse than a real, functioning human. She had hoped, once lockdown eased, things might go back to normal; but with so few staff, that was a pipe dream.
Yet she carried on anyway, working up a plan in her mind – a plan to not just have her supervisors take her seriously, but actually do something about her situation. Okay, plan was an overstatement; the word plan indicated she knew what she was doing, and not just procrastinating on taking any action.
Standing in the mail room, arms loaded up with letters, Ashley listened as their supervisor berated poor Sabina. Eyes focused ahead, she didn’t dare turn to listen better for fear of being caught. Instead she sorted letters silently, eyes scanning over postcodes and addresses before sliding them into the correct pile.
“Sabina,” Simon huffed, like a long suffering parent trying to teach a small child, “you can’t ask for time off. Not now. We’re understaffed, and we can’t get new hires until-“
“Please,” Sabina offered quietly, and Ashley didn’t have to look to see her big, dark pleading eyes. “I’ve barely seen my son in weeks, and he’s only five.”
“Not my problem.”
Simon had said those exact words to Ashley too, not so many days ago. Her fists clenched around the newest letter, scowl working its way onto her angular features. So it wasn’t just her, then. Simon was just a jerk to everyone. Not that she had much luck with the other supervisors; it was as if they all had one giant hive-mind directed toward hating every other employee.
“Get back to work Sabina, I don’t have time for this.” Heavy footsteps trudged past – and Simon knocked his broad shoulder into Ashley’s back as he stormed off. He didn’t even look back – not to apologise, not to see if Sabina was all right. Moments later he disappeared into the hall.
A few of the other employees – namely the new kid, who wasn’t really new, just the newest – turned to follow him with their eyes. Save an apologetic wince, the new kid didn’t offer any support. Then he turned back to his work without a word.
Sabina looked tiny in the crowded mail room, thin arms folded securely over her chest, like a safeguard. Her scowl looked like a kid about to throw a tantrum, but Ashley’s mother instincts kicked in.
“Sabina,” she murmured, “would you like me to talk to him?”
A roll of dark chocolate eyes, lips pursed. “What good would it do? He’ll just dismiss you the same way.”
He already had, last week when she requested fewer shifts. Maybe, he just needed nudged in the right direction, needed to know he couldn’t treat them like this. Ashley still hadn’t made amends with Tamsin, and she wasn’t going to let someone like Simon get in the way of her relationships.
She must have zoned out, because Sabina snapped her fingers, and Ashley jolted back to attention with an intake of breath. “Sorry,” she muttered, “just… let me talk to him? I wanted to do that anyway, so I can put in a good word for you too.”
Sabina’s expression softened, a smile curling at her lips. “You sure?”
“Absolutely.” At least if it all went to hell, it wouldn’t be for entirely selfish reasons. Wait, was that selfish in itself? Shoving the thought aside, she placed a calming hand on Sabina’s narrow shoulder. “If we all start demanding better treatment, he can’t ignore us. Right?”
“I guess so.”
Ashley grinned, and when she nodded her short hair bounced. “Well, I suppose I’ll go take my lunch break.”
“You never take a break,” Sabina chuckled, and her usual smile returned to her face.
“True, but I’m about to start.” With that, she excused herself from the mail room – earning a curious eye from the newbie – and shuffled into the staff room. It was small and cramped, not much more than a couple of seats and an old, beat up sofa shoved against one wall. Still, it was better than the stuffy, cluttered space of the mail room.
Simon sat at the table, coffee in hand, muttering as he poured over a diary. At least he didn’t just sit around doing nothing; right now, no one could afford to.
Ashley cleared her throat, hovering awkwardly by the door as she cast her gaze about the small room. Her momentary confidence wavered as Simon looked up, brows furrowed. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said with a wince, “but I was wondering if now was a good time to talk to you?”
His beady eyes narrowed further, thick hands clasped on the table as if to say go on.
With her legs aching from being on her feet all day, she wanted nothing more than to collapse into the nearest seat. Instead she rested her back against the wall, not quite meeting Simon’s gaze. “It’s just, I overheard you with Sabina a minute ago. She’s been struggling, you know, with not seeing her family. She isn’t the only one, either. Perhaps you could sort the shifts more evenly, give Sabina and me some time off-“
He laughed. Simon actually laughed; a short, raspy sound that grated on her ears. “Do you think anyone can take time off right now? We’re all working our asses off, and you’re not special just because you have kids you want to see. You’ve fallen out with your daughter; make up in your own time.”
Ashley blinked, lips parted even though no words came out. How did he know about that? Well, the answer was obvious; gossip spread fast in the mail room. Scowling, Ashley balled her hands into fists. “These are uncertain times, I know that. I’m not stupid; but I don’t think it’s too much to ask, to want time to see my family. Sabina has a toddler, for goodness sake!” Her voice was rising in tempo, reaching hysterical, so she forced herself to take a breath. When she spoke again, her voice was deathly calm, “all I’m asking for is a few less shifts. Enough that I don’t feel like a zombie every morning.”
“Take it to the higher-ups.”
“You’re the one in charge of rotas. I’m taking it up with you.“
His deep set eyes swivelled to glare, lips pursed into a thin line. Simon wasn’t a patient man, it didn’t take a genius to know she was testing him. “You get the shifts you get. If you don’t like it, you have two options; deal with it, or quit.”
“Fine,” Ashley snapped, “then I quit.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. The words slowly sank in, like she had heard them from another person’s lips, and her pulse jittered in her veins. Did she really just say that? It had been her own voice, but was she really stupid enough to say something so ridiculous?
Yet, as Ashley stood there staring down her supervisor, something in her gut told her this was the right choice. Her mouth formed words without consent, intuition taking control. “Consider this my notice,” she told him cooly, “oh, and I’m taking Saturday off.”
Before Simon had the chance to reply – and before Ashley had the chance to really digest what was going on – she spun on her heel and stormed out of the staff room. Out in the hall it was cooler, a breeze drifting through the open door to her left. For a moment she simply stood there, breath leaving her lungs in heaving puffs, before slowly making her way back to the mail room.
Ashley felt the gaze of every employee hot against her back as she took her place by Sabina’s side. Psychological, she knew, because when she turned to look no one was even paying attention. Swallowing thickly, she got back to work.
“What did he say?” Sabina murmured, eyes wide and curious.
“Not much,” she admitted, “but I think he might be a bit nicer in future. Stand your ground, Sabina.” To be fair, quitting wasn’t exactly standing her ground, but a sort of light, airy feeling had settled over her as she worked. A feeling only described as overwhelming relief. It occurred to her then, that there had never been a reason to stay in this job. She had only done it because it was secure, reliable – but she could get a job anywhere, really. There were no limits.
Sabina sent her a raised brow. “You’re in a good mood. It must have gone well.”
“I quit,” Ashley answered as she scooped up a fresh pile of letters.
She grinned, feeling a million times better than she had in months. “Stupid, I know – but if I have to choose between work and family, family comes first.”
Saturday rolled around and, just like she said, Ashley didn’t go into work. It had only been a few days and already she had an interview lined up – using Skype, of course – for the following week. Frankly, she felt better than she had in years.
Yet there was still the whole thing with Tamsin. Shifting awkwardly on her front step, Ashley rang the doorbell.
Scuffling from inside – their dog, probably – followed by muffled laughter and a demand to, “please get back from the door, before I trip over you.” Then the lock clicked and the door eased open.
Tamsin looked just the same as she had before lockdown. Somehow she had been saved from the ‘lockdown haircuts’ – her thick locks were longer, yes, but still perfectly styled. Tamsin honestly looked like she had been thriving.
“Morning, Tamsin. Long time no see; sorry about that.” It was hardly adequate, really, the words too simple to come close to how Ashley felt. She wanted to bundle Tamsin up in her slender arms, tell her everything, cook a massive dinner and have everyone around for a giant get together.
Obviously that was off the cards, with the whole one household rule. Still, she could dream right?
Tamsin blinked, face impassive. “Finally found time to see your daughter, huh?”
Ashley’s heart sank. “I know I’ve been absent, and I know I can’t completely blame lockdown for that. But I’m here now and I… I quit my job.”
“Don’t panic, Tamsin. I’ve been tight with my money for decades, there’s more than enough to get me by.” Shrugging, Ashley shifted from foot to foot. It felt odd, talking out here on the front steps – but at least Tamsin was talking to her. Kind of. Lips pursed she continued, “besides, I realised something; I’m too old to let people mess me around, especially at the cost of my family. You wanted me to put you first, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Inside, through the winding halls of Tamsin’s impressive house, the dog barked. Her dark eyes darted inside, lips forming a scowl – before her whole body collapsed. Ashley could see the relief course through her, from the slump of her shoulders to the puff of breath from her lips. “Do you want to come in? It’s just me.”
“We’re not supposed to enter houses-“
“Mum. Just come in.”
That was how they ended up in the kitchen with steaming cups of tea. Fresh brownies and muffins sat on the kitchen island between them, but Ashley didn’t have much of an appetite. Tamsin managed to nibble at one, picking the chocolate chips out of the soft cake.
“I can’t believe you quit your job. So impulsive of you – so unlike you.”
Ashley shrugged, sipping on her tea even though it was hot enough to scald her tongue. Wincing, she set the mug down. “I didn’t plan it,” she confessed with a sigh, “it was spur of the moment, you know? But, well, I don’t have it in me to regret it.”
“Good,” Tamsin replied with a firm nod, “I know money is money, but that place wasn’t good for you. I can’t believe it took a pandemic to make you see that.” There was no blame in her voice, her tone even and calm. She even managed a smile, quickly hidden as she raised the mug to her lips.
Ashley dumped a spoonful of sugar into her own tea. It didn’t need it, but it gave restless hands something to do. She swirled it slowly, watching the sugar dissolve into the dark liquid.
“So what will you do now? Go back to admin, or try something new?”
Years ago, long before she started delivering mail, Ashley had worked admin positions for multiple companies. They had all been short term contracts, and in the end she got fed up being bounced from place to place. Yet she had loved the work itself – and well, she did have that interview coming up.
“I’m not worrying about it,” Ashley replied, “I should be able to get a job fairly easily, admin or something else.”
Tamsin’s eyes crinkled as she smiled – just the way her dad’s used to, and it made her whole face look younger. “Well. Good for you.” She took another delicate sip of tea, then set her mug down alongside Ashley’s. They were matching mugs, one pink and one yellow. “Look, I know I’ve been rude to you these last few weeks. The things I’ve said, the way I’ve acted – childish, really. So I’m sorry too.” She sucked in a breath, like the admission hurt. “Maybe once places start reopening, we could go somewhere? Invite Mat too, so we can all catch up properly.”
It felt as if Ashley’s bones had turned to jelly, the relief so strong it flooded her all at once, leaving her unable to speak. That was as close as Tamsin got to saying everything’s fine, we’ve made up – and Ashley couldn’t imagine anything better. She huffed out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding, a grin spreading across her full lips. “I’d love that,” she replied simply.
“And for God’s sake,” Tamsin added with a smirk, “visit once in a while, would you? There’s no excuse now.”
Ashley simply beamed, heat blooming in her chest like a physical sign of her relief. “Of course,” she replied, “every week, if I can.”
Tamsin simply rolled her eyes, and Ashley couldn’t help but laugh. Then they both were, and Ashley didn’t even know why but she couldn’t stop. Didn’t want to, either.
As comfortable silence descended over them, the two returned to their tea. For the first time in a very long time, Ashley felt comfortable. At ease. Maybe even peaceful. Certainly part of that had been quitting her job, knowing there were no terrible shifts looming in the near future.
But mostly, she knew, it was because she finally had her daughter back.