The room is bright, with soft lemony morning light spilling in through the only window. It is cracked and a gentle breeze circles the room. I run my right thumb over the goosebumps on the skin of my left forearm, just below the gold bracelet that has always been there. The room is familiar, but I can’t immediately place if, or when, I have been here before. I just sit and wait patiently. There is a television set playing a game show but I listen instead to outside sounds. There are birds, I think I detect a woodpecker in the large oak tree that flanks the window. I consider getting up to look out and see if I’m right, but I feel deep in this armchair, so just stay still. “Sorry we’re late,” a cheery but exhausted voice of a woman floats into the room, soon followed by the owner. A woman with short black hair pushed back by sunglasses lunges towards me planting a generous kiss on my cheekbone and a gentle hand on my shoulder. A gold chain similar to mine glints from her more dainty wrist. I almost flinch at the sudden touch, but once she pulls away I feel comfort spread down my body from those two points of contact and part of me wants her to repeat the motion so I can lean into it a little more this time. “It’s getting so hot now,” she goes on before I’ve said anything. “I mean, I’m not complaining about some better weather but I’m sweating buckets here.” She flaps her jumpsuit from the waist to demonstrate. I offer a gentle laugh, but she’s already heading over to the window. “Does this open more? Are you cool enough?” She inspects the window and I take her in from behind. Just like my sister, always on the go, so much louder and more brash than me. Barking out questions and not listening to the answers. “Oh I’m just fine,” I assure her. “I’ve been listening to the birds.” She gives up on the window, flashing it a last accusatory glare, and moves to the chair beside me. “Any good birds here? We just have seagulls causing havoc with the bins.” “I think there’s a woodpecker in that tree,” I muse. “You’ve always had an ear for birds.” I think that her hair looks unusually short, but it suits her.
“Oh my god!” she starts. Then louder, more urgently: “Lola?” Her flash of panic startles me. Why is she shouting for our mother? And by name? A girl, about five or six years old, appears in the doorway clutching a large square book.
“I was getting a book,” she replies innocently, holding it up as proof.
“OK sweetie but don’t wander off like that please,” sister responds, calm again, smoothing and tightening the girl’s bunches that have fallen loose, wild curls escaping. “Go say hello then”.
The girl rushes over to me, singing: “Hellooo” as she climbs up onto my chair without hesitation. I look at her surprised, and then towards sister expecting an introduction but she doesn’t look like she’s about to give one and I have a familiar sense of not wanting to ask a stupid question. Before I can say anything, the girl called Lola thrusts the book to my chest and declares “We’re reading this one.” Sister laughs. “No messing around today,” she says.
Lola looks up at me sweetly, expectant, her eyes watery and her small nose splattered with freckles, so I take the book and open in. “From the beginning,” Lola insists.
Sister rolls her eyes. “Always from the beginning. She’s obsessed!” she says. “We can’t get to the end of any stories at the moment because we have to start from the beginning every time.”
“I like the beginnings,” Lola says quietly to no one in particular and turns to the first page for me. I look down at her eyelashes from above, they are flickering as she scans the words and pictures in front of us and I admire the conviction of this small stranger. I don’t feel so certain about much these days. I read the words in front of me and Lola wiggles, nestling herself into me and the weight and the warmth of her is strange and familiar all at the same time. I feel an urge to cry, but I just read.
“I’ll hang your new picture with the others,” sister fishes some paper from her handbag.
“OK, OK,” Lola says, more focused on the book.
Sister holds the picture to show me. “This is a dog called Monty we met in the park last week, Lola has been drawing him ever since.” She takes the picture to a noticeboard I hadn’t noticed before. It is plastered with pictures similar to Monty; a collage of colourful A4. Sister finds a space and fastens the new picture in. I stop reading and frown at the overflowing noticeboard. Frustration bubbles inside me. My sister never had children. She lived in America for most of her life but returned to live in my spare room towards the end, using my things without asking like she did when we were teenagers. My daughter’s resemblance to my sister is so strong it tightens my chest. My hands holding this book are wrinkled and weatherworn but clean. They used to be dirty, always buried in soil, which stuck under my nails. I worked outside, with birds overhead. “Gamma, keep reading,” Lola insists from my lap. I look down at her in wonder, how many times have I met you, little one? Surely I would remember those freckles. She fidgets, and points a small finger where she wants me to read. Her insistence, her feet crossed at the ankles, her pointy elbow in my stomach, her escaping curls. The frustration subsides, I just hold her and continue reading as directed. I guess we get a new beginning every time, Lola.