HELPING THE PEOPLE HELP THEMSELVES By Sharif Gemie

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The Training Centre (Normandy, April 1945)

Eleanor has found a needle and thread: she can sew my shoulder patches on now. We walk down to the crumbling concrete bench that runs along the esplanade, and look at the waves. I give her my khaki jacket and the two little pieces of cloth, and watch as she concentrates, admiring the careful movements of her long fingers.

‘Have you heard anything about the teams?’ she asks. ‘Have they decided?’

‘They’ve said nothing.’

We talk about this every day. We want to work in the same team, but when we arrived here they told us we might be separated. Apparently, the Americans need Welfare Officers like Eleanor, the British don’t.

Eleanor sighs.

‘At least I won’t run out of chewing gum,’ she says.

I smile, but don’t laugh. The truth is, I’m terrified of being separated from her.

I look out over the bright blue sea and breathe in the salty air. The sunlight dances on the peaks of the waves, making bright little sparks. I remember Eleanor’s words—when was it? Just four days ago, when we first arrived? This would be an unexpected break, she said, almost a holiday. While the rest of Europe shudders in the last convulsion of this God-awful war, we sit by the sea and admire the view. The beach looks lovely, but we’ve been warned there are still German mines buried in the sand. It’s off limits.

‘Ed!’

An American voice from the hotel. I hate it when people abbreviate my name. Feet come down the steps.

‘Oh lord, it’s Victor. Let’s try and get rid of him.’

‘We mustn’t be rude.’ Eleanor smiles.

‘Ed! Did you go to that lecture this morning?’

‘Indeed I did.’

‘Wasn’t it the most pompous eyewash? Do all you Brits talk that way when you give lectures?’

‘Think about where we’re going, Victor.’ Eleanor is clear and confident. ‘We need all the advice we can get.’

‘Oh.’ Victor falls silent. I suppose he’s taken aback by the idea that the talk might have been useful. He looks at the waves, splashing onto the shore.

‘Jersey’s out there,’ Eleanor says as she sews.

‘Right,’ says Victor. ‘Where the German base is?’

Eleanor nods, and we all stare at the distant grey-green lump.

Without thinking, I glance back at the walls of the hotel. The bullet holes from the German raid two weeks ago are clearly visible. Today, the sea brings seagulls and driftwood. Tomorrow—who knows?

‘There you are,’ says Eleanor, handing me my jacket.

Victor notices the new patches.

‘Very smart,’ he says. ‘Now you have arrived. A full member of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.’

Something about his voice grates.

Idealists,’ he adds with great emphasis, and then sighs.

What does he mean? I don’t know how to respond and I glance at Eleanor. But Victor starts on a different subject.

‘Do y’know why breakfast was delayed this morning? Do you?’

I shake my head.

‘Because the French canteen staff, chosen and paid by UNRRA, had stolen the eggs!’

‘Oh Victor, I’m sure that’s not true,’ says Eleanor.

‘Well, they certainly didn’t watch over the supplies properly. I bet they’re working on some black-market scheme…’

‘Victor! The French people here starved during war. And when the Germans left, they took all the cattle with them.’

‘That’s no reason to deny us breakfast, such as it was.’

It’s another sore point between us. Victor can’t understand why we don’t complain about the breakfasts. But they seem magnificent to us: porridge, toast, butter, bacon, eggs, tea and a sugar bowl on every table… Eleanor keeps warning me not to overdo it. And we can enjoy incredible luxuries from the American PX store. There’s fruit juice, tins of peanuts, pears and peaches, candy bars, cigarettes…

We stand up together and amble back to the hotel, as if we were old friends.

‘Have you heard anything about the teams?’ I ask Victor.

‘Nope.’

As we pass through the door, Victor looks sternly at the UNRRA poster. There are three enormous aeroplanes at the top: they’re circling a globe. Images of mothers with children, doctors treating patients and crates being loaded onto trains fill the bottom half. There’s a slogan in the centre. Victor reads it out.

‘Helping the people help themselves.’ He snorts. ‘The only people helping themselves here are the French: they’re helping themselves to our supplies.’

‘Oh, Victor,’ says Eleanor in a tired voice, but I laugh. It’s funny, and now I know Victor well enough to appreciate that precious little humour comes from him.

We return to the lobby to pick up some pamphlets. They should’ve been here yesterday, but nothing in UNRRA works efficiently. Victor is right about that.

There’s nothing for him or me, but there is an UNRRA Welfare Guide for Eleanor. A small, grey pamphlet, with a sentence on the back. Millions of displaced persons who have been driven from their homes will present innumerable welfare problems. Eleanor reads it, and then looks thoughtful.

‘There are millions of them, you know,’ she says.

Victor nods, but says nothing.

I reach for her arm, and give her a gentle squeeze. ‘I know. We’ll meet them soon enough.’

We go back to the camp. Eleanor walks to the old school where she and the other women are quartered. I haven’t managed to shake off Victor, and so we stroll back to our barracks. On the way, we meet a coloured American UNRRA worker, and Victor grunts at him. A few steps later he turns to me and whispers:

‘Poor man.’

I’m surprised to hear Victor sounding sorry for anyone. He must have seen me frown, so he explains.

‘There’s a dozen of them, all from the States. They can’t serve in Europe, of course.’

‘Why not?’

He tuts. ‘The Continentals would never accept them. Worse than the Deep South. Most of them have never seen a Negro.’

‘So what will happen to him?’

‘They’ll assign him to a Field HQ, not a relief camp. But he should never have been sent here. Typical.’

Is he right? I suppose he is. Another problem which UNRRA can’t solve.

Our old wooden barracks are miserable: no light bulbs, no electricity and no stove, and the windows have either been blown out by bombing or stolen. I wonder whether conditions in the relief camps will be better. Victor sighs deeply, then lies down on his camp bed. I pick up a book and try to read. A few minutes later, a South African comes in, and asks if anyone knows about the teams. We shake our heads.

I meet Eleanor and we walk to the Café des Amis as the sun sets. I order two glasses of cider, the local tipple, and catch Eleanor’s smile as they’re placed on the counter. Another little luxury! The cider is fresh, bubbly and slightly sweet, almost like champagne. Other UNRRA staff come in, most in khaki uniforms with UNRRA patches on their shoulders, some in old grey or grey-blue suits. We nod and say hallo. The cafe has a radio, and every evening we gather round at 9pm for the BBC news. The absence of newspapers makes us feel that the war is happening somewhere else, somewhere faraway. Each evening, the BBC reminds us how close it is.

The news starts, and we call for silence. The Americans are advancing eastwards, the Russians are fighting in Berlin, there will be no negotiated peace with the Nazis. Another concentration camp has been liberated. As the announcer speaks, I notice the euphemisms he’s using. Even after only two months in UNRRA, I know a bit about concentration camps. I suppose that soon I’ll know more than I ever wanted.

I glance at Eleanor. We’ve been listening to these bulletins for six years: we long for this conflict to end.

‘But think,’ whispers Eleanor. ‘The DPs. The end of the war, the end of the fighting isn’t going to solve their problems. French and Czechs and Poles and Jews…’

I know she wants me to speak, but I’m lost for words. I sip my cider, look round at my fellow UNRRA workers. How old and tired they look. Can they help anyone? I have to say something.

‘We’re going to build a better world, Eleanor. We’ll start with the DPs. There’ll still be poverty and other problems, but we’ll never allow—never allow this again.’

I shake my head: my eloquence, such as it is, deserted me. I wanted to say something more convincing. But Eleanor looks up, meets my gaze and nods. I think: they must put us in the same team.

A lecture. We sit, rows of crumpled khaki shapes on rough wooden benches. Awkward ripples run through the lines: people stretch their legs, straighten their backs, shift their bottoms, yawn. The lecturer’s voice washes over me, rising and falling regularly. Sometimes I can’t help agreeing with Victor. Where did UNRRA find these dry old ex-colonials? The lecturer’s talking about vitamins and calories. I ought to be concentrating, but instead I hope that Eleanor understands this. Weak sunshine trickles through the windows. I gaze at the motes of dust circling over us. I could fall asleep. All at once there’s a molecular movement among the rows, then a shifting and scraping of feet. The lecture’s ended, we’re going to do some exercises. As we walk to the classrooms, I fill my lungs to shake off the torpor that’s gripped me. Eleanor’s beside me now.

‘Not one of the world’s greatest speakers,’ she mutters.

‘No,’ I agree. ‘He certainly lacked charisma. Unfortunately, our friend Victor is right about some things.’

‘Maybe. Maybe sometimes.’

Six of us gather in a classroom. Damn. Victor is here. We announce our roles. I speak first.

‘Team Director.’ Sometimes I like to pull rank.

‘Deputy Director,’ says Victor. He grins at me.

The Supply Officer is a tall Frenchman, the Medical Officer a fierce-looking Danish woman.

‘Messing Officer,’ says a South African.

‘Welfare Officer,’ says Eleanor, completing the team.

I glance round as they speak. I recognise these faces. Will this be our team? As long as I’m with Eleanor… When will they decide?

We wait in awkward silence, and eventually a colonial type walks in, looking like he owns the place. He has straw-blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a well-cut uniform that might be tailor-made. He glances at us briefly, says nothing, then stands by the blackboard and laboriously writes out an exercise, the chalk screeching each time he makes a downward stroke.

We’re running a camp of four thousand Poles. (The numbers frighten me: I try to imagine what six people can do for four thousand.) We’re to prepare for the arrival of six hundred Italians and six hundred Czechs arriving at a station eight kilometres away. Among them are forty extremely sick people.

The colonial type says:

‘Have your report ready in forty-five minutes.’

He nods and leaves.

For a few seconds there’s silence. The Frenchman looks at me, as if he’s expecting me to lead, but I’ve nothing to say.

‘Well…’ says Eleanor.

The dam bursts. For the thirty minutes we haul information out from the recesses of our memories, we remember points made in lectures, we cite what other UNRRA workers have told us, we apply common sense, we discuss what each of our roles implies. Even Victor cooperates, making points about the limitations of the two 3-ton trucks that the camp should have. Sometimes we laugh, but we’re laughing with the material, laughing together, not laughing at the exercise. For a few moments, I see how it could work. I’m impressed, damn it, I’m impressed. I pull out a pencil, and draft a report that summarizes what we’ve said.

Next morning. Instead of a lecture, they’ve put us in a 3-ton truck. Another exercise, they say, something practical, but I suspect that the lecturers have run out of material. I’ve been trained to drive trucks, so we don’t need a driver. The task is simple: load up the truck with supplies for a week’s journey, verify the supplies by checking a list, drive to Cherbourg, then return. About 200 kilometres there and back.

Victor attempts to get in the passenger side, but I refuse, insisting that Eleanor accompanies me.

‘This isn’t regular,’ he grumbles, but I’m having none of it.

The other four sit in the back: luckily for them, this truck has an intact tarpaulin covering and solid wooden benches. They’ll be quite comfortable.

Eleanor gets in and glances at the steering-wheel, gearstick, pedals and dashboard.

‘I could drive this. It’s the same as a London ambulance.’

‘Yes, but…’ I can’t finish the sentence. I remember the embarrassing lecture in which we were told about the importance of UNRRA’s public standing in the field. Somehow this meant that women couldn’t be appointed as team directors or as drivers, except under exceptional circumstances. When the lecture ended, Eleanor was white-faced with anger, but she said nothing.

Eleanor has a map, plus some scrawled notes listing smashed bridges and necessary detours. We start, and for a while it feels like a Sunday afternoon drive. The sun is shining, the apple blossom is out, the fields are green. But then we turn a corner, and there’s a large farmhouse which has been reduced to rubble, a blackened orchard and a massive crater. We pass a burnt-out wreck—a twisted mass of metal so disfigured that it’s impossible to tell whether it was Allied or German. Then another, then another. Then another.

‘That one was a tank,’ says Eleanor, quietly.

We drive through a little village, maybe with thirty houses or barns. Each one is completely smashed to smithereens, with the odd brick corner rising a few feet into the air. The wreck of a plane lies in a field nearby, its struts poking out like some dinosaur’s bones. I think back to the devastated streets in London during the Blitz. Somehow, this seems worse: it’s the contrast between the green fields and the wrecked buildings. I grip the wheel tightly: my arms begin to tremble and I wipe my forehead.

‘This is one of the circles of hell,’ I say.

I stop the truck earlier than planned. The six of us huddle at its side, as if trying to hold back the spectacle of devastation that lurks along the route. We share a few half-whispered words.

‘Horrific…’

‘I hadn’t expected…’

‘…and in Germany?’

We’re thinking like a team, I realise. I glance at Eleanor, but she’s staring back at a black crater near the road.

Victor can’t contain himself.

‘D-Day was ten months ago! Why haven’t they begun clearing up?’

Eleanor looks at him, but it is the Frenchman who speaks up.

‘You did this! You clear it up!’

‘We’ve given you bulldozers and trucks,’ Victor retorts.

‘Victor!’ Eleanor interrupts. ‘Look at the scale of this. Where would you begin? They’re waiting for their men to return from Germany.’

‘That’s why we’re going there,’ says the Dane, brightly.

‘Communism,’ says Victor flatly. ‘They expect the state to do everything for them.’

‘Communism?’ says Eleanor. ‘If you’d lived through this, wouldn’t you be a Communist?’

In the evening, Eleanor and I stroll to the Café des Amis. There’s a beautiful sunset, and we walk the long way round.

‘Is this what you expected?’ she asks.

I think carefully. ‘No, not really. I thought—I expected that the other people would be more—more caring, I suppose. Instead…’

‘…instead we’re caught between ex-colonial Blimps and mean-minded cynics like Victor.’ She finishes my words.

‘Some of them seem good people.’

‘Yes,’ Eleanor says slowly. ‘And it will be different once we’re out there.’

We walk along the track. Birds call from the woods nearby and there’s the smell of something cooking on the breeze. We’re a million miles from world war.

‘What about you, Edmund? Why are you doing this? There’s no career waiting for you.’

‘I spent the war behind a desk, didn’t I? I can’t let the other boys in the pub have all the best stories.’

I laugh, but she stares at me. I know I have to say more.

‘I still believe it’s worth doing. We have to begin somewhere: UNRRA, with all these different nationalities and races, all working together—it’s the start of something new.’

She nods, thoughtful.

‘I want to do my bit,’ I end, unable to think of anything more eloquent.

‘It’ll be harder than we thought,’ she replies.

Before breakfast, the South African puts his head round the barracks door and shouts:

‘The teams! They’ve picked them. The lists are in the lobby.’

There’s a tremendous tussle as twenty men, British, French, Canadian, American and Danish, many only half-dressed, squeeze through the door and run. In the lobby there’s a great swirl of khaki. About twenty lists are pinned up on one wall, and there must be over a hundred people trying to read them. Shouts echo round the space:

‘Bremen! Leaving tomorrow.’

‘Moi aussi.’

‘Wildflecken. Two days.’

I catch sight of Eleanor: she’s in the opposite corner, determinedly pushing her way closer. I edge towards her, and scan the typed pages. As Director, my name will be at the top. There it is: Team 336, Kufstein, leaving in two days. Welfare Officer… Someone pushes in front of me, and a shoulder obscures my view. I push back. Welfare Officer—Eleanor. Thank goodness. Thank goodness. She’s clutching me now, her arm round my back; we look at each other, smiling, and I hug her tight, in the midst of this surging sea of khaki.

As we move away, she says:

‘Didn’t you see?’

‘What?’

‘Deputy Director?’

‘No!’

‘Yes, it’s Victor.’

The Border (May 1945)

This isn’t how I’d imagined the Liberation of Europe. I’d expected something glorious: cheering, banners waving and excited crowds packing the streets and bursting into song. Or, at very least, a rowdy, drunken, soldiers’ party that lasted all night. Instead, here I am, left by myself, next to two broken three-ton trucks. Well, almost by myself. There is a squaddie in the other truck, sleeping.

I look at the damp, battered road. When will they get back? Eleanor said she’d make sure they returned by sundown. They said I’d be safe. I suppose I am.

What’s that? A noise: not cheering, but maybe an echo of cheering? Is there a town over there, hidden by the slopes? I listen carefully. No, nothing, just the wind on the empty road. I shiver. It’s cold for May.

The door of the other truck opens: a soldier steps out. He stretches, then walks over with a swagger, holding his rifle lazily over one shoulder.

‘Andy,’ he says, holding out his hand.

‘Edmund.’

‘A right old do, innit? The day after our victory, “our finest hour” and…’

‘…and both our trucks break down.’

‘What am I going to tell the lads back home?’ Andy grins ruefully. ‘I was hoping for a bit of action.’

‘Odd, though.’ I look again at the two trucks. ‘Both of them—broken. One after another.’

‘Odd? Bloody peculiar, I’d say!’

I reach for my cigarettes, remember my manners, and offer one to Andy. We smoke and swap details of our war service. Andy trained in Southampton and has never seen active service. This is his first time abroad. I tell him I worked in the Ministry of Information, but now want to do my bit. I guess that Andy’s younger than me.

‘But it’s all over now!’ he says. ‘No more fighting. No need for any soldiers. I’m too late.’

‘There’s still plenty to do. There are millions of displaced persons in Central Europe. It’ll take months, maybe years to get them back where they belong. That’s why we’re here.’

I point to the UNRRA stencil on the side of our truck. Andy glances at it and nods. I guess that he doesn’t know what the acronym stands for and doesn’t care. A shame. These days I rather enjoy saying United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

‘Oh, aye,’ says Andy. ‘And then the repairs. All them ruins. Whole streets smashed in those French towns. Like the Blitz, all over again. Germany’ll be worse, I expect.’

‘I think it will.’

‘But I don’t feel sorry for the Krauts. They asked for it, didn’t they?’

‘People say that.’

Andy walks a few steps away and stares at the sunset. Then he turns round.

‘And the rest of them just buggered off back to base. Even your team!’

‘It’s better that they walk back to base. They’ll get help, maybe find a proper mechanic.’

Andy grunts, then offers me a cigarette. We light up and smoke in silence, watching the sun set over the empty, rutted road, the damp, bare slopes and the ruined outbuildings. We guess that there must have been a farm somewhere near here. The slopes would have been fields. Then Andy gives me a look. I guess what’s coming.

‘When your lot went off—who was that girl who said goodbye to you?’

I smile.

‘That was no girl, that was my wife, Eleanor.’ It’s an old line, one I’ve used before to deflect coarse insinuations.

‘Wife, eh? So no frauleins for you.’

‘Quite.’

A cloud passes over the setting sun and the shadows deepen.

‘I reckon we’re going to be here all night.’

‘We’ll sleep in the back of our trucks. That’s the procedure.’

‘Got any protection?’

‘We don’t carry weapons.’

‘Just as well we do.’ Andy pats his rifle.

‘Wait!’ he whispers. ‘There…’

I look where he’s pointing. I see nothing.

‘I’d swear…’

Looking again, I see a tall, gaunt woman, standing in the shadows of one of the outbuildings, dressed in the ragged hand-me-downs of the refugee. She stares at us. Andy grips his rifle.

‘Where did she come from?’

‘The road…’

‘What do you want?’ shouts Andy. ‘Come forward now.’

She steps forward slowly. A burst of invective erupts from her.

‘Do you speak German?’ Andy asks me.

‘No—but that’s not German, I’m sure…’

‘Where’s she from? There’s nothing here.’

The woman steps closer.

‘Where is my son?’ She speaks in halting, oddly accented English.

‘We’ve seen no one. Who are you?’ shouts Andy.

‘Where is my son?’

The three of us sit round a little fire, warming our hands. Andy has brewed up: a cuppa before bed, he said. It’s strong, bitter, soldiers’ tea, served with lashings of condensed milk, thick as stew.

We still know next-to-nothing about the woman, but the look in her eyes tells me that this is someone who’s travelled far and seen too much. She seems ageless. 30? 50? Or 70? I’m not sure: it’s hard to see clearly in the flickering light of the fire. I want to tell her about the nearest refugee camp. If the trucks get repaired, I could drive her there tomorrow. She says little, and often ignores our questions. We still didn’t know her name, despite frequent hand gestures, much pointing and repetitions of Andy and Edmund. As we finish our tea, she looks up.

‘Come, I will read your fortunes.’ She reaches for our tin mugs.

‘Read the tea-leaves? You do that, do you?’ Andy smirks.

‘Yes, yes…’

I feel a moment of alarm. This sort of stuff is something I don’t like. Ungodly superstition, I hear my father intoning. I saw a lot of ungodly superstition during the war: spiritualists and horoscopes; atheists’ prayers and good-luck rituals. I’m not surprised when Andy hands over his mug.

‘Come closer, come closer,’ says the woman, beckoning Andy with her hand.

Andy sits next to her. She picks up his mug and moves it in little circles, swishing the dregs around, chanting in a language that I don’t recognise. Then, all at once, she turns the mug upside down and flicks the dregs onto a tin lid.

‘Ah…’ she says, gazing at the dregs in the firelight.

Andy looks at her with a new fascination, waiting.

‘Will I find a girl?’ he asks after a moment or two.

‘Ah…’

Then she speaks in a low voice, too quiet for me to hear. But I see Andy’s face change: first leering fascination, then surprise—then something else.

‘No!’ Andy cries. ‘That’s enough! I don’t want…’

He gets up and stumbles out of the light of the fire.

The woman turns to me.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Thank you, but I won’t…’

‘Come,’ she says. ‘You must. I have to tell you.’

The truck’s engine whirs: a dry, exhausted, useless sound.

‘Andy!’ I shout. ‘What are you doing? It won’t work, they tried.’

I hold my torch up to Andy’s face. At first, I’d imagined thieves, trying to steal the other truck. I’d gone to see why Andy hadn’t reacted. His face is set, grim, determined.

‘I can’t stay here, mate. Not after that.’

‘What?’

‘That woman… This place… Those words…’

I look round. There’s no one by the fire. The refugee woman seems to have vanished into the shadows.

Andy puts his foot down again.

‘It won’t work. You’ll just drain the battery.’

The engine whirs uselessly.

‘Andy! What did she tell you?’

To my surprise, there’s a jerk. The engine kicks into life, the truck moves forward, its covered, pinpoint headlights half-illuminating the battered road.

‘That bloody bitch said I’d regret our victory! She made me feel ashamed—ashamed of my army. I’m not staying here, it’s cursed.’

He swings the steering-wheel round, and the truck moves off. Turning back, he shouts: ‘What did she tell you?’

The truck lumbers onto the road before I can reply, then judders forward. The engine doesn’t sound right, and the vehicle shakes from side to side.

‘Andy! Stop!’

The truck picks up speed, then lurches off the road and smashes into an outbuilding. It catches fire almost immediately: there’s a burst of bright flame, an ear-splitting explosion, then the black night returns and there’s nothing more.

I stay rooted to the spot, thinking about the woman’s words. She told me that I’d never see Eleanor again.

glasses

Sharif Gemie

Sharif Gemie is a retired History lecturer. He researched the topic of refugees and the Second World War decades ago, and was left with a sense of frustration concerning what history couldn’t say, and with great admiration for the idealistic, middle-class kids who volunteered to go out to work in Germany in UNRRA. He’s currently writing a novel on this theme.

Sharif Gemie is the author of ten short stories, including:

‘The Map and the Migrant,’ in Emma Larking (ed), We Refugees (Raleigh, North Carolina: Pact Press 2019), pp. 69—73.

‘Leonard and the Mad Girl’, Magazine of History and Fiction 1:4 (Winter 2019) https://magazineoftheoldwest.neocities.org/leonardomadgirl.html

‘A Visitor,’ in Carmel Mawle (ed), DoveTales: an International Journal of the Arts (2018), pp. 139—51.

‘George and Mariam,’ Cecile’s Writers, Oct 2018: http://www.cecileswriters.com/mag/story/george-and-mariam/

‘Inside the Circle’, The Moon Magazine: A Magazine of personal and universal reflections, http://moonmagazine.org/sharif-gemie-inside-circle-2018-12-02/

He is also the author of eight non-fiction books and countless academic articles, including:

The Hippy Trail: A History (1957—88) (Manchester University Press, 2017), co-authored with Brian Ireland

Outcast Europe: Refugees and Relief Workers in an Age of Total War, 1936-48 (London: Continuum, 2011), co-authored with Fiona Reid and Laure Humbert.

French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: UWP, 2010)

‘The Oak and the Acorn: Music and Political Values in the Work of Cecil Sharp,’ https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/oak_acorn.htm, posted on 17 April 2019

‘Visions of Albion: ancient landscapes, Glastonbury and alternative forms of nationalism’, Nations and Nationalism 23:2 (2017), pp. 327—45.

Image by Melk Hagelslag from Pixabay

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