On an ordinary sort of Wednesday, it's 9:03 am, and Arthur has just arrived at work. Don't worry, he isn't late; he doesn't have set hours, and aside from swiping his identity card at the security gates, which gets logged somewhere, he doesn't punch in. Arthur works in the same building as MI:5, but he's not a spy. He'd be an awful field agent, and he bores too readily to work behind the scenes of espionage, which can be dreary. Unfortunately, Arthur's department must be a closely-guarded secret, and thus is MI:5 involved, if a bit loosely.
None of the people he sees on his way in - all spies, most MI:5, although some MI:6 - give him much of a second glance on a day-to-day basis. They see what they like to see: an ordinary man, well-dressed though poncy and old-fashioned. He wears a charcoal waistcoat, tailored to make his slight figure seem slightly thicker, which the agents probably think is because he is vain. He sports a crisp white shirt, which is wrinkled, which the agents probably think is because he lives on his own and cannot be arsed to do his own ironing like most men his age (whatever it is they think his age is; he looks young, mid-twenties in appearance, but in order to work at a place like this, they likely estimate it closer to mid-thirties and suppose that we can't all be so lucky to have won the genetic lottery the way Arthur has). He sports a bowtie today. This is uncharacteristic of him - it's usually a dark-coloured tie, full Windsor knot. The bowtie is a shocking bright red. This perplexes the agents thoroughly. Perhaps Arthur has a date? They look on and see short hair, closer to brown than blond but not easily fit into either category. It is artfully tousled and layered. Arthur's hair has begun to look better and better. It must be a date. The loser of the current office football pool (probably Ronald; who in their right mind picks Crystal Palace to win the Premier League) has to tell Arthur that if he wants to impress this date, that waistcoat has got to go, unless his date is a Doctor Who fan; in which case, he should opt for pin-stripes.
In actual fact, it is this: Arthur likes the look of waistcoats but has forgotten that tailoring is a thing he can pay someone to do for garments that aren't a substantially different size. Charcoal was the colour that was on sale - well, actually, it was between charcoal and powder blue, and eugh, no. (Alright, Arthur is a little vain.) This is the same shirt he wore yesterday, and he forgot to change out of it before he fell asleep in it. Ordinarily Arthur would wear another shirt, but it is his last clean shirt and he won't have the time to bother with a laundromat until Saturday. He has instead come to the conclusion that since he only owns white shirts, nobody will notice if this is the same one as yesterday's white shirt. That also explains the bowtie - classic misdirection, which works on most people who are not MI:5 agents. (Arthur has not had a date in years. They always ask 'so what do you do for a living?' and Arthur is so poor a liar that his obvious deception has a tendency to end dates prematurely.) Barbers ask him the same (there must be something on his face that screams 'please, talk to me!' when none of Arthur ever wants anything remotely like that) and so Arthur had grown accustomed to cutting his hair himself, but has recently found one that doesn't pry. This barber doesn't speak any English. Arthur is very happy with him. Today, the wind has styled his hair. Boreas is not very good, but lucky for Arthur, that's the style of the times these days and so he is accidentally chic. And also accidentally looking a bit like the Tenth Doctor. Arthur doesn't watch TV.
Arthur and the other MI:5 agents don't talk. Occasionally he'll make eye contact and give a brusque nod, and in response to "Wotcher, Arthur?" he dutifully replies, "Hullo, Len, cheerio." Now, if one of the MI:5 agents has wondered idly to themselves, where does this man with the rather aggressive eyebrows work, because it isn't my department, then either they have never bothered with any legwork upon the matter, or it was shut down very abruptly by the people who hired Arthur as consultant. They are much better liars than Arthur is. It's their job to be.
Arthur continues along until he reaches the lift. He presses the button, waits a cursory moment, and when the lift arrives, he steps in. As the doors close, he adjusts his waistcoat, tugging the material down, and squares his shoulders. This is the last that MI:5 will see of him until quite late at night.
Even this, is not the beginning. But it perhaps gives us a good approximation of just what Arthur's line of work is. We can't tell you, or we'd have to kill you.
At 9:10, Arthur has reached the third sub-level. He walks to the end of the hall where he opens a fire-escape door and descends one level. At this level there is a door with no handles and another card-reader. He swipes a second identity card, and the door opens to admit him, then shuts firmly behind him once again.
We would love to tell you that this is where Arthur's day truly begins, that upon stepping through the threshold of this door, this secret club, he finds friendly faces. We could say that he has friends here and they make merry and sometimes they go out after hours to the pubs and drink a pint or three in the easy cameraderie of collaborative workplace suffering that replaces friend-making after one has left school. We could say that he is on decent terms with the people who drew up his contract and now sign his paycheques; or that if he isn't, then at least he has compatriots with which to commiserate and make snide remarks to around a water cooler. People he eats his homemade lunch with. Friends. Acquaintances. Other human beings who have recognisable faces and names that he knows.
But he has none of these things.
Don't feel too sorry for Arthur. He has never had a regular job. He doesn't know these things are missing.
His banality is nevertheless lonely. This is so by construction.
The way it works is, Arthur is given a neat brown folder. Sometimes they are small, sometimes they are large. The size of the folder does not correlate to the work that needs to be done. He performs the work required of him, then he writes a report about it, places it within the folder, returns the folder and never sees it again, and then he receives something new. Another folder. One after another.
Occasionally, as the case calls for it, he is partnered. He knows of a Norwegian, and a Romanian, and at the moment there is also a girl from Belarus interning with them.
Perhaps now you know what kind of story this might be.
Arthur has worked with these people, and naturally they get along for the sake of the work, but they are not friends. They are given folders, just as Arthur is given folders, and they work on the cases within, just as he does. They have this in common. But seeking commonalities is pointless. They also all breathe air and drink water. They have that in common, too, and these traits are about as relevant to their connection. They submit their joint report, sign off on it, return the file, and their paths cross thereafter only if they are partnered again. If - not when.
At precisely 2:31 in the afternoon, Arthur finishes the work on his current case. He goes to the kitchen to begin making himself a cup of tea - it's about that time. In the time between when he fills up the scale-lined electric kettle with London's notoriously hard water and the time that the water boils and the kettle shuts off automatically, he has finished his report for the case. He prints this off, staples it, punches holes in the sides to thread it onto the filing prongs, and closes the folder. He returns the folder to the usual place, which is a book return box that may have once belonged to a library. He retrieves his tea, dresses it as he likes (no sugar, splash of milk - if there is any still alive in the refrigerator) and returns to his desk. He's idly checking his email when another folder presents itself in his inbox.
Nobody has dropped it off. There's no pneumatic tube. It was not electronically delivered. Arthur looked away from his letter tray, to his tea, and then back again, and the physical folder had simply appeared there. This is a regular occurrence.
This folder is very thin, which is not a regular occurrence.
The time is now 2:49. Arthur's mouth twists. This could be quite long, and Arthur's not sure he's ready for that. But a job's a job.
He takes a sip of tea, and then he opens the folder.