Throughout the journey, she had complained nonstop about how unfair it was that we were moving again, that she preferred our old house and that she’d be going back there today whether anyone else was living there or not. I’d heard it a million times before, and even Uncle Devon turned up the car radio to muffle her complaints.
‘For heaven’s sake, Lucinda,’ he said. ‘You’re fifteen, not five. Stop being so dramatic.’
Lucinda ignored him, as usual, and continued to mutter to herself, casting dark looks at the rows of houses we passed. They looked like cardboard cut-outs, all identically tall and narrow, like lines of blunt pencils. Everything around us was grey, as if someone had forgotten to add colour to the picture. It matched Lucinda’s mood perfectly.
We drove round in circles for at least an hour before Uncle Devon finally spotted the sign that read ‘Ivory Crescent’. I felt like making a sarcastic comment as he parked the car, but Lucinda got there first.
‘Well, isn’t this wonderful,’ she said, looking around disdainfully, like a queen who’d just been relocated to the slums. ‘I thought the last place was bad enough.’
For the last couple of months, we’d lived in what you might call a ‘rough area’. It was pretty bad, even by our standards. On one occasion, someone had even lobbed a brick through our window. However much Lucinda might complain now, I knew she was as relieved as I was that Uncle Devon had announced the move. Even if it was barely a ten-minute drive away from the estate.
‘Let me guess, you’ve forgotten which one it is,’ she said, as Uncle Devon studied the row of dilapidated terraced houses in front of us. Weeds were the only plants in the run-down gardens, and rubbish bags were scattered everywhere, spilling their contents onto the pavements. The smell of rotting food pervaded the air, making us wrinkle our noses in disgust. Even the lamp-posts looked like they were wilting on the spot, drooping like old men over the cracked paving stones.
Uncle Devon fitted right in here. Even when dressed in his best he always seemed dishevelled. He had the appearance of a bedraggled mop, with his curly greying hair and narrow face, and always wore the same grubby faded jeans and a t-shirt the same colour as the pavement.
‘It’s definitely one of these,’ he said, frowning.
Lucinda gave one of her famous melodramatic sighs as I spotted our cat, Spider, sitting on a doorstep. At his feet was a chipped plate bearing the number ‘27’; it had clearly fallen off the wall.
Looking relieved, Uncle Devon pushed open the gate. Spider yawned, in a way that said It’s about time. I’ve been waiting ages for you.
‘That cat,’ I said, ‘is psychic. How many times is this now that he’s found our new house before we have?’
‘I brought him here in the removal van,’ said Uncle Devon, by way of an explanation.
I wasn’t convinced. Spider seemed to have a better memory than Uncle Devon, let alone other cats. I knew that cats could have an amazing sense of direction, but Spider’s nose was like a tracker dog’s.
At that moment a water balloon flew out of an upstairs window. It hit Uncle Devon right on the head, drenching him from head to toe, and splattering me and Lucinda. Laughter echoed from above.
Lucinda let out a shriek. ‘There’s someone already in there!’
‘It’s just the students,’ said Uncle Devon, shaking water from his hair like a dog. ‘You know, the ones who live in the upstairs flat. They’re nice enough, they just enjoy a joke.’ All the same, he cast a disgruntled glance at the window above, from which laughter was still issuing. ‘I’ll have a word with them,’ he said.
‘We’re living with them?’ said Lucinda, with an expression of horror. ‘You’ve got to be joking. I don’t see why we have to share a house with other people anyway.’
‘Luce, we’ve talked about this,’ said Uncle Devon. ‘I told you, this is a one-off. As soon as I start earning more we’ll find somewhere else.’
‘You always say that,’ said Lucinda. ‘It’s a lie, as usual. I’m not living here.’
She stalked off, heels clacking on the uneven pavement
‘How’s she supposed to find her way back? The place is a maze,’ I said to Uncle Devon. I too wasn’t entirely thrilled with the idea of being hit by projectiles every time I stepped out the front door.
He grimaced. ‘How far will she get in those ridiculous platform shoes? I tell her, but she does insist on wearing them. Come on, we need to start unpacking. She’ll find her way back – or she’ll call me to come and get her.’
He was right, of course; Lucinda always made a scene like this. We got on with unloading the car.
The hallway was carpeted in threadbare green rugs. A wooden door at the far end led into a small, dingy living room that smelt of old furniture. Like those in the hallway, the walls were off-white and unembellished, the paint flaking away in places like dead skin. There were three armchairs grouped around a fireplace, and another door at the back opened onto the kitchen.
‘Our rooms are up here,’ said Uncle Devon, opening another door. He heaved the suitcases he was carrying up a staircase that curved around a corner.
My new bedroom wasn’t the shabbiest I’d seen. True enough, it wasn’t much bigger than a cupboard, but as long as it was habitable I was happy. Lucinda would doubtless find fault with everything from the curtains to the wallpaper, but I was fairly certain that she’d find something lacking even if there were gold taps and marble floors.
I threw down my bags on the bed by the window and went to help Uncle Devon unload the rest from the car.
I’d long since mastered the art of unpacking swiftly and ruthlessly – anyone standing nearby risked being hit in the face by a book or DVD. In ten minutes half the shelves and one chest of drawers were filled. Uncle Devon set up the computer in the corner, a job only he could do since I was clueless about technology.
I made sure to put my scrapbook right at the back of a drawer, hidden under a pile of magazines, first checking to make sure nothing was out of place. The last time Lucinda had decided to ‘have a look’, all my postcards had ended up completely jumbled. I hadn’t spoken to her for a week afterwards, more out of principle than anything. It was hardly an artistic achievement, just a collection of pictures of places I’d never been to. Marlon and I had always planned to travel the world. There wasn’t any hope of getting as much as a short holiday at the moment; what little money Uncle Devon made went on rent.
On cue, my phone vibrated. A message from Marlon:
‘Hey Lexa :) Have you moved in yet?’
‘Just finished unpacking,’ I typed.
‘Cool. You still OK for me to come over tomorrow?’
‘What’s your new address again?’
’27 Ivory Crescent. I wouldn’t memorise it, we’ll probably move again in a month. See you tomorrow. :)’
All in all, I thought, our new house wasn’t too bad, even if it did feel like the hundredth time we’d moved. At least we were no longer living out of suitcases, as we had for a while. When Lucinda and I had lost our parents in a sailing accident when we were seven, our Uncle Devon – our only surviving relative – had turned up at the orphanage to take us in. Before then he’d been a traveller, an elusive figure who came to visit at Christmas every year, bringing with him strange gifts and an oddball sense of humour. Now he was our guardian.
Unlike Lucinda, I thought the whole nomadic-lifestyle-with-an-enigmatic-uncle-guardian thing was pretty cool. Even if he told us absolutely nothing about himself. He never quite fitted in with regular life, and didn’t seem to have any friends. Lucinda forever bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t simply find a normal job and instead worked freelance doing ‘odd jobs’ for people, generally involving computers. He also called himself a researcher, which might have been an excuse for the old books he occasionally brought home.
But I trusted Uncle Devon, in spite of his peculiarities. When I was younger, I’d come up with theories as to his real occupation. Marlon had suggested that he was actually a secret agent, which was amusing to picture seeing as Uncle Devon was the least likely candidate for heroics.