My Life: One Day

September 20, 2014

road home


I herd the dogs out at dawn. The puppy tumbles down the verandah steps to pee on a lawn spiked with frost, like a punk’s hairdo. The cat comes high stepping across cold grass, mewling in complaint at the chill. The dam breathes steam at the bottom of the valley.  The tea, close cropped weeks ago, is bristling with bright new green.

Ben flies back to London today. The sadness I feel is reminiscent of my returning to boarding school days, a lump wedged between my sternum and my throat. I make sure he’s up. Take him coffee. Make toast.

Ant leaves for work. Ben says goodbye to him with a broad grin and a firm handshake. His dad holds his hand for longer than would be seemly if it were anybody other than his son. The lump threatens to dissolve.

By 8 we’re in the car. ‘Passport, ticket?’ Yup. ‘Phone, chargers?’. Yup. We take the shortcut which means dust and trucks which drive at such perilous speed that the short cut morphs as long for the number of times I need to take to the bush to duck out of their way.

We drive three hours to town. We play the same CD over and over that we played over and over when we drove together last week, 2 000 klms to collect the pup from the north. It’s the only one we have. It sounds tired. Ben drops off. The temperature climbs ten degrees as the altitude sinks. I am ready for this. I shed layers, untucking arms from sleeves, one at a time so I can keep a hand on the steering wheel. The cops don’t stop me once.

In town we drop the car off at the garage for its service.   And Ben and I climb into Rashid’s taxi. He drives us the dusty ten miles to the airport, pointing out the palaces of all the rich ‘warabu’ in town, who’ve made millions transporting fuel and tobacco. They look like concrete wedding cakes, white and decorated with swirls of white plaster like icing. Miles of tiles adorn the exterior. Windows like mirrors. Rashid is very impressed. He’d like a house like that.

At the tiny airport the check in staff, wearing days old filthy rubber gloves, insist on opening Ben’s case which is secured with tape which Ben has to slice through with the knife they proffer. They only give the insides a cursory glance, mercifully no digging amongst Ben’s back-to-uni laundered wardrobe with stained gloves.  They seal it all back up ineffectually with cheap selotape which curls redundantly off directly.   We share a bottle of water, a television too high up the wall to watch in comfort, delivers the ubiquitous wildlife show. ‘Be glad it’s not air disaster’, I say to Ben, ‘it was the last time I flew from here’. A nervous flyer, I got up and walked outside to the apron. The airport staff were disconcerted, ‘mama, you can’t stand outside, you must sit inside and wait for the plane’. Then you, I said, must change the channel. They laughed. A Stand Off. I stayed where I was.

Go Mum, says Ben, you’ve got a long way to drive.

I hug him. Twice. Hard. I tell him to look after himself. You too, he says. (When did my children start telling me to Take Care I wonder later? When they grew taller than I?) And I leave.

As Rashid and I drive away, the little craft Ben will begin his journey in bounces down the dirt strip, twin engines slicing the stillness, dust rising. I watch until I can’t see it anymore.

We drive back to the garage via the butchery, for dog meat, and the market where I race through high aisles where women sit amongst their wares, piles of rice and mounds of tomatoes and heaps of purple aubergines glossy as if polished.   On previous occasions I have trawled this market with my children, laughing with vendors, negotiating the prices in Kiswahili, bartering, bantering. I don’t have the heart for it today. I gather my peas and carrots and pay the asking price.

Back at the garage my car isn’t ready. I sit and wait and read the Sunday Times on my ipad and wonder at the extraordinary far awayness of London Fashion Week and the immediacy with which its images have been delivered to me? I sit for a full hour and a half.

Finally the car’s ready. The mechanic shows me what he has done: secured the tailgate, changed the fuel filter, cleaned the engine. He shows me the jack and the fire extinguisher and triangles that we’re obliged to carry here, to prove they haven’t been nicked in the garage. They have been before. He tells me he has adjusted the tyre pressure; it was too low he says.

It’s the first journey I have made solo for months and months. I play music very, very loudly. The sun is climbing down from its perch and the hills are turning violet.  Buses, hurtling late towards far away destinations, race past me recklessly. I duck into their slip stream, they’ll shadow me from speed guns, slowing in the right places so that I do too. But I can’t keep up.

The shortcut is even worse at this hour, trucks returning laden with timber, kicking up clouds of dust, pushing me off the road. The pickup bounces all over the corrugations and slips on loose scree. The tyre pressure uncomfortably high.   I must slow right down after each passing vehicle until the plume of dust dissipates and visibility is restored. The temperature gauge in the dash indicates falling figures as I climbn. From 28 degrees to 18.

And then I am home and the puppy greets me in a frenzy of barks and bendy-body tail wagging. I make a mug of tea and step onto the verandah to see the sun set and watch for the trail of Ant’s homecoming dust.

It will be days before I have the courage to step into my son’s bedroom.




Five Days

September 4, 2014

Day 1

Ant has come home shivering and shaking. For the fourth time in three weeks. The local hospital has diagnosed malaria so he swallows the cure and goes to bed. I am doubtful of the verdict; no self respecting mosquito would live at this altitude in these temperatures … I battle most of the night to bring his temperature down from 104. His complexion goes from sunburn-red to chalk-white. His eyes look fever mad. He talks rubbish. I call a friend who calls a friend. We can have a jet on the farm airstrip at dawn, they say. All I need to do is to call before 5am to report on Ant’s condition. At 3 his fever breaks. He pours ice cold sweat. I have spent the night up as I did when the children were sick, coaxing water and thrusting thermometers under an arm.

Day 2

He didn’t need the jet. He no longer scares me. We have it under control. But he does need a plane. He flies to the capital on a commercial flight accompanied by a nurse. I’m not sure the nurse is much good. But he enjoys the outing: the nurse, not Ant. Hat packs us a picnic. Ben packs the car. I pack the bags. Do I pack for three nights or a week? You can never tell in these sort of circumstances.

Day 3

The children and I leave at dawn. We have a 12 hour trip. We stop halfway for brunch by a great river surging mocca – Hat’s egg sandwiches and chocolate chip flapjacks and very strong coffee for me. We throw our crusts to the vervet monkeys hanging out in a figtree and watch them scrap over the spoils. The car is confetti’d with popcorn; the music choice is squabbled over; Hat burns CDs in the backseat. They both keep me awake. We’re in the capital as night falls, trailing in on rush hour traffic. Headlamps piercing a sultry seaside twilight.

Day 4

Long hours spent in the hospital waiting for test results and xrays. It’s not malaria the experts say. They don’t know what it is. What it was. The worst is over. Ant is pale and tired. The febrile glaze gone from his eyes which are blackringed. A man is wheeled out of ultrasound and dies on a gurney in the corridor in front of us. People stand around and stare. A nurse prods him in the chest. To test his reaction I suppose? A gasp as he expires. I feel sick.

Day 5 (3 days later)

The doctor has pronounced Ant well enough to leave. So we do. In the meantime Hat has returned to school and Ben gone travelling. We drive home with a flask of tea and eat apples pinched from my hotel. The cops make a nuisance of themselves, stopping us and then bullying us for a bribe for an offense we did not know existed (must we really have our name and address on the side of our vehicle?). We buy aubergines in the bottom of the valley and peas at the top. The temperature inverts and collapses from 31 to 13. So we know we are home.

Silk Purses from Sow’s Ears

August 25, 2014

Suddenly winter has lifted. A click of fingers and the weather’s changed; I drag the curtains back one morning four days ago and the mist has rolled right away to reveal a sky that’s clear and blue.   So sudden the change that I gasp to Ant, ‘look at that day!’

It’s still cold at this hour. The valley below the house pants and the last tendrils of low lying cloud – papery thin and gauzy – are burned away by the sun as rising smoke.

I drag my jeans on and whistle Pili up to walk.

At the bottom of the valley is a stream that runs gin clear and icy. During the rains it rose above the road so that walks, unless wading in wellies, wouldn’t have been possible here.   But now the road is dry and dusty and the stream has diminished to a trickle which is dammed by a huge bank of arum lilies. The first time I encountered them, a cloud of cottonwoolwhite, I exclaimed aloud: how beautiful!




And they continue to flourish, slender necked and yellow throated, with their emerald green petticoats.  The Afrikaans call them Varkoor, which translates as pig’s ear. But here they mock the idiom; here they are as ivorypale silk purses.






This morning I remembered my secateurs and gathered armfuls to bring home.   For such a delicate flower I am astonished at their vase life; they thrive for days, elegant heads unbowed.   It’ll be a full week before the voluptuous whiteness of their petals begins to grey and wrinkle.  And even then they hold their poise.



The sun clambers higher as I clamber the hill home so that by the time I summit, jumper tied about my waist now, the sky is high, horizons already smudged with a heathaze so that dovegrey seams to duckeggblue which deepens to cerulean.

There isn’t a cloud to be seen.




Bundles of Joy

August 23, 2014

Sometimes wandering down ethereal shopping aisles doesn’t inect the necessary retail therapy hit. Sometimes you’ve got to get out there and feel the stuff for real.


Hat needs shirts for school. We’ve trawled intangible shelves at M&S and Mango. But she doesn’t find enough of what she needs. Mitumba beckons.


Mitumba literally translates as bundles; second hand gear that arrives in Africa baled in plastic. The rag and bone men of old morph as high street charity shops and store seconds. Stuff that’s not as needed in the wealthy west so  everything – from socks to babygrows to jeans to curtains – is bound is plastic, loaded into containers and set to sea. Here, in East Africa, it disembarks as lucrative business. Vendors buy up the bales and sell the items individually. The opening of a new bundle in the market is cause for celebration; women ululate and crowd around to clap, applauding the revealing of dozens and dozens of bras, some grey and huge so that when they are hung from stalls they’ll swing as hammocks.


So, slathered in sunblock (for we are going two hours down the hill to the land of dust and sunshine) and armed with bottles of water (mitumba is thirsty work) Hat and I head off to shop.





You need to have stamina for this. My dear friend Annabel would have commented, ‘you must be strong for mitumba’. And she was right: this is three shredded wheat work. Hat is a good shopper for she knows precisely what she wants, no humming hawing vacillations: ‘no Mum, that’s gross’ she tells me shortly; no time is wasted.


We rifle through jeans hung on makeshift hangers wound of wire; you need to be careful when peeling a garment off lest the wire flick up and poke your eye out. We dig amongst heaps of blouses; there must be a method to the excavation: ‘you start at that end, I’ll start here’. And we meet in the middle. Haggling is imperative. I pluck a diamond from the rough. That’s 7 000 shillings the vendor tells me. Hat’s eyes widen, ‘Mum’, she hisses, ‘that’s only two pounds!’. I hiss back, ‘don’t look keen’. Nope I say, and nonchalantly toss the blouse back into the Josephandhistechnicolourcoat mound, ‘5 000 shillings’. Sometimes the seller will accept with alacrity (in which case you know you’re still paying over the odds). Sometimes she – usually a she, and the ladies are best, occasionally it’s a he and they’re not nearly as much fun to deal with – will suck her teeth and we’ll bat the price about a bit, back and forth, over pence. Ridiculous, I know, but this is business, this is biashara, this is the way it works.



There are other mitumba rules, apart from the necessary wrangling:


1. Check the pockets. ‘For money?’ Hat asks me amazed, and furiously begins to inspect every seam and furrow in the item. No. For holes. Nobody wants to mend an item that cost them a buck fifty for god’s sake. That said, checking pockets one day yielded eight whole dollars, soft and crumpled and creased from who knew how many months secreted away. My shopping paid for itself that day


2. Check the zips. I don’t want to have to invest in a new one that cost twice the price the jeans did in the first place


3. Check the labels, not because Brand is King, but because this is where the item’s wear and tear is most evident; too many wash cycles and you can’t see what size it is or who designed it.



So Hat and I return home, pink faced and dust laced, with a basket full of spoils. Including the softest black leather jacket which we fight over: ‘oh look Hat’, and I indicate the clearly legible label, ‘it’s made from little baby New Zealand lambs’. Euugh, that’s horrid, says Hat, ‘poor things!’. The jacket’s mine. Two of the shirts, for which we paid 3 bucks a piece, retail online, I discover later, at more than 100 dollars each.



There is nothing in the world so satisfying as a bargain.

Fly litle bird, fly

August 17, 2014

Melie and Hat on the airstrip

How do you know if the job is done?

Have I cast her well enough to cope, I worry?

“I don’t know how to use a dishwasher” my eldest daughter Melie says. So long as you can wield a bottle a bottle of Sunlight and a sponge I tell her. And she can. African Style. Washing each plate carefully under a running tap.

It’s tangible. Her going out into the BigWideWorld. I can feel the last hours that she is home rush past. I listen to her singing in the bath and I stare at my reflection as tears well. Can I hold this moment? Eke it out?

Of course I can’t. I can only brand it a memory later.

She is leaving for a first job. To share a house with other young. Her own home. On the other side of the world.

“Can you cook pasta?” I ask, last minute panic strikes as we watch a pan of spaghetti boil frothily on the hob.

She snorts, ‘of course I can Mum!’ To prove it she threads a rope from the water and flings it against the kitchen wall, ‘and to test if it’s cooked’. It sticks in an untidy S. It’s ready.

But I still can’t stop fretting than she is.

She can wash dishes and make Bolognese.

But have I taught her well enough to manage in a world that can be unkind? That moves so fast? That throws curved balls? Will she be safe? Look after herself. Eat her five a day. Or is it seven? Get enough sleep?

Will she love herself as much as I do her?

All those titles on Parenting, as if we were learning how to paint a picture or throw a clay pot, but not a single marker to let you know if you’ve done a halfwaydecent job? No boxes to tick. My husband’s role comes with tasks and targets and measures to know how he’s done. Mine doesn’t. The raising of children is not an absolute science. We parent (when I was a child, that was a noun, when did it become a verb?) as well as we can under the perpetually evolving circumstances of our lives, according to the natures of our offspring. Parenting is not prescriptive. It bends and roils and rolls and bucks and sometimes you struggle to fit its shape. Give them roots, grant them wings. Is that really enough? Such a waffely, new age directive.

Our last evening and I can’t get near enough. Her essence is so familiar. I make her lie close. A selfie, I insist, and she laughingly obliges. But does not photoshop my front teeth straight. Or iron my lines. I knew she wouldn’t. She often doesn’t listen, her habit is to hurtle herself at life. I know her so well, a piece of me carved off and hewn to a form that began as half her father, half me and now mostly her own person. Woman child. My funny, zany, brave, clever, maddening daughter.

We leave before dawn, in the dark and the cold, and her chatter sustains the three hours to the little airport from which she will leave for a big airport. She has 36 hours of travel ahead of her.

I sit and wait a while with her and then I know I must say goodbye. It is unbearably hard tearing myself away, the physical act of choosing to stand to hug and bid farewell  jars, a rip. Could her debut to the wideworld not evolve more gently? I wish I were closer. Close enough to do her laundry the odd weekend. Close enough to drive her to her new home, with duvet and linen and bedside lamp. Admire her room for real and not just via a virtual telescope. I could recklessly demand that she stay. I still hold the reins of control. Just. In the tips of my fingers.  I paid for her airfare after all. I could remove her name from the manifest. Demand a refund. Insist that she climb back into the car and drag her suitcase with her so that we might return home with her. Captive.

But I cannot do that. For this is her adventure. Her life. Her new beginning. A genesis.

I unfurl a tight hold and watch this beautiful young bird teeter to the edge of my grip and take flight.

melie and me

Looking for Real Africa

August 5, 2014


So we drove 1 000 klm at the weekend to deliver The Boy for his internship. He’s at that stage: poised for the real world, teetering, ready to take flight. Less than a year left and he graduates from Uni. He’s garnering experience for his CV. Connecting the dots. His sister is closer than that. She starts her first job in a month. I marvel at her composure. More than mine: the mother hen flapping, her feathers ruffled, fussing and clucking as all her young things scuttle out of her nest. Is this the last holiday I will be able to squeeze them all into the car for a road trip, stop for picnics so that they all tumble out, unfolding long limbs and stretching hands above heads and then peering into tupperwares to see what Mum’s bought to eat.

When I think about the end of fullfatfive car journeys, that have morphed over the years from the cacophony of crying to the Wheels on the Bus, to I Spy to fighting over who listens to what on the CD player to utter silence as everybody’s plugged into their own audio arrangement, I want to cry. So I push the thoughts out of my head and get on with this one, this road trip, this picnic, trying not to forget to pack the salt.

baobab valley

We swoop low, into hot country that breathes dust and hisses with cicadas, where the bush seems to boil and I am happy. This, this sprawling space, where the air plants warm kisses upon your cheeks as you step outside the car, where the grass sings high, dry notes, where baobabs stand Tokeinesque and tall, is real Africa. Lean. Hungry. Wanting. Waiting. My mother, when we lived on a tea farm, used to look sadly out at a garden fecund with canna lilies and loquats, a verdant lawn that touched the fringe of lime tea and say, ‘this isn’t real Africa’. She was right. It wasn’t. It was too fat.




Out of the mist the views are elastic and lean and stretch as the last light lingers long fingered as if it can’t bear to leave the prettiness behind. I can’t; I walk until almost nightfall, listening to the evening calls of bush birds and gathering guinea fowl feathers to tuck into my hat band.



And the next day we kiss The Boy goodbye, pile back into a car strewn with empty water bottles and crisp packets and biscuit crumbs and we slip through the highway-threaded national park where the elephant are uniquely and inexplicably small, nobody can tell me why , and we see grumpy buffalo staring up at us from the grass, small eyes crossed with ill humour, and we watch giraffe dance across the road ahead of us, no sound, and then stand perfectly still and gaze at us silently through impossibly long lashes.

buffalo roadside


photo (16)

We toil our way back up the valley where the corpses of vehicles lie as crushed testament to the hazards of the route, where baboons sit bored, scratching, waiting roadside for trash to be cast out of a slow moving truck windows so they might tear into the road and gather it up to either eat or examine and discard with disdain.

hazardous road

traffic corpses



A road which winds upwards just as the river beside it runs down, racing towards the sea, ‘what’s the rush?’, I wonder. And then I remember. I’m impatient to get out of those cold hills too.

mighty ruaha

But for now I’m back. Wearing slippers, curled into jumpers, watching the mist swirl where Africa masquerades as Scotland.


An Evening Walk

July 31, 2014


In the evening I walk.  Often I do in the morning too, wrapped up against a veil of mist that shrouds as the lightest rain leaving my skin dewdamp. But the evenings are prettier.  And warmer. So that I shed layers as I go. The sun has burned a hole through the cloud which sits low on our high hills, and I can admire my views. See where I am going. Watch fields unfurl with every summit.


Pili comes with me. Racing riot with every scent. And, at the moment, whichever of my summerholiday children can stir themselves. Sometimes we talk all the way round. Sometimes we stride companionably silent, keeping our breathing in check. Nobody wanting anybody else to know they’re the least fit. It’s hard not to pant marching up hills at 6 500 ft above sea level.


The sunshine has peeled back the grey and the blueness of sky rests upon the absurd green of tea, ‘a sea of green’, I say to Hat. Sometimes, from my new home perched on a hill, I watch the pickers, dressed in bright yellow waterproofs, move through the tea, as brilliant as canaries painted upon a lime green canvas.  Panniers strapped to their backs, they move methodicaly through the rows, deftly harvesting twoleavesandabud as they go, the murmur of laughter rolls up towards me, a chorus of conversation amplified by the valley.


Our Nazi built home crouches on a hillside so that the last leg is always the most arduous, ‘I hate this bit’, says Hat as she clambers up the path through pruned trees. I do too but I don’t have the puff left to say so. I snort in agreement instead.


But the house breathes smoke, the fires are lit, hot baths beckon. And a beer, which I drink wrapped up warm on the verandah, against the chill which descends fast, as quickly as the sun vanishes behind the hills, the forest etched boldly as the light distills whiskey gold. I can pick out the detail of every tree.  I sit and watch for as long as I can bear, I pile on the layers I shed on my walk. The sky glows rosily, a parting blush.

And then my view is gone.

Needs Must

July 27, 2014


I say to Hat, ‘this is good shit’.

Hat groans, almost inaudibly.

We are on a walk , Pili disobediently strays ahead and vanishes into rows of pruned tea, all we can see of her is her yellow tail wagging furiously above the trimmed green, a submarine’s periscope, an antenna.

And we are collecting shit. We do this regularly. A basket between us, my hand gloved in plastic so that I can stoop to scoop.

Cattle manure. Conveniently dropped in pats the length of our route.

For the garden that I am trying to cultivate on a chilly, exposed hillside.

My children are used to my eccentricities. This is the lady who sat on an Outpost airstrip waiting to clear a bag of grass (the mowable variety as opposed to the smokable kind) through the airport because she hankered for a lawn.

They barely bat eyelids when I ask them to come on a shit run. Hat doesn’t object to the principle per se, she doesn’t even mind lugging a basket of dung; she objects to the stopping and starting, ‘it takes so long to go on a walk with you when you’re shit gathering’, she says.

Sometimes I wonder if the quirkiness that we – their father and I – exhibit will mean they will adopt a less conventional approach to life or whether it will drive them to conform? Or will I foist a useful ‘needs must’ discipline upon them?

I need a garden ergo I must collect shit.

And they must help.


New Chapters

July 26, 2014

If I had logged my life as religiously as I did in the Outpost, would the past 2 ½ years have been easier? Would they feel less like lost time? As if I were running across marbles, slipping, sliding, losing my footing? Had I been able to capture them tidily in properly punctuated paragraphs, would I remember it all as less a blur? Would it have been more manageable?

Oh, I kept a journal. Privately scrawled. The madness and the misery too ragged, too raw, too untidy, to hold up to the light. I can’t bear to read back those scribbled lines which run diagonally across page after page as I sought to make sense of our lives; lives which seemed to be spiraling out of control as we lurched from one crisis to another. Two years. Three countries. Seven homes. Our possessions as battered as us with every unpacking. Night after sleepless night, by day a host of butterflies lived in my chest as I anticipated the next catastrophe. I tried to articulate my relentless what’sgoingtohappennext anxiety to a doctor. I sat opposite him in a tiny surgery and tried, vainly, to describe how it feels when your life runs amok, out of control, waving sticks and screeching and kicking your legs out from beneath you. He nodded sagely but his whole demeanour, his desk, smacked of an ordered existence (my desk, by comparison with drawers graunched by so much travelling, was strewn with months old paperwork and bills and letters that should have been dealt with weeks and weeks ago). ‘Use Rescue Remedy’, he advised.

How reassuring life would be if the tiniest sip of an organic tincture could set an upset world straight on its axis.

I don’t know how, now, after the fact, to describe the fallout. I can’t look back.

So this, this latest, feels as I have stepped into a small boat on rough waters and I am still waiting for the little hull to stop its slightly unnerving rocking so that I can sit and settle.

You see, when change batters as it did us, you lose your sense of self. My identify was carved neatly of my role as wifemotherwriter (and sometimes glass artist). The order, the peace, the predictability of my life was the backdrop upon which I interpreted those roles. There was time and space for each. But circumstances picked us up and tossed us hither and thither, like a souvenir Parisian snow fall in a globe. Except the blizzard was relentless; you crawl out dazed and bruised and confused. You’re still a wife. (And you wonder if your marriage is better for the experience or worse? Can I believe that because we survived the storm, it’s a good marriage?). You’re still a mother (though you know that because you were so busy trying to clutch at the flotsam and jetsam of your life as it floated by, you haven’t always been a good mother). But the writing has gone to pot; I could not organise my thoughts, the words, when they rarely came, danced about taunting and disobedient . And as for the glass …

I am apparently emerged from the crises. But I am not unscathed. I feel potholed. The urge to patch up bits of myself so that I might be whole again is enormous.  But it is hard to know where to begin. Returning regularly to my blog seemed like a good place to start?  If I can string a sentence, I tell myself, beads scattered upon a floor carefully collected and rethreaded, will I be able to gather up the rest of myself?

So I shall aspire to find my seat in this little boat. I shall nervously try to settle myself and I shall look determinedly ahead.

the view

Where the Grass is Greener

April 8, 2014



morning walk


Miranda Hart said it in Call The Midwife, ‘I have acres and acres of time’.

Like me.

I know I should be grateful for all the open-ended hours, should use them wisely. But I’m overwhelmed by them; they loom and taunt, ‘What are you going to do with us all then, hey, hey, c’mon, make a plan?!’.

And I’m tired of change and loneliness. I want to have a home. In a city. Where I can drink capuccino with my best friend and go to her yoga classes and eat lunch from a menu and giggle.

I want to stamp my feet and shout, ‘enough, enough, I’ve had enough‘.

Instead I walk solitarily across a vast empty space (where the  grass really is greener than in my old dusty Outpost home. So why does it feel more intimidating?).

And have ethereal conversations to fill big silent gaps.


And I skulk on Facebook and see barefaced friends. And scour cyberspace for conversation and inspiration.  And I thought this was clever.


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