Monday, August 03, 2015

Blue Mondays - Monday

‘You okay?’ Asks a distant voice. I focus back in the mirror and see my wife behind me, looking slightly concerned.

‘I was miles away.’ I tell her, slowly coming back to an early Monday morning, with another sales mountain to climb. She doesn’t want to know where, some things need to be kept private in a marriage if you want to rack up the milestones.

‘Where exactly?’ Says my wife, unhelpfully.
Doing that gazing in to the middle-distance thing, when you don’t like the reflection in the shaving mirror. Wondering, like some gap-toothed pensioner about to be shoehorned into a care home, where the years went? And why I’m still flogging homes for a bean-counter boss I wouldn’t extinguish if I saw him smouldering in a pile of profit and loss accounts.

‘Just thinking.’ I tell her neutrally. I should know better.
‘Thinking what?’
That, when I was nineteen and The Clash fought the law and lost rather comprehensively, I imagined I could win. I didn’t know about escalating targets, cost-cutting pedants and a public that will lie to you through their teeth if it achieves their property goals. Naive, on reflection. But then I thought tartan bondage trousers and a clip-on nose safety pin, were relevant. What? There was no way I was going to permanently pierce myself…

‘Just wondering what the week holds in store.’ I eventually fudge.
‘Same old same old, you always say when I ask.’ She replies, with a shrug.
She doesn’t need to know what happens when you deal with property all day long. If I told her about every gut-wrenching setback perpetrated by sloppy solicitors, lazy lenders and destructive surveyors she’s be suicidal after a week. It’s taken me years to get this disillusioned.

Truth is, I was doing that Turn A Different Corner thing. Wondering, after scraping away even more pesky grey bristles, what I might have achieved with a bit more get up and go? I certainly wouldn’t have stayed this long. Stayed with a bunch of Corporate form-fillers. The headhunting offers, from estate agency recruitment firms, dried up about the time my double-breasted three piece suit fell out of fashion and I’m still too timid to start my own estate agency business. I’ve repossessed enough houses where the owners used the family home as collateral for a business loan.

‘Have you got much on?’ She persists, gallantly.
Underneath the vest and boxer shorts I’m more naked than you could ever imagine, I want to say. But unless it’s your last Rolo, sharing isn’t always a good thing.
I open my pocket diary and she laughs at me.
‘You are a stubborn old sod.’
The truth can wound. ‘Why?’ I ask her needlessly.
‘Because you could have all that information on your phone.’

I could, in theory, but I find a phone that is smarter than me as much of a threat as each new agent that has opened up in every town I’ve worked in. And besides, the screen is too small to see without reading glasses. And I’m holding out. Holding out doggedly. No sign of a hero, though.

I’ve been in enough homes, where regrets seep from the walls like a damaged damp-proof course. Homes where memories sit mournfully on mantelpieces in the shape of faded photographs and where yet another wrinkly owner, who doesn’t want to leave, counsels you: “Don’t get old son. it’s no fun.”
But the alternative isn’t too peachy either, Pops.

‘You need to move with technology.’ Says my wife, with the sort of kindly smile you give to the old lady who pushes the empty pram round town, muttering endlessly to the non-existent baby.
I used to be the youngest branch manager in the company, but short of keeping a mystical painting in the attic - and mine is full of old Lego sets and boxed Furbies we just can’t throw away - time will run you down every….well… time. 

She’s right about the phone, she usually is, but I’m damned if I’m giving Apple any more of my hard-earned cash.

Analogue man in a digital world - still spitting. 


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Price War - Thursday

Sat outside another identikit Executive detached home built in a bland, non-regional, style by one of the National house builders, about fifteen years ago. The only thing I know for sure, apart from the fact that the architects responsible for these charisma-free homes, never actually live in one, is the asking price is too high.

Negotiator S saw the fifty-something couple in the office and managed to deflect their initially combative approach, and palpable dislike for estate agents, in to a valuation appointment for me. She’s good like that.

They may think I’ll miss it, but I can see the opposition estate agent’s sun-bleached for sale sign tucked down the side path, a path with the minimum width allowed before the next house was built slap bang against it. Land with planning permission was at a premium a decade and a half ago, just as it is now. They’re not making any more of it, and it’s the reason several local planning officers are rumoured to have - paid for in cash - holiday villas in Spain.

‘They wouldn’t say how much they’re on the market for.’ S had told me after she’d booked me the appointment. ‘But I’ll find out.’
‘It’ll be too much.’ I told her gracelessly.
It took her fifteen minutes and my thoughts were confirmed. Six months with the shitesters across the high street. £50,000 more than it was worth and a long, restrictive sole agency, finally finished. Got to love a challenge.

‘Come in.’ Says the husband flatly, a look of distain on his face. His wife hovers in the background but I’m pretty sure she’ll be more forthcoming when I tell her what the house is really worth. We’re not in Mayfair and I’m guessing a Russian Oligarch with state-plundered funds, isn’t going to be that impressed with the local schooling and transport links. There’s certainly not enough room in the garden for a helicopter pad and digging a basement would just turn up the old rubbish tip again….

Cursory tour of the accommodation and a glimpse at the garden, completed, I sit opposite them on the sofa. I have the floor-plans of these house types on file and unless they’ve diminished the saleability with some garish interior designer decor, I could tell them the price without leaving my office. The garden is north facing, which won’t help, but doubtless it “didn’t bother us” when they bought.

They say valuing property is more of an art than a science, and it’s true when it comes to unique, one-off homes but with the advent of Land Registry data and the transparency of prices paid, the arty bit isn’t quite as important as it was. Mostly Jackson Pollocks…

I’m fencing and pontificating and can feel they couple aren’t really taking in the comparable sales data I’m gently feeding them. Unless you’re on a riverboat cruise in Egypt, denial isn’t that attractive.

‘Yes, but ours is much nicer than those two down the road.’ Argues the wife. It isn’t and they’ve actually moved, lady. But at least she’s showing her true colours now.
‘It was more about that other bunch of useless idiots.’ Contributes the husband sourly. He’s referring to my competitors, whose board is down the side alley. They couldn’t mask the well-entrenched hole in the front garden though. If the for sale flag had been there any longer it would have sprouted leaves come the spring.

‘Yes, they completely duped us and they never kept us updated.’ Chirps the wife. ‘All they ever wanted us to do is reduce the price.’
Yes, that’s how they operate, I think dejectedly. Still no minimum standards in the industry - any low-life can lease a shop-unit and put a fascia up and don’t even start me on, so-called, on-line estate agents.

I’ve flogged more dead horses that a sadist in a knackers’ yard, but I’m beginning to feel this is another waste of time. These people want more than their home is worth and will only buy if someone undersells their own property. I decide to try just the £25,000 reduction.

‘We’re not giving it away.’ They chorus familiarly.

No. You’re not.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

False Bonhomie - Wednesday

‘Anyone want to go and collect a set of keys from that lot over the road?’ I ask, nodding towards one of our, less loved, competitors. Not that there’s a lot of love lost towards any rival outfit trying to take money out of your bank account. Unless that rumour of B, our looses lettings lush, shagging the assistant manager of the cut-price fee cowboys, after the last annual Estate Agents’ Dinner, is true…

‘Rather not.’ Says S, with a winning smile.
I look at T, my own assistant manager, who is so laid back he wouldn’t shag anyone - unless they did all the work.
‘Got a viewing in a minute.’ He says, unconvincingly. I could check the system to see if he’s lying, but I get enough conflict with those outside the office, without bringing it indoors.

I look hesitantly at F, our dozy trainee. He seems to gently chewing, in that bovine manner that indicates a lower form of intelligence. He can’t be chomping on gum again, because he’s on a final warning. F eventually feels the weight of my gaze.

‘What?’ He asks, looking up gormlessly. At least he’s confirmed there’s no chewing gum in his mouth. I look at him and, not for the first time, wonder what I was thinking of when I recruited him? Best of a bad lot, probably..

‘He was asking if you could collect a set of keys from those tossers across the road.’ Says S helpfully.
F looks out the window and focuses on a middle-aged couple about to cross to our side. His face creases up.
‘Never mind.’ I bark. ‘I’ll go.’

There’s an uneasy truce between estate agents at the best of times. It’s witnessed on Friday night’s, when traditionally most firms adjourn to the pub to disseminate sales and to bray as loudly as they can towards the opposition huddle, about what a great week they’ve had. There’s more bullshit flying around than a fight at a stud farm, but some of it sticks.

The gritted-teeth politeness tends to continue at business functions and the aforementioned annual Estate Agents’ Dinner, where several score of property pugilists wrap themselves in alcohol and diner jackets and try not to start fights until they’re in the car park.

The fragile truce is strained to Lebanon levels, when you enter a rival’s office to relive them of keys to a home they’ve failed to sell, prior to you taking up the marketing. You feel as uncomfortable as most men - apart from the crossdressers - do when they make their furtive annual trip to the M & S lingerie section each Christmas. ‘Well, she’s about you size actually, Miss….’

I can see them  watching me through the window even as I move to their side of the street. If looks could kill no amount of adherence to my old Green Cross Code would save me from a nasty accident. Pausing as long as I can, to scan their window display and to try not to fret further at the sight of two homes I tried to list, still on display and still 20% over-priced, I bustle through the door. False smile pasted on.

The manager looks at me as if a large unwanted turd has just popped back around the u-bend.
‘Alright?’ He says, more by way of a challenge than an enquiry into my wellbeing.
I can feel his staff looking at me, almost physically.  There can’t have been this much tension in the air since the last time the founder members of One Direction were together in one room.

‘I’m here for the keys to number twenty-three. Mr and Mrs Stephenson.’ I tell him flatly.
‘You’re welcome.’ Sneers the shitester in a suit, nodding towards a minion, who scuttles off to the key safe. ‘They are pair of wasters.’

Only because you misled them on price and spent the next twelve weeks trying to get them to reduce by £25,000, I think sourly. I obviously don’t say that. There’s a facade to be maintained, not to mention some expensive dentistry to be protected.

Still smiling.


Thursday, July 09, 2015

Top And Bottom - Thursday

‘What’s capped and collared?’ Asks trainee F earnestly, as I lurk at the back of the office and scan the appointments’ diary.

For a moment I think he’s been accessing those dodgy bondage websites on company time again, until I realise the filters are supposed to block any providers with adult content. There’s a work round, as there always is, but best not to publicise it.

‘It’s a type of lending product.’ I tell him breezily, hoping fat finance fiddler M isn’t earwigging again. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. He’s passed tick-box exams - so a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing…

‘What type of product?’ Presses F, rather annoyingly. And now I realise negotiator S has stopped tapping at her keyboard and is listening, along with assistant manager T. B, our loose lettings lady is fortunately still on the phone, arguing earnestly with some third party. It could be her latest boyfriend, it could be an angry landlord - it could be both.

‘I don’t think they are prevalent today.’ I say, playing for time and running an internal Siri search in my ageing hard drive.
’What’s prevalent mean?’ Says F quizzically.
‘Common.’ Answers T dismissively.
‘Like a Chav?’ Asks F.
Still no minimum entry qualification to become an estate agent.

‘Isn’t it when the lender guarantees the interest rate won’t go above a certain level?’ Says S. My hard drive whirrs in appreciation of her - not for the first time.
‘Yes that’s it,’ I say triumphantly. ‘That’s the cap bit.’
‘And the collar?’ Says F.
‘That’s for old dogs.’ Interjects T, nodding almost imperceptibly towards B, where she is spitting staccato insults down the phone like a premium rate provider at the specialist end of the spectrum.

‘The collar means the rate won’t drop below a certain level, even if the base rate falls.’
‘Why would you want that?’ States F.
‘Well you wouldn’t.’ I tell him tartly, wishing I’d stayed in my office and accessed the hidden private browsing function the IT kid, with acne, showed me.
‘It’s more for the lender’s benefit.’ Says T.
‘Seems everything is for the lender’s benefit.’ Replies F. 
He’s slowly getting the hang of it - a few more repossession appointments and he’ll be there.

‘I’m glad I’m only a licensed introducer.’ Says B, breezily. ‘Not sure I’d want to try and flog loans and dodgy insurance products.’
‘Drive you mad trying to keep up with all the rules and regulations.’ Says T in agreement.
‘They have laptops and helplines.’ I say dismissively, looking towards M’s office. His head is down and his jaws are moving rhythmically, he’s either eating or that little IT squirt lied about only giving the filter by-pass code to me.

‘When you started you didn’t have to sell mortgages and insurance did you?’ Asks F.
He’s right. Estate agency was a much more gentile pursuit, with banks, building societies and insurance companies all knowing their place in the property move hierarchy. Once the bean counters moved in to protect their collective positions and to tap into estate agents’ client bases, the job took a turn for the worse. Plus, we had to open on Saturday afternoons….

‘You need to remember who pays your wages.’ Says M in a booming voice. He’s somehow slid out of his office quietly - quite an achievement without castors and heavy lifting gear - and has been listening to the conversation.

‘It’s a team effort.’ I say in a conciliatory tone. I spend my life placating people - angry owners, buyers, lawyers and lenders, so fobbing off a fat fiscal fiddler isn’t a big challenge.

‘Just make sure your lot hit their introducers targets.’ Grumps M before waddling away. He’s doesn’t quite get the fact that an us and them mentality doesn’t make for a harmonious sales environment, but then he struggles to differentiate between an open and closed question. Big arsehole.

“Ok, thank you.’ Says F, later, as I come in half way through his telephone conversation. He replaces the receiver and frowns almost audibly.
‘What?’ I ask him.
He hesitates.
‘Go on, I won’t bite.’ I might.

‘Well, what’s a retention again?’ Asks F hesitantly.

Not just a woman’s problem.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Summertime Blues - Wednesday

‘Going to be hot this morning.’ Murmurs my wife, as I lie awake looking at the ceiling.

I’ve been married long enough to realise this isn’t a prediction about anything other than the weather, and besides I get screwed at work most days anyway. I know what comes next. It’s a regular battle, as soon as the capricious British weather hints at anything other than wind and rain.

‘You’ll be sweltering in a suit.’ She begins artfully, with a stifled yawn. I know that, I’ve been selling homes for longer than most people’s relationships last - some of my friends are on their third marriages - and yet she still persists in trying to convince me I’d look business-like, yet stylish, dressed like an Australian Bank Manager in a heatwave.

When I was woken by the sun rising at silly-o’clock, I realised this sartorial elegance conversation was slated to run again. We don’t get many decent days in the UK, where you can plan a barbecue or a trip to the beach, but this seemed like it might be one. One I knew I had several back-to-back appointments to attend, where I’d be sweating enough on a sole agency without sweating on the potential clients’ upholstery. 

Needless to say the overdue for replacement  company car will be like an oven, with the wheezy air-conditioning about as effective as an ice cube in a furnace. Yes, I’ve tried topping it up at the local Main Dealer but the hoses leak faster than a Government cabinet meeting.

‘I’m always sweltering in a suit.’ I answer, eventually. Rolling out of bed and feeling the first stabbing back pain of the day. My rival office colleagues will doubtless continue with that later.
‘I don’t know why you persist.’ Snipes my wife, rising in one annoyingly swift, fluid movement.

With what? I think sourly. Selling homes for ungrateful owners, letting properties for rogue landlords, flogging inappropriate financial products? No, neither do I. If it wasn’t for that over-leveraged interest-only mortgage, I thought was a good idea at the time.

‘Some of the trendier estate agents wear Polo tops now.’ States my wife woundingly.
‘They look like Wimbledon ball boys.’ I snipe, plodding to the en-suite with a limp.
‘I didn’t mean you’re not trendy.’ She replies, unconvincingly. She did.

I’ve had my fair share of fashion disasters, I recall, as I scrape at the greying bristles and wonder if I can eke this razor blade out, until the end of the week? There was the brief dalliance with a moustache in the late eighties, the paisley ties still hanging limply in the cupboard and that double-breasted suit with the turn-up trousers. It’s still at the back of the wardrobe, but barring an extended bout of bulimia I won’t be a size 32 inch waist again.

‘I’ve ironed this one for you just in case.’ Announces my wife as I hobble back from my shower, wearing just boxer pants and a faint sheen of sweat. I’ve slathered myself with roll-on anti-perspirant, like wallpaper paste, but I know as soon as I don my suit jacket the armpits will start to prickle - then leak.

I stare at the short-sleeved shirt my wife is proffering, hopefully. It’s a mistake I bought a couple of years ago. Too formal for a barbecue and too lacking in sleeves for any business, other than show business.
‘I refuse to look like a waiter at a cocktail bar.’ I tell her stiffly.
‘You’d prefer to smell like a Bull Rhino by lunchtime then?’ Counters my wife, with a false smile.
‘That’s why I’ve glued my armpits with enough coagulant to stop Niagra Falls.’ I snap.
‘You’d still be more comfortable in this.’ She says, waving the shirt like a surrender flag. I won’t be capitulating.

‘It’s just an unwritten rule.’ I grump, as I sit and pick at my dusty muesli. I’m already overheating and I’m tempted to unbutton my cuffs and roll the sleeves up a bit. But I’m nothing, if not stubborn. How else would I still be pitching for business against kids younger than my sock collection?

Hot to trot.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Plug And Pray - Friday

‘That’s a joke.’ Exclaims assistant manager T as he stomps back into the office face like thunder.
Chances are we are not about to be rib-clutching and rolling on the imitation wood laminate flooring in uncontrollable mirth, any time soon.

‘What?’ Asks loose lettings lush B, with a hint of a hiccup.
‘They’ve only gone and taken four parking spaces away up the road.’ Says T, shaking his head.
Not funny so far.

‘It’s hard enough to find a space as it is.’ Responds B with a grimace. ‘You’d think the council don’t want business to succeed in town.’ They don’t seem to. They want you to pay prohibitive business rates though.
‘If it’s for more disabled spaces you can understand.’ Says negotiator S reasonably.

I can’t understand, I want to reply. But I already have a reputation as a grumpy curmudgeon. Best not to say, swathes of empty spaces with a wheelchair stencil where I’d like to park my car, make me want to let down the tyres of any car with a Blue Badge. It doesn’t help when surprisingly sprightly looking occupants hop out with no walking sticks in sight.

‘It’s not for handicapped people - at least not physically.’ Says T with a shake of his head. ‘They’re installing those bulky battery charging points.’
‘Nobody drives an electric car.’ States mortgage man M dismissively. ‘At least nobody who lives in the real world and has to travel more than thirty miles without plugging in and waiting for hours to re-charge.’

‘It’s good for the environment.’ Counters S.
‘It’s not good for my blood pressure.’ Bats back M. ‘I’m trying to visit clients all day and I can’t park when I get back to the office, because some tree-hugging weirdo with more money than sense wants to park a Noddy car in a space I pay hundreds of pounds a year to not be able to use.’
Actually the cost comes off my office P & L account, but now is not the time to quibble.

‘Those idiots at the town hall have never had a proper job.’ Snarls M. ‘God save us from do-gooders and career politicians.’ He concludes, before waddling towards the kitchen. I’ve hidden the biscuits so his day isn’t going to get any better.

‘You have to start somewhere.’ Says S doggedly.
‘You can’t start, that’s the point.’ Replies T. ‘Not unless you have a five mile extension lead.’
‘It’s like pigging pointless Energy Performance Certificates.’ Contributes B. ‘Nobody gives a toss what band their new home is going to be in, they just want the rent to be cheaper than it is.’
‘Tell them.’ Pleads S, turning to me with a pleasing pout.

No matter how much I’d like to please S - avoiding harassment claims and industrial tribunals, obviously - I’m hard pushed to enthuse about agenda-heavy, reality-light  policies that pander to bobble-hat wearing, multiple-pierced Greens, while heavy industry in China chuckles and chokes the earth's atmosphere.

‘He knows.’ Says T with a wry smile. ‘He just won’t say it.’
‘I’m not a big fan of over-priced cars that you can’t hear coming, any more than over-priced roof panels that you can hear humming.’ I answer, secretly pleased with the poetic cadence.
‘Can you hear them hum?’ Queries trainee F, unhelpfully.
‘You can smell them humming.’ Says T with a wry laugh. ‘Particularly if you’ve been mug enough to lease your roof space for twenty-five years. Ugly as sin and you can’t sell you house. Not sure how that helps the environment.’

I’ve been sensing a mis-selling scandal on solar roof panels for years now. Unsightly, built in obsolescence and with promises of performance you’d be well advised to disbelieve. Like a fat politician, basically.

‘Talk of a waste of time, look who is coming in.’ Says T, nodding towards the window. Right on cue the Energy Performance Certificate man - a sort of cut-price chartered surveyor - comes in to the office.

‘Got a couple of reports to do.’ He says cheerily. He should write a Blog instead. Loads of effort and nobody reads the end result.



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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Seasons In The Sun - Wednesday

‘You feeling alright?’ Asks assistant manager T as he becomes the first staff member to arrive at the office - twenty minutes after me.

He doesn’t often sense moods that acutely, until I shout at him or thump the desk in frustration, but I’m guessing he’s noticed my washed out appearance. I’ve been awake, coughing and sneezing since about 4.00am. My eyes are red-raw from rubbing and crustier than a bakery floor.

‘I’m okay.’ I lie wearily.
‘Only it looks like you’ve been crying.’
Terrific. I’ve three valuations today and the sympathy sales pitch never lasts past the moment you tell them how much their home is really worth. The fee discussion is not to be sneezed at either.

‘It’s the pollen count.’ I tell T with an unpleasant sniffing sound resembling a badly blocked drain clearing.
‘Hay fever?’ Asks T with head to one side.
No, another survey the bean counter boss wants to do, I feel like saying sarcastically. Similar to a board count but with more bronchial mulch.

‘I never used to get all these allergies as bad.’ I tell T mournfully. The whole office knows about my reaction to dog and cat hair, never a good ailment when you are constantly entering homes where delusional pet owners think their house doesn’t smell and it’s okay to have felines on the kitchen work surfaces, and canines lying on the bed.

‘Maybe it’s an age thing.’ Muses T, sitting at his desk with a thump and firing up his flatscreen. No chance of making me another cuppa, I think tetchily? The half-full mug beside me has gone cold and I don’t fancy swigging the slightly bitter, grainy dregs of another tepid LemSip  I wonder if you can overdose on over-the-counter snot-busters? There must be cheaper ways.

‘You’d think you’d build up an immunity after half a lifetime of animal hair and tree pollen ingestion.’ I tell T, who doesn’t appear to be listening any more. I thought you could check your Facebook on your phone.

‘Says here the pollen forecast is very high today.’ Announces T. I’ve maligned him unnecessarily. Luckily it wasn’t out loud this time and in any case I’m beyond blushing now - coughing, sneezing and choking yes, but beyond blushing.

I walk across to glance over T’s shoulder just as fat finance fiddler M waddles in to the office, clutching another grease-flecked Greggs bag.
‘Someone died?’ Asks M stopping in front of me.
I raise a quizzical eyebrow and a tear spills down my cheek.

‘He’s got hay fever.’ Enlightens T, as I reach for my last tissue and trumpet a runny venting. Unlike my erstwhile drinking buddy, I refuse to use a linen handkerchief. He’ll happily blow his nose, then dip straight into the communal bag of crisps we’re sharing. I should widen my circle of friends but it’s not easy, being an estate agent.

‘That’s alright then.’ Says M moving away. ‘As long as it’s not one of my policyholders. Reams of paperwork if they croak and I don’t get any renewal commission.’
The property industry took a turn for worse the day insurance companies, banks and building societies started buying up estate agency firms.

‘God, you look awful.’ Says negotiator S, as she comes through the door and glances at me.
‘It’s hay fever.’ Shouts M from his office. ‘He’s not sobbing about the office sales figures.’
‘Have you tied anti-histamine tablets?’  Asks S, waking her computer and also showing no sign of making drinks.

‘I positively rattle with them.’ I tell her grumpily. ‘They are expensive and don’t really work that well.’
‘Like solar roof panels.’ Says T with a hearty chuckle.

Everyone’s a comedian. We’ll see if they’re still laughing when I arrange a leaflet drop for this afternoon. T’s right about the ugly solar slabs though. Not many people want to buy a house with those monstrosities ruining the roofline. Built in obsolescence, in a cloudy country with more rain than the forests we’re supposed to be saving. I sense another mis-selling scandal.

Back at my desk, I check my emails. 

I’m going to need another box of tissues.


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