Hazel McHaffie

Conjoined twins

Tippi and Grace are joined at the hip – no, not in the usual sense of inseparable friends; they are literally conjoined at the pelvis, sharing blood and bone. They’ve been dubbed many things – freaks, fiends, monsters, mutants, a two-headed demon, grotesque, a person’s nightmare, devil’s spawn – malice and fear and ignorance colliding in a spew of abusive terms.

Each and every pair of conjoined twins is uniquely different, but …the details of our bodies remain a secret unless we want to tell.

However these two do want to tell: ‘It probably sounds like a prison sentence, but we have it better than others who live with fused heads or hearts, or only two arms between them. It really isn’t so bad. It’s how it’s always been. It’s all we know.’
Tippi and Grace have two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys, four arms. Their intestines begin apart then merge and below that they are one, with just one pair of functioning legs.

The principal narrator of One (by Irish writer Sarah Crossan) is Grace. With masterly understatement she describes the embarrassment of being constantly on parade during medical examinations, of being physically present at each other’s therapy sessions, of being ogled in the street by strangers. And the resentment of having to share each other’s sickbed, of gaining weight because of her sister’s appetite, of feeling drunk or high because of Tippi’s addictions.

Because the line between independence and co-dependence is a fine one. And Tippi is determined to go her own way, being so much more egocentric than her twin:
When Tippi wants something she takes it with two hands and with a body that belongs to us both. I know this should make me angry, but all I feel is envy because I so wish I could be more selfish sometimes too.

When at aged 16 they are finally allowed to go to school, they are surrounded by a peer group aspiring to be somebody – stars, celebrities. For them ‘normal’ is the road to nothingness. They seek to be different, to stand out. But for Tippi and Grace, normal is the Holy Grail and only those without it know its value. It is all I have ever wanted and I would trade weird or freakish or spectacular or astonishing for normal any day of the week.

They’ve always known the statistics are against them; in their early weeks their mother was told they wouldn’t see their second birthday. But they have defied expectation, they’ve survived to their teens. Now though, various physiological incidents remind them that, much as they might protest to their health team that they are ‘OK’, their bodies are telling them they are not.
As time ticks by the chances of us suddenly ceasing to be get quite high. That’s just a fact that will never go away.

Then tragedy strikes. Flu puts a huge strain on Grace’s heart and both girls rely more and more on Tippi’s heart working for both of them. Until that too shows signs of stress. If nothing is done, they will both die … soon. Serious ethical dilemmas present. With no dress rehearsal possible.

The risks are colossal. But are they better faced separate or together? And who’s to say?
When conjoined twins are separated it’s deemed a success so long as one of them lives. For a while. And that, to me, is the saddest thing I know about how people see us.

Ultimately this is a story about human love and resilience. It’s a YA book and written in a curious poetic style with sentences and paragraphs of varying lengths, neither of which would normally appeal to me, but of course, the subject did. Although it’s spread over 430 pages it’s read in a few hours, and what a moving and sympathetic way to introduce such important concepts to a young readership. I’m not surprised it has attracted so many literary awards.

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The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

I’ve read countless books on the Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, both factual and fictionalised accounts, and we all know about the appalling acts by Nazi Germany that led to the extermination of millions of Jews and Romanys and others in the concentration camps, gas chambers and mass shootings, during World War II. So how come I hadn’t even heard of the Holomodor – death by hunger – in Ukraine? I have now, though, through the pages of a novel published in 2022: The Memory Keeper of Kyiv. And it will surely haunt me.

It’s the more powerful I suspect because of the images flashing onto our screens daily in the news, images of devastation in Ukraine as Russia attempts to subjugate this nation and destroy their culture. Vivid images of bodies left lying in the frozen ground, Ukrainian faces ravaged by despair, women lamenting their dead, the haunted eyes of orphaned children, snow falling over scenes of utter ruin, families ripped apart and displaced. All so redolent of the pictures author Erin Litteken describes in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv. Inhumanity and brutality on a scale it’s hard to comprehend or believe.

Litteken is the granddaughter of a Ukrainian refugee from World War II which instantly gives her credentials for telling this tale. The poignancy of the current conflict appalls her; the horror of terrible history repeating itself. Her novel is an attempt to imagine and recreate the 1930s when Stalin’s activists marched across the Soviet Union and created a man-made famine in Ukraine, exacting a toll of almost 4 million lives.

As one of her principal characters who lived through the atrocities said: Share my story, our story, with everyone, so what happened to us never happens again. If only. But she has gone some way to exposing this forgotten horror.

The tale is told in two time frames, the 1930s and the 2000s, and the alternating perspectives worked for me since I found the accounts of life through the Holodomor so harrowing it was a relief to move to the nearer present, even though that time too is wreathed in tragedy and sadness. The natural disasters are at least understandable and forgivable.

I’ll sketch the plot lightly so as not to spoil it for future readers of the book. But perhaps a warning is wise: there is only one attempt at the end to soften the blackness, and by then it seems rather contrived.

1929
Kateryna Viktorivna Shevchenko (Katya) is a boisterous feisty 16-year-old, newly in love with Pavlo, a boy she’s known all her life. When the peace of their rural life is shattered by the coming of Stalin’s activists in January 1930, everything changes. Arrests and deportations begin immediately, appropriation of properties starting with the wealthiest, religious icons replaced with the trappings of collectivisation and communism, rebels disappearing. Interventions are in vain and incur terrible penalties.

Agonising choices face those left behind. Stalin’s plan is to terrorise them into subservience, appropriating their produce and animals and possessions, brutalising people and property, so they will join his regime, and even when they do forcing them into starvation. Resistance and disobedience attract instant death or deportation. The threat of harsh punishments makes ordinarily peace-loving people do astonishing things, and there’s a particularly devastating sense of loss attached to locals who succumb to the blackmail, collaborate with the enemy, and betray their compatriot neighbours.

As the atrocities mount, Katya begins to record events on tiny scraps of paper, with the stub of an old pencil. Then, on the day before their wedding, tragedy comes to them personally: Pavlo and his parents are shot in cold blood, and her own father is deported by the invading activists. In the pervasive fear, even the opportunity to truly mourn their grievous loss has been taken from them.

Tragedy after tragedy follows, and no effort is made to sanitise or soften the horrors for the sake of finer sensibilities. Even when Katya acts to try to save her family, and performs deeds of immense heroism, she’s wracked by guilt for the consequences of her choices, a guilt which haunts her to her last breath.

2004
Newly widowed, Cassie, is clinging to the remnants of life before her husband was killed in a car accident, though the memories are increasingly stifling her, trapping her in the past. She’s merely going through the motions of a bare-bones existence. Her 5-year-old daughter, Birdie, hasn’t spoken in over fourteen months since the tragedy. But then they are persuaded by Cassie’s mum to move to her childhood home to help care for Cassie’s grandmother, Bobby, a Ukrainian widow who survived the Holodomor. The move forces her out of the spiral of sadness, and gradually Cassie sheds the hard outer shell of her grief. And despite her resistance, she even finds love again with their neighbour, Nick, grandson of another Ukrainian woman, Mina.

But Bobby is losing her grip on reality as dementia sets in. She reverts to old behaviours, burying food in strange places and wandering out of the house at night lamenting past deeds. Cassie and her mother are at a loss to understand why. Until that is, Cassie discovers Bobby’s journal and scraps of paper covered in spidery Cyrillic script tucked into odd places. In a lucid moment Bobbie gives her granddaughter permission to read this account of her experiences in the1930s; she simply cannot bring herself to talk about those appalling memories but they should be known. Nick speaks Ukrainian and he helps to translate the texts. It’s an account of Katya’s life. Pavlo had told her moments before his death: You must survive this and tell the people of the world what has happened here, so that it doesn’t happen again. Use your pencil and paper and weave your beautiful words to keep our memories alive. Don’t let me die in vain, Katya. She was true to her promise to him.

It’s a shocking account. But how sad that such courageous efforts were not enough to prevent history repeating the errors of the past for Ukraine. That we were not taught this evil alongside the Holocaust. That we did not know.

The philosophy of Katya’s father might well resonate for many in 2023 too: Just make it through today and hope that tomorrow will be better. But it ought not to be good enough for us who see what is happening. We surely can’t walk by on the other side. Not when we know.

 

 

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Points of View

The importance of the point of view (POV) is something that’s drummed into writers: it’s the narrative perspective from which a story is told, important because it’s the angle from which readers experience the plot, observe the behaviour of the characters, and glean information about their world. In fiction, there are four types of point of view: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient, and the appeal of the story is largely dependent on, and enhanced by, whichever you choose. I sometimes experiment with different approaches to see which provides the best angle.

But recently I’ve been increasingly struck by the importance of POV in understanding a comment or a situation or a belief in real life too. As the late Queen Elizabeth II famously said of Harry and Meghan‘s exposure of ‘their truth’ about the British Royal family: ‘perceptions may vary’. Indeedy! And she was spared the worst excesses of their revelations accruing from Harry’s book, Spare, published this week, and the accompanying interviews.

Take for example, the BBC drama, Mayflies, shown during Christmas week (yep, I know, I know, curious choice of timing for a death drama, but hey ho). Based on a novel by Andrew O’Hagan, it tells the story of the response of one man, Tully, to a terminal diagnosis and 4-month prognosis. He doesn’t want to slide into indignity and suffering and incapacity, he wants to quit at his own time in his own control and commensurate with the way he lived his whole life – joyfully, flamboyantly. He chooses Switzerland. But no man is an island. His life-long best friend, Jimmy, is devastated by the news, and even more so by a request for help to get Tully to Dignitas in Switzerland, especially when it involves deceit and betrayal. Tully’s partner, Anna, is equally shattered by the prospect of losing her love, even more appalled when she discovers she’s been duped, and furthermore she’s implacably opposed to the whole business of deliberately ending one’s own life. Viewed through the POV of each of the three principal characters, the whole dynamic of the story changes. I found this applied powerfully in my own book on this topic, Right to Die.

Then there’s the long-running ongoing battle to change the laws on gender recognition. If you’re a teenage boy desperate to assume a new identity as female, I’m quite sure you’d be thrilled to hear you could do so immediately without medical verification, or years of living in the assumed gender before an official change can be recognised. If you’re a woman who’s been sexually abused and you fear the invasion of private single-sex spaces, you’d probably view the prospect of relaxation in the laws with some trepidation. If you’re a male rapist and you can see new horizon’s opening for access to vulnerable potential victims … well, what would your POV look like?

Oh, and then there were the Royal Institute Christmas lectures where the always-entertaining and erudite Professor Dame Sue Black aka Baroness Black of Strome, brought in a raft of experts to show vividly how so many professionals, all with a different point of view, use forensic science to unravel a pathological scene. Brilliant presentations; fascinating insights; exploring vital factors in the pursuit of justice and fairness.

A smattering of examples, but all highlighting the need to listen attentively to, and respect others’ POVs, and to have the humility to modify our own in response to accumulating knowledge.

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New Year 2023

Whatever your circumstances I wish you all peace and security in 2023!

 

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The Gate of the Year

Listening to the first Christmas speech by our new king, Charles III, on Sunday, I was reminded of the words of his grandfather, King George VI, in his 1939 war time Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. He quoted the Gate of the Year poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, an apposite choice given the imminence of World War II, but words which speak to people in all of life’s difficult and dangerous situations across time.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’.
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

So I went forth, and finding the hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

The ‘dark unknown’ pretty much sums up the prospects ahead, doesn’t it?  The year that’s just gone, 2022, has been one of widespread discontent, disaster and international strife, serious climate change and economic hardship, to name but a few causes for deep concern. Add to that the personal experience of many – the loss of beloved friends and family, of homes and security, and it’s evident none of us are immune from the stresses of life in the 2020s.

As we approach 2023 and that troubling ‘unknown’ we all need to seek guidance and find anchors. I do sincerely trust you can find confidence to go forward in hope, the kind of confidence Haskins and King George VI found in their faith.

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Peace and Goodwill

Peace on earth; goodwill to all

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The perfect thriller …?

Regular visitors will know I wrote a thriller myself pre-pandemic, and both before and since I’ve been fascinated by the structure of books in that genre. Maybe that makes me super-critical; I’m not sure. Maybe simply being a writer makes one extra-analytical.

But when I saw one labelled ‘the perfect thriller’ with yards of superlatives attached, it did at least warrant a second look. And that led to a purchase.

The Silent Patient by British-Cypriot author, Alex Michaelides, is the book in question.

Looking deeper I can vouch for the fact that it has certainly attracted accolades from famous names:
totally original, spellbinding psychological mystery
… masterfully plotted and brilliantly paced
… the definition of a page turner
… a real sucker punch of a twist
… an absolute jaw-dropper of an ending.

And it has won many prestigious awards. OK, I’m intrigued …

Alicia Berenson is 33 years old and her life is seemingly perfect: a famous painter married for seven years to an in-demand fashion photographer, living in a beautiful house in London. One evening her husband, Gabriel, 44, returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times pointblank in the face, using his own rifle. After which she never speaks another word.

Because of her new, more macabre notoriety, the price of her art skyrockets, but she herself is hidden away from the tabloids and the public, in a secure forensic psychiatric unit in North London, known as The Grove. She has been there now for six years.

Theo Faber, 42, and a forensic psychotherapist with plenty of emotional baggage of his own, is fascinated by her story to the point of obsession. He waits a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia, but eventually gets a post in The Grove, and becomes her psychotherapist. He wants to understand what drove her; something in her past must explain that moment of murderous rage. Was it her mother’s violent death in a car accident? Was it her father’s suicide? Was it her husband’s behaviour? Or what? It’s crucial that Theo understands what her life was like as a child, what happened to shape her, and he explores ancient classical Greek literature, works of art, literary allusion, seeking enlightenment. He begins to investigate her family, her colleagues, her friends. He is assaulted, attacked, the subject of official complaints … nevertheless he continues doggedly, unravelling a string of inconsistencies between the ‘official’ story and the facts he’s discovering.

The search is all-consuming, but alongside all this obsession with his patient’s history and fantasies, Theo is also dealing with the discovery that the wife he adores, Kathy, is being unfaithful to him. He is tortured by the awareness, but driven to continue seeking answers for his professional responsibility towards Alicia. Gradually, imperceptibly, the boundaries become blurred. We too are sucked into the dark spaces that allow horror to grow, where no one is what they appear to be, everyone seems to harbour sinister intent. Where disorder reigns. Where perceptions are distorted. Where lies cover truth.

When all Theo’s attempts at therapy draw a blank, he’s forced to abandon the mission. But then, out of the blue, Alicia hands him a lifeline. Her secret journal – her honest account this time. Now he has something concrete to work with. Now he has the respect of his colleagues who earlier doubted his methods.

The ending has been described as a sucker-punch. It is. Oh yes, indeed it is. And it’s only when you get there that you can truly appreciate the cleverness of the whole story. It’s a masterly twist indeed.

 

 

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Freedom of Speech

After last week’s long post I thought brevity might be the order of the day this time.

Usually the BBC ask one eminent thinker to deliver its annual Reith lectures, but this year it chose to have four different speakers, with the umbrella theme, The Four Freedoms, dealing with freedom of Speech and Worship, and from Want and Fear, inspired by the famous speech by Franklin D Roosevelt.  The first speaker, on the freedom of speech, was the acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie. A must-listen for me.

Wow! What a thoughtful, beautifully articulated and erudite lecture. She spoke eloquently of the price people have paid for speaking out – the lives and well as freedoms taken, the abuse and violence suffered. Nevertheless, she argued, freedom of speech is the bedrock of an open and democratic society. So it grieves her that there is currently an epidemic of self-censorship, with people afraid to voice what they really believe because they feel they should not. Those who find the courage to speak up face the possibilities of a terrible online backlash of ugly personal insults, invasions of their privacy, risk to their jobs and families, threats to their lives. Society is in the grip of ‘cancel-culture tyranny’. Publishers are loathe to take on anything sensitive which might draw the fire of the vigilantes. Unpublished manuscripts are now scrutinised by sensitivity readers whose job it is to cleanse them of anything that might just constitute potentially offensive material.

But imposing silence and calling it tolerance doesn’t make it so. Real tolerance requires understanding; understanding comes from listening; listening presupposes speech.

In Chimamanda’s view, social censure is the crisis of our day. But, she concluded: We can protect our future. We just need to have the moral courage to speak up for truth and right. Not simply apologising to the victims, but directly challenging the perpetrators of hateful messages and behaviours. Given that she herself has been the victim of abuse for what she says and writes, this aspiration carries considerable weight.

A powerful message that resonated with me. I’m trying hard to build up my own moral courage to face discrimination and intolerance in my field of operation.

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Historical fiction

Nobody illuminates the life and times of Tudor England better than Philippa Gregory. Meticulous research, vibrant prose, vivid re-imagining, everything combining to capture the colour, the textures, the intrigue, the suspense, the jealousies, the sheer brutality of court life at the time. She brings both characters and places alive. We are there!

It’s a while since I savoured one of her many novels, so Three Sisters, Three Queens was exactly what I needed this week. It centres on Henry VIII‘s older sister Margaret, born in 1489, a much-overlooked character, only 12 when the story opens but already convinced she is chosen by God for great things. The first-person telling, in the present tense, gives an urgency and psychological authenticity to her story. As the author says herself:
The rules of writing history mean that a historian can only speculate about her emotions; but a novelist is allowed, indeed, obliged to recreate a version of them.This is where historical fiction – the hybrid form – does something I find profoundly interesting – takes the historical record and turns it inside out; the inner world explains the outer record.

In this way Gregory takes us inside the head of a privileged, entitled, little girl and convey her petty jealousy, her huge ambition, her spiteful tantrums, with humour and authenticity. And alongside her portrayal of Margaret, she paints a convincing broader backdrop of the political shenanigans, the huge stakes, the precarious thrones across Europe in those times. Life seems so cheap; infant mortality high, wars and revenge killing common, alliances and loyalties so easily won and lost; all an accepted part of life.

At the tender age of 13, Margaret must combine the responsibility of being married to the 30-year old king of Scotland, with being crowned queen of a wild and at times lawless country not by birth her own. She must do all in her power to produce legitimate heirs whilst accepting a bevy of her husband’s bastard children. As Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, tells her:
You can’t do what you want when you are a princess. You have to obey God and the king and queen, your mother and father. You’re not free, Margret. You’re not like a ploughman’s daughter. You are doing the work of God, you are going to be the mother to a king, you are one below the angels, you have a destiny.

Royal marriage is a transaction.
I have never been beloved by a man who wants me for myself, and not as an emblem of a treaty between two countries.
When Margaret does later choose a love match, disaster follows on disaster, as if to confirm what she has been told about her duty to the crown far eclipsing her personal preferences. In reality, she is way ahead of her time in choosing a husband for love, not once but twice.

Being something of a royal brood mare comes with enormous pressure. When things go wrong there’s precious little time to grieve or recover. Immediately after the death of her second baby, her husband James visits Margaret in the confinement chamber and without preamble asks: Do you think it possible you are cursed? Not quite the comfort and support we might expect today, huh?! And perhaps particularly irksome since the Queen of England has signally failed to give King Henry a child in that rival royal cradle.

Though death in the 16th century was commonplace, deaths in the royal family – kings and princes, queens and queen mothers – are not just about private family bereavement; rather they entail a seismic shift in the power structure across the land, political repercussions across countries. The yo-yoing of Margaret’s emotions as she loses one after another of her relatives, captures beautifully the precarious position of the women-folk whose prime job it is to produce and support their husbands and children in the struggle to gain and then keep power.

The other two sisters of the title are Margaret’s own younger sister Mary, an acknowledged beauty and equally ambitious, destined first to be Queen of Spain, then Queen of France; and Katherine of Aragon (or Arrogant as Margaret spitely renames her) initially the wife of Margaret’s elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, and later of their younger brother Henry (VIII).

But in time the queens themselves become widows, regents and dowagers, re-marry ill-advisedly, struggle to retain power, to keep control of their households and their children. And throughout, these three princesses compete for prestige and wealth and status as well as in the fertility stakes. Margaret’s son, James, is not yet 2 when he becomes King of Scotland, and Katharine fails to produce an heir to the English throne, so there are huge stakes to play for. Loyalties wax and wane. Margaret’s fulmination against her sister in law captures the conflicts:
She [Katharine] is a barbarian, worse than a barbarian … she is no sister to me, she is a harpy – a monster who tears at flesh.
I will never speak of [her treatment of my husband’s body] either. I cannot put it out of my mind. But they must never know how I hate them for this and how I will never forgive her. I am going to make peace with this thief, this grave robber. I am going to have to claim sisterhood with this wolf that feasts off the dead. I am going to have to send ambassadors and write letters and perhaps even meet the man who was once my brother and the vulture that is his wife. If I am to be queen and get my son on the throne, I am going to need their support and their help. I am going to beg for it and never let them see the contempt in my eyes. I am going to have to be what my husband commanded me to be: a great woman and not a silly girl. But she is a demon, a woman who besmirches the honour of her place, who has smeared my mother’s throne with blood. She is a woman who wants to be equal with a king, a woman who sat beside her husband’s deathbed, and ordered the killing of my husband. She is a Lilith. I hate her.

It takes many vicissitudes to teach this proud and haughty woman humility. Her life is not charmed. Her birth does not make her invincible. Her choices are not divinely inspired. Not even her family will always love and support her. Even arranged marriages can be annulled or disregarded. Women in their world have no power, they own nothing, and must conform to their husband’s will. So any threat to their status as wives or princesses carries grave risks.
If a woman cannot marry knowing that she will be a wife till her dying day, then where can she find safety? If a man can put his wife aside on a whim then no woman can count on her fortune, her life, her future. If the king shows that marriage vows mean nothing, then all vows are nothing – we will live in a world of nothingness as if there is no law and no God.

Nothing is secure – not thrones, not status, not treaties, not lands and possessions. As Gregory, concludes: Everyone seeking power in Europe in the late medieval period changed loyalties with remarkable speed and lack of honour. For Margaret too, the only way to survive was to change allies, plot against her enemies, and move as unexpectedly as she could to outwit them.

I loved that the settings for each scene are the ancient castles we now visit as historic buildings – Linlithgow, Stirling, Craigmillar, Tantallon, but back then owned and inhabited, beseiged and destroyed. As Gregory says, ruined or restored, they are truly beautiful, a fitting backdrop to the story of such a complex and interesting woman.

Fascinating too, to note that familiar-to-us ceremonies like the handing of the keys to the reigning monarch at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the daily firing of the 1 o’clock gun from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, were already institutions so long ago.

All in all a brilliant book.

 

 

 

 

 

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Still searching!

It wasn’t a deliberate intention to write a series of posts leading one from another; it just happened. Questions led to more questions and the search for enlightenment is still on. But I confess, I’ve got rather bogged down.

After reading Rachel Held Evans‘ book, Inspired, I was taken to another one on my shelf, The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns, which in turn took me to Inspiration and Incarnation also by Enns. The first two were easy reading and I skimmed along quite happily, making some progress in sorting this vexed issue out in my head. But the third one is proving much harder work – I even took a sneaky peak at the summary review of the book to give me a leg up! I’m persevering thus far but … will this be one of those rare occasions where I quit before the end, I wonder?

As Captain Lawrence Oates the Antarctic explorer said before walking out into a blizzard and certain death, I might be gone some time.

Whatever, this will be the last post on this topic so rest easy. Lighter times ahead.

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