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Oh Whistle and

God has very particular political opinions – John le Carré

 

 

M is whizzing round the Cheltenham Waitrose, throwing sugar snap peas, prawns, rice noodles, ready-sliced peppers and pumpkin soup into her half-sized trolley. Oh, and milk.

 

L is setting out the exercise books and children’s drawings ready for parents’ information evening.

 

Z swaps his Oyster cards in his wallet before leaving the house, switching to his other, pre-reg card for the journey from home to the party meeting. It means he misses out on the daily cap but hey.

 

Y has never registered her Oyster card – even though it makes claiming back her work receipts a PITA – because she doesn’t trust the government. It’s a total waste of time, because the government can already track her via her smartphone, but she doesn’t realise that. (The other reason it’s a waste of time is that she’s not as interesting as she thinks she is.)

 

J, who trusts the government even less, doesn’t have an Oyster card. He pays through the nose for his privacy, and he can’t use the buses. Mostly he cycles. In the new year the cash option is being taken away from the underground, so he won’t be able to use that either. Ah well – it’s not like he has to be anywhere.

 

Z leaves his main phone at home and takes the second handset, with the battery and SIM-card removed and taped to the housing. He pulls up his hood.

 

On her way to the tills M passes a young man still wearing his green lanyard over his sweater. She nods at it, and he takes it off, stuffing it into his bag.

 

L goes through her bank statement while she’s waiting, and thinks about cancelling her union subs – there is less pressure to belong these days, and she has never made use of them, can’t see any reason why she would. She just has to get around to telling payroll, because she pays by automatic check-off.

 

Z also pays by automatic check-off. He has no problem with his employers knowing he is a member of the union. Indeed, it would be rather dim-witted of them not to notice.

 

At M’s workplace it’s mandatory to disclose union membership. And after all, it’s not like they couldn’t find out, ha ha.

 

The first parents arrive and L welcomes them.

 

At the meeting Z runs into H, whom he hasn’t seen all summer. Busy, she says. But less busy now. They sit together.

 

M’s tennis coach asks what she does for a living. Oh god, boring deskmonkey stuff, she says. I wish I had a talent, like you.

 

At L’s information evening one of the mothers asks for more books featuring non-whites. Well, what she actually says is, Hey – 1978 called. It wants its reading scheme back. And: These are so white they make my eyes hurt.

 

Her words, and the views they express, tick a couple of the boxes on L’s PREVENT checklist. This is a relief, because it means that at last L can fill out a profile form and lodge it with SLT, who will pass it to CHANNEL and perhaps to AVERT.

 

Which means that she’s being vigilant, that she’s on-task, that she’s keen, she’s aligned (being aligned is one of the conditions for performance related pay).

 

And if the parents have nothing to hide then they’ve nothing to fear. That was one of the mantras from the training course.

 

V, who is the parent in L’s sights (and shortly to be in the sights of the SLT and CHANNEL and possibly even AVERT), has a wide circle of acquaintances (another thing that makes L nervous, though she hasn’t articulated that to herself).

 

V doesn’t wear a headscarf, but then she’s a more modern, jeans-wearing type. In the training L and her colleagues were told that traditional dress wasn’t necessarily a marker. It could be, the trainer clarified, but not necessarily.

 

L completes her report, seals it in an envelope and puts it in the SLT pigeonhole.

 

*

 

In the last week O has looked at various maps of Xi’an, read up on the political history of Shaanxi province, compared kettles on the Argos site, watched Panorama on catch-up and listened to an old Chomsky lecture. Right at this moment, O is browsing the Snowden archive and downloading a pamphlet by the erstwhile Muslim Council of Britain (which later this morning will catch the attention of M).

 

(Funnily enough the associate editor of the Spectator registers an identical browsing history – apart from the kettles – but, notwithstanding he is inconvenient, no-one thinks he is a terrorist.)

 

In Bucharest, C, working for the Ministry, reads up on the work of M’s department.

 

In Phoenix, Arizona a server records that one of its hosted sites has been accessed by O.

 

In Xi’an, the Muslim communities organise, via careful use of Wechat.

 

Classy as ever, NewsGlobal has moved on from hacking the handsets of dead children, and is now hacking the teenaged offspring of the Labour leader.

+++

*

+++

L catches V at pick-up time.
Why should I complete it? says V. Tell me why.
So that we have it on record, says L. Your refusal.
V is shaking the sheaf of papers. It shows contempt, she says – contempt – for a huge swathe of the population. I can’t believe you can’t see that.
Look, we don’t make the vaccine, says L. We don’t even write the forms. We just distribute them. And we just need you to sign them.
And you can’t see the message it sends? says V. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, you can all fuck off.
Well it doesn’t quite say that, says L.
V shakes her head at L. You just don’t get it, do you? This is what started the Indian Mutiny, she says. At L’s blank look she throws her hands up at the ceiling and then shakes them at L: Look it up, she says.

 

Z’s workplace union is trying a different tack. Management seems to have got wind of a few things lately that could only have been got from the union minutes. The workplace rep, W, who suspects hacking on the part of the management, has set a bear trap, seeding the minutes with fictitious nonsense. Sure enough, the fictitious nonsense appears on the SMT agenda. (How does W know this? Because the union is hacking the management, and has been for quite some time.)

 

Z is tasked with writing up the minutes by hand, photocopying them privately away from the workplace, and distributing them personally to each member, just before 5pm.

 

On the train home L reads the flu vaccine form properly. It just says that yes, it contains porcine gelatine, and yes we still recommend you allow your child to have it even if you are from a religion that doesn’t eat pork, and no, there isn’t a pork-free alternative available.

 

She really can’t see what’s unreasonable about that. It’s not like they’re forcing it up the kids’ noses for heaven’s sake. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

 

By the time L reaches Whyteleafe South she’s decided it’s something else for PREVENT.

 

Yes. V is clearly engaged in an ideology. She has developed Them and Us thinking. She probably does have attitudes that justify offending – not to say that she would necessarily justify offending, but her attitudes might. Mm, yes. (L was raised a Catholic, and can be Jesuitical when she wants to be.) All of this requires a report.

 

M’s tennis coach is working his way up to asking her out. She thinks through the logistics of this one.

 

Fuck! L has looked up the Indian Mutiny. This is scary stuff. In the light of what L’s just read, V’s words are practically a threat.

+++

*

+++

The management is getting twitchy about the lack of union minutes. Normally they are done within a day or two of the meeting, on company time.

 

And then, as soon as they are circulated, management relaxes visibly. The intercept is obviously still working. But how?

 

W, the union leader, now suspects a management mole – probably one of the recent recruits. She calls a secret, off-site meeting of her lieutenants, who include Z. She is going to set another bear trap.

 

Going through the completed vaccine forms, which are finally all back, except V’s, of course (L really, really wishes the parents could do things without needing to be reminded), L notes that two of the other families have refused permission. One child has an allergy and one is a Muslim. She’ll refer the Muslim refusal under PREVENT – makes sense, if she’s referring V. There are two other Muslims in the class whose parents have agreed to the vaccine. In one case L knows it’s because the mum can’t read English, but then that’s her lookout to get a translator. No way would L sign a form she hadn’t read.

 

Come to think of it, this flu vaccine is a really useful tool for PREVENT. L wonders if the other class teachers are being as vigilant. Perhaps she should drop an email to SLT. Wow! She’s really getting the hang of this!

 

Z is to handwrite two sets of minutes – one with red herrings and one with different red herrings – and distribute Herrings A to those three people whom Z, W, and P have identified as potential moles. Herrings B are to go to everyone else.
It is a risky strategy, P says.
W agrees, but what other option do they have, short of actual menace? The likelihood of people comparing documents is very small, she says, because they think they all have the same. Everyone has been told not to bring the minutes into work – they are handed them personally as they leave the site, and told not to bring them in again. This has been reiterated many times. Anyway, if they do rumble us, all they’ll know is that we’re onto them.
Which will make them more careful, says P.

 

In Cheltenham, the analysts have made a connection between Z and O. At 1.35pm Z added the editor of the New Humanist on Facebook. Though innocuous enough, this brings him within a pattern of contacts that mirrors that of the Leeds group, and of O.

 

There is nothing else in the metadata to link them. There is nothing yet to warrant a content search. But if a link goes live, there will be.

 

Z has been sure all along that the government has him in its sights. And now, for the first time, he is right.

 

Z and O do not know each other, and have never been in contact, but they do have some common interests, which tend towards the political. Neither of them is in contact with the Leeds group, but again, there is metadata tracking a potential link, which, if activated (a friend request, a Twitter follow), trips the trap.

+++

*

+++;

Management have got the first herrings and not the second ones (unless, of course, it’s a double bluff). This means that the potential moles are, as suspected, one or more of Q, S and E. Now to narrow it down.

 

M’s colleague R analyses a pattern of communications traffic around the Notts-Derby area, which shows some parallels with Leeds (although no contact). R presents her findings briefly, at the team meeting.

 

W, Z and P watch Q, S and E, through glass-walled meeting rooms, at their desks, on their way to lunch. They switch rabbits every couple of hours so as not to attract suspicion. On a smoke break, P tells Q that W is plotting something big with the rep on the Essex site. Keep it under your hat.

 

M sits in the canteen with a baked potato and a killer Sudoku, wondering what to do about the tennis coach.

 

Sure enough, Q can’t wait to spill the beans. After lunch Z sees her slip into the glass-walled office of A, and sit down. A’s face is too interested to be listening to a variation in the monthly stats.

 

M decides to dodge the question entirely by letting her tennis lessons lapse for a while. It’s too cold for tennis anyway – time enough to restart in the spring.

 

J goes out in the early hours with an associate and does a doorway and a few paving stones on Hoe Street. Stencil-and-spray.

 

Z has been pulled into the union-side/management-side meeting, alongside P. They sit across the table from A, N, and G. W is watching A, Z is watching N, and P is watching G (and, it is probably fair to say, vice versa).

 

Union side collectively has a lean and hungry look. It’s the walking, the cycling, the sheer quantity of energy expended upon subterfuge, espionage, and counter-espionage.

 

W always wears a jacket to meetings with management. Not that she feels the need to suit up, but she needs somewhere to hide the mic. P and Z either side of her in shirtsleeves, P’s rolled above the elbow.

 

We want you to stop hacking us, says W.

 

We’re not hacking you, says management side suavely and blandly, in the person of A (handstitched Italian suit).

 

W changes the set of the questions and statements, reeling off request and accusation until she says: And of course we know that Q is a management spy – and the pokerface slips momentarily. W sees it slip, Z sees it slip, and P sees it slip (they all compare notes afterwards, and this is what they saw, on the three-headed monster – each of its heads aligned, its reactions congruent, unanimous, and legible).

 

(Only the certain prospect of mutually assured destruction keeps management side from cancelling W’s pass and escorting her off the premises with a cardboard box. Or in a cardboard box.)

 

So Q is the traitor. In the offsite meeting at a pub in Leyton, W, Z and P ponder what to do with her.

 

W is in touch with K, a shop steward at the Jaguar factory in Coventry. They met on a union residential. She will help him, on condition that he encrypt everything. And maybe he can help them.

+++

*

+++

P’s stationery requisition has been queried by management, leaving him without highlighter pens for the foreseeable future, and his Christmas leave request revoked. (Management has correctly identified the weakest link, and is subjecting it to battery).

 

Better to die on your feet than live on your knees, says W.
We’re dying on our arse here, says P.

 

Management goon N follows W out of the building at lunchtime and manages to trip up and elbow her off the pavement almost into the path of a passing van. Sorry, he says, and walks on.

 

From the metadata, M and her colleagues have now identified the members of the Nottingham-Derby hub and worked out the direction of command. They have posited X as the ringleader and applied for a fast track content-search. (They’re going to be disappointed when they find out it’s a book group gushing over the latest offering from Sunjeev Sahota.)

+++

*

+++

Z switches on his laptop, tapes over the webcam, and runs the code that visits recipe sites and mildly racist newspapers. He lets it run in the background for an hour while he packages up some stuff for the Coventry bloke and copies out the union minutes.

 

W, whose preference is for the lo-fi, toggles between the Women’s Institute and the Daily Express. Her webcam is also masked with five-ply duct tape.

 

Her Nokia 3310 (PAYG, unregistered, cash-only top-ups, never assembled at home) lies on the bed, its battery Sellotaped to its back. If she needs to make a call she gets on the bus – harder to hit a moving target. Or so she’s told.

 

Everyone’s favourite Tory, D, has (presumably) called time on the heartmelting conversations with the former director of Liberty and started them up with the NSA whistleblower. He still believes in the death penalty though. But perhaps not for treason.

 

String of garlic round his neck, sharpened wooden tent peg in his hand, Snowden stalks the wilds of Siberia, his cry a wind that whistles from the Urals straight to the flattened landscapes and cosy common rooms of Cambridge, UK. He’ll be needing that garlic. (Though not, I think, the tent peg.)

 

What’s in the parcel, says the Asian guy in the post office, typing the recipient address onto his screen.
Cycle helmet, says Z, daring the guy to challenge him.
The guy looks at him a half-second longer than necessary, then shrugs, stickers it and puts it behind the counter, looking up to see who’s next.

 

W has a friend who purchases the Morning Star from his local newsagent and posts it to her in a plain brown envelope when he’s finished with it. Just once every few weeks. He’s not daft.

 

J has developed a new miring code, which visits a random number of right-wing sites for every anarcho-leftist one you click on. You can tailor it for plausibility, so it will do the Dinner Party Tory gamut, or the Alf Garnett gamut. He’s working on a Tony Blair gamut. It’s self-regulating, he assures his customers, so it won’t click on anything dodgy.

 

The Superego (patent pending) is also J’s brainchild. It’s basically a filter that blocks you from visiting anything that might be of interest to the authorities. You can override it, but it means you exercise caution.

 

D uses miring and encryption as a matter of course. (His plug-in is currently browsing the Texas gun laws. That’ll keep ’em guessing.)

+++

*

+++

Since she took voluntary redundancy in the latest round of efficiencies, T has been turned down for every job she’s applied for. It makes no sense at all – she’s not even getting interviews. She phoned up one place the other day pretending to be a supplier and asked switchboard for the name of the new postholder – it was someone younger and less qualified, according to LinkedIn. It can only be her age – but her sick record is excellent. She still keeps up her subs, so she wonders about getting the union to look into age discrimination for her.

 

While W is parked outside the cash-and-carry somebody dings her car. The manager’s son goes through the CCTV footage with her – she’s a regular customer – but they can’t get a view of the numberplate. He tells her where she can get it hammered out for twenty quid. She reckons she’ll live with it.

 

Z has to remember to get enough cash out for the week – doesn’t want the ATMs tracking his movements across the city. He cycles over to Barking, just to use the machine there.

 

Now that the ticket office has closed it’s even more difficult for Y to get her Oyster journeys printed to claim on expenses. She has to remember to do them at the other end. You know you should register this online, says the ticket lady, who seems to recognise her. Save you time.

 

Posters have gone up about the new tourist Oyster cards. You need your passport or photo id for those.

 

A flurry of snow swirls to greet her at the mouth of the tube.

+++

*

+++

At the start of the new term V offers to give an illustrated talk to the class about the Holi festival, and L has this creeping and slightly sickening realisation that she’s not Muslim after all. That she’s Hindu. (But she said she was Bengali! How was L supposed to know? Are there even Hindus in Bangladesh?) She’d better not mention it to SLT. She declines the offer, citing timetabling and the national curriculum. V’s slow nod of understanding has a touch of the eye-roll in it.

 

Back in Leytonstone, the link goes live. Z has just looked up O. M shouts out to her team leader, who scrambles across to her desk. Colleagues patting her on the shoulder, team leader looking her in the eye and nodding. This’ll be worth something at the April board.

 

Well apparently there are Hindus in Bangladesh. Who knew?

 

Z has acquired a typewriter. He puts on some heavy metal and turns up the volume to drown out the keystrokes.

 

J, together with some associates, is planning a distributed denial-of-service attack on the Tory party HQ, to take place on Thursday.

 

Anyway, who’s to say a Hindu wouldn’t be a terrorist?

 

Agents of the Security Service supply the blackmarket shops of Roman Road and Whitechapel with pre-bugged Nokias. (Whatever happened to honour amongst thieves?)

 

Come to think of it, if you were a Muslim terrorist, pretending to be a Hindu would be a really good cover.

+++

*

+++

On Thursday M’s team leader takes her out for drinks, to a pub on their respective way home. She asks M about her plans and makes careful reference to going for the next board. Opportunities will be coming up, she says. Project leaders will be needed.

 

At the anti-fascist vigil Z goes bananas at his friend H, who has sent him something via Dropbox – are you crazy? he says. Are you on glue?
You’re fucking paranoid, she says, and she walks away.

 

As she lets herself in, M wonders about a sideways move into one of the international teams, perhaps on secondment, rather than moving up where she is and getting stuck.

 

J and his colleagues exchange virtual high-fives after they succeed in bringing down the Tory party site. J celebrates alone, with a midnight spliff.

 

Z’s various phones, batteries, SIM-cards and Oyster cards are scattered on his bedside table. His head hurts and he can’t actually remember which ones he used yesterday – normally he has a mnemonic for this.

 

That girl he met last night. He’s wondering if her accent seemed a little off – didn’t seem to match her clothes and teeth. The teeth a bit too straight to be straight, if you know what I mean. He’s trying to remember what he might have said to her.

+++

*

+++

The spooks in Cheltenham clock the status change on the board as they arrive for their morning shift. Not that these things ever come as a surprise.

 

An algorithm at Natwest Bank has identified a pattern in the planned randomness of Z’s cash withdrawals, and triggered a report.

 

(Interestingly, algorithm is derived from the name of محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی‎ – Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī – a mathematician-astronomer during the Abbasid Caliphate in ninth-century Baghdad, whose achievements include popularising the use of algebra and introducing positional notation to the West. Every day a school day, huh?)

 

A manager looks at it, scanning the cash amounts. Petty drug trade, maybe? Something or nothing. Probably not worth bothering the Met.

 

Z has had something hot to eat now and is back on track with the Oyster cards, handsets, batteries, SIM-cards, ATMs. He tries to tune out the background hum of his spinning plates.

 

It’s mock-Ofsted week. L’s head of year sits with a notebook and a ticksheet observing the afternoon session.

 

On his way home from work V’s husband, B, is stopped and searched by the cops under the Terrorism Act. (This is coincidental, and unrelated to L’s referrals.) He is amused. You think I’m an Islamist? You know this is a sikha, right? At home he pulls out the carbon copy of the docket to show his wife. No wonder they catch so many crooks, he says.

 

X is in Nottingham Waterstones. If I like Sunjeev Sahota, what else will I like?

+++

*

+++

J returns home from another early-hours jaunt. Lightening sky and the suggestion of spring in the air.

 

M wakes from a dream in which she missed a vital clue about Leeds – several clues – and it was all too late. She splashes her face with icy water and looks in the mirror. She’s up now, so she might as well get up. She sits with a cup of tea watching it get light.

 

In Syria it is light already. An MSF nurse in Idlib supervises the setting up of a new facility.

 

The Morning Star arrives in Silvertown. W flicks through it before leaving for work.

 

In Moscow, trained assassins are briefed on the known recent and likely future movements of the NSA whistleblower. His need to keep himself in the public eye – the only thing that will keep him alive – is also his Achilles heel.

 

W says to Z, I think that Snowden has been dead for quite some time. They’re good at this, the Russians, she says. Ventriloquising. You don’t think he runs his own accounts, do you?

 

I reckon I’ll take a bullet one day, she says. (They are sitting on a park bench, eating their lunch). Well, not a bullet, she says. It’ll be an accident of some kind, away from work. Gas leak or something.

 

That’s the trouble, she says. It’s people like us who do it, people with no family. No-one to cry for us when we’re gone. No-one to look for our bodies.

 

Inside the Doughnut, coffee at hand, M watches an onscreen transcript of Z’s movements. W has been identified as a close contact, and a file opened.

 

Z watches the clock: just another hour of captivity.

 

V looks the social workers up and down and tells them to come back with legal paperwork. And she slams the door.

 

As Z leaves for home, he places a bar of vending-machine chocolate on W’s keyboard.

 

(Oh, Edward, they promised not to torture you – and you believed them, didn’t you? What a difference an election makes.)

 

F, whose ex-husband used to laugh at her refusal to sign petitions, watches the news with a glass of wine and the smug satisfaction of one whom history has proved right. (She was also right, let the record reflect, about the living room walls.)

 

U and I watch the Newsnight special, with increasing unease.

 

Dawn breaks on a snow plain in the east, revealing a silver whistle, a few drops of blood (see how bright the red against the white and silver!), a petal of garlic peel, an efficient absence of footprints.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born in East London and lives there now. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Flamingo Land & Other Stories (ed. Ellah Allfrey, Flight Press), as a Galley Beggar Press Single, and in the magazines The Barcelona ReviewSouthwordStructo and Wasafiri.