I began to recognise Jayne, as I came to know her, in the vague way one does when a person hovers on the periphery. I’d notice her passing by the window of my bookshop, glancing in, averting her eyes and hurrying away.
My bookshop had been open for two weeks with little in the way of sales when Jayne fully revealed herself. She peered in through the glass panel on the door. Pressed to the side of her face was that of a Yorkshire Terrier’s. Their breaths comingled, fogging the pane, blurring and revealing their faces in two circular mists.
I raised my hand in a small wave, turning it into a beckoning for Jayne to come inside. She pulled her face away from the glass and hesitated for a moment. From my place behind the counter, I could see she was drawing a breath. For reasons I put down to my reading habits, thoughts about vampires and invitations passed fleetingly through my mind.
The bell above the door announced her entrance. From the threshold, she said, ‘Are you open?’
‘What kind of books do you have?’
‘Will you be able to get books for me?’
‘Whatever you want.’
She cast her eyes over the shop, taking in the deep-varnished bookcases that covered every available wall space, the comics rack that added colour to the room, the counter with its coffee machine at one end, an iPod docking station at the other. Her eyes travelled past me, pausing momentarily on a young couple drinking coffee at one of two small tables I’d centred on either side of the room. Since they’d arrived, the man had been waxing philosophical over Roland Barthes and the subtext found in his latest binge watch. The woman nodded uninterestedly as she skimmed the books stacked on the table between them.
Jayne’s presence gave him pause. He touched the woman’s fingertips with his own and raised his eyebrows. The woman turned as Jayne took her first, tentative steps into the shop. She held the Terrier in the crook of her arm with its lead looped around her wrist. Wrapped tightly and panting inside a navy dog coat, it whined softly, its stub of a tongue flicking in and out of its mouth as it looked to its owner for reassurance. Already, I could tell they were inseparable from each other, a witch and her familiar.
Jayne wore thick make-up, unevenly applied. Bright red lipstick, pale blue eyeshadow, blusher. I imagined her as a computer colourised version of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Her face was crowned with red hair, tightly permed in a dry frizz that she’d tried to cram inside a floral head scarf. Loose strands coiled out like copper wires and stuck to the collar of a heavy purple coat, buttoned all the way up to her chin. The hem of the coat reached as far as her knees, and from there she wore tan cotton trousers with black socks and chunky heeled brogues. She and the dog looked as though they needed ventilating.
She took a seat at the opposing table.
The woman cleared her throat. ‘You have a lovely dog. What’s her name?’
‘He’s a boy,’ Jayne said, facing the woman, ‘and it’s Toby.’
She lifted Toby’s paw and gave it a little wave. The woman smiled politely.
‘Cute,’ the man said, the word falling out of his mouth like a sour boiled sweet.
Jayne averted her eyes, withdrawing into the cover of her head scarf. I wondered if she might be blushing under the make-up.
The man drummed his fingers loudly in time to Otis Redding on the stereo. The woman turned her attention back to the blurb on a Virago Press anthology.
I placed a small pot of tea, a cup and saucer and a milk jug on the table. I introduced myself, and she told me her name was Jayne.
‘I was wondering when you were going to drop in,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen you pass by a few times.’
Without answering, she poured a splash of tea in the cup, topped it with a large measure of milk. She sipped noisily while Toby licked at whatever tea was left on her upper lip. She wiped her mouth with the back of a hand, smearing her lipstick.
The man rose, took a wallet from his back pocket and stood by the counter. I felt grateful he’d given me reason to join him.
The music changed to a live Nina Simone track, the blues essence fitting the sudden shift in mood since Jayne walked in. If she hadn’t spoken so loudly, her next comment could have been forgiven for being a thought out loud.
‘I never could understand black music.’
The statement hung in the air.
‘A bit of a generalisation,’ the man said without turning.
I chose not to pursue it, tilling up what the couple owed as the woman shrugged into her coat. Once outside, the man let go a laugh, forced and loud enough for Jayne to hear.
Just as suddenly, Jayne said, ‘Where’s your horror section?’
‘Just here,’ I said, indicating with a nod the shelves filled with science-fiction, horror and fantasy. ‘They run alphabetically.’
Exhaling a long, somewhat theatrical sigh, she looped Toby’s lead around the chair leg. She ran a finger along the spines until she came to the W’s.
‘Ah, so it’s Dennis, is it?’
She selected three titles by Dennis Wheatley and placed them on the counter.
‘These will have to do,’ she said, dropping a fistful of change next to the books. ‘You don’t have the one I wanted. I thought you said you had all kinds.’
Her manner was that peculiar mix of brash and shy, a trait instantly recognisable in the socially awkward, and one so readily misconstrued as rudeness.
‘Well, I do,’ I said, bristling slightly.
‘Well, you don’t have mine. It’s called something about dark forces.’
I knew the one she meant. Something about Nazis dabbling in the occult.
‘They Used Dark Forces?’ I said.
‘If that’s what it’s called, then they must have, yes. Can you get it for me?’
‘I don’t see why not, if you can give me a week. You like Wheatley, do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I think I read one of his years ago.’ She made a face like she’d swallowed something bitter. ‘It was about the Devil, I think.’
‘The Devil Rides Out maybe?’
‘Could be. I didn’t bother finishing it.’
‘They made a good film of it,’ I said. ‘Christopher Lee.’
‘I never saw it.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Too nasty for you, isn’t it?’
I wasn’t sure if she was addressing me, the dog, or herself. There seemed to be a strange, disjointed inconsistency to her that I couldn’t quite place. I took what she owed from the pile of change. The rest she palmed off the counter and let fall into her other hand.
She unhooked Toby from the chair, drained the last of her tea standing, and left without saying goodbye.
As I cleared her things, I unpeeled a green post-it note from the table top spattered with spilt tea. In a shaky hand she’d written Denise Weatly.
Jayne didn’t return directly for her book, arriving three weeks later on a bright Friday afternoon. In the meantime, my little bookshop had built up something of a reputation. A steady flow of customers eased any concerns I may have had about the decline of the second-hand bookshop. Giving people a place to sit and chat turned out to be a shrewd business move. The conversations over coffee were invariably about literature, often ending in a question as to whether I had a copy of a particular book. If I couldn’t accommodate a customer there and then, I’d offer to order a copy in, thus building up a returning clientele. It didn’t take long for me to realise I was getting all I’d ever wanted from work: to be both busy and happy.
The two tables were taken up, with four more customers browsing the shelves. The small space and tall bookcases combined to make the place look crowded. Jayne passed the window several times with Toby under her arm, eventually making her entrance once the shop had emptied of all but one customer: a teenage boy flicking through a Doctor Who novel. Jayne sat in the same spot as before and ordered a tea without a please. She looked a little disgruntled at having to wait so long to come inside. When the boy left without buying, her eyes followed him out of the door, urging him on his way.
I brought her tea and a well-read paperback copy of They Used Dark Forces. She didn’t thank me. I selected a Beatles playlist on the iPod. The music filled the empty spaces left with the dying tinkle of the bell over the door. She drank her tea while I straightened the shelves. Closer in proximity, I felt the tension emanating from her.
‘So, how did you like the Wheatley books?’ I asked, partly out of interest, but also to fill the growing silence that came with the fade out on ‘Hey Jude’.
‘Oh, they were wonderful,’ she said, sardonically. ‘I’d like some more. Horror things, you know.’
I found an M.R. James collection and a couple of anthologies with stories by Edith Wharton, E. Nesbit, Oliver Onions and the like. Victorian and Edwardian era ghost stories mostly. I laid them on the table, fanning them out like a female assistant on a quiz show.
‘These are great,’ I said. ‘Well written. Creepy.’
I left her in peace to browse. She examined the books without picking them up, her eyes moving slowly left to right across the covers then back again. Gingerly, she selected a Pan anthology, opened it at the middle and flipped through the pages, going backwards and forwards without reading any singular page at length. Finally, she sighed, placed it on the table, and repeated the same brief summary with the other two, leaving the James volume until last before returning to her first selection. With every turn of the page — increasing in speed and so fast that she couldn’t possibly have read what was written on them – her sighs became louder. I began to feel myself becoming irritated by what I saw as her pretended ennui. Or maybe my irritation grew from not being able to place her: asking for another book by an author she clearly held no regard for; her constant sighing inviting attention before cutting a conversation short with a terse, cryptic comment. And then,
‘Do you have anything stronger? They’re not very gory, are they.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I just thought these might have been better suited.’
‘Because of my age?’
I held up my hands. ‘Yes, I admit. And I’m sorry. Here,’ I said, moving to the bookcase. ‘These might do the trick.’
I had a few James Herbert novels, a three-book Shaun Hutson collection, and one or two of Clive Barker’s earlier efforts; good British 1980s blood-and-sex novels. I put what I had on the table and left her to it, glancing over from time to time to gauge her reaction. This time she seemed to pay more attention to the words. She took her time over the pages with her head slightly averted while a crease formed between her painted eyebrows.
After going over each one, she made two piles of books, laid a hand on the one with The Hellbound Heart on top, and said, ‘I’ll take these. But not these ones. I can’t abide slugs.’
‘That makes two of us, then,’ I said.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘I’d like to buy some more books. But none of that horror fiction this time. I’m after something else.’
For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I felt a certain relief. I more than understood those who appreciated the cathartic nature of horror fiction, but there was something about Jayne, a vulnerability buried somewhere deep beneath the hair and make-up, that made me think too much horror might damage her. I immediately thought Katherine Mansfield, Ali Smith, Graham Greene. Good writers, good stories, no horror. I was recommending some titles from the shelves when she stopped me mid-flow.
‘No, no, no,’ she said. ‘No more of this made-up nonsense, he said. Didn’t you, Toby? You want more factual books. You know, horror facts and things like that.’
‘Non-fiction,’ I said, ‘like unexplained phenomena, that kind of thing?’
‘Like that, but more real. Not UFOs, that’s just silly.’
She shook her head impatiently. ‘No. You obviously weren’t listening. No silly stuff. More real, I said. True crime they call it.’
I felt a weight in my chest, coming as suddenly as the relief it displaced.
‘I have a few,’ I said. ‘Did you want to look at anything in particular?’
‘All of them,’ she said.
The True Crime section took up the shelf above horror. Books on Sweeney Todd, the Ripper, the Wests, Cosa Nostra. I reached up and took down what I had. She placed them in her lap, hesitating for a moment before leafing through them. She didn’t read so much as looked, wincing at the black and white photographs of gangsters on the floors of barber shops, cordoned off houses, police shots of crime scenes, while the perpetrators stared back at her with eyes as dead as their victims’.
She added three books on serial killers to the pile she’d already made and carried them to the counter, leaving the Mafia-related books on the table.
‘Too tame?’ I said, half-joking.
She ignored this. Said, ‘I need you to get these for me.’ She handed me a note: 120 Days of Sodom – De Sade. Mein Kampf − Hitler. Her hand was trembling. ‘Did I spell them right?’
‘You want me to order these for you?’
A tut, then: ‘You really should look at getting your ears syringed. Did I spell them right?’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘Well, that’s something then.’
‘You seriously want to read these?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said, deliberately.
It just so happened I had a copy of Mein Kampf in the back. It was keeping unlikely company with autobiographies by Dickie Bird and Dawn French.
‘Here,’ I said, handing it to her, before adding, a little maliciously, ‘Enjoy.’
She picked up the book. It was the Penguin paperback edition with a cover photograph of Hitler, back to the camera, looking over his hordes of followers who’d gathered to hear him speak.
‘Enjoy,’ she said faintly. ‘Stupid thing to say.’
I felt my cheeks burn with the thought that she might be Jewish. She unscrewed a plastic shopping bag from out of her handbag and dropped the books into it one by one. She bought eight in total. Fiction was followed by reportage, reportage by autobiography; atrocities imagined, reported on, and confessed to first-hand. A steady progression.
Without another word, she paid with a bunch of change and left, still without a goodbye.
The day Jayne collected the De Sade, it was raining a storm outside. Why had she picked such a lousy day to venture out? I began to wonder if she was a masochist. The red frizz poking out the front of her head scarf was matted to her forehead. Her mascara had run, giving the impression her eyes were staring out from ink wells. Her dog, soaked through, looked equally pathetic. I brought her a tea and some paper towels to dry her face with. She wiped her face, not carefully, but in huge circles, catching the edge of the table and jostling the tea cup. She reminded me of a stage actress trying to remove all remnants of a bad performance. She didn’t seem to care that she’d left half her make-up on the towels, nor did she take out a compact mirror to see how her face was smeared, Joker-like, with pinks and blues. Through the gaps in the foundation, a mass of clumped powdered blotches, I could see shadows under her eyes, a ruddiness to her cheeks. She looked pale and drawn out, like some invisible other was sucking the marrow from her bones.
She rubbed Toby’s head with the same towels, leaving a patch of white muck on his fur. With him grinning and her looking the way she did, they looked, for want of a better word, crazy. By the time she’d finished, the table was littered with screwed up paper towels and spilt tea.
‘There,’ she said, ‘that’s better.’
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Do you want a fresh cup? I think you might have spilled a drop there.’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Do you have my book?’
I placed a copy of The 120 Days of Sodom on the table, the edge touching her fingertips. She drew her hand back.
‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked.
I told her. She fumbled inside her purse and handed me a five-pound note. The tremor in her hand seemed more pronounced than last time. She struggled to stuff the book into her handbag, leaving it jutting out of the top like a dirty secret.
‘Are you sitting for a while?’ I asked.
She looked back at the door, at the rain.
‘I suppose I could stay for a cup. Not for long though.’ And then again to herself: ‘Not for too long.’
I fetched her another tea over.
‘On the house,’ I said. ‘Do you mind if I sit with you?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t mind.’
I took a seat.
‘Listen, Jayne,’ I said, ‘I know we barely know each other, but if you ever need to talk about anything, the weather, life, books . . .’
‘Small talk,’ she said.
‘Yes, I suppose.’
‘I’m not very good at small talk. Chatting.’ She wrinkled her nose like it was a dirty word. ‘All people do is chatter, don’t they? On their phones on the bus. And swearing. They always seem to be swearing.’
I put a hand over my heart. ‘I won’t swear. I promise.’
She smiled for the first time then. It was one of those smiles that starts at the mouth and transforms a person’s face, leaving a trace in the eyes after the smile has gone. The trace faded when she asked if I had any medical books.
‘What for?’ I asked.
Avoiding the question, she started rummaging inside her handbag.
‘And there are others I need.’ She found the note she was looking for and handed it to me.
I hesitated, wanting her to answer me first. She started to nuzzle Toby’s ear with her nose. There wouldn’t be an answer.
‘Okay,’ I said, and brought over what I had. A heavy, scholarly encyclopaedia covering everything from skin disorders to cranial surgery took her attention away from the brighter stuff on how to maintain a healthy mind and diet.
She hunkered over the book, her headscarf offering me a view of her paisley patterned crown. I didn’t bother to sit back down.
As she sipped her tea, she went through the same tired routine of tutting and sighing over the pages. From my place behind the counter I couldn’t make out the diagrams and photographs, but whatever they showed — procedures, anatomy, wounds – caused her to flip past them until she closed the book and reached for another. Every now and again, she’d shiver, which I first thought was another one of her theatrics, a show to give the impression she found the content as disturbing as any normal person would. Then, I noticed how the wet had plastered her coat collar to the back of her neck.
My feelings swung between a genuine concern for her health and a rising annoyance whenever she sighed. If the coat bothered her, why not take it off? If the books disturbed her, why read them?
‘Would you mind not dripping on the books,’ I said. ‘Unless you’re buying them.’
Without raising her head, she said, ‘If I drip on them, I’ll buy them.’
As good as her word, she selected two more books to go with the encyclopaedia. One on the war wounded (illustrated), the other on amputation (also illustrated). She brought them to the counter.
‘I’ll pay for these,’ she said, laying a twenty on the counter. ‘And I’ll need a bag. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s raining outside.’
I bagged the books.
‘And have you bothered to read my note?’
I handed her change and unfolded the note.
‘What’s this, another order?’ I said. ‘You read a lot.’
She took her change, dropping a few coins on the floor as she tried to put them in her pocket. Before I could offer to help, she bent down, falling out of sight while I read the note. Seeing what was written on it, I wondered if she’d dropped the change on purpose, reminding me of a child who confesses to doing something wrong from the other side of a door.
‘Look, Jayne. I can’t order these.’
‘Why not?’ she said. She leaned in close to whisper, ‘You said you could get me whatever I wanted.’ Her breath smelled like medicine. Her collar like dog.
‘Not this I can’t.’
‘Not here,’ I said, and gave back her note. ‘Try online.’
‘But I don’t know how,’ she said. Her voice had become softer, losing the brashness that came with, what I assumed, was the offence she’d taken at my suggesting she’d carelessly soak the books.
‘Then don’t try,’ I said.
‘But I need them.’
Her eyes searched my face, trying to unearth a clue to find what she was looking for.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
She straightened up and walked out, leaving me with the list stamped on my brain. They weren’t specific titles, as such. It was more subject matter, scrawled erratically as if by writing them down she could exorcise them. She’d asked for first-hand accounts of atrocities ‘of any description,’ from victims of abuse to testimonials from Holocaust survivors. From there the list continued, specifying books on the so-called Zionist conspiracy.
Something she once said came back to me then, something about not understanding black music.
The onset of summer brought rising temperatures and an influx of new customers looking for cheap, light reads to take away with them on holiday. Most days I left the door open. The music – a mix of reggae, dub and soul – floated outside. On the day Jayne walked in, Aretha Franklin was singing about respect.
‘I always liked this one,’ she said, framed in the doorway with Toby under her arm.
In spite of the heat, she still wore the purple coat. The head scarf had seemed to form some kind of symbiosis with her hair. The make-up, peeling slowly during her past visits, had returned with a vengeance. I wondered how on earth her pores could possibly continue breathing beneath it all.
‘The Queen of Soul,’ I said, smiling.
Taking a seat, she said, ‘I’ve never been called that before.’
A joke. Jayne cracked a joke.
‘It’s good to see you, Jayne,’ I said, feeling a certain something when I found I meant it. ‘Are you looking for anything to read today?’
‘Not today,’ she said, ‘I’m done with reading for a while, I think. I would like to donate some books though. They belonged to my husband.’
‘You never told me you were married.’
I always thought of her as living alone. A lonely spinster. Or a widow, which, as it turned out, she was.
‘Why would I? It’s none of your business. But seeing as we’re on the subject, my husband, Henry, passed on two weeks ago.’
She waved off my condolences before I could say them.
‘And I’m not here for sympathy. I have a few boxes of books you might be interested in. Are you able to pop round this evening?’
She gave me her address, and I wrote it down.
‘I’ll come after I’ve closed up,’ I said. ‘About six?’
To Toby: ‘Six o’clock?’ Then, to me: ‘He said six is fine.’
Then she laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world. She stifled the outburst with a hand to her mouth.
‘While I’m here,’ she said, ‘there is something I need.’
‘Name it,’ I said, not entirely sure I wanted her to.
‘Do you have any books on film?’
‘I have plenty,’ I said. ‘Mostly from my own collection. I’m a bit of a film buff. You?’
‘That depends on the films.’
I showed her to a shelf bending under the weight of some large hardbacks. Big books about big films made by studios like MGM and Universal. Minimal text, but pages filled with glossy pictures of Technicolor starlets and black and white on-set stills.
Slowly, she turned the pages. As she immersed herself in the books her sighs took on an entirely different meaning.
I drove the short distance to Jayne’s address with the windows rolled down and the stereo turned up. Neil Young, sunshine and an air of optimism about the bookshop’s future dissipated as I pulled up outside her door.
Jayne’s house stood at the end of a side street lined on either side with around twenty other nondescript red-brick terraces. In contrast to the other house fronts with their hanging baskets, PVC windows and doors, Jayne’s looked like a neglected child, orphaned and unloved. There was chipped red paint on the doorstep, a wooden door unvarnished and slightly warped, flakes of white paint dusting the pavement beneath the window sill, above which tanned net curtains hung limply behind a dirt smeared window. It looked as though it had creeped, ashamedly, to the bottom end of the street. Either that, or it had been shunted there by her neighbours.
I knocked and she answered, wearing a beige cardigan frayed at the sleeves over an off-white dress that looked as though it may have once been starched. The head scarf and coat were hung on a peg behind the door and her hair, wild and free, frizzed out in tight coils. A medusa in her cave. Toby lay curled inside a dog bed at the end of the hall.
‘This way,’ she said.
I followed her down a short, dimly lit hallway. Ahead was the kitchen, just about on the right side of clean, and it was there that she offered me a cold drink. I accepted and she poured me a lemonade gone flat from a plastic bottle. I drank it down in two, thanked her, refused a second and followed her into the living room.
On the floor were boxes marked PAPERWORK, BILLS, one labelled FOR BARRY (whoever Barry was) and, stacked one on top of the other, three boxes marked BOOKS. Draped across the back of the sofa were men’s shirts and suit jackets. On an armchair was another box with SHOES written on the side. A musty air settled over everything.
She told me, ‘Feel free to take any shirts you might need.’
I declined and asked if I could open the boxes of books, see if there was anything I could use. She said I could take all three boxes, she was happy to be rid of them, and would I mind dropping anything unwanted into a local charity shop. I crouched on my haunches and opened the first one. Inside were around twenty or more well-read paperbacks, all horror, some of which I remember her buying from me. I lifted out a stack and underneath were others. Some cheap erotic fiction, some harder stuff. I put the books back and opened the next box. I was met with lurid covers, some with inverted crosses, some with swastikas, and all published on the cheap. Slotted in amongst these were pamphlets on everything unimaginable, ranging from the effects of radiation on new-born babies to guides on how to defend yourself and effectively torture somebody. Seemed like Jayne had managed to get her hands on some of the stuff that I didn’t order for her after all. I noticed the De Sade book was in there too. So was Mein Kampf. A creeping feeling of guilt came over me. I felt like a low-end peddler, or a drug dealer who sells cannabis, only to see his customers go elsewhere as their taste for something stronger takes hold.
I closed the box. Jayne’s voice then, behind me.
‘There’s still one more, if you want to take a look.’
I turned to look up at her. From my place on the floor, she seemed taller. Stronger. I tore the seal off the top of the last box and looked inside. I had to close it again before the images could take a hold in my brain. Where she’d managed to pick up some of this stuff, I’ll never know.
Her hand on my shoulder made me jump slightly, and in that instant my mind raced on with me as its reluctant passenger. I imagined feeling the prick of a needle on the back of my neck before I sank down into the black, waking up tied to a table with rusty cutting implements on a metal tray beside me, a coven of hags with Jayne as their leader, watching as I lay paralysed under the effects of whatever diabolical concoction she’d slipped into my lemonade. And the real kicker, the absolute gut-laugh, was that I was the one who set her forth on this path of depravity, and now it was my turn to die. I wanted to stand up, but her hand was there on my shoulder and, somehow, I didn’t want to offend her by rejecting her touch.
‘My husband,’ she said, ‘wasn’t a very nice man.’
When I turned to look up at her again, she looked smaller, diminishing under, what for her, was an open confession. Whatever had happened between Henry and herself wasn’t something she was about to share with anybody. I put my hand over hers and she moved it away, said she’d make us a pot of tea while I loaded up the car.
Back inside the hall, I crouched down and petted Toby, a show of kindness he returned with a nip on my wrist. Jayne was moving to-and-fro in the kitchen. I went back into the living-room, taking an opportunity to scan the room. On one wall was a bookcase, the shelves filled with VHS tapes. I looked at the titles, a fair balance of Disney cartoons and musicals, with a few epics thrown in. Ben Hur, Gone with the Wind, a few Laurel and Hardy tapes.
She brought the tea, and I cleared a space on the sofa for us. Asked her if the tapes were her husband’s.
‘No,’ she said, ‘they’re all mine.’
‘But the books were all his, right?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘though he couldn’t read very well.’
‘But you can.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘if I have to.’
We sipped our tea in silence. I said goodbye to Jayne at the door. I would have liked to have said more. She said her first and last goodbye and closed the door behind me.
On the way home I stopped by a pub and drank a Guinness. A man at the next table sat reading a Roddy Doyle. Occasionally, he’d hold the book to his chest, smiling at something he’d read.
By the time I got home it was dark, but still light enough for me to make a fire of three boxes in the back yard.
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