Pigeon English

by

Stephen Kelman

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Pigeon English: March Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Harri sees blood outside Chicken Joe’s, and Jordan offers him one pound to touch it. Harri is tempted, but there is police tape around the blood saying, “DO NOT CROSS.” The dead boy’s mother is nearby, “guarding the blood.” A pigeon walks past looking for food. Its eyes look sad. Nearby, there is a pile of flowers, pictures of the boy in his school uniform, bottles of beer, and messages of love. The boy’s football boots are there—Nikes, almost brand new. Jordan proposes stealing them, and Harri doesn’t reply. Harri was “half friends” with the dead boy, who was older and went to a different school. He prays for the boy, thinking about a chief back in Ghana who brought his son back from the dead. 
The opening of the novel establishes that Harri and his friends are young and still rather innocent and naïve. This is revealed by the fact that they dare each other to touch the dead boy’s blood, and that Jordan considers stealing the boy’s shoes. The juxtaposition between this youth and naïveté and the boy’s death is jarring. Harri may be young, but he already has to deal with the painful, frightening issues of violent crime and death.
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Harri leaves a bouncy ball for the dead boy; Jordan leaves a pebble he found on the ground. Harri then gives Jordan a strawberry Chewit candy to give to the boy. They run home, and Harri gets there first. He boasts that he is “the fastest in Year 7.” Harri lives on the ninth floor of a fourteen-story tower block named Copenhagen House. He loves looking down from his balcony and going up in the lift. Sometimes he stands at the bottom of the tower and holds his arms out, feeling the wind rush around him and pretending to be a bird.
This passage further emphasizes Harri’s innocence. The objects he chooses to leave for the boy convey Harri’s own childlike nature alongside the fact that the boy was also only a child when he was killed. Although the boy’s death is obviously traumatic, it has not destroyed Harri’s childlike joy and love for the world, as shown by his habit of pretending to be a bird. 
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Harri observes that in England, there are lots of different words that mean the same thing. For example, “gay and dumb and lame all mean the same.” When Harri started at his new school, Connor Green tried to trick him into saying the sentence “I have a penis.” Harri likes to stand on his balcony and watch the helicopters. He sees X-Fire paint his name on the wall of the next tower block, Stockholm House. He wonders who would stab a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s. 
Having recently moved to England, Harri has to master not only the version of English spoken in his London community, but also the norms and customs that accompany it. Connor Green’s attempt to make him say “I have a penis” illustrates that Harri is made vulnerable by being a young immigrant.
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On the phone, Harri tells Papa that a pigeon flew into their flat, and that Lydia was scared. Harri put flour on his hand, and the pigeon flew into it. Harri was thrilled, thinking that this was now his “special pigeon.” He let the pigeon fly away from the balcony. Papa says, “good work,” and Harri can hear him smiling. Harri observes that people in England are very paranoid about germs, especially Vilis, who runs away from Harri because he claims that if he breathes African germs he will die.
The novel frequently draws a parallel between pigeons and people, and in this passage, the comparison is specifically between pigeons and African immigrants like Harri. Both Harri and the pigeon are faced with the prejudice of being perceived as dirty. Perhaps this is why Harri feels love and sympathy for the pigeon.
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Harri’s baby sister Agnes is still in Ghana, where Grandma Ama takes care of her. Once Papa sells everything in his shop, he’ll buy tickets for the three of them to join the rest of the family in London. It has been two months since Harri, Mamma, and Lydia moved there. The calling card runs out, and Papa’s voice cuts off.
The reader is now introduced to the painful separation involved in Harri’s move to London. While half of the family is starting a new life in the UK, the other half have been (temporarily) left behind. 
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Harri once saw a dead person at the Kaneshie market in Accra. A woman selling oranges was knocked over by a tro-tro, and some of the shoeshine boys tried to steal from her. At Harri’s church in London, there is a “special prayer” for the dead boy. Pastor Taylor tells the children that if they know anyone with a knife, they should tell on them. Later, Harri stabs himself with a fork and wonders aloud what it feels like to be stabbed “for real.”
Harri is too young to fully process what happened to the boy, and this is shown by his curiosity about what it feels like to be stabbed. He is no stranger to the reality of death, as shown by the anecdote about the Kaneshie market. However, violent death—and the knife crime epidemic in particular—is still new to him.
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On the first day of Harri’s new school in London, Manik’s papa shows Harri how to tie his school tie. Manik’s papa has walked Manik to school ever since the Dell Farm Crew stole Manik’s trainers. Harri and Lydia pretend not to know each other at school. At break time, Harri plays a game called “suicide bomber,” where you run and crash into other people with the aim of making them fall over. When he’s not playing games, Harri swaps things like football stickers and sweets.
Harri’s life as an innocent, eleven-year-old child is marred by the omnipresence of violence. This passage details several different kinds of violence, from the Dell Farm Crew bullying and robbing Manik to the game of “suicide bomber.” Indeed, this shows the unique way in which children process extreme violence, by turning it into a game.
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X-Fire demonstrates how to stab someone using his fingers. Harri is “the dead boy.” X-Fire explains that it’s best to stab someone in a soft part of them because otherwise it feels “disgusting.” Dizzy and Clipz join in the discussion, but Killa stays quiet. Harri wonders if this is because Killa has stabbed so many people and that this is how he got his nickname. Harri feels sick when he hears the other boys discuss stabbing, but he forces himself to be still and listen.
X-Fire’s decision to demonstrate what it is like to stab someone, using Harri as a model, highlights the amount of power that X-Fire and the rest of the Dell Farm Crew have over Harri. Harri’s nausea indicates that he doesn’t want to know about stabbing someone, yet he has no choice but to listen.
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Harri and his family always go to the market on Saturdays. His favorite shop is the sweet shop, but he never buys jelly babies in case it reminds Mamma of the dead babies that she sees in real life. At the market, Mamma looks for a pigeon net, which upsets Harri. He wants pigeons to fly into the house even though Mamma says they are “dirty.” He is relieved to learn that pigeon nets are not sold at the market. While Mamma buys Harri a Chelsea Football (soccer) Club shirt from the clothes stall, Harri sees Jordan steal a phone. The dead boy had the official Chelsea shirt, not a knockoff like Harri’s one. Harri loves his shirt even though it’s scratchy.
Harri is a joyful, sensitive, and conscientious boy. Indeed, this sensitivity sometimes emerges in an almost comic way, such as when Harri worries that eating jelly babies will remind Mamma of the real dead babies she sees at work. However, Harri’s sensitivity is shown to be more tragic when compared to Jordan’s theft of the phone or the death of the boy. How long will Harri be able to remain innocent while he is surrounded by violence and death? 
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Harri is frightened by X-Fire’s dog, Harvey, but likes Terry Takeaway’s dog, Asbo, who is “funny and friendly.” Terry got his nickname because he is always stealing things. He always offers to sell his stolen goods to Harri and Dean even though they are children and don’t have any money. Harri says Terry is “dey touch” because he drinks beer for breakfast.
In the world of the novel, not all criminality is dark and disturbing. Terry Takeaway’s penchant for theft is treated as a joke, rather than something sinister and disturbing—as is his evident alcoholism.
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Harri loves to pee into the toilet just after Mamma bleaches it because he can pretend he is God peeing on a cloud. While on the plane journeying from Ghana to England, Harri saw the top of the clouds. When he couldn’t see heaven, Mamma explained that you can’t see heaven “until you’re ready.” Harri wants to see heaven now so he can see what his Grandpa Solomon is doing.
Harri spends a lot of time thinking about religion, God, and heaven, but his understanding of religion is still rather whimsical, as is typical of children. In particular, Harri has a rather blurred sense of metaphor when it comes to clouds and heaven.
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When Harri gets home from school, there many police officers looking around the bushes and bins. One of the cops is a woman, which Harri finds “very crazy.” The female cop asks if anyone knows where the dead boy was on the day of his death or if anyone was “after him.” The kids say no. Dean asks if the police have any leads, and the cop replies that they’re “working on it.” Harri boasts that he saw the dead boy’s blood, which was like a river. He wanted to jump in and swim in it, thinking that this would make it seem as if the dead boy was still there. Harri thinks that if he only knew he had five minutes to live, he would fill the time with all his favorite things.
Harri has clearly been profoundly affected by the boy’s death. Even though they were not close friends, Harri ardently wishes that he could bring the boy back from death. The death of someone so young also forces Harri to contemplate his own mortality. Although Harri finds himself imagining what it would be like to have only five minutes left to live, he still has a somewhat unrealistic view of death, as shown by the fact that he thinks he could fill these minutes with his favorite things.  
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In music, Harri’s class plays the drums. He teaches Poppy Morgan how to play the bass drum, and while doing so he smells her hair “by mistake.” Poppy’s hair smells like honey, and when she smiles at Harry, it makes his “belly turn over.” From Harri’s balcony, he can see lines of flats, including the flats where elderly people and the “never-normals” live. Jordan’s mom uses the term “never-normals” to mean people who are “not right in the head.”
Harri is in the midst of a transition from childhood to adolescence, and as a result does not fully comprehend the changes happening to him—including his own feelings for Poppy. He is able to recognize that she has an effect on him, but due to his childlike innocence, he doesn’t really understand why.
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That night after Mamma and Lydia fall asleep, Harri goes out to the balcony and pours flour on the handrail. He almost spits down onto the ground but stops when he sees someone by the bins. Harri can see that the person is male, and Harri shouts up to the helicopters flying above that it might be the killer. He sees the man pull something that looks like a knife out from under the bin and tuck it into his pants. Then he runs away toward the river. Harri waits for a while in case he sees something else bad, but then goes inside. He is sad that the pigeon didn’t come back and wonders if the pigeon thinks Harri is going to kill it. In reality, Harri just wants to feed it and teach it tricks.
This passage illustrates how Harri’s innocent, childish desire to see the pigeon again gets inadvertently mixed up in criminality, violence, and death. Harri’s decision to shout up to the helicopters illustrates his naïveté. He doesn’t realize that the helicopters will not be able to hear him, and that shouting is actually more likely to endanger him due to the possibility that the person below—or anyone else in his tower block—might hear him.
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The narrative is interrupted by a brief passage told from the perspective of the pigeon. It says that humans and pigeons are more alike than people think, but “not too alike.” The pigeon pities people, whose “lives are so short and nothing’s even fair.” It didn’t know the dead boy, but it understands grief.
The sections of the story narrated by the pigeon are an example of magical realism. The notion that the pigeon would have its own, decidedly lyrical and philosophical consciousness is fantastical, but is treated as normal within an otherwise realist text.
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 Harri is “the man of the house,” so it’s his job to scare away “invaders.” If an invader comes into the house, Harri will stab them in the eyes with a fork. Harri looks through the peephole and sees Chanelle and Miquita on the other side. He opens all the locks on the door and lets them in. Lydia and her friends like watching Hollyoaks, but Harri hates it because it has kissing in it—sometimes even men kissing other men. Harri thinks both Miquita and Chanelle are dey touch because they are always talking about the boys they “suck off.” Miquita threatens to kiss Harri, but he says if she does he’ll spit.  
Harri’s feelings about Miquita and Chanelle challenge typical understandings of sexual threat and victimhood. Stereotypically, it is women who are conceptualized as being under threat from men, but in Harri’s case, he is a boy who is sexually victimized by Miquita. Harri’s disgust at “Hollyoaks”—a long-running British soap opera—suggests that he feels intimidated by sexuality in general.
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Miquita isn’t going to the dead boy’s funeral. She said it was his fault he was killed because “he shouldn’t have been fronting.” Harri tells her she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and that the killer stabbed the boy to steal his Chicken Joe’s. Miquita replies that Harri “don’t know shit” because he’s too young. Harri leaves, furiously thinking that Miquita is “disgusting.”
Miquita dismisses Harri for being clueless due to his youth. However, while Miquita may be older and less innocent than Harri, she is not necessarily more mature. Her implication that the dead boy deserved to die is decidedly immature. 
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On the doors of the shopping center, there is a sign that reads, “NO ALCOHOL… NO BICYCLES… NO DOGS… NO SKATEBOARDS… NO SMOKING… NO BALL GAMES.” Beneath, someone has added “NO FUGLIES.” Harri explains that fuglies are girls who immediately get pregnant after you only kiss them. They smell like cigarettes, and so do their babies. Dean is Harri’s second-best friend, after Jordan, who is Harri’s best friend “outside of school.” Dean advises Harri to put his dinner money in his sock so it won’t get stolen. 
Harri’s impression of the world is a confusing mix of fact and fiction, in part because he doesn’t fully understand the prejudices of those around him. For example, he believes that “fuglies” represents a real category of people, rather than an assumption based on people’s prejudices against women (and particularly teenage mothers).
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Dean thinks that CSI should take over the investigation of the dead boy’s murder. He explains that CSI are the best detectives in America, and that they are “real,” not just on TV. Dean tells Harri about the high-tech methods the CSI detectives use to solve crimes, and Harri suggests that they do the same to help find the dead boy’s killer, but Dean points out that they don’t have the right technology. At that moment, Terry Takeaway comes running past, carrying a tray of chicken that drops to the floor. The butcher shouts after him angrily.
This passage suggests that Dean also has trouble separating fact from fiction. Although the TV program CSI is loosely based on the lives of real detectives, it is not a realistic depiction of criminal investigation. However, Dean is too young and inexperienced to realize that this is the case.
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Harri explains that dead babies must be named in order to get into heaven. If the parents are too sad or aren’t believers, Mamma names the baby for them. Today, a baby died because it was ectopic, meaning it grew outside the womb. Mamma named the baby Katy, which made the mother very happy. Harri suggests that next time she should name the baby Harrison, but Mamma replies that it would be bad luck to do that. Harri was relieved to learn that dead babies grow up in heaven, because he’d hate to be a baby forever.
One of the reasons why Harri is so fascinated by heaven is because his idea of heaven is such a significant contrast to his current life on Earth. In the mortal world, Harri’s life is full of change: he has moved to a new country, he is approaching puberty, and his neighborhood is gripped by a tragic murder. As a result, he is intrigued by questions such as whether babies grow up in heaven. His question also shows his innocence, as he’s worried if dead babies have to be babies forever, not if dead babies go to hell.
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Harri searches for footprints by the bins but can’t find any. At break time, he jumps in a puddle and is briefly worried that a nearby bird is going to poop on him. Connor Green explains that in England, it is considered good luck if a bird poops on you. Vilis chimes in that Harri “must be lucky because he smells like shit.” When Dean angrily responds, Vilis says something in “his language” and runs away. Harris vows that next time Vilis insults him he will kick him in the crotch.
The fact that Vilis has a language of his own indicates that, like Harri, Vilis and/or his parents are also recent immigrants. Perhaps Vilis bullies Harri in order to deflect any xenophobic prejudice that might otherwise be directed at him.
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The dead boy’s coffin has a Chelsea Football Club badge on it. Harri thinks his funeral seems very sad because his family is all dressed in black, it is raining, and there is no singing or dancing either. Mamma squeezes Harri and Lydia tightly. They are not allowed inside the church because they were not close enough to the boy, so they wait outside along with a TV crew. The presenter keeps stopping to get her hair fixed, and at one point turns and asks the kids to stop swearing. The kids swear back in response.
Harri is struck by how different the dead boy’s funeral is to what he is used to in Ghana. Although Harri doesn’t say so explicitly, his thoughts in this passage point to the fact that in Ghana, everyone is welcome to every funeral, and there is singing and dancing rather than somberness and silence. This speaks to the difference in how death is treated in Ghana versus England.
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In Ghana, some coffins are in the shape of “what the person loved the most,” such as a sewing machine or a taxi. There is singing and dancing, and everyone is allowed to join in. Harri whispers that the dead boy’s coffin should have been a football boot and thinks that he would choose an airplane for himself. Harri sneaks away from Mamma and Lydia and watches the crowd with Dean, looking for signs of suspicious activity. Harri says that the person by the bins had his hood up, but this doesn’t help much as it is raining, and everyone has their hoods up. Dean and Harri shake the hands of everyone in the crowd, offering commiserations and trying to look for the killer until someone tells them to go away.
As with “suicide bomber,” Dean and Harri process the death of the boy by turning it into a game. Their imitation of the CSI detectives and mission to find the boy’s killer turns an otherwise tragic, senseless situation into something fun, and also gives the boys a sense of purpose and power. This is facilitated by the fact that neither Harri or Dean fully grasp their limitations as detectives.
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At the end of the funeral, Killa rides by on his bike. He slips off in the rain, and a man attending the funeral shouts at him to watch where he’s going. Harri thinks there’s going to be a fight, but Killa just cycles away. Harri thinks it’s wrong when children die and is scared that he is going to be next.
Harri identifies with the dead boy not only because they were both young, but because the boy’s death feels so senseless and random. If the boy was killed just so someone could steal his chicken, Harri could easily be killed as well.  
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Harri explains that the steps outside the cafeteria “belong to the Dell Farm Crew”—it is the best spot in school, and only they are allowed to sit there. Year elevens are allowed to sit there, but only if they are personally invited by X-Fire. The Dell Farm Crew is named after the Dell Farm Estate. X-Fire is the leader because he is the best at basketball, has stabbed the most people, and stolen the most stuff.
This passage shows that in Harri’s school, violence and criminality are valued in the same way as skills such as basketball playing. For kids like Harri who are young and impressionable, this is bound to create a distorted sense of values.
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One day, the Dell Farm Crew take Harri’s bag and threaten to throw it on the roof. X-Fire asks where Harri is from, and when Clipz teases him about Ghana, X-Fire tells him to stop, saying Harri’s “alright.” X-Fire says Harri can have his bag back if he does a “job” for him. Harri doesn’t understand, replying that he doesn’t need a job. Dizzy adds that it would be a good idea for Harri to roll with them. X-Fire eventually gives Harri his bag back, saying that if Harri ever needs anything he should come to them.
X-Fire at first appears friendly and sympathetic, at least in comparison to the rest of the Dell Farm Crew. However, it soon becomes clear that this is because he wants to recruit Harri. He sees Harri as a means to an end rather than a person to be respected in his own right.
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One of the never-normal women rides a “chair car” because she’s “too fat to walk.” Harri once saw little kids climb on top of it for a ride. Harri loves running in the rain and tasting the drops on his tongue. Auntie Sonia comes over, and Harri and Lydia show off the lift in Copenhagen House. Auntie Sonia tells them about the lifts in America, which are called elevators. Auntie Sonia has “been everywhere.” She once made Will Smith’s bed while working as a hotel maid. Auntie Sonia’s fingertips are “all black and cracked,” but Harri pretends not to notice. Mamma tells Auntie Sonia about a woman who was racist to her at work, requesting another midwife because she didn’t want an immigrant. 
This passage illustrates some of the different types of prejudice that exist within Harri’s community. The term “never-normal” is, of course, an example of prejudice against those with mental and physical disabilities, as is Harri’s description of the “chair car lady” and his assumption that she is “too fat to walk.” Meanwhile, Mamma’s experience of prejudice at work shows how powerful and pervasive discrimination is—even within a markedly multiethnic community.
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Jordan was expelled from school for kicking a teacher. Jordan is mixed-race, and his mother is obruni, which Harri finds crazy. Jordan’s mom wants to find another school for her son, but Jordan wants to stop going altogether and instead stay at home watching DVDs and playing Xbox. Jordan spits on the buttons of the lift; Fag Ash Lil presses them and exclaims in horror. Harri is scared of Fag Ash Lil because she killed her husband and baked him into a pie.
Once again, Harri’s understanding of the world is idiosyncratic in a somewhat comical way. He finds it easier to believe that Fag Ash Lil killed her husband and baked him into a pie than he does to believe that Jordan has a black father and a white mother.
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In art class, Poppy sits next to Harri and paints her fingernails with paints. She does it very slowly, and it makes Harri feel relaxed to watch her. Harri’s art teacher tells the class to take inspiration from anywhere for their picture, and Harri paints with yellow after being inspired by Poppy’s hair. He paints with green for the time Agnes found a cricket in the grass, and red for the dead boy’s blood. However, he can’t mix the right shade of red and gets frustrated to the point that his vision becomes blurry. He gives up. 
Harri’s list of inspirations for the colors he chooses highlight the mix of innocence and violence, joy and trauma that characterizes his experience of the world. Even as he happily stares at Poppy’s hair, he cannot help but be reminded of the dead boy’s death and the color of his blood.
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There is a fence with spikes surrounding Harri’s school and a sign that says, “No climbing, serious risk of injury.” Harri and Dean’s favorite sign is one by the river warning people that the watercress growing there is “not fit for human consumption.” They search near the river for the murder weapon, and Harri boasts that they are “proper detectives now.” Harri explains that the dead boy was once nice to him, and that he wanted them to become friends, but then the boy was killed. The boys wonder how much of a reward they’ll get if they catch the killer. Dean suggests they might get one thousand pounds, and Harri thinks that if this happens, he’ll use the money to buy tickets for Papa, Agnes, and Grandma Ama to come to England.
Harri and Dean’s pursuit of the killer is on one level motivated by their own desire to be cool, impressive detectives and to secure the reward money. However, this passage emphasizes that Harri’s desire to find the killer is still largely altruistic. He wants to do justice to the boy because he thought he was kind, and Harri plans to use the reward money in order to unite his family. Harri may be somewhat naïve, but he is also notably selfless and caring.
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Dean double-checks with Harri that the person by the bins retrieved a knife, and Harri confirms, demonstrating how big the knife was with his hands. However, Harri is worried because he knows that if the killer threw the knife in the river it will have already drifted out to sea. There are no fish or ducks in the river; Harri explains that the younger kids killed the ducks with a screwdriver.
Note the contrast between this rather grim scene and Harri’s earlier, happy memory of Agnes finding a cricket. In London, access to nature is tainted by the constant presence of violence. Even the younger children are so violent that they gruesomely kill the ducks with a screwdriver. 
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