a short story by Nicholas Royle
Zsa had been coming to the weekly games for a while, so she was there when it happened. Possibly her presence had something to do with it, because I would have been trying even harder in order to impress her. But still, the point is you've got to be careful not to want something too much.
It was coming towards the end of the football season. Soon the authorities from whom we rented the pitch would be returning it to summer use by taking down the goalposts and corner flags. It was minor league stuff, you see. We played in the park on Sunday mornings . But we were no less competitive than if we were playing in front of the Kippax or the Stretford End.
I was better in goals than any other position but that's not to say there was no room for improvement in my game. In fact, that was true for the whole team, even my mate Docs, who played at left-back. I would rather have called him by his real name, which was Dave, but everyone else called him Docs and I didn't want to appear different. That's important in a football team.
The average age was about 25 and the other teams we played in the local league tended to be a bit older, but we gave our best, always competing strongly for the ball. We were still bottom and because there were teams waiting to enter the league there was the threat of relegation. This game was important: if we lost we would almost certainly go down. If we drew we would still be in with a chance. But that's the lot of a goalkeeper in every match he plays: you can't win the game, only try and stop your team losing. So it was vital I kept the ball out of the net. It was up to the rest of them to score goals at the other end and given that we hadn't scored a single goal in the league all season, the pressure was on me to keep a clean sheet.
It was a bright cold day, winter sunlight sparkling in a few remaining frost patches and our breath froze in front of our faces. Zsa had picked me up in her car and we arrived about the same time as Docs and a couple of the others. We exchanged hellos and I introduced Zsa to Brian and Stud. She already knew Docs; the three of us had been out for a drink once or twice. I fell in step with him, talking about work and what a pain in the arse it was to work so hard you just felt like falling asleep when you got home, and Zsa walked with Stud and Brian. Stud didn't get his name for nothing. I found myself keeping an eye on them at the same time as trying to talk to Docs.
"We've got to win today," he was saying, but it hardly registered because I was watching Zsa.
I know what you're thinking: I'm one of those jealous, possessive types who watches his girlfriend whenever she talks to another man. I'm not actually, but you see the thing is I knew she was having an affair. Well, let's say I believed she was. I was sure of it. But I wouldn't have beaten her up or anything. I just wanted to know, so that I knew. That's fair, isn't it? I just wanted to know what was going on.
There are all sorts of signs. She stops listening half way through what you're saying. Her gaze wanders. She tells obvious lies for no apparent reason and you can tell when you know someone that well. You see it in their eyes, that subtle glaze. Sometimes she smelt different. She took to eating mints.
But the thing was, I loved her. I really did. When I could see she was lying it hurt me. I was glad she'd come to watch the game because I knew she wasn't actually that keen on football. It meant something to me that she would be standing there.
Zsa had to wait outside while we went in to get changed. "I'll walk around," she said, leaning slightly towards me and not sure whether to kiss me or not. I felt a bit awkward in front of the lads and said, "OK. See you in a few minutes. We're on the top pitch." I ducked unnecessarily through the doorway.
The changing room was half full. Voices bounced off the walls. Taunts about professional football teams and the weekend's fixtures were tossed from man to man, across the bags and boots and shirts sitting in the middle of the floor. "Hi Cat," someone said. My nick name, after Peter Bonetti. "All right?" I answered, dumping my bag and squeezing between two bodies to get my arse on the bench. In the corner a discussion was going on. The subject was girls and what you would do if you found out someone was cheating on you, and as always in the changing room the exchanges were made at full volume.
"I'd give her an extremely hard time then find out who he was and go and twat him," said Tim, a stocky Geordie who could outplay most of the opposition but always kept the ball too long and ended up losing it.
"I'd be so angry I wouldn't know what to do." This was Tommo, a gangling centre forward who looked impressive and nimble on the ball despite his height but invariably hooked his shots way over the bar. Not that I was in any position to criticise: the goal difference always reflected my own lack of natural goalkeeping ability. I was mostly enthusiasm, part instinctive lunge and no real talent.
"What about you, Cat?"
I'd always thought I'd be sad rather than angry. I'd let go of the girl and have no interest in getting at the other man. What's the point? If someone wants to go, you let them, and if they've gone off with someone else you have to conclude they want to go. There's no point being angry. It's not as if you'd want to make them stay, because they've betrayed your trust. I don't know, maybe you can't buy this. Perhaps I was just too together to be true, but that's how I felt.
I shrugged. "I was thinking about the game," I said lamely.
"Where are my shin pads?" Docs asked. "Why do I lose everything? I've lost my shin pads."
It was true. He was always losing things. Someone threw him a spare pair.
I really had got myself quite worked up about this game. It was very important we didn't lose, and because we almost never managed to score, it was up to me to save the team from relegation. I love goalkeeping. There's something about the particular responsibility you feel as the last man. The thrill and the satisfaction of making a spectacular save far outweigh the excitement of scoring. Every keeper has a favourite type of save and although of course they should prefer for the opposition never to have a shot on goal they secretly long for an opportunity to try and make their favourite save. But they must achieve success in this or they'll be left crumpled in a heap in the six yard box like last week's washing. Like every other keeper, I have a favourite. Or more to the point, a save which I have never quite made and have always wanted to make.
We were beginning to move out. The passageway out of the changing rooms was dark and echoing with the clatter of studs. Outside the sudden sunlight blinded me and I had to squint up the hill towards the pitches. We left behind the booming camaraderie of the changing rooms and broke into a trot. Voices got lost more easily out here in the tense cold air. I couldn't see Zsa anywhere but it shouldn't have mattered: I was with the others and soon we'd be playing, melded into a perfect group working together to one end. What better way to spend a Sunday?
"What will we do in the summer?" I asked Docs.
"Baseball," he replied promptly. "Or softball. I've even bought a bat. We've got to do something."
He was right again. We had to keep the team together for the autumn, provided we managed to stay in the league.
We kicked around for a while and I did what I always do, using up all my good saves and dives in the warm-up. It was a perfect day and I couldn't wait to get started. Docs volleyed a long shot in towards the goal which I dived for and pushed past the post. "Nice one, Cat," I heard him say. Sometimes I thought he used the nickname ironically but he was pretty much my best friend so that was OK. I returned the ball to him and then noticed Zsa entering my field of vision. She walked down from the top of the hill, sunlight making her a blurred silhouette, but I could spot her at any distance. She didn't look all that different from any other woman wrapped up warm in a thick coat, furry hat and jeans, but when you know someone as well as I knew her, you know they're coming even before you've seen them.
She was standing just behind the touch line a few feet from the goal as we kicked off. I took my eye off the game to smile at her. She smiled back but there was something not quite right about it. Like a mask that was slightly crooked. I watched the game. Docs was chasing an attacker into my third of the field. "Played, Docs," I shouted as he dispossessed the attacker with a sliding tackle. I looked round at Zsa. She was clapping. There was a throw which went to Stud and he passed it back to me. I collected with my feet and took the ball to the edge of the area, then picked it up and gave it a good kick up the park.
Zsa was still smiling as I walked back to the goal line. Still smiling or smiling again. These days she was a bit like someone playing a part instead of the real person. She had all the gestures and knew what to say but there was something that left me unconvinced. I don't know what it was that started me off thinking she was seeing someone else. Probably just a stray glance she wasn't expecting me to catch. Or an over elaborate excuse for turning up late. Something like that.
Soon I was distracted from these morbid thoughts by the game. It had turned into a real contest, with lots of midfield tussles and attacks that generally fizzled out before they reached me. "Docs is having a great game," I said to Zsa.
"Is he?" she replied. "They all look the same to me in those shirts."
"Nice one, Docs," I shouted as he intercepted another cross. "Come on, blues." But Docs lost the ball and as red shirts bore down on my goal he hared after them, eager to make up for his error. There was a tough scramble in which I slid at the feet of two attackers and narrowly missed grabbing the ball. Docs fielded it safely back to me and I hit him on the back, panting for breath. "Great stuff," I said and rolled the ball out to Mike who took it up the wing.
We swapped ends at half time with the score standing at nil-nil, almost unprecedented for us, and we congratulated ourselves. In the team talk we said things like "We've got to push up more and get some good crosses in for Tommo" and "We need to run with it more and hit more first time balls". I pointed out that whenever I took a goalkick the only people moving for it were in red shirts. "You mustn't expect the ball always to come to you," I said. They nodded. I knew it would make no difference but you had to say these things: it was a sort of convention that made us feel like a football team.
Usually immediately after half time you find out one of the teams has raised the pitch of their game as if their oranges had been stuffed with steroids, and when we're playing, it's always the other team. Only this time it was us who picked our game up and took it to the opposition. We fought and we pushed forward, we didn't give up when we lost the ball. On the break they got in a couple of decent shots which I stopped easily. We looked like a team who knew what they were doing and I think we all felt that it would bear fruit if we kept it up. We communicated, we passed into space, we started runs from deep positions and with about a quarter of an hour to go we scored.
What can I say? Think of the excitement when Geoff Hurst scored the winning goal at Wembley in 1966. We were euphoric. Never before had we gone ahead from nil-nil. We shouted praise and exhortations to each other not to lose the advantage. I even saw Zsa jumping up and down on the touch line. "Who scored?" she wanted to know.
"Docs," I said. Yes, it was Docs. He'd gone up for a corner and when the ball curled out he slotted it home with great panache.
The pressure was really on me now. There was a danger that we would become complacent, unaccustomed as we were to being a goal ahead. Within minutes they slipped a long ball through our defence and I had to punch a good cross away and concede a corner. They took a short one and their centre forward tried a shot which again I could only deflect, but this time Docs was on hand to tidy up.
About five minutes from time they were crowding round my penalty area looking to get a cross in, keeping possession whenever our defenders tried to take them on. They looked better than they had all game. One of them made a short pass to a tall blond guy who earlier in the game had failed to get on the end of a couple of crosses and suddenly I knew what he was going to do. Out on the edge of the area he had a quick look round. There was no one free of a marker. Even as he swung his leg back to take the shot I imagined the trajectory of the ball, a gentle curve into the top corner of the net, and me lying in a sorry heap in the mud.
He struck the ball and I knew this was my opportunity. The ball could only have been in the air a second, two at the most, but from where I was standing time stretched. This was it. I might never again have the same chance to make my favourite save. I'd been waiting for this as long as I'd been playing football, ever since rainy school afternoons when I ran up and down the wing just dreaming of being in goals.
I longed to leap up towards the top corner of the net and meet the incoming ball with my closed fist inches beneath the crossbar, tipping it over for a corner when every single person on the pitch had expected the see the ball sail into the back of the net. My boots would be at least two feet off the ground, I would be practically flying, making the subtlest, most vital contact with the ball to keep my team in the game. Afterwards they would gather round me clapping me on the back and saying "Blinding save, Cat" and"ãGreat save, keeps". That would be nice and I would enjoy it but it was the save that I had been waiting for, the acrobatic leap into space, the perfect timing and the ball tipped over.
The ball left the blond forward's foot and I leapt. My stomach lurched. I could see my hand stretching to meet the ball and the intersection of post and crossbar growing huge out of the corner of my eye. It was as if I was drawn there, as if it had been written that I would make the save. It was perfect. I felt the contact with the ball and for a final sweet moment the wind on my face and I knew the ball was safely over the bar.
Then I froze.
I suppose I just wasn't expecting it. You've heard about it happening to other people but you don't think it'll ever happen to you. Well, believe me, it just might.
One or two of the players stood open-mouthed but most of them had either seen this happen to other people or they'd heard about it and they just hung around looking a bit pissed off that the game had been interrupted. Hey, well I'm sorry, guys. You know, I didn't mean to do it. It's just something that happens if you want something badly enough and then you get it. Obviously the conditions have got to be just right, or just wrong, depending on how you look at it. There's got to be that fusion of complete satisfaction and ecstasy and I don't know how many different emotions. You can't plan it. You can just hope it never happens to you.
I had frozen solid, to all intents and purposes turned to stone, and yet I remained suspended in the air, my head about 12 inches beneath the bar, my arm outstretched towards the corner of the goal where I had tipped the ball over the top in what had obviously been a perfect save. This wouldn't have happened otherwise. My legs were tucked up beneath my body. I'd seen some of the great goalkeepers do that when making this kind of save and clearly I had managed to match my ideal of what they could do.
Docs approached close enough to touch and tapped his knuckles on my leg. It would have felt harder than his own. Not exactly solid, the sound was more resonant, as if the leg were hollow. As if my body had become a cast of itself. Zsa came round the goalpost and gazed up at me, her eyes huge. Perhaps this was new to her. I hoped not because I needed someone who knew me as well as she did to help get me down in one piece. Or rather two pieces.
I heard some desultory discussion about the game and how it might be concluded. One of their forwards suggested simply playing on for the remaining few minutes, leaving me where I was. "Don't be a dick," said Tommo, for which I was grateful. "What if you take a shot and hit him. You know what'd happen." This subdued the other player and he looked round for the ball, just for something to do. He seemed to be embarrassed by my predicament, as if I had burst out in tears in front of a packed assembly or dropped my trousers in a lift.
It should go without saying that I felt a degree of cool detachment from what was going on beneath me. There was nothing I could do to influence events. I couldn't speak or communicate in any way. I was a statue, a brittle cast of myself as I had been in that single moment of goal saving. I thought I ought to be experiencing some anxiety but in fact I felt quite calm. I was reminded of the time when my car went out of control on the motorway and span round and round. I had just sat there, aware that there was nothing I could do, everything would just go on with or without me. It could only have spun round for three seconds yet it had seemed like an eternity before it smacked against the crash barrier and I was knocked back to my senses.
The difference now was that the sense of eternity was stronger. My survival was in the hands of 21 men in football shirts -- and Zsa.
"Can't we just move him and finish the game?" asked Stud. "And then carry him back to the changing room or something?"
"It's not that simple." I was pleased to hear Zsa's voice entering the debate. She was standing right underneath me so that I couldn't see her. My field of vision was that of the cast's. "You have to break something off," she continued. I was so glad she knew what to do. I resolved not to think bad things about her in future. If she had wanted me out of the picture it would have been so easy to keep quiet and see if anyone else knew how to get me down. "It has to be something he won't miss, like a bootlace or something."
"Why can't we just pull him down?" someone asked.
"Try," she said. She knew they wouldn't be able to. However, a number of the biggest men gripped hold of my cast and tugged. There was no give and they backed off, faintly disturbed or perhaps just irritated by the delay.
"The laces aren't free," said Docs. "There's nothing to get a hold on. Can't we just snap his foot off? It's just a cast, after all. It's not really him any more."
I became frightened for the first time.
"Don't!" said Zsa sharply. She knew. She knew. "Don't do anything. There's got to be something we can get at."
Docs spoke again. "Bob. Bob, can you hear me?"
It was the first time someone had talked to me rather than about me. But I couldn't respond.
"I'm sure it's all right to break a bit of anything off," someone else chipped in, one of their players eager to get on with the game. "It's not as if that's him. I saw a thing about it once. You snap something, anything, and that frees the cast. Then you take it to the bloke's flat and leave it there alone for a few days. And he's as right as rain. I've seen it. Don't ask me to explain it but that's what happens."
"Don't come near him," Zsa commanded. Thank you, Zsa. Thank you. You probably saved my life.
"Look, love," the same fellow said. "I don't expect you to understand but we've got a game to finish here. We get him out of the way and finish the game. There's only a couple of minutes to play. Then we'll help you carry him home."
"Hang on." I recognised Brian's voice. "We're without our goalie now. We can't play on without him." This both pleased me and sparked my anxiety.
"Course you fucking can," the other man said. "One of you lot goes in nets. That's what you'd have to do if he was injured or something."
"Shut up! Shut up, all of you!" Zsa shouted. "I've found a fold in his shirt. I can snap it off and he'll be OK, but you've got to take the weight to stop him falling." She's all right, that Zsa, I remember thinking to myself. She's all right. I'm not exaggerating when I say she may well have saved my life back there. She deserved a place in the New Year's Honours just for that.
I couldn't feel anything, of course, but I watched a group of them gather round beneath me and each take a hold. I heard a definite click as she snapped off the fold of my expensive goalkeeper's jersey and suddenly it was like the TV had been switched on and turned up loud in an empty house. Sensations rushed in through the hole in my jersey and I was buffeted, even though I stayed right where I had been since the cast formed: tucked away in the gloved right hand. Zsa did well. Not only because she chose to break off a piece of the shirt, but because she chose the shirt in preference to snapping off one of my fingers. It's so often fingers that are sacrificed in these situations. In my case that would have had far reaching implications. It would have been like tearing a hole in the fuselage of an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet. You know what I mean.
They lowered the cast and me inside it to the ground. A guy in a red shirt had collected the ball from behind the goal and taken it to the corner flag. He was determined to restart the game. It hurt but in a funny sort of way I wanted the game to continue and for us not to lose, so that it would be worth it. The group who had lowered the cast to the ground were discussing with Zsa what was the best thing to do. Eventually it was decided that they would carry me to her car and Docs would go with Zsa back to my flat. Stud meanwhile was to have collected my stuff from the changing room. But there was pressure from some of the others on Docs to stay and finish the game. So, they carried me down to the car, laid me on the back seat and Zsa sat and waited in the driver's seat while Docs and Stud ran back up the hill and the game was resumed.
I sat there wondering what was going on in Zsa's mind and hoping we wouldn't concede a goal in the dying minutes of the game. Zsa didn't talk to me but I saw her looking at me in the rear-view mirror. Did she know I was able to hear? I don't know. She put a tape on. I didn't know who it was but she'd played it in the car before.
Docs reappeared, flying down the hill, his arms raised in victory. I heard him whoop. "We did it," he grinned at Zsa as she opened the passenger door and he jumped in. He turned and looked at me. "We did it, Bob," he said with a big smile. "We bloody won. We've never won before and we won today. That means we won't go down. And it's thanks to you." It was nice to be addressed directly and obviously I was delighted about the result but I could see Docs was a bit uneasy about the cast. He seemed to want to touch me to communicate his pleasure and share the victory but didn't know whether to or not. Zsa settled it by starting the engine and swinging out into the road.
It was weird being driven home like that. Not only the whole cast thing, but lying in the back looking at the backs of their heads, looking for all the world like a bloody married couple.
Zsa parked outside the flat, bumping the front tyre against the kerb in a way that would have made me wince. Together they carried me upstairs and laid me down on the grubby landing carpet to unlock the door to my flat. It was the first time I'd entered my own place in such a way. It all looked so different. Like a stage set all got up to represent my flat. The details were all there but they weren't quite put together right.
"What do we do now?" Docs asked.
Zsa had known all the answers up to now. "We put him somewhere he'll be comfortable and leave him."
"Comfortable?" Docs queried, possibly wondering where comfort came into it for a statue.
"Yes. Let's put him on the sofa. That's where he sits when he's at home." She was right again. Nice one, Zsa.
So they left me there and walked out. It upset me a bit that neither of them said anything to me like "See you in a few days" or anything. Something encouraging like that would have been nice. Still. I watched them go and Zsa stuffed the keys back through the letter box after she'd closed the door. She was that sure.
In fact, she had a spare set of keys to my flat but still I had the strong impression she knew I'd be out of there in a few days' time and back playing in goals.
As it happened it only took a day and a half. It's hard to describe those 36 hours. If you've been through this yourself you'll know anyway. So this is for anyone who thinks they might be losing it. What normally happens to you after you get drunk? And I don't mean a few beers and a couple of glasses of wine drunk; I mean a whole bottle of spirits and maybe half a dozen tequila slammers drunk. Like, paralytic. OK, you get the same thing after a heavy evening down the pub but just not as intense. What happens is you fall asleep. You come home, you forget all about drinking loads of cold water to pre-empt the hangover and you collapse into bed. You're out cold before your head hits the pillow.
But imagine if you came home and you didn't fall asleep. You have to deal with this drunkenness while remaining awake. Maybe it's never happened to you but you can imagine it. You're just not tired or you've simply got to stay up for some reason. Whatever. The process of moving from drunk to sober, which usually takes place while you're asleep, happens in full view of your conscious mind. It's not particularly pleasant.
Well, getting out of the cast is something like that. You maintain a high level of self-awareness, constantly asking, is this it, am I OK yet? Some people flip. They can't handle it. But like I said, for me it was relatively quick. One state recedes and the other fades in. You don't do anything; it just happens. But your mind won't shut up, going on and on at you, wanting to be able to get a grip.
There must be a moment when you cross over. When you come out of the cast and find yourself suddenly looking at it thinking, what the hell happened? But it's like when you fall asleep after hours of trying to stay awake to watch the late election result or just because you thought it would be a crazy thing to do. You fall asleep just for a second, you think, and then bang, you're awake and it's four hours later and you've missed it, whatever it was. You feel cheated and stupid.
With me it was like one minute I was curled up inside the right hand thinking, what's going to happen next, how will I get out? and the next I'm walking out of the kitchen into the living room and there I am lying on the sofa. Only it's not me. I'm me and that's the cast, now completely hollow and lifeless.
I kept it, of course. You don't throw something like that away. What more perfect souvenir could you want of when you were happiest? For half an hour or so I sat there looking at it, all sorts of questions buzzing round my head. But none of them really needed asking. The important thing was I had made that save, I had been that fulfilled, we had won the game. Now I was whole again.
But not quite.
I looked down at the goalkeeper's jersey which I was still wearing. There was a small uneven hole in the material just below the badge with the three lions. In the same place on the cast was a rough edge where Zsa had snapped off a fold in the shirt.
I carried the cast up the stepladders and found a safe place for it in the loft. Whenever I wanted I could come up here and look at it.
I changed out of my football kit and had a shower. It was late afternoon. By the time I got round to Zsa's she would be back from work. I wanted to thank her for what she'd done for me. I drove round but there was no answer. I kept ringing for a while until someone poked a head out of a neighbouring flat to see who was making all the noise. OK, OK, I'm going. I had spare keys to Zsa's flat as well but I didn't know how long I'd have to wait. She could be out for the evening, I thought, and I wanted to see someone, a friend, anyone. I'd had quite enough of my own company.
Docs lived a few miles further out but his flat was nicer than mine or Zsa's. Being further out he could enjoy the luxury of having enough space to spread himself around. As I drove I thought about the game. It didn't matter that I had to call him Docs. He was my friend whatever we called each other. I parked across the street, noticing the light on in his window, and pushed open the street door which was always left open. I'd warned him about the risks but he'd said it wasn't for the lack of trying to get his neighbours to cooperate. They were just lazy. It was too much trouble to give the door that final push.
I climbed the stairs to Docs' flat and knocked on the door. I knocked again but no one came. The light had been on so I felt sure he was in. Docs didn't leave lights on. I knocked again then bent down and pushed open the letter box. The hallway glimmered. The main room was at the end on the left. I could hear music as well. It was familiar but I couldn't place it. I realised I hadn't been round to Docs' for at least a couple of months. He'd been round to my place and we'd seen each other for the games, but I hadn't made the effort to visit him at home.
Anyway, the fact that he had music playing convinced me he was in but hadn't heard the door. Perhaps he'd had a particularly hard day at work and was having a nap. It crossed my mind that he could have got lucky, but this seemed like an unlikely time to be doing it. I knew what Docs was like after a day at the office. Mr Bad Tempered or what? So I reached in through the letter box and caught hold of the string with his spare key on it. I'd told him about that as well, but he'd said, "When you lose things as easily as I do, that spare key is essential. I've lost count of the number of nights I've come home pissed as a fart and used it because it's easier than searching through me pockets."
I unlocked the door and stepped inside. "Docs," I called gently, but there was no answer. The music was infuriatingly familiar but still unplaceable.
Do you remember I said how you sometimes know someone's there before you see them? Well, it's not always the case, because I felt nothing like that as I turned out of the hallway and into the main room. The first thing I saw was the CD player with the red repeat light on. As I took in the sight of Docs and Zsa cast in a lasting moment of mutual rapture in the middle of the floor I recognised the music. It was what had been playing in the car stereo when they'd driven me back to my flat, a statue on the back seat oblivious to what was going on.
I said that Docs had plenty of space to spread himself around. He had done just that with himself and Zsa. Their casts littered the floor at the far end of the room under the bay window. There were too many of them to count, like a sea of bodies. Clearly he gave Zsa something I couldn't. Perhaps if she'd said something, given me a chance to understand? But I'm kidding myself. I stared with morbid fascination at all the different casts, at the ecstasy on her face, the evidence of her complete abandonment to sensation. The awful traces of vulnerability on Docs' face which I half pitied and half envied. Yes, I knew how he'd felt and I'd seen that look on Zsa's face before, but I guess it was all in the timing. Or something like that.
Don't ask me how they got out of their casts. I really don't want to think about it too hard. But they found a way. Lovers always do, after all.
But this latest cast was one souvenir they wouldn't get to keep. Feeling numb and empty inside, I went looking for the baseball bat.
© Nicholas Royle 1992, 1997
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