Hi I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories 2020, an adapted version of the Queerstories podcast as you may have once known it. Instead of live recordings from events around the country, these stories were commissioned following a national call out for new writing.
Today’s stories contend with purpose, something I have lacked markedly since theatres shutdown mid-March; I had the privilege of having a partner still working, so we could pay rent and we could eat, but suddenly for me, there was a vacuum of sorts. All around me artists were pivoting, live streaming from their bedrooms, creating content in new ways but without a live audience I felt… well, I felt purposeless, I suppose.
For our first story teller, Bronte Noakes, my navel gazing artistic ennui was not an option.
Bronte works in childcare, wiping tears, wiping noses and wiping bums til the cows come home. They’re in their Honours year studying Psychology and when they’re not studying, and team sports aren’t benched, they’re playing AFL for Sydney Uni or spending time underwater.
At the beginning, my kids, turned up every day at roll call reporting how many kids were in their class that day. We still struggled to get them to wash their hands, attempted to get them to social distance while lining up for afternoon tea and were told to try not to cuddle them unless they hurt themselves or were upset. Which was, quite frankly, heart breaking.
Although I was so grateful to have a reason to leave the house, there were times where living in this kid filled world got lonely, my adjacent housemates, known as the front house from my granny flat dwelling weren’t keen to have me inside the house. Other friends refrained from hugs and opted for socially distanced hangs due to my kid germs. I struggled not to take it personally. What hit me the hardest though was the beach closures, a refuge for my mental health and just down the road from my work.
This, working at before and after school care, is my first and only real job, other than the babysitting I did as a teenager. When I started I was a shy, introverted and straight passing 18 year old, fast forward 4 and a bit years and my face is laminated and stuck on the front door labelled “responsible person”, a legal title in childcare. Since day one, the kids have always been the best distraction. Try and worry about your relationship breaking down, your flatmate ignoring you or your uni assignment while kids lick your shoelaces, leap onto your back demanding jump squats and alert you of some issue in the bathroom all at the same time. It’s impossible to continue to worry about the past or the future when there’s just so much happening in the present.
I call the kids at my work, ‘my kids’, even though there’s over 270 of them every day. I mix up siblings and think and talk about them when they’re not around to the extent that many of my friends know these kids by their first and last names.
When the first lockdown happened, there was a lot of confusion around schools in NSW. Mixed information about whether kids could contract the virus, spread it and whether school closures were effective or not. Eventually and for a few months, the schools were almost closed, just the kids of essential workers, kids with so many siblings it was not possible for them all to be at home and some of our kids with behaviour management needs remained.
20 of my work mates were stood down, leaving only the longest standing and permanent staff members. The school, usually a bustling hub without a single quiet space felt like a ghost town.
The kids swung between brutal awareness of hygiene and a total abandonment of everything they’d been told in a matter of minutes, using “Coronavirus, duh” as means of getting their peers away from them and explaining why their grandparents weren’t picking them up anymore, then begging for piggybacks and cuddles,. I asked a kid the other day, what he thought about coronavirus. He said “wash your hands and only touch your family” while holding my hand walking up to find his toy dog, named baby doggy, he’d left in another playground.
Early on in lockdown, we heard of a few other centres making rainbow signs to stick outside their schools to brighten up the daily walks everyone had started to get excited about. We set our kids to work and laminated a couple dozen rainbows. One kindergartener, Marius, was working on what looked to me like a watery sun. When I commented on his beautiful sun he replied defensively “No! It’s not a sun! It’s Coronavirus!”
As our numbers dwindled from triple digits to sometimes only 17 kids, the intensity of the distraction, the total inability to think of anything else than what was in front of you, dwindled too. My own mental health had plummeted and I reached, in hindsight, the rockiest bottom I’ve ever been to. Driving me to emergency one night, my best friend asked me a big question, forcing me to reflect on how others saw me and my role in their life. They asked me “how is this fair to the young kids you work with?”
The dwindling numbers also meant we got closer to the kids who remained. Alfie, a 6 year old missing one front tooth after he asked a friend to kick it out a year earlier, developed a love for skipping ropes. I once witnessed him walking confidently up to my boss’ son, only to ask him to “Tie me up”. Later he walked back to me announcing that he was “chained up like crazy”, skipping ropes tangled around his little body. The next day he asked me to “drag him”, this time the skipping rope tied to a hula hoop.
It was also an opportunity to harness those teachable moments you can’t always attend to when the service is full. I tried to teach one child, Asa, about consent. He loves tickles and I told him, when you want me to stop tickling you, you can say “Stop Bronte” or “No more tickles”. He took this on, but adapted it, into a game he now calls “Nice Bronte, Naughty Bronte”, where he squeals Naughty Bronte and runs away, screaming “Nice Bronte, Nice Bronte” when I get too close or start to tickle him.
The kids also got more opportunities to ask us questions. As a visibly queer person working with kids, I’m used to questions. I used to joke that it wasn’t a day working with kids if I hadn’t been asked about my beard, moustache or gender. One kindergarten girl, Sienna, who became particularly attached to me during lockdown once played with me for a full twenty minutes, dancing, chasing, reading stories before she stopped suddenly, with a puzzled expression taking over her face. She said bluntly, “I’m not sure if you’re a girl or a boy”. To which I replied, “Sienna, sometimes I’m not sure either!”
Sometimes in these conversations, I go a bit further, I start explaining how some people aren’t boys or girls, that there is an in between that exists. But I usually don’t get much further than that before they lose interest, walk off or beg me to start the game again. That’s the thing I love about kids, it’s just not that important to them.
As part of our legal responsibilities, we have to fill out a 3 page form every time we give first aid, even if it’s just a bandaid or an ice pack. Part of my job is convincing the kids they don’t really need anything. If they insist, one of the first questions we ask is for their birthdays. We have to keep every one of these forms until the child turns 25. Some of the younger ones have no idea when their birthdays are, they pick a month at random and when asked which day their birthday is, commonly respond after a period of silence “… Wednesday”. One such child is Brodie, a tiny redhead who loves cuddles. During lockdown, we counted down the days until his 7th birthday, which fell on May the thirty one-th, a date he reminded us of after every scraped knee. One morning, after he consumed an alleged “only 5 drops of milo”, Brodie spewed on his shoes before school. On the phone to his single Dad, a truck driver, already half way to Dubbo by 8:30am, we asked Brodie if it was a big vomit or just a small one, trying to ascertain if Dad had to ring around friends to collect him from school. Brodie, looking even tinier and paler than usual, replied that it was just “a medium vomit’.
The kids get bored in the school holidays. We can’t take them to the movies or bowling, terrifying the general public like we usually do. The kids all lined up in their red shirts with our phone numbers on their backs, us adults forever counting them, losing track as the kids shout at us “23! 47! 61!” and having to start again.
One child I got to understand a lot more was Elliott, because before COVID-19, I didn’t know his name, not because I hadn’t tried, I pride myself on knowing almost all of the names of the children, but because Elliott can’t say the ‘ell’ sound so his name sounds more like Eyyiiott.
One day, I let the year ones draw tattoos on me, with apparently washable markers. I ask them to draw sea creatures. Elliott approaches and asks to draw one too, he draws a sausage dog. Because he “yoves sausage dogs”. Later he draws me a picture for my wall, while he sits with an ice pack on his ankle, telling me his birthday’s in 5 weeks when it’s in November. The sausage dog is a long light blue rectangle with smaller dark blue rectangles for legs. The body is dotted and the dots are connected in some excel spreadsheet type pattern. There’s an odd oval under the dog which Elliott tells me is a bed. At this point in the drawing I tell him it’s great but he stops me, tells me it’s not finished and adds some large ‘S’ shapes on top. When I enquire about these, he lets me know they’re worms, and Rainbow Diamond is selling them, to a bird.
Outside of my 270 kids, I look after one other kid, Arlo. He’s in year 7 now, so we just call it hanging out, although he does slip up sometimes and call me his babysitter. Over lockdown we did home school together, once a week. Arlo is the sweetest twelve year old boy I have ever met. Like so many other kids, he really struggled during lockdown. He missed his friends, the skate park, our weekly trips to the beach and he hated home school. We gritted our teeth and struggled through the online lessons together, sometimes in his bed, the doona pulled over his head, his dog Billie under the covers too. Sometimes in a blanket fort between his bed and desk chair. With the lack of physical contact with his peers, he became a lot more affectionate, and we grew more and more like siblings, to the point where he called me his sister. Tickle fights, gentle headlocks and on more special occasions, and when he knew his obstinacy was really getting to me, he’d hold my cheeks in his hands, squishing them up and down and tell me everything was going to be okay.
The afternoon of Arlo’s first day back at school we went to the beach. It was raining and the swell was up. We swam in our wetsuits until the sun set and then skipped back to my car, yelling “singing in the rain” at the top of our lungs. He told me usually he’d be too embarrassed but he was just so happy. A few weeks later he told me he loved me for the first time.
It’s a weird thing that a new boss can dramatically change a workplace to the point where it’s unrecognisable. And another weird feeling to have someone so new with so much power.
Working at a laidback beach school for 4 years I often joked that I’d have a shock when I had a job I couldn’t wear trackies to, however, professional uniform changes were just one of the culture shocks my new boss brought to my workplace. These changes seemed targeted at my usual attire, a mismatch of brightly coloured leggings, footy shorts and stripey thermals, and my queerness. Following this I had my own coronavirus scare, got tested and took a week off for what turned out to be the flu. Even in a climate such as this, my time off landed me in a professional development meeting and with my first ever official warning. It felt like my home, my sanctuary was burning down around me.
I had a feeling I was being lined up to be fired, a thought reinforced by my psychologist, and on her advice, I resigned first, wanting my last three weeks to be on my terms. However, my boss had to have the last word and so fired me after I resigned, something I wasn’t sure could even happen. The devastating part of this was that I was denied a proper goodbye. All the relationships I’d built over years, all the kids I’d cuddled through tears, patched their bloody knees, wiped their bums, began fading before my eyes. As much as this decision wasn’t fair on me, it wasn’t fair on the kids either.
In what became my last week at work, I started coming out to the kids. It started by accident, I was telling one of my friends as I walked in about my new girlfriend when a child asked me what I was talking about. I answered honestly, “My girlfriend”. Grace, a scrawny 8 year old with a lot of opinions, replied immediately with “You’re a lesbian?”
I tried to explain that I preferred queer, that I wasn’t a woman and so I couldn’t be a lesbian but she had already moved on and was asking me what my girlfriend’s name was and how we’d met.
On my last day, when I had to come in to return my keys and shirts, some of the kids met my girlfriend at the gate, excited to show her the Auslan they’d been practicing. When a teacher who clearly needed glasses asked the kids to leave “Bronte’s mum alone”, the kids looked shocked and said exasperatedly, “that’s not Bronte’s mum, that’s Bronte’s PARTNER”.
It feels a bit like I’ve come full circle, experienced everything in the lockdown cycle. When it first happened, I felt lucky to have a job, a reason to leave the house, even though it felt like my world was collapsing around me. At schools at least, there was a period of returning to normal, a return to the hectic quantities of children and noise and mess around us. And now, it seems like we’re making the decline back to the mayhem, and this time I find myself like many others, without a job.
However, I do have some job prospects. One of my year threes, a tomboy called Ash, recently asked me if I was a bearded lady. I looked down at my ripped purple trackies tucked into my footy socks and looked back at her, and said, “I know I’ve got a beard but I’m just not sure if I’m a lady?” She was not swayed by this and just continued to insist “please be a bearded lady, please”. So, if anyone’s looking, this bearded lady is available for hire.
This next story is by Sarah Langston, who also has a professional background in early childhood education and ECE advocacy. At the moment, though, she’s studying bush regeneration and is a full time single mother.
I reckon I’ve been training much of my life for mothering through the apocalypse. The writing of this story, for instance, paused for a snow storm, the building of windbreaks and a heavy session of chopping wood.
As a small girl, I was tugged towards heroines like Ellen Ripley from Alien and Sarah Connor from Terminator. I was obliviously queer, but the pull was more a thirst to embody their intense prepper swagger and their balancing of strength and care.
I would watch Sarah Connor carve “No Fate But What We Make For Ourselves” into a picnic table over and over, eyeing her muscles and ponytail with the thrall of a Christmas beetle lumbering greedily toward light. Her eyes were so sad, but she knew what to do about it, and that sadness throbbed off the screen with a scorched resilience.
In the face of stakes that would make most people whimper and chuck it in, Sarah Connor kept going, because she loved people too much to stop. She summoned resources from a hidden pool within her, despite how hard she was bleeding and crying and terrified. She was a chaotic traumatized mess, don’t get me wrong. But she sure as shit didn’t die, or give up, or walk away.
And Ripley…Ripley fought in an armored robot suit to save the life of a little girl from a gnarly alien. Talk about mum goals. “Get away from her, you bitch.” There’s something in that lioness snarl she utters that grabbed my gut as a kid and didn’t let go.
I sometimes wonder if Ripley and Connor were part of my ADHD family. In our community we excel at focused extremity, deep love for others, and resourceful problem solving. My neurodiversity has made COVID19 survivable for myself and my kid. It led us here, the two of us, to Gundungurra and Darug country. To sunsets that hang my jaw in humility at their grandeur, and snow dusting my front steps that we carefully scoop up and preserve in the freezer. To watching the snow melt into a puddle and then steam as we dry our ugg boots in front of the heater. People with ADHD don’t put on sensible shoes for the snow before the Dex hits, of course. Sensible shoes are boring, and ugg boots do dry.
COVID19 and ADHD arrived in our lives about a month apart – I was diagnosed in early March, and less than a month later the pandemic was here. The two things came at a moment when we sorely needed some kind of radical rupture as a family, and it forced it open. But before I go there, I have to go back. It’s time for a flashback montage. Imagine a jump cut….now.
Less than a year before, I’d found myself rocking back and forth on bone white sheets in the room of the high dependency unit of a psych wing. It would be another 8 months before I would receive my diagnosis. I swayed and howled, gripping a photo of my child like it was the only solid thing in the room, almost unable to catch my breath for the intensity of my crying. Clearly a fan of tough love, and exasperated with me, the psychiatric nurse told me that if I didn’t find a way to calm down, I’d stay in there – and away from my child – longer. As she left the room, she locked the door. I needed to snap out of it, and snap out of it I did. The next day I was calm, tidying my room, doing yoga, organizing my things, intent on getting back to my little one who was losing the plot at my absence. This sudden calm is what hyper focus looks like in ADHD. Hyper focus happens when our brains decide something is important enough to concentrate on. Honestly, I wish more admin tasks would come to me in the form of a burning bush, because I’m swell in a crisis. Why can’t tax return forms come to us on fire? It would be so useful.
I also now know that by rocking, I was stimming to try and still the whip and swell of emotion that is a product of too much stress on an ADHD brain. Dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for executive function like memory, organization and regulation of emotion. Our brains make a little at a time, rather than a chunky baseline. Stress reduces these even more.So the more stressed you are, the more ADHD you are, so you chase dopamine like Pacman to tip the balance and feel ok and smooth things out. Our attempts to get dopamine can look like stimming. For me, this is repetitive movements or excessive social media use, which anyone who nows me will have noticed. It can also like like substance abuse, turbulent relationships or a gym addiction, or a constant succession of half finished craft projects. Historically, I’m the half naked woman sprinting around a party starting arguments. Conflict and social risk make for yummy dopamine.
When people with ADHD don’t know who we are we live at the very edges of life and sometimes we fall over them. It’s why I talk about it a lot and really openly, because if you don’t know, you can’t stay you and also safe.
I was teetering at my edge that day which had led me to hospital. My fiancée, their step parent, had just left me because of my talking and crying loops. A couple of months before that, our child had spent a week in hospital with a life threatening staph infection. Kiddo had stopped attending preschool, leaving me with 24/7 care as they recovered. My ADHD became more and more spiky in response to the increased stress, and so did theirs. Both bub and myself were undiagnosed; home was honestly pretty hellish, as neither of us knew how to regulate our emotions, or sleep, or concentrate, and maintaining basic self care was overwhelming. Touch hurt. Sound hurt. I couldn’t stop crying. I never really got a break. And then, my co parent and partner left, my primary source of support. And then, I unraveled, as you do.
I’m a lucky little punk in that as soon as I say the words ‘I don’t feel safe’, my friends drop their shit and come.
Soon a darling friend who is a pro domme was in her car, in my room, making copious milky teas and ordering me to pack my bags for hospy. I remember folding undies and sobbing that I couldn’t go and her telling me sharply, with love, “come on, you’re going, now get packing”. I pouted, I wept, but I did what I was told. I’ve also been struggling to sit down and write this; she has organized me into it. In ADHD land we solve writers block by enlisting a Fem Dom.
To add the shit icing to the crap cake, the Saturday afternoon after I was discharged from psych, my housemate bailed too, so I was suddenly about to be homeless, with a small kid, while still rocking a hospital wrist band. I’m not overstating things to say it was quite a bummer.
Hyper focus zoomed to the fore and I was making a list of properties on the Sunday, and chucking on lippy for house inspections on the Monday. By the end of the next week, I was organizing to sign a lease. Problem solving while in hyper focus feels so fast, and glorious. It’s like having a hype squad in your head passing you redbull and screaming YOU’RE KILLING IT BABE.
So, we moved house, into a cute little deco flat in Sydney. It was noisy, dirty and I wasn’t sure if I could hack living alone. But I got used to it, and actually learned it had some big upsides, like time in the evenings in my own head without other people asking me for things. I embarked on a year of group therapy to learn coping skills, enrolled kiddo in preschool and set about the process of recovery. But parenting was still a bit of a shitshow. We were both grieving the loss of our previous family deeply and we’d lost our garden, a place to move. Group therapy was helping a lot but living in the city was really painful for us. The constant ambient noise and crowds were stressing us out more than I realised at the time. I was covered in head to toe in bruises from my not coping little bear. It dawned on me that both of us were probably neurodivergent.
I made a metric fuck tonne of calls to get them help first, and was informed they qualified for the NDIS Early Intervention Program. I spent the next six months trying to get them through screening, battling with the cumbersome beast that is the NDIS and the school to lock down funding for them. By the end of March the next year it had been approved and in amongst all that I also got my own diagnosis of ADHD from my psychiatrist.
My first day on dex, I posted a photo to insta of me holding one of the precious magic pills. My face. I was one stoked little noodle. It was the first time I’d felt calm in my own mind, where one thought would arrive and I would follow it to its conclusion. The day before, I’d sat sobbing in my psychiatrist’s book lined office – aka The Medication God – showing him pages and pages of journal entries tracking my “symptoms” against the DSM criteria. If I was being graded on crazy I’d get a HD for research. There were things like forgetting to undress before showering, not being able to ride a bike til my teens, like constant falling and being able to talk underwater.
Friends and family had written accounts sharing their view that I was a bucket of fun and bright as a button but couldn’t find my keys or stop crying. I told him how I had experimented on myself by drinking nine cups of coffee a day for a week to see how stimulants modified my behaviour. I had been a calm task fiend who slept better. He was horrified. It was, I told him, like a penny not so much dropping as being lodged in my teeth like spinach, explaining was the last 36 fucking years have been about.
As I rambled and sobbed and rambled some more, he asked me with a very familiar mild impatience – so, do you think you have ADHD? At that point I cracked it and bawled – yeah. Yes. I think I do. He wrote me a script. I piss bolted to the chemist to fill it and oh. Ohh the difference after it hit. Like all my life I’d been sailing in a storm with no rudder or sail, endlessly bucketed under and screaming brine into my lungs, and then suddenly a hand had scooped me up and plonked me in a steady craft with a map and provisions and fresh dry clothes. I now divide my life into pre-dex and post-dex. I wish I’d been medicated as a kid. I’ve since been told my parents were told multiple times by teachers to do so. They knew. One day I’ll stop being shitty about that. Look me up in my 70s.
And then of course, just as we were on the right track, after years of being hammered by circumstance, COVID19 showed up.
The first conversations I had about it were with mum friends when cases snowballed in Wuhan and gained coverage. Then it hit Australia. We pulled our kids from preschool, not wanting to contribute to community transmission.
Going back to 24/7 care was terrifying, even though I was now medicated. When the government advice came that people with covid exposure would have to quarantine for two weeks I went into my bathroom and screamed into a towel. I knew if we were exposed, I would not survive two weeks in a one bedroom apartment alone with my unmedicated child, no yard and no help. Shortly after this, the playgrounds closed. We were fucking cooked.
Insomnia kept me up all night wondering what I was going to do. We needed a yard to get through this but I was on parenting payment in Sydney where you pay $400 a week to live in a mouldy music box with a broken ballerina and a couple of young Liberals. Then I thought, why don’t we just leave?
I opened maps at 3am and stared at it. My brain leapt from place to place, as I wiggled my legs, bumping that dopamine button. We would need to be on the train line. Some friends in the area. Close to services. And far from Sydney. Close enough that their loved ones could still see them. Fuck it, I thought, I could do this.
And then traced a line and my finger landed on the town that ticked all the boxes. Within a day I had a few properties to inspect via facetime, and within a week I was discussing a lease. My two best mates put up the bond money for me and kiddo because they’re legends. Two weeks later, the moving truck was being driven out of Sydney by my aunt, who loves a road trip and heavy vehicles. Looks quite good in a truckers cap too, I’m pretty sure being a boss bitch is matrilinneal in my family. We were getting the fuck out of dodge, because I was not going to let us be eaten alive by the pandemic.
As Covid wore on, and as I watched abled, child free people get cabin fever in isolation, I became increasingly sure that I’d made the right choice.
We’ve spent the last six months amending soil, not climbing the walls and screaming at each other. My child has learned the wonders of possum spotting, and snake proofing, and what a snow pea tastes like fresh off the vine. They’ve seen what stars look like with no urban glow. They tell me how much calmer they feel outside of the city, without all the noise. They’ve named the majority of the ducks at our local pond, fallen in a creek, shaken apple flowers from a tree and called it snow.
By the end of summer, we will be self sufficient for produce. Seven months on this rambling mountains cottage has been reclaimed from blackberry and ivy and has morphed into a food forest. We walk under the shade of our pear, plum and apple trees. We have crop swaps lined up already for my corn, tomatoes and potatoes. I inhale broad beans in multitudes in a brine of oil and lemon, twisted of their stalks just hours before. My friend the pro domme marvels at the ripple of muscles across my newly strong back and shoulders from building garden beds and compost bays.
Our silkies – those are chickens – are arriving soon, and my local chook mad friend is insisting we get four. Everything is in bloom, including us. I have so many plump, juicy hopes now for our future that was slowly shrivelling to sad little raisins in the city. Just the simplicity of feeling well in body and mind every day is something I’ll forever associate with this place. I’ve found new healthy and functional loves that sit gently alongside that, but more importantly I’ve invested more than I ever did in the platonic bonds that never fail me. It feels like we are never alone. Between friends stopping by and the babe’s many therapists, home, once a train wreck, is now a calm and peaceful retreat and medication is a tool that organises our brilliance instead of muzzling it.
The brilliant and funny Renee Brooks of the ADHD blog, Black Girl Lost Keys, talks about how to guard your yes. Finally, after decades of saying yes to everything, I’ve learnt to instead say no frequently and give my yes to those people and situations that honour it. The whimsical core remains but I know how to protect it now.
There’s still problsm I have to stop the possums eating my fucking apple blossoms. And I need to remember to put my machete back in the same place every time. I’m working on it.
I wonder sometimes if any of this would have happened without ADHD. It can be a very difficult way to live in the world, but my spiraling, non linear sense of time, and great love of risk, novelty and change, mean that a global pandemic has demanded qualities I overflow with.
I’m not sure I totally agree with Sarah Connor that there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves. I didn’t make this happen alone – my aunt and my friends have carried us along in their arms, but a large part of this was us and our magic brains.
We are sleepily peeping our way back into the world. Covid time has made us a cast iron family, finding neurodivergent community and pride while starting recovery from two disastrous family separations in two years. We’re learning Auslan so we can communicate more smoothly and getting kiddo back into preschool. So far, they’ll hang at the gate.
We march back home after visits to the grinding shriek of cicadas, both wearing ear plugs so nobody loses their shit, eating ice creams as trophies for having done the hard thing for the day.
Bub has requested no more moving house for a long time and I’m with them. I think for now we will get our novelty fix from the turn of the seasons, and the scallywaggery of the possums, solving the mystery of which animal has pooed in the yard overnight is enough dopamine for now. Regarding the last – I’m hiring a night vision camera to find out. I’ve heard of deer in the neighbourhood, I’ve seen a quoll creeping across the yard. We both want to solve the mystery of the phantom shit gifter.
And on Sundays, we float off dex, untethered just as we were made, and I know that we’ve come through. In weird times, being a weirdo has been an adaptive gift. I’ve come to realise it probably always was.
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