The Tightrope Walkers - David Almond

on the banks of the Tyne, as so many of us were back then. It was a three-room dilapidated upstairs flat, in the same terraced row where Dad had been born, and just upriver from Simpson’s Shipyard. Rats slunk under the floorboards, mice scuttled in the walls. The bath hung on a nail on the wall, the toilet was at the foot of steep steps outside. The river slopped against the banks and stank when the tide was low. There was the groan of engines and cranes from the yard, the din of riveters and caulkers. Sirens blared at the start and end of shifts. Gulls screamed, children laughed, dogs barked, parents yelled.

All hackneyed, all true.

By the time I remember anything clear, the slums were gone and we’d moved uphill into our pebbledashed estate built on a wilderness just above town.

It’s said we travelled there like refugees. We came from crumbling terraces with tiny yards, from riverside shacks, from tumbledown cottages next to long-abandoned mines.

They were still completing it all when we arrived. There were trenches in the earth for pipes and cables. White markers showed where the pavements and roads would be. There were half-built garden walls and gateposts. Our dads roped furniture to their backs or pushed it there on handcarts. Our mams lugged rolled-up sheets and blankets. Retired pit ponies were used as cargo-carriers, Alsatians hauled pallets of boxes and bags. What did we have to bring anyway? A few sticks of furniture, enough clothes to dangle loosely in little wardrobes. Some brought beasts on leads and in boxes or baskets: chickens and ferrets to house in back gardens. Ponies and pigeons and rabbits and dogs.

I was one year old when we arrived. Dad carried me there in a wooden box. The box became a cradle, then my bed in which I slept until I was three years old.

Men closed the holes and chasms in the earth as we settled in and as I grew. They laid kerbstones and paving stones. They raised lampposts and telegraph poles. Men with scorched faces and with holes burned into their clothes tended fiery engines, braziers and steamrollers. They spread asphalt and tarmacadam with huge black brooms and great black shovels. Men in white overalls painted the doors and window frames. And kind men in brown with soft green caps stood on scaffolding by our walls and brought us pebbledash.

“True artists,” Mam murmured, as we stood in the rubble garden to watch them work. I must have just begun to walk, but I believe I recall these things.

The pebbledashers laid tarpaulins beneath the wall. Then brought wet plaster in buckets and spread it on the wall. Then dug their trowels into sacks of tiny stones and flicked the stones towards the plaster. Beautiful sounds: the ring of the trowel, the chink of the flick, the dash of the stones against the wall, the scatter upon the tarpaulin of those that fell. Time and again and time and again they plastered, flicked, and dashed, then gathered up the stones and began again until the wall was covered and they moved to other walls.

They kept turning, winking at me, proud of what they did.

I remember one of the men who came to me and tweaked my cheek.

“What do you think of that then, kidder?” he said.

“He thinks it is just marvellous,” Mam answered. “Don’t you, son?”

“Yes,” I think I whispered as I turned my face into her skirt.

When I was small, I loved to press my palms against the walls, to feel the points and edges against my skin. I’d press until it was almost painful, then lift my hand to see the pattern of the stones on me, to see it slowly fade, then press again to bring it back. I’d touch tenderly with my fingertips to feel the tiny smooth and gleaming surfaces. The rectangles of the walls were lovely, with the flaring-outward at the foot of each one, the three-inch gap left between the pebbledash and the earth as protection from the damp.

It seemed so finished, so perfect, so modern, once the earth was closed, once the roads were laid, once the heaps of waste had disappeared, once all the men had gone away and we were left alone, to be ourselves, to grow together in our bright new world.

This is where these things happened, to me, to Holly Stroud, to Vincent McAlinden, in a time and place that seem so long ago but are not so long ago, in a