“Good man, Jack, keep it up,” said the foreman as he walked past.
Jack covered the brick in mortar and took another brick from his hod.
“Why are we building this, boss?” he asked.
“We’re building a tower, Jack,” said the foreman.
“I know, but why?”
The foreman was already walking away, saying something Jack couldn’t hear to another bricklayer. Jack didn’t think the foreman had stopped walking around the foundations of the tower all morning.
Jack set himself to bricklaying. He might have laid the five hundredth or the five thousandth brick when word went round that it was lunch time. He joined the line to the mobile canteen and took his plate.
It didn’t look like a lot of food.
“Got any more?” he asked.
The woman behind the counter looked at him as if he’d said her daughter was ugly.
She said, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
Jack took his food away and ate it. It didn’t take long.
When he went back to work, he decided he’d got his section of the tower wall high enough that he’d need some scaffolding before long, so he may as well set it up now.
The foreman passed by on his endless walk around the tower. “Hurry it up, Jack. Those bricks won’t lay themselves.”
Jack hurried it up and it wasn’t long before he was laying bricks and spreading mortar again.
Something was wrong.
He wasn’t sure when he’d noticed the tickle in his throat but it wasn’t going away. It was after he’d laid what might have been his thousandth or the ten thousandth brick that the sensation reached into his chest and pulled out an explosion of coughs that drove him to his knees.
The foreman walked past as he gasped for breath. “On your feet, Jack. Another three hours before we knock off. Your country needs you.”
“Yes, boss,” Jack wheezed.
He forced himself upright and laid another brick. It was harder work than it should have been. He found himself working slower, having to stop and cough after every dozen bricks. He felt a little better after every coughing break but not much better and never for long.
The next few times the foreman passed, Jack managed to hold in his coughs and keep working. If he could keep going for the rest of the day, perhaps he could sleep it off and he’d be fine tomorrow. But the coughing fits were getting harder to hold in and lasting longer when they came.
He was in the middle of one of them next time the foreman walked round.
“Are you coughing blood?” asked the foreman.
“Nothing wrong with you, then. Think of what your grandparents went through. Now it’s your turn.”
Jack might have laid his five thousandth brick or his fifty thousandth when he suddenly didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. Everything was spinning. He toppled back off the scaffolding. Heard a crack when the world broke his body.
He didn’t know how long he lay there without being able to see anything, but then he saw a cloud so he knew he was looking up. Something blotted it out and for a moment, Jack thought it must be the tower. But of course, it couldn’t be. The tower wasn’t yet high enough to blot out the sky.
It was the foreman, who was shaking his head. “If you don’t want the job, Jack, there’s plenty of others who’ll be grateful for it.”
Jack tried to get up, but he couldn’t move.
He asked, “Why are we building the tower, boss?”
The foreman was already gone.