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Chimurenga

Part One - Land of Hope

I need to treasure those memories, because Mushandike’s a thing of the past now. We met a hippo and some eland, a family of warthogs and some jackals and we learned how to track animals and about ecosystems. We climbed a rockface near the dam wall and we ate our dinner and sang songs around a campfire in the middle of nowhere. We watched a sheep being dissected and measured the length of its small intestine, and Elizabeth threw up. We imagined ourselves to be a band of Mashona escaping the marauding Matabele by using that natural rock tunnel hidden in a hillside, crouching and scuttling along it in the dark. We just had such a good time. And then, yesterday, it was over. The birdsong woke us early and the dawn was all pink and misty and we ate bacon and eggs around the revived campfire while the sun gradually rose up over the tops of the trees and its light crept down towards the ground. Then we had to go. None of us wanted to leave, just like, I’ll bet, so many other school children over the years, but we had to go home. We left a bush school and soon it will be just an army barracks. Maybe Barry will stay there, in the dormitory where Jess and I were. Maybe Nathan will get to go back.

I guess hope is a thing of the past too. This is real, isn’t it? There really is a proper war and it’s just arrived on my doorstep.

 

6th July 1974 to 26th November 1974

The Highveld winter – bushfire season. Surprises, both puzzling and disconcerting. One is simply a discovery that you can spend much of your week at someone else’s home and yet know so little about them. The other is the kind that leaves you feeling like you’re standing on very shifty ground. Everything will change. Julie said Africa will change, but it’s not just Africa.

 

   

Saturday 6th July 1974

 

     “Here, look, aren’t you cold? Where’s your jumper?”

     She’s got her arms wrapped around her body and her hands tucked under her armpits.

     I point at it, draped over the fence where I ditched it after we started the jumping work. Needless to say Induna’s barely broken a sweat. He is clipped, though.

     “Well, walk him round for five minutes. I’ll take it to the yard for you. He went so well for you today, didn’t he? That last one was a metre.”

     She’s doing her Cheshire Cat impression again. I know that look.

     “I knew it. You put it up while I was cantering my circle down the other end!”

     She shrugs on her way to the gate. “You did it, though, didn’t you? You’ve been doing all the work and I’ve been standing here and now I need some hot chocolate inside me. See you in the kitchen when you’ve sorted Indie out. Don’t hose him off, hey? He’s probably only damp under the saddle and there’s no point in dousing him in cold water if you don’t have to.”

     She’s gone, my sweater flung over her shoulders, hands still tucked in. I give Induna a long rein and let him stretch his neck. I’ll get cold again soon enough, but for now I’m fine. It was pretty frosty early this morning. Rosie and I did that thing where we race around the lawn, like, erratically, and then stand back to admire the patterns of our footprints, huffing to see our breath coming out in clouds. Dad was grumpy, as usual, moaning on and on about how much time he wastes having to run the car on choke while it frantically wipes its own windscreen when he could be getting going. It’s his own fault the car has to live outside when we have a perfectly good garage. Mum keeps her car in her half but he keeps a load of junk in his bit. He’s convinced that one day he’ll find a use for all of it. And it is junk. Mismatched tools, bits of timber, angle iron, car spares, pieces of carpet, crates, empty tins, full tins of paint from years ago, cardboard boxes, plastic sheeting, rolls of chicken wire, leftover ceramic tiles from when that guy redid the bathrooms. He doesn’t think our frosty breath thing is the least bit funny. He appears to have completely forgotten the fact that he once lived in England.

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     Gill hasn’t gone back to the house yet. She’s still in the stableyard because she’s talking to Nathan.

     Where did he come from? He wasn’t in the house or the yard before my lesson, I swear.

     No matter. He must be about to go for a hack because he’s got High Time all tacked up, but he’s got competition. Kuti is perched on top of the saddle. I leap off and drag Induna over to them.

     “Oh isn’t she sweet?” I coo, reaching out to tickle her throat with my finger. “I love cats. They answer to no-one. They just do their own thing.”

     I do the obligatory kissing noises and she pushes hard against my finger with her chin, twisting her head so my tickling is transferred to the back of her ear. Her eyes are closed and she’s got ecstasy written all over her pretty, pointed face. Her purr is loud and rasping.

     Nathan watches, silent. Right then, Induna decides he wants to be involved in my conversation with the cat so he pushes his nose up towards her and huffs noisily through his nostrils. This is too much for Kuti. She’s well used to horses but only has time for those who show her some respect. In one movement she hisses, leaps into the air, executes a hundred and eighty degree turn and is gone. Both horses toss their heads and High Time side steps squarely onto Nathan’s right boot.

     “Ow! Shit! Bloody hell!” He pushes his shoulder into hers in an attempt to make her shift her weight. “Gerrorff!”

     “Language, Nathan, language,” says Gill absently, staring after the fleeing cat. “You’ll corrupt young innocent Tessa here.”

     Can’t say I’m bothered. I just feel sorry for Kuti. She looked so cute, riding a horse.

     After some grunting, Nathan manages to extract his foot. He shakes it a couple of times and prods High Time with his forefinger, saying, “Great galumphing lout.”

     I’ve seen children, and adults, all too happy to take a whip to a pony for what they perceive as clumsiness. I explore his face cautiously. He doesn’t look angry, in spite of what he’s saying. He’s now completely focussed on examining the healing scab on High Time’s shoulder, where she got bitten by Floss, probing it gently with the same finger. After what Gill said….his father and his violent rages…..it’s odd, but I’ll bet Nathan never loses his temper.

     She’s laughing. “Bloody lucky you got steel toe caps, huh?”

     He arches his eyebrows, shrugs and withdraws his hand.

     “Well, I’m going.” He steps back, pauses, and then vaults into the saddle without touching the stirrup. So casual. Just like that. I’ve tried it. Once. I ended up clinging to the side of Silver Valley’s neck with one foot over her back and the other under her belly. I’m sure the grooms thought I’d done it solely for their entertainment. Next time – if there is a next time – I’ll do it in private.

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     Mum and Dad are missing, so I guess they’ve gone to do the weekly shopping, and Rosie’s shut in her room. I change into my tracksuit bottoms and carry my weekend homework to the dining table. I get as far as opening my maths exercise book and writing the date at the top of a fresh page when I smell smoke. At the same instant, Rosie comes skipping through from the passageway.

     “There’s a fire somewhere close over towards the east! I saw it from the bedroom window!”

     She vanishes through the French doors onto the patio. I replace the screw cap on my fountain pen and pursue her.

     The bushfire’s already caused a thick haze that’s partially blotted out the sun. Purple-brown, the smoke boils skywards, casting an ochre shadow across the garden, and swirling in the air are the shards of blackened grass that make Mum so furious when she has washing on the line. Within the haze, squadrons of hunting birds are circling.

     “Can you see it?” I stand on tiptoe. She’s peering into the distance from her vantage point on top of the patio handrail. She has one hand wrapped around the corner roof support column and is using the other to shade her eyes.

     “No. I think it’s beyond the shopping centre.”

     She swings round on the handrail and jumps down onto the patio, landing neatly with her feet together. Her eyes flash at me.

     “Let’s go down and have a look! Come on! Let’s get our bikes.”

     “We’re going to see the fire,” I inform Elijah as we let ourselves out of the gate. “Can you tell our parents when they come home from the shopping please?”

     “You be careful.” Elijah sets his shears aside. “These bush fires, they can be too dangerous.”

     “We’ll watch out,” I promise, waving to him. I have to pedal fast to catch up with Rosie.

     She speaks without looking back at me. “What an old woman! He’s worse than an old hen. A huku.”

     She was right. The fire’s on the other side of the shopping centre. I scan the parking area on the way past but don’t see Dad’s car. As we get closer, I start to wonder if the bushfire’s on the hundred acres of open ground immediately south of Makuti Park.

     And it is. There’s a fire engine parked near the perimeter hedge and a mixed crowd of on-lookers on the roadside verges, assorted bicycles lying in the grass. Rosie jumps off and drops hers, but I go, “Uh-uh! We’ll take the bikes over there. Chain them to that streetlight.”

     Dad’ll have my guts for garters if they get stolen.

     My lock is just big enough to go round the column but Rosie’s isn’t so we waste some time arguing and then attach her bike to mine.

     “Look, there’s Timothy and some others from your class,” she informs me, but I’m scanning the Makuti Park boundary. The fire hasn’t got near it yet, and the grooms are there, manhandling a hose between them and spraying the hedge with water. In the distance, on the western and southern reaches of the open ground, I can just make out figures bobbing in the heat-distorted, yellowish haze. Probably householders and their gardeners doing the same thing, and beating at flames with anything from hessian sacks to leafy branches.

     The blaze is sweeping westwards from the road, devouring the tall, dry grass and tinder-like thickets, scorching them within seconds. Behind it is a wide path of black soot and charred sticks, and an acrid smell. A second fire engine is parked at the end of a gravel track that runs through the middle of the vacant land. The track’s probably acting as natural firebreak.

     The flames in the long grass and the trees are great searing sheets of intense heat. Doused by water from the fire hoses, they’re cut short in their tracks, but any nearby scrub or clump of thicker grass needs only a spark to explode it with a roar.

     So here are the boys now, being boys, daring each other to get closer to the action. Rosie and I find ourselves drawn cross the road in the small mob behind them.

     “It’s a lekker fire, hey?” Timothy bawls at me. “It was my dad who phoned the Fire Brigade.”

     “My mum also phoned,” someone’s small voice protests. There are shouts from the direction of the fire engine; the grass on the opposite side of the track has ignited.

     “Yussis! It’s jumped the road!” Timothy whoops, and we edge on a little further.

     “How did it start?” Rosie shouts.

     “Dunno.” Timothy’s not interested, but Alan’s keen to enlighten us.

     “Probably there was a piece of broken glass in the field. Glass focuses the sun’s rays into a point as they are refracted through it and then….”

     Timothy brings us all to a halt, arms outstretched.

     “Right troopies, let’s help the firemen! We need a brigade to grab those beater things over there. Alan, Tessa, Brian…. um, me of course and…. Kevin….and Ian.”

     So he’s selected me as the only girl? I’m up for it.

     Hot on his heels, I can only see five beaters and there are six of us in his brigade. I’m not as fast as Timothy or Ian but I have a lead on the others and I’m keeping it. I snatch one. It’s basically just three broad rubber strips, each about a metre long, attached to a stout wooden handle. Right behind me, Rosie’s shrieking, “Let me! Let me!”. She’s not in the Under Tens’ athletics team for nothing.

     Unfortunately for her, I’m her elder sister and protector, so I go, “You stand well back. I don’t want to see you near the fire.”

     She’s crestfallen, so I reconsider. “Well, perhaps you can have a go just now.”

     I’ve seen this done before. I can do it. Advance on a bright orange ring of tiny flames that are spreading across some shorter grass, fling the rubber strips high over my head, slice downwards, thrash at the minute ring of fire. Like a lot of things in life, it’s harder than it looks, but after a few wildly inaccurate slashes I get into a kind of rhythm. Crisp black shards of burnt grass swirl around me and I can feel the smoke in the back of my throat. My eyes are stinging and watering but the small flickers are dying under my strokes. Immensely satisfying.

     I get lost in it. I work my way along, muttering to myself, “Ha! Gotcha! And you, and you!” and get a little smug when I see I’m having more success than Timothy and the other boys. They lost their battle when the wind took their small section of fire into a dense thicket and from there into uncut grass beyond and they’ve been forced to stand aside for the fire crew.

     Squinting through watery eyes, I check out the Makuti Park hedge again. The worst of the fire’s headed away towards the south-west now and the grooms are beginning to reel in their hose, a well organised team, each handing the next man a section, chanting as they do so, “Dhonza! Dhonza!”. Dragging my beater, I stomp through some unburnt tussocky grass and a smokey haze towards the hedge. There’s George and Matthew, Lazarus and Mike, and behind Mike is a slim figure dressed in jodhpurs rather than overalls. It’s Nathan.

     He’s pulling, hand over hand, chanting along with them, coiling metres of the thing into the small trailer Charles tows to his sites sometimes. One by one, the grooms gather beside him until it’s only George left, bringing in the business end of the hose. George gives Nathan a smart salute, and then he and Matthew take up the trailer’s tow bar. With all the others, including Nathan, pushing from behind and on the sides, they roll the trailer back to the open gate and into the five acre field. Lazarus breaks away to detach the hose from the tap at the trough. He shouts something to Nathan who, incredibly, puts on a kind of circus performer act, twirling a hand in the air and bowing, with one foot outstretched.

     No-one sees me standing there at the gate, amazed beyond belief. Lazarus doubles up and slaps his thigh with an open palm. I hear Nathan’s reply, but he’s speaking Shona and I don’t understand a word. The two of them do a high-five and get back to helping the others push the trailer.

     My few random Shona words and phrases – horsey stuff I’ve learned from the grooms – didn’t help me with any of that. Now that Mr Westfield’s going to make the Standard Fives do Shona classes once a week from next year, I’ll be able to up my vocabulary. I’ll never be able to speak it like Nathan does though. Not even Gill’s at that level. Mum and Dad don’t know any, except for chenjera imbwa, and that’s only because Dad bought that sign. Mum got all bothered when she read Mr Westfield’s letter, and said things like, “I don’t know why he’s made it compulsory. There’s no need for the girls to learn Shona. When are they ever going to use it? I don’t understand why he’s made it compulsory.”

     Dad, at least, got Mr Westfield’s logic. He replied, “Because no-one will go if he doesn’t.”

     Of course Timothy’s dad thought it was a good idea.

     “My Dad says you can’t be in charge of them properly if you can’t speak their language. You need to know when they’re back-chatting you as well.”

     “Hey,” a voice calls out behind me. And weirdly, it’s Timothy. He catches up with me, out of breath.

     “Howzit? You did a good job there.”

     Behind him, through the lingering smoke, comes a small figure, struggling with a branch almost as long as the child is tall. It’s Rosie, and it looks like she’s somehow ripped a young branch from one of the Cypress trees near the road. Or maybe she picked up one someone else had discarded. She’s a bit late.

     “I was going to help!” Her feet are raising little clouds of cindery dust and the Cypress limb dragging behind her is stirring up more black dust. Her once-white socks are now a murky grey and the tip of her nose is black.

     Timothy’s hovering. I think he wants to talk, but I’m being torn in two directions – one towards my sister to make sure she’s okay and the other in Nathan’s tracks to the stables, to visit the horses. The horses will likely win, since Rosie’s looking pretty healthy, if disgracefully filthy. I can’t work up any interest in whatever he wants.

     “Some fire, hey? But we beat it.”

     “Mmm.” I edge towards the gate while holding out a hand to Rosie. He starts to follow me.

     “Do you like Band on the Run?

     “Um, yes, of course,” I assure him, failing to make any connection between the song and our current situation. I kind of wish he’d go away. I’ve got things to do.

     Literally the second I grab Rosie’s hand and commence to drag her off to the yard, there’s a whole lot of shouting from somewhere behind us. About fifteen kids have gathered around one of the fire engines, making a heck of a racket, and Alan Marchwood’s waving to us with both arms.

     “Come!” he yells, and he’s pointing at the vehicle, again with both hands. The black crew are winding up hoses and opening doors and tossing in bits of equipment, but it’s the white officer in charge who’s working everyone up into a frenzy. A couple of them are clutching at parts of the engine, staring upwards as though they’re about to climb it.

     Timothy leaps into the air as if he’s been electrocuted. “Wow! Yes way! Looks like we might get a ride! Come on!”

     He attempts to fling his beater into the air, presumably with the intention of catching it again like a drum major on parade, but the rubber strips get tangled together, and it’s heavy anyway, and he nearly falls over.

     I can always go back to the stables later. With Rosie’s grubby hand in mine, we charge after him. Somewhere along the way she abandons her branch.

     Most of us manage to claim a space on the fire engine’s running boards and the smaller ones get lifted right onto the top by members of the crew, where they cling to the railings and the ladders. I have a go at climbing up to be next to Rosie but I can’t find a foothold so I have to stay on the running board. Timothy’s leaning out at an impossible angle and shouting incomprehensibly.

     “You will fall off!” bellows one of the firemen above the roar of the engine and the crunching of the gravel under its tyres. Timothy shrugs and moves inboard a fraction.

     Where the gravel track meets the main road, we turn right, roll on fifty metres or so and then pull up on the verge.

     “Everybody off!” calls the white fire officer, and I swear he’s just as excited as we are. We take our time. The crowd of spectators has grown and I for one want to make sure I’ve been seen riding a fire engine. I’ve spotted Jess standing on a culvert headwall nearby and can’t believe my luck.

     “Jess! Hi, Jess!”

     Her face goes through confusion and amazement to envy, but she fights it and manages to look disinterested within seconds. Her hair is damp, hanging in ringlets around her shoulders.

     Rosie and I jump up onto the wall beside her.

     “You haven’t been swimming? In winter?

     Her eyebrows arch upwards. “Ja. Of course. Practice makes perfect. I did fifty lengths.”

     “You must be penga.”

     “I’m used to it. I love swimming. You’d go horse riding in any kind of weather wouldn’t you?”

     Then she winks and gives me an elbow in the ribs.

     “So come on. You and Timothy Dunn? You were together over there and then you were next to him up on the fire engine and he couldn’t take his eyes off you. Come along, Tessa, have you got something to tell me? Look, he’s still watching you.”

     Sure enough, he is. But my brain has switched tracks with Jess’s talk of riding. I was going to call in at Makuti Park to see my horse. My horse. I still can’t get over the fact that I own him. Or does Dad own him? No, of course not. I do.

     “I’m not interested in Timothy. Well, we’d better go and see Induna. Quickly now. Come, Rosie.”

     “That’s right, avoid the subject.” Jess’s looking triumphant.

     “Remember Lauren’s birthday party?” Rosie’s saying, ignoring me. “Kiss catches? Well I heard that he really wanted to catch Tess but she was too busy dancing so he caught Debbie Watson instead and kissed her for a full minute. There were loads of witnesses.”

     “Who told you that?”

     Rosie’s looking far too pleased with herself. I reckon she shouldn’t be concerning herself with things like that at her age.

     “Don’t remember. The story goes that they were touching their tongues together. Ugh!”

     She shudders and wrinkles her nose.

     Timothy calls out to me as I march my baby sister up the road towards the main entrance to Makuti Park, ignoring her protests.

     “Bye Tessa!  See you at school.”

     I’m about to respond, purely because I’ve been taught that it’s polite to do so, but Rosie’s snigger stops me. I look the other way and keep on walking.

Nathan’s disappeared, but Gill is there, working Star Point over the cross county practice jumps in the twenty acre field. That horse is way above my level. He’s a Thoroughbred and he’s got an impossible amount of energy. He used to belong to Tammy, but Tammy couldn’t cope with him and he’s too big for her little sister Sherrie. Gill just laughs and calls him over-keen.

     “Wow, that was amazing!” I call out as she pulls up after literally flying over that ginormous table.

     Even Rosie’s impressed. She gawps at them and says, “Jesus.”

     Gill drops the reins and lies flat on Star Point’s neck, clapping her hands against him on both sides.

     “Good boy! Beautiful. He’s so ready for Donnybrook Trials next October. You going to come along to all the trials with us? We’ll be doing most of them next season. We might camp overnight at some so hope your folks will let you come.”

     You bet I am.

     “Camping, Rosie! That’ll be cool. Want to come too?”

     “Camping? In the rainy season? All that mud? No thanks.”

     Dad makes such a fuss about his precious petrol coupons and about making us choose which outings we do nowadays, but Gill still gets to go to all the competitions she wants, anywhere and everywhere. Charles may’ve put one of those Don’t Drive Rhodesia Dry bumper stickers on his Land Rover but the rationing doesn’t affect the Owens like it does us and everyone else I know. I said this to Dad, that day he told us he’d either take us to Ewanrigg or the Balancing Rocks for a picnic but not both, and he said, “Charles Owen has friends in all sorts of places. I don’t.”

 

 

Tuesday 26th November 1974

 

     Right here, in the present, the scene is unchanged, the world seems unchanged. It’s the same road that stretches like a dark grey ribbon across our path, the same dry, brown grass under our horses’ hoofs, the same petrol station, banners and signs on the opposite side of the road, next to the same invitingly cool copse of trees we’ll ride into in a few minutes to escape the heat. I have the same horse under me, the familiar black mane to touch, the feel of the saddle under my seat and of the reins in my hands. We’re still standing here waiting for a suitable gap in the traffic.

     And as for the future – well, the entire future has been altered, even though I still have to do my geography homework when I get back and swot for a maths test tomorrow.

     All I did was ask her what she’s going to do when she’s finished her M Levels. I wanted to cheer her up. When Gill is quiet and won’t smile, she’s being bad-tempered. She’s worried about the exams, I know that, but I thought I could make her feel better by talking about the end of the exams and leaving school.

     She’s speaking to me now and I haven’t heard a word.

     “Tessa? Hello? There – the red car. After that one, yes?”

     A red car flashes past and we trot over the road and past the service station. Induna shies at a swinging metal Coca Cola sign but I don’t react. Gill and Star Point are in front of us, heading into the path through the trees.

     I only wanted to cheer her up when I asked her, “Will you teach riding? Start a riding school like Turnpike?”

     For ever I’ve assumed that would be what she wanted to do. And of course I wanted that too, because I could ride at her school. In the future. That future was a good one – the best one.

     When she said, “No. I don’t think so. I want to teach horses, not people. What I’d like to do is a little bit of breeding so that I can bring on the youngsters and sell them, and also take in livery horses to school for their owners. So then I could coach those people on their horses – you know, like part of the training programme?” I’d thought that was an all right future as well. She could coach me and Induna and I could help her exercise the other horses and her youngsters.

     But then she changed that to an inconceivable future.

     “I’ll have to be qualified to teach at all though, and I can’t get any instructor qualifications in this country. So guess what? Dad’s promised to send me over to his brother’s family in England so that I can take a British Horse Society instructor course. I’ll probably take a year out first though, after leaving school, and go over when I’m nineteen. Do the course, get some experience, you know?”

     I don’t want to know. Go to England? I’ve got to try and put her off.

     Even as I think this, I realise I can’t. She needs to go. She’ll go, and she’ll like it so much she’ll stay and never come back. Five kids in my class have left Rhodesia this year and I know they won’t be coming back.

     Think. Try to remember why Dad reckons the UK is so awful and why we should be so pleased we live here. IRA bombs, rioting, strikes, Labour governments, drugs, pornography. I open my mouth to inform Gill of this line-up of political and social evils I know nothing about, and say, “England’s cold! Well, I’ve never been there but Daddy says it rains all the time.”

     We drop to a walk. Gill sighs and twists her flaxen pony tail up off her neck with one hand, then tosses it aside and tugs at the brim of her riding hat as if she wants to lift it. Her forehead and fringe, like mine, will be disgustingly sweaty.

     “On a day like today I could do with a little English cold. I’m sure it’s not that bad. Anyway, it’ll be exciting and I’ll get to ride some lovely horses. Hunters and warm bloods. We have very few of those here. Our competition horses are mostly Thoroughbreds off the track.”

     She’s really turned into a grown-up now, talking of leaving school and going to study overseas. What happens when school is over? I can’t imagine life without school. A very creepy shiver slides through me and grips me and shakes me, and I’m not keen on this unsettled, standing on shifty ground, kind of feeling. I’ve dreamed up my future as I would like to see it so many times – always involving owning many talented show jumpers and a house and stable yard like Gill’s – but this is the first time I’ve tried to conjure up something real. Everything will change. Julie said Africa will change, but it’s not just Africa. I snatch a passing idea that might just keep things more or less as they are. Make a decision. Announce it aloud.

     “I want to work with horses too. I could also do a course in England.”

     She turns on me like she can’t believe I just said what I did.

     “Don’t be silly, Tess. You’re so clever. More academic than me. It would be such a waste. You should do a job that will earn you lots of money.”

     The ground’s shifting again. While I’m groping for an answer to that, she carries on as if it doesn’t matter. “Did Rosie have her tonsils out?”

     Tonsils? Rosie? Oh, yes.

     “Last week. She didn’t think she’d come out alive, but she did. She won’t stop boasting about how much ice cream the nurses in St Anne’s let her eat and then she only went and asked the surgeon to keep her tonsils in a bottle and show them to her after the operation.”

     Gill closes her eyes and makes a face like she’s about to throw up. “Did he?”

     “No. He promised, but then he said he’d had to throw them away.”

     We’re nearly back at Makuti Park. When we left here just over an hour ago, the white gateposts and the driveway and the paddocks and the house and stables were as they’ve always been, as they always will be, and they’re still all in place, but now there’s something different about them. It’s an odd, through-the-mirror kind of view, as if they just might not be here for ever after all.

     I don’t like it.

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