Sunday, December 23, 2007

Calypso of the Appenine Way

Here is the conclusion to the first chapter of my novel.....

The whole conversation with its inevitable lack of transparency was beginning to bore me and I finished up my beer and ordered another one. Mario did the same, this time ordering beer. Eva was less than half way through her orange juice and Sharokh seemed to be deliberately going slow with his small beer.

“What’s the matter with you, Sharokh?” I enquired. “Do you intend to make that small beer last all night?” I understood that the Iranian would be driving Eva home and that he had a responsibility to not drink too much, but this in no way stopped me from taking a little fun; pot shots, at his expense.

“It is the car, John”. Sharokh replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “As you know, it’s only six months since I passed my test and I don’t want to drink too much as it could lead to a preventable accident. “Would you forgive me if we were in an accident and Eva was to be injured?” I looked at Sharokh’s face closely, but could detect no hint of irony on it.

“No, of course not”, I replied seriously. “You are certainly doing the right thing in not drinking too much. “On the other hand, I am unsure as to why you decided to get a house so far away from the centre of Parma. Wouldn’t it have been better to be more central?” At this point, Eva joined in the conversation.

“That question is easily answered, John. We took the apartment in Felino because it was far cheaper than anything we could find in Parma of a similar size and quality.” Of course, I was well aware that this had been the reason for their choice; but I was still in the mood to turn the knife in the wound a little.

“But surely, when you take into consideration the amount you pay for the car and petrol, it would have been cheaper to live in the centre.” Again, I knew that what I was saying was nonsense, but it was amusing to see Sharokh twisting around to explain his present impecuniousness. In the Shah’s Iran, his family had been related to the Royal Family and all of them would have been killed by the revolutionaries if not for their contacts who’d been able to convey them secretly out of the country: Sharokh and his brother to Perugia in Italy and his parents to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Perugia, Sharokh had met Eva who had convinced him to come to Parma with her. Sharokh’s brother remained in Perugia as night watchman in a small hotel.

All this while, Sharokh had been staring at me in some irritation. “Surely, you know better than that, John. You are a driver yourself and you know that while the petrol is expensive, housing is a lot more costly. In Felino, I’d say we have everything we wish. It is a beautiful small village and the people are friendly too. We have already made friends with several couples who live nearby.”

Now it was my turn to get angry. “Oh yes, and who might they be? I must say Sharokh that it seems to me that you are making this drive to Parma on a very regular basis. Felino is an extremely backward place and the people are suspicious of strangers rather than friendly. As for these great ‘friends’ you have made, I’d be glad to know exactly who they are.” At this point, Eva made a hurried interjection.

“Sharokh is exaggerating. There is an Italian couple living in an apartment close to ours who we sometimes meet on Sunday afternoons for a drink and a game of cards in the local bar. There is really nothing to it.” At this point Sharokh interrupted Eva with a tightly constricted voice.

“Is it not true that we have been their guests for lunch and dinner on several occasions? Isn’t it also true that they’ll be coming over to eat with us tomorrow night? Certainly, I have come to regard them as friends and I think that you have too.” I was listening with attention and curiosity as Eva made her reply.

“Sharokh, they are acquaintances. Are we so desperate for friends and general acceptance here that as soon as we see someone a couple of times they are regarded as dear soul mates? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, we don’t want to spend all our time only with each other: that would be merely boring. However, try to keep things in perspective instead of forever spreading stories about new friends!”

I felt that Eva’s answer pretty much covered all the bases--and I was confirmed in this idea as I watched Sharokh sink into a lugubrious silence, a look of utter hopelessness etched on his features. At this point Mario seemed to wake up from his personal preoccupations and began to speak with Sharokh whom he had always viewed favourably due to the perception that they had both been ill-treated by fate in the same way. Of course, I was aware that the two really shared little in common. Sharokh had nobody but Eva to support him in Italy and the daily job he did in the factory was absolutely essential to his health and well-being. On the other hand, Mario, although his father had frightened him by making him work in a factory for a spell, was the favoured son of a rich engineer who would always make sure he was taken care of. Sharokh was also aware of these discrepancies, but as long as Mario was too naive--or perhaps just too young--to see them, he was happy to play the part of senior big brother on the factory floor who always had a younger colleague’s interests at heart.

“Sharokh, how much was your car?” asked Mario. “I am thinking of buying a second hand Fiat from one of my friends, but I’m not sure how much I should pay.”

“Our car was obtained at a special price through the help of a friend in Perugia”, answered Sharokh. “Tell me Mario, how old is the car you are thinking about buying?” Mario shook his head vaguely.

“I’m not exactly sure, but I’d say it’s probably at least ten years old. It could be more.”

Sharokh looked business-like. “In that case, don’t pay more than three or four million lire. How much is your friend asking?”

“He wants seven million lire”, Mario replied.

“Don’t pay it!” responded Sharokh decisively. “You will undoubtedly have engine problems with a car so old and very likely difficulties in obtaining parts as well. You will be tearing your hair out in a month if you pay such a price--and I can guarantee that you will no longer view this person who is selling you the car, as a friend anymore. Actually, I would advise you not to buy the car at all as it’s at least ten years old. I would advise you, rather, to look carefully for a car that is no more than five years old. You should be able to obtain such a car for no more than five or six million lire. I don’t think your friend is really doing you any favours by offering you his car at such a price.”

Eva and myself kept quiet during this discussion, not having the slightest interest in Mario’s intention to buy himself a second hand car. Personally, I was aware that the price was not of great importance as Mario’s father would pay as long as he was convinced of the necessity for his son to own a car.

“Thanks so much for your help, Sharokh”, responded Mario gratefully. I am sure that I would have foolishly bought that car at my friend’s asking price if not for having had this eye-opening little talk with you.” Sharokh laughed.

“My friend, please don’t think about it at all. Are we not brothers of the factory floor? What would comradely relations be coming to if one factory worker was not able to help another?” At these words Mario laughed and nodded.

“Yes, I still feel myself to be a factory worker. Most of my friends still work there and I have little in common with the people I am now mixing with in the Liceo. Once a worker, always a worker.”

I was fully aware how fatuous these words of Mario’s were--and so was Sharokh. However, we both felt a need to keep silent now. Confronting Mario with the obvious would do neither myself nor Sharokh any good. At this point, Sharokh asked me a loaded question.

“John, how is Eleonora these days? We haven’t seen her for so long. Is she still studying Law at the university during the day and then working in that office by night?” I took a quick glance at Eva’s pallid face before answering.

“Yes, she is fine and continues to study and work. In fact she should be finishing at the office in a few minutes.” Sharokh nodded enthusiastically.

“Why, isn’t the office just around the corner from here? Why don’t you go and get her and bring her here? It would be nice to chat with her after so long.” Eva looked uneasily from Sharokh to myself.

“Probably she is tired and hungry”, the German girl commenced. “We should allow her to eat and sleep.” Sharokh laughed.

“Well, she can eat here--sleep as well if she likes! Do go and get her John. I’d really like to see her.”
I glanced at Eva’s face and saw that it was hard and white. Sharokh was looking at me triumphantly, while Mario had a whimsical look on his face. To tell the truth, I actually wished to see her myself, so I slowly nodded my head.

“Yes indeed, why not. Order another round of drinks and wait for me here. I should be back in about ten or fifteen minutes.” I rose from my seat, thanked Paolo and walked to the door. Through the window I could see that it was now snowing harder than ever.

Dove vai?, enquired Paolo as I pushed open the door and made ready to plunge into the storm tossed night.
Vado per prendere Eleonora I explained to the old Sicilian, who in response gave me a knowing smile. bionda?

Si, I responded, suddenly tight and angry inside. Proprio la bionda. A presto. I left the comfort of the birreria and hurried back in the direction from which we had come.

As I walked quickly ahead, I could easily see that the street was now completely covered with a fresh coating of undisturbed snow. What on earth could I say to Eleonora to get her along to the birreria on a terrible night like this? Perhaps the mere knowledge of Eva’s presence there would act as a kind of challenge and make her come. However, I suddenly realised that there were no guarantees. It would be perfectly possible that she would refuse the outing and return to her warm apartment. I glanced at my watch: just coming up to ten. That meant I still had a few minutes. By the time Eleonora had checked everything and was ready to leave the office, the time had usually ticked around to at least five past ten.

At the end of the road, just past the cinema showing the movie about ‘The Doors’, I turned sharply to the left into one of the main thoroughfares of the town: Via Mazzini. Now I was once again protected by the great porticoes. Few people were to be seen traversing the great street--and the few that could be discerned were mostly hurrying along with their heads inclined and their eyes fixed upon their feet. I could find no obvious explanation for their behaviour except to think that perhaps they were minutely examining their shoes for storm damage that might show up in the light of day. Italians, as everybody knew, were neurotic about their shoes.
After about five minutes I ducked into the little boxed-in enclave where the entrance to Eleonora’s office lay and pressed the buzzer. After a wait of about ten seconds a familiar voice came on the intercom.

Si? Chi e’?

Sono Io. Apri la porta.

The door in front of me gave a sudden jerk and opened heavily. I pushed it forward and all the lights along the winding stairway suddenly lit up. For a moment I stood in the vestibule, a sudden feeling of stark fear unmanning me. Finally, however, I began the steep climb up to the first floor where Eleonora’s office lay. I knew that she would, in all likelihood be alone there, as most of the bosses left around nine-thirty, leaving the competent (if crazy) Eleonora to close up.

I wondered why I felt so nervous. When was the last time I’d seen Eleonora? I made a quick calculation and realised that it had already been more than a week. In a certain sense, a little bit of Eleonora went a long way. Nevertheless, most of my waking hours were filled with dreaming about her--and my dreams themselves were simply Eleonora’s: they belonged to her! She knew very well about the complete infatuation she created in men--and she fostered that craving. It might even be said that while her men lived off their infatuation for the beautiful red-haired girl, Eleonora herself got off on being the sole object of their infatuation. Nothing was more likely to end a relationship with Eleonora than the knowledge that a man who was with her was taking an inappropriate interest in another woman. She was Ulysses’s Calypso entrapping a man in her personal space and after that, never permitting him to leave again. Like Ulysses, her man might spend each day weeping on the shore, but the evening belonged to her--and her Queenly charms could never be resisted.

During the time it had taken for these thoughts to formulate in my mind, I’d reached the landing of the first floor and, glancing to the left where I knew the office to lie, I saw the familiar glass door with the painted message on it: Fernando Bertinotti, MD. Through the door, I could see Eleonora sat alone, behind her computer, at the secretarial desk. She was looking towards me and smiled as the temptress Circe might have smiled at Ulysses’s men before inviting them into her castle to become pigs.

I took a deep breath and walked in.


Anonymous Roland_Barthes said...

That chapter was very long!

3:46 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...


4:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Popular Science, best of 2003-7)
What’s one foot across and sits behind two inches of skin, four inches of fat and 10 inches of muscle? That’s right: an elephant’s testicle. Which means veterinarian Mark Stetter’s newest invention—a four-foot-long fiber-optic laparoscope attached to a video monitor—has to be a heavy-duty piece of equipment to sterilize a randy bull pachyderm. Stetter, the head doc at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, created the device to help control elephants in African wildlife parks, where the jumbos have been breeding too quickly and eating up more than their share of the surrounding habitat. The snipping began last summer when Stetter and his team field-tested the device on four unsuspecting bulls at the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve in South Africa. After a pachyderm was sedated with a dart from a helicopter, the team used a crane truck to pull the sleeping beast upright. Four-inch incisions were made, and the laparoscope was inserted into the abdomen near the reproductive organs (an elephant’s testicles are on the inside, like ovaries). When he located the centimeter-thick vas deferens—the tube that carries semen from the testicles to the penis—Stetter inserted a long pair of scissors through the scope and cut out a two- or three-inch section. So far, the method seems to be working. The first four test subjects survived the ordeal with no complications (except the possibility of bruised pride). If things go the way Stetter plans, elephants throughout southern Africa will soon be crossing their legs in fear: He has begun training other field vets to perform the procedure, and hopes to have multinational trials up and running soon.
Their work is noninvasive—for the apes, that is . . . "Have I been pissed on? Yes," says anthropologist Cheryl Knott of Harvard University. Knott is a pioneer of "noninvasive monitoring of steroids through urine sampling." Translation: Look out below! For the past 11 years, Knott and her colleagues have trekked into Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, in search of the endangered primates. Once a subject is spotted, they deploy plastic sheets like a firemen's rescue trampoline and wait for the tree-swinging apes to go see a man about a mule. For more pee-catching precision, they attach bags to poles and follow beneath the animals. "It's kind of gross when you get hit, but this is the best way to figure out what's going on in their bodies," Knott says.
“I see about 15 butts a day, and a third of them have warts,” says nurse practitioner Naomi Jay of the University of California at San Francisco. Jay and infectious-disease doc Joel Palefsky were the first to run extensive clinical studies on the sexually transmitted diseases that afflict the anus. “He’s the tushie king, and I’m the tushie queen,” Jay boasts. Each of us has about a 10 percent lifetime risk of contracting anal warts, the worst variety of which—enemy number one storming the battlements of Jay’s royal domain—is human papillomavirus. This same STD that can cause cervical cancer in women also causes anal cancer in both genders. And the only way to detect this rare but deadly disease is to ask a highly trained nurse like Jay to scrutinize your derrière. “A giant anal wart can be a couple inches large and blocking the anal opening,” Jay says with her customary vigor. The bright side? “In 13 years I’ve only been pooped on twice, and that’s not bad.”
It's a job that separates the boys from the men, OK, OK, their real job title is usually something like "cryobiologist" or "laboratory technician," but at sperm banks around the country, they are known as semen washers. "Every time I interview someone I make sure I ask them, 'Do you know you'll be working with semen?' " says Diana Schillinger, the Los Angeles lab manager at the country's largest sperm bank, California Cryobank. Let's start at the beginning. Laboriously prescreened "donors" emerge from a so-called collection room that is stocked with girlie mags and triple-X DVDs. They hand over their deposit, get their $75, and leave. The semen washers take the seminal goo and place a sample under the microscope for a sperm count. Next comes the washing. The techs spin the sample in a centrifuge to separate the "plasma" from the motile cells. Then they add a preservative, and it's off to the freezer, where it can stay for 20 years. Or not. Thanks to semen washers (and in vitro fertilization), more than 250,000 babies have been delivered in the U.S. since 1995.
"The hardest part is explaining it to friends," Schillinger says. "But we do have stories." Like what? "Like the donor who was in the room for the longest time. We had a big discussion about who was going to check on him. Turns out he thought he had to fill up the entire specimen cup."
They scoop up whale dung, then dig through it for clues
“Brown stain ahoy!” is not the cry most mariners long to hear, but for Rosalind Rolland, a senior researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston, it’s a siren song. Rolland, along with a few lucky research assistants, combs Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy looking for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Actually, she’s not really looking for the whales—just their poo. “It surprised even me how much you can learn about a whale through its feces.”
Rolland pioneered whale-feces research in 1999. By 2003, she was frustrated by the small number of samples her poo patrol was collecting by blindly chasing whales on the open ocean. So she began taking along sniffer dogs that can detect whale droppings from as far as a mile away. When they bark, she points her research vessel in the direction of the brown gold, and as the boat approaches the feces—the excrement usually stays afloat for an hour after the deed is done and can be bright orange and oily depending on the type of plankton the whale feeds on—Rolland and her crew begin scooping up as much matter as they can using custom-designed nets. Samples are then placed in plastic jars and packed in ice (the largest chunks are just over a pound) to be shared with other researchers across North America. “We’ve literally been in fields of right-whale poop,” she marvels.
In the past few years, other whale researchers have adopted Rolland’s methods. Nick Gales of the Australia Antarctic Division now plies the Southern Ocean looking for endangered blue-whale dung, a pursuit that in 2003 led him to a scientific first. While tailing a minke whale, Gale’s team photographed what is believed to be the first bout of whale flatulence caught on film—a large, disconcertingly pretty bubble trailing behind the whale like an enormous jellyfish. “We stayed away from the bow after taking the picture,” Gales recalls. “It does stink.”

If you’re interested in researching vaginal infections, you can do scrapes or urine tests, or you can draw samples with a pipette. Or you can collect your specimens from tampons. As Australian microbiologist Suzanne Garland and her team at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Victoria discovered, tampons are best for epidemiological studies of sexually transmitted diseases in large populations, because women are more likely to cooperate with a test that is familar and self-inserted rather than one that must be administered by a doctor.
Normally, researchers would use a centrifuge to extract fluids to be tested. But this is the one way in which the tampon is not an optimal specimen-collecting tool, because its true purpose is to hold liquid in. “Optimal recovery,” Garland says, “requires manual squeezing.”
“The worst was at a factory pig farm,” says Steven M. Barsky, the author of Diving in High-Risk Environments, the industry bible for hazardous-materials divers. “A guy had driven his truck into the waste lagoon and drowned. Not only was it full of urine and liquid pig feces, the farmer had dumped all the needles used to inject the pigs with antibiotics and hormones in there.” Someone had to recover the body, and the task fell to commercial hazmat divers.
Outfitted with fully encapsulating drysuits, these Jacques Cousteaus of the sewers swim into clouds of waste, inside nuclear reactors and through toxic spills on America’s coasts and inland waterways. When the Environmental Protection Agency identifies pollutants, it contracts with a hazmat team to clean things up. That means using giant vacuums to suck up a polluted lakebed, hoisting leaking barrels to the surface, or diving into the heart of an oil spill or into a sewer to fix a clog. It’s dangerous work—one breach in the drysuit, and a whole stew of bacteria and toxins can fill ’er up. Jesse Hutton, of Ballard Salvage and Diving in Seattle, has seen his share of close calls. “I’ve been on jobs where suits have been breached by rough steel or something sharp,” he says, pointing out that divers must keep their shots up to date.
The smell is just the start of the nastiness. Almost 1.5 billion tons of manure are produced annually by animals in this country—90 percent of it from cattle. That's the same weight as 14,432 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. You get the point: It's a load of crap. And it's loaded with nasty contaminants like campylobacter (the number-one cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.), salmonella (the number-two cause) and E.coli 0157:H7, which can cause kidney failure in children and painful, bloody diarrhea in everybody else.
Farmers fertilize their fields with manure, but if the excrement is rife with E.coli, then so will be the vegetables. Luckily for us, researchers at the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety are knee-deep in figuring out how to eliminate these bacteria from our animals, their poop and our food. But to develop techniques to neutralize the nasty critters, they must go to the source.
"We have to wade through a lot of poop," concedes Michael Doyle, the center's director. "If you want to get the manure, you've got to grab it. Even when you wear gloves, the fecal smell tends to get embedded in your skin." Hog poop smells the worst, Doyle says, but it's chicken poop's chokingly high ammonia content that brings tears to researchers' eyes.
Odor judges are common in the research labs of mouthwash companies, where the halitosis-inflicted blow great gusts of breath in their faces to test product efficacy. But Minneapolis gastroenterologist Michael Levitt recently took the job to another level—or, rather, to the other end. Levitt paid two brave souls to indulge repeatedly in the odors of other people's farts. (Levitt refuses to divulge the remuneration, but it would seem safe to characterize it thusly: Not enough.) Sixteen healthy subjects volunteered to eat pinto beans and insert small plastic collection tubes into their anuses (worst-job runners-up, to be sure). After each "episode of flatulence," Levitt syringed the gas into a discrete container, rigorously maintaining fart integrity. The odor judges then sat down with at least 100 samples, opened the caps one at a time, and inhaled robustly. As their faces writhed in agony, they rated just how noxious the smell was. The samples were also chemically analyzed, and—eureka!—Levitt determined definitively the most malodorous component of the human flatus: hydrogen sulfide.

In the early '80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"

Researchers who want animal sperm —to study fertility or for artificial insemination—have a suite of attractive options: They can ram an electric probe up an animal's rectum, shove an artificial vagina onto the animal's penis, or simply do it the old-fashioned way—manual stimulation. The first option, electroejaculation, uses a priapic rectal probe to send electricity pulsing through the animal's nether regions. "All the normal excitatory signals that stimulate ejaculation, like touch, sight, sound and smell, can be replaced with the current from the probe," says Trish Berger, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis. "It's fascinating. Of course, this is a woman talking." Electroejaculation generally requires anesthetizing the animal and is typically used on zoo dwellers. The other two methods—the artificial vagina, or AV, and the good old hand—require that animals be trained to the procedure.

The AV—a large latex tube coated with warm lubricant —is used primarily to get sperm from dairy bulls (considered the most ornery and dangerous of bovines). The bull gets randy with a steer; when he mounts the steer with his forelegs, a brave technician, AV in hand, insinuates himself between the two aroused beasts and deftly redirects the bull penis into the mock genitalia, which he must then hold tight while the bull orgasms. (Talk about bull riding!) Three additional technicians attempt to ensure this (fool)hardy soul's safety by anchoring themselves to restraining ropes attached to a ring in the bull's nose. Alas, this isn't always absolutely effective: Everyone who's wielded an AV has had at least one close call, and more than a few have been sent to the hospital. The much safer "digital pressure" is used mostly with pigs, who are trained from an early age to mount a small bench while the researcher reaches around with a gloved hand and provides appropriate pleasure—er, pressure.

Studying worm parasites isn’t nearly as bad as playing host to them. But here’s an essential distinction: The medicos who go into this line—God bless ’em—do it by choice. Supported by the World Health Organization and various international charities, they travel to the tropics to eradicate diseases that afflict millions of people. Yet although we’re regularly treated to tales of Ebola warriors, we rarely hear about the tribulations of the worm docs.

For instance . . . Ascaris lumbricoides eggs hatch in the small intestine, then migrate to the lungs; they’re coughed into the mouth and swallowed back to the gut, where each worm will grow as long as 16 inches and where each female will lay billions of eggs to be defecated forth so that a new cycle of life can begin. (The adults can exit this way too, in a large bolus that resembles a tangle of spaghetti.) The Wuchereria bancrofti worm sometimes settles in the scrotum, where it blocks the flow of lymph. This can result in elephantiasis, a wretched condition that features scrotal swelling to jack-o’-lantern proportions and an infection that reeks of death. Moving right along . . . the female Dracunculus medinensis migrates from the gut to a point just under the skin of, say, a leg, where she then commences growth to a length of as great as three feet, and where, ultimately, she lays her eggs.

When the thousands of babies make their joyous arrival, they blister the skin and pop through, leaving Mom behind. The traditional way to get rid of her is to wrap her head around a stick and twist very slowly—one turn of the stick per day—for weeks or months, depending on how long she is. (This treatment is so old that it inspired the ancient snake-and-pole aesculapius symbol of medicine.)

Natural history museums display clean white skeletons or neatly stuffed animals, but what their field biologists drag in are carcasses flush with rotting flesh. Each museum's taxidermist has his own favorite technique for tidying things up. University of California, Berkeley, zoologist Robert Jones swears by his strain of flesh-eating buffalo-hide beetles and has no problem reaching his bare hand into a drawer to pull out a rancid shrew skeleton swarming with thousands of these quarter-inch bugs. Jeppe Møhl at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum deposits sperm whales and dolphins into vast empty tanks and lets nature take its course. And then there's the boiling method, useful for chemically preserved samples that bugs won't touch—an approach favored by archaeologist Sandra Olsen, who has done her own skeleton work. She recalls a particularly vivid experience boiling down hyena paws: "It felt like inhaling the gases would literally kill us." Nah. It merely gave her a lung infection.

10:46 AM  
Blogger ely said...

mi piace, xchè sono belle composizioni

5:27 PM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Grazie Ely.

12:07 AM  

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