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Fiction by George Oliver

Do Not Publish This

It started to fall apart as soon as he started writing it. Writing it episodically, from every Central London coffee shop that would have him.

He twisted the knife in Brixton, spilling guts in tube zones 4 and 5, leaving mess in Southwark, Croydon, even Kingston upon Thames.

The fall could be extrapolated from a variety of factors, but the fundamental responsibility relates to his choice of profession. Their choice of profession. Opposites don’t attract? True. Two fiction writers are marriage compatible? False.

The divorce was neither anticipated nor reflected on, merely an occurrence soon resolved, a radical change of course settled on like choosing a different radio station or TV channel.

They always knew the marriage was dysfunctional, the kind of dysfunction intricate, three-season sit-coms arcs are usually moulded around. The kind underpinning Act Two of a dusty hardback being used as a doorstop.

The most glaring side effect of their shared employment — self-awareness — never brought solutions. Not for the six years since he first spotted her from the opposite end of Borough Market and felt compelled to go and start a conversation. He played it by the book, leading with a witticism about the structural makeup of Choux pastry, transparently shouting that he fancied her.

An hour later they were sat opposite one another in a hip bar just off London Bridge. The rest is history.


They’re constantly writing more. Whitewall Galleries Kingston,1 a Saturday afternoon in March at the end of the century’s second decade: the sun out, the clouds untraceable, despondency in the air with a dose of petulance. Imagine the below being read with insufferable writerly self-importance. The kind of elevated register no one actually speaks with.

I couldn’t disagree more. If it’s so hopeless, why use brush strokes? There’s no gradient blending, no smudging… it’s hardly one for opacity, is it?’

Why must opacity be so explicit?’

It’s pretty self-defined.’

This is your problem. You’re so driven by rules and definitions.’

Your problem is not having enough.’

The volatility disrupts the experience of those around them as much as it disrupts their own. The Man claims that she gets this from her mother. The Woman that he lives for an argument.”2 The couple are acutely aware of their surroundings, a ubiquitously binding contract between internal and external.

Doesn’t that thing have an off button? Or a volume dial? I can’t hear myself think.’

What thing?’

That.’

Which?’

That,’ the Man asserts, nodding in the direction of a twentysomething facing Lit Cigarette Against a Night Sky.’3 He is showing the painting to a friend over video call, which he feeds the friend an interpretation of, both delivered and received via their congruent blocks of thin metal.

He’s not doing any harm.’

My headache disagrees with you.’

Your headache is beginning to aggravate mine. Let’s not argue on two levels, please.’

Fine. Meet me at the Brighton Collection.’

If I don’t get lost.’

The Man will retrospectively give the That in question a role in a future story. One he’s been working on for months already but is barely taking shape. It’s scheduled to mutate into a workable draft by April but will not actually do so until June. In it, he will reduce the human reduced to a That to a laugh. A narrative prop. He will label it MALOAT” because of his affinity for postmodern language games4 that sacrifice engaging storytelling. The Woman has told him to get over this attraction time and time again, despite the agreement six years ago not to interfere with one another’s work. The agreement which spawned the refrain to make this work.”

Most Annoying Laugh of All Time (or, MALOAT).
NOUN.
single case of laughter so irritating it warrants the superlative.
she moved to another table, to be further away from the child with the MALOAT.”

The gag is as uninspired as the entire story proves to be. The Man’s agent will laugh him out of the room in June with a This is way off the mark — give it a rework.” The Woman, on his return home to their Brixton apartment, will resort to the immaturity of an I told you so.”


Later, when the argument has spilled into room two and distracted spectators of the Brighton Collection.

Apparently there’s an internet symposium for this.’

Yeah?’

It’s worrying, isn’t it?’

What is?’

This dematerialisation of labour. Doesn’t change the fact that someone is still making the hardware allowing you to upload data to the cloud. Someone is still scrubbing the museum toilets.’

You’re a lot. Do you know that?’

Late September, Brighton Palace Pier’5 hangs above them, a glistening trophy of creative serenity. The Man wears an expression of controlled annoyance as he prepares and packages another response.

I’m a lot?’

You can be.’

You’re a little.’

The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

The Prince of Denmark offers the key to his play during A3, S2. It’s the kind of metatextual clarity the Man and Woman could do with right now.

Do Not Resuscitate

The rotting corpses, spirits, and beings in halfway states eavesdrop on the conversation as it’s carried out. The stone prisons where these varieties meet gather moss and dirty footmarks in real time. A sky cluttered with big, puffy masses of minute liquid droplets holds the picture together, however precariously: men, women and children, their commonality symbolised by a black uniform haphazardly pulled from a corner of the wardrobe rarely visited by the respective women, men and parents responsible for holding these individuals together despite the preoccupation of looking after themselves.

The locale is hardly Hollywood Forever, Père Lachaise, or Brookwood. Instead, the showdown is staged at the entirely uncinematic Mitcham Road Cemetery.6 It’s a Wednesday in July, not that it feels like summer.

Steven was a lot of things. He was a hundred different people, often switching between these several times a day: husband, teacher, drinker. [LAUGHTER]. But to me, he was one thing more than anything else. He was my Dad. He — and I know everyone says this, and that any one individual couldn’t possibly compare with such a small frame of reference — he wasn’t like normal Dads. As a child this meant stricter bedtimes but more football matches than my friends. As an adult, fewer pints than with my in-laws but a more meaningful connection when we DID meet up. [LAUGHTER]. Like his school timetable, there was always something else on the schedule. I always admired that about Dad: he never stopped, even after retirement. Growing up, it directed me to find my own ways of spending the hours, to develop the interests that have allowed me to get away with never getting a real job. [LAUGHTER]. Dad was always incredibly supportive of my work. My teacher, editor, and best friend rolled into one. What more could a son ask for?’

Too short. Laugh One isn’t big enough and Two doesn’t come soon enough. Three laughs total won’t be enough.’

You’re telling me this now?’

What did you expect? Why hide it from me until the last minute?’

I’ve been busy.’

What could possibly be more important?’

I don’t need this. Not today.’

This is your Dad’s fucking eulogy, not just another bit of writing.’

You’re becoming irritating.’

Jackpot! Another irritating so and so you’ll use as a character one day.’7

You’re being far more irritating than my characters could ever be,’ the Man concludes, walking to a different end of the graveyard to cool off, leaving the Woman visibly shaking with anger, her face reduced to the contorted lines and angles of a cartoon character, three-dimensional pellets of perspiration rolling down the sides of her stick-on mask.

The Man’s thoughts wander. He lists moments in literature set at these places: Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Roth. Then cinema: Night of the Living Dead,’ Harold and Maude,’ It’s a Wonderful Life,’ The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’ These are the Man’s only prior knowledge of how the drama today might play out, having been fortunate enough to never visit a graveyard before. Little does he know that all the preparation in the world means nothing, no matter how many rehearsals, no matter how polished the script, no matter how well the actors know their lines. The Funeral: everyone miming each interaction with each peripheral second cousin milliseconds before they happen, in their head. Everyone spilling their primed ad-libs in the desperate hope that they collide with someone else’s on exit and chime as conversation.”


‘Okay, I’m sorry, but–’

–There’s a but?’

The Woman responds to the interviewer in her head, transporting herself to a timeline where her husband assumes the role of deceased. He was a lot of things. He was complex. He was difficult.”

There’s a but?’

Her imagined counternarrative takes a turn, changing gear to a demanding new topic. He never wanted children, so it wouldn’t have worked… of course I loved him. We couldn’t stay together because we were tearing each other apart.”

Are you even listening to me?’

Sorry, miles away.’

I need you here. I always need you HERE. There’s this vacant pocket of space that you’re supposed to be in.’8

The Woman ends both interrogations simultaneously, by walking towards the Man’s friends and family, a pick n’ mix of individuals she’s spoken to once or twice, previously met either at the pub or his family home. The group is congregating around a shiny new slab of marble. To its side, her father-in-law hammers the four walls of a curiously big black box in vain, muffled by the gradually spreading chorus of cries on his behalf. LET ME OUT! LET ME OOOOUT!” he shouts. Perhaps.

Soon, the episode goes full circle. The Man delivers the unedited eulogy and must deal with unanticipated outcomes to its many digressions:

Steven was a lot of things. He was a hundred different people, often switching between these several times a day: husband, teacher, drinker. [SILENCE]. But to me, he was one thing more than anything else. He was my Dad…’

12%

15:24.
What’s the MS on your desk? X

15.30.
Which?

15:31.
More than 100 pages in Courier. Lots scribbled about Baudrillard on sticky notes. Substituting signs of the real for the real itself” X

15:32.
You read it?! What did we say?9

15:32.
And u know I never type in Courier10

15:34.
You? Proofing someone? Not convincing. And I didn’t read it. Promise. WISH you’d write something I could read

15:34.
It’s not mine.

15:38.
If u had it your way you’d self-publish, buy your own film rights, cast yourself in the lead…

15:40.
Stop being ridiculous.

15:40.
And stay out of my study.

15:41.
1 day we’ll have a Kafka-Brod situation on our hands. There’s nothing you’ll be able to do. Leave me something good when u kick the bucket?

15:42.
Am on the bus, wedged between irritable 6 YO and poor Dad, trying to prevent the apocalypse from across my lap. No chance of me ever writing again if he doesn’t xx

15:43.
A sense of humour! had forgotten what yours looked like X


16:02.
Sorry, had to change at Elephant & Castle.11 Am prepared to have a laugh, but don’t go through my things again. Especially my work. We’ve said this.

16:02.
I didn’t. But maybe if this apartment wasn’t so SMALL I wouldn’t be tripping over myself

16:03.
We’re working on that. We’ve had this data exchange. Don’t dig up bones.

16:03.
Phone’s dying BTW. 12%

16:04.
Organised X

16:05.
Running around LDN like headless chicken all day. No time this morning to think of phone chargers.

16:06.
What shall we do for dinner?

16:06.
Takeaway?

16:06.
Takeaway?

16.06.
Beat me to it.

16:07.
U know I can read you like a BOOK X

16:08.
But not one of mine.

16:08.
Not one of yours. Remember MULHOLLAND DRIVE?

16:09.
How could I forget?12

16:10.
“David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking this Thriller”

16:10.
Genius.

16:10.
Idea for your next novel? ppl might actually make it to the end that way, in one piece X

16:12.
No chance of a novel any time soon xx

16:13.
6% BTW xx

16:15.
I’ll leave you alone then. pick up food on your way back, maybe Chinese? X

16:19.
Will do. Just coming through Kennington

16:22.
Traffic’s not great so might be another 20

16.22.
Maybe 30

16:22.
40 with the food wait xx

16:24.
2%. Gonna die any second. Damn this ticking time bomb. Time and the hour runs through the roughest day”

16:24.
Macbeth?

16:25.
see u soon xx

16:25.
X

Books in Bed

You only ever give me 60%. 70 if I’m lucky.’

And you give me 100? Like, ever?’

That’s what I’m like. I’m laconic. I don’t need to open my mouth to be present.’

The final, condemnatory setting is the bedroom of their tiny apartment.13 It’s a cold Saturday night in December, four days before Christmas. The air is tight with the suffocating hold of an irrevocably broken relationship. The relied upon supply of carbon dioxide will soon dry up completely. Plush teddy bears symbolising a plethora of happier times line the windowsill, host to a window left ajar, allowing foreign oxygen to seep into a room it cannot positively contaminate. Travelling from the foot to the head of an elaborately decorated king-size bed, a patterned duvet conceals a pair of exhausted sets of blood and bone wrapped in blankets of withered skin, with matching slippers. Husband and wife now show their true colours: children dressed in middle-aged pyjamas. The Woman’s tired frame turns the pages of her lower body, flicking through chapters of old keratogenous membrane as she cuts her toenails. The Man’s prose has also been silenced, for now. He skims a handsomely bound paperback picked from a bestsellers” stand earlier that day, smiling involuntarily each time he consumes a particularly interesting sequence of words that will look good transposed into his own fiction. The Woman’s head jerks with varied intensity in response to the music hooked up to her gratuitously large headphones. She shakes the bed slightly as she does this, losing toe clippings and catching the Man’s attention as their respective, independent concentrations shatter and prepare to greet an unwelcome new source of contact.

No. I’m not in the mood.’

The Woman’s interruption of the silence comes in response to her husband’s of The Stooges. A wandering hand had begun to inch towards her waist beneath the duvet, uninvited.

You’re never in the mood. It’s been months.’14

Like most marriages, theirs had seen the progressive decline of sexual routine. By their sixth year together (fifth married), the allotted window for a few muscle contractions in the dark had disintegrated to the point that it no longer shared the same calendar page as the previous allotment. If you were lucky, you’d find it on the next page; if not, perhaps the month after.

The Man had rehearsed his next angle of attack on the Victoria Line earlier that day. It was calculated, meticulous, full of evidence, backed up with citations. It was everything he’d been trying to say for months. It–

–Well, this. You’re. How can you–’

–You’ve got fifteen minutes, then I’m going back to Iggy.’

Sure,’ the Man sighs, defeated.


The Man had an especially difficult time concentrating these days, during it. Even though he thinks about IT at least once an hour on a typical day. Getting hard was the easy part; it was the softer parts of him, the heart and the brain that posed problems. For over a year now, distractions had come in the form of a self-reflexive inquiry into the process itself. A post-postmodern fuck, imbued with self-consciousness: vocal orgasm counting, worrying about how he looks, expressing concerns about position, speed, forcefulness, facial expression.

Recently, his research had a breakthrough. His new theoretical framework? Considering the penis analogous to the pen, its application a supplementary creative exercise. He’d finally learned to understand both, twelve years into a writing career and eighteen into manhood. At thirty-six, he was the master of his own member, experienced, erudite. The enlightenment came, eventually. Better late than never.

Can you look at me?’ the Woman offers, breaking the Man’s internal rhythm.

Right, yep, sorry.’

How are you still so bad at making eye contact?.’15 I’m. Trying. Just stop. Talking.’

The Woman had an equally difficult time concentrating lately but was altogether more successful at hiding it. A turn of phrase that had been buried in her head for years would invariably resurface during sex: the existential responsibility of having children. The evolutionary responsibility. She didn’t know which semantic formation she preferred.

They’d agreed not to have children after spending year three grappling with the subject. The Man categorically didn’t want any and couldn’t be swayed. She sat on her disappointment for year four, but five and six brought a newly resurgent tidal wave of longing, determined by the terror of fast-forwarding to a hypothetical future where she hadn’t even had the opportunity. She wanted to walk up to the waters of motherhood and dip her toes in. If she forgets how to swim, so be it.

Uggghhaaa.’

Finished?’

Finished. You?’

Barely started, but your fifteen minutes are up.’

Suit yourself.’

By now, they knew each other’s precise dimensions. They knew the angles of construction. They’d spent years cultivating the knowledge of what each enjoyed, what they didn’t, how they liked it, how they didn’t. It was muscle memory. Despite their work drafting and redrafting this contract, they were helpless to prevent the practise nosediving. The Man didn’t even touch her anymore, just put his thing inside her, proceeded to pump mechanically. He never asked if she came, despite the announcement volume of HIS climax.

I’m gonna shower.’

Is there anything in the fridge?’

Have a look.’


A short while after — when the Woman’s body smells of coconut, her hair of tea tree, and the Man is eating yesterday dinner’s leftovers. An outstretched hand allows a Tupperware box of cold spaghetti Bolognese to hover in the air in front of her:

Want some?’

Okay.’

The Man regrets the generosity almost immediately.

Do you have to eat so loudly?’

I’m not.’

You are.

Sit in another room then.’

This is the stage they’re at: hitting the runner’s metaphorical wall, noticing newly vexing mannerisms on a weekly basis. This latest find had been hiding in plain sight: the Woman locks her jaw every third or fourth bite of a mouthful. So. Goddamn. Annoying.

They no longer bless each other’s sneezes. They ignore the necessity of being vulnerable to one another, of reciprocating. They lock up their insecurities, supplying the key but configuring a dense multi-step process of opening the container. They can’t relax. The Man devotes every inch of effort to eating silently, to what end? Which audience is he proving himself to? This one isn’t impressed.

As they eat, she too stubborn to make the same conscious effort, he too stubborn to go and sit downstairs, the cacophonous bells of breakup can be heard, piercing the immaturity of their silence. They could make a joke of the situation, as others might. The natural alternative trajectory for a half-argument so trivial and insignificant. But it takes two to be funny, which requires a wavelength, a connection, but these wires are unplugged.

The Woman grabs the Tupperware from her husband’s hand when it’s empty. She bounds downstairs.


‘What’s this?’

The Woman re-enters the bedroom after supplying the question mark, a neatly bound wad of papers in her hand, covered by a blank page with the lie TAX RETURNS” scrawled on it in marker pen.

What?’

You know what. After everything we’ve said, THIS is what you’ve been working on?!’

You’ve gone through my stuff, again.’

You’ve written about me, again.’

But–’

–How many times do I have to spell it out for you?! This is private. This belongs to us. Do. Not. Publish. This.’16

This” offered the possibility of a Cautionary Tale. A signpost for others on the same downward curve. An opportunity to step outside of the situation and create something of verisimilitude. The chance to take some social responsibility.

The Woman continues before the Man can get a word in, not that he has any. Verbs, nouns and adjectives tear through her choked sobs:

Do you think it’ll solve anything? It’s — it’s not even the biggest problem here. What are we doing? Seriously: what are we doing? But this is the one thing that was always off-limits. Take literally anything else, like my writing. What about MY writing? Why am I always so far from the conversation?’

I don’t know.’

None of this is important. I — I want a child. You know I do. I always have, and you didn’t even give me the option. I — I can’t live like this, swimming in our own drafts, in this apartment, with no space to breathe. It’s suffocating. I — I can’t do this anymore.’

The Man doesn’t dare open his mouth, not that it would change anything. Only now does he recognise his colossal misfire, for the first time noticing the box he’s put his wife in, realising the danger of considering her retaliations to the status a bit much.” They’d been subsumed into the we” of marriage and she’d lost so much, all but relinquishing her surname, whereas he’d kept everything. In his head, he doubles down on the opinion that they’re not fit to parent, they who so carelessly toddle through an oversized world themselves. It’s why they’re great. It’s why they decided to marry. But in the excitement, they’d misinterpreted value. HE had. The priceless importance of listening to compromise. He who had prioritised art over living. He who could never close the book and switch off. He who hadn’t found God because His opus was too long to get round to — another Ulysses,’ another Moby Dick,’ another Big Book written by a white guy. Now, it is far too late to do anything but seek solace for the monumental six-year fuck-up. Besides, the words don’t come.


The apotheosis to their shared narrative of despair relies on the instability of speculation.17 Stretching outwards and beyond, the Woman’s follow-up novel will be the grounded, lived-in father of two. She will assume motherhood over an adorable six-year-old that goes by Miranda” and a mischievous four-year-old responding to Jake.”

The Man’s next WIP will be a destructive twenty-three-year-old fresh out of university. The romance won’t last, but will further clear the air, laying out plans for personal redemption and leading to his first experience of happiness for years, a good eighteen months behind the Woman’s, whose new family will be expecting their third (her first) child by then.

Before these projections, the husband and wife will adopt the prefix denoting the past tense, a development requiring no follow-up conversation, only a formal exchange of papers requiring a signature here, here, and here. The act of writing words on a page finally constituting something real.

The mutual friend will come next, sent on the Woman’s behalf to identify the this, that, and this belonging to her in the apartment. The friend will consult a handwritten list delegating where the ambiguity of shared items is a more convincing case in the Woman’s favour, followed by those in the Man’s. The procedure will only take three days.

The years will stack on top of one another in the wake of the divorce, its variety of reasons being disregarded for the only one that matters, both in the Man’s understanding of it all and the Woman’s: self-absorption to the point of suffocation, a more niche brand of toxic masculinity. They will once again learn to agree, miles apart and without even communicating.18

Back in the present, the Man’s lack of reply results in the Woman’s dumbfounded silence, which swiftly leads to doors slamming and car engines starting. An unusual calmness sneaks in through the front door as it closes behind her, descending on the apartment as if the Man’s entire existence had suddenly been enclosed within a snow globe the size of the South London district. Without warning, a giant child’s hand reaches for the globe and shakes it violently, spinning the Man around its washing machine as a new rhythmic cycle is initiated.

Beyond the child’s reach and the entrapment of the globe altogether, the Woman speeds towards her mother’s house in Kingston upon Thames. Mum will be happy at the unexpected addition to the dinner table. There, the Woman’s pain is numbed by the crowds and noise of festivity, while the Man confronts his in the open, attempting to arrange something with friends so last minute that he is unable to. He spends the twenty-fifth alone, wobbling on account of too-much-alcohol-consumed, hopelessly willing a jet of urine to land in the toilet bowl while his future ex-wife humours her nephew by reading the printed joke found in his Christmas cracker.

George Oliver

Twitter: @kowalik_george
IG: @georgekowalik11


  1. 4 Wood Street, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 1TX.↩︎

  2. Monday 5th November 2018. A happening, shoebox coffee shop just off Bloomsbury Square. One of their last shared (misjudged) writing sessions, before dropping the arrangement completely by January 2019.↩︎

    1. On loan from the Tate Modern.
    ↩︎
  3. Like many, the Man conflates postmodernism and Wittgenstein’s brand of philosophy, despite the unreliability of the former in terms of timeline but also definition.↩︎

    1. Also on loan from the Tate.
    ↩︎
  4. Mitcham Road, Thornton Heath, CR9 3AT.↩︎

  5. Reference to Wednesday 12th December 2018. The comfort” of their Brixton apartment. First recorded use of the words do not publish this.” The Man and Woman argued over the former’s ostensible characterisation of the latter in work-in-progress Adult Undergarments.’↩︎

  6. The Man is unwittingly paraphrasing a section of debut novel Hideous Man.’ Specifically, chapter four — when Johnny G. (the hideous man) mourns the death of Mr. Bones, his golden retriever: There’s this pocket of space where he used to be. It’s vacant, waiting for a return that’s never coming. If I could just fix the punctures… just stitch the ruins back together…”↩︎

  7. They said: Let’s agree to never talk about works-in-progress.” Sunday 13th October 2013, twelve days after the inadvertent first date just off London Bridge. Six years to the day until the present text message conversation would refer back to it. An excitable Man begins Look — I know it’s soon, but I think I’m starting to fall in love with you…”↩︎

  8. Like many, the Man favours Times New Roman.↩︎

  9. Placing the person attached to the limb attached to the mobile phone a stone’s throw from London Road, SE1 6LW. It’s a Friday in September, weather conditions undisclosed.↩︎

  10. The Man has published various pieces of scholarly work exploring Lynch’s oeuvre. Highlights include “The owls are not what they seem”: Zoology as Code in Lynch’s Television’; Reframing Lost Highway: Wayward Jazz and Infinite Metamorphosis’; and A Hairdo Prognosis: Analysing Jack Nance’s Six-part Capillus Symphony.’↩︎

  11. 20 Hyperion House, Brixton Hill, SW2 1HY.↩︎

  12. It’s been thirty-four days, eighty minutes, and ten seconds. Make that eleven.↩︎

  13. This argument is only their second most popular over the six years. First prize goes to the tired debate of phone checking during a film. The Man condemns it, the Woman says that if this is the direction of the film industry — streaming over theatres, authority over spectator autonomy, the pause button over sacrificing a scene to visit the toilet — then she has no problem further disrupting the experience. Platitudes aplenty: cinema’s dying anyway”; I can’t support EVERY art”; I’m only the attention span of everyone around me.”↩︎

  14. He never does, ultimately. The manuscript gathers dust in the bottom drawer of a new study in Bermondsey, long after the marriage has successfully dissolved thanks to lawyers and the strategic division of the contents of their Brixton apartment (overseen by a mutual friend — in his case ex, in hers a pillar of stability post-breakup). It only leaves this drawer after being thrown in with other recyclable waste during a sweep by the new cleaner, Francine, on her first shift after replacing Martin in August 2029. It was the Man’s fault for leaving the drawer open and a mess of torn paper on top of it.↩︎

  15. It was a habit of the Man’s to end a story outside the fiction’s present.↩︎

  16. Clarity will land, unconditioned by external interference, requiring no further textual extensions, no such information-qualification process as this. This — these — being a model of the interminable text, only ever designed to relish authorial omnipotence and, well, stir the trouble. A model whose attempt to be confessional cannot undo the intrusive damage nor the havoc wreaked. This is where it malfunctions.↩︎

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