Andrea Samuelson
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The YMCA Reading Room, 1903


The YMCA Reading Room, 1903

 

Every evening at seven, the YMCA Reading Room at 12 Claremont opened its doors to the young Christian men of Hastings. We were tram drivers and house painters and shop assistants and bank clerks and plumbers. Some of us were no longer very young, and only Christian in the same way we were men.

We did not yet know what would become of us.

At the top of a narrow staircase Mr Randall, the Honourable Secretary, would greet the members with a tepid pot of tea and a plate of fruitcake baked by his invisible wife before ushering us into the warmth of the Reading Room. Each wall was lined with bookcases, a merry fire burned in the grate, and on each table lay a copy of the "Shaftesbury" the YMCA's monthly organ. 

Obscured by pipe smoke, Mr Randall would dispense useful advice.

"Do not look at women, particularly those who walk by the sea. Do not think of the sea, it is too large and unknowing, and holds secrets you cannot understand. On no account waste time in wondering, even when the air is thick with scent, and the delicious fruitcake tempts your appetite. Pay attention to the literature provided, which is of an improving nature.”
These words, and the cake, lay heavy on our stomachs. But our lodgings were lonely and our landladies miserable; and under Mr Randall’s watchful eye, we hoped to become better men.

So each evening
Alf read the local papers, Bert wrote letters to his mother, while George studied accountancy.The lower part of the Reading Room windows were helpfully
obscured with a sandblasting treatment etched with the proud name of our Association; thus we were never enticed to glance into the lodgings above Reasts’ Corset Company, where a past member, now excluded, claimed he had seen women ‘combing their shimmering hair’. We lowered our faces to the page when the air became suffocatingly close, or we discovered a succulent raisin in the tasteless fruitcake, while the clock’s steady tick measured out our waiting.


That is, until one evening, when Harry found a note tucked amongst the rows of religious volumes.

The fruitcake needs more sugar, it said.

The very next night, Tom found another.

Mr Randall claims to be Christian, but he is very unkind to his wife.

We had often suspected as much.

Each night after that, we found more messages seeded amongst the bookstacks, writtten in many different hands.

Why do you listen to other voices? one said. Listen to yourself.

Go down to the sea, said another. Tell it what you most desire.

Who could have written them? We had no idea. When Mr Randall briefly left the room to answer a call of nature, we shared the scraps of paper and with each word felt ourselves expand, leaving behind our burdensome bodies, the stuffy reading room, even the Britain we had been taught to serve. We escaped the men we had been told to be. Alf’s fingertips brushed Tom’s across the teacups, George’s knee pressed up against Bert’s thigh, and Harry peeked above the obscured glass, hoping to spot a mermaid. The scent of fresh salt filtered through a crack in the transom. How had we never noticed it before?

Too soon however, the clock would strike nine and Mr Randall would cough politely into his handkerchief.

 ‘The rooms are closing, gentlemen. Please return your literature to its proper place.’

The last time we saw Mr Randall, it was a Thursday evening. Turning off the gas lamps and locking the door, he bid us good night and we filed out into the narrow gloom of Claremont.

 

The girls who lodged above Reast’s Corset Company laughed at us from their bright windows. “Go home,” they called.

But we were no longer certain where home might be.

Instead we followed the sea's roar, calling to us across the dark promenade. We took off our shoes and stumbled along the shore, bare feet aching on the shattered stones. Holding on to each other, trying not to fall, we sang our longings to the waves, in the hope that, one day, they would surely come into being.


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