A road sign for the labourer.

During our recent visit to the UK, I snap a photo of a road sign (see below). It catches my eye because British English is so delightful, with so many common words just different enough from my Canadian dialect that I have to do a little interpreting. Instead of ‘no waiting or overtaking’, I note, Canadians say something like ‘no stopping or passing’. And the ‘at any time’ is redundant.

The next day, we, my husband and I, arrive at our summer home in Italy. I’m sitting at my desk, tired from travel and a little homesick. In this state, I’m contemplative, subdued by waves of nostalgia tinctured with the blue-mood palettes of guilt and anxiety. I worry about how each and everyone is making out back in Canada, my aging parents, my kids, my pets, and my friends. And on the flip side, I wonder how and why this ‘girl’ from a rural remote sawmill camp is so privileged to fly to wondrous places? As always, my class sensitivity sits on my shoulder like a surly owl, its talons steadfastly gripping me with sharp reminders of where I belong. In this perfect storm of memory, emotion, and exhaustion I review my photos. And, lingering over the road sign, I see more than words.

Labourers, I think to myself, road construction workers, put the sign in place. And I wonder, What is it like for the labourers to work in such a big city? Where do they live, is it hard to get to work, and what do they do in their off-time? Maybe they have a union, decent pay, and good benefits, I conjecture. Maybe these are jobs people fight for, that provide a comfortable life. Or, maybe the pay scarcely covers the cost of living, holidays are rare, and the workers’ joints swell and permanently knob from manual labour. My current melancholy anchors me in this latter sympathetic, and certainly more pessimistic, possibility — closer to my own formative experiences. And it’s through this lens that I figuratively reinterpret the words on the sign to mean 1) ‘no waiting’ as in there’s no chance for rest, I can’t afford to stop, and 2) ‘no overtaking’ as in notwithstanding I’m working all the time, I just can’t get ahead (or get ahead of my betters). 

This sentiment was certainly common where I grew up, often expressed jokingly in phrases such as No rest for the wicked. But it was also expressed as a feeling of futility and frustration. Well, what do you do? What can you do? No point complaining. I use the past tense, but there are people right now, everywhere, working non-stop just to make ends meet. And my thinking about them doesn’t ease their burdens. As much as I wish it could.


Categories: Ponderings

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