Tanner Hops,
Coyotes Interrupt Us

by Alex Keegan

"I had more love on a Monday than my sisters could ever hope for in a fifteen-day fortnight."

All of us, we make fools of ourselves over our men at some time or other, don't we? But we were sisters, four of us, sixteen to twenty-one, and us with no Mam or Dad, we had to stick together.

Nora was the oldest, and even though the nearest sixpenny dance was in Alma Street, barely two shakes away from our house, she never went. Nora was like Dad before he died; words weren't water, she'd say, they weren't to be wasted. Bridie was the next oldest, then Frances, then me, Nellie Collins. We were Catholic Irish, less than five years from oldest to youngest girl. Only some "trouble down there" for Mum stopped me being the fourth Collins of six or seven or eight, then that turned to cancer and she was gone.

Bridie was the larkiest one of us by a long way, more than making up for Nora being quiet. She was a terrible girl, her eyes and her dark hair flashing, town full of broken hearts. Frances was the beautiful one, but it was Bridie the boys went for. Before the war, it was lads from Whitehead's and Godin's; after the war broke out, a string of soldiers and sailors, all Brylcream and fancy that! Most of our nights out we spent at the sixpenny dances -- we called them tanner hops, and I loved them, the music, the swirling skirts and stockings, the beaus, the ciggies, and those glittering little lights that bounced off the mirror-ball on the ceiling and across the faces of the dancers.

But I was "Nellie, the Collins kid sister" and I either found myself going to get the Vimto-and-Jacks for the others, or, if three lads actually did pluck up enough courage to pick us out and tap a shoulder, stuck with the awkward one. I couldn't wait to be eighteen. I wanted to fall in love, find myself a nice chap and get married, but Bridie told me that was silly. Life was life, she'd say, for singing and dancing, for fun, boys. "Nellie, don't get serious," she'd say. "Get serious and you'll not handle the boys. A hand up the skirt's harder to fend off if you really like a boy." The first time Bridie said this, like a fool I asked, "Up your skirt? Really?" and she laughed at me. I turned to Frances, but she blushed bright red and went for the Vimtoes.

We knew lots of boys, boys from St Joseph's, boys from St Michael's, now and again a few braver lads from St Illtyd's. And we knew the bands. At the Alma Road tanner hop you got a paper cup of lemon caley when you came in -- it was always awful -- and they used to switch and swatch bands between Larry Crab and his Nippers, The Janice Clarence Trio, and Mary Malone's Mooders. They all had drums and piano, of course, but Janice Clarence herself played harmonica (and she was good). Larry Crab played trumpet and sometimes did some funny numbers with a penny whistle. Mary Malone's had an accordion and their only man was a chap with dark brown skin and droopy eyes who played fiddle. Larry Crab's made for the best dancing but I liked Janice Clarence best. The nights were more romantic somehow. After the war came, the quartets were mostly ladies.

Frances had got to know a boy who was at Teck. When he'd matriculated he got "above average" and got a place, and somehow his parents scraped the money together. His name was Cedric and he was a bit too lanky, but he was a nice enough chap and seemed to suit Frances. She wasn't nearly as flighty as Bridie, but not quite as quiet as Nora either. I think I was somewhere between Frances and Bridie but nobody ever noticed, seeing as I was always Nellie the Little Sister, and like as not, off at the counter getting in the Vimto. Frances told me once, "Cedric has a fine brain. At the technical college they are learning design." I asked her what design was but she didn't quite know. She said it was learning to design things, which didn't help much, but Cedric was OK, apart from being too tall and having big ears and a lisp.

Then there was Ron. He hung around us a lot. He had been a jobbing brickie but had just been taken on as assistant rough roller at Whitehead's. He was actually good-looking but you'd never have known it. He was so timid he wouldn't say boo to a goose -- and he had a lisp too, a faint one which got worse when he was flustered, which was most of the time he was anywhere near Bridie. He was madly in love with her and she treated him awful!

There's that religion which says what goes round comes round, isn't there? I always thought that if this was the case, some day I wasn't going to be the Collins little sister going for the Vimtoes but would be treated like a real woman. Well, I was, and for a while it was wonderful, but everything got complicated, with Ron, and with Cedric, and a chap called Arthur Cassell from Tovey & Tovey's, and a soldier called James Goddard.

Arthur's not very important, but James, he was. The first time we saw him was at a tanner hop in the Drill Hall on Stow Hill. There was a band in from London and it was a much bigger do than the usual. The place was positively bursting with excitement.

Well, James Goddard arrived halfway through a bebop number and I remember, he nearly stopped the band the way he came in, like Lord Muck, pushing open the double doors and just standing there, waiting for people to notice him. Oh, but he knew he was a handsome chap all right. He was six foot and a bit, nice eyes, and his hair Brylcreamed back to flatten out his curls. Some people said he looked like Ronald Coleman and others that he was the spit of Errol Flynn, but me, I thought he was like a cross between Valentino and David Niven. And then they put him in uniform – there wasn't a girl in ten miles stood a chance! This was really early in the war, before the air raids even, and not everyone had joined up, so those who had, well, they were special, and of course any girl will go for a uniform, won't she?

Bridie wasn't with Ron that night. She used to let him take her out about once a fortnight, but when she didn't want to see him she'd tell him she might be at one tanner hop and then we'd go to a different one. That way, she said, she always knew where he'd be. I think she was cruel to Ron, really, but I said nothing, but then, when James Goddard burst in that night I thought it was "comes round" time because you could see in 20 seconds flat that Bridie was completely smitten with him and just as quick it was obvious that James Goddard didn't give a monkey's.

Well, to cut a long story short, Bridie set her sights on James and by the end of the night, she had him dancing with her, even though I didn't think he was really all that taken with her. But complicated! Frances took a fancy to James too and so did I, even though I was too young, and when Bridie and James were out on the floor dancing, one minute it was Bridie winking over his shoulder and giving us the thumbs-up, next spin it was James, smiling like he could turn my knees to rubber, and making Frances go scarlet.

When they came off, I had already got the Vimtoes -- I didn't want to be sent away and James smiled at me, gave me a little wink, then blew me a kiss. I thought I was going to keel over; I nearly did when he slipped out a hip flask and topped up all our drinks with something. "You'll get thrown out!" Bridie said. James laughed and said, "Well, I won't tell if you don't!" Then he told us to drink up, and we did, but we were like little lambs and James was the big bad wolf. He knew it too, but then I didn't care.

That night, James and a pal of his walked us home. The pal was a corporal called Rupert, but so quiet he might hardly have been there. "So ladies," James said when we arrived, that lovely smile. "You'd not send two fighting men home without a nice cup of tea, would you?" We looked at Bridie. She was the oldest, so it was up to her. "No," she said, "you'd both better come in," and we all went into the parlour where Nora was reading a book.

Nora was surprised and a little bit flustered. "Oh," she said, "guests." She looked at the parlour clock, "And so late." Then she stood up and said she'd make some tea, we'd all be wanting a cup, wouldn't we? She hardly appeared to look at James but I thought even then that there was a flutter in her voice.

We had a good laugh, even Rupert, and James told some jokes. Then it was time for them to leave and they got up. I wanted to grab hold of James and keep him there. At the very least, I wanted him to hold my hand like he was holding Bridie's, then Frances'. To Nora he bowed like a gent and then – I thought again that I might faint -- he came over to me, took my fluttering hand and kissed it. "Ah, he said, "the youngest, the sweetest rose."

The following evening I thought we were staying in. Mostly we went out every other night to a tanner hop somewhere, but we stayed in on alternatives to save our money and do our hair and smalls and such. I had my hair up in curlers and a scarf, not expecting to be going anywhere, so when Frances and Bridie started getting ready to go out, I was a bit surprised. But when I said could they hang on and I could be ready in a jiffy, they said they couldn't wait. I was shocked. "Where are you off?" I said, still innocent. "Oh," Bridie said, "we just thought we'd walk to town, up Barrack Hill and back. It's such a nice night." And then I realised and was cross. I said, "You're off to see those two boys, aren't you?" and Bridie said yes and that three, meaning me, was definitely a crowd. I stared at her and Frances, all daggers, but they still went without me. Ooh, I was mad as a cat!

I almost went for a bath, though we didn't usually bathe Fridays -- I wanted to pamper myself, but then the doorbell rang and I shouted to Nora I'd get it, thinking it was Bridie and Frances come back. I went out and opened the door and it was James! I thought I was going to fall down and I opened my mouth to say something when he put his finger on my lips and said "Shhh!"

His hands smelled gorgeous, Woodbines and Lifebuoy soap, and I didn't mean to, but I put my hand up onto his and I didn't let go, oh it was lovely!

He nodded, sort of, with his eyes, brown they were, and I nodded back. Then he relaxed and let his finger drop down off my lips and over my chin and just brush my front.

"Shhh!" he said again.

Then I realised I was in curlers and turbanned up and I think I must have gone near white with shame because James asked me if I was all right.

"I'm, I'm…" I pointed to my head.

"Lovely," he said.

"Pardon?" I said, and James said I looked lovely and would I honour him and come out? My insides leapt but I told him that even if I really rushed I'd be half an hour. He said he would wait on the corner of Alma Street. He went off with a wink. When I went up the stairs I don't think I touched a step!

James and I fell in love that night. We walked down through the railway sidings down towards the river and to where it went into the channel. James told me that the night before, he'd just seen me there for a second at the tanner hop and he just knew I was the one, and he just had to come and see me and tell me, and he hoped I wouldn't say he was too forward.

"Nellie, it's wartime," he said, "and we never know what tomorrow might bring. I could…" and then he took me in his arms and he looked me right in the eyes and he shuddered. "Would it be all right to kiss you?" he said and I said yes and it was so lovely, so special, even better than I'd read about or seen in the films and when he'd kissed me three or four times and he pulled me tight into him, I could feel his -- I could feel he was aroused and it's silly, but I wanted it to happen straight away, and he was my first boyfriend.

"Oh, Nellie," James said and I could feel how much he wanted me.

I can't remember the rest of everything exactly, only that it was a lovely night and that down by the sea we saw an otter and James said that this was lucky and anything we wished for that night would come true. And the next time James came to kiss me I wished he would hold me tighter and kiss me again and put his hand up my skirt, and he did and a thrill started there but went right up through me, through my tummy and through my chest and up into my throat and I know I let out a little gasp right then and that James stroked me and stroked me and I wanted something to happen and his breath got faster and we were by a hedge in a field of corn and poppies and it was happening and it happened and it didn't hurt and now it was real and terrible and the only thing in the world and we were both, well, excited, and suddenly I thought about marks on my skirt and James was breathing even harder and kissing me and we were hot and happy and it was faster and then James cried out, "I should!" and suddenly he pulled out from me he gave out a little cry of pain and then he cried out again and his seed was coming and I held him, and it was on my hand warm, pulsing, and I never, never, never thought, I just didn't think, that love would be that good.

Later we walked down to where the rolled barbed wire was, the keep out signs. We could see the channel, grey and slow moving and the sun dropping into the sea, the water seeming to sizzle like gold where it disappeared.

"Oh, my darling," I said after a little thinking, "you withdrew."

"Of course," James said.

"Did you have to?" I said.

"It's for the best," he said.

Then James pulled me to him and kissed me, and though I could feel him against my thigh, he was no longer fully aroused. I raised my head and smiled at him, and for a second I thought it was me who was twenty-three and him only going on seventeen.

"I'm going to be stationed on the ack-ack battery at Ridgeway," he said. "Three months at least, training up some civvies to take over. I'd like to see you but you're -- "



"That's not so young."

"I know, but just -- " he was smiling.

"Well, I won't tell if you don't!" I said, and he laughed and he kissed me again, and I could feel him happier, rising to me again.

"Our secret," he said.

"Yes," I said. Then I thought how lucky it was that Frances and Bridie had been out and how I'd thought they were off to meet James and Rupert.

"I'm glad my sisters were out," I said.

"So am I," James said. "Where did they go?"

"Town, Barrack Hill," I said.

"There's a tanner hop up there, tonight," James said.

I smiled, "But you decided not to go after all."

Oh, it was lovely for a while, but it was difficult! But having had that falling out with Frances and Bridie, that helped a bit at the start. That night, when they came back I was in bed and I pretended to be asleep and the next day when I got up, I just put on an act. We all worked at Lovell's, the sweet factory, and we went on the bus together for the Saturday morning shift, but it was easy for me to pretend to still be grumpy because they'd gone out without me Friday night. I snapped a bit and looked out of the window and it was simpler for them just to let me sulk. I wasn't sulking, of course. Inside I was sailing, flying, I'd never been happier, and I couldn't wait to see James again. He had said Fridays would be easy but we could meet on Tuesday too. Love was so grand!

It's funny making sweets, all those chocolates going by on the belt. When you start you think, sweets-sweets-sweets, and the smell, ooh! But what they do when you're new at Lovell's is they say, "Eat as many as you like, as often as you like," so you do, and within a week you wouldn't care if you never ate a sweet again.

I've heard girls whispering that doing it with a boy or your husband is like that, that at first you can't get together enough times and you do it do it do it, but then, after a while, the excitement wears off, like with the sweets, being able to have them whenever you wanted.

Well, that didn't happen with me and James. I wanted so much to be with him, but because of his job at the ack-ack batteries, he just couldn't see me all that much. He'd laugh and say "There's a war on, you know!" At first I thought I'd be sad in between the times we met, but I got used to it pretty quick and when we did meet, oh, it was lovely and we were very daring, and James taught me about ways to do it, and different ways.

"Coyotes interrupt us," he told me one night, when I asked afterwards. I loved that squidgy, hot feeling I got when James was, well you know, inside me, and when we did it, it was always grand except for that last second or two when James would pull out and he would grunt as if it hurt him.

"Oh, my love," I said, "Why don't you stay in? I'd like that, I really would. And it hurts you so, doesn't it? When you pull out."

That was when he explained coyotes interrupt us. It was so I didn't fall for a baby.

"But there are things," I said, "French letters…"

"Can't stand 'em," James said, 'like taking a bath wearing a Burberry."

I said I didn't understand.

"Oh, Nellie, Nellie," James said. He put my hand on him and I felt him.

"You know Edward," he said -- we called his -- we called it Edward. "It's a tender and delicate thing, and you, inside you, that's tender and delicate too, and my skin and the inside of your skin, they were meant to touch, and it's the touch, the warmth, that's where the love is. You can't put rubber between that, it's not natural, it's unholy."

I said I understood that but not --

"So to love you, instead I think of coyotes. I think of coyotes, things, not just how lovely you are, how lovely it is to be inside you. It means that I love you for longer, and you said, it's nicer when it's longer."

But --

"And when the moment comes, when I know it's coming, and I can't think of coyotes, I can only think of our loving, and I know, any second, what's going to happen, I know I have to pull out."

"Coyotes interrupt?"

"Yes, they help me last and they tell me when I have to interrupt us. It's a proper saying, from doctors."

"But it hurts you…"

"Yes, it does. It hurts me there and it hurts me here."

James touched his heart.

"Oh, love," I said and he smiled his lovely smile.

Well, I got used to it and James was always lovely when we met, and it wasn't like the sweets. Because I only saw James twice a week I wanted him, I wanted him and he wanted me, and it was always wonderful, and we both loved each other dearly. I began to wonder, if there wasn't a war, we might…

That first night though, well the second night, the night Bridie and Frances had said I was a gooseberry and had gone off up Barrack Hill (serves them right), well, it changed things for the whole family. I'd got fed up with being treated like a kid, being the Collins little sister and always having to get the Vimto. I wanted to say "I've been with a boy, I've done it," but of course I couldn't, so I said, "You big grown-up girls, you go off to your tanner hops and I'll go off to mine. That way I won't get under your feet."

Frances then started going out on her own more, to meet Cedric, she said, and Bridie would sometimes go out to Malpas to meet Ron. It must have been the atmosphere at home was wrong -- perhaps it was me -- but both of them stopped bringing their boyfriends home. It was as though we were all preparing to be married and leave home, find a one-up over a shop and settle down. It was amazing, though, how quickly it had happened, from being gadabouts and fairies to being serious and talking about growing up and having a place of our own.

It affected Nora too. Even she somehow got into the act and got a chap. That was Andrew Cassell who worked at the undertakers, Tovey & Tovey.

You know they say that girls together, how they get their clocks in line and their cycles? Well we were like that too, all getting the curse at the same time, or maybe it was because we were sisters. Before James, I used to get a bit of pain for a day or two and so did Frances, but Bridie never used to notice a thing (except for the obvious). But Nora, Nora used to really suffer; the curse for her really was a curse, she'd even miss a day's work now and again. I used to think the way we were, what kind of person, came from how we suffered our monthlies.

Well, Nora stopped getting her pains, or at least if she was still getting them, she was hiding them. My pains had gone after I started seeing James, (well they hadn't gone, but they didn't seem as bad), and I'd put two and two together and come round to thinking that doing it had changed me somehow.

So I thought, "Nora? -- and Andrew?" but it seemed impossible. Andrew had come to the house twice and I'd met him. He would just sit there, stiff and formal with his hands on his knees, his sharp face like a statue, hardly saying a word. I used to think, Cedric, Ron, Andrew, the three of them were all mice, and all three of them together not half of James Goddard. I had more love on a Monday than my sisters could ever hope for in a fifteen-day fortnight. Oh, that's a saying. In my case it was every Friday, and Tuesdays when James could make it.

But I couldn't help thinking that Nora was somehow different, especially around her time, and I thought that maybe Nora had another side. It did occur to me that now Bridie, Frances and I were always off out, going our separate ways, Nora had more opportunity than any of us to get up to hanky-panky. But with Andrew the Undertaker? It just didn't seem possible.

One Tuesday I said this to James and he laughed. He said he didn't think so, somehow, but then he smiled, really knowingly and said, hidden depths, still waters run deep, and don't judge a book by its cover.

Then he said he'd had a thought. I was the only Collins sister without a boyfriend and Bridie, Nora, Frances, they might get to thinking.

"But I've got a boyfriend," I said.

"I know that," James said. "I just meant, if you had another boyfriend, then we could keep what we've got just as it is, and it's good isn't it?"

"But I don't want another boyfriend," I said. I think I sounded sad.

"Not a real boyfriend," James said, "I mean not a full boyfriend."

He looked down me the way he did and I --

"I mean a nice chap, some chap that just wants a regular girl on his arm, someone to go to a tanner hop with, maybe give a chaste kiss good-night."

"Oh," I said.

I still didn't see --

"It would make it easier for you and me, Nellie. Imagine if your sisters…"

I wasn't really sure, but James took me in his arms and he smooched me for a while and I thought he was David Niven and everything was nice again and I promised to think about it.

I knew a few boys. There was John Fenwick, but he was a bit too skinny for me, and there was a boy called Gordon Ravenscroft who was all right but wanted to grow a beard which wasn't ready. But I thought, if it didn't really matter I could make better friends with both of them (they went to the tanner hops), and maybe one would want to walk me home and that would be that.

Well, I did and I ended up with Gordon because he asked first, and before I knew it we were seeing each other Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings and three months had passed. Then one Saturday we were walking along the canal tow path and Gordon asked if he could kiss me and I laughed at him. I didn't mean to but it just blurted out. He ran off.

On Wednesday I told James and he told me that was cruel and never to be cruel. I said I hadn't meant to be cruel and the laugh had just slipped out.

"A little effort," James said. "A little thought to keep people happy."

The next day I asked the supervisor if I could use the telephone in his office and I rang Lysaghts and got hold of Gordon. I said I was sorry and would he come and see me tonight? He said he would and that night we went to the Alma Road tanner hop and after, I took him down one of the alleys and asked him to kiss me. Then I picked up his hand and put it on my breast.

It was easy sometimes to forget we were at war, but then one day, James met me and he told me he'd been posted. He was a lance corporal now and they wanted him on the AA battery at Tilbury Docks in London. They were taking a pasting up there. I started crying.

"Shush, shush, my little Nellie," he said, so softly, like he was an angel. We were in one of our secret places and he said, "Shush," again and laid me down and kissed me and stroked me for a long, long time before his skin and my inside skin were together and I could feel what love was.

And we loved each other very slowly and I whispered to James as we moved, "James, James, please, tonight, don't pull away. Not this last time."

And he didn't. I don't know if he thought of his coyotes but each time it felt like he was at the moment he usually interrupted us, instead he stopped and whispered, "Hush, shush, hush, my little Nellie," and we looked at each other in the half-light and then he would start again, and he would raise his head so we could look at each other and he would rock, and rock and rock until at last I wanted him not to stop and whisper but to forget coyotes and everything and I remember how when it nearly happened and he stopped I didn't stop and he grunted, "Nellie, Nellie, if -- ah!" and how it happened and he thrust so deep into me as if this moment was the sharp point of our lives.

And then he looked at me and his eyes were wet, a man crying, but it wasn't soft or unmanly. It was brave and beautiful but oh, so sad and I knew, knew, knew how much James loved me just as I knew after tonight I would never see him again.

But we smiled at each other anyway and lay together as inside me, James softened. I think we slept for a little while and then we got up and James walked me as far as Alma Street.

After, I needed my sisters. In the next two weeks we didn't go to any of the tanner hops together, it didn't seem right, but we went to the Gaumont twice and once to the Coliseum. Frances and Bridie, even Nora, were being really good to me. They seem to understand how down in the dumps I felt and it was like it was contagious and they were just as sad as I was. We seemed to spend all our time holding each other or making each other cups of tea.

The first time we went to the Gaumont we saw The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. Frances said she thought Cary Grant looked a bit like James Goddard. Bridie looked at Frances and then back at the screen for a second. Then she looked at Frances, it seemed for ages "No," she finally said, "James didn't look at all like that. He looked more like Jimmy Stewart than Cary Grant."

A few days after that Frances said she was thinking of marrying Cedric and that night I let Gordon put his hand up my skirt for the first time.

Then the following week all four of us went to the Gaumont together. It was Larry Olivier in Rebecca and Nora said she would like to come. I was a bit surprised and then Nora said, "Nellie, don't you think Larry looks a bit like that chap James Goddard you all brought home that time?" He did a bit and I remembered him in Wuthering Heights, all wet and wind-swept with his eyes dark.

"A little," I said.

Nora smiled.

Before the film there was a B. I can't remember the name of the film now but it was one of those cowboy stories. The wagon train had been attacked but now the red Indians had melted away. Then there was a howl in the dark somewhere and one of the cowboys, a young one, was frightened. "Is it the injuns?" he said and one of the older cowboys said, "No, son, that's jest animals, howling at the moon. You jest think coyotes."

And I think I might have blushed then, remembering James, and I didn't realise for a minute but I was crying softly and then I realised that Nora was holding my hand one side and Bridie was holding my other hand.

And something came over me, I think, I felt something, and I took my eyes off the screen and I looked at my lap, my sisters' laps, and we were all four holding hands.

I was due, we all were due, the following week. I showed as normal. I had the feeling that the night of the film Bridie, Frances and Nora had all realised at the same time as me but none of us could say it. So we were all waiting.

I think it was a Wednesday and Nora said, "The usual?" and I said yes, and she kissed me. Then Bridie came in and Nora shook her head and Bridie shook her head. Then the following day Nora and Bridie said they were getting married to Andrew and Ron and it would be a double wedding two weeks after Frances and Cedric.

A few days before, I had done it with Gordon. I thought of it as a kind of insurance but just when his breath got shorter and it was about to finish I pushed him off and it didn't happen inside me. "Bloody hell, Nellie," he said when he'd got over the shock. What d'you do that for?"

"Coyotes interrupt us," I said.

I became Auntie Nellie three times in two days, early in 1941. Gordon had been called up and I got the supervisor's job at Lovell's now that most of the men had gone. It's funny, how what goes round comes round. James bought it when a stick of incendiaries from a Heinkel hit his battery at Tilbury. He never stood a chance, Rupert told me. That seemed so unfair. James was such a kind and caring man. All this is so long ago. I never married, Gordon went away, but my nephews often come round to see me. Sometimes I think they look like David Niven, sometimes I think a bit like Clark Gable, but I agree with Bridie, none of them looks remotely like Cary Grant. They look more like Jimmy Stewart than Cary Grant.

Welsh/Irish Alex Keegan got serious about writing after surviving a train wreck in 1988. He is the author of five mystery novels: Cuckoo (1994), Vulture (1995), Kingfisher (1995), Razorbill (1996), and A Wild Justice (1997). Cuckoo was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel. His true love, literary short fiction, has so far resulted in more than fifty short stories in print and on the Net and a number of literary prizes, most recently $1,700 second place in the UK's prestigious Bridport Awards. He lives in Bath, England and until recently edited World Wide Writers, a short-story dead-tree quarterly. Web site http://www.btinternet.com/alex.keegan1.

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