There is a hall near you that was once occupied by a society of men who kept secrets. As the generation that divided communities by religion died out, it was replaced by the generations that divide communities by a much finer grain. They had no use for a bricks and mortar gathering place. They had social media.

    The hall fell silent years ago and was left to accumulate dust around its memories.
    Along the road, in the bright mid-afternoon sunshine, Bryan Hubbard was outrunning a shopkeeper angry about the necessary-to-the-maintenance-of-life food he had stolen. His swag and the small knapsack that carried all his worldly belongings slapped against his back. He held the box of contraband to his chest.
    Just before he collapsed from exhaustion, Bryan found the hall behind a wall of weeds. A side window, its glass reinforced by wire mesh, opened easily. He pushed his baggage through and climbed in. He stood still until the racket of pursuit faded away.

    Renovator’s dream

    He found himself in a large high ceilinged room.
    Sunlight poured through frosted windows lining the far wall. Dust motes floated up from an altar draped in a rotting tapestry. Bryan could just make out the remnants of what appeared to be a group of entwined figures dancing in a circle in the centre of the cloth, surrounded by what he guessed to once have been an extravagantly lettered title. Below, a motto, corralled by an elaborate symbolic ribbon, was just legible. Bryan’s schoolboy Latin translated it as ‘One world, one purpose, one life’. All the letters were picked out of a rat-chewed deep red ground in what must have once been golden thread.
    It meant nothing to him.
    And there, running across the shadowed window frame, the very rats that had sated their appetite on the ancient furnishings.
    Fair enough, thought Bryan.
    He lifted his gear onto the side of the altar knocking over two heavy brass candle holders. They made no sound. He lifted then dropped them again. Still no sound.
    Curious, he thought.
    He was distracted by the stillness of the room. It said sudden abandonment. As if the occupants had simultaneously agreed that it was time to go and immediately walked out. Forever. Here and there a book still open where it had been put down. Some dog-eared pages on a lectern, the lower covered sheets still legible. A prayer, some text, a poem. A notebook with a fountain pen tucked into its spine – a diary no longer useful. A pipe and a matchbox that became dust as soon as Bryan touched them.
    Bryan picked up the diary.
    The title written in a confident hand revealed B.H. to be the author. B.H. wanted to record the events beginning from the year 1956. The end date of 1964 scrawled on the other side of a rough hyphen was clearly written much later. The pages were glued together, their contents lost by damp and the inevitable careless pee from the parade of vermin. The final page, just legible, said little, but said much:
    ‘We are few now. So few we barely exist. The four of us agree that we have failed in our mission. The world has strayed beyond our understanding. We can no longer continue.’
    ‘That’s weird,’ said Bryan out loud, his voice a surprising foreign thing in this barren place.
    The dozen rows of pews behind him wandered aimlessly away from the altar. The fine layer of surface dust and loosened plaster from the faux art deco ceiling showed rat tracks. Maybe a possum had passed this way, leaving a tail trace. Thick dust on the wooden aisle floors was cleared only by Bryan’s footprints.
    Pigeons nesting in the corners of the high walls. Still up there with their pitchy garglings. Shit everywhere. The ammonia reek of pee. The musk of a room closed to fresh air for years.

    One bed, one bath

    The floor creaked as Bryan walked towards a door he had noticed in the corner partially hidden behind a raggedy curtain. He turned the brass handle. It gave with a satisfying click. Lit only by four high grimy windows, Bryan could make out two sets of bunk beds on either side of an elaborate ceramic pedestal sink. The mirror above the sink had partially de-silvered and refused to give up Bryan’s image as he walked further into the room.
    Odd, he thought.
    At the end of each set of bunks there was a closed wooden chest. Bryan opened one and the scent of camphor flooded the room. This old school insect repellent had done its work. Inside the chest a pristine stack of towels shone white, as supple as the day they were placed there. Soap, shaving tackle and a strop for sharpening a cut-throat razor were stacked neatly inside their purpose-built boxes. He softly closed the lid as if not wanting to further waken the chest’s contents.
    Bryan searched the wall near the door. His fingers found a brass-capped ceramic wall switch. This 19th century relic was familiar to Bryan from his nonna’s home. He flicked the toggle down and a pale yellow light fell out of a single bulb dangling awkwardly from a chipped bakelite shade. He immediately switched it off. No point in alerting the neighbours to his presence.
    The flash of light had revealed yet another door, slightly ajar, to his right. No windows this time. Bryan stepped inside, fished around for a light switch and almost tumbled into a claw-foot bath as the weak bulb shone on the elaborate array of spiderwebs climbing from a cracked but otherwise tidy toilet bowl. More, hanging from the high ceiling, clung to his dirty baseball cap. He could see this web was seething with life. He quickly retreated, closing both doors behind him.

    Vintage kitchen

    He surmised, correctly, that there was likely another door on the opposite side of the hall. Clearly the ‘weather’ side of the building, this door appeared swollen from damp and refused to open easily. He paused. Wondered if a short sharp kick to where the door handle met the jamb would create less of a din than a series of quieter shoulderings. He opted for the kick, quickly realising his concerns were wasted. As the door fell from its hinges, he could see that the half-metre thick walls would quickly prevent any noise escaping the inside of the building.
    It was a kitchen. Benches, cupboards, drawers, sinks. What could possibly be in those ancient refrigerators? A trail of ants around the stove, of course. Stiffened tea towels straddled oven handles. Tiled floor sloped to dried mouldy drain. No sign of rats, their work here already done.
    A room at the rear, once a pantry, now a cemetery for blowfly carcasses scattered along shelves bolted to the plaster walls. A stack of rusted cans, faded labels announcing beans, corn, tomatoes, peaches.
    The snake under the lowest bench that froze Bryan’s blood turned out to be a length of perished garden hose attached to a barrel branded ‘Wine [red]’.
    Might still be good, mused Bryan.

    Colourful history

    Bryan returned to the hall. Facing him on the far end wall, honour boards listed members of the Exalted Lodge of the Eternal Order of All Mankind. Gold leaf announced names on thin slices of marble hung from rusting chains floating an arm’s length from the wall. This elaborate time capsule began in 1919. A sudden attack of vertigo forced Bryan to grab the back of a pew to steady himself.
    The lists were dominated by the surname ‘Hubbard’.
    The building seemed to recognise Bryan’s bewilderment. The floor stopped creaking, pigeons stopped gargling, rats were stilled, the distant sounds of the outside world were silenced. As he moved he used the backs of the benches as a third secure point of contact with the earth until he reached the lists.
    The very first name was B.H.H. Hubbard. This person rejoiced in the title First In Life. Bryan assumed it was a man, although there was no indicator of gender anywhere. Who but a man would allow himself such a title?
    Second In Life was H.B.H. Hubbard, either demonstrating a lack of parental imagination as one sibling lined up behind the other, or the declaration of a wifely role which was generally accepted at the time. The pattern was broken when F.K. Botham accepted the gong Third In Life. But then, gathered under the heading The Close Friends, Hubbards made up at least half of the 50 names who clearly liked each other quite well.
    The list continued unchanged for the next decade when, in 1932, the leading Hubbards were replaced by initials I.S.P and P.S.I.
    The Third In Life also became a Hubbard and the list of The Close Friends was now predominantly comprised of that surname. As the timeline wandered towards the 1960s, all non-Hubbards were excised. By 1964 there were only four members of the Exalted Lodge of the Eternal Order of All Mankind remaining – all Hubbards. By now they all shared the initials B.P. That is where the lists ended.
    Bryan sat down heavily, scattering dust from the pew’s seat into the air. He remained there for a long time. His mind was not up to this.
    Bryan Paul Hubbard was born on 1 June, 1964.

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