What's Normal? Steadfast


Part 2
by Hannah Westman

This is Part 2 in our final three-part story in the What’s Normal? Short Story Series. What’s Normal? explores solo life and emotions as lockdown eases. The final part of Story 4 and the What’s Normal series will be published next week on Sunday the 30th August. You can read stories 1 to 3 here.

Truthfully, the dating app had drifted into the back of Kalisha’s mind as the days passed. There was always something that needed to be done, and it kept getting shoved further and further down the list of interests until she almost forgot it completely. It wasn’t until nearly a week after she first downloaded it that she remembered, and only because a little notification popped up on her phone.

New message from; Duncan Webb.

Kalisha paused mid-way through changing the bed to take a peek. Setting the fresh pillowcase aside, Kalisha collapsed onto the bed and unlocked her phone.

Hey. You seem like a nice woman, love your profile pic. Want to meet up?

She couldn’t help but roll her eyes. What an unimaginative conversation starter. Yet she took a look at his profile anyway – his profile picture was a standard headshot of a smiling man. Salt and pepper hair, grey-blue eyes, freckled skin. He was wearing a suit, and his profile told her he was an accountant from Leeds, now living in Glasgow.

There was nothing inspiring about his personal information – but maybe she just hadn’t given him a chance? Perhaps he was actually great, with a weird hidden hobby like skydiving or snowboarding? Looking at him, with his thick-rimmed glasses and pleasant yet vacant smile, she doubted it. Yet she had promised Imogen to try, so…

Sure. I’m free Thursday if you are 🙂 how about dinner?

They exchanged messages for a while after that; awkward small talk, generic questions like ‘do you enjoy your work?’ and ‘what brought you to Glasgow?’. Then the time came to make dinner, and Kalisha only felt a little splash of guilt at putting him from her mind so easily. By the time the dishes were washed, and she settled down to watch TV, she’d forgotten about him entirely.

Then the day of the date rolled around, and she couldn’t ignore him any more. She was sure he was lovely, really, but he couldn’t have been further from her type. If Kalisha even had enough experience to have a type. She wanted adventure, fun, not someone who talked about numbers and data all day.

She dressed simply in a fitted black dress and flats. She wanted to make an impression, but not too much of an impression. They were meeting at a sushi place Kalisha had never heard of – not her first choice of food, but not the worst option, either. She hovered by the door, eyes cast about to search for her table. Was Duncan already here?

A pretty waitress appeared although half of her face was obscured by a thick face mask and one of those ugly shields. Kalisha felt terrible for her, and for a moment, her own worries dissipated. Yet the waitress smiled, signalled by the crinkle of her mask, and asked, “table for one?”

“Actually, I have a reservation. Under, uh, Webb.”

The waitress’ eyes widened, “ah, I believe your boyfriend is already here. Let me show you to your table.”

“He’s not my-“

The waitress was already on the move, weaving expertly between tables – many of which were marked as unavailable. Even if restaurants were open, things were hardly normal yet. It was quiet too, with only three other tables occupied in the cavernous room. 

There was no time to dwell on it, because soon enough, the waitress paused by a secluded corner booth, and Kalisha’s eyes landed on Duncan. He looked taller in real life, and thinner, but his mild, slightly uncomfortable smile was just the same.

“I’ll come back in a few minutes for your drink orders.”

Kalisha thanked the waitress, sliding into the booth with an awkward smile of her own. Hell, she was unpracticed. “Hey Duncan,” she said, squeezing into the narrow booth, “hope you haven’t been waiting long?”

“Ah.” He flushed gently, more like an embarrassed teenager than a forty-something-year-old man. “I arrived too early, my own fault. I’ll admit I haven’t done this in years.

“Me neither,” Kalisha replied – and tension rolled in her stomach. Lifting a menu, she squinted at the options. Yep. She could definitely identify it as sushi, but the options evaded her. California roll? Tempura roll? Maki? It may as well have been written in Japanese, for all the difference it made.

When her eyes darted up, Duncan was smiling gently. Sympathetically, perhaps, except it sort of looked like the way an adult might look at a kid struggling to tie their shoes. “Need help deciphering the menu?” he offered.

She couldn’t deny that it was all meaningless to her, so she reluctantly swallowed her pride and said, “please.”

He scooted onto her side of the booth under the guise of “its easier to see the menu”. She felt the heat rolling off of him even through his expensive suit jacket – a bit much for a first date, she thought – and his hand was sweaty as he took the menu from her. 

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she questioned, shifting into the corner of the booth. Even with as much distance between them as possible, his thighs were inches from hers. “One-metre distance and all that.”

Duncan quirked a brow. “I’m healthy, and you don’t have to worry. Unless you’re ill?”

She wasn’t, but that was also hardly the point. Yet not wanting to be rude, Kalisha held her tongue and let him explain the menu. She squirmed the entire time, having half a mind to ask him to shove over. Yet, despite being argumentative by nature, causing a scene wasn’t her idea of fun.

As he explained the menu, Kalisha at least understood some. It turned out that maki were the little round ones, a strip of seaweed around the outside. California rolls were similar, but Duncan insisted it wasn’t real sushi and just an inferior European version of it.

He certainly had opinions, Kalisha discovered, and it didn’t take long to begin to grate on her nerves. She had hoped for him to be the mild, bashful type like his profile made him seem, yet as his casual remarks turned into an all-out rant, she quickly realised that wasn’t the case.

You’re not even Japanese, so what does it matter?, she wanted to ask – Kalisha had to bite her tongue to keep from saying so. 

“…take takeaways for instance. None of the food is authentic, just tasteless British versions that have ruined proper Chinese and Indian cuisine.”

“It’s what’s popular,” Kalisha replied, “I don’t see the problem-“

“That’s exactly it! Nobody cares. I think it’s terrible, and…”

And off he went again, but his words had drifted into the background of her own thoughts. He was still sitting beside her too, radiating heat despite the air conditioning the restaurant provided. It was on, yes, likely to help with airflow for health and safety, but Kalisha was pretty sure he was just working himself up.

Biting down on her lip, Kalisha fumbled for her phone. They hadn’t even ordered drinks yet, but Kalisha knew when to stop wasting her time. She’d put up with a lot in her youth, but those days were long gone. With a quick glance toward Duncan – who was oblivious to her existence, nose shoved in the menu – she sent a text under the table; the phone smushed between her handbag and leg.

Imogen. Date sucks, I told you so. Get me out of here.

It had been previously agreed upon that, if the date went terribly, Imogen would come up with an excuse for Kalisha to leave. Now all she had to do was wait.

At some point Duncan had stopped talking, his unblinking gaze regarding her expectantly. “Well?” he demanded.

Ah. The last five minutes escaped her, and she had no clue what he expected her to say. Biting down on her lip and suppressing a scowl she offered, “I think you’re… right?”

His brows furrowed, doubtful, but dropped the subject. Finally, he decided to move back to his own side of the booth, sitting across from her. Kalisha didn’t miss the way his gaze cast across her body, how they hovered by her cleavage. Ugh. She knew she should have worn something with a high neck.

Yet before the discomfort could really settle in, her phone buzzed. She fished it from her bag, relief flooding her.

“Shouldn’t you have that turned off during a date?”

“I have it on for emergencies,” Kalisha added. Emergencies like this godawful evening. Her eyes flickered over the text from Imogen – a thin excuse, but one that would work nonetheless. “My friend’s stuck in work,” Kalisha said with a wince, “she needs me to pick up her kids from the babysitter.”

Duncan’s lips twisted. “She has a babysitter during a pandemic?”

“Well, they’re only young. She can’t very well leave them in the house all day.” Her features scrunched in what she hoped was an approximation of sympathy. “I’m the only one available. She really can’t afford to pay the babysitter for an extra hour.”

“The only one?” Duncan replied. Sceptic. “What about everyone else stuck out of work?”

Already Kalisha was slinging her handbag across her shoulder, shoving her phone back into the side pocket. “Just me. I’m so sorry I have to leave like this. It was lovely to meet you, though!” Was it childish, to make up excuses and bolt? Probably. Definitely. Yet she couldn’t bear to force herself through an entire evening of this. Offering another apology, Kalisha slinked from the booth and made her escape.

Outside, Imogen waited with a hand on her hips and raised a brow. “You didn’t even give that poor man a chance.”

“I didn’t need to,” she protested. Outside was cold, a breeze rustling her long dreadlocks. Shivering, she fell into step beside Imogen. “I thought all he was going to talk about was his job. You know, finances and statistics. I think I’d have preferred that.” A pause, and then, “How did you get here so fast?”

“For a woman who never dates, you’re sure picky,” Imogen commented with a grin. Hands shoved inside her jacket, mask on, she looked as if she’d been there all evening. To elaborate, she said, “I was hiding out in a café across the road, just in case things turned sour.”

They began to meander down the street, enjoying the slight breeze. It was a welcome change from recent weather, which had cycled between unbearably hot and horrible, humid downpours over the last few weeks. They passed a group of three men on their way across the road – one of them cast an appreciative glance at Kalisha’s bare legs as they strode past. 

Maybe the dress was a mistake. It seemed that even middle-aged women like herself weren’t immune to the creepy looks of younger men.

“You know,” Imogen spoke, breaking through the silence, “maybe online dating was a poor choice. It’s not for everyone, you know?”

“You can say that again.”

Imogen’s glared daggers, but there was a smile at the edge of her lips. “It’s just, how are you supposed to know anything about a guy when all you have is a few selfies and answers to a few pre-determined questions? Maybe you need to try something…more old fashioned.”

“Because we’re old?” Kalisha joked. It fell a little flat on her full lips, but the heaviness in her chest was already lifting. As long as they didn’t bump into Duncan coming out of the sushi place. The thought alone made her cringe, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t as if she’d ever see him again. It would just be one embarrassing moment to laugh about in years to come.

Imogen hummed, brushing hair from her eyes as the breeze cast it across her face. “Maybe I could set you up with someone. I know a lot of people, friends and clients at the hairdressers. I can think of plenty-“

“I’m good, thanks,” Kalisha butted in. This had been fun – well sort of, in concept at least – but she was done with dating for now. Although curiosity did nag at the back of her mind, and she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person Imogen thought she’d like. Considering Kalisha was so picky.

They were almost at Glasgow Central now, and despite there being a pandemic, it was surprisingly busy. Half of the shops were still closed, and there were a few more seats than usual, but with people beginning to return to work, it wasn’t as deadly quiet as it had been before.

As they climbed the steps, Imogen said, “just give it a go. For me?”

“Didn’t you promise to let it go if I went on one date?”

“I did, but it doesn’t count if you leave after ten minutes.”

“That’s fair.” Usually, Kalisha would have argued. She had never been the type to let people tell her what to do, except perhaps as a kid, but she had to admit, she was curious. Not that she thought another date would go anywhere. “Fine,” she answered simply, “one more date. The old fashioned way – and only because you’ve piqued my interest.”

The board glowed dimly in the light, revealing their train wasn’t for another twenty minutes. With barely anything open, it wasn’t worth leaving the station. Frowning, Kalisha plopped into the nearest chair. Hard plastic dug into the back of her thighs, and her feet were killing her, unused to being out of trainers after four months at home. 

Imogen settled beside her, considerably more delicate. Brushing down her jeans, she cast a look about the station. “Think Costa’s open?”

“Go check.”

She hummed quietly, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it. “Na, it’s too late for caffeine anyway.”

They sat in silence for a moment, just people watching. It was a bad habit Kalisha’s mother had tried to train out of her. It was rude, apparently. Still, she let her gaze drifted over two pink-haired women as they shuffled past, denim jackets wrapped tight around their shoulders.

Eventually, Kalisha spoke, turning to Imogen with a raised brow. “Why are you so determined to get me on a successful date anyway?”

She had been messing with her hair, trying to smooth out her ponytail – yet she paused, head tilted in thought. “I think it would be good for you.”

“Right, because I’ve never had a social life.” The thought was laughable; Kalisha was possibly the most social person in her whole friend group, and before lockdown, she had spent most of her evenings out with friends.

Imogen’s nose crinkled, eyes rolling. “I just think, if there was ever a time to reevaluate your life, lockdown is it.”

Kalisha snorted – she couldn’t help it, but the idea was just so ridiculous. “I’m sure there’s plenty of things in my life that could do with reevaluating, but my love life isn’t one of them.” She sat back against the chair, wincing as the cold plastic met her bare skin. Ugh, she should have taken a jacket. 

Manicured nails tapped against Imogen’s legs, the gentle click click barely audible above the station chatter. “I just don’t think you’ve ever given it a chance.”

Romance isn’t for everyone, she wanted to reply – but for once, she wasn’t in the mood for a debate. Slinking further into the uncomfortable chair, Kalisha sighed. “One more date,” she answered firmly, “just one more, with a guy of your choice, and then I’m done.”

Imogen looked as if she had plenty to say – but then their train was announced, the metallic voice screeching into their ears, and the conversation was cut short. Hauling themselves to their feet, they went in search of a ticket machine.

Kalisha had the feeling this conversation wasn’t over, just postponed, and she really didn’t have the energy to defend her choices a hundredth time. 

Hannah Westman

As a young Scottish writer residing in Glasgow, I’ve been writing almost as long as I’ve been old enough to hold a pen. I started out writing short stories, and over the years I have branched out into many styles of writing. Someday, I hope to publish a novel series - but freelancing as I am now will always be part of my life. It has given me great opportunities to develop my writing skills, delve into many genres, and work with wonderful people.
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