What’s Normal? is a weekly short story series exploring life and emotions as the lockdown eases. Published every Sunday, this is Part 2 of Story 2. Part three – the final part of Story 2 will be published next Sunday. Story 3 begins on the 26th of August.
When Joslyn stepped back into the office, it really was as if she’d been transported back in time. A feeling of familiarity washed over her, as if she had never left. The same navy carpets and whitewashed walls, the same fake plants in the corridors, the same dreary offices. As she stepped into the elevator and pressed the third floor, Joslyn realised she hadn’t missed this one bit.
Someone slipped into the elevator at the last second – their face was familiar, smile uneasy as they selected the fifth floor. Joslyn couldn’t place her – this building was leased to several companies, each with their own floor. “First day back?” she asked, lips forming a delicate frown, “me too.”
“I didn’t think any other companies were open yet.”
The woman winced, hair bouncing as she shrugged. “Not officially we’re not, but some of us have been asked to come in, just to check on things.”
Tense silence washed over the tiny space. Suffocating. The elevator dinged at just the right time, doors shuddering open to reveal Joslyn’s floor. With a relieved sigh she hopped out, casting the woman one last sympathetic look as the doors closed back over. Somehow she felt better, knowing it wasn’t just her in this situation. Shoulders relaxing, she headed into work.
It had been so long, she almost forgot the number to access the door. After three fumbled attempts she got it right and the door clicked open, allowing her inside. Hopefully she could slip soundlessly into her office, avoid Mallory and anyone else on her way. The place still looked quiet, only the essential staff back in action. So if she just turned left here-
“Ah, Joslyn! Just the woman I’ve been looking for.” A shrill voice echoed down the corridor and Joslyn’s heart sank. That wasn’t Mallory – that was someone worse.
Despite the urge to flee, Joslyn forced a smile and turned. “Stephen, hello.”
Stephen was one of he younger accountants – straight out of college, with hardly any experience but plenty of smarts to make up for it. He had shadowed her for a while last year, and ever since he seemed to think they were best friends. He grinned as he trotted over to her, but his blue eyes held none of their usual enthusiasm. “Hey, I’ve been thinking about something and I need your advice.”
Oh. Fantastic. She just wanted a quiet first day back. Was that too much to ask? Forcing another smile – one that fell flat on her features – she said, “I’d love to, but I’ve only just got in and-“
“It’ll only be two minutes!”
“Great!” Stephen gestured toward his office – one shared with three more of the newest employees. She followed simply because there was no other option, lingering by the door as Stephen went to his computer. “Mallory gave me this enormous workload today, and it’s my first day back so I already have loads to do. I asked Eve and Darren if they could help, but they said they’re too busy…” He looked up with pleading eyes, and it clicked.
Huffing, Joslyn folded her arms across her chest. “You want me to help you out?”
The urge to smack her head against the wall simmered under her skin. It was her first day back too. It was everyone’s. Suppressing a sigh, Joslyn ran a hand through her short hair. “Mallory wouldn’t give you anything you couldn’t handle, and you’re not the only busy one.”
“Yeah, but I’m still learning the ropes-“
No. Absolutely not. He wasn’t going to use the newbie excuse on her. Arms folded, Joslyn scowled. “We’re all busy,” she repeated slowly, “and none of us want to be back yet. You need to pull your weight, or you’ll end up fired.”
Stephen’s lips formed a pout – so childish, even on someone as young as him. He looked ridiculous, but he was clearly going for sympathetic. “I’ve been thinking of quitting anyway,” he admitted with an offhand shrug, “this job isn’t right for me anyway.”
Frustration bubbled up in Joslyn. She had forgotten how irritating it was, dealing with people like Stephen every day. At home, she had only ever phoned a handful of colleagues, avoided the ones she didn’t like. Not so easy in an office. Just the thought of the peace back home, the comfort of her own kitchen, caused her frustration to spike. Why did she need to be here, anyway?
“You know, maybe I’m better off in a smaller company, somewhere with a slower pace-“
“Stephen,” Joslyn cut in, and she had to take a deep breath to stop from shouting, “this is your first real job, right? So it won’t be easy. Nothing is, when you start out. Quitting because there’s too much work? That’s a rubbish excuse, and you can’t just shuck off your workload on other people.”
“Grow up, Stephen. It’s fine to ask for help, but that’s ridiculous.”
“But you’re great at all this! You could pick up the slack easy-“
Okay, deep breath. In. Out. Don’t yell at the kid. Someone hurried down the corridor, and Joslyn could have sworn they sent her a concerned glance before disappearing around the corner. No wonder; this was turning out to be a terrible day. Only once she was sure she had calmed – when her heartbeat no longer heaved against her ribs – did she dare to talk. “It’s not a matter of if I can, it’s the fact that I shouldn’t need to. I’m fed up of doing everyone else’s work and running myself ragged.”
“You used to love it, though.”
Narrowed eyes, a huff of warm breath. “Yeah well, lockdown has given me fresh insight. I can see it didn’t give you any.” She could have said more – could have gone off on an entire tangent – but she snapped her mouth closed and turned on her heel. She stormed less than five meters down the corridor before colliding with something solid.
“Sorry,” Joslyn muttered, stepping to the side. She was aware of the scowl on her face, yet couldn’t seem to get rid of it. Maybe it was becoming a permanent feature.
“Stephen giving you trouble again?”
“Something like that.” She was itching to leave, eager to get the day over with. Joslyn almost wished for the old days, when working late was normal – welcomed, even – and she didn’t even think twice about helping out a colleague. Maybe this new self awareness was just making her selfish.
Mallory’s golden-brown eyes crinkled at the corners, tiny crow’s feet earned with age. Yet her smile was sympathetic as she glanced towards Stephen’s office. “Passing off his work again? I’ll have a word. As for you, shouldn’t you be getting yourself organised?”
“I was just on my way…” she trailed off with a shrug. Her anger was dulling now, leaving behind only the dull throb of an oncoming headache. Palms pressed against her temples, Joslyn sighed.
Brow quirked, Mallory asked, “you’re really not happy to be back, are you?”
Ah. Caught red handed. Lips pursed, shoulders tense, Joslyn shrugged. “I liked working from home, is all.” That was the long and short of it, really, even if the real answer was far more complicated. Work was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
“It’s been a while for all of us, but things will get back to normal.”
Normal was the issue – but for once, Joslyn kept quiet. She forced a smile, brushed dark mahogany hair from her eyes, and made her excuses to leave. Trotting down the corridor, she tried not to look like she was in a rush.
Behind her, Mallory called, “take a half day today! But tomorrow, I expect you to be ready to dive back into work.”
Finally Joslyn collapsed into her office chair, an exasperated hiss leaving her lips as she ran a hand through thick hair. What a terrible beginning to her day; she only hoped it wouldn’t get worse. Not so long ago, she would have paled at the concept of a half day – but as she booted up her computer, it became more and more enticing.
By the time lunch rolled around, she had already decided to take the offer. She packed up her things, slung her handbag over her shoulders, and was out of the office by the time the first of her colleagues were heading to the staff break room. She slipped away unnoticed – not that everyone didn’t already know she was Mallory’s favourite – and headed into town.
If there was one thing she enjoyed about Glasgow, it was the endless choices of coffee places. There were big names like Starbucks and Costa, but plenty of independents like Tinderbox or Mono. If there was another thing that always made Joslyn feel better, it was a hot flavoured coffee followed swiftly by window shopping.
Costa was packed as Joslyn sidled in; the line limited along the counter and trailing out the door. Only about half of the customers had bothered with social distancing. Ahead, a grumpy looking gentleman waited for his drink, and a gaggle of teenagers hovered by the nearest table adding sugar to their coffees. Shouldn’t they have been in school?… No, the holidays had begun.They weren’t the only ones either; half of the queue was filled by teenagers.
Yet she waited, foot tapping impatiently as the queue moved at a snail’s pace. Usually she would have waited without complaint, too eager for coffee to care much about the boredom of waiting. This time… well, it had been months since she had stepped inside a coffee shop or cafe, and it showed. By the time she reached the front, Joslyn seriously considered leaving – but the woman behind the counter smiled and beckoned her forward.
“Small caramel latte please.”
“Anything else for you?”
Joslyn sidled away to let the next customer past, but she avoided the loud teenagers by the big table. Maybe she should have gone somewhere else; there were plenty of places to choose from. At least she might have been able to keep her distance somewhere else. Yet the more she thought about it, she realised that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t the kids or the cramped space or the grumpy man glaring at her. No, she could have walked into a completely empty cafe and still felt the same.
Costa wasn’t the issue. She was. It just didn’t bring the same comfort it used to.
The smiling barista held out a steaming takeaway cup – Joslyn took it with a grateful thank you, inhaling the sweet caramel. Then, slipping away without another word, she made her way outside. Weak sunlight danced across her face, though compared to the hot coffee between her hands the sun felt cold.
Well, maybe some shopping would cheer her up. She needed new skin care, having been inside for three months. So, a trip to Lush it was then. So off she went, sipping her coffee along the way. It was sweeter than she remembered – almost sickly after drinking exclusively unflavoured instant coffee at home – and had it always been so expensive? Probably, she had just never considered it before.
Turned out, working from home was cheaper as well as quieter.
Finally, Joslyn reached her destination, pausing only to dump the last dregs of coffee before stepping inside. It was cool, and a little too bright, inside the shop. She had always felt a little out of place in Lush, figuring it was for younger adults and even kids. Yet the place was quiet, and no one so much as cast her a second glance.
It was good to be inside a shop. Even if the woman behind the till was wearing a medical mask and even if she wasn’t allowed to touch the displays. Wandering over to the face masks, Joslyn smiled. She had missed browsing, missed taking in the sights and the scents of everything around her. She picked up a tub of face scrub, skimming over the ingredients without any real knowledge of what it meant.
The price, though. Had she really been willing to spend so much on this stuff? Twenty pounds for a tiny little tub that would barely last two weeks. With a wince she set it down, then reached for the bottle of hand sanitiser to her left.
“Need any help?”
Joslyn turned to see a handsome young man beside her, smiling gentle. His name tag said Danny. “Fine, thanks,” she replied, “just looking.”
His nod caused dark dreadlocks to bounce. “Let me know if you need anything.” His voice was muffled by the mask.
He left her to it, disappearing to add new stock to the bath bombs. Joslyn took another few minutes to browse the options – colourful lip scrubs, moisturisers, makeup – before deciding she didn’t want any of it. Last year, near her birthday, she had spent nearly seventy pounds in Lush alone. She had loved it, using every product religiously. Since lockdown she hadn’t used it at all, and her skin was the same as it had always been.
With a flash of guilt, Joslyn frowned. Her work habits weren’t the only thing that needed changes. How much money did she waste every week? Wasted on coffee she could make at home, or makeup, or nights out? Just thinking about it made her cringe.
“Is everything all right?”
Her eyes darted up, scowl dropping. Ah, Danny again. “Yes, thanks,” she replied, “but I think I’ll give the face products a miss for today.”
Joslyn didn’t hang around. Hadn’t she come out here to improve her mood? To forget Stephen and Mallory and everything else? Well, now she just felt worse. Annoyance squirmed in her stomach, not helped by the sugar rush from her caramel latte. Ugh, this day was terrible, and only getting worse.
A few heads turned as she stormed across the street – Joslyn ignored them. She headed straight for the train station, barely glancing at her watch to check the time. A train in ten minutes; that would do. She was going to go home, make something for lunch, and not think about work. Or anything else, for that matter.
Sure, she couldn’t avoid her problems forever; but for now, she was going to damn well try.