1831

The heat, the fire, and the muck.

The shit of generations landing on top of you.

The darkness, interminable darkness broken by flares of fire in your face. Burns on your hands.

Four hours on, eight hours off. And then back again. Inching forward, day by day. You have forgotten what a normal day looks like. You have forgotten what it is like to have a sunrise and a sunset. And to not be staring at mud all the time.

‘The worst job in the world,’ they call it, and they are right. Stuck in a wooden cell, a coffin more like, with men on all sides of you. Grafting away. When a leak springs you are almost glad that you might drown. But you’ll be drowning in shit. After four hours you cannot go on, and you are excused, for a while. All you want is to run away and never come back, but you are too sick, too tired to run. So you sleep, and when you wake up you are back in living hell.

Why do it? Because there is no other work on offer. Because the masters are not too bad, if nothing else. They help, get stuck in. Get their skin burnt off just as much. Because they say you are making history. The first time it’s ever been done, this tunnelling under a river. Except it isn’t, it’s just that the other times it went wrong and everyone died. Which may well happen to you, too, before it’s over. No-one will remember your name, regardless. You are part of a machine. Not a man, but a tool, giving his health for another man’s dream.

The great invention, the progress, the power of the biggest Empire in the world, it means nothing to you. Everything you care about has been reduced to the rectangle of mud right in front of you. Dig, push, secure – over and over again.

When it will be done (if it will ever be done) you will not use it. You will never go underground again. You will opt for a boat, a bridge, anything, but not this tunnel. For you know what the cost of it has been.

– Mara Arts (2017)