Were they making any progress on the highway? Lautrec had the impression that weeks had gone by and nothing had changed, but he was told that this was normal and that he shouldn’t become too discouraged. The routine was virtually identical each day, and this accompanied with the monotony of the Australian outback gave the impression that whatever had been done was of such inconsequence as to be imperceptible.
Mr. Jerry, the paymaster, liked to tell the men each Friday how many kilometres they had completed that week, and how many were left to go, as invariably the numbers involved caused such a drop in spirits for the workers that they saw no alternative other than to use up their wages in the company store, which served also to ensure that they were unlikely to leave and unable to go home.
Lautrec hated Jerry as much as the next man, but he refused to show it, instead nodding when he received his pay, and ignoring, as best he could, the horrifying amount of work that was still to be done. But the job provided him an avenue to be away from the city for a while, and so overall he felt himself satisfied.
The day went like this: up at six a.m., and on the job by six thirty. The ground was flattened by another group pushing enormous metal rollers and clearing trees and scrub, and then his group’s job was to spread the tar with wide broom-like implements. By midday he was dizzy and coughing from the fumes, and was relieved for the rest of the day by the first group. Afternoons he liked best because that involved ripping up bushes and weeds, and kicking away rocks. Sometimes he was unlucky and found himself pushing the rollers, which he hated, but generally the afternoon was better.
As dusk fell, the company store opened its shutters and for a day’s wages a man could buy enough hot food and alcohol to ease away their aching limbs and dry throats. Barely.
At night, surrounded by snoring men, Lautrec read Moby Dick by the light of the very bright moon and the stars, and when he slept he dreamed of the sea.
* * *
The above piece of writing comprises part of my fragments project, some of which are available on this website. I intend to add new fragments piecemeal, not in any particular order, and as the occasion take me.