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Dreamproof (2/2)

Part 2 (Part 1 came out last Monday)

George H 3

George Herbert — image adapted from John Drury’s ‘Music at Midnight

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

She woke in tears, her heart beating fast. The light was off nowadays but her practised hand went straight to the switch, then the pen and she was soon scribbling fast to catch every detail of the dream.

Only three months in and she had had her first dream. She couldn’t believe how excited she was. How long would it be before the next one?

Why had he had to phone? Why didn’t she see him face-to-face? Why was he cut off? Why did he say he wasn’t supposed to be ringing yet?

Never mind. At least she’d heard from him. It was definitely his voice. She’d know it anywhere. Maybe it was really him and not just a construct from her memories. She would know soon enough when the second dream came and she could check out what was said against the contents of the packet.

At first she began to enjoy the routines of her life more because of the lift the dream had given her. Her yoga began to raise her spirits again. The children at her school, where she worked in the reception class, almost made her feel hopeful, though she never lost a background sense of sadness that she and Alistair had never been able to create a child of their own. She still steered clear of his family and friends most of the time: the elephant of his absence always stood between her and them, though he was never mentioned.

Only in her evenings alone and most of all just before she went to bed, did the grief hit her hard once more. She couldn’t listen to her favourite songs. They were mostly his as well. The first chords turned the sadness of six foot breakers into tsunamis of distress.

Still, she slept in hope each day, and every morning woke in disappointment.

As the weeks crept by at snail’s pace hope faded and her spirits began to sink. She went out less, except to work. Her thoughts darkened. She wondered how long she could endure this uncertainty. Surely, anything would be better than this – even the sure knowledge that her first dream had been wrong.

. . . . . . . . .

It was six months later. There’d been no other dream containing Alistair bearing a message of any kind – just fleeting moments of wish fulfilment when she saw him apparently alive again and with her in their home, cooking at the stove surrounded by more pans than they had ever owned, rinsing pots over the sink under the sunlight running from the taps, and sitting contentedly in the garden with his coffee and his book with yellow swallows darting overhead.

Then the pain of loss when each dream was over.

As she emptied the dishwasher after breakfast, she came to a decision. She wouldn’t wait any longer. She didn’t want all this focus on her dreams anymore.

She’d had a dream and got a message about the contents of the package. If it was right it would confirm that his mind lived on. If not, she was no worse off, and the uncertainty of waiting for the second dream wasn’t helping. Perhaps he wasn’t going to be allowed to come again. That’s what his message implied, or at least it might be so long in the future she couldn’t bear it. No, she’d go to see John, today if possible, and find out what was in the packet.

She picked up the phone. The dialling tone buzzed on for quite some time and she was just about resigned to hearing the answer phone when John’s voice cut across: ‘Hi, Dorothy.’

“Hi, can I come over. I want to open the packet.’

‘Have you had the second dream?’

‘No, but I can’t wait any longer.’

There was a silence. What was he thinking?

‘Are you sure about this? You know me. I don’t believe in this whole mad idea anyway, but you probably do and Alistair certainly did. If you come now you’re going against what he asked you to do. You could feel bad about this later.’

‘Yes, I’m sure. I’ve had the one dream with a clear message. That should be enough. It’ll either be right or wrong. Either way, that will be the same whether we open the package now or next year.’

‘Well, if you’re really sure . . . ,’ John tailed off.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove round to John’s after lunch.

He made a cup of coffee for them both before sitting down at the dining room table with the packet in front of them. It was quite small, about book size. This was encouraging. Any larger or smaller and she would have begun to regret her decision and might have changed her mind. But no, this looked good. She should carry on.

‘Right,’ she said as she sipped her coffee. ‘As I remember, Alistair said I must tell you what is in the packet before we open it. So, I’ve brought my transcript of the dream for you to read, so you can get the full context.’

She passed him a typewritten sheet of A4.

He quickly glanced through it.

‘The Everyman George Herbert then.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there any way you could’ve have thought of this yourself and built it into a dream?’

‘Well, I bought the Everyman edition as a birthday present some years back, but it’s one present among many. I could have picked loads of others. I was always buying him books. This was one of his favourites but not the only one and I hadn’t thought about it for years till the dream itself. And there’s no way I could’ve noticed it was missing from his shelves. He had thousands of books and I haven’t begun to sort them yet. Too difficult.’

‘Is that the only copy of Herbert’s poetry he owned?’

‘No, he had two or three others, but none with all the poems in, which is why he specially wanted this one.’

‘ That could prove interesting. So, d’you want to go ahead?’

‘Definitely.’

John popped into the kitchen for a sharp knife to cut open the sellotape. He peeled back the brown paper. There was definitely a book inside. And a handwritten note. And something else – a CD.

This wasn’t quite what she expected. Should she have waited? Why was there a CD in there?

They picked up the note to read.

‘Dear both, if you are reading this you will have opened the packet. I hope you waited, Dorothy, till you’d had both dreams because I misled you. There are two things in here not one. And I planned to tell you about them one at a time. You know there is no sense of time in the next world. The second dream could be a long time after the first in your world but immediately after in mine. I wanted you to be able to tell John about both items, not just one. He’ll be a hard man to convince and I really want to convince him. Anyway, if you didn’t wait for the second dream it’s too late to go back now, because if you’ve seen this you’ll have caught sight of the second item. . . . . .’

Dorthy’s head was swimming. She was so angry with herself for going against what he’d said, but even more angry with him. He was a trickster. She had thought this was all for her but he had set her up to convince John. And now it was all a mess. Still, she had to know whether she was right about the book.

‘What’s the book, John? Am I right about that at least?’

‘Yes. It’s the Everyman George Herbert all right.’

He passed it to her. She opened the fly leaf. Sure enough – her writing. ‘Just your kind of stuff – the poems of a priest. Enjoy! Just don’t expect me to read it.’

Her words sounded a bit sour now, though she had meant them as an affectionate joke at the time. She wondered whether she had hurt his feelings with her more sceptical attitude. Had he picked this book to make that kind of point even after death?

John read her words over her shoulder.

‘Do you think you might have felt guilty about that? The mind holds onto things out of awareness you know. That would be enough to slide it into a dream.’

‘But I wrote that kind of thing all the time in the books I gave him. Why would I feel badly about this one in particular?’

He shrugged.

‘And it’s good that it’s the correct edition of the two or three he had.’

He gave her a quizzical look. ‘Shall we look at the other item?’ he asked.

She nodded.

Handel’s Messiah. She couldn’t remember how many times, through his study door, she’d heard the rousing Hallelujah Chorus or the plangent strains of ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’

‘I could just as easily have dreamt that one by guesswork – more easily in fact. He played it all the time, for heaven’s sake. Why did I dream of the George Herbert instead?’

‘Well, that would depend upon which affected you most strongly at the deeper levels of your mind,’ John explained patiently, ‘outside your conscious . . .’

‘You know, John,’ she cut in, ‘in your different ways you both drove me nuts. He banged on about the soul and you hit me over the head with the mind all the time. And you know what? None of it makes any sense to me. It never did and it never will. You just can’t prove any of it. God, Freud, the after life, the unconscious. They’re all crap. Just fantasies to try and make sense of the mad mystery of life. I don’t know what I really thought when I dreamt of him, anymore than I know whether I’m going to live on or black out when I die. None of it helps. I just want Alistair back. I just want my old life again.’

She burst into tears once more, wracked by deeper sobs than John had ever heard from anyone in his entire life so far.

. . . . . . . . .

She drove home through winter twilight uncomforted and in a dark and desperate mood. She had no interest in food. She somehow managed to make herself a drink of hot chocolate and crept very early into bed.

It took a long time for sleep to come and with it came disturbing dreams of witches and beheadings. As the sky began to lighten just after dawn her sleep deepened.

She finds herself walking across a stretch of water she half-recognises. It reminds her of the bay in Cyprus where she and Alistair once stayed in the early days of their marriage. The air is warm and though there are waves on the surface of the water she does not trip. In fact, she feels lighter and lighter with every step almost as though she could fly.

Then she is on a hill high above the sea looking down at a sunset, with its darkening reds and golds. There is a boat on the water with purple sails moving fast towards her. The closer it gets the more peaceful she feels. When the boat is half-way across the water, it begins to glide into the air, rising higher and higher as it gets closer to where she stands.

She could swear, as it approaches overhead, that she can see Alistair at the prow gazing down at her and waving. He is too far away to speak but she knows he is not angry with her. She can almost believe that they will meet again.

When she wakes just after a cloudless sunrise, the brightness of the light through the crack in the curtains touches her heart and she knows that she will manage to rebuild her life without forgetting him but healed enough for happiness of some kind to return.

Tomorrow she will apologise to John.

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Dreamproof (1/2)

After the latest episode of My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to republish another story triggered by the death of a friend three years ago now.

Orloj PragueDorothy[1] stared at the piles of paper on his desk. The magnolia just beginning to blossom outside the window proved that it was spring, but this was not the spring clean she had planned. It wasn’t his fault that the desk was covered in notebooks, newspaper cuttings, envelopes, scribbled sheets of A4, and bits of card in various colours. That was her doing.

She had known since the funeral that she would have to clear out his study at some point, but had put it off all winter. The short dark days had made it seem too difficult to tackle such a painful task.

She’d shipped his clothes to the Oxfam shop. He’d never been attached to them and nor was she, but this was different. His study held the heartbeat of his life’s work. She couldn’t face the bookshelves yet, nor the filing cabinet with all his journals in, so she’d attacked his desk with all the venom of her grief. Every heavy drawer was heaved out of its slot and dumped onto the rust-red leather surface until there was no more room.

The mounds reached almost to her chest. Scribbled scraps had fallen onto the carpet. No longer able to stand she sank into his chair just as the tears began once more to slide their customary path down along her cheeks.

Surely this would have to wait until another day. She was just about to get up and leave when her eyes fell on an envelope, originally at the bottom of a drawer but now at the top of the last hoard she had thrown onto the heap.

It had her name on it.

Hesitantly she pulled it towards her. The envelope felt thick and stiff, as though it held a card for her to read. Memories of anniversaries flooded back, of other cards in better days, in Paris in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, beneath the Orloj in Prague’s Old Town Square, in Amsterdam with Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum.

With misty eyes, she groped into the top left hand drawer – not one she’d emptied yet as she knew that all it contained were such things as staplers, pens, rulers, scissors and sellotape. And the brass letter opener she needed was there somewhere. Her hand finally detected it.

She slit open the envelope.

Sure enough, a card, with van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front.

“My dearest Dorothy,” it read, “I should have put this somewhere more obvious but I thought it was best to make this task as difficult as I could for obvious reasons. I have given a packet for John to keep until you ask him for it. I am requesting you not to do so until I enter your dreams twice, on two separate nights, and tell you what the packet contains. There is one thing inside that I only want you to find after you have seen me twice in a dream and I have told you what the envelope contains. You must tell John what is inside the envelope before you open it in his presence. In that way we will make it as certain as possible that, if you are right, my continuing life after death is confirmed at least for the two of you, the most important people in my life. Of course, if you are wrong, while it will not prove that my mind is still alive, as I sincerely hope it is at the time that you read this, it does not prove the opposite either. Whichever way this goes, please remember that in this life at least I have loved you more than any other person, place or thing.

“With deepest love, Alistair.”

She could hold back the sobs no longer as her mind carried her back to the late winter morning just over a year ago, after the surgeon had confirmed there was nothing more they could do. Alistair had sat where she sat now, as she stood in the doorway watching him, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. They had just got up and the heating was only just beginning to loosen the grip of a frosty night.

He had explained to her, with a wide grin on his face, his latest plan.

‘Jesus!’ she spluttered in her drink, ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’

‘Why? It’d be a great experiment. If I did come back you’d be so comforted.’

‘But what if you didn’t?’

‘Well, you’d be no worse off than if we didn’t work this plan.’

. . . . . . . . .

John was just biting into a wholemeal biscuit when his mobile rang. It was Dorothy. For a moment he was tempted to ignore it but relented. She didn’t ring often after all.

‘’Hi, Dorothy. How goes?’

‘D’you know what I’ve found,’ she burst out loudly at high speed.

‘Tell me,’ he responded wearily.

‘The card,’ she shouted. ‘The one telling me about the packet Alistair left with you.’

He paused. He’d been dreading this moment.

Not only did he feel guilty that he hadn’t given Dorothy more time and support in these difficult days, but he regarded the whole ‘experiment’ Alistair had set up as a complete waste of time. He’d always known of his dead friend’s obsession with the possibility of the afterlife. They’d had many a conversation in which he’d tried to bring him back to his senses. Nothing had worked. And now he resented the way his friend had dragged him into this pointless charade. It was not only embarrassing but would probably leave Dorothy feeling even more hurt and let down than ever. And he would have to deal with all this.

‘I know the one you mean. Do you really feel we need to go through with this? It’ll drag on for ages and slow down any chance you have of grieving properly and moving on.’

‘Of course we have to go through with it,’ she snapped. ‘He wanted it and it’s what I want as well.’

‘But it’ll only lead to disappointment . . . . ,’ he began.

‘You don’t know that. You believe whatever you want. Believe in nothing for all I care. But I believe something else is possible and this may be the only chance I ever get of proving it to myself at least.’ She stopped. ‘Maybe it’ll change your mind as well.’

‘Fat chance,’ he thought but said nothing.

‘What is it that you want me to do?’

. . . . . . . . .

Dorothy sat at the garden table in the late afternoon sun. Its light scattered off the dimpled glass in snaking patterns. She knew John wasn’t happy to continue with this plan but she was grateful that, out of loyalty to Alistair probably, he was on board with it at least for the time being.

The next big problem was her dreams. She never remembered any. Alistair had banged on endlessly about how everyone dreams, and about how important they were as messengers from ‘the subliminal mind.’ How irritating all that psychobabble was while he was still alive and how much she missed it now.

On the table was a book about dreaming. It was one he had recommended to her many times over the years. She’d always refused to go near it. Well, he’d won the battle in the end. She picked it up and began to read, skimming past the early chapters trying to find where this wonderful advice was about capturing the dreams she felt she never had. Ah, got it. She read more carefully. She had to prime her mind before sleep and ask to be given dreams. Then, if she woke and remembered even the faintest fragment of a dream, she must catch it and write it down even in the middle of the night.

It all seemed a bit mad to her. Was this his way of getting her to do now he was dead, what he could never persuade her to consider while he was alive? Perhaps it wasn’t about proving his mind lived on at all. Perhaps he believed that tuning into her dreams would help her with her grief and the rest of her life without him. Should she ring John and tell him to call it off?

She remembered that Alistair was not a trickster. He didn’t play those kinds of mind games. He was obsessed with near-death experiences and bored you almost to death endlessly explaining them. He almost certainly did want to test this theory out. Maybe he wanted her to value her dreams as well but definitely not instead.

She read on.

That night she placed a pad and pencil next to the bed. She decided to leave the light on as well. Her sleep would be more broken, which might help, and she wouldn’t have to grope for the pencil and risk losing the dream.

This became her nightly ritual for weeks. She faithfully recorded what she could remember of her dreams.

At first mere wisps of smoke with no sign of the fire.

She was on a green train going somewhere. She was trying to make a phone call but the screen of her mobile didn’t work. She was in a meeting with a report to make but she had left her draft at home. She is at the window of a house on fire, helping people to escape.

Slowly, over time the dreams became more detailed and more weird.

She was in what seemed to be a church, sitting on the kind of shiny reddish-brown wooden bench that usually constitutes a pew. There were quite a few people around. Across an aisle there was a bench or barrier with some kind of platform in front of it. It didn’t look like those tombstones found in a church but it was about the same height. There were several people in front of it watching some kind of mythical creature pacing up-and-down, perhaps even dancing. It was of medium height and possibly had wings. A girl, with a bow and arrow in her hands, clearly felt the creature was dangerous and she had to kill it before it harmed someone. She loved the creature dearly and really didn’t want to kill it. She went close to the platform and shot it with an arrow. She had to go so close so as to be sure to kill the creature and not hurt someone else. Dorothy burst out sobbing. She was so intensely sad. She felt embarrassed and, looking round, was relieved to see a skinny girl to her left also holding back her tears on the same bench.

After this dream she woke up feeling something really significant had happened. She didn’t know quite how to go about decoding it. There were tinges of the Cupid legend and ideas of love. There was grief there, and death. Also there was religion with all that implied about faith and the afterlife. She wondered if it meant that she was getting closer to a meeting with Alistair in a dream. She didn’t know who the other girl was – her younger self perhaps?

The following week there was a longer dream.

Dorothy is wandering around a vast campus. The experience is like a fusion of starting university and being at a conference. One moment she is stepping between people sitting on the central steps of a massive auditorium, as she strides down towards the stage to give a talk. Next she is opening doors off corridors into what should be laboratories, lecture halls or seminar rooms, to find people asleep in them in the daytime. She feels they must have travelled vast distances to get here and are jet lagged. Then she is striding long pathways in flat blank spaces outside completely alone and talking to herself. She is feeling really strange and tense. She seems to know no one.

It’s coming up to 5 p.m. She decides to ring home and gets her mobile out. It’s useless. It’s all in Greek. There is a pretty scene of some ancient building depicted on the screen. There is no address book and no way to ring numbers. She is desperate to make the phone call. Her battery is going flat – it’s showing 19% and she doesn’t have her portable charger with her. She finds a group of red phone boxes near something like a factory and goes into one with her change in her hand but can’t understand the slots for the coins. They seem to be specialised for factory-made discs to go into. Then the phone in her booth rings. She hesitates, then picks it up.

‘Hallo,’ she whispers.

‘Hi, love, it’s Alistair.’

Her heart leaps. She can hardly speak.

‘You’ve done it. You’ve come into my dream.’

‘Listen, love. I haven’t got much time. I’m not meant to ring you yet. In the packet is a book – the Everyman edition of George Herbert’s . . . . .’

The phone went dead.

(Part 2: Next Monday)

Footnote:

[1] This was begun after we attended the funeral of a close friend. She was a complete sceptic so in a way this is written partly from her point of view.

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Last time

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

* * * *

The following morning Alan phones to ask me to meet him at the cemetery. He wants to check out their tearoom for the wake. I was hoping to have time to think about what my parliament of selves is wrestling with, and maybe tune in to their conversation again, but know that my first responsibility is to support him in his grief.

The parking is free at the cemetery so we agree to meet up there in half an hour.

The sting in the tail of winter has not struck as yet. The sun is shining on the graves among the grass as I drive up. Alan is already there waiting for me as I clamber out of my car.

‘How goes?’ I ask knowing exactly what his answer will be.

‘Don’t ask.’

We head off to the tearoom in the converted chapel. The long narrow path between the jumble of graves, with headstones straining to stay upright, leads to a door with a sign telling us the door is closed and to go round the other side.

We step through the main door at the back into a small anteroom leading to the cafe area. The high ceiling, white walls and leaded windows create a light and peaceful atmosphere enriched rather than dispelled by the faint echoes bouncing off the stone of the walls.

Alan is clearly impressed.

‘Jane would’ve loved this.’

‘I’m glad. D’you fancy a coffee while you ponder on this as a venue?’

‘Good idea.’ He goes off to sit at a table in the far corner. I go to the deserted counter at the opposite end. Within seconds a bundle of energy in a green apron bustles in.

‘Hi. I’m Ellen. What would you like?’

‘One Americano and a large cappuccino, please.’

‘Coming right up. Isn’t it a beautiful day? So much sunlight.’

‘Dead right it is. This is a beautiful place you’ve got here.’

‘Thank you. Chocolate on your cappuccino?’

‘How could I drink it without?’

She grins and says, ‘Please take a seat and I’ll bring them over.’

Alan is lost in thought. I sit down.

‘Do you mind if I just pop out while she’s making the coffees? I need to take a look at my mum’s grave. It’s just by the path we came in on.’

No, of course not.’

Within seconds, Ellen comes with the coffees.

‘Thanks, Ellen. My friend’s just popped out to look at a family grave.’

She nods and turns to go.

‘Just a quick word,’ I add. ‘He’s just lost his wife and is thinking of using your cafe for the wake after the burial here.’

‘No problem,’ she says. ‘Just come and chat to me before you leave.’

As I stir the chocolate into my coffee, the sound of voices begins to ring inside my head again.

‘We’ve been thinking about this rebirthing idea. How d’you reckon it would work?’ Pancake tries to hide her sceptical tone behind a veil of simulated sympathy.

‘I’m not absolutely sure,’ I admit, ‘but it might be worth my trying the continuous breathing till the tears come flooding up again if they do, and then persist for much longer than I’ve ever done before, to see where it leads.’

‘That makes a kind of sense.’ Mires was always likely to be the first one on board with this idea. Even if it doesn’t work this is the kind of experiment he is always keen to try.

Indie is nodding as Humfreezes speaks. ‘If that’s what you want we’ll give it a go, but I’m not convinced. I know it’s a form of meditation but it’s not the kind I see as the most effective.’

Pancake scowls but doesn’t actively disagree. Wordless is speechless.

‘So as soon as I can get some time alone, we’ll give it a go then?’ I check out.

‘It looks like it’ Mires confirms.

The cafe door opens again and Alan comes back and sits down.

‘I still miss her.’

I nod sympathetically.

His coffee is almost cold. He gulps it down quickly.

‘D’you like this place? Will it do?’ I ask.

‘I think so. Just Jane’s kind of spot. Let’s see what they have to say.’

It doesn’t take long for him to agree the details with Ellen at the counter. I can’t resist slipping in a question.

‘When was the chapel converted?’

‘Just three years back we finished it, my husband and I.’

‘You’ve done a really good job. What made you take this on?’

‘Well, I was a florist for 25 years, and then my daughter died in a road accident.’

‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’

‘My husband and I wanted something to give our lives meaning after that. He’s a builder.’

‘You mean he did the whole conversion?’

‘Basically, yes.’

‘I take my hat off to you both! That’s amazing.’

‘We’re so glad we did it. It cost us a lot of time and money but it’s been worth it. I have never enjoyed any job so much as this one.’

‘And it’s helping people as well.’

‘Yes. That’s part of the reward of it all.’

Alan was beginning to look a bit restless.

‘We’ll come back soon and discuss the details when we’re clearer about how many are coming,’ he cut across.

‘Of course,’ Ellen smiled and shook his hand and mine.

I’m not sure about Alan, but I left carrying with me a feeling of warmth and admiration for this lady. Even moments of grief can bring encounters with inspiration.

* * * *

My wife has gone to Birmingham for the day with her friend, to do some shopping and see a film.

This is the best chance I’ll get for quite some time to try and exhume or rebirth my buried self. I’m quite anxious about it though. In the past when I have used this method of continuous breathing there has always been someone else there who was familiar with the process. This time I’ll be on my own except for the parliament of selves inside my head.

They’d never forgive me if I back out now. We have all agreed to use this time for this purpose.

I decide I’ll be more comfortable in my pyjamas and dressing gown, lying on the bed rather than on the floor. My wife won’t be back till after 11 in the evening, so we’ve got more than 12 hours. It should be more than long enough.

I change and lie down before trying to get in touch. It takes a few minutes before I hear anything. Maybe they are just as nervous as I am.

It’s Indie who speaks first.

‘Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?’

‘As sure as I’ll ever be.’

‘Can you manage this by yourself, d’you think?’ Mires asks, wearing his therapist’s hat.

‘I’ll have to. There’s no other way. I don’t feel comfortable now going to another therapist. I know how the process works and there’s no real risk involved.’

‘Suppose you discover something really horrific?’ he insists.

‘I think, if there had been any really terrible skeletons in my cupboard I’d have had some hints from my parents. My mum wasn’t one to leave a scary tale untold.’

‘OK. If you’re sure . . .’ he concedes.

‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘And let’s hope this sees the last of all this mumbo-jumbo,’ Wordless hisses through gritted teeth.

It’s a good job we don’t have to have everyone on board for this to work, unlike with the séance.

As usual the first half hour or more is uneventful. I steer my customary careful course between hypo- and hyperventilating. There is the usual slight buzzing in the head and occasional tingling, when I overdo the breathing a bit. I am possibly biasing the process slightly by scanning my chest for the beating of my heart as I’ve half-convinced myself that this is where it will all be happening.

Then something strange and unexpected begins to happen. I’m not getting any well of tears. I seem to be floating. I’m not sure whether it’s on water or through the air. It’s a very odd sensation. A little bit scary, in fact. It’s getting slightly harder to keep breathing. It’s as though I may be under water or high in the air. More likely the latter as I can get some air into my lungs. I’m not choking in water.

‘What’s going on?’ Indie shouts, sounding quite worried.

I find I can’t even think to explain. I can just about keep breathing.

I feel as though I am picking up speed. I open my eyes briefly and see the bedroom is the same as always. It’s just my body feeling as though I’m being propelled along. I close my eyes again and keep breathing. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of near death or near birth experience. If anything it feels like a bit of both. Am I flying or in danger of drowning? The roaring that is starting in my ears could be either.

It’s then I remember my situation in Much Wenlock. I was trembling, and as I breathed the trembling just went on and on. It was only when the therapist said I needed to let go and accept whatever it was that was struggling into consciousness that things changed dramatically and immediately. Am I in the same kind of situation again? Do I need simply to let go and stop puzzling over this experience?

‘Yes, let go! Let go!’ It’s Indie again. ‘That’s what I had to do when you all called me. If I hadn’t let go I’d still be shut away, locked in my distrust and isolation. Let go!’

With a quick prayer, as I did last time, I let go. The only way I can describe what happens next is to say that it seems as though I have just burst my head through the surface of a lake or risen above the mist and clouds into brilliant sunshine, except that I don’t see it – I just feel that this is how it is. It is even more intense than the dream I had in my teens of floating on my back supported by the clouds below that were carrying me along. It is freedom. It is beauty. I am truly alive at last. I burst into tears of joy this time, not grief.

Then came the thought. ‘You have left the tomb of your parents’ grief at last.’[1]

To be honest, I’m not quite sure whether the thought said womb or tomb. It felt like both in a way. Whichever it is, it feels like being reborn.

‘You’ve done it,’ screams Indie.

‘Well done,’ shouts Mires and Humfreeze together.

‘I’m not sure what happened there but it seemed to go all right,’ chipped in the more hesitant Pancake.

‘What happened exactly?’ I ask in a state of mild bewilderment. Right now I can interact with them in the usual way and my sense of floating or flying has completely disappeared.

‘At first you seemed to disappear into the chamber of your heart, which became translucent, and then you blended into the infant we had buried, I think. We lost sight of you completely,’ Mires explains quietly. ‘What happened next is a bit confusing. The chamber seemed to dissolve completely and the child – it’s a toddler now – tottered out into a brilliant light and you were suddenly back on the bed in full sight. All very weird.’

‘Where’s the toddler now?’ I’m anxious about whether he’s all right.

Pancake chips in. ‘Indie has taken him to a quiet place to calm him down. He – at least we think it’s a he but are not completely sure – is excited and upset at the same time. He’s fine though. He’ll live!’

We all fall silent for a few moments.

‘So, what do you reckon happened and why?’ I’m really keen to get some clarity on all this.

‘Well, I hate to say this but it looks as though Fred might have been right after all.’ Humfreeze pulls a sour face to hide his smile.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘It looks like when you were in the womb you were floating in a pool of pain in a way. I don’t literally mean the amniotic fluid. What I’m trying to say is that while you were enveloped in the fluid in the womb, the signals you were getting from your mother were all about loss, pain and grief. It was almost intolerable. We know your body can’t remember all this in detail, though the emotional centre of your brain will have recorded the intensity of this without knowing where it came from. Your soul might have been able to remember it, but none of us can tune into that dimension. When you were born you could not leave it behind. You have carried it with you ever since, till now at least. The fact that your brain held onto the pain and grief with no idea of the circumstances that generated it means that your whole life has been clouded at times, maybe most of the time, by a mist of loss and pain.’

Mires nods as Humfreeze speaks.

I lie there stunned and yet relieved. It makes a kind of sense. I know intuitively that there is still a long way to go before my toddler self can mature to the point of joining with the rest of us as we work at creating a single sense of a unified self that can perhaps become capable, if not of tuning directly into spiritual reality, at least of developing a clearer sense than ever before of the direction that this transcendent reality requires me to take for the rest of my remaining days.

‘Yea, verily,’ Pancake chants, having overheard my every thought. ‘Let’s hope there’ll be more action then and a lot less rumination.’

‘There she goes again,’ Wordless says, breaking his silence at last. ‘It’s not going to be easy making space for my poetry and her treadmill.’

Yes, I think to myself, we’ve got a really long way to go still.

I find myself wondering whether this will help me be of more use to Alan in his grief. Only time will tell.

Footnote:

[1]. It’s possibly worth mentioning that I wrote this episode before reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, particularly pages 228-233, which describe one man’s intense spiritual and healing experiences under the influence of a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin. The parallels were slightly uncanny.

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Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

The nurse ushers us into a side room.

‘As soon as we know anything, we’ll come and tell you,’ she whispers. ‘Please make some coffee if you want.’

She closes the door quietly behind her. There is a kettle, two stainless steel containers, one with instant coffee and the other with tea bags by the looks. There are no cups in sight.

In the far corner a woman sits by her handbag, head bowed, looking at the screen of her phone. All the time she’s with us, she doesn’t scan it with her fingers.

Alan and I sit down opposite a painting of blue irises. He is too stunned to speak much. I sit quietly beside him. We wait for someone to come and tell us what is happening.

A woman with an apron comes in gently. She checks the cupboard.

‘You don’t have any cups. I’ll go and get some.’ She smiles at us and leaves.

Alan and I smile faintly at each other. His eyes are red with weeping.

The door opens again.

‘I’ve brought some cups for you. The milk’s in the fridge below,’ she explains, opening its door before she goes again.

We sit there and do nothing.

In the silence I become faintly aware of a movement at the back of my mind. I try not to take any notice. My job is to watch out for Alan, not disappear into my own inscape.

The movement becomes more insistent. It feels as though someone is standing right behind my eyes.

‘We have another self to exhume.’

I recognise the voice straightaway as Indie’s. This is a bit of a shock, to say the least. It’s a good 18 months since I heard anything from my parliament of selves.

‘What d’you mean, exhume?’ I telegraph silently.

‘We buried him in a chamber of your heart when we were all very small.’

The door opens. Indie vanishes from my mind. A doctor and two nurses come in. One of the nurses talks quietly to the woman with the phone and she leaves looking slightly upset.

The three of them sit down opposite us.

‘I’m Mr McGrave, Senior Cardiologist. There’s no easy way for us to tell you this, Mr White.’

Alan moves uneasily in his seat and makes a slight choking noise.

‘When she came in her heart had stopped,’ he goes on. ‘We used every means we could to start it beating again but we couldn’t get a pulse. She wasn’t breathing on her own either. We tried several times, but scans showed major damage to one ventricle of the heart indicating that it would no longer be able to work. There were significant toxins in the blood as well.’

‘We’re so sorry to have to tell you this,’ the blond nurse adds.

Alan can no longer hold back his sobs.

‘We’ll leave you now to process this’ the bearded nurse explained. ‘We’ll come back after a while and if you wish we can take you to the room where her body is so you can see her. Would you like that?’

Alan nods.

I put my arm on Alan’s shoulder as he tries to regain his composure. He begins to calm down.

‘Would a coffee help?’ I ask.

He nods.

As I wait for the kettle to boil, I can’t stop Indie insisting I listen to her.

‘We entombed a child self,’ she says. ‘He just wouldn’t stop moaning and crying. We couldn’t comfort him. He asked us to hide him away somewhere under the ground of your heart. We agreed. It seemed kinder to smother him out of sight, but we knew he wouldn’t die. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Please can we deal with this later,’ I plead in my mind, even though I am desperate to know more. ‘Alan is my priority right now.’

‘We have to do something. Soon. We can’t leave him there any longer. He’s the only one left out in the cold now. When can we talk?’

Before I can answer the kettle boils and she disappears again.

‘You don’t take sugar, do you?’ I ask simply to break the silence.

‘You know I don’t.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s amazing how these situations can get you muddled, though.’

I pause.

‘Jane didn’t drink coffee at all, did she?’

‘Not after the blood pressure problem, no.’

‘I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be married all those years to someone younger than you, and suddenly to find she’s gone.’

Alan doesn’t reply.

‘Losing my mother was different. She was in her seventies, and in those days, when she died, that was a good age. We were expecting it.’

I wasn’t sure any of this was helping but didn’t feel like lapsing back into silence.

He stares at the floor.

I carry the cups across, give him his and sit down next to him with mine.

‘What happened exactly – if you can bear to tell me that is?’

He pauses for a moment.

‘It was a complete shock. She was feeling sick overnight, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she’d just eaten too much the evening before. It was only when she got up and was violently sick that I began to worry.’

He stops again for a moment to regain his composure.

“Please don’t carry on if it’s too hard.’

‘No, no. It’s all right. I want to tell you. She was so sick she couldn’t stand. That was when I rang for the ambulance. She was still conscious when they took her away. I really figured she’d be OK. When I got to the hospital, I rang you when I realised it was a lot worse than I thought.’

‘I’m glad you did,’ I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I can’t think of anything else to say.

Before Indie can return, as I fear she might, the door opens again and the blond nurse comes back in.

‘You can see your wife now, Mr White, if that’s still OK.’

He nods and stands. I stand with him and we follow the nurse out of the door, turn right and then into a set of double doors just down the corridor on the right. Someone holds the door for us as the nurse goes in ahead to pull back a blue screen to reveal the body. This is the second body I’ve seen in the last two years, but this one is not so carefully adorned and arranged as the one in the hospice had been. One sheet, and under that a surgical gown, her body, now deserted, and no flowers.

As Alan bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek he breaks into sobs again.

I put my hand on his back and rest my gaze on what I can see of her hair, just beginning to be flecked with grey. As he stands again, stifling his sobs and holding her hand, I see her mouth. It’s open as though she is gasping for air, but she is too still for that. With my hand on his back and my eyes on her face my awareness of the room fades.

There is a conversation going on in hushed tones in the back of my mind.

‘I think we’d better wait till he’s out of this situation before we try and talk to him again.’ I recognise the deep voice and clipped vowels. It’s Mires, saying what you’d expect of a sensitive psychologist.

‘I don’t agree. It’s not fair to leave it too long. You all rescued me when I thought I was alone forever. I know how it feels to be abandoned. I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ I don’t have to hear her voice to realise that only Indie would have known what it was like to be in that predicament.

A brittle woman’s voice breaks in. ‘I’ll just go along with whatever you all feel. I’m right out of my depth in this kind of stuff.’ This is a surprise. Emma Pancake, usually the one to rush into action, doesn’t know what to do.

‘That’s one for my diary,’ flashes through my brain. Fortunately, they’re too busy talking to hear my thoughts right now.

‘I agree we should wait. I need more time to think about this.’ No surprise there, then. Humfreeze, the master meditator, remains true to type.

‘I think we should go now,’ Alan cuts across.

I jerk out of my reverie.

‘Yes, of course.’

We head for the door. The nurse waiting outside steps in to close the screen again.

‘Please wait in the room again and someone will be with you shortly to explain what you need to do next,’ she explains gently.

It doesn’t take long for the tall male nurse to slide in with a small folder and hand over a booklet with all the information needed about the steps to take to prepare the funeral arrangements, get the body moved and close the dead wife’s bank account. I don’t even have to take notes for Alan who looks as though his mind is somewhere else.

When the man goes we wait a few seconds. Alan stands and puts on his coat. I walk him home mostly in silence – the hospital car park is far too expensive for us to use.

As we reach his gate, I ask ‘Will you be OK?’

‘I’ll be all right. I just need some time to myself.’

‘Ring me if you need me, otherwise we’ll meet on Wednesday to plan what you need to do next, yes?’

‘Not too early. Come round about 11.’

‘OK.’

He fumbles for his keys as he walks up the path to his door. I wait till he closes it behind him before walking slowly back to my place over the river.

As I walk along the quiet footpath towards the pedestrian bridge over the river, I hear them at it again.

‘Can you listen to us now,’ Humfreeze asks.

‘Yes, Chris, I can,’ I hear myself think.

Though we’re in for another Siberian-born Scorpion sting in the tail of winter, flecks of cherry blossom are just beginning to appear.

‘We want to set a time for another séance. That seems the best way to get the infant back. It worked well last time with Indie,’ ’ he explained, with just a faint trace of self-congratulation over his key role as medium in reconnecting with her.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Mires interjected. ‘This situation seems slightly different. With Indie we didn’t know whether she existed or not, let alone where she was. She was like a possible ghost to us. In this case, three of us definitely remember deciding to put the baby out of its misery without actually killing it. Even Indie thinks she can remember being involved in that, which makes a kind of sense, in that it would have happened before her consciousness split off from the rest of us. I don’t think it’s a séance we need.’

As I cross the bridge and glance quickly down the river to my left, the sun comes out from behind a cloud, lighting up the surface of the water. I’m dazzled.

‘So what’s your suggestion, Fred?’ Humfreeze asks with the air of a man who knows there is no other way.

‘Breathing meditation.’

‘Are you joking or what, Fred?’ Pancake bursts in. ‘OK. I got the séance point in the end. It was a crazy long shot but it worked. What’s meditation got to do with this? Or are you just pandering to Chris’ ego and giving him a key role in a different shape?’

‘You don’t remember what Pete said about his work on his operation, do you?’

‘Yes, I do. But he did quite a bit of breathwork and the only concrete thing he ever found out was about the operation, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch with Indie. Surely, if there was anyone else accessible to heavy breathing he’d’ve found out by now.’ Pancake is clearly getting really fed up of all this flaky New Age stuff.

Mires presses the point. ‘But even if he did a lot of breathwork, did he really do enough?’

‘Why wouldn’t he have done?’ Pancake isn’t going to give in without a fight.

Mires pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘You’ll need to give me some space to explain.’ He was well aware of Pancake’s talent for interrupting.

She nods. He picks up his thread.

‘From what I’ve read the traumas we’ve experienced are stored in a kind of hierarchy in our heads – the more recent, the more accessible. As you access the ones nearer the surface, so the ones lower down become easier to reach. Often working on a difficult one exhausts us and we stop, sometimes for a while, sometimes indefinitely.’

‘Is there a shred of real evidence for that?’ Pancake’s reservoir of patience is shallow at the best of times.

‘It depends upon what you call real evidence.’ Mires is biting his tongue with difficulty. ‘There’s qualitative support for it.’

‘You mean anecdotal evidence, don’t you, Fred?’

‘Not exactly. Groups of individual cases stack up to more than an anecdote. Can I carry on now?’

She nods.

‘I think we can all agree that the hospital trauma came after whatever led to the infant howling all the time. And you all realise, from listening in to Pete’s thoughts as he writes his diary, that he knows that the well of tears he tapped into when he first did the continuous conscious breathing has never gone away. What does that suggest, d’you think?’

There is a long silence.

‘Unfinished business,’ Indie suggests.

‘Exactly, Indie. Unfinished business.’

‘But what kind of unfinished business, for heaven’s sake?’ Pancake can’t stay quiet for long.

‘Well, I’m really sticking my neck out here, but Jung gave a lecture at the Tavistock Clinic in 1935, and spoke about a young girl whose condition had baffled him[1] until, as he put it, “I realised afterwards, she had never been born entirely.” We know that Pete’s mum was pregnant in wartime and that her daughter had died just before the start of the war. This was a seriously traumatic time. One shock was not really processed before a series of other shocks followed. Bombing raids were probably just a part of it. She gave birth before the war was over. What sort of start in life was that? What sort of birth process was it, do we think? A calm and reassuring separation from the womb or an alarming ejection into a frightening world?’

‘And how is all this going to help me write poetry?’ Wordless finds his voice at last. ‘It’s all up your street, Fred. I can see that plainly enough. Polysyllabic psychobabble! But some of us have got better fish to fry.’

Humfreeze just glares at him a moment before picking up the thread again. The meditation angle is enough to keep him on board.

‘Bill’s off message as usual, but I can see where you are coming from, Fred,’ He says almost sympathetically. ‘How does that help, though, even if it’s true? And what’s it got to do with breathing? I can see how the breathing would work in recovering memories of chloroform in a five year old, but I’m not sure about that with a new born baby.’

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

(More of this next time)

Footnote:

[1] This is mentioned among other places in Samuel Beckett: the last modernist by Anthony Cronin (page 221) and Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines by ‪Marius Buning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (page 129).

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Memas

Memas

The Quest poem was written in Mumbai in December. Next Monday’s poem will be about Panchgani at the same time. Below is a poem written after a visit to Panchgani in 1992. It seems appropriate to republish it now.

Memas

In Panchgani
in the cold front room
of the small cottage
which she didn’t own
she lay still
under the white sheet
beneath the crimson and green
of the freshly cut
half-opened rose
with her headscarf tight
against the breeze
from the open window
still in the pale flowered brown dress
she always wore for travelling

there were many guests that night
her granddaughter served tea in her stead
for everyone who came and went
throughout the cold black hours
and everyone sat down for a time
and talked, told stories,
laughed, wept,
about the days in Yazd
(no one knew how long ago
exactly) when her son at five
after his father died travelled
to India with his uncle on a donkey
when she was so hungry
she fell in search of flour
down the cellar
of the house she served in
and when the sharp-eyed
mistress returned
the flour she’d hidden in her scarf
was running down her face with sweat
and the bruises of her fall
were nothing to the bruises
of her beating for the flour

and in the morning
there was the washing of the body
which the women did
the arguments about
how many layers of cloth
should wrap her round
what should be written
on the ring she’d wear
whether the body should be
carried in a blanket
through the streets
so that the coffin could leave
from her son’s house not
from her daughter’s house
which had no proper bathroom
in which to wash a corpse
though it was where she had most loved
to clean and wash and cook
until the last
because nobody tried to stop her

in the end
the body was lifted
from where she left it
into the coffin
(I never knew till then
how heavy and cold a small old
dead woman could be)
then the coffin was lifted
into the jeep which drove us
to the big house where we prayed and ate

when the sun was directly overhead
and the dust on the road was slow
to settle and all the children
from the school she’d served
had gathered we drove off
at walking crawling pace to the gulestan
where a large crowd from almost everywhere
waited to see this long life end
in a small grave
under a small tree in bloom

and candles were lit
and joss sticks
and blossoms strewn
all round the grave
and her five year old
great grandson from Hereford
who had known her
only for ten days cried

first when they nailed the lid on
don’t let them for she can’t get out

and cried again
when they lowered her
down into the steep red soil
for fear she could not climb the sides

and cried again
when they heaved the grey slabs on top
please stop them for the weight
will be too much
and sobbed out loud
when the men threw
buckets of wet concrete
into the grave for smoothing down
to stop the monsoon
resurrecting her

for then he knew
she’d never wake again down there
to play with or serve us

Pete Hulme Text © 1991

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Grave & Courtyard v2

I went to the DeathCafe by car this time. A musician friend of mine had expressed an interest in attending, so he popped into our place for soup, then we drove together to the Courtyard. He seemed as fascinated by death as I am, a rare meeting of minds.

We dropped the car in a side road to save parking expenses. As we walked back to the venue we spotted another frequenter of the Death Cafe, someone previously connected with mental health as I was. We headed together straight for the bar to get our drinks, and amazingly there was yet another member of the group waiting at the bar for her giant sized mocha. As we chatted I noticed the facilitator from the local hospice passing behind us to check out the room. It was going to be another big meeting again.

The man in the hat turned up next. We exchanged greetings. We left him at the bar once we got our drinks and headed to the ground floor meeting room. It was the one we all liked best. It is easily accessible and you don’t get the full blast of the theatre performances coming through the wall.

As always it’s impossible to summarise all the topics we covered in two hours of energised discussion, spiced with humour and laced with sadness.

What I remember most, perhaps understandably, is that I was not the only one to be coming to terms with a body no longer responding energetically to the demands of the mind. There was at least one other person there with the same issue. We kicked that topic around for a while before the focus moved on to other things.

Inevitably, I suppose, we came back at one point to the big question: what happens when we die? Do we circle back through the loop of reincarnation, do we pass on to a journey through the next world, or do we simply black out.

In Gustave Doré’s illustrations for the fourth circle of Dante’s hell, the weights are huge money bags. (For source of image see link.)

Some weren’t sure but worked on a variation of Pascal’s wager. As Wikipedia explains: ‘Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).’ A strong prompt for a pause of thought, even if with me you don’t share a belief in the medieval concept of hell so grimly portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Some in the group had decided that it was just a happier place to be, to assume that there was a life beyond death, even though they couldn’t prove it.

Others, including my friend and I, were pretty clear we believed there was something after death, and it was a source of comfort and even joy, one of us quoting the words of Bahá’u’lláh in support of this:

O SON OF THE SUPREME!
I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?

Yes, we would grieve at the loss of a relative or friend, because they were no longer with us, but this pain would be tempered by the knowledge (yes, we used that word) they were in a better place.

At least one person doubted there was anything beyond death while another, who had a strong sense at times of having been here before, has placed her money on coming back again and again.

I didn’t have the chance to share my own thoughts in detail on that one. Though the Bahá’í Faith teaches that we do not come back, there are examples not easily dismissed of evidence that points in the direction of some kind of knowledge of a previous life. I’ve dealt with most of that in detail in previous posts. One thing I’ve recently read in Fontana’s excellent book on the after life suggests that returning spirits say that some people ask to come back and some are sent back. Given the rigour with which he examines evidence, I feel I need to give this idea due weight. It needs an explanation of some kind. The evidence needs taking seriously: though we may explain it in different ways, it should not be ignored.

As part of that discussion, the problem with how to deal with the pain of grief came up. Many of us had noticed that some seem broken by grief and never really recover, while others pick themselves up and, when the intense pain of the first period of grief is over, begin to engage in activities that lead to a more positive life. The idea put forward by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was briefly explored: there is pain, which is inescapable, and suffering, which is the avoidable layer that we add to pain by our own take on it.

I couldn’t resist plugging my own panacea for pain and other uncomfortable experiences: reflection. I won’t bang on about it here at any length as I’ve explored it over and over on this blog already, except to say that developing the ability to step back from the contents of our consciousness, whether that be intrusive and negative thoughts or strong feelings of pain, enables us to contain them, rather than repress them or be their victim. Containment allow us to explore them safely and decide how to deal with them constructively.

As we walked back to the car together my friend said, with no prompting from me,’That was great. I really enjoyed it.’

The next meeting of the Hereford Death Cafe is on Wednesday 18th October at 18.00. See you there maybe?

Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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