Not many eleven-year-olds are enamoured with death. Mary Agapitos is. She likes to hang out in the Kalgoorlie graveyard, exulting in the rust-coloured earth that still reigns around the tombs, the bauxite rocks lying about like oversized gravel and the tufts of colourless grass protruding beneath the occasional eucalypt. In particular, she enjoys the Orthodox section where she reads and pats headstones of people she once knew. Old Greek surnames that comfort her like her mother’s embrace.
Mary wanders about their Kalgoorlie house serving nibbly things to the guests as a pleasant Greek girl should. Faces from Asia Minor, Kastellorizo and Alexandria blur into each other. Her cheeks are pulled, slobbered upon, her long wavy locks – which she secretly delights in – are caressed by some and yanked by others. And when not serving, her personal space is stolen by women who squash her into their paunches; the thin ladies enfold her delicately. Now and then, to the appreciation of the crowd, Mary forces a tear in remembrance of her great uncle Yiannis Katavatis. ‘Oh, she is a dear thing,’ they say, as she walks around presenting a platter of dried fruit, nuts, olives and white cheese.
Between platters, Mary retreats into the kitchen where her mother governs. Whisky and ouzo are being sent around with sweetened orange peel and rose-petal jam. Coffee brews in the briki: Mary’s favourite time. She looks forward to wakes: the brush of uncomfortably formal suits on her skin; the kitchen, a pulsating heart sending food forth and receiving the remains flowing back; the sad smiles; the composed ladies who only an hour or so earlier had worn tear-stained faces.
Taking a tray of shortbread outside to the back room, where men sit talking buoyantly, Mary hears news. They talk of the Kaiser’s plans to conquer Europe and say that the Greeks are behind their Prime Minister Venizelos. They are pro-Entente, anti-German, despite what King Constantine of Greece states about remaining neutral. After all, the Kaiser is his wife’s brother.
In the lounge, she hears the ladies discuss which days are holy in the coming months and how Christina is disgracing the family, having been seen with a xeno: an Australian, an Englishman.
As she re-enters the kitchen, Mary sneaks a shortbread from the plate. She’s never seen snow but she imagines it is like the icing that covers the thick snake-shaped biscuit. She removes the clove, a bold dark star in the centre, and eats the biscuit meditatively, mouth closed, oblivious to all else around her.
‘I’m bringing the coffee cups back.’ Her mother closes the icebox and stares, but her eyes are too gentle to put fear in a child who has seen death many times before.
‘But I want to, mama,’ she says in a raised voice.
Three ladies at the sink turn to observe the self-assured girl. ‘Let her bring the cups if she wants to,’ says one.
Mary’s mother nods, bends down slightly and whispers in her daughter’s ear. ‘You mustn’t look in them.’
Mary has heard it before and knows her role by heart: ‘Of course not, Mama.’
‘You mustn’t look, remember what I said,’ her mother says so thinly that even Mary has trouble hearing. ‘It’s Satanas that allows people to see things. Don’t taint your soul, agapi mou.’
Mary kisses her mother and dashes out with a tray. She steps towards the men first and picks up a cup belonging to Loukas, who runs Paris Café on Hannan Street. Immediately she looks into the remaining grounds of the tiny cup. She does not need to flip it like a gypsy or an atheist widow: she simply gazes and all is apparent. She sees a zoological form in the bottom, a bull, but she does not know or care what this means. It is the traces between the mud to which her eyes are lured. These lines appear to her like vast gorges, the rims are individual odysseys. She knows this but doesn’t bother with particular details. Mary heads straight for the end point: death, thanatos.
Her wife calls from the kitchen but she is tired; she lets the feeling crawl over her. She breathes slowly but can no longer be bothered with her body’s labouring. She sleeps, vaguely aware of someone’s touch – shaking her arms. A tear wets her face, then all is shadow.
Loukas pats her head. Mary does not usually like that, she feels too old for it, but for the present it does not bother her.
‘Peaceful,’ she whispers under her breath.
She grabs the next cup, Kostas’. His beaked nose and distant eyes do not even acknowledge her – too small, too unimportant.
Mary merely peeps downwards.
She fumbles for her concealed fish knife as an oar crashes into her face, sweeping her over the side. Hands grip as she tries to surface, breathing water, gagging as more rushes in.
Then she remembers: she’s a child eating honeyed yoghurt at an outside café table, the sun bathing her skin and sending glitter across the turquoise bay. She spasms. All is still.
Mary touches Kostas’ cheek, seeing him for the first time. He smiles downwards – his raptor face no longer appears aloof. She pats his leg tenderly, and then moves to another cup.
Eleftherios’ cup. Her heart feels pressure, like a small balloon swollen with liquid, she clenches her chest and tries to speak before it bursts.
Panayiota’s. She holds the side of her stomach, nails squelching flesh. everything burns. A widow, her three unmarried sons surround her. She can’t abandon them yet. One son clasps her hand gently; she wants to turn her head, behold his eyes. Another son kisses her forehead. ‘You’ve always been so brave,’ she hears.
Permission. She stops.
The final cup that she takes is her mother’s. Mary pauses. This is wrong, she thinks, but she needs to know. Her mother should have cleaned it herself anyway, before Mary had the chance to pick it up.
She peeks and for the rest of the evening she doesn’t utter a sound. When her mother asks if she is all right, she cries.
Mary sits on a stool behind the front counter, eating milk chocolate. The stool is her favourite place: it feels tall, and she likes dangling her legs. She enjoys the flavour of Olympia’s, the comforting floorboards, but, more, she likes the warm smell of tobacco and coffee.
Her two brothers cook honest food in the kitchen, as well as English muck such as fresh fish defiled with batter. Her father, Mattheos, makes sure the maroon tablecloths are presentable. There are only four customers – it’s 11.30 am – but soon Mary will be taking orders and serving, aiding her baba.
It is her mother’s day off. Mama will die soon. The coffee sludge never lies. In the cup, Mama had worn that grey dress and that Italian watch that Mattheos had bought her at Christmas time.
But Mary’s mother won’t pass today. For one, she is not wearing the correct dress, and second, certain events have not yet unravelled.
Mary is watching her father meticulously setting out plates, glasses and cutlery, when the entry flaps tremble and Loukas bursts through the entrance, brandishing a newspaper above his head. He is spouting off Greek in the shop – something is truly awry. The four customers glare and shake their heads.
‘Foreign dirt – need to learn some manners,’ whispers one but Mary hears.
Baba and Mary meet Loukas at the counter. ‘What’s wrong?’ asks Baba. Loukas whacks the newspaper down.
‘Look.’ On the front page is a ruined Northbridge shop in Perth. Windows are smashed and the inside gutted like a building site. Three small pictures adorn the bottom of the page: three shops, all pillaged in the manner Mary imagines the Ottomans once did to the Greek churches in the city that Kyria Persephone told her about. One building has even lost its support columns, and tilts as if ready to crumble.
Mary puts a hand to her mouth. It is not the same but there is something too familiar about the picture. The title reads, ‘Greek Tragedy’.
‘But why?’ says her father, his nails whitening as his fingers press into the bench.
‘Because our idiot king says he wants to remain out of the war – stay neutral.’
‘Despite Venizelos declaring the opposite?’
‘They don’t even care what the Prime Minister thinks – what we Greeks think! These Englishmen see a king declare anything and they think it’s the will of the entire people. Between us, Mattheos, I don’t care whether we fight the Germans or stay out of the whole catastrophe – we’ve seen too much war. But this …’ His hand gestures at the photo.
‘What if it happens here?’ asks Mattheos.
Mary reads as they converse.
Yesterday evening, a mob of misled Australian patriots – civilian youths and soldiers – marched through Highgate, Northbridge and Perth, in a destructive wave targeted at shops conducted by persons of Greek nationality. Twenty shops in all were demolished: windows smashed, furnishings wrecked and stock ruined by the protestors. Nigel Bradley, who witnessed the scene, said, ‘They were even singing “Tipperary” and “Australia Will Be There” while vandalising …’
‘We’ll be next,’ says her father.
‘Hopefully not,’ says Loukas. All traces of his theatrical anger vanish in a blink. ‘Mr Angelides has addressed the Premier on behalf of our community, stating that we are not only law-abiding citizens but also pro-Venizelists, totally opposed to the Kaiser and his people.’
‘I’ll call Sergeant Humphries, just in case.’ Mattheos winks at Loukas. ‘He gets a free lunch every Wednesday: fried snapper, prime filet.’
So little time. Mary waits as her father makes the call in tentative English. ‘Yes, thank you, Sergeant … extra patrols, eh? This is very good, very good.’
Loukas strolls outside with the newspaper held casually by his side. Mary’s father appears calm and returns to the tables. Both Loukas and Baba seem to Mary to feel secure knowing that their community leader in Perth, Mr Angelides, and the local police force here in Kalgoorlie will take extra care of the Greek community.
Mary knows they’re mistaken.
Her voice breaks as she speaks. ‘Baba!’ Normally Mary is so composed, so stoic, just like her mother.
Just hold me.
Her father clutches her head, somewhat awkwardly, to his wrestler chest. The fusty odour of his shirt comforts her.
Ask what’s wrong.
But her father is mute. She sobs. Words come haltingly. ‘Soon … like the paper … Baba … the same.’
‘It’s all right, Mary. Calm, calm.’
Mary draws her breath in sharp perceptible gulps. He gets her a glass of water and wipes the rivulets from her face with a shirtsleeve. Mary sips, both hands gripping the glass. She composes herself, mastering her face by tucking in her quivering lower lip and measuring her breathing until she becomes like her mother once more.
‘I read the cups,’ Mary says.
‘Mary, you know what Mama says about that.’
‘Promise, Baba. Promise you won’t tell her. Please!’
‘OK,’ he laughs, ‘I promise.’
‘Soon they’ll come. And throw things through the store, the glass will break up and down the street, and then they’ll invade like an army and … people will be hurt … I hate them, Baba. I hate them.’
‘It’s a dream, Mary. It’s okay. I’ve spoken to the sergeant. We’ll be protected.’
‘Don’t tell Mama. You promised you wouldn’t tell.’ Mary releases all in a deluge. The mob is uncontrollable. Even the stately Kalgoorlie hotel is left on a precarious slant, its wooden pillars warped. The story has such vivid details that Mary knows her father is convinced. After all, she is no fibber.
She speaks fluidly. Her father listens. Images form … Eleftherios lies on the ground, his left ear lobe swollen like a mushroom after being kicked by Bluey, the carrot-haired miner who eats at their restaurant every Saturday lunch – always pasticcio.
The sergeant is mounted with some other cops, helpless, as they watch the destructive quake rumble down the street, demolishing all Greek stores. Many are beaten. Her mother loses her watch to an Italian man shouting, ‘Dammi l’orologio adesso, disgraziata Greca.’
Mary doesn’t tell of what happens after.
She feels her father clasping her shoulders. ‘The date. Can you remember the date?’ She lifts her head, the Aegean way of motioning ‘no’.
‘Did you see a newspaper around?’ Her father is now shaking her slightly; he’s never done this before. No more tears, she tells herself.
‘What about the calendar in the kouzina? Think, Mary mou.’
All she knows is that it will be soon, within a fortnight or so.
‘Look at me. No-one will die. If the police can’t protect us,’ he pounds his chest in a simian fashion, ‘I will.’ He repeats ‘I will’ with another fist to his pectoral.
She says the reverse of what she thinks. ‘I believe you, Baba.’
Pavlos, with his bald Periclean-shaped head, strides in from the kitchen at their father’s call. Arm around Pavlos’ shoulder, Baba whispers in his ear. Her brother tears off his apron and races outside.
Mary looks up from the counter as Pavlos returns at a jog. He and her father murmur away in Greek while she serves Bluey. She usually feels sorry for this man; his unfortunate ruddy skin is no protection against the burning goldfields’ sun. But now his blistered nose and dry, flaky lips repulse her like some nightmare. She wants to squish her nostrils up or do something ridiculous, like tear up his one pound note and fling it into his face.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she says, returning his change in the Greek manner by placing it in a saucer.
Bluey nods. ‘Good food.’
Once the transaction is over, her older brother approaches, sweat gleaming on his forehead. He blows a raspberry on her neck. She can’t help but giggle at the tickly wet touch. At the same time, she feels a little humiliated. ‘Grow up, Pavlos. I’m almost twelve. I’m too old for that.’
Pavlos ignores her as usual and Mary feels herself being lifted up and twisted around so they’re both facing the same direction. He places her shoes on his and holds her, balancing her as he walks around the counter. His breath is warm and salty as he whispers in her ear.
‘Who’s the strongest man in the world?’
‘Baba,’ says Mary cheekily.
‘Baba? Then who’s the second strongest?’
‘Hmm. I’ll have to think.’
Pavlos lifts her up in the air. ‘Who?’
‘Marios.’ She says her oldest brother’s nickname.
‘Marios?’ He says putting her down. ‘That weakling. I used to be number one. Now Mary,’ his tone deepens, ‘I want you to go home and tell Mama that there will be a full house tonight. Possibly even forty people. Then come back and I’ll give you some money to buy rosewater and essence, almonds, icing sugar and glucose from Stavros’ shop. Father says everyone will need a loukoumi.’
‘That’s because he thinks rosewater freshens the mind.’
Loukas is the first to knock. Others continue to arrive until thirty or so men are crammed in the back room, each on a wooden chair brought home from the restaurant. Small square tables, a few with wobbly legs, are spaced throughout the room. On each are two small white plates.
Mary smiles in the kitchen with her mother. There is something special about making loukoumi with her. It’s a far easier dish than all those finicky honey-drenched pastries, and she and Mama can be less precise, which means Mary can be a little sillier. They fabricate stories about everyone they know, even Mary’s grandfather in Greece. ‘Pappou only became a priest once his Yaya died so he could get closer to the wine and women,’ Mary tells her mama, who giggles uncharacteristically.
Mary kisses her, tells her how much she loves her one too many times – until her mother stoppers her mouth with a freshly made loukoumi. It’s delicious. They pull off their aprons and Mary pats down her skirt. Men come and greet them, kissing both cheeks. The moustachioed ones prickle.
Loukas’ son enters. Seventeen, tall with coffee-coloured skin. He is nicknamed Coco by the locals and now the Greeks call him that, too. Mary blushes as his lips touch her face.
‘He’d make a good husband.’ Her mother grins as Coco leaves for the backroom. Mary secretly hopes that the smile is sincere. But, then, her mama says that about every Greek male under the age of twenty-five.
Her father and brothers closed the shop early and have cooked all afternoon. Mary and her mama whisk in and out with platters of food, catching titbits of what is said.
Grilled fish, octopus and prawns.
It appears her father dominates early proceedings. ‘If it happened in Perth and Sydney, then it will happen here.’
The second platter has meatballs Smyrnaean style, floating in a cinnamon-tomato salsa.
Coco stands. ‘We need a safe haven, in case things get violent. Even in Sydney, four thousand people rioted just because someone made up a tale about a Greek murderer.’ Many don’t care to listen to one so young. Mary watches eyes flitter to the sides or upwards. Some bore into the ground. She holds the tray tighter than usual.
Dolmades are handed out with ladles of egg and lemon sauce. Mary observes the familiar sloping foreheads, dark brows and thick hands. She knows the thoughts of those gathered while Loukas speaks: what type of a father unleashes his son like that? Her father and Pavlos are attentive, at least.
‘We don’t need a safe haven. I can manage on my own,’ she hears one visitor say.
A plan unfolds while her mother serves meltingly tender lamb, pot-stewed for three hours in cloves, wine, vinegar and a bay leaf or two. Mary scoops out small serves of chickpeas and spinach drizzled with virgin olive oil and lemon juice. A cautionary warning system is set in place. Coco volunteers to be the runner if a mob arises and Loukas will buy extra locks and board up his house until it’s a fort. A few people grunt at the perceived nonsense and a hostile silence settles over the room.
By the time Mary serves coffee and loukoumi, most guests have left. Like a fervent orchestral conductor, her father raises his hand up and down as he talks to Loukas and Pavlos. Mary recognises the gestures; Baba’s anxious. As she serves him the translucent pink sweet dressed in icing sugar, he says, ‘Only the bright men are left, the others should have remained for this sweet. Rose –’
‘– I know Baba, it makes you think.’
‘Not many believed us, Mary mou. But we’ll keep a good watch.’
Two cups are on Mary’s tray, nestled between bread plates. One belongs to Coco. A blanket on grass overlooking the ocean. Waves kush and sher as she gazes at the fair, string-lipped lady seated by her side. Something pops in her head as her wife speaks, her accent Irish. Every word from the ‘pop’ onwards becomes more hushed until it fades into silence. ‘We should do this every Sunday …’
Mary pauses. The pop was something she hadn’t felt before, quick and painless, like flicking a switch. She feels a little sad too, not because of the death, but because Coco’s not with her as she hoped. Lucky Irish.
Mary hesitates over her father’s cup. She closes her eyes as she places it on the kitchen bench. She hears her mama washing dishes beside her and rather than opening her eyelids, she crosses herself, swearing to the Lord that her baba’s grounds are ones she will never read.
A week passes without any demonstration. Not one of the eleven Greek shops on Hannan Street is affected. Yet Mary is constantly alert. She hides her mama’s grey dress on numerous occasions – in Pavlos’ cupboard, in the back shed, under her mattress – until her mother throws her ‘that look’. At Anchor Confectionary, a distant cousin’s store, she is shouted her usual: a sundae with chocolate and cherry sauce so syrupy it prevents the mound of chopped nuts cascading down in an avalanche.
‘How boring,’ she says to Pavlos when he orders his usual Cola Spider.
Two fair teenagers in shorts also sit along the ‘Yankee-style’ counter, making slurping sounds with their straws as they finish the last of their drinks. As the boys rise to pay, the burlier of the two looks pointedly at Christopheros behind the till and says, ‘We’ll be payin’ the Aussie price – not like those two olives over there.’ And when Christopheros places the change on a small plate: ‘Put it in my hand. You’re not in Wopland anymore.’
His friend sniggers. ‘Greasies,’ he says as they leave.
Mary’s ordinarily immune. She’s heard it all before: dagos, oilies and the rest. But now she worries. Is it a sign of what’s to come? Or is this the norm?
The next week is one of observation. More signs? Did that man deliberately bump Panayiota so she spilled her parcels? Maybe that lady takes her children across the street to avoid the family. Is young Kyriakos’ plum-coloured eye a result of being alien?
Nothing eventuates and the fortnight passes. No two-thousand-strong pack terrorises the street, and the days revolve routinely. Mama breathes and cooks and confides. Pavlos relaxes and, whenever she enters the kitchen, beats his dark apron, producing flour clouds just to annoy her. Her father’s eyes no longer linger on Mama, espying her every move.
Mary wonders if Satanas has been at play. Have the cups been lying all this time? Were the lives she possessed in the cups’ murk simply the Charlatan’s fabrications?
Four weeks pass. December 8 is her mother’s day off. Although it is morning, the sun weighs down oppressively, sucking moisture from the air in true goldfields style. Cicadas and crickets provide an accompanying beat to the heat, while skinks scamper about windowsills. Inside, Mary and her father are preparing tables when Loukas arrives. The image is identical, only her angle different. He waves the newspaper about – highlighting a musty pool under his right armpit – before slamming it down. ‘Coco is on the alert! I’ve locked shop, you should do the same.’ Her father strides to the counter and Mary follows in his shadow. She hops on to the stool. Her legs are still as she attempts to peep over her baba’s shoulder. All she can glean is the Kalgoorlie Miner’s headline: ‘Greek Treachery!’
A bugle resonates outside. Her baba barks in Greek, his own military response to the soldier’s horn, and her two brothers exit the kitchen. They all move out onto the road. At the top end of Hannan Street near the post office are a dozen or so uniformed blotches. The bugle perforates the dry morning air once more. Youths and more soldiers appear on the horizon. Mary sees others leaving shops. Many non-Greek men head off towards the group. Women and children fade away into the dim; some Greeks approach her father but several remain in their stores. Once more, the bugle sounds and the cluster up the road grows like a carcass drawing ants, a swarm coalescing. A final bugle note echoes off the buildings but this time it is muffled by yells and cheers.
Twenty or so Greeks, eerily silent, are now gathered around her own family but the street in the distance is alive with shouts and more people than Mary has ever seen. She can see their figures clearly as they take to the Greek-run post office that doubles as a café. It must be locked. Axes hew through doors, windows are shattered, furniture is soon removed, food and fittings carried out. She prays the owners are safe as the crowd move, wreaking destruction with the speed and efficacy of a tornado. Despite the chaotic roar of the mob and the wildness of their gutting, the looters remain banded together as they whirl over to the adjoining shop.
The group that Mary is with heads off in the opposite direction – towards Loukas’ barricaded house at the other end of Hannan Street. She watches the heels and soles in front beat in and out of the road, stirring orange dust. Several mounted police approach. Their horses whinny, toss their heads and stamp. The sergeant tips his hat towards her father as they pass by. Mary turns to see the police horses clop towards the throng only to witness them being pelted with missiles: chairs, stones, steel and wood. One mare rears dangerously, hooves thrashing the air. With a wave of the sergeant’s hand, the ineffectual force retreats to the sheltered porch of Pete O’Reiley’s butcher store. A derisive cheer erupts.
Those around Mary now sprint for Loukas’ stronghold, shirts sweaty, blouses clinging. Tugging and shrieking, she pulls on Pavlos and her father’s shirts. She topples over and grazes a knee. ‘Mama! Mama!’ she screeches. The rest of the group moves on. In the distance, the armed mass whips about in their direction.
Her father’s veins bulge from his neck. ‘Home,’ he says to Pavlos. ‘See that your mother’s safe. If there’s time, take her to Loukas’ place.’
‘What about Mary?’
Mary has taken off at a quick hobble towards their restaurant. The crowd moves another shop closer, flinging tables and chairs to the street. Apples and pears bounce and roll from crates to the chant: ‘It’s a long way to go …’
Mary sees her mother, wearing grey, dash across from an opposite store and into their restaurant. The mob rages towards them. She is still a good ten yards from the Olympia and the fuming crowd only thirty yards or so in the other direction. Mary feels herself scooped up from behind. For a second, she thinks of biting the arms that hold her until she realises they’re her father’s. Pavlos is next to Baba as they turn towards Loukas’ house.
They haven’t seen her! She sinks her teeth downwards and her father drops her in surprise. ‘Mama!’ she screams, pointing towards their store.
Pavlos turns as their mother exits their shop. Mama looks fearfully at the crowd, now only twenty yards away. Mary is gathered up once more as the three tear off towards the Olympia restaurant.
‘Inside,’ hollers her father, startling Mama. They dash in. Mary and her mother are taken behind the counter by Pavlos as Baba locks and barricades the doors with tables desperately thrown and shoved. The shouts are an audible roar as Baba crouches behind the patina-riddled counter. ‘Stay here,’ he says. Mary peeps over as windows splinter and shards spray into the restaurant. The door is hacked open by axes and boots, barricading tables tossed outside. Mary searches for her mother’s killer as bodies advance, and near the front sees the swarthy, bearded Italian with the swollen nose, brandishing a hammer. Bluey is next to him. Mary and her family stand as the squall nears.
The pack hurls tables and buzzes around them to rip apart the kitchen and smash open the cash register. Her family are in the eye of the cyclone: no-one touches them. Two men sing as they let fly chairs. Baba holds Mama behind him, so her back is to the counter. Pavlos’ hands are ready fists.
Bluey, wielding his metal rod, comes closer with his mate. The latter reeks of alcohol. Bluey stares at Mary and nods in recognition. He grabs the Italian’s arm, ‘Nobody touches them!’ The Italian wildly shoves him away, eyes locked on Mama’s watch. He rocks into Baba, head barrelling into his stomach. Baba braces his legs and is winded, but remains between them. Mary’s arm is yanked by her brother as he shoves her behind him. Next to him, a chair comes crashing down over their father’s head. Groaning, he manages to stand while Pavlos swings and hits a face. He sweeps another arm out but it’s seized. Eventually swamped, Baba and Pavlos are buried in a flurry of leather boots and fists.
‘Dammi l’orologio adesso, disgraziata Greca.’ So close, everything appears magnified to Mary: the oily black pores on his nose; his stench of desperation; the knots in his mane. Bearing his weight down on Mama, the Italian knocks her to the floor and lands on top of her, one hand locked on her wrist, while the other one flails the air with a hammer.
Her mother kicks out. Mary dives as the hammer strikes.
Mary watches her own burial. Her mama, dressed in black and with her tears bleeding, tosses red earth on Mary’s coffin. Others follow. Her great uncle, Yannis Katavatis, places a consoling hand on Mary’s shoulder. It is not her mother’s embrace, but must suffice for now.
Anthony Panegyres is a Perth author whose writing has recently appeared in Dotdotdash and Andromeda. He is currently working on a novel.
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 104–113
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