Part 1/3 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.
Skimming news sites had become more of a habit than anything else, at least for Ashley. She already knew everything there was to know about the lockdown, the virus, so why bother pouring over scores of information she had heard a hundred times before?
Well, that was easy. Today was different – today, the twenty-eighth of May – the lockdown was easing. People were allowed to visit beaches and parks and you could go out for more than just essentials. Best of all, you were able to visit other households for the first time in weeks. Months, even.
A smile graced her lips as she scrolled down her news feed, but she wasn’t paying attention anymore. Tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear, Ashley allowed herself to indulge. She could pay her parents a visit, or her children – with universities and college still closed, Mat would be stuck in his flat with his two roommates. Then there were aunts and uncles and cousins, and her one remaining grandparent. All she had to do was turn up.
No sooner had the words left her mind when the jingle of her mobile made Ashley jump. Reaching over she saw the caller ID; her oldest, Tamsin. Grinning, Ashley answered with a chipper, “Hello!”
“Hi, mum.” Was it her imagination, or did Tamsin sound tired? “Have you seen the news?”
“About the lockdown? Yes.” Ashley couldn’t help the laughter in her voice. “I know there’s been talk for ages but I didn’t realise it was actually going to happen so soon.”
Tamsin hummed in response. In the background she heard muttering. Tamsin’s boyfriend? “You should come visit us sometime. Not today, I’ve got work until late, but… soon.”
Ashley couldn’t help the excitement that made her heart flutter. “Of course. How’s Mat, do you know?”
“He’s fine. Missing uni, and his roommate got the flu. Gave them all a scare.” There was a pause, a soft sigh Ashley almost missed. Then, “you’d know all this, if you ever called.”
Oh. That hit Ashley like a spear through the chest, and she winced. “I’ve been busy with work. Not everyone gets to enjoy time off during a pandemic.” Mail didn’t just stop, and with so many people quitting she had been pushing more hours than ever. So maybe she hadn’t phoned as much as she should of; and maybe she ignored a text or two. It was an impossible balance to keep.
Through the crackling phone, Ashley heard Tamsin tap her nails. “Just go see Mat when you can; he’s missed you more than anyone else, you know?”
Heaviness settling in her stomach, Ashley let out a sigh. “Of course. I’ll see you soon, Tamsin.”
“Yeah, I’ll call when I’m free.”
Ashley opened her mouth to say goodbye – but she had already hung up. The dull beep made her scowl. Tamsin had always been unpredictable, easy to annoy. Ashley supposed, with everything going on, a little shortness was called for. Dropping her phone back onto the table, Ashley sank into the uncomfortable kitchen chair.
Next on the list; Mat.
The phone rang and rang, seemingly for hours, before his voice echoed through the phone. Ashley’s heart skipped – and then sank as she was met with a standard recording. “Hi! This is Mat, leave a message so I can get back to you. Or not. I’m a busy guy.” Then the phone clicked off, leaving Ashley in silence.
Well, that wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t as if he could go anywhere just yet, but maybe with the new lockdown rules he had decided to go to the beach. Or, more likely, he was too busy fretting over exam results.
In a split second, Ashley made a decision; Mat only lived fifteen minutes away, so she could drive right up to his flat. Standing, Ashley scooped up her phone and went to hunt down her shoes.
It had been so long since she had needed summer shoes – what with work, and her habit of not really going out much, she almost exclusively stuck with trainers or boots. Yet she found a pair of black sandals underneath her bed – right next to the ancient box filled with old photos.
The sunlight streaming through the open window definitely called for sandals; but as she tugged them on, her eyes drifted to the photos. They were all put into neat photo folders, the old kind often used for holidays. The first was labelled, First trip to Italy. Underneath that, when Ashley shifted the lid, she glimpsed Mat’s first day of school.
Scooping them into her handbag, Ashley smiled. It was always good to reminisce, and what better time than now? Hopping to her feet, Ashley grabbed her bag and headed for the car.
Fifteen minutes later she was outside Mat’s building. The flats were simple enough; close enough to the Glasgow School of Art that it was convenient for Mat, but cheap enough he didn’t have to worry about rent. Not when he was good enough to already sell his art. It saved him from student accommodation, anyway.
Climbing out of her car, Ashley took a moment to dust down her jeans. It was stupid really, to worry about seeing her own son. But they hadn’t seen each other in three months – and neither of them were particularly talkative. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had called. At that, guilt twisted her gut. She was here now, though, having finally grabbed herself a proper day off.
Squinting at the sun, Ashley headed inside. Mat lived on the third floor, a cramped two bedroom flat. His roomates, a sweet couple a few years older than Mat, kept to themselves. Ashley was almost guaranteed privacy with Mat.
Finally reaching his flat, Ashley pressed the doorbell and waited.
And some more.
Ready to give up, Ashley turned away – only to hear the shuffle of footsteps from the other side of the door. A chain clattered as it unhooked, keys turned. Then the door swung open, revealing Mat. He had grown out his hair, apparently favouring the ease of his natural coils instead of keeping it buzzed. He smiled tiredly – but then something clicked as he realised who stood outside his door.
It took less than ten seconds for him to throw himself at Ashley. Thick arms wrapped around her waist, practically scooping her off the floor as Mat’s cheerful laugh rang in her ears.
“Watch it!” Ashley laughed, “two meter distance, remember?”
Pouting, Mat set her down. He was tall and broad like his dad, his grin cheeky. “Well sorry I’m excited to see my own mother. Besides, you’ve already breached the five mile rule.” Sticking out his tongue, he turned to call into the flat. “I’m going out! See you in a bit.” Then the door closed behind him, and the two stood in the empty hall together.
“Five mile rule?” Ashley asked as they fell into step together.
Quirking one thick brow, Mat rolled his eyes. “You know, the whole thing about not travelling more than five miles.”
Actually, Ashley hadn’t known about that; she supposed she had been too eager to see family to even notice such a detail. Shrugging, she asked, “so, where should we go?” Ashley hated to admit it, but she didn’t know the area. She might have let her parently duties fail in that respect – whenever there were visits, it was usually Mat coming to see her. Guilt swelled in her chest but she shoved it down.
Mat pondered for a moment – and then snapped his fingers with a grin. “There’s a park nearby, if you don’t mind a walk.”
Shrugging, Ashley fell into step beside him. You’d think, having a job with so much repetitive walking, she would hate it; but it was nice to give her legs a stretch – especially when they made it back outside and the gentle sun cast a glow across her face.
“So, what have you been up to lately?”
Mat cast her a side-eye as they crossed the road – a road void of cars. “Sitting around waiting for my uni results, mostly. Just because we’re not there in person doesn’t mean we get to forget about it. It’s hell.“
“I know the feeling,” Ashley murmured. She let Mat lead her – partially because he moved so fast, but also because she had no idea where they were going.
“Longer shifts at work?” he guessed.
“Longer, more often, and there’s so many new systems in place I can hardly remember them all.”
“Ouch,” Mat replied with a sympathetic nod.
There weren’t many people on the street – a young couple with a baby in a pram, a few lone joggers in sports gear. One or two cars zipped past, but the majority were parked in driveways or along the deserted road. It was eerie, almost, like a ghost town. At least things were easing up now, starting to go back to normal.
Snapping back to attention, Ashley narrowly dodged bumping into the side of a car. Scowling, she turned to Mat. “Yeah?”
Usually Ashley would have stopped to admire the park – big and spacious, with plenty of trees for shade – but the grass was overgrown, the plants bursting from their flowerbeds. They settled on a faded park bench, stretching out. From there, they could almost pretend the park hadn’t been neglected for three months or more.
Silence descended on them. She’d been so eager to see her son she hadn’t actually thought about what to say. Not that she should have needed to think – there should have been plenty of questions and gossip after so long. Yet nothing came to mind.
It must have been the same for Mat. Lips pursed, he fixed his gaze on the ground. Finally he shifted in his seat, the bench creaking under his weight, and said, “not that I don’t want to see you, but why now? You could have called any time during lockdown, right?”
Disappointment gripped her heart. Wincing, Ashley brushed a hand through her dark hair. “I’ve been busy-“
“That’s the exact excuse Tamsin said you’d give,” he muttered in reply. With a scowl he sat back, arms folded stiffly across his chest. “Three months and you called, what, twice?”
“You never called me either,” Ashley snapped. Mat was an adult, perfectly capable of contacting her if he wanted. He clearly didn’t understand the stress she was under, how exhausted it left her.
Mat just huffed, like a kid about to throw a tantrum. And oh, the tantrums he threw when he was young; the entire neighbourhood heard him.
“Look,” Ashley muttered, “I’m sorry I haven’t been in contact much. Work doesn’t leave me with much time off, especially now; but I’ll make an effort to at least call.”
Biting down on his lip, Mat considered it. The gentle breeze blew his tight curls around his face, giving him a more boyish look than he had in years. It brought a smile to her lips. “Fine,” he finally gave in, “but it isn’t me you need to apologise to. It’s Tamsin.”
“Tamsin?” Ashley thought back to their call earlier, to the snappish words between them. Tamsin had made out that it was Mat who was upset. So which one was right?”
Mat, sensing her confusion, huffed out a sigh. “I’m made, sure, but you know me; I get over stuff easily. She doesn’t; I think she’s still angry that I stole her toy truck when I was nine.”
A snort left her, relief flooding every cell in her body. If Mat was able to joke, it couldn’t be so bad. “That woman knows how to hold a grudge,” she confirmed with a roll of her brown eyes. Despite how the mood lifted, worry still nagged at the back of her mind. Frowning, she couldn’t help but ask, “how mad is she?”
A shrug, his gaze dipping back to the overgrown grass at his feet. “She doesn’t talk to me much,” he admitted, “you know that. I just get the sense she’s not happy with you.”
It wouldn’t have been the first time they fell out. In fact, when Tamsin first moved out at age twenty-one, they didn’t talk for weeks. Not until Tamsin needed help moving her stuff into the new house.
A breeze whistled past, rustling the long grass and deep green leaves hanging over them. It was warm still, but the sun had dimmed somewhat.
“We should head back,” Ashley concluded with a sigh, suppressing a shiver, “I didn’t bring a coat.”
Mat nodded, a sour look playing on his angular features. “Sure. My roommates will be wondering where I am. You could come inside?” he offered weakly.
Since that was against the rules – and Ashley suspected he didn’t really want that anyway – Ashley turned down the offer. Hauling themselves to their feet, both headed toward Mat’s flat. The journey back felt twice as long, Ashley’s feet dragging as she watched the sky. Mat was silent beside her, arms still folded.
By the time they reached his building, the tension was so thick it felt like a physical weight. Turning to Mat, Ashley gave him an unsure smile. “No hard feelings?” she asked – but her stomach rolled.
“No hard feelings,” he replied. This time, his bright grin was genuine. “I’m serious – you don’t need to worry about me. I’ve got two annoying roommates and a dog, I’ll be fine.”
It was automatic to step forward for a hug, shoulders drooping in relief – but she stopped short. Right. Then again, hadn’t they already hugged? What was one more?
Mat easily accepted the hug, big arms wrapped around her as he tugged her close. Then a woman across the road cleared her throat and the two jumped back. An apologetic mutter left his lips – but the woman was already going inside.
“Look after yourself,” Ashley insisted.
“You too,” Mat replied, “and please, talk to Tamsin. It freaks me out when she’s all grumpy.”
She couldn’t imagine why she would be acting up – other than the fact she was Tamsin and that’s just what she did. A frown creased her features as she promised to go see her. “I’ll stop by tomorrow,” Ashley promised, “or… maybe Sunday? I’m off then.”
“Sunday’s kinda far off,” Mat pointed out.
“Right.” There was a headache beginning to form above her eyes, a sharp little jab every few minutes that felt like she was being stabbed. Rubbing the spot didn’t help, and there were no painkillers in her car. “I’ll see her tomorrow then,” she concluded.
Satisfied, Mat made his goodbyes and jogged up the steps toward his building. Ashley watched him go, not tearing her eyes away until he disappeared through the sturdy front doors.
Maybe things with Tamsin would be fine; Mat was always one for exaggerating. Yet the relief she first felt that morning was vanishing, and she was no longer looking forward to reuniting with her eldest child.
Dragging herself back to her car took more effort than it was worth. She searched for painkillers, knowing she would come up empty-handed, and resigned herself to a slow drive back home. Starting up the car, she admitted to herself that this probably wasn’t going to have a good outcome.