The Industry of Souls: A Novel

The Industry of Souls: A Novel

by Martin Booth

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The Industry of Souls is the story of Alexander Bayliss, a British citizen who was wrongfully arrested for espionage by the KGB in the 1950s and sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in the work camps of Siberia. Eventually freed in the 1970s, he decides not to return to the West--a world he barely remembers and to which he no longer belongs--and instead finds his way to a small Russian village where he becomes a much beloved schoolmaster.

Now, on the day of his eightieth birthday, communism has evaporated and Russia is changed. This moving story alternates between this momentous day to his harrowing past in the camp and his life in the village. And in the end, he is presented with a choice, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Martin Booth's brilliantly crafted novel is a celebration of life in the face of death, of humanity in the midst of a system that robs men of their dignity. It stands as a mature and profound exploration of the meaning and the essence of human friendship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466843592
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/10/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 569,831
File size: 304 KB

About the Author

This is MARTIN BOOTH's twelfth adult novel. His most recent nonfiction books include The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Opium: A History. An inveterate traveler, Martin Booth frequently broadcasts for the BBC.

Martin Booth (1944-2004) was the bestselling author of novels including Hiroshima Joe, Islands of Silence, and The Industry of Souls, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Another novel, A Very Private Gentlemen, was adapted into the 2010 movie, The American, starring George Clooney. He also wrote several nonfiction books, including Cannabis: A History, Opium: A History, and the memoir Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. Booth was born in England, but spent much of his childhood in Hong Kong, a location that would deeply inspire his writing. He moved back to England at the age of 20, and started his literary career as a poet. He worked as a schoolmaster, a job he held until 1985, when the success of Hiroshima Joe allowed him to devote himself full-time to his writing. At the time of his death in 2004, he was living in Devon, England.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    It was only this morning and yet it seems much longer ago. I might have lived a week since dawn.

    Perhaps it is that, in my dotage, the god who controls time has seen fit to play the fool with me either by inexorably slowing down the clock or awarding me more hours than he does my fellow man, more than are my fair due. Perhaps the truth is that he is a sympathetic god who knew that, today of all days, I needed more time.

    I woke as I always do, just after six, regardless of whether the summer sun is up and the birds contesting the day, or it is still night with the land clutched in winter's Arctic fist, and lay quite still. Usually, this is a quiet time when I empty the jug of my mind in readiness for whatever the coming day may pour into it. Yet, this morning, I came to consciousness with an inch or two of life's murky liquid already sloshing about in the bottom, and remained in my bed cogitating upon it: it had already occupied some sleepless hours of the night.

    Eventually, there came the inevitable knock upon the door, quiet but assertive. From its insistence, I could tell the sound was Frosya's knuckles playing upon the bare vertical planks. Through the crack that appears a few centimetres to the left of the middle hinge every summer, when the air is dry, the sky is a washed lazy blue the colour of ducks' eggs and the little house breathes, I could see her shadow. I cannot be sure but, on occasion, I think she tries to peer through the crack.

'Shurik!' she called, her voice not much above a half-whisper. 'Shurik! Eight o'clock.It's time to wake up.'

    Shurik. That is her pet name for me and has been since the very start, since the tide of time cast me onto the beach of her life and left me stranded there.

    She must know I am already awake when she comes for me every morning. I am sure she is aware of the fact that the habits of half a life-time are far too ingrained in me to change and that I have long since been awake. Yet, as I do every day, I did not let on for this is a part of our daily routine, the teasing little game I play with her.


    Her voice took on a sudden, slight yet discernible tension. I knew what she was thinking. It was the thought which passes through her head every morning these days, that I will not answer and she, lifting the latch, will come into my room to discover me stiff, cold and no longer giving a damn.


    She was a little louder, my name tinged with the fear which was momentarily lingering in her heart. If my hearing was better, I'm sure I would have picked up her pulse as it accelerated with her apprehension.

    'Yes,' I replied at last, the game having reached its climax. 'Good morning.'


    Her anxiety vanished: her pulse was slowing and there was a hint of chastisement in her words.

    'It's time to open your shutters.'

    As I heard her steps retreat across the floorboards, changing pitch as she went out onto the porch, I wondered if, by shutters, she meant my eyelids or the aluminium panels Trofim fashioned and put up last autumn to cover the window, replacing the iron ones which had rusted. After a few moments, the musical tumble of water pouring from the spout of her kettle reached me.

    I swung my legs over the edge of my bed, feeling for the floor with my toes and careful not to catch the loose skin on the back of my thighs between the mattress and the raised wooden rim of the frame. There is so much loose skin on me these days: I am forever watching out not to nick it.

    Every morning, as I perch on the edge of the bed like an old turkey, with my wattles hanging loose around me, I take stock of all I am, all I have to show for my timeless journey upon this earth.

    The bed is not mine: nor is the little table bearing my steel fountain pen and a sheaf of paper, the upright chair and the wooden chest under the window. The cushion embroidered with a tapestry butterfly on the chair is mine as are my steel-framed spectacles and the row of books on the shelf. The shelf, however, is not mine. The oil lamp with the smoke-stained glass chimney which I use when the electricity fails, the small framed photograph hanging from a nail in the wall above my books and, of course, my clothing which I keep in the chest, belong to me. However, the tumbler containing water on the floor beside my bed, the plate from which I ate one of Komarov's apples in the night and the curtain folded away beside the window belong to Frosya and Trofim whilst the Afghan rug is on loan to me by Sergei Petrovich, a neighbour. The cutlery on the plate is mine. As Frosya once pointed out to me, a man who does not possess his own knife and fork is a stranger to dignity.

    Footsteps approached again and there was a knock on the door once more. Before I could bid her enter, it opened and Frosya came in carrying a chipped blue enamel basin of steaming water in which a flannel floated just under the surface, looking vaguely like a miniature grey sting-ray.

    'Time to greet the new day, Shurik,' she announced and, lowering the basin to the floor by my feet, bent over and kissed me on my brow. She smelt strongly of soap and faintly of roses. 'It's a fine summer's morning.'

    'And what day is it?' I enquired.

    She snapped the catches on the shutters and swung them open but slowly so the brilliant sunlight did not catch my old eyes unawares and temporarily blind me.

    'Thursday,' she answered. 'August 14.' She turned and held out a small packet which she had had secreted in her pocket. 'Happy birthday, dear Shurik.'

    I looked from the little package to her face. Her eyes were wet with tears which had not yet started to spill down her cheek.

    'So,' I said, in English, 'how old am I today?"

    'Today, Alexander Alanovich Bayliss,' she replied, also in English, 'you are eighty years old.' She Russianified my name, giving me the middle patronymic for she knows my father was called Alan: then she rubbed the rim of her right eye with her finger and, reverting to Russian, ordered, 'Open your present.'

    My fingers pulled at the wrapping of silver foil. It might have contained a bar of dark, bitter chocolate. She knows I have a penchant for it. Yet it was not. It was a small icon, hand-painted upon wood with a thin halo of gold round its head.

    'And who is this?'

    'Saint Basil,' Frosya replied.

    With my glasses out of reach on the bookshelf, I held the icon closer to my face to get a better look at it. The colours of the painting, which lacked any sense of perspective whatsoever, were deep and rich and ancient. The saint had a bland unimpassioned look, neither a smile nor a frown. It was the stereo-typical look of the disparaging innocent, characteristic of all men who would be holy or profess power, gazing out upon a corrupt world from the safe cave of their belief, high up the mountain of their dogma, regarding human fallibility as a petty, passing flaw on their god's creation, nothing more than a raindrop bending light on creation's window. His hand was raised in front of his chest in a begrudging benediction.

    'His halo is gold,' Frosya said. 'Real gold. Thin, but solid gold. Not plated silver. The icon comes from Romania. The criminals there are selling them. Trofim purchased it when he was in Volgograd last month.'

    I made to stand up but she put her hand on my shoulder. Now, the tears were seeping down her cheek. Just the weight of her hand was enough to keep me seated.

    'You should not have bought this,' I remonstrated with her. 'It will have cost far too much. And in dollars, not roubles.'

    'How many dollars buy love?' she answered softly.

    She knelt on the floor at my feet and dipped her hands in the basin, wringing out the flannel and holding it open upon her palms.

    'It depends where you are,' I told her. 'In St Petersburg, where I understand from the television there are a copious number of foreign visitors these days, love probably costs twenty-five American dollars at the eastern end of the Nevsky Prospekt, near the Metro station, whilst outside the Astoria Hotel in ulitsa Gertsena it must be about fifty. Within the Astoria, out of the rain and the snow, inside the cocktail lounge, the price will be higher ...'

    'You're a naughty old man!' she chided me. 'You know what I mean.'

    I put my hand on the crown of her head. I might have been Saint Basil himself, giving her a blessing or, had I a beard the colour of wood ash and as dense as a blackberry bush, Father Kondrati who lives in the house by the bridge, below the church at the other end of the village.

    'Yes, I know exactly what you mean.'

    Frosya looked up at me, like a child before her uncle or a sinner in front of her confessor.

    'We love you, Shurik,' she said simply. 'So much. So very much.'

    I did not reply. There was no need to and she expected no answer. Between the two of us, much passes that requires no words of thanks, no explanation, no interpretation or extrapolation.

    A movement at the door drew my eye. Just over the lintel lurked Murka, Frosya's handsome tabby cat, with white socks on its front paws and a white flash on its forehead. I raised my hand from its mistress's head in greeting. The cat, in the way of haughty women and supercilious felines, stared an ennuyant acknowledgement then strolled off.

    Frosya draped the flannel over the side of the basin and rolled up the trouser legs of my pyjamas almost to my groin. The veins in my legs looked like a relief map of a particularly bizarre and byzantine underground railway system.

    'Now to get your blood warm,' she said in the matter-of-fact and falsely jovial tone of a nurse. 'Get you moving. Today, you must go round the village. Everyone wants to see you.'

    With that, she spread the hot flannel over my shin, pressing it down with her left hand whilst the fingers of her right kneaded my skin just above the knee. The heat of the water seemed to run through me like the first vodka of the day in a confirmed drunk. No drug could have coursed its way so fervidly through such old flesh and brittle bones as those of which I am now constructed.

    I sat quite still, my eyes fixed on the cloudless sky outside. The sun was warm upon my face. Somewhere in the village, a dog was barking. Sparrows in the gutter above the window were chattering gaily.

    Gradually, the barking subsided and the sparrows' twittering conversation faded until all I could hear was the voice of Kirill Karlovich, Frosya's father, not ten centimetres from my ear. He was speaking as if his mouth were full of grit.

    'Shurik,' he was saying. 'Go to Frosya. One day, a million years from now. Even if you are a ghost. Go to her. Tell her it was good.'

    'What was good?' I heard myself asking, my voice echoing as if from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

    'To die with a friend,' Kirill replied. 'To die by the hand of a man whose name you know.'

* * *

    To the side and rear of the house, there is a yard surrounded by a flower bed in which Frosya grows marigolds and, closer to the wall under the window of my room, dahlias the tubers of which she pulls up every autumn to nurture safely in a box under her bed until spring. In this yard, as soon as the warm weather breaks, Trofim sets up a table under a silver birch which he has carefully pruned and trained into a weeping tree about three metres high to the crown. It is here I sit on sunny days, the leaves rippling in the breeze, the hanging tresses of the branches giving me a living cave from which to observe Frosya going about her chores and Trofim, when he is not working at the garage, tending his vegetable plot or looking after his hens.

    This morning, Frosya laid out my breakfast on the table. It was a meagre repast for, in my advanced years, I do not eat much: a small piece of hard cheese, a slice of bread, a pared and cored apple and a cup of plain tea without milk or sugar.

    As I cut into the cheese, Frosya joined me, sitting opposite me across the table. She, too, had a cup of tea.

    'You are such a man of habit, Shurik. A man of schedules. Every day, cheese, bread, apple. Do you never want something different? An egg?'

    She looked up the gentle slope behind the house, towards the distant tree line where the forests begin that run, without interruption save for occasional roads and railway lines, clear to the Volga. Twenty metres in from the trees was Trofim's chicken run built around an old, solitary oak tree.

    'I am not that fond of eggs,' I informed her. 'As for habit, I feel secure in knowing how my life pans out. A day with a timetable feels safe.'

    I smiled at her and, placing the sliver of cheese I had cut on the edge of the slice of bread, raised it to my mouth and bit into it. The bread was dark, dense, slightly moist and grainy.

    'What will you do today, Shurik?'

    'The usual,' I replied. 'Take my walk down through the village, across the river, through the forest and back here. My customary route, to my customary schedule.'

    'You will take longer today,' Frosya predicted. 'People want to talk to you.' She cradled her cup in her hands as if the weather was chilly and she was warming her fingers. 'Today is special for you and for them. If you want to be back on time, you will have to leave earlier than usual.'

    'I shall leave when I'm ready,' I declared. 'No sooner, no later.'

    Frosya sipped her tea. She had something on her mind and was not sure whether to broach the subject or leave it be. I knew what she was concerned about, too: yet I did not intend to say anything. She would come to it in her own good time.

    'Do you like your St. Basil?' she asked.

    'He's very fine and I'm very grateful to you for him.' I took a swallow of tea: a crumb of the bread had lodged in my gullet and I washed it down. 'A remarkable man from a veritable clan of saints. As I recall, his grandmother, father, mother, older sister and two younger brothers all feature in the hagiographies. He was a friend of St. Gregory and upon his principles are based the monastic paradigms of the Orthodox church. He showed much sympathy for the poor, always took the side of the under-dog and was critical of wealth even though he came from a very well-to-do family. He was also said to be obstinate, argumentative and querulous. In short, he was an ideal saint for Russia.'

    Frosya laughed and declared, 'For an atheist, you know a lot about the church.'

    'To defeat your enemy,' I justified my knowledge, 'you must know him in all his guises.'

    'You, too, are a remarkable man, Shurik.'

    'No,' I complained. 'That is not right, Frosya. I am not. I am merely a man shaped by his destiny.'

    For a long moment, she was silent. She was, I could feel it, about to bring up the subject which was haunting her. Casting me a quick glance, she then looked into the distance, steeling her courage.

    'When will they arrive?' she enquired at last, still not looking in my direction.

    'This afternoon. The letter said they would get here about five o'clock. It is a long drive for them.'

    'Are they coming from Moscow?'

    'Not directly, no. I suspect they will have stayed last night somewhere. In Voronezh, perhaps.'

    She was silent for a moment then opened her mouth to speak.

    'Do not ask, Frosya,' I warned her.

    Yet she had to. It was in her feminine nature to need to know.

    'But have you decided, Shurik?'

    I did not reply but reached out and, unfurling her fingers from around her cup, took them in my own. I looked at our hands. Mine are old, gnarled as the roots of a cypress: hers are soft, not as a young girl's might be but as a caring woman's. Frosya was 48 last month.

    'How long have I lived here?' I asked her.

    'Twenty years.'

    'And still you don't know me? You who can tell everything that is happening in your husband's mind? Surely you know what is going on in mine, too. I have lived here with the pair of you for all your married life bar the first four years.'

    She smiled. It was a loving smile.

    'Yes,' she admitted, 'under normal circumstances, I can read your thoughts as well as I can my Trofim's. But these are not normal circumstances and I am at a loss.'

    'Don't worry, Frosya,' I said. 'Trust in fate. In destiny. What more can you or I do?'

    'Shape it!' she answered quite firmly yet I knew she did not believe it. We have been through too much to do so.

    I let go of her hand.

    'I want nothing more to eat. Save the apple for later.'

    'It will go brown.'

    'Then feed it to the hens and I shall break my habit and eat an egg in a few days made from it.'

    She laughed, stood up and started to collect in the crockery. I drained my cup of tea. When she had returned to the house, I felt inside my jacket and removed the letter from the inside pocket. I slipped it from its envelope and, once again, unfolded it. I did not immediately read it but just looked at it. It was crisp and official, neatly typed upon a heavy bond paper, the expensive sort with the paper-maker's watermarked lines evident as a faint grid in the weave of the pulp. The letterhead was printed in black, the letters embossed, shining and raised in relief from the surface of the page. I balanced my steel-framed spectacles upon my nose and, yet again, studied what was printed there.

* * *

    I was five weeks making my way to Myshkino, the village in which I now live, travelling mostly by jumping freight trains, sleeping crouched up in box-cars parked in sidings or hiding in track-side maintenance huts. From time to time, I was moved on by railway officials or the transport authorities but usually I was simply ignored. They did not know who I was but they certainly knew what I was without asking for my papers. Some were sympathetic and gave me a few kopeks: others were antagonistic, punched and kicked me and stole the kopeks. Most were apathetic and paid me no heed whatsoever.

    For food, I begged. Knowing instinctively the importance of appearing at least reasonably presentable, for a tramp in any society gets short shrift at all times, I managed to wash myself now and again in the public conveniences in stations, keeping my beard down to a trim stubble with a pair of nail scissors I filched from a street vendor's stall in Kazan. My clothes, however, suffered on the journey and, by the time I had walked the thirty kilometres from Zarechensk to Myshkino, I looked more like a hobgoblin than a human.

    With difficulty, for no one would offer the information to a vagabond, I found Frosya's house around midday, opened the gate in the low fence and made my way up the path to the porch. I knocked on the door but there was no answer so, cupping my hands, I peered in a window. The living room was tidy, with comfortable furniture, a carpet and a radio on a table. Exhausted, I lowered myself down in the shade by the door and dozed fitfully, awaiting her return from wherever she was.

    'Who the hell are you?' were Trofim's first words when he found me at about five o'clock, hunched on the steps of the porch, my arms hugging my legs to my chest, my chin resting on my knees.

    I woke from my semi-slumber and squinted at him in the afternoon sunlight. He was of average height, with dark hair and a handsome face, and dressed in a mechanic's overalls. I could smell the syrupy scent of warm gearbox oil on his clothing.

    'You look like a thief who's found nothing to steal,' he added.

    Slowly, I got to my feet and cast a quick glance at my reflection in the window. My face was grey and rough with several days' stubble, my hair short but not to the extent of still being a criminal's crop: it had had five weeks to grow. My jacket was soiled and my shirt, an old-fashioned clerk's shirt with the collar missing, was grimy about the neck. My trousers looked as if I had slept in them which, save one or two nights, I had and the leather of my boots was cracked for lack of polish and too frequent soakings in the rain.

    'Go on!' he exclaimed, waving his hand at me as he might a mangy cat routing round the garbage pall, dismissive rather than belligerent. 'Otvali!'

    'My name is Alexander,' I said quietly.

    'Fine!' Trofim replied. 'Otvali, Alexander!'

    I felt weak and leaned against one of the posts holding up the roof over the porch. I had not eaten for several days except for some handfuls of wheat I had snatched in a field not yet harvested.

    'Are you are the husband of Efrosiniya?' I asked, my voice hoarse and consequently not much louder than a whisper.

    He looked at me, suddenly very suspicious, and said with no small degree of defensive menace, 'What's it to you?'

    'And was your wife's mother Tatyana Antonovna?'

    He was immediately on the offensive, glared at me and said, 'Poshol k chortu!'

    'I will go to hell,' I responded, my voice quiet with fatigue, 'but first I must speak to your wife.' I sucked on my own spittle to lubricate my mouth. 'I have come from Kirill Karlovich.'

    Trofim stared at me for a long moment then, his demeanour utterly changed, he stepped quickly forward, taking my arm and guiding me towards an upright chair under the window. It was the very same chair in which I still frequently sit on the porch on a warm evening, which over the years has become somehow shaped to my body, or my body has become formed to its curves and peculiarities.

    'Frosya!' he called urgently as he let go of my arm. 'Frosya! Come quickly!'

    In a few seconds Frosya appeared, her sleeves rolled up. Her hands and forearms were wet from doing the laundry in a tub behind the house. She must have been in the house all along without my knowing. Her face was blushed from the effort of scrubbing. When she saw me, she stopped in her tracks. A dog, sauntering down the village street, spied me and started to yap.

    'Where have you come from?' she asked, her voice barely audible over the dog's noise. Trofim bent to pretend to pick up a stone. The dog fell silent and slunk off.

    'Sosnogorsklag 32,' I told her.

    'Where are you going?' Trofim asked.

    I looked at him and said, 'After I have given you my message, I am going to hell.'

    'I'm sorry,' Trofim began to explain. 'When I first saw you ...'

    I raised my hand to silence him and smiled weakly.

    'Sosnogorsklag,' Frosya mused quietly.

    'Not a pretty town, I'll bet,' Trofim remarked soberly.

    'Labour camp number 32 was not in the town,' I informed him, 'but some way out. South of Pasn'a. Not far from Vojvoz.'

    'I think,' Frosya said, 'you must have come from hell.'

    She came forward, then bent over me and kissed my cheek. As she did this morning, when she entered my room and gave me my present, she smelled of soap.

    It was the first kiss I had experienced in many years, since that terrible, unforgettable winter which I have never been able to excise from my mind.

    'Get some water,' Trofim suddenly ordered her, as if coming to his senses. 'Make some tea. Prepare a bed.' Turning to me, he said, 'You will stay here. With us. For as long as you wish.'

    I stayed that night, promising myself I would leave the next morning: but the night turned into a week which evolved into a month that metamorphosed into two decades, the remnant of my life.

* * *

    Folding the letter once more and returning it to my pocket, I sat on for a short while, gazing out from the leafy parasol of the silver birch. From this vantage point, I had as usual a fairly panoramic view of the village.

    The house is on a slight rise with most of the buildings below, on the gentle incline that goes down to the river and the road which crosses it by way of a concrete bridge. Now, in high summer, the gardens are a blaze of colour. Sunflowers stand against walls, smaller blooms in front of them. Where there are no flowers, there are vegetables.

    In front of Trofim's porch are several rows of raspberry canes and a patch of herbs and small onions. Between the house and the woodland up the slope behind it, Trofim's plot is filled with cucumbers and marrows trailing on the ground, beans hanging like plump green fingers from a trellis of sticks, tomatoes tied against stakes, dark-leaved potatoes with their tiny white blossoms and rows of cabbages. The ranks of carrots, beetroots and radishes are protected from marauding birds by a thin black netting suspended from poles like a miniature, transparent Bedouin tent.

    Beyond the gate, across the lane, stands a quaint little house made of age-blackened wood with a fretwork boarding around the eaves over the porch which is as deep as a room. The chimney leans precariously but has done so for at least a decade. I cannot look upon the house without being reminded of the world of Pasternak and Dostoyevsky.

    The property is owned by a widow, Vera Dorokhova, whom the villagers refer to behind her back as The Merry Widow for she has been happiest since her spouse disappeared into the forest one January winters ago, not to be found until the spring when his half-thawed body, gnawed by foxes, was discovered beside a woodsman's hut in which he had taken shelter. A lathe operator in a small engineering works which turned out tractor wheel bearings at Zarechensk, his wife may have been Vera but his mistress was Madam Vodka under whose instruction, as people put it, he frequently beat her and generally made her life miserable. In the first few years of my residency in Myshkino, the sight of him returning from work, his clothing powdered with iron filings and his shoes trailing the odd shiny turning like a weak spring embedded in the rubber soles, sent involuntary shivers down my spine. Had I the hackles of a dog, they would have been instantly erect but not on account of his cruelty to Vera Dorokhova: I had seen far worse cruelty than anything he could have devised, sober or sozzled. It was because, at a distance, he reminded me of a brute I had known called Genrikh.

    Since Madam Vodka's lover was planted in the graveyard by the church at the other end of his village, I have been haunted by a newer ghost in the form of his widow. She watches out for me and I watch out for her. Despite my being 20 years her senior — twenty years today, as it happens — she has a yearning for me, a longing she will only satisfy by getting me to the altar down the road. That I am past caring for women, that I have been past caring for them for decades, does not seem to put her off. Perhaps she has developed a macabre taste for burying men. I do not intend to find out.

    One of Trofim's cockerels crowing in the distant brought me back to my senses and I glanced at my watch. It was time for me to go, to set off on my constitutional, to go and meet all those who would pass the time of day with me and who, according to Frosya, were keen to talk to me, to see me on my birthday.

    My daily walk is important to me: I may be old and becoming frail but I like to keep myself fit and my daily neighbourhood perambulation sees I stay in good condition, body and brain.

    As Kirill always said, a fit man fights and therefore survives whilst a weak man wails and goes to the wall.

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