FICTION: A Tempest by Joe Treasure

Awake, Fay stared through the windscreen. They’d stopped moving. The headlights showed a dirt track arched with trees, the branches in frenzied motion. The noise of the wind reached her faintly through the glass. Indicator lights ticked on the dashboard. The vehicle was tilted towards the passenger side.

It was a Kolkata Leopard, barely six months old, sleek and midnight black with a reputation for performance and reliability. The battery should have been good for another 3,000 miles. She’d expected to be home before nightfall. Outside, the illuminated trees ducked and reared. Scraps of broken off vegetation skittered towards them along the rutted track. It made no sense. Glasgow to London was all high-speed toll roads.

Fay reached for her sparrow and touched the navigation icon. The screen flickered and froze. She hummed a fragment of a tune. ‘Hal,’ she said, ‘wake up.’

‘Are we home?’

‘No.’

‘Why have we stopped?’

‘I don’t know. I’m not sure where we are.’

‘We’re sloping.’

‘I know, sweetheart.’

‘Why are we sloping?’

‘Because the ground is sloping.’

‘I’m hungry.’

‘Yes, me too.’

‘I need a wee.’

‘Me too. How badly?’

‘Not too badly.’

Fay hummed the same brief musical phrase. She took a deep breath and touched the restart button. Hal gasped and reached for her hand as the lights went out. For a moment there was nothing but the murmur of the storm. Then the track was visible again with the trees straining across it, and the dashboard lights resumed their moronic blinking.

‘Hal.’

‘Yes, mummy.’

‘We may have to get out.’

‘But there’s nothing here.’

‘There’s a light up ahead. Didn’t you see, when ours went out?’

‘It was lightning.’

‘I don’t think it was lightning, sweetheart. It was too yellow for lightning.’

‘It moved.’

‘It did move, you’re right, like a candle maybe. Wait while I get your coat from the boot. You’ll have to get out this side. I think we’re up against the hedge.’

She touched the shut-down button, throwing the track into darkness again. There was the light, a vertical yellow sliver. She took a breath, pushed the door open against the wind and stepped out, feeling for her footing in her delicate shoes. The air snatched at her dress. She steadied herself against the car, let the door go, let the wind push her towards the boot, found the coats and fought her way back.

When they were both in their coats – diaphanous coverings designed for moments of exposure between kerbside and atrium or short walks from hotel lobby to limousine – Fay took Hal’s hand and they pushed forward.

The light came from a wooden barn with a corrugated iron roof. The door opened wider as they approached, throwing the yellow glow across the lane. A man came out. He stood as they made their way towards him. He was slightly stooped and wore a heavy overcoat with a hood. His bearded face was lit from below by an archaic lantern.

When they were close, he called out, ‘Was that your light?’

Fay shouted, ‘Yes,’ and felt her voice swallowed by a gust of air.

‘What do you want?’

‘There’s something wrong with my vehicle.’

‘Is this your mother?’

Hal glanced uncertainly at Fay and said, ‘Yes.’

‘What is it you want, boy?’

‘Our car’s broken down and we need a wee.’

‘Do you know how late it is to be out alone?’

Fay laughed. ‘Actually, no. All our systems are scrambled.’

‘Why does your mother laugh, child? And why is her mouth uncovered in the public road? Where have you come from?’

Hal looked up at Fay.

‘Glasgow,’ Fay said, still shouting to be heard above the wind, though they were now only a few paces apart. ‘On our way back to London. What about my mouth? Are you afraid of contagion? There’s no contagion where we’ve been.’

‘Speak up, child,’ the man said. ‘Don’t mumble. Has no one ever taught you not to mumble?’

‘He didn’t say anything. He’s cold and hungry. We both are.’

‘Tell your mother, boy, that Mary the mother of our Lord knelt at the foot of the cross to watch her son die for all mankind, and three other women with her, and not one of them found it necessary to speak. You can come with me, both of you. There’s food enough and shelter.’

‘Who are you?’ Fay said. ‘What is this place?’

‘And tell your mother she’ll come to no harm. You’ll both be safe. We abide by our Lord’s teachings here and love all folk. But we can do nothing for her if she won’t respect our ways.’

Fay held back, tempted to return to the car. The wind drove into her face so she was almost blinded and the man was nothing but a blur of light. He waved to them to come. Humming in her agitation, she gripped Hal’s hand and pushed forward. They left the barn behind and walked between rows of cottages. A church tower became visible against the sky.

‘Caleb is my name,’ the man said. ‘You can call me Mr Caleb, boy, when you have occasion to speak.’ To Fay he said, ‘I’ll lodge you with the women. The boy will come with me.’

‘No.’ Fay stopped walking and pulled Hal close to her side.

The man peered from under his hood. ‘How old are you, boy?’

‘I’m nearly seven.’

‘You’re tall for your age.’

‘I’m good at football but I’m best at reading.’

‘You’re young enough to go with the women. You don’t mind?’

‘We share hotel rooms when my mother has to work.’

The man nodded and set off again, leading them past cottages that were all in darkness. ‘Tell me, child,’ he said, ‘What work does your mother do?’

‘She designs clothes.’

‘Clothes don’t need designing, only cutting and stitching. Do you know what vanity is?’

‘I think so. Is it like a cupboard you put in your bathroom?’

The man grunted. ‘You’ve a lot to learn, boy, for all your reading.’

They had reached a substantial house with a gabled porch raised on stone columns. ‘The women lodge here when they’re done with their duties.’ He banged the iron knocker.

While they waited, Fay drew Hal into the shelter of the porch. After a minute the door opened and a woman stood holding a lamp.

‘These are travellers, Ada, a woman and her boy, urbanites who’ve lost their way on the road. Show them the outhouse and give them some supper.’

The woman held the door wide and invited them in with a gesture.

‘A simple supper, Ada, and quick to bed, all of you. I must get back to the stable. Bessie will foal shortly. ’

Ada smiled and nodded meekly. She was in her fifties and wore a knitted cardigan over a nightie that reached almost to her ankles, and brown woollen socks. She drew them in and shut the door, muting the storm. ‘Use the outhouse first if you need to,’ she said, ‘and I’ll sort out something for you to sleep in.’

‘So you speak.’

‘Speak?’

‘That man, Caleb, seemed shocked that I had the temerity to open my mouth.’

‘To each other of course we speak. But Paul says let your women keep silence in the church for it is not permitted to them to speak.’

‘Paul?’

‘The Apostle.’

Ada rested the lamp on the table. Crudely made from sawn boards, it was big enough for a dozen people. With the dining chairs and wooden benches, it dominated half the room. In the other half, a wood-burning stove cast a red glow. On the wall above the stove was a large wooden cross.

‘But we weren’t in a church,’ Fay said.

‘Church is wherever Christ is, so the men say, and Christ is in everything.’

‘So Christ is here too.’

‘Yes I suppose.’ Ada looked doubtful. ‘But the men aren’t. I’ll show you the outhouse.’

She opened the back door and indicated a building half a dozen steps away. ‘Take a lamp with you. You’ll find a hook inside the door to hang it on.’

The storm buffeted them as they crossed the yard. The outhouse was cold and dank and the door rattled on its latch. Hal recoiled from the crude wooden seat and the stale smell that rose from the darkness.

‘Why can’t we use their bathroom?’

‘This is their bathroom, sweetheart.’

Fay helped Hal first, then lowered herself squeamishly on to the cold seat.

Back inside the house, Ada had put half a loaf of bread and some cheese on the table.

‘So what is this place?’ Fay asked her.

‘Birdlip Village.’

‘And where is Birdlip Village? Are we anywhere near a town?’

‘They say Little Shipton is five miles. Now sit to the table, both of you, and eat.’

Fay pulled a chair out for Hal and one for herself, and they sat while Ada sawed a couple of slices off the loaf and cut the cheese, which was white and crumbled under the knife.

‘Nearest city, then?’

‘Not even the men go to the city.’

‘Because the thing is, Ada – it is Ada, right? – the thing is something funny’s happened to my vehicle. All the electronics seem to have got scrambled. But here’s the weird part. Even my sparrow’s dead.’ She took it out and touched the fingerpad. ‘You see? Nothing. A bizarre coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’

Ada peered at it doubtfully. ‘What’s it supposed to do then, this sparrow?’

‘Everything. Whatever I ask it to. I wonder if it’s this strange weather. Perhaps we were going through lightning. Hal said there was lightning, didn’t you, sweetheart. I was completely out of it. Could lightning have messed with the electronics?’

Hal gaped and spat a piece of cheese on to his plate.

Ada frowned, tipping her head sideways. ‘You can either eat it, my lad, or do without.’

Glaring at the table, Hal bit into a piece of bread.

‘If I could just locate the nearest Kolkata service centre and send a couple of newsflares to let people know I’ve been held up…’

‘All that means nothing to me,’ Ada said, laughing softly. ‘You may as well be talking Sumerian. Wait till morning, I’d say, dear. Get some rest. Everything will look brighter in the morning.’ She lifted a flannel nightie from the back of a chair. ‘You can change over here. I’ll help you with the screen.’

Humming to quell her impatience, Fay took the nightie, which was pale and sad-looking and long enough to cover her knees, and followed Ada to the corner near the stove. The folding screen, covered in threadbare fabric, came as high as her shoulders.

While she changed, she asked Ada what Caleb had meant about the women lodging here when their duties were done.

‘He meant only that this is where we live.’

‘And your duties are what?’

‘Communal duties, womanly duties.’

‘Like cooking, you mean?’

‘And working in the fields and caring for animals and cleaning.’

‘Are none of you married?’

Ada blushed. ‘We are all married in Christ.’

Fay came out from behind the screen. ‘In Christ?’

‘We are all married or widowed. Except those who are too young. I’ll show you where to sleep now. We must go quiet not to wake the others.’

Hal was out already, head down on the table, one arm dangling.

The woman led them up two flights of stairs, Fay carrying Hal. The storm whined at the casement windows, found its way into the cavities of the old building and rumbled through the attic, rattling the slates. On the second landing there were three doors. Ada opened one that led into a room under the eaves with a narrow gable cut into the slope of the roof. There were four single beds. The two facing the window were occupied. In the one nearest the door, the sleeper stirred under the blankets, gave a sigh and made a noise like a cat lapping water.

Ada crossed to a bed next to the window and pulled back the covers. ‘You can share this one.’

Fay settled Hal on the sheet. The bed looked uncomfortably narrow and the child was already turning over, claiming the space with an arm and a leg. ‘Could I have my own? That one’s empty.’

‘Hester sleeps there. I’ll leave a note downstairs for her so she won’t be startled to see you. She lives so deep in her head, Hester, that the world can startle her just by reminding her it’s there.’

When Ada had gone, Fay nudged Hal gently to one side and lay down. For a while she was awake, while Hal dreamed and fidgeted beside her. She began to feel the heaviness of sleep, a settling of the limbs, a stilling of the mind that turned the tempest into strange music.

Then she was alert, listening to the creak of footsteps, a murmured conversation on the landing. A woman came alone into the room. Standing at the foot of the bed, the newcomer seemed to be looking directly at her, but it was impossible to know because the face was in shadow. Neither of them spoke. Fay held her breath. This must be Hester, she thought, who lives deep in her head. Perhaps she isn’t looking at all, only thinking. Perhaps her eyes are closed. Perhaps she’s praying. A hiss of air made Fay think that Hester had been holding her breath as well. A moment later a flash of lightning penetrated the thin curtain and cast a silver light over Hester’s face. She was gazing at Fay as if experiencing a revelation. Immediately she turned away towards the bed by the door. She rested a hand on the sleeping figure.

‘Sarah,’ she murmured. ‘Wake up. You’re wanted.’

‘What? What time is it?’

‘Nearly three. Caleb has sent for you. ’

‘It’s late.’

‘He’s been tending Bessie. She foaled a quarter of an hour ago. I met him in the street.’ A rumble of thunder drew Hester’s eyes towards the ceiling.

‘Colt or filly?’

‘Filly.’

‘Good. He’ll be pleased.’

‘He’s eating some supper, but he’ll expect you as soon as he’s done.’

Sarah slipped from the bed, pulled a shawl from a hook and padded to the door.

Hester watched her go. She stood for a moment over the other sleeper, who grumbled, turned over and was quiet again. To Fay, she said, ‘You came.’

‘What?’

‘And you can’t sleep.’

‘There’s been a lot of coming and going. What do you mean, I came?’

‘Follow me downstairs. I’ll put some more wood in the stove and heat some milk. It will calm you.’

‘What makes you think I’m not calm?’

‘Quietly. You’ll wake the children. Millie here is nearly fourteen. But still. Children need their rest. Did Ada give you everything you need?’

‘I need to get my vehicle fixed. How old is the girl who just left – Sarah?’

‘Sarah is nineteen.’

‘And you’re sending her to that old man’s bed?’

‘Caleb is her husband. Come down as soon as you’re ready. You always liked hot milk when you couldn’t sleep.’

A silent flicker of lightning cut the darkness as Hester turned away. She was gone before Fay could think how to answer, though her body was already responding with a wave of heat and a clutching sensation that rose through her chest into her throat. With a prickling of the scalp, whatever had passed through her let her go. She waited a moment while her breathing settled.

Stirring beside her, Hal muttered, ‘Lightning. See Mummy. I said there was lightning.’

A crack of thunder followed not many seconds behind.

‘Go back to sleep, sweetheart.’ She eased herself from the bed, leaving Hal to sprawl and sigh.

Soft light from below guided her on the stairs.

In the living room, Hester spoke without turning from the stove. ‘You don’t remember me.’ She held the handle of the saucepan to steady it and stirred the milk with a wooden spoon.

‘Have we met somewhere? It seems unlikely.’

‘Not at one of your fashion shows.’ There was another flash of lightning. Hester held still, waiting for the thunder, which came quicker and louder than before, followed by the rain. ‘This is good,’ she said. ‘We needed this.’

‘Where then?’

‘They called me Hetty in those days.’

‘My God.’ Fay moved closer, peering at Hester’s face. ‘Is it really you? It’s been… How long has it been? I was only… I was a child.’

Hester took her hands from the saucepan, rubbed them on her skirt and gave Fay her full attention. ‘You were six years old.’

‘But how are you here?’

‘So you haven’t forgotten me.’

‘Oh Hetty, how could I forget?’

Hester’s eyes were fierce in the glow from the lamp. She took a sharp intake of breath, made a convulsive movement and drew Fay against her. ‘I’ve waited so long to see you.’

Fay let her head rest against Hester’s shoulder, aware of the smell of soap and damp wool, puzzling over this unlikely development. When she began to cry, it was for the state of her old friend, the pinched condition of her life. Then it was for herself, for the violent dislocation of Hester’s disappearance which she had tidily put away and not thought of.

With a hiss, boiling milk hit the top of the stove.

Hester muttered, ‘Judas!’ and pulled back to lift the saucepan from the heat.

‘So I was six,’ Fay said, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her borrowed nightie. ‘And how old were you?’

‘Nine.’

‘How grown-up you seemed. You used to help me with my sums.’

‘Yes. You consumed words like water. But numbers were a mystery to you.’ She poured the milk into a mug.

‘You had a telescope. You watched the stars.’ The memories came up from the darkness.

‘Sit and drink this.’

Obediently Fay took the mug and sat on the bench next to the stove. ‘You were going to be an astronomer.’

‘Was I?

‘That’s what you told me.’

‘I’d forgotten.’

Fay blew into the milk and took a sip. It was years since she’d drunk milk. ‘And you were always so stylish.’

‘Hardly.’

‘In dark deep colours, Hetty, that’s what I remember, with silver chains and bangles. Silver and indigo and deep, deep blue. The colours of the night sky.’

‘I remember you in a pink party dress, with a big pink bow.’

‘Yes, but I refused to wear it because I wanted to look like you. I think maybe it was your influence that got me designing clothes.’ Fay blushed as she said this, uncomfortably aware of the contrast between the stylish nine-year-old and this woman in her shapeless cardigan and shabby skirt. ‘And then you disappeared.’

‘Is that what they told you?’

‘Before, upstairs… you spoke as if you expected me.’

Hester watched her closely for a moment. Then she took a chair from the corner and sat facing her. ‘It must seem a coincidence to you that I’m here.’

‘Beyond coincidence.’

‘And you’re pleased to see me.’

‘Of course.’

‘You can still think of me as a friend?’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

Hester seemed lost in thought. Then she stood and crossed the room. She knelt and reached an arm under the dresser and pulled out a flat rectangular object. She wiped it on her skirt as she returned to her chair.

Sitting, she held it out as if it were something of great value. Her smile – delighted, mischievous – made her look like a child, and Fay recognized her friend properly for the first time. She was holding an old Arial XL360.

Fay hadn’t seen anything like it for ten years at least. She took it, feeling its weight, the first handheld device on the market with holographic imaging. ‘It’s ancient. Can you get online with this?’

‘Surprisingly, yes.’

‘You brought it with you?’

‘Brought it? No. I’ve lived here since I was eleven.’

‘So this is where you disappeared to? What happened? My God. Were you abducted?’

‘Nothing like that. I came here with my father. You remember my father?’

‘Yes. Sort of. Uncle Stan, was that his name?’

‘We wandered for a bit, living in rented rooms and for a while on a boat. He drank, which made him violent and unable to work. I was often hungry, always frightened. Then he brought me here.’

‘What was he thinking?’

‘He was saved.’

‘But why leave us in the first place? Weren’t we all happy together?’

‘You really don’t know? I’ve watched your interviews. You talk sometimes about your upbringing. I always wondered why you left that bit out.’

‘You’ve watched me?’ Fay looked at the antique device. ‘On this?’

Hester nodded.

‘The men don’t mind?’

‘The men don’t know. Sometimes when they go into town they bring home used clothes from the Baptists. I found this in a dead woman’s overcoat.’

‘And your father, Uncle Stan? Is he still here?’

‘He died when I was seventeen.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. He’s with God.’

Fay studied the device. As she turned it in her hand, the tiny projectors glinted in the light.

‘And you can really follow me with this?’

‘It took some rejigging. There wasn’t even a charger. I had to work out how to hook it up to the generator. But it goes for months if I use it sparingly.’

‘I wouldn’t know how to even begin.’

‘Stalking you was the easy part.’ Hester gave her mischievous smile again. ‘Hacking you took more skill.’

Fay looked with wonder at her friend, who had once, she now remembered, helped her buy clothes for her online avatar and now lived like a peasant but could still do this. ‘You scrambled my navigation system.’

‘I saw you were close. I just replotted the coordinates.’

‘So you can unscramble it again.’

Hester shrugged. ‘Of course. If I need to.’

Fay stood and walked to the window. Rain spat against the glass. ‘How long will it take you?’

‘To do what?’

‘To pack, get dressed.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘London. You can stay with me until we sort something. But really, for as long as you like. I have a spare room. And you know, we should absolutely put your story out there. It’s wild. It must be, what, thirty years. God Almighty. Living in this place. Silenced. Hey, we could call it that. You’ll have a huge following. People won’t believe this shit.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You sent for me. So here I am. I’m ready.’

‘Fay, I have a husband.’

‘Of course you do – who sends for you, no doubt, whenever he has the urge. Jesus.’

‘Please don’t do that.’

‘What?’

‘Please don’t blaspheme.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘I think you don’t even know how often you do it.’

‘Well, holy crap, we can work on that later. I’ll get Hal. We should go while it’s still dark, don’t you think?’

Hester, who hadn’t moved, watched Fay impassively.

‘What? Do you want to take someone else with you? Do want us to wait for the other women?’

‘I want you to sit down. I have some questions.’

‘OK.’ Fay walked back to her seat by the stove. It took her an effort to sit – she wanted to be on the move.

‘Let’s start with Harriet.’

‘What about her?’

‘Why do you call her Hal?’

‘It’s an abbreviation.’

‘It’s a boy’s name. You dress her like a boy.’

‘That’s her choice.’

‘She’s six years old – your age when I was helping you with your sums. How can she make a choice?’

‘What difference does it make?’

‘Does she know what a man is? Does she even know her own father?’

‘That bastard? No, thank God. I managed perfectly well without a father and so will she.’

‘Of course, you had two mothers.’

‘That’s right.’

‘That’s part of the story you tell, when people ask you. Two mothers, while I had none. Do you remember how that came about?’

Fay thought about the two women who had raised her – Dora and Dempsey. Her mother Dora Bezant and Dora’s partner Susan Dempsey who had always been there, with Hester and Uncle Stan. It loomed up out of the fog of the past. ‘We lived together like a family.’

‘No, not at all like a family.’

‘Yes, you and Uncle Stan and me and mummy and Dempsey.’

‘No, you lived in the main house, you and your mother. And I lived with my parents in the annex. We were a family, the three of us. That woman you call Dempsey gave birth to me. Dempsey was my name, my father’s name. She fed me and raised me. Until your mother stole her.’

‘That’s not how it was. That can’t be how it was.’

‘And what became of her, my mother, once we’d left? When she chose not to follow or was persuaded not to. You gloss over that part, the years of sorrow and desolation.’

‘She had mental health issues, yes, but she came through it. She’s a wonderful role model…’

‘For women with mental health issues, so I’ve heard you say. But have you never thought that maybe what the doctors called depression was simply grief and guilt?’

‘And you brought me here to tell me this?’

‘To tell you that your life is shallow and without purpose.’

‘I run a hugely successful business. I design clothes.’

‘For other people whose lives are shallow and without purpose.’

‘OK, so what have you got?’

‘I have a community, a husband, a child.’

‘You have a child?’

‘Millie, asleep upstairs.’

‘Oh, she’s yours. And how long before you’re waking her in the night to service some old man?’

‘Not all the men are old. She’ll marry when her time comes. And meanwhile she has the satisfaction of working, as we all do, in service of the community.’

‘As long as she does as she’s told and keeps her mouth shut in front of the men.’

‘That’s no great sacrifice. She has the women to talk to.’

Fay threw her arms up in exasperation. ‘So here’s a thing. For all this subservience, you obviously despise them. Well, honestly, don’t you? Behind their backs you do what you want. And you’re desperate for something interesting to crash into your life, anyone can see that. You’re online, reading the celebrity gossip, watching my every move.’

‘That’s nothing. This…’ – Hester held the device lightly by one corner – ‘…is nothing. I don’t need it now it’s brought you to me. I’ll dig a hole in the garden and bury it. Or I’ll drop it in the pond. As for the men, I don’t despise them but I do recognise their shortcomings, which are different from ours. We women, we live in our bodies. We live close to the earth, it’s in our nature.’

You can say that, Hetty, with your brain?’

Because of my brain. I need that steadiness. You saw how my mother unravelled. You had the privilege of seeing that. A brilliant woman. But all her intelligence didn’t help when what she needed was me. She needed the steadiness of caring for a child, serving the needs of another person, someone more vulnerable than herself. And don’t you dare say she had you to care for, a princess coddled and fussed over. Women need to be mothers, because they need to be held close to the earth. Men are spiritual beings.’

Fay snorted.

‘Spiritual in their capacity. Capable of rising higher, designed by God for that purpose. So when they fall, they fall lower than beasts. There’s darkness in them. They have to be managed, restrained from their own worst impulses.’

Fay slumped on her seat, defeated. The rain was easing. ‘We’ll leave as soon as it’s light,’ she said. ‘I’ll wake Hal.’

‘And go where?’

‘We’ll walk until we reach civilization.’

‘In those shoes?’

They were on a shelf by the door with Hal’s, where Ada had put them, and their clothes hanging above on hooks.

‘And in that flimsy dress?’

‘Barefoot if I have to.’

Hester smiled and shook her head. ‘I don’t think so, Fay.’

‘Barefoot and wrapped in a blanket.’

‘I don’t think so.’

The rain had stopped. A faint glimmer of light showed where the distant trees met the sky. A lark was singing. Hester hummed a few disconnected notes.

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Joe Treasure

Joe Treasure author pic

Joe Treasure has taught English and Drama in Wales and California. Having published three novels, he now lives in London with his wife Leni Wildflower. Political developments in Britain and the USA have inspired his recent experiments in speculative fiction. Along with two of his nine siblings, he has recently acquired Irish citizenship.

Joe Treasure has written three novels

The Male Gaze (Picador, 2007)

gaze

Besotted (Picador, 2010)

besotted

The Book of Air (Clink Street, 2017)

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If you enjoyed ‘A Tempest’ leave a comment and let Joe know.

You can find and follow Joe at:

www.joetreasure.com

joetreasure.blogspot.co.uk

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