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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MOTION SICKNESS
By Richard Schmitt

 

 

 

 

“It is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.” Edgar Allan Poe

 

Our trip to the coast in October, a rented beach cottage, a fall break from school, was disrupted by a recent hurricane. The cottage owner called, there’d been flooding, we won’t be able to use the washing machine.

“We could postpone,” I said to Katherine. She sat upright at the piano in our living room, hands paused over the keys.

“Stick to the plan,” she said. “We’ll take your car.”

“My car?”

“We took mine last time.”

“My car, with the dog?”

“What about it?”

“Oh, nothing.” But last time was a concert in Philly, someone Katherine had to see, she’s a composer. And we didn’t take the dog to the city. So this trip seemed, to me at least, different.

“What’s the difference? Does it matter? If it matters we can take my car.”

“No, no. It doesn’t matter. I like to drive anyway.”

“You don’t want me driving your car?”

“I didn’t say that. I usually drive is all, you’re better at navigating. I’m not a good navigator, I mean. Right?” She flashed a squinty-eye look, evaluating, measuring, slowly settled her hands to the keys, one note, ping, then another, pong. The thing about the dog, I hate to say it, is puke. Her dog, Lila, gets carsick, especially in the mountains. You can’t get to the coast from where we live without crossing the Appalachian Mountains. So there was that to squint about, consider, mull over, the mountains and the puking.

And the other thing was cars, mine was new, Katherine’s was less new. They were both suitable vehicles. Subaru the two of them. Mine had fewer miles on it. But that wasn’t the thing. Okay, maybe that was part of the thing. The thing is we’re grad students. We share rent but pay for our own cars, gas, upkeep, so when we go on trips for rest and relaxation the equitable nature of our relationship is paramount. We work on campus, teaching assistants, Katherine in the music department, myself an MBA candidate, so a car is a big thing to buy and maintain. One must be mindful of the miles, wear and tear, and her car was more torn up than mine. But that wasn’t the thing either. The thing was sharing, taking turns, fairness, and possibly dog puke. Things unspoken because neither of us wanted to be seen as petty.

“Then it’s settled,” I said.

I folded down the back seat in my vehicle, coated the space with rugs and blankets and plastic sheeting, and with the dog installed among the beach chairs and sleeping bags, we set off.

I had the back covered with triple-layer puke protection. But Lila, a shelter-rescued hound, she really likes us. Not uncommon. Dogs in cars mostly resent being in the back. Mostly they want to sit up front. Everyone else is up front, all the important people, the driver, the navigator. Up front is the place to be. I don’t like being a passenger in a car at all, front or back. I always drive because everyone else’s driving makes me sick. Lila and I have that in common. I too am prone to motion sickness. I too, like to sit up front, nose to the windshield, sniffing out the incoming. Because that is the future and looking forward seems like the thing to do. Especially if you are upset about present stomach churning, as Lila is, stuck in the back with her head hanging over the seat. She hates car trips. She’d rather be home with her dog sitter and her doggie door so she can zip out into her own backyard and roll in her familiar grass and romp with the birds and squirrels. And who can blame her?

When I was a kid I hated car trips too, for the same reason, motion sickness. Subject to it my whole life. Not behind the wheel, drivers don’t get sick. A driver can anticipate. A strategy for passengers prone to car sickness, is to do everything the driver does. I mention this to Lila. “Li,” I shout, “pretend you’re driving, you won’t get sick.” I show her how to hold the wheel, elbows out, ten and two, check the mirror, honk the horn. She gives me that sidelong look dogs do when they think you’re nuts. Humans are fucking crazy she thinks emitting a hopeless sigh.

Heavy into the mountains, the road winding around, up and down—it was too much for her. She let loose. And when she did, not all the upchuck ended up on the triple layer protective barrier. A substantial portion shot over the seatback, filling the cup holder, running down the crack onto the floor carpet.

It wasn’t a surprise. I knew Lila would puke. It didn’t upset me. But Katherine, well, she had hope. She’s a hopeful person, more so than myself I think, she’s a gifted musician, faithfully committed to touching out notes in sound-proof booths. She’d given the dog Dramamine, she’d prepared, she planned on Lila not puking. I was ready for it and calmly pulled onto a gravel strip bordering the steep road when the retching began.

Katherine was distraught. “I’m sorry. We should have taken my car.”

“It’s okay, Kate,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Forget about it. We knew it was going to happen. Get the towels. I’ll walk her around.”

On the leash up and down alongside the road we walked, deep in the Monongahela National Forest, the fall leaves in full-flight, a beautiful blue-sky day, no cars in sight. The hurricane hadn’t touched this area. It was quiet and serene with the sun spotting through the leaves of the trees, Lila happily sniffing and pissing everywhere. Katherine didn’t find it pleasant. She was bent over the floor, scooping and soaking up, one hand holding her hair from the partially digested dog food and stomach juice, whatever that foamy yellow stuff is that smells like garbage. “Why didn’t we take my car? We should have taken my car.”

“Stop worrying about it,”  I said. “We knew this was going to happen.”

But she wasn’t to be dissuaded from being distraught. She can be obsessive sometimes when caught by the unexpected. We’ve gone on many enjoyable trips she’s planned like military incursions. And at times she gets frustrated when planet earth doesn’t conform precisely to Google Earth, or when the GPS sends us astray, or when I callously drive off course asserting without a shred of factual evidence “I think it’s this way.”

“Now it’s going to smell,” she said.

“We’ve got windows,” I said. “It’s a nice day. It could be raining.”

“Well at least that’s it,” she said. “She’ll be okay now, Lila never throws up twice.”

“Right. We’re home free.”

“Except for the smell.”

“Don’t worry about the smell, it doesn’t smell, we’ve got windows.”

“We’ll go to a store, I’ll buy some Oxy Pet Spray, a brush and a sponge.”

“You don’t have to buy Oxy Pet Spray. It can wait until we get home.”  
    
“We’re almost out of the mountains for sure,” she said when we were rolling again.

But the mountains went on longer than expected. What went down went back up. And the thing is, I did my best for Lila’s sake, but my lead foot is no soothing salve to a stomach. “Are you getting queasy too?”

“Not at all,” Katherine said. She never gets car sick. I’d have been puking for sure if I wasn’t driving. And for the record, it was true, the dog never puked twice on any trip we’d taken. We were almost out of the mountains too, we knew it. “It’s all downhill from here,” Katherine said. “Lila never throws up twice.” Right then: Barfaroo!

“Oh, shit.”

“Ah well.”

“I think she got your sleeping bag.”

I pulled over, again. Walked the dog again. This time we had a fine view of a green valley, red barn, white house, cows grazing. Lila, dejected now, tramped alongside the road above the farm, sniffing and pissing half-heartedly while Katherine went at the mop-up again. “I’ll buy you a new sleeping bag,” she said, shaking it out. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s washable,” I said. “We’ll hit a laundromat when we get there. No harm done.”

“I’ve ruined all the beach towels now.”

“Laundromat.”

“Spending our holiday at the laundromat is not how—”

“It will be an adventure, Kate.”  It was clear she was getting, like the dog, dejected.

A double puke was new terrain, not part of her plan, we were totally off-grid, and Katherine, well, she’s a grid person, she calculates, computes, she knows notes and formulas. She likes things carried out according to melodious design, parts to whole, things played out in unison. She writes scores for symphony orchestras. You can’t do that slipshod, you have to be organized, disciplined. Yet, I’ve seen the way she works. Weekday afternoons I walk over to the music department to find her in one of the recording booths. I see her through the window, hair tied back, eyeglasses, focused. She works on a keyboard, feeling her way along, touching out a phrase, a few notes then stop, two more then stop, stutter stepping, backing up, going on again before an array of blinking and blazing equipment: synthesizer, sequencer, sampler, a triptych of monitors. Her work, very faint, comes through the wall. Ping-ping-pong. Pong-pong-ping. Back up, start again. She’s finding her way, I can see it. Exploring. When I tap on the glass she smiles, holds up one finger, I watch her finish. Pinging and ponging through the forest of possibilities.

We were off again, Lila sleeping now, exhausted from puking and the sheer anxiety of puking. “How can this happen?” Katherine said.  “We gave her Dramamine.”

“It’s a mystery.”

Nobody knows why motion sickness affects some people and not others. Doctors say it’s a sensory mismatch. Expectations and reality out of alignment. Our stabilizing system senses motion where there is none, senses none where there is some. That’s why we get sick with our butts firmly stuck to an IMAX theater seat and also standing on the rolling deck of a fishing boat. Motion sickness is conflicted senses. A sense that makes no sense. Your eyes tell you one thing, your inner ear says another, it’s barf away.

I’m convinced Katherine doesn’t get car sick because she’s a planner. No matter what she does, cooking a hamburger or writing a concerto, she charts her course and does not vary. She plots and sticks. Nails the dates and times. She doesn’t wander, waver, add or detract. Once she commits to an idea it’s granite. Consequently, conflicting senses don’t collide within this woman. Expectations and reality stay aligned. Hope and result don’t mismatch and things remain on an even keel, nothing rocks the boat. She lives on the salt flats of stability.

Faith is the thing. She believes well-made plans yield predictable and satisfactory results. I figure her inner ear is like a crystal ball, she sees a future that can’t be altered because, well, it’s the future. It exists as fact in spite of conflicting facts like roads not taken, decisions second guessed, options passed, minds changed.

“This is it,” she said. We’d dropped into the green valley and were passing the farm, the cows, the chickens. She was bent over her Google printouts, her direction sheets, her notes and maps. “We’re out of the mountains, flat from here on.”

She’s a map person of old school variety. Rand McNally is her bible. Current issue well-worn in her lap, she consults, considers, compares it to the GPS, walks her fingers through the pages, finds her way, and becomes impatient when I suggest—nose to the windshield—a disparity between her research and incoming signs and signals from the open road. Parsing the world coming at me sometimes leads to disagreements that disrupt the equitability of our relationship. This may sound minor, but, when we are traveling at high speed in traffic and I decide based on fast-arriving intel to abruptly exit stage left, or bear right by the Burger King, when I zip tootle-loo one way or another on instinct, ignoring her carved-in-stone directions, her fingertip pressed firmly to a blue or red or black line on the Rand McNally, then, we are no longer equitably aligned. We are off charted course. And that is a sensory disruption for my dear girl, the here-and-now isn’t documented. The maps no longer align with rolling Subaru, the plan is thwarted, meaning no safety net, meaning before you know it, we could be—lost!

But, we were not lost, not yet. As we neared the coast, piles of debris appeared alongside the road. The hurricane came ashore just south of here. Hadn’t affected us on the other side of the mountains but these folks on the coast had been slammed and were still cleaning up.

Katherine insisted we stop for the spray, the brush, the sponge. Major scouring and scrubbing ensued. When she was done the carpet was like new. Her hands, red-raw, smelled of bleach. There isn’t much you can do with a woman like this except love her. So I do, I did. I hugged her and kissed her and brought her hand cream. “To hell with the laundry,” I said, “let’s hit the beach.” She smiled and the trauma of the trip was behind us. For the time being.

She packed the beach bag. I grabbed the dog leash.

Though the cottage was advertised as “ocean front” a more accurate description would be once ocean front. Once upon a time waves lapped the sand a stone’s throw off the porch. But then came condos, developers paved a road, slapped up pastel towers of steel and cement and signs saying Private. This departure from detail irritated Katherine. “The website specifically said ocean front,” she said. “That’s what we booked, that’s what it said. ‘Frontage’ was the word used, ‘ocean frontage’, that’s what we paid for.”

“It’s okay, Kate. It’s close. Let’s walk.”

Front or frontage the path to the beach was convoluted. A hand-drawn map tacked to the cottage wall showed the correct route across the road and down the sidewalk to public access. Then a few wooden steps up and over the dunes. It felt stupid since the water was a straight shot across the road from the cottage. There was a driveway with a duplex at the end of it and whoever lived there hadn’t taken in their empty trash barrel. Everyone else had taken in their blue county-issue containers except this place directly across from us. “No one is home there,” I said, “let’s cut through.”

“There’s a sign,” she said. “No Trespassing.”

I didn’t mention it again but for two days the trash barrel stayed at the end of the driveway and the house appeared vacant while we walked the correct way per instructions. It wasn’t far and it was nice to walk together with the dog, something we rarely do at home. The thing was, every time we left the cottage, no matter who held the leash, Lila pulled in the direction of the vacant house. She knew where the beach was. Dogs know, and I too was follow-the-nose prone, but Katherine, that wasn’t her way so we stuck to the mandated path.

On the morning of our last day she was up early sitting in the kitchen with her coffee and logistical gear: Rand McNally, laptop, phone, notepad and pen—studying, evaluating, weighing options and odds, determined to find a stomach-friendly route through the mountains. “We can go north or south,” she said. “There must be a way. What do you think?”

“We’re going to the beach,” I said. “Me and Lila.”

Her fingers hung over the keyboard. “Good idea, you guys walk, I’ll figure this out.”

Hooked to the leash Lila bounded off the porch pulling hard and dragged me straight across the road to the empty trash barrel where she stopped before the vacant house. The leash hung loose, she gave me the sidelong look, tentative and guilty. She was laying this one on me. If I even breathed in the direction of the house we’d be straight at it like a shot. But no, it was already decided, we turned toward public access.

The beach was cold and the wind blew hard turning the tops of the waves into clear silver spray in the rising sun as we went sniffing and pissing about, watching surfers in black suits out on the waves.

Back at the cottage Katherine was triumphant. “I’ve got it!” She said. “Look at this.”

She went over her itinerary step by step, route numbers, scenic overlooks, stop for lunch. Her plan had twists and turns, byways and highways, down and around little towns. But not up. The goal was to avoid upheaval. “There are a few choices,” she said. “What do you think?” She often asks me what I think but just as surely her mind is already made up.

“You’re the navigator,” I said.

Roadmaps are neither here nor there. Red lines to blue lines to black lines. The connection to movement is suspect. I prefer point-nose-and-go, laden with faith that I will land someplace better than what might be conjured up using the fixed coordinates of a cartographer at Rand McNally. According to her strategic plan we were to go down into the counties south of here, then swoop back north, and that was enough to get us packed and out the door.

Pulling away from the cottage, Lila’s head hung over the seatback, Katherine’s head buried in navigational mire.

Soon we hit snags, complications, misalignments. The road south was strewn alongside with piles of wreckage getting bigger, very big, calamity size. Finally we weren’t exclaiming about them but staring slack-jawed. FEMA contractors with immense clawing and scooping contraptions worked with dumpsters the size of in-ground pools full of appliances and furniture bent and twisted. Household goods pushed and piled helter-skelter into heaps. Kitchen tables, living-room sets, waterlogged mattresses bloated in the sun. Flat screens and computers crushed and flooded. High end stainless steel refrigerators, doors hanging open. Katherine peered down at her maps and up at the devastation as if there must be a correlation, discernable sense, something to make random hurricane damage part of a logical plan.

“This is unexpected,” she said.

“Looks like an Allstate commercial.”

A flagmen directed us through a pale beach town, condos and shops, where all greenery had been uprooted or buried by fine buff sand washed and blown from the dunes across the highway. The sand lay molded, caked in ribbed waves and eddies, tiny mockups of the wind-driven ripples that created them. The air had not dried the sand enough to take it up and send it airborne to drift like caramel-colored snow against walls and bridges. The condos had roll-down shutters but the low-lying shops on the other side of the road seemed sandblasted, as if grown from a tawny desert. Some were boarded with plywood while the owners of others worked with claw hammers and pry bars and some had their barriers torn away by the storm. Everything was plastered with the same biscuit-batter sand except the black-hole windows and doors.

A sign said coffee and we had to pee so we pulled in. The little shop had lost both front windows. “Open?” I said to the woman behind the counter.

“More so than usual,” she said happily.

They had no power but they had bottled water and were firing it up on a gas grill to make rudimentary drip. “Can’t use the bathroom,” she said. “It’s backed up.”

I walked Lila behind the place away from the road so we could pee. For Katherine it was more complicated. The coffee woman said FEMA had porta potties up ahead. Good news added to the bad news about the detour. “Road’s washed out,” she said.

We took the coffee and went to find the lineup of portables. A cop kept eye on them. “Go back to the fork,” he said, “then drive west around the preserve.”

“It must be this green spot on the map,” Katherine said, head in the Rand McNally. “Doesn’t say what it is.”

“Terra incognita.”

“A blue spot in the middle of a green spot,”

“It’s a detour, there will be signs.”

But after we took the fork and drove inland around a large brackish body of water we didn’t see any signs. We didn’t see anything but wiry wetland bushes and high water and birds. I sensed Katherine getting panicky. The road had that federal highway look, like in a national park, high and dry and winding around to eventually end back where you started. She couldn’t locate us on the map and her phone had no signal. “You can’t have a detour and then drop people in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

The road began to rise and the saltmarsh smell subsided and the wetland scrub gave way to solid ground and trees. “Terra firma,” I said. “We’re getting someplace.”

But the place we got wasn’t good. The road deteriorated and cut into the side of a slope gradually rising to the north. Far off to the west we saw inland hills. The phone came on just before we hit the town. “I think, I might see,” she said, “about where we are.”

On the south side of the road a river ran dangerously high. Deep water moving fast, deadly quiet. Small clapboard houses on the north side were swollen, as if pumped full, the joints strained, the edges gaped. The homes were packed solid with mud that had slid loose from the hillside and dried like cement. Whatever wasn’t crushed inside the houses had been rammed out through the windows and doorways and shoved across the road through the guardrail and into the trees lining the riverbank. Couch cushions, kitchen chairs, a bicycle, were caught high up in branches like a bizarre art installation.

“God,” she said. “This was a town—”

“I smell gas.”

The road had been plowed of red mud. In places asphalt slabs had been upsurged and carried away leaving deep holes in the blacktop. Telephone wires, poles knocked askew, lay scrambled in ditches. We passed a yellow CAT road grader mudded over and a heap of cars and trucks pushed together and piled off the roadway. There were no birds, no people. Nothing moved but the river.

“Don’t stop,” she said.

This wasn’t a place anyone could ever live again. Entire households were razed, garages and mobile homes were rubble. There was nothing to clean up, nothing salvageable, no one would be coming back here. The place was erased from the map.

I sensed tears welling up next to me—she was staring. We were lost and tired and there was something wrong with the daylight. We experienced the devastation out of proportion to our situation. Lost and loss are close on the map of emotion.

We picked our way along, the road rose gradually, relatively straight. Lila slept in the back unconcerned. Up front we were concerned. Katherine frowned, fretted, shifted her attention between her navigational aids and what was coming at us through the windshield. She blamed herself. “You’re not responsible for mountain ranges and hurricanes,” I said.

She wouldn’t talk.

We came to a T-junction and I waited, staring straight ahead at a stand of trees stripped of bark. We had no idea where we were. Whichever way we went the land had a dour basted-in-mud look. Swatches of black trees toppled as if by the swoop of a giant hand, laid out all in one direction, an acre here an acre there, pelted down. A hurricane is a system like any other, given to patterns, paths predictable, chartable, which can be planned for. And if calamity follows cleanup is the course of action. I felt the seams straining across the front seat that had grown much larger, the air between us charged, pressure building, things about to rupture.

We drove on through an abandoned land using the compass on the phone to head west and came finally to a wide crossroad intersection. A blinking red light that wasn’t blinking, a stop-and-go juncture jammed with signs pointing north, south, east and west. It was one of those perplexing concurrency road networks where one physical road is burdened with multiple route numbers. Three concurrent routes faced us heading in four different directions. A triplex times four of confusion. It was breathtaking. Or maybe I just held my breath.

That’s when I heard the pages, the shredding, the thump. She’d torn apart the Rand McNally, slammed it to the floor. She was in tears.

“Let’s take a break,” I said. “We have to pee.”

I pulled over and got Lila out. There were no cars, no homes. The higher elevation air had lost the sewer-gas smell. “Kate,” I said, opening her door. “Get out and walk around. Stretch your legs.” She cried and wouldn’t budge. This wasn’t like her. She’s generally calm under pressure, doesn’t get flustered easily. At school she deftly handles a multitude of administrative and academic tasks. “Come on,” I said, “everything’s fine.” I reached out for her but couldn’t get close enough with Lila on the leash pulling hard for a gooseberry bush. Nose to the ground.

“This is all my fault,” she said.

“It’s not your fault.”

“We should have gone home through the mountains.”

“We wanted to go this way.”

“We’re lost.”

“We’re not lost—Lila stop pulling!

“We don’t know where we are.”

“We do know where were are, we just don’t appear on those silly maps.” She cried childlike tears, silent, and more heartbreaking for that, streaming and dropping off her cheeks. I reached her with one hand.

“This wasn’t the plan.”

“Kate, honey, look, just relax. Does there always have to be a plan?”

I shouldn’t have said ‘relax’, she doesn’t like being told how to feel. “Planning,” she said, slowly, as if talking to five-year old, “is the quality separating humans and animals.”

What could I say to that? I was being dragged away by a dog following her nose.

Katherine isn’t like this at work. It’s only when we have time off, days untethered from academic tedium that she gets tense. When there is no obligation or agenda relaxation is hard for her. And I wonder why.  “I’ve watched the way you work,” I said. “You don’t plan your pieces, you pick your way through.”

“That’s different.”

“It doesn’t seem different.”

At home she works the old fashioned way, a battered upright, a batch of staff paper, a few fat pencils. But the quest is the same, mapping uncharted territory, decorating our little house with notes,knocking one down, hanging up another, sounding out the way, making something in the air like bicycles in trees. Whisper and growl, catch and sustain, ping-ping-pong, pong-pong-ping. Stop. Pick up the pencil. Scribble little birds on wires. She once told me notes were portals, one opens another, no space between them, no crossroads. We’re tired now. Jammed up. I’m too tired not to say: “Kate, which way?”

And from my navigator: “Fuck if I know.” Very unlike her, the language. Her senses are scattered, she feels the churning stomach, the bile rising, the upheaval of being unmoored. Lack of control is the ultimate misery for her. She fears the present becoming the regrettable past. We’ve been together since undergrad, five years now, so I’ve seen all her facets, turned many corners with her, and I know the roads to come will not all be well charted. We will take them together, find the way, of that there is no doubt.

This distress she feels—anxiety about the elasticity of all possible futures, the fogged crystal ball, the conflicting facts of roads not taken, decisions second guessed, options passed—this is a different kind of motion sickness. The unplanned is a sense that won’t align for her. The straight line broken, the course muddled, the blueprint corrupted. She fears breaking new snow. So maybe that’s my role, point man, arrowhead, eye at the helm. Forging the way, following the nose. A symmetric sense to her contrasting sense, the white space between grid lines, between the notes imprisoned on the staff. Together there will be alignment then, no sensory mismatch here, rather sensory complement, whole notes only, forms coupled, complete.

And just at that ending, shocking us out of our daze, roaring through the intersection north to south, not even thinking about stop-and-go, raising a whirlwind of promise, a fleet of power & light trucks. “Kate,” I said. She perked up. “Power trucks don’t go nowhere.” They were going fast, with a sense of purpose. We cranked up the Subaru and fell into the slipstream. Keeping up with the convoy, electric, charged, windows wide open, map pages flew.  “We’re pinging along now aren’t we?” She gave me a smile. “Pinging and ponging our way home.” Lila’s head hung over. “Li,” I said.

“Check it out—this is how you drive, ten and two, eyes up, nose to the road.”

 

 

 

About the Author:

Richard

Richard Schmitt is the author of The Aerialist, a novel, and has published fiction and nonfiction in Arts & Letters, Cimarron Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, North American Review, Puerto del Sol, and other places. His story, “Leaving Venice, Florida,” won 1st Prize in The Mississippi Review story contest. He has been anthologized in New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best 1999 and The Best American Essays, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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