I once went into the corner shop outlet of a national chain and tried to buy a four pack of brand lager. I was twenty-two, but a young looking twenty-two, the kind who usually gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The woman behind the counter, an older lady, probably nearing retirement, squinted at me through inch thick glasses and asked me how old I was. I said I was eighteen, as I’d been briefed to, and she smiled and said that was fine, and bagged up the beer for me. Not much of a story in itself, but that old lady probably got a severe reprimand from some pimply area manager the same age as me, once I reported her. They paid me £5 for that job, and I got to keep the beer. This is what it is to be a mystery shopper.
Another time I had to attend the regional office of a building society and go through the motions of setting up a high interest savings account with a recording device taped to my chest. The practicalities of the assignment meant that I had to pretend to be rich, so I wore my cleanest suit, styled my hair to look designer casual and practiced an air of unconcerned prosperity. All of which turned out to be unnecessary, as the manager of building society was disappointingly willing to believe whatever I told him, presumably on the basis that nobody would wander into a building society and go through all the rigmarole of documenting their previous five addresses, just for the fun of it. Pretty soon I forgot all about wearing the wire, and I got quite invested in the role, expanding my story beyond the requirements of the brief.
‘My fiance is in Lebanon at the moment,’ I told the manager, studying my nails and sipping at the macchiato they’d brought me, ‘doing lord knows what to my credit cards. But that’s what you get for dating a…’ I searched for an appropriate role for my fake future wife. ‘…a Kardashian.’
He smiled and nodded.
‘We spent last winter in Versailles, teaching English to the natives and helping them erect crude housing,’ I continued. ‘You’ve got to give back what you can, am I right?’
He continued nodding as I finished my macchiato, and asked if I’d like another.
‘Please,’ I said, passing my mug to his secretary, ‘and a biscotti if you have it.’
I got £30 for that one, a good haul for an hours work, although the tape marks on my chest took about a week to heal. I sent the recording device back to head office with a detailed report, knowing full well that I was James-Goddamned-Bond.
Most of the work was small-time stuff and I didn’t get to use an alias or wear a false moustache as often as I would have liked. The last job I did before cutting the whole industry loose was an investigation into the practices of a driving school, where a dozen or so people per day would go to take their driving theory examination. My mission was to be one of those people, and take my driving theory test- to take the test, and to cheat.
I was pretty excited- this represented a step up in my play-acting job, taking on a role where I was not only lying, but lying about cheating. Thrillingly, I didn’t hold a driving license at the time and hadn’t even taken any lessons; I had no business whatsoever being in this sparse waiting room with these poor anxious people cramming last minute from the The Bumper Book of Traffic Law and Driving for Dummies. There were nine of us there, most about my age or younger, all sick looking beneath the dim strip lighting. When a door opened at the end of the hall, real, natural light blinded us and a figure, invisible in the doorway, invited us to enter. The group moved sluggishly and looked like captives being shepherded between cells, but I sprang up and strolled to the front of the crowd and into the room, settling in a front-row seat where I’d be clearly visible.
The examiner went between tables making sure we all had enough pencils and that nobody needed to use the bathroom, before standing at the front of the room, palms outward in a moment of silent contemplation. He was about two feet in front of me so I had the choice of craning my neck uncomfortably skyward or staring directly at his crotch.
‘Before we begin,’ he said, ‘a few things to run by you.’
He introduces himself as Ian and explains how long we have to complete the test, how to make corrections on the paper, what to do if any of us need to use the bathroom. He makes a joke relating to stopping distances that gets a nervous rumble of laughter from the room but which I don’t understand.
Finally, he tells us we’ll begin exactly on the hour, and all eyes turn to the clock; forty seconds.
‘Oh,’ he adds, ‘and if any of you forgot to leave your phones at the front desk today, please turn them off and hand them to me now.’
I feel for the secret phone in my pocket and get a prickling sensation under my arms.
‘No?’ Ian waits a long moment, making eye contact which each of us in turn. I smile toothily. ‘Then you may begin.’
I wait for my moment, feeling the conspicuous bulge of the wire I’m once again wearing. I’d complained to my handler at the agency about the tape marks, and she asked me why I’d thought it necessary to tape it to my chest in the first place. I didn’t have a good answer to this, besides saying that I’d never seen a crime movie where the narc didn’t have the wire taped to his chest. She advised that I simply put the device in the breast pocket of my shirt, so I’d compromised by hanging it around my neck on a chain.
After five minutes it’s time for me to make my move, but I choke, seemingly unable to do what I’d been sent here to do. Maybe it’s fear of drawing attention to myself during an exam, like all those dreams where you can’t read the paper and then soil yourself. Maybe it was that Ian seemed like a nice guy who didn’t need this kind of hassle. Another five minutes passed and I started to picture the people from the agency sitting outside in a van, listening through headphones and sweating through their wife-beaters, revolvers hanging loose at their sides.
‘Now look, what’s your guy playing at?’ the one who looks like Bogart in Key Largo asks, ‘I thought this rat would squeak?’
‘Jeez I dunno,’ replies the other, played by Robert Mitchum, ‘let’s cut him loose before he brings the heat down on us.’
As their imaginary van tears away, my skin starts to tingle and I stare into the wood grain of my desk. If Ian has noticed, he probably thinks I’m stressed out on account of having so little knowledge of UK transit law. I look up but he’s engrossed in a paperback. According to the clock we’ve had half of our allotted time- half- and I know that it’s now or never. I reach into my pocket very, very slowly, and take out the phone. Ian immediately looks up from his book, like he’s been waiting for this, and he frowns with his head set on one side like a faithful dog that doesn’t understand why you’re shouting at it.
He stands up, crossing over to me in a single stride. The movement distracts the other students and they stop working as Ian hunches to speak softly in my ear. They can’t hear what he’s saying to me. They just see me nod, and put my phone back in my pocket. They see gestures of explanation from him, restrained to reflect the solemnity of the room. They think he looks almost apologetic, confused too and more than a little angry. They see me blink away inexplicable tears, and those who didn’t notice me get the phone out wonder what the hell is going on as I silently pack away my belongings and leave the room.