Department Ж – ‘a man’s story’ by Chris Green
Officially, my job doesn’t exist. Nor do the jobs of the other operators in Department Ж. Department Ж is a clandestine organisation, with no mailing address, phone number, or website. It appears on no records. Its headquarters are to be found only by the very determined, hidden, as they are in a remote location behind miles of razor wire. Our best guess is that we are government employees, although which government might be open to conjecture. All we are certain of is that someone pays us, handsomely, in bitcoin. No one here actually applied for their job. We were each individually head-hunted. Perhaps our employer is trans Global, or Apple, or one of the global pharmaceutical giants. After all, large corporations are now more powerful than governments.
My job is to alter details in old newspaper reports, making sure that all archived copies of the edition are consistent with the revised version of events. I have to make my amendments invisible. I come from a printing background, but publishing has moved on so fast and so far that this is probably irrelevant.
No explanation is given for any of the alterations my colleagues and I have to make. Information is handed down on a need to know basis. We are discouraged from having contact with one another, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. We are well aware that we are carefully monitored. Apart from the different codes I have to key in to enter different areas of the building, Department Ж also employs sophisticated biometric technology using face, voice and lip movement recognition to identify a person at a series of different points on each floor. We accept all of this as part of our working practice, although sometimes I find the claustrophobia of secrecy taxing.
Sealed manila folders appear on my desk with instructions of the required changes.
‘What do you think this one is?’ I ask Ludwig, my colleague at the next desk.
‘Did you see the football last night? Franco played a blinder for Juventus,’ says Ludwig, looking a little panicky about my reckless line of conversation. ‘He scored a hat-trick in the first twenty minutes.’
‘How about a small canvas by a little known painter was taken from a gallery in a place that no one has heard of, and they want me to change the artist’s name,’ I continue, in the absence of a suggestion from Ludwig.
‘It should be quite a game against Inter Milan,’ adds Ludwig. ‘They’ve signed Mussolini.’
There is a slight whirring sound as several cameras pan round to focus on us. I feel like Winston Smith. In this milieu, I often feel like Winston Smith.
‘Yes, it should be quite a game,’ I concede.
The folders come by night. I arrive at work at around eight. I show my security clearance to the armed militia on the gate, park my grey Prowler in the subterranean car park, take the lift to what might be the lower ground floor, but could also be the top floor as the entire construction is underground, and windowless. I swipe cards and key in numbers in the appropriate places and make my way to my desk. If there is a manila folder in the in tray, I open it and read through the instructions, work out how I can best go about the task, and get on with the job. The folder then has to be shredded. You might think that a shredder is just a shredder, but the sophistication of the department’s shredding machines is mind-boggling.
I break the seal and open the file. My guess is way off the mark. This is the gist of the contents.
Twenty years ago, the Barleigh Gazette, a small local newspaper reported: Rupert Windsor (41), a bank clerk, of Hanover Street, was arrested for breaking into the university library and charged to appear before Barleigh magistrates. This has to be amended to: Vladimir Zhukov (38), a circus performer of no fixed address was arrested for breaking into Barleigh Comprehensive School. He was later released without charge. A gain of two characters. A simple task. I program it into the Newszap and select Replace Text. Like most of the changes I make, it seems of little consequence. Sometimes the amendments involve merely changing someone’s age or occupation. Other times I have to replace an entire page and mock up some photographs. Occasionally, I have to remove all references to an individual across a number of publications, but I have no idea why the changes are important. Sometimes I have to make newspapers vanish altogether but none of this could be considered rewriting history in the Soviet sense.
Speaking of Russians, my colleague, Jacques, tells me that Barcelona have just signed Putin from Dynamo Moscow for 80 million euros. He will play up front alongside Pinochet. I put it to Ludwig that Barcelona might beat Chelsea.
‘Not a chance,’ he says. ‘Chelsea have Ceausescu and Brezhnev.’
My work entails tracking down all the copies of the paper kept in archives and placing the amended passages in them. I use a NewsZap 9000. For those of you not familiar with the world of revisionist journalism, NewsZap, the result of years of research and development and a multi-billion dollar budget, is a state-of-the-art pocket-sized device that erases the original newsprint and replaces it with the corrected passage in exactly the same typeface as the original, applied with the same amount of pressure, taking up exactly the same amount of column centimetres on the page. No one would be perceive that it had been changed. The device even simulates a fold or crease on the page and matches the degree of page discolourisation. But print is dying out. Archived material is of course now primarily electronic. Might my days be numbered?
Department Ж employs a staggering number of techies, whose role is to modify remote electronic information. Their work consists of hacking into computers. These are the type of people that the top virus-checking software companies employ to compose the viruses and trojans that cripple computers and help to sell their products. My guess is that they get the very best. The Department offers them a very high salary. With the recent rise in bitcoin, more than a million. They are based on the floor below us or is it the floor above? Once you have signed in, the lift has a randomiser, so that if you stray from your post you do not know where you are.
Locating all the archived copies of a newspaper and gaining access to these is of course time-consuming. Access usually has to be achieved without complicity, so the operation needs meticulous planning and is labour intensive. In these days of high terrorist alert, all locations have elaborate security. We have our own security specialists and we have a crack breaking and entry team as backup for night work. We have invisible drones and silent helicopters at our disposal should aerial entry to premises be required. While we don’t have a licence to kill, a few fatal accidents along the way have been overlooked.
‘Should you be typing all this stuff in at work?’ asks Bjorn, with a look of concern on his face.
A camera arcs towards us. Bjorn comes out with something about Bayern Munich’s strikers, Jong-Un and Zedong.
If a national daily is involved, an investigation can take several weeks. And as newspaper archives are now stored electronically, I often need to call in the techies. The cloud is definitely no longer a safe storage method. For other methods, our departmental operatives carry staggeringly powerful electromagnets. Dmitri, one of my colleagues, (a Real Madrid supporter) accidentally switched his on in the car park a couple of months ago and I had to have all the electrics on the Prowler replaced.
‘I’m not interested in your narrator,’ says Jodi. ‘He’s cold, cynical and chauvinistic. And what’s all this football nonsense about? It’s not going to engage your female readers. This is a man’s story.’
My reservations began three weeks ago. There had been sharp frosts for several days. It can be bitterly cold in this part of the country in January, temperatures frequently dropping to as low as minus twenty. I was having to get up several minutes early to allow time to defrost the windows and the windscreen of the Prowler. I live ten miles miles from the base. The drive to work takes me along a little-used lane, through a small village, with perhaps three houses and a small farm, more of a hamlet really. Thereafter, all traffic will be heading for the base. This was how I realised that I was being followed, rather clumsily I felt, by a driver in a black Apparition. Had the Apparition pulled in to the base, I would not have been suspicious. If the truth be told, the first time it happened, I thought that perhaps the driver was lost. There are, after all, no signposts anywhere nearby, certainly nothing to denote the presence of the base. The base does not even appear on Ordnance Survey maps and the area is a satnav blindspot. However, this happened three mornings in a row. At roughly the same point in the road each time, just past the barn conversion with the immense satellite dish, I noticed the sinister looking black 4 by 4, large as life in my mirrors.
Over the following weekend, the Apparition followed me to the country park, the Prowler dealership (modifications to the satnav), The Whistle Blower public house, and the airport, where I was dropping off my wife, Ingrid. The driver followed at a discreet distance of a hundred metres, but now and then he would tailgate me to let me know he was there. He remained hidden behind the Apparition’s reflective gangster-black windscreen.
Ingrid is a musician. She plays the cello in an internationally acclaimed symphony orchestra and is away from home for long periods. The orchestra seems to spend a lot of time touring Italy and Sicily. ‘I think you’re really a hitman for the mob,’ I joke with her sometimes. They’ve gone to Russia this time. Perhaps she has switched sides. Ingrid’s motives often seem a mystery to me.
While Ingrid is away I use the Eros Escort Agency. I phone them, let them know what sort of arrangement I would like to make, and they send someone round to the house. I ask for Kyla, but on this occasion, I was told she was unavailable. Instead, they sent round a tall busty brunette who called herself Paloma. Paloma looked fantastic in her leather skirt and black stockings, and performed every bit as well as Kyla, but I felt a little uneasy with her and I felt, her with me. Had I been less distracted, I might have been more suspicious of her. It must have been while I was in the bathroom that she placed the discreet listening devices in my shirt collars. Unfortunately, it was several days before I discovered the first of these, during which time I had had several conversations that would have given away critical information about what I was engaged in. I was also followed twice during this time by a midnight blue Silhouette Turbo with blacked-out windows. Once again, not the most discreet vehicle to tail someone with. I formed the impression that whoever was behind it wanted me to know I was being followed.
‘The story is reprehensibly phallocentric,’ says Jodi. ‘Women are here merely as ornamentation. You do realise that all this James Bond stuff went out years ago. You need to move with the times, Luke.’
I do not mention that the new James Bond film is breaking box office records and that he is the most popular fictional character in history, although clearly not herstory. Jodi has obviously made up her mind. In any case, this story is more Neuromancer than 007.’
The more I thought about it, the accident last Tuesday involving the Stealth Diesel and The Subterfuge Nine Eleven seemed stage-managed. I was driving back from some reconnaissance work at the offices of the Dungeness Herald, along the link road, when I came across it. The road had been relatively quiet when suddenly the traffic was backed up a couple of hundred yards. The two shots that grazed the roof of the Prowler seemed to have been more of a warning than an attempt at a direct hit. Because of the accident, the traffic was at a standstill, which would have given a sniper plenty of time to fire more shots, should he have wished to do so. Counting my lucky stars, but not wishing to hang around, I negotiated the debris from the crash and as soon as conditions permitted, I put my foot down.
Over the next few days, I was subjected to a series of anonymous phonecalls. Each time I answered, I was met with silence on the other end and each time the number was withheld. I suppose I could have got one of my techie colleagues to check it out. But until I had a better handle on what was happening, I did not want to cause undue alarm. Even last Friday, when I got home from having a few drinks at The Double Agent, to find a tank outside my house and a large crater in the front garden, I did not completely panic, although this seemed to represent a step up in intimidation tactics. I had been on military training courses dealing with difficult or unexpected situations. As the tank continued to bombard the house, I crept away in the car unobserved. I drove around for a little while, acutely aware that I was over the limit, and decided to stay in a Travelodge. My grey Prowler, which I left in the hotel car park, is for no tangible reason now a red Prowler. Perhaps vehicle re-spraying is an extra service they provide at Travelodge.
Yesterday I opened a manila folder to find something that really did panic me. I was instructed to amend a report of a motor accident that I myself had been involved in a few years ago. The original report relating to the accident had a sentence which read: Luke Stranger (52), a specialist print technician, the driver of the Prowler, was treated for minor head injuries and was later allowed to return home. This was to read: Luke Stranger (52), unemployed, the driver of the other vehicle died later in hospital from head injuries sustained in the accident.
My job doesn’t exist. I do not need to resign. It seems like a good opportunity for a change. I have often fancied the idea of a houseboat in the Hindu Kush. I am packing some things. I hear the front door open and close. I go to the landing at the top of the stairs. Ingrid?…. Ingrid? Is that you? You’re not due back until next week. Why are you pointing that gu……………..
‘What was that all about?’ asks Jodi.
‘Death of the Author. It’s the argument put forward by literary critic Roland Barthes that to give a text an author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text.’
‘You mean that the author’s intentions in creating a text are irrelevant in how the reader will interpret that text.’
‘Except this story really concerns the death of the author.’
‘You always take things too literally. Anyway, I still don’t like it. It’s a man’s story.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved