Asif hadn’t long been friends with Dominic Drever when he made his fateful invitation. They were both in the industry, though they had never worked on anything together. Asif, a film editor, had admired him on screen a while before they met in person – Drever had started out as a stage actor before landing parts in prestigious TV dramas. Lately his name had been creeping higher up the cast list in movies. He was handsome, Dom (as Asif now knew him), with a saturnine streak that made him plausible as a romantic lead or a villain. The one thing he hadn’t yet cracked was comedy, which didn’t seem to play with his faintly humourless demeanour.
One evening Asif was at a party with Jan, his girlfriend, when she squinted over her beaker of rum punch and said, ‘That’s Dominic Drever over there’.
He followed her eyeline across the room, and there indeed he was, in a slim-cut dark suit and a white shirt unbuttoned to his chest. His salt-and-pepper hair was coiffed in a rugged matinee style. A certain glow – the wattage of incipient stardom – came off him, and it struck Asif that even without the cosmetic tricks of the film trade, Drever would be a gorgeous brute. Jan turned to him.
‘You know him, don’t you?’
Asif nodded. ‘Not that well, but… yeah, a bit.’
‘Are you going to say hello?’
It had occurred to him that he might, but now he hesitated. Drever was inevitably attended by a cluster of guests – famous people always attracted a court – and Asif didn’t feel like barging his way in just to swell their number. He also felt self-conscious, being at least six inches shorter than the actor and, though hardly a griffin, about ten times less alluring. The quick grimace he made to Jan was a characteristic expression of his shyness and, perhaps, of his humility. He went off to top up her drink at the bar.
He was waiting to be served when he felt a hand clutch his shoulder. Startled, he turned around to find Dominic Drever right behind him.
Asif smiled and went to offer his hand, but Drever slapped it away and held open his arms. You had to hug a man these days, no matter how slight your acquaintance. It used to be just reality TV stars, luvvies and Americans who locked each other in an embrace. Now it was de rigueur for everyone – your friend, your colleague, the bloke at the dry-cleaners.
‘How are ya?’ cried Drever, eyes ablaze with friendliness.
‘Good, good,’ replied Asif, and reached for his drinks. ‘I was just getting this for my girlfriend –’
‘Oh! Can I meet her?’
Asif led the way, thrilled to have been singled out by his illustrious companion. He felt Drever’s shadow at his back as he dodged through the press of bodies. Jan greeted ‘Dom’ with particular warmth. When it was revealed that she was a nurse Drever confessed he was ‘in awe’ of the NHS.
‘When my lady – she’s here somewhere – was a few weeks premature with our first, the hospital staff were just brilliant. Nothing was too much trouble.’
‘We do our best,’ smiled Jan.
‘You’ve got one, too, haven’t you?’
‘Yeah, a little boy. Tommy. Mad on football – like his dad.’
Drever swung the beam of his grin back to Asif. ‘You take him to the game?’
‘Not yet’, Asif admitted. ‘We go to Regent’s Park for a kickabout. He’s got quite a good left foot.’
Jan was already scrolling through photos on her mobile. She stopped at one and presented the screen to Drever, who drew back his chin in surprise.
‘He’s wearing a Liverpool kit!’
‘Nothing to do with me,’ said Asif. ‘I’m Spurs. He just loves the Scousers.’
Drever let loose a roar of laughter. ‘Oh, mate… My old man said be a Tottenham fan, I said –’. He stopped singing abruptly and put his fist to his mouth. ‘Sorry, Jan.’
‘What are you sorry for?’ asked Jan, nonplussed.
‘It’s a terrace chant,’ explained Asif. ‘The next line goes, I said fuck off bollocks you’re a cunt.’
‘Lovely,’ said Jan. ‘I think he gets a lot of stick at school. They’re all Chelsea or Arsenal.’
‘Character building,’ said Drever, with a wink. He went on to tell them about his own devotion to Crystal Palace, an unfancied club, then as now. He’d once had trials with them as a schoolboy – had been quite a useful defensive midfielder. He confessed that he was in tears when the club let him go. ‘My boyhood dream – up in smoke!’
‘D’you still play?’
‘Not much. The occasional five-a-side.’
‘You should join our Thursday game,’ said Asif.
‘Highlight of his week,’ supplied Jan.
Drever stared at him. ‘Seriously? You play in a league?’
‘No, no, we just play each other, a bunch of us – writers, film people, a few actors. The sort who don’t have real jobs. Seven-a-side, usually. It’s run by Barney Weddle, the producer – d’you know him?’
‘Only by name,’ said Drever, looking thoughtful.
They talked on for a while, mostly about film, before someone else cut in to reclaim Drever’s attention. He was a popular man, and his stardust had to be shared out.
On the tube home Asif and Jan agreed what a terrific guy he was; they were taken with his good manners and his unaffected charm, not like some of the rampant egomaniacs they knew in the business. ‘He seemed so genuine, you know’, said Jan, rather wistfully. ‘I felt sorry for him when he mentioned being dumped by Crystal Palace. D’you think he’d like to join your game?’
‘Not really. He told us himself he’s away a lot filming. He’s at the stage in an actor’s career when everybody wants him – so you work the whole time. Footie on Thursday morning will come quite low in his priorities.’
‘He’s probably a brilliant player as well. Those long legs of his.’
Asif laughed. ‘Listen to you. You must feel hard done by, ending up with a short-arse like me.’
He waited for a response, but Jan was staring off into the middle distance, oblivious, the stardust in her eyes.
Two days later Asif received an email from Dominic Drever, as breezy and amiable in tone as he’d been in person. He made a few wisecracks about the party, and said how much he’d enjoyed meeting ‘your missus’. (Asif briefly imagined Jan’s palpitations on reading that.) One other thing – the message continued – was he serious about Barney Weddle’s Thursday game? If there was any chance, he’d love to come along some time.
They were warming up on the astro pitch hard by Shoreditch High Street station the following Thursday. They would always play to the sound of trains rumbling overhead. Asif could have texted but instead adopted a casual approach, breaking off from a stretch just as Barney was pondering the team sheet.
There was an etiquette about bringing players into the game. Barney, who had taken on the droll sobriquet of ‘gaffer’, exercised a loose security check before admittance. At a practical level, the new recruit couldn’t be too good: most of the current players were in their late thirties, or forties, and a few, like Asif, in their fifties – the footballer’s twilight – so there was no point introducing some ex-pro who’d run rings around them. Conversely, they didn’t want any donkeys slowing up the game with their two left feet and embarrassing them all. But the real test was more to do with character than ability: you had to be a decent sort, you had to pay your subs and, most critically, you had to show up if your name was on the sheet. ‘Flaking – a no-show – was very bad form, and punishable by suspension. Barney succinctly expressed the criterion for membership early on in the game’s formation: ‘We don’t want any wankers.’
Asif himself had never proposed a player before. That his first should be an actor of international renown would probably earn him a modicum of respect. Everyone had heard of Dominic Drever; hardly anyone had played football with him.
‘You’re a friend of his?’ said Barney. Asif shrugged modestly in affirmation. He recounted their recent meeting at the party, careful to mention his schoolboy disappointment with Crystal Palace (he was good, but not great) and his avowal of eagerness on hearing that Barney ran a game.
Barney succinctly expressed the criterion for membership early on in the game’s formation: ‘We don’t want any wankers’
‘I think he’s solid,’ said Asif. ‘Solid’ was team shorthand for ‘all you could expect of a man’.
Barney nodded. ‘OK. Let’s give him a go.’
All eyes were on the new arrival when he turned up at Shoreditch a couple of weeks later. Asif watched nervously as Dominic introduced himself to Barney, and then to one or two of the others. He seemed relaxed among the company, and once they split into teams he quickly learned everyone’s name. Perhaps out of a newcomer’s deference he had a quiet twenty minutes to start before gradually easing himself into the game. To Asif’s private relief Dominic was a proper footballer – he had touch, a good turn of pace and quick feet. Lean and tall, he moved around the pitch with an air of command; once he took up a forward position he proved to be a poacher, and scored a couple of neat goals in the second half.
The following week he was confident enough to indulge in a few tricks – step-overs, nutmegs, even a Cruyff turn. In his mid-thirties he was still fit, and as the other players began to tire he showed his stamina, outpacing defenders and shooting at will. Cries of ‘Nice one, Dom’ and ‘Great feet, Dom’ rang in the air. Asif admired his skills – it was impossible not to – though he wondered if anyone else noticed a peculiarity of Dominic’s game: he didn’t much care to pass the ball. He tended to go on long mazy runs, dribbling at speed, involved in his own fancy footwork even if a teammate was calling for it. It was annoying, this habit, for when a quick pass was needed in a counterattack Dominic would hang on to the ball, dissipating the momentum. Sometimes a senior player would vent his frustration – ‘Needed that quicker, mate’ – but Dominic appeared not to notice. The pitch was his stage, and he strutted on it.
After the game a few players would go to Marco’s cafe across the road for a coffee or (this being Shoreditch) a smashed avocado on sourdough. Dominic had had to dash off for a meeting in town, and Asif found himself breaking bread with Barney and Jeff Tarling, another veteran of the Thursday game. They chatted in a desultory way, conducting the usual post-mortem of that morning’s match. Jeff was a sports journalist in his grizzled mid-fifties, comfortable with his alderman’s paunch. He was respected by the others for his dry, level-headed judgements, which he delivered in a quiet voice, almost from the corner of his mouth. Asif asked him what he thought of Dominic.
‘Pretty good. Plays like an old-fashioned inside forward – good skills, composure…’
‘He’s got a goalscorer’s instinct,’ Barney chipped in. ‘How many did he get today?’
‘Four, I think,’ said Asif. ‘He saw a lot of the ball’.
Jeff gave a wry half-laugh. ‘Didn’t he just. I dunno, maybe it’s because he’s new and wants to impress us, but –’. He paused, seeming to draw back from what he was about to say.
‘But what?’ asked Barney.
‘Well… I get the feeling he regards the game as a one-man show, with us as the support act.’ Jeff lifted his gaze directly at Asif. ‘You couldn’t call him a team player.’
Asif had been thinking the same, but felt duty-bound to offer a defence. ‘With skilful players you often see a pinch of selfishness. You know, taking the shot yourself instead of laying it off.’
Jeff nodded. ‘That’s true, certainly for a striker. But yer man fancies himself as a playmaker too, with his tricks and his dribbling. Good players draw their teammates into the game. They see openings – they spot runs.’
‘In other words,’ said Barney, ‘they know how to pass’.
‘And when to,’ added Jeff.
Asif, feeling slightly got at, said that maybe Dominic would wise up and stop being a show pony once he got used to the game. He cited in support of his argument a few other players who had started out quite selfish before realising the error of their ways. ‘I don’t see Dom keeping this up week in-week out. No one could.’
Barney and Jeff glanced at one another, saying nothing. Asif sipped at his tea and told himself to stop worrying.
The weeks and months raced by, and Dominic rarely missed a game. He did improve his miserly passing rate, a little, and for a while Asif was relieved. But then something much worse – a more disfiguring flaw – became apparent in the new star. Because they played without a proper referee (too expensive), a measure of self-regulation was required on the pitch. Obvious fouls were penalised, though it was scarcely an aggressive sort of game – most of them were old friends, after all. If an occasional squabble broke out it would be quickly resolved; a gentlemanly forbearance held sway. Except that with Dominic it didn’t. When a player dispossessed him of the ball he turned moody, as though the natural order of footballing supremacy had been rudely disrupted. If you risked a strong tackle on him he would throw up his arms and cry foul.
Arguments on the pitch became more frequent, and they nearly always involved Dominic. At first his temperamental flare-ups were treated leniently; he was a film star, so perhaps he wasn’t used to ‘playing nice’. But slowly the tide of opinion began to turn against him. At Marco’s afterwards – a Drever-free zone – Asif listened to the aggrieved mutterings of the others, and knew he had a problem. The guy was a frickin’ psychopath! He was Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast! Jeff, half-smiling, remarked that Dominic seemed to float within his own cordon sanitaire, so reluctant were the other players even to get near him. He said, ‘Second half, nobody put a tackle in on him, did you notice? It’s like he’s playing by himself.’ The trouble came to a head during a game a few weeks later. Dominic, at his showboating zenith, was slaloming through a press of defenders when Asif, late and clumsy, blocked him off – and both of them fell in an untidy heap. An accident, of course, and he had just got to his feet when he found Dominic’s face, clenched with rage, about two inches from his own.
‘What the fuck was that, you fucking –’. There followed a mouthful of expletives so vicious Asif was for a moment reduced to silence. A couple of players stepped in to shield him while Dominic continued his tirade over their placatory murmurs. ‘It was an accident, Dom, that’s all…’ Play eventually resumed, and Asif, shaken, did his best to keep out of his tormentor’s way. At the end of the game, when they all shook hands, Dominic stalked off the pitch without a word to anyone. You could almost see a black cloud hovering above his head. Instead of going down to the changing rooms, where he might run into him, Asif headed straight for Marco’s instead. He felt his hands trembling as he carried his cup of tea to the table.
His faint hope that the incident would be overlooked was extinguished the moment he saw Barney come through the door. His expression reminded him of Lineker’s when he gave the England bench an admonitory eye about Gazza in the Italia ’90 semi-final – this one needs watching.
When a player dispossessed him of the ball he turned moody, as though the natural order of footballing supremacy had been rudely disrupted
He dropped down heavily on the seat across from him. ‘Azz, this guy…’ He shook his head, searching for the words. ‘I mean, he’s a liability. We’ve played this game for, what, going on ten years and never had a fight. This guy comes in and every week it’s like fucking Goodfellas on astro.
Asif grimaced, and shrugged. ‘Yeah but, you know actors…they’re performers, aren’t they? “He’s an ignorant boy. An out-of-date boy”.’
Barney stared at him. ‘Don’t joke. This was a friendly game before Drever arrived. Now everyone’s tense. The fun’s going out of it.’
It was the truth, plainly spoken. ‘What can we do? He obviously wants to play – he’s never flaked.’
‘He’s got to go, Azz.’
‘Right. Will you tell him?’
Barney pulled a face. ‘You know the rule. Your player – your responsibility.’
Asif wasn’t sure he did know that rule, though he saw the expediency behind it. Barney, a film producer, had anticipated the possibility he might one day have professional dealings with Drever; it wouldn’t be wise to make an enemy of a star with box-office potential.
‘We could give him a warning,’ suggested Asif. ‘I dunno – last-chance saloon?’
But he knew even before Barney shook his head that it was a fait accompli. He was on his own with this one.
It so happened that Asif’s workload would oblige him to miss the following Thursday’s game. The inconvenience of having a job was occasionally a hazard to the five-a-side footballing classes. It meant that he had an extra week to ponder – to fret about – his strategy concerning Dominic. The temptation was to do the deed by email and thus avoid an awkward scene.
He had never sacked anyone in his life before, but he knew there was a protocol: it had to be done face-to-face. And was it really a sacking anyway? He was merely asking his friend not to come to the game anymore. To cease and desist. He was disinviting him… did that sound better? He could hardly bear to think about that moment at the party, months ago, when he’d first mentioned the Thursday game to Dominic. A reflex of friendliness had prompted his invitation, when he ought to have been more circumspect. He hadn’t known Dominic for very long, hadn’t suspected the volcanic temper that brooded behind his affable front. This would teach him.
His expression reminded him of Lineker’s when he gave the England bench an admonitory eye about Gazza in the Italia ’90 semi-final – this one needs watching
‘Are you all right?’ Jan asked him on their way to Regent’s Park on a sunny Saturday morning. Tommy, their seven-year-old, ran on ahead of them kicking a ball, commentating under his breath.
‘Slept badly,’ Asif admitted. ‘This thing with Dom –’. He had told her in outline what had happened, though not about his imminent and unenviable duty as team troubleshooter. He hadn’t had a decent night’s kip all week.
Jan turned to him. ‘Honestly, it’s hard to believe a bunch of grown men can get so worked up about kicking a ball around. Just tell him to… calm down!’
Easy for you to say, thought Asif. And there was more to it than kicking a ball around. Football might be a game to the uninitiated, but to those who played it every week it was something else, something formative – a crucible in which character was revealed. It taught you things, this game, like whether you were a team player, or an angry narcissist in need of therapy.
Jan sat on a bench reading the Guardian on her mobile while Asif showed Tommy his keepy-uppy skills; although this morning he couldn’t get past six. His concentration was shot. They passed it around between them. Tommy, in full Liverpool kit, was darting hither and thither like a puppy, and Asif squinted at him for signs of future greatness as a player. He had his mother’s long limbs, which was hopeful, and he kept his eye on the ball, which was vital. But he had a tendency to toe-poke it which Asif kept trying to correct.
‘Tom, use the side of your foot – gives you more accuracy.’ He demonstrated with a sidefooted pass. ‘You stroke the ball, see?’
The boy nodded, and fiercely toe-ended the ball back to him. Asif put his hands on his hips: the double teapot of irritation. ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’
‘Yeah, sorry,’ called Tommy.
The next few passes he obediently sidefooted – and then, forgetting his instruction, toe-poked it wildly again.
‘For God’s sake, Tommy!’ Asif snapped. ‘Are you fucking deaf or something?’
Tommy almost jumped in fright. He stared at his father as if he were a stranger. His head dropped meekly as he hurried off to retrieve the ball.
Asif turned to find Jan looking at him curiously. Shamefaced, he ambled towards her, hands in his pockets.
‘What on earth has got into you?’
He closed his eyes and shook his head. ‘I dunno. Sorry. I’m out of sorts.’
‘I’ll say you are. You swore at him, Azz. For nothing.’
‘I know. And I’ll never fucking do it again, I promise.’
In the distance Tommy had taken the ball on a long run, away from the ogre masquerading as his dad. Asif watched him, a diminutive red blur jinking around. He considered the phrase ‘quick to anger’, and how exhausting it must be to feel that way all the time.
On Tuesday morning Asif was walking through Soho on his way back to the editing suite when he heard his name called. There, on the other side of the street, was Dominic Drever. They had run into one another hereabouts before – Dominic’s production company had an office on Frith Street.
He greeted Asif warmly, and they chatted about work for a minute or two. Dom had just heard that a big American movie he was to star in had fallen through, so he wouldn’t be going to L.A. after all. ‘Still, every cloud…’ he laughed. ‘I’ll be able to play footie for another six months.’ His brilliant smile was fixed. It seemed there would be no mention of his recent tantrum on the pitch. ‘So I’ll see you at Shoreditch on Thursday.’
This was his moment, Asif knew. He had been dithering over where best to break the news to Dom about his expulsion – to meet in a pub or invite him to the flat. Neither had much appeal. Now providence had taken the dilemma out of his hands. He would never have a better opportunity to tell him, with Soho’s hurly-burly his escape route.
‘I’ve got news on that front,’ he began, and watched as Dominic’s guileless expression narrowed with interest. ‘I’m afraid… I’ll be out for the foreseeable future. An old knee injury. I’m gutted.’
‘Oh, mate,’ said Dominic, tilting his head. ‘What a bummer. You tried physio?’
‘I’ve tried everything,’ Asif said, almost too sick to speak. He glanced at his watch, and said he had to be off. They shook hands, and he hurried away.
He had lost his nerve – had ducked his responsibility. Worse than that, he had just sacrificed the highlight of his week.
He emailed Barney to say that his knee problem had flared up again. There came a tersely sympathetic reply (‘sorry to hear it. B.’) and Asif guessed that his ‘injury’ had been suspected for the avoidance tactic it was. In truth, he felt too sore with misery and self-disgust to care what Barney thought. The Thursday game had been his mainstay for almost ten years, and now it was gone.
Winter came, and he stood shivering in his duffel coat watching Tommy at school matches, shouting encouragement alongside the other parents. He was a good little player, and Asif felt a swell of pride that all those afternoons of coaching in the park had perhaps made a scintilla of difference to Tommy’s development. His old man had tried his best; he had passed on his enthusiasm for the game; too bad the kid would be a Liverpool fan for the rest of his life. It was through one of the touchline dads that he discovered another five-a-side game, in Clerkenwell. The standard wasn’t great, the players were mostly strangers, and the evening kick-off was inconvenient if Jan happened to be working nights. But it was footie, and they usually got through ninety minutes without any aggro.
He was in the changing room on one such evening, emptying his boots of the tiny black astro pellets (the bastards got everywhere) when players from another game began flocking in. Asif, oblivious to them, was suddenly startled by a familiar voice.
‘Didn’t expect to see you here, Azz.’
He looked up to see Jeff Tarling, with an ambiguous smile on his face. Asif tried not to show his embarrassment, but it was tough.
‘Still playing Thursdays?’ he asked.
‘For sure. Recruited a few younger lads recently – keeping up the numbers, you know.’ His gaze narrowed for a moment. ‘But listen, I was told you were injured, big time. Knee ligaments, wasn’t it?’
Asif swallowed, his barefaced lie confronting him. ‘Yeah, yeah… I’m trying to ease myself back in… It’s a slower sort of game here.’
Jeff nodded, but there was something unconvinced in his expression. He and Barney would have had a view about the timing of Asif’s injury, in the very week he was due to give Dominic his marching orders. But Jeff was too much of a gentleman to press his old teammate for an explanation. They talked on for a while, exchanging gossip. Jeff’s newspaper had just made him redundant – the writing had been on the wall.
‘So I’ve taken up epic poetry instead,’ Jeff deadpanned. ‘My first collection’s gonna be titled The Rime of the Ancient Midfielder.’
Asif took a breath and put the question he’d been longing to ask. ‘Dominic still playing?’
Jeff returned a shrewd smile, and shook his head. ‘Barney got rid of him a couple of months after you – got injured. Nobody could stand him anymore.’
‘Right. That’s interesting…’
‘He always seemed quite a nice bloke, off the pitch,’ Jeff conceded. ‘But this game – it tends to find you out. Something was wrong up here.’ He tapped the side of his head.
‘It was my fault,’ said Asif. ‘I wish I’d never –’.
‘You weren’t to know. Maybe now you’re on the mend you should think about Shoreditch again…’
He felt too sore with misery and self-disgust to care what Barney thought. The Thursday game had been his mainstay for almost ten years, and now it was gone
Jeff was being kind, and had possibly given him the benefit of the doubt. But Asif knew there would be no comeback. Even if Barney absolved him, his own conscience never would.
A year flitted by, as vanishingly as an afternoon. Asif was at a private screening room in D’Arblay Street, waiting for a film he had just cut to be shown. The projectionist was late, so there would be a delay. He took a seat in the foyer and started leafing through Variety. He had been in demand of late, which may have reflected the quality of his work. Either that or his fees were too reasonable.
Another screening had just finished, and he looked up in time to see a small knot of people emerge from the room. One of them was Dominic Drever, prosperously tanned and stubbled. Asif had last spotted his face on the side of a bus advertising a sci-fi blockbuster, which he remembered specifically not going to see. He dipped his head to scrutinise Variety, its pages suddenly very absorbing to him. He could hear Drever’s voice lift across the room, and kept as low as he dared.
‘Azz! Wotcha, mate.’
Asif looked up, feigned surprise, rose to his feet. Dominic, all smiles, was quickly upon him with a hug. Asif had never known anyone better at projecting immediate and overwhelming geniality. It was as though the man had actually missed him. What had he been doing? Where had he been working? They had a lot of catching up ahead, and with the projectionist still missing, all the time in the world to do it.
‘You still playing footie?’ Dominic asked him.
‘A bit. An evening game at Clerkenwell, mostly old guys like me. What about you?’
My old man said be a Tottenham fan…
The brightness of his grin momentarily dimmed. ‘Well, I got fed up with the game at Shoreditch. Barney and me never saw eye to eye, so I quit. Since then I’ve been in L.A. a lot. Got to earn a crust!’
… I said fuck off bollocks you’re a cunt.
‘Right. Well, it’s good to see you again…’
‘Yeah, likewise,’ said Dominic. ‘Last time we talked you were injured, I think?’
Asif nodded, yes, a dodgy knee. But it was holding steady at the moment.
‘God, I do miss footie when I’m working. There’s an expat game in L.A. but it’s not up to much.’
‘It’s great that you’re in demand,’ said Asif, wondering if the projectionist had arrived yet.
‘S’true. But I miss London whenever I’m out there – I can’t help it…’
Fuck off bollocks you’re a cunt.
Dominic wasn’t finished. ‘So, Clerkenwell, you say. D’you think they’re looking for fresh talent?’
Asif shrugged. ‘I dunno. It’s not my game. I hardly know anyone there.’
There was a pause as Dominic looked away, considering. He scratched his ear, Method-style. ‘But you think you could put in a word for me?’
Fuck off bollocks you’re a cunt.
Fuck off bollocks you’re a cunt.
Asif stuck out his lip speculatively. ‘I could have a word, yeah. I’ll tell them all about you.’
Anthony Quinn’s latest novel, Our Friends in Berlin, is published by Jonathan Cape
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