Going Back into History

Rewinding the CCTV recording, halting when he reaches the automatic motion trigger point, he reviews the footage one final time, running at half-speed, pausing to zoom in on the face.

“Just another ordinary Bradford citizen going to Friday prayers, way taller and thinner than the man we’re tracking. You were right to bring it to my attention; he’s wearing an identical Nike beanie. I don’t need to see any more, but keep scanning all mosques in Bradford and Leeds; the target is still in the country, he’ll stay within his community. If you notice anything else call me.”

Rising from the ergonomically-optimized swivel chair at the triple-screened console, he turns and walks out through the heavy fire door of the operations room, moving briskly along the corridor to the elevator. Ignoring the 24-hour news feed echoing from the large monitor behind, he presses the down arrow. The elevator rises to meet him, the doors open, he enters and selects Ground. His mind now empty, no thoughts of the weekend ahead, the colossal volumes of intelligence he sifted this week, just a dull empty nothing, oblivious of other workers that enter and exit the lift on its downward journey.

This late in the day he doesn’t need to return to Babylon-on-Thames, the hanging gardens of Vauxhall. The trip to Millbank had been a handy excuse to escape the afternoon’s Video-con with Fort Meade, “morning prayers” to use CYBERCOM terminology. Just like meetings with his colleagues in London, it would have been one long bragging session about the latest cellphone features, automobiles and lap dancing clubs. He wasn’t envious, no subconscious inferiority complex underpinned his separation, there merely wasn’t any yearning for connection, and no new technology or freely procured sexual gratification could release him from this apathy.

Leaving by the side entrance on Great Peter Street he ignores the elderly Caribbean street cleaner in fluorescent safety jacket, busy collecting McDonald’s burger boxes from beneath the wheel arch of an illegally parked Jaguar, and turns left towards Victoria Station. Taking another left he reaches his rented studio flat off Vincent Square. Entering the communal hallway he is greeted by Joan, the woman from the ground floor flat. Old, yet despite her indeterminately many years remarkably sprightly, Joan is always seeking gossip, with or about other residents, or indeed anything at all, as if she lives her life entirely within the hallway, relying on indifferent neighbors to bring news from the forbidden exterior world.

“Hello stranger! I’ve not seen you for, what, two or three weeks? Working overseas again?”

“Computer convention in Nevada. Actually returned earlier this week, but I’ve been working late.”

“Nevada? Isn’t that all desert? Odd place for computer work...”

“Las Vegas. But believe me it was deadly dull, spent the whole week staring at a computer monitor. No time to see any of the sights.”

He had in fact been attending a DEF CON hackers conference. Typically anything he said to strangers about his life was closely aligned to the truth. From the moment you join the service, starting at lesson one, day one, ending at debrief on retirement day, a fundamental guiding code is continually repeated: always have a cover story, the most effective concealments are based on fact, always respond to questions in a wearisome tone. If work bores you, then either others will not engage in small talk, or the dialogue can easily be deflected elsewhere.

At his first security brief, towards the end of The Troubles, he was advised that the classic cover story might be, “I’m decommissioning army bases in Northern Ireland, just paperwork; orders, invoices and dispatch notes, very dull really.” Who gave the orders, who paid the invoices and exactly which poor souls found themselves dispatched was not something that would arise in subsequent conversation.

Like many others he joined the service when studying at Cambridge. Initially entranced by romantic sagas of heroic adventurers like Arthur Conolly, Colonel Bailey, Younghusband and their ilk, larger than life, pioneers from history, playing the Great Game with Russia, hazarding the vast unknown, voyaging alone across the plains and mountains ranges of Central Asia, trekking through snowfields to the forbidden monasteries of Tibet, carrying only the barest minimum of essentials. No communication for weeks. No magic code word, surreptitiously voiced, could instantly summon backup.

Today the service had been reduced to viewing Asian communities within northern cities like Bradford, Leeds and Manchester as “hostile territory”. Too fearful to enter in person at ground level, even in daylight hours, operations now relied entirely on technology, hidden cameras at mosque entrances constantly transmitting to remote viewing centers, wiretapping cellphone and landline, e-mail and website traffic sniffed and relayed to vast computer processing centers in rural Middle England. Remote, automated, disconnected, devoid of human intuition or understanding. The romance of the past was gone, the mystical events Younghusband experienced in Tibet, the visions, the spiritual awakening, guidance from distant Altair, eliminated by the efficient procedures within a modern technocratic service. It wasn’t just the brash American NSA operatives, their drinking and sleazy strip joints, that lead to his sense of disconnection. The all-pervasive technological apparatus separates not just the enemy; it disengages everyone, without exception.

He walks up the staircase to his apartment, opens the door and enters the living room, closing the door behind. Drawing the curtains he undresses, neatly folding and stacking the clothes on the lone armchair. In a corner by the kitchen there is an old Edwardian dome-top steamer trunk, strong metal bands around the edges and crisscrossing the sides. Relic of a bygone age. Naked, he lifts the lid and steps in. Lying on his back, he folds his legs onto his chest, fetal, body filling the leather-lined void. Placing his fingers on the inner lip of the lid he pulls the top down. The trunk shuts with the sound of the self-locking latch dropping into place. In total darkness he closes his eyes and awaits the enveloping emptiness.