Beauty Plus Pity: excerpt of a new novel by Kevin Chong
Who’d pick a funeral to meet your long-lost sister? A funeral or the sudden arrival of a family member—either would be shitty enough, but that morning, my head felt encased in bubble wrap, my stomach was a wading pool of bile, and I was sweating booze through my shoulder-stuffed suit like a cigarette lighter before it ignites. All of this was self-administered misery, and yet I still arrived late to deliver my father’s eulogy.
My father’s sisters, Paula and Mirabelle, scrambled up to me tandem-style, like unhappily conjoined twins, in the foyer outside the chapel doors.
“What took you so long?” Aunt Mirabelle, who lived in Toronto, asked with a nervous burp. Her eyes widened as they worried over my face. She stripped a piece of tissue paper from her purse and tried dabbing away my hangover.
“We thought you were—we thought you could be … Oh. Well.” She straightened my tie.
“We’re glad you’re here.”
“Your mother could not be acting any worse,” Aunt Paula announced in her flat, drag-queen croak.
“She came close to leaving, but I took away her car keys. We didn’t expect her—that girl—to be here.”
I asked my First Aunt who she was talking about.
“We don’t have time for this,” shrieked Paula, who’d come from Hong Kong. She took my arm and led me into the chapel. “You’re speaking next.”
The chapel was forested with floral arrangements, which would have made my father double-blink in simmering displeasure. My possessive, wingnutty mother had, in fact, completely disregarded my father’s wishes about having a funeral at all. There were several dozen people here, many of whom I didn’t know, work contacts, most of them Chinese. Hunched over a set of cue cards, Uncle Charlie, who wasn’t really my uncle, but a hulking caucasoid who befriended my father at the Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong, stood apart from them like a mythical forest creature. It was Uncle Charlie who’d gotten me sad-belly drunk last night, but even in his grief, he was crisp and sparkly like a missionary. He stood there crouched over a microphone in front of a borrowed photo of Oliver Kwan—a blown-up and underexposed photo of him next to his bike—and the florists’ wares, bloviating in my place.
“Bear with me, I have other thoughts to unload,” Uncle Charlie was saying. “Oliver had, uh, exceptional personal hygiene. Yes. I never once saw dirt under his fingernails and, like many Asians, his sweat actually smelled nice, like—like tea with honey in it.” He saw me and waved me toward the stage. “Well, that concludes my remarks. Where was I sitting?”
At the podium, my breaths felt like pinpricks. I stunk at public speaking; I preferred to let the bones in my face do the talking.
In the front row, alongside my aunts and my cousin Gavin, who’d scored weed at a Starbucks earlier and experienced the day like a volunteer for a local hypnotist, my mother emoted for the deaf and blind. I felt the back of my neck grow warm knowing that I could offer no relief, no diversion to the soggy, disconsolate faces before me.
Patting myself for the speech I’d keyboarded and printed two nights before, I kept my head up. I had no inkling that I’d find Hadley—why should I? I was searching for my fiancée, Claire. We were not getting along, partly because she was stressed from law school, partly because I was trying to become a professional model, but the possibility that she would let me down was too awful to consider.
My father, Oliver Kwan, had died six days earlier, on the afternoon of September 3rd, 2008, with my mother, Eliza Mak Kwan, in the armchair next to his bed. “He was breathing with such effort, then he was breathing less and less, lighter and lighter. I could see his spirit leaving,” my mother told me afterwards over the phone. “I threw my arms around him, to hold him here longer—it worked for a couple of minutes. Then I let go.” Since that year began, the cancer, which had first roosted in his throat, imposed itself on his lungs. Six weeks before he died, my mother and I took turns—first at home, then at the hospice—watching over him, as he foamed with optimism and cheer for our sake. In reality, it was like pretending there was Santa Claus for a twelve-year-old who refused to believe otherwise.
I’d long accepted my father’s imminent exit; I’d braced for it so much that the sting didn’t pass through me for months afterwards.
Still, from the start, I was bothered that my father would choose to go leaving so much unsaid—and not just the obvious. I was at work when he died because, the night before when I visited, my father insisted that my responsibilities to my part-time employer should be my uppermost preoccupation. I went to work, he passed on. Am I paranoid to think he was trying to duck a goodbye? We had chances to speak in the past couple of months, but he remained taciturn until the end, and I was too timid to force him to speak up.
One visit, a week before my father died, bothered me especially. When I stepped through his door, he was on his cell phone, arranging a visit. He was speaking in English, and I assumed it was to one of his few non-Chinese friends.
“Was that Uncle Charlie?” I asked.
He mumbled something indistinct. I actually think he said, “meow,” as though we were cats. On the table by his chair was acopy of the Chinese newspaper, Ming Pao. “I never realized the news was so repetitive,” he grumbled. “They do such a good job of making you forget the news is old.”
His English was imperfect, and he would often switch back and forth from his second language to Chinese in a way that would be difficult for me to relate here—I’m no stenographer. As much as I can, I recall his words the way I remember them. That said, in Chinese and English, he spoke in the same deliberate, lurching manner, and he had a way of drawing out his words so that even ordering a pizza was suspenseful.
The newspaper contained a story about the movie director Edmund Chew, an old friend of my father’s and a topic of conversation I strictly avoided. Normally, my father would look away at the sight of his name in print, so I was surprised when he brought him up. “Actually,” my father said, “his last two movies weren’t so bad.
They didn’t make much money, but at least he made those action movies personal.”
“I read somewhere that he’s doing commercials now,” I told him, hoping this might please him. Edmund Chew lived the life my father might have had.
My father pressed one hand against his chest as he laughed. “He’s always following my lead. Maybe he’ll get cancer next.”
This made me laugh too. “He’s been hired by an Italian car company to direct three ‘short films’ to promote a new line of sedans.”
“Perhaps I’m getting sentimental, but I saw his and my relationship in that last movie of his. The villain is about to fall off a cliff and asks the hero, ‘What time is the early show playing?’ In the film, it comes out of nowhere—the villain is a kind of Jack Nicholson type who says things that are—what do you call it, you know, when they don’t make sense?”
“Right. So, in the film, the remark doesn’t make sense, but it was an old joke between Chew and I. One of us would call on the other—sometimes your mother would come along—to watch the late show. We knew each other from school and would pawn anything we owned to get in. We’d call and say in English, because we met in our English class in school, ‘What time is the late show?’ And whoever picked up the phone would reply in English, ‘It’s never too late for the late show.’”
I didn’t know what to make of my father’s anecdote, and waited silently for him to say more, but he said nothing, and we reached a wordless standstill. I stood to leave. My old man was reclined comfortably by the window, wearing slippers I had given him for Christmas years before, cotton pyjamas, and a worn blue bathrobe that was untied and had spilled over the arms of his chair. It was late August, but the morning light was still strong and made each feature of his gaunt face distinct. The light rang off his square-shaped reading glasses, and for an instant he had the head of a large insect.
He removed them and stared up at me, his eyes flashing needle points. “Malcolm, you don’t look very good.”
The obvious was too hard to resist. “Neither do you.”
“What I mean is you look tired,” he told me. “Why don’t you take a break?”
“I don’t have anything better to do.” I meant that I had no other plans, but he took it to mean that I was a child again, overwhelmed by boredom.
“Go see a movie, go to dim sum with your mother. Spend some time with your fiancée—what’s her name again?”
“Claire,” I told him. I wasn’t sure whether my father was cool to Claire because we were engaged—he thought we were too young to be married—or because of her personality in general, or some combination of the two. “You know what her name is.”
My father refused to acknowledge my frustration. “Okay, take Claire out.”
“She has a salsa class tonight.” When Claire wasn’t preparing for her second year at law school, she was dancing. “She doesn’t have much time to spare.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Then do something by yourself. When you were young, you used to spend hours playing alone.”
“I had no friends.”
“Don’t say that,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “You were imaginative. You had a wonderful imagination, running your cars along the couch.”
I winced as I watched my father mime my race-car zooms. “You want me to go?” I asked.
He tried laughing it off, but ducked his head sheepishly. “I wish you weren’t so sensitive.”
“Just tell me and I’ll leave.” In those weeks, we’d been solicitous and overbearing. It was justifiable, even if my father was too weak-willed to say it, to want unaccompanied time. Normally he disliked being alone, not because he was afraid of solitude, but because he felt it a waste of his natural sociability. Leaving him alone was like keeping a light on in an empty house. “I’ll go if you don’t want me around.” Now I was the one trying to laugh it off.
“I don’t mean to upset you.” He paused as an unpleasant feeling came over him. His face was turned from me, but I could see his entire body stiffen. “You and your mother are so touchy these days.
You tell me—how should I feel? I told you. I feel a little better than I did yesterday. And yesterday I felt better than the day before. Just a little. Of course it’s no miracle—”
“I don’t understand why you talk like that.”
“Like what?” he said with a gentle smile. We could go on like that forever, my old man pretending not to understand me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” I said, with resignation. “Maybe then they’ll be discharging you.”
Before I could leave his room, he called out my name. “I couldn’t finish breakfast this morning. Too much food.” He held out a chocolate-chip bran muffin for me, which I put in my pocket and took home for Claire.
My father had a private suite on the fourth floor of the hospice.
When the elevators doors opened, there was a teenaged girl standing there. Later on, I would realize it was Hadley. I remembered her because she stepped back at the sight of me with what must have been some sense of recognition, but at the time I was embarrassed because I’d felt rebuffed.
A couple of days after my conversation with my father, he was making plans for his own death. My mother and I didn’t know what accounted for this change of outlook, but we felt something close to relief that he had given up any pretence of a recovery. He sat up in bed and explained his wishes.
“Listen, I want to be cremated,” he explained to us in English, so he was sure I understood. “I want my ashes taken to Hong Kong and placed with my parents’ remains. When my ashes are returned, you can do something over there. Malcolm hasn’t been back since he was a kid.” He looked to me, then back to my mother. “Please, I don’t want any kind of ceremony. It’s too much trouble.”
“It won’t be any trouble,” my mother insisted. She’d spent her high-school years with relatives in Oakland and spoke much better English than my father, and, at fifty-five, was two years younger than him—a short woman with closely spaced eyes, delicate features, and a copper complexion. She stroked my father’s forehead, swiping back a lock of hair as though he were her child. She looked gaunt in a grey sweater and dark, skinny jeans. Her own hair was long and greying, and worn up, one chunk flashing in the air like the tail fin of a whale before it descends into the sea. “Why do you think it’d be any trouble?”
“I don’t want people to waste a perfectly good afternoon weeping over me,” he said, switching back to Cantonese. “Back me up, Malcolm.”
I mumbled noncommittally as my mother removed her hand from my father’s head. “This isn’t about you,” she said. “This is about giving us a chance to express our grief. Right, Malcolm?”
Again, I mumbled indecisively. “Besides, everyone will be there.”
My father chuckled until he hurt himself and winced.
“What’s so funny?”
My father’s face settled into a frown. “I don’t want any ceremony. Those are my wishes. Respect them.”
We didn’t say anything more about it and spent another half-hour in his room silently until we decided to let him rest. “He doesn’t have very long,” said my mother. She was a high-strung woman who’d long grappled with depression, but since my father had been sick, she’d become more assertive, practical, self-possessed.
“We need to get started on the funeral preparations. I don’t care what he says.”
Before the elevator had reached the ground floor, my mother was already talking about flowers and catering. Although I didn’t speak up in front of my father, I had to side with my mother on this point. Why was he so insistent on not having a ceremony? What kind of man would want to pass into the void and not make sense of his place within his own family—who seemed to keep the best of himself away from his own wife and child?
Apparently, my father was that kind of man. And, upon my mother’s insistence, I was the one responsible for delivering his eulogy.
Soon afterwards, I was called to dutifulness. First, I had to pick up my Aunt Mirabelle, who flew in from Toronto with my teenaged cousins Anson and Gavin. (Uncle Don, her husband, an oral surgeon, had too many impacted wisdom teeth to wrench out.) The next morning my Second Aunt, Paula, arrived from Hong Kong.
Both my aunts attended to my mother’s wishes—vetting floral arrangements, hissing street addresses into their cell phones, tracking food deliveries—unlike at family gatherings in the past, in which they vied for my father’s attention with joyless velocity. Mirabelle’s sons, snivelling robot-flinging adolescents when we last met, were now sized for rugby and guarding velvet ropes. On the day before the funeral, I found their company a cozy distraction. After we’d been out for dim sum, Anson—a nearsighted, disquietingly shy second-year university student—planned to visit a former classmate who’d dropped out of school to play bluegrass and plant trees, activities he seemed to find enviable. Gavin, who was a sixteen-year-old suburban imp with a ferrety smirk, wanted me to take him to a hash bar. Disregarding his request, I dropped him in front of a Starbucks.
In the afternoon, I fetched my suit from the cleaners and the water filter Claire had asked me to buy in mid-August, before returning like a mad scientist to a parcel of resumés and photos—pages from the book of clippings I was assembling for various modelling agencies. Some of the bigwigs at these agencies I’d queried before—the image middlemen who’d handed me their cards at the agency panel in the spring, before I graduated from modelling school.
They’d previously rejected me for valid, if non-specific, reasons, but I wanted them to realize I could not only accept, but blossom in the face of criticism. In their unpunctuated, one-line e-mails, I saw them implicitly challenging me to shrug off adversity, negativity, and indifference—it wasn’t worth their time to deal with someone they didn’t first reject three, four times, because that wasn’t how this world functioned. The new photos they needed to see conveyed a more natural, less preened-over look. It was what they wanted.
After stopping at the post office at two, I returned home—a one-bedroom with a den—and typed out my eulogy for my father, which I had written out longhand, all soulful-like, on a legal pad the night before. It was the worst-possible speech and could only have been more wretched if I’d used a laser pointer. My father didn’t want a funeral, I suspected, precisely because he’d correctly surmised what kind of ear-stuffing presentation I’d deliver. Still, I printed the speech and put it in an envelope. Because I’m absent-minded in the morning, I made sure the envelope was tucked in the left-hand jacket pocket of my suit, which hung from the doorknob of our bedroom door.
At four, I retrieved my cousin from Starbucks, where he’d still managed to get high, deposited him at my parents’ house, and returned home again to wait for Claire. Last week, she’d reacted to my father’s death with loud sobbing. Her reaction was unexpected; my father had been polite, but never made much effort around her—and she’d taken note of that. She wiped her eyes and poured herself a glass of water before going into our bedroom, closing the door, then sobbing again.
When the phone rang, I was ready to hear Claire’s voice, calling me from the library. Instead it surprised me that it was Uncle Charlie. Given the choice between eating alone or meeting my father’s best friend, I gobbled down a banana and left a note for Claire.
Uncle Charlie was a Cadillac-sized man with a head of inky- black corkscrew hair and a nose that had been broken so many times—from errant footballs, he told me—that it resembled a piece of ruptured sausage. He sported a gold Rolex and a ruby-encrusted pinkie ring that sat on his hairy finger like a daisy among weeds.
When I arrived, he was already drinking at the bar, extending his patented leer—top lip curled over his bared teeth, obscene in combination with his unnatural tan, bottom lip dangling, left eye twitching—at a waitress.
Decades earlier, Charlie Branca left Brooklyn for Montreal as a draft dodger. Then, taking a job as head of security for a large financial house, he lived in Hong Kong for a decade, where he met my father. After taking early retirement, he and his then-wife, Ling, moved to Vancouver to open a bed and breakfast. Uncle Charlie, however, found the hospitality business involved too much ingratiation. Meanwhile, Ling, a slight woman from Hong Kong with a downtrodden aura and wire-framed glasses, joined a start-up religion on Vancouver Island whose leader commanded her to divorce Uncle Charlie and become his sixteenth common-law bride.
Charlie, who returned to security work for an Internet gambling company, pronounced himself a freelancer for life.
Over the years, between girlfriends who drank vodka from paper coffee cups and tattooed their knuckles, Uncle Charlie routinely appeared at my parents’ house, boiling shrimp balls and shredded jelly-fish in the hot-pot or watching Westerns. When I was a teenager, his apartment was flooded and he slept in the guest room for a month, during which time I would occasionally find him in the kitchen in his underwear fixing ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches.
Uncle Charlie’s local was a sports bar where waitresses wore jerseys emblazoned with their first names and lucky numbers: on our side of the room was “Chelsea,” number sixty-nine. As I took the stool beside him, he dragged a finger at our neckbearded bartender.
“Two,” he said to him.
The bartender poured two shots of Crown Royal. In Uncle Charlie’s hand, a shooter glass looked like a thimble.
“Mac, what can I say?” he said. He put a hand on my shoulder and patted my head. “I did my best to be outlived by him.”
“He couldn’t ask for more.”
He raised his glass, tilted back his head twice, and downed it, then waited for me to follow suit. “Your father loved Crown.”
I lifted the rye to my mouth. “You’re full of shit.”
Uncle Charlie ordered another three shots, which I swallowed without further cajoling. Then I asked the bartender for a glass of water. By the time I finished another two shots and stepped outside, the street was wobbling.
Time spooled out of grasp like a roll of runaway toilet paper. After limbo-waltzing down a back lane to Uncle Charlie’s townhouse where he poured me another drink—a bottle of mescal sat on his coffee table—he put a tape in the VCR. The video was entitled Donut Hut Corporation: Defining Sexual Harassment. Of the thirty-five training films he’d appeared in, Uncle Charlie said this one, produced for a nationwide chain of donut shops, was the very first.
In this video, he played a lecherous shop manager who verbally and physically harasses a female employee in the kitchen by the grease traps.
“The grease traps aren’t dirty,” Uncle Charlie deadpanned. “But I am.”
There were seventeen instances of sexual harassment in that scene, a narrator announced in voiceover. Can you name them all? In his taped-up armchair, my father’s friend howled at each one of his harassments, every outburst of mirth a cue that I ignored. My reaction to the video was unexpected. I’d heard about my father’s corporate training movies, but unlike his ubiquitous commercials, had hardly seen them, and this glimpse of his work made me want to be alone.
Of course I was drunk, but I could see my father there. I could sense him in the movements of the camera, the long static shots he used as frequently as he could. My father was in awe of Kenzo Mizoguchi’s long takes, and ridiculous though it might be, even in this video I could detect the influence. And I could feel my father’s direction in Uncle Charlie’s ridiculous deadpan, the very palpable lechery on his face undercut by his silly come-ons—wasn’t my father alluding to Bertolt Brecht?
“You need to cry,” Charlie said, encouraging me. “It’ll be good for you. You need to cry.” He put on a VHS copy of La Strada, one of those movies Federico Fellini made before he got all weird. As Charlie crouched over his VCR to fast-forward past the copyright warning onscreen, I remembered something my father mentioned to me a couple years before, when I was still in Montreal. He’d called me up because he’d been reading the memoirs of Luis Buñuel, which Buñuel had written in the 1980s just before he died. My father told me that Buñuel wanted to climb out of his coffin every ten years or so and wander around, after he died. He’d get a cup of coffee and read the newspapers. Once he was content to know the world hadn’t changed much, Buñuel would climb back into his coffin. My father was already sick at this time, and it was hard to understand his amusement, or even why he was so eager to relay such a whimsical vision of the afterlife, because the story was so depressing.
I now thought about Oliver Kwan crawling out of his coffin, even though he’d been cremated, and couldn’t help wishing for it.
Then I fell asleep on Charlie’s couch.
In the traffic before rush hour, Uncle Charlie lived ten minutes from our empty apartment. Returning in the dewy morning, I worried that Claire was upset with me. I fell into our bed, perpetually unmade, and was startled out of it by the chill of its unslept-in sheets.
Changing and primping, I patted my jacket pocket for the eulogy and told myself it would be inconceivable for her to go absent.
Eventually, I arrived at a flat-roofed brick building, solemnly unremarkable, on the east side of the city, by the cemetery where they used to bury the Asians and Jews. In our search for a locale, my mother and I had faltered. We’d thought about the racetrack for the memorial, but my father had lost interest in racing in recent years. We settled for the chapel at the funeral home where he was cremated.
Once my aunts escorted me inside, I stepped up to the podium. Uncle Charlie had left the microphone a little too high for me. I adjusted it with my left hand and with my right hand removed the envelope from my jacket pocket and flattened out my eulogy on the podium. Starting to read, maybe a word came out of my mouth like sleep talk. I froze.
September 14, 2008
Please, please forgive me for writing this to you at such a terrible time in your life. I decided I couldn’t attend the service.
I can’t be with you and your mother, knowing in my heart, as I have in the past few days, that we don’t belong together. I love you so much, I don’t know if you can believe that. I do.
If you like, we can to talk about this later, because I’m not sure I can supply the right explanation for my decision. All I can say is that, in the past few months, you’ve been pushing yourself away from me. Only recently, I’ve decided I can’t keep pushing myself back to you.
Good luck with whatever you might choose to do. You’re very smart and kind and generous—I still feel that way. My only hope is that you find something that suits your talents.
P.S. In the next couple of days I’ll get the rest of my things.
Please have a cheque for my half of the damage deposit waiting. You might have already guessed, but I’ll be staying with Seamus …
I read this note twice before finally turning to the eulogy I had ready in my other pocket. My voice trembled as I read over the biographical summary. Born in Hong Kong in 1951, the oldest of three, his own father died when he was only six. A poor student who dropped out of school when he was fourteen, he washed dishes and drove a cab, devoting his spare cash to the cinema.
I settled down for a moment and ad-libbed. “I think my dad, if he could, would have lived inside his favourite movies,” I told the audience, which murmured appreciatively. “Touch of Evil, Tokyo
Story, or anything with William Holden. Most of all, he loved Mary Poppins. He would drive his Saab like a maniac while humming songs from the soundtrack.” I earned a light chuckle there and allowed myself to smile.
According to my mother, he had also been a fan of Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut’s second film.
When they’d met, my father was wearing a trench coat, his shoulders folded together, puffing his Gitanes and stifling his smirk in an effort to shrink himself into Aznavour’s melancholic piano player. Aznavour performs Charlie Kohler, a saloon pianist who plays amidst petty thieves and chippy dames in Paris. Charlie has a past.
He was a famous concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan before his wife’s tragic death. Trust my father, in the course of his adolescent self-invention, to idolize someone pretending to be somebody else.
“My dad wanted to be a great filmmaker himself,” I continued.
“In order to learn about cameras, he went to every photography studio he knew before finding work as an assistant to a portrait photographer. After work, he’d go to the movie house near his parents’ apartment building and would watch whatever was playing. In the early 1970s, he started working in films in Hong Kong, doing camera and lighting work for Golden Harvest studios.”
I stopped here again before finishing the story. “His movie-making dreams were realized, in a way. After emigrating to Canada, he worked at a box factory for three years before he enrolled in
a course for industrial filmmaking. For the last twenty years, he made all those commercials and training films that you know about already.”
Staring at Claire’s letter, trembling as I read it over again, I looked up at the crowd, vainly searching for her, as if out of reflex.
“Everything I have,” I said, “I owe to my father. I wish I could say this better, but it’s all I can say. Thank you.”
I stepped down. No more than ten minutes had passed. My mother bounded past the people already streaming out for refreshments, out of the chapel.
“We told that girl not to come,” Aunt Paula said. With locked teeth, she looked to the exit.
“Who?” I asked. They had taken for granted that I knew the person of interest.
My father and his sisters had chosen their own English names as adults, so their personalities, to a debatable extent, were telegraphed in their choices. Prissy and deliberate, Aunt Mirabelle wet another piece of tissue paper with her tongue and resumed dabbing my face.
“Don’t be so hard on that girl,” she said to her sister. “We all must be allowed to grieve.”
I stepped into the reception area, where my father’s friends, all in late middle age, spoke and ate with both comfort and an uneasiness that they felt familiar in these situations. My mother sheltered herself in the washroom, weeping. In her absence, it was my job to thank everyone for coming, and I dutifully received their hugs, accepted their kisses with the furthest side of my cheek, and listened to their kind words as if they were playing elevator music. I pointed them to cake and tea. One by one, I disentangled myself from them.
It took a moment to find the person my aunts had been talking about. She had hidden herself in a far corner of the room and sat on the bench of an electric piano that had been pushed aside, a piece of gauzy tarp thrown over it. On a plate balanced between her knees was a piece of coffee cake. She didn’t look much older than sixteen or seventeen, a tall, robust-looking girl with big walnut eyes, a bell-shaped forehead, and a buttery complexion. One corner of her face was curled into a deeply preoccupied expression.
She wore a dark crushed-velvet dress with large buttons running down the middle, green tights, and boxy platform shoes. When she caught me looking at her, the corners of her mouth turned down.
Who was that staring back at me?
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