The gradual change which was turning the formerly quiet and secluded village of Candleford Green into the suburb of a small country town was accentuated by the death of Mr. Coulsdon and the arrival of the new Vicar. Mr. Delafield was a young man in the early thirties, somewhat inclined to premature bulkiness, whose large, pink, clean-shaven face had a babyish look, which his fair hair, worn rather long and inclined to curl, did nothing to dispel. Dignity did not enter into his composition. He would run out to post a letter or to buy a cucumber for lunch in his shirt-sleeves, and, even when fully dressed, the only evidence of his sacred calling was his collar. Well-worn flannels and a Norfolk jacket were his usual everyday wear. Very dark grey, of course; any lighter shade would have been too revolutionary, as would anything more daring in the way of headgear than the black-and-white speckled straw boater he wore in summer in place of the round, black, soft felt hat of the other local clergy.
He looked like a very big boy, and an untidy boy. Miss Lane once said that she longed to take a needle and thread and set forward the top button of his trousers, so that he could button in the bulge at his waist. He probably thought Miss Lane’s appearance as unsatisfactory as she did his, for he had come there with a townsman’s ideas of the country, according to which a village postmistress should have worn a white apron and spoken the dialect. But he had come to his country living determined to be friendly with all his parishioners, and although Laura felt sure he did not like that sardonic little glint of amusement in her eyes when he tried to talk improvingly to her, he was always pleasantly breezy in his manner, and she, in time, came to admit that he had a boyish charm.
The verdict of others varied. The old order had changed and, in changing, had gone somewhat ahead of the times in the depth of the country. Some complained that his ‘Hail fellow, well met!’ attitude to everybody annoyed them. All men were brothers in church, of course, but outside they thought a clergyman ought to ‘hold on to his dignity’. ‘Look at poor old Mr. Coulsdon! He was a gentleman, if ever there was one!’ Others liked Mr. Delafield because he was ‘not proud and stuck up’, like some parsons they could name. By the majority, judgement was suspended. ‘You’ve got to summer and winter a man before you can pretend to know him’ was an old country maxim much quoted at that time. On one point all churchgoers agreed; the new Vicar was a good preacher. He had a surprisingly deep, rich voice for one of his boyish appearance, and he used this to advantage in the pulpit.
Pride was certainly not one of Mr. Delafield’s failings. He had a charming way of relieving any old woman he met of any burden she was carrying. Once Laura saw him crossing the green with a faggot of sticks on his shoulder, and, on another occasion, he helped to carry home a clothes-basket of washing.
On leaving the Post Office, he would vault over the railings of the green to bowl for small boys playing cricket with an old tin for wicket. But that was in his early days; before he had been there long, Candleford Green cricket was put upon a proper footing, with an eleven of young men and practice nights for boys. On Saturday afternoons in summer he himself played with the eleven, and soon other local teams were challenged and the white flannels of such players as possessed them enlivened the pleasant, summery scene on the greensward.
Before long he had got together a club for boys which met in the schoolroom on winter evenings. The noise the boys made, said those who lived near, made life pretty well unbearable; but the boys’ parents were pleased to have them kept out of mischief, and those who lived near their former winter evening haunts were not sorry. Then a timely Confirmation ceremony brought together the nucleus of a Girls’ Guild which had its headquarters in the now disused servants’ hall at the vicarage. Mrs. Delafield was Lady President of this, but as she had two children and kept but one young maid in a house where there had formerly been four, she had little time for the supervision of the weekly meetings, and help had to be obtained from the ladies of the congregation. The Pratts, Miss Ruby and Miss Pearl, as the Vicar and his wife were careful to insist upon when naming them to the girls, saw and seized here their opportunity, and soon what they did not know about the vicarage household could easily, as people said, have been written on a threepenny bit.
The Delafields were poor. Soon after their arrival they gave out that, as the living was but a poor one and they had no private means, the charities of the former Vicar would have to be discontinued. ‘I know myself what it is to be poor,’ the Vicar would say frankly when sympathizing with one of the cottagers, and, although his hearer might smile incredulously as she mentally compared his idea of poverty with her own, his frankness would please her.
After a time, the tradesmen hinted that the new vicarage family was long-winded in paying its bills. ‘But,’ they would add, ‘so far they’ve always paid up in the end, and they don’t go running to another shop with their bit of ready money as soon as they owe you a few pounds, and they aren’t extravagant,’ which, from a shopkeeper’s point of view, was not altogether a bad character to give a customer.
The Delafields had a succession of untrained young maids, of whom they expected trained service, and, in consequence, they were as often without a maid as with one. And they fared little better with the women brought in ‘to oblige’. One excellent charwoman in her own line of washing and scrubbing was so taken aback on her first appearance at the vicarage by having a written list of the dishes she was expected to cook for dinner thrust into her hand that she seized her coarse apron and basket and bolted.
But what struck the Miss Pratts more than the scrappy meals and undusted rooms at the vicarage was what they called Mrs. Delafield’s ‘singularity’. Her style of dress was what Miss Ruby called ‘arty’. She wore long, loose frocks, usually terracotta or sage green, which trailed on the floor behind her and had low necks which exposed the throat when other women were whaleboned up to the ears.
For church on Sundays the Delafield children wore white kid slippers and openwork socks, but at all other times they ran about barefoot, which shocked the villagers and could not have been very comfortable for themselves, although they appeared to enjoy scrabbling with their toes in the dust or taking impressions of their own footprints in mud. Their ordinary everyday dress was a short brown holland smock, elaborately embroidered, which for comfort and beauty would have compared favourably with the more formal attire of other children of their class had it not invariably been grubby.
‘Those awful children!’ some people called them, but to others their intelligence and good looks made up for their lack of manners. And, ‘Thank heaven,’ somebody said, ‘we ain’t expected to “Miss” them!’ It was something of a privilege to be able to say ‘Elaine’ or ‘Olivia’ when speaking to or of them, at a time when other quality children were ‘Master’ or ‘Miss’ in their cradles. The village had taken its lead in this matter from the Vicar, who always spoke to them of his children by their plain Christian names. Other parents added the prefix, often emphasizing it. One child Laura knew who, being the youngest of her family, retained the name and status of baby while a toddler, was spoken of by her parents to the servants and estate workers as ‘Miss Baby’.
The change at the vicarage did as much as anything to hasten the decline of the old servile attitude of the poorer villagers. With all his failings, or what they considered failings, Mr. Delafield did at least meet them on a purely human footing and speak to them as one man to another, not as one bending down from a pedestal. The country gentlemen around still loomed larger than life-size upon their horizon, but the Vicar lived amongst them, they saw him and spoke to him daily, and his example and influence were greater. Some still sighed for the fleshpots and blankets of the old régime, others regretted its passing from love of the stately old order, but a far larger number rejoiced, if insensibly, in the new democratic atmosphere of parochial life. The parish was soon to be proud of its Vicar.
From the first Mr. Delafield’s sermons had been praised by his congregation. ‘Keeps you awake, he do’, said some who had formerly been in the habit of nodding in sermon time. Their duty towards their neighbour and the importance of honesty and truthfulness had been topics too familiar to keep their eyes open, but when a sermon began: ‘The other day I heard a man in this parish say ——’ or ‘You may have read in your newspapers last week ——’ they sat up and listened.
Quite often the thing heard or read was amusing, and, although, of course, there could be no laughter in church, a slight stir of smiling appreciation would lighten the atmosphere and prepare the congregation to settle down happily to listen to the lesson or moral to be drawn. It was never a severe one. Hell was never mentioned, nor, for the matter of that, heaven, and earth was depicted as not as bad a place, after all, if people bore one another’s burdens and pulled together. If, sometimes, the deep, melodious voice in the pulpit preached repentance, it was not so much repentance of the sins common in country villages as those of the world in general. No one present could ever feel hurt or offended by anything he said in his sermons. Indeed, a member of his congregation was heard to say in the churchyard one Sunday morning: ‘A sermon like that makes you feel two inches taller.’
Those comfortable words, that eloquent voice, and the telling pauses when, leaning far over the edge of his pulpit, he searched the faces and seemed to look into the very hearts of his congregation, soon won for him the reputation of being the best preacher in the neighbourhood — some said in the county. People from surrounding parishes and even from Candleford town itself were soon coming to hear him preach. On summer Sunday evenings the church was often so well filled that latecomers had to stand in the aisle. Even Miss Lane, who was not a frequent churchgoer, attended a service. Back at home her only comment was: ‘All very pleasant! But pass me my Darwin, please. Like the birds, I need a little grit in my food.’ But the lack of enthusiasm shown by one crusty old woman was but as a grain of sand on the seashore compared to the rising tide of the new Vicar’s popularity as a preacher, which reached its highwater mark on Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday, when the Candleford News sent a reporter to take down the Vicar’s sermon verbatim. Copies of the issue containing the sermon were bought in great numbers to be posted to sons and daughters in London, in the North of England, or out in the Colonies. ‘Just to show them,’ their parents said, ‘that Candleford Green’s no longer the poor little stick-inthe-mud spot they may be thinking.’
As Mr. Delafield’s popularity as a preacher increased and brought renown to the village, his small unconventionalities were accepted as the little, amusing, lovable peculiarities of genius. His wife had no longer difficulties with her maids and charwomen, for an elderly farmer’s daughter proposed herself and was accepted as mother’s help. By the time Laura left Candleford Green, the ladies of the congregation were almost fighting over decorating the church and the turns they had agreed to take at relieving Mrs. Delafield of the family mending. So many pairs of carpet slippers were worked for Mr. Delafield that only a centipede could have worn out all of them, and Elaine and Olivia were so frequently asked out to tea, and so feasted when there, that, had they not been sent away to a boarding school, their digestions would have been ruined. By his poorer parishioners, though not perhaps as respected as Mr. Coulsdon had been, the new Vicar was more beloved, because more human.
Mr. Delafield’s cure of souls at Candleford Green was but brief. A year or two after Laura had left there she was told in a letter that he had accepted a London living and was to hold a special service in his new church for the Candleford Green Mothers’ Meeting on its annual outing. But he left his mark on the village, not only by the spiritual comfort he had been able to bring to many, but also by breaking down prejudices.
Then, about that time, came a rise in wages. Agricultural workers were given fifteen instead of ten or twelve shillings a week, and skilled craftsmen were paid an agreed rate per hour, instead of the former weekly wage irrespective of the time put in, and although at the same time prices were rising, they had not as yet risen in proportion. The Boer War, when it came, sent prices soaring, but that was still several years in the future.
Meanwhile, Queen Victoria had her Diamond Jubilee and ‘Peace and Plenty’ was the country’s watchword. Rural councils were established and some of the progressive Candleford Green villagers were able to voice their improvement schemes and to get a few of them carried out. There were rumours of scholarships for village schoolchildren; the County Council sent a cookery expert to lecture in the schoolroom; and there were evening classes, no longer called ‘night school’, for the older boys. Housing was still left to private enterprise, but the demand for more modern homes did not go unregarded.
When one of the Candleford Green villagers had a stroke of good luck in the way of a better job or higher wages, his wife’s reaction to the good news would usually be to exclaim: ‘Now we can go to live in one of the villas!’ Sometimes her ambition was realized and they exchanged their old, inconvenient, though thick-walled and warm old cottage with its large, fertile garden for one of a row of small houses on the newly-opened building estate on the Candleford Road.
The new house might prove to be damp and draughty, for the walls were thin and the woodwork ill-fitted, and the garden at the back of the house, formerly part of a damp, tussocky meadow, left in the rough by the builder, would certainly turn out what her husband would call ‘a heartache’; but, as compensation, she would enjoy the distinction conferred by owning a smart front door with a brass knocker, a bay window in the parlour, and water laid on to the kitchen sink. Plus the éclat of living in one of the villas.
Although the speculative builder had left the making of the back garden to his tenant, he had finished the small plot in front by laying a few feet of turf round a small centre flower bed. Ornate iron railings enclosed this small space and a red-and-blue-tiled path led up to the front door. Outside, at the edge of the sidewalk, young trees had been planted, of which some had already died and others were pining, but, lining the favourite and most built-up road, a sufficient number survived to give colour to its name of Chestnut Avenue.
In Laura’s time, a few of the villas were occupied by ambitious Candleford Green families which had migrated; more had been taken by clerks and shopmen from Candleford town who fancied a country life or wished to reduce their rent. Six shillings a week for a five-roomed villa was certainly not excessive, but no doubt it repaid the builder-owner well enough for his outlay. Laura’s uncle, who was also a builder in Candleford, declared that the villas were run up of old oddments of second-hand stuff, without proper foundations, and that the first high wind would blow half of them down; but his pessimism may have been due to professional rivalry, though, to do him justice, it must be said that he spoke the truth when he frowned and shook his head and declared: ‘Never touch a cheap job. Not my line.’
Chestnut Avenue stood, apparently firmly, as long as Laura lived near and may quite probably be standing now, let at treble the rent to trebly-paid wage-earners, with the chestnut trees fully grown and candled with blossoms and a wireless mast in every back garden. As they were built, almost before the paint was dry the villas were occupied and the new tenants tied back their lace curtains with blue or pink ribbon and painted on the gate the name of their choice: ‘Chatsworth’ or ‘Naples’ or ‘Sunnyside’ or ‘Herne Bay’.
Laura, although conscious of disloyalty to ‘the trade’, personified for her by her father and uncle, still thought the Chestnut Avenue houses stylish. She had just enough taste, or sense of humour, to think some of the names chosen for them by the occupiers were unsuitable —‘Balmoral’ was the latest addition — but she saw nothing amiss with the wide-ribbon pale blue or pink curtain ties, though she herself would have preferred green or yellow. Except for the exvillagers whom she already knew, the villas were occupied by a class of people which was new to her, the lower fringe of the lower middle class, of which she was to see a great deal later.
Her first introduction to this, to her, new way of life she owed to a Mrs. Green of ‘The Shack’, the wife of a clerk in the Candleford Post Office. She had come to know the husband in the way of business, he had introduced her to his wife, and an invitation to tea had followed.
The Greens’ villa was only distinguishable from the others by its name and by the maidenhair fern which stood in place of the usual aspidistra on a little table exactly in the centre of the small space between the draped curtains at the parlour window. Mrs. Green said aspidistras were common, and Laura soon discovered that she had a great dislike of common things and especially of common people. The people who lived next door, she told Laura, were ‘awfully common’. The man was a jobbing gardener, ‘a clodhopper’ she called him, and his wife wore his cloth cap when she hung out her washing. They were toasting herrings, morning, noon, and night, and the smell was ‘most offensive’. She thought the landlord ought to be more particular in choosing his tenants. Laura, who was used to the ways of those she called ‘clodhoppers’ and their wives, and herself enjoyed a good bloater toasted on the coals for supper, heard this with wonder. Of course men who worked on the land were common, there were so many of them, but then there were a good many men in every other trade or calling, so why complain of the number? When it gradually dawned upon her that Mrs. Green used the word ‘common’ in a social sense, she was rather afraid that she would be thought common, too; but she need not have feared, for that lady did not think of her at all, excepting as the possessor of eyes and ears.
Mrs. Green was a small, fair woman, still under thirty, who would have been pretty had not her face habitually worn a worried expression which sharpened her features and was already destroying her bloom. Her refinement, or perhaps her means, did not run to visits to a dentist and, to hide decaying teeth, she cultivated a thin, close-lipped little smile. But her hair was still very pretty and beautifully cared for, and she had pretty hands which she rubbed with cold cream after washing the tea things.
Her husband was also small and fair, but his manners were more simple and his expression was opener and franker than that of his wife. When he laughed, he laughed loudly, and then his wife would look at him reproachfully and say in a pained voice, ‘Albert!’ He had not had the same training in the art of keeping up appearances as his wife, for while she, as she said, had come down in the world, having been born into what she vaguely termed ‘a refined family’, he had begun to earn his living as a telegraph messenger and worked his way up to his present position, which, though still modest, was in those days something of an achievement. Left to himself, he would have been a pleasant, homely kind of fellow who would have enjoyed working in his garden and afterwards sitting down in his shirt-sleeves to a bloater or tinned salmon for tea. But he had married a genteel wife and she had educated him as far as possible up to her own standard.
They were both touchingly proud of their home, and Laura on her first visit had to be shown every nook and corner of it, including the inside of the cupboards. It was furnished in accord with its architectural style. The parlour, which they called the ‘drawing-room’, had a complete suite of furniture upholstered in green tapestry, and there was a green carpet, but not quite the right shade of green, on the floor. Photographs in ornate frames stood on little tables and a set of framed pictures on the walls illustrated the courtship of an insipid looking couple —‘Lovers’ Meeting’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Lovers’ Quarrel’, and ‘Wedded’. There was not a book or a flower in the room and not so much as a cushion awry to show that it was lived in. As a matter of fact, it was not. It was more a museum or a temple or a furniture showroom than a living-room. They sat in state in the bay window on Sunday evenings and watched their neighbours pass by, but took their meals and spent the rest of their time in the kitchen, which was a much pleasanter room.
In the bedroom above the parlour there was one of the new duchess dressing-tables and a wardrobe with a long looking-glass door. These pieces of furniture Mrs. Green pointed out as ‘the latest’, a description she also applied to many other treasured objects which she seemed to regard as models of fashion and elegance. Knowing only the cottage simplicity of her own home and the substantial but old-fashioned comfort of Miss Lane’s and her Candleford relatives’ houses, Laura had to accept her word for this. The people whom she had hitherto known just put what they had or could get into their homes, old things and new things, side by side with each other, with, perhaps, a few yards of new chintz or a new coat of paint to smarten things up occasionally. So, naturally, they did not make a show of their houses, beyond sometimes pointing out some special treasure which had ‘belonged to my old granny’ or ‘been in our family for years and years’.
There were no such out-of-date objects in the Greens’ home; everything there had been bought by themselves when setting up house or later, and the date of purchase and even the price were subjects for conversation. Seven pounds for the drawing-room suite and ten pounds for that in the bedroom! Laura was amazed; but then, she reflected, the Greens were comfortably off; Mr. Green’s weekly salary must be at least two pounds.
Everything was beautifully kept, furniture and floors were highly polished, windows gleamed, curtains and counterpanes were immaculate, and the little kitchen at the back of the house was a model of neatness. Laura found out afterwards that Mrs. Green worked herself nearly to death. With only one child and a house only a little larger than theirs, she worked twice the number of hours and spent ten times the energy of the cottage women. They, standing at their doors with their arms folded, enjoying a gossip with a neighbour, would often complain that a woman’s work was never done; but the Mrs. Greens were working away while they gossiped and, afterwards, when they were indoors having ‘a set down with a cup o’ tay’, the Mrs. Greens, wearing gloves, were polishing the silver. For, of course, forks and spoons and any other metal objects possessed by a Green housewife were known collectively as ‘the silver’, even if there was not one single hallmark to be seen upon any of them.
At the tea-table it was the turn of the Greens’ only child to be chief exhibit. Doreen was seven and, according to her parents, there never had been and never again would be such an intelligent child. ‘So cute. You should hear some of her sayings’, and specimens were repeated forthwith, the little girl meanwhile munching her cake with a self-conscious expression. She was a pretty, well-mannered child, well dressed and well cared for, and not so much spoiled as might have been expected. Her parents adored her, and it came as a shock to Laura to hear one of them say and the other repeat that they did not intend to have any more children. Not intend to have more! What say would they have in the matter? If married people had one child, they almost always had more — a good many more in most cases. Laura had sometimes heard the mother of a seventh or eighth say that she hoped it would be the last, ‘Please God’, but she had never before heard one say definitely that it would be. Miss Lane, when told of this incident, said she didn’t think much of the Greens for talking like that before a girl of Laura’s age; but, as a matter of fact, people nowadays had learned how to limit their families, and a good thing, too, she thought. ‘But you don’t want to trouble your head about anything to do with marriage,’ she concluded, ‘and if you take my advice you won’t ever do so. Leave marriage to those who are suited for it.’ But Laura thought she would like some children, a girl and two boys, perhaps, and to have a house of her own with lots of books in it and no suites of furniture at all, but all sorts of odd, interesting things, such as Miss Lane had.
Her acquaintance with the Greens brought Laura for the first time in contact with the kind of people among whom much of her life was to be spent. It was a class newly emerging in this country, on the borderline between the working and middle classes. Its main type had many good points. Those belonging to it were industrious, frugal and home-loving. Their houses were well kept, their incomes well managed, and their ambitions on their children’s behalf knew no bounds. No sacrifice on the part of the parents was too great if, by it, they could give a better start in life than their own to their offspring. The average number of children in a family was two, but there were many only children and nearly as many childless homes; a family of three was unusual.
The men’s suits were kept well brushed, sponged and pressed by their wives, and the women had the knack of dressing well on little. Many of them were able to make, alter, and bring up to date their own clothes. They were good cooks and managers; their homes, though often tasteless, were substantially furnished and beautifully kept; and, although when alone they might take their meals in the kitchen, they had elaborate afternoon tea-cloths and fashionable knick-knacks for the table for festive occasions.
Those were the lines along which they were developing. Spiritually, they had lost ground, rather than gained it. Their working-class forefathers had had religious or political ideals; their talk had not lost the raciness of the soil and was seasoned with native wit which, if sometimes crude, was authentic. Few of this section of their sons and daughters were churchgoers, or gave much thought to religious matters. When the subject of religion was mentioned, they professed to subscribe to its dogmas and to be shocked at the questioning of the most outworn of these; but, in reality, their creed was that of keeping up appearances. The reading they did was mass reading. Before they would open a book, they had to be told it was one that everybody was reading. The works of Marie Corelli and Nat Gould were immensely popular with them. They had not a sufficient sense of humour to originate it, but borrowed it from music-hall turns and comic papers, and the voice in which such gems were repeated was flat and toneless compared to the old country speech.
But those who had left village life and all it stood for behind them were few compared to the number of those who stayed at home and waited for change to come to them. Change came slowly, if surely, and right into the early years of this century many of the old village ways of living remained and those who cherished the old customs were much as country people had been for generations. A little better educated, a little more democratic, a little more prosperous than their parents had been, but still the same unpretentious, warm-hearted people, with just enough malice to give point to their wit and a growing sense of injustice which was making them begin to inquire when their turn would come to enjoy a fair share of the fruits of the earth they tilled.
They, too, or, rather, their children and grandchildren, were to come in time to the parting of the ways when the choice would have to be made between either merging themselves in the mass standardization of a new civilization or adapting the best of the new to their own needs while still retaining those qualities and customs which have given country life its distinctive character. That choice may not even now have been determined.
But only a few of the wisest foresaw that the need for such a choice would arise when, for Laura, what appeared to be an opportunity offered and, driven on by well-meant advice from without and from within by the restless longing of youth to see and experience the whole of life, she disappeared from the country scene. To return often, but never as herself part of it, for she could only be that in her native county, where she had sprung from the soil.
On the last morning of her postwoman’s round, when she came to the path between trees where she had seen the birds’ footprints on the snow, she turned and looked back upon the familiar landmarks. It was a morning of ground mist, yellow sunshine, and high rifts of blue, white-cloud-dappled sky. The leaves were still thick on the trees, but dew-spangled gossamer threads hung on the bushes and the shrill little cries of unrest of the swallows skimming the green open spaces of the park told of autumn and change.
There was the stable tower with its clock-face and, near it, though unseen, was the courtyard where she had been annoyed — foolishly annoyed, she thought now — by the horseplay of the footmen. The chief offenders had gone long before and with those who had taken their places she knew quite well how to deal, even if they had been offensive, which they were not, for she was nearly three years older. There, where the path wound past the two copses, she had met Philip White — he, too, had left the estate — and away to the left were the meadows where the cows had obstructed her path. Farther on, quite out of sight, was the Post Office where, doubtless, Miss Lane was at that moment dispensing stamps with the air of a high priestess, still a little offended by what she considered Laura’s desertion, but not too much so to have promised her as a parting gift one of her own watches and chains. And around the Post Office and green was the village where she had had good times and times not so good and had come to know every one of its inhabitants and to count most of them as her friends.
Nearer at hand were the trees and bushes and wildflower patches beside the path she had trodden daily. The pond where the yellow brandyball waterlilies grew, the little birch thicket where the long-tailed tits had congregated, the boathouse where she had sheltered from the thunderstorm and seen the rain plash like leaden bullets into the leaden water, and the hillock beyond from which she had seen the perfect rainbow. She was never to see any of these again, but she was to carry a mental picture of them, to be recalled at will, through the changing scenes of a lifetime.
As she went on her way, gossamer threads, spun from bush to bush, barricaded her pathway, and as she broke through one after another of these fairy barricades she thought, ‘They’re trying to bind and keep me’. But the threads which were to bind her to her native county were more enduring than gossamer. They were spun of love and kinship and cherished memories.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00