There’s a hole in my heart where Mary used to be

Saturday night. The last train home.

The station’s bright and light. The sound of squiffy silliness peppers the air.

There’s no menace, no riotous shouting. No spitting, or pissing, or – you know – any of those ‘I wish I’d gone home earlier’ kind of things.

The train pulls in. My friend from Leeds (I’ve known her 42 years – eek) and Anthro-man and I pile into a four-seater space and relax. Well, mostly.

The evening began at six in the bar at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel. A reunion of college friends. Since then much wine has been taken. And paella eaten.

Conversation between the fifteen of us has roamed around the world, bounced off politics, given religion a wide berth. Struggled back to earth again. And of course we’ve resorted to gossip – but shhh, don’t tell.

The three of us have left the rest digesting – making ready for city hotel rooms or adventures in late night bars.

And so here we are, three old friends, sitting in a metal tube with random, diverse strangers. Alert to intimations of imminent excess – of mood, of danger, or just familiarity.

This being Liverpool, we don’t have long to wait.

The train is blessed by the presence of some very merry people.

A young-ish man with a not-very-hipster beard parades up and down. He’s in a section of the carriage close enough for us to be amused – but also a little worried. Too close for comfort.

He sits on the knee of a woman with pale grey hair. She seems tolerant – and semi-amused – and keeps her hands well away. He tries other knees, as if it’s a game of squeak-piggy-squeak at a little boy’s birthday party.

Soon enough he’s bored and back to wandering round.

But at least he’s quiet, I’ll say that for him.

Unlike the two women – one of them plainly called Mary.

I can’t quite work out their age. Late thirties? Maybe forty or more?

They’re well beyond tipsy and into seriously inebriated – but mobile, laughing and somehow quite charming with it.

Not-Mary runs towards us.

You know how it is with a drunk – she starts off walking as if she can’t quite move her legs, as if they don’t belong, then suddenly they’re sprinting, with a mind of their own.

She staggers past us and slumps, face down, across the knees of two women sitting across the aisle, behind us. Stays there, her bottom sticking out into the aisle.


We’re laughing like drains now. And hoping we’ll carry on being the audience, not the cast.

Then Mary comes steaming down the carriage, chasing her friend.

Two men (with two more not-quite-hipster beards) sit side by side. Opposite – and presumably with – the two young women who make up friend-of-Mary’s human sofa.

Mary flings herself on the knee of the one by the aisle.

And a cry rings out:

‘Mary! Mary! Stop it – I feel defiled!’

It’s hard not to laugh, let’s be honest – and no one can help themselves. We’re all in stitches, the whole carriage.

Mary is sitting on his knee tugging up his top. We can all see his chest – and now she’s rubbing his chest hair.

The two young women who’ve ceased to be soft furnishings are now, amid gales of hysterical laughter, filming the whole thing on their mobile phones.

Is this a flash mob, we wonder? But not for long.

The train pulls into a station.

Friend-of-Mary raises herself.

Sways her way to the door.

‘Mary! Mary!’ she yells. ‘It’s our stop, Mary. Come on it’s our stop.’

Mary looks as if someone’s told her she’s been banned from walking and her legs have been removed below the knees.

She stands still – well, except for the rocking back and forth.

At last, she moves her feet. Stands facing the open doors.

Friend-of-Mary is out on the platform now.

Defiled-man is yelling at Mary.

‘Get out of the train, Mary, it’s your stop!’

But Mary can’t make her brain connect with her legs. (Yes, she does have legs again.)

As the doors shut she rushes up to them and stands, maybe seeing, maybe not seeing her friend laughing helplessly outside on the platform as the train pulls away.

Mary stays put. Topples out at the next stop as soon as the doors split open.

And the man with the beard, the chest hair, the defiled existence, yells.

‘Mary, Mary, Mary. Oh, Mary.’

‘There’s a hole in my heart where Mary used to be.’

Just another night out. In Liverpool.

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No armchair for God today. Not even a paltry cushion.

No, I’m not having visions, I’m singing – in my head.

It’s an old song by the French singer, Charles Trenet, in which this line appears:

‘Et le bon Dieu dit boum, Dans son fauteuil de nuages’

a lovely image, don’t you think? God sitting in his armchair made of clouds singing Boum! with Charles Trenet.

This jolly live recording is from 1938 (yes, long before my time) if you fancy a listen.

It’s a song I learnt to love as a little girl, dancing around our ‘middle room’ – my dad’s study – where we had our gramophone. Not ‘record player,’ note – that, my father always said, was his role.

My mum would sing along to Boum!, becoming quiet and dewy-eyed as La Mer followed.

Ah – La Mer!

It’s a song with as many versions as there are raisins in a fruit cake. But the only acceptable versions are – I’m sorry, I’m firm on this – sung in French.

Anyway. That was my very long-winded way of saying – what a gorgeous, fabulous utterly marvellous day it is today.

DSCN0985So gorgeous I decide to wheel out the plum coloured bike without even thinking of rain.

Because the weather’s a fickle friend – today it loves me – but will it still love me tomorrow?

It takes me 15 minutes to reach the beach, belting along with chirpy Boum! on a loop in my head.

But as I tether up the purple bike and stroll down onto the beach, it’s replaced by La Mer.



I’m mesmerised by the lapping of the sea.

Sedate seabirds, like hundreds and thousands, spatter the shore.

Ugly jellyfish, charming gull

Ugly jellyfish, charming gull

Horses walk down, deceptively placid, on their way to a sweat-breaking canter.

The beach barriers are closed today – there’s no parking on the beach, it’s the end of the season.

And it’s quiet – so, so quiet.

A few dog walkers.

A man with big binoculars on the steps of the empty lifeguard station.

And me.

My mental batteries are soon topped up by sun, sea, sand and general gorgeousness.

Time to ride up to the bike café for a cup of liquorice tea.

DSCN1000Stop at the bakery for a high fibre loaf.

Cycle past the restaurant where we treat ourselves, now and then, to a special Sunday lunch.

And on – to the cemetery.

DSCN1004 (2)

I love cemeteries. Some people can’t even bear to look at them – which makes me wonder if it’s a bit on the weird side. But I’m fascinated by monuments to the non-celebrated dead.

This one contains Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves – stray foreigners, doomed to find a field of England forever their home.

DSCN1011DSCN1009I tarry a while, reluctant to leave the sun-kissed, ivy-smothered angels behind – but it’s time I headed home.

To wash the sheets.

To hang them out – it might be the last good drying day of the year.

And eventually, to work.

Well, no, to be honest, not to work. To write this blog post.

Do I feel guilty?

A little.

Is it a wonderful day?

It is.

Well, then.

Every now and again I won’t say I deserve, but I relish a Boum! kind of day.

And, being lucky enough to live within 15 minutes cycle ride of it, I’m able to go and refresh my jaded spirits with – yes –  La Mer.


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It’ll all end in lawnmowers

‘I’m sorry,’ says the nice man, as he charges me £60 for a few minutes’ work.

To be honest, it was worth it. Not least because it was all my fault.

You see, I’ve been a bit irascible the last few days.

It started with Saturday. A sleepless night.

It had been a rough day.

We were off, on our bikes, to see the retiring Vulcan bomber (my bro-in-law flew them) at our local airshow. Hearing sirens, heading downhill at speed, we veered off onto the footpath for safety. There was an almighty bang and we saw a figure flung up in the air.

A police motorcyclist, escorting an emergency ambulance, had hit a Mercedes which, it seemed, had pulled out into its path. The ambulance had to carry on, leaving him lying on the ground.

It was horrifying – I was convinced there was no way he would survive, but he did. I’ve found out since he’s recovering, thank goodness.

Anthro-man offered his first aid skills and contact details for a witness statement. I pacified a baby while her mum, in tears, told the police what she’d seen. It was uncomfortably close to home – her dad was a police biker.

And after a bit of shocked dithering we decided to go on. But we didn’t stay very long.

Then Sunday came.

One of our two regular newspapers, the left-leaning one, studiously ignored the big lefty news. A mass influx of new members into the party it ostensibly supports. Instead it reported rumours of defections and new parties and … so on.

Only one bit of support for what is going on snuck into its pages, from Ed Vulliamy, a respected journalist whom I knew vaguely at uni.

Monday I discovered that Ed had tried and failed, in autumn 2002, to get that same, lefty Observer to publish an important story.

A CIA agent’s admission that they knew there were no WMDs in Iraq.

I was feeling crabby and jaded enough.

A book was the final straw.

It had me spluttering with disbelief.

Anyone who is under any illusions about the sulking New Labour’s left wing credentials – or indeed about the level playing fields of Britain – should read The Establishment by Owen Jones.

I was reading it on the train into Liverpool last night.

We had a pleasant dinner with a friend in the Old Blind School. We sauntered down the hill, past a Big Issue seller. We paused, looked at him.

‘Well at least you didn’t ignore me,’ he said, ‘But please, can you buy a magazine?’

A few moments later and we were nearing the bombed out church – Liverpool’s most visible reminder of World War II, when the port city and neighbouring Bootle were bombed to smithereens.

It was dark around there, despite the street lights.

A woman in white robes with a blue trim was walking slowly to and fro beneath the overhanging trees. A sister of the order made famous by Mother Teresa.

Tucked away by the fence were two women, a table and two silver, pump-action vacuum flasks.

A man with feathers in his hair and his world on his back homed in on the free hot drinks – then, just as quickly, was gone.

‘Would you like a medal from the sister?’ asked one of the women as she noticed us standing, taking it all in.

‘Can we give you a donation,’ I blurted out, foolishly.

She looked around. ‘No, we can’t take money,’ she said, ‘the homeless people would want it. But if you’d like to buy us some biscuits from the shop over there?’

We bought Hobnobs and Digestive biscuits.

She was grateful. Smiled.

‘Would you not like a medal off the sister?’

The medal the nun gave us, b y he bombed out church, in the dark city night

The medal the nun gave us, by the bombed out church, in the dark city night

Anthro-man accepted a small, oval medal on a long blue thread. I recognised it.

He struggled to read the words.

‘Pray – for – us. Conceived? Mary …’

I didn’t need to look.

‘Oh Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.’

I was back in a schoolroom in May, the month of Mary. A statue with a little crown of flowers on its head. Singing one of my favourite hymns.

Bring flowers of the rarest, bring blossoms the fairest, from garden and woodland and hillside and vale…

And so to today.

I was standing at the window, enjoying the sun dappling through the trees, when a golfer decided to urinate against a birch trunk – and something snapped.

I grabbed at the handle of the sliding doors onto the balcony intending to open it and shout at him – and broke off the key in the lock.

I was still so pissed off at the pissing golfer that I rapped my knuckles on the window. He looked up, but just carried on and teed off, having peed off.

Petty? Possibly – but – he urinated metres from a little, wooden, garden-shed-like building that is a loo for their use.

So, I committed the sin of anger  ;-) and my penance was £60.

But … the locksmith was a very nice man, arrived very quickly, told us all about his boss’s shop (established 1946) and … the National Lawnmower Museum! Of which, you know, there will be more anon.

After I’ve finished that book.

And recovered my sanity.

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Happy and sad and Caitlin Moran

1. Happy
She’s done something terrific, Caitlin Moran – well, with a few other high-profile people. The campaign #helpiscoming is raising money for Save the Children. That’s fantastic.

Ms Moran mentions, in her column in today’s Times magazine (behind a paywall, sorry), that well-meaning people are sending the wrong stuff to refugee camps.

Money is good and effective, I know.

But, hang on …

I’ve met people over the last few weeks who are spending every waking moment – and the waking moments are getting longer and longer – doing the best they can, practically, for the refugee crisis.

Sorting piles of women’s and children’s clothes and high heels out from well-meaning Calais donations. Packing individual bags and boxes with the right food, the right toiletries and cleaning materials.

Heeding what the people on the ground want.

And many brave souls are going – on an organised basis – to the Jungle to help clean up.

2. Sad

Surplus clothes, pillows, duvets, etc, are going to homeless charities.

Inappropriate food is going to food banks.

While delivering several supermarket packs of baked beans and pork sausages (donated, amongst boxes of rice and other needed supplies, by Tesco) to our local foodbank, I accidentally strayed into a consultation. A sad, crumpled man, resorting to charity, to feed himself and his family. I felt ashamed to be there, an intruder on his humiliation.

So there we have it.

A worldwide crisis of refugees, fleeing war, terror, or just plain poverty, incidentally helping the homeless and hungry in the UK.

Does it matter what place in the wealthiest nations we occupy? I can’t be bothered looking it up.

It’s a crying shame. And now we’re all becoming so used to it, it’s not remarkable.

Well, actually, it is.


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Blood on the wall, guts on the floor – ah, the wonder of nature

It’s that time of year – again. Funny how the seasons keep on coming around, but it’s always a bit of a surprise when you notice. When I notice, I mean.

The last few mornings, mist has hung like a stage backdrop behind the sand dunes across the golf course. Only just visible through the trees. As the hidden sun, somewhere, begins to rise, the vapours crawl stealthily inwards, up under the drooping arms of the evergreens, then evaporate.

For a few gilded moments a light the colour of golden syrup drizzles over everything. Then morning licks it off – and the world is just the same as it was yesterday.

Well, almost.

The day passes in the usual ways, then, come seven in the evening, we banish e-world and pour a glass of wine. A casserole is reaching slow-cooked unctuousness in the oven.

Foxy's lair is in here somewhere

Foxy’s lair is in here somewhere

We stand at one of the side windows – upstairs in our topsy-turvy house – looking down on a mess of brambles, Rosebay Willowherb and wild honeysuckle. The resting place, we suspect, of our local glossy-furred fox.

His paths in and out are obvious and we’ve seen him there, basking in the sun.

The blackberries are already drying up – the ones the birds haven’t eaten. (And then pooed out in deepest purple on our pearly white car).

The honeysuckle is sporting vibrant red berries.

DSCN0869 (2)



Seed heads everywhere are spreading nature’s mayhem in the golf course rough that wraps around us like a lush fur collar.

The light is fading more quickly than yesterday. The technicolour ribbons of sunset are draped further to the west.

By eight o’clock, as we sit down, replete, to watch more news of the refugee crisis, the bats are flitting.

The reports from mainland Europe and the Middle East are distressing. We won’t avoid them, but when we’ve seen the latest harrowing scenes, we switch off and sit without the lights on.

We open the window on the darkness engulfing our quiet, cul-de-sac world. Because an owl is calling. Not once, far off, but nearby and repeatedly.

Not a too-whit-too-whoo owl. A sort of cross between a hooty and a gentle-howly owl.  It’s a tawny owl, a male. (I Googled owl sounds, to be sure )

We sit for ages, in the cool night air. Then shut the window, draw the curtains – the season really is changing – and head downstairs for bed.

Next morning, I realise we’ve left the cushions out in the rain, on the balcony that leads off our dining room. We keep two chairs and a table there, where we can relax overlooking our little garden. Peer through the trees at green vignettes of distance, framed by branches. Watch birds doing what birds do. Bathing, chasing, mating, pecking, flying. And eating.

As I open the sliding door I notice that something has made a rather large deposit on one of the wooden decking slats.

And it’s not a poo.

It’s guts.

As I turn to come back in there’s no ignoring the trail of blood, graffiti-like, running down the brick wall beneath our outdoor light.

The price of our concert by the solo owl? Or a visit by the sparrowhawk?

A reminder, if nothing else, that nature is red not just in tooth and claw, but beak, as well.

Now that autumn’s here, there’ll probably be no more opportunities to sit out on the balcony. But – who knows? The eternal British weather optimist, I still hope for an Indian summer.

And yes, someone kind – and less squeamish than me – has volunteered to clean up the guts.

But I think we’ll leave the graffiti.

Last month they were like this

Last month they were like this

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The helpless, the hopeless, the despondent

I reached out my hand for the bin bag only to realise it was a baby in a car seat.

In a rare fit of practical action I was helping sort donations for ‘migrants’ in the Calais ‘Jungle’ encampment.

The British government’s most visible contribution has been the ‘National Barrier Asset’ – a high fence designed to withstand terrorist attacks. But not quite so effective against desperate people with ladders.


A cheerful, chatty, almost unnaturally positive young woman had earlier welcomed my friend and me into a large, old detached house in which she runs a business focused on mothers, babies and well-being.

This bubbly, generous person has made two rooms available for sorting and storing donations that big-hearted people are bringing in – for strangers, living in miserable conditions, hundreds of miles away.

Clusters of tents, kettles and sleeping bags,. Piles of jackets, trousers and trainers. Stacks of food, batteries, toiletries – and toothbrushes galore.

People began to arrive. A couple sounding on the ball – ‘You wanted men’s clothes, didn’t you?’ – turned out to have donated all sorts of items, including children’s clothes, many covered in dog hair, but, hey, they also gave tinned food.

My sensible friend had brought plastic gloves for us to wear – and soon mine were grey.

I’d been up and down the stairs several times (sorting downstairs, storing upstairs) when the baby arrived. So to speak.

I laughed at myself and, instead of the baby, took an armful of re-sealable plastic bags off the mum. She’d carefully packed each one with soap, facecloth, antiseptic gel, tissues – ready-made personal hygiene bags.

Yes, this woman, with her young baby, had gone out, bought stuff, packed bags and delivered it, all with her little one in tow.

Many of the donors were mums and dads. With or without offspring in tow.

A wiry, dark-haired chap in shorts and his pretty female partner brought bags and bags of good, clean, medium-sized menswear and shoes. Top items on the required list.

‘I’ve got no clothes left except what I’m stood up in,’ he joked. I could believe it.

He used to play for Everton, it turned out. My friend’s a fan. Probably made her day.

We were there just two hours, but I left feeling a sense of – what? Not achievement.  Anyone could have done it and it wasn’t frantically busy.

Something positive though.

I suppose it was just seeing that so many people were concerned for the plight of the poor people stuck in that nightmare of a place. Concerned enough to do something.

It felt good knowing that braver people than me can drive there, stay over, help clean up the mess that living humans make when civilisation lets them down.

Then, as I sat, later, watching television – alone because Anthro-man’s been at an anthro-conference – there was yet more grim news.

The presenter in Greece broke off to try and catch a baby falling to the rocks on the beach beside him.

Is that baby a refugee, or a migrant, I wondered?

I had a disturbed night, punctuated by strange dreams. I awoke feeling distressed, inadequate – and frustrated.

What could I do that would make anything better?


Calais charities don’t need toys, they will go to Kos or elsewhere

I went and stood in the spare bedroom. The bed’s slowly disappearing under donations I’ve picked up from others, organised and begun to label, ready for delivery to a collection point.DSCN0852

I remembered there was a load still in the car from a lovely couple who’d really put some thought into it – not just warm and waterproof clothes, but a wind-up torch and radio.

I told myself to stop being feeble. Checked Facebook to see if anyone needed me to pick anything up.


And then I read something.

I’ve put the link at the end of this post – I challenge anyone to read the two short accounts of the Jungle written by Cassy Paris and not be moved.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Do you ever hear that in your head? I do.

I think, often, of the women in this picture. I didn’t want to embarrass them by being obvious. I took it from a moving vehicle, that’s why it’s so bad. zam women mfuwe riverbedWomen and a girl are digging in the dry river bed to reach water beneath the surface. They’ll do some washing, then maybe carry filled containers home on their heads.

If I’d been born there – Mfuwe, Zambia – I’m pretty sure I’d be dead by now.

I’d probably have borne many children. Possibly had a rudimentary education which wouldn’t have stopped me working in the fields.

I’d probably have spent my life sleeping in a one-roomed hut, shared with my family and mosquitoes. Children, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles – some at least would have died of malaria, HIV Aids, TB.

My husband might have lazed around while I worked in the fields as well as cooking over an open fire.

My neck might be permanently damagedafter years of foraging for wood, walking miles with heavy logs on my head. And containers of water.

If I’d been born there, not here. That’s the big difference between those women and me. Those ‘migrants’ and me.

It’s too late for me to join an NGO, to be a proper journalist, or a doctor, to do anything other than donate.

And this blog-writing business feels like idle self-indulgence.

No-one out there heeds what I say, does anything different because I write. Yes, it gets it out of my head, but doesn’t change anything else.

Such helplessness, while so many people facing hopelessness need so much.

That’s it.

No cutesy ending this time.

Just this request:

please, follow the link below and read the two short posts. Then tell me, what can we really do, we citizens, while our government builds big fences to keep these scroungers out.




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Girl [and two boys] on a train. From miserable to mighty in 24 hours.

I’m reading a book – a real book – on a train. Serious stuff – Britain, 1974-1979. History.

Hell, that makes me feel old.

Three young people sit down, two opposite, one next to me.

My concentration is broken. Hidden sensors, honed by years in open plan offices, tell me something is going on.

I look up at the two people opposite, one girl (could be over 18, admittedly), one boy (ditto).

Both are holding up smartphones at the same sort of height and angle. And both look at me with that ‘ did you see me’ kind of look as they notice I’m looking.

I return to my book but am again aware that there is something going on. They’re disconcertingly quiet. While their friends down the carriage are boisterous, to say the least.

I turn to my right and look straight into my own image on a smartphone.

‘Sorry,’ says the boy, instantly.

‘So you should be,’ I snap back.

I don’t return to my reading, just sit and glare. One by one they slink off to join their friends.

They’re not aggressive, not rough. Plainly from decent homes, probably well-off – you can tell by the haircuts and clothes and accents.

The whole group is now looking furtively at me. One girl sniggers, then stops when she realises I’m looking directly at her. They turn their backs. The same girl peeps out and ducks back as she sees I’m still looking.

New people get on and obscure the view a bit. I move, shoehorning my way into the next seat, opposite the young man who now sits, legs inconveniently splayed, by the window.

I hope they can’t see me now, because I can’t see them.

I look out of the window, too spooked to return to my book.

At the next stop, two more young people get on – strong local accents, office-work clothes. Bubbly, fun and friendly. We chat and I end up laughing – but still trot off to the wine bar feeling grumpy – and a bit disturbed.

The evening is not a success. There’s still no table booked for my college reunion of 16 people after another ‘this one should be perfect’ meal out. Much more of this and we’ll be bankrupt.

And so to today. Which starts rainy. Again. And cold.

Colder than yesterday.

I sit at my desk, reluctant to do anything. Despondent.

Glued to Twitter for longer than’s good for me.

And then it begins to happen.

A petition is circulating – not from a campaigning organisation, a UK Government one. If you get over 100,000 signatures they have to do something about it. Read it, at least.

I sign. Watch as the numbers rise.

Turn my attention elsewhere then look back.

When I signed it was at least 20,000 off the 100,000 target. Now it’s over 192,000.

Then, still on Twitter (don’t worry I’d been wasting time on other social media too) I notice a writer has offered to match up to £10,000 if people donate to Save the Children.

I donate a small sum and watch, again, as the total rises and rises and rises. That sum is reached. £20,000 raised in a few hours.

Now others are following his lead. Two more men and a woman offer to match £10,000 worth of donations. Then more, then more.

In less than half a day one man has, with the help of countless small donations and some big ones, got over £100,000 raised. By people just feeling the need to do something – and Tweeting.

Then I notice someone local Tweeting about a Facebook group.

Good excuse for a Twitter break.

So, onto Facebook and I join the group. Check what’s most needed, find a local person willing to pick stuff up from me.

Abracadabra – and it’s gone. A tent, three coats, a water carrier and kettle.

Everything is connected.

It’s all about the refugee crisis taking place in Europe right now.

In case you don’t know, there’s a huge crisis here in Europe with refugees from Syria (yes, and other ‘migrants’ too).

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said we are doing enough.

But the tent and coats, etc, are going to Calais in a couple of weeks’ time. Taken by a few people in the north west of England who believe that, despite what our government says, we don’t think we’re doing enough.

Social media at first reacted as usual. Charts. Statistics. Articles. Blogs (yes, mea culpa).

Righteous indignation.

But today it’s doing something amazing.

For the first time since I was involved with Facebook and Twitter I am witnessing their power in action for myself.

I am seeing people having ideas and running with them.

I am becoming involved, in a small way.

I’m meeting people I’ve never met before.

We are doing something, despite our government.

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