The Loss Adjuster By Ola Mustapha

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Peter’s fingers brush Caitlin’s as he takes the pamphlet from her hand. He nearly says, ‘Jesus Christ, your hands are freezing,’ but stops himself. It’s overfamiliar, when they’ve just met.

‘“Creeping nothingness”,’ says Caitlin. ‘That’s how you described it on the contact form, right?’

‘Right,’ says Peter, pretending to read the testimonials. ‘Thanks.’

His thumb leaves a sweaty imprint on the paper, not entirely due to the summer heat.

‘Everyone copes differently with loss,’ she says.

The sibilant tail of ‘loss’ hangs in the air. They’re in Caitlin’s office, a small room above an Italian restaurant in Soho, bare apart from a mahogany escritoire and two matching chairs. Is it actually ‘her’ office? She gives the impression of having arrived a few minutes before him, her cardigan slung messily over the doorknob. The only consistent presence in the room seems to be the garlic aroma wafting up from the kitchen.

Outside in the courtyard, bottles crash into a bin, making him jump.

‘What were you first?’ he says, skimming her impressive biography. ‘An actress or … this?’

‘Oh, I was an actor long before this.’

Of course: actor, not actress. He’s an embarrassing uncle to her. How old is she anyway? Twenty-five at a stretch — nearly two decades between them. Her youth is surprising given the nature of her services.

She tells him she prefers to deal with one client at a time. ‘Infrequent replenishment’ is how she puts it, which doesn’t seem quite the right term. From this, they move onto his own situation.

‘And her name is…?’ says Caitlin, extracting a notebook and pen from the desk. As she tilts her head to one side, a golden light trickles into her irises. Oil lamps, he thinks, though he’s never seen an oil lamp in real life. For the first time, he notices her eyes are green.

‘Her name was Hannah,’ he says, pleased when his voice snags on the past tense; it happens so rarely these days. ‘She died five years ago.’

‘Hannah,’ she repeats, in a musing, intimate tone. You’d think the two of them were planning a treat for Hannah. A meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant or a ride in a hot air balloon.

Uncanny empathy,” he reads in one of the quote boxes dotted throughout her pamphlet. “Meticulous attention to detail.

They start going through her questionnaire. Once he conquers his dislike of oversharing, it’s almost enjoyable, talking about Hannah in that level of detail. Three hours later, he leaves Caitlin’s office and walks the seven miles home to Sydenham, too wired to sit on a train.

#

Her email pops into his inbox the next evening, while he’s frowning over a sudoku puzzle — anything to distract himself from the wait. He’s already pruned Hannah’s roses and composed a rueful reply to the latest communication from his football group  (Peter mate, where’ve you been hiding all these months? Jamie says he misses your deconstructions of Kraftwerk as the godfathers of hip-hop …).

With the same jitters he gets when checking a lottery ticket, he opens Caitlin’s email.

Hi Peter! Here are the instructions. I hope you like the soundtrack (link below). 

He sticks his earphones in and clicks the link. Two minutes later, he springs to his feet and starts pacing around. How the hell did she do it? Not the technicalities — that’s just splicing and dicing on an app like the kids do these days — no, the sheer accuracy of it.

Sitting back down, he lets the music wash over him, grasping at the strands that leap out. There’s a sedate waltz entwined with a violin lament. An abundance of minor chords, last-minute swerves away from joy — the splashes of sadness that infiltrate sixties surf songs.  Fading summer, that’s what this music is. And that’s what Hannah was too — a belly-laugher with a melancholy streak, born on August 31st. Somehow, without ever meeting her, Caitlin has captured her essence.

His ears cry out to hear the music on a loop, but Caitlin has warned against this: Use sparingly for best results!

Her instructions, to his relief, are almost childishly simple.

Step 1: Select your picture.

Not too hard when he has a grand total of seven to pick from. He and Hannah took photos of sunsets, herons, graffiti and foxes, not each other.

‘Let the rest of the world drown in Narcissus’ pool!’ he’d exclaimed once on an outing to St James’s Park, not caring that he sounded like a bombastic twat. ‘Look at those stupid fuckers with their selfie sticks.’

‘I know!’ she’d replied. ‘How self-absorbed can you get?’

His disdain for modern life provides a wellspring of amusement to his colleagues at the insurance company. Some call him ‘Uncle Peter’, not entirely affectionately.

After a moment’s deliberation, he chooses a picture of Hannah in Morocco, the Atlas Mountains: their first holiday together.

Step 2: Activate your soundtrack.

Once more, the melody tickles his spine as he cranks up the volume on his earphones.

Step 3: Absorb the picture while keeping your mind blank. This step is about feeling, not thinking.

Good luck with that — like an obnoxious radio presenter, his brain never stops with the running commentary.

Step 4: Break down each element of your picture. Does it conjure up any other memories?

Sweeping over the photo, he ticks off Hannah’s turquoise t-shirt, tucked into her baggy cargo pants; the skein of  hair blowing over her mouth; the patina of sweat on her face. Honing in on her small rib cage, he remembers the first time he ever touched her skin. The memory doesn’t evoke any particular sensation. Methodically, he runs through the events the way he used to memorise historical dates or formulae at school.

Step 5: Repeat Step 3 (‘Feeling not thinking’). What do you feel?

Nothing.

Try again.

Nothing.

Caitlin has made provision for this. Option 2, he reads, flicking back to her email.

#

‘How did you get on?’ she says at the next session.

‘Umm, good. The soundtrack was amazing — how did you do it?’

She smiles in a way that implies trade secrets.

‘I struggled with the photo, to be honest,’ he says. ‘I had to go for option 2 — the black and white filter.’

‘And did it work?’

‘It did, but …’

‘Yes?’

‘I cried a bit eventually, but maybe it was a generic thing. You know how black and white pictures make you feel nostalgic?’

‘Hmm,’ she says, assuming a thoughtful expression. Discreetly, she stifles a yawn.

In the bright afternoon sunlight, he notices little grey half-moons under her eyes. Still at an age where blemishes only emphasise a youthful complexion. Lucky her. Maybe she’s exhausted after a night of debauchery. Do young people still do debauchery these days? Hard to keep track of the swinging pendulum.

He tries to picture Caitlin engaging in the kind of activities he did at her age: drinking, dancing, crowding onto night buses, ejecting silly banter like spray from a water pistol. It’s an incongruous image.

‘I’ll take a few notes,’ she says, picking up a blue biro.

On this second meeting, he’s struck by a curious quality, or rather a lack, in Caitlin: something unfinished, like a pristine colouring book. A vagueness at odds with her self-possession. Would he even recognise her if he saw her walking down the street? She could be any pale-skinned woman with mousey brown hair. Average height, average build, average everything.

A chorus of doubts starts to clang in his head. What the hell is he doing entrusting himself — or more importantly Hannah — to a cipher in a sundress? What if it’s a scam? A fool and his money … He’d be stupid if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind, but her fee isn’t large enough to qualify as an ill-gotten gain — it’s surprising how little she wants for her services.

He watches her pen create a spiky trail across the page. Wind-blown Christmas trees. What does it mean when someone’s writing slants so far to the left?

Covering her mouth delicately, she suppresses another yawn.

‘Something keep you up late last night?’ he says, and instantly wishes he hadn’t — it’s the verbal equivalent of a hand on her knee.

‘Not really,’ she says, sounding unfazed by the question. ‘I’m not the world’s greatest sleeper.’

‘Me neither!’ Garrulous with relief that she hasn’t branded him a dirty old man, he adds, ‘Now, Hannah  … my God, she could sleep through an earthquake, that one. She actually did once, when we went to New Zealand.’

‘Hannah sounds like an amazing woman,’ says Caitlin.

Funny how her eyes seem to change colour when she perks up: there’s that luminous green again, emerging from the shadows.  Well, her interest in Hannah is genuine at least — that’s why she was able to coax so much out of him in the questionnaire. And that soundtrack was astonishing — surely not the creation of a psychopath? If this doesn’t work, nothing will.

‘Sorry if I’ve already asked you, but what exactly drew you to this field?’ he says.

She looks up at the ceiling as she ponders the question. ‘You could say it’s a labour of love,’ she says eventually. ‘I understand what you mean by … what was it? The “creeping nothingness”.’

Her voice seems to scrape on those words … the hoarseness of an injustice deeply felt?

‘Have you …?’ he says, leaving the sentence hanging.

‘Yes, you could say I’ve experienced loss too,’ she replies after a pause. ‘I know what it’s like to feel yourself slip away.’

Her choice of words is puzzling. It’s Hannah who’s slipping away, not him. Ignoring his expectant expression, she delivers a bland, professional smile, the shutters slamming down again.

‘Oh, do you have those voicemails we talked about, Peter?’

As Hannah’s voice pours into the air, Caitlin seems to drink it. Trance-like, her demeanour reminds him of a medium; she could be presiding over a séance, draped in velvet scarves and dangly beads.

‘Are you ready for the next stage?’ she says when she’s finished recording. Now she’s a helpful sales assistant.

‘As I’ll ever be!’ he says with fake brightness.

‘Brilliant! Let’s get working on the materials, then. And I’ll book us in for Saturday.’

#

Saturday brings him an attack of nervous diarrhoea and a tongue furry from lack of sleep — the ‘materials’ he produced under Caitlin’s supervision kept him up until 3am. Studying his flash cards, creating mnemonics for the tricky bits, running through it again and again with a diligence he’s rarely applied to his work as a loss adjuster.

As luck would have it, this is the day everyone decides to bombard him with WhatsApps. His sister, Gemma, who emigrated to New Zealand twenty years ago: You ok Petey? You’ve been so quiet lately. You didn’t sound yourself last time we spoke. His boss, Anjali: Sorry you couldn’t make it to the summer picnic, Peter — don’t force yourself in on Monday if you’re still poorly. Good chance for Chris to step up! The football group: Missed you on Sunday mate. Come and meet us for a pint next time, even if you can’t be arsed to play, you lazy bastard.

Chirpy assurances fly forth from his fingers before he mutes his phone and slings it onto the coffee table, eyeing it with dislike. What would they do if they knew? Have him sectioned? Stage an intervention? Everyone seems to think he should’ve ‘moved on’ by now.

At 6:20pm the doorbell shrills. Caitlin, ten minutes early! A yelp of panic slips out as he runs to the door.

‘Hi Peter. Hope I didn’t interrupt anything?’

‘Not at all — I was just …’

Some quirk in her appearance derails him  … Ah! She’s wearing brown contact lenses. Briefly, the churning in his stomach gives way to excitement. It’s like seeing the first brushstrokes in a room that’s about to be decorated.

But something has been niggling at him since last time. Deciding to test his theory, he says, ‘I …’

No flicker of response.

‘Hannah … ,’ he begins, watching her face spring to life.

‘Yes?’

‘Sorry, it’s gone.’

Before he can stew over what happened, she says, ‘Shall we …?’

In silence, he leads her upstairs, his heart thudding from the bizarreness of what’s coming.

‘The stuff’s in there,’ he says, pointing at the Sainsbury’s bag hanging from the bathroom door. ‘Oh, and … .’ Squeezing past her, careful not to brush against her, he opens the cabinet and takes out a small perfume bottle, brown with a gold lid. ‘I don’t know what it’s called or where it’s from. It’s strong stuff — you don’t need a lot.’

‘Of course.’ She extends both hands to receive it. Didn’t he read that Japanese people do this with business cards, as a mark of respect? ‘I’ll use the bare minimum.’

As he turns away, she says, ‘Oh, one thing — obviously, my skin colour’s totally different to hers.’

‘Umm, yeah.’ He’d assumed that was a problem for her to solve.

‘I brought some … ,’ she says, producing a white jar from her tote bag. ‘But I’ll only use it if you want me to?’

‘Sure, why not.’

An eruption of nervous giggles threatens. This is ridiculous. This is absurd. It’s 2018, and he has just authorised the wearing of brownface.

With a polite smile of dismissal, Caitlin shuts the door. As he goes downstairs to the living room, he swallows to quash his rising nausea.

#

She pads down so quietly he doesn’t realise she’s there until Hannah’s perfume creeps into his nostrils. The sight of her in the doorway stops his breath.

Caitlin’s body is nothing like Hannah’s — it’s larger and bonier. And yet the clothes fit her perfectly. Hannah’s aztec-patterned leggings stretch neatly over her thighs. The loose fit of the grey jumper flatters her angular frame. It’s from Warehouse — Whorehouse, as Hannah used to call it. On her feet are Hannah’s … what would you even call these things? Black leather ankle socks with a zip down the side. They look like foot-gauntlets; what a falconer might wear if falconry were carried out with the feet. Hannah bought them on their trip to Morocco along with a leather pouffe that stank so badly it went in the bin after a week.

Just like Hannah’s hair, Caitlin’s wig is dark brown and shiny. As for her skin … somehow, she’s managed to replicate Hannah’s complexion right down to the patch of pigmentation on her left cheek.

‘Wow.’

Clasping her hands in front of her, Caitlin smiles demurely.

‘You’re so … talented,’ he says.

‘Thank you,’ she replies. ‘It’s something you learn, when you have to.’ Once again, there’s an odd, jangling note in her voice — is that bitterness he hears? Before he can analyse it, she treads softly over to join him on the sofa, saying, with dreamy detachment, ‘Feels like summer’s nearly gone.’

Like a stage direction, her words make him shiver. ‘Yes,’ he says, bereft of witty rejoinders.

Charged with anticipation, the air in the room seems to thicken and muffle his senses. Slowly, his hand travels up to his face as if pulled by an invisible string. He observes  it like someone else’s hand, mildly entranced by its veins, its lines, its pouches. How strange that this hand, a tiny speck of the universe, can exert such will against the forces of gravity. Through his splayed fingers, the evening sun ripples in pink waves.

Gradually, Caitlin’s presence reasserts itself. There is a woman sitting next to him dressed in Hannah’s clothes, skin and hair, wearing Hannah’s perfume. She is watching him watch his hand.

‘Are you ready?’ she says.

Snapping back into himself, he nods and pins his trembling hands under his thighs.

Side by side on the sofa, they begin.

*

Peter: I’m so sorry, Hannikin. I’m so sorry I let you down.

Caitlin/Hannah: How did you let me down, Pip-pip?

Peter: That night. Leaving you all alone to go on that stupid course. A junket to Peterborough, for fuck’s sake.

Caitlin/Hannah: Don’t be silly, baby, you couldn’t have known. It was peaceful, I promise. Trust me to die of cot death at the age of thirty-four, eh?

*

She’s captured Hannah’s voice, down to the last detail. The hint of a whistle in her Ss. The barely discernible limpness in her hard consonants. Her accent, which is Croydon polished by Canary Wharf. For a wild moment, he wants to test it, push the experiment to its limits: Say ‘entrepreneurial’ for me. Say ‘anaesthetist.’ But improvisation isn’t part of the deal.

Reawakened, his nerves tingle from proximity to the woman on the sofa. He closes his eyes and sinks back into the script.

*

Peter: I’m scared, Han.

Caitlin/Hannah: What of, baby?

Peter: Losing you. In a different way. I’m already starting to forget.

Caitlin/Hannah: Forget what?

Peter: The sound of your voice. I have to keep playing your voicemails to remind me. Little things about you. Like if it was pistachio ice cream you loved or mint choc chip. If you liked Inland Empire or thought it was pretentious wank. And I hardly ever dream about you, though I used to all the time when you were alive, lying next to me.

Caitlin/Hannah: You haven’t forgotten me, sweetheart. You’re being a fret-head, like always.’

*

Even with his eyes closed, he can see her, Hannah, sitting next to him. Her skin, her hair, the tautness of her leggings on her thighs, the jut of her collarbone under her baggy jumper.

The woman on the sofa sighs, and it fills his ears like the sea.

*

Peter: When it happened, people kept saying, ‘This too shall pass,’ but why should it ‘pass’? I don’t want you to ‘pass.’ You’re a part of me, not a kidney stone.

Caitlin/Hannah: Are you saying you don’t wanna piss me out of your life?

Peter: Facetious little arsehole. I hate myself because the tears don’t flow easily now — I have to help them along.

Caitlin/Hannah: Like pumping a bicycle tyre?

Peter: Exactly. And your trainers … I used to cry each time I looked at them because they were so small and so you, but now they’re just trainers.

Caitlin/Hannah: It doesn’t matter, baby. You know I just want you to be happy.

*

A shift in her voice tells him she has turned to face him. As her breath brushes his cheek, he thinks of gold dust.

*

Peter: I know. But you remember what we used to say about death, don’t you? That the afterlife …

Caitlin/Hannah: … is the energy that exists …

Peter: … between people. And the love that lingers …

Caitlin/Hannah: … even after death.

Peter: Who else will remember you if I don’t? No kids. No siblings. No parents. My Little Orphan Hannie.

Caitlin/Hannah: [Laughing, sadly] Minus the hair.

Peter: Our friends hardly mention you these days. So that leaves me.

Caitlin/Hannah: To keep me alive?

Peter: Yes. Because the dead live in love, and I want you to live, always.

Caitlin/Hannah: My darling.

*

This is wrong — Hannah wouldn’t have said ‘darling.’ She would’ve said ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby’, or the undignified ‘Pip-pip.’ Or her secret name for him, which he nearly didn’t disclose in the questionnaire.

Caitlin’s face is in shadow, half hidden by the wig. Should he tell her?

Say it again, Caitlin or Hannah or whoever you are. Say ‘sweetheart or ‘baby’, not ‘darling.’

Or maybe I don’t care. Maybe I’ll take ‘darling’ if that’s the only thing on offer. Maybe I’ll take anything that comes from someone else’s mouth instead of my own head.

As if prodded by a giant finger, his whole body twitches.

‘Can we do that bit again?’ he says. ‘I don’t think she ever said ‘darling’. If you could replace it with ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby’?’

‘No problem.’ Is he imagining an edge to her tone? ‘But I think it said ‘darling’ in the script?’

‘It’s my fault. Sorry. I guess it’s part of the whole … Can we just do it again?’

*

Peter: Our friends hardly mention you these days. So that leaves me.

Caitlin/Hannah: To keep me alive?

Peter: Yes. Because the dead live in love, and I want you to live, always.

Caitlin/Hannah: My baby.

*

Silence. Why did it have to end like that? Like a cheek bitten while eating a delicate truffle. Irrationally, he wants to blame her — Caitlin. That’s who she is after all, whatever she’s wearing. Whoever she sounds like.

But as he slumps forward, she strokes his cheek and says his name. Not Peter or Pip-pip, but the secret name only Hannah used. Hearing it seems to peel a layer off his skin.

Unnoticed, she has moved closer to him, or he has to her. Touching her hand is allowed: this time, her fingers are warm, evoking the furnace that inhabited Hannah’s limbs. The heavy beat of her pulse makes his fingers vibrate.

With his left hand, he strokes the wig, finding it soft and yielding, not stiff as he’d expected. Inching closer still, pressing his nose to her neck, he inhales Hannah’s perfume. God, that musky, incense-like scent with an undertone of almonds. It squeezes his heart and releases his tears, sending them dripping down her neck.

Somewhere in the street, an engine revs. Next door’s children run up and down the stairs, laughing, until sound dies but for his breath, fused with hers.

Outside, the sky darkens from pink to purple. When the last of  the light vanishes, she arches her back, exhaling. Reluctantly, he starts to detach himself, but, unscripted, she cups his face and pulls him back, prising his startled lips open with hers until they respond instinctively. Her hands are warm, her breath is loud, her eyes are shining in the dark. She’s Hannah, she’s Caitlin, she’s Hannah, she’s Hannah. Dark and glistening, her eyes imprint themselves on his. Hannah’s eyes. And the voice that speaks next is Hannah’s voice. Two words, pronounced with a resonance that makes him shake: ‘Thank you.’

Leaving him motionless on the sofa, she goes upstairs to change before letting herself out. No goodbyes. That, unlike the kiss, was part of the arrangement.

‘Thank you,’ he whispers to the silence of the room.

#

Later, those words dance in his head to the rhythm of the sobs that wrack his body. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The exquisite release is almost more than he can bear. His fear is gone. As he wanders from room to room, Hannah’s presence envelopes him, no longer ghostly but warm and real. Her voice, her smile, her Hannah-ness has returned to him and it’s miraculous, like a person regrowing a severed limb.

As the night deepens, he sits at the kitchen table gazing out at the sky, wrapped in a blanket of Hannah. Her raucous laugh, her habit of clicking her tongue in amusement, her weird obsession with purple vegetables, her germ-phobia. As if to tease her, he swigs straight from the cranberry juice carton in the fridge, and hears her say, ‘You fucking savage!’ Laughing, he presses his fingers to his eyes.

Back upstairs, he studies the photo of Hannah in Morocco, hair blowing in the wind, life straining from every pore. Then he thinks of her funeral, the crushing pain that brought him to his knees in the crematorium, a pain so immense he thought he’d never get up.

‘Oh Hannah, my baby, I miss you so much. I’ll keep you in my heart, always.’

As he gets ready for bed, a line from an old song runs through his head — he’s always claimed to find it mawkish but secretly he loves it, blinking back tears whenever he hears it. Rushing and rushing inside of me. Yes. His love for Hannah rushes inside him like a waterfall, and it lulls him into a deep, peaceful sleep.

But at 4:07am, he wakes with a start, gasping for breath, already halfway onto his feet. As if he’d planned it in his sleep, he turns on the lamp and opens the wardrobe, dragging the jumper Caitlin wore off its hanger. Laying it on the bed, he stares at it.

What does it make him feel?

Nothing. It’s just a jumper. A collection of knitted fibres.

And what about these things? The hybrid sock-slipper-boots from Morocco?

Nothing. They’re just foot-sheathes — leather flaps stitched together.

Snatching his phone off the bedside table, he swipes to the photo of Hannah in Morocco. All he sees are colours and pixels, light and shade.

He charges across the landing to the bathroom and grabs the perfume Caitlin used — gunky, brown, more like an oil. Inhale. Ah, there! There she is — Hannah! But she’s gone in an instant. Inhale again. Quick! A flare, a flicker and then gone, a match that won’t catch. Inhale. Nothing. The smell’s there but Hannah isn’t. God, what that smell used to do to him. He remembers, oh yes, he remembers, but that doesn’t bring her back. She’s fled from his nostrils, and the loss is excruciating. Oh Hannah, oh Hannah, where are you?

Hannah’s tune — the soundtrack Caitlin made! Pouncing on his phone, he fumbles with his earphones, bashing at the lamp with his other hand, desperate to plunge himself into darkness, into Hannah and nothing else.

He clicks the link. Long moments pass. Then: 404 error. Page not found.

Chest heaving with panic, he runs downstairs and scoops his laptop off the table then he runs back to the bedroom, panting like a dog. Load, for fuck’s sake, load …

The page you’re looking for can’t be found.

A coldness taps its fingers up his spine. His mind fills with images of Caitlin. Her blank face, coloured in. Her once icy hands pumping with blood. The rapt, sliding light in her eyes each time she got close to Hannah, the intensity of her voice when she parroted his words, ‘creeping nothingness.’ A void pulsating from her like an elemental force. Why did she say ‘thank you’ like that, as if he’d given something away to her? Oh God, everything he shared with her — names, photos, all the secret, sacred things. Something passed from him to her, energy harnessed and snatched. And that kiss — he’d thought of it as a bonus, a freebie thrown in with the service, but her lips were hard, greedy, sucking something out of him, leaving him with the fleeting illusion of continued possession … And now Hannah is gone …

He tells himself he’s being ridiculous: he’s exhausted and overwrought, and this is what happens when you wake at 4:07am after an unusually stimulating day.

He tells himself not to think about googling any primitive superstitions.

He sits on the bed with his head in his hands. Alone, in the dark, surrounded by inanimate objects.

glasses

Ola Mustapha

Ola Mustapha is from London, where she works as an editor of research reports. She enjoys writing about identity crises, lost relationships and foxes. Her first novel, combining two of these themes, is currently out for submission.

Previous short story publications: Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2021, The Galway Review, Bandit Fiction, Quince Magazine, The Phare, Untitled: Voices

Social media: Twitter: @OlaMustapha12

Image by Love Art. Live Art. on Pixabay

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