Annotated Excerpt: THREADING THE LABYRINTH by Tiffani Angus

AngusT-AuthorPicThreading the Labyrinth, at its most basic, is about 400 years in a haunted English Garden—a sort of Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Children of Green Knowe but for adults. The novel has a frame set in 2010 in which Toni, our protagonist, has inherited a house and the remains of a once great estate; she dubs it The Remains because it’s just that: what’s left after time and economic hardship have taken their toll. As Toni uncovers the mysteries of the place, the narrative jumps back to stories about earlier garden workers, mostly women, who lived there in the 1620s, 1770s, 1860s and 1940s, but not necessarily in chronological order. I wrote the novel as part of a dissertation for a PhD in Creative Writing, which required research into several centuries of English gardening history and how gardens function in fantasy fiction. The final PhD version of the novel was different from the published version of the novel: it underwent a structure shift, lost a POV character, had another POV change, and survived other changes. But what I annotate here is mostly original to the “viva” version of the book.

I teach creative writing at university level, so I spend a lot of time encouraging my students to write consciously and purposely (after the first draft, of course). To pair with the novel, the other part of my dissertation was a 40,000-word analysis of the final product and the writing process, but very academic, using various theories of space and time such as chronotope, heterotopia, the hortus conclusus, polders, and spatialization. The copious amount of research I did informed the settings and characters of all the novel’s sections, but not all of it ended up on the page. In the critical commentary I got to break down my writing choices, but not to such an extent as I do here, where I get to explain not just historical or research reasons for things but also sentence and paragraph structure and word choice. This excerpt starts near the end of the first chapter of the novel before the shift to the 1770s.

AngusT-ThreadingTheLabyrinth

***

I promised to make some calls when I got back to the hotel, when the time difference meant I wouldn’t be waking anyone up. I meant that promise. But not the one where I promised to sort everything out. There was no guarantee anything would be sorted anytime soon.

So we’re starting in the middle of a chapter, but characters are built gradually. I rarely if ever describe a character’s physical being—I’m more interested in their psyche. And here is Toni who has found herself between a rock and a hard place, just off the phone with her gallery assistant back in New Mexico. She’s got a failing business to deal with while simultaneously being saddled with the remains of an estate she’s inherited. She’s honest with herself about what she can handle right now, and muses on what she can and cannot do.

When I hung up, I didn’t see Lauren anywhere and wondered whether she’d left. Which, at this point, would be just my luck. I started composing a list of who would take me in once I lost my condo.

Lauren is a representative of a National-Trust-like organisation who has come to look at the house and its remaining grounds, but Toni has lost track of her due to the phone call. Toni’s response to this helps build her character even more. She isn’t a very optimistic person: life has been handing her lemons for a while. But she is pragmatic and wants to be prepared, hence a list of whose couch she can sleep on. I didn’t bother coming up with names of friends because I didn’t want to distract the reader or clog up the idea.

The sun beat down on the back of my neck. I was hot and queasy, probably from the remnants of jet lag and the tea I’d made in my hotel room with one of those little plastic mini-buckets of “milk”. When I’d gotten up that morning, the air was cool – I’d no idea of the temperature because I couldn’t be bothered to deal with Celsius-to-Fahrenheit math – so I’d put on my warmest clothes. But now it was a proper summer day. Forget looking like a responsible business owner, I wished for shorts and flip-flops.

One challenge of writing this book was shifting from US to UK English and back; Toni is the only American so I wanted her sections to adhere to American English spelling and terms, so here I note the different ways of measuring temperatures and insisted on “math” instead of “maths” to more firmly establish her cultural background. But I also had to thin my own voice down so that Toni wouldn’t sound too much like me talking but would still keep her “American-ness”, which meant reining in my initial instinct of giving Toni more wisecrack lines; “forget looking like a responsible business owner” gives her voice flavour but doesn’t overdo it.

I tried to make my way back to the house and Lauren, annoyed at Kevin, annoyed at the gallery, annoyed at the mess my life had become.

There is a special magic when we use the “rule of three”: the three bears, three wishes, etc. Using this trick of the rule of three can give a story the feel of a fairy tale, something I wanted for this scene—our first in the garden. Here I use that rule, starting with a “small” annoyance (her assistant), then moving to a bigger one that is more immediate (her failing gallery), and then to the culmination of those plus things not named here (her whole life). This helps build the image about what Toni is facing and prepares readers for the litany of other things to come (see below as the paragraph continues). 

I didn’t know where to start with taking care of things. Ponds had shrunk to puddles, clogged with decades’ worth of fallen leaves, their fish gone. Large bowl-shaped depressions promised to become mud pits after heavy rains, a haven for toads and insects. I spied a rusted greenhouse roof and headed toward it, finding shards of glass glittering like fallen stars in the dirt and weeds around it. Everywhere I looked was decay and rot, a perfect metaphor for my life.

Toni is feeling overwhelmed in the previous sentence, and here the internal becomes external: the Remains is physical and immediate, and it mirrors the mess inside her mind. The litany of the previous sentence—the grouping into threes—is also used here with descriptions of the garden’s decay (ponds, bowl-shaped depressions, and the greenhouse). I’ve also added in animals to strengthen the notion of the decaying garden as a place where people don’t necessarily belong. But inside the rot there is some magic, such as in the “glass glittering like fallen stars”—a hint of things to come.

I clomped along what I thought was a path and ended up twisting my ankle on a piece of broken brick, going down into a dusty pile of leaves and scratchy plants. And then my phone rang.

The action of the previous sentences where Toni is just looking around and taking stock has now segued into real action where she engages with the garden and ends up feeling it (scratchy and dusty), intensifying the sensory details. The phone ringing adds to the humour and the frustration of the moment.

“Shit!” I didn’t care whether Lauren could hear me.

Toni swears and that brings Lauren to mind. This is where, as an American, she finds herself butting up against what is expected of her in a foreign place and what misconceptions she holds about others. This is also another example of how writing an American in a British setting is a balancing act: I want her to seem American but not bash readers over the head with it. (Interesting note: an early review guessed that I was British and found the American voice didn’t sound right! I think that’s partly from the editing that we did to tone Toni down, and maybe partly from my living in the UK for the past decade.)

I scrambled around on all fours, trying to stand back up with a tiny shred of dignity. By then the phone had stopped ringing, and I was covered in burrs and seedpods and plant crumbs. My skirt was like Velcro: everything stuck to it. I started picking them off, one by one, while limping down the path, looking for something to sit on that wasn’t the ground.

The garden in the novel is a place that holds on to time and wants someone to tend to it, and here is the first time it reaches out to Toni. She’s fallen over and the garden has left evidence all over her clothes (and again we have the “rule of three”). She can’t escape it by standing up and is being forced to deal with its decay in the form of seedpods and burrs. This will escalate, but I wanted to start out with something tiny and I needed to give her a reason to want to sit down.

The Remains – for that’s what I’d taken to calling it in my head – loomed out of the jungle and I headed toward it. Then, in front of me, was a wooden garden gate with vines climbing up and over it.

Here we have the first time she calls it The Remains. Large houses (and even some smaller ones!) in the UK often have names; the name is even part of the postal address. An American won’t be as familiar with this practice or will only know it in passing from hearing it on a costume drama on PBS or the like and think it’s something that only happened back in history. By giving it a name, Toni has recognised it and given it some power. She also uses the word “jungle” which immediately creates the image of thick wilderness. This is then undermined with the appearance of a garden gate, which indicates some sort of border or control over the “jungle” of weeds. A mystery has been plopped right in front of Toni, offering her a glimpse at more of what she has inherited while possibly providing somewhere to sit that isn’t the ground. She’s a game show contestant who can’t help but pick what is behind the secret door.

The gate’s handle, a sinuous art nouveau curve, felt cool and smooth in my hand. I stroked it, my mood subsiding with the mindless but comforting action.

Where earlier Toni described the garden’s decay—and even fell in it—now she is encountering a hint of the seductive power of the garden. Art Nouveau is a design style based on natural forms—all curves and flowing lines. The style matches the garden and provides a bit of historical weight to the place.

When I pushed the gate open, Kevin’s complaints, the mounting bills, my credit card balance, and even The Remains disappeared. I should have walked here at twilight beneath lanterns the servants hung in the trees, their light soft under the blush-pink and soft lavender of the sunset. I should have sat here in the mornings to drink my coffee from dainty porcelain, the plan of my day dependent on how slowly the shadows slid across the stone path and up the trunks of the fruit trees splayed against the wall. I should have met a lover here, behind the closed door, where no one would see us as the blossoms brushed against our soft, naked skin. I should have slept here and dreamed about other places and times.

Okay, there is a lot going on here:

One of the earliest time travel books I can remember reading is Time and Again by Jack Finney. He was all about nostalgia via time travel, and one of his stories that I read (but of course can’t remember the title to because I don’t own the collection anymore) was about a man who gets new neighbours who have parties, but it becomes apparent that the parties take the house and garden back in time, with glowing lanterns in the trees and women in old-fashioned dresses and hats. My not-so-perfect memory of that story influenced Toni’s first encounter with the walled garden, where there is something seductive going on and time moves differently.

Art had a big influence on me when I wrote the novel, as specific sections show (the artist and photographer in the 1860s, the actress in the 1940s, Toni being a gallery owner, a special painting that appears in more than one section, etc.). Blues, greens and purples appear a lot in the book, and the “blush-pink and soft lavender” colours are our first encounter with this, leading to a specific colour that shows up later more than once: namely, the odd purple-blue of Maxfield Parrish’s skies, a blue from a dreamscape, a blue that’s difficult to look at and really only exists for a few moments before sunset.

I’m also playing with assonance: “how slowly the shadows slid across the stone path and up the trunks of the fruit trees splayed against the wall”. The Ss are here to strengthen the garden’s practice of seduction, the sinuousness of the flowers’ shapes, and the secrets the place holds.

And, to come back full circle in this short paragraph, it ends with Toni musing on dreaming about other places and times, but she doesn’t know yet that this place holds other times.  

My footsteps were silent, lost in the soft, thick turf as I approached the bronze sundial in the shape of a horse atop a stone plinth. A careless gardener must have messed up because it read three p.m.

Inside the walled garden, things are at complete odds to the state of the estate outside its walls: the turf is soft and thick, which only happens when it’s tended, and there aren’t any weeds. It immediately feels enchanted. Sundials are found in many historical gardens because it was the perfect place for something that depends on sunlight and because they are reminders of time passing, as are gardens (more on that below). Sundials also show up in a lot of fantasy books (mainly kid’s books) that use a garden as a time-travel device, so I had to have one here. The “mistake” of it showing the wrong time is another clue that things are a bit strange inside this walled garden.

Around the top edge of the column ran a motto: Ver non semper viret. I was relieved, if that’s the right word, to find a translation carved around the column’s base. Springtime does not last. No kidding, mister.

The linking of time and gardens deepens here: gardens have an intimate relationship with time, sundials are an obvious symbol of that relationship, and gardens (and all living things) are unavoidably dead-things-to-be. Cemeteries are often the nicest gardens in a town: well kept, full of flowers and trees, but there for the dead and their visitors. Pleasure gardens are another sort of memento mori, and a popular practice in the seventeenth century was to build a sundial out of flowers that would only last a season, further cementing the message of mortality. The sundial above has a motto, as many do, that directly draws attention to the passage of time. And Toni, being an American who is in the middle of her own crisis, has an opinion on the message. So here we have characterisation and setting and some foreshadowing happening simultaneously.

Yet spring was at its fullest around me. I wasn’t sure when different flowers were supposed to bloom, but who knew when things happened in gardens in England?

Earlier in the book, Toni’s lack of plant knowledge is touched on, and here I wanted her ignorance to be brought forward so she—and the readers—start to understand what’s going on when the garden works its magic.

The sundial’s base was a riot of pink roses, and the beds surrounding the sundial were in full bloom. Round flowers, spiky ones, little short ones, tall ones. Pink, blue, yellow, purple, red, all battled to be the brightest. And everywhere, green. The soft green of lavender, the bright green of box, the silvery green of lambs’ ears. And like that, the names slotted into space. Iris. Peony. Foxglove. Delphinium. Primrose. Lily. Violet. Aquilegia. Stock. Dianthus.

The walled garden is coming alive here, with Toni’s identification of the flowers building from shapes to colours to names. But readers who garden or know plants till realise that some of these flowers don’t bloom at the same time. The garden is playing with Toni and playing with time.

I knew these flowers.

I put this line all on its own to emphasise the statement. There is power at the end of paragraphs and especially in single sentences standing alone like this, but only if they’re used sparingly. Up above Toni isn’t sure when things bloom but, suddenly, she knows them, and that shift is important to indicate that something is happening to her that she can’t explain.

Knew them as if I’d been the one to plant them. Knew them as if I’d never killed every houseplant I’d ever bought or hadn’t almost failed an art history exam when asked to describe and analyze the Dutch masters’ flower-rich still lifes.

How did I know these flowers?

Toni’s thought process makes her question how this has happened while giving the reader some background on her life: she’s taken art history classes (which isn’t a surprise for someone who owns an art gallery), but her horticultural knowledge is lacking. Even while she is trying to solve a mystery, the reader is learning more about Toni’s background and character.

The sound of trickling water drew me to a small half-circle basin set into a niche in one wall. A stone mermaid, softened with green lichen, topped the wall fountain, and the water trickled down from where she wrung her hair.

Toni can’t answer the above question, so she’s easily distracted. Again, the walled garden is reaching out to her, pulling her in via her senses (here with sound). The mermaid is a mix of ideas: they’re magical creatures, water spirits, either good or bad omens depending on the cultural source. Toni’s first encounter with the fountain’s mermaid is positive; the garden is still teasing her and drawing her in.

It made me thirsty to see that water, and I cupped my hands beneath the mermaid and tasted it. It was cool and dark, and I tasted the fountain it came from and the pipes that brought it to the fountain, deep underground where it flowed fast and dark. I tasted the years that the garden had been here. I tasted minerals and metals and stone and flesh and bone and hate and devastation and obsession and madness and love.

Toni can’t eat the flowers, but she can drink the water, ingesting part of the garden, connecting with it via another of her senses. This sentence is exactly how I originally wrote it however many years ago because it says exactly what I want it to say in the way I want to say it. The garden holds on to time, so the water that flows through it will taste like everything that’s happened there, and soon the reader will start to understand what this all means (once they get to the flashback/historical sections). This is a bit of signposting for the readers that there is more going on in this garden than what they—or Toni—suspect. Using so many “ands” instead of commas in the last sentence helps the reader’s eyes slide along, building the litany of emotions and developing the image of this place as being eternal and intimately connected to the people who have been there. It holds onto emotions and so, by extension, has emotions.

I slumped down onto the shaded bench hidden in the recess to the side of the fountain, slipped off my shoes and rubbed my ankle. It smarted but nothing was broken. A few minutes’ rest and I’d go find Lauren and ask her about The Remains. The chimneys loomed over the top of the wall and looked down at me. I felt pinned down on the bench, caught like a bug specimen under glass. If I waited long enough, maybe she’d find me. To distract myself from thinking about being with her in this garden I checked my phone, but it didn’t show any calls or texts. Perhaps I’d heard Lauren’s phone out on the path. Perhaps it had been one of those green parakeets. Or maybe you’re losing it, I thought. Tasting the years, indeed.

This paragraph, when broken down and analysed, seems scattered, but its structure represents a human’s thought process. Toni is coming back to herself as she rests on the bench; she’s paying attention to her own physicality. But then I use a simile where she’s “caught like a bug”; walled gardens are limited on the horizontal plane but unlimited on the vertical (open to the sky), and here I make Toni very small in comparison, without much control. She distracts herself again from her musing by thinking about “her”—about Lauren—who she’s starting to develop feelings for. By sitting in the shade, Toni has a chance to reconnect to things “outside” the garden, such as her phone, and the sarcasm in her voice comes back a bit, giving the reader a break from the magic that was starting to develop earlier. This is where Toni—and the reader—can question the events of the previous few minutes.

I started to cool down, but I was sleepy, so I sat and watched the garden, listened to the birds, wondered how I’d ended up here, so far from home. This place wasn’t mine.

The final line here—again a place of energy in a paragraph—is important. Toni is dealing with the difficult situation of her failing business back in the States as well as the surprise of having to deal with an inheritance that could be more trouble than it’s worth. She feels disconnected from The Remains and this garden, which leads immediately to the following line.

It belongs to you.

Two things here: first of all, the italics indicate that this is spoken but by who it isn’t clear. Toni hears this in her head, but it’s come out of nowhere; second, the garden speaking to her in this way is an answer to the thought she’s just had, that the place wasn’t hers. Again, it’s on its own line to emphasise the importance.

The voice sounded like my grandmother’s, and I jumped. I’d talked to her in my head for years since she died, but I never expected her to answer. Sometimes I liked to imagine showing her all the things in my life she never got to see, and I often talked to her as I went about my day to say, “Look, this is what I do.” The internet, my gallery, a TV show, silly things like a new pair of shoes. She’d have been tickled by all of it.

This isn’t something I ever admitted to anyone, not even the therapist I saw for a while several years ago. If little kids have imaginary friends, why can’t grown-ups talk to their dead relatives?

“What do you think of all of this?” I asked her, unafraid of being heard.

My grandmother saw ghosts. When I was a teenager, she woke up one night to find her father (who died right after I was born) petting the cat at the end of her bed. She said it was nice that he visited. She was very practical about things like that, and so even though I don’t like horror films (but I like horror books—go figure), I am okay with the idea of your ancestors being around to check up on you. I mean, my novel is dedicated to the memory of my grandma, so it makes sense to me that Toni (who is *not* me but my creation, so is parts of me) talks to her grandma. And her grandma is the key back to this house and garden: she was born there but mostly grew up in the States and has left Toni with half-stories about “a castle in England” and a garden, etc. It makes sense, then, that Toni would think the voice was her grandma and that she would then ask it a question back. Later, when the garden speaks to other characters, a reader might question whether in this instance the voice is her grandma’s from decades before that the garden has held on to.

She didn’t answer, but the sun shone brighter as if it had come out from behind a cloud. I shaded my eyes and considered another taste of the water but didn’t want to move, afraid I’d miss something.

Like above, we are building back up to something happening. The moment of rest is over.

The edges of the flower petals sharpened, standing out against the leaves as if drawn rather than grown. Stamens and pistils, violently yellow with pollen, pulsed against the pinks, purples and blues. The sun glinted off the sundial so brightly I could barely see its shape, only a blazing disc, throwing its reflection into the air above. Bees droned among the roses, their buzzing taking on the grating edge of a lawnmower. I could feel the catch and hitch of the butterflies as they rubbed their legs along their antennae.

And the smell.

At first the scent of the roses on the sundial and the honeysuckle trained along the garden walls were a tease, reaching me with each small puff of breeze. It mixed with the soapiness of the lavender and the heady spice of peonies. As I sat, hypnotized by the garden, the scent became overwhelming, like being trapped in an elevator with a woman drenched in cheap perfume.

Gardens are sometimes called “a riot for the senses” and here I took this idea to heart, intensifying the sensory details to an extreme. At this point, it could all be explained away, happening because Toni is tired and hot and jetlagged.

The garden’s walls closed in on me and my limbs weighed a ton, keeping me on the bench. I was panting, trying to catch my breath. The tinkling of the fountain caught my attention again, and I turned away from the colors and light of the garden to rest my eyes again in the cool shade. The mermaid’s smile was a growl, her sharp teeth biting into her bottom lip. Her hair, where she wrung it, was thick with sea creatures, scuttling crabs and writhing eels carved into the stone. The water in her bowl was full of dead leaves and insects and sludgy with moss. I peered closer and a bubble broke the surface as a fat sickly-white fish slid through the dark water.

There’s no explaining away the garden’s actions now. It’s definitely reaching out to Toni, but the change in the fountain is malevolent. As mentioned earlier, mermaids are good or bad omens, depending on the culture’s myths and legends, so here she’s turned from one to the other. Likewise, is the garden going to be something beautiful for you to enjoy or something that snares you and keeps you there?

I jumped up, grabbed my shoes, and hurried down the path. As I passed the sundial, its shadow elongated; the horse grew and stretched as if following me. I ran then, bad ankle or no, resisting the urge to look behind me.

That’s how the girls in movies always got caught: by looking to see how close the zombie or axe-wielding rapist was behind them, and then, boom, they were flat on their faces. It was only as I pushed open the gate that I saw a man-shaped shadow, complete with old-fashioned hat and long coat, out of the corner of my eye. I looked back then – I couldn’t help myself – and saw something that my brain registered as a plane, its silver tail sticking up into the sky, but that had to be the glare of the sundial. Once I was beyond the wall, away from the colors and scents, I knew that it was my imagination getting the better of me.

The garden outside the wall was as I’d left it – was as everyone had left it for years: gray and brown and green, broken and messy. Nothing was recognizable. No flowers named themselves, and nothing mesmerized me.

The garden pulls one last trick on Toni as she runs. She thinks she sees a man but when she looks back it’s a plane. I didn’t dwell on either of these here because to stop and explain them would be to stop the story cold at this point. Instead, the images are quick, just glimpses, so the pacing is as quick as her movement out of the garden. She explains them away and, as she passes over the border of the walled garden, out of reach of it, she chalks it all up to her imagination (again, being tired, jetlagged, etc.). The dull colours outside the walled garden are a total contrast to the vibrancy inside it: it’s like going from Oz back to Kansas.

This place wasn’t for me. It was too overgrown, too big, too beautiful, too scary. Too much.

Another short paragraph, this time made of three very short sentences. The length and placement draw attention to the sentiments: Toni sees the place as alien, something that she isn’t prepared to handle. This idea comes up again later in the 1770s section (which immediately follows the end of this section), and the garden’s border is the line between acceptance and rejection, but I wanted to plant the idea here to show that the garden’s power has never been completely positive or understandable. Humans try to control nature for their own benefit, but, like with the mermaid, the spirit of this place is never totally comprehensible because it isn’t human. It’s like the fey: we have one idea about fairies as pretty little creatures but another of them as unknowable, pagan, and tricksy.

On the walk back to the house, I wondered how it was still standing. The bomb damage was extensive: part of the house was missing, the wall caved in from ground to roof at the end of one side of its squared-off U-shape. A stained piece of ancient curtain, still attached to a window, shifted in the breeze. I imagined my great-grandmother or great-aunt – whoever lived here then – had just closed the doors closest to this wing. The remaining parts looked big enough to house half a dozen families.

Toni has turned her attention away from the garden and what has just happened and back to the reality of what she has to deal with, embodied by a half-wrecked house. The mention of a bomb brings up questions of what, exactly, happened—and connects back to the earlier image of a plane. Her guessing at who lived there boosts the alienation she feels from her family’s history.

Hedges that had once lined this part of the garden were monstrous lumps. A tennis court was recognizable by the two poles meant to hold the net. The surface was a rectangular bed of weeds, golden in the sunlight. I cringed to imagine what the pool next to it looked like up close – probably like the mermaid fountain, only larger.

Hedges and topiaries show up in lots of stories about gardens, and the latter is usually sentient and malevolent. The encounter with the transforming mermaid fountain has affected Toni’s opinion of what she observes elsewhere in the grounds: nothing is as it seems and might be hiding evil below the surface.

When I saw Lauren on the front drive, I hurried over, glad to see another human in the wasteland. Hiking in the desert or the mountains had always calmed me, but until now I hadn’t understood it was because even with the trees and plants it still felt empty – those plants grew there on their own. Being surrounded by vines and weeds and creepers, the descendants of the gardens that had been planted on purpose, left me feeling watched and suffocated.

The scene ends when Toni sees another person; her encounter with the garden wasn’t witnessed by anyone else so can’t be verified. Her past experiences with nature are with wilderness, completely different from a garden that requires tending and purpose. The garden as it is now—full of weeds and vines and creepers (rule of three again!)—represents the deterioration of a once powerful family. The garden’s insistence on staying alive, even as weeds, shows its tenacity and strength, something scary to Toni who doesn’t know how to deal with her family’s fractured history or a simple garden. The feeling of being watched and even suffocated (a link back to the overwhelming scents Toni experienced earlier) is in the very last line of the paragraph, the scene, and the chapter; the reader takes this idea with them into the next section, where the garden—240 years younger—has its own plans for its salvation.

*

Tiffani Angus’s Threading the Labyrinth is out now, published by Unsung Stories in the UK and North America.

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One thought on “Annotated Excerpt: THREADING THE LABYRINTH by Tiffani Angus

  1. Fascinating post! I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an annotated excerpt. I thought more along the line of references or links to your research. I was mesmerized throughout, not only with the excerpt itself (which now thoroughly has me wrapped up in the story), but it was like peeking along in your head seeing why you wrote it as is and your explanations of how this part of the book came to be.
    Well done!!!

    Like

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