Anxiety is Part 2/3 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.
As it happened, Ashley didn’t see Tamsin the next day. Or that week at all, in fact. Her colleague, Erin, called in sick – and who was the one that had to pick up her shifts? Ashley. Of course. So not only was she on deliveries – which started at five o’clock – but late shifts too.
Bleary-eyed, Ashley swept damp hair back from her face to glare at the back of her van. Inside were bags upon bags of mail – and each one of those bags could hold hundreds of letters. Every single one of those letters had to be sorted in the mailroom before her shift was over. Frankly, she just wanted to collapse in her own bed and sleep for a week; no luck, obviously.
Just as she was about to haul out the first bag, a tiny figure blinked into view. Sabina. The poor girl had been in the job less than a year – since November, actually – and already she’d had everything thrown at her. Yet she greeted Ashley with a wide smile, dark eyes sparkling. “Good afternoon!”
Nothing good about it, Ashley thought but kept it to herself. Instead, she gestured to the bags. “Mind grabbing one?”
Sabina had the height and bone structure of a kid – she was all sharp angles and narrow shoulders – but she grabbed one as if it weighed less than a bag of flour. Together they hauled everything inside until Ashley’s arms were screaming. She would have thought, after doing this for so many years, it would have gotten easier. Maybe it was the extra shifts leaving her exhausted, or just age ticking on, but by the time the last bag was hefted into the mailroom, she felt like death.
Sabina’s big, worried eyes gazed at Ashley as she collapsed into the nearest chair. “Are you okay?” Sabina asked, her accent shining through in the way it only ever did when she was really on edge. “Have you been sleeping right? Maybe you should call it a day-“
“And leave the mailroom down by one more?” Ashley shook her head. It was already too empty, too quiet. Where there was usually seven staff, today there was only five. Four really, since the new guy across the room had to be corrected every fifteen minutes.
“Your health is important,” Sabina chimed, and her usually vibrant smile faltered.
Ashley just rolled her eyes; maybe it was rude, but she could find time to feel guilty later. Hauling herself to her feet – which took far more effort than necessary – she began sorting mail. Although it did come under her job description, Ashley had stuck mostly to deliveries over the last few years, and she was dusty when it came to this. The mailroom was cramped despite its size, every available inch of space taken up by tables and boxes and towering cabinets.
They were nearing the end of the shift – and after five hours Ashley hadn’t had a break, hadn’t even thought about it – when her phone buzzed in her pocket. Pausing with a handful of envelopes still in hand, she fished it out. New work shifts. Ashley scanned past the dozens of names until she found her own – and paled.
Double shifts almost all week next week, including a couple of night shifts. Never, since starting this job, had Ashley had to do night shifts. It was by far the worst, sorting and dispatching mail all night. Those who did those shifts were, among the rest of the crew, considered the most unfortunate.
“You could always ask to get the shifts changed?” Sabina popped up beside Ashley – sensible enough at least to keep her distance – her soft features smiling. She held a coffee in one hand – how nice, to afford the time for one – and a thick, padded letter in another. “Just talk to the supervisor; he’s in the staff room right now.”
By now, she was too tired to even try to fight it. Thoughts of Tamsin still floated around in her mind, guilt swelling in her chest when she remembered her promise to Mat; but what was she to do? They were understaffed, and if she turned down too many shifts she risked repercussions.
The rest of the shift, at least, passed easily. Sure, Ashley was run off her feet and hardly had time to think – but that was what she expected. Six o’clock rolled around and, finally, she was free to leave.
As they readied to leave, Sabina nudged her in the ribs and murmured, “you never spoke to the supervisor.”
She did pass him though, as she grabbed her coat. He was a tall, burly man with a mop of dark hair – and other than a hello in passing, she’d never spoken to him in her life. His features formed a permanent scowl, thin lips and enormous brows constantly wrinkled. He looked as though he ages with Ashley herself – but she could never hope to be so intimidating.
Yet with the fatigue of the day catching up, Ashley threw caution to the wind and meandered over. Her hands were sweating already. “Uh excuse me, Simon?” That was his name, wasn’t it? She felt a rush of embarrassment, features twisting into a grimace.
Yet he glanced down, recognition flickering across his face. “Yeah, what?”
“Well, I looked at my schedule this afternoon and I’ve been put on extra shifts. See, I’m already covering for Erin.”
“Not my problem.” He took up the entire corridor, leaving the few remaining employees no choice but to squeeze past. Was he oblivious, or was it some kind of weird power move?
Shifting, Ashley cast a glance outside. It was sunny, still, and a pleasant breeze drifted through the open door. Then, turning back to Simon she asked, “would it be possible to change my shifts? I’m supposed to visit my daughter, now lockdown’s easing up.”
“Again,” Simon grumbled, “not my problem.”
Exasperation bubbled up in her chest, threatening to spill. “It’s your job though. Couldn’t you at least ask whoever did this week’s schedule to switch it around a bit?”
Simon’s glare was enough to silence her, those pale blue eyes narrowed dangerously. “We’re all doing extra shifts, you’re not special. Go home.”
We’re all doing extra shifts, she wanted to snap, but I’m the only one picking up the slack for everyone. Yet Simon’s unblinking gaze continued to bore into her, and Ashley was smart enough to know when to cut her losses. If she had to do twenty extra hours of night shifts next week, at least she wouldn’t have to see Simon. Ducking her head, Ashley scurried off outside.
Luck was not on her side; and with each day passing, she imagined Tamsin getting more and more irate. Well, that was on Tamsin; if her family couldn’t understand her situation, that was hardly Ashley’s own fault. Scowling, she raked a hand through her long black hair and headed to her car.
I’ll call when I get home, she promised herself.
Unsurprisingly, Ashley didn’t.
It was Saturday and another couple of days before Ashley had a moment to herself. Over a week since the first lockdown rules were eased, but the death toll was still creeping higher. She listened idly to the news reports, to the daily COVID briefing that never had anything new to say. Well, no news was better than bad news, right?
After a lunch of an egg sandwich and soup – the first decent lunch in weeks – Ashley decided she couldn’t put off Tamsin any more. She had seemed fine, last time they spoke. Snippy and short, but that was just Tamsin. Yet if what Mat had to say was true, about her being angry at the radio silence, then putting it off would only make things worse. With a huff, she dialled and waited.
It rang twice before Tamsin picked up. “What is it?” she snapped, and Ashley wondered if she had even noticed the caller ID.
“Tamsin, it’s your mum.”
“Oh.” There was a brief silence – silence in which she heard the distant call of music from Tamsin’s end of the line. Music and… voices? Tamsin only lived with her boyfriend, so why did she hear another woman?
“Are you having a party?”
She could almost see Tamsin’s hot, angry flush. Feel her hand clench around the phone. “It’s outside. We’re social distancing. It’s fine.”
“You know you’re not supposed to-“
Tamsin huffed, and then there was the scuffle of feet as she moved across the room. “We’re adults, we can do what we like. Besides, it’s not as if you’ve bothered to call, so what difference does it make to you?”
There was a sharp jolt of pain, like a stab in the gut. Fine, maybe Ashley deserved that, but it still made her stomach roll. “I know, and I’m sorry, but that’s so reckless.”
Someone hollered in the background and laughter rose up, making the phone crackle uncomfortably in her ear. Then Tamsin called back, “I’m coming!”
“You have to go?” she guessed.
“Yeah. Look, maybe you could swing ’round next week and we can talk.”
Ah. Next week. The week with the shifts from hell. Wincing, Ashley bit the inside of her lip. “I’d love to, honest, but I’ve got about a hundred shifts at work and-“
“And work comes first. Got it.”
Before Ashley had the chance to utter a reply, the line clicked off. Heart sinking, she was left listening to the drone of the dial tone.
Well, that went about as well as expected. Scowling, Ashley slumped back into her chair. What she needed was advice; the first person that came to mind was her sister; but honestly, she likely wouldn’t be any happier than Tamsin. So who? After a moment, it clicked – and moments later she was dialling his number.
“Hey, Ashley!” a cheerful voice rang from the other end, “long time no see.”
Another stab of guilt. It wasn’t just family she’d been neglecting. Wincing, she managed, “Hi Joel.”
“Let me guess. Need to talk? Get something off your chest?”
Just so she had something to do, Ashley wandered to the little side table where her mail was kept. Her hands needed to be occupied. “Actually, yeah. Look, I need some advice on Tamsin.”
“Fallen out again?” His voice was sympathetic, “well, I’ve known Tamsin since she was born, and I can say this; she’s stubborn.”
Not helping. Jamming the phone between her chin and her shoulder, Ashley rifled through her mail. Bills, mostly. A notice about her car insurance. An old postcard from last year. No one was going on holiday now, that was for sure. “She’s mad at me, but won’t say it. She’s doing that thing where she gets passive-aggressive instead of outright admitting what’s wrong.”
Joel clicked his tongue, whether in understanding or criticism she wasn’t sure. “Well, why is she mad?”
“Because I prioritise work over everything else.” More bills. Her mortgage. Electricity. Could she really be blamed for working so hard? That work was what allowed Tamsin to live a nice, cushy childhood. Besides; in the current situation, there wasn’t much choice in the mater. Essential workers, and all that.
“…take some time.”
“Huh?” Ashley snapped back to reality with a huff. The phone had started to slip, so she was forced to scoop it up before it clattered to the ground. “Sorry, what was that?”
“Stand your ground. With work, I mean. You want time off? Take it. Fight for it. Then go see Tamsin, and talk it out. Even if it takes a while for her to come around.”
Right. Joel made it sound so easy, didn’t he? Dumping the mail back into its little box, she sighed. “She’s having a party right now, Joel. I wonder if she even wants to see me.”
“You’re her mum. No matter how angry she gets, that won’t change.”
As he spoke, her dark eyes wandered towards the window. Clouds loomed overhead, but the road was dry. “I’ll try,” she murmured, unconvinced. Ever since lockdown started, a continuous, heavy sort of feeling had burrowed into her gut. A constant low running anxiety that never went away. It only seemed to get worse as she gazed out across her street.
“Trust me,” Joel promised, “it might seem bad now, but you’ll be fine.”
If only she believed him. Yet she had bothered him enough, hadn’t she? So with a heartfelt thanks and a quick goodbye, she let Joel get on with his day. As she set the phone down on the side table, emptiness filled her. The excitement she first felt upon seeing the lockdown lessening had vanished.
She could at least do one thing to help; tomorrow, regardless of what Simon or any other supervisor told her, she was damn well going to take some time off. She had holidays stacked up, left unused since January; they couldn’t very well stop her from taking that holiday now, could they? Probably but she hoped not.
With a new determination, Ashley made a promise to herself. A promise to stop letting people walk all over her; colleagues, supervisors, family – whoever. She had made mistakes sure – who didn’t? – but this was one thing she could do herself.
She just hoped this new resolve actually lasted long enough to work.