Can’t see the wood for the trees

Crack went the whip over our heads. “Heads down!”.

The rain soaked into us and the cold bit at our extremities. The drums beat out their repetitive rhythm. They didn’t need to tell us to “get to it”, we wanted it. Any distraction was a blessing any purpose a sop.

I dared to lift my head for a moment… the whip cracked. “Head Down!”. I didn’t. I couldn’t see much, a fleeting glimpse in the half light. Fellow bodies working. Passing, chopping and rolling materials from one place to another. “HEAD DOWN!” I obeyed. But the thought lingered… “what are we building sir?”. “HEAD DOWN!” He screamed through the rain.

A moment later I was dragged in front of a woman. She was dressed smartly, not like us. She seemed in possession of answers, but it might have been an illusion. “What seems to be the problem?”. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and kindness. She looked comfortable, maybe even confident. I felt uncomfortable. My question seemed stupid, I wanted to be back in work. What would happen, what about my house? What about my family?

I weekly offered my question with a pathetic smile… “I just wondered what we are doing?”… “We are building a better world, a fairer more equal world.” She returned with a kindly smile. “Oh…” I said, “that would be nice. I should like to see that?”

“Hm, wouldn’t we all. If you keep doing your job maybe we can get there.” Her attitude seem to change behind the friendly exterior there was steel in her voice now, but it was too late, I was exposed I couldn’t just leave or walk away. I felt I had to offer something. I was part of the exchange now. I new my part. I was supposed to say something stupid or agree. She needed me to finalise the exchange and reassert her authority and my compliance. I chose stupid… I was growing a bit bolder. I don’t know why.

“I just wanted to see what we were doing? I felt I might be able to help in some way… I mean couldn’t we do things differently?” I looked at her, pleading with my eyes to be merciful and end it swiftly…

“Who do you think you are? Why you!” She calmed her tone and continued with a placating sympathy for my stupidity. “Don’t you think that that is a bit arrogant? Men have dedicated their whole lives to this project and you have the arrogance to think you know better? What could you offer us? Should we care what you think?”

“No mam, sorry mam”.

A relief surged over me, it was over. I didn’t even notice returning to work or where the woman went. I wanted nothing more than the sting of the rain and the bang of the drum to numb my mind. My body relaxing into familiar routines. An unthinking bovine beast. Out of the spotlight. On familiar ground. “Heads down”, I obeyed and moved my materials with a new gusto, but despite this I new I would never be trusted again.

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About Phil Lambert

Visual artist based in Cardiff
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