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Winged Feet


                             Winged Feet

                                    Winged Feet
                                    By Janet Withers

It’s 1954, Queen Elizabeth is coming to Brisbane, and Flora’s school will participate in
the welcome dance pageant. But how can she reconcile this with her father’s anti-royalist
views? And should his socialist ideals prevail to move the family from the beautiful
Clayfield home and garden that her mother loves? Conflict and loyalty are explored amid
a chorus of birds and a remembered streetscape of trees and flowers that add sparkle to
this unconventional family story.

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                             Winged Feet

One hot, late afternoon in March 1954, when I was fifteen and wearing my green
Radclyffe House gym tunic, I rode home on the tram with no knickers on.
In those days we lived in a pretty white brick house in Union Street, Clayfield, two-
storeyed with blue shutters and a distant view of Moreton Bay from upstairs. My mother
planted several circular flowerbeds with zinnias and daisies in the summer and cinerarias
and sweet peas in the winter. Gardenias and azaleas surrounded them while sweet
smelling jasmine and stephanotis climbed over the fence. Our mango tree attracted flying
foxes at night, and during the day large and noisy birds flew in and out of the jacaranda,
the macadamia, the bauhinia in the side yard and a large pine tree that grew right in the
middle of our front garden.

When any of the family – my mother Hannah, my brother Hamish, or I, Flora – heard a
bird’s song we didn’t recognise, my father Angus would shout, ‘What bird is that?’ and
send us running for the book of that name to find the bird that fitted the song. Although I
lacked the patience for fitting every song to every bird, he did teach me the names of the
regulars. I especially loved the loud harsh primitive sounds of the big birds, the crows,
magpies, currawongs, kookaburras and storm birds. We awoke every morning to the
raucous laughter of the kookaburras and the antics of the galahs. Magpies yodelled back
and forth, and at dusk every afternoon, the currawongs’ loud whee-ah,whee-ah,whee-ah
filled the air. Whatever we were doing the birds cawed, moaned, laughed, warbled and
whistled in the background. Dad would remind us that the birds’ songs were as old as
Australia and would still be heard long after we were dead.

When I was ten my father taught me to play cricket. By the age of eleven I had so many
boyfriends I could out-run, out-play, out-climb and out-kiss that my parents, at Mum’s
suggestion, decided to send me off to Radclyffe House to become a lady. That Dad
agreed to this transfer surprised me. Sending me to a private girls’ school completely
contradicted his socialist views, accepted also by me. But I welcomed the move, as I
wanted to get away from all those boys. Competing with them had become too rough and

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                             Winged Feet

In a good mood Dad would break into his favourite song, ‘The Red Flag’. ‘The people’s
flag is deepest red…/We’ll keep the red flag flying here.’ So stirring was the tune and
sentiment that he and Hamish and I would sing together marching around the house with
our hands raised in a clenched fist salute, just like real communists. ‘Australia is a
working man’s country, made by the workers for the workers,’ he’d often say.

In a sad mood, he’d sing the ‘Skye Boat Song’. ‘Carry the man who’s born to be king /
Over the sea to Skye,’ mourning the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of
Culloden and his escape to the Isle of Skye in 1746, aided by my namesake, Flora
Macdonald. He made us read Sir Walter Scott’s The Tales of a Grandfather – ‘the terrible
history of Scotland’ as Dad described the book. The Duke of Cumberland, the ‘Butcher
of Culloden,’ led the English army; after the battle he was responsible for destroying any
Jacobite sympathisers, but also the clan system itself and the power the chiefs had over
their clans. George Frederick Handel welcomed Cumberland’s triumphant return to
London with ‘See Where the Conquering Hero Comes’. Dad wept when he told us that
Cumberland, ‘even stripped them of their kilt and tartan.’

I’d sing along to that song also, tearful for lovely Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing from the
English to that cold island of Skye without his kilt and tartan on. Dad also never forgave
the Campbells for the slaughter of the Macdonalds at the Battle of Glencoe. His name,
Angus Macdonald, was that of one of the Macdonalds slaughtered there. My friend Fiona
Campbell was not welcomed by Dad in our house. ‘No hawkers or Campbells here,’ he’d
say to my friend. Then he’d laugh, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ as if he didn’t really mean it. My friend
would come over when Dad wasn’t home. It is not surprising that Dad and I were also
anti Bob Menzies, anti Winston Churchill, and anti the Royal Family.

I settled in well at Radclyffe House. I loved the uniform – bottle green tunic, white
blouse, black gloves and stockings, green straw hat with an upturned brim, and a short
gym tunic in which we played all sorts of new games that I liked and found easy. Ours
was a small class of only eight girls. I was voted vice-captain of my class and became the

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                              Winged Feet

best friend of the class captain.

The only boys mentioned by Radclyffe House girls were either their brothers or cousins.
None had a boyfriend. I did not want my new girlfriends to think I knew so many boys.
Soon after I enrolled, a group of state schoolboys gathered after school in a neighbour’s
yard, next to Radclyffe House. ‘Hey, Macdonald, Locky loves ya,’ one yelled out. Locky
had a crush on me but I had never liked him and he and I both knew I never would. But
he was persistent and I had been glad to get away from him. I pretended that I didn’t
know them, and along with my new friends ignored them. Other times they would wait
for me as I rode home from school and push me off my bike. ‘Hey, Macdonald, think
you’re Miss Mucky Muck now, don’t ya.’ Thinking back, I am struck by how well I
managed the scary transition.

We assembled every morning in a great hall upstairs where Miss Lockwood, the
headmistress, chastised girls for misbehaviour, announced coming events, said a prayer,
and then named the hymn we were to sing. Never before had I sung hymns. Hamish and I
were not baptised and Dad had discouraged us from attending church. We went to
Sunday school and church only because I wanted to wear a new dress my mother had
made. It was a dark chocolate-brown pleated viyella tunic with a yellow viyella blouse
underneath. I adored this outfit and wore it whenever I could.

Hamish and I also loved the walk to the church. Up Bonney Avenue one turned left into
Highclere Street then right into Queens Road. Whatever the season, trees of some sort
were in blossom; one summer the smell of a frangipani was so sweet and enticing that I
followed its scent down a lane and found a frangipani vine that I’ve not heard of nor seen
since. That’s because, a friend told me recently, there is no such thing as a frangipani vine
and it must have been a mandevilla. Bonney Avenue to this day is lined with bauhinia
trees; a white one followed by a pink one and now interspersed with bright pink and
lavender crepe myrtles. I also remember seeing the magpies attacking the chrome
hubcaps on the cars on the streets. They saw their reflections in the chrome and, like

                                Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                              Winged Feet

Narcissus, came to a bad end.

After a few times at Sunday school we decided not to go again because we didn’t see eye
to eye with the Sunday school teacher. Dad had told us there were many virgin births in
earlier religions, in paganism and in mythology, and that Lilith was Adam’s first wife.

But the Sunday school teacher hadn’t heard of any such things.
‘Where do you get these ideas from, dear?’ she asked.
‘My father,’ I said.
‘Where did he get this information?’
‘From the Kabbalah and Freud,’ I replied.
‘Is your father Jewish?’ she asked.
‘No, he’s not, but I think he’d like to be,’ I said.
‘Well, this is a Presbyterian church and perhaps is not the right place for you and your
‘I don’t think Jesus would like to hear you say that,’ I replied.

Sometimes I found it hard to be Dad’s daughter, because though I believed what he said,
his ideas were often challenged, disbelieved and even thought blasphemous. But the
stories and theories from Freud and the Kabbalah were much more interesting and spicy
than most of what we were taught at school and Sunday school. Over the years I learned
to keep his ideas to myself.

I always found it easy to be Mum’s daughter. When my friends rode past our house after
school and Dad’s car was parked outside, I wouldn’t ask them in. If his car wasn’t parked
outside I would. The house inside, painted white, was extraordinarily bright and pretty,
and here Mum would welcome us, wearing a smart linen or cotton dress. The scent of the
stephanotis vine wafted in from the front door and vases of flowers from the garden filled
the living room and dining room. She was pretty, slim, the youngest of all the mothers
and the most fun. To entertain my friends, we played a game where Mum was the lady of

                                Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                              Winged Feet

the manor and I was the maid. I would come into the living room wearing an apron. Mum
would be sitting in the grandmother chair near the fireplace.
‘Good afternoon, ma’am. Is there anything you’d like done today?’
‘First of all, Flossie, don’t call me ma’am,’ she’d wink. ‘Save it for when you meet Her
Majesty,’ she’d say, looking mischievous. ‘Today I want you to sweep the downstairs
verandah and dust the dining room. Then you must set the table for tea.’
‘Yes, Mrs Macdonald. Immediately, ma’am. Sorry. I mean Mrs Macdonald.’
We’d fall about laughing.
Then, as taught by Mum, I’d serve a formal afternoon tea with the second best china, on
the verandah table.

At school I took to hymn singing immediately. In a loud clear voice I sang Holy, Holy,
Holy, my favourite, and the 23rd Psalm, my second favourite, and belted out the booming
heartfelt chorus from ‘For Those at Sea’, O, hear us when we cry to Thee/ For those in
peril on the sea. Dad said that hymns always had good tunes to brainwash one into
believing in God.
‘What about “The Skye Boat Song” and “The Red Flag”? Don’t they have good tunes to
brainwash one?’
‘Yes, yes,’ he laughed. ‘But some causes are worth fighting for and God is not one of

I liked Radclyffe House, but the atmosphere at home had become tense. Dad wanted to
move to the working-class suburb where he practised as a GP and Mum wanted to stay
living in Clayfield, where Dad said the genteel, suburban hypocrites lived, with their
royalist and anti-Semitic views. They disagreed politically also and Dad thought Mum’s
values were too middle class. She was born in Australia of English parents and was raised
to not discuss politics, religion or class.

One day, after I had been to Radclyffe House for four or five years and was now fifteen,
Miss Lockwood told us in assembly that the Reverend Brumwell had an exciting

                                Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                              Winged Feet

announcement to make. The Reverend Brumwell was not our usual school chaplain, but a
more important member of the clergy who wore a robe over his suit. He announced that
our school was one of many Brisbane schools selected to take part in a pageant to
welcome Queen Elizabeth who, with the Duke of Edinburgh, was to visit Australia and
Brisbane in March. He stressed how Queen Elizabeth, despite all her royal duties, was an
inspiring example of motherhood. We should feel honoured to have been selected to
participate officially in welcoming the visit of her Gracious Majesty, and that we should
anticipate an exciting next school term. This pageant was to take place at the Exhibition
Grounds and would happen on 10 March 1954.

When I told my father that the Queen was coming to visit, he exploded. ‘The Queen!
Down with the Queen and the Monarchy. She’s not even a reader, the Queen. She reads
the Women’s Weekly and has trouble digesting that.’ He paused to wheeze a little, for he
was a heavy smoker and big and fat. Most of our discussions occurred in the dining room
during dinner. The dining room was long and narrow with a large window looking out
onto a huge white bougainvillea vine, whose branches grew up in an arc, then fell down
to the ground in a fountain of white blossoms. Mum had crisscrossed the window with
white hail-spotted muslin curtains with a frill at the top.

Dad now stood up out of his chair and, raising his arm, predictably said, ‘Australia is a
working man’s country, made by the workers for the workers. The Queen represents the
aristocracy. The Russians and the French got rid of their aristocracy long ago and it’s
time we thought about it too.’ He gulped down a whole glass of beer. ‘And as for her
being an inspiring example of motherhood, that’s a joke. What kind of a mother could
inspire any child to read using the Women’s Weekly as an example? Queens, mothers, and
all women should be educated and have careers. Having babies is not the be-all and end-
all. The women in this neighbourhood have nothing to talk about except their children or
their periods. They could all do with more education. Then they could have babies.’ He
sat down, poured another glass of beer and started to make humming noises.

                               Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                              Winged Feet

We all knew that this speech was an indirect criticism of Mum. ‘Look at those beautiful
butterflies in the bougainvillea,’ Mum said, her eyes filling with tears.

Two teal-blue butterflies with wings edged in black were chasing one another amongst
the white blossoms. Hamish and I both looked and saw their beauty, but Dad kept his
head down. I reached down under the table and held my mother’s hand. The crows quark-
quarked in the background and tailed off with aah-aah-ahh-rr.
Dad stood up again and walked around the room ranting. ‘And don’t forget the British led
by that fat, brandy swilling Winston Churchill abandoned us in World War I and II. He
wouldn’t let our troops come home to defend us against the Japanese. We owe no loyalty
to the Queen. And her uncle the Duke of Windsor socialised with Hitler.’ He paused to
drink his beer. ‘The rest of the Windsors are all Germans at heart. I do not recognise the
Windsors as our rulers, nor do I like Prince Philip, who makes stupid statements about
nothing of any importance.’ He sat down and ate his cottage pie quickly, looking around
for more. I was under his spell, mesmerised again with all this dangerous information we
were not taught at school.
‘Reading the Women’s Weekly is a disgrace,’ I said.
‘Even worse,’ said Mum, unusually joining in on Dad’s side, ‘her taste in frocks and hats
is so frumpy. She looks like her mother.’

Mum’s taste in frocks and hats was in no way frumpy. She had a beautiful figure and
wore clothes well. We all, her friends and mine, admired her style and I have tried to
copy it all my life.

Dad, on the other hand, seemed totally unaware of how he looked or what he wore. After
the time he went to his surgery in his dressing gown, Mum decided to put out his clothes
on the bed each day.

‘Banish from under your bonny skies/ Those old-world errors and wrongs and lies,’
quoted Dad from Henry Lawson. ‘We want a classless society, where all are free and

                               Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                             Winged Feet
equally educated. Down with the Queen and all she stands for!’

Though I agreed with and believed in everything he said and would clap and say and
mean, ‘Bravo, Dad,’ I was aware that the parents of my school friends did not share
Dad’s opinions. When I went to their houses there were photographs of the Queen, and
from what I could tell, no parent of any of my friends voted Labor or had socialist views.
One of my good friends, Penelope, had a game she played with her elder sister Helen
while they were growing up, where Penelope was Princess Margaret and Helen Princess
Elizabeth. Of course I did not quote my father or express my opinions to them.

Just before the Queen’s arrival in Brisbane, Dad read in the paper how the blue leather
throne-like chairs were to be vacuumed before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sat
on them at the Exhibition Grounds. ‘Ha,’ he laughed, ‘they’d be better vacuumed after
they sit on them.’

As the time for the Queen’s visit drew closer, Dad wondered if I should ask to be excused
from the pageant, as we were anti-royalists. But I loved dancing and marching and
singing and I was eager to participate. I thought about my position and stated, ‘But Dad, I
want to be in it. This is history, Dad. Maybe the Queen will never come again, which
would be good, I know. I don’t want to see her. But Dad, I’d rather not make a fuss about
this because I don’t think Miss Lockwood would like to hear that I don’t like the Queen.
And besides I would mess up our dance and Miss Sullivan would be upset.’

‘I want to watch her dance, Dad,’ said little Hamish, aged ten. He would ride down on his
bike after his school was out and watch us through the school fence rehearsing our
exercises for the pageant.

Dad looked at Hamish, made a few mooing noises, and fell silent. I thought that I’d hurt
Dad’s feelings and been disloyal. After a few moments I said, ‘The other day at school I
said something bad about Winston Churchill.’
‘What did you say?’ he asked.

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                                 Winged Feet

‘I told how he made a mistake at Gallipoli and sent us to land at the wrong place and got
us all killed.’
‘Good,’ he said.

Pleased by his praise I continued: ‘Did you read what Mr Menzies said in the paper the
other day? The paper claimed that the monarchy’s popularity was at its zenith,’ I said.
‘The Courier-Mail is a Liberal newspaper and they would say that. Bob Menzies is in
love with the queen and also wants a knighthood, lordship or even an earldom,’ said Dad.
I ran for the paper and read, ‘Menzies said, It is a basic truth that for our Queen we have
within us, something unrealised until the moment of expression, the most profound and
passionate feelings of loyalty and devotion. How can he say that?’ I continued, ‘I don’t
have any feelings of loyalty and devotion to the Queen. I don’t even like the Queen. I
don’t like her family or her silly corgi dogs. But I’d like to be in the pageant, Dad.’

‘I want to watch her dance with the other girls,’ repeated Hamish.
‘You do, do you, Hamish. Well, that decides it. Go ahead and be in it, Flora. After all,
that’s why I sent you to Radclyffe House. This is not a good time to express anti-royalist
views. Maybe thirty years from now. Since the early nineteenth century there has been a
republican movement made up mostly of urban, working-class Irish Catholics. Rural and
urban middle-class Protestants oppose and squash the movement. This has gone on for
centuries and probably will for centuries more.’

We had started our rehearsals at school. Miss Sullivan, our gym teacher, was responsible
for teaching us our part. We, about sixty girls in the secondary school, along with about
fifteen hundred other secondary schoolgirls, were to participate in marching and dancing
and flag waving, wearing our green gym tunics, in the front lines close to the circular
road around which the Queen and Duke would drive. Primary school Radclyffe House
girls did not participate in the pageant because their numbers weren’t large enough. The
four thousand primary school girls from other schools would form two yellow poinsettias
on the highest arc, OUR QUEEN on the next and EIIR on the lowest arc. We secondary

                               Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                                            - 10 -
                              Winged Feet
school girls would then form concentric circles around them while performing dancing
and certain exercises to recorded piano music.

The Courier-Mail published photos and articles of the city’s preparation for the Queen’s
visit. One was of a small home, more of a shack really, a worker’s cottage on Fernberg
Road, Paddington, a working-class suburb, on the route that Queen Elizabeth and the
Duke of Edinburgh would travel on their way to Government House. An old couple had
decorated the slanted ramp to their louvred cottage with an archway decorated with small
Australian flags and Union Jacks. I asked Dad why they would welcome the Queen and
decorate their house when they should be loyal to the working class. ‘Go and check their
name. I bet you’ll find they’re English.’ He was right – their name was Kent. ‘Whether
they are or not, loyalty is unpredictable and too full of guile to be trusted.’
Another story was about an elderly grey-haired woman and her husband who swam and
waded across three flooded creeks to see the Queen. The couple, aged seventy-five, set
out on horseback with a packhorse carrying their bags from their station property. At two
of the flooded creeks the husband had to swim across several times to get their bags

Another of interest was that of a man on a ladder with a little brush dusting the traffic
lights in Queen Street.

Two weeks before 10 March we rehearsed in the Exhibition Grounds and joined up with
more than a thousand other girls with whom we had to integrate our dance exercises. We
formed four concentric circles around the four thousand primary school girls who,
following lines and lanes, formed the flowers and letters. Miraculously, in spite of many
mistakes by the usual percentage of the uncoordinated, the rehearsals worked well
enough and our job was relatively easy, with more room than the claustrophobic centre
where the primary school kids were. Hamish was upset he couldn’t come to the
rehearsals, because by now he’d become a kind of mascot for us and was our greatest and
most devoted fan.

                               Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                                             - 11 -
                             Winged Feet

The Courier-Mail’s headlines the day after the pageant stunned me. There were eighty
thousand spectators and nine thousand participants at the rally. With nine thousand
participants from Brisbane in 1954 there mustn’t have been a child left at home.
I remember how hot the day was – over 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Seagulls flew and circled
the arena, landing where the Queen’s car was supposed to go. One seagull pooped on
Miss Sullivan’s hat. One of the younger girls, Jennifer Cook, excitedly called out, ‘Miss
Sullivan, Miss Sullivan, a seagull pooped on your hat.’ Miss Sullivan removed her hat,
shrieked in horror, tripped, and in falling backwards revealed a glimpse of lavender
knickers. We all gasped in shock.

Just in time to distract us, the Queen’s five motorcycle escorts roared into the ground,
followed by the open black shiny Royal Car in which the Queen and the Duke were
standing. The car drove them up to a kind of enclosed dais where the Queen and the Duke
stepped out. In this box, where they sat on the vacuum-cleaned blue leather chairs, the
walls were draped with red, white and blue bunting and edged with bowls of red
polyanthus, roses, gladioli, marigolds and dahlias.

The band and children’s voices began the National Anthem, the Royal Standard broke
over the John McDonald Stand, and our display began. Everything worked well enough;
the younger girls marched in columns, wearing different coloured costumes and gradually
formed a pattern of the two yellow poinsettias, OUR QUEEN, and underneath EIIR. By
this time we secondary school girls formed concentric circles around them, moving in the
opposite direction to the circle inside us. The climax occurred when the girls in the OUR
QUEEN and EIIR sat down with crossed legs and bowed heads so that the design
appeared to be held together with human arms and legs.

I heard a thump from one of the sections as someone’s head hit the now gravelly grass.
Then a girl next to me, Ruth, on the outer rim, was overcome with the heat and fainted
dead away. I tried to wake her but she just lay there. No one came to help her up. Some
other girls got out of time with the music, which was too slow, and legs and arms and

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
                                           - 12 -
                                 Winged Feet

flags waved out of sync. Miss Sullivan, fully recovered, just kept shouting instructions.

We followed her, and except for Ruth, danced and waved and flailed our arms. The
Northern Command Band received the first cheers when they marched around the arena
behind their red-sashed drum major with trombones, tubas and drums.

I remember feeling tired but proud of our performance. The Queen spoke briefly. When
she said, ‘I am delighted to be here today and to see you all looking so well and so
happy,’ I realised how well and happy I felt. When she said what a pleasure it was ‘to
meet the boys and girls of the British Commonwealth because I know that the future lies
in their hands,’ involuntarily my shoulders straightened, my chin went up and I stood
taller. When she said, ‘I pray that you may grow up to be as proud as I am of your city,
your State, and of your splendid country,’ I was so full of pride I thought I’d burst. We all
sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, singing, God who made thee mighty/ Make thee mightier
yet, another favourite chorus of mine. This made me a bit delirious and woke Ruth up. I
helped her stand, and though a little dazed, she soon recovered. At 4.10 pm, a gleaming
brown Land Rover purred to the front of the dais. Standing up in the rear of the Land
Rover, the Queen and the Duke drove through the cheering, waving crowd, around the
circular drive.

During the performance I couldn’t see the Queen or work out where she was, but after
‘Land of Hope and Glory’ I could see her standing in the open car smiling, waving and
driving around the arena. I’m still not sure what happened. She was wearing the most
beautiful yellow flowing dress with a close fitting matching straw hat and I fell madly in
love with her. I broke ranks with our team and ran after her car. The grounds were packed
with girls moving in the opposite direction and I had to push my way through them. I
wanted to get in the car and be with her, I loved her so much. And then I wet my pants. I
wet my pants so badly that urine poured down my legs. But I kept on running after her.
Robert Menzies was right, there was ‘something unrealised until the moment of
expression’. I never caught up with her. She left the Exhibition Grounds without even

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                             Winged Feet

seeing me, or ever being aware of my totally unexpected experience of love at first sight.
I’d tripped and fallen over and found myself crying in embarrassed bewilderment. I
looked up and my favourite teacher, who was also my form mistress, helped me up. ‘I
went to London for her coronation,’ she said. ‘I didn’t wet my pants but I did cry.’ She
told me to take them off and gave me permission to go home.

I took off my knickers behind a rubbish bin and threw them in it. I do remember that
loudspeakers outside the Exhibition Grounds announced the destinations of special buses
and trams. I climbed on to my tram and hoped no one could smell the urine or the sweat
patches dark under my armpits. By the time I got home both had dried out. I went to my
room, put on clean knickers and dressed for dinner. I never told Dad how disloyal I’d
been. I wish I had. Knowing his scepticism about loyalty, he’d have forgiven me. But I
told Mum and she understood. She’d listened to the whole thing on the radio. She told me
the story of some trench workers who’d said they weren’t going to stop or wave at any
Queen. But when they saw her they dropped their pickaxes and started cheering and

This was not the only time we had the opportunity to see the royal couple. Miss
Lockwood announced that we were allowed, as a school party, to line up on Oriel Road
on the route to the airport where we could wave our last farewell to our beloved
sovereign. I didn’t attend, nor have I ever seen or wanted to see the Queen since that day.

                              Winged Feet by Janet Withers
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