Ten Things I've Learnt About Love
About to turn thirty, Alice is the youngest of three daughters, and the black sheep of her family. Drawn to traveling in far-flung and often dangerous countries, she has never enjoyed the closeness with her father that her two older sisters have and has eschewed their more conventional career paths. She has left behind a failed relationship in London with the man she thought she might marry and is late to hear the news that her father is dying. She returns to the family home only just in time to say good-bye.
Daniel is called many things—"tramp", "bum", "lost." He hasn't had a roof over his head for almost thirty years, but he once had a steady job and a passionate love affair with a woman he’s never forgotten. To him, the city of London has come to be like home in a way that no bricks and mortar dwelling ever was. He makes sculptures out of the objects he finds on his walks throughout the city—bits of string and scraps of paper, a child’s hair tie, and a lost earring—and experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition which causes him to see words and individual letters of the alphabet as colors. But as he approaches his sixties his health is faltering, and he is kept alive by the knowledge of one thing—that he has a daughter somewhere in the world whom he has never been able to find.
A searching and inventive debut, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is a story about finding love in unexpected places, about rootlessness and homecoming, and the power of the ties that bind. It announces Sarah Butler as a major new talent for telling stories that are heart-wrenching, page-turning, and unforgettable.
Ten things I will say to my father
My father lives on his own in a haughty terraced house near Hampstead Heath. The houses round there are smug and fat, their tiled drives like long expensive tongues, their gar den walls just high enough to stop people from seeing in. It’s all bay windows and heavy curtains, clematis and wisteria.
I queue for a taxi outside Arrivals and smoke three cigarettes while I wait. When it’s ?nally my turn, I duck into the car and ?nd myself dizzy and sick with the nicotine. The driver plays Mozart’s Requiem. I want to ask her to turn it off, but I can’t think how to explain, so I stretch my legs into the space where my rucksack should be, rest my head against the door frame, and close my eyes. I try to remember the exact color of my bag: it’s a sort of dirty navy blue—I’ve been carrying it around for years; I should know what color it is. Inside there are jeans, shorts, vest-tops, a waterproof coat. Ten packets of Russian cigarettes. A pair of embroidered slippers for Tilly. Mascara. A lip gloss that’s nearly ?nished. An almost perfectly spherical stone, which I’d picked up to give to Kal, and then cursed myself for crying over. An unused Rough Guide to India. A headlamp. A photograph of all of us, including my mother, from before I can remember: that’s the only thing I’d be sorry to lose.
We arrive too soon. I pay the driver and step out onto the pavement. As she pulls away from the curb I want to hold out a hand and say, stop, I’ve changed my mind, let’s go somewhere else, anywhere else, and then sit in the backseat again with time on hold, and watch London through the window.
There are eleven steps up to my father’s house. At the bottom, two sickly looking trees stand in chubby blue-glazed pots. A huge bay tree obscures most of the front window, but still I look for him, sitting on the sofa, a cigarette curling itself into ash in one hand. He’s not there. My stomach aches; my mouth tastes of sawdust and sleep. I pull a leaf from one of the trees in the pots—freckled a pale yellow-green—and tear along the length of its spine.
My father’s front door is painted a dark red-brown, like blood that’s been left to dry. Two tall panes of wrinkled glass—bordered by delicate green ivy—reveal nothing much of what’s inside.
When I was thirteen he sent me to school in Dorset. I remember coming home after the ?rst term. He’d had to work, so Tilly picked me up, her ?ngers nervous at the wheel, her crisp new driver’s license stowed in the glove compartment. I stood on the top step, looking at the same brass doorbell I am looking at now, while Tilly scrabbled about for her keys. I thought how the door didn’t look like our front door, and pressed the bell to see what it sounded like from the outside.
I take a cigarette from my pocket, even though there’s no time to waste. The lighter scratches at my thumb. I inhale too quickly, and cough—a thin, smoker’s cough—my hand against my chest.
Ten ways other people might describe me
I’m an old man with a dodgy heart, there’s no two ways about it. And the truth is I’m more at home here—at the edge of the river, where there’s mud and mess—than in fancy squares like that one by the Tube, with its flashy screens and security guards.
I move around. It’s as close as I get to any kind of a strategy. Each place, I imagine you. I don’t have much to go on, though there are things I can guess—hair color, height, age. And I know your name; I could call to you and watch you turn. We’d stand here and let the cyclists hurry by, listen to the barges knock together like bells, and we’d talk.
Last week, when I thought I was dying, all I could focus on was you. It’s not easy to focus on anything when you feel like there’s a grown man sitting on your rib cage, but you pulled me through—you always have. It happened upstream from here, on the Embankment, opposite the Houses of Parliament: the bit by the hospital, with the high wall, where the ends of the benches are carved into birds’ faces, sat up on piles of bricks so you can see across the river. I was walking west, with a vague plan to go as far as Albert Bridge, find a place for the night in a quiet Chelsea corner. The police are tricky there, but if you tuck yourself away, sometimes they’ll leave you be. I was just walking. The doctor said emotional upset can bring it on, but I’m not sure I was upset that day, not particularly.
I stood against the wall and held both hands to my chest, tears in my eyes like I was a kid, not a man approaching sixty who can survive on the street. I hope if you’d been there, you’d have stopped and asked if I was OK, but you weren’t, and anyway I’m used to people paying no attention. I stood and looked at the river, and I thought about you, and how for all I know you’re dead already. The world’s full of danger, after all. Car crashes. Knives. Blood clots. Cancer. I carried on looking at the river, thinking about what could have been, and scared I was going to drop dead any minute. I suppose it’s not surprising that I lost it; I don’t mean screaming and shouting—that’s not my way, and in any case when you live like I do it’s what they call circumspect to keep your head down. No, I just blubbed like a baby.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always like this. I like a drink and a banter. I like lying on the pavement and looking up at the stars. It’s just that I thought I was having a heart attack; I thought I was going to die without finding you.
I thought about her, too, with her scarlet name. We went away once—a weekend in Brighton—snatched time; perfect. We ate ice cream, and fish and chips. We—it feels wrong to say this to you—but we made love in a run-down hotel with a view of the sea.
I’m lying when I say it was perfect. It was gray and dreary. I let myself get angry: hard words in a borrowed room. That way her eyes would click shut and her lips would harden. I suppose it was difficult for her too.
Once I’ve fallen in love, I find it almost impossible to get out; I’ve learnt that about myself. It doesn’t make for an easy life.
I’m not one for doctors, but after all that, on the Embankment, I made myself go. The surgery smelled of new carpets—sweet and sharp. I sat next to a woman in her forties and she stood and moved to the other side of the room. I try not to let things like that bother me. I picked up a pile of newspapers and started to look for you. Nothing.
The doctor’s name was the color of sun-warmed sandstone. She had kind eyes, and her hands, when she touched me, were soft and cool. It’s natural to be upset, she said, it’s frightening; the first time, everyone thinks they’re going to die. I cried again, there in her tiny room with the bed with a paper sheet stretched across it. She smiled, and gave me a tissue. It was as much her touch as the business with my heart, or the woman in the waiting room, that got me, and I suspect she knew it. She asked me all the questions doctors ask of a man like me, which, I find, are never the questions that matter.
She gave it a name: angina, ice-cold blue, beginning and end. She showed me a tiny red bottle and told me it would help—a quick spray underneath my tongue and I wouldn’t be left pressed against a wall, clutching my chest. I took the prescription and left. And I carried on doing what I’ve been doing for years. I have written your name more times than I can remember. Always, at the beginning, I write your name.
Ten things I know about my mother
The cancer is in my father’s pancreas. Cee told me over the phone—me standing in the hostel reception in Ulan Bator, her in Dad’s hallway, the line full of static. I’m still not even sure what a pancreas is, though I’d never admit that to Cee.
Cee thinks I’m a lost cause. You’re wasting your talents, she tells me, ?ying off to the other side of the world at the drop of a hat. Time will catch up with you, she tells me—by which she means I should get on and have kids before my ovaries dry up. You did the right thing with Kal, but you need to start thinking about settling down, she says. Dust settles, sediment settles—but I don’t say that. What was wrong with Kal anyway, I ask. She just sighs, the way she always does, the way that makes me feel ?ve again.
I stub out my cigarette and ring the doorbell. It’s Tilly who answers, and I’m thankful for it. She’s wearing tapered jeans and a voluminous orange T-shirt. Her face is tired and pale. The hall stretches in black and white chessboard squares behind her, and I remember the two of us chalking hopscotch marks, laughing at the chill of the tiles on the soles of our feet.
“Alice.” Tilly opens her arms. She is marshmallow soft. I lean my forehead, for a moment, against her chest, and smell the soft, summery smell of her perfume. Cee is coming down the stairs. Neat white slip-ons, black linen trousers, and a sleeveless turquoise shirt. Her hair looks recently cropped—dyed a chemical shade of red. She has our father’s eyes, a deep brown the color of garden compost. I’m told I have my mother’s.
I won’t cry. I step away from Tilly. Cee stands with an empty water glass in one hand, her skin puffed red beneath her makeup.
“You should have called,” Tilly says. “I’d have picked you up. I’ve got the car here, and it’s miserable sitting in a taxi getting your ear chewed off .”
“It’s ?ne,” I say. We stand, awkward, silent. I glance toward the stairs.
“He’s sleeping,” Cee says, and I feel a familiar ?are of anger. We are all too close together. It’s not a narrow hallway, but I am ?nding it dif?cult to breathe.
“How was your ?ight?” Tilly asks. “I looked it up—four thousand, three hundred miles. Isn’t that amazing?”
The thing I loved more than anything about Mongolia was the horizon—wider than I’ve ever seen; endless land and endless sky. I push the front door closed. I’d forgotten how it sticks.
“You’ve got to—” Cee starts.
“I know.” I pull it toward me, shove the handle upward, and slam it shut.
Cee looks at my bag—a small black day-pack—and then looks behind me. “Is that all you have?”
I picture the baggage hall—?uorescent lights, rows of trolleys, the scratched black rubber of the conveyor belt. I had stood and waited for my rucksack to appear. People snatched up their bags and scurried away. I waited until there were only four things left, circling: two hard cases, a long package wrapped in newspaper and packing tape, and a pink holdall with fraying straps. I waited until the screen ?ashed up a different ?ight number and city and a new group of people clustered round. A new consignment of bags began to appear. I thought about just picking one and walking away with it, but didn’t.
“I’ll go up,” I say, and walk past them, keeping close to the wall so our bodies won’t meet.
“Alice, he’s asleep.” Cee puts her hand on my arm.
“I’ll stick the kettle on—we can have a cup of tea.” Tilly’s ?ngers fuss at the hem of her T-shirt.
I step out of Cee’s grasp. “I won’t wake him.”
I am four steps up now. The stairs are painted white, the red carpet running along the middle pinned down by thin brass rods. Kal joked about it, the ?rst time he came here—an interminable Sunday lunch. I feel important every time I go up to the bathroom, he said, and I laughed, because I’d never thought about it like that before. I wish he was standing next to me, holding my arm. I still have his number in my phone. Sometimes I just sit and look at it.
“Alice.” It’s Tilly’s voice. Her face is scrunched into a frown. “Just—” She squeezes her hands together. “Just be prepared, honey.”My father’s room is at the front of the house, on the ?rst ?oor. It has two tall windows which look out onto the street, over the top of the red brick wall opposite and into the courtyard behind. I open the door as quietly as I can, and step inside. The thick green curtains have been pulled shut against the day, and the ?oor lamp by the sofa casts a warm yellow circle onto the carpet. I don’t want to look at the bed. I stare instead at the wardrobe: the miniature triangles of paler wood inlaid around its edges, the oval mirror, the dull metal hinges. I look up at the ugly ceiling rose and its pauper’s chandelier, six fake candles resting in dusty holders.
Cee once told me that before I was born, in the other house, she and Tilly were allowed into our parents’ room on Saturday mornings. They used to sneak in between Dad and Mama and demand to be told stories.
After the stories, if he wasn’t working, our father would get up, put his dressing gown on over his blue pajamas, and go downstairs. Tilly and Cee would roll about in the warm space he left behind, waiting for his footsteps on the stairs and the clatter of a tray. Saturday morning stories and breakfast stopped once they moved here and I came along. When I asked why, Cee just pursed her lips and shrugged, as though somehow it was my fault.
The room smells of skin and sweat. It’s too hot. I rest my hands on the sofa back, and I listen: a gentle tick from the water pipes; a bird chirruping to its mate outside; the sound of my father, breathing.
The last time I saw him was a couple of days before I ?ew to Moscow. We had dinner at a new Spanish place in South End Green. Tapas; a rich red wine. There’s a recession coming, Alice, he said, I’m not sure it’s the best time to abandon your job. It’s just temping, I said, and I’ve got savings. I need to get out of here. You always need to get out of here, he said, why is that? I told him about Kal, but that didn’t explain all the other times. I’m trying to think now if he’d looked pale, or thin, if he’d seemed ill, or worried. I don’t remember.
The man in the bed does not look like my father.
My father has a strong face, a square jaw, thick bushy eyebrows. He is a big man: tall, not fat, but bulky. His shoulders are broad, his chest solid. When he hugs you—which isn’t often, but isn’t never—you can feel the strength in his arms. This man is too small to be my father.
On the ?oor to the right of the bed is a slim white-and-blue box. A thin tube runs from the box, underneath the sheet that covers the man in the bed. A second tube ends in one of those plastic bags you see in hospitals, half full of yellow liquid.
The man in the bed is breathing like an old person. His face is gaunt, the skin tight against the shape of a skull I don’t recognize. There’s a chair at the left-hand side of the bed. Someone must have brought it up from the dining room. It looks wrong in here, with its high slatted back and narrow cushioned seat. The dining room, too, must look out of sync, one man down.
As I lower myself onto the chair it creaks loudly. I hold myself still. He doesn’t wake up. I want to touch his hand, but it’s underneath the sheet, and so I sit and look at my own ?ngers—stacks of silver rings, nails bitten to the quick.
“I just got in,” I say. My voice sounds thin, off balance. “From Mongolia. I just got in now.” I feel a sudden sweep of fatigue. “I’m not even sure what day it is.” I laugh, but it sounds wrong, and so I stop. “I came as quick as I could, I didn’t have mobile reception for a week—more than that.” His hair is roughed up against his pillow; his lips are dry and cracked. I can feel the breath high and shallow in my chest. I want to cry. I want to lie down on the ?oor and close my eyes. I want to run away.
“I came as soon as I got the messages.”
I remember sitting in the back of a jeep in Mongolia, with a couple from Sweden and a guy from Palestine, my mobile phone useless and forgotten at the bottom of my rucksack, the road—it was hardly a road—jolting us back and forth, and all around us: nothing. Just miles and miles of nothing. The joy of it.
“It’s so gloomy in here, Dad. Don’t you think it’s gloomy?” I stand up and pull the curtains apart. It has started to rain, thin lines of water on the other side of the glass. “I see England’s having another great summer, then,” I say.
I spin around. “Dad?” I stay where I am, one hand on the edge of the curtain. I wish I hadn’t opened them. The light picks out the shape of his face, casts deep shadows where the skin caves in. His skin is the wrong color—too much yellow. “Dad. How are—”
“Terrible.” He sounds like he’s got a cold—phlegmy and hoarse.
“My phone didn’t have reception,” I say. He coughs and I see his face tense with pain.
“What can I do? What can I get you?”
He moves his head to the left.
“This?” I walk to the bedside table and pick up a wooden stick with a pink cube on the end.
“Dip it—in the glass,” he says.
The glass holds a shallow layer of pink liquid. I dip in the cube and hand it to my father. He dabs the sponge to his mouth. I can see every bone underneath his skin. Maybe we did learn about the pancreas at school. I have a feeling it’s a dark, purply red, that it tapers to a point at one end. I can’t remember what it does.
“I’m sorry—to ruin—your holiday,” he says. He takes shallow, rattling breaths every few words. The pink sponge falls onto the sheet and spreads a wet stain across the cotton. I pick it up and put it back on the bedside table.
“It wasn’t a—” I stop myself, sit back on the dining chair and wrap one leg over the other. I don’t know what to do with my hands, so I shove them underneath my thighs. The edges of my rings dig into the backs of my legs. “Do you know, in Mongolia, no one owns the land? There are no fences,” I say.
“Did that man—go with you?”
“He’s British. I told you, Dad, we split up. I told you that.” I stand and walk to the window, lean my head against the glass. It’s cold on my skin. I imagine sitting with Kal outside a yurt, watching the sun turn the earth a rich orange-pink. “There were eagles too,” I say. “Massive eagles just by the side of the road—when there was a road. They had these huge claws. They could kill a mouse just by picking it up.”
I hear him shift, and I turn back. He’s staring at me. The whites of his eyes are dull yellow.
“You know—that I love—you,” he says. “As much—as the others.”
I close my ?st around a handful of curtain and squeeze hard. It’s like there’s a weight in my stomach, bigger than my stomach even. I listen to his breath rasp in his throat. The water pipe has stopped ticking.
“It’s important. I always—told—your mother—it was important.”
“What do you mean?”
“For you—to know, for—you to know—that.”
He used to buy me a peppermint mouse from Thorntons every Friday afternoon. I don’t know why I remember it now, but I do: the crackle of plastic wrapping, the glee of biting off the nose—dark chocolate and sweet green mint beneath.
Neither of us speak. His eyelids ?icker, then close, and his breath pulls in in a faint snore. I walk toward the bed and look down at him.
“Please don’t,” I whisper. “Please don’t.”
“You’re Alice,” she says. “Mr. Tanner’s been telling me all about you.”
She bustles past me. “Sleeping again,” she says. “Let’s be getting this changed, shall we?” I back away from the bed. She picks up the plastic bag and lifts the sheet. “You’ve got the curtains open today, Mr. Tanner? That’s nice, isn’t it, a bit of light on the proceedings. And your daughter’s here, that is special.”
“What did he say?” I ask.
“He’s sleeping now.” She doesn’t even lower her voice. I can see my father’s body—thin beneath cotton pajamas.
“I mean about me.”
She turns a valve on the bag and starts to pull it away from the tube. I watch the yellow liquid slosh against the sides.
“I’ve got to—” I wave my arm in the direction of the door.
She doesn’t even look up. “Right you are, dear. It’s good you’re here, he’s been looking forward to it no end.”
I close the door behind me. The corridor smells the same as it always has—wood polish and a hint of wet plaster. I head up the stairs, aiming for the attic, but Tilly intercepts me.
“You met Margaret?” she says.
“Cee’s made some tea.”
Kal used to call Tilly and Cee “the Terms and Conditions.” How are the Terms and Conditions, he’d say when I got back from any kind of family gathering. Anxious and unreasonable, I’d say, and we’d laugh, every time.
“I’d quite like to—” I look toward the attic stairs.
“Oh, Alice.” She hugs me, my arms pinned tight to my sides.
“He understands, doesn’t he? About my mobile. About not having reception. Tilly? He doesn’t think—” I step away from her and stare at the wood-chip wall in front of me. It looks dirty and old. “I just don’t want him to think—”
“I made biscuits,” she says. “The oat ones.” They’re Dad’s favorite. I imagine him lying in bed, listening to Tilly in the kitchen, the smell of baking drifting up the stairs and into his room.
“Lead the way, Captain.” I touch my ?ngers to my forehead in a mock salute. Tilly gives me a weak smile, then turns and walks in front of me down the stairs.
Ten things I’ve found that spell your name
Today, my heart is strong. I follow the shape of the river, looking for colors. As long as I’m discreet, no one will take too much notice of an old man filling his pockets with rubbish. There are people in my situation who stick to the same place, who draw an invisible line around themselves and won’t go outside of it, but I don’t know where you are, so I keep moving.
Each letter has a color. I’m not sure if it’s the same for you. I’m not sure if you will understand, but I don’t think on that too much. Here, by the flood warning sign—a pale-blue sweet wrapper still sticky with sugar. The letter A is the color of glacier water. Here, by the windowless wooden building with its whirling top, a single gold hoop earring. L is gold. And by the abandoned jetty, a pink ribbon and a glossy blue flyer. I is magenta pink; C is navy blue. E is charcoal gray—I pick up a tiny stone shaped like an arrowhead.
There’s a yacht club, not quite new anymore, which sits out on the river like a woman lifting her skirts away from the water. I arrange the colors as best I can, on the path just by the entrance gate, and then move on. Around the corner, there is a beach full of treasure.
I’d like to meet you here, stand next to you with the city’s junk at our feet. It’s a good place for colors. Here: a sun-bleached orange belt; a scrap of plastic just the right shade of purple; a piece of material so pale the blue is almost white; a length of bright-green string. Lower down there is glass and ceramic. A burned bottle, the glass turned black. Lower still there is stone and metal and broken bricks. Nails rusted up so thickly they lose themselves. If you hit them, hard—like this—you can break off the warm-orange rust and see the shape underneath. I find flint, the corner of it bulked out like a knuckle. Magnolia, among the scraps of torn-up paper.
The first letter of each word gives it its color; you can still see the rest, only they’re fainter. So it’s good that the pale-orange belt is the largest; it’s not always so easy to get the balance right. Five holes, rimmed with metal. I make another two. There is more cotton and string in this city than you’d credit—I use it to tie the words together. I collect it as I walk, roll it into a multicolored ball that lives in the right-hand pocket of my jacket; not the same pocket as the picture—I have learnt to take care of the things that matter.
I walk down to an old inlet for unloading boats, past a leather boot, cowboy style, with stitching up each side, a chunk missing from the heel like someone’s taken a bite. The water is the color of steel. The red light blinks mournfully on top of Canary Wharf, and the mirrored blocks reflect back a blank, colorless sky. It’s been a wet summer: I can feel the rain stored deep in my bones; my boots have suffered.
I close up the belt, careful not to snap the strings, then bend down— something it gets harder to do, you’ll find that out one day—and place it onto the water. For a moment, I think it will sink and I’m ready to fish it out, even if it means a day or more with a sodden boot. It hesitates, then catches the current and it’s away. I watch it, and think of a picture I saw once, a frenzied pattern of thin black lines: a map showing twenty-four hours’ worth of journeys made by buses in the square mile centered on Waterloo Station—or at least that’s what the label said. It was more beautiful than you might imagine.
As I turn away from the water I see a coconut, with hessian skin, up by the wall. I picture a boy standing on the deck of a ferry, tossing the coconut between hands that will one day be scarred by wind and salt and life, but right now are as soft as the skin just below his ear. I picture him throwing it from palm to palm, feeling the scratch and the satisfying curve of its shape. He has run up from the bowels of the ship, away from the roar of gas hobs and the slap of meat against chopping boards, the flash of knives and the hard, clipped words of his coworkers. The wind whips the sweat from his forehead, plays with his hair the way his mother used to, and he has a sudden memory of a scratched wooden sideboard, red plastic roses in a brass vase, dust tucked into the creases between the petals. He should be in the kitchen raising a hammer to smash the coconut into pieces. Instead, he fixes his eyes on the horizon—a shimmer of blue, almost merged with the sky—lifts his right arm and throws the coconut in a high, wide arc.
I balance the coconut on a flat stone and break it open. I’ve never been one to save things up. Perhaps it’s an inheritance from my father. Even so, it serves me well these days—hesitate, and someone will take it from you. I don’t like coconut much, but I eat the lot. Flakes stick between my teeth and I have to dig them out with the edge of my fingernail. When I’m done, I walk back to the shore and place each piece of husk on the water. They float like tiny boats out to sea.
The problem with cities, or at least with cities like this one, is that they’re near enough impossible to write on. That’s not to say I don’t try, just that it isn’t simple.
As a rule, I don’t tell people about you, or the writing. The last time I spoke of it was to a man I hadn’t seen in a long time, a man who drank cheap cider out of thin ring-pull cans. He asked how I knew you were even here, in London. How do you know she’s not in Milan, or Dubai, Paris, or Tokyo, he said, Manchester or Rotterdam, Barnsley or New York? He went on for some time, listing the name of every city he could think of, shifting his eyes upward as if looking for places hidden among the grubby ceiling tiles. She might not even be in a city at all, he said. I asked him to stop, but he wouldn’t, and so I stood up and walked out of the church hall, with its laminate floor and felt-covered notice boards, its long foldaway tables and hard plastic chairs.
I send you a birthday card each year. I don’t know the exact date, but I can make a good enough guess. The hardest thing is the envelope: all that blank white. I write your name—I have that at least—but I don’t have an address. I drop it into a postbox, and dream, those nights, of the envelope pushed through a letter box, and you, walking along a hallway toward it.
"Heartbreaking and hopeful, Ten Things I've Learnt About Love crisscrosses London in a layered search for fathers and daughters, family and home. For anyone who has ever wondered where they belong, or to whom they belong—the answer can be found within Sarah Butler's tender debut novel."
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