Julie Rosenfield

My journal

Archive for the category “LIFE WRITING”

How Many Camels?

I wonder if you’ve ever sat down and calculated your worth. Think for a second. I don’t mean bank accounts, property, savings bonds. Your true worth. Not how much you’d get if you sold your hair or the worth you bring to the world for all the good deeds that you do. No, your real worth. In camels.

I asked an ex-boyfriend once, a market trader, how many camels he would take for me if he were ever offered. He didn’t hesitate.

“A gross”
“A gross?”
“A gross of camels. 144.”
“So you would swop me for camels?”
“I could sell them on the market. Business is business.”

Now that is gross.

And then I asked my late mother:

“How many camels would you swap me for?”
“One. Only one? I’m only worth one camel?”
“I couldn’t look after more than one,” she concluded, regretfully.

So there we are, reader.  I am worth somewhere between one and 144 camels. All depending on who I ask, and the current rate of exchange. Bearing in mind that rates may fluctuate. Always check the terms and conditions.

All of which could quite clearly give you the hump.

Unless one day you meet someone who wouldn’t swop you for all the camels in the desert.

Then you really have to stop and think. Especially if you are sitting in a Moroccan-themed café and it isn’t even shisha night. Bong!

“Really? You wouldn’t swop me for any camels?”

Wait. Perhaps he just doesn’t like camels. Perhaps he prefers caramels. Or camel cigarettes. Or llamas.

“There aren’t enough camels in the world…..,” he says softly, gazing into your eyes.


And, of course, if that doesn’t set any a-llama bells ringing, then maybe someone has seen your true worth, after all.

And maybe, just maybe, you should take off with him into the desert.

Or to a dessert island. Now that would be sweet.

Or even a camel ride?

“Only if the camels want to,” he says, gently.

So kind.

Probably on a parallel universe right now, a camel is asking of her beau.

“How many humans am I worth?”

I did say parallel universe. I didn’t say sensible.

“There aren’t enough humans in the world….,” breathes her adoring companion.

“Not enough humans,”  she sighs, contentedly.

Which considering there are 7 billion people in the world, and only 14 million camels (90% being dromedary – one hump, in case you’re wondering) makes camels way more rarer than humans. And therefore perhaps more valuable.

Maybe they don’t even want to be swapped.

No wonder they have the hump.







For me, there’s something about arithmetic that has just never added up.

I’m fine with words and letters but when it comes to numbers and maths, for me, it’s all just a big fat zero.

It all started at infant school. I well remember learning to add up using long and short wooden coloured rods. A little white cube represented the number one, a long dark blue one was the number nine. Quite useful but perhaps a bit unwieldy when it comes to working out the cost of your grocery shopping. I guess that’s why they invented calculators.

Anyway, I did my best with my sums but it was always a struggle. One day, at the age of six, we had a test with the results due to be shown at Parent’s Evening. “You’ve got one wrong,” my kindly teacher Mrs F said, “Would you like to do the whole test again so that your parents can see how well you’ve done?”

I shifted from one foot to the other. I was sure my doting parents wouldn’t have minded me getting one little sum wrong but, ever eager to please, I agreed to retake the whole test. I needn’t have bothered – this time I got three wrong instead! Surely proof that when it comes to maths, more is not necessarily better!

There was no lack of opportunity for mathematical entanglement when it came to Junior School. In fact, here was where my mathematical fortunes took a definite turn for the worse. I dreaded ever being called upon to solve any problem in class as I when it came to maths, for me, it was really was just problems, problems, problems.

In my first year,  Mrs L often vocally showed her despair of me with my “poor” handwriting and my lack of ability in the numbers department. One day, after a test, she called out my name. “Julie Rosenfield!” I could feel my ears wiggle as I braced myself for the inevitable put down. “You’ve got them all right.” I don’t know who was more shocked – her or me.

I don’t have too many bad memories in the second year as I ploughed my way through long division and fractious fractions wiht our jolly teacher, Mr C, and I must have made reasonable progress along the way.

However, on the first day of the third year, I got the shock of my life. The school, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that because that because class sizes in my year had grown too large – to 44 pupils per class in some cases – they would subtract a percentage of them and add them to a class in the year above.

I couldn’t believe it. I had just skipped a year and left all of my classmates behind. My parents and I were never consulted on this, and as a result, I spent a wretched year struggling through maths, particularly hard when I’d effectively missed a whole year of tuition. The teacher Mrs M was kind enough but again with such large classes there wasn’t the time to give me the individual attention I needed to catch up. I used to lie awake at night, desperate not to sleep. Sleep would have only meant having to wake up again the next day and face another battle with numbers which I had no hope of winning.

At the age of ten, I was invited to take the entrance test for senior school a year early, but this time my parents stepped in and refused to allow me to take it. Just as well, as I would never have passed the maths section of the entrance exam.

But this now meant spending a second year in the fourth year, at the mercies of Mr X, my maths teacher. When it came to controlling the class, Mr X had two weapons of class destruction: the slipper – which caused many a recipient to rub their backsides ruefully – and biting sarcasm. Although, thankfully, I never received any of the former, I still bear the scars of the latter.

Our endless companion through the mathematical jungle in those days was a huge yellow book entitled School Mathematics Project or SMP for short. I dreaded that book, not so much for the incomprehensible sums it contained, but because of the sheer weight of it, dragging down my brief case, as I struggled to walk back home from the bus stop with it.

One day, in class, I had a split-second decision to make. I already had a ton of books weighing me down for homework from other subjects and now Mr X had assigned some homework from the dreaded SMP book.

In a rare moment of rebellion, I decided to leave my SMP behind and make my way home with the rest of the books. I paid dearly for this insurrection the next day.

“Julie Rosenfield is soooo clever she doesn’t need to do her homework,” announced Mr X, sarcastically to the whole class the next day as I reluctantly revealed my insubordination. I blushed in shame, vowing never to repeat the same mistake again.

Maths at senior school was less traumatic but just plain difficult. Our maths teacher in the first few years, Miss R, was a brilliant mathematician but just couldn’t seem to get the message across to those of us who were mathematically challenged. To her credit, she did stay behind and give me extra maths in lunch hours.

“2 x + 2y?” ran the question in the maths text book.

“Er, 4y?” I guessed bravely

“4y?” she exclaimed in horror. “But you wouldn’t say 2 apples plus 2 oranges = 4 oranges, would you?”

Possibly not, but as hard as I tried, when it came to x and y’s, I was always at sixes and sevens!

I had one major revelatory moment in a maths class in the fifth year, when my teacher was a kind and patient lady, Mrs B.

We had spent the morning battling through some particularly fierce quadratic equations for which I could find no solution or reason. At one moment, Mrs B proudly demonstrated the latest solution to one of these fiendish teasers to the collective sigh of relief from the class. She then turned round and said, “And do you know, there are some people who don’t even like maths?” It was a shock to me to realise that some of my fellow students shared her surprise and to find that people actually did like maths, the subject that I’d struggled with and agonised over for years.

Having barely scraped my maths qualification at 16, I resolved never to touch the subject again, and promised myself that the only pi I would ever go near in future would be the kind containing apple and accompanied by ice cream.

But a couple of chance encounters recently with present-day maths teachers have set me thinking. The first one said that maths is no longer the same battleground it once was. Modern teaching methods have apparently turned the whole subject round and made it much more exciting and relevant to modern day life. For instance, nowadays, pupils are shown videos of football games and asked to calculate the curve of the ball into the net thus sparking their interest and making the subject come alive.

And a second teacher, a committed, patient and kind individual, has even suggested I have a go at doing an Open University course to improve my maths. So this week, I had a go at one of their online quizzes and was thrilled to get 85% in Level 1 and 68% in Level 2 which was a great source of surprise and encouragement.

So I am seriously thinking of giving maths another go particularly, as I do still struggle in everyday life with numbers. Trying to figure out, for instance, in the supermarket which products are better value or trying to work out how to convert a journey of kilometres into miles is still really problematic for me.

I guess if I do start to study maths again, I know there will be slip-ups along the way but there definitely won’t be slippers. I guess it’s something I just need to figure out for myself and see if further mathematical study might perhaps be a welcome addition to my life after all!

 For more information about studying maths with the Open University, please visit http://mathschoices.open.ac.uk/


“You trod on our ladybird.”

“No, I did not.”

“Yes you did.”

“No, I never.”

“She trod on our ladybird.”

But I wouldn’t have done that, I couldn’t have done.  Well, not deliberately anyway. Of course, I had walked all over the infant school playground: that’s all I ever did. On my own, every play-time.

On my own, of course, except for two persistent girls, in the year below me, who hounded me every single day at break time:

“Ugh, I don’t like your dress.”

“Ugh, I don’t like your shoes.”

What harm was I doing to them? All I was doing was walking around the playground. Sometimes, I wasn’t even walking. On sunny days, I’d look down at the ground and try as slowly and as carefully as I could to step out of my shadow. And, perhaps, if I could just move my foot this way and that, and then lift it up, then I could actually break away from my shadow altogether.

I don’t even know why I wanted to step out of my shadow. After all, it was my only companion….

What was it about this shy, lonely, quiet child that attracted such unnecessary and unwanted attention?

“What are you doing, looking at the ground?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to step out of my shadow….”

“Step out of your shadow? You’re crazy”

Every play time, day after day after day …..

I was sick to the stomach and not just metaphorically. One evening, on the way home in the school taxi, I was thoroughly, shamefully and disgracefully sick.

And it was all the more shameful because I was right outside my house at the time. A couple of more minutes, and I could have squeezed out from between my schoolfellows in the back of the car and made it to the pavement. But, unfortunately, it just didn’t happen that way.

“She was sick in the car last night,” yelled one of my persecutors the next day, who had witnessed the whole thing.

“She was sick? Ugh. Ugh,” and they promptly proceeded to go round the playground, telling every single person who was in earshot.

But, at least, with that, they avoided me for a whole week: whether it was because they were simply disgusted by me or whether they were scared of catching some dreadful disease, I don’t know.  But, at least, it gave me a reprieve until the next week, when it all began again.

“But, why don’t you have any brothers or sisters?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t ….”

“Well, why don’t you get your mummy and daddy to go the shop and buy one?”

I’d had enough. In the end, I told my parents. My dad came into the school playground with me one morning. He spoke to the girls and asked them firmly to leave me alone. Temporarily emboldened by his presence, I told them defiantly:

“And babies don’t come from the shop, they come from the hospital.”

There, that shut them up. For another week…

Sometimes, I tried to seek refuge with the other children but it was really difficult. It was only the popular girls who were invited to join in the games of skipping and elastic.

“House for Sale

Apply Within

If you’d don’t buy now

Mrs Wilkinson will come in.”

The surname chosen was always that of whichever boy the girl fancied at the time, amidst much giggling and laughter from her companions.

There was only one way to be included in their games.

“Please can I join in? I’ll hold the end all the time,” I’d plead, and occasionally, they would allow me.

“Salt, Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper

French Almond Rock

Bread and Butter for your supper’s

All your Mother’s got.”

But it didn’t last long. After all, there were already girls who held the permanent positions of turning the ends of the skipping rope or standing with the elastic round their ankles so that the other girls could  jump in. Although not high up enough in the pecking order to join in the actual game, at least, they had the kudos of being involved in a humble capacity, a position which they guarded zealously.

It was all so hard. I mean, I hadn’t even wanted to go to school in the first place.

“You’ll be starting school, soon,” my mother had encouraged, a year previously.

“I don’t want to go to school,” I protested, in a cry which would soon become my constant morning refrain on school days.

“You’ll like school. Couisn Stephen goes to school.”

Of course, what she neglected to tell me was that Stephen, at three years older than me, was already in the neighbouring junior school. It was in vain that I tried to claw my way through the railings which separated my infant school from his junior school to look for him to see if he could help me to escape my tormentors. But he was always way at the back of his playground, immersed in a noisy game of football with his fellow schoolmates.

No, help if it was ever to arrive would not come from that source. But, in my dreams, help would come one day. Batman and Robin would turn up in the Batmobile. They’d come into the classroom, look at the list of names on the wall, and they’d pick me – actually pick me – to go off with them and have adventures. How I dreamed of that day, and hoped with all my heart that it would come very soon.

But, apart from those wretched break-times, I was actually doing well at school. I enjoyed reading the Janet and John books, despite their very specific gender roles: Janet is helping Mummy in the kitchen, John is helping Daddy with the car. And then the Ladybird  books, jam-packed with knowledge and wonder: The Ladybird book of Pets, The Ladybird book of Things to Make, The Ladybird book of I Spy …

And then, finally, I found a friend in my class: Jimmy: a really, lovely, little dark-haired boy. We sat together every day in class, reading, doing sums using long, wooden, coloured bars, drawing pictures …

We started getting closer until he actively started to seek me out at playtime.

And then, one day, when we were both swinging round a pole in the playground, we found ourselves standing face to face, and then he leaned forward and kissed me. I was so happy at last and Johnny promised he was going to marry me when we grew up. It was all sorted – a done deal…

This euphoria lasted several days until, one day, a tall, plump girl, from the year above came bearing down on me.

“Open wide,” she commanded.

“What?” I replied.

“Open your mouth.”

So I did: in surprise, as much as anything else.

“You’ve got no front teeth,” she said, examining the wide gap in my mouth where my front milk teeth used to be.

“So?” I quivered.

“Repeat after me: all I want for Xmas is my two front teeth.”

“No, I won’t,” I shouted defiantly.

“Say it …”


“Then I’ll ask Jimmy not to marry you ….”

But she couldn’t. She wouldn’t, would she?

And, then from the next playtime, Jimmy no longer came to find me. And instead, I saw him chasing after Wendy as fast as his little legs would carry him…

Which just left me back in the playground, sadder and lonelier than before and, as the Gilbert O’Sullivan song said:  “Alone Again, Naturally.”

I don’t know whatever happened to my tormentors. I have no memory of them after infant school, and thankfully, despite recalling all their teasing, cannot even remember their names. I guess they went on to lead happy lives, marry and have children. I wonder whether, decades later, they ever think back and feel sorry for how they behaved or whether they have completely forgotten.

These days, I read recently, things are very different at my former school. They have a new special scheme where any child who is lonely, and who has no-one to play with at break-time, can sit on a designated bench, and some specially-appointed, responsible games monitors will come and collect them and start up a game with them. It’s a wonderful scheme and one for which they deservedly won a top award.

Yes, these days, happily, they are very kind to the children at my old school, and I, in turn, am always very kind to ladybirds.


For advice on preventing school bullying, visit http://www.kidscape.org.uk/


Until the fourth year of Junior School, I was proud to say that I had never been summoned to the headmaster’s study. My quiet, obedient ways and observance of school rules would have made it inconceivable that I should ever have to enter that sacred place. That was reserved for those who erred in their ways and merited more than a well-aimed board duster or carefully applied ruler and who would then more than meet their match with the esteemed Head and the trusty cane.

So it was with no little trepidation that one morning at school assembly, it was announced that all those fourth years who lived in a certain area of the borough were to report to the headmaster’s study immediately after prayers. My fears were not alleviated by the appearance of one boy leaving the study ruefully rubbing his behind. School was strict but surely, I reasoned, they would not punish us all purely on geographical grounds.

It was true that in the past I had suffered from collective punishments doled out to the whole class. Despite my general shyness and tongue-tiedness, if the class were found to be talking, then we would all be sentenced to the standard discipline of 100 lines “I must not talk in class” which dutifully I was bound to do despite whispering between clenched teeth “But I never do, Miss”.

On the day that found me queued up to await my fate at the headmaster’s office, I thought about how different Junior School was from my beloved Infants school. There I was truly helped and encouraged in a very caring way. My earnest little compositions would receive red stars and on the one occasion when I was summoned to the headmistress’s office, it was to be given a very special gold star for one of my stories and a liquorice allsort.

“Are you going to be an authoress when you grow up?”, queried the kindly looking, grey-haired headmistress.

“What’s one of those?” I queried in wonder.

“A lady who writes stories”. That sounded wonderful.

“Oh yes, please, that’s just what I’d like to be.”

But childlike ambitions of necessity had to give way to the more authoritarian discipline of the junior school. We had to struggle with masses of homework, no more toys to play with, and the constant reminders of the need to study hard and better ourselves.

Although I still relished the chance of English lessons and the chance to write the inevitably more serious essays, my worse dread was the daily maths lesson. Not only was it hard enough trying to disentangle the intricacies of fractions, probability and algebra, but the gargantuan size of the text book which had to be conveyed home every night for the evening’s homework was surely meant to tax my aching back as well as my struggling brain. Also it was most distressing to find that the boys who used to be my playmates at Infants had now become obsessed with playing football, were mean to the girls and were, frankly, quite horrid.

My reveries were finally interrupted when I discovered to my relief that the queue I had joined was actually being diverted into the office of the school secretary. And it came as even more of a relief to find that the reason for our summons was not punishment but rather an opportunity for those who wished to compete in the following term’s entrance exams for grammar schools to fill out the appropriate forms.

This prospect, daunting in itself, had to be faced in an effort to improve our prospects and avoid being sent to the local comprehensive and the thought of being squashed in with the boys for another five years. The grammar school would at least be girls-only and I would be spared the bad language and cussing of the boys. I had a choice between two girls’ schools and my excitement on learning that if I made it to the sixth form of one of them that I would be able to study Chinese and learn ice-skating made my choice a very straightforward one.

But in order to do that, it meant having to accept a very daunting invitation. Dr Arnold, the head of our school, was a much respected, revered and feared man. An ex-Cambridge scholar, his knowledge and cleverness were renowned through the borough as was his unstinting call for discipline and not infrequent use of the cane.

Tall, stout, with black curls pressed to his head in very tidy fashion, he would mainly stay in his study, and only for school assemblies and by the errant students who were required to see him, would his full black-gowned figure be glimpsed.

With the advent of the coming entrance exam the following term, Dr Arnold decreed that all prospective applicants should assemble in his study on alternate days for extra tuition, the days to be attended to be determined by gender. And thus was the start for me of the dreaded lunchtime “Girls’ Group”. The days where it was “Boys Group” were met with great relief and skipping.

The headmaster’s study, once penetrated, revealed itself, to be small, dusty and lined with learned volumes on all aspects of English literature, the classics, religion and philosophy. In pride of place, in military fashion assembled the combined 12 troops of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, ready to be called in at any moment when the complexity of the English language decreed more clarification. What those fine yellow foot soldiers made of the sight of the twenty or so ungainly girls clutching chairs and trying as best as they could to fit into the small area was never revealed. Those of us who were last in the queue inevitably spent the lesson in the corridor, straining to hear the day’s lesson and fearful of missing anything and the resulting consequences meted out to those who were not alert.

My days in the corridor, however, were numbered. During one session, Dr Arnold determined that we should all take turns in reading from a selected text – in this case the popular novel Jane Eyre. I deeply dreaded my turn, being fearful of making errors, and indeed my voice was rarely ever heard in a class unless a direct question was put to me. Somehow or other on that day I managed to trip along my allotted share without too much cause for concern.

It was then a great surprise to hear my respected teacher intoning “From now on, Julie, I want you do all the reading aloud for the girl’s group.” This appointment of myself as the regular narrator came as a great shock. It also meant that I always had to have a position seated by the right side of my mentor with all the necessary pushing and shoving amongst the other girls that that represented and would have to be under the constant watch of my tutor. Not an honour I would ever have chosen for myself.

And so it was that in the confines of that dark study in rainy and sunny lunchtimes alike, I led the class through Jane Eyre from the horrors of the Red Room and into the eventual welcoming arms of Mr Rochester. But safety for me was, alas, not forthcoming. “From now on,” boomed my professor, “You will read for the boys’ group too.”

And so it was that, all thoughts of seeing anything of the school playground at lunchtime, even to hold the end of the skipping rope all the time, came to an abrupt end. Looks of amazement by passing scholars greeted the appearance of a small, bespectacled girl with long dishevelled brown hair in the queue of unruly boys waiting for their turn to discover Treasure Island.

“There’s a girl in boy’s group”, was the frequent response aimed at my direction. Whether they expected me to look round, realise my error, drop my chair and retreat sharply I do not know. All that I do know is that my presence and voice were requested daily except for days on which extra maths was being taught and then I earned a short but merciful reprieve from the room with its temporarily restrained, watchful boys. Even they had to suspend their usual indolence, each being gripped in the knowledge that a mistaken or careless answer could result in great wrath or scorn being heaped on them in front of their peers and always the ever-present cane was an encouragement, in the study at least, for seemly behaviour.

All through the term, I struggled on with both groups. Not only was I the voice for the great classic stories, but also a tome of poetry entitled The Poet’s Sphere, but secretly named by me The Poet’s Fear, brought fresh terrors as I struggled to enunciate the verse of Keats, Tennyson and Robert Browning. Such was the wide range of knowledge and familiarity with all aspects of cultivated learning that our Head would often diversify enormously with wide-ranging treatises on a selected verse.

I remember one whole lesson being devoted to a phrase from Browning’s “Oh to be in England.” “That’s the wise thrush”, I recited, “He sings each song twice over least you thought he never could recapture that first fine careless rapture.” We were invited to marvel at the extraordinary ability thus displayed by the cited bird and follow the leaps of content which Dr Arnold introduced on the living and mating habits of the thrush, its geographical location, appearance in literary forms and, when all possible source material had expired, reference was usefully made yet again to the combined knowledge of the Shorter OED.

These necessary lessons continued unabated throughout the second term as the dates for the exam grew ever closer. Each day’s lesson represented a veritable obstacle to be carefully negotiated and could be made more or less bearable by the mood of Dr Arnold – mercurial at best – as he tried to encapsulate the breadth of his learning into the minds of pupils who would frankly rather by out playing football or jumping elastic but who knew what fine futures were expected of them by the school and by the parents.

Many factors influenced Dr Arnold’s mood; the behaviour of the pupils that day, their ability to respond correctly to a carefully sharpened question or the temperature of the office. But there was one other variable over which we pupils had no control and which could alter the course of the lesson more than anything else.

This was the appearance of a white-overalled hair-netted dinner lady who humbly offered our Head the customary tea and digestive biscuit half-way through the lesson, while we looked on in hunger as our own lunch was delayed to give way to the nourishment of our minds and souls.

Often this good lady’s entry into the office was not commented on, absorbed as our tutor was with expounding the intricacies of the oxymoron, onomatopoeia or the difference between homonyms and synonyms.

However, at other times, a question of prime importance was aimed in her direction.

“And what’s for lunch today?” he’d boom, as we all quivered in anticipation whilst he awaited a befitting coherent and rational answer. Two of the myriad possibilities held the power of release or despair over the assembled gathering.

If the alliterative phrase “Sardine Salad” was the response to that vital question, then we knew immediately that we were doomed. “Sardine salad!” would come the dejected response from our esteemed pedagogue and his mood would immediately bleaken. Not even the promise of the additionally alliterative “Fruit Flan” for dessert would relieve the sudden gloom as our teacher subsequently displayed all the coldness of the particular fish in question to those of us present. My reading voice would in turn quiver with the suddenly ill-humoured session which would inevitably lead to extra homework, chilling questions and displays of vexation towards any hapless pupil who dared unwittingly to err either in attention or in correctness of answer.

At other times however, two precious words could elevate the lunchtime session into a haven of merriment and jollity. All the white uniformed attendant would need to do was to intone the daily offering and then add the magic phrase “…and chips” on the end. We never took much account of what the rest of the meal was as an exquisite chortle of glee would escape the lips of our famed professor. “It’s chips – oh it’s chips”, he would cry out.  Our load would then become as light as that of a mule unexpectedly being given the day off from its heavy packload by an enlightened owner. Chips meant mirth, good humour, less homework and the chance to finish the lesson early.

The year I took the second part of my entrance exam to my eventual High School was, Dr Arnold said, “The luckiest year ever.” In previous years, hopefuls had been given a mock class based around a Latin or a Maths lesson. Mercifully for me, that year, they chose English as the sample lesson.  Normally, I believe I wouldn’t have stood a chance at passing the stiff requirements of that excellent school but, fortified by double helpings of English tuition, I was able to meet that challenge and succeed in passing the entrance exam. How could I have known that once at the girl’s school I would find that I really missed the company of boys or that by the time I reached the sixth form, they would have abolished Chinese lessons and the ice skating?

Never mind, that was still in front of me. For now, I had won my scholarship. That year at Prize Giving Day on my last day in the Junior School, I received a special merit prize from the headmaster – partly for my reading aloud to the group and partly for passing that all important exam. I could never have done it though without the dedicated hours spent in the headmaster’s study under the expert, painstaking guidance of my tutor – thank you, Mr Chips!

(One of the joys of being a vegan is knowing that I will never have to face the terrors of Sardine Salad again and, at least, I know that I can always have chips with everything!)

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