The Glass Labyrinth
By Clifford Thurlow
- 2208 reads
Susan screamed as the first of the goats rose over the front of the car and glanced off the windscreen. The second glided across the bonnet with a tragic cast in its glossy black eyes and he thought of Magdalena in the Afghani coat they'd found in the Oxfam shop in Fulham.
'What did I say,' hissed Susan as the car juddered to a halt.
The rest of the goats were leaping the stone wall beside the road, his attention drawn from this display to the figure approaching around the bend, a tall man wearing an embroidered waistcoat, a dense moustache and an ambiguous expression. Roger got out of the car. Two animals were dead. A third gazed up, before dropping its head into the dust. The goatherd slit its throat and with the pungent smell that rose into the air was a swarm of flies that appeared so quickly Roger wondered if they'd been breeding inside the beast's skull. Blood expanded in a puddle, engulfing his trainers.
The man dried the knife on the animal's coat, spitting on the blade to give it a more thorough clean, his movements precise, as if he were showing a disciple some arcane ritual. He said something in a deep, operatic voice and held up three fingers.
Roger stuck his head through the car window. 'Have you seen the phrase book?'
'No,' Susan answered.
He found it among the maps on the back seat. 'I'm sorry,' he said in Greek.
The man shrugged philosophically. He bent down, drawing Roger closer, the smell of olives and feta on his breath making the act intimate and somehow intimidating. In the dust he wrote a number, then a word beginning with a triangle: a D, for drachma.
'What's happening?' Susan called.
'We've got to pay for the dead goats.'
'What? How much?'
'Forty thousand drachs.'
'Forty thousand,' she said. 'What's that?'
'About a hundred pounds.'
'That's five pyorrhoeal mouths. I'm not paying it, Roger.'
'We have to.'
'The animals were all over the road. It's his own fault.'
'Susan, when in Rome...'
'We're not in Rome. Tell him to fuck off.'
'I can't do that.'
'You coward.' She got out of the car and started waving her hand as if at a bothersome fly. 'No, no, no,' she said. 'Ochi drachma.'
'We have to pay, it's polite,' he told her.
'No, Roger. No way.'
He looked back at the Greek. The man was staring at Susan, a smile revealing even white teeth as it spread over his lips. He said something that sounded like a curse, then approached Roger with an intense look he mistook for anger. He thought he was going to punch him, but the goatherd did something even more unexpected, he gripped Roger's arm, nodding in the way of a comrade about to follow him to battle. He turned away, dragged two of the dead goats into the shade and slung the third across his shoulders. As he climbed the wall and strode off behind the rest of the herd, he could have been a character from the Old Testament.
They got back into the car.
'That's the way to deal with these people,' Susan said.
'You would say that.'
'Oh, fuck off, Roger.'
He turned the ignition key. Nothing. He tried again. Roger closed his eyes and waited for her to say something. She must have known that and kept silent.
'I'll go for help,' he said.
'And leave me here?'
'Come with me.'
'Are you joking.'
'No, I just thought...'
She put her finger to his lips, shutting him up, a gesture he'd never liked.
'Susan, I wish you wouldn't do that.'
She handed him the phrase book: 'I'm sorry,' she said.
Roger glanced at he goatherd. He was at the top of the hill sloping up from the road, a rocky pasture that appeared to climb into the heavens. The sky had the same depth of blue as the animal blood was red, rich and primary, shades of mythical quests, Magdalena with grave lips and a nervous smile: three weeks of classes, a kiss too far after the barbecue, the perfumed letter Susan had opened. Roger had known it was risky, like taking the corner too fast, but sometimes you feel like putting your foot down, asserting some of those primordial genes teaching and life lobotomised.
He took a deep breath. The air tasted untamed and ancient, seafood baked in garlic, oven warm bread, bitter lemons. As the goats moved into the distance the sound of their bells grew sad and mournful, a death knell for some part of himself, an ideal, perhaps. He'd never killed anything bigger than an insect before. The cloying heat of the afternoon had waned to congenial warmth. Mosquitoes were waking famished from their slumber and hummed about his ears. He reached a junction where he was unable to read the signpost, but the turn promised a destination in two kilometres.
The road became a track carved into the rock. The horizon stretched abruptly before him, as if the world ended at this point. He imagined something significant lay ahead, that he was returning to somewhere familiar, something lost. The track descended through a narrow gorge that opened into a hamlet invisible until the last curve of the road. Whitewashed houses like tombstones tiered the barren slopes. Fishing boats rocked at the water's edge. Dusk had claimed half the village, the sun dragging its shadow into the hills. The square was dotted with rickety tables where men of striking similarity to the goatherd and each other sat below the eucalyptus trees drinking retsina. They watched with open curiosity as he passed among them and entered the bar.
The barman was drying glasses, a white moustache golden with nicotine hovering about his cheeks like a device to keep away flies, of which there were many. Another man had followed Roger inside. He was a big, muscular individual with arms too big for his shirt sleeves and a rustic smell. Roger faltered over the phrase book, pointing at the telephone, dialling in mime. The barman carried on with his task, spitting in the glasses, polishing them with a filthy cloth.
'You German?' the barman asked.
'I am in New Jersey twenty years.' He shook his head as if he found this hard to imagine.
Roger explained the problem with the goats and, as he did so, the barman left off what he was doing to pay closer attention.
'Yes, yes, goats!' he exclaimed, his eyes, black pearls in a mesh of wrinkles, sparking to life.
The idiot grunted. 'Goats,' he said, shifting his weight restlessly from one foot to the other, sniffing all the time.
'How many you kill?' asked the barman.
'How much you pay?'
'Nothing?' He threw up his large hands.
'It wasn't really my fault. The goats were all over the road. My wife was terrified.'
'You have a wife,' the barman said thoughtfully, pausing to mull over this additional factor. He then said something to the idiot in Greek.
'Goats,' the idiot said again, and both men laughed.
'You English clever,' the barman added. He was smoothing down his moustache, lips pursed, as if in satiric deference to Britannic guile.
'I have to call the car hire company,' Roger explained. 'The car won't start.'
Roger ordered a beer and the barman made the call for him. The simian fellow was still sniffing. He moved closer, took Roger's glass and drank the drink down in one gulp.
'Hey, what's going on? What is this?'
The barman hung up. 'Don't mind Ari. He don't have a lot up here,' he said, tapping his head with two fingers. Then he clutched his groin with both hands. 'He make up for it.'
Ari reached for his own groin and made a savage noise that amused the barman.
He opened another bottle for Roger. 'They come tomorrow. Lock car. Is safe. They come here.' He rapped the wooden bar top with his knuckles.
'You have rooms?'
'Very clean,' he said defensively, 'with shower.'
As Ari wandered out, the barman whispered: 'He okay, no problem.'
Susan glanced indifferently about the room, closed her eyes and took a long, vociferous breath through her nose. 'Thank God it's only one night,' she said and slumped down on the bed.
Roger dropped the bags and gazed out the window. The bay was a long, natural harbour, the rocks on each side like womanly curves as they rolled into the sea. The sun lingered over the hills.
'Come and see the sunset.'
'That's all I need.'
'It's beautiful here.'
'I hate it.'
'And the people don't even speak English.'
'Fuck off, Roger.'
He turned back to the view. Bands of purple and orange streaked the sky, the curl of the waves red like painted lips. Some kids on motorbikes roared in circles. A woman in a white apron was emerging from the bar with retsina slurping from aluminium pitchers. Roger bit the joints of his fingers where the mosquitoes had bitten him.
'Would you like to go for a drink?' he said.
'Would you like to go for a drink,' she spat backed at him.
'Susan, let's make an effort?'
'You're pathetic, Roger, do you know that?'
'Yes. Now, can we forget it?'
She stood, hands on hips. 'I can't,' she said.
'Then how can you expect me to?'
'You bastard, I hate you.' She swung at him, snarling. 'Bastard.'
Roger stepped to one side, avoiding the blow. He approached her again, reaching for her bare arms. 'I didn't mean it like that.'
She pulled away, turning to inspect herself in the mirror, leaning close to study her eyes. She stared at him in the reflection.
'I suppose you think trying to grow a beard makes you look more sexy. Well, it doesn't.'
There was nowhere to eat in the village except the bar.
'Best fish on the island,' said the barman. 'What your names?' Roger told him. The barman repeated them, rolling the vowels.
'Roger and Susan,' he said. 'In America they call me Spick.'
They all shook hands. Spick's wife appeared with a jug of retsina and a plate of pistachios. They introduced themselves a second time.
'I'm Daphne,' announced the woman, lowering her eyes as she spoke.
Roger filled their glasses. He could hear the faint lilt of female voices drifting from the radio, something eastern and seductive, a reminder that the island was closer to Istanbul than Athens; the people were Greek but Turkish blood ran just below the surface, rising up in angular features, in their dark, sensuous eyes.
The lights in the trees gave the square a festive air and made the hills beyond seem darker. The motorbikes were parked in a row on the harbour wall like greyhounds in traps. He watched a boy lift a girl over the water's edge. She wriggled. He put her down. She slapped him. Then they kissed, gluing themselves together. Susan had been observing the same scene.
'She'll fall in love with him, then he'll fuck up her life,' she said.
Susan sat back, legs crossed at the thighs, foot rocking idly. She was feeling obscurely superior, sipping her drink, enjoying herself in her own way.
'This stuff tastes like resin,' she said. 'Don't they have anything else?'
'I'll ask if you like.'
On the breeze was the smell of warm rocks and lazy days, the languid lap of the waves. There were no other tourists. There was nothing to see. Nowhere to go. The village was just a cleft between two hills, a quiet, brooding place growing sultry in the twilight.
'Look, Susan, there's no point being bad tempered. Let's make the most of it now we're here.'
'I hate this country.'
'You liked it last time.'
Her expression grew sour. 'It was our honeymoon.'
'I thought we could start again.'
She leaned across the table, staunching his words with her finger. 'There is no starting again,' she said and looked out to sea.
Her sealing his lips was like something else had been closed up inside him. He drained the drink in his glass, filled it again, as he'd kept refilling Magdalena's glass before they'd wandered away from the bonfire. They'd kissed for the first time. He ran his palms over her back and he could remember the feeling, a tingling like the shock from a car battery. She'd shivered, touched by the same sensation, and wanted more, a promise, a future, a letter on pink paper.
'What are you thinking about?' Susan asked.
'Dead goats,' he replied, and she glanced away again.
Spick and his wife were moving among the tables. When they stopped to chat, Roger noticed all eyes turning good naturedly in their direction. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, old women in black, fishermen in berets and high-buttoned shirts. The men candidly admired Susan's tanned legs. She had hiked up her skirts as if to show a glimpse of treasures forever beyond their reach.
Some fishing boats with yellow lamps fixed to the cross spars were chugging out to sea, motors thumping. The smell of the air was crude and passionate. It made him feel in touch with something that had grown distant, that part of yourself the grind of the predictable hones inevitably to nothing.
Roger became aware of a presence behind him and turned. Ari was standing at the back of his chair staring at Susan, a grin on his fleshy lips.
'What do you think you're looking at?' Susan spoke loudly, her voice clipped, English. She had folded her arms and held her head to one side. The sun had bleached her green hair and her eyes were shiny with irritation.
Ari made a grunting sound.
'He's okay,' Roger said.
'He was in the bar. Spick said he's okay.'
'Well, if Spick says he's okay, we should ask him to have dinner with us.' She stared back at Ari. 'Sit, sit.'
Ari grunted and started hopping from foot to foot.
'Please, Susan, don't. He's, you know...'
Roger shook his head. Ari carried on with his little dance until Daphne arrived and shooed him away.
'He okay,' she said. 'No danger.'
On the table she placed plates of fish doused in olive oil. She departed and came back with salad sprinkled with feta.
'The fish is cold,' Susan said.
'We're in Greece,' he reasoned.
'It's pure magic: they cook it in there and it's cold by the time it gets out here.'
He watched her pick at the food until she pushed the plate away. Susan had become lean and angular on a regime of mineral water and malice. It suited her. He drank most of the second jug of retsina and realised by the time he had drained the last glass that a numbing pain was spreading through his skull. The motorbikes had started up again, roaring in circles. His head was the Wall of Death. His throat felt dry and in the moment suspended between sobriety and inebriation there was a breath of clarity, then it was gone.
'And you're beautiful.' He studied her in the glow of the fairy lights. 'Tomorrow, I will be sober.'
She looked away.
'Let's make love,' he said.
'Are you mad?'
'Come on,' he pleaded.
She stood. 'I hate it when you're drunk.'
Roger sat slumped over the bar drinking coffee. There was a fly-flecked mirror behind the bar and he kept glancing up to make sure it was his own image that glowered back at him. The beard he'd always fancied had practically grown overnight. The threadbare mat of his chest was a Turkish carpet.
He ordered another coffee, burning his fingertips on the glass. The music he'd heard the previous night was on again and he wondered if the old bakelite radio always played the same love songs, fuses hissing like trapped serpents. The sun was striking the sea like a knife blade, the spangles of light pressing against the soft tissue behind his eyes. He had slept restlessly dreaming he was in a dark building with high walls and no doors. Through the cold air he could see three goats suspended from meat hooks. Their back legs were tied and their throats had been slit. He was brushing flies from his face and as he did so he became aware that the furthest hook contained a naked girl hanging by her ankles, her hair sweeping the floor as she slowly turned towards him. Her face was flat, featureless, and her throat had been cut. In his hand was a knife dripping blood. A man was approaching. He said something in Greek which Roger didn't understand.
The dream flooded back into his mind as Ari shuffled into the bar. Susan was on the stairs and entered the same moment. She was wearing a white top scooped low at the front and a red sarong revealing a long leg in a sandal tied with thongs. It struck Roger that one bare leg was sexier than two.
'Has the car come?' she demanded.
'No, we've got to wait.'
Ari approached and touched her hair.
'Get away. What do you think you're doing?'
Ari said something and the barman laughed. 'Is okay. You have good smell.'
'I smell like a goat from that bed.'
She moved to one side, stretching her back. As she rolled her shoulders, a drill from the workout tape, her breasts rose over her shirt top. Ari watched appreciatively.
'I'm dying for a swim. Do we have time?' she asked.
'Swim, swim. No problem,' said the barman.
Ari plodded out behind her like one of those dogs that carries its lead in its mouth.
'Shoo,' she said. 'Shoo,' and he grinned.
'I think he likes you,' Roger remarked.
Lines cut her brow. Susan studied him as if he were a stranger, then marched off towards the sea.
As she sliced through the water, leaving barely a ripple, he played the Todgeworthy Game: he pretended he had never seen Susan before and gave her a seven on the Roger Goode Fuckometer, her attitude cutting a point from the looks department. They had known each other since school, the timid girl from the lower sixth maturing disdainfully amidst the decay of a career in dental hygiene. He was her only lover. His tally was five and he recalled them all, every peculiarity and detail, every touch and taste from ZoÃ« Curtis on the couch with her parents upstairs, to the long drought that separated Susan from Magdalena Santadomingo, a solid nine.
Susan cramped her toes as she emerged from the sea and moved gingerly over the rocks to the spot where they'd made camp. She wrung water from her hair, then released it in a long swaying curtain.
'That man's watching us.' Roger followed her gaze. 'Look, he's sitting there with his mouth gaping open.'
'He's catching flies.'
She took one of her sharp, inward takes of breath as she spread out her towel, bending her knees, then dropping to her stomach. She unfastened the bikini top, turning awkwardly to rub cream on her shoulders.
'I'll do it.'
'Okay,' she said.
Roger smoothed the lotion over the nubs of her spine. There were two dimples in the taut flesh just below her waist. He ran his hands under the elastic of her briefs. He felt her tense, then calm again.
'Careful,' she said.
He massaged her shoulders, working his fingers down her back, each stroke pruning away the little triangle of pink cotton. He was aware of her complicity in this manoeuvre, and wasn't sure if this were merely the punishment in a new guise, or a display for the creature looking down at them. The dark slit between the domes of her bottom grew deeper. Roger could see the idiot, his tongue hanging out, his body shaking.
'That's enough,' she said, as if reading his thoughts. She pulled the bikini bottom up again.
'I'm going for a swim,' he told her.
She glanced up. 'Don't be too long.'
She was studying him like a child coming upon a dead bird, staring at his matted chest, the hair like coils of copper wiring on his shoulders and muscular arms, at his dark even tan.
'You're turning into a monkey,' she remarked.
'Eek, eek, eek,' he replied, hammering his chest as he loped down to the sea.
Roger had never been a great swimmer but he plunged in and over-armed vigorously across the bay without getting cramp. He floated on his back, staring at the sky. He thought about the dream and wondered if dreams were messages from the subconscious. Then he remembered Ari watching as he'd peeled off Susan's clothes and he wasn't sure why, but it had given him an odd sort of thrill. The hot sun and the sense of being cut off from the world was uncovering something slowly, inevitably smothered.
Susan was lying naked on the bed, eyes closed. She was deeply tanned except for the white strips framing her pubic hair. Her breasts were brown with small pink nipples.
He had returned to the room from the shower and was drying himself. He had shaved finally, leaving a moustache that gave him a resemblance to Kolokotronis, the patriot who drove the Ottoman army from Greece. The hair on his body appeared to be growing ever more copious but he couldn't do much about that.
'Susan, you're in the middle of the bed.'
'Move over or I'll climb on top of you.'
'Don't even think about it.'
He threw the towel over the window. The sun was piercing the shutters in golden bars, striping her body. 'You shouldn't lie around like that,' he said. 'It's not fair.'
She opened her eyes. 'Not fair?' she repeated.
'Move over, Susan.'
'Sleeping is life. Everything else is just waiting.' She opened her eyes again, her lips curling with distaste as she stared at his erection. 'You can put that away,' she said.
He dressed before bending to kiss the raised silky mount of dark hair, lingering a moment, breathing her perfume.
She rapped his head with her knuckles. 'Out,' she said.
'You should lock the door,' he told her, and left the room.
They sat in the square, Susan's mood reflecting the weather. Dark clouds were gathering across the hills. The car still hadn't arrived. She was chastising him with silence and he thought his marriage resembled a glass labyrinth, you can see through the walls but you can't escape. He ate black olives, rolling them around his mouth before biting down on the voluptuous flesh. He sipped the retsina.
'It has the taste of tears,' he said; her brow creased and she didn't reply.
Roger noticed the goatherd studying them from a nearby table. He made a comment and the men with him sat back as if to meditate on this piece of information. He then ambled off eating a ripe peach, the juice dripping down his waistcoat. He smiled at Roger and Roger gave him a wave. Susan snorted.
The moment Spick placed their food before them, huge raindrops began to fall in rhythmic thuds. The fairy lights were dancing in the trees. Lightning flashed, unzipping the sky and letting out a thunderclap that howled like a beaten animal. They hurried in with their plates as the storm scraped all colour from the night. The men moved into the bar with their glasses. Only Ari remained. He was standing on the harbour wall, his arms outstretched like a devotee in some pagan rite. As the waves washed about him he looked like an old marble statue in the eruptions of blue light.
'What's he doing?' asked Susan.
Roger was absently turning the tips of his moustache. Ari appeared to be in touch with something simple and forgotten, the part shrivelled inside Roger. 'He looks like a Greek god,' he said.
Susan glanced at him sideways. 'You like these people, don't you?'
'Sure, don't you?'
'Not much.' She stood. 'I'm going to bed.'
'You should stay. This is real.'
'It's in your mind,' she said.
She walked out and he remained watching Ari in his ceremony with the storm. The lightning kept flashing, the thunder continuous. The bar was quiet, the men staring out into the night with awed, expectant expressions.
A car appeared, breaking the spell, the rain like silver nails in the muted headlamps. The car stopped close to the bar and the driver burst in barking orders. Everyone started shouting at once and the men hurried out, running off into the night. The barman locked the till.
'What's going on?' Roger asked him.
'Your car here,' he answered, pointing at the vehicle.
'I don't understand.'
'Fishing boat. On the rocks,' Spick said.
Roger followed them out and got into the car with Spick, the driver and another man. Ari had turned away from the sea. Their eyes met for a moment and Roger saw in his features a look of complex reckoning, like a child with long division. The car turned and he was gone.
They drove out on the narrow road to a track that corkscrewed around the coast. Other cars had got there before them and men were clambering down the cliff-face towards a boat wedged among the rocks.
The rescuers swam through the waves for the ropes the crew on board were throwing out. They worked as a team, as if the exercise had been rehearsed, each man aware of his task and performing it without pause or complaint. Roger helped secure the ropes the swimmers brought to land, lashing them to spurs of rock, the lines spinning out in all directions until the vessel resembled a fly trapped in a web. The sea was pounding the shoreline, fists of water that charged into every fissure and crevice in an incessant, ramming motion. Roger was wet through, the salt spray and sparks of lightning new drugs entering his bloodstream. The rain felt like razors striking his face. The wind blew the dust from his eyes and the night's every detail was revealed in intense clarity.
Even as they laboured, the storm began to abate. The waves grew smaller, spitting weakly at the rocks, as if some longing had been pacified. Spick gripped his arm. 'We look out for each other,' he said. Now the boat was safe, he was anxious to leave. They found the driver and the three of them made their way back up the cliff. As they were heading back around the coast, Roger saw Ari bounding along, his long arms swinging.
'Look,' he said, pointing. The old barman's smile vanished. He spoke to the driver and the car skidded to a halt.
'No problem,' he said. He opened the door. 'He just go sometime. We don't see him for weeks.' Spick tapped the side of his head and hurried off.
As soon as they arrived back at the square, Roger went up to their room but Susan wasn't there. He checked the shower. The shutters were open, the moon's glow white on the sea. The bedside table had been knocked over, spilling the lamp, the alarm clock, some books. He went down to the bar. It was in darkness, empty but for the driver. He was sitting on one of the plastic stools, a cigarette putting a frisson of light in his eyes. He handed over the car keys and thrust a form at Roger which he signed without reading.
Outside, he called Susan's name and was answered by the far away rumble of the storm as it rolled out to sea. The village was deserted, the night hot, the ground already drying. Roger had decided to follow in the direction in which he had last seen Ari, when Ari appeared from the narrow street behind the bar. He was out of breath and stood there, hopping from one foot to the other. Roger approached.
'Susan? Have you seen Susan?' he asked him.
'Goats,' Ari replied.
'No, no. Susan. My wife?'
Ari grinned, pointing into the hills. 'Goats,' he said again.
Ari made his way towards the car and Roger followed. They got in and Roger took the winding road out of the village. He stopped at the spot where he had crashed the first day. The broken down car had gone. He stared up the hill where he had watched the goatherd carrying the dead animal across his shoulders and had the same feeling that had come to him when he first entered the village, a sense of the future cutting its links from the past.
Ari was gesturing wildly. They got out of the car. Roger climbed the wall and Ari remained on the roadside as he made his way up the hill. Silver moons reflected in the eyes of the goats grazing on the pasture. They paused as he drew nearer then moved on in concentric patterns as if they were all connected and one had a knock-on effect to the next. From the crest of the hill he could see a stone hut, the window yellow with light. Behind the chime of the goat bells, Roger heard a muffled sob that grew louder as he approached.
Through the window he saw Susan tied and immobile on a sacking mattress. The tall goatherd was sitting at a table sharpening his knife. He stared out with a look of equanimity, his expression unchanging as Roger charged through the door with something dimly heroic in mind. The man had placed the knife on the table, handle towards Roger, the blade shiny in the candlelight. Susan was gagged and blindfolded, unharmed as far as he could see. The man spoke and what he said Roger seemed to remember from the dream, but they were words without meaning. He owed the Greek money for the dead goats, but he knew as he stared down at the knife that this wasn't what it was about. It was something he couldn't fully grasp. The man stood. He took Roger in his arms and kissed him on both cheeks.
Roger weighed the knife in his palm. He cut the rope from Susan's feet and ankles. He guided her out of the hut and she sniffed and whimpered as he led her down the hill to the car. He removed the gag and blindfold before opening the car door.
Music from the radio climbed the stairwell as he packed Susan's suitcase.
He put his finger to her lips and carried on packing.
The driver from the hire company was drinking retsina. Roger gave him the car keys and the case.
'You. She,' he pointed at Susan. 'You take.'
Spick was cleaning a glass with the same ragged cloth. 'Good. Good. You speak Greek. You clever.'
Roger strode out to the car. Ari was standing at the water's edge, silhouetted against the horizon. The storm had passed and the men sat in the square staring up at shooting stars like Greek fire burning across distances too great to imagine.
'You're not staying here?' Susan said.
'I am,' he replied, and Roger thought about Magdalena in the Afghani coat as he watched the car vanish through the shadowy hills.
Â© 2007 Clifford Thurlow
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Oh, l loved this. Not too
Oh, l loved this. Not too clever at commenting, but l loved this !!
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