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silent sailing

The Sailors' Reading Room must make an impression on anyone who wanders in off the gusty seafront, though its unassuming facade means relatively few try the doors.

It's immaculately maintained, warm, loved by the people who know and use it. Photos of old fishermen and families of sailors line the walls, generations that have passed into salt and local myth. There are framed newspaper clippings of shipwrecks, rescues, partial disasters and epic storms. There's a ship's wheel tacked to the floor by the old fireplace, but when you try to turn it, as you inevitably do, you realise it's been fixed in place between two wooden slats.

Usually, the only sounds are those of the ticking clock and the steady surf beyond the windows. Today, I notice the former. Seconds genuinely feel shorter now than they did when I was young. As a child, I remember watching them pass on the digital displays of CD players, or my dad's old hi-fi system, thinking those intervals held plenty of space. They feel hurried now, but not in a way that troubles me. Instead, I think of time as a rush, a spray, a repeating surge of energy that you have to dip and dive into, feeling its cold slap, the fractal chaos of the impact, borne along by its frantic tattoo, forever breathless. It's good to be breathless and mindful of the breath.

Sitting here, I can imagine the call of the sea, and I wonder how that feeling would have manifested in humans before ships were invented; looking at forests in the blue distance, the waves of untracked hills, and feeling a need to walk there, perhaps.

On the walls, wooden figureheads, the sort you might see attached to the prow of a ship; carved and fixed, as the Royal Museum of Greenwich says, to 'embody the spirit of the vessel', to offer protection on the harsh seas, to safeguard homeward journeys. Anthropomorphic, of course. Female, mostly. Figureheads to breach each successive swell, implying that every yard travelled over the waves is a uniquely human triumph. One of them has an umbrella by her side, neatly folded, ready for weather.

The reading room also holds Lloyd's Registry of Ships; thousands of pages of data, practically useless to almost anyone who walks in, though clearly well thumbed. I briefly attempt to decipher some of the numbers but soon give up, read the names of distant ports instead, think about ships all over the world, anchored or adrift in tropic bays.

Occasionally, people wander in off the front with the hopeless, bobbing gait of tourists, stuck with infinite time and no real place to be. They rattle the silence with their coughing, their conversation, the occasional phone call taken out of the wind. They marvel at the glass cabinets of model boats. They look like they've stumbled upon a church, drifted accidentally onto sacred ground. Everyone is awkward in the changed air, this miraculous preservation of quiet so close to the busy beach and the bustling centre of town. They can't help but break the peace by remarking on it. We spoil most things with our appreciation, but how can we be peaceful otherwise? Appreciation is surely a form of peace.

The friend who I'm with points out two, large, mysterious discs, suspended from the ceiling. We can't work out what they are. Lights, alarms, some form of sprinkler system?

On the table by today's newspapers, someone has started a chess game. White has moved their knight and now it's black's turn. A scrap of paper with an arrow scribbled in pen indicates which side goes next. I shift a pawn forward two spaces, spin the paper back round to face the knight, wonder who will play next, pleased that, despite our interaction, we'll probably never meet.

Southwold 290124