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New: July 1999 from Hodder & Stoughton
This time the lightning showed a boat in the churning bay. Perhaps not a big boat, perhaps not a boat at all. A glimpse was as much as the night allowed.
It kept Alice at her bedroom window, hand cupped to face, a robust and level-headed young woman watching frantic white waves careering ashore, and waiting to be scared. She had done this as a child, nearing thirty she was equally enthralled. Charles, though, curled up on his half of the bed, had stirred when the tumult began but descended into sleep. She was a light sleeper and he was not, one of many contrasts discovered during their months of living together.
Storms thrilled her and the history of this coast was told in storms. They had redefined the bay, shaped villages and people's lives. One great storm had plucked a hamlet from its rock and pulverised a harbour. Another cast up a pebble ridge and abandoned a seaside village inland. Lifeboats and freighters had been lost to these furies.
The tales she had heard were rich although language was insufficient for the telling. People recounted merely the physical damage - roofs being carried away, dead animals fetching up further along the coast, and the road that was their lifeline to the world being captured by the sea. They lacked vocabulary for the things that mattered more - the daunting sense of their own inadequacy, their smallness in the natural scale, and the chilling moment when excitement turned to dread that they would not live to survey the wreckage in the morning.
Storms were their history but were also resonant in everyday life. They were the reason for a pond where swans swanked and a lane made a detour, for moorings high and dry in the saltings and a farmhouse lonely beside its drowned fields. They accounted for widows and poverty, as well as a network of rhines, broad drains, chopping the land into rectangles.
Alice had marvelled at the contrast the first time she travelled to the peninsular. Within two miles of a conventional village, in a feminine landscape of leafy orchards, she entered a world governed by water. Stark Point was a straggle of farmhouses and cottages on a spit of flat land between the sea and a river mouth and beneath an enormous sky. It looked vulnerable, even on a calm day when the water was a placid grey mass without a lick of white to enliven it.
Used to living in a city in a cuddle of hills, she felt uncomfortably exposed. Wherever she turned there was nothing, and there was no consolation in such emptiness. At the end of the causeway a silo sprouted from a dark clump of evergreens but the other buildings of Stark Point were hazy in a feathering of windbreak trees. The bay, on her left, was a sweep of yellow sand curving round to the buckled strata of a low cliff and a grey rock that resembled a crouching cat. A dark horizontal, like a mark in soft pencil, drew the line between surf and sand. And somewhere indeterminate beyond that the waters of the bay and the channel commingled. Far out in the channel rose the limestone humps of indistinct islands.
While distant headlands gave the coastline some shape, everything was remote and vague. Looking back the way she had come, she was surprised to be deprived of landmarks. Stone churches and their villages had blended into the backdrop, giving the impression she was gazing over unpeopled country, all five miles of it to the hills. With a tingle of apprehension she had understood the bitter isolation of Stark Point.
Given a simple choice, she would never have gone to live there.
Lightning. She saw a savage sky, waves dying in fields, and a boat, yes, surely a small boat flung high and...
A rasp of thunder. Alice rested her forehead on the cold pane.
Alice waited, alone with the sounds, thinking: 'It was nearer. The wind's driving it ashore, people might die.' She flushed with guilt at enjoying the spectacle.
Just then the cacophony changed. An alarming new note, a thin high screaming, broke in.
She gasped. 'A child?'
But she immediately rejected the idea, took a few paces to the landing window, pressed her palm over a cracked pane and smothered the cry.
Outside was a dense mass of sheltering evergreen, blocking her view. She let the wind come wailing through again and retreated to her bedroom window. The pitiful sound set her teeth on edge. She invented ways of patching over the crack but could not tear herself away from watching the storm to try any of them.
This storm had come without warning, preceded by a breezy bright day and the sort of calm evening when a brassy haze glows behind blue hills. There had been no anticipation, no sense of the heavens pressing down while people grew fractious and muttered 'We need a good storm to clear the air.'
The landing window screeched. Alice jammed a folded magazine against the pane. Tentatively, it held.
Lihtning. There was a longer delay before the thunder rolled and when it came it was weaker. The storm had moved inland. Cold, Alice climbed into bed and fell asleep.
The storm spent itself in the hills to the south east, petering out an hour or so later in staccato showers which disturbed the sleep of farmers on the high land, filled field drains and flooded lanes. Down on the coast, the white waves continued to batter the shore until, gradually, their energy failed and towards dawn, after the tide turned and the wind veered, a quiet day was born.
Departing waves fussed around a black shape. Sometimes it travelled a few feet with them, sometimes they failed to shift it. In the end, they had to go and it was left there alone, a cold finger of sunlight pointing it out to anyone who was up early and curious.
As the sun lifted into the sky, waders picked their delicate way across freshly washed sand. When they paused, they used the upturned hull as a vantage point to survey the wet expanse of their hunting ground. Their piercing calls seemed squeals of amazement as the sun revealed an average day after such a night.
A dog fox ran went to earth in scrub where sand gave way to soil. Miles away, headlights raked the sky as a vehicle climbed an incline. For a while the sea was paler than the land because there was nothing to cast shadows on it and the water exaggerated the light. The phase passed, sun lanced the grey light, and shades warmed and intensified until the sky and the sea were touched with gold and the land with shining green.
Alice opened her bedroom window. The air was rich with the earth's fragrance. A teasing breeze from the west played with strands of her fair hair but barely stirred the plants in her garden. Petals had gone, though: her first sight of damage was a denuded clematis. She scanned the beach for the alarming thing remembered the instant she woke, but failed to see a boat and wondered all over again whether it was real or imagined.
She dressed quickly, eager to run out and explore but the stairs were creaky and once she was down she heard movement overheard. Charles soon followed her, wearing the woolly dressing gown that transformed him from a slim and sleek thirty-year-old into a podgy bundle with middle-aged solidity. His face was screwed up in annoyance, as it invariably was when he discovered he had to face another day. Crumpled and wan, he put her in mind of a discarded toy: Toby, a knitted thing she had loved until her mother put him through the washing machine too many times, and his vibrant colours leached out and his woolly clothes and body unravelled.
'Sorry,' Alice said, 'I didn't mean to disturb you.'
She had a habit of apologising to Charles first thing in the morning, her only way of handling his mood. The rest of the time he appreciated her cheerfulness, although he did not quite share her optimistic and ironic view of Stark Point, but early mornings were tricky.
There were two Charleses and for almost a year she had lived with them both. The one she got to know first was a relaxed, confident fellow with a quick mind, a well-rewarded salesman who loved parties, jazz and country pubs, and was jovially satirical about his own achievements and much of life besides. It was his joke that his life was marqued out, meaning the more business he won for his employers, the pricier the car they allotted him. He was witty about his clients and colleagues and, when he told stories, he would take off all their voices brilliantly. His humour matched Alice's, they enjoyed a lot of laughter.
Unfortunately, the second Charles was self-centred, tetchy and could not raise a smile if you paid him. Each day Charles the second held sway for an hour or so until he was deposed by Charles the first. Alice teased him about his duality but only when he was Charles the first.
He sat at the kitchen table. 'Are you making tea?'
'Yes,' she said, postponing her outing.
Over her shoulder, while she did the business with the Morning Time herbal teabags and the pot, she asked whether he realised there had been a storm.
He said: 'It kept me awake half the night, how could anybody have slept through that racket?'
Oh, he was sounding very Charles the second. She smiled broadly, although when she spoke there was no inflection to give away her aumusement.
'You didn't get up, though.'
'What for? To see a lot of rain?'
'Well, I watched it.'
'In the dark?' He yawned.
'No, there was lightning. It was fantastic, Charles. I couldn't bear not to watch.'
But he was uninfected by her enthusiasm. He yawned more loudly and put the conversation into limbo.
Once tea was on the table, and she was studying the sopping garden through the window, she tried to revive it.
'I always said Stark Point was at the mercy of the elements.'
He snorted. 'They weren't showing much mercy last night.'
With a laugh she agreed. 'That's true, it's what made it so thrilling.'
She waited. He didn't reply.
She drank her tea, thinking: 'How strange that he's taken such a fierce dislike to this place.'
By place she meant both cottage and village. They might have appealed to him, as they offered tranquillity and space, qualities he grumbled were virtually impossible to find in the city. The cottage was pretty, too: whitewahed walls and red tiled roof, standing in an old style garden where flowers jostled for attention. Yet Charles loathed staying in the countryside, whatever he claimed to the contrary, and she was reluctantly accepting it.
Whether he had accepted it himself she wasn't certain. She hadn't devised a way of asking without sounding challenging and to misjudge the tone might lead to an argument. Good-natured and peaceable, she skirted squabbles whenever possible.
He said, when she had quite given up expecting a response: 'I suppose the Starkers will talk of nothing else for days now.'
She ignored his disparaging tone, saying lightly: 'I'm keen to know where it rates on their index.'
'Oh, Alice, they're never going to admit last night's was as bad as it gets. They'd ruin their best stories if they did that.' He yawned again, demonstrating boredom plus tiredness. In a good mood, he would have done his impressions of the Starkers discussing it in their rough West Country burr.
She was not willing to concede he was right, that history was routinely tailored to suit the teller and, when the process was complete, the result was legend.
Instead she said: 'I wonder whether I was the only one who found it exhilarating. They might have grown blase because they've lived through so many.'
'Which is about all the living most of them do.'
She let the gibe pass. 'Being exposed to the elements gives me a new perspective, something city dwellers miss out on.'
She doubted it but did not object and listened to him walk away. A loose stair tread creaked. Bathroom pipes glugged. Alice pulled on boots, lifted her macintosh from the hook on the kitchen door, tied back her hair with a ribbon from the pocket and went out.
She lingered in the garden, mentally recording the scene. The wind had appliqued fragments of leaves to the wooden door. Her roof appeared intact although a piece of broken ridge tile on the path raised suspicion. The lawn squelched as it took her weight. Herbs were indeterminate soggy blobs. Near the deflowered clematis was a mess of saturated earth and pottery, previously a dwarf rose in a terracotta tub. Of the plant itself there was no sign.
'Will I meet it in the lane?' she wondered. 'Or has the wind presented it to one of my neighbour's who'll plant it in recompense for whichever of his own shrubs took flight?'
Laughing, she entered the lane. An uprooted sapling and branches ripped from other trees were sprawled in the road, holding up a queue of cans and plastic pots, plus a few brilliantly coloured children's toys. Alice clambered across the debris and headed down the lane, keeping close to the rushing ditch because much of the roadway was flooded.
Alice felt sure it was a woman, although all she ever saw was a pale face. She kept meaning to ask about her but it was difficult to know who best to approach. Minor embarrassments during her early days at the cottage had made her wary of seeming nosy or critical. Incomers at Stark Point were discouraged from asking questions.
Shortly before water engulfed the lane she turned right by a field of buttercups where finches fluttered. A worn wooden bridge took her over one of the big drains - which she had learned were locally known as rhines, proncounced reens - and onto a slippery path through tall grass. Two men were ahead of her, their top halves gliding over the grass. Abruptly they turned, scolding an invisible dog.
'Hello.' She waved as she called.
There was a hesitation before they responded, a slight one. She chuckled, thinking: 'A couple of months ago they'd have pretended not to notice me.'
How long, she wondered, before the Starkers, as Charles had dubbed them, greeted her first?
A brown and white collie came thrashing through the grass, intent on inspecting her, sniffing, shoving its muzzle against her legs to hurry her, treating her like a laggard in his flock. She stooped to pat him but her outstretched hand was misread as a threat. The animal jinked away, barking, and raced after its owner.
'Elsewhere people would skitter around showing their excitement but here there's only heavy pondering.'
Dickens, she thought, would have lampooned them mercilessly.
'This is local legend in the making,' she thought. 'An event becomes local history, telling it refashions it as legend.'
She joined the men, saying a cheerful general hello. Subdued replies, in most cases bleak nods, admonished her for being far too jolly in the circumstances. There was silence for a moment, except for the swish of the sea.
The dog owner, a stubble-chinned, bullet-headed man of forty, broke it, voicing almost everyone's prediction. 'The next tide will take her.'
'Jacko will be here soon enough.' A thin man muffled in a fat anorak answered him.
The others deferred to him, as Alice had assumed they would. She was fascinated by the way the village accorded everyone his own special role and certain unchallengeable knowledge to accompany it. Jacko was their expert on storm and tide.
She fancied there was a timelessness about him because each generation had produced a fisherman who was guardian of the same information. At a glance, Jacko's appearance was unchanged, too: trousers stuffed into long boots, coarse woollen jersey and waterproof jacket. His pockets were weighed down, she supposed with traditionally useful odds and ends, including items not in dictionaries because his terms were purely local, peculiar to a few miles of coast or possibly Stark Point alone.
Alice kept a little apart, noticing how water oozed into the groove gouged by the wreck as it was tugged free. Gulls spiralled down, seeking morsels in the disturbed sand. Men buzzed around the boat, easing her, steadying, putting an unnecessary hand to her to assure themselves they were important in the day's adventure. They got muddy, they got scratched. Through all their warnings and plentiful advice to each other, the tractor droned. Jacko was inching the vehicle inland, sitting twisted on his seat to study the antics in the bay.
The boat snagged. The tractor halted, too. Bending figures investigated, conferred. Jacko walked down with a spade, a man went to meet him, the spade changed hands. Soon the boat was lifted clear of the obstruction. The tractor crawled up the beach again.
'She's from up the channel, sure to be. The way that wind blew last night, anything up that way didn't have a prayer.'
Men concurred with nods and grunts. As Jacko's words didn't amount to anything, Alice expected some of the men to put questions. They didn't. They stared hard at the hull and waited for him to offer up more.
He drew on the cigarette, then: 'Could have been torn from her moorings, see.'
Murmured agreement again but he spoke over it, saying: 'Or she could have been making for harbour and run into a squall. There's no saying how long the sea was tossing her around before it dumped her here for us to take a look.'
The cigarette rose to his lips. He exhaled luxuriously before adding: 'I rang the police when I saw her at first light. Could be a body or two on board, I told them.'
People shifted from one leg to the other, making perceptible movement away from the wreck. Jacko was planted firmly. 'Either the crew tipped overboard and they'll be coming in on the next tide, or they're trapped in here.'
He slapped his hand on the hull, then scanned the sea with the attention of a man who makes his livelihood from it.
Jacko, reacting to the threat of losing his audience, threw away his cigarette and mustered another opinion. 'It's like the great storm in sixty-one. Now what you've got to remember about the tidal flow in these parts...'
A telephone beeped. With a simian scowl, Jacko delved into a pocket Alice had assumed full of fisher-folk clutter. Then his wife's voice was squeaking across the bay. His expression tightened, he barked a terse 'All right' and hung up. As he stooped to pick up his rope, he told them what they knew, that he had to leave. Before they could ask anything, he was gone.
With his departure, a new leader took centre stage. An unemployed youth, Sam, who hung around the village described his first sight of the boat.
'She was like a toy chucked around. And those waves... they were thundering ashore, smashing like water cannon. Pulverised our back fence, they did. Half of it's swilling along the rhine and God knows where the other half's got to. And that wind.... it came at us every way.'
Alice was interested, because his story tallied with hers, but apparently he had told it already and no one else was willing to hear from him. He kept on, though, so they started up rival conversations, trying to contain in words the unimaginable ferocity of the night and where it figured on the local scale.
'It was worse than eighty-three when the barn roof went.' This from a beer-bellied chicken farmer who narrowed his eyes as though remembering back as far as eighteen eighty-three.
'Hm, Pete's right, this one was quick. Sounded like we had the artillery out here, the noise of it exploding against the cliff. And, if you ask me, the flooding's due to the drains. Folk don't care for them like they ought.' The retired farm labourer did not need to mention names, they understood which folk were being blamed.
Backs were turned on the youth, leaving him only Alice and a deaf elderly man with wonky teeth. Alice used the dog as an excuse to escape, following him around the wreck in a useless attempt to distract him from it. When she was on the far side she saw movement at the foot of the cliff. The beachcomber.
He invariably wore a brown knitted hat, which might once have been topped by a bobble, and a green waterproof jacket, but it was his gait that made identification certain. He pottered slowly along, hands clasped behind him, body tilted forward as his eyes raked the beach. She had never seen him with a companion, and on the occasions anyone else arrived on the beach he had shied away, taking cover by the cliffs or in the scrub.
'That's what he's doing now, because we're here,' she thought. 'Tucking himself out of sight.'
She guessed he had been first to approach the wreck. Jacko could have telephoned the police without leaving home because his house enjoyed an unobstructed view over the bay. But the beachcomber had probably found it, and surely it was the most remarkable sight since he had taken to prowling the water's edge.
Alice did not know his name although she had asked two people, separately, shortly after she had moved into the cottage and become aware of him. His isolation and singlemindedness intrigued her, therefore she asked. One man claimed not to know who she meant, which was incredible, and the other avoided answering.
'It's as though I don't exist,' she had thought, 'or as though the beachcomber doesn't. Maybe neither of us does.'
The dog came pestering, rounding her up. Amused by the creature switching allegiance to her, she ran with him up the beach. Her goodbyes went unanswered. Too cheery again?
'I'm getting used to it,' she told the collie. 'Beaming at implacable faces, addressing taciturn curmudgeons.'
But she wasn't, the indifference startled her whenever she met it. Telling her friends, she made the characters buffoons and life at Stark Point comical, and she kept to herself the unpleasant undertow.
For a young woman who could not help striding through life with a smile on her face, it was unsettling. She had caught the smiley habit from her mother. 'You're so alike,' friends and family told them, which was wrong.
Her mother was lean and dark, Alice was tawny and rounded. It was the happy cast of their features, and a way of crinkling the eyes in amusement, that performed the trick. Mother and daughter appeared to smile, even when their minds were far away, and the world smiled back at them. Although not at Stark Point.
'That man who was sitting under the cliff, the beachcomber, can you tell me his name?'
'Beachcomber?' He turned to call the dog who was threatening to wander.
'Yes. He's often here, wearing a brown hat and wandering around the bay.'
Silence. She filled it with an urgent: 'Oh, you must know who I mean.'
'Yes.' She was afraid she sounded impatient but they were nearing the narrow path and once on it there would be no prospect of conversation.
'Beachcomber, you say?'
'I believe he lives in the village. I mean, if he doesn't he must walk a long way every time he goes on the beach.'
It annoyed her to be rattling on rather than getting him to talk. He scratched his stubbly chin in a contemplative way, as if working out the man's identity or, more probably, deciding how much to share with an inquisitive outsider.
When he spoke he was dismissive. 'Can't say I know of a beachcomber.'
'Oh, but surely...' She cut herself off as she realised there was more to come.
'The brown hat, though. That puts me in mind of Joe Keenthorne.'
She echoed the name.
'That's it,' he said. 'Can't think of anyone else it might be.'
They reached the path and she let him go ahead, for the sake of the dog who was already whisking through the grass. He strode off, leaving her and her unsatisfied questions in his wake.
When she had come to Stark Point, owing to a twist of fate that resulted in her inheriting Spray Cottage, Alice had anticipated being lured into fact-finding conversations with her neighbours. After all, it was human nature to focus on a newcomer and drain them of personal information. She had prepared herself, deciding it would be necessary to admit to writing poetry because they would see her mooching around with a notebook.
Family history, though, she meant to skim over with a simple statement that she was Bella's niece. There was no need to explain she had not been acquainted with this aunt or that the intended beneficiaries had been killed off before Bella succumbed to a heart attack.
Her planning was wasted because the villagers showed no more curiosity about her than they wanted her to show about them. Precious theories about human nature collapsed. She was mystified.
She walked on, cautiously because it was boggy. It was bothering her that she had been too reticent about asking after the beachcomber. The logical approach would have been a general enquiry, when she spotted him, to let one or more of the group supply an answer. By instinct, she had known that was useless.
She was entertained by the idea that each one would have pretended to be blind to what she saw, and thus freed himself from the obligation of answering.
'But it isn't funny, their reluctance is sinister,' she thought.
Worse, their attitude was influencing her. Because of it she had avoided speaking at the opportune moment and questioned the dog owner at an awkward one. But was the problem that the Starkers declined to speak to her or that they were determined not to discuss the beachcomber?
'That's three times I've been rebuffed when I've asked about him.'
Yet, for all she knew, there were a hundred other topics that would make them clam up, study the hazy islands in the channel and wish for all the world she would go away and take her nosiness with her.
She had never encountered anything like it before. But then, as she reminded herself with a shrug, she had always lived in the city, hugger-mugger with people who realised that outgoing friendliness was not a sign she took undue interest in them.
'Perhaps,' she thought, as she stepped around a steaming reminder of the dog, 'the rules are different in the countryside and two hellos in a week is regarded as harassment. Maybe somebody will tack a notice on the board by the chapel demanding my sort of behaviour is put a stop to before it spoils life at Stark Point for everyone.'
The petty things people complained about, anonymously, on that notice board amazed her. A radio played too loud in a bedroom was a nuisance - although you had to be on the footpath crossing the rear garden of the house to hear it. Spare vegetables and flowers, offered free to passersby, were deemed a hazard because their box might topple off the garden wall. Property owners were urged to fix chains across their entrances to prevent cars which had strayed into the village turning round and heading back where they preferred to be.
The Stark Point vigilante, as Charles called him, had a fresh winge every week. Oh yes, it made perfect sense for an edict to be handed down demanding an end to the nuisance of grinning and being pleasant to people.
Alice began to giggle, on the verge of hysteria, not caring if she was heard. The dog owner marched on, his upper body bobbing above the high grass. Three figures advanced on him, strung out at intervals. Everyone was looking down, except for the occasional glance, but no eyes drifted her way save those of the dog who responded to her hilarity. With barks and leaps he merrily accompanied her the rest of the way to the lane.
Recovered, she managed to send him away to his owner. Her wave of farewell was answered by the man with a movement that barely raised his arm above his waist.
'I'm doing something wrong,' she thought, plodding along the road, wellingtons squelching sludge. She revised that, refusing to take full responsibility.
'No, I mean I'm failing to grasp something about this community. I'm misunderstanding.'
That was usually at the heart of a problem, not mean-spiritedness or a fundamental difference in nature but sheer misunderstanding. She frowned, worried how many more gaffes she was destined to make until anybody enlightened her.
Such guessing games were new to her. In her work in the city, a job for a local radio station that might have been fascinating but wasn't, people talked constantly, told each other what was right and what was wrong and what might happen and what was never likely to. Abruptly, coming to Stark Point for a few months instead of renewing her contract, the chatter had been cut off.
She was discovering loneliness. No longer living in gossiping clamour, she was enveloped by a silence relieved only by the rhythm of the surf. It might be interrupted by the odd snatch of conversation, the purr of a vehicle, a dog's bark or the moan of cattle. But unless she spoke, switched on her radio, played music or telephoned one of her friends her life now was very quiet.
Oh, that was weekdays. For weekends there was Charles.
Yes, there was Charles who ought to have carved out an office space in the cottage and installed himself for weeks on end. He could, as he had agreed, do his work as a sales rep for an engineering company just as easily in the country as the city. More easily, given his yearning for peace and adequate room to spread his papers. And yet he hadn't and he wouldn't.
'He needs to keep his working environment separate from his home,' she decided. 'Many people do.'
A black thought, like a cloud on sunlit water. 'No, it isn't that. He can't bear being at Stark Point.'
Coming back, he had poked his head into the room and said: 'Thanks. Yes, that's fine.'
Then he had produced reasons not to move in there right then. He had to make a trip next morning, one he had not mentioned before. He needed to fetch a desk lamp from his flat and... Oh, they were thin to the point of transparency.
Alice had cajoled him for the truth. 'If you're leaving me, I'd rather you said so.'
'Good lord no. It's just.... Well, like I said... The meeting. And the lamp. And...' He had taken her in his arms. 'Alice. Darling. Of course I'm not leaving you.'
He made it sound the absurdest idea and they ended in hilarity.
But Alice thought, soberly: 'That's how he'll do it, though, it's his way. He inches away from relationships, I've always known that about him.' The question was how much quiet disentanglement went on before Charles himself realised what he was doing.
* * * * * * * * * *
'It isn't fair, Alice living in Bella's cottage. She shouldn't be there, it isn't right.'
The confidence of young women amazed her. They were so open about their lovers, they did anything they wanted, they had it all. She had not managed to have it all herself. She got the baby but not the husband. People drank too much on carnival nights, that was how it happened. Of course, she did not admit to that. She had invented a farmer who loved her but would not make the necessary sacrifices to marry her. The story earned her a modicum of sympathy and, before long, she had believed in him, too.
'But these young women, no one cares who they go with or how they live, they don't have to hide anything. It isn't fair.'
She stayed there a while thinking over and over that nothing was fair, and fostering a secret hatred of Alice.
© 1999 Lesley Grant-Adamson
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