It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 7

As arranged with Alfie, Daria drove to Ayen in the morning and parked at the end of the street where Opa’s house was. When she saw the sign, Rue de la Tête Vert, Opa’s road, her heart thumped so strongly it almost hurt. Daria didn’t know if she felt terrified or elated and she wondered why this journey seemed to be dominated with constant extremes of emotions.

Daria knew she was early, but overwhelming feelings of a nervous excitement had ensured that she woke early, breakfasted and dressed early and so had arrived about an hour too early. She just sat in her van and stared. There it was. There, about a hundred yards in front of her, was Opa’s house. She could see the pale blue shutters and the upstairs windows open and smiled at somebody’s thoughtfulness in obviously keeping the house looking so lovely. The street was deserted and still, and Daria was momentarily tempted to get out and just walk down the street.

Then she heard a woman’s voice and a door shut. Daria furtively glanced all around and then ducked down, to prevent being seen. As soon as she found herself half crouched, half lying across the front seats, with the gear stick pressing uncomfortably into her shoulder and the hand brake hurting her arm, she wondered what on earth she was doing. And she felt she couldn’t get up in case the woman was walking towards the van and would spot her, would see her ridiculous attempts at hiding. Or worse, what if the woman walked by the van and looked in. Daria decided she’d have to pretend she was asleep.

After several minutes, trying to keep her breathing regulated and her eyes closed, trying to stop herself from giggling, Daria thought that the woman could not have been walking her way. She had not heard any footsteps and so slowly raised her head and peered over the dashboard. The street was deserted once more and Daria felt immediately glad that Alfie had not been around to see her. It had been quite difficult at times for Daria not to find herself thinking about Alfie when she was in the national park the previous night. She found that his image kept popping into her head, that she kept thinking how pleasant it would have been to have strolled down the hill with him. To have shared some wine. And most of all, she stopped herself thinking about Alfie spending the night in the van with her.

As Daria slowly sat up straight, she suddenly leapt with fright and screamed as she saw a face looking through the passenger window at her. It was Alfie. He tapped on the window and she wound it down.

‘Are you ok?’ he said.

Daria started laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and he grinned back at her.

‘I just decided it was about time that I made a fool of myself in front of you again’ she said. Alfie looked rather puzzled. ′ How long have you been there? Never mind. I’m being an idiot. Here, get in. God, you gave me such a fright.′

He climbed into the van and Daria explained how she hadn’t wanted to be seen when a woman had appeared from a house.

‘So I hid. Please don’t comment on my moment of gross immaturity, I shall just be embarrassed all over again. I just feel, I don’t know. Bits of this still don’t seem real. In fact none of it does really. Yet I’m here and it’s now. And there it is.’ Daria gestured to the house. ‘But I’m not ready to speak to anyone yet. I’ve been a bundle of nerves all morning which is why I got here so early. Oh, yes, you’re early too. Or did I really fall asleep just then?’

‘Did you need a moment alone? I don’t mind. I’ll go and sit in my car. I do understand. And I don’t really know why I’m so early. I was excited about today too, I suppose. Am I intruding?’

‘No. Yes. I don’t know. Look we’re here. Have you got the key? Let’s just drive up and go in. I can’t wait a single second more, so I’m glad we’re both here early.’

Opa’s house was on the corner, so Daria parked off the small main street. As she got out of the van, she stared as she walked past the large wooden balcony at the side of the house and felt as if her whole body was smiling. The balcony that wasn’t on the photo she had found. But maybe the little girl was here, near, somehow, somewhere. Her legs felt wobbly and her heart pounded as she followed Alfie around to the front door. Then he stopped and ceremoniously handed over the key to her, half bowing.

‘Madam, après vous, vous allez en premier’ he said with great formality, an impressive accent and a big grin.

Daria took the key and saw her hand shake as she did. She took a deep breath as she fitted it into the lock, then stepped inside. The house smelt of spring flowers and her eyes immediately alighted on a huge vase brimming over with blossoms that was on a round table at one end of a large room running the width of the house. Daria’s hands went to her heart as she felt touched by such consideration. Standing still, she looked in wonder at the beamed ceiling and the wooden floor, the floor to ceiling bookcases opposite her, the door next to them. She slowly walked over to the other end of the room to the ornate wood burning stove and brick chimney above. Daria ran her hand over the plain green settee and blue armchair and turned to go through the door by the bookcases. Her heart thumped even more. The room had to be the kitchen. Was it the kitchen in the painting? Daria found herself laughing with nervousness as she thought of the painting. With her hand on the handle, she turned to look at Alfie who had just shut the front door behind him. She could tell by his face that he remembered her email about the painting and whether or not it depicted Opa’s kitchen.

Daria opened the door. It was. It was the kitchen.

‘Oh my god. It is. Oh my god. I can’t believe it, this is too amazing. Sandra was right.’

She turned once more to look at Alfie, hands over her mouth, tears in her eyes. And Daria was grateful that he understood not to intrude, not to comfort in any way other than to just be there.

‘Look. The window’s in the same place, the room’s the same shape. Oh, I haven’t shown you the painting, have I?’ Daria turned to Alfie again and her heart leapt as she saw his grin as wide as hers. ′ Oh god, look. Here’s the Butler sink. It can’t be the same one though, can it? And oh god, trees outside the window. Is that apple or cherry blossom? Or plum? And this is where the writing desk piano thing would have been. And the rug here. And the trunk here. It was standing here. I shall put it back here. And the walls are whitewashed bricks. It’s the same. Oh my god. Look. And not a donkey farm or a ruin in sight.′ And Daria stood with her arms wide open, as if trying to embrace the whole room. Her delight spurted out as bursts of laughter. ‘Upstairs, now. I want to see upstairs.’

Daria climbed the steep wooden steps in the corner of the big front room and along a narrow corridor. Both of the two double bedrooms had sloping ceilings and low windows to the front and rear. Matching wooden furniture and scatter rugs gave a cosy feeling to the rooms and cream cotton curtains at the opened windows gently rippled with the breeze To the front, Daria could see along the street and down to where Alfie had parked his car. The view from the back windows enchanted her as she looked over the garden and beyond to fields and a converted barn nearby. Daria could see a tractor on one side and she had a good view to the right of the village’s many roofs as the land sloped away beyond the wooden fence at the bottom of the garden. Although one bedroom was slightly larger, Daria thought she would sleep in the smaller as it had large French windows that led out onto the wooden balcony. She pulled back the light muslin curtains, unlocked the doors and stepped out. The warm breeze and the view took her breath away.

‘Alfie. Come and look at this.’

He stepped out onto the balcony and was then filled with as much wonder as she was. The view was huge. It went on for miles. Past the end of the village, past the farms and beyond the roads. They could see lakes and rivers and forests and hills. Villages and hamlets were dotted about the vista and everything was dominated by the huge blue and turquoise sky. As they had entered the village from the other side, neither really had realised that Opa’s house was quite near the edge of Ayen. Neither had Alfie realised this on his previous visit. And certainly neither had realised how panoramic, how glorious the view would be. They stood silently for several minutes. Just looking. Just marvelling.

‘Well, it was inspired to build a balcony here’ said Alfie.

‘It’s perfect. I wonder when they did it. And who did it. I wonder if Opa stood here. It’s not on the photo.’

‘Photo?’

‘Oh god, I meant to tell you, to show them to you. After you emailed me those photos, I went through all of Opa’s old photos and found a few of the house and Ayen. It took absolutely hours. Didn’t I tell you?’

‘No. I’d have remembered something as amazing as that. What a brilliant idea. I don’t know if I’d have thought to do that. I hope you bought them.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s more than the house, though. There’s a little girl in one of them. Well, on the clearest one of the house actually. It must have been taken from across the road.’

And Daria went back in to the bedroom and slightly bent to look out of the low front window.

‘From there, in fact. Oh my god, somebody took the photo from right there.’

Alfie went to stand by Daria and looked to where she was pointing.

‘I never thought I’d actually be here. Looking to where that photo was taken. Standing inside Opa’s house. I’m here. I’m really here.’ Daria was half whispering with wonderment and awe.

They simultaneously turned their heads towards each other, mirroring smiles. Nothing was said, they just stood up straight and stared at each other.

‘Right. I’m going to unload the van.’ Daria felt as if she needed to break the moment. It was nearly too intimate. She straightened, turned and walked towards the door. ‘Would you mind having a look in the kitchen to see what’s there? Knives and forks and stuff. Saucepans. Do you know if all that sort of stuff is there or shall I bring my bits in from the van?’

‘I don’t know, I’ll go and look. And then I’ll give you a hand.’

‘And what’s happening? Is someone coming here or what?’ Daria felt nervous again and was sure it showed in her voice.

‘A lot of what happens next is up to you. We could go to Opa’s relative’s house, well your relatives really. Or we can call and see if they’d like to come here.’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know what’s best. May be go there. Is it far? No, maybe here.’

‘Do you want to unpack first, get sorted? Or do something about it now?’

‘I want everything to happen now. It’s making me feel a bit restless. Right, let me bring things in first and then I’ll show you the painting. It’s seriously not good but it feels like more of a puzzle now that I know it’s the kitchen. I still can’t believe it’s a painting of here. Can we get out of the back garden to the van? Is there a gate or something? I don’t want to keep going out of the front door. I’m being ridiculous again, aren’t I?’ Daria heard her voice getting louder and she was aware that she was speaking too quickly. She was getting nervous again.

Alfie chuckled and Daria noticed that gleam in his eyes.

‘No you’re not and yes, I think we can get out that way. Is there a key in the back door?’

They walked back into the kitchen together and Daria noticed a key on the windowsill. She opened the back door and stepped down into the garden. She was charmed by its rusticity. The garden was not large, but contained about eight or ten fruit trees that lay beyond a small lawn framed with huge lavender shrubs. A cobbled path meandered all around the garden, in and out of the trees, seemingly leading everywhere and nowhere. Pots of all shapes and sizes cluttered the bends and corners of the path, containing promises of colours and smells. An old bench with an arbour stood against the bottom fence, a small table with lanterns next to it.

‘Oh, I just love it. And look, is that a grape vine?’ Daria had just noticed a climbing vine that spread finger-like tendrils around the kitchen window and along the stone wall.

‘Definitely. Not that I’m any sort of an expert.’

‘Oh this is a delight. I love the path, that old bench. The clusters of pots.’

And Daria was distracted from her task of wanting to unpack immediately and strolled along the path, leaving it when it passed the bench and she sat down. The arbour was smothered with a climbing rose and the small table was painted all over with tiny colourful flowers. Although the paint was peeling in parts and faded in others, Daria thought this added to its charm. She looked back at the house, the shuttered windows, the green vine leaves and the ivory coloured stone walls. Daria thought it looked more like something out of a glossy magazine, promoting the virtues of shabby-chic, than a garden in the middle of the back of beyond.

‘May I join you?’ Alfie startled her out of her reverie ‘the kitchen is fairly well equipped and there’s some food in the fridge and cupboards as well. Isn’t this pretty?’

‘This is charming. Somebody loves this garden, it’s so well cared for. In fact all of the house is too.’ Daria breathed deeply and smiled, but felt tears well up in her eyes.

‘Glad you came? Or stayed? Glad to be here?’ Alfie spoke softly and gently.

Daria turned to look at him.

‘Oh yes. Without a doubt. Except everything is making me want to cry and I’m not sure why. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much’ Daria lowered her voice, almost as if she was just speaking to herself, ’not since Opa died anyway.

‘Understandable. And this is all a bit out of the ordinary so it’s no wonder you find it overwhelming. Look, would you like a coffee? There is some and an old coffee pot, Turkish I think.’

‘Oh lovely. Thank you’ said Daria, blowing her nose. ‘I’ll start emptying the van. I’m assuming that gate opens alright.’ And she stood, thinking that her first choice would have been to sit there for a while and have Alfie hold her.

*

Van emptied, some cases and bags upstairs and bits lying about, Alfie announced the coffee was ready and produced an almond cake that was in the fridge. Daria put the green trunk in the kitchen and while he poured, she took the painting and the document out and lay them on the table.

‘Cake? Did you bring this?’ Daria was surprised as she noticed it.

‘Nope. It’s all courtesy of...’

‘Not yet. No names.’

‘Sorry, that nearly slipped out.’ And suddenly he started laughing and shaking so much with laughter that he had to put the coffee pot down for fear of spilling it. ‘Oh, sorry. For laughing, I mean. That’s hilarious.’

Daria was confused and frowned, thinking he was finding her request for no names a bit frivolous.

‘Sorry again. I didn’t mean to laugh like that. But, you have to admit there is an absurdity about that painting.’

‘Oh, yes. The painting. I thought you meant, well that you were...’ Daria didn’t know what to say.

‘You thought I was laughing at you? Surely not. Why?’

‘No, nothing. Nothing. But you’re right about the painting. It is absurd. But look. It’s definitely here, isn’t it? This young woman is standing next to this window. See?’

Daria felt she needed confirmation. That she wasn’t just desperately wanting it to be the kitchen in the painting.

‘Without a doubt. I wonder if this woman is the girl in the photo you mentioned?’

‘Now that would be a coincidence too many.’

‘Would it? Isn’t anything possible with everything that’s happened so far? Do you know where the photos are? Could I take a look at this?’ Alfie had picked up the envelope with the deeds in it.

‘Yes, of course. Cut me a big fat piece of cake will you, please and that coffee smells delicious. Thank you. Hang on, I’ll get the photos.’

Daria smiled as she went upstairs to get the folder out of her bag. She liked the way the morning was going and she had to admit that Alfie certainly was the ideal company for this day.

Over coffee and cake, they looked at Opa’s old photos, the deed, the painting.

‘You’ve discovered a lot, you know’ said Alfie ‘I hope you realise how impressive this all is.’

‘But I couldn’t have done it without you, either. How else could I have arranged to stay here? This is down to you, too. Let’s celebrate our togetherness with another piece of cake. It’s delicious.’ Then Daria suddenly felt rather self-conscious as she wondered if that all sounded too familiar. She stood up and went over to the trunk. But as Daria was discovering, Alfie was very adept at diffusing emotional situations.

‘Great minds think alike, eh? Certainly worthy of lovely cake. It’s known as a tea-cake in France. Not like those at home, though. Mind you. I’m quite partial to a toasted tea-cake’ he said as he put another slice on her plate.

‘Oh, look. I’d forgotten about this’ and Daria carried the trunk over to him and placed it on the floor in front of him. ‘There’s some writing on the lid, but I can’t make out what it says. It’s obviously in French but the writing has faded.’

Since Daria had first pulled the trunk out of the cupboard at Opa’s house, she had not examined the writing again. Although she had initially meant to, the contents of the trunk had certainly dominated everything. And she realised that nobody else had remembered about it either.

‘Yes. Let’s take it over to the window. Some extra light might help.’ He lifted the trunk and carried it over to the worktop next to the sink. ‘It’s heavier than you think, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, that’s what I first thought. Ah, does that say fleur?’

They both studied the writing, Alfie moved his head about to change the density of light.

‘I can just about make out Eugene Fevrolet, I think that’s got to be an F. And if I’m right, there’s p and that’s a, u and an r. Your right, that word’s definitely fleur. Ah yes, I have it. Pour ma fleur ange. For my flower angel. Is that you?’

‘No. Well, I don’t think so. Opa never called me that. I’m not sure if he had any nickname for me. It was just Daria. Not that I can remember. And I’m sure I would have done.’ Daria frowned. She looked thoughtful and felt a little nervous. ‘So if that’s not me, who was all this for then? Who was supposed to find the trunk?’

‘Well you certainly make leaps in your thought processes, don’t you?’ Alfie looked amused, but his voice revealed concern, ‘why should you think this wasn’t all for you? Just because it hasn’t got your name on it? This trunk could have been used a thousand times before Opa put the painting and deed in it. So maybe the flower angel was the original recipient, not the last.’

‘Yes. You’re right. Of course. But I don’t think I make leaps, I think I’m quite level headed actually.’ Daria sounded serious.

‘You do, do you? I can’t think how you’ve formed that impression of yourself’ and he started chuckling, brown eyes twinkling.

And as Daria was discovering, she found his sense of fun infectious and smiled.

‘Ok, I’ll admit it. Since my arrival in France my days have certainly been eventful and somewhat emotionally fraught. And I’ll admit my actions and my experiences have been dotty. And incredibly embarrassing for me. My life is not like this. Not like this has been since I arrived in France. It’s just usually ordinary. I’m ordinary.’ And Daria smiled at him and raised her eyebrows in acceptance of that fact.

‘Regardless of how your life is, or in fact has been, you are far from ordinary.’

Daria grinned. ‘Only if ordinary means not making a fool of yourself in a frighteningly large variety of ways in front of a relative stranger.’ Then she stared at him for a moment. ‘Right. I want to look around. Find out how to turn the hot water on, unpack a bit. Then I’d like to shower and change. So can we talk after then? Who to meet? Do you have the time for all this? This was all supposed to happen yesterday really. What about your work?’

‘It’s ok. Time is a bit different here as I’ve no doubt you’ll discover. And so long as I don’t fall behind with my work, there’s not a problem. I’d quite like to go for a walk along the lane beyond the village, actually. Then I could go to the boulangerie and get some bread, perhaps? Unless you want more time on your own. Do you? Say if you do. I shan’t be offended.’

‘Yes. No. Why do you ask so many questions at once? I don’t know which to answer first.’ Daria grinned and saw a flash of humour in his eyes. ‘Feel free to go for a walk. I think I’d like to be alone for a little while, potter about and stuff. Get a feel for the house, if you know what I mean. Why not take the key and I think bread is a great idea, if you don’t mind getting it. Lunch in an hour or so, then?’

*

By mid afternoon, Daria and Alfie were sitting in the garden, the remains of the lunch on the table. Daria had unpacked most things and had arranged her bits in the kitchen. She realised that she didn’t know how long she would be staying, but she wanted this house to feel like home. Not as if she was on holiday. Daria was glad that she’d bought some framed photos from home and placed them on the small table in the living room. She also slightly rearranged the furniture, although it did feel a bit uncomfortable doing so. It made her feel as if she were being presumptuous or something. She discovered blankets and bed linen in cupboards, towels in the airing cupboard, books in French, German and English on the bookcases downstairs as well as an incredibly well stocked kitchen. Daria felt ready to ask him to explain about the family in Ayen.

‘I’m ready now. This house is so warm, the atmosphere I mean. I feel as if I’ve been here for ages. That I really know it, somehow. I feel so relaxed here. And there’s beautiful cotton bed linen, towels, food. Even some wood for the burner. And it’s been kept so clean. So lovely. This is a well loved house. So, tell me. Who has been looking after the house?’

‘Ok. I don’t know how much you already know about Opa’s family in France.’

‘Let me stop you for a moment. I know nothing. Opa never mentioned it so I didn’t know to ask. Pearl was always evasive, apart from her constantly saying she was his closest relative and so I assumed from quite a young age that there was nothing to tell. Nothing to ask.’

‘Well then. Opa, Eugene Fevrolet, had a half sister and a half brother, as I said. Apparently, his father died a couple of years after the first world war. He’d had a leg shot off, not an easy time at all.’

‘God, how awful. How old was Opa when his father died?’

‘Only a couple of years old or thereabouts.’

‘So he never knew him. Sorry to interrupt.’

‘That’s ok. His half-brother and sister are still alive but nobody knows where the brother is anymore, but their families are local.’

‘And his mother? Is she still alive? No, what am I talking about, I think you said she’d lived here until she died.’

‘Yes, that’s right. His mother died in 1982, she’d been living here until then. And after that, apparently Opa arranged for the house to be a holiday let and the income was to go to the upkeep of the property and to pay whomever was the housekeeper. That’s why it looks so good, I suppose.’

‘What was she called, his mother I mean? What were they all called?’

‘His mother was Miette and his half-sister is Tilly. That’s who we might visit first, if you like. Or invite her here.’

‘Miette. Tilly. What beautiful names. Opa’s half-sister, imagine. Go on.’ Daria was eager to hear it all.

‘His half-brother is Dareau and I do know, as I said, that there was some sort of serious falling out between the brothers. But I don’t know any more about that. Dareau had one child, another Dareau, unmarried, and Tilly married Gaston and had one child. Hang on a minute, let me get out the tree I made, I wrote it all down so I wouldn’t forget.’

Alfie went inside and came out rummaging through a bag. As he sat down, he produced a piece of paper with a family tree drawn on it and gave it to Daria.

’Here, look. This is Tilly and Gaston, and their daughter. Ila, who married Louvel and had three children. It’s those children who are looking after the house. Pasquale, Pippin and Réme . Except they’re not children, they must be all in their thirties. That’s where my knowledge of the family tree stops, I’m afraid.′

Daria stared at the paper, at the names, at Opa’s family. ‘This is so kind, thank you. And I think it will help. It’s all a bit complicated in my head at the moment.’

Thoughts raced as she looked. Why had Opa and his brother fallen out? Was it the reason why Opa had never spoken of Tilly or Miette or the younger Dareau or any of the others? What was the reason why he kept the two parts of his family separate? Opa had always told her that family was important, so if that was true, if he really felt that, then Daria felt she had to assume something very controversial had happened. That something big, something serious had occurred. And Opa was trusting her to understand.

‘I’d like to go and see Tilly now or soon. If that’s ok’ she said, aware that she must have been musing for quite a while. And again she was touched by Alfie’s patience and sensitivity in just letting her be. It occurred to her that Paul would never have left her alone with her thoughts. He’d have made suggestions, comments, told her what to do, tried to take over any arrangements. Then it occurred to her that she had not thought of him since the morning she had decided to stay. And that made her feel quite liberated.

Daria turned to look at Alfie and was surprised to see him already on the phone.

‘You are expected’ he said when he was finished ‘and it has just occurred to me that I have no idea how good your French is, I know you said you were going to learn French. We haven’t spoken about that. Do you want to go alone or do you still need me to translate?’

‘Oh no, I mean I only know a smattering. I didn’t find the time for more than that, really. Actually, I feel a bit bad about that now. I know enough to buy a loaf or an apple and stuff, so I would really appreciate it if you were there. I don’t want anything to get lost in translation and my French is really not good enough. Would you mind? I feel as if I am becoming a burden, asking so much of you.’

‘Let me assure you that I do not feel obliged or compelled or bullied or anything else other than delighted to be of help.’

Daria was moved by his kindliness and they left the house. Tilly lived several minutes’ walk away, on a different but similar looking street. She looked at all the houses they passed, greeted a couple of passers-by, heard children laughing in the distance and grinned at an incredibly old and battered tractor that went by, it’s driver waving and nodding at them. Daria’s legs felt heavy and wobbly as they drew nearer to Tilly’s house. Her heart was pounding and she kept whispering ‘oh my god, oh my god’ over and over, with nerves, excitement and disbelief that she was about to meet Opa’s sister.

They arrived at a small, single story house that looked incredibly old and unbelievably pretty.

‘Here we are’ said Alfie, almost whispering reverentially ‘do you want to knock?’

‘Yes, thank you’ said Daria ‘why are we whispering?’

And then she began giggling, so much so that she had to walk away for fear of being heard by Tilly inside. She walked round the corner, stood still and tried to take some deep breaths to compose herself. Alfie appeared and looked bewildered as he saw Daria squatting, leaning against a wall. He joined her.

‘What are we doing?’ he said, still talking softly.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just nerves, that’s all’ she said ‘suddenly I just couldn’t stop laughing. God, I’m being such a fool. Why am I being such a fool, Alfie?’

‘You’re not’ he said, grinning, ‘in fact, it would be weird if you weren’t having emotional reactions like this. Take as long as you like.’

‘No, I’m ok now. Let’s go.’

Daria stood up and took a deep breath. She turned to look at Alfie and saw him gently nodding and smiling to encourage her. She turned the corner and knocked on the door.

‘Entrez.’ Daria heard a soft voice and she studied her own hand as she turned the door knob to enter. They were trembling. Daria slowly opened the door. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim light after the brightness of the day. Then Daria saw Tilly and she thought her heart would burst. Sitting on an old fashioned armchair was a beautiful old woman, whose incredibly wrinkled face shone with stories of a life fully lived and whose twinkling brown eyes and deep smile belonged to Opa.

Daria just stood for a moment, feeling as if sheer joy oozed throughout her entire body. She brought her hands up to her mouth and slowly walked towards Tilly as the old woman eased herself out of her chair. Slightly stooping, Tilly raised her head to look at Daria and outstretched her arms.

‘Enfin. La fleur ange’ she said.

‘At last. The flower angel’ whispered Alfie behind her.

And the two women who probably loved and knew Opa most in the world, embraced and couldn’t let go.

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