Let’s rewind a week:
I’m pecking away at a quality assessment form on my office PC when there’s a knock at the door. I glance up. It’s Bill from Security. “Are you busy right now?” he asks.
“Um.” My heart just about skips a beat. “Not really . . . ?”
Bill is one of our regular security officers: a former blue-suiter, salt-and-pepper moustache, silver comb-over, but keeps trim and marches everywhere like he’s still in the military. “It’s about your Christmas shift,” he says, smiling vaguely and hefting a bunch of keys the size of a hand grenade. “I’m supposed to show you the ropes, y’know? Seeing as how you’re on overnight duty next week.” He jangles the key ring. “If you can spare half an hour?”
My heartbeat returns to normal. I glance at the email on my computer screen: “Yeah, sure.” It’s taken me about five seconds to cycle from mild terror to abject relief; he’s not here to chew me out over the state of my trainers.
“Very good, sir. If you’d care to step this way?”
From Bill, even a polite request sounds a little like an order.
“You haven’t done the graveyard shift before, have you sir? There’s not a lot to it—usually. You’re required to remain in the building and on call at all times. Ahem, that’s within reason, of course: toilet breaks permitted—there’s an extension—and there’s a bunk bed. You probably won’t have to do anything, but in the unlikely event, well, you’re the night duty officer.”
We climb a staircase, pass through a pair of singularly battered fire doors, and proceed at a quick march along a puce-painted corridor with high wired-glass windows, their hinges painted shut. Bill produces his keyring with a jangling flourish. “Behold! The duty officer’s watch room.”
We are in the New Annexe, a depressing New Brutalist slab of concrete that sits atop a dilapidated department store somewhere south of the Thames: electrically heated, poorly insulated, and none of the window frames fit properly. My department was moved here nearly a year ago, while they rebuild Dansey House (which will probably take a decade, because they handed it over to a public-private partnership). Nevertheless, the fittings and fixtures of the NDO’s office make the rest of the New Annexe look like a futuristic marvel. The khaki-painted steel frame of the bunk, topped with green wool blankets, looks like something out of a wartime movie—there’s even a fading poster on the wall that says CARELESS LIPS SINK SHIPS.
“This is a joke. Right?” I’m pointing at the green-screen terminal on the desk, and the huge dial-infested rotary phone beside it.
“No sir.” Bill clears his throat. “Unfortunately the NDO’s office budget was misfiled years ago and nobody knows the correct code to requisition new supplies. At least it’s warm in winter: you’re right on top of the classified document incinerator room, and it’s got the only chimney in the building.”
He points out aspects of the room’s dubious architectural heritage while I’m scoping out the accessories. I poke at the rusty electric kettle: “Will anyone say anything if I bring my own espresso maker?”
“I think they’ll say ‘that’s a good idea,’ sir. Now, if you’d care to pay attention, let me talk you through the call management procedures and what to do in event of an emergency.”
* * *
The Laundry, like any other government bureaucracy, operates on a 9-to-5 basis—except for those inconvenient bits that don’t. The latter tend to be field operations of the kind where, if something goes wrong, they really don’t want to find themselves listening to the voicemail system saying, “Invasions of supernatural brain-eating monsters can only be dealt with during core business hours. Please leave a message after the beep.” (Supernatural? Why, yes: we’re that part of Her Majesty’s government that deals with occult technologies and threats. Certain abstruse branches of pure mathematics can have drastic consequences in the real world—we call them “magic”—by calling up the gibbering horrors with which we unfortunately share a multiverse [and the platonic realm of mathematical truth]. Given that computers are tools that can be used for performing certain classes of calculation really fast, it should come as no surprise that Applied Computational Demonology has been a growth area in recent years.)
My job, as Night Duty Officer, is to sit tight and answer the phone. In the unlikely event that it rings, I have a list of numbers I can call. Most of them ring through to duty officers in other departments, but one of them calls through to a special Army barracks in Hereford, another goes straight to SHAPE in Brussels—that’s NATO’s European theatre command HQ—and a third dials direct to the COBRA briefing room in Downing Street. Nobody in the Laundry has ever had to get the Prime Minister out of bed in the small hours, but there’s always a first time: more importantly, it’s the NDO’s job to make that call if a sufficiency of shit hits the fan on his watch.
I’ve also got a slim folder (labelled TOP SECRET and protected by disturbing wards that flicker across the cover like electrified floaters in the corners of my vision) that contains a typed list of codewords relating to secret operations. It doesn’t say what the operations are, but it lists the supervisors associated with them—the people to call if one of the agents hits the panic button.
I’ve got an office to hang out in. An office with a bunk bed like something out of a fifties Carry On film about conscript life in the army, a chimney for the wind to whistle down (the better to keep me awake), a desk with an ancient computer terminal (shoved onto the floor to make room for my laptop), and a kettle (there’s a bathroom next door with a sink, a toilet, and a shower that delivers an anemic trickle of tepid water). There’s even a portable black-and-white TV with a cheap Freeview receiver (this is the first year since they discontinued analog broadcasting) in case I feel compelled to watch reruns of The Two Ronnies.
All the modern conveniences, in other words. . . .