My life as a spy; or, friendship for finalists

It’s hard to find something to write about these days. Especially something that does not involve consoling third years about the terrible tragedy that has befallen them all: the end of university and the prospect of finding something else to do (I’m sure it’s not going to be all that bad). No, these last couple of months have been pretty quiet. I know a lot about AIDS in the 1980s, about cowboys, violence and America, not nearly enough about the philosophy of literature, and very little about what everyone else has been doing.

I only keep track of my housemates through the state of the carpets. We have a policy against vacuuming, which means that you can tell who’s been hanging around by the imprints they leave in close to a year’s worth of accumulated dust. Lately, there have mostly been small, fawn-like tracks – a sure sign that Holly’s been sneakily watching the Jeremy Kyle show again – and a few man-size feet shapes outlined in cigarette ash: Jack’s back. Footsteps on my ceiling mean Sophie is home and hearing the Beatles across the hallway means Rebecca’s in. A full fridge means five housemates co-existing and over the weeks I’ve developed a sense of the nuances of fullness which means that, at any one time, I can tell you how many people are at home, even if I haven’t physically seen them.

The other day, I realised that I don’t have a relationship with my housemates; instead, I spy on them. Actually classing this as a realisation is perhaps a bit rich; it’s more of a reframing on my part and one which is well worth it. Being a spy is much cooler than being antisocial. Although I suppose that only works if the reason you’re being antisocial in the first place is not just because of the fact that you’re a spy. I’m being antisocial because it’s finals time.

The spy in The Lives of Others, a spy film (ish) that I saw recently, is very sad, lonely, bitter and twisted until he stops being a spy. In fact, he never really gets over the whole spy experience. Conclusion: being a spy is only a good idea if it’s just for fun, to take your mind off a duller reality, an alternative to actual socialising when extraneous circumstances rule it out.
I’ve been practising. Some tips: invest in lace curtains which you can see through – they’re like domestic one-way mirrors. Also, flicking them feels distinctly spy-like – a classic move. Thick glasses will make people think you can’t see when you take them off, and encourage them to let their guard down and do telling things while you’re around. Oh, and a trench-coat you can hunch under, maybe in grey.

A good place to start is the relevant letterbox. Post tells you loads. For example, if someone gets Men’s Health delivered, you can make certain assumptions. Depending on how committed they are, Men’s Health readers range from those who get up at 2am to drink protein shakes to those who spend all their time and effort trying to trick girls into having sex with them. Men’s Health reveals the little known fact that, if you’re a boy, you don’t ever actually like girls, you just convince them that you do so that they’ll give you right of way on the slip road to the sex autobahn. Extra surveillance for those types. A step up from noting the type of post your subject receives would be actually reading their mail. I haven’t gone that far yet. I think steaming envelopes is for the career spy only.

The library is a good place to combine recreational spying with more productive behaviour. Library desks can be very informative. The type of books, how many there are, the neatness of note-taking – it’s all wordless communication. The other day I saw one girl who’d brought in her own desk tidy. (I think she might get a first.) She had a paper shredder as well, that she periodically fed notes into. If you see her, steal from her out-tray before she gets around to disposal time, ok? Here’s betting genius is getting torn up by that stubborn little metal box. At the other extreme, unless this person is doing a media studies course, reading Heat is not going to help, even if you are reading it in the library.

If frivolous spying gets you hooked, I suggest you contact MI5. They recently carried out a big operation which involved sneaking into a storage facility and exchanging half a tonne of fertiliser for half a tonne of cat litter. Actually, I wonder if it was still half a tonne – the equivalent volume of cat litter might not be as heavy, or perhaps it’s heavier, as the fertilizer. This is the kind of stuff you’d know if you were a career spy.

I don’t recommend it though; my idea is definitely to get back to socialising – to wash that spy right outta my hair, along with the 1980s, cowboys and philosophy. Spying might be more fun, but health-wise it’s the poor-man’s alternative to conversation. I can’t wait to rejoin the madding crowd.

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