Intimate Exchange

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by AdamCarlton

‘I’m sure I can help you, Gail…’


September ’73:

She was sitting in the restaurant room when he saw her, noticeably different in appearance from the other students. Smartly dressed in a creamy beige blouse, her top three buttons undone, a dark brown corduroy skirt, worn above her knees. Her tights were flesh-tone. She had shoulder-length greasy brown hair. He tried to concentrate on what Quill was saying: his welcome to the college, the daily timetable, lectures: cookery class, food and beverage service, but Keir couldn’t take his eyes off her. She looked so different. Her face...

Quill: ‘…nutrition, management, accounts, law and housekeeping. Please do ensure that you arrive punctually in the kitchens for Mr Stall and Mr Speller’s classes: knives sharp, wearing pristine whites. I expect you to dress in a clean white shirt, black bow tie, black trousers and cummerbund when working in the restaurant. Remember, you will be serving the Public, and we must constantly strive to give of our best. Are there any questions?’

Her face was strange, painted…

Quill, looking terribly formal in his stiff white shirt, silver tie, waistcoat, black jacket and pin-stripe trousers, traditional restaurant morning suit attire, was nodding - at one of the other boys,

‘Yes, Michael.’

Her face was an inverted triangle…

Michael was portly, chubby-cheeked with a ruddy complexion and shock of bushy-blonde hair. For the first day, he’d chosen to wear his flared brown trousers, a psychedelic-patterned purple shirt, kipper tie, and a clown’s chequered jacket. An eccentric: Chichester, Worthing, Brighton? Well-to-do, upper middle class, unlike Keir. Michael was, probably, attending college for the fun of it, in the absence of any career plan or need to work. His posh accent came as no surprise,

‘Mr Quill, Sir.’

Keir cringed.

‘Please, call me Peter.’

An audible sigh of relief passed round the room. Quill was human after all. Michael recovered,

‘Peter, what is a cummerbund?’

They all fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. For a moment, Keir thought Quill was going to explode. Their welcome packs contained explicit instructions on the formal dress code for students working in the restaurant. Cummerbunds were an absolute requirement.

He glanced at her. She smiled at him, appreciating his thick, curly, teak hair, steel-blue eyes, lean smooth tanned face, and slim physique. Her smile lit up the canvas of her face. He smiled at her, excited by her. She was attracted to him. He looked lonely, vulnerable, and shy. Quill noticed, grinned at them, then answered Michael’s question,

‘A cummerbund,’ he explained, to muted tittering from the girls, ‘is the wide black sash that I expect students to wear around their waists when they are serving in the restaurant. You were issued with a list of what to wear when working in the kitchen and the restaurant as part of your welcome pack. Did you receive it?’

The beau flushed, ‘Yes, Peter.’

‘And did you read it?’

Several students burst out laughing. She laughed. Keir loved to hear her laugh. He wanted her to be happy. Her face was delicately painted with a lovely masque: beige crème foundation, teak eyeliner, black mascara, dark cherry red lipstick. He was struck by her alien beauty, her intimate make-up.

Keir was scruffy, unkempt, in need of her care and attention. He needed her to cherish him, hoped she felt a powerful sense of attraction towards him, hoped she’d never felt this way about a boy, and wanted to make him happy, too. He hadn’t shaved. A hot flush spread through her body, scintillating her, thrilling her. She felt herself liquify in his presence. She raised her arm to speak,

‘Yes, Gail?’

Her name was Gail! She had an unusual allure about her. It was clear, from when she spoke, that she wasn’t from those parts, wasn’t a Sussex girl. Her voice rose, lilting sweetly, ending on a divine high, her personal question mark,

‘Peter…?’

Gail had their undivided attention. All eyes fell on her. Quill rubbed his chin, wondering what on earth was the matter with her,

‘Yes?’

‘I think I need to go to the toilet. Can you tell me where the toilet is, please?’

Keir felt his jaw drop. Gail stood bolt upright, clearly in distress. He felt sorry for her.

Quill sputtered, ‘Down the corridor, first door on the right.’

Keir watched astounded as she ran out of the room. His life would never be the same again.

*****

Their first lecture was Food Hygiene in the laboratory with Dr Goodlier, a portly woman with a dense brown perm flecked with grey, an unsightly chocolate birthmark on her right cheek. No wedding ring that Keir could see. Feeling for her, blemished, tarnished, like that, he took an instant like to her. She wished them all a bright, cheerful, ‘Good Morning Students!’ then taught them how to wash their hands properly, using soap, hot water, a stiff nail brush. They each took it in turns to wash their hands.

Jill Aylett, a slim, tall, elegant girl with shoulder-length auburn hair, the face of an angel, a future air hostess, surely, stood at the basin, gently washing her hands. Keir noticed; she was wearing glossy pink nail varnish which isn’t allowed when handling food. She shook her hands, reached for a green paper towel, and wiped her perfectly manicured fingertips.

Standing aside for him, she spoke in a curly-wurly foxy accent which had a deliciously soothing effect on him, warm molten milk chocolate stuck onto his palate. Swindon, Salisbury, Devizes? Keir found himself haunted by her emerald eyes, her soft dulcet tones,

‘I noticed you fancying the strangeling. Gail, isn’t it?’

Strangeling?

He tried in vain to suppress his irritation at her condescending attitude,

‘Yes, her name is Gail, and no, I don’t fancy her.’

‘You could’ve fooled me. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. Word of advice if I may.’

‘Go on.’

‘Where I come from, in The New Forest, we have a saying, ‘You can never tame a wild horse.’

Keir stared at her, perplexed, ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means,’ she lectured, ‘The girl’s trouble. Don’t go anywhere near her.’

His West Sussex sarcasm got the better of him, ‘Oh, thanks for that gem.’

‘Don’t mention it.’

He felt a kidney punch to the small of his back: Pat Huntley, a short, squat, dumpy blonde in a floppy black t-shirt and Levi’s, goading him affectionately, 

‘Get a move on, nipper.’

Her accent was unmistakably Australian. He apologized.

She gave him a knowing look, ‘That’s okay, skippy. No worries.’

Keir watched Jill strut back to her seat, tossing stray hairs off her face, turning her nose up at him, showing off as if she owned him already. It was only then that he realised: Gail was missing.

You can never tame a wild horse.

*****

Nick was sitting at the bench furthest from Dr Goodlier. Keir was disconcerted, alarmed to see him again, astonished by the coincidence. He sat next to Jill, Gail’s seat, and Pat, enjoying the company of attractive young women. They fawned over him, reaching over to stroke the thick matt of ginger hairs sprouting from the backs of his hands.

And why not? His rugged good looks attracted girls like moths to the lamplight when they were in the 6th form at Ifield. If anything, his face and body had matured, hardened, like a ripening sex-cheese, over the summer holiday. He had a mean sallow face filled out with freckles, lightly bearded, ginger hair, cruel, thin lips. His body was lean, muscular, sinewy, without an inch of fat in sight. He wore a shiny russet leather bomber jacket, which made him look hip, over a shocking tangerine vest: an invitation to Jill and Pat to stroke his manly mass of chest hair - which they did, eagerly.

Keir recalled how Nick ignored him when they boarded the 7.45 to Portsmouth Harbour that morning. Nick loathed him. He sat at the back, glowering with contempt, deep hatred. Whereas Keir took a seat at the front and tried to put him out of his mind.

Goodlier was circulating with a box of sealed petri dishes, telling the students what to do with them, as she handed them out,

‘I want you to carefully remove the lid of the dish, then carefully press your right index fingertip into the agar jelly in the dish,’ she paused, ‘Now, carefully replace the lid and write your name clearly on the label. Next week we will review the growth of bacteria under the microscope. Find out how well you really washed your hands!’

Her voice was shrill with childish excitement, her tone filled with emphasis. She spoke down at them, treating them like her children. Children, Keir suspected, she yearned for but could never have. He had a bizarre notion, an insightful vision of Gail, wondering if she wanted to have his babies.

The rest of Food Hygiene was taken up by an open forum discussion about the essentials of hygienic food handling. Keir established that Gail should have washed her hands after visiting the toilet. He thought of her dramatic exit. Where was she hiding?

‘No nail varnish, make-up, or jewellery to be worn,’ Goodlier was saying.

Jill’s wild strawberry nails came to mind. Keir smiled as he dreamed of Pat’s chunky gold necklace, Gail’s thick make-up, plastered-on like war paint…

What would her face look like, nude?

She intrigued him. He wanted her. He felt a soft hand shaking his shoulder accompanied by the unmistakable twang of Pat,

‘Wake up, sleepy head.’

He opened his eyes, shaking his weary head awake, ‘What?’

‘It’s lunch-time. Going outside for a fag. Like to join me? Get to know me better? Well?’

She smoked. Keir imagined what she would taste like if he kissed her. Coughing, sputtering, choking on her smoke. His mind drifted back to Sally at the 6th Form disco. Her sequinned top, bloody-red hot pants, ruddy-rouge lips. Opening her mouth, fully, for him to taste her. The disturbing flow of smoky ectoplasm from her mouth. Sally, seer at their private séance, spewing forth smoke like a possessed medium hunched over her Ouija board. Summoning him like her dead. He craned his head at Pat, and declined,

‘Thanks, but I skipped breakfast this morning. Need to eat.’

‘Suit yourself,’ she huffed at him, stalking off towards the corridor to be with Jill and Nick.

Goodlier was collecting petri dishes. Keir made a point of thanking her for an interesting lesson. She flushed. Her flush made the ugly birthmark blight her face in scarlet. He felt sorry for her, understanding her anguish, the never-ending loneliness she would endure, then heard her talk,

‘Thank you, Keir, for understanding me.’

He gathered up his notes, slipping the thin sheaf into his cheap plastic portfolio case, zipped it up, and left the lab without even looking at her, his mind preoccupied with the enigma that was Gail.

*****

The refectory was located at the rear of a prefabricated, late-sixties, concrete monolith. A spotlessly clean rectangular room, light and airy, warmed by the unseasonal noonday sun. To the left was a mishmash of round and oblong tables, a line of square tables for two near the full-length plate glass windows. The fire doors were open, halfway down, leading to a paved courtyard. Beyond that stretched a grassy field, bordered by a line of trees: oaks, chestnut changing colours, beech, the hazy outline of downs in the distance. The courtyard was a hive of activity. Keir stood by the window and took a closer look.

Some of the girls, dressed in white nylon coats, were particularly beautiful: not a smudge in their lipstick, blemish on their faces, hair out of place. He surmised that these were Beauticians. Other girls wore smarter. more formal charcoal grey jackets, skirts, and crisp-white blouses. Receptionists? They seemed relaxed, chatty, at ease with each other. None of them smoked.

In contrast, the Catering students huddled along the window, sunning themselves. Pat and Jill were lying prone, flat-on-the-pavement, jeans rolled up to their knees, drawing heavily on cigarettes. Coughing, wheezing their pretty guts out, between snatches of chat with an obese girl with frizzy hair and puffy cheeks who Keir didn’t recognize. He caught a glimpse of Nick, standing on the grass with his back to him, staring at the blue sky as if he were a ship’s boy in a crow’s nest searching for some distant land. Relieved not to see his scowling mush, Keir surveyed the refectory. The place was deserted.

His stomach rumbled. Time to eat. He joined the queue of one. A slim serving lady with saggy jowls, a lined face, and pinned-on paper forage hat advised him that the chips and beans were on the way. There was a choice of gammon steak and pineapple, chicken and mushroom pie, or fish fingers and peas. He scanned the cold display: stacks of plain sandwiches, filled cheese rolls, frozen Black Forest gateau (in wedges), eclairs, cans of Tab, boxed apple pies, jellies, Golden Wonder, Penguins, Snacks. Keir survived on a grant, a tight budget. He decided on fish fingers, chips, and baked beans, with a Penguin for dessert.

Emilia Unger: a shortish girl with mousy hair, round cheeks, and shapely figure, turned to face him. She was wearing a flimsy see-through blouse. Keir could see her spotty breasts. Her face was covered in open sores which festered in her lips, nostrils, chin, neck, and cheeks. She kept touching herself, scratching, itching herself. He found her distressing, awkward to cope with. She spoke rapidly, in coarse Sussex, a common girl: Bognor, Portsmouth?

‘Great here, isn’t it?’

Keir nodded at her, surprised at how cheerful she was, given her constant discomfort. A chef appeared at the hot counter to top up the chips and beans. The dinner lady held out a hot plate in her serving cloth, dishing up gammon steak for Emilia, as she scratched crusts off her spots,

‘Pineapple, darling?’ she asked.

‘Please.’

‘Chips?’

‘Please.’

‘Beans or peas?’

‘Beans, please.’

‘There you go, sweetheart. Lift your tray. Mind the plate. It’s hot.’

‘Thankyou.’

Emilia stopped scratching herself. Keir watched her face glow as she received her meal: as if she were receiving alms, manna from heaven; wondering at the conviction in her, the fortitude that made her carry on. How could she possibly handle food in her condition? Perhaps she would wear mitts in the kitchen to stop herself scratching. Her pus was filled with salmonella, poor girl. She cried,

‘Sit with me.’

Keir shook his head, looking over her, desperate not to share her burden, to get involved,

‘Sorry, I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

He spotted Gail at the far end of the refectory, her bowed head in her hands, her face covered, her shoulders slumped. Desperate, wanting to console her, he vaguely heard Emilia’s tremulous voice interfering in the background,  

‘Don’t you like me?’

‘It isn’t that.’

Keir wanted to say how much he admired her, wanted to be her friend. But the sight of Gail clouded his mind. Instead, he focused on her rejection. Rejection was never his strongest point. His feelings for Emilia were not dissimilar to those he felt for Paula three years ago: initial fascination, intrigue, followed by repulsion at the rippling folds of flab she revealed to him on their last night, her vain enticement to make love to her. He had blanched, fleeing the bedroom, telling her he never wanted to see her again. Paula clung on in hope, a lovelorn limpet, craving his slim tanned body. It had taken him six months to prise her off him. His heart sank as Emilia persisted in fighting for her lost cause,

‘What is it then?’

He shrugged his shoulders.

She set down her tray, itching badly, scratching herself incessantly, a bleeding heart,

‘Is it my spots?’

He couldn’t bear to answer her, ignoring her, directing his attention at Maggie who had pinned on a name badge during the kerfuffle. Emilia gave up all hope and stormed off.

‘Fish fingers, chips and beans, please Maggie,’ he said cockily, watching her lift his plate, ‘Do you have any ketchup?’

She flashed him a lovely smile that lit up her whole face, made her look twenty years younger,

‘In the bottle on the table, darling. Can I get you anything else?’

She looked sensational, for her age,

‘No thank you, Maggie. I think that’s all for now.’

‘There you go, sweetheart. Lift your tray. Mind the plate. It’s extremely hot.’

Careful not to tilt the tray, he walked towards Gail, content to study her feet, her bandy calves. She visibly relaxed, easing her legs apart for him under the table. The shin of her left calf had grazed, presumably during her rush to the toilet, laddering her tights, shaving layers of dermis off her skin. She’d bled, a flesh wound: her blood running in a scarlet rivulet down the front of her calf, over the bridge of her foot, under the vamp of her open-toed shoe, drying in her scab.

Keir was always grazing himself as a boy. He’d sit on a tree stump for hours picking off scabs. Still, he couldn’t believe that she had fled from Quill’s room in open-toed sandals,

‘Gail?’

At the sound of his voice, she uncovered her face, put her hands palms-down on the table, and stared at him. He could tell that she had been crying. Her eyes were sored red. Four streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks, smudging her perfect foundation with tear trails. Her delightfully snub nose was running. She sniffed,

‘Yes?’

‘I saw you crying.’

‘So? Girls can cry, can’t they?’

‘I was worried about you, the way you ran out of Quill’s class.’

‘Worried? Why would you worry about me? You don’t even know me.’

The soothing words flowed from his mouth unhindered,

‘Gail, I care for you.’

‘Sit with me,’ she said, cheering up, ‘I must look a mess. I don’t have a tissue. Do you?’

Keir pulled up a chair and sat opposite her, pushing his tray aside to create space for her. On the table lay a half-eaten egg mayo and cress roll. He noticed that she had picked out the cress, leaving it lying in a neat heap next to a can of Tab. She reached across and held his hand. Her hand felt soft, pudgy and warm. Keir lost his appetite. Fishing around in his jean pocket, he found a Kleenex, offering her his tissue. She declined. Instead, Gail waved her hand and broke into an endearing childish voice, her baby voice. The voice, he would soon learn, she put on at will whenever she needed his attention,

‘Dab my eyes.’

Without a moment’s hesitation, he dabbed her eyes dry, smudging his tissue black.

‘Wipe my nose.’

Keir hesitated, worried by the intimacy of their exchange,

‘I don’t think I should.’

She insisted, raising her voice so that Emilia and Maggie could hear her,

‘I said, wipe my nose!’

He wiped the runny snot from her cute nose, pressing the tissue into her nostrils to collect her mucous, squeezing her with his fingertips, wiping the snotty residue off her upper lip, her feint moustache. By the time he’d finished, his tissue was stained, a deep cherry red. Gail regarded him, wild-eyed, looking like a clown-girl without her make-up,

‘Thankyou.’

He stuffed the dirty hankie into his pocket for later, beguiled, mesmerized, by her half-naked face. Gail reached into the cream leather handbag that sat on her lap, took out her face mirror and embroidered gold make-up bag, unscrewed a silver tube, and applied deep cherry red to her flaking lips, in a smooth sweeping motion. Keir marvelled at her fine technique, letting her finish her mouth first, before he broke her silence,

‘Why were you crying, Gail?’

She was baby-faced, with a well-rounded chin. The difference in size between her nostrils was remarkable. Her left nostril was three times the size of her right one, which was miniscule. He delighted in the subtly creased divide over her mouth, the childish purse of her lips. Gail opened her small mouth to reveal her off-white teeth. Her hand shook as she applied her lipstick to her thick lower lip. She was left-handed. She supported herself. With her right.

Keir enjoyed the flex of her long, slim, bony fingers, noticing the chipped nail varnish. The simple gold band on her ring finger. Why was she wearing a ring? Was she a child bride? Unanswered questions flowed through his tormented mind like mental syrup.

The intimate act of smoothing deep cherry red on her lips brought her out in a blush, a pink blossom that filled her face. He witnessed her faint blemishes, the spots garnishing her chin. Keir glanced at Emilia, covered in sores. She looked up from sawing her tough gammon steak, scowling at him, hating him for discarding her in favour of a lesser-spotted adversary.

He studied Gail in intimate detail. Her spots were blunt dormant volcanoes, yet to erupt stress spots. Her blush ended abruptly in the soft puffy flesh under her chin, aligned with her beige foundation. The contrast between her face, neck, and chest was arresting. She had pale natural skin, a light dappling of freckles on her chest, from where she had been kissed by the sun in the summer holidays. The fourth button on her blouse was undone. He thrilled at the shallow indent dividing her little breasts, dumbstruck by her sex appeal. Gail wasn’t pretty, beautiful, even attractive, in the conventional sense. She was plain without make-up, and extremely sexy.

Keir asked her repeatedly why she had been crying. She put her make-up bag away, squeezed his hand, and told him why,

‘I come from Wickleigh in Essex. Dad owns a successful engineering business. He spends his time working in the garden shed, or at his workshop on the industrial estate. Caroline attends to his every need, cooking his meals, washing his dirty overalls, doing the ironing, cleaning the house. She even mows the lawn. They play table tennis in the garage at weekends. Sometimes, she even lets me play Dad. Never lets me play her. Oh no because she knows I’ll beat her!’

There was no mistaking the sarcasm in her voice, the acid tone. Keir found himself immersed in her story, absorbed by the unfurling drama. He felt for the fork, lunch, with his free hand, feeding himself cold beans, chips and fish fingers, as the tension swelled up in her throat,

‘I love Dad. I warn him every day about what she’s doing to him, taking him from us, his real family…’

Keir gulped down a soggy fish finger before interrupting, ‘His real family?’

‘Yes. I have an older sister, Bebe, just turned twenty-one. She’s incredibly beautiful, made-up. We have plain faces. We paint our faces. For you men!’ Gail laughed to herself, then continued, ‘Bebe is a Beauty Queen. She’s engaged to Peter who’s an engineer, like Dad.’

All? We all have a plain face. Masked with a thin disguise?

‘A Beauty Queen? I’ve never met a Beauty Queen.’

Gail smiled, caressing his hand tenderly with hers, reassuring him,

‘Perhaps, one day, you will.’

He squeezed her hand, rubbing her mound of Venus with his thumb, in response to hers,

‘I’d like that, Gail. I’d like that very much. What does it feel like, being a Beauty Queen?’

‘Oh, it feels wonderful! Bebe competes in pageants all over the country. We go in Peter’s car. He drives a Robin Reliant, you know, a three-wheeler?’

Gail beamed from ear-to-ear. Her lips cracked into the loveliest smile. He was thrilled for her, seeing her this happy. Tears welled in her eyes. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her, but couldn’t, not in front of the others,

‘A Robin Reliant? How do you all fit into a Robin Reliant?’

‘Oh, we manage,’ she stared at her hand, holding his, ‘At least we used to, before I moved to Eaglesham to be with Dad. We used to have such fun, the three of us.’

‘Three of you?’

‘Yes, I have a younger sister, Leanne; she’s sixteen. Peter used to take us to TOTS?’

‘Sorry, TOTS?’

‘Yes, TOTS. Talk of the South. It’s a nightclub and disco in Southend. We used to row the boat, conga to Nellie the Elephant, dance the night away till the early hours, smooch the boys. Leanne was much the naughtiest, such fun! Smooching the boys. Getting drunk.’

‘You said Leanne’s only sixteen. How did she get into a nightclub if she was under-age?’

Gail took a sip of her Tab, burping gently,

‘Oh, she looks much older than sixteen. Leanne looks beautiful in make-up. I suppose that makes me the ugly sister.’

‘Well, I don’t think so,’ Keir said, ‘I think you’re gorgeous.’

He made her go all weak at the knees,

‘Thank you, you are exceedingly kind!’

He changed the subject, ‘Why did you move to Eaglesham. When you were so happy?’

‘Dad and Caroline convinced me that moving South was the right thing to do if I wanted to go to college. I was never any good at school. I couldn’t concentrate. I get distracted?’

Gail looked out of the window. Her almond eyes searched the courtyard. She refocused.

‘I can cook,’ she continued, ‘Nothing fancy simply basic English food. I can clean, do all the housework, wash up, do the laundry, make the beds. I wanted to train to be a chef. But Caroline wants me to go into management. She forced me to take the course. I didn’t want to. I’ve made a terrible mistake coming here. I should never have left home. Bebe and Leanne: I really miss them. And then there’s the way she treats Dad. The way she behaves when I’m in her house…’

Keir felt her tense, her hand stiffening, gripping his fingers. She released them, staring at the ceiling, trembling with white rage, struggling to assert her self-control. He persisted,

‘How does she behave, Gail?’

‘She controls him,’ she complained, ‘I listen to her, fucking him, through the bedroom wall. Caroline isn’t my real mother. My real mum’s dead. She killed herself when Dad walked out of our lives for her.’

Keir didn’t swear. He was shocked by her filthy language. She wilted in front of him, put on her baby voice,

‘I can’t live with her anymore. I’ve run away from home, got nowhere to live. Can you help me? I’ll cook for you, clean, do the housework, wash up, do the laundry, make our bed?’

Our bed? He was besotted with her. She had him wrapped around her face, her body. Her hand gripped his. There was nothing, in that insane moment, that he wouldn’t do for her. He pictured his room, the two of them, entwined as one. The words fell out of his mouth,

‘I’m sure I can help you, Gail…’

She felt how much he cared for her, loved her. She fell in love with him, her eyes sparkled,

‘Well, if we’re going to sleep together, I think you should tell me your name, don’t you?’

Sleep together?! He lied to her. He told her his name was Alan. He had suddenly remembered,

‘… but I can’t be sure that Mum and Dad will let me. Is there somewhere you can stay tonight?’

 

 



Submitted: January 11, 2021

© Copyright 2021 HJFURL. All rights reserved.

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AdamCarlton

How did you manage to finish this without falling out of your typing chair laughing? I have never had such an OD of cheesy bathos in my life! HJ, you go immense!

Tue, January 12th, 2021 3:21pm

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I strapped myself in, Adam!

Tue, January 12th, 2021 11:02am

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