Jeremy Worman

Writer, Journalist, Teacher

Category: Short stories (page 1 of 2)

Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief

60 authors, 60 stories. Each story is no longer than 360 words long. Witty, poignant, entertaining, this anthology includes some of the best short short fiction writers around, including Lydia Davis, Roddy Doyle, David Gaffney and Gemma Seltzer. There is one by me too! Edited by Peter Blair and Ashley Chantler. The perfect little Christmas gift – and all money goes to Comic Relief.

Buy it here

Terry

(Published in Multi-Storey 2, January 2001. Broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester, February 2001. Winner of competition)

Terry from Papercasting on Vimeo.

When it rains in Salford I can taste salt in the raindrops, you know when you put your head up. I love sitting by the window in the front room in the dark. It’s started to drizzle and the days are drawing in. I think it’s the chemical factory, that’s where I worked since school, two A levels. Once I moved out of home for a month but something pulled me back, Mother I suppose.
I was always her little Terry, but sitting here I feel myself. Twenty-five-years a technician at the chemical factory isn’t everyone’s idea of an exciting life, but it suited me, all in all. I’m set in my ways, I know that. And since Mother died, two years this September, I’ve slowed up. I’ve done some tidying on the house, a Victorian terrace, otherwise I’ve been rather quiet.
‘Just do that for me will you, Terry love?’ Ooh, there was no end to it.
I don’t go out much, but I’m free inside now, that’s the difference. I get on very well with the neighbours. That’s Bola, she’s Nigerian. They moved in last year. I had a dinner round there recently, very interesting. And she wears the most lovely clothes, multicoloured material that wraps round and round. They brought some colour to the street.
Time I thought of something for tea. On a Friday I often have a takeaway, there’s a lovely Indian on the corner of Maygrove Street, but I’m feeling rather withered, you know. I might just take a mozzarella and ham pizza from the freezer and watch a video. Why not? I’m my own master now.
I love Marilyn Monroe. I’ll watch Some Like it Hot tonight, one of her very best, 1959. And all those cheeky chaps dressing up as women. Marlon and Clint, the budgies, are making such a racket behind me, but I’m very fond of them and they keep fit. We make each other laugh.
I’m going to Knutsford on Sunday, lunch with Veronica, my big sister. It’s good to get out. She was a dental nurse, married the dentist, Derek Palmer. His family are from Lytham, near the golf course. She must have given him laughing gas before he agreed. No children.
It’s a bloody ugly street, there’s no denying that.
‘Come fair bombs and fall on Salford.’
There were never much beauty in our family. Father worked in the power station, stoked boilers or summat like. He looked like a boiler too. Had this very loud voice and shouted ‘Hey up’ down the street to his mates. I don’t think he’d ever heard of art or films or film stars. He followed rugby league.
Every time he came back from a match, it was ‘Do you good, bit of rugby. You’re too soft, lad.’
I was always a thin boy, willowy, and I liked to wear my dark hair a bit long. I thought I looked nice when I smiled into the mirror after a bath, and held the little towel tight around my waist. I’ve hazel eyes and I’d pucker my lips like a film star.
If you sprinkle a little parsley on a pizza, it’s very nice. I’ll have a few glasses of Soave. Why not? I’m not short of a few bob.
I do water colours in my spare time. I might take it further one day. Dad smoked forty a day, drank stout. Over twenty-years-ago the old boiler just blew up, heat attack, Saturday afternoon, after his team Wigan had lost to St. Helens. It was a blessing, all in all.
Greta Garbo is my favourite, that feeling for the camera, those wonderful dresses, that face. Camille, Anna Karenina. I know every scene by heart. ‘You shouldn’t watch them so much,’ Mother used to say, ‘Get out more.’ But if I did she was the first to moan.
Just before Mother died I had trouble at work. Some of the lads started to taunt me. It seemed to be raining all the time and Mother had just been diagnosed. I’d got too friendly with Jimmy, a young boy in accounts. Made a fool of meself. I’d never encouraged that side of me before.
‘Quiet down, Marlon!’
I had this recurring idea that when God made the earth he gave Salford to the devil to play with, it was that ugly. I used to cry myself to sleep at night in the back room and imagine the clogs of the dead shuffling to work. And Mother used to stare at me.
Oh goodness! I thought I saw Mother coming down the street then. Sometimes I’m convinced it’s her, or me Dad – and then I’m so delighted it can’t be. Wicked, I know but she wouldn’t understand.
The doctor gave me uppers, I didn’t want to talk. On the way out, he said: ‘There’s nothing wrong, you know, your erotic feelings, nothing wrong at all.’
‘How dare you!’ I said.
But the doctor’s words kept repeating in my mind. What a nerve! When I got home I put on Anna Karenina to calm me down, and Garbo was wearing a long silky dress. I could almost feel its softness on my skin. Dad’s voice kept coming into my mind and I saw his image in the mirror: ‘You’re too quiet, lad.’ He was such a bully and everything about him was ugly, ugly, ugly.
It’s almost dark now, but I feel so bright inside me these days.
Anyway, after coming back from the doctor’s, I couldn’t settle. I went into the wardrobe where Veronica, my sister, had left a lot of her things. My heart was racing. I tried a dress, then a skirt and a slip. I felt so nice, so right, and I burst into a flood of tears.
I just sat there in front of the mirror, making up with a bit of old eyeliner and lipstick I’d found in the bottom of the wardrobe. Then I went downstairs and watched Anna Karenina all over again.
I’ll pour myself a glass of that Soave and sit here for another ten minutes before I draw the curtains. I’m going to paint the windows before the winter. I do it all myself.
After my first experience of dressing up, I bought a wig and other bits and pieces.
At the end of our street there’s a big billboard with Marilyn Monroe advertising cigarettes, and drinking a glass of champagne in the moonlight.
Oh, that’s lovely wine. I’m wearing my black cocktail dress tonight, blond wig, nicely made-up. I could almost be there, in that advertisement, drinking champagne. I’d call myself Jasmine.
When I’m like this, I’m me, only me. I’ve got no family, no Mother looking over me like I’m a bad smell. I’m just Jasmine and I don’t have any past at all.
It’s not a bad life, all in all, looking up at Marilyn. It’s started to drizzle. Marilyn’s lower lip is tilted upwards. I wonder if she can taste the salt in the raindrops too?

Fragmented

Fragmented brings together short stories and sketches charting a personal journey from squatter and hippy in Seventies London to creative and stable middle age as husband, father, teacher and writer. Responding to and recording social change, often by seizing moments in the flux of city life, the stories are both self contained fragments and a cohesive narrative of a city as much as of an individual.

Many sketches are set in Hackney or Hornsey Rise – at one time the largest squat in Europe. Fragmented brings to life characters and places; examines the underside of London epitomised by outsiders, drugs, racial tension and crime, and explores deeper themes not only of childhood, family and relationships, but also of the nature of writing, political idealism, fear of oblivion and how we conjure and retain a sense of the past. The tone is variously reflective, nostalgic, critical, humorous and detached.

Available from  W H Smith, Waterstones, Gwales and Amazon.

Read Mark Hannam’s review here. Also published in Dream Catcher

and The Short Review here

and Islington Tribune here

and Hackney Citizen here

and East London Lines (the online newspaper) review here

and Gwales review here

and Amazon readers’ review here

and Waterstones readers’ reviews here

and Nick Sweeney’s review here

and a review from The Frogmore Papers (Number 78, Autumn 2011) by Jeremy Page:

For anyone who has walked the streets of east and north London, where most of these often very personal pieces are set, this is a fascinating collection. Many of them are very short – some barely half a page – but these are texts which have been lovingly crafted from experience that was not always so sweet. The Great Wen is hauntingly evoked, and the character sketches are expertly drawn. Personal favourites here include ‘Hackney Sunday’ and the exquisitely titled ‘Myfanwy, China, Harry and a Goldfish’.

Cobblers for the Revolution!

I read a bit out loud each morning to inspire me. Ivan Illich is my new guru: ‘Vehicles have created more distances than they helped to bridge.’ He wrote that in Tools for Conviviality. If I’m still down I roll myself a one-skinner, always does the trick.

Traffic pounds above my head. And the Big-Brother helicopter is always in the sky, charting the street life of Hackney. ‘Down the stairs and down the years,’ that’s how I feel as I step into my basement shoemaker’s workshop. The world is going mad but I feel safe down here – this house was built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The green revolution could be here now if people made their own shoes and if we travelled only as far as our shoe leather would allow – it would bring us back to our roots. The quality of life would return, we should have time for things. Illich put it well: ‘Development must be in terms of low and not high energy use’.

I like sitting at my bench, working at this gentle art of last and awl, threading and stitching. I make handmade shoes for the wealthy – these Oxford brogues are for an old customer. Those rich buggers don’t deserve such perfection, but some of them really appreciate it, I have to say.

Mind you, it’s just as bad that most of Hackney is walking around in mass-produced trainers, all that sweatiness and petrochemicals. Then they chuck them away, never nurtured, never loved. Of course, everyone recycles tins and bottles with evangelical fervour, we all eat our organic carrots and stuff our faces with muesli. That’s fine, but it’s only scratching the surface.

Don’t they realise! If they made their own shoes, and saw the limits of their walking potential as the limits of their world, then a real sense of community would begin. There’s a lot of bollocks in Green politics these days, it’s run by politically-correct boy scouts and girl guides.
I made a poster for my wall, yes you guessed it, a slogan from my guru:

TRANSPORTATION BEYOND BICYCLE SPEEDS DEMANDS
POWER INPUTS FROM THE ENVIRONMENT

You’ve got it, Ivan! Those speeds are destroying our planet and the pleasure of our life. Okay, I’m going on, my sister is always telling me that, but when you live in a world that’s crazy but pretends it’s sane, the way to be truly sane is not to be afraid to be crazy. I was trying to get that across to an attractive woman at a party last week. Well, I can see it wasn’t the best chat-up line. Didn’t get anywhere. Pity, she was very fit, as they say.

A good shoe should last for fifteen years. Making a shoe is like a history lesson, but all the kids seem to live in a vacuum of designer logos and fast food. They connect to nothing.

Jesus, I sound sad. But here’s another example. At the party last week, they held it at the top of the Samuel Pepys, the pub attached to the Hackney Empire. Well, there was really crappy music coming out of the crap Big Screens. Then they showed a baseball match, then some twenty-twenty cricket where none of the players look like cricketers. There was no English draught beer on tap, it was mostly lagers from America and Poland and Holland, all with silly names and prices. There should have been a local band playing in the corner.

Buses, cars, motorbikes, all those planes scarring the sky. The planet is dying from our hysteria of movement. Tapping away at the shoes on my bench, turning, kneading, reading the stresses and strains of the leather makes me still. Shoes are like my prayer books, my litany of living. If I believed in God I should be a shoe-making monk. We should all give up our obsessions with goods and with speed. As always, Ivan has a phrase for it: ‘Joyful Renunciation’. What is the worst thing the modern world has done?: taken away people’s power to dream, to use their own imaginations…
Getting carried away again. I love the history of footwear: ‘Wellington’, now that was a good boot, though there were some awful ones around in those days – the poor old soldiers suffered from their job-lot boots.

I was born in this house, Dad was a factory inspector, Mum was a district nurse. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school, then did the hippy thing, and after that a degree in philosophy at Swansea, then Cordwainer’s for shoemaking. If you were born in Hackney everyone thinks you must be a yob. Actually, I taught in a secondary school before getting into shoes.

Both my parents are dead now, buried near Worthing, where they had a bungalow. My sister and me, Lucy, we split up the house, she’s in the top, I’ve got the bottom two floors.

Life’s all right. Used to be in a local rock group, used to be married too, but I think I was more in love with my shoes. Anyway, my wife went off with her acupuncturist. We got married too young. They’re living in Bristol now.

The smell of good leather matures, becomes alive under the touch of a finger. Connecting the shoe together – the welt and throat and top edge, the waist and the sole – until you have made something almost as complete as a person, and far less quarrelsome. The trainer-footed world has turned its back on this inheritance that could save it.

Must put on a jumper. Hackney begins to feels cleaner in November, and the basement colder. The ghosts in this house prefer the softness of autumn, as if summer bleaches them out of existence…

I love the beauty of boots most. I collect them. Those Nazi Jackboots are always at the top of the stairs, they’re authentic. When I imagine them pounding down on their heavy soles I am reminded of the fascist state just under the surface of things. Today, the shoes may be softer, and the surveillance more subtle, but it means the same thing: the state can get you when it wants to.

Anyway, consider marching boots, well, it’s a whole way of telling history: all the places those boots have trod, the routes they took, the importance of the army cobblers who kept the footwear together.

In the First World War it was the ordinary soldier who suffered from trench foot, the water and mud squelching through the lace holes. Of course the British army boot came out of the Blucher boot. The officers had their top boots, much better.

Cavalry boots are the most beautiful, with their bucket tops, I made a pair in college, still got them, half way up the stairs. Cromwell’s people knew a thing or two about boots, so do the Americans, credit where credit is due – those cowboy boots at the bottom of the stairs, amazing tooling, superb leather, got those from a bootmaker in Texas ten years ago.

If people wore proper leather shoes and boots, the level of consciousness, I mean that in the Marxist sense, would rise dramatically. Ban superstores, ban trainers, stop fast movement, and people will reconnect. You think that’s mad? Not as mad as what goes on up there, is it? Anyway, I’m off to Budapest on a cheap flight for a long weekend with an old mate. Don’t look at me like that, you can’t help a few contradictions.

 

Watch: “Madame Sossi”

Soho clairvoyante Madame Sossi reflects on her glittering career, reaching beyond the veil for a variety of London’s glitterati…

Story by Jeremy Worman. Madame Sossi played by William Wyld. A Papercasting Production, 2014.
Buy the book now at Amazon, Swimming with Diana Dors.

Madame Sossi from Papercasting on Vimeo.

Listen to stories from ‘Fragmented’ and ‘Swimming with Diana Dors’

Jeremy Worman’s latest collection, Swimming with Diana Dors and other stories, was published by Cinnamon Press in June 2014. Barbara Hardy wrote: ‘Worman’s new collection reminds us what Henry James meant when he said the writer must be someone on whom nothing is lost, and it shows what the short story can do – memorialise place and time, concentrate feeling, relationship, sensation and history, in glimpses and vivid moments.’ Fragmented, my collection of short stories about London was published in 2011 by Cinnamon Press (partly funded by an Arts Council grant). Fragmented charts a personal journey from 1970s squatter to life in Hackney now. Fragmented is widely available. It is also on Kindle and may be downloaded from Amazon.

Swimming with Diana Dors:
www.amazon.co.uk/Swimming-Diana-D…es/dp/1909077224
Fragmented:
www.amazon.co.uk/Fragmented-Jerem…an/dp/1907090347

Listen to Jeremy reading podcast versions of some of the stories:

Swimming with Diana Dors and other stories

In his first collection of short fiction, Fragmented, Jeremy Worman traced a narrative from hippy squatter in the seventies to established husband, father and lecturer reflecting on life in inner city London in the present. In Swimming with Diana Dors he digs deeper, bringing to life memorable characters who remain with the reader. Variously personal, elegiac, political, and humorous, the stories range over themes of outsiders, loss, death, ghosts, change and the importance of place, with many stories set in London.
Several stories have been previously published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Signals-2 and Signals-3 (London Magazine Editions), The London Magazine, Ambit, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher and The Penniless Press.  ‘Terry’ was broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester.

Buy on Amazon

Harry Slocombe’s East End Return

(Published in Signals 2 – a London Magazine Anthology of Short Stories, 1999)

Harry Slocombe pulled back the duvet, smiled at the little wooden Buddha on the windowsill, and burped. It was 7a.m. on a grey lead coffin Hackney morning in January. But Harry had a contract with his analyst that he was going to get up in the mornings.

‘What fucking for?’ he thought. The heating hadn’t come on. The slate grey canal bubbled past, carrying its polluted secrets. He lit a Benson and Hedges and waited for the ugly plastic kettle with flowers on the side to boil. ‘Canal Side with a View’ the estate agent had said. He stood on the balcony in his dressing-gown and sucked in the diesel-rich mist which settled like sweat on his bald head.
A dead puppy, a retriever looking mongrel, its belly bloated and tight like a drum skin, in stomach-up-tickle-me position, was caught on the broken branch of a fallen willow tree. It was the second this week. Always a rush after Christmas.
He switched on the answerphone. ‘Mistah Sylvester is veree pleased you haave taken the caisse of his misssing dauughtah. He will contaact you sooon.’ The line went dead. ‘Sounds more like a fucking threat!’ He flicked his cigarette into the canal. But beggars couldn’t be choosers.
‘Positive thoughts in the morning, Harry, why is that so difficult for you?’ Roz Aust, his analyst, had asked him that at their last session. He looked wistfully at the reunion invitation on the windowsill to ‘Detective Chief Inspector Slocombe, Flying Squad.’ He’d cried when it arrived last week, it had been two years since he resigned from the squad . . .
But it was no good. Across the marshes to Walthamstow the sky was death grey. And so low he was sure it would soon take a last gasp and sink into the marshes to shroud the bronze age inhabitants who were its first human spectres. To the south east a church spire was mocked between two high rise blocks. ‘There’s nothing bleeding positive here, Roz, is there love, it’s the end, darling, this is the beginning of the bloody end.’
He sat at the kitchen table, absorbed his second fag, third mug of tea and laid out the information he had on Jasmine Sylvester, seventeen year old daughter of Mr Nicki Sylvester, Jamaican Import-Export specialist, six foot four, fourteen and a half stone, no fat, crocodile shoes, gold chains as thick as his fIngers, a driver called Pod …
Yes, pretty girl, he thought as he shaved, the instincts of the detective rising through his marsh gas of despair. Of course, the case was far too sensitive for the police to handle. Mr Sylvester loved his daughter so much he just wanted her back …
He imagined the marshes outside, the fIrst settlement, village, town, city:
Harry wanted to bring order to the world of Mr Sylvester, keep the wolves of chaos at bay. ‘Karma, Harry, everyone needs good karma.’ Beth, the yoga teacher at Hackney Institute, talked to him like that. He went for his arthritis.
He slapped on Eau Sauvage (threw away the Brut last week) and finished dressing. He’d never worn a black leather blouson before but at fifty five he was excited about the change. He leered at the eyes that analysed him in the mirror. The skin was smooth for a smoker and ex-alcoholic; the large, round moon face had lost weight. He still carried thirteen and a half stone but was training again at the gym. A powerful body, like a second row forward but taller (five foot eleven) and a belly too much like a sumu wrestler. But the head was made by the generous lips that reshaped his face when he laughed or frowned, and the hooded, hot coal eyes that surprised you with their intensity and hardness.
He hunted for his car keys. Roz Aust had cropped hair, but he’d got over that. It was part of the deal, no threats to his pension, no inquiry, if he agreed to sort out his alcoholism. But sorting that out brought on other problems so he kept her after the money ran out from the police charity which had given him twelve months therapy free.
The old off-white Volvo, a 1967 saloon, started first time and he tapped the steenng-wheel affectionately. His ex-wife, Brenda, always hated ‘that common old banger’. She’d finally kicked him out two years ago. He’d drifted for elghteen months, bought this little place last July.
The girl, Jasmine Sylvester, Jasmine Sylvester, he rolled her on his tongue, swallowed her name and let it course through his bloodstream. He would find the girl. He was on a search again, a hunt, a game, a race with gold at the end of the journey. It was his first real case since he set up the agency six months ago. The excitement carried to his genitals. He had an image of Martha the Bondage Maid handcuffing him to the bed. Control or be controlled, the dark angel that shadowed his life…
‘Sam James, Hackney Auto Sports, Furlong Lane, E9.’ His first contact, Sam’s daughter, Hope, was the best fnend of Jasmine Sylvester.
‘Sam James?’ Harry spoke loudly above the sound of the music,
‘I’m Harry Slocombe, Private Investigator, I’m working for Mr Sylvester.’
Sam turned down the cassette inside the car.
‘Like classical music, Mr James?’
‘Wagner’s my man, Songs from Goethe’s Faust, one of his early bum fluff works’.
‘Very knowledgeable.’
You think niggers only like jungle music?’
‘Ha, ha, not at all, Mr James, I’m a jazz man myself.’
The tall, supple Sam James put his head deeper into the end compartment of a red MGB.
‘Mr Sylvester said you’d help me, his daughter’s gone missing.’ ‘Mr Sylvester?’ He picked up a plug spanner.
In the corner of the workshop a fierce shaved-head black guy dropped a heavy wrench. Harry tensed.
Sam hit his head against the bonnet and gestured for Harry to follow. He led the way up a metal staircase to a large, bare storage room or office.
‘I don’t see my daughter, we quarrel, she gone off … ‘ Sam wandered around.
‘Address, Sam?’
‘Don’t know, we quarrel .. .’
‘Wonder if Mr Sylvester thinks his daughter’s got something valuable his, something he wants back .. .?’
‘You talkin’ riddles.’
Harry clicked into gear like an old boxer who never forgets his stance or his footwork. ‘Jasmine Sylvester, had a boyfriend, Winston, big handsome, clever, worked for Mr Sylvester, courier, being trained for, er, management … ‘ He gave Sam his cold owl look, known to unsettle the toughest gangsters.
‘Girls have boyfriends, man, make the world go round.’
‘And Jasmine and her boyfriend, Winston, they went off together?, It happens all the time, man.’
Harry took off his cold owl look, sighed, went over to the window, listened to Sam breathing heavily, rubbing his hands together. Harry’s trainers squeaked across the workshop floor towards the bottom of the stairs.
Harry gazed out at Homerton High Street through the grimey window, followed the endless line of roofs to the marshes. His mother’s aunts lived in Burma Road, his grandad was born in Bethnal Green, Harry had been a young copper in Bow. Now he was back, in the chaos, in the movement, the low life inevitability of misery, dealing with people who had nothing to do with his roots. He wanted to smash the whole bloody lot, Brenda and her golf professional boyfriend, blow up the fancy hall Chingford, say sorry to his daughter …
Harry shook his head and turned: ‘Mr Sylvester’s a powerful man, . doesn’t get his possessions back … ‘
‘Don’t twist me up, man.’
‘You want Mr Sylvester to find your daughter himself, use his men?’
‘So why Mr Sylvester not here now then, man, if he so keen.’
‘Keeping a professional distance, Sam, may I call you Sam?’
Harry tiptoed to the door. Sam picked up a pen and scribbled down his daughter’s address, ‘I think she know where Jasmine is, I don’t want no trouble for Hope.’
‘Trouble, Sam?’
‘Sylvester’s gone crazy. Drugs, big time … ‘
‘Grass?’
‘Big deal!’
‘Cocaine?’
‘Heroin, takin’ over London, if he trouble Hope … ‘
Harry pulled back the office door. ‘Like listening to other people’s conversations, son?’ The vicious looking man who had dropped the wrench stood motionless.
‘Me worry ’bout Sam, having an ex-old bill sniffling round like a dog on heat … ‘
‘Who told you that, son?’
‘Me got ears everywhere, remember dat, Sam!’ Got a car to work on, sonny?’
‘Rasclat!’ He slammed the door.
‘If I need you, Sam . . . drink, meal together, the Dutch Pot, best Caribbean food in London?’
‘Thought you a pie-and-mash man.’ Sam held his head in his hands. ‘Here’s my number, keep it from Voodoo Face.’
Harry sat in the Volvo, well satisfied. This is Sam’s London too, he thought, which his mind believed if not his heart. He read Hope’s address, 29 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green, and sped off. ‘Getting bigger all the time, if I get the H back to Sylvester, big money, I’ll call him, let him know I know … ‘
The adrenalin swam round his body like a narcotic, pumped his genitals like a dose of oysters. Martha the Bondage Maid, seen her for twenty years, wife never knew until the end, holding his body, his body, his self, all he was in one place, ordered, controlled. ‘Talk to the images, talk to them, perhaps enter a dialogue?’ . . . Roz Aust was keen on dialogues. But he wanted change, freedom, love …
He parked at the end of Vallance Road and rubbed the tears from his eyes. ‘Where the bloody Krays were born!’, he sniffed the curry in the air and slammed the car door.
Sam must have phoned his daughter and she let Harry in quickly. Hope was a tall, pretty girl, like a swimmer, hair in ringlocks. Like Sam she knew nothing.
‘Turn the lights off, look outside,’ he said. On the corner of the street, two black heavies slunk by a lamppost. ‘Don’t worry, love, they’re only checking I’m doing my job, they won’t get involved, after all Mr Sylvester had his reputation to consider.’
‘I’m frightened, Mr Slocombe, Jasmine Sylvester’s my best friend, we’re like sisters, such a stupid girl, so stupid, going off with Winston like that, stealing Mr Sylvester’s … ‘ Her body shook with tears and Harry handed her his damp handkerchief.
‘They won’t trouble you love, I’ll sort it, thanks for the address.’ Harry drove back slowly up Bethnal Green Road. The drizzle polished the pavements, reflecting the tail lights and the displays of drinks, perfumes and magazines in the gaudy shop windows. The things we do for money! Harry laughed suddenly and the image of the little wooden Buddha came into his mind.
Winston wanted out from Sylvester, so he thought he’d steal a kilo of heroin, and make a new life for him and Jasmine ‘back home’, in Jamaica. ‘Back home’, they were both born in the bleeding Homerton Hospital!’ He didn’t try to lose the old, red Xj6 that was following him, not yet, no need to make anyone suspicious.
Inside the maisonette, he yawned, didn’t turn on the lights, checked the towpath. By the Anchor the two heavies looked back and forth at the canal, glancing up regularly at his flat. They flicked their cans of Special Brew into the canal.
It was only 4 o’clock but Harry was dog-tired. He took a cold shower and lay on his bed, feeling as raw and bare as the marshes outside. He phoned Sylvester, insisted on talking to Sylvester. ‘No games, Mr Sylvester, two grand straight up, I’ll get it back to you, and leave the kids alone, I’ve still got contacts in the squad … ‘ ‘Of course, Mr Slocombe, no trouble, always trust an ex-Metropolitan bobby.’
He made thick coffee and straightened his mind. He would clear it up, no time for morality, too poor, got nothing. A commotion outside. Only kids with white plastic bags. Glue sniffers. Girl and two boys, white as death, going onto the marshes for their evening fun. It would never end, the muddle, the mess . . . only Martha understood, as her leather thighs straddled his tightly held body …
He woke cold from a fitful sleep. He’d dreamed of himself with his head in a plastic bag of glue, heading for the marshes. ‘Well, how different is my fucking life?’
On a whim he called George Ormrod, now a detective sergeant with the squad. Harry had trained him up. They used to call him Sissy Hot Pants, he never believed in ‘perks’, even rumoured he was a Methodist. But he gave Harry a load on Sylvester and it was all bad, and there wasn’t anything Sylvester wouldn’t do, if Harry could give them anything on him … Harry replaced the receiver and sighed deeply. What could he do, he had to make a living too, he would never change the world, and when it was over, when he’d collected his fat wedge for returning the heroin he could phone Martha, better value than his dyke therapist …
Harry shaved and dressed. There was a skylight in the ceiling which gave access to a fire escape on the other side of the buildings. He put on his mac, and climbed nimbly up the stepladders. Bellying over the V roof was more difficult with the arthritis in his knee but he kept low and out of sight of the thugs on the towpath.
He slipped round Digby Road and into the Volvo, already facing the right way. ‘Start, my darling, start.’ He charged off, into second at five thousand revs before the heavies had even shifted from their Special Brew malaise. ‘Too late, you bastards, hope Sylvester cuts off your balls, useless gits.’
He took the back roads to Commercial Road then followed it east until he turned onto the Isle of Dogs. Jasmine Sylvester and Winston were living in a posh flat on Narrow Street. He wanted to clear it up quick.
He ran to the lifts, smelt the river behind the facade of flats, sixth floor, number 129, knocked, again, again: ‘Hope James told me I would find you here, I’m Harry Slocombe, love, I’m here to sort things out … ‘ Winston opened the door, large, smiling, as if welcoming a star guest to the party. He led the way into the living-room.
‘I hate Sylvester,’ Winston shouted, ‘Praise the Lord, I hate him, evil man, son of Satan.’

Harry stood back, open mouthed.

‘Be happy, Mr Slocombe, happy days!’ jasmine shook his arm, ‘we’re born again, praise the lord. Sylvester’s not my real dad, he just live with me mum, one of his women – and he take a fancy to me too, many times – the Lord will punish him, Praise the Lord.’
‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’ Winston clapped his hands.
Harry, who had seen most things, stood silent, blinking, repeating their conversation over and over in his head. ‘I’m very happy for you both, naturally, but there is one small problem.’
‘The heroin, Mr Slocombe, the devil’s friend ‘ Winston’s smile widened.
‘Mr Sylvester wants his property back, he ‘
‘Never!’ Winston shot up a black panther clenched fist which Harry thought rather incongruous.
‘You destroyed it, you born again, dead again little twit … ‘
‘We hide it,’ he said.
Harry sat down while Jasmine and Winston looked out at the river, their arms round each other. Harry stared angrily at their backs, he’d never known anything so stupid – and the bloody throbbing began again in his balls, his need for Martha, for his body to be tied, controlled, known, certain – would he never change?
‘All right kids, how far you really prepared to go, will you testify against Sylvester?’
‘Testify, testify!,’ they cheered. ‘Oh my God.’
They sat down on either side of Slocombe. Jasmine held his hand, so tenderly, ‘We not mad, Mr Slocombe, we are afraid to testify, he will try to kill us, but Winston’s brother die from heroin last month, we going to do it, all the way.’ Her eyes, so clear and truthful, gazed into his. For a moment he lost all sense, felt free, heard the handcuffs unlock …
Winston stood, ‘We’re not crazy, we’ll do it, we are afraid, but the Lord will protect us.’
It’s only money, Harry sighed, he saw the two thousand pounds burning in front of his eyes. ‘All right kids, all right, if you really want to, I’ve got a contact in the Flying Squad, they’d love to hear from you two, can I use your phone?’
‘Next door, Mr Slocombe,’ Jasmine pointed.
‘In the meantime, put that chest across the door, and the wardrobe against the window … do it, do it, now!’
‘George, Harry Slocombe here, look I’ve found Sylvester’s heroin, and I the two kids will testify against him.’
‘No, George, I’ve not been drinking, they had a conversion experience.’
‘No, George, they’ve not changed to Mercury, they’re born again, explain later, get down here, now, quick.’
‘He’s on his way, kids, make us a cup of tea will you love?’
George Ormrod arrived with three other detectives, began to take statements, delighted by the turn of events.
‘George, I’ll be back in a minute, there’s something I’ve got to do.’
He opened the boot of his car in East India Dock Road, took out a package and walked across some gangplanks to the river. He tied string round the little cardboard box, and gave his favourite handcuffs a final kiss. He crouched into a military second world war grenade throwing position and flung the package as far as he could into the middle of the ancient river. ‘Won’t be needing them any more.’ Half a moon flicked highlights of silver onto the ripple tops of the little waves.
He wouldn’t be seeing Martha tonight. It was over. When Jasmine looked into his eyes he knew even he could change. ‘What’s money, Harry?’ He saw his two thousand pounds on a bonfire and laughed as it burnt to dust.
He was ugly, he hated his body. But he wanted someone to look into his eyes and, and to love him … That’s what he had always wanted. The money, the handcuffs, he’d let them go together. He sat on the mud of the river bank and cried uncontrollably. Bondage was the only way he could be loved, but no more. It had failed him.
He thought of his handcuffs travelling beneath the river towards Millwall and oblivion. The river was always moving: Bronze Age settlers, Elizabethan explorers, pirates, convicts, the Queen Mary, the end of the docks, carrying its cargo, Russian Jewish immigrants, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Jasmine and Winston, him, all citizens of London, all changing.
Harry walked back to the flat. He felt old and very alone, unchained and naked in the vast city. But from somewhere out of the deeps of London he hoped love may one day find him.

Madame Sossi

(Published in Pen Pusher, Summer 2008 – You can also watch a short film version, here)

I was doing a little shopping in Berwick Street market. Bobby, who sells exotic fruits, called out, ‘Madame Sossi, where’s that blonde bombshell you promised me last week?’ ‘Be patient,’ I said, ‘wait for Jupiter to enter Capricorn next week, that’ll do the trick.’

Scallops for my supper tonight. Of course, I’m long retired, though I still do a few séances for favoured clients, but it’s only pocket money. I’m well provided for. But Soho isn’t what it was.

Last week, who should I see in the mirror but Dylan, Dylan Thomas. He’s always sober these days, radiant: ‘Hello, my petalled rosebud’ (what a voice); ‘How is my angel of the eternal valleys?’

Poor Dylan, he was up here in January 1953. I was at my peak then, ‘Mademoiselle Sossi Predicts’ had just begun in the Daily Sketch, lovely figure, auburn hair, long Diana Dors dresses, a bust that hypnotized. I said to Dylan, we’d all been out to dinner at the Eiffel Tower, ‘Don’t go to America, Dylan, don’t go!’ He roared, ‘Will it be my ruin, you mermaid of the deeps?’ His hands lurched round me, ‘Give me the strength, you lissom temptress. You are my ruin, you, you – come to me!’

I never…with Dylan. You wouldn’t have known where he’d been. He had a place in Redcliffe Street then, Earls Court, but he stayed with anyone who would accommodate him, and many did. Poor Dylan. I couldn’t sleep while he was in America. My calling is not an easy one.

I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1925, if you can believe it, and “ruined” in 1941 on a summer’s day in a boat on the Thames at Cookham. It was the making of me. My mother, Betty Turpin, was red with rage. She knew the moment I walked in: ‘You bloody trollop, who you been with?’ I licked my lips.

On the boat with Luigi I saw an aura round his head like flowing silk scarves. I had been touched by the gift. Luigi encouraged my calling. He had a revue bar in Brewer Street and gave me a job as a receptionist, as well as finding me a flat at the top of a house near Golden Square.

The mirror is going misty, always a sign I’ll be visited later.

I moved in to Golden Square on 17 April 1942. There was an old medium and astrologer living in Lexington Street, Miss Veronica Hanson, she’d been a friend of Annie Besant (I’ll put those scallops in the frying-pan, with a little oil, lemon, parsley). I studied with ‘Miss Veronica’ for two years. One day she said, ‘You need a name, darling – “Rosie Turpin” lacks refinement perhaps? – and El-o-Cu-Tion lessons. Does bloody wonders for business.’

Luigi arranged for Sybil Merchant to give me voice lessons. I love the smell of scallops cooking, and the colour, like eating jewels of the sea. Luigi was so kind and I called myself ‘Mademoiselle Sossi’ (It was the Daily Sketch that introduced the ‘Madame’). He was Luigi Rossi but his wife would have been unhappy if I’d called myself ‘Rossi’. One of my early clients, a Polish cavalry officer, used to say to me, ‘My special angel, my darling, you’re so saucy, saucy,’ which sounded like ‘sossi’. So Sossi it was.

As my voice became more refined it was marvellous not sounding like mother. But she found out where I was living. One evening she waited until Luigi arrived, then jumped on him, kicking and screaming wildly. It was very bad for business.

Darling Luigi had troubles with the taxman and a gang of Maltese thugs – he fled home to Sicily with his wife and children. That was in January 1944. I never heard from him again. There have been no sightings from the other side.

These scallops are gorgeous, and with a little green salad, rye bread. Soho is not what it was though – lots of young men with firm bottoms and girls with badly applied make-up. As my old friend Don Lawson used to say, ‘They’re just designer bohos, sweetie.’ I won’t bother with the curlers tonight.

One night, towards the end of the war, December 1944, mother stood drunk outside my flat for three hours. I pretended I wasn’t in. All associations between us were over. She was shouting some quite horrible things about poor Luigi, and what a slut I was. I’d had enough. The next morning an old acquaintance gave me an introduction to a disciple of Aleister Crowley.

So, in January 1945, I travelled into deepest Surrey to meet one of Mr Crowley’s protégés. I handed him a large fee and a brooch of mother’s that she’d given me years ago. We went into the woods and in a most potent ceremony a curse was placed on mother. A tension began to leave me at once.

On 21 February 1945 a handsome policeman came to my flat and told me that mother had dropped dead waiting for the 43 bus (they found my address in her handbag). I could have kissed him.

It’s lovely lying in bed, watching telly. I’m never lonely. Jeffrey Bernard still visits me, ‘Hello, lover, time for a vodka?’ – and could he drink vodka! I hope you’re happy on the astral plane, Jeffrey. He gave me a tip last week, ‘Running Wild’, in the 2.30 at Catterick – came in last. Some things never change.

I think I’ll go to sleep in a minute. General de Gaulle loved Soho, virtually set up his headquarters at the French Pub – a most attractive man considering he was so ugly. I did his astrological chart – but I mustn’t go into this, I’m probably still bound by the Official Secrets Act. I love these soft pillows. Never economize on pillows.

And duck feather duvets, what an invention! I never married, not that I was short of offers. It’s funny being so popular at my age…

Simon Carver Looks at Life

(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 1996)

I’ve had an eventful time for a boy of thirteen years and two months. My life could nearly be a film already. I love films. In my room I’ve got posters of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night – I saw these a couple of years ago – and The Birds which Mr Hitchcock signed for me. I’m playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the best record in the world. I love writing too. My life is a bit weird. This is what happened yesterday.

June 15, 1967 
I felt great after the cricket match. My housemaster, who is also head of games at my prep school, stood in the door of the pavilion and bellowed, ‘Well done Carver, that was first class, if you do that against Papplewick next week I’ll give you your colours.’
‘Thank you very much, sir.’
‘And Carver,’ he took his hands off the top of the pavilion door, and came over to me, filling up all the space he was so tall, ‘we might still get you into Charterhouse if you go on playing like that.’ He stared straight at me with his blue eyes and patted me hard on the back.
‘Wow, great sir, certainly easier than common entrance.’ ‘Don’t get too cocky, boy.’
I was taking common entrance next term and you had to be a real swot to get into Charterhouse. But as I was just thirteen I could always take it again. One of my friends who had been watching the cricket, Tubby Groves, came over to me and said, ‘that was really great Simon, 41, brilliant runs, fantastic.’ He patted me on the back too.
‘Even Matron clapped at one of your fours’, Hearson, the vice-captain said.
After showers I was combing my hair in the mirror and Miss Gifford, one of the sub-matrons, said, ‘You’d better get your hair cut or you’ll look like a film star, won’t you?’ I sort of laughed and went a bit red because she looked at me really nicely. My hair goes very fair in the summer and last holidays Rudd-Jones’s sister said it looked great.
We always had a special tea after cricket with the other side in the big hall, looking out at the cricket pitch, the tennis court and the headmaster’s garden. I loved the look of the grounds in summer, everything was perfect every year, and always the same perfect if you know what I mean. Alan, one of the gardeners, went past and put his thumbs up at me. That made me feel great. He loved cricket and knew everything about bats. I never wanted to go to Public School. I just wanted to stay here and play cricket and touch Miss Gifford everywhere when she had no clothes on. I go stiff whenever I think about her.
I left school to go home on the train. I was happy except that my mother didn’t come to watch me play. She normally does on a Saturday because we don’t live far away. Everyone really liked her and my housemaster’s ears always changed colour when he talked to her. And the headmaster used to come out of his study when he saw her and say, ‘Er, how’s that marvellous sports car, er, going, Mrs Carver?’ When she looked at him and smiled you could tell it made him feel good because his arm started twitching. He always did that when he was pleased.
I bought a Mars bar on Windsor and Eton Riverside station and looked for some girls to observe. If you looked closely you could sometimes see the tops of their legs and almost everything. As the train went past Datchet I wondered why my mother didn’t come. I really liked her watching me play. I knew she was watching everything I did and even my fielding got quicker when she was there. I watched a golfer hit a golf ball on Datchet golf course. I hated golf. Stupid little ball could go anywhere with a big hit. In cricket everything is skill, especially when you’re a slow left arm spin bowler like me. But I don’t always bowl because I’m even better as a batsman.
My mother used to be an actress. She was so good she could have gone to Hollywood, lots of people said that. My father, who is much older, and very ill, was the accountant for Alfred Hitchcock’s film company. He met my mother when she was acting in one of Mr Hitchcock’s later films.
My father had been married before and his wife had drowned somewhere. I have one half-brother, Richard, who’s at Pangbourne College and going into the Royal Navy. I’ve got an even older half-sister, who’s twenty-two and married to Captain Hitler of the Royal Green Jackets.
When I grow up I’m going to make films because I love looking at things and making different shapes with photographs and cine-films. I was in the photography club at school and my uncle was going to buy me a really good camera at Christmas. Mother stopped acting when she had me. We live in a big house outside Chobham. My father doesn’t work anymore but I think we’re rich. My mother once said to me, ‘Darling you’re always rich as long as there’s enough money for a dry martini in the cocktail bar at The Savoy.’ My father heard her and told her off.
My mother got ill sometimes and drank a lot and shouted at me and wandered all over. When she was like this she never looked at me. Yesterday she was staring into the garden, ‘The grass needs cutting, that bloody gardener.’ But it had only been cut the day before and it looked beautiful. Sometimes I felt alone with this person who was my mother but not my mother. I wondered why she didn’t come to watch me today.
I looked out of the train window at Virginia Water. I knew Lindsey wouldn’t be there because it was a Saturday. Lindsey went to a convent and I used to talk to her on the train going home. She teased me because she was a bit older and knew all about kissing and everything. One day, the train was quiet, she just said, ‘Do you want to kiss me?’
‘OK, I suppose so.’
The first time our teeth knocked. We did it a few times in the next few weeks and it got good. Then she wasn’t on the train anymore. One of her friends said that her mother had started to pick her up in the car. But I just looked in case.
Near Chobham it gets all sandy and the trees and grass disappear a bit.
It was getting cloudy too. But I wasn’t that sad not to see Lindsey again. I’d gained a lot of experience and my friends at school were impressed. It was different with Paula Day. She was the sister of a boy at school. We used to write to other boys’ sisters. She was at boarding school in Kent. Then I met her in the holidays. Justin Day was one of my good friends and I stayed with him and his family at their cottage in Wiltshire.
Paula and me liked each other straight away. She had short, dark hair, lovely eyelashes and looked brilliant in her tennis dress – and she could play nearly as well as a boy.
Justin got in a real bate with us. We couldn’t help it. When we looked at each other, phew. I don’t mean sex. I mean I looked at her and all the world went still. It just stopped. And you felt more fantastic than you ever did. Everything was perfect and still, like a game of cricket, no more, but you weren’t afraid of anything when you looked at someone like that and they looked at you too. We did kiss and went further than ever but it was the looking that was really great.
Their father worked for Burmah Oil. Justin said, ‘My father has to go to the Philippines to blow something up.’ And they took Paula with them and sent her to an embassy school. That was three months ago. And she hasn’t written. And Justin won’t give me her address. I can’t stand Justin anymore. I’m not usually like that with friends.
When I got off the train at Chobham I looked for my mother.
Sometimes she just arrived. She’d guess which train I was on. All the porters were very polite and friendly to her. But she wasn’t here to-day. It was a long walk home. I was always allowed to take a taxi from the station. My father was good like that. We discussed things properly and worked out what was right and how much pocket money I should have and everything. ‘You see old chap, you have to make a good argument to me and then we’ll see.’ He didn’t do that much now because he was so ill and everything.
I walked because I felt a bit sick and funny. Too much match tea. I stopped before the house. The long hedge, I think it is a laurel hedge, had been cut by our gardener, Bill Cranham. He always came on his bike with plants at the back. I called out ‘Bill, Bill,’ but no one was around. Our house was a big Victorian house with two huge windows at the front which let in tons oflight. My mother wanted to live on the Wentworth Estate where she had lived before she got married to my father. ‘We’re not living in Hollywood by the Lake,’ my father told her. I had to go inside now.
‘I’m home.’ There wasn’t any sound. Even Pedro, my dog, didn’t come out to say hello. My feet made masses of noise over the little tiles. They were mosaics or something. My mother had them put in. My stomach felt really bad now. It was always dark in the hallway, like being a prisoner in a huge dungeon. There was no one in the dining-room or sitting-room. I went through the long hallway to the kitchen.
‘Darling, hello.’ My mother’s hand slipped from a tumbler of whisky and she puffed up her silk nightdress round the shoulders.
‘What are you drinking now, you look horrible.’
‘Oh do sit down old chap.’ My father spoke very slowly and the words came out all muddled. His white hair needed combing and he’d spilt food down his polo shirt.
‘Your nose is all red.’ I stared at him and wanted to kick over his walking-frame. He was drinking whisky too. ‘You look like a couple of alcoholics.’
‘Oh, the thought police are home again,’ my mother sneered. She tried to put a cigarette in her mouth, first on one side of her lips and then the other. Her lips were all cracked.
‘I had a great game of cricket today, you know.’
‘Oh God can’t you think of anything but yourself?’ she stared but didn’t see me at all. Lots of little veins throbbed in her cheeks.
‘Why can’t you tell her to stop drinking, daddy, why not?’
‘Oh what a brilliant little drama queen.’ My mother put her fists up at me.
‘Shush, shush,’ my father said. His eyes were hazy like they had a lace curtain over them. And he had a circle of white round his irises which I’d never seen before.
‘Shut up, both of you.’ She flung her arms in the air and looked like she’d been kissed by Dracula. ‘I’m going out.’ She slammed the door and threw a glass in the hall. The sound spread all over the mosaic floor. ‘I hate that little bastard.’
I was afraid. I phoned the doctor. It rang for ages but no one answered. The house felt empty. I was lonely and my father looked like he was about to be sent off to Madame Tussaud’s. I don’t think the lace curtains over his eyes were ever going to come down any more. Two years ago when she was last like this he looked at her slowly and seriously. She went a bit funny but later said she was going to cook a special meal for her ‘two favourite men.’
Then I saw her rush across the lawn. She had shoes on now and a mac but I could tell she was still wearing her nightdress. Where was she going? Why? My mouth was dry. I might never see her again. I followed her. It was nice being outside. It was still sunny and the light wind felt friendly. ‘Mummy, why don’t you come back, have a cup of tea and a chat with both of us, oh come on.’
She walked fast. ‘Go away,’ she flicked her hand at me. ‘Go back to your cricket, you spoilt brat, I’m going for a long walk. Leave me alone.’ She shouted the last words so loud anyone could have heard. It was horrible. I couldn’t think of films any more. She went towards the village. Luckily no one saw her and then she turned down a footpath. It got windier. I couldn’t think any more about the nice day I’d had or my friends or girls or anything. I only had on my Aertex shirt and I was shivering.
‘Please slow down a bit,’ I pleaded. She turned round and threw stones at me. I stopped dead. ‘Oh stop being so silly will you.’
She lifted her head slowly and tossed it back. Bits of hair escaped from her bow like corkscrews on either side of her face. ‘Do you think it’s “silly,” you stupid little boy,’ she bent down and dug up a patch of weedy earth, ‘to be yourself, to have to escape from all you bastards just to be yourself.’
She flung the earth at me and nearly tottered over. I cried now, not with all my face, but just loads of tears coming straight out of my eyes. I couldn’t help it. She stared at me like I wasn’t her son at all. ‘You pathetic little boy.’ I couldn’t say anything. She held her fist straight out in front of her and turned it round and round. Then she rushed off the footpath and into the wasteground. She fell over and got up. I could see she’d cut her knee. I couldn’t move. I watched everything.
It was about seven now and wispy clouds were covering up the sun.
My mother ran through the wasteground, fell over again and got up. She turned round. There were stinging nettles moving all around her. Yellow buttercups and straggling weedy things were shushing about in the wind. Behind the footpath, on Chambers Road, all kinds of trees were dodging in the wind. My mum’s hair flew around. Everything was just moving. It was horrible. My mum shouted at me but I couldn’t hear what she said. Nothing was ever going to stop doing all these separate things. I knew now that my mum was just doing what she had to do, like weeds and stinging nettles. I knew we were all weeds and stinging nettles. Houses and schools and cricket and love were all pretend. You could never stop everything going on just the way it had to. Not even in films. I felt really sick.
I saw her rush into the station and jump on a train. She never looked round for me. I stood outside the station in the quiet by a tree. I was calmer but when I looked everything was different. I wish Paula Day had been here. I could have looked into her eyes. Then I was sad because it was probably all pretend.
“Monkeyface,” the name we gave to one of the porters, came over to me. I’d never really liked him as much as the others. ‘You look worried son.’ He looked into my eyes. His teeth were yellow and cracked. But he went on looking at me, like he really cared. ‘Was that your mum? Don’t worry, she’s an actress, she’ll be alright.’ I looked back at him. I think I might have smiled or blushed. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ He put one leg behind the other. ‘I’m off now, I’ll make you a nice cup of tea shall I?’ He nodded his big head up and down. ‘You know I’ve got a famous train set don’t you?’
‘Okay,’ I smiled. I thought of my dad. I hoped he was dead when I got home. I didn’t ever want to go home. Monkeyface looked at me like he really cared. The world felt all slow again. I wasn’t so sick inside anymore.

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