Brighter than darkness
An extract from the novel Eksyneet (‘The lost’, WSOY, 2001). Interview by Markus Määttänen
It was a white tiled wall. Too white. Sterile. He wondered how long he had been looking at it. In any case long enough to have forgotten it was a wall. It had changed into a vacuum opening up before him and then shrunk into a tunnel through whose irresistible suction he had hurtled toward the painful images of the past. The past. Yesterday. Almost yesterday. He had stared at the nocturnal entrance, clearly divided in two by the street lamps, and not just that, but now saw only a lifeless and, in its lifelessness, repellant wall. He sighed, rubbed his numb face, pushed himself off the floor and stood up.
He leaned against the wash handbasin with his hands and looked at his mirror image. It was still absent from his face: the feeling he longed for. His face could just as well have been empty, a featureless blotch. It bore the marks of fatigue and drifting; it was stubbly and dark-lidded, but the same symptoms could be und on the face of any commercial traveller who spends his nights in hotels. And if this commercial traveller had, for example, run over someone late at night and fled from the scene of the crime, one would expect his face to show something other than merely the dregs of long working days and manic evenings in restaurants. If he was at all human. Even most commercial travellers presumably were. He didn’t suppose, Joel thought as he turned disgustedly away from his reflection and closed the door behind him, that he would have made it as a commercial traveller.
Laura was sleeping in the position into which she had curled a couple of hours earlier: her arms together against her body, her face buried in her hands, seeking security from herself. Joel went, taking careful steps, to the window and lifted the curtain. The darkness grew, wafting from the edges of the lighted parking lot. Somewhere it became sky, starless and dull, a fist clenched above the city. Joel might have dressed in complete silence, crept out of the room and then out of the hotel, just disappeared over the empty parking places into the dark. Perhaps he would have made his way to the shore and stood in the darkness, listening to the heavily pounding waves. All they would have lacked was him. But it would have been too easy; he would not even have tried to hunt down that feeling, and thus he would never have encountered himself, and in bidding farewell to himself in the darkness of the shore he would have said goodbye to a stranger.
The bed creaked as he lowered himself, with restrained movements, next to Laura. Laura slept, breathing gently. Joel could feel the warmth radiating from her curved back. There was always something dead in such moments. It had already been there in Laura’s gestures as she had rolled away from Joel’s side, listlessly and as if apologetically, turned to the side by necessity. On the other hand, something might be born of such moments. As of any moment at all. Time was full of traps. Quagmires, pitfalls, trenches. Driftsand piled on a person’s road by a great hand. He stared at the roof made more distant by the pallid lamp until it began to undulate, furtively create new shapes like a thickening mass of cloud. Vague limbs began to take form through its dense fog. The writhing limbs of nightmares, years of them.
He started with the sense of movement close by. Laura was sitting up in bed, leaning her back against the wall. She had pulled the quilt up and was pressing it to her chest with both hands. She did not look as if she had just woken up; her eyes were wide awake and watchful. The darkness that had collected in the corners of the room was reflected in their lenses. She turned them without turning her face toward Joel and said: ‘Someone will die tonight.’
‘A lot of people will die tonight,’ Joel said. ‘Many happy returns.’
‘Just being born and dying,’ Laura inclined her face toward Joel. She began to look amused. ‘Crazy, eh?’
Laura got out of bed, pressing the quilt to her chest. As she somehow slipped across the room, almost without touching the floor with the balls of her feet, the quilt followed her like a train turned inside out. She pulled it after her into the bathroom. After a moment, she glided back, stopped beside the bed to gaze at Joel accusingly, let the quilt fall to the foot of the bed and slid, naked, into the bathroom. Joel pulled himself, groaning, from the bed and began to get dressed. Having done so, he lit a cigarette and sat in an uncomfortable chair to smoke it. The shower murmured in the bathroom. Joel’s watch showed half past four.
‘I wonder what time they serve breakfast here?’ Laura said, wrapped in a large towel in the middle of the room. ‘Six, or not until seven?’
Joel blew some ash off his sleeve. ‘I’m sure it says so somewhere.’
‘On the other hand, hotel breakfasts are weird.’ Laura let the towel slip on to the floor and began to gather her clothes from the corner beside the bed. ‘The people are stiff and false. So damned restrained. Although it’s even worse on the ships that run between Sweden and Finland. Some people desperately act restrained, and others look as if their haemorrhoids are bleeding. The ones with hangovers.’
‘That’s what those ships are like, all right,’ Joel commented. He bent over to get a better view of the birthmark on the back of Laura’s thigh, under the left buttock. It was like a little maple leaf. ‘Hung over.’
‘I suppose so. But anyway.’ Laura was dressing purposefully, with small movements. Diving into her clothes. ‘Maybe we could have breakfast somewhere else.’
‘Although it’s expensive.’ Laura lay down on the side of the bed. ‘Why does it have to cost so much? Self-service.’
Joel shrugged his shoulders.
‘Although it’s not only that. Now you have to pay for the stupidest of things. At this rate there’ll soon be an entrance fee to get into shops. Paying some small bill already costs more than the bill itself. And maybe heart-attack patients will soon not be admitted to hospital unless they’re carrying cash. What sense is there in anything?’
‘None, I guess.’
A soft shadow halved, half softened Laura’s face as she leaned forward on her elbows at the end of the bed. ‘And you could try not to chatter all the time, too. You soon won’t be able to hear your own voice around here.’
Joel rose from his chair. ‘Let’s eat that chocolate.’
They ate chocolate and potato crisps sitting side by side in bed. It was completely quiet in the hotel, until some forbearingly slow feet dragged by in the corridor. It took them a small eternity to buzz by, and Laura stared at the door, her mouth open. She was still staring at it when the laboriously dragging voice had died away.
‘It’s not worth worrying about him,’ Joel said. ‘He was the local gopher. The younger of the two.’
Laura shook her head unassumingly. ‘It makes you think of strange things.’
‘Like that there’s no such thing of a moment that doesn’t recall another moment. That nothing is new.’ She glanced at Joel with shy amusement. ‘Sounds like silly nonsense, doesn’t it?’
‘Not at all. Sounds like fairly intelligent nonsense.’
Laura gazed firmly ahead. ‘Maybe everything is just repetition, just variation. Maybe that’s the key to it all.’
The bed rocked as Laura got up suddenly, crossed her legs and leaned toward Joel. ‘Well then, your opinion on the transmigration of souls.’
Laura snorted, and a potato-chip crumb that had stuck to the edge of her mouth fell. ‘Genius. Try talking deep here.’
‘No flexitime. Pathetic overtime. No hope of early retirement. No point in expecting help from the trade union.’
‘OK.’ Laura stretched out her long legs again on the bed. ‘The main thing is that you don’t want to talk about football.’
‘Not even in my dreams.’
‘And you don’t even think about it.’
‘Not at least in that situation.’
It was seven o’clock when they left the hotel. Grey light flaked into view, gusts of winds shook the chilly trees. They walked along an empty road and turned toward the shore. Laura’s hand had sought refuge in Joel’s arm. Attachment, the senseless ease of attachment. First the gaze, then the words. Then the hips. You sleep next to a woman, and that’s it. You’re no longer alone. Your words are for a woman, your torso grows from between a woman’s legs. It’s too easy, as if involuntary. You don’t have time to think about it. You’ve been prepared all this time, but you haven’t realised it. In this way you could bump into anyone at all, and you do, since everyone is, in any case, anyone at all. But perhaps it will also go over just as easily. You drifted there, and you can drift away. As you will doubtless do, if you’re not unconsciously doing it already. And then something will die again. Not tragically, not with any great fanfare; it will just disappear. As if it were to take its coat and go humbly away.
On the beach they passed a few old, red-painted warehouses. It looked as if there were restaurants in them, or had been, when it was summer. The fractured morning traffic rumbled along the opposite shore. All that was visible of the city was its inexpressive side, the grey breastplates of the buildings that had crept down to the water. Dampness hung in the air, and dampness and light were transformed into a single substance, a fragile curtain that drew a veil over the landscape. Even thought became damp.
‘Where shall we have breakfast, then?’
They crossed the bridge and walked one city block to the market. The dampness hanging in the air was behind them, and the light that was being squeezed forth opened up the city. The streets were half empty, sleepy and straight, and the city caught in their grid low, firmly nestled in the ground, solid. It had been built to withstand storms, to resist the damp and salt of the sea. Not just the old wooden buildings, but the cataleptic cubes of the newer brick buildings breathed stubborn opposition, the ill-tempered resistance of the people who shivered by the shore-stones. Once the city had been only an insignificant village, and its inhabitants fishermen and boat-builders, maybe merchants who cheated the country people. Once, long ago, but there was still something left of it. It had never been a summer resort for the upper classes; you could still sense that in the isolated atmosphere of the hungry and exhausted. Through time, the boat-builders had become ship-builders and the fishermen factory-workers, and in the end a growing band of them jobless ship-builders and factory-workers, but the atmosphere, nature, basic nature of the place had not changed. It was still the village curled up on the rock. Its men were still fishermen who pulled their nets from the foaming sea with fingers contorted by the cold and its women were fishermen’s wives on the empty shore gazing at the immensity of the waves with faces defeated by the emptiness. They did not know their identities, as they had either been born to them or chosen them when they had chosen the city.
‘There are plenty of unemployed people here, too, of course,’ Joel said.
‘Are you serious?’ Laura snorted.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Like everywhere. And definitely here.’ Laura looked around her sourly as if seeing a group of unemployed people scattered around her on the streets. ‘First the docks went to hell and then the car factory made people redundant. Once workers were dragged here from all over the country, and now the place is brimming with unemployed Lapps.’
‘That’s sad,’ Joel muttered, thought for a moment and added: ‘Not unemployment, but the fact that so many people find it difficult to live with. Or enjoy.’
‘It’s a question of money, really.’
‘Yes, of course. Money.’
The centre now lay behind them; Laura led Joel to a quiet area of private houses. The buildings on the long, curving street were perhaps from the 1950s. They were surrounded by carefully tended but impersonal, standardised gardens. Ordinary people, Joel thought with strange melancholy, this is a place where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. The street skirted a rock growing low stands of juniper and crushed pines, and Laura turned through the gate of a two-storey wooden house. It was a faded building, not necessarily on account of its age, and the patches of rust on the tin roof and the eaves were of the same bloodstained hue as the blotches on the stone. In the yard were a few apple trees and a blackcurrant bush, a small kitchen garden and, alongside it, a shed with a sloping roof. On the wall hung a rake, a spade, and a watering can longing for the summer. Some decaying concrete steps led to a terrace.
‘He’s a drunk,’ Laura whispered, her hand on the handle of the front door. ‘But a drunk with style.’
‘Who’s a drunk?’
As soon as he reached the terrace, or at the latest in the narrow hallway, Joel sensed the atmosphere of the house; peace, self-sufficient timelessness. The feeling intensified as he saw a man sitting at a simple kitchen table. His first impression was that nothing would surprise him. The peace on the man’s face as he greeted them as if he had been expected them, had imagined them on the threshold ages ago, was unwavering. The look in the man’s intelligent eyes was motionless and broad; he noted their presence without looking separately at either. Slowly he raised a drinking glass from the table, swallowed its water-coloured contents and urged them, with a voice as if dimmed by the quiet house, to ‘Sit down.’
‘We came for breakfast,’ Laura explained.
‘Of course,’ the man said. ‘You don’t come round for supper at this hour.’
Joel set his suitcase down in a corner, hung his coat on the back of a chair and sat down opposite the man. Laura went straight to the refrigerator. The man looked at Joel. His mouth, surrounded by a beard greying from the cheeks, was narrow and good-humoured.
‘I could fry some eggs,’ Laura suggested.
‘Go ahead. Take some bacon, too,’ the man urged, and directed his next words at Joel: ‘Girl doesn’t visit for six months, and then she wants to fry some eggs.’
‘Six months? It’s only a week,’ said Laura, taking off her coat.
‘It’s almost the same thing,’ the man argued, and continued to Joel: ‘It seems the girl counts the days. Probably writes it down in her diary. You try to bring a human being into the world, and what’s the result? She writes days down in her diary and fries eggs.’
Laura was rattling around in the refrigerator. The man lifted a vodka bottle from the floor, next to the table leg. He poured liquid from it into his glass, and then added water from a jug on the window sill; then looked questioningly at Joel with his wide-spaced, floating, calm eyes.
‘No thanks,’ Joel said. ‘Not yet, at least.’
‘Quite right,’ the man nodded. ‘Better to eat that breakfast first. Better for my old stomach, too.’
‘It’s not that old yet,’ countered Laura, facing the stove.
‘Maybe not so old, but tired and ill-treated. An old war stomach.’ The man nodded to himself. His hands cradled the glass on the table like animals on guard. He raised his head and asked Laura’s back: ‘How’s the Bride of Christ?’
‘Fine,’ Laura answered. ‘The same as ever.’
‘The Bride of Christ?’ asked Joel.
‘Mum’s new husband,’ Laura explained. ‘He’s religious.’
‘The Bride of Christ,’ her father repeated, rubbing his beard. ‘What would send a grown man running to gospel meetings and whining after Jesus?’
‘Neuroticism,’ Joel suggested.
‘Neuroticism?’ the man repeated in an expanding, joyful voice. ‘Neuroticism, exactly. Bloody hell, that’s it.’
‘It’s a common illness,’ Joel said.
‘That if anything,’ the man amplified, turning to Laura, who was slicing tomatoes. ‘I think I like this guy.’
‘He’s worth liking,’ Laura said. ‘Coffee?’
‘Of course.’ The man reached out his hand across the table. ‘Martti.’
Joel took the steady hand. ‘Joel.’
The fat began to sizzle in the frying pan. Laura put bread and margarine, cheese and tomatoes, on the table. Martti looked at her approvingly, not with paternal smugness but with sympathy. On the table was a glass ashtray; Joel took out his cigarettes. He offered them to Martti and they smoked for a moment in silence. Flooding through the window, the morning light glittered on the drowsy kitchen surfaces. The smell of fried eggs and bacon rose into the air. Laura set a coffee cup and plate before Joel. Her hand brushed against Joel’s cheek.
‘Let it be known that I’m a drunk,’ Martti said. ‘Not an alcoholic but a drunk. And proud of it. It took me half a century to think of it, drinking. But better late.’
‘Sure beats running to gospel meetings,’ said Joel.
‘God almighty. You can’t help but like this guy,’ Martti said to Laura. ‘Why don’t you marry him?’
‘Next week, maybe,’ Laura replied. ‘Milk?’
‘If you’re having it. But about this drinking,’ Martti continued. ‘There are drunks and drunks. In other words, pitiable alcoholics and those for whom drinking is a conscious choice. And there’s a big difference.’
‘Of course,’ Joel agreed.
Martti leaned back in his chair with easy good humour. ‘Makes you laugh when people are so stupid they don’t understand the difference. And not just laugh. You feel sorry for them, they’re missing out on such a lot.’
‘That’s the petite bourgeoisie for you.’
‘No, damn it!’ Martti shouted to Laura, who was turning the rashers of bacon in the pan. ‘If you don’t marry this guy, I suppose I’ll have to. And that would be a real to-do. We’d have to go to Sweden to do it.’
‘But drinking isn’t for everyone, is it. Or even for most,’ Joel said. ‘Or religion.’
‘True,’ Martti admitted. ‘If we’re tolerant, then I suppose we have to put up with some people even being brides of Christ.’
Laura stopped beside the table. ‘I still don’t understand her. Mum, I mean.’
‘Ah well. At least the guy doesn’t drink,’ said Martti mildly. ‘And he can’t run away, as he’s got a bad leg.’ Laura snorted as she turned. ‘He can move around all right on it when the mood takes him.’
‘Maybe they dance at those meetings,’ Martti conjectured. ‘Keep trim that way.’
‘To hymns?’ asked Laura.
A rhythmic clattering and roaring began to be heard from outside, a noise that pounded rather than rolled. With distant irritation, calm but with an impatient twitch to his lips, Martti gazed somewhere through the wall. Once the noise had drawn away, he said: ‘The poison train. It’s like being in a military zone.’
‘That means work, too,’ Laura commented.
‘True enough. But what’s there in that that’s so improving to the soul? I worked my arse off for more than thirty years, and what do I have to show for it? Not even a watch.’ He thought for a second before continuing, finger raised. ‘Not that I’m bitter. Quite the reverse; when the Soviet Union collapsed and this dockyard with it, that was when life started. I should almost send flowers to Yeltsin.’
Joel nodded. ‘These are new times for society. Instead of the work ethic, we need the unemployment ethic.’
‘The unemployment ethic?’ Martti repeated, letting out a rough, bearded giggle. It could not be seen on his face. ‘Try coining that in public debate. You’ll find yourself in trouble in no time.’
‘That can happen for less. Better keep quiet.’
‘I’m sure. So I guess you’re not much stressed by work either.’
‘No. Unemployed, that’s what I am.’
Martti nodded his head with satisfaction. ‘And what line of unemployment, if I may be so bold?’
Joel smiled. ‘You sure can. Advertising.’
‘Aha! A poet of advertising slogans, eh?’
Joel shook his head. ‘A poet of photographs. An advertising photographer.’
‘The market of vanities, anyway.’ Martti rubbed his lips with his thumb and forefinger. ‘So it probably doesn’t matter too much, anyway.’
‘No, not really.’
They ate and drank in silence. Joel would have liked to have stayed in that moment. He was a stranger to such moments; the dull but mild, familiarly safe moments of morning coffee, with their scent of disappearing thoughts and unmemorable moments, of this house and other houses in the neighbourhood, or houses in any small place, only seemingly different from each other. He eyed the kitchen and guessed that the entire house was filled with this same smallness of scale, this almost austere functionality. Only the essential was here, and not the slightest sign of a tendency to drag along unnecessary stuff as a substitute for lost days, experiences, emotions. It was the home of a man who knew and respected himself.
‘I’m beginning to feel tired,’ Laura yawned. ‘We didn’t sleep many hours last night.’
‘Spare your old father the dirty details,’ Martti said. He looked at Joel; delighted creases appeared at the corner of his eyes.
‘It’s not what you think,’ said Laura. ‘We were in a hotel and couldn’t sleep too well.’
‘A hotel, eh.’ Martti reached for the vodka bottle on the floor. ‘It’s not worth you coming here to brag about it. Even I slept pretty well in the city hotel in Tampere in the late autumn of seventy three.’
Laura got up from her chair. ‘Maybe we’ll go upstairs.’
‘I’d take that over the cellar any day, too,’ said Martti.’
The upstairs room was narrow and low, saturated with darkness. There was little furniture; a precisely made bed in one corner, in another a low bookcase; a couple of wicker chairs and a small desk pushed against the wall as if in storage. The window was half covered by a grey roller blind; from the ceiling hung a lamp with a paper shade. On the shelf were books, magazines, a couple of photographs. Joel bent over to look at them. One of them showed Laura, younger, against a thick hedge and a white brick wall that rose behind it. Her hair was plaited into rat’s tails and she had the absent, pain-in-the-tummy look of a melancholic teenaged girl. A red rose hung indifferently from her fingers.
‘Sometimes I liked it in this room. But from time to time it was different: Laura said, sank down on the side of the bed and looked around her as if seeking memories that might have remained in the room. Irritation flickered across her face. ‘Why is it that I always live on the top floor of some old wooden house? Always.’
‘I suppose it beats a concrete hell.’
Laura forced out a depressed sigh. ‘I suppose so. But then I always get that feeling that everything repeats itself. That everything is the same – dull.’
‘Buy a tent,’ Joel suggested. ‘Or try a dosshouse.’
‘There aren’t any dosshouses here.’
‘Go where there are some.’
The bed was narrow. Laura pressed her back against the wall to make room for Joel. They lay there, motionless and silent. The room smelled of damp, dust. It had been without a person to warm it with her warmth and move it with her movement. A continued life could be felt in it, or an empty space that it had left behind. Now it began to be filled by their presence; Joel imagined how the warmth and threads of scents of their bodies spreading into the astonished air. He turned his head. Laura was breathing regularly through her nose, her mouth decisively shut. Joel rose carefully from the bed, hesitated by the door, and went downstairs.
Martti was sitting in his place unmoving, eternally calm. The almost empty bottle was now in front of him on the table. His gaze, however, was not drinking; his eyes met Joel’s undisturbed and bright.
‘You came to take a drink,’ he concluded.
‘I thought I’d step outside,’ Joel said, taking his coat from the back of the chair.
‘You could do that too. The sea shore is close by in that direction. You go along the railway track and past the docks,’ Martti advised, showing the way through the walls with his hand. When Joel was already in the doorway, he said: ‘She’s a good girl. Peculiar, of course, since she’s her parents’ daughter. But a good girl.’
Something moved in Martti’s face, made a barely discernible concession to some emotion. Joel looked at the window. ‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘It’s not easy for her, either.’ Martti’s hands turned over on the table in a gesture of capitulation. ‘All of us have our difficulties in adapting. But is that a crime?’
Joel shook his head. ‘No way.’
‘And she has a good example in her old man, who spends his days drinking. But I don’t think that’s a serious crime, either?’
Joel crossed a small pedestrian bridge and came to a road that followed the wire fence of the dock area. Beside it there appeared a pair of rails; in the grey rock that rose behind them was the feel of the sea, of long, rolling waves. The gusting wind drove clouds which looked like high-flung shadows. Joel knew he was approaching the shore when the land began to open up before him. The space that awaited him began to draw him to it. He felt it in front of him like an immense, enfolding embrace.
In the small bay were a few boats that had been lifted on to dry land. He crossed the rails and climbed from the stony embankment to the shore. At the water’s edge there floated chunks of wood, pieces of cork, matted algae. Nearby, a couple of low skerries rose out of the sea; farther away there were some wooded islands. From the nearest island there rose a dark column of smoke, like a length of intestine, rapidly dispersed by the wind. Far away, in the space between the islands, a departing vessel was visible. He sat down on a large stone and lit a cigarette. The waves slipping evenly to shore moved toward his feet a piece of driftwood that looked startlingly like a thighbone. Narrowing his eyes, he gazed out to sea. It was a woman, it had to be. The salty infinity, into which the ships pushed their ruttish keels. Mistress of the shores. Cutter of the rushes. Old blues whore.
He began, in his mind, to draw a woman. He ceased to see the sea, and instead moved his gaze up along slim calves and thighs that thickened like two shuttles, slid it over the birthmark to the lustily swelling buttocks. Gazed at the back, growing out of the shadowy hollow, the prominent shoulder blades, the humbly curving neck. Sighed into the wind and turned the woman over, pushed her down on her back on the immaterial surface. From the pubic hair, the colour of milk chocolate, there escaped a shy channel of curly down, a path, an insect column to the flat and taut belly. The small, regular breasts hardly sloped toward the side; the self-assertive nipples grew like little fingertips, almost aureolaless, from their centres. On the neck a bluish vein was discernible, and the face…. He closed his eyes, lowered his head and tried to remember Laura’s face. But it was not there, between the shoulders he had created there floated only an empty patch enclosed by sand-coloured hair. He opened his eyes and stared out to sea. It looked sardonic, it suppressed its mockingly bubbling laughter among its grey waves.
Someone coughed. Joel got up and turned around. Between two upturned boats stood a shabby-faced man in an oilskin. He stared at Joel, looking untiring and as if he had been standing there for a long time. Joel began to move, and the man bent briskly toward one of the boats. As Joel went past him, the man peered up from underneath the boat, his backside in the air. His face appeared under his arm.
‘Anybody home?’ Joel asked over his shoulder. He was already clambering up the stone embankment when he heard behind him a breathless, childish peal of laughter.
The wind was at his back and drove, pushed at him. He was filled with a startling feeling of freedom. He was in a strange small town; he was anonymous. He could be reborn, if only he wished it, that day, that moment, then. It was not for him; he had a horror of birth-pangs, but the mere possibility made space around him. And at the same time he was sliding toward a trap – a faceless woman was waiting for him in a narrow bed in a shadowy room in an old house. But that was not for him either, submission to a trap. He had only two alternatives; he could either flee the woman or make her part of his own freedom. It would be kinder to the woman to abandon her there in the darkened room, but what man could be so unselfish, what man would wish to be?
Martti was no longer sitting in the kitchen. Joel paused in the hallway to listen. Buildings breathe, that he knew, but it was difficult to hear. He watched his step as he climbed up to the first floor. In the doorway to the room he collided with dense darkness – the roller blind had been pulled down. Laura was in bed, but now under a quilt which she had drawn up to her chin.
Laura lifted the quilt. Her naked body was pressed against the wall, brighter than the darkness, like a dimly phosphorescent relief growing from the junction between the bed and the wall. When Joel had lain down on his back next to Laura, she threw her thigh across his stomach. At the same time Laura’s arm grew from his thigh. Joel closed his eyes and saw Laura’s face.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
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