(NOT) BEING DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH by Chris Green
The knock on the door at 3 am comes as a shock. This is the type of thing I associate with Soviet Russia. Unlike Dmitri Shostakovich, who famously kept a suitcase and a toothbrush beside him ready for the knock, in case he should be whisked off at a moment’s notice and interrogated, I am unprepared for such an eventuality. So far as I know, I have done nothing seditious or subversive. I am an English teacher, for Heaven’s sake. Teaching teenagers how to get the best out of D. H. Lawrence and Julian Barnes. Introducing them to the use of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. In a Community College. In a small town in the south west of England.
I am not given time to put shoes on, let alone think about a suitcase and needless to say, I don’t know where I’m going.
‘What’s this all about?’ I keep asking, as stifling my partner, Hannah’s protests, two thugs in dark fatigues bundle me roughly into the back of a waiting black van.
‘We can’t tell you that, fella,’ says the tall one with the neck tattoos and the bad breath. ‘So just shut the fuck up.’
‘We are just here to deliver you safely to the interrogation centre,’ says the blubbery one with the cropped hair and the facial scar. ‘Now keep still, while I put this blindfold on.’
Bound, blindfolded and gagged, I am bumped around in the back of the van for about an hour before we arrive at our destination, which, from the acoustics, I take to be a large concrete building, perhaps a disused warehouse or something. Here I am tied to a steel chair and left on my own to contemplate my fate. I am subjected to a dissonant recording of trombone playing, which runs for about and hour then plays all over again. Popular songs like Fly Me to the Moon and What a Wonderful World are murdered over and over by a tone deaf trombone player with, to maintain the Soviet comparisons, the disdain you might expect from a dispossessed Menshevik. At first, I feel this is a strange way for security service professionals to behave if indeed they are security professionals and not just common or garden kidnappers. There again, why would anyone kidnap me? An English teacher with a twenty five year mortgage and a maxed-out Barclaycard. The idea is absurd.
As the hours pass by, I begin to see the wisdom of spooks using such a method. It is, in all probability, a tried and tested technique to break down a suspect’s resolve. It is far less labour intensive than the strenuous forms of interrogation you see in films. Clearly, after a few hours of this, if I did have anything to talk about, I would be likely to spill the beans. If they left it long enough, I would be ready to confess to anything, however outrageous the allegation, when my interrogators finally arrived. And more besides. If I thought it would get me out of there, I would probably invent some malefaction. But I keep coming back to the question, why me? Why have I been brought here? Who are they? What have I done?
It is difficult to see outside of my own desperate situation but in a few calmer, more lucid moments when I am able to shut the musical torment out, I wonder what is happening outside of my confines. What have they done with Hannah? Surely if she has been free to do so, she will have gone to the police or taken some appropriate action on my behalf and they will eventually find me.
It is in such a moment of contemplation that my interrogators arrive. Once again there are two of them. They turn off the recording and take off my blindfold. This pair are better turned out than the two thugs from earlier, if not any the less threatening. The dark uniform and dark glasses they are both wearing, though, make it difficult to tell them apart. They are both built like shot putters.
It is the one with the fuller figure and the tighter skirt who speaks first. Something about her reminds me of my old Economics teacher, Miss Stover. Miss Stover didn’t usually carry a gun, though.
‘You know why you are here,’ she barks. It is both a question and a statement.
‘I am briefly tempted to say, ‘Well, it probably isn’t speed dating.’ But, my bravado deserts me.’ Instead, I manage a non-committal guttural sound.
The one who has not spoken yet takes off her sunglasses to reveal a stare like barbed wire. ‘We have your laptop here, Mr Exe,’ she spits, taking a device out of the large shoulder bag she is carrying. ‘Perhaps you would like to comment on a few things that we have found.’
As she places the laptop on the table where both of then can see it, I recognise the scuff mark on the lid where the Dell logo has rubbed off at the bottom of the D. It is indeed my laptop. It occurs to me now what might be happening. In which case, what is playing out here is probably down to a huge misunderstanding.
A week or two ago, Hannah’s son, Geoff was writing an assignment on the Dark Internet for his Criminology course and she asked me if I would look it over. Not that I knew anything about the Dark Internet but being an English teacher, I was good at grammar and punctuation. It was Geoff’s first year at Coventry so it seemed only right that I give him a helping hand to set him on his way. I realised how difficult those initial assignments could be when all you really wanted to do was enjoy the social life and the wild entertainment on offer in a new city.
As a precaution, I saved Geoff’s attachment as dae5h.docx. In retrospect, perhaps this was injudicious but it was meant as a joke. It was an old personalised number plate I used to have, my name being Douglas Alan Exe.
Geoff’s essay introduced me to the workings of the Dark Web, The Onion Router, Bitcoin and the like. A clandestine new world had apparently opened up without me being aware of it. I was shocked by some of the things that went on in cyberspace, the drug dealing, the child pornography, the terrorist recruitment, the people trafficking. It seemed there was a web of corruption available with just a few keystrokes. The essay also suggested that the Dark Web was difficult to police with law enforcement agencies and security services always being one step behind.
Academic essays in the social sciences can be a bit verbose, weighed down by interminable sentences with successions of long words. Each field of study introduces a staggering lexicon of new terminology to obfuscate the lay-reader. Readability can be further hampered by having to accommodate quotes by international academics with a poor command of English. To help make Geoff’s essay more readable, I shortened some of the sentences, made a few changes to the wording and tidied up the grammar a bit. I suggested he reworked the conclusion to make it a little stronger.
‘Are you having trouble with the question?’ says Miss Stover. ‘Perhaps we’d better do something to help you remember.’
All I have to do is to find a way to explain to this pair of titans that my intentions were good. But how? I remember back then a little nagging thought coming into my head about the security services. I was aware that under monitoring by organisations like GCHQ and NSA, certain keywords and expressions used on social media could trigger an algorithm that rendered you a suspect to be investigated. I had also read that security services checked up to three hops from anyone who became a target of interest, one hop being Facebook friends, two hops being friends of friends, with the third hop dragging in their friends too. If GCHQ or NSA decided I was a target of interest, for example, that could drag in 240 Facebook friends, 43,120 friends of friends, and 6.6 million of their friends. Geoff’s profile might well generate similarly humongous numbers.
I had reasoned that security services would need thousands of employees to go through that lot and anyway, we were not even talking about an inflammatory social media post. We were talking about an attachment to an email. However, for my own peace of mind, I had taken the precaution to save the file again under a different name before I emailed it to Geoff. Thinking back now, the original file, the dae5h one had somehow mysteriously disappeared from the computer but I had decided to think no more of it. These things sometimes happened.
I am still trying to think of a response to Miss Stover’s remark that might settle it, when I remember Geoff and I had had a brief exchange of private messaging about the essay, more specifically I had commented that our government was probably secretly selling weapons to DAESH over the dark web. This might not sit so well with them. But, private messaging was private, wasn’t it? The idea of an investigation by listening centres on such a flimsy premise was preposterous. Unless of course, Geoff was already under investigation. This seemed even more unlikely. Perhaps then, someone else on his Criminology course was up to something nefarious and had drawn Geoff in. When on home visits, Geoff had spoken about his friend, Tariq, he had sounded like a suspicious character, someone who could conceivably have underworld connections. But I reassured myself that it was being fanciful to think that anything subversive was going on at a respectable institution like Coventry University. Nothing untoward could possibly happen under the noses of qualified criminologists.
Have the spooks taken Geoff in for interrogation too, I’m wondering? Are they now treating him to the same regime of torture in another location? Geoff would find it much harder than me to cope with hours of tuneless trombone playing. He only listens to dance music and dubstep.
‘I am beginning to lose patience, Mr Exe?’ says Miss Stover, now taking out a sinister looking electrical device. ‘Perhaps your memory needs a jolt.’
She is coming towards me. Where is she planning on putting those electrodes?
‘OK. I’ll co-operate,’ I say, my natural cowardice coming to my rescue. I begin to tell her about the Dark Internet essay and explain that she has got the wrong end of the stick. That it was all a huge misunderstanding.
‘Is that really why you think we have brought you here?’ Miss Barbed Wire says, interrupting me before I have finished. ‘You cannot be serious. We don’t care about any of that stuff.’
I struggle to think of another reason why they might go to so much trouble. Whatever it is, it seems to revolve around my laptop, but what else could be there?
‘Tell us about your emails, SMS’s and Skype calls to Yulia Kuznetsova, Mr Exe,’ Miss Stover says.
‘You mean Julie. ….. Julie is an admin assistant at the school,’ I say.
‘That’s as maybe. But, she is more than that, isn’t she?’ Miss Barbed Wire says. ‘You have been sleeping with Yulia Kuznetsova and making dissident plans.’
I had not thought this brief extra-marital fling would come to light or be of any interest to anyone other than the two of us. Well, of course, there was Hannah. It might have been of interest to Hannah. But, Hannah had not found out and this was the main thing. Dissident plans, though. What are they talking about?
‘We want to know what you mean by, I think I have a way to get rid of Putin,‘ Miss Stover says. Meanwhile, she appears to be adjusting some controls on the electronic device.
‘Putin. ……. That’s our nickname for the head,’ I say. ‘We call him that because of his dictatorial style. …… Plus, his name is Puttman. Quite similar, I think you’ll agree. Julie started using the name as a joke and I just went along with it.’
‘A likely story.’
‘And, he does look a little like the Russian President.’
‘What about the trip to Moscow, you mention?’
‘This was just a fantasy we had. We both like Russian music, you see. Julie said that although her family came from the land of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, she’d never been there. It was a spur of the moment comment. I wasn’t serious.’
‘That’s not how it sounds here. It says ‘We’ll have Putin at close range in Moscow. This time for real. Real, Mr Exe. You are the English teacher. Tell me what does real mean?’
‘You’ve got this all wrong.’
‘What about, I’ll fire the first shot if you like?‘
‘Sometimes Julie’s English is not so good. What she means is ……..’
‘What about your English, Mr Exe? We have here, Putin will be dead in the water.‘
‘It’s just an expression. It means …..’
‘I know what it means, Mr Exe.
‘And here you have, We could finish him off next month, we’ll have more ammunition by then,‘ Miss Barbed Wire says. ‘Perhaps you could try and explain that.’
‘I didn’t mean literally and anyway ….’
‘But, there’s more, Mr Exe. You are not going to get out of this one, so you may as well come clean.’
The English language, it seems, is littered with pitfalls, made up as it is by expressions with multiple meanings. Metaphors, puns and double-entendres are so much a part of our everyday parlance. You have to be really careful with your language, especially on the Internet where there is a record of everything, endlessly scrutinised by listening centres the world over. Clearly the Onion Router and the Dark Internet have been set up so you can evade this scrutiny. By not using TOR, Julie and I were remiss. It occurs to me that Julie might be undergoing a similarly vigorous interrogation somewhere.
Perhaps things would not have been so dire had the attempt on the Russian president’s life last week not come to light. A case of bad timing, really. I imagine this is what it must have been like all the time for Dmitri Shostakovich. Under Stalin, he must have constantly lived with the threat of the knock at 3 am and the subsequent interrogation in a remote location regarding something he knew nothing about. Attempts on Stalin’s life were weekly. But who would have expected the knock at 3 am here in the south west of England? Oh well! There’s probably no point in holding out. If I manage to survive the electric shocks and the kneecapping, they probably have plans to subject me to songs from the shows on the euphonium or the tuba. I might as well own up now, tell them it was me. I was plotting to kill Putin. In this post-truth climate, where black is white and right and wrong are interchangeable, my confession will seem no more unlikely than the other improbable things that are happening in the world.
© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved