His biggest shock was when they phoned to say he was on the shortlist. But he needed to pass just one more test. To prove himself.


1. The Job He Always Wanted

His biggest shock was when they phoned to say he was on the shortlist. He was almost on the pay role they said. But, just to make sure, it was still subject to him passing a few rudimentary tests, they said.

     He never really thought he had a chance. He’d answered the ad on a whim. He didn’t really want to work anyway. And some of the personal information he’d supplied was… well, to put it bluntly, stretching the imagination a little. He thought they’d see through it. But they didn’t and now he was on the inside track. About to become a government employee. Some kind of bureaucrat. In some kind of organisation he’d never heard of. Perhaps even some kind of shadowy adviser. A behind the scenes eminence grise. But perhaps he was deluding himself about this last bit, he thought. 


The interview took a long time. Pages and pages of forms to fill in. They certainly had a fixation about personal details, he thought. At first he did his best to be accurate, under the close scrutiny of a seedy little man who kept, well, not quite picking his nose, but fiddling around with his finger just inside his nostril as he walked round and round the interview room, surreptitiously watching Sheraton’s progress as he wrestled with the documents he was filling in.

     Eventually, on the edge of a fit of pique, Sheraton decided to change tack. ‘It’s just a game,’ he said out loud, which stopped the invigilator in his tracks. 

     ‘Yes? What is it? Do you need some help?’

     ‘No. Sorry, I mean no thank you. It’s just that so much information is asked for. And some of the details are hard to remember.’

     The man went to a desk at the front of the room and made a note in a file. 

     Sheraton, with new vigour, ploughed on in cavalier fashion.

     When he got to the section headed Relatives on the STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL INTERVIEW FORM he simply drew a line through the boxes provided. 


At last it was over. Or so it seemed. Sheraton put the pen in his pocket and shuffled the papers together. He’d answered the last question.

     But just when he’d thought he was finished, the man told him he wasn’t finished. ‘We’ve got a few hours ahead of us,’ he said. ‘You in a hurry?’

     The face-to-face part of the process was about to begin. The invigilator turned interviewer and started laboriously sifting through all the information Sheraton had provided. 


In a clever series of questions, the interviewer teased out of Sheraton that he’d had a spat with his mother some years ago. It was nothing of great import – trivial even perhaps, but pigheadedness on both sides resulted in them never speaking again.

     But when he admitted details of the family stand off, the man seemed to take it as if it was a positive. A worthwhile detail. One that he elaborated on in the margin of Sheraton’s interview document. 

     ‘Estranged mother and no other living relatives. Is that what you meant by these score marks on the interview form?’

     Sheraton nodded. 

     ‘You have to answer the question,’ the man said. Please answer audibly. 

     Sheraton did.

     The man put his head down and wrote something more on the form. He spoke out loud as he wrote, ‘This difficult relationship with his mother means he sees her rarely. Is that right? Or can I add if ever?’

     Sheraton said, ‘Yes. You can be more blunt if you like, because I never see her.’ 

     ‘I see, good. The form’s probably more accurate now, I suppose.’

     The interviewer seemed particularly interested in genealogy. They wanted to know if he knew if any of his forebears had come from overseas. ‘No matter how long ago,’ he said, ‘We want to know about them. If you know, we want to know too.’  

     Sheraton had written ‘Some German’, on the KNOWLEDGE OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES section, although he only knew a few words. He’d picked them up from his grandparents who’d been refugees from the Nazis. 

     The interviewer paused when he’d read the details. ‘German? That’s good. So much better than French. You’d be surprised how much more useful German is these days. In our business, I mean.’

     While he was asking Sheraton about his computer skills, he seemed more diffident. Ill at ease, even. Sheraton realised that the man was out of his depth. It was soon obvious that the interviewer didn’t know much about computers. For some obscure reason, Sheraton made up a few phrases of nonsense. They sounded technical, but they were meaningless. The man listened carefully, nodding all the time. ‘Yes,’ he said when Sheraton stopped talking rubbish, ‘you’re certainly OK on IT. You’d be surprised. Some people in the department hardly know how to turn a computer on.’

     The man seemed disappointed when Sheraton said he did not play bridge and had never been interested in chess. But he liked it when Sheraton had written that he liked crosswords. He omitted to tell the man that it took him most of the morning to do the 30-minute puzzle he did most days in his mostly left wing newspaper. 

     Although it had not been a question on any of the forms, he asked what publications Sheraton read regularly. ‘I subscribe to the LRB, and, when I’m looking for news, I take the Guardian, I suppose.’ The information was duly noted, although he thought the interviewer’s nostrils seemed to twitch slightly when The Guardian was mentioned. 

     ‘Not exactly Pravda or Izvestia,’ Sheraton said to himself.

     The interviewer asked him questions about his religious ideas. He said he didn’t have any. This didn’t seem to perturb the man particularly, but he kept coming back to the subject to ask the same question in a slightly different form. Eventually, listening between the lines, Sheraton worked out that he was trying to find out if Sheraton had recently adopted any of the new fangled non Anglo Saxon alternative religions that seemed to be all the rage.

     At last it was over. The man placed the interview papers into a box file. Then he held out his hand and said, ‘The pen please.’ 

     ‘The pen? Sorry, I don’t understand,’ said Sheraton who mistook the gesture for the offering of a handshake.

     ‘The pen you used for the forms. It’s our pen. Departmental issue.’

     Sheraton fished in his jacket pocket and meekly handed over the government property.


During his probationary period they gave Sheraton a task. They never gave him a gun, but he presumed that would come later.

     He assumed it was some kind of assessment of his suitability to be taken on permanently. They told him to take a message to an address they gave him. They told him how to ring the bell. Four long rings followed by three short rings in quick succession. They told him to do this at exactly 11.27 pm. They told him to learn by heart what he was to say when the door was answered. They told him to memorise the reply he would be given.

He was instructed to commit nothing to writing. It seemed to be some kind of test of memory and initiative. 

     He felt sure he’d be up to it. He could not foresee any problems.

     He found the dismal street in a semi-industrial area just after eleven. 

     He found the bell with difficulty in the poorly lit entrance alcove.

     He did exactly what they’d told him. Four long followed by three quick, short rings.


     He waited.


     He tried again.

     Still nothing.

     He stepped out into the street and looked up. 

There was a light on upstairs. He thought he saw someone looking down at him. 

     He rang the signal rings again. Long. Long. Long and long. Then short, short and short.

     He heard someone approaching. 

     The door opened fractionally. ‘Yea? Wot you want?’

     He recited his lines. ‘Three blind mice…’

     He waited. The man looked at him. 

     ‘Wot. Wadda ya mean blind mice? Wot you on about? You know wot time it is?’

     ‘I…I…well, I was told to say Three blind mice. Were you not told to expect someone?’

     ‘Fuck off before I bash your head in.’

     The man slammed the door. 

     Sheraton rang the bell again. ‘Wait! Didn’t they give you a message for me? Don’t you have a response?’

     The door opened and the man slammed his fist into Sheraton’s face. ‘Fuck off, damn you,’ he shouted as Sheraton stumbled back into the road, blood and snot squeezing out from between the fingers he’d spread across his broken nose. 


When Sheraton reported in the next day, no one said anything the mission he’d been sent on the night before, nor about the state of his face. 

     Then the invigilator-interviewer man gave him several papers to sign, but he did not give Sheraton any copies.

     A few days later Sheraton got a phone call to say he should report for duty at the start of the coming month. When he tried to ask questions, the person simply said, ‘The only information I’m authorised to give you is the starting date of your employment with the department.’ The line went dead.


The daily routine was excruciatingly boring, and, when he’d been there a few months, he heard one of his colleagues say that newcomers, who arrived from time to time, were made to feel as popular as a turd in a punchbowl. Sheraton agreed without saying anything out loud. He thought the expression hit the nail on the head when it came to describing the organisation where he earned his daily crust of bread.


The department received a flood of what was considered important information from a multitude of sources every day. He and a few others with equally nondescript profiles and personalities had the job of acknowledging receipt and then categorizing and collating the details. Most of it was freely available on Wiki and a plethora of other sites that were household names, and he quickly recognized that no matter where or how he filed the data, his methodology was never queried, even when he knew he’d made a mistake and filed it incorrectly. And no one ever asked for any of the information to be retrieved. Once he’d worked this out, he never bothered with accuracy again. It obviously didn’t matter and no one cared. ‘No one ever checks or reads this stuff, so why bother? Mountains of useless facts that no one’s remotely interested in,’ he concluded.


Sheraton’s daily routine could be summed up as a tedium that would continue, it seemed, ad infinitum.

     But then one day out of the blue, something out of the ordinary happened. It was the only brief interlude in his first few years of excruciating drudgery. He got a phone call to tell him to collect his new passport. 

     ‘This is it,’ he thought. ‘Moving on at last.’

     When he got to the address he was given he found himself outside what looked like a huge factory in a depressing industrial area. He was asked to sign in at a booth just inside the front door where a man in a shabby uniform which he could not tie up with any organisation he’d come across or was aware of. He was directed downstairs. 

     A sign next to a hatch said RING AND WAIT TO BE CALLED. 

     He did as he was instructed. 

     It was a long wait. 

     Eventually the hatch opened and a woman asked him to sign for an envelope. 

     It contained a new passport. It was not in his name, but inside was a crisp, clear and obviously recent photograph.

     He was not sure, but, from the background, it seemed to have been taken when he was using the urinal in the departmental men’s lavatories. 


His phone rang a few days later. A woman’s voice said, ‘We need your passport back. I’m sending a safe courier.’

     The document was collected the next day by a pimply young man who had a foreign accent. ‘Another HR cock up, apparently. They always seem to be doing it.’

     After this brief interlude, Sheraton’s life quickly slipped back into the usual, daily, boring routine, and he never heard anything about the passport again.


The days melded together into eras and then ossified into eons, or so it seemed, as time crawled slowly by.

     Even after sitting together for years he hardly knew the other people in his office. They were not encouraged to socialise. He saw this as a game not a security measure. How could anybody not know within seconds that you worked for some kind of clandestine organisation if you weren’t allowed to tell anyone what you did or what your job was?

     He found this isolation from co-workers a relief and he only ever knew the people in his department by their first names. They never went out socialising together and he never knew what they did in their spare time or where they lived. 

     Not exactly James Bond stuff, he thought. ‘I suppose there must be real spies of agents or government assassins or agents provocateurs somewhere in the organisation. But he never encountered anyone remotely like that and assumed that this was the way those individuals their anonymity and hid their real personas.  


Once a year he had an assessment and his file was updated. But other than the actual date of the interview, there was never anything to change or to add. It seemed that the status quo of the workplace was cast in stone.


Looking back on his so-called clandestine career, he took stock. Fifteen years as some kind of grey eminence. Or perhaps more accurately a grey nonentity. A sort of arcane office boy or tickbird, dealing with supposedly clandestine material that’s available to anyone with a modicum of common sense, in a department that’s supposed to be secret.

     ‘And here I am sliding towards the end of my life, hurrying through middle age and on towards elderly-ness.’ He stopped there.

     Then, in his mind he tried to make an honest assessment of what he’d achieved in life. His private life, that is. ‘But with only nine assignations under my belt, there’s not much to write home about.’ 

     Unpleasant as it was, he forced himself to rake over old coals and the fact that he’d always been the passive partner. Never the protagonist. The hunted and never the hunter. He’d always had the ideas but never the initiative to take the lead. It has always been the other party who made the first move and made the advances. Nine sexual encounters in fifteen years. Seven female and two male. Both when he was very drunk, he hastened to remind himself.

     He did the maths. ‘That works out at one sexual partner every year and a half. Give or take a few months,’ he muttered. ‘Or, to be statistically more accurate, once every six hundred and eight days. And sometimes not even a fuck. Just a hurried blowjob.’ This had happened several times in vile lavatory cubicles, twice in a bar, and the other time in the basement with a man from his the department. ‘And a sweaty fingered touch up under the table in dark corner in a pub late one night.’ He winced as he recalled the uncomfortable walk home in sticky-with-cum underpants. 

     Not exactly a score Priapus would have been proud of.


After 9/11 there’d been a flurry of reassessments, and by the time of the London bombings, these meetings had become nothing less than frantic.

     Questions centered on whether he had changed his religious ideas recently. 

     Had he visited any mosques during the past five years? Or a temple? Or any other non-traditional meeting or spiritual institutions?

     Had he made any new friends? Had he had any new sexual liaisons? With women? With men?

     His daily routine was so boring that he found these interviews quite stimulating. 

     He wondered when they’d get around to asking about skin colour or, ‘Do any of your friends wear turbans?’ But they didn’t.


The man from the morgue said they’d found the body early on Sunday morning. The army of cleaners find a few every night, he added. It was lying in a dingy ally on the edge of the docklands. 

     The man who’d phoned showed no emotion. His voice had an expressionless tone. He said it looked like death had resulted from a robbery that had gone wrong for the victim. He intimated that perhaps the unfortunate person had put up some kind of resistance, and the thieves had resorted to violence. The autopsy, he said, revealed that the deceased had been stabbed several times and then shot in the head. His shoes and some of his clothing had been stolen. And, the man said, if the deceased had had any valuables, such a watch, a ring, or whatever, these too had been removed. 

     Identification, he said with just a hint of reproach, had been difficult. But he quickly managed to regain control and his voice lapsed back into his official monotone. Someone at the autopsy had spotted a small implant. But that had only given them the name and some kind of code. 

     It had taken time, he said, but the police had eventually pieced together the man’s personal contact details. This had not been easy as it was obvious that a considerable effort had gone into an attempt to keep the man’s particulars off the public record. Again, a mild trace of rebuke was apparent. His wallet was found later, but both his Visa card and his driver’s licence were bogus.

     ‘But eventually we worked it out, and that’s why I am talking to you now. With my deepest condolences, Mrs Sheraton, I have to report to you that we believe the deceased is your son, Mr Paul Lynton Sheraton.’

     It was the first news she’d had about her son for twenty-four years.

     Mrs Sheraton listened carefully to what the man had to say. She asked a question. The man said he had nothing to add. He’d told her everything. 

     Finally she said simply, ‘Thank you very much for contacting me.’

     She listened attentively for a moment, and then replied, ‘Yes, yes, thank you for reminding me. I do understand my obligations. I will arrange to have the body collected later today.’



If you like this style of writing, you might enjoy ALL FALL DOWN, my novel set in Nazi occupied France during World War Two.
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