1: Cornwall: Equilibrium

One would think that lighthouses must be particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. The mind’s eye sees a tower sway, sees cracks appearing in the brickwork as the structure twists like a wrung towel. Glass arches through the air, the reflector in perfect, glittering flight until it explodes on the rocks beneath as the tower shivers and falls, the land discarding buildings as a woman shrugs off a shawl. The waves below run the wrong way because the Pacific Ocean itself is disturbed by upheavals in the ground on which it lies.

But one would be wrong. If correctly built, tall, columnar structures do not magnify but counteract seismic activity. Unlike the long, low buildings in which people tend to live, towers can be made to bend rather than break; it is already known, after all, that the best lighthouses are the more responsive to wind and waves. The base must move with the ground on which it stands, but with good masonry, the top, the light itself, can be a still point, axis and anchor. There is, writes Richard Henry Brunton, who built thirty-seven lighthouses in Japan in eight years, ‘a double motion in all shocks, the first movement tending to overthrow, while the second tends to restore to equilibrium’. All that is required, then, is to ensure that oscillation does not exceed the limit of equilibrium, or, in other words, that the tower’s weight is so arranged as to counteract that first shock.

Tom closes The Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Brunton does not like the Japanese. They lie, he says, sometimes because it is the easiest way of getting what they want and sometimes for no discernible reason. They are characterized by ‘complete indifference to time and to the exigencies of circumstance’. They imprison and enslave their women, and have no idea what to do with a cruet. He wonders if Brunton knew what to do with the Japanese equivalent, whatever it might be.

He hears the front gate click, and stands, cranes forward, to see Ally cross the garden. She is foreshortened by the height of his upstairs window, abbreviated to hat, skirt and basket. The basket drags on her arm; the boats must have come in. A seagull, sentinel on the roof of Greenbank House, announces her return, and is answered from the chimney of Symond’s Hill and the ridgepole of Penwerris House. If he dies out there, he sometimes thinks, if his ship founders in the Bay of Biscay or off the Horn, the seagulls will cry his passing here weeks before the messenger comes up the path. The front door closes quietly. Trained in her father’s house, Ally is scrupulous not to disturb his work. He will go down to her; better to spend time with his new wife than in such morbid fantasies.

 

2: Tokyo: Overthrow

The screens are open a few inches and in the gap is outside, a stripe of leaves and bark and rain between the paper windows. The leaves, some in red lace as well as a variety of fleshy greens, bounce like struck cymbals as the raindrops hit them. As well as the patter of rain there is the chiming of running water, which must come from the bamboo gutters he noticed earlier, or perhaps there is a fountain out there. He reaches out to open the screen, hesitates. The taut paper looks fragile. She, whose name he could not say even if he had heard it clearly, probably set her windows just as she wants them. He puts his eye to the gap instead, a child peering into a room he is not allowed to enter, a servant at the keyhole. It is a kind of garden. His eye measures the spaces between wavering branches and crouching rocks, notes how the curves of the gravel path pull the beholder into the intricacy of green shadows under the bushes. No flowers, or flowerbeds. No straight lines, but a garden nevertheless. He feels a gaze on his back, and she is standing there, in her slippers. He will have to get used to that, to the way these buildings are silent about their occupants’ movements. You can see everything at once, if you keep looking, but if you’re not looking you won’t hear anything until it’s too late.

She kneels and bows her head almost to the floor, as if pretending he’s one of her idols. His knees creak and his trousers tighten across his thighs as he reciprocates: even if it is incorrect, he hopes that mimicry at least suggests the right intentions. Her hair stays in perfect place. All the women’s hair is blue-black, the colour of bad bruises, and it all looks cold to the touch. He straightens up. His knees hurt. They practise these postures, he has read, from infancy, but even so he does not see how a human body can remain so folded without damage. Muscles, bones and vasculature are surely the same everywhere?

She murmurs and sits back on her heels, gestures. Food? Are there mealtimes in Japan? There was a drink that seemed a little like both coffee and tea when he awoke, and a bowl of sticky rice and some kind of clear soup. When the student who is to be his guide arrives, he will ask. Tell me from the beginning, he will say. Take me for a savage, for a child raised by wolves, and tell me how to wake and sleep, to empty my bladder and bowels, to bathe. Tell me what to eat and when and how, and in return I will advise you on the building of lighthouses. It does not seem much of a bargain. At least he has still his own clothes. She smiles at him, rises smoothly to her feet, and leaves, silent as a cat. He has no idea what is happening, but he seems to have succeeded in his present ambition, which is not to give offence. He does not know when the student will arrive; Makoto will call on you tomorrow, he was told. He would like to go out, begin to feel Japan under his feet and smell its air and hear its birdsong and the wind in its leaves. He is hungry. He lowers himself onto one of the square cushions on the floor and takes out Fulham’s Structural Engineering, his prize copy inscribed by Professor Fulham himself. For now, he must wait. He waits.

The light in the room has changed by the time she comes back. He wonders what she has been doing while he read. She carries a tray, black lacquer on the inside with tongue-and-groove boxed corners in polished bamboo on the outside, and in it there are upturned cups and bowls. She sinks to her knees and the tray remains horizontal. She positions it on the table from which he hastily removes Fulham. She speaks, gestures towards the door. There are two empty bowls, or handleless cups. Makoto?

To Tom’s relief, Makoto is wearing a suit, with a bowler hat over his short hair, and as Tom scrambles to his feet Makoto holds out his hand to shake.

‘Mr Cavendish. How do you do.’

Makoto bows as they shake, his grasp firm.

‘How do you do. Mr Makoto?’

Is Makoto a Christian or surname?

‘How was your voyage?’

Just as if we were meeting in London, Tom thinks. Makoto’s English has odd stresses and elisions, as if he were singing the words of one song to the tune of another, but it is entirely orthodox.

‘I enjoyed it. You are recently returned from England yourself?’

Makoto bows again. ‘From Scotland. Ah, you are reading Fulham? I was honoured to meet him.’

Foolish to be startled. He knew that Makoto had been in Britain to study.

‘He taught me. We correspond. He advised me to come here.’

‘He is a great man. I was most honoured.’

Honoured, Tom thinks, a word he encounters repeatedly in all he has read about Japan. Does it always translate the same Japanese words, or do the Japanese have as many refinements of obligation as the Eskimos do of snow? The woman, who has stood like a servant in the corner, steps forward, bows and speaks, and this time Tom knows that he is being asked to sit down and take tea.

 

3: Tokyo: Oscillation

Tom shuffles his papers together, looks up. He doesn’t need notes for these last few sentences. ‘And so, it would seem that the experience of the last five years, since Mr Brunton’s return to England, confirms his hypothesis that dioptric apparatus is as little liable to derangement from earthquakes as catoptric. Mr Stevenson, in other words, was mistaken: an earthquake shock loses intensity as it passes through the foundation towards the summit of a structure; as ever, the destruction we should fear results from the downward movement following the initial upheaval.’

The difficulty is to make a light that revolves when the earth is placid and does not skid and fall when it is not. Brunton, believing that the Japanese were not then capable of the manufacture and maintenance of such equipment, placed fixed lights in the Inland Sea and wherever the lights were, they were for the protection of Japanese shipping only. Only the ocean lights required by the treaty powers, for the safety of British, American, Russian and Dutch shipping, were fitted with revolving lights. Now, with a handful of Japanese engineers trained in England and Scotland and several years of British and American teachers in the new Japanese universities, there are to be the latest revolving lights across Japan. And they are to be installed and maintained by Japanese engineers, for Japan is not, as the director of Tom’s company remarked, India or Africa. Japan is going to catch up with Europe. Japan wants the same things as England and France, or better, not simplified colonial versions, and very soon the Japanese will be capable of conceiving, designing and building their own technologies based on the latest European developments. This knowledge is to be added to and not permitted to replace centuries of Japanese learning. Tom is only a regrettable necessity.

‘You are hungry?’ asks Makoto. The students are filing out of the room. No one seems to want to speak to him, to ask a question or argue a point. He remembers the crowd around Professor Fulham in Aberdeen, but Sir, didn’t you say last week? Professor, if you could spare me a moment? He is not Professor Fulham. And he is hungry.

He is foolishly surprised to find that darkness fell while he was speaking. The rain has stopped and the night air smells newly washed. The red paper lanterns hanging from the awnings of shops and restaurants are reflected in the wet cobbles underfoot, and above them the paper windows glow like lightshades, some showing the puppet-theatre of shadows cast from inside. Between the houses, trees stand black against the dark sky, and from nearby a temple gong sounds. Here I am, he thinks, here, in Japan. He hurries to catch up with Makoto.

‘Mr Makoto? Did the lecture go well, do you think? I found it hard to know if I was understood.’

He can’t see Makoto’s face but his pace checks a moment. Perhaps this is the wrong question, perhaps he insults the students by asking.

‘It was very good. We were honoured to hear you.’

Damn. Perhaps a more specific question will elicit a more specific answer.

‘Did the students understand my English?’

‘They are most grateful for the opportunity. For your presence.’

There must be a way through this wall of politeness. There must be a way for a Japanese person to say, at least to another Japanese person, it would be better if you spoke more slowly at the beginning, or, you did not need to spend so long on trigonometry. Or I love you, or I hate you, or I want to go to bed with you. He guesses it would take years to learn.

‘I was happy to be able to address them,’ he says. ‘I hope my lecture will be of use.’

Without stopping his walk, Makoto bows, and Tom finds himself bowing back. Like a chicken, he thinks, peck peck.

He, who at home is a compulsive reader of maps and carrier of compasses, enjoys following Makoto around this city, trustful as a child at his mother’s skirt. He could not find his way home, could not ask directions or read street signs. It is an oddly pleasurable state of affairs.

‘You would like to eat fish?’ asks Makoto. ‘Or you prefer noodles?’

He has no preference, no will. Feed me, he thinks. He remembers the slurping of noodles.

‘Fish, I think, please.’

The streets are busier here. Although most of the men he’s meeting, engineers and lecturers, wear European clothes, on the streets almost all the women and most of the men are in Japanese dress. Their geta, raised clogs fastened by a strap around the big toe, clop like coconuts along the pavement. The wind sways the red lanterns and flaps in the robes of passers-by. It is too dark to see colours properly, but by daylight the women wear gorgeous reds and yellows rarely seen at home and the men are in sky blue, azure, indigo and black, often with white patterns and insignia on the backs. Family crests, says Makoto, or sometimes professional affiliations, like your ties and signet rings. Tom would like to try a suit of Japanese clothes, see if they make him sit differently in his body. He doubts he could walk in geta and socks with split toes but he would like to try.

Makoto stops. ‘Here, please.’

A split curtain, blue with a white cow parsley design, hangs down to waist height in the doorway. Is there cow parsley in Japan? These curtains, he thinks, blind the incomer, whose lower half can be seen while his own view is blocked. Blocked beautifully, but blocked. Makoto goes first, the curtain closing behind him as if he’s been swallowed. A faint yellow light shines through the gap. Tom takes a last breath of the evening air and follows.

There is a dim space with bare earth on the ground and close wooden walls inside. The paper screens dividing this atrium from the main house glow. Shōji, he thinks. It is no wonder Japanese houses are always catching fire, with all this wood and paper and soft candlelight. It is like living in a lantern. Brunton tried to introduce brick for this reason. Makoto has slipped off his shoes and stepped onto the wooden platform: you must remove your shoes before setting foot on the wooden floor but you may not set an unshod foot on the earth. Then there will be slippers, which must be removed before stepping on a straw mat and, without placing a foot on the floor, exchanged for different slippers as one steps across the threshold of the bathroom. It’s easy, says Makoto, our houses are divided by steps, and each time you come to a step you turn and step out of your shoes. Makoto has not spoken of it, but Tom thinks he can imagine the horror Makoto must have felt at the British habit of wandering around carpeted floors in street shoes, especially given what is to be found, what it is hard to avoid finding, on British pavements. Makoto’s experience of British cities, it occurs to him, was probably in some ways similar to the English view of much of Africa: a place where heathens live in filth. Only with trains, and lighthouses.

A shadow looms up the screen, and then it slides open. A man who must be the proprietor, in an indigo robe and wide trousers, bows. Makoto and Tom bow. The proprietor says something and looks at Tom, something that was probably more like ‘what does he eat?’ than ‘we don’t want the likes of him in here.’ Tom smiles and bows. He will ask Makoto to teach him Japanese, he will take a more systematic approach than learning to parrot phrases for ‘thank you’ and ‘good bye.’ Makoto replies and the man smiles and leads them past a staircase and through another split curtain, into a room where people seated in groups around low tables fall silent as they pass. At two of the tables there are women, Tom notes. His books say that respectable Japanese women do not enter restaurants, directing suspicion towards those who do. The proprietor stands by a table in an alcove and bows. Makoto folds himself to the floor like a wooden puppet while Tom leans down and braces his weight on one arm and tries to hitch his trousers with the other hand while tucking his creaking knees into position. He is not yet thirty, he reminds himself. There is no need to behave like an old man. A woman in a pink kimono, her folded sash riding like a rucksack in the small of her back, brings beer, and then small confections of raw fish and rice, pretty as sweetmeats and much more palatable than the descriptions in his books had led Tom to expect. More beer. Makoto speaks of Japanese infrastructure, of the building of railways and the rise in passenger traffic. Tom looks around him; it seems incongruous that women in handmade silk robes and families living in houses without furniture should travel on trains.

He sips his beer, looking over the question he wants to ask for possible offence. ‘Do the country people not object to the coming of the trains?’

Makoto turns his glass a quarter-circle.

‘In England there were great difficulties made over the purchase of land,’ Tom explains. ‘And there are still those in more remote districts who will say that the railways have done more harm than good. In introducing London ways to the countryside, for example, or encouraging young people to leave the land. There must be such traditional views here also?’

Makoto’s face has closed. ‘In Japan we are all working for progress. The railways create markets, not just for pleasure trips.’

Damn. He has done it again. ‘I know, Makoto. It is a most impressive achievement, especially in such mountainous terrain, and the speed of progress is greater than anything seen in Europe. I was thinking only that such rapid change can sometimes be difficult for – for older people.’

The waitress brings more dishes, two whole fish whose silver scales glimmer under the batter in which they have been fried and two exquisite arrangements of yellow and green substances cut into geometric shapes and presented in octagonal white bowls. Vegetables?

Makoto nods. ‘For some, perhaps. Our grandfathers have long memories, and some hold to the old ways. My own grandmother will not use Western medicines. But our Emperor, you know, is a sacred person, and his restoration now happily beyond question.’

Ah, Tom thinks, that was it. A question about progress is also a question about the wisdom of Emperor Meiji, and those who express a preference for the traditions of earlier generations are also expressing a preference, perhaps a treasonous preference, for the power of the shoguns and the samurai. Maybe. Or maybe Makoto thought he was implying that Japan is backward or maybe Makoto was responding to something quite different, to Tom’s posture or the way he tries to use chopsticks. Again, he has the feeling of glancing down to find a crevasse at his feet, or perhaps of the solid ground on which we stand beginning to shake.

‘Happily so,’ Tom says. ‘Tell me, are the railway tunnels built by boring or digging? There must be great works on hand in the mountains.’

Makoto tells him about tunnels, and about the new railway and tram bridges. Tom is waiting to describe Brunel’s great bridge across the Tamar, until he drops fish in his lap, or at least, onto the numb feet folded under his thighs.

‘You wish for a spoon?’

Tom shakes his head, and then remembers that this may not mean the same thing in Japan. ‘Thank you, no. I wish to learn to eat Japanese food the Japanese way.’

Makoto’s face flickers. ‘And perhaps you will take chopsticks home to your wife.’

To Ally, with her long fingers and surgeon’s hands. As he learnt not to think about Mother when he was away at school, so he has been not thinking about Ally. But she would probably be rather competent with chopsticks.

Makoto carries his own chopsticks in a lacquer case.

‘Yours are very fine. She would admire such a set.’

 

4: Tokyo: The limit of equilibrium

The jinricksha man pulls the canopy forward to keep him shaded before they set off. The man is older than Tom, wearing only a loincloth and so thin that his bones and musculature remind Tom of the drawings in Ally’s anatomy books. As he begins to pull, even the cords – tendons – fastening muscle to bone stand out. The wheels rattle and bounce on the cobbled lane. They need springs, Tom thinks, and more than that they need horses or donkeys or teams of dogs, anything less stark than one man pulling another through the streets. The contraption reminds him of a perambulator in reverse, and although the passenger is in theory master, he feels sometimes like a frustrated child being carried too fast past things he would like to see and too slowly when his blood fizzes with energy and his muscles long to work. There is no reason why another man, an older and poorer man, should move two bodies around the streets. There must – or at least there might – be some inoffensive way of explaining to Makoto that he simply likes to walk. Although more probably anything he might say would be a slight, to Makoto who arranges the jinrickshas or to the Japanese Department of Public Works that pays for them or even to the Emperor who probably approved the import of the idea from India. In Japan a man cannot sneeze without giving offence. A group of children notice him and run alongside the man, shouting. Foreigner, devil, what a stink.

Next week is meant to be the first day of autumn when, Makoto says, women and country people will assume autumn clothes regardless of the weather. Tom is hotter than he has ever been, hotter, it seems (though cannot logically be) than in Singapore. He fingers the fan Makoto has given him, made of some kind of shiny paper with the fossils of leaves in it. Merely a tool for a job, he thinks, and plenty of men here use fans, but he would feel a fool, a foreign man being wheeled about in a giant perambulator fanning himself, and anyway the air is so damp that the effort of waving the fan would probably generate more heat than its draft would alleviate. It will be cooler at sea, and when they reach the island they are to stay in a house on the shore. Tom will rise early, he thinks, and perhaps swim before the day’s work begins. He imagines the waves tugging at his knees, soothing the heat rash behind the joint, slapping around his white belly and then lifting him so he can look back at the land, at Japan, from water that may eventually surge onto the sand at Gyllyngvase.

They pass the last bridge over the widening river and there are the docks, the buildings without depth under the midday sun, pale stone too bright for English eyes, and the sea a mirror for the white sky.

 

5: Izu Ōshima: Tending to restore

Despite the tightly shuttered windows, despite feeling unable to use his alarm clock in a place where only paper screens divide one sleeper from another, Tom manages to wake early. Kneeling on his futon, feeling with his fingers to edge back the screen and then the shutter to hold his watch to a spilt teaspoon of grey light in the blacked-out room, he sees that it is five o’clock. If he can move quietly enough, he has an hour and a half to himself after three days of sharing a cabin with Makoto and three weeks, now, in which there have been periods of a few hours when he cannot see another person but no time at all in which he cannot both hear and be heard. Europeans do not know, he thinks, that there is a form of solitude for each sense, nor what a luxury it is to have all five every night. Not, of course, that he does not look forward to sharing his nights with Ally, but it has already occurred to him more than once that a part of the art of marriage must be to learn to see solitude in its double form.

He left his clothes arranged in order on the floor beside him last night, to make this easier. He sits on the edge of the futon to take off his pyjamas, and locates his drawers and the drawstring at the front of his drawers, trousers and their buttons, socks. Undershirt and then shirt. His hand knocks against the screen’s wooden strut as he reaches through the sleeve and the heavy breathing, Makoto’s breathing, on the other side pauses. He must be sleeping right against the screen. Tom holds his breath and Makoto grunts, settles.

In the porch, shoes back on his feet at last, he can’t move the sliding front door. It rocks a little but won’t shift and suddenly he wants to kick it, put his big white fist through a paper wall: must it be so hard for a grown man to take a walk before breakfast? He steps back, drops his shoulders. The door is only bolted, an ingenious arrangement that would indeed make it impossible to open from the outside but perfectly straightforward from here. He thinks again about Makoto making the opposite journey, learning that there are other ways of opening and closing doors, of putting food in one’s mouth, of urinating and defecating. It is no wonder the Japanese are so keen on European engineering and medicine; the laws of physics and biology seem to be the only constants between nations and even then, Makoto has assured him, in many cases Japanese medicines work well on Japanese bodies. Supporting as much of the door’s weight between his fingers as he can lest it squeak or rumble, Tom closes it and finds himself at last alone.

The sun has risen behind the hill, but the forest around the house is still in deep shade, and the grass heavy with dew. Nothing is awake, he thinks, hearing only trees breathing in the wind and behind them, the slow heartbeat of the Japan Sea, but as he moves away from the house, as the woods close around him, a bird calls above his head, and then another answers. Although he means to walk, even to swim, he stands still as a spy while the forest resumes its conversation: more bird-talk, high in the canopy and at his own height in the undergrowth, something small rustling near at hand and something bigger further away. As the sunlight strengthens in the leaves, mist rises from the damp earth. There is a drift of something spicy in the morning air, something like cinnamon or nutmeg, and the suggestion of heavy flowers. Lilies or orchids, funeral flowers that don’t grow outside in England. The forest floor is blanketed with last year’s half-composted leaves and a lattice of fallen branches interwoven with shrubs and a plant like a bramble. Tom picks his way over to a pathway leading inland, uphill.

Threading through the trees, the path is barely wide enough for one person and it winds so he can’t see more than a few tree trunks ahead. He wanted a vista, somewhere to stand back and take a wider view, but this is like pushing through hundreds of the half-curtains, his gaze repeatedly veiled. Still, someone has made a path so it must lead to something, and since it continues up hill there may be a summit, an achievement. He speeds up, feels a flush of sweat across his back and tightening in his thighs. Good. The bamboo leans over the path, meets above his head, and dark fronds reach down to brush his face. If it gets much narrower, he thinks, he will have to turn back, but he knows he won’t. And then over the drumming of blood in his ears and the hiss of bamboo leaves, he hears a more purposeful sound. There is someone else, or something else, moving on the hillside, something that pushes through vegetation. He stops. He had forgotten that there are bears. We always carry a bell, Makoto said, because bears prefer to avoid humans unless they are starving or the human is near a cub but they will attack if they are surprised. The creature is getting nearer. He should shout, he supposes, or sing, but the instinct to hide is too strong. Tom freezes, barely breathing, willing his heart itself to beat more softly. The bamboo beside the path ahead bows and waves wildly, and then the bear (or boar, or wolf, or maybe person) stops also. Perhaps it can hear his respiration, his circulation, the seep of sweat in his pores and the shedding of dust from his skin. Perhaps it can smell him. They wait, Tom and the other. They breathe, listen. And then the bamboo flattens and he catches – maybe – a glimpse of a dark flank as the thing lumbers away. He leans on the green canes, breathing loud now and fast, black blood bounding behind his eyes. His vision blurs, but perhaps it was just a monkey, a Japanese macaque, or a badger. (are there badgers in Japan?) He is unhurt, anyway, well and strong and alone on a hillside in Japan. After a moment, hearing the birdsong again and the bamboo sighing in the breeze, he continues, as if the creature’s turning away were a kind of acceptance, as if it is all right for him to be here now.

The bamboo ends, and now he can see down through the trees, and up through more trees. There is nothing else out and about, nothing bigger than the woodpecker working somewhere nearby, and sunlight is filtering down to the flaky mulch on the ground, picking out the paler brown leaves, still intact, and further down, the filigree skeletons from last year. He crosses the curve of the hill, the sun warm on his shoulders, to steps that lead up through the wood, stone steps so high that sometimes he has to brace his hands on his knee to pull himself up. They go on, up out of sight, and he follows although it is really time, high time, he was turning back to the house and Makoto and the day’s work.

There are a hundred and five, or maybe four, steps, and over the last few stand wooden arches like the letter pi. He comes panting, red faced, into a clearing, and is on top of the hill, looking down over the treetops towards the house, whose shutters are now open, and the beach where turquoise waves spread themselves on white sand, and the headland where the waves are darker and bounce glistening against the cliff and from the rocks that now, at low tide, are plain to see, at least by daylight and on a clear day. Stone figures stand around Tom, and in the centre of the clearing there is a wooden building with an open veranda. He approaches the sculptures. The further ones are no more than slabs of rock set on end, rounded and smoothed by years of wind and rain, but in this company their curves suggest shoulders, waists. The nearer figures have stone draperies, or perhaps a form of armour, headdresses shaped like bishops’ mitres and snarling, caricature expressions on their stone faces. Someone has tied cloths around the necks of several, apparently at intervals over many months because some are wisps and rags where others are only tattered and faded. It is a considerable act of faith, he thinks, to carry such stones through the forest and up a hundred stairs. He imagines women climbing up here to give scarves and bibs to these idols, priests struggling through winter weather to conduct ceremonies here where the outline of the whole island is laid out. He takes the clean handkerchief from his pocket, one of the ones on which his mother embroidered his initials when he first went to the university, bows to one of the scowling gods and knots the linen square firmly around its neck. He resists the urge to back away from their presence as he leaves the temple.

 

The above is an excerpt from Sarah Moss’s novel, The Fox Gods, the sequel to Bodies of Light

Photograph © Fernando Kokubun

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