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WEST TOWN 11 page

§

A guy in a car which had just passed leant out of his window and shouted, ‘Hey, Fridge Man! How ya doing?’

I assumed that he must have been at the party last night, because I had left the fridge back at the hotel and was therefore in ‘anonymous’ mode. But when the same thing happened again, moments later, the truth dawned on me. Of course. I had ‘Fridge Man’ written on my back.

I had surrendered my advantage over Madonna and Michael Jackson.

‘Hello there, Tony, how are ya?’ called another driver, who stopped this time.

That was odd. How did he know my name? I didn’t have Tony written on my back as well, did I?

‘How have you enjoyed your stay in Cork?’ he said, getting out of his car. He was the taxi driver who had driven me and the wedding party from Baltimore to Cork. When he heard I was about to set off on the road again, he said that he’d be back to Westimers in ten minutes to take me out to the main road.

Things happened fast in Cork.

‘Where are you headed then?’ asked Alan as he and the rest of the staff stood outside the bar to see me off.

‘As far as I can get. Waterford would be good. Wexford would be even better.’

Today was going to be my last day’s hitching for a while because I had learned that this weekend was a big bank holiday weekend in Ireland, and holiday traffic was useless to me. I wasn’t going to ‘do it Dunmanway’ again. I was going to hole up someplace and enjoy the holiday weekend in the same spirit as the rest of the country, before the final leg to Dublin.

From the taxi, I called Mary at work to say goodbye. It felt odd. In a matter of a few hours she had turned from soul mate back into relative stranger. The feeling was compounded when the girl on the switchboard said ‘Mary who?’ and I didn’t know.

‘Well, what does she do?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘We’ve got three Marys here.’

‘Oh. Well, all I’ve just got is a number written on a piece of paper.’

‘We’ve got one Mary in accounts, one in admin, and a newish girl—I’m not sure what she does—but she’s just gone home feeling sick.’

‘That’ll be her. Definitely.’

‘Hold on, I’ll just see if I can get her.’

Before I could point out the lack of wisdom of this course of action, my line was hijacked by some irritating jangly synthesizer music which someone somewhere perceives may make people more relaxed whilst they are waiting on the phone. My views are quite forthright on this one—I think it’s an affront to one’s personal dignity. Before I could become truly exasperated, the jangly sounds were interrupted by the voice of ‘Oh Bright One’.

‘I’m afraid that Mary isn’t here today, she’s just gone home feeling sick.’

‘Oh right,’ I said, pretending to be surprised. ‘Never mind, thanks anyway. And hey, you hang on for that promotion.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

§

I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long for my first lift. Almost everyone in Cork must have known that the eejit with the fridge was in town. I’d been on national radio advertising the world’s first Fridge Party (and probably the last), and my picture had been plastered all over the Evening Echo.



‘Oh, I recognised your fridge straight away,’ said liam, my first lift of the day, a policeman who had just come off duty.

He took me twenty minutes or so down the road to a place called Middleton, where he signed the fridge and posed for a picture in his uniform, pretending to bust me for having a fridge trolley with bald tyres. A good sport.

At Middleton I had a few problems. The particular stretch of road on which I found myself was extremely popular with hitchers and I found myself at the end of a queue of three. Slowly but surely I worked my way up to pole position and other hitchers arrived to take up the vacant number two and three slots. I was immensely irritated when these two newcomers got lifts before me. What was going on? I wanted to call out, ‘DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?’

I assumed that the drivers must have known the hitchers, for I could see no other reason for the flouting of the ‘first come, first served’ convention, unless fridge fatigue’ had set in. Maybe I had become overexposed. It was over an hour before I was invited to hop into the car of Tomas, a fisherman who had been to Cork to see a chiropractor.

‘I’m in my fifties now, and things are beginning to pack up,’ he said. ‘You’re a young man, you won’t get the aches and pains yet.’

That depended on how many walls I fell off.

‘What are you doing over here in Ireland?’ he asked.

‘Oh, I’m just travelling around having a look at the place.’

I could have said more, but I was intrigued by the fact that Tomas had watched me lift the fridge on to the back seat but had said nothing about it. Secretly I was hoping that he mightn’t ask.

His knowledge of European history and politics was extensive. Much of the journey was spent discussing Tito’s achievements in unifying Yugoslavia, and a savage recent past which had see his work undone. He was a bright man with an active interest in the world. But, brilliantly, he had no interest at all in why his passenger had apparently chosen to travel Ireland with a fridge for company. As he dropped me just outside Dungarvan and drove away, the subject had never been raised, and I punched the air.

‘Yes!’

I had wanted that to happen.

Five minutes later a police car did a U-turn and drew up beside me. Two policemen got out For the first time I began to wonder if what I was doing might transgress some ancient Irish law. Perhaps hitching with a domestic appliance on a public highway carried a maximum sentence of five years.

‘Look, he’s even got ‘Fridge Man’ written on his back,’ said one to the other as they giggled their way towards me.

It was clear that I wasn’t in trouble.

‘We’ve heard you and seen you on TV. Some weather, isn’t it? My, but you’ve got a colour on you. We were driving by and I said to John, ‘Jesus Christ—that’s the man with the fridge!’’

He continued to effuse for some time. I fended off questions about my trip for the next ten minutes, missing the opportunity of countless Ms as they sped past a scene which to them must have looked like two cops booking a fridge for speeding.

‘Have you had any bad experiences?’

‘Not one.’

‘Ah well, when we get good weather in this country everyone is on good form.’

And the weather was good, and a long way from the driving rain normally associated with bank holiday weekends. It was hot. Really hot. Almost as if someone up there had got Ireland mixed up with the south of France. It was glorious.

‘Can you give me a lift then?’ I asked the two officers, cheekily.

‘Oh jeez, we’d love to, but I don’t think we’re allowed to. You wouldn’t be insured.’

‘Well, what about if you arrested me?’

‘Ah now that’s a good idea. We could arrest you, and then release you saying that we had decided to prosecute you by summons.’

A discussion then followed in which we attempted to decide upon the exact crime I could have committed. Murder was considered too harsh, drunk and disorderly not serious enough, and loitering with a fridge apparently wasn’t an offence. I wanted them to charge me with ram raiding. A special kind of ram raiding in which the offender hurls a fridge through a shop window, arranges it nicely, prices it up and pops back the next day to see if it’s been sold.

Unfortunately, one of the policemen finally decided that he was too close to promotion to risk this kind of bogus arrest, and that they couldn’t be sure that their superior officer would see the funny side.

‘Of course, I could just smash one of you in the face and then you’d have to arrest me,’ I observed, prompting hysterical laughter.

I wish I could be more menacing at times.

The two uniformed men got back in their car and called out, ‘Well, goodbye and good luck.’

And with those gentle words my brush with the law was over. I had never had such a relaxed and pleasant conversation with two policemen before and I doubted whether I ever would again.

§

It isn’t often as a hitch-hiker that you get on so well with the person that stops for you that you go back to their house for tea, get driven on a further twenty-five miles so that you can reach your intended destination, go out drinking with them, on to a nightclub, and then finally stay over at their parents’ house.

Such was the way with Tom. He was in his thirties, single, and clearly had something of the charming rascal about him. We had such a lot in common (apart from the rascal bit, obviously), including both having taken part in a bachelor festival. Tom had won his and had gone on to compete at the international festival in Ballybunion.

‘What actually happens at that?’ I asked.

‘You just drink for ten days. Literally,’ he replied.

‘What? Just lots of bachelors together?’

‘God no, there are loads of girls.’

‘Right. And they go there looking for husbands?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But you can make the interviewing process as rigorous as you want it to be.’

‘Exactly.’

It was an odd concept, and somehow typically Irish. A festival with the express goal of turning bachelors into husbands, places them in an arena where they are surrounded by booze and birds for ten days. Hardly an environment likely to cause a major rethink, and rejection of their bachelor status—‘God, I can’t stand this hellish life anymore, I must chuck it all in and settle down.’

‘Did any of the bachelors go on to get married to anyone they met there?’ I asked.

‘Not that I know of.’

Now there’s a surprise.

Tom lived in Waterford, and that is where we took tea. His parents lived in Wexford and that was where we spent the night. We didn’t get there until three in the morning, having spent all night in a pub called the Centenary Stores which, just like Westimers, happened to have a club as an annexe out the back. When his parents awoke to a note from Tom saying that he had brought a houseguest home with him, and then they had seen a rucksack and fridge at the foot of the stairs, they must have begun to worry about the kind of circles their son was now moving in.

Tom was in the doghouse in the morning, having overslept by an hour and a half for the game of golf we had arranged to play with two of his friends, Baxter and Jeff. When we got to the course we were lucky enough to be granted a later tee time by the stern-looking club professional, and we proceeded to play eighteen holes of pretty dire golf. Hey, but it didn’t matter that the golf was bad, this was a holiday for me. Time off from the fridge.

However, as I loaded my hired golfclubs on to their trolley, it did seem to me absurd to have spent nigh on a month pulling a fridge along behind me, only to choose as my first leisure activity a game in which you pulled gear behind you on a trolley for hours on end.

When the golf was over, Tom was in the doghouse again, this time for not having phoned his girlfriend last night or this morning. We discussed excuses he might adopt for extrication from this tight spot. The truth, which I had advocated, was deemed by Tom simply not to be an option.

‘Oh yeah, I’ll just say, ‘Sorry dear, I forgot to call you because I was busy looking after the hitch-hiker who is travelling the country with his fridge.’ She’ll just turn to her friend and say, ‘Ah, Tom’s on to the more elaborate excuses now.’’

His girlfriend was in Galway where he was about to drive and join her for the rest of the weekend. He reckoned that bringing her flowers was the only answer. Maybe he was right. ‘Say it with flowers’ because nine times out of ten trying to say it with words will only land you in it even further. There isn’t a ‘Sorry’ big enough to match a good old-fashioned bouquet, and most men know it.

Before he left, Tom drove me round Wexford in search of a place for me to stay. Everywhere was booked up. Evidently a large proportion of Dublin’s population descended on this part of the world for the holiday weekend. Tom had a solution, though.

‘You could stay at Butch’s,’ he said.

‘Could I?’

‘Yeah, he’s just opened a hostel.’

Ugh. That word. Hostel.

‘Err…it’s just that—’

‘It’s really cool. Much nicer than most hostels. It’s only been open a couple of months.’

I didn’t have a choice. I was disappointed though. I had promised myself that I would never stay in a hostel again as long as I lived. That was ten days ago. Just ten days. I owed myself a huge bouquet of flowers.

§

I was greeted by Butch and Karen, who were young and normal looking. Somehow I had expected everyone involved with hostels to look like extras out of the movie Hair. They both got the giggles when I put them in the picture about me and the fridge, but eventually calmed down enough for me to explain my reservations about hostel life.

‘I just can’t sleep if there are loads of other people in the room.’

‘Ifs all right,’ said Butch, ‘I’ll put you in a room with only one other guy. He’s from England, like you.’

It sounded bearable, although I was fully aware that his being ‘from England, like me’ was no guarantee that he didn’t snore.

Tom had been right though, this was a cool hostel. Over a cup of tea, which was reassuringly unherbal, Butch told me how he and his girlfriend had bought up the derelict property and converted it into the hostel. It bore no sign of the starkness and deference to self reliance of the one in Letterfrack, and appeared to be closer to a kind of hostel for the less hardy, who drank Coca Cola, ate meat and popped things in the microwave to save time.

‘She’s gone, though,’ Butch added, a touch ruefully.

‘Who has?’

‘The girlfriend. We split up just before the place opened.’

‘Oh. Well, who’s Karen then?’

‘Ah, she’s not my girlfriend,’ he laughed, ‘she’s from New Zealand. She stayed here for a few days and then asked if she could work here for a while to get some money together. She’s a good worker.’

She came in carrying a dustpan and brush, as if to illustrate Butch’s point, but then she sat down and joined us for tea, throwing it into some doubt again.

‘I’ve finished for the day. Thank goodness for that,’ she said.

The subject turned inevitably to fridge travel and I found that now I could almost answer every question by rote. I got off the subject by firing questions at Karen about her travels which she must have been equally familiar with answering.

‘Do people just assume you’re Australian at first?’ I asked.

‘Yeah. But the accent is different, you know.’

‘Yes. Don’t you say ‘sex’ instead of ‘six’?’

‘Apparently. Australians are always trying to get us to say it, so they ask questions like ‘What’s eight minus two?’ But we’re wise to it and we just answer ‘half a dozen’.’

I looked at her and decided that she was rather attractive in her own way. I found myself contemplating what ‘half a dozen’ with her might be like.

‘I like your red shorts,’ said Karen. ‘They’re cool.’

‘Thanks.’

I was unable to return the compliment with a flattering remark about what I had just been admiring about her. It wouldn’t have been considered good manners.

A balding man in his forties came in and broached a familiar subject ‘So you’re the guy travelling with the fridge then?’

This was Dave, my roommate. He proceeded to ask the entire set of questions that I’d just been asked, only in a Yorkshire accent This was a pain, but provided he didn’t snore, I could forgive him anything.

The plan for the night was simple enough. Sit like a couch potato alongside Butch and Dave and watch the Poland versus England World Cup qualifier on the TV in the hostel’s pleasant little lounge, and then grab some rejuvenating and much needed sleep in the form of a very early night. But something happened which changed all that.

The hostel filled up.

Wexford is a vibrant but compact little town, and it was evidently brimming over with holidaying Dubliners. Butch had even checked in two married couples and their kids, such was the extent to which the town’s boarding facilities had been stretched. Butch was delighted actually, announcing that this was the first night the hostel had been full since it had opened. I found it difficult to share his enthusiasm. It now meant that there were six people in my room instead of just me and Dave, and one of them was bound to be an inveterate snorer.

So, instead of the quiet night, I went to a barbecue with Butch, wandered into town and drank steadily in one of Wexford’s many splendid pubs. I ended up at the Junction, the kind of club where everyone leaves saying ‘Right, I swear that’s the last time I go to that cattlemarket’, honouring the oath until the next time they’ve had a skinful, and someone says ‘Ah come on, it’s not that bad.’

§

When I woke at 9.30, the mission had been successfully accomplished. Six hours of undisturbed sleep; okay, not sleep, unconsciousness. The room smelt as if experiments in germ warfare had been taking place in it during the night. I soon found out why.

‘It’s the four teenage lads down from Dublin—they’ve been farting non-stop since they got in,’ said Dave, as I joined him, Karen and Butch for breakfast in the hostel’s small rear garden.

‘And what time did they get in?’

‘Eight o’clock.’

‘Blimey, that’s impressive.’

‘They made a hell of a racket when they came in,’ Dave went on, ‘I’m surprised they didn’t wake you.’

‘They would have done if I hadn’t drunk myself into a sufficiently comatose state, but I can’t do that again tonight, my body simply won’t take it.’

‘I think you’re going to have to,’ said Karen, ‘because everywhere in Wexford is full for the next two nights, and you’ll find it the same all the way up the coast between here and Dublin.’

‘Well, I’m not going back in that room except to get my stuff out,’ I protested. That room is the smelliest room on earth. It’s frightening to think that only four arses could produce such a putrefying stench.’

‘Just another one of the many miracles of the human body,’ said Butch flippantly, who proceeded to point to the corner of the garden. ‘You could always sleep in the doghouse.’

Everyone laughed. Except me. I looked. The doghouse. The doghouse, eh? I immediately got to my feet and wandered over to have a closer look at it. It was a small wooden structure about six feet long, and four feet high at the apex of its pitched roof. I looked inside and saw that it was full of junk.

‘Where’s the dog?’ I enquired.

‘That went with the girlfriend, but the doghouse stayed. It’s a kind of shrine to the failure of our relationship.’

Never mind shrine, it was an oasis. In present circumstances, a very appealing piece of real estate. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled in a little way. It was dark and had a musty smell, but compared to my room, which was presently occupied by a quartet of farters, this was a relative herb garden.

‘Tony, get out of there, it’s full of bricks and building shite,’ said Butch.

‘Yes, but I could clear that out.’

‘Don’t be stupid man, it’s a doghouse. You’re not seriously thinking of sleeping in it?’

‘I am. It’s got everything. A secluded location, privacy, and an en suite toilet,’ I said, pointing to the garden.

My earnestness was greeted with incredulity. Butch, Karen and Dave couldn’t see what I could clearly see—that sleeping in the doghouse was by far and away preferable to what was on offer in my present room. Above all it meant I could get an early night and allow sleep the healer to repair some of the mental and physical damage of the past three weeks. Without it I could collapse.

‘I bet you wouldn’t sleep in there,’ said Karen.

‘Careful,’ said Dave. ‘He’s a dangerous man to bet with. I mean look what he’s doing with that fridge.’

‘He’s too tall to fit in it. He won’t do it,’ reiterated Karen.

‘I bet I do. I bet you a hundred pounds I do.’

‘I haven’t got a hundred pounds.’

‘You will have in the morning,’ interjected a very amused Butch.

‘All right then, 16p. I bet you 16p that I sleep in this doghouse tonight,’ I said, proffering my hand for the sealing handshake.

‘Okay. 16p it is.’

Karen took my hand in hers and we shook. It was a long, lingering handshake, in fact it just seemed to keep going. Karen made no attempt to release my hand, and for some reason I felt that the onus was on her to do the releasing. As we shook, we looked into each other’s eyes, a moment which was almost embarrassing in its intimacy. In the corner of my eye, I was aware of Butch and Dave shuffling in their seats nervously. I gulped. I must learn to stop doing that. I don’t think it’s particularly cool.

It was I who released the handshake. I had become unnerved by the eye thing. Some different form of communication had just gone on, and although the meaning seemed clear enough, history had shown that this was a language I was well capable of misinterpreting. Karen, I suspected, spoke the language fluently. Most girls do. Boys don’t speak it at all, but just understand a smattering of key words. Their job is not to make a pig’s ear of the translation. They normally fail quite spectacularly.

It took an hour and a half to clear out the ‘building shite’, as Butch had so eloquently described it. On completion I surveyed the new sleeping quarters. Spartan, yes, a little bleak maybe, but they were dry, and the weather looked set on remaining glorious so the suspect roof was an irrelevance. All in all it was accommodation fit for a King of Tory.

§

Most of that day was spent like Sundays should be, sitting around and doing not very much in particular.

‘Dave, Karen and Butch, do you want another cup of tea?’ I said. It sounded like I was addressing a 1960s folk band.

They said ‘yes’, of course. They liked their tea, did Dave, Karen and Butch. Dave, like Karen, was living in the hostel until a boat on which he was planning to take tourists on fishing trips had been repaired. He was a nice chap, but he let himself down by being a little too eager to talk about boats.

‘She was a forty-five-footer,’ he would say, ‘with a fibre-glass hull, and running rigging on an aluminium mast. My last boat had standing rigging, but also on an aluminium mast. I swear by them, aluminium masts.’

He was at his most dull when he was in the act of rolling his own cigarettes, something which Karen also did. For some reason, people who roll their own cigarettes always become mind numbingly boring whilst occupied in that act itself. It is almost as if the intricate detail of the rolling causes the brain to lock in with it somehow, resulting in slow and longwinded sentences. Because they are concentrating on the job, the ‘rollers’ make no eye contact with those on the receiving end of their drivel and therefore fail to notice the extent to which their listener has ceased to be transfixed. There was one occasion when Dave and Karen each simultaneously rolled themselves a cigarette, with excruciating results.

‘You know the modern marine diesel,’ droned Dave, ‘is an astonishingly durable piece of kit. The main problem is that it’s underused compared to versions of the same basic engine which more often than not will run for thousands of hours performing their shore-bound tasks in buses, taxis and the like.’

‘You’re right, Dave. My Dad had a boat with a diesel auxiliary and he only used it at weekends,’ replied Karen, head bowed over the sacred Rizlas, ‘and he always said that diesels die of neglect—not overwork.’

Not until the construction of the limp cigarettes was completed, and they were popped into mouths and puffed at, did the conversation stop sounding like a cassette tape for an insomnia cure.

The subsequent simultaneous rolling of a tenth cigarette drove me to do something with my day, and I borrowed Dutch’s bike and cycled to Curracloe, a six-mile stretch of sandy beach just north of the town, where I got my first glimpse of an Irish traffic jam, as hordes of holiday-makers clogged up roads designed to take a tractor or two and not anything like this wholesale invasion.

I’m sure that Curracloe beach is stunning on any other weekend of the year, but for this one the tourists had taken it over and done a pretty good job of masking its beauty. Ghettoblasters, litter, ice-cream vans, screaming kids, and snogging couples were distributed along the beach and amongst the dunes. Most people were sunburnt. The Irish sing, talk and drink well, but when it comes to tanning, they perform abysmally. I winced as I watched them parading their grossly uncovered bodies before the sun’s powerful rays—shoulders, thighs and bald patches already a bright rose colour, soon prompting a remark from an equally crimson relative—‘I think you may have overdone it a bit.’

On the way home I noticed the registration number of the car in front of me:

HIV966

Not personalised I hoped.

As I cycled along I imagined one possible exchange the owner of this vehicle might have with a policeman.

‘Is this your vehicle, sir?’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘What’s your registration?’

‘I think it’s HIV but I’m not positive.’

I took Karen to the pub that night. It was like having a date. I had specifically made the invitation to her and not extended it to Dave, who was sat alongside us watching some disappointing television. Two motives had been behind his exclusion: one was a desire to have an evening without any mention of the durability of aluminium, and the other, well—the other was probably to do with ‘the other’. It was foolish, and I knew it, not least because I had only slept a few hours in the last seventy-two, but it was probably the corollary of this that I was too tired to make the sensible decision.

When we got back to the hostel, I threw in a corker of a line, ‘Would you like to come back to my place for a coffee?’

Karen laughed.

‘Are you really going to sleep in there?’

‘16p is 16p. I’d be a fool not to. Why don’t you join me in there for a nightcap?’

‘Okay,’ she giggled.

I was in new territory. I had never invited a girl back to a doghouse before.

We made two coffees in the kitchen, carried them out to the garden, and climbed into my lodgings.

‘Hey, it’s surprisingly cosy,’ said Karen.

And it was too. Before leaving the pub, I had filled it with cushions taken from the living room, and unzipped my expensive sleeping bag and laid it out like a bed cover. I was glad it was getting some use at last, even if it wasn’t quite fulfilling the lifesaving role I had envisaged for it.

‘What you need in here are some candles,’ remarked Karen.

‘Yes, I haven’t got the lighting quite right.’

It was almost pitch darkness.

‘Ill go and get some,’ she said keenly.

For someone with 16p at stake, she was almost acting irresponsibly.

The candles almost completed the transition of doghouse to love nest The rest was up to me. Karen was showing all the signs of someone who wasn’t going to slap my face if I leant over to kiss her. I decided to have a go. I took a deep breath and attempted to swivel round so I was facing her, but cracked my head on the low part of the pitched roof. Not unnaturally, it hurt quite a lot but I made a snap decision to try and complete the kiss regardless. It was made difficult by the fact that Karen had begun laughing uncontrollably. I stopped short of her mouth, and suddenly saw the funny side myself, breaking into fits of giggles. The moment of passion had been hijacked by hilarity. I hoped that this wasn’t going to be a feature of all my future lovemaking.

The laughter subsided. There we were, inches apart, directly under the apex of the roof, so with ample headroom. Surely now the kiss was inevitable. Slowly I moved my mouth towards hers. She closed her eyes, I closed mine and we waited for my gentle forward momentum to bring us together. Until a voice outside halted it.

‘l THOUGHT I HEARD SOME VOICES OUT HERE—SO HE’S REALLY GOING TO DO IT THEN?’

Dave had arrived.

He got down on to his haunches and peered inside whilst I hurriedly threw myself back into a non-kissing position, catching my head on the same bit of roof as I did so.

‘I’ve got the kettle on. Do you want a cup of tea?’ Dave asked.

‘Yeah, okay,’ said Karen.

Yeah, okay? What did she mean ‘Yeah okay’? The answer was surely an unequivocal ‘NO’. ‘NO, DAVE LEAVE us ALONE, WE DON’T WANT TEA, WE WANT TO KISS EACHOTHER, NOW GO AWAY.’ Not, Yeah, okay.’

‘How about you, Tone?’ he added.

‘Yeah, okay.’

He was a difficult man to say no to.

Dave wasn’t an insensitive man. After only forty minutes squashed up in one end of an already crowded doghouse advocating the advantages of a steel hull over a wooden one, he realised that there might be something marginally more exciting going on between Karen and I, and made a remark which I might have welcomed a little earlier. ‘I’ll go in a minute and stop cramping your style.’


Date: 2015-04-20; view: 190


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