This is For You An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog
As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.
Part 1 continued…
He was in love only once. At the time, he tried incredibly hard to change himself into the kind of person who could be loved – the sensitive kind he had previously read about with scorn and bewilderment, but of whom he now felt something resembling envy. It took him by surprise to find that he could spend so much time and energy thinking about someone else, and in making such an effort to make that someone else like him and want to spend time with him and listen to what he had to say.
She was twelve years older than Bede, and he was at once fascinated by her unusual attitude to life, which somehow combined both youthful mischief and deep maturity. One day, for instance, after giving a lecture at a prominent university, she arrived at a restaurant to have lunch with him on a huge, old-fashioned, black bicycle, which she rode right up to the table on the sunlit terrace, at which he was waiting. Having propped the bike against the back of the wooden bench, she sat down beside him and offered up her cheek as usual, for him to kiss. He noticed she was chewing and, although he said nothing, she spat the contents of her mouth into her hand, raised her arm and hurled the balled-up gum away. Unfortunately, she was a rotten shot, and the gum hit and clung to the front of the facing bench. The restaurant was popular and, as the terrace was quite small and provided limited seating, it was customary to share tables. Shortly after they had ordered, two well-dressed businessmen came up and politely asked if the seats opposite them were free. She smiled charmingly up at them and nodded, gesturing towards the empty bench, inviting them to sit down. As she turned back towards Bede, he caught the irresistibly sinful glint in her eyes. She mutely begged for and simultaneously expected his complicity. As usual, she paid and they left first, his lover cheerily saying goodbye to the two men, as she lifted her bicycle and wheeled it jauntily alongside him towards the exit.
Having spent her formative years at school abroad, she had come back to study philosophy at university. Now, after applying herself successfully to several different careers, she lectured in foreign literature at various, prestigious, educational establishments in the city and in the provinces. Complete sets of beautifully-printed volumes of philosophical writings and poetry, which she had inherited from her father, lined the shelves of her spacious apartment. They were filled with foreign texts, which were totally incomprehensible to Bede, who had thought it unnecessary to waste time learning any language other than his mother tongue. He could not even attempt to read them, but he loved to take the books down, to feel the weight of them in his hands, to run his fingers gently over their deeply-embossed covers and along the uneven edges of each hand-made page. He was also impressed with her collection of erotic photography, which she made no attempt to conceal. On the contrary, framed prints lined the walls of the apartment, and large, lavishly-illustrated books, deliberately placed for the maximum provocative effect, littered every flat surface.
With good reason, Bede thought she was beautiful. Although her face was now lined, and her hair must have lost some of its earlier vigour, she managed to look young still, and her sharp, bright eyes were as playful as a young girl’s. She was naturally slim, her stomach was flat, and her small breasts had never been stretched and inflated with a mother’s milk, so they remained firm and showed no signs of sagging. She did a little exercise every day, but was no fanatic. She smoked, and to demonstrate the seriousness of his feelings for her, Bede later gritted his teeth and took up smoking too.
They had, in fact, met in another restaurant. At this stage in his life, he was in the habit of often eating alone, and the type of food that was served there was his favourite. It was also cheap and the portions were generous. Though he would never have admitted it, Bede was a bit of a pig as far as food was concerned, and liked the way that here it was possible to eat mountains of rice and meat and noodles, without anyone noticing just how much you were actually consuming. At most, at any one time, only a tiny, heaped rice bowl sat on the table in front each customer, and no one was counting how many times it was filled up, which, in Bede’s case, was many.
She had been sitting alone near the window, and caught his eye as he was ushered toward the only empty table, in the middle of the room. Feeling exposed, he sat down quickly, immediately opened his book and began reading. There was no need for him to look at the menu. He had been there lots of times before. The lunchtime specials never changed, and he knew exactly what he wanted, but he always had to remind the waiters, who never appeared to recognise him, that he wanted to eat with chopsticks. It peeved him that, even after they eventually brought the chopsticks, they still left the redundant spoon and fork cluttering up the table, as if they thought that, halfway through his meal, he might give up on the wooden sticks and revert to using the metal utensils like everyone else. Also, they always seemed not to have heard what he said, so he was forced to repeat his order. Then, invariably they brought the wrong things, so he had to send them back. He could tell that they found it odd when he ordered jasmine tea instead of the white wine that most of the other people asked for. He was sure that they considered him affected, and their obsequiousness, so obviously feigned to the point of insolence, caused him to fantasise about what it would be like to punch one hard in the face and smash his teeth in.
Glancing up to get a better look at her, he had found her smiling directly at him, as if they knew one another. He quickly looked away and began to rack his brain in an effort to work out where, or indeed if, he had ever seen her before. Perhaps they had met at a book launch, or maybe at one of the big publishing fairs. He thought not, but she did seem familiar. He felt that he knew her face. Someone he had seen on TV? An actress? No, she was actually the double of his junior schoolteacher, with whom he had been infatuated as a child, twenty-five years before.
After his third bowl of food, he had had to crane his neck to get the waiter’s attention and to ask him to top up the tiny teapot with more hot water. Met with a look somewhere between confusion and disbelief, he asked for it again, deliberately exaggerating his mouthing of the words, to make sure that he would be understood. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that she was watching this little performance with an amused expression, and he felt his cheeks begin to flush. Settling back into his seat, he attempted to pick up where he had left off in his book, but it was hopeless. He had now been here for about forty minutes, and had read the same few pages, over and over, but not a single sentence had registered in his head. Now, he could not even decipher the words themselves. The letters on the pages had become transformed into little, black, abstract shapes, and he seemed incapable of forming them into anything recognisable.
Without Bede being conscious of it, the restaurant had begun to empty. Normally, he looked forward to this quiet time. He liked to eat late, so that he could linger a little and read, far away from the uproar of the office. By now, he and the woman were the only remaining customers. Most of the staff had slid away, and he watched with chagrin as the last waiter on duty lifted the half-full serving dishes from his table: it was rare for him to leave a single grain of rice, but, on this occasion, his usual effortless technique with the chopsticks had deserted him, and he had found it difficult to lift the food to his mouth without fumbling or dropping it on the tablecloth. He called for his bill, paid, reluctantly left a small tip, stood up and turned towards the door. He looked directly at her, smiled, nodded, mouthing goodbye and left.
The restaurant was on the first floor, and there was an entrance area with a cigarette machine at the foot of the stairs below it, where, by now feeling frantic, Bede paused to wait for her. Her eyes had seemed to sparkle as her smiling mouth had said goodbye back to him from below the two jets of cigarette smoke, which she was exhaling. His heart boomed in his chest, and his ears burned. Fighting in vain against the muscle spasms that caused his shoulders to jiggle, he feigned interest in what the machine had to offer. It could have been a condom dispenser for all he cared, as he had never had any interest in contraception either. A random thought struck him: perhaps a new, nicotine-flavoured condom should be launched especially for couples that enjoyed smoking.
She was descending the stairs. He turned to face her, looking up before she reached the bottom, and asked her whether or not they knew each other; he felt that he had known her all his life. Although he was certain that she had been expecting him to be there waiting, she hesitated before speaking. After glancing at his face, then letting her eyes travel down the length of his body and back up again, she said that she did not think so, but asked him what he did for a living. He did not know. His mind had gone completely blank, but his hand somehow found its way into his pocket, drew out a card and handed it to her. Seemingly impressed that he worked for what she said was her favourite newspaper, she continued down the stairs. They were now standing very close to one another. He could have stepped back to allow her to pass, but he did not. He sensed that she preferred him to stay exactly where he was. He could not stop smiling. She smiled back, telling him that she wrote a little, herself. Gesturing towards the card, he asked her to send him some samples of her work. She replied that, knowing herself as she did, she would probably never get around to having anything copied and put in the post, but that he was welcome to pop in for a drink one evening, to glance over a few of her pieces. She had had no cards herself, so she borrowed his pen, scribbled down her address and telephone number on his, and handed the card and pen back to him.
She took pains to make it clear to Bede from the beginning that they had no future, that she liked him, but that she had already had a series of long relationships, and was not interested in getting seriously involved with anyone else. She told him that she had been deeply hurt by one of her former boyfriends, that she still was very much in love with him, and that, in her heart, he could never, ever be replaced. Then, of course, there was her father, who, though dead for many years, still loomed large in her life, and provided the model of her perfect partner. In a particular light and at certain angles, she told Bede, his looks reminded her of him, but that that was where the similarity ended.
She was surprised that, although Bede worked for a newspaper, he seemed particularly ill-informed about more or less everything, including the violent anti-government demonstrations and riots that were raging in every major city. Realising that he was not even aware that the country was in an advanced state of turmoil, and that, at any moment, the anarchists might throw them all into chaos, she tried to get him to discuss the situation. He listened attentively, nodding and saying little; as if he understood everything she was talking about. She asked him if the increasingly regular power cuts, rationed water and the shortage of fresh food in the shops did not worry him, or give him reason to question what was happening. Bede avoided answering. Admittedly, he took very little notice of anything in the general news, and his eyes glazed over if anyone tried to start a conversation with him about anything he was unfamiliar with, but, in any case, currently, everything else paled into insignificance beside his love for her. He refused to even contemplate that she could not be experiencing the same all-consuming feelings as he was.
The distant glimmer of a few streetlights that were still working, looked very far away as he edged the car slowly forward over the potholed ground. The car’s headlights sliced through the darkness, which enveloped the graffiti-daubed garages, disturbing a couple of cats, who turned lambent eyes on the lone driver, before sauntering contemptuously out of the way. He had checked his original lock-up only periodically since it became full up. However, once in a while he needed to reassure himself that the books stored there were safe.
One evening, about a month after their first meeting, his girlfriend cooked him a delicious dinner, and afterwards, out of the blue, when they were still sitting at the table, she rather formally invited him to her bed. Taken unawares, Bede discreetly slipped his hand inside his shirt, and drilled his forefinger into his navel to hook out the ball of fluff that invariably collected there. In the winter months this was an aggregate of the fibres shed by the various pullovers he wore; in warmer weather, the lighter, greyish deposit was of a less certain provenance. He deftly flicked it away before they undressed completely.
The sex was straightforward and quite quickly over. Bede was, in fact, so nervous that he had to fake an orgasm. Afterwards, he spoke of love, but she said that it had been only sex. He became frustrated and angry. She, flustered at first, then getting to grips with the confrontation, announced bluntly that she did not love him, and that she had already made it plain that she never would. She said that, during the short time that they had known each other, she had come to the conclusion that he was selfish, domineering, manipulative, vain and untrustworthy. And that, through her studies in philosophy, she had developed strong moral standards, which she was not prepared to compromise on his behalf. She went on to explain that, although she was physically attracted to him and wanted him as a very special friend, she nevertheless regarded him as immoral and frankly rather ignorant.
Though he was taken aback by this sudden attack, her description of his characteristics came as no particular surprise to Bede. The point was that he was in love with her, and, although he would have preferred her to have a good opinion of him, all that really mattered was the thought that she might one day love him. Unwilling to take the risk of scaring her away, he remained quiet and chose not to react. He bided his time and behaved himself, in the hope that she would eventually come around.
She never acted coldly towards him; indeed, his kisses were returned with equal passion. Having realised what had happened only after he left, she had been kind when she gently asked him about his faked orgasm. He said that he had known that, however long he had gone on, he would never have ejaculated, and that he had been nervous and afraid that she might think he found her body unattractive. Soon after, although he remained frightened to touch her without invitation, his potency returned. They continued to see each other, and even had a lot of fun. She seemed happy and contented in his company, so long as he did not attempt to cross the line that she had drawn, and allowed her the space she needed for herself and her work.
If it had been up to Bede, he would have seen his lover every day. When he was not with her, he would spend most of his time wishing that he were, and wondering what she might be doing. She had told him that she had other male friends, whom she saw often, and invited, occasionally to her apartment. The thought that they might be other lovers nagged at him constantly. When he attempted to interrogate her about her relationships with them, she said flatly that, no, they were not her lovers, he was. She told him in soothing tones that some of them were, indeed, ex-lovers, who remained important in her life, and without whom she could not do. He was not reassured. She went on to say that she hoped one day he would become like them, but that she feared he would be unable to be her friend after their relationship had run its course.
It suited Bede, at least, that she wanted their seeing one another to be kept private, something just between the two of them. She never attempted to introduce him to her family, or to any of her acquaintances or colleagues. She did not show any interest at all in going to his place, and when they were not going to hers, they arranged to meet in hotel lobbies and on street corners, from there to drive out to obscure suburbs, to find a place to eat, or to see a film. One of her fascinations was to watch other people, and Bede enjoyed watching her watching, in cafés, on the street and as they drove along in her car, so long as her attention eventually returned to him.
Since he had taken the second lock-up on some ten years before, Bede had been an erratic visitor. It was perhaps six months since he had last been there, and because these days he read fewer books – there being somehow fewer available – it would have been some time before another trip would have been necessary. The whereabouts of his collection had always been secret. Indeed, only his parents had had any inkling that it even existed, and then only because they had watched as he carefully loaded his pre-university boxes of books into the van he had hired to transport them away. He had sensed that they were somewhat ashamed of their son’s preoccupation, so he was pretty certain that they had not said anything about it to anyone.
Tonight, though, he had mentioned it to her. It was some months into their troubled relationship and they had found themselves sitting in a kitsch, ethnic restaurant, surrounded by gaudy, though fairly realistic-looking, silk flowers. Leafy vines made from similar materials trailed overhead, and the tables were separated by tall, slim fish- tanks, in which the neon-striped fish swam, jerking backwards and forwards from one end to the other, as if hypnotised, in a seemingly-endless dance.
They usually took it in turns to choose a restaurant, and that evening, it had been her go. They smiled and took great pleasure in the fact that the deep red colour of the real tulips in the slender vase on the table between them, almost perfectly matched the wine that they ordered. By chance, they had ended up in a place no more than three hundred metres from one of his lock-ups. It excited him to see a glint in her eye at the first hint he gave her of his treasure: perhaps handing his beloved this revelation of his most intimate self might persuade her to give him her love at last. Fascinated, she could not, she said, wait to see it. She had been amazed at the prospect of a deeper, more enigmatic side to her handsome and well-dressed escort, whom she previously regarded as rather superficial. Still, he had prevaricated, had second thoughts, and eventually refused to take her. The evening ended with another of the blazing rows that had punctuated their relationship since soon after they had begun their affair.
Some weeks later, they were driving back into the centre of town, after a long and particularly good lunch in a smart country restaurant, when they came across the shocking sight of the still-smouldering, burnt-out shell of a huge, once-famous, department store. It had been raining, but all at once the sun burst through the dark clouds and illuminated the strings of mostly-intact light bulbs on a network of trailing wires, which still clung to the outline of the ruined building. Bede had been at university just along the road, and although, in those days, he had had no money to buy anything in the store, he was a frequent visitor, shuffling from floor to floor with the hordes of tourists from all over the world. Rich people had shopped for groceries in the food hall, which was filled with only the very best of the best available produce. The less well off had gone there simply on an excursion, to wonder at the displays, as if they were prize exhibits in a museum. On the first floor, there had once been a zoo, where exotic animals and birds could be bought: big cats, snakes, penguins and even spiders had all been on offer, and what they did not have, so long as it was legally available, could be ordered without fuss, at a price. An orchestra had played to the diners in the main restaurant, and green-liveried commissionaires were on hand to open the store’s doors to all visitors. Massively-expensive jewellery and watches were laid out in glass cases fitted with security alarms, and there was an enormous, marbled perfume department, which Bede had always avoided.
They had sex often and, though this was conventional enough when they were in bed together, he discovered that at other times her tastes were peculiar. For instance, she once asked him – and he, without argument, and with only the faintest hint of hesitation, complied – to shave off all of his body hair, apart from that which was on his head, then to perch naked and motionless on a barstool in the middle of her apartment. She wandered around, fully clothed, completely ignoring him, getting on with her usual business. Meanwhile, afraid to upset her, he tried not to let her know just how stupid and bored he felt. Leaving him there without a word, she went out to the shops and bought dark bread and a huge bunch of slender, green asparagus. He watched her cut a slice of bread and spread it with butter that was almost white. She picked it up and took a bite, then walked behind him. Her hand snaked around the side of his head and pushed a chunk into his mouth. Then she came and stood in front of him wearing a wide grin that showed her pink gums. Later, they prepared the asparagus and fed it to one another: the buttery juices running down there fingers and chins.
On another occasion, they had arranged to meet at her apartment for a quick lunch between their various, respective appointments. They ate and were just about to leave, when she suddenly pulled him towards her and slid her hand down to unfasten her trousers, which fell to her ankles. Hooking off one shoe and a trouser leg, she raised the bare foot on to a chair and thrust herself against him. She was a fraction taller than he, and, having released his cock, he had to bow his back to get inside her. He enjoyed her excitement, but for him the experience was uncomfortable, almost painful, and for the next few days, his back was sore and he was almost unable to walk.
Once, she had got an urgent telephone call from a friend with some life-or-death problem, and had very reluctantly rushed off, leaving him alone in her apartment. Bede seized the opportunity, and by the time she returned about an hour later, he had been through every drawer and cupboard, lifted every rug and raked around under her bed and mattress. He had found nothing, and was not even sure what he had been looking for. By the time she returned, everything was back in place, but he was sure that she knew what he had done.
After much devious thought, he resolved to try to make her believe that he accepted her rejection of his love, and that he was now utterly ashamed of himself for ever having expected her to love him. But he gave up on that idea when he realised that she was too clever to be fooled into believing him. In his heart, he knew that she had been totally honest in expressing how she felt about their relationship, and that nothing he could do would ever gain him her love. In consequence, he persuaded himself that he could see no significant reason for the existence of love, if all it did was to make him feel weak and stupid and useless, because he was unable to live without it. Anyway, how could a person look after his own interests and, at the same time, be concerned for someone else’s? To him, the whole notion appeared contradictory.
Stealing himself, he stopped calling her, and left his answering machine on all of the time, so that he could screen his calls. Though it pained him greatly, he never picked up the phone when she rang, or ever called her back when her plaintive recorded voice begged him to do so. He had accepted without question, and even encouraged, her wishes that their relationship be kept discreet. Consequently, she had never been near his office, and he felt confident that she would not try to contact him there now. She wrote, concerned: was he ill? He didn’t reply. He knew she would eventually come to his house, so he dismissed his cleaner, got rid of the odd-job man and went away. She left a note pinned to his front door, written in a tone fraught with doubt and uncertainty as to whether or not it would ever be answered. She had signed it Your friend, which angered him so much when he found and read it on his return, that he tore it into tiny pieces, which he threw into a fire.
Many times, he grew weak in his resolve. He had often rung her number from a call box when he was certain she would be out, just to hear the sound of her recorded voice message, afterwards cursing himself for his feebleness. He experienced excruciating chest pains, and once thought he had had a minor heart attack, perhaps brought on by his tremendous efforts to maintain the separation. Never having been in the habit of visiting doctors, and although the pain was at times almost unbearable and continued unabated for many months, he did nothing about it.
Very early one Sunday morning, just to be on the safe side, he went out and stole from another part of town, an estate agent’s board with a sold sign pasted over it, which he erected in his front garden. He had the telephone disconnected. Her letters, which he immediately burned, arrived less frequently, and then stopped altogether. They had been together for little over a year. He never saw her or heard from her again.7
At around this time the books stored in the first lock-up were lost.
Shortly before their break-up his lover had told him about a massive air disaster that had occurred over the densely-populated eastern part of the city. Bede heard the explosion but had thought nothing of it. Two airliners had collided in mid-air. As was to be expected, none of the passengers or crew survived and there was widespread devastation on the ground. The debris had fallen over a huge area and caused serious fires; hundreds were dead or maimed, their homes destroyed. Totally unequipped to deal with the scale of the calamity, the anarchists – who he was given to understand were now in power – reluctantly accepted offers of help from abroad then promptly arrested two of the aid workers as spies.
As soon as the situation settled down, concerned about his books, Bede attempted to drive into the ravaged zone. However, as he made his approach it became obvious to him that there was little point in proceeding with his journey. Not a single building was left standing. Had he been paranoid, he could easily have formed the opinion that the crash was planned with the sole purpose of wiping out this part of his collection.
In the aftermath, struggling to overcome his grief, he tried to continue writing the book that his ex-lover had encouraged him to begin. Her early efforts at writing stories had seemed to him over-sentimental, superficial, and rather commercial and he had felt that his idea of good writing was a long way from hers. Yet, as time went on, he came to realise that she had an uncompromising agenda, and set herself progressively higher standards. She was driven, and worked obsessively. As a result, her writing developed quickly and gained substance almost overnight, while they both knew that, for a long time, he had been resting on his laurels. However, before long, her influence had insinuated itself inside him, and he felt an overwhelming new surge of inspiration.
Bede, who had written nothing since their break-up, was not to know that his renewed efforts, despite the crazy excitement they might generate in the publishing world, were pointless. It would shortly become impossible for anyone to publish anything at all.
The dream came more often now.
Bede liked the illusion of anonymity created by the sign in the garden, so much so that he stopped using the rooms at the front of the tall, three-storey house, allowed the patch of garden to become overgrown, and began to use only the rear entrance. Most of his time was spent an upstairs room at the back, where he wrote, read, ate and slept. To begin with, it was sparsely furnished, and the only books that were around were those that he scrabbled together and happened to be currently reading.
He had abhorred the clutter crowding every available surface in his parents’ home. Since leaving, he had inhabited spare, clean spaces. As a student, he had been unable to afford decent furniture, so he had preferred to have nothing. Throughout his stay, his room in the hall of residence at the university had contained no more than the table, a single upright chair and a low, armchair that he found there. The room was tall and very narrow, with white-painted walls. His bed, actually a bunk above the door, had spanned the width and was reached by a wooden ladder. The curtained-off cupboard below had served as a wardrobe and contained all his worldly goods – except, needless to say, his book collection. While his contemporaries had covered every inch of their walls with wild assemblages of garish posters and pages ripped out of magazines, Bede put nothing at all on his, though he attached a few small pictures – mostly postcards showing the city’s famous sights, plus a few portraits of authors and artists – that he liked, inside the cupboard, behind the curtain, which was always kept closed. In this way, they never disturbed the peace in the room or distracted him. Since he caught only glimpses of them when he drew the curtain aside, he never grew bored with them. As soon as he was earning enough money to afford to live as he wanted, he had furnished his flats, then later the houses he lived in, with a minimum of simple, often expensive, functional items. He had invested in, and allowed himself the luxury of, just a few large, abstract paintings in muted colours. His rare visitors thought his style of living severe. Now, as he slowly retreated from the rest of the house, he found himself dragging an assortment of furniture, equipment and books along with him. The room took on a nest-like quality as it filled up until there was barely enough space left to move around in it.
When the publishing houses were all suddenly closed down, and the newspapers were taken over by the new government, who replaced all of the senior staff, including Bede, with their stooges, he found it no longer necessary to leave his home, except to collect his ration coupons and to root around for fresh provisions, which became increasingly difficult to find. He had been used to eating well, and the pitiful supply of basic foodstuffs now available outside, did little for his appetite. However, in a fit of uncharacteristic foresight, when luxury items had begun to become scarce, Bede, paying a little over the odds, though everything would have been far more expensive now, stockpiled vast quantities of his favourite items. His kitchen cupboards were jam-packed with tinned sardines, corned beef, haricot beans, petits pois, jars of peanut butter, preserved mushrooms, peppers and artichokes in olive oil, bottles of olive oil, packets of spaghetti and rice. The cellar, meanwhile, was full to overflowing with his stock of wine, whisky and champagne.
The curtains were not drawn. Having long since run out of red wine, Bede sipped the last of the champagne from the bottle he had opened to drink with his meagre dinner. A strange, warm glow seeped into the newly-darkened sky, like a sunset but somehow too low down. He has been sitting quietly for a long time, by himself. The muted sounds of shouting began to filter in from outside. Bede stood up, glanced briefly into the mirror and without reassurance, walked towards the French windows, undid the catch and opened them wide. Cool, fine drizzle stroked his face as heavy smoke wafted past him into the room. Down below his balcony, the public library was engulfed in fire. Huge flames billowed up through the roof, which was about to cave in. Not long now. Bede returned to his chair to wait. Soon after, the clock struck midnight.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011
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Friday, 26th August
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