THE WOMAN IN THE PURPLE COAT

A Novel

© 2021 Paula Robinson

Chapter One

 

Catherine. London, June 2018

The windscreen has shattered like ice crystals on a frozen lake. The jackknifed lorry blots out the sun from my driver’s window. I can smell diesel.

    Something warm and thick is trickling into my right eye. I blink and try to raise my hand, but I can’t move.

    I’m drifting…

    Back to the Battersea council estate. Up the steep concrete stairs that smell of urine. Through the blue front door, calling:

    “Eudora! I’ve got a special treat for you!” 

    I put the kettle on. Open the pouch of Sheba and arrange fish in gravy onto my best china plate—the one with sprigs of roses and that worn, gold rim. My mouth waters: Eudora’s food looks so much more appetising than the frozen fish fingers and mushy peas I’ll have for my own supper later.

    Tea mug and plate of cat food in hand, I hobble to the bedroom. 

    In the middle of the single bed Eudora lies curled, her silver grey fur offset against the purple eiderdown. 

    “Look, sweetheart! I got your favourite—”

    A cracking, popping sound jars me back. A fireman is cutting the passenger door open with a strange looking instrument.

    “Eudora… needs…help,” I plead softly. 

    “Hang on, Eudora. We’re nearly there.”

    He is in the car now. I hear the click of my seatbelt releasing. He calls urgently to someone behind him then turns back to me: “We’re getting you out, Eudora. Taking you to hospital.”  

    “Eudora… Very ill… Nobody…” I whisper, but the firemen aren’t listening. One of them covers my nose and mouth with a clear plastic mask. It’s easier to breathe now. 

    “Eudora… Alone…”

    “What’s she saying?” a woman’s voice asks.

    The mask lifts.

    “My… cat,” I rasp.

    The mask lowers. They don’t understand.  

    I must get home to help Eudora. 

    It’s surprisingly easy to sit up. 

    To float through the ambulance’s doors. Away from an elderly woman’s inert body. 

    

I’m in my bedroom again. 

    Eudora hasn’t moved. 

    “Shall I read you Selma’s story? It’s bound to make us both feel better.” 

    She purrs.

    I fetch my reading glasses and the blue cardboard folder from the bedside table and pull out pages yellowed by time. My precise handwriting, the letters neatly formed but slightly square in shape, flows around pencil sketches. I wrote Selma’s story when I left Paris and wasn’t allowed to paint anymore.  

    I glance up at my small, unframed paintings on the wall: twelve moments in a story I’m still trying to unravel, almost fifty years on. In the first, I’m standing on a New York street in a black cocktail dress in the rain.  

    Eudora nuzzles closer and I begin to read out loud.

    “I took an unsteady step back onto the pavement—” 

    Something about this unsettles me. I’m not sure why. I clear my throat and continue: 

    “I thought about putting on my coat, but it was heavy with rain. The white wool had dirty marks where I’d covered the woman lying in the road. The right lapel and shoulder were streaked with the stranger’s blood.”

    There is a pain growing in my chest—but I can’t think about that now. I have to keep reading to Eudora. 

    “I tilted my umbrella to shield myself from the crowd that still lingered, even though the ambulance was long gone. All I wanted was to blend back into the multitude of umbrellas battling an unseasonal September wind. To be just another New Yorker pressed for time in the evening rush hour.”

    The pain is spreading throughout my body.

    “Most of all, I wanted to forget the woman in the purple coat…”

Chapter Two

Catherine. New York, September 1970

My first impression of her was a flash of shimmering purple fabric—the colour of African violets in full bloom—billowing around slim legs as she bolted across my path, jostling my umbrella. 

     Seconds later, a man running after her almost collided with me.

     A horn blared. Someone cried out. There was a dull thud.

     As I stepped off the curb, I saw the man bending over the purple coat lying limp over legs curled up in the foetal position. 

     “Someone call 911!” he yelled. 

     The driver was shouting that he hadn’t seen the woman. She’d run out in front of him. He’d tried to stop.

     The man yanked off his suit jacket and the left cuff snagged on his watch. He ripped at it, turning the sleeve inside-out, and covered the woman tenderly. His shirt was drenched and clung to his torso as if he’d been standing in the rain for some time.

     I took off my coat and crouched down beside them. “Take this. It’s dry—” My breath caught in my throat as he lifted his jacket. The woman’s hands were resting protectively around the vast swell of her belly and her knees were drawn up as if to safeguard her unborn child. As I tucked my coat’s hem around her bare foot, I noticed a shoe lying a few feet away in the road. 

     “The ambulance will be here soon,” I said with a calm I didn’t feel. I held my umbrella over the couple, the ground cold and hard against my knees. 

     The man wiped rain from the woman’s cheeks. His fingers were long like a pianist’s and he had a well-worn gold band on his ring finger. His left hand moved in a slow circular motion over the bulge beneath my coat. He leaned over his wife and spoke to her in an accent I couldn’t place. It was American, but with the singsong lilt of another land. The wind snatched away most of his words, but the few I caught made me blink back tears and look away. The crowd pressed closer. 

     If I was the one lying in the road, what would Serge be doing right now? I remembered the hotel room in Greece, the ceiling fan whirring over our bed. The doctor probing my sore abdomen, shaking his head and saying he suspected appendicitis. Serge at the far end of the room, leaning against the open door, his face impassive.

     The sound of a siren rose in the distance and the man’s head jerked up. His eyes fixed on mine for a second. Everything around me seemed to blur, grow suddenly hushed.  

     He looked away again and the effect vanished.

     The siren was drawing closer. 

     I thought he was going to lift his wife in his arms, but he laid his cheek against hers and closed his eyes. He didn’t open them, even when the paramedics came alongside with a stretcher.    

     I touched his shoulder tentatively. His muscles tensed.

     “Let them help her.”

     He slid backwards as far as the car’s front tyre. I held the umbrella over him, the rain trickling down the back of my neck. He answered the paramedics’ questions in monosyllables. Each time they blocked his view, he shifted his position so he could still see his wife. 

I studied his face as if I were about to paint it. The strong jawline, the laughter lines around the eyes, the way the mouth— 

     His head hit my umbrella as he jumped up, knocking it out of my hand. The paramedics were wheeling the stretcher towards the ambulance and he almost ran into them as they eased it into the cramped interior. He leapt in.

     One of the men tried to stop him. “You can’t come. You’ll have to—”

     “I can’t leave her.” He knelt down and felt underneath the blanket for her hand. 

     “There’s a taxi right here,” I called. “You could follow the ambulance to the hospital.”

      He turned at the sound of my voice and his eyes focused on the cab. He looked down at his wife again and bent to kiss her forehead. 

     “Don’t let anything happen to her!” he said to the paramedics as he left the ambulance.

     I had to run to keep pace with his strides, my arm stretched high to hold the umbrella over him. 

     “Don’t forget this.” I pushed his jacket through the taxi door as he was pulling it shut behind him.

     “Thanks—for… everything.” There were tears running down his face.

     The siren filled the air and the taxi lurched forward. I watched the two vehicles disappear down the street and turn the corner. 

     I stood in the rain with my coat in one hand and my umbrella held to one side, as if still sheltering him. My limbs felt weak and my right arm was shaking. I lowered the umbrella. 

An officer was speaking to me, but I found it difficult to answer his questions. I was staring at the woman’s shoe in the road.

 

* * * *

 

The receptionist at Lenox Hill Hospital’s emergency room shuffled paperwork while I made a halting request for information about the victim of the Central Park South traffic accident.

     “Name?” The woman didn’t look up.

     “Catherine Slater.”

     “Are you a family member?”

     “No. But I helped her hus—”

     “We only give out information to family.” 

     “But I have her—”

     “Next!” The receptionist rolled her chair slightly to the right. “Can I help you?” She was addressing someone wheezing heavily behind me. “Yes, you. Step aside, Miss. This is the E.R. Not a news desk.” 

     Uncertain of what to do next, I headed back towards the main doors. A wave of exhaustion came over me. I slumped down on the far end of a row of seats, away from the cluster of people waiting to be treated. 

     I’m not sure how long I sat there, hoping the woman’s husband might come out. In the end, I gave up. As I picked up my handbag, something sharp grazed the side of my hand. I got the fleeting impression of a thin blue cotton blanket. A stretcher’s handrail. A series of lights moving rapidly overhead—

     I snatched my hand away and stared down at the sole of a stiletto, its heel tip broken, wedged inside my bag.

     I left the hospital, hailed a cab and gave my godmother’s address on Ninety-first and Lexington.

 

As I unlocked the front door, the grandfather clock’s mellow quarter-hour chime rang out, the hall reverberating to the sound. 

    Margaret Langdon’s brownstone was like something from a bygone era: a film of dust flecked treasures accumulated over a lifetime; an elaborate gilt over-mantle, its original mirror speckled and cloudy, hung above a mahogany console table dressed with an impressive pair of bronze candelabra, their candles burnt down to stumps. Around the mirror, the wall—covered in a faded, pale green silk—was strewn with battered straw hats that looked as though their owner had cast them there, aiming roughly for the hooks. A cricket bat, a putter and an old broom that would make a fine witch’s broomstick leant precariously against a wrought iron umbrella stand, devoid of umbrellas. The scent of oriental lilies and eucalyptus hung in the air, along with a hint of cinnamon and something baking.

    Aunt Maggie came up the back stairs wearing a red silk blouse, tailored black slacks and her favourite red leopard slingbacks. I’d never dared to ask her age. She could be sixty, ninety or anything in between with her stylish grey bob and twinkling eyes that always made me think of Father Christmas.

    “I just took a batch of cookies out of the—” Aunt Maggie stopped and stared at me. “What on earth happened to you, dear?”

    “A woman got hit by a car.”

    “And you stopped to help.” My godmother wrapped her arms around me and rubbed the flat of her palm slowly up and down my back. I relaxed against her slender frame. She’d apparently been the one person who could soothe my colic as a baby.

    “Would you like to talk about it?” she asked gently.

    “I don’t really know where to start.”

    “What about a hot bath first? You’ll catch your death in these wet clothes. Shall I run it for you?”

    “I can do it. Thanks, Aunt Maggie.”

    “Shall I bring you up a cup of hot, sweet tea? Or a brandy?”

    I shook my head.

    “Have you eaten?”

    “I’m not very hungry.”

    “Well, I’ve saved you a plate just in case. Come to the kitchen after your bath and we’ll have a long chat by the fire.”

    I climbed the staircase, past African and Indonesian masks that kept company with pastels of lazy summer afternoons. On the second floor’s landing, a lone sombrero vied with Greek Orthodox icons and a pair of swords. My godmother’s house always made me think of myths, fairytales and New England all rolled into one. Since childhood, it had been my happy place. Somewhere to escape the realities of the outside world.

    Mum and Aunt Maggie had met at an art exhibition in 1948 when Mum had been pregnant with me. I’d grown up listening to them talk about Tarot cards, reincarnation and ghosts. One of my earliest memories was volunteering my own ghost story about the boy I’d sensed in the attic at our colonial farmhouse in Connecticut. 

    Aunt Maggie had smiled and whispered, “I get the distinct feeling he won’t be the last ghost you’ll see, dear.” 

    I went into the bathroom on the third floor and stopped short. The woman staring back at me in the mirror didn’t look anything like the elegant one who’d left to catch a Broadway show. Long blonde hair clung in wet clumps to mascara-streaked cheeks below blue eyes. 

I look as if I was the one who got hit by a car.

    While I waited for the bath to fill, I thought about the woman in the purple coat. She’d reminded me of a princess from The Arabian Nights asleep in the imaginary softness of a bed, her dark hair fanning out on an asphalt pillow. 

    I studied my face as I removed my makeup. It was so unlike hers, the skin tone pale instead of that rich olive; the lips less full. My face would be easier to paint—but much less interesting, I decided as steam consumed my reflection.

    I had to know what had happened to her. There was a way—if I was brave enough to try it again. Until I was eight, I’d been clairsentient: I could hold an object and see things about its owner. It had been a game I’d loved to play at every opportunity—until the day I’d grasped a man’s cane and seen him beating a woman with it. For weeks I’d refused to touch anything or anyone unfamiliar to me. Aunt Maggie had taught me to control my gift by picturing myself surrounded by a protective shield of mirrors. In the end, I’d become so adept, I’d blocked my ability entirely—until I’d touched the woman’s shoe in the hospital earlier. But then again, I’d picked it up in the street and nothing had happened. Or had I been too preoccupied with the cop’s questions to notice?

    I opened my handbag and stared down at the stiletto. My fingers reached for it—hesitated at the last minute. I held my breath and grasped it.

    Nothing.

    I exhaled and set it down on the tiled floor. It toppled over. 

    I undressed and stretched out in a bath full of bubbles that smelt of roses. I wished I could still psychometrise. How else would I discover the fate of this woman?

    The heat was making me drowsy. A tingling sensation ran through my body and a sound enveloped me. A thousand leaves rustling on a wind were pulling me away from the bathroom into something that felt like a dream.

    Except it wasn’t my dream. 

    And the dreamer wasn’t me.

Chapter Three

The light is so bright. Fierce like the sun in the desert, but without its intense heat. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m not sure I can. 

    There are voices all around me, although it’s difficult to make out what they’re saying. The words are muffled as if spoken through masks. 

    The constant clatter of metal on metal is jarring. Footsteps come and go. 

    Music is playing in the background. Aretha Franklin. Chain of Fools.

    I want to ask where I am, but my lips won’t move. The question stays trapped in my throat. The smell of rubbing alcohol makes me think of Mama cleaning my grazed knees when I was little and handing me a homemade Date Maamoul to stop my crying. What I wouldn’t give for its creamy sweetness now. My strength is ebbing. I want to sleep.

    “What are you doing?” A man’s voice. Loud and reproachful.

    A woman apologises.

    Another reproach.

    Is it him? No, it’s not his voice. But it reminds me of him shouting so loud that it rose above the traffic and rain. I ran faster, my feet swollen in my shoes, my toes pressing against the hard leather toe caps. My right shoulder brushed against something soft and pliable. An umbrella. I had the briefest impression of a white coat and a woman. It was like running through a pocket of warm air on a cool day. But my feet kept moving. Something slammed into my left side and then blackness.

    Aretha Franklin’s voice is running through my head now. I’m not an Aretha fan and the refrain’s irritating. 

    Who are all these people around me and what are they doing?

    Somewhere to my right, an alarm is going off.

    For a second, another sound rises above the others. It’s a cat crying—No, not a cat. A baby. My baby girl! I want to hold her. To look into her face. 

    I rise. But I’m not standing. I’m floating. Several feet above an operating table. Masked figures are rushing an incubator through blue double doors. I lunge forward. I can’t lose my baby.

    “Clear!” The man’s voice shouts.

    Something yanks me backwards like a taut rubber band being snapped. I am motionless on the table once more. Powerless to reach my child. It takes all of my strength to rise again. To follow her, arms outstretched. 

    But I get lost. There’s a sound in my ears like the ocean’s roar. I am running. Barefoot this time in a hospital gown.

    The snapping sensation happens again and I am back in the operating theatre with people working frantically over me. There is blood everywhere. Several alarms are going off. I have to get away from here. 

    The scene melts like a mirage and I am in a small room, standing over my husband, calling his name. His face is in his hands.

    “They’ve taken our daughter away. I can’t find her. Help me!” 

    He doesn’t look up.

    “We must find her! Now!” 

    When he still doesn’t respond, I curse him in Arabic and go in search of our child alone.

    As I wander the corridors, listening for her cry, something distracts me. A familiar warmth draws me. I follow it as I would an unravelled ball of string leading the way out of a maze. I find myself in a large waiting area full of people. 

    At the back sits a woman, her hands folded in her lap. I know her. I’m not sure from where. I sit beside her. 

    “I’ve lost my daughter. Can you help me find her?”

    I notice one of my shoes in her bag and wonder what it’s doing there. Where’s the other one?

She gets up. Looks at the doors I have just come through. Hesitates for a moment.

I follow her out into the night. 

    She hails a taxi and I slip in beside her. She lowers the window, turns her face to the breeze and we watch the city flying past in a steady stream of lights. Everything fades and I have the impression of being free, of belonging to nothing and nobody as if I might simply go on driving through the night without ever coming to a stop. 

 

 

Chapter Four

I ran into the kitchen in my dressing gown and slippers, my hair wrapped in a towel.

    “Aunt Maggie, I’m psychometrising again!”

    “It was bound to happen sometime, dear. Come and sit by the fire and I’ll get you something strong to drink. Then you can tell me everything that’s happened.” 

    I sank into the chintz wing chair and felt cocooned in a long-forgotten sense of comfort. The ceiling was hung with copper pots, dried herbs and crystals twinkling in the light of oil lamps and candles. I gazed up at my portrait of Mum above the mantlepiece, painted shortly after her death. 

    Aunt Maggie handed me a brandy balloon and sat beside me on the fender seat.

    “Tell me what you saw while you were in the bath. Every detail you can remember.”

    The story of the accident and my vision came slowly, with frequent pauses. By the time I’d finished, my cheeks were damp with tears.

    “When the woman bumped into you on the sidewalk, did you get the impression she was running away from someone?” 

    “Her husband was very close behind—”

    “Chasing her?”

    “No, I don’t think so. I don’t know… It doesn’t make sense.” I took a sip of brandy, held its warmth in my mouth for a moment before swallowing. “He wouldn’t have chased her out into the road. It was obvious how much he loved her.”

    “Do you remember him shouting?”

    “No, but there was so much noise, what with the traffic and rain. You know, I could have grabbed her arm, stopped her from running out into the road. We both could have.”

    Aunt Maggie closed her eyes and pressed her hands together. Her listening pose, I called it. When she tuned into realms ordinary people couldn’t access.

    “It was beyond your control—this time.” She rose and headed for the stove. “A hearty beef stew is what you need now.”

    “You sensed something, Aunt Maggie. What was it?”

    “Come and sit at the table, dear.” 

    “Well?” I prompted as I unfolded the starched linen napkin.

    She set a plate down in front of me. I looked up at her, my hands on my thighs.

    “Very well,” she sighed. “You know this woman.”

    “No, I don’t. Today was the first time I’d—”

    “Sometimes the people we think of as strangers, aren’t.”

    “Meaning?”

    “Do tuck in, dear. It’s getting cold.”

    I didn’t pick up my knife and fork. The trick had worked as a child to get my godmother to promise me ice cream for dessert.

    She pursed her lips. “It’s possible you knew each other in another life.”

    “Go on.”

    “Sometimes Life’s patterns are only clear in retrospect.”

    “You’re being cryptic.”

    “Eat, dear,” Aunt Maggie pointed at my plate. “One bite, please.”

    I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I tasted the beef, mushrooms and ginger in thick gravy laced with wine. “This is delicious!”

    “You could do with more home-cooked meals. You’re looking way too thin. What are you eating in London?”

    “Baked beans on toast and grilled cheese sandwiches mostly.”

    She tutted. “No wonder you came home. Can you stay a bit longer? I love having you here again.”

    “I wish I could, but I can’t miss any more classes. I’m behind as it is.”

    “Catherine…” She rarely used my first name.

    “Yes?” I said guardedly.

    “You know you can tell me anything, don’t you? I won’t judge. You’re the daughter I never had.”

    I ate the broccoli florets languishing on my plate even though I disliked their texture. Had Aunt Maggie guessed my secret? Having a clairvoyant godmother was an advantage at times. A hinderance at others. I decided to change the subject.

    “I’ve been thinking,” I said with my mouth full, “my vision in the bath earlier: it must have been a dream. The dead giveaway was when the woman noticed her shoe in my bag.”

    “How so?”

    I speared the final floret with my fork. “My subconscious infiltrating my dream with things that actually happened.”

    “That’s one way of looking at it.” She went over to the oak dresser. I hoped she was going to fetch her vintage Rider-Waite Tarot deck, but instead she poured two glasses of sherry from a decanter.

    I took a sip and smiled. Bristol Cream. Mum used to drink it, reading by the fire on a winter’s evening. This time of year, she would have been lining our farmhouse pantry with glass preserve jars of vegetables harvested from the garden.

    “When you finish your degree next spring, will you come back to the States? There’s not much keeping you in London is there?”

    I shrugged.

    “You could live with me, if you like. I’ve got more space than I know what to do with and I’d love the company. You’d have the house to yourself most days and evenings. I’m always busy with my women’s rallies and charity events. You could take over the third floor and turn the East-facing room into a studio. It would be so much nicer than living in that tiny flat in Chelsea, surely?”

    “I really appreciate the offer. But I’m not sure I want to come back. There are so many memories here. Some of them hard to face.” Memories of Dad leaving us to start another family. Of Mum and I packing up. Moving back to her native England where she died of lung cancer. I blamed Dad: he was the smoker, not her. She grieved losing him until the day she died.

    “You don’t have to see your father if you don’t want to. Besides, you’ll make new memories here. Happier ones. I hate to think of you all alone in London.”

    “I have friends.”

    “Is Serge one of them?”

    I folded my napkin and took my plate to the sink. I hadn’t told my godmother about my volatile relationship with the French businessman. I didn’t trust myself to.

    “He telephoned while you were out. I completely forgot to tell you, I’m sorry.”

    I put my plate and cutlery in the dishwasher. “Did he leave a message?” I tried to sound casual.

    “Leave the dishes, dear.”

    I turned to face her. “What did Serge say?”

    “He’s coming to New York and wants to take you out to dinner. Who is he?”  

    “Someone I met in Rome a few months ago. I was on a field trip with Saint Martins at the time.” 

    I remembered how the streets had smelt of summer rain as I’d descended the Spanish Steps from the Trinità dei Monti. I’d been admiring a pair of neon-blue suede boots in a shoe shop’s window when a young Italian had accosted me.

    “Che bella ragazza! Bella, bella. Come Roma!” What a beautiful woman! Beautiful, beautiful. Like Rome! 

    I’d hurried away but he’d followed, weaving through the crowds and repeating his name, Carlo. He’d reminded me of a mosquito that wouldn’t be brushed off, no matter what I did or said. 

    I’d turned into a piazza and spotted an empty table for one in a busy outdoor restaurant. I’d sat down and taken out a book.

    Carlo had squatted beside me and called over to a waiter who’d immediately brought him a chair. 

    I’d gathered up my things and pushed back my chair. 

    A hand had pressed down firmly on my shoulder, preventing me from rising. 

I’d swung round, shielding my eyes against the sun, to see the silhouette of a man standing over me. The stranger had leant down and brushed his lips past mine, barely touching them. I’d had the fleeting impression of aftershave, chiseled features, dark hair and sunglasses. 

The man had turned on Carlo and delivered a tirade in fluent Italian about the consequences of pestering “mia ragazza.” My girlfriend.

    The Italian had backed away, palms held up. 

    “Join us, please, mademoiselle. You’ll be quite safe having lunch with my parents and me. I’m Serge du Ferrier.” His hand had still been on my shoulder.

    I smiled at the memory. “Serge was very gallant when we met.”

    “He sounded rather arrogant on the telephone earlier,” Aunt Maggie said. “I didn’t like him one bit.”

    “When’s he arriving?” I couldn’t disguise the quaver in my voice.

    “The day after tomorrow. He said something about meeting you on the steps of The Plaza at seven. I suggested picking you up here. A gentleman always collects—”

    “It’s the Seventies, Aunt Maggie! Besides you’re a feminist.”

    “Feminism doesn’t preclude manners. You’ll bring him back for coffee?”

    “So you can grill him? No thanks! Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll go.”

    “Why not?”

    “It’s complicated. I was hoping to have this week to myself.”

    “I can put him off, if you like.”

    I kissed her cheek. “Thanks for a delicious dinner. Do you mind if I turn in now?”

    “No ice cream? I’ve got your—”

    “Thank you, but I’m too tired.”

    She patted my hand. “You know I only have your best interests at heart.”

    “Yes, and I love you for it. And I love being here.” Aunt Maggie’s felt like home to me. She’d delivered me herself—right here, in this kitchen when there hadn’t been time to get Mum to hospital. Perhaps that’s why I trusted her with my secrets—well, most of them.

    “I’ll come up with you and fetch a shoe box to put the woman’s shoe in for safe keeping.”

    I paused in the doorway “So you think it was a vision, not a dream?”

    “It’s just a precaution, dear. You’ve been through more than enough for one day.”

    “Is she dead?”

    Aunt Maggie took my arm and lead me towards the staircase. 

    I stopped and faced her. “Was that her ghost haunting me?” 

    “If the lady has passed over—and I’m not saying she has—you know very well ghosts are just fellow human beings in trouble.” 

© 2021 Paula Robinson

 

Selma by Stéphanie Lecomte
Oil painting by Stéphanie Lecomte for the novel OIL ON CANVAS by Paula Robinson Rossouw. Monochrome oil of man on balcony.

THE WOMAN IN THE PURPLE COAT

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