Church group, p.1
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       Church Group, p.1

           Michael Brightside
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Church Group
Church Group

  By Michael Brightside

  Text copyright 2014 Michael Brightside

  All Rights Reserved

  To my little Bee for her tireless patience and support. To everyone else who helped; knowingly or not.

  There’s more to life than nuts and bolts.

  Table of Contents

  Prologue

  Ten Pairs of Eyes

  Loo like the toilet?

  A Tired Old Desk

  A Nice Pebbly Stone

  Surely All Schools Are The Same?

  Like a Cloud of Shit Particles

  Thanks Santa

  Salty Meringues

  Worm-like Varicose Veins

  Where Numbers Go On Forever

  Stroking an Imaginary Beard

  There Aren’t Any Jellyfish at School

  When He Woke Up CDs Had Been Invented

  We Needed Alcohol, Even If We Didn’t Know Why

  Little Red Toy Sports Car

  Liquid Honey to My Ears

  Returned With a Box of Eggs

  It Was Just A Way to Pay for Beer

  Cold Soulless Eyes That Gave Nothing Away

  We Were Grown-ups Now

  A Group of Hungry Looking Ducks

  How The Fuck Does a Man Get Pregnant?

  See the Planes Fall Out of the Sky for Ourselves

  But How Do You Describe Ecstatic?

  Some Red Carpet Has a Regal Quality to it

  Like One Giant Entity All Thinking and Acting Together

  The Reluctant Gold Piece of Crap

  Bright Green and A Hundred Feet Tall, In The Middle Of the Sea

  A Big Yellow Spark Flew Out and Landed on the Bench

  Like Some Tight Shorts Wearing Gestapo

  All the Acting Lessons in the World Wouldn’t Get You Eyes Like That

  If Kyle Were a Ghost Then Al Probably Would Be Too

  Unicorns an Butterflies Every Weh

  I May Have Mistaken Him for a Chrysanthemum

  If We Lived Together We’d Both Be Dead in a Year

  I Told You Not To Give Me Them Fish Finger Eyes!

  We All Know a Lot Can Change With the Arrival of Friday Night

  Drink and Drugs Brought Him to Life

  Just the Four of Us, In the Company of the Ice Cold Night

  Quoting Bible Verses at People Is One Thing

  Fresh-faced At Fifteen and Excited about Biking and Life

  They Want You to Put Your Hand In

  It Was Too Delicious an Irony Not To Be

  Try Some, It’s Dirty as Fuck

  The Brightest Of White Rooms

  It took a Minute for My Eyes to Adjust Again to the Dark Outside

  Epilogue

  A candle burns longer than a firework, but no one wants to see a candle display.

  Prologue

  I watched him through the murky darkness. Swaying back and forth as the boat rode the swell of the sea, taking my stomach with it. I looked closer. Maybe there wasn’t anyone there at all. Maybe I was just watching myself. It was hard to tell in the night’s thick black.

  A crack of lightning came down outside, illuminating the cabin just long enough for me to realise it was Al sitting opposite me. Thank fuck for that, there are worse people to be stranded at sea with than your best mate.

  Behind him the sea rose up against the row of small rectangular windows that stretched the length of the boat, drops of water clinging to the glass before slowly running back down again. We looked like two lost sailors from some clichéd disaster movie. It might have been funny if I hadn’t been so fucking terrified.

  “Al,” I said.

  Nothing. Just an empty look.

  “Al!” I repeated. “We’ve got to get off this boat!”

  Al finally responded and leaned towards me. “Why are we even here Lu?!”

  “I think we’re carbon Al.”

  “What? Why are we on this boat?”

  Above us I heard a deafening roar of thunder, as the sky and earth settled a billion year dispute over who could shout the loudest.

  “Because of the storm mate.”

  “Makes sense,” Al replied. “What were you talking about carbon for?”

  It took me a moment myself to remember why I’d said it. “When you said ‘Why are we even here?’ I thought you meant why do we exist? I was going to say I think we’re made of carbon Al, from a thousand dying stars.”

  “Carbon?” Al’s jaw started shaking and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. “I am a thousand stars!”

  Ten Pairs of Eyes

  September 1997.

  Eight, nine, ten. Ten and me made eleven. Eleven of us sat facing each other in a circle, eleven like a football team. I hope we’re not playing football, I’m fucking useless at football. Our ages ranged from early teens to late forties, a mixture of bored youths and over enthusiastic adults helping out. Men and women, mostly strange faces. The pastor of the local church I recognised, he had welcomed me in, a fat little man with a face as wide as it was long. Thin rimmed, perfectly round glasses, sat on his stumpy nose. Dressed all in black, wearing a smart turtle neck jumper and arrow straight trousers, he was far too cheerful for someone as young as me to relate to. I glanced to one side and Al gave me a grin. Other than the pastor he was the only person in the room I’d spoken to so far. We had met briefly earlier on, before the session had begun. When I’d arrived he had been waiting for the church hall to open, sat on top of a big BT cabinet, scraping the green paint off with his thumb nail and collecting it in a neat pile. He had blatantly stared at me as I’d made my way up the path, making me feel quite uncomfortable.

  “Alright,” I’d nodded at him when I got close enough.

  “Alright mate,” he nodded back. Trying to think of something to say I kicked at the grass with my right trainer, then I heard a thud and realised he’d jumped down and was standing next to me. I gave him a look up and down. He looked pretty normal which came as a pleasant surprise, could have easily passed for a kid from my old town. He was a couple of inches taller than me, maybe six feet tall like my dad. Dressed in a white t-shirt, blue adidas shorts and muddy white trainers. His dark scruffy hair poked out from under a yellow beanie hat. He looked comfortable, obviously this wasn’t his first time here.

  “You’re the new kid aren’t you?” He asked. “Moved into Elizabeth Avenue? Round the corner from me. I saw the van when you all turned up.”

  It was 1997, and while the country took a chance on a new government, brainwashed by Tony Blair and a theme tune by a keyboard playing physicist, my parents had decided our family too needed a fresh start. Colluding to up sticks and move near the coast.

  Great. As happy as I was to be chatting to someone my own age for the first time since getting to this tiny little village, the last thing I needed was for him to have witnessed the fiasco that was our arrival. I thought back to my parents shouting, and the screaming of Jack my little brother. We’d made so much noise I bet the neighbours had been cringing as they’d turned up their television sets. I only hoped he hadn’t witnessed it all and had just seen the van drive past.

  “Yeah mate. I’m Luke,” I smiled. “Thought this might be a good place to start meeting people.”

  “As good a place as any mate, not a lot goes on here,” he smirked, then tossed onto the end of his sentence, “I’m Al, stick with me, you’ll be OK.”

  It was then that the doors to the hall opened wide in front of us, and my attention was hijacked by the pastor, keen to welcome me into the fold. After assuring me of what a good time I was in for he placed a hand on my shoulder and guided me in. That’s when he sat me down to form part of the circle and church group began.

  The pastor introduced me to the rest of the group, “Everyone this is Luke, he
s just moved into the village. I hope you will all make him feel welcome.”

  That’s a good start, make me sound like a lost foreign exchange student whom everyone feels obliged to let tag along. Sympathy is just what I need.

  Ten pairs of eyes simultaneously watched me, I tried not to catch them as I looked back.

  We were told to pray. This was something both unexpected and new. I questioned whether it was right to pray to a god I didn’t believe in, then watched as everyone else put their hands together and closed their eyes. I did the same.

  The pastor started the prayer.

  “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

  I had an overwhelming urge to laugh, partly due to nervousness and partly because I’d never heard a man pray before. The pastor spoke with such commitment, such faith. He softly spoke a love song to a man who wasn’t there.

  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”

  Oh fuck, here it comes, the part where I burst out laughing and get thrown out of church group, the only possible thing on the planet that is more embarrassing than having gone to church group in the first place.

  “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.”

  Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself, my insides hurt from holding it in. Why won’t the fire alarm go off? Or the phone ring? Anything that will serve as a distraction. Then in the dark I heard faint sniggering. I opened my eyes just a crack and could see all the other kids had their eyes slightly open and were pulling faces at each other, I was the only idiot actually going along with it. Al smirked at me like I should have known.

  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. For ever and ever....Amen.”

  The kids quickly shut their eyes tight and repeated, “Amen.” Opening them a second after the pastor did to make it look like they’d had them shut all along.

  Thank god that was over.

  We were then given what the pastor referred to as free time, and we all got up and made our way outside. It was a warm summer, the kind of summer that gets left behind with childhood. The sun had all but set, leaving a thin line of light blue at the horizon before the navy of the evening sky. I looked up at the church itself. I’d not really had much time to take in its exterior when I’d arrived, what with meeting my first potential friend in the area. It was massive. With a tower housing a bell at one end, and a row of stained glass windows depicting Jesus and the disciples down the whole of the front side, until they reached the opposite end where a huge cross stood proudly on the roof. It looked spooky in the dark with the breeze moving branches around, casting finger-like shadows on the stone walls. I was glad we’d been in the hall out front and not the church itself.

  Through the hall window I could see a few kids were playing table tennis indoors, others were kicking a ball around under the PIR lights in the car park. Al beckoned me over to the path by the main road where you came in.

  “What year you in?” He asked me.

  “I start year nine this year,” I replied.

  Behind Al a glass cabinet was screwed to the front of the hall. In it was one of god’s adverts, printed on a poster like they put on the outside of cinemas when a new film is released. It read ‘JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS’. Yeah whatever.

  “Same as me,” Al said. It meant we were going to be in the same year at school - when I finally started that was. Everyone else had already gone back after the summer holidays but because we’d moved too late, my first day was going to be exactly a week after that. “Shit this isn’t it? But there’s nothing else to do round here. What was it like where you lived before?”

  I’d moved here from Branningham, a massive town in comparison. There was a BMX track that you could practically see from the terraced street I’d lived on. On Sundays they held races and we used to be able to hear the results being read out over the loudspeaker while we ate our Sunday roast. Past the BMX track was a main road you had to cross, then a field that led down to a winding river where I fished for roach with my old mates. If you carried on down the river there was a derelict textile factory where they had made parachutes in the Second World War. Hidden to the side were air raid shelters, most of them had been filled in but we used to explore in the couple that hadn’t. My mate Jim found a bullet in one of them once. We sprayed it with deodorant and set it on fire in a fruitless attempt to make it explode.

  “Shit mate,” I replied, “nothing to do there either.”

  “You been down the backwaters yet?”

  “Nah mate.”

  “Come on then, I’ll take you down there if you want.”

  Al led the way to the field behind the church, where we followed a line of trees that marked the end of some people’s back gardens. Then at the end of the field we turned left, where we followed another line of trees that led to a big grass sea wall. I chased Al as he ran up it.

  On the other side was a vast expanse of water that seemed to run endlessly from left to right, it was only the row of bright yellow lights signalling land on the other side that persuaded me it didn’t go on forever. They were literally miles away.

  “What’s that over there?” I pointed.

  “The lights? That’s Haywich.”

  “What all the way around the edge?”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Is it Haywich all the way around the backwaters?”

  “Haywich isn’t that big,” Al laughed. “There are other places round the backwaters.”

  “Well I don’t know, I’ve only just moved here.”

  “Right, where those lights are, that’s the docks in Haywich. Then if you look to the left you’ve got places like Mansbury, Belmont, Thrope.” He drew a semi-circle in the dark with his finger. “Right round to where we are in Kirk-Leigh, then there’s Wanton to the right of us then it becomes the actual sea and goes round to Frampton.”

  “So this is connected to the sea?”

  Al laughed again, “Yeah this comes in from the sea, it’s sea water. It goes in and out with the tide.”

  “So when the tide goes out is it sand like the beach?”

  “You wish,” Al replied sarcastically.

  “So what do you get?”

  “Er....mud mate, miles and miles of smelly mud. You can sunbathe in it if you want to.”

  Al picked up a handful of stones and skimmed them one at a time across the flat water, flashes of reflected moonlight tracing out each skim. I joined in while he described Kirk-Leigh to me. It was soon obvious he’d grown up here, as he listed all these places we could go, but so fast that I forgot them as quickly as they were said. I wondered who Al normally hung around with but I didn’t ask.

  “So how come you’ve moved here?”

  “The houses are cheap,” I replied. “My parents have bought their first house, they looked at a few places that were a lot cheaper than Branningham, but they picked here because it was so close to the sea.”

  “Were they your brothers I saw when you were moving?”

  “Yeah. There’s Dean who’s eleven and the baby is my other brother Jack who’s not even one.”

  “Cool, I’ve got a brother Simon who’s ten,” Al replied.

  By now it was pitch black out so we set off home. We went to Al’s house first as it was nearest.

  “Your place is massive Al!” I remarked. “How many bedrooms have you got?”

  “Only four.”

  “Four? What one each?”

  “Sort of, my parents share one so we have one spare. What about you?”

  “Three,” I replied, “but there are five of us so me and Dean have to share.”

  “Unlucky,” he said. “So what are you up to tomorrow?”

  “Nothing much, helping unpack boxes probably.”

  “Oh I was going to say I’ll pop round and give you a
knock but I’ll leave it then.”

  “Nah mate,” I replied quickly, “knock round for me, it will give me an excuse to get out the house.”

  “Alright mate, will do,” Al said, unlocking his front door. “What time?”

  “Dunno mate, whatever time you wake up.”

  “Laters Luke,” he smiled and shut the door behind him.

  I thought about tomorrow as I walked off down the road, I wondered if he was going to turn up or not? And if he did turn up, would it be before I woke, so my mum would tell him I was still in bed? Then I remembered....We were fourteen, there was no fucking way he was going to turn up too early.

  Loo like the Toilet?

  September 1997.

  I got up at lunchtime and having chucked on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, went downstairs to wait for Al. It wasn’t long before I heard the familiar clicking sound of a bicycle freewheel.

  “Alright Luke, you up for going to Wanton?” He asked, again dressed for summer and wearing that same yellow beanie hat. “I’ll give you a stunty.”

  Stunty was slang for a lift on the stunt pegs on the back of the bike. I knew because I had my own. I didn’t reply.

  Opening the door to the garage behind the house, I wheeled out my own Redline BMX, badly painted in matt black from a spray can and with one green tyre and one white.

  “Nah mate you lead the way,” I smiled at him as he started pedalling off. “Nice wheels Al.”

  “Yeah they’re mags,” Al called back as he pulled up on his handle bars before dropping off the kerb, his chrome plated frame sparkling in the midday sun.

  We cycled down the road to begin with, you could see the backwaters to the left of us but we didn’t get to it from the same way as last night. Instead we rode out to the very edge of the village, where the houses became fields. There we turned left down a dirt track that twisted its way to the water.

  “This is Island Lane, Luke,” Al said as we stopped at the end.

  “Why’s it called that?” I asked him. “By the way you can call me Lu, all my mates do. Well I suppose they used to now.”

  “What? Loo like the toilet?”

  “Suppose so.”

  “Spelt the same? L-o-o?”

  “Dunno mate, it’s a nickname, I’ve never really thought about how it would be spelt. Probably L-u.”

  “Oh right. See that over there Lu?” He pointed at an island in the distance. It was too far away for me to tell how big it was. There was a white building in the middle that looked like it may have been a house, either side were either tall bushes or trees, just green blurs from where I was standing.

  “Yeah.”

  “That’s Oyster Island.”

  “How do you get there? By boat?”

  “Nah, you can drive over mate, there’s a road. Or you could go by boat if you had one.”

  “Where’s the road?” I asked. “Can we go to Oyster Island?”

  “It’s right in front of us,” he said, pointing at nothing.

  “That’s the sea Al.”

  “It is now, you can only see the road when the tide’s out.”

  “So if we waited until the tide went out we could cycle over there?”

  “We could do, it’s a long way but it’s not that far,” Al replied. “Thing is, by the time we got there we wouldn’t be able to get back.”

  “Why not?”

  “The tide would have come back in, you’d be stuck there for twelve hours.”

  “So what’s the point of the road? If you end up being stuck there for twelve hours?”

  “Oh there’s a house on the island, people live there, it doesn’t matter if you can’t get back if that’s where your house is does it?”

  “True,” I said. “How do they get to work though?”

  “They own a big island in the sea Lu, with a massive house in the middle. I don’t think they need to go to work.”

  There was a pillbox to the right of us, at the top of the big slope that led down to the submerged road to the island. A dirt path started beside the pillbox and we set off down it on our bikes. To the left of us were the sea defences, joined up concrete blocks decorated with green strings of seaweed.

  We soon reached Wanton on the bumpy path. Wanton was a lot bigger than Kirk-Leigh, we only had one shop in the village and that was mostly a post office. Wanton even had a Woolworths.

  “Come on, I’ll show you the pier,” Al said, leading me down a few tight backstreets before coming out into the open again, up high and looking out over the beach.

  “There it is,” he said, pointing to what I’d already worked out was the pier.

  “Are we going on it?”

  “Have you got any money on you?”

  “Nah mate,” I replied without needing to check my pockets.

  “Probably better off coming back another day to do that then,” he said. “Have you been to Frampton? Where the school is?”

  “Don’t think so mate.”

  “We’ll go there next then, follow me,” Al said, leading me down to a wide pathway that followed the edge of the beach. We headed away from the right side of the pier, riding next to each other now, making use of the wider path.

  “Do you know who your form tutor is going to be yet?” Al asked.

  “My mum rang the school for me, it’s Mr Panfold.”

  “Unlucky, he’s a knob.”

  “Who have you got?”

  “Mrs Kilbey.”

  “What’s she like?”

  “A twat,” Al laughed. “She’s better than Mr Panfold though.”

  We continued on the sea path, passing occasional people on the way. Al didn’t slow down, just weaved round them like a madman. I did the same as I struggled to keep up.

  “What’s it like there Al?” I asked him when he finally slowed to let me catch my breath.

  “What the school? It’s alright, well it’s pretty shit but they all are aren’t they?”

  “Probably, yeah.”

  “Why? Not getting scared are you? Can’t be any worse than your last one. Branningham wasn’t any nicer than round here was it?”

  True enough, but at least I’d known what to expect there. At least I’d started in year seven surrounded by people I’d already been familiar with for years. Better the devil you know and all that. I didn’t want to let on that I was feeling nervous.

  “Just can’t be bothered with it Al,” I made out I wasn’t looking forward to school because it was boring. That was true, also true was that inside I was bricking it.

  Starting a new school in year ten was far too late to be making friends, people had bonded all the way from primary school and in the back of their minds they were very aware we would be leaving soon. I knew because I was thinking the same.

  “So what subjects are you doing?” Al asked as we stopped next to a lovely yellow sand stretch of beach. The beach all the way from the pier had been nice in fact.

  “Business studies, history and geography.”

  “What?! You picked all the hardest subjects? What did you do that for?” He exclaimed.

  “Why what have you got?”

  “Art, PE and drama.”

  “What, none of the same subjects I’ve got?” I didn’t even know why I’d chosen them and would have done anything to change them now, but how sad is that? To choose your options based on what your only friend had chosen to do.

  “We’ll both have all the other subjects Lu, maths and science and that, we might have the same classes for those,” he replied. I hadn’t thought of that. Even though we weren’t in the same form, that was only the first ten minutes of the day, we’d always have breaks at the same time too.

  It had begun to cloud over so Al suggested we head back to Kirk-Leigh. As we passed through the centre of Frampton itself I noticed it was filled with posh cafes and tea shops. Nearly everyone was old. Walking stick old.

  “Why are there so many old people everywhere Al? Have they all escaped from a retirement home or something?”
I called out to him.

  “You’ll find that round here mate, they like being by the seaside. Kirk-Leigh’s the same,” he replied, swerving round an old lady on a mobility scooter. “You don’t really notice it, apart from when it gets late and there’s literally no one on the streets, even in the summer.”

  I could remember the route from Kirk-Leigh to Wanton, then from Wanton to Frampton. You couldn’t really get lost, as long as you made sure you had the sea to the left of you all the way. The route from Frampton back to Kirk-Leigh was a maze of streets however. I’d never remember it after just this one time. It would be good if I could though, because as we came out into the open again after cutting through a farmer’s field, I suddenly realised we were at the top of the road I lived on.

  “What are you up to tomorrow?” I asked.

  “Gotta go for Sunday lunch with my mum and dad and some family.”

  “What time are you getting back?”

  “Dunno yet, it’s in Norfolk, if it’s early enough I’ll give you a knock.”

  “That’ll be cool mate.”

  “If not I’ll come round on Monday and we can ride to school together, yeah?” He said. “If you don’t see me tomorrow I’ll be round on Monday at eight.”

  “Nice one Al,” I replied, “catch you later.”

  It looked like my friendship with Al was going to continue. He’d knocked round for me like he’d said he would. Whether he enjoyed today or not didn’t make a lot of difference, seeing as he had to go the same way to school every day as I did. For the first time since I’d moved here I suddenly felt like everything might be alright.

  A Tired Old Desk

  September 1997.

  I woke around five-thirty in the morning. Woke being a loose term, I’d hardly slept. Al would be knocking on my door at eight so I had plenty of time to get ready. I got dressed slowly, trying to make the time last longer before I’d have to leave. I’d never enjoyed spending time at home but today I’d do anything to be staying in all day.

  I could remember being tense when I started at my old secondary school; new teachers, new buildings, not knowing where my classes were. This time round though it was going to be a hundred times more daunting. This was going to be totally new. I was terrified.

  I found my mum downstairs in the kitchen making breakfast, putting out a box of cornflakes and some milk in the middle of the dining table. She was still in her pink dressing gown, made from what looked like the fur of camp polar bears. She was on yet another diet and was substituting eating breakfast for a cup of tea with several sugars.

  “Morning Lu, all set for your first day at the new school?” She asked, her face all enthusiastic, despite having had no need to get up so early except to see us off to school.

  “Not really Mum,” I replied, “haven’t got much choice in the matter though have I?”

  “That’s the spirit,” she said. My mum had a funny way of not really listening to what you were saying and just hearing what she wanted to hear. It didn’t matter as she proudly looked me up and down in my uniform, her face beaming, even as far as her dyed blonde morning hair with just the hint of roots beginning to show through.

  As I was getting myself a bowl from the cupboard I heard Dean run down the stairs, having just slammed the bathroom door shut. This was closely followed by the sound of Jack screaming.

  “I’ll go and sort Jack out then shall I?” My mum growled as she stomped upstairs.

  “Alright Dean,” I said, looking at him dressed smart in his new school uniform. It was identical to mine, even in size, only his hung on him loosely to give him room to grow into it. I’d already done most of my growing. When I thought about it properly, it wasn’t really a new uniform, only the tie and blazer. The white shirt, black trousers and shoes were the same as we’d always worn.

  “Lu,” he replied.

  “Looking forward to the first day at your school are ya?” I asked.

  “Not really, waste of time ain’t it?” Dean was only eleven so had to go the lower school in Thrope. Neither of us had actually seen where our schools were, it didn’t matter so much for Dean as he had a school bus laid on. Mine was close enough that I could walk.

  “Tell me about it,” I replied.

  “What time are you leaving?”

  “Eight,” I said. “Al’s coming round, we’re going to ride there together.”

  I saw a jealous look in his eyes. He must have known that as apprehensive as I was about the day, at least I had someone to talk to. Dean didn’t know anyone in the village, when I’d invited him to come to church group with me he’d muttered something about bible bashers and wandered off.

  My mum put Jack in the high chair at the end of the table and he stopped crying, instead turning his attention to watching Dean and I. I think the reason he cried a lot of the time was because he was on his own. It was hard work including him in anything though, he couldn’t do much apart from annoy you. And what do you talk about with someone who can’t actually talk?

  “You’re going to need to leave in a minute Dean, where’s your coat?” My mum asked, having finished making us our lunches for the day.

  Dean went to the airing cupboard to get it. “What the hell?!” he shouted. “Mum, Whisky’s on my coat.”

  “Well move her then,” my mum replied.

  “Hiss!”

  Dean jumped back, making Jack cackle the way only babies can.

  “Sod that, she’s going mental.”

  “It’s alright, I’ll do it.” My mum walked round to the airing cupboard, squeezing Dean out of the way.

  “Hiss!”

  “What’s wrong with you today?” my mum asked the cat. “Let Dean have his coat.”

  “Hiss!”

  “Lu come and help me move Whisky will you, I don’t know what’s wrong with her today. She must be hormonal or something.”

  On the way to the airing cupboard I pondered whether or not cats even have a menstrual cycle.

  “You pick her up and I’ll pull Dean’s coat out.”

  “Why do I have to pick her up?” I asked, contemplating turning up for my first day at school and having to explain why my hands were covered in cuts. You could tell from the way she’d already ruined the stairs carpet that her claws were sharp.

  “You’re the man of the house while your dad’s at work, help me move her.”

  I put my hands into the cupboard and gently tried to nudge her from Dean’s coat.

  “Hiss!” I’d never seen her like this before.

  In the kitchen I found a tea-towel, wrapping it around my hand for protection. Then I eased my protected hand into the airing cupboard as slowly as I could. Dean watched from behind while my mum waited for her opportunity. In the kitchen Jack sat at the table alone.

  I got to the point where I was almost touching the cat and so far she seemed OK. Her eyes were fixed firmly on my hand but she didn’t seem to be unnerved at all. Then it suddenly dawned on me that although she was calm now, one loud noise might scare her into attacking me. A loud noise like Jack crying.

  “Dean,” I whispered. “Go and talk to Jack so that he doesn’t cry.”

  “Jack’s fine Lu, just get my coat.”

  “Seriously Dean, I don’t want her going mental on me.”

  Dean poked his head over my shoulder and looked at the cat sitting there serenely. “What are you worried about? She looks like she’s going to fall asleep.”

  “If she attacks me Dean it’s your fault, I’m going to grab her and throw her at you.”

  “Go on then, I’m just gonna stand here, I’m that confident she’s not-”

  Bang-bang-bang came the knock at the door. The cat changed into psycho mode before I even had a chance to turn my head to see who it was. Both sets of front claws came out, ripping at the tea-towel repeatedly, pulling the threads of the fabric out into long loops. My mum opened the door to Al and Whisky shot out through it.

  “What the?!” Al shouted as he nearly fell off the s
tep trying to get out of Whisky’s way. “What’s wrong with that cat?”

  I laughed, “Nothing normally mate, she’s been really weird today, no idea why.”

  “Probably the change of scenery,” Al replied. “Must be weird for a cat, living somewhere then being put in a car and driven somewhere totally new.”

  He was right. The lot of us had been so caught up in our own adjustment into the new home that we’d not even thought about the cat. She’d loved sitting on the warm towels in the airing cupboard back in Branningham, she spent so much time in there that my mum even let her have her own towel. It went on top of all the clean ones so that they didn’t get fur on them. The airing cupboard was probably the one place in Kirk-Leigh that didn’t feel totally alien to her. With the door shut she might even have been able to imagine she was still at the old house, and we’d taken that from her. She had every right to be angry with us.

  Now wearing his coat Dean left with a, “Cheers Lu.” Running off to the bottom of the road to get the bus. I fetched my BMX from the garage while Al waited.

  “Have a good day Lu,” my mum called to me from the front door as we cycled away.

  “You too Mum!” I shouted back.

  Slowing at the bottom by the main road, I saw Dean stood chatting in the bus shelter with another kid of similar height. His school bus came past us a minute later and when I looked back to check it had stopped for them, they were still chatting as they got on. I stopped worrying so much about Dean then.

  Al reckoned it was a few miles to school. As it was dry out we made it a mile by cutting through the fields. He speculated about the new term as he pedalled beside me, talking about people I’d never met, teachers I didn’t know. I tried to join in with his laughter but to my ears it sounded very fake. Laughter boarding on hysteria, fortunately he didn’t seem to notice.

  Then I saw the school for the first time. ‘FRAMPTON TECHNOLOGY COLLEGE’.

  A massive grey box blotted on the landscape, the windows having taken on the colour of the overcast sky. Or maybe a manic depressive’s Rubik’s cube? Either way it was far from inviting. Swarming around it were several years worth of kids who I didn’t know, wearing identical uniforms with coats over their blazers and accountants’ shoes. From the corner of my eye I saw a group of lads without ties on, they were obviously too cool to wear them unless they had to. Mine was in my bag. The lot of them crossed the road without looking and I had to turn sharply to avoid running into them, fucking lucky I thought as I followed Al to the bike shed.

  “What do you think Lu?” he asked me.

  “Er, yeah, looks alright mate, same as any other school really,” I replied. I built a little bubble of false confidence around me that I thought might stop me from being hassled by anyone.

  “See, told you it wasn’t that bad,” Al said. Good, my bubble was working.

  We walked round the side to a big door that everyone seemed to be filing in through, then I remembered I had to report to the reception as I had selfishly turned up a week late.

  “See you later Al,” I said as he kept walking.

  “You’ll be alright,” he replied. I hoped he was right.

  In the reception, a tired old lady sat behind a tired old desk. She didn’t talk to me when I walked in, just peering up from her screen for a moment, her eyes having aged while the people around her remained in perpetual youth. I got the impression that at some point years ago she’d wanted to leave this place. It was probably now some years since she’d really wanted anything. She was in no rush and waited for me to talk.

  “Morning, it’s my first day, I’m new,” I said with a false cheerfulness.

  “Name?” She’d either detected my bullshit or more likely was past caring.

  “Luke Keane,” I replied.

  “Luke Keane? You’re in Mr Panfold’s form. Room 302. The second room on the third floor.”

  She somehow made me feel like she was doing me a favour in doing her job.

  “Nice one,” I said as I set off to find my room. She didn’t look up, just tutted instead. When she’d gone to school people probably still said thank you.

  By now the hallways were empty, with everyone already where they were supposed to be. It made finding my room a lot easier. Actually walking in was the hard part.

  Having mouthed the number 3 - 0 - 2 to myself a couple of times, to make sure it definitely sounded like the number she’d given me downstairs, I put my face up to the thin sliver of glass in the door and peered through. I was already late I thought, no point in rushing in.

  A big lad with a shaved head sitting in the corner by the door spotted me almost immediately. Fuck knows what he was doing looking at the door, most likely waiting for the moment when he could get out of that room. I couldn’t blame him, if I’d been sitting there I’d probably have been doing the same.

  “Mr Panfold, there’s someone outside waiting to come in,” he said, taking from me the one thing I had, the element of surprise.

  The rest of the class turned to face the door. They couldn’t all see me yet. But I could see every one of them. All sat there staring in my direction, waiting to see who would emerge from behind the door.

  Mr Panfold opened it with a, “Yes?”

  For a moment I could have sworn I knew him, so much so I almost called him by the wrong name. “Morning Pasto- Mr Panfold,” I quickly corrected myself. He so closely resembled the man who’d invited me into church group, with his round glasses and his round face and his round body. He looked like one of those guides on how to draw cartoon people that children are given, a series of differently sized circles on top of one another, with the detail added later on. It was only the fact that I’d told the pastor that I was starting at the school and he hadn’t mentioned being a teacher that made me think it probably wasn’t him.

  “You must be Luke,” he said. “You’re late. Come in and sit down where you find a space.”

  The rest of the morning went by in a blur of what felt like a hundred different faces. I didn’t see Al until lunchtime, when he found me sitting on a wooden bench by the exam block.

  “How you getting on?” he asked me.

  “Alright, mate,” I replied.

  “What do you think of the other people here?”

  “Dunno yet, I’ve not even been here a day.”

  “They’re alright, won’t take you long to get to know them.”

  A couple of lads walked past on their way towards the playing field, “Al!” one of them shouted.

  “Pete you twat!” Al hollered back. It was easy for him to say they were alright, he knew everyone here already. I told Al about my morning while we ate the sandwiches that our respective mum’s had made for us. Al’s were nicer than mine, he had corned beef while I had cheese and salad cream. Then at the end of lunch we split up to go back to our classes. I had history next, a subject Al hadn’t chosen. I enjoyed history lessons.

  We learned about the world wars, just like we had at my old school. Our young and unashamedly trendy teacher, Mr Michaels, enthusiastically trying to turn the facts into a story. Forging in us pride for our country, but also a sense of respecting the points of view of others. He reminded us that in the battle rich history of the world, everyone fighting, no matter what they stood for, believed that they were in the right. I was never sure why we learnt about those two wars, whether it would somehow be useful in our adult lives or if it was simply out of respect to all the people who had died. As much as I enjoyed hearing about it, and respected the actions of the men we sent to war, I struggled with the idea of all those Germans dying because they had been brainwashed into killing for something that they thought was so right.

  The rest of the day’s lessons were boring in comparison and I was relieved when it was time to go home.

  A Nice Pebbly Stone

  September 1997.

  By the end of the first week I was blending in. No longer seen as the new kid in school. Camouflaged in my generic secondary school uniform wit
h pompous blazer and identifying tie, I looked from the outside like I belonged. Inside though, school wasn’t somewhere I ever felt like I belonged.

  I put this to my dad one morning.

  “You’re running late Lu, do you need a lift?” he asked as I came down the stairs with my school bag over my shoulder.

  “I’m early Dad, I don’t leave until eight o’clock.”

  “Oh don’t you? It’s alright for some, I’ve already been at work for an hour by eight o’clock.”

  “This is school Dad,” I said, “it’s different. Anyway why aren’t you at work today?” I’d just realised he wasn’t wearing the jeans and work boots he normally put on before going to the factory.

  “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment in Frampton Lu, about this thing I’ve got,” he replied. The thing in question was a big boil that looked like he was growing a new head on the back of his neck.

  “Dad,” I said in that way that sounds like you’re asking a question, when in reality you’re actually asking whether it’s OK to ask a question, only without actually asking.

  “Yes Lu.”

  “Why don’t I like school? I mean you’re supposed to like it aren’t you? Everyone always says your school years are your best years.”

  “Why? Don’t you like school?”

  “Not really.”

  “What don’t you like about it?”

  “I don’t know, it’s not like there’s one particular thing I don’t like about it, I just don’t like it in general,” I said. “I just feel like I don’t fit in, like it’s not meant for me.”

  “It isn’t meant for you,” my dad replied. “There are a lot of other kids there too and you’re all going to be different and want different things. The school has to try and help all of you, what you have to do is adapt to it as best you can.”

  “I suppose,” I said. “If it was there just for me we would do BMXing for every lesson.”

  “Yes but then you’re missing the point,” he said. “You’re never going to do that for a job and school is there to get you ready to go out to work.”

  “So how is work different to school?” I asked.

  “Your school is there to help you, isn’t it?”

  “It’s supposed to be.”

  “Whether you think it does or not is irrelevant. The reason you go there is for you isn’t it?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Well work is the opposite. You go to work because they think you can help them.”

  “So do you feel like you fit in at work then?”

  “Ah, that’s another point, you don’t need to feel like you fit in at work. Whereas with school you are all forced to be together, when you go to work you do it to get paid, as long as you are earning the money to pay the bills fitting in doesn’t come into it. But then that in itself is the fitting in part. You are surrounded by all these other people who are only there to pay their bills and that’s what you’ve got in common, you’re not all going to like the same things but you’ll find that in life. It’s just something you’ll have to get used to.”

  “So did you like school?”

  “To be honest with you I don’t remember actually liking being there when I was your age.”

  “So you wouldn’t say your school years were your best years?”

  “I didn’t say that,” my dad replied. “Anyway I think you’re misreading it, when people say their school years were their best years they aren’t just talking about school, they’re talking about everything they did at that age.”

  “So it’s not that they particularly enjoyed school, maybe just that they enjoyed being that age.”

  “Exactly Lu, the age when they don’t have bills to worry about or kids to feed,” he replied, quickly adding laughter on the end to cover having moaned about me being alive. “Anyway, you can’t really know whether or not you like school at your age.”

  “Why not?”

  “You don’t get the perspective to really have that opinion until you’ve been out and worked for a few years,” he smiled at me. “But that will soon come.”

  Al arrived while my dad and I were sharing a plate of crumpets and strawberry jam, letting himself in through the back door and helping himself to one. My dad looked like he was about to moan, then seemed to accept the fact that he now had four sons to feed not three. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

  My dad gave us a lift to school in the beaten up old diesel Renault he had at the time. Mid journey I spotted Al in the back staring at the boil on my dad’s neck. With his finger he subtly drew a smiley face in the air, meaning he had the same idea as me, that it was the beginning of a second head.

  That evening Al turned up after dinner, and we rode down to the old pillbox at the end of Island Lane. He pointed out a hidden tunnel that you could crawl through to get inside it. I hadn’t realised when we’d come here the first time that you could actually go inside.

  Having crawled through the claustrophobic tunnel, I stood up and put my face to a thin slit window in the flat concrete side. As I looked out through one eye towards the backwaters I pictured what it would have been like to be a soldier. Waiting for a German boat to come in across the water, packed full of people who wanted to kill me. It sent a little shiver down my spine.

  BANG! Something ricocheted off the side of the pillbox. What the hell was that?

  BANG! Another noise in exactly the same place.

  “You’d better move Lu! Next one’s coming in!” Al shouted up at me from outside. I took a step away from the window. BANG! This time from the inside of the pillbox as a stone came in and bounced off the walls.

  “What are you doing?!” I shouted as I quickly crawled out through the tunnel.

  “Scared you did I?” Al asked as I emerged.

  “Course not mate, you couldn’t have hit me if you’d tried,” I lied.

  “Go back in then and I’ll see if I can get you.”

  “No, you go in this time and I’ll see if I can get you.”

  “You’re alright,” Al replied. “Tell you what, if I can get this stone in then I would have got you first time, if I’d been aiming at you.”

  “And me,” I said, picking up my own stone. Al swung his arm back and totally missed the window, his stone pinging off about two feet to the right. I took a deep breath, carefully aimed my shot, and threw the stone straight in the hole.

  “Told you Al. I’m the fucking stone throwing champion.”

  “Beginner’s luck,” Al said. “Let’s see you do it again.”

  “No point Al, I don’t need to prove anything.”

  “More like you know you won’t be able to do it twice.”

  “I could get one in from all the way over there,” I said, pointing out where we’d left the bikes, a good twenty feet away.

  “No way! If you can get one in from there, I’ll stand inside with my face in the window and let you have three shots at me.”

  “Deal,” I said, thinking there was no way he’d actually let me throw it, the consequences if I got it in being far too great. I walked over to the bikes, picking around for a nice pebbly stone.

  “Ready?” I asked, taking aim at what was now a pretty impossible target, much smaller and also angled away slightly meaning I’d need to avoid the square edge around the window.

  “Throw it then.”

  It missed the side of the pillbox entirely, just catching the roof of the building and making that familiar concrete pinging noise before bouncing off into the field.

  “That was rubbish,” Al ribbed me.

  “I know,” I said, “I did it on purpose.”

  “Bollocks, you didn’t do that on purpose.”

  “I did mate.”

  “You didn’t,” Al said. “Why would you miss on purpose?”

  I looked at him and laughed, “I didn’t want to have to go back to your house and tell your mum I’d murdered you with a stone.”

  “Murdered me with a stone?” Al sniffed. “You couldn’t even
hit yourself with a stone.”

  I walked back to where we’d started playing from and picked up a perfect throwing stone in the shape of a school eraser. Then without putting myself under any unnecessary pressure I lobbed it straight in through the window before turning to Al.

  “Like I said Al, stone throwing champion.”

  He gave me a look of disbelief, “Jammy bastard more like.”

  Surely All Schools Are The Same?

  November 1997.

  After two months I had decided that this school, just like the last, was trying to mould us into clones. The world had, to my fourteen year-old eyes, at least a million different exciting ways to exist. School seemed to be focused on a very small part of that, the part where we all graduated and went out to find jobs wearing grey suits to match our grey lives. Having given it much thought, even to the point of contemplating running away and travelling around Europe with a sleeping bag and a tent, I had an epiphany one day that would stick with me until the end of my exams.

  Everybody had to go to school, and surely all schools are the same? So these people with exciting careers such as racing car drivers, fighter pilots, deep sea divers, all of them had had to go through the same boring education as I did. It might even have been that that spurred them on to become the person they are, so determined not to lead a normal life. It was with that in mind that I continued on through year ten, well aware that like it or not I had nearly two more years to go. The easiest course of action would be to try and avoid attention, paying lip service to the teachers where I had to.

  There were exceptions however.

  One of the few lessons I shared with Al was science. Of the three disciplines; chemistry, biology and physics, physics stood out as the most boring, and for one simple reason. Nothing ever got dissected or set on fire in physics.

  While Mr Vagables attempted to teach at us, I would occupy myself by admiring the unnatural shape of his body. By far the tallest teacher in the school, he would start each lesson by complaining that the top of the blackboard hadn’t been wiped clean, before doing it himself while muttering something inaudible under his breath, making full use of the advantages that come from having a body that’s probably six feet long on its own. To finish off the look, a long time disinterested face resided on the front of a head that was probably two sizes too small. If you looked at him through half shut eyes, which I often did, he could have been a giant pink stick insect, were it not for the fortunate smattering of grey hair on top of his head.

  Either in an attempt to stay awake, or possibly just out of spite, Al had taken a box of Pritt Sticks from the back of the class and was carefully winding the glue all the way out before cutting it off at the base with a pair of those red, plastic handled scissors that you only see in schools. Pushing it down the drain in the sink between us, before finally winding them back in. Leaving them for the unsuspecting person who next came along.

  I heard a sigh, well not quite a sigh but the sound it makes when someone quickly inhales just a little bit of air.

  “That’s not good,” Al muttered. I looked at him and he was looking down at his hand, it ran red with blood, drops contrasting on the desk against the white laminate top. The drops quickly joined together to form a pool.

  “Sir,” I said.

  “Yes Luke?”

  “I think you need to come and look at this.”

  “If you haven’t noticed I’m trying to teach up here, what is it?” he replied abruptly.

  “Al’s cut his finger sir.” Two girls sitting at the desk opposite looked over at Al’s hand, one of them went white as the blood drained out of her face in sympathy.

  Mr Vagables reluctantly made the journey to the back of the classroom, to see what all the fuss was about. He took a good look at the bloody hand and the red pool below it, taking a breath then pausing while he thought of the gentle words required for someone in Al’s situation. “Get out of my classroom will you Al, you’re no good to me in here like that.”

  “Where should he go sir?” I asked.

  “To the nurse’s office obviously,” he replied. “Where else is he going to go?”

  Blood had made it to the middle of the desk now, sliding down the edge of the square sink we shared, the steep sides making it speed up before it ran down the plughole.

  “On second thoughts maybe you should go straight to the doctors. I’ll tell the office you’ve gone for the day.” Mr Vagables looked worried now, although he had nothing to do with it I still don’t think he wanted the hassle of trying to explain to anyone how it had happened.

  “What if he passes out on the way sir?” I asked. “That’s a lot of blood to lose.”

  “Luke you go with him then, but as soon as you get him there come back,” he said. I considered his request, but decided a friend who truly cared would stay with Al for the rest of the day, in case he went into delayed shock or something.

  I took one last look at the desk as we left the classroom, it looked like a scene from a horror film. I was glad it wasn’t my job to clean it up.

  I got Al some toilet paper before we left the school, to try to stop the bleeding. Then we set out against the autumn wind. He reckoned it was only a fifteen minute walk to the doctors near Frampton seafront, we could have cycled it in five but our bikes would have to stay at school for the rest of the day, on account of Al being unable to grip the handlebars.

  “Ha, I bet you’re going to need stitches mate,” I joked, trying to make Al feel better. “I’ll ask if they can do them in some nice pink thread.”

  He just kept one hand squeezing the other, holding that wad of tissue paper tight around his digit.

  “Bollocks! I just thought,” he said as we reached the front door, “I’m not registered with this doctors.”

  I looked at him to check if he was being serious. “You’re joking Al, why the fuck have we walked here then?”

  “Dunno Lu, he just said go to the doctors, this is the first one I thought of. Mine is in Wanton.”

  “Mate I’m not walking to Wanton, we’ve just walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction,” I informed him.

  “What am I going to do then? I can’t just turn up and expect them to see me.”

  “You’re going to have to pretend to be someone else,” I said.

  “What?”

  “Pretend to be someone who will be registered with this doctors. Who do we know who lives nearby?”

  “AJ.”

  “Andrew?” I replied. “Nice one, he must be registered here.”

  We would cycle home with AJ some days, splitting up when we got as far as the fields. He would carry on along the main road while Al and I dropped down into the village. Al had known him since primary school, the pair of them looked pretty similar with their dark hair and skinny faces, maybe even similar enough to be brothers. There was actually a chance this might work.

  “Good morning,” Al said to the old receptionist. “I’d like to see a doctor please.”

  “Can I take your name and the matter that is wrong with you, then you can take a seat and I’ll find out when someone will be available.”

  “AJ, er- Andrew Richardson,” Al replied as he held out his hand, finger wrapped in thick tissue that was now completely red. “I’ve cut my finger.”

  The receptionist was a bit more sudden now. “Have a seat and I’ll see if you can be seen straight away.” She got up and swiftly walked out the back.

  “Nice one Al. I mean – AJ,” I said, punching him on the arm.

  The old receptionist returned in no time with an attractive young nurse. She took Al through the corridor that led towards the back of the building, quickly so as not to let the blood upset the other people in the waiting room.

  I was left alone to read the germ ridden magazines. Having searched through piles of Housewives World and Cake Bakers Weekly I found one about shooting, though I couldn’t imagine there was enough to know about shooting to fill a whole magazine. By the time Al came out again
I had learned something from that magazine that will stay with me forever. Everyone in the pictures holding the shotguns wore only brown, not brown with denim jeans, or brown with a red hat, just brown. I now knew never to mess with anyone dressed all in brown.

  “Did they give you stitches then Al?” He gave me a funny look for not using his pseudonym. I don’t know why, it was too late now, it wasn’t like they were going to cut his finger back open if they found out he’d used a false name.

  “Sort of. I got butterfly stitches.”

  “Butterfly stitches, what are they?”

  “They’re like little thin plasters that hold the wound together.”

  “You got a butterfly plaster then you gaylord?” I ribbed him. “Come on, let’s get you home before your butterfly plaster flies away.”

  He was back at school as normal the next day, it would provide us all a good laugh later down the line when, while at an appointment for something else, AJ was asked by his doctor how his finger had healed.

  Anarchists we weren’t.

  Like a Cloud of Shit Particles

  November 1997.

  I never lacked ability in subjects but definitely lacked motivation, struggling to see myself doing a job that involved any of what we were learning. English took this struggle to the extreme.

  “Everyone understand what they need to be getting on with?” Mrs Holt asked. A big smiling woman who I imagine had gained weight from a life spent either sitting down reading or sitting down telling others to read. I gazed blankly back at her along with at least eighty percent of the class. Even those of us who had nothing at all in common outside of school were joined in the overwhelming sense of boredom. The boffs had their pens at the ready, eager to get going.

  She had just read us an excerpt from Great Expectations, and now we had to write an explanation of what it meant to us. It didn’t mean anything to me. I’d spent the whole time I was supposed to be concentrating looking out of the window in the direction of home. I was thinking about later on and what we’d get up to as soon as we’d made our escape from here. As well as the BMXing we’d also started spending a lot of our spare time on the Kirk-Leigh beach. It wasn’t a proper beach, just a sandy bit at the edge of the water, surrounded on all sides by mud. To us though it was as good as a beach, and in a village as small as Kirk-Leigh you always knew you would have it to yourself. When the tide was in we would swim, and when it went out we would mess about on the sand or see who could crawl out the furthest in the stinking mud. I remember once trying to come into the house caked from head to toe in mud. My mum had hosed me down in the garden before I was allowed in to take a shower, though you wouldn’t have known looking at the gravy coloured water pooled in the bottom.

  Mrs Holt cleared her throat loudly bringing me right back into the classroom. Her eyes bored into me, eyebrows raised as if surprised that I’d felt the need to let my mind wander rather than focus on the task in hand. I knew she never really liked me, but I never could work out why.

  Looking down at the blank page in front of me I had no idea at all of what I was going to write about, all I knew was that the book was from a time when everything was in black and white. I tried to blag my way through it, making up some rubbish about feelings and the hardships people faced back then. It got me an F. That didn’t bother me. The fact that I’d had to lie did.

  Leaving the class feeling pretty dismal, I passed the art department. Looking in through the window I could see students still studying, and found myself feeling quite jealous of them. They stood and sat and worked on making their imagination tangible, all in the hope that they could add to the best works from previous years hanging in the corridor outside. Bright colours and abstract, or quiet shades and serene, it all looked perfect set against the drab grey backdrop of the 1960’s built comprehensive school. A big part of me yearned for the creative freedom the students seemed to have, a stark contrast to the rigid structure that comprised most subjects. I’d decided not to take art lessons, as much as I’d wanted to, because I was no good at drawing. Looking back, I wasn’t particularly good at speaking German before I started foreign language lessons, but maybe that was the whole point, the clue being in the name, lessons.
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