Roman, a novice, pushes open the door and goes into the narrow building. A man in military fatigues is sitting on an old sofa with frayed upholstery, holding his head in his hands. The young novice unbuttons his jacket and sits down beside him, his cheeks flushed. Before them stand cows, in two lines stretching to the opposite wall. There’s no window in the cow byre, yellow lights hang from the whitewashed ceiling, there is a fusty smell of cow urine and the fresh dung steams in the cold air.
‘So, Sergei?’ sighs the novice.
Sergei takes his hand from his face, stands up abruptly and goes out without saying anything. I can see the novice would like to follow him, but he decides to stay sitting where he is. I observe this scene from behind a large brindled cow, whose back leg I am cleaning with an iron brush.
‘If you scrape like that, you’ll never get anything off,’ says a young man in a grey sweater, taking the brush from me. He starts scraping more rhythmically and strongly and a column of dust rises from off the cow.
His name is Arthur; he has a young face and reddish hair.
‘Talk to her,’ he advises me, as he gives me back the brush. ‘You’re new here and the cows don’t allow just anyone to come near them. She’s called Dawn.’
‘Clever girl, Dawn, dear heart…’
With a clank of her chain the cow lays her head on my shoulder. I feel its warm weight and the soft flesh under her chin.
‘Dawn is the easiest of all of them,’ says Arthur. ‘She’s well-behaved and tries not to shove her nose into the other feeding buckets. You see that cow over there?’ he shows me a black and white cow standing opposite. ‘She’s the naughtiest. Her name is Marina. What’s yours?’
Next to Dawn stands a large cow with protruding ribs. She lifts up her tail and with a plopping sound expels a bloody clot.
‘That’s Plum. She’s just calved. She’ll pass the afterbirth next.’
Plum is the first in the row. She stands by the wooden partition on whose door someone has written with a felt-tip pen ‘13.12. Semyon-Sonya. 8.00 pm.’ I look through a crack and see a cramped stall lit by a red light. Two calves lie on the straw, one big and one smaller. A broad shaft of yellow light from somewhere up above splashes sunlight over the red floor.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask Arthur.
‘I spent 6 years living on the street,’ he replies. ‘While I was in prison my aunt decided she didn’t want me in the flat any more.’
‘What were you in for?’
‘It was a long time ago. I was 14. I broke into a car and took the radio.’
‘Where did you get the idea that you could take something belonging to someone else?’ With my hand I brush off Plum’s hard flank which is covered with icicles of dried mud.
‘Where I came from nobody though in terms of other people’s property,’ he replies, as he too brushes off Plum with his hand.
‘Did you go to school?’
‘No, I was a bad boy.’
‘What about your parents?’
‘Mum was on the move all the time because she was a market trader. I don’t have a dad. I was sent to a young offenders’ prison for taking the car radio.’
‘Did they treat you better than you treat the cows here?’
‘Ha! You must be joking!’ he shouts. I move away from the cow and turn to face him. ‘You’re mad! Much worse.’
‘But you didn’t get knifed there, did you?’ I put the brush into the pocket of my working jacket.
‘They don’t need to knife you. Do you want me to tell you about prison?’ he asks with a grin. ‘The only people that survive there are sharp and tough. They know how to make the right decision quickly.’
‘Don’t tell her anything,’ barks Sergei in my direction, as he goes past.
‘Well,’ Arthur comes right up close to me, ‘the rule was that the young offenders were not to be given any cigarettes or tea. We had to take the right decision and quickly, so we hid.’
‘It was the right decision. We would have been beaten…badly beaten, sometimes they even string you up on a pipe in the ceiling and beat you with truncheons.’
Dawn suddenly flicks my back with her tail. I am not expecting this so I straighten up. Arthur tugs the chain around her neck which is tied to an iron pipe running along the wall.
‘Everyone got beaten. They just wanted to break us, that’s all. To break our spirit so that we lost our sense of identity. Everyone has a spirit..’ he says, boldly studying my face, ‘including you…’
‘Perhaps when you hid, you knew it wasn’t for real, that you wouldn’t die,’ I said. Dawn chomps peacefully on the hay, while continuing to flick me with her tail. Her tail is supple and tough, with an apparent life of its own.
‘No, of course not,’ raps out Arthur, looking me straight in the face. ‘I acted decisively..’ he pulls up the sleeve of his sweater. 8 white scars run from the bend of his elbow to his wrist, like the edges of fresh dough which have been roughly stuck together.
‘Why so many?’
‘That’s how it was. They wouldn’t sew them up, so the wounds had to heal by themselves. It was the same for everyone.’
‘So you took a razor and…’
‘No, no razors. It was a metal shank – every boot has one. You take it out and sharpen it..’
‘Isn’t taking out and sharpening a bit time-consuming for a quick decision?’
‘No, that’s done before. Just in case..’ he rolls down his sleeve.
‘Then you came out of the young offenders and stole again?’
‘Out of weakness?’
Just behing the partition there is a square space, the corner of which is lined with boards. Short fat carrots with their tops cut off are sprinkled on the floor and there are saucepans full of pale, sticky-looking gruel. A frozen pig’s head lies on the floor with a greyish-blue nose. Labourers come in and out with sacks and spades; they are all wearing work jackets and move sluggishly. Many are alike, their bloated faces indistinguishable. It looks as if someone has taken the mash from the piglets’ saucepan and smeared it all over their real features. The mixture has dried so that everyone in this cattle yard is walking around with the same bloated floury mask.
The labourers gather by the sofa before the evening milking. Some sit with their knees together, others stand, stooping. Overalls hang on the wall behind the sofa. At the side a black whip hangs on a nail. Two cats sit on the window sill, one grey with no eyes and the other ginger whose backbone is sticking straight up in the middle of her back.
‘That’s no 13,’ says one of the labourers, stroking the ginger cat. ‘We were given kittens: we gave them all away, but this one got squashed by a cow.’
‘Where did you live before you came here?’ My question is addressed to no one in particular, but Sergei suddenly rises up from the sofa. He’s like a little old mushroom: not very tall, stocky, with a short black beard and a young face.
‘Fifth manhole on the right…Roman said that no one is obliged to talk to her.’
‘Do you treat all newcomers this way?’ I ask him.
‘You, thank heavens, are hardly a newcomer,’ Sergei screws up his eyes, ‘I watched you plenty as you were walking around the monastery zoo.’
‘I didn’t know you were observing me.’
‘You just leave them in peace. If someone wants to tell you something, then he’ll do so himself. Don’t try and peer into their souls.’
‘And don’t you breathe down my neck..’, I reply, and Sergei goes off grinning.
“It’s just a mask,’ says Arthur. ‘He’s really very kind. But what do you want to know? All these people,’ he sweeps his hand with the sweater hanging loosely over the wrist towards the people standing there, ‘were born at home, not in the street, but each one of them has a story behind him. Some were conned out of their flat..’
‘Some probably drank a lot of vodka,’ I say.
‘Everyone sleeping rough drinks,’ says one of the men, shoving his hands into his pockets and clicking his heels in their rubber boots.
‘Well, yes, I used to drink, but I don’t now – I’m completely dry and have told everyone that. The lads are my witnesses,’ says another one in a reedy voice.
‘My flat burnt down and I slept in stairways, on the hot water pipes. It was cold but I survived, as if I was being protected my guardian angel,’ mumbled another. ‘I was chased away from the stairways, of course, so no one would like that. But in the street I could get enough for a crust of bread and a can of beer. It’s no secret – some people are kind. But then I was taken in by Father Roman, for which I am very grateful.’ He looks at the empty corridor, where the novice usually walks, his boots catching the hem of his habit.
‘The homeless,’ says Arthur meaningfully, ‘are the lowest form of human life. They are people who have drowned themselves. You want to find out about homeless people? Part of me would like you to understand us, but you have to grasp what has happened to us, why we drink and why we sleep rough. The biggest danger in the street are young people, the skinheads. They start trying out their karate moves on us and could easily kill us.’
‘Is that what happened to you?’
‘It was the same for everyone on the street, and still is. A homeless person is a disgrace to the nation. We are not regarded as human beings, though some people do understand. In one filling station I went up to a woman to ask for help. She stopped her jeep and said ”Wait. Are you going to be here for a bit?” “Of course I am.” She brought me some clothes, bought a whole bag of food from the shop and gave me some money. I was able to change my clothes. Some people living rough try to wash twice a week, but others just let themselves go. That’s how far they sink – alcohol and a total lack of self-respect.
Some give up the struggle, others embark on the process towards death, just waiting for the Grim Reaper to come for them.’
‘You all sleep in your warm beds, so you don’t see the corpse lorry collecting up the homeless people early on winter mornings.’
‘Aren’t they afraid of him?’
‘Why?’ Arthur opens his eyes wide in amazement. ‘It’d probably be a pleasure. Lots of people long for it.’
‘I realised I wouldn’t last the winter, so I came here,’ said another labourer.
‘He’d already done 4,’ explains Arthur, ‘but he wouldn’t have survived this one, because it’s going to be very cold. Many people die this way: all the entrance stairways are closed, no one’ll let you in anywhere and if there is some kind of rehab centre, then it’s stuffed to the gunnels and there’s a 6-month queue to get in. You all sleep in your warm beds, so you don’t see the corpse lorry collecting up the homeless people early on winter mornings.’
Submission is the name of the game
The evening milking gets under way. Arthur brings the equipment, which is hooked up to the compressor pipe running around the cowshed, with the other end attached to a metal churn. He puts a bucket of hot water down in front of me and gives me a rag.
‘Soak, squeeze and wash,’ he orders.
I do as he says. He is not satisfied and tells me to do it again. Then he gives me another bucket with some feed in it. I take it to the feeder: the cow turns around, pushes my hand away and sticks her head into the bucket.
‘NO!’ shouts Arthur. ‘Put it in the feeder! Never let them eat out of the bucket.’
I wrench the bucket away from the cow, but another one immediately starts muscling in. Arthur seizes the bucket, digs his elbow into the cow to move her and quickly pours the feed into the feeder.
‘Don’t let them misbehave! You shouldn’t be too soft on a cow, because she’ll start bucking when you milk her.’
‘No, she’ll just understand that man is not the worst evil,’ I reply. ‘That she can appeal to his conscience when he brings this awful equipment to her. When she bucks, she’s only showing that she trusts in his good instincts.’
‘You do talk rubbish. If she’s not milked, her udder will swell up and the milk will start to fizz inside her,’ says Arthur, squatting down. The cow moves away from the feeder and licks the top of his head with her big grey tongue. ‘But she’ll be for the chop sooner or later,’ he jerks his head away from the tongue. ‘You’ve got to realise that.’
‘Perhaps it could be resisted?’
‘Don’t forget you’re in a monastery. Submission is the name of the game here.’
‘You didn’t submit when you were in the city.’
‘Submit to what? Temptations?’
‘And what kind of irresistible temptations were there there?’
‘Well, the most banal was…’
‘You become a psychologist when you’re on the street, because you sense who you can approach. I wouldn’t have gone near you. People warming themselves in railway stations can still be helped, but you have to understand what you’re giving them money for. Yes, vodka, but that’s because the body can no longer take anything else. It’s out and out war there.’
‘No. Sexual,’ he replies. I turn to face him. ‘If I fancy you and you fancy me, then why shouldn’t we? But not according to the Bible.’
‘You should have thought of the Bible when you were stealing the car radio.’
‘It’s suffering that brings a person to God. I came here voluntarily. People like you helped me when I was living rough.’
‘I wouldn’t have…’
‘I can see that. You become a psychologist when you’re on the street, because you sense who you can approach. I wouldn’t have gone near you. People warming themselves in railway stations can still be helped, but you have to understand what you’re giving them money for. Yes, vodka, but that’s because the body can no longer take anything else. It’s out and out war there. The first thing is not to freeze. You can’t sleep, because the slightest rustle will wake you up. It’s not real sleep, because you have to be on the ball. Why do they drink? They get tired of being on the ball all the time, making sure they don’t get beaten up by underage thugs. If you take a sober look at that kind of life, then a person can’t really survive more than a week and getting drunk is the best solution. In that life you’ve only got God, there’s nothing else, though there’ll be times when you end up cursing him as well. The most important thing is not to lose your sense of self. If, for instance, I’m sitting in Savyolovsky Railway Station and you are walking past me, you slip…I’ll help you up.’
‘You’re dirty, smelly and drunk – why would I want a hand from you? You’ll probably nick something or you’re just giving me a hand so I’ll feel sorry for you and give you some money.’
‘I don’t want your money. Everyone has at least one spark left in them. Pick up the churn and carry it yourself.’
I grab the churn and drag it along the aisle to the parlour. A man comes in, dressed in wide trousers and a knitted sweater. His hands look like fish scales: they are completely covered with swirling tattoos of churches with no spaces in between. I pour off the milk, grab my churn and make for the exit. But he blocks my way. His face is doughy and elongated like a goat’s.
‘Hmm,’ I say, ‘what interesting tattoos.’
‘Marina!’ shouts Arthur in the cow byre, ‘Marina, what did I say?’
‘You don’t have to shout like that!,’ I stick my head out of the cow byre.
‘Actually, I was talking to the cow, but as you’re here…’ he shoves a spade at me and points at the steaming heap of dung. ‘Tidy it up.’
‘You shouldn’t have come here,’ says Vladimir, the tattooed man, putting mashed potato on to my plate.
‘Why did you come?’ he asks. ‘We’re simple folk and we share the same destiny. I’ve been on the street since I was a child and the government didn’t help…on the contrary, it punished me.’
Arthur comes in and sits down next to me. Vladimir pours me a full cup of thick brown stewed tea from the tea pot.
‘A delicate cup of tea,’ he says. ‘You turn up here with your angel’s face, but your questions are not angelic at all. You’ve got clever eyes.’
‘What colour are your eyes?’ asks Arthur.
‘You can see they’re different colours,’ says Vladimir.
‘Chameleon,’ adds Arthur.
‘Look here, no need for a discussion of my eyes,’ I bang my fork on the plate.
‘Just answer straight out, yes or no,’ says Vladimir. ‘Would you like us to pray for you unceasingly for the next 3 months?’
‘I’m not sure I deserve that. But tell me where you got your tattoos done.’
‘What’s it got to do with you? Your presence here is bound to lead to something bad happening.’
The door opens and Sergei comes in. He puts a military jacket over his shoulders, but when he sees me he immediately throws it back and leaves, without saying a word.
‘He’s not as tough as he’d like to be’ opines Arthur.
‘Would you give me a job?’
Today is colder. The sun is looking out to see whether it did the right thing to hide in its celestial freezer, having decided that it wouldn’t survive the winter. In the delicate yellow light which it throws like a veil over the wasteland and the cattleyard, the icicles look razor-sharp and the steam from one’s mouth takes on monstrous shapes. Everyone who knocks at the big gates of the cattleyard next to the Nikolo-Peshnoshky Monastery can be sure that the decision to hole up here from the winter, sprinkling snowflakes as sharp as the scythe of an old woman, was both speedy and right.
Arthur is standing with a fire gun over the blackened body of a pig. Winter itself might have thrown it down to scare people as a demonstration to those below of how well her icy scythes are working.
‘Would you give me a job?’ asks Arthur.
‘No, you’d rob me.’
‘How about someone on a journey having a drink and falling asleep somewhere on a park bench? Can one take his bag? The poor man who went up to him didn’t do anything except check his pockets…and take his bag.’
‘Have you done that?’
‘Are you trying to squeeze a confession out of me?’ I’m only describing something that happens all the time. Is it good or bad? You think it’s bad, but I think that’s what should happen. For centuries people have been getting into one and the same humdrum routine. Think what it means to be on the road…you can’t relax, you are permanently in a state of heightened awareness,’ he says. Something seems to have snapped in him after our conversation in the stall.
‘I don’t like listening to you, Arthur.’
‘Why’s that?’ His face flares up as if the piglet he is grilling is a piece of his own body, which has been torn off but still has sensation. ‘I’m not saying I’ve done that, I was just telling you about a typical situation. I think that those sorts of people should be punished.’
‘Who gave you the right to be the instrument of their punishment?’
‘So you wouldn’t give me a job? What if I say I hadn’t done it?’
‘For me the fact that you’re justifying it is enough.’
‘You wouldn’t give me a job and no one else would either – there’s your answer!’
I go a roundabout way through the monastery. Coming towards me is a stocky figure in military clothes. When he sees me, Sergei turns and walks in another direction. I catch him up.
He stops and hunches his shoulders.
‘We haven’t fallen out, but let’s be friends anyway.’ I take off my mitten and hold my hand out to him.
‘Put on your glove, it’s cold,’ he says, turning his shoulder towards me. His light blue eyes have tears in them, possibly from the frost. ‘Take your hand away. I hate you.’
‘Because you’re a woman. Didn’t you hear me? Take your hand away.’
‘Why are you pushing me away?’
In the kitchen Louis Armstrong is singing ‘Let my people go’ from a tape recorder. Vladimir sits at the table, supporting his head with his violet hand. I am peeling potatoes. A large enamel pan bubbles on the stove with pale yellow pieces of udder turning over in it.
‘On day 3 I ended up in the morgue,’ Vladimir is continuing the story of how he once died.
‘In a bag or in the fridge?’ I ask, as I peel.
‘I was lying on a bench in a room,’ he answers seriously. ‘Other people lay near me. I looked terrible,’ he says and I think that he doesn’t look much better now. ‘My body was cold and I felt so uncomfortable in it, really bad.’ He goes up to the saucepan and looks into it for a long time. ‘That’s a domestic animal,’ he says, ‘one of God’s delightful creations. I can’t watch when it’s being slaughtered, but someone has to feel sorry for it, so I come along and pity it. I give it my strength to help it survive its last moments. Why? Why are people made like that? Why does no one have any need of us? You want to know if I’ve been in prison. I have, I have. When I came out I was passed from department to department. I ended up in Social Protection, but they also washed their hands of me.’
Vladimir lifts his elongated goat’s face to me. He really is looking at me with love, but there’s something terrible about it.
‘Have you stolen too?’
‘Not on purpose.’
‘What about on purpose?’
‘When I had a company, things happened as a result of combinations of circumstances.’
‘People always try to justify their actions.’
‘Blaming oneself takes a lot of strength. People will always look for the easiest way…so I’ve been inside. So what? Does it mean I’m a bad person? So why are you talking to me? Why are you pushing me away? I love people….’ he lifts his elongated goat’s face to me. He really is looking at me with love, but there’s something terrible about it. ‘Yes, I was once a conduit for evil, but I was severely punished for it and I haven’t become bitter. I want to live in peace with everyone in the world.
‘I am probably weak, may the Lord have mercy on me,’ he says. ‘I have been looking for truth all my life. I’m told it doesn’t exist, but it does. I had my eyelids tattooed when I was still little, because it was considered prestigious where I come from. So I did it like everyone else, like a monkey. Where I lived the laws were different. But I never did any harm to defenceless people. Or stole from people who didn’t have enough to live on.’
‘Who does have enough?’
‘You know, simple people who manage to live with just enough continued to be kind, even to me. Very few of them condemned me. The people who did that were different and were always stressing their difference. They talk about my hands. Can you imagine what it’s like when people are always talking about your hands? I’ve carried that cross all my life; all my life I’ve hidden my hands, but people still understand that the tattoos were done in prison. When you saw me, you asked immediately. If only you know how I minded that. If it were possible, I would flay the skin off my hands. I tried to burn it off with sulphuric acid, but it was so painful that I couldn’t bear it. I washed it off and only the indentations remain.’
‘What did you go down for?’
‘Theft, but it all started when my mother abandoned me and I was living rough. That was the launch – since then I’ve been flying like a rocket that can’t land. I go to sleep with a sense of relief that the day is over and the hope that the next might not start. I’m tired. A person who can’t cope with his conscience is even lower than the cattle, more of a creature governed entirely by his desires and convenience.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘The whole point is to preserve one’s dignity as a human being, rather than just being a creature with instincts. To preserve the voice of conscience. I’m so afraid, Marina, that you will do us all some damage here.’ He is speaking with a drawl and his words fit perfectly with the music playing on the tape recorder.
‘I was only little…’ he says again, and the way he says it is just like a child standing in a dark corner quite alone, crying because it seems to him that a wrong has been done to him and that no one has ever done anyone in the whole wide world such a wrong before.
‘Shall I tell you something?’ I put the knife on the table and beckon to Vladimir. Obediently, he comes towards me. ‘In Moscow offices there are masses of people with tattoos and they think they have some significance. Most of them don’t actually produce anything, but you are feeding people. People can take various forms,’ I continue in a whisper, ‘like wet clay, they can be terrible and even hideous. What really matters is how they end up when the clay has hardened. The fact that they have been hideous doesn’t mean they can never be beautiful.’
Vladimir gets up and goes to the cooker. He clenches his fist over the bubbling udder and sways on his feet. His hands are covered with a soft layer of fatty perspiration.
Renaming the cat
‘I have a suggestion,’ I say. ‘Let’s rename no 13 – from today we could call her Happiness.’
‘As if we have nothing else to do!’ sneer the labourers who, as usual before the milking, are gathered around the sofa.
‘No 13 is Arthur’s cat,’ says Kostya. ‘We should ask him first.’
Arthur is sitting on a stool near the parlour and plucking a goose. A pile of feathers rises up near his feet.
‘Well, Arthur,’ I say, ‘shall we rename your cat?’
He doesn’t answer my question. ‘You only know me as a person who lives in cowshed. You just see me milking the cows, no more and no less. You don’t know anything about me. I want to hold on to what no one, neither you nor anyone else, can take away from me.’
‘And what might that be?’
‘My belief in God. I have no need of anything, including your values. What is it you want from me?’
‘I work near Savyolovsky Station. I don’t want to see you there, among the homeless, when I come out of the metro station.’
‘Don’t worry, you won’t. I told you – in this monastery I’ve found what I was looking for and no one can take my faith away from me.’
‘Who would want to? You’re just a coward who’s afraid of life and has holed up here hiding behind his belief in God. You’re scared of getting kicked again.’
‘Yes, OK, OK! Satisfied? You don’t make the same mistake twice. If you trust someone, they’ll just kick you again!’ His face is scarlet.
‘Well what DO you want? You can’t spend your whole life in this cowshed, plucking geese,’ the cat jumps out from under my jacket and runs along the aisle, dragging its back feet.
‘That’s my cat and her name is No 13!’
Looking for Sergei
The novice sits down heavily on the sofa.
‘Sergei has left,’ he says in a tense voice. ‘I’ve just heard. Did he say anything to you?’
‘Yes, that he hated me.’
‘Don’t pay any attention to that. His mother abandoned him when he was a child and he grew up in a children’s home. He’s been here for several years. He did the work of 6 men and he’s left without even saying goodbye. I knew he was depressed and yesterday evening I went up to him and gave him a hug, asking him what the matter was. He cried for 3 hours after that. I look after them all like little children. They’re brought here and dumped by the gates, lousy, full of abscesses and all beaten up. I feed them from a pipette. Kostya came here like that. I thought he was an old man, but when I’d washed him, I saw he wasn’t even 30. Well, he’s gone and that’s that. I can’t look after each and every one like a child. But, it’s frosty outside and he has nowhere to go, so I can’t just sit here. My heart is….’ he lifts up his fingers pinched together as if he means to cross himself, but only moves his hand over the area of his heart. He gets up resolutely and goes outside.
An hour and a half later, the novice Roman returns. He flops down on the sofa, his cheeks red from the frost.
‘I didn’t even know which direction to go in,’ he says. ‘I just followed my nose. Have you seen the trees today? They’re cased in ice. I caught up with Sergei after 90 minutes; he’d got as far as Rogochevo, walking along with a small bag. What a man! He’s worked for so long and then just leaves taking nothing. I turned him towards me: his face was covered with icicles. I said to him “Have you taken leave of your senses? You’ve nowhere to go.” His reply was “I’m not going anywhere. I just want to freeze to death.” I tried to persuade him to come back, but got nowhere. So I asked him why he’d bothered with the cats, because now they would die. He said someone would feed them, then he turned away and got into a car.’
The labourers gather silently round Roman. He suggests they should try and guess my age.
’45,’ he suggests, to get the ball rolling.
‘No-o-o, more like 55,’ says Tsar, squinting at me.
‘What’re you talking about?’ says Arthur. ‘More!’
‘Stop it!’ I shout, leaping up off the sofa. ‘Stop it right now!’
‘She’s an old, old lady,’ drawls Kostya.
‘Sorry,’ says Roman, shaking with laughter. ‘There was no other way of getting you off the sofa.’
At that moment the door opens and in comes Sergei. He looks at no one, scuffing his feet to wipe them clean. Finally, he raises his head and, seeing me holding no 13, he freezes in feigned horror.
‘There’s no hope…’ he shrugs his shoulder and, spluttering with laughter, runs away. The labourers all laugh.
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