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The Hills is Lonely
by Lillian Beckwith


The Hills is Lonely, Chapter 1 - Arrival
You can purchase The Hills Is Lonely through amazon.co.uk
You can purchase The Hills Is Lonely through amazon.com

The Hills is Lonely If you have never experienced a stormy winter’s night in the Hebrides, you can have no idea of the sort of weather which I encountered when I arrived, travel-worn and weary, at the deserted little jetty where I was to await the boat which would carry me across to ‘Incredible Island’. It was a terrible night. A night to make one yearn for the fierce, bright heat of an ample fire; for carpet slippers and a crossword puzzle. Yet here I stood, alone in the alien, tempestuous blackness, sodden, cold and dejected, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. On three sides of me the sea roared and plunged frenziedly, and a strong wind, which shrieked and wailed with theatrical violence, tore and buffeted at my clothes and fought desperately to throw me off balance. The swift, relentless rain stung my eyes, my face and my legs; it trickled from my ruined hat to seep in cheeky rivulets down my neck; it found the ventilation holes in my waterproof and crept exploratively under my armpits.

Somewhere out on the turbulent water a light flashed briefly. Peering through screwed-up eyes, I watched with fascinated horror as it appeared and vanished again and again. With stiff fingers I switched on my torch; the battery was new and the bright beam pierced the blurring rain for a few yards. Quickly I switched it off. To a faint-hearted landlubber like myself the sound of the sea was sufficiently menacing; the sight of it was absolutely malevolent. Nostalgia overwhelmed me. Why, oh why, had I been so foolhardy—so headstrong? And this was supposed to be for the good of my health! Why was I not sitting with Mary in the cosy living-room of our town flat, dunking ginger-nuts into cups of steaming hot tea and following from my own armchair the exploits of my favourite detective? The second question was simple enough to answer. The first presented more difficulty.

An illness some months previously had led my doctor to order me away to the country for a long complete rest. A timely windfall in the shape of a small annuity had made it possible for me to give up a not very lucrative teaching post in a smoky North of England town, and look around for a suitable place where, within the limits of my purse, I might, in the doctor’s words, ‘rest without being too lazy, and laze without being too restive’.

My advertisement in a well-known periodical had brought an avalanche of tempting offers. England it appeared, was liberally dotted with miniature Paradises for anyone seeking recuperative solitude, and I had almost decided to remove myself temporarily to a Kentish farmhouse when the postman brought a letter which changed my plans completely. The envelope bore a Hebridean postmark; the handwriting, though straggly, was fairly legible, but the words themselves painted a picture as vivid and inviting as a railway poster. It ran thus:

Bruach.

Dear Madam,

Its just now I saw your advert when I got the book for the knitting pattern I wanted from my cousin Catriona. I am sorry I did not write sooner if you are fixed up if you are not in any way fixed up I have a good good house stone and tiles and my brother Ruari who will wash down with lime twice every year. Ruari is married and lives just by. She is not damp. I live by myself and you could have the room that is not a kitchen and bedroom reasonable. I was in the kitchen of the Thirds house till lately when he was changed God rest his soul the poor old gentleman that he was. You would be very welcomed. I have a cow also for milk and eggs and the minister at the manse will be referee if you wish such.

Yours affectionately,

Morag McDugan.

PS. She is not thatched.

Mary, reading the letter over my shoulder, dissolved into laughter. We were still chuckling when we went to bed that night, I to dream of a minister in full clerical garb, tearing frantically around a football pitch, blowing a referee’s whistle, while two teams of lime-washed men played football with a cow’s egg—a thing resembling a Dutch cheese—and an old man changed furtively in the kitchen.

Deciding privately to postpone acceptance of the Kentish offer, I wrote next morning to Morag McDugan, excusing myself to Mary by saying that a further reply might provide more amusement. I had to admit to myself, however, that the ingenuousness of the letter had so delighted me that the idea of a possible visit had already taken my fancy. The reply from Morag (already we were using her Christian name) did not disappoint us. Her advice regarding travelling arrangements was clear; obviously she had been instructed by a seasoned traveller, but her answers to my questions about quietness and distance from the sea, etc., were Morag’s own.

Surely its that quiet here even the sheeps themselves on the hills is lonely and as to the sea its that near I use it myself every day for the refusals.

Mary’s eyelids flickered.

‘What does she have to say about the water supply?’

‘There’s a good well right by me and no beasts at it,’ I read.

Mary shuddered expressively.

‘I’m glad you’re not going there anyway, Becky,’ she said.

‘I believe I am though,’ I said suddenly, but I was thinking out loud, not really having made up my mind.

She stared at me, incredulous. ‘But you can’t, Becky !' she expostulated. ‘Surely you can see that?’

‘Why not?’ I asked defensively. ‘I’m interested in meeting people and finding out how they live and I've never yet crossed the border into Scotland.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ argued Mary. ‘I admit the woman sounds fun, and so does the place; but it’s ridiculous to let yourself be carried away like that. It wouldn’t be in the least funny to live under the conditions suggested by those letters.’

‘I’m sure it would be even funnier,’ I replied, with a flippancy I was far from actually feeling. ‘After all, there can’t be many dual-purpose cows in the world and it’s time someone did something to cheer up those poor lonely sheeps.’

Mary giggled. ‘Don’t be a fool!’ she reiterated.

Her words goaded me to a decision.

‘That’s just what I’m going to be,’ I replied.

Mary was not the only person to remonstrate with me on my decision to forgo the indisputable attractions of a Kentish farmhouse for the doubtful charms of a Hebridean croft. My doctor was equally incredulous when I told him of my plans.

‘I don’t think you’re very wise,’ he said seriously. ‘Friends of mine who’ve been up in the Hebrides tell me the inhabitants are only half civilised.’

‘Well,’ I replied gaily, ‘I’m going to find out for myself,’ and added: ‘Really, I’m quite determined.’

He stared at me for a few moments, then shrugged his shoulders and rose. ‘In that case,’ he warned me, ‘I think you should let me inoculate you against typhoid.’

Inoculated I was, and now, standing embittered and lonely on the pier, I was heartily amazed that I could ever willingly have embarked on such a venture, and heartily glad neither the doctor nor Mary could witness my plight.

The light I had been watching drew unsteadily nearer and with sickening dread I realised that it belonged to the masthead of a tiny boat, and that its appearance and disappearance was due to the boat lifting and plunging on the huge seas. Slowly she lunged nearer, the dark outline of her bow leaping recklessly until it seemed impossible that she could come closer without being smashed to pieces on the stone jetty. But suddenly she was alongside and a figure clad in streaming oilskins and thigh-boots jumped ashore, a rope in his hands.

‘Are you off the train?’ he shouted as he hitched the rope around a tiny bollard.

The question was directed at me. ‘Yes,’ I yelled back. ‘Is this the ferry?’

‘Aye.’ He spat with all the dignity of a man presenting a visiting card and obviously considered it sufficient introduction. ‘Iss there anybody else for the ferry?’ Again the question was for me and I peered vaguely into the surrounding darkness.

‘I’ve no idea!’ I yelled.

The man grunted. ‘Wass there many on the train?’

Dimly I began to appreciate the degree of familiarity I must expect in my new surroundings.

‘There were quite a few people on the train,’ I replied, ‘but they’ve all disappeared.’ Impulsively I glanced behind and immediately regretted having done so, for the movement had deflected some of the rivulets along chilling new courses.

‘Have you been here long?’

I felt that the questions were becoming pointless and was tempted to grossly overstate the ten minutes proclaimed by my watch. But I replied truthfully. Again the man spat.

‘You’d best be gettin’ aboard, then, if you’re goin’ the night,’ he growled.

This was undoubtedly an example of the dourness I had been warned to expect from the Hebrideans, but to me at this moment it seemed particularly uncalled for. Apprehensively I groped forward. There was a surging gulf of water between the boat and the jetty and I was terrified of stepping down into it.

‘Watch your step now!’ commanded another voice, brisk and imperious, from the darkness, as I hesitated, waiting for the deck to leap high enough for me to clamber aboard without having to perform something in the nature of a gymnastic feat.

‘I can’t see!’ I wailed. Almost before the words were out of my mouth I was seized by two strong arms and propelled unceremoniously over the gunwale and down into the well of the boat. The calves of my legs came up against something solid and I collapsed heavily. I managed to gasp out my thanks but need not have wasted my breath, for the men, having seen me and my belongings stowed safely aboard, went about their own business. Miserable with fright, cold and vexation, every muscle strained and taut, I clung grimly to the seat to prevent myself from being thrown overboard with each lurch of the boat. There were no other passengers. ‘No one else,’ I thought dully, ‘would be such a fool as to cross on a night like this.’ The thought galvanised me into action.

‘I’m coming off!’ I shouted. My voice shrilled with panic. ‘I’m not going to cross tonight. It’s too rough.’

‘Ach,. sit you down,’ the answer came scornfully; ‘you canna’ go jumpin’ on and off boats for fun on a night like this.’

‘Fun!’ I retorted angrily, and was about to tell them the extent of my pleasure when a suffocating stream of spray filled my mouth and effectively choked the words. The boatman may have intended his sarcasm to be reassuring, but before I could attempt further argument there was a staccato command, the men leaped aboard and the slowly ticking engine pulsed into life. We were off, and I must face whatever might come.

That we had left the jetty and were moving I could guess from the sound of the engine, but from the terrific impact of the waves on the bow I considered it more than likely that we were being driven backwards. The boat seemed sometimes to rear supplicatingly on her stem, and then nose-dive so steeply that I was certain each time that her bow could never lift through the water again. My agonised thoughts compared the performance with that of Blackpool’s ‘Big Dipper’, a thrill which I had endured once and subsequently avoided. This, however, was a succession of ‘Big Dippers’ and my stomach tied itself into knots at each abysmal plunge. While the boat rolled and pitched dramatically the sea belched over each gunwale in turn. Icy water was already swirling and eddying around my ankles. ‘How much longer?’ I wondered wretchedly. Soon I was sobbing and, in an excess of cowardice, praying alternately for safety and a quick death. I felt terribly sick but fear kept my muscles too tense to permit me to vomit.

A dark shape loomed up beside me, and quite suddenly I knew that disaster was upon us; that this man had come to tell me to save myself as best I could; that the boat was sinking. I smothered a scream and, wrenching the torch from my pocket. looked wildly around for lifebelts. I could see none. The man continued to stand, still and silent, — I guessed that he too was gripped by a fear as strong as my own. I was shaking from head to foot.

‘What is it?’ I asked weakly.

‘Tenpence.’ His voice was crisply matter-of-fact. ‘Tenpence?’ My own voice burst from my throat in an incredulous squeak and relief flooded through my quaking body like a nip of hot brandy. I could almost have laughed. Foolishly I loosed my hold of the seat and a sudden lurch of the boat threw me heavily against him.

‘Steady,’ he reproved me.

‘Tell that to the boat,’ I replied pertly. With a feeling akin to elation I fumbled for my purse and handed the man-a shilling. Gravely he sought the twopence change and handed it to me along with the ticket. The latter I promptly lost; but the two pennies I clutched like a talisman. It seemed fantastic. Twopence change on a night like this! Twopence change, when I had been prepared to abandon my all! I began to feel quite exuberant.

The man disappeared and again I was left alone, but now I could at times glimpse the island jetty with its single light and what looked like a pair of car head-lamps piercing the darkness beyond. Though I still had to cling to my seat as the boat performed acrobatics more suited to an aeroplane; though I was not one whit less cold and wet than I had been a few minutes previously, the purchase of a tenpenny ticket had given me new confidence; for had I not heard enough about the character of the Scot to be certain that the tenpence stood a good chance of reaching its destination safely? Otherwise I felt sure the weight of the money would have been left with my body, not added to heavy oilskins and sea-boots.

Like a steeplechaser that had scented its stable that boat romped alongside the jetty and I was promptly hauled out with as little ceremony as I had been stowed in. The headlights which I had noticed earlier had vanished temporarily, but now they flashed on again, spotlighting my woebegone appearance. The slam of a car door was followed by a rich masculine voice.

‘Would it be yourself for McDugan’s, madam?’ it asked.

‘It would’ I replied thankfully, almost ready to fall upon the speaker’s neck.

‘Come this way if you please,’ the voice invited politely. ‘I have the taxi you were wanting.’

A large overcoated figure picked up my two cases, shepherded me towards the headlamps and, with a flourish worthy of a Rolls, opened the door of an ancient roadster. It offered indifferent shelter, but I climbed in gratefully, and from somewhere in the rear the driver thoughtfully produced a rug which, though coarse and hairy and reeking horribly of mildew, was welcome if only to muffle the knocking of my knees. As we drove away from the pier the wind rushed and volleyed both inside and outside the car; silvery rain sluiced down the windscreen and visibility was restricted to the semi-circle of road lit by the headlamps. The driver, who chatted amiably the whole time, kindly informed me that the road followed the coastline most of the way, and I had to accept his assurance that it was a ‘ghrand fiew in fine weather’.

For some miles the car ploughed noisily on, then it turned off abruptly into a ridiculously narrow lane, bounded on either side by high stone walls, vaulted a couple of hump-backed bridges in quick succession and drew slowly to a stop. I wondered if we had run out of petrol, for there were no lights or houses visible; nothing but road and walls and the rain.

‘This is what you were wanting,’ announced the driver, pushing open the door and slithering out from his seat. He could not have made a more erroneous statement. This was certainly not what I was wanting, but it looked, unfortunately, as though this was what I was getting.

Pulling his cap well down on the side of his face exposed to the wind and exaggeratedly drawing up his coat collar, he uttered a mild curse and flung open the rear door of the car, where he commenced to wrestle with my luggage. In the glare of the headlights the rain still swooped vengefully down as though each drop bore some personal animosity to each and every particle of the gritty lane. In all my life I had never seen such full-blooded rain!

With a despairing shudder I pulled my waterproof closer about my shoulders and peered anxiously over the driver’s back, hoping fervently that he had stopped as near to the entrance gate as was possible. I was disappointed. On each side of the car the stone walls loomed up impenetrably, and I could see that it was not so much that the walls themselves were high, as that the road was a cutting, leaving an earth bank on either side thus forming a fairly inaccessible barrier of about six foot in height between the lane and the field.

‘I can’t see any entrance,’ I complained fretfully.

The driver paused in his attempt to lever my second case through the door of the car. ‘Oh no,’ he assured me with nimble complacency; ‘there’s no entrance at all here, but you’ll just climb over the wall, d’y’ see? The house is beyond there.’

I could not have been more astounded had he told me I must wait for the drawbridge to be lowered! I began to realise that acrobatics were a necessary accomplishment for visitors to Bruach.

‘I can’t climb walls!’ I protested, ‘and that one is a good six feet high. Surely,’ I went on, ‘there must be some other entrance.’

‘Oh surely, madam,’ he replied in conciliatory tones, ‘but the tide’s in just now, and you’d be after swimming for it if you were going to use that tonight.’ He permitted himself a sardonic chuckle.

‘What a welcome!’ I muttered.

‘Ach, you’ll soon nip over the wall easy enough,’ the driver assured me blandly. ‘I’ll give you a leg up myself.’

Now while I do not wish to give the impression that my figure is in any way grotesque, I must disclaim that it is by any means the sort of figure which nips easily over six-foot walls. Agility is not, and never was, my strong point; my figure, though sturdy, being somewhat rotund for anything but a very moderate degree of athleticism. I viewed the prospect of climbing, even with a willing ‘leg up’ from the driver, with misgivings.

Despondently I climbed out of the car. The wind caught me off guard and almost succeeded in unbalancing me, and the rain recommenced its furious assault on my waterproof. From the darkness beyond and uncomfortably close came the pounding and sucking of breakers on the shore. To add to my dismay I perceived that a fast-flowing ditch coursed riotously along the base of the wall. I positively yearned for town pavements.

The driver nonchalantly stepped over the ditch (his legs were long) and pulled himself upwards. He was a tall man and the top of the wall was on a level with his nose. He turned an enquiring gaze on me.

‘They’ll be expectin’ you likely?’ he asked. I agreed that it was extremely likely, for I had sent Morag a wire announcing the probable time of my arrival.

Once again the driver turned to the wall, and gave a stentorian yell, the volume and unexpectedness of which outrivalled the storm and very nearly caused me to make a premature and undesirably close acquaintance with the ditch. Immediately a shaft of yellow light gleamed in the distance as a door was opened and a voice of equal power, though indisputably feminine, called out interrogatively. The driver answered and in spite of the violence of the weather a conversation was carried on, though as I could make out no word of it I concluded it to be in Gaelic.

The shaft of light was blotted out as the door was shut and then a lantern came swinging rhythmically towards us. A moment later a figure surmounted the wall and climbed quickly down to stand beside me. This then was Morag, my future landlady.

‘Well, well, Miss Peckwitt is it? And how are you?’ My hand was lifted in a firm grip and shaken vigorously and I only just managed to evade a full-lipped kiss.

‘My, my, but what a night to welcome a body. Surely you must be drookit,’ she lamented cheerfully. I thought that ‘drookit’ probably meant ‘dead’ and I agreed that I was—almost.

‘Almost? Sure you must be quite,’ she asserted. I decided that ‘drookit’ meant ‘drowned’.

‘Ach, but I have a nice fire waitin’ on you,’ continued Morag happily, ‘and you’ll be warrm and dry in no time at all.’ The softened consonants were very noticeable and to my Sassenach ears the rolled ‘r’s’ sounded as over-emphasised as those of some opera singers.

Morag held up the lantern so that for a moment we were able to study each other’s faces and I was surprised, in view of her agility, to see that hers was dry and wrinkled with age, while the wisps of hair escaping from the scarf she had wound round her head were snowy white. She dropped my hand and turned to the driver.

‘Will we just swing her, up and over between us?’ she asked him.

‘Aye,’ agreed the driver shortly. I bridled and stepped back a pace but, ignoring me, they bent and together swung my two suitcases up and on to the wall. They were swiftly followed by Morag who lifted them down to the other side; then, lissom as a two-year-old, she leaped lightly down again. I gasped at the effortless ease with which she accomplished the feat but her performance did nothing to allay my own apprehension.

‘Is there no other way?’ I asked timidly.

‘No indeed,’ she replied, and pointed down the road; ‘the wee gate’s down there, but the watter’s up and all round it at this hour. It’s a pity you couldna’ have come when the tide was out.’ It occurred to me that tides were going to play a very important part in my new life. I smothered a sigh.

‘Ach, but you’ll find this way easy enough when you put your feets to it,’ Morag went on in an encouraging tone. ‘Now come.’ Cautiously I stepped across the ditch and put my ‘feets’ to it. ‘Now then,’ directed my landlady with heavy pleasantry, ‘one fine feet here... now another fine feet here... that’s lovely just... now another fine feet here....’ Undoubtedly Morag believed her new guest to be a quadruped. The driver who was waiting on the other side of the wall to haul me over also clucked encouragement. I felt a firm grasp on my ankle. ‘Now just another feet here and you’ll be near done,’ instructed Morag. She was right! In the next instant one of my ‘fine feet’ slipped on the treacherous wet stone and I was left clinging desperately with my hands, my legs flaying the air, while the wind Iifted my skirts above my head and the rain committed atrocities on those parts of my body which had not before been directly exposed to such vengeance. The driver, seeing my predicament, came to the rescue and gripping both arms firmly hoisted me bodily over the wall. My feet landed on solid earth. Very wet earth admittedly, but I cared not so long as I had to do no more climbing. Instantly Morag was beside me. ‘You’re all right?’ she enquired anxiously; ‘you didna’ hurt yourself?’

I assured her that I was in no way hurt; though I knew that, even if I had not suffered, my stockings at least were irreparably damaged.

‘That’s all right, then. I’ll tell Ruari to see to your boxes directly.’

‘Oh yes—Ruari,’ I echoed, and had a fleeting vision of a freshly lime-washed Ruari braving this torrential rain, and began to feel better again. After all, I told myself, I had been roughly handled but then I had planned this as something of an adventure.

Opening my purse, I gave the driver his fare plus a moderate tip. He demurred at the latter but on my insistence thanked me courteously and pocketed it. ‘It is indeed,’ I thought, ‘like coming to a different world, where even the taxi-drivers refuse to be tipped.’

Guided by Morag’s lantern I followed her across the sodden grass, over cobblestones and into the tiny hall of the cottage where a candle burned lopsidedly in the draught from some hidden crevice. Taking off my dripping outdoor clothes I hung them on the antlers of a pathetic-looking stag’s head. Morag opened the door of a room on our left and ushered me inside. ‘The room that wasn’t a kitchen’ was a neat lamplit place with an immense fire burning brightly in the well-polished grate. Half on the fire, half on the hob, a kettle stood spouting steam and rattling its lid in ill-concealed impatience, promising a speedy brew of tea. A small table was spread with a white cloth and on it my supper was laid invitingly. After the appalling conditions outside the whole place gave a welcome so much greater than I had expected that I exclaimed over it impulsively. I dropped into a chair and ignoring its formidable creakings watched while Morag, with; self-satisfied smile on her face, busied herself about the meal.

My landlady was a small woman with a broad back which, though not exactly bent, gave one the impression that it was accustomed to carrying many burdens. The rest of her figure was hardly discernible beneath the bulk of clothing she wore, but her movements were lively enough despite a gait which I can only describe as ‘running with one leg and walking with the other’. Her hair, as I have said, was white, her face wizened and freckled. Her eyes, when they were not being soulfully blue, were as mischievous as a small boy’s, while her hands were horny as a man’s, the stubby fingers resembling calcified sausages. Her clothes, or what I could see of them, consisted of a thick tweed jacket over a homespun skirt, the front of which was partially concealed by a now sodden apron, for she had apparently added nothing to her attire when she left the house to come to my assistance. I judged, however, from the proportion of bulk in relation to size, ‘that there were in all probability a great many insulating layers between her skin and her outer garments, which were no doubt as efficient under Island weather conditions as the more conventional waterproof.

The tea brewed, Morag departed, having first assured herself that she could at the moment do nothing further for me beyond promising to stir Ruari into bringing my cases indoors. Accordingly, soon after she had gone I heard the front door bang, and even while I sat sipping my third cup of tea there was a rumble of voices followed by a thudding on the stairs which indicated that my bags were being carried up to my bedroom. I repressed a desire to peep. A few minutes later there was a knock on my door and Morag entered.

‘I’m just sayin’ I didna’ bring Ruari and Lachy in to see you tonight, seeing you’ll be awful tired,’ she began. I protested feebly. ‘You see,’ she went on apologetically, ‘Ruari’s that deaf his shoutin’ near splits the ears off you, and I’m after tellin’ him to keep his mouth shut on the stairs for sure he grunts like a bull.’

‘But who is Lachy?’ I asked, stifling a yawn.

‘Ach, he’s the other half of the boat with Ruari,’ explained Morag obscurely.

‘And what time will you be for takin’ your breakfast?’ she asked.

I suggested about eight-thirty.

‘Half past eight,’ she agreed; ‘and if the Lord spares me I’ll have your fire lit by eight then.’ I glanced at her enquiringly.

‘Aren’t you feeling well then?’ I asked.

‘I’m feelin’ fine,’ she answered with some surprise; ‘why, d’you think I’m lookin’ poorly?’

‘Not at all,’ I rejoined hurriedly, ‘but when you said "if the Lord spares me", I thought perhaps you were not feeling quite well.’

‘I’m feeling quite well tonight,’ replied Morag piously; ‘but who can tell if the Lord may call any one of us before the morn comes; and if He chooses to call me in the night then I canna’ light your fire in the mornin’, can I?’

‘I rather take that for granted,’ I said with a smile.

'Ah indeed, it’s no wise to take anythin’ for granted with the Lord,’ she rebuked me, and then added determinedly: ‘But I'll have your fire lit for eight certain if I’m spared,’ and as though to underline the words she closed the door firmly behind her.

After the long journey, the fright, the bitter cold and now the warmth and food, I became unconquerably sleepy. Wearily I climbed the narrow linoleum-covered stairs to the bedroom which Morag had already pointed out to me. In the room a lamp had been lighted and burned dimly, but more than that everything appeared to be clean and comfortable. I could not have told that night. Unpacking the minimum of necessities, I undressed and tumbled into bed, where I lay for a time listening to the storm outside. Conscious of a queer little thrill, I turned out the lamp. It was the first time in my life that I had actually used an oil-lamp and I was not at all sure whether to blow or keep turning the knob until the flame was completely extinguished. I managed a successful compromise, and as I dropped back on to the pillows and drifted into sleep I was aware of the rain spattering against the window and drumming with dogged persistence on the tiled roof.

The Hills is Lonely

You can purchase The Hills Is Lonely through amazon.co.uk
You can purchase The Hills Is Lonely through amazon.com


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