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By lunchtime, Ronni is beyond exhausted.
Elizabeth’s questions were incredibly thorough, increasingly personal whilst remaining mentally painful. Passwords for the internet and websites on her Macintosh, telephone numbers for friends, even what she’d had for breakfast that morning. The last time she’d had sex had caused some discomfort because she wasn’t sure and had to guess. The day of her last period. The number of contraceptive tablets she’d taken. Pretty much everything that she could remember in the last week, who she’d spoken to, and where she’d been. Nothing was sacred, especially the past, but she made a decent job of being honest whilst refusing to allow those events to be picked apart. Every tiny detail was recorded with efficiency and a smile, and in the end they’d find nothing to suggest she wasn’t perfectly capable.
Once Elizabeth had done, a pretty comprehensive medical was conducted in a small room with a female doctor who seemed impossibly young and very keen to check that everything physical was in decent shape. Instructed to change and run on a treadmill, she’d returned from small block of showers to discover only regulation blue sweats to dress in: only then had it hit her why. After that, there’d been an awkward forty minutes with a Civil Service lawyer. They’d determinedly presented at least half a dozen chances to change her mind: but each time, will remained unwavering.
This choice was made.
The anonymous white space with a single door commands one of the best views of the River she’s ever seen, as Ronni tries not to dwell on what must be done to escape the room and head to her future. As Big Ben strikes 1pm, Moneypenny appears, old fashioned manilla folder in her hand, and invites Ronni to sit opposite her at the small table in the centre of the room.
‘It may come as a surprise to you but we still have your original personnel file from when you were recruited at University. I thought you might like to take a look at it.’
‘Is this part of the assessment?’
Veronica has to ask because everything has become really hard to process, as the past she thought was controlled suddenly sits and taunts on the melamine surface. The history she cannot change, that remains in judgement of current choices.
‘This is the last day you’ll be Veronica Ashby. You’ll be called that name in the process of your training, but when you leave this building the person in this file ceases to exist. I was never given the chance to say goodbye. I think you deserve better.’
‘I didn’t think you liked me.’
‘I have you at a disadvantage: I know everything, as will everyone else in the months that follow, but you’ll be alone. You won’t know who to trust, and that the only reliable barometer you have ultimately is yourself. Of everyone who’s come this far I can tell you this, you are the best equipped to succeed. Take it from someone who knows.’
The combatant is gone, replaced instead by someone who Ronni thinks looks on her now with understanding, quiet moment of revelation. Take it from someone who knows. Q had been quizzed about the women who’d negotiated the process before her and he’d faltered, hesitated briefly, scrabbled to hide behind what Ronni knows now was a lie. What if that untruth was Moneypenny? There is nothing to lose, desire to know suddenly overriding the common sense to stay silent.
‘Why did you step away, Eve?’
‘Because I’m not as curious as you, and I had too much to lose. He’s right, you know. You are very much alike’
There is a glimpse upwards, security camera recording everything, and Ronni knows the woman is rattled, but not by her. Eve can’t make eye contact either and leaves, further disquiet in her wake.
With nothing else as distraction, this history is all she has: opening it to be presented with a picture of Scott on page one and not her? The hole in her chest is desperate and gaping, fear and panic in equal measure, hands shifted under the table and away from the camera, trying to stop herself from losing control. Slowly, all too painfully she brings herself back before closing the file, hands rested on top. His loss doesn’t go away: if she’s going to survive it really does have to be buried deep, until her mind can cope with everything.
Scott Redgrave died a long time ago, and so did the girl he loved.
Inside this folder is the story of a woman who has been praised for whatever she does, considered in the highest terms for discretion and professionalism. With Eve’s pointed stab on her arrival there is the understanding why Q had started referring to her as Mary Sue: unprecedented skill, good graces, inevitably saving the day with her intelligence and ability… she was often just too good. Even when she did screw up there was a determination to turn the situation on it’s head and more often than not to her advantage. ‘No-one has the right to be this perfect,’ Q’d pronounced during her last round of psych tests. ‘You’re going to make the other Marty Sues look bad, and that just won’t do.’
Despite herself, the folder is re-opened, every page scanned: searching for faults, all too aware of what she’s bad at. Male relationships, routine, being frustrated by other’s casual sexism, responding quickly in particularly high-pressure situations. Pages are sorted, putting compliments away and focussing on the things that she’d fallen short at, not wanting to remember herself doing as well as Q claimed. Looking up the light is fading and time is running out: she has no idea of who this person is any more, but it does not matter.
I am going to be a spy until it kills me.
Only then does she again register not being alone in the room. Q stands, staring with genuine concern, closing the door behind him.
‘There is nothing wrong with being good, Veronica.’
‘I didn’t understand what you meant by a Mary Sue, I had to go and look it up. I’ve only ever done my best. That’s all I have. Then when Moneypenny tried to unhinge me with a comment on just that? I get everything’s a test until my designation is confirmed. I know what all this ends up being. I’m not nearly as good as you think I am. I know what I’m lacking.’
‘I am perfectly aware what it is you require, the chance to shine and blossom into what you have craved for so long. Trust me, you are almost there.’
‘I understand all of this is a test from this moment until I hang up my gun. You have trained me brilliantly, and I know there’s still so much to learn. I swear I will not stop being this person until my last breath. There is always room for improvement, and I will do just that.’
‘I shouldn’t have let you hear what I said that day about perfection, I was being flippant and it was unfair. This business has never been for the faint hearted, and yours is particularly strong, despite what you might feel right now. I’m sorry I belittled you, and your confidence in front of Moneypenny tells me your curiosity won’t ever be assuaged by a lie. The truth is coming.’
Q waits, before coming over to the folder, gently taking the empty carcass from the table before re-arranging the pages back into their correct order. He briefly glances up at the corner of the room and there is a nod, slightest of acknowledgements to someone outside the room, and Ronni grasps what he’s doing. He’s turning the cameras off. His gaze then returns to her, whole body language visibly relaxing.
‘Do you know how many people have taken Bereavement since 1980? Seven. Less than ten have made the complete break: most come to this job with their hearts already hardened, grief and loss almost their entire existence. No-one said this would be easy. Many would consider this level of sacrifice as insane, especially from someone with such an apparently stable personal life. Of course, you and I know differently. I’ve been your biggest advocate in all of this Veronica and let me assure you that whatever happens, that is not going to change.’
‘Thank you, Q. Moneypenny said I’d be alone, but I think she’s reckoned without your desire to see me succeed.’
‘Needless to say, two other people have been instrumental in convincing the powers that be that you were more than capable of fulfilling the task ahead of you. Tanner’s report was particularly glowing. You should take a chance to thank him when you can. As to your other supporter? In time, I suspect he will thank you for taking the number and holding it with a confidence he’ll do well to respect. I believe that you’re capable of even more than you’ve achieved so far. Now just ensure you don’t lose your focus. Be yourself, Ronni, the one that wished it wasn’t just Scott who understood. You are capable of so much if you do.’
The use of his name, by Q of all people, stops the breath in her lungs. He put the photograph in the file as a reminder, and as he hands the small black and white to her now there is a moment of true connection. He wants to allow me to remember, but knows ultimately I must forget.
You’re good, you really are. But I’m better.
‘Nobody knows about that picture except me. Sometimes, a memory really does matter. Keep him safe Ronni, and make him proud.’
‘It’s okay Q. The past belongs in my heart, I don’t need to do this for him any more. This is my journey both to start and finish.’
As she returns the picture to the file Q smiles, quietly nodding assent: above them a red glow reappears in the room’s corner, and Ronni knows she just passed her final test. Both history and assessor are gone, timed to perfection as Big Ben sounds five. It takes until the quarter chime before the door opens again and Eve re-appears, bottle of water in hand. Ronni tries her best to not look desperate, but is fairly certain she fails.
‘I am so sorry, I’ve suddenly remembered we’ve not fed you at all today, you must be starving. You’re probably thirsty too…’
Ronni tries not to snatch when offered but knows she is dehydrated, opening the lid and drinking greedily: she looks to Eve who nods, taking this as permission to finish the half litre bottle in one hit. The room swims, and Ronnie only grasps something is wrong when Eve catches her as she slips off the chair and onto the floor. There was a very good reason they never fed her, that sedatives would work faster on an empty stomach: she’s lying on the floor, desperately trying to stay awake and failing.
The last thing remembered as she passes out are three pairs of feet.