From the author of Meet Me at the Museum, a charming novel of second chances, about three women, one dog, and the narrowboat that brings them together
Eve expected Sally to come festooned with suitcases and overnight bags packed with everything she owned, but she was wrong. She arrived on foot, with a rucksack and a carrier bag. “I just walked away,” she said, climbing on to the boat. Eve knew what she meant.
Meet Eve, who has left her thirty-year career to become a Free Spirit; Sally, who has waved goodbye to her indifferent husband and two grown-up children; and Anastasia, a defiantly independent narrowboat-dweller, who is suddenly landlocked and vulnerable.
Before they quite know what they’ve done, Sally and Eve agree to drive Anastasia’s narrowboat on a journey through the canals of England, as she awaits a life-saving operation. As they glide gently – and not so gently – through the countryside, the eccentricities and challenges of narrowboat life draw them inexorably together, and a tender and unforgettable story unfolds. At summer’s end, all three women must decide whether to return to the lives they left behind, or forge a new path forward.
Candid, hilarious, and uplifting, Anne Youngson's The Narrowboat Summer is a celebration of the power of friendship and new experiences to change one’s life, at any age.
Release date: January 26, 2021
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Print pages: 304
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The Narrowboat Summer
The Number One
ON THE TOWPATH OF a canal in a town not far from London, not far from the coast, is moored a narrowboat painted dark blue with the name Number One picked out in red lettering on the prow. It is tethered tightly to the bank with ropes made wet by the rain and slimy with age, wrapped around pegs bent out of shape by the misaimed blows of a lump hammer. It is still in the water. At either end the doors are fast shut and the windows along the side are latched. On the roof is a skylight, cantilevered up to let the fresh air into the cabin below. Puddles of water on the deck and roof show that it has been raining, but at this moment it is not.
There are two people on the towpath, walking toward each other. One is a tall, relatively plump woman: that is to say, around half the number of women in her age group—she has gone some distance past fifty—would be slimmer and shorter than she is, but she is not so tall or so plump as to be remarkable. In one hand she has an orange carrier bag and on her feet a pair of bright silver running shoes; these might not be out of place on a towpath but are out of place with her black wool skirt and tailored blouse. Her hair is wrapped up in a largely colorless scarf, apparently once purple.
The woman approaching her is shorter and more slender. She is carrying an umbrella in a color often called fuchsia, though fuchsias come in a range of colors. She is holding it at her side—not needing its protection at the moment—but open, as if anxious about the time it would take to bring it into use if she should suddenly need it. Her hair is carefully styled and her clothes might have been carefully chosen to be unremarkable. If so, the choice was successful.
As they approach the moored boat, the sun inserts a finger of light between the clouds and it is all at once a lovely day, at that moment, on that towpath. At almost the same instant, when the two women are close enough to each other for a nod and a smile of greeting, if either or both of them thought that was appropriate—they are complete strangers, so it seems unlikely—at that precise moment, the narrowboat begins to howl. It howls as if it were a mezzo-soprano in mid-aria spotting her husband committing adultery in the stalls while being impaled from behind by a careless spear carrier. Both women stop walking.
* * *
EVE’S HANDS WERE FULL OF the debris of a career of more than thirty years. She kicked aside the Strategic Five Year Plan, folded and wedging the door open, to let it shut behind her. What she was carrying now were items so small and insignificant she had overlooked them when she had made a pile of things definitively hers: the books, pen set, files of personal information that could not be claimed as property of the Rambusch Corporation. These had been placed into a cardboard box supplied by the management. The packing had been not so much overseen as attended by Clive, a representative (ironically, because neither word could accurately be applied to him) of the Human Resources department. He stood beside her, rumbling idly like a vacuum cleaner (which he closely resembled) switched on and ready to suck if anything misplaced came within reach of his hose. That had been the day before, the penultimate day. Now, on the last day, she stood in the corridor holding things so odd and familiar they had been invisible. The plastic frog stuck to the side of her computer monitor; the postcard of a building in New York pinned to the cork board; a calendar from an overseas charity with six more pictures of starving children still to come; a mug with a picture of a hedgehog on top of a scrubbing brush and a brown deposit welded to the bottom; a letter opener with what looked like teeth marks in its bamboo handle; a purple scarf that had been tied to the handle of a filing cabinet for so long it had faded along its exposed length and only revealed its original, shocking depth of color on the inside of the knot; a photograph of a team-building exercise, the participants all in hard yellow hats standing under a cliff holding up ropes in triumph, though whether after or in anticipation of an ascent or descent she could not remember. She nearly dropped this in the bin, already full of discarded good-luck cards, but closer scrutiny revealed that no one in the picture was recognizable as an individual—though she could pick herself out as the only woman in the group—so she used it as a tray on which to pile the rest of the rubbish.
The door shut with a hiss from its automatic closure system. The nameplate—Eve Warburton: Planning—swung toward her, stopping inches from her nose. Had she had a hand free, she might have defaced it in some way, but in the circumstances she just leaned forward and gave it a kiss.
“Goodbye, Eve Warburton, Planning,” she whispered. “Nice to have known you.”
First the scarf then the frog then the letter opener fell from her stack on the way to the lift. She recovered them all and stopped in the lobby to ask the receptionist for a carrier bag. The receptionist went to look in a cubicle in the wall behind her desk. Eve put her pile down on the counter and watched the oil circulating in the installation designed to impress the visitor with the technical brilliance of the Rambusch Corporation’s engineering and manufacturing capability, its mastery of pumps, pistons and valves. Her eye caught the plastic sign on it which read:
Constructed from Production Parts
Eve took up the letter opener and levered this off. One final souvenir. She pushed it down the front of her skirt.
The girl returned with a disposable carrier bag from the local sandwich outlet.
“It’s all I can find.”
“It will do,” said Eve. It was hard to stop the pilfered notice sliding out as she loaded a carrier bag with small, odd-shaped items, until the receptionist, interpreting her clumsiness as evidence of emotional turmoil, did the job for her.
“I’m, you know, sorry you’re leaving,” she said.
“It was time to move on.”
“I thought of you, having to work with all those men on the top floor. I mean, no one to have a gossip with and that.”
“They didn’t have much of a feminine side, by and large,” said Eve.
“Oh, I know!” The receptionist came out from behind her barrier with the filled bag. Eve was afraid she might be about to offer a hug, in compensation for Eve’s fall from the masculine heights of the fourth floor to mere womanhood.
“Luckily for me, I’m on the masculine side of the feminine spectrum,” she said.
She turned left out of the building, toward where her car would normally be parked—indeed, where it was parked—but even as her hand reached into her pocket for the keys, she remembered it was no longer hers. Company property. She could call a taxi or catch a bus or walk. She had no intention of going back inside the building for the rest of her life, and this ruled out a taxi because the number of the local firm was in her surrendered company mobile. It was raining, but she did not want to hesitate in full view of the receptionist, so she began to walk. It was a long way, in kitten heels, from the Rambusch premises to the edge of the industrial estate. It was a fairly hefty hike up a hill to the first bus stop on the main road. The notice filched from the lobby display impeded her stride, so she took it out and thought about lobbing it over a hedge but on second thought put it in the carrier bag. The rain falling on her head slid in large drops down her perfectly conditioned hair into the top of her blouse, into her ears and her mouth. She took out the faded scarf and tied it over her head. She felt like a bag lady; she rather hoped she looked like a bag lady. It could be a new career.
When she reached the first bus stop she leaned against it, resting her feet until a bus arrived and she bought a ticket into town. Once there, she went into a bookshop and found an Ordnance Survey map of the area showing all the paths and alleyways so that she could plot a route back to her flat on foot, avoiding the main roads she normally drove down. She went next door to a shoe shop and bought a pair of running shoes. These were handed over in a brilliantly orange and substantial carrier bag, big enough to take all her belongings from the office, the kitten heels and the notice. From the map, she found that the quickest way home was to start down the towpath. Just as the rain was stopping, she set off.
Walking toward her was a woman her own age. Between them was a dark-blue narrowboat, apparently deserted. The name painted in red lettering on the prow was Number One.
* * *
ON THE WALK TO THE hairdresser it began to rain, which was something Sally had not foreseen. Raindrops, she reflected, were falling on her head, although the song was entirely inappropriate in her current circumstances.
“My word,” said the hairdresser as Sally dripped on the mat. “You didn’t come prepared.”
Sally had known Lynne for over twenty years. Twenty years of a relationship conducted in reflection, meeting each other’s eyes in the mirror. They had talked about everything in that time. They had exchanged information about children, holidays, kitchen appliances and plumbers. They had shared opinions about soap operas, brands of ice cream, chewing gum and British Summer Time. They had discussed renewable energy, interest rates, the Middle East and mobile phones. It was always a shock to her to stand up—after she had been shown a glimpse of the back of her head and had the cut hair brushed from her shoulders, the nylon coverall whisked away—to find that she was taller than Lynne. How could someone who had filled the mirror so emphatically for half an hour or more be so dumpy an individual in the real world? She only came to this part of the town to visit the Kut Above, and had never seen Lynne in the street. She sometimes wondered if she would recognize her if she came across her queuing for a prescription in Boots. And yet, she thought of Lynne as her friend, and had done so ever since the day she had said she would rather be called Sally than Mrs. Allsop, and Lynne had agreed.
Sally had something to say on this visit; with Lynne’s face in the mirror to frame the story, she could say it and, in saying it, fix it.
Lynne combed Sally’s wet hair, persuading it into a smooth and elegant shape unlike its usual wispy incoherence.
“Just tidied up a bit?” she said, as she always did.
“I wondered about highlights,” said Sally. “Not today, of course. Next time, maybe.”
Lynne said it would be a fiddly process. “And I’m not sure what color you’d use. Your hair’s so fair, and so fine, it would be hard to find a color that was a strong enough contrast, without going completely over the top.”
“Pink,” said Sally. “Or turquoise.”
“Of course, but you wouldn’t want that. We could get away with a nutty brown, if you’re set on the idea.”
“But I do want pink or turquoise, I haven’t made up my mind which.”
“Well,” said Lynne. “What’s brought this on?”
“New beginning,” said Sally. “Fresh start. My new career as a single person.” The scissors and comb became quite still. Lynne was staring at her in the mirror. “I told my husband last night that our marriage is over. There is no reason why anything, from this moment forward, should be as it has been up to now.”
“I’m so sorry,” whispered Lynne. “Do you want to talk about it, or is it too painful?”
“I’m not at all sorry and I don’t mind talking about it, but it’s the future I’m more excited about.”
“It must be difficult after twenty-five years? I mean, you didn’t seem unhappy. Maybe I’ve had it wrong all this time, but I really thought the two of you were close. Did he…? I mean, you know … After all, men—”
“Duncan is entirely blameless,” said Sally.
Lynne remained still; almost rigid.
“But you must have, well, emotional issues?”
“The only emotion I feel is relief,” Sally said. “And that isn’t an issue.”
“But why?” said Lynne. “There must be a reason?”
“I was bored.”
Lynne’s face, as she brought the scissors and comb back into play with something close to aggression, was becoming quite red, and it was possible she looked cross though Sally had no way of knowing what she looked like when cross, because they had always tended to agree with each other. Sally saw that Lynne, far from admiring her resilience and self-determination, wanted her to be in need of sympathy—as a victim or as the guilty party racked with guilt. She had not foreseen this, and she considered the narrative Lynne was hearing. She was leaving her husband; she had not been abused; she had not been rejected; she did not feel guilty. Yes.
“You obviously don’t approve,” she said.
Lynne clamped her lips together and kept her eyes on Sally’s head, cutting Sally’s hair as if there was a looming deadline after which it would set solid.
“No, I don’t, but of course I don’t know anything about it. I just know that being married isn’t easy and it’s up to us all to work at it and not just throw up our hands and walk away as if it never mattered in the first place.”
“On the other hand,” said Sally, “it’s sometimes harder to endure the everyday than it is to cope with a big trauma.”
“If you say so.”
“I think I’ll have my gap year now,” said Sally. “Twelve months of doing something I wouldn’t normally and probably won’t ever do again.”
“I haven’t decided. I expect something will turn up.”
It was still raining when she left the Kut Above. She stepped into a corner shop and bought a folding umbrella in a shade of pink she thought might be an exact match for the highlights she was imagining. She would be going somewhere else to have them done. After all, was it not important to change every aspect of her routines? How else would she be able to identify those hooks and burrs and combinations that held her, like the flag on a flagpole, free to flap about but not free to drift or soar.
The umbrella was less easy to manipulate than the label had promised it would be, but it kept the rain off her hair, which had the bounce and body only Lynne had ever been able to give it. The rain stopped as she crossed the canal bridge and, on an impulse, she took the steps down to the towpath. It was possible to walk most of the way home by this route, but she rarely did. It was muddy; there were no shops; the people who lived in the boats moored alongside had more than the average householder in the way of untrustworthy dogs, dubious houseplants, bare feet and rusty bicycles. It being an unusual route for her was one good reason to set off down it today. Another was that it was longer. It would delay her return to the house. She had told him she was going because she wanted peace; she wanted silence and the chance to think. But the silence consequent on announcing that decision was surprisingly hard to bear. And she could not decide where, exactly, she wanted to go.
So she took the long way back, along the towpath, walking slowly and, because she no longer needed it, swinging the pink umbrella by its strap. Walking toward her was a woman her own age. Between them was a dark-blue narrowboat, apparently deserted. The name painted in red lettering on the prow was Number One.
* * *
EVE WARBURTON AND SALLY ALLSOP stood still on the towpath, halted by an unearthly crescendo of sound. They looked at the boat, until the noise died away, then at each other.
“Was that human?” asked Sally.
Eve said she hoped not. “But whatever it was, it doesn’t seem right to ignore it.”
Sally advanced toward the Number One and bent her knees to look through the window. The noise began again, accompanied by the thud of something solid being propelled with force against the glass. She staggered backward, lost her balance and sat down on the worn and wet grass of the towpath. Eve skipped sideways to avoid her but became entangled in the open pink umbrella. As the wailing died away again, they were left sitting side by side facing the boat.
“It’s a dog,” said Sally.
“Are you sure? Could it have been a child, do you think?”
“Not unless they’ve started breeding them with black-and-white fur and floppy ears.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Dogs I can cope with. Children terrify me.” Eve stood up and looked at the skylight on the roof. “You’ll have to slide through that hatch to make sure it’s all right,” she said. “I’m too fat.”
Sally made no effort to move.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that my expertise is entirely in the field of children,” she said. “It’s dogs that terrify me. There is no way I’m going to dangle my legs into a space occupied by a dog—a rabid dog, for all I know.” Eve stood with her hands on her hips. “Why is it,” said Sally, scrambling to her feet, “that it is perfectly acceptable to say you don’t like children but admitting that you don’t care for dogs always makes people look at you just like you’re looking at me?”
“I’m not looking at you the way you think I’m looking at you. I’m not really looking at you at all. I’m thinking.”
The noise came again, rising to a peak of unutterable anguish and dying away. The weight of the dog’s body hammered against the window. They took a step back and looked up and down the empty towpath and over their shoulders at the motorists passing across the distant bridge.
“We can’t do nothing,” said Eve.
“We could just walk away,” said Sally.
But she did not walk away. She stayed where she was, watching Eve climb onto the rear of the boat, which rocked gently, and inspect the fastenings on the solid little door leading off the platform where the driver would stand, holding the tiller, if the boat were moving. Eve abandoned the back and went to the front, an open well protected by a canvas cover held taut with studs. She began to unclip these, one by one, and Sally, seeing this was going to be a slow business, went to help her. When they had released one side and folded the cover back, Eve climbed into the well. The doors at this end had glass in them, a scaled-down version of the doors you might find leading into a conservatory at a stately home. The dog began to howl again, on a more tragic, personal note. Eve took up a heavy metal tool lying on one of the benches that lined the wall and broke the glass. It became eerily quiet.
“What’s happening?” asked Sally, from the towpath.
“I’m reaching in to release the … Oh! Quick, catch him!”
Seconds later Eve was splayed awkwardly across the side of the well, Sally was once again in a sitting position on the bank, and a bundle of black-and-white fur and floppy ears had already passed the bridge and was accelerating down the towpath.
“Bugger,” said Eve.
Sally lay flat on her back and began to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s not funny, but I woke up this morning determined to stop being so bored and boring, and not to keep on doing the same things I always do. And look, something has happened to me that has never happened before. Quite spontaneously.”
“Breaking into a boat and releasing a manic dog has never happened to me before, either,” said Eve, “but I was just racking it up as another experience in a totally shitty day. You must be the sort of person who always looks on the bright side.”
“I don’t, usually. But today, I’m embracing change. For a change.”
“I don’t mind embracing it, but I do like to have a choice of whether to change or not. When someone else decides for you, it’s harder to look on the bright side.”
Eve was still sprawled in the well, wedged against a gas bottle with a couple of folding chairs impeding her feet. Her orange bag had fallen on its side and hanging out of it was a plastic notice which read: Constructed from Production Parts.
Sally, reaching down a hand to help her up, asked what it meant.
“Nothing at all. It is meaningless. That’s the point. Constructed and produced are synonyms. It is meant to imply that the parts are not prototypes, but prototypes are produced, as well. Sorry, I’m being cross and pedantic. More importantly, what do you think we ought to do now?”
* * *
THEY WERE SITTING ON THE benches in the front well discussing the options—whether to run away, like the dog, or to run away but leave a note; or whether it was imperative to take some positive action, such as chasing the dog or seeking out the owner—when they became aware of a rhythmic sound coming closer. Looking out from under the awning they could see a figure advancing toward them along the towpath. An exclamation mark: tall, narrow, black and slightly menacing. The sound was the steady thud of wellington boots, the regular smack of a leather satchel against a waterproof coat, and an underlying whistle of breath drawn in and let out.
They scrambled out of the boat and stood waiting for this finger of doom to pass by. It didn’t. Setting down the satchel on the ground, the woman—for close up she was recognizably though unconventionally female—looked from one to the other. Her face was the color of marmalade and so mapped with wrinkles it was hard to see how any cosmetic enhancements, in the unlikely event she wanted to apply them, could be smoothed on to its corrugated surface. Her lips were thin and appeared, until she opened them to speak, like one more set of horizontal wrinkles.
“You’ve been on my boat,” she said. “You’d better explain why.” The voice was an audible version of the face.
“I’m afraid I’ve broken your door and let the dog out,” said Eve.
“There didn’t seem much else we could do,” said Sally. “It was howling.”
The boat owner opened her mouth a little wider and bared a set of uneven teeth. She ran a gray, textured tongue over them and nodded.
“People who think the dog is howling because it’s in pain,” she said, “usually report me to the RSPCA, or the Canal and River Trust, or the Environment Agency, or the police, or anyone else they can think of who might be interested in giving me grief. It makes them feel righteous and it passes the problem on. I like your approach better. If the dog’s in pain, smash a way in and sort it out. I like that. I’d say you cared more about the dog and less about the law. I like that, too.”
“We thought it might be dying,” said Sally.
The old woman shook her head. “He was showing off, that’s all. I’m the one who’s dying.”
She picked up her satchel and stepped onto the rear of the boat, unlocking the doors.
“Well, I should give you some money to have the glass replaced,” said Eve.
“It’s not worth it. The cost of repairing anything on a boat is higher than you could believe, given everything is so small and should logically be cheaper. I’ll probably nail a bit of wood over it until I come across a piece of glass the right size.”
“We could come in and sweep up the mess,” said Sally.
“You can do that, yes. And you can have a cup of tea with me. I’d like that. I’ve taken a fancy to you already.”
Inside, the boat was sparse, neat and workmanlike. The cabin they entered as they descended the steps from the rear deck was the kitchen. It had a cooker and cupboards, a table and two benches, a plastic washing-up bowl in the sink and a kettle on the hob. There were no ornaments and no ornamentation. The wood-paneled walls were empty except for a map and a row of hooks from which hung a torch, a whistle, a dog lead and a first-aid kit. The old woman reached into a cupboard and handed them a dustpan, brush and bucket; they carried these through the boat, accepting shared responsibility for the mess, or a shared reluctance to stay alone with the owner in the kitchen.
The second cabin had a board attached to the wall, which might have been a bed or a couch though it had no covering to make it inviting to sit on or lie on, with lockers underneath. There were three shelves containing books. Between this and the next cabin were a washbasin and a cubicle with a door, which was shut. In the front cabin were two slatted bunks covered in rough blankets, tightly tucked in; these blankets represented the only soft surfaces on the boat. Sally and Eve swept up the shards of glass from the otherwise clean floor and returned to the cabin, where the old woman relieved them of the pan and brush, the bucket and its contents, disposing of them behind the cupboard doors.
“My name is Anastasia,” she said, laying out three white mugs and three teabags, and indicating they should sit down on one of the benches. The kettle whistled throatily.
“Oh,” said Sally, “what about the dog?”
“He’s called Noah and, before you ask, it’s got nothing to do with boats. It just begins with the sound I find myself shouting most often.”
“No,” said Sally. “I meant, shouldn’t we be worried about where he’s gone? Go looking for him perhaps, or report him missing?”
“Look,” said Anastasia, lining up the teas on the table, “stop worrying about the dog. Nothing will happen to him. That dog will be dogging me to the end of my days and beyond, I shouldn’t wonder. He will come back. Not many certainties in this life, but that’s one of them.”
“Oh,” said Sally. “My name’s Sally.”
“Eve,” said Eve.
“Sally,” said Anastasia. “And Eve and Anastasia. An E and an A and an S. Which spells SEA, I suppose. Not much sense in that. A Y would be handy, to make us EASY. You don’t have any friends called Yolanda you could introduce?”
“My middle name is Yasmin,” said Sally.
“Perfect. Here we are, then: Easy!”
The tea was so strong Sally and Eve took small sips, letting the tannin into their systems in gradual doses. Anastasia drank hers like a pint of beer, in large gulps, with relish.
“Actually,” she said, putting the empty mug down, “I may not be dying. Dying may not be inevitable. There is a chance that what’s wrong with me now can be made to go away and I may still have the opportunity to die later, of something else. But making the effort not to die would be quite complicated and I’m not sure I can work out how to accomplish it. So it might be easier to go for it, and die from what I’ve got now.”
“And what is that?” asked Eve.
“They don’t know exactly, or they do know and they’re not going to tell me until they have scanned it from every angle and have biopsy results on anything they can scrape or squeeze or slice out of me. That, you see, is the problem. In order to have a chance of not dying, I have to keep going back for this appointment, that appointment, this procedure, that procedure, such-and-such an operation, belt and braces, follow-up treatments. And to do all that, I have to stay here.”
“Surely you must stay here, then. At least until you have a clear diagnosis and understand your options,” said Sally.
“I can’t,” said Anastasia. “I can’t afford to. If I stay, I have to pay for a mooring, if I can find one, or keep moving between temporary moorings, and I haven’t the money for the one, and who knows when the invasive this and the radiated that will make me too weak to manage the other. Plus, I’ve got the boat to look after. To get all the certificates needed to renew my license to be on the canal, I have to have the engine serviced and the bottom blacked. I can’t afford any of that either, but I know someone with a boatyard in Chester who will do it for me for free, but I need it done by the second week in August. It would take me at least four weeks to reach Chester from here, and that would be without any rest days, so I need to start now. There it is. If I want to live, I have to stay here. If I’m going to carry on living the way I do, I have to go to Chester.”
“There must be some way round this,” said Eve.
“Oh, there is. I need someone with nothing better to do for, let’s say, the next three or four months, and a house I can borrow to live in while they take the boat to Chester and back for me.”
“And you don’t know anyone like that?” said Eve.
“With a house and time? Not likely, is it?”
“I don’t have anything better to do for the next four months,” said Sally, “but there’s someone living in my house.”
“You couldn’t do it alone anyway,” said Anastasia. “I can, but you couldn’t.”
There was the slightest sound from the rear of the boat, a mere hint of a tap or a scratch. Anastasia sat up and turned her head. It was the dog, returning with as little noise as possible.
Once fully in the cabin, he turned out to be a medium-sized, terrier-like animal with a rough whitish coat with black blotches, long legs, a barrel-shaped body, floppy ears, extremely bright brown eyes and a swirl of black on his face that looked remarkably like a question mark.
“Yes?” said Anastasia. The dog lay down, put his head on his paws and raised one eyebrow and ear, then the other. “You know what I think.” The dog appeared, with a judicious blink, to acknowledge that he did, indeed, know what she thought. Nevertheless, she told him, in a bellow that made Eve flinch and Sally, already uneasily shifting on her seat, jump. “You’re a complete disgrace. Why anyone who had the first notion of dog breeding wouldn’t have seen you for the disaster you are at the outset and hit you on the head with a spa
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