In 2010 I was 23 years old and had just moved to London from Manchester, where I had trained as a journalist. I had my dream job, a minor role in a magazine, but it turned out to be a pretty miserable place. My manager was frank about regretting hiring me, and my confidence, which had never been high, plummeted. I was single, my friends were scattered all over town, and I rented a windowless basement room that cost exactly half my monthly salary.
It was on one of these lonely days that a link appeared: MI5 was running a recruiting drive and sent him on a verbal reasoning test that was part of the application process to become an intelligence officer; in other words, a spy.
Spying had never occurred to me as a career, and the only thing I thought when I clicked on the link was that it might be a more interesting use of my lunch break than scrolling through Facebook.
I finished the test within the allotted time and went back to work, checking the prices of the lip glosses we planned to include in the magazine, and didn’t think about it until later that afternoon when I received an email from MI5 inviting me for an evaluation. center next week.
The following months were a series of examinations and interviews in anonymous London buildings, none of which, for obvious reasons, I was allowed to argue with anyone. From a distance it looked like any other graduate hiring process, but of course it wasn’t. MI5 employees have to be totally open about all aspects of their lives to protect them from being blackmailed. They asked me about my sexual preferences and the names of all the people I had slept with, and I had to hand over bank statements. In an interview, a lock of my hair was cut off to test for drugs.
It was all surreal, but I didn’t care. In fact, I found the progressively intrusive hoops I had to go through strangely comforting – they gave my days and weeks a shape and sense of purpose that I lacked. I was lost and felt like someone had found me.
I was living in West London at the time and took the Piccadilly line to work. The train often came from Heathrow, full of commuters, some of whom could be chatty. So I didn’t think of that when the man next to me struck up a conversation one morning. He was a little older, with an accent I couldn’t place and a pleasant but persistent manner.
Where did he live? He asked. As was? How long had he been living there? Was it convenient for my office? Where I worked I was still instinctively cautious: Even at 23 I’d lived long enough to know that interactions with strange men on public transportation, innocent as they were, rarely ended well.
After a couple of stops, he turned to me as the train braked to a stop. “Well, this is me,” he said. “It was nice meeting you, Emma Hughes.”
It wasn’t until the train started moving again that I realized I hadn’t told him my last name.
When I got off the train, I stood on the platform, bursting with adrenaline. Although it was possible that I had glanced at my bag, there was nothing readily visible on me that could have told the man my full name. I remembered a friend’s brother, who had applied for a job at MI6, telling me that they had been approached on the street by a man who spoke their second language, an unusual one. They suspected it was part of the recruitment process, to test how cautious they were.
Had this man followed me? Had they told you to talk to me on the train to find out? What else did he know about me?
For the first time I felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable: I was struck by the full force of the loss of the agency that signed me up to work at MI5. It sounds ridiculous now, but even though I had come up with the idea of people watching for a living, wrapped up in my escape fantasy, I hadn’t given much thought to what it would feel like to be watched. Or have all of my activity monitored, online and offline, and reveal every promising new relationship to my employers before we’re official.
This is not what you want, a voice whispered in my head. This is not the answer.
I never knew who the man was. However, a couple of weeks later, after a final interview, I received a letter from MI5 telling me that I had failed in my background investigation developed, the required security clearance before a job offer. No reason was given and I was told that I could not appeal. It hurt: I felt like I had been abandoned after a whirlwind of romance. But deep down, I was relieved.
My life moved on: I got another job, reconnected with old friends, made new ones. I was able to do things that I could never have done if I had become an intelligence officer: have affairs, dye my hair bright colors, and write a novel. The person I am now would be an absolutely terrible spy. Every time I ride the Piccadilly Line, I am overwhelmingly grateful to have had the opportunity to grow on it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism