Contest #136 winner 🏆

216 comments

Romance Sad Funny

This story contains sensitive content

I remember our first cigarettes together were Rothmans, middle tar, with a filter, of course. It was ten o’clock on a Saturday night and we were attending a local church’s youth club disco. I recall that she’d gone outside for a breath of air.

God, I could do with a gasper, she’d said, avoiding my gaze, as if we were on stage and I’d forgotten my lines while searching for a prop. 

I groped around inside my jacket for my pack of Rothmans. My awkward fumbling attracted her attention, and she smiled as I raised my head. She moved closer and caught my eye as I flipped the lid to reveal a double row of cigarettes, lined up like coffin nails wrapped in silver paper. 

Do you have the convenience of a light? She’d asked, helping herself.

No, I don’t, I said, clenching a cigarette between my lips, and turning my pockets inside out to show my lack of a handy incendiary.

Typical, she said, rolling her eyes and leaning towards me.

My jaw all but fell open as she raised her slender hand toward my face.

Never mind, she said, I’ll improvise. Her out-stretched thumb and forefinger plucked the smouldering cigarette from my dry lips. The manoeuvre was gentle but precise and practiced, as if she was removing a milk tooth from under a sleeping infant’s pillow. Her studied gesture was one of ritual, full of expectation, belief and mystery. She was both a nocturnal light-fingered fairy with a delicate touch, and a kind spirit exchanging a child’s fang for a silver sixpence. My cigarette, now resting between my lips again, took on an unearthly quality, blessed by her soft caress. I watched her drawing the smoke into her lungs. The world stopped spinning, and I felt dizzy, waiting for her to exhale. 

I needed that; she said, allowing the white plume to drift over her shoulder. 

I’m Virginia, by the way.

I returned her smile as my face blanched, the smoke having gone down the wrong way.

Don’t forget to breathe out, she said, grinning, or you’ll die coughing. 

At that moment, I was hooked.

#

I’ve given up smoking a thousand times; it’s easy. No, really, it is, I promise. It’s a question of perseverance; I don’t mind and they don’t matter. That’s what they say, isn’t it? In the past, I stopped smoking for days, and often as long as a week. When we were young, there was no reason to cease. Besides, after years of dedication, it was easier to continue than to quit.

#

When Virginia died, I was bereft. She made me promise to quit when I was by her bedside. I visited her in hospital and she had tubes everywhere and an oxygen mask, which she removed from time to time to have a quick puff. She’d insist on me pushing her wheelchair outside for a breath of fresh air. Once we were away from the matron’s watchful glare, she’d rifle through my pockets, spark up and have a good wheeze and cough. Virginia smoked until the last few hours of her life. She was ever faithful to the pleasure that killed her. We’d had fifty years of marriage, golden years and many, many happy times and no regrets.

#

I’d never smoked much before I met Virginia; well not every day, anyway. All my pals smoked, and I’d tried it with little success. They told me it was what adults did and I ought to try harder. I persevered until I reckoned I’d got the hang of it. 

#

‘Gaspers’, she used to call them. Can I nick a gasper? she’d ask, when we got to know one another. She smoked Benson and Hedges and I soon changed my allegiance. It was easier if we both smoked the same brand.

#

The night we met, I’d marched into a local tobacconist clutching the correct money in coins and asked for a pack of twenty. It was my first packet of twenty and I only bought them to feel grown up. I didn’t even have money for a lighter. I had to ask someone for a match to light the one I was holding when she spoke to me. Virginia had caught my eye about town and I’d seen her smoking. I thought I could impress her if I smoked too. If she encouraged me to smoke in the first place, it seemed fitting that she should ask me to stop after her departure.

#

While sharing a cigarette, we fixed all our problems together. Whatever came our way, we would fight it until the end. We were invincible as a couple and inseparable too; a match made in heaven. Virginia and I laughed our way through life’s troubles. We never argued until we tried to give up smoking at the same time. I’d had a health scare, and she suggested packing it in. Going cold turkey together is awful, and we almost ended our relationship in divorce. After a week, I’d had enough of a respite and started smoking again. I was soon on top form and felt fit again. The breather restored my health, and we returned to our old ways soon after. 

#

But what about the expense, I hear you say? It’s funny how you can always find money for cigarettes when you’re a smoker. It doesn’t matter how tough things are, you can buy another pack. My Uncle Jim was a big smoker in the nineteen-seventies. He enjoyed anywhere between thirty to forty cigarettes every day. It was an era when smoking was encouraged and tobacco companies offered many incentives. They gave tokens away with every packet. The idea was to collect them and choose gifts in exchange. Uncle Jim collected seven thousand cigarette tokens of various denominations, hoping to claim a new car. He counted them out, gathered them up in a dozen boxes, and sent them off. It’s funny, but he heard nothing back from the cigarette company. When he called them, they said the tokens must have got lost in the post. Uncle Jim couldn’t believe it. According to my aunt, he hurled the telephone through their enormous picture window. The loss didn’t deter Uncle Jim, however, and he continued to smoke an alternative brand of tobacco. 

I overheard my family discussing the issue, and they asked the inevitable question regarding his expenditure. What would Uncle Jim do with the money if he had it all again? Uncle Jim just shrugged and said, if he had all the money he’d spent on cigarettes, he’d spend it all on cigarettes. 

It made little sense to me as a youngster and the waste horrified me. Now, I’m not so sure. He enjoyed a cigarette and I can understand that up to a point. He didn’t die of cigarettes and he had a happy life. As a social shorthand, it’s great for making friends. Can I pinch a ciggy? Would you like one of mine? Have you got a light? Inevitably, such questions lead to longer conversations at work or at a party. I’ve made many friends and acquaintances in that way.

#

When Virginia got ill and had to rest in the hospital, I rationed myself to fourteen cigarettes a week. Two every day; one in the morning and the other in the evening. Some days I’d get to half past ten, and I’d allow myself the second cigarette. Then, by lunchtime, I’d struggle not to have a third. Most days I’d finish ten cigarettes by mid-afternoon and pretend I’d done well. After all, I could have smoked a pack of twenty with ease. In the evening, I’d buy more for the next day and smoke them by the end of the night.

#

During my last visit to the hospital, Virginia asked me in a whisper if I had a light.

I’m sorry, love, I said, biting my lip as my eyes burned with salty tears. 

I haven’t got a light; I said. Didn’t you know I’ve given up?

Typical, she said, her voice rasping behind the oxygen mask. I’ll have to improvise.

#

Almost a year has passed since she made me promise to stop with her last gasp.

I’ve kept my promise for eleven months, three weeks and four and a half days. 

Just thinking about our life together makes me miss her so much.

It’s difficult to forego the two most precious things in one’s life.

Losing them both at the same time is heart breaking.

Virginia and cigarettes go together.

In my mind, I can’t separate them.

God, I could do with one now.


The End



March 12, 2022 04:42

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216 comments

Chloe Longstreet
09:55 Mar 18, 2022

Wow. Great story. Addiction to tobacco is a struggle and so many lose their lives from it. And yet, many begin just like that, with friends convincing us it's the thing to do and the hopes to catch the eye of a hot girl or guy.

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Howard Halsall
10:04 Mar 18, 2022

Hello Chloe, Thanks for reading my story, I’m relieved it made sense and rang true for you. I guess, revealing a universal truth and creating characters everyone can relate to is my aspiration, so if I get anywhere close to that ideal, it’s the most I can hope for. Keep writing and take care. HH

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Felice Noelle
23:18 Mar 15, 2022

Howard: I read this amazing story and found it relatable even though I've never been a smoker. You have a specific voice in this piece, one that I love. I'll be sure to read more after I edit my latest. I am desperate for some critical feedback. I am new to the writing and hoping to learn for the fantastic writers on Reedsy. I'll be back to catch up on your latest. Maureen

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Howard Halsall
23:41 Mar 15, 2022

Hello Maureen (or is it Felice?), Thank you for reading my latest story, I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if you’re not a smoker. I had hoped that the theme is universal and so I’m relieved that it made sense and engaged your interest. From my point of view, I’ve lost several close friends due to smoking related illnesses and so it was a cathartic exercise in many ways. I’ll take a look at your current submission and offer my thoughts, if that helps. Keep writing and enjoy. HH

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Felice Noelle
00:38 Mar 16, 2022

Sorry about the name mixup. My granddaughter looked up my last name in the original German Nothdurft and said I needed to dump it because it means poverty-stricken person. Yikes, that's not good. So I allowed her to pick me a non de plume as she called it. Felice for happy, Felicia is my grandmother. Noelle just because she liked it. I agreed to try it out for awhile..just to make her happy. Maureen

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Howard Halsall
00:58 Mar 16, 2022

Hello Maureen, Now you’ve explained its origins, I reckon that ‘Felice Noelle’ has a bright and optimistic ring to it. I find it has a certain festive connection and conjures up images of winter celebrations; but what do I know? Thanks for sharing and please ignore my nonsense :) HH

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Carla Ward
04:51 Mar 21, 2022

Beautiful story. It reminded me of my father, dead at 59 because he simply could not stop smoking. I remember at age 16 being present at a meeting with his cardiologist who bluntly warned him that he could not light another cigarette because his heart was so delicate it could kill him. He went home and lit up to ponder the good doctor's warning. He passed away suddenly when I was 17, the smell of tobacco still on his clothes. Your tale is well done.

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Howard Halsall
05:40 Mar 21, 2022

Hello Carla, Thank you for reading my submission and sharing your story. I imagine it must be difficult to be reminded of your father’s death and put it in writing. Take care HH

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15:40 Mar 20, 2022

Just like any other bad habit, it's hard to change one's lifestyle into the other. But everyone will just be ending, everything has its hope to.

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Howard Halsall
16:19 Mar 20, 2022

Wise words, Alicia, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. HH

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Layla Robinson
22:02 Mar 23, 2022

I loved this story. I've been quit for over a year now (this time), and intend to keep it that way. It's the end that resonates for me. "God, I could do with one now." Because when I'm feeling down and out it's the first thing that I want. Congrats on the win!

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Howard Halsall
22:51 Mar 23, 2022

Hello Layla, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your encouraging response. I’m pleased that the ending worked for you and I wish you luck in your fight to stay off the cigarettes. Take care HH

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Steven Rensch
04:52 Mar 20, 2022

You got me.

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Howard Halsall
05:18 Mar 20, 2022

Thanks Steven, Take care :) HH

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C.B. Oates
01:36 Mar 20, 2022

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. -Paul Also, in my opinion, God is in charge and he is good. Tie me to the mast to keep me from a cigarette! Both my parents smoked and tried to quit throughout my childhood. Cigarettes should have never been invented.

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Howard Halsall
01:53 Mar 20, 2022

Hello C.B., In response, they are both a blessing and a curse; Heaven and Hell in equal measure and a battle eternal it seems. It makes one wonder why governments don’t ban cigarettes, given what they know about the damaging effects, but we all know why they don’t, don’t we? And like the A-Bomb, we can neither pretend they don’t exist nor uninvent them. So we’re stuck with them now. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Take care HH

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C.B. Oates
01:58 Mar 20, 2022

From what I've read Einstein regretted his part in the atomic bomb. All I can say is God is good despite all of this. It's quite confusing. People enjoy things that are good and bad, but the bad stuff is what damages us. Very complicated, so I'll keep on looking upward and outwards. And, maybe smoke an occasional cigarette!

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Howard Halsall
02:12 Mar 20, 2022

I understand that Einstein didn’t believe the bomb was possible from his calculations; shame he wasn’t right...

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C.B. Oates
02:23 Mar 20, 2022

No one can predict the future. Sounds plain but all we can do is hope to do good. I read something about Einstein warning the US government about the potential for German atomic bomb information because I'm sure he realized he inadvertently gave it to them. Very complicated.

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Howard Halsall
02:29 Mar 20, 2022

For a man with a reputation for asking the simplest of questions, he was a complicated fellow, for sure...

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C.B. Oates
02:07 Mar 20, 2022

Thank you for reading Art is Hard. I'm still editing until the real deadline. It's secretly Hitler vs Einstein and good vs bad. I'm putting together chapters for a children's book.

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Howard Halsall
02:11 Mar 20, 2022

Your children’s book sounds intriguing. I’d be interested in reading it when you’re finished. HH

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C.B. Oates
02:50 Mar 20, 2022

Thank you! My husband Mike and I are teachers so we have the inside scoop. Keep on seeking and thinking! God is good! Your story was very poetic and powerful. Keep doing your good work and keep looking up always.

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Howard Halsall
03:10 Mar 20, 2022

Thank you both, I’ll carry on carrying on... HH

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Lily Finch
17:49 Aug 11, 2022

Hi Howard, meeting the girl of his dreams and wanting to impress her. because she smokes and he did his homework (seeing her uptown smoking). Very impressive and clever. Just like what you would expect of youth. Too bad it turned out that she died from what brought them together and that that is what killed her. Great read. Thank you, LF6

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Howard Halsall
20:47 Aug 11, 2022

Hi Lily, Thank you for reading my story. I’m glad you enjoyed it and appreciate your succinct feedback. Take care HH

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Suna Barnard
23:11 Jul 11, 2022

great story. I am not a smoker, but tonight before your story I actually thought about smoking. I wished the story was longer, but then again The length and everything was just perfect.

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Howard Halsall
11:05 Jul 12, 2022

Hello Suns, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. I hope you stay away from the smokes. In retrospect, cigarettes spell out trouble in daily instalments…. Take care HH

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Autumn Coleman
12:20 Jul 06, 2022

Hi I apologize for sending this here but I wasn't sure how else to reach out. This is a beautiful story. I agree with many others on here that although I'm not a smoker myself the story well depicts the struggles of quitting...well anything. It's got a wonderful sense of realism while also blending in light comedy and is easily relatable. If you don't mind I was wondering if I could purchase or include this story for/in a small game I'm making? Thank you for the wonderful read, I greatly enjoyed it and would love to share it with others.

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Howard Halsall
11:07 Jul 07, 2022

Hello Autumn, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m interested in your idea, however I would love more information. Can you send me a link or explain your concept? I look forward to your reply, in the near future. Take care HH

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Autumn Coleman
12:38 Jul 14, 2022

Sorry it's taken some time to get back to you. The idea for the video game is rather simple, and it's meant to be a relaxing time for people to just enjoy themselves at a campfire setting. Regarding the details of the story, you would be included in the credits - as the writer of the story. Relating to cost or payment, you're the first person I've asked in all honesty, and I've not written a proper contract before so I'd like to ask you what you would want to sell the story or use of the story for?

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Howard Halsall
13:10 Jul 16, 2022

Hello Autumn, Please let me know when you have a contract and send a more detailed outline of your idea and intentions to: howardhalsall@mac.com Take care HH

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Autumn Coleman
03:21 Jul 09, 2022

Sure! Thank you, if you don't mind could you contact me at AColeman0967@gmail so I can explain in better detail? If not that's fine and I'll do my best to explain it here.

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Geno Woolard
20:53 Jul 05, 2022

I'M 86 & THIS MAKES ME THINK OF MY YOUTH

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Howard Halsall
22:05 Jul 05, 2022

Hello Geno, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive response. I hope it brought back happy memories for you. What came to your mind as you read the piece? Please feel free to share your thoughts. I’d be intrigued to discover what you recalled from your youth. Take care HH

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Ezmari Trevano
15:55 Jul 03, 2022

Such a beautiful story. Sad, but yet so graceful in the honesty of it. Really great job!

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Howard Halsall
16:09 Jul 03, 2022

Hey Ezmari, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. Your positive response is much appreciated. Take care HH

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Hope E
00:09 Jun 27, 2022

This story makes me cry…in a good way if that makes any sense

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Howard Halsall
12:26 Jun 27, 2022

Thank you Hope… …. That makes perfect sense. Take care HH

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Nancy Lyon
00:52 May 07, 2022

Nice story Howard this one hits home. I'm a ex smoker who used the patch. I really think it was stronger than my smoking intake. For all the reasons to start, what get me was learning by watching myself in the mirror 🪞. What a waist of time. I'm thankful and blessed to be here.

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Howard Halsall
01:12 May 07, 2022

Hello Nettie, Thank you for reading my story. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and glad it made an impact. Life is undoubtedly better without the smokes… Take care HH

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Ashley Bowie
12:42 May 04, 2022

I love that this story is not about cigarettes. It's about love and the things that make us feel special and whole. Some of those things are terrible for us. Such a subtle and sweet message. AND, I love the ending, beautifully said.

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Howard Halsall
16:21 May 04, 2022

Hello Ashley, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. You’ve summed up the idea perfectly and I appreciate it. Take care HH

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Paula Fernández
13:24 Apr 27, 2022

Dear author, For starters I wanna show my gratitude towards your short story, it was a great time and I appreciate it so much, but I have some questions about it. What is the main character´s name? What is the importance of addiction in the story? What is the relevance of Virginia´s death in the main character´s finale?

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Howard Halsall
15:22 Apr 27, 2022

Hello Paula, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and glad it has provoked so many questions in your mind. I believe the answers to your questions will slowly reveal themselves and I hope the themes will linger for some time to come. Take care HH

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Andrea Doig
11:22 Apr 27, 2022

Such a happy love story, and love your writing style. Shocking how smoking used to be incentivized. Scandalous in fact. I remember the old Peter Stuyvesant ads… the best ads on the silver screen. Thank you for a sweet and happy story. I see it as happy rather than sad. Thank you for sharing x

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Howard Halsall
15:09 Apr 27, 2022

Hello Andrea, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive comments. I agree with you, the money spent on cigarette advertising bordered on the obscene and it was promoted everywhere. How things have changed over the last two decades and yet it remains a powerful industry. Take care HH

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23:32 Apr 20, 2022

A well-deserved win, Howard. Love the unique take on the prompt. Taking the idea of a habit (you have a hard time quitting) and turning into such a moving love story. Can't beat that, for sure. Loved especially these sentences: " ... I flipped the lid to reveal a double row of cigarettes, lined up like coffin nails wrapped in silver paper." (visual and suggestive). "The manouevre was gentle but precise and practiced, as if she was removing a milk tooth from a sleeping infant's pillow." "She was both a nocturnal light-fingered fairy with...

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Howard Halsall
00:20 Apr 21, 2022

Hello Gabriela, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the positive comments and useful feedback. I’ll take another look at the line reducing idea too. That was well spotted and a good point. Take care HH

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Katie Bennett
15:01 Apr 15, 2022

What a beautiful story! It doesn’t sugarcoat the hard truths, but the love is palpable.

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Howard Halsall
17:33 Apr 15, 2022

Hello Katie, Thank you for reading my little tale and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed and relieved it rang true for you. Take care HH

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17:40 Apr 13, 2022

As a non-English speaker, your story is a little bit hard to read as it contains a lot of complicated words, but it is still a fascinating story to read. I love the concept, the heading, how you describe the character's thoughts. Smoking has never been a good thing when it might kill you, but for some people, smoking is not just smoking, it's one's most precious thing in life. And yeah, I still can not understand all words in the story, but it quite fun to read something that's not like those "paragraphs" in English learning books.

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Howard Halsall
18:04 Apr 13, 2022

Hello Tiến, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it and hope the vocabulary I used didn’t diminish your pleasure. It sounds as though you understood most of the important points and enjoyed it nonetheless. Take care HH

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