For twenty-seven years, Caroline didn't really know who she was.
When she was little, the other kids at school made fun of her sometimes because she didn't have a mum and dad like they all did. Their teachers told them off whenever they caught them doing it but it didn't make a lot of difference in the long run, not that Caroline really minded very much; she'd seen what some of their parents were like, after all, and she'd decided she'd much rather have Mama Rose with her grey hair and her kind face, her far-away accent and the smile lines all around her eyes than any of them.
For a start, Mama Rose didn't leave her with a Swedish au pair while she put on a bright yellow leotard and went out to keep fit class every second evening - she made fruit pies on Sundays with flour all over her pinafore and helped her with her maths homework at the kitchen table while the oven was on, even though they were both sort of rubbish at it. Mama Rose was always better at music, and so was Caroline; Mama Rose didn't read music, though, so when she taught her to play the piano, before she started lessons, when her hands were still almost too small for it, it was all by ear. When they played and sang together, sometimes it didn't seem to matter that Caroline didn't even know what her parents names had been.
When it came to it, no one actually seemed to know her parents' names - no one's ever seemed to know, whenever she's decided to look into it. Eventually, she just got used to how her last name and Mama Rose's weren't the same and how the only thing she had that had ever been her parents' was a big gold locket that wouldn't open; it hung on a long gold chain that almost came right down to her waist when she was small and it's not much shorter now, and she played with it so much that the snakes etched into it were always really bright and shiny. Mama Rose said was for protection, and Caroline supposed that she would know if anyone would. And maybe she wasn't allowed to wear it for school but she always rushed straight up the stairs to her room put it on afterwards, the first thing she did when she got home. Maybe not knowing who her parents had been didn't matter much, but that didn't mean it didn't matter at all.
Of course, Mama Rose didn't own the house that Caroline grew up in. It was a nice house full of nice things in a nice area just outside central London, on one of those odd little squares around a residents-only garden where Caroline used to skip with a rope at the weekend until her knee socks fell down and it felt a bit like her legs were about to fall off. Uncle Paul owned the house, not that she'd ever met Uncle Paul because apparently he'd kept himself to himself since the accident - all Caroline knew was her dad's brother was the sole survivor of the accident that killed her parents. In fact, Mama Rose had never met him, either - she remembers asking her about him, one sunny summer afternoon on the bench in the garden by the pond while they fed the ducks bits of last week's homemade bread, and Mama Rose said he wasn't actually the one who'd hired her, it had been his solicitor on his behalf. And she'd come all the way to England from the Caribbean on their say-so, to look after her because Uncle Paul couldn't.
"But I think it's the loi that really chose me for you," Mama Rose said, with a wink, and when she threw the handful of breadcrumbs she was holding, they scattered over the water with such perfect, shining ripples that Caroline thought maybe she was right about that.
Uncle Paul sent her letters each birthday and each Christmas; they all came through the solicitors, though, the envelopes addressed just Caroline in a black-inked spiderweb scrawl, so she never got to see a postmark to find out where in the world he was. All she knew was when she had his letters in her hands, her mother's big gold locket felt sort of heavy round her neck. All she knew was when she went to bed with his letter still sitting there on the dresser top, she dreamed strange dreams. She dreamed snakes and she dreamed fire, chants and music, drums, a voice that sang like Mama Rose's and another place that wasn't London, that wasn't anywhere she knew - she dreamed strange dreams but she wasn't scared because somehow she knew she didn't have to be. When she dreamed, it was like Uncle Paul wasn't very far away at all; his face was lost somewhere in her head, she thought, like a forgotten word on the tip of her tongue, and she knew him after all. He looked after her, she thought, just like Mama Rose did.
When she was ten years old, her class at school all went to the zoo. She'd been before, more than once, because she'd kept on asking Mama Rose to take her; she liked the snakes, even if they weren't quite like the ones she dreamed or the ones etched on her locket, though all the other kids were scared of them. She remembers how she wandered off from the group and no one really noticed, but that was fine because she knew where she was going, she knew the way to the reptile house down the little winding paths, and she watched the snakes through the glass there for a while. A man with an accent just like Mama Rose's found here there, sitting on her own, and he told the keepers that he'd found her; he sat with her after, crosslegged on the floor in front of the biggest tank, and waited for her teacher to come back to fetch her. When they looked into that tank, the snakes were all there watching them watch them, slithering up close to the glass to look back at them through it. She liked that. They seemed friendly.
When the keepers came and asked if she'd like to hold a python, the man was gone again and she remembers how she frowned as she looked about for him. She liked the snake, though; it curled around her arm and and peered at her, much to her teacher's complete and utter horror.
When she finished sixth form, she went to music school. She still lived in the house on the square and so did Mama Rose; she'd retired by then and Caroline knew she could have left if she'd wanted, but somehow the question had never seemed to come up at all. The house had been signed over to Caroline's sole ownership on her eighteenth birthday, her signature on the dotted line on the contract in the solicitor's office right there by Uncle Paul's familiar scrawl, though of course Uncle Paul wasn't there in the office in person. She went to music school and she worked hard just as she always had, got her degree and enjoyed her education, and though she supposed she really didn't have to work once university was in the past, she did so anyway - she might even have been able to live on her pay as a session musician if she'd had to, that and accompaniment for children's music exams, the odd gig with a band sometimes. And sometimes, a phrase in a piece of music she was playing would catch at a notion in the back of her head and she'd pause and try to place it. Sometimes, it would remind her of something she was almost sure she'd never really heard.
For twenty-six years, Caroline's life felt very normal. She wore her mother's old gold locket and she played her music, and she dreamed her dreams, and sometimes she wondered who her parents had been. She'd asked the solicitors once or twice if they could tell her anything about them - they said there was nothing to tell that she didn't already know.
For twenty-six years, Caroline's life felt very normal, though she supposes values of normality do differ. Then, a little after her twenty-seventh birthday, she ran into a little trouble; after a gig one night, she was making her way home when a man came out of nowhere and made a haphazard grab for her bag. He had a knife in his hand and he might have used it, too, from the look on his face, but he didn't get the chance to; someone else's swift arrival rather cut him off, though he knocked her off her feet along the way. And when she saw the new arrival's face, she knew. His face had been lost in her head for years, like a half-forgotten word on the tip of her tongue, and now there it was. There was fire in his eyes, deep and dark and smouldering inside him. He hadn't aged a single day since that day at the zoo. She understood.
"Hello, Paul," she said, as he took her hands in his too-hot ones to help her to her feet.
"Hello, Caroline," he replied, blankly, his accent still just like Mama Rose's. The big gold locket felt heavy round her neck until he left again the way he'd come.
She hugged Mama Rose especially tight when she got home that night. She didn't have to ask to know the truth and so she didn't; the locket had never been her mother's, and Rose had put what was in it there herself. Uncle Paul hadn't escaped the crash, not really, not all the way. All he could do now was protect her. All he could do now was what he'd been told. And she knows if she ever really needs him, he'll be there, but it won't be of his own free will.
For twenty-seven years, Caroline didn't really know who she was. She always wondered who her family were. Now she knows there's no need to wonder; if the loi chose for her, they chose really well.
The only family she needs is Mama Rose. She'll learn all she has to teach her.