The interview room is small and impersonal, and M appears decidedly uncomfortable sitting in it.
A laptop is the man’s current focus, which he has been staring at for some time, lost in thoughts Ronni knows better than to interrupt. She waits quietly, hair tied neatly in a ponytail, pale grey trouser suit not keeping body quite warm enough. There is a sense that something is wrong, they’re still here and not back in M’s office: her scores are impeccable, so there’s going to be something else that’s not been factored into the equation. The question now becomes whether they will tell her exactly what it is or, as was the case last time, she’ll simply be sent away.
Finally M shifts focus from the screen, considered appraisal and Ronni is reminded oddly of her father. It could almost be disapproval in his demeanour, but because of what?
‘Agent Ashby, these are probably the best results I’ve seen from an assessment exercise in some time. You are to be congratulated not simply for your improvement on last year’s scores but for a clear determination to be noticed as a candidate for Active Designation.’
The compliment is a sweetener, bolstering for disappointment. Ronni knows that if she wants this man to look past the numbers, she’ll need to show her strength in a one to one situation.
‘May I speak freely, Sir?’
‘You certainly don’t need to ask me for permission, Ashby.’
‘My scores were good last year, but that wasn’t enough, and I suspect by the amount of time you’ve spent trying to find a way to open this conversation tactfully you’re not seeing the results as the problem you have with me.’
‘Your perception serves you well, which should not be as much of a surprise as it is. You are a genuine asset Ashby, and I will admit that your enthusiasm to join this programme… well, at least to me it creates a quandary.’
‘May I ask why, Sir?’
‘You’re the oldest of three children, correct?’
The question is unexpected, leaving Ronni briefly scrabbling for a response.
‘Yes, Sir… I have two younger sisters. Both are married, with one pregnant. Can I ask why this is relevant?’
M’s expression shifts, impossible to read for what she’d guess is good reason. Mallory is the modern face of the Service, yet being touted as a way back to the more traditional values that made MI6 the envy of intelligence agencies worldwide. She is also well aware he has to treat her as an equal: the Civil Service has obligations that stretch far beyond the Old Boys Network of the past. However, there are still echoes of those days that remain seemingly impossible to erase…
‘Veronica, your family is clearly an important part of your life. I find myself wondering just how much you would be prepared to sacrifice in order to be placed on Active Designation as a result.’
‘With respect, sir, my family are a part of my life I would have no trouble detaching from.’
‘That’s quite an easy thing to say, but I can assure you that the reality is considerably more challenging.’
She’d never even made it to M’s office last time, it had been a woman in a suit who she couldn’t name who smiled almost sadly and relayed that there were ‘elements of this resume that required work before reapplication would be considered.’ She’d always assumed it was her physical fitness that had been in question. Now she grasps that’s the least of her problems, and understands what is being asked. Q had reinforced the point when she’d pressed him at lunch months previously, but suddenly the words need to issue from this man’s mouth.
‘Your discretion and professionalism are without question. I am well aware that absolutely no-one in your family has ever been considered as a security risk. However, Active Designation is not a world where normal rules apply, even more so should you fulfil the supplementary entrance requirements to proceed. Our best applicants are at an advantage already over you, one that would not be easy to match in your present circumstances.’
He won’t say the phrase, Ronni grasps, suppressing a smile that suddenly seems out of place considering the serious nature of the context: never having to think about the possibility in front of a potential boss before, she’d have no trouble in doing so now. The initial reaction isn’t so hard to swallow. No more weddings. An end to Christmases at home, being an Aunt to any potential nieces or nephews. Goodbye to phone calls or surprise food parcels.
No more family life ever again with her genetic parents or offspring.
Voluntary Bereavement. She’d heard the term first as a joke, in a briefing, from a Field Agent who she knows now was probably a 00, calling it ‘the best way to simplify your life.’ She grasped the irony of that statement when Q confirmed it was a mandatory requirement to proceed with her career, but never dwelt on the consequences because that’s how she’d survived until now. A simpler existence, new start. The most terrible of prices to pay.
Your life: ended, and then created again anew.
M’s discomfort remains apparent, but he continues regardless with what Ronni can’t help but feel is a pre-prepared speech for her benefit.
‘I cannot fault these scores, Ashby, they’re practically perfect. You’ve done everything that the Department has asked of you, and more, but the final reality of the journey to 00 status requires a sacrifice, that proves ultimately that you are indeed the right woman for the task. Some may consider it barbaric, but almost 60 years of metrics have proven that this method delivers the type of individual capable of surviving the rigours this position presents.’
‘Q Branch have provided me with all the requirements I’d need to fulfil in order to proceed, Sir. I am well aware of what is being asked of me.’
‘Despite what the politically correct lobby may think, there are a number of very good reasons why we have so few female applicants that have ever been placed into Active Designation. Those in secure families, with commitments and ties… we understand that this is often simply asking too much. Unless we introduce compulsory conscription to the equation, that’s not likely to change.’
‘You are of course intimating that I’d have to accept Voluntary Bereavement to proceed?’
M’s eyes widen at Ronni’s casual use of the term, correct nerve both located and hit first time. It’s really easy to understand why so many would fall at this last hurdle. Easier still to grasp why the service appealed to those with the minimum amount of personal baggage. Ronni had never fitted the profiles since Grammar School, yet here she was, ready to move forward.
She refuses to break eye contact with the older man and watches his expression alter, soften in her appraisal. I just asked you to kill me so I can take this job. I’m completely serious. Sitting here, in front of the person who would be her ultimate superior officer, the choice seems deceptively simple, but she can’t be seen to be making such a quantum shift without reasoned reflection.
Please, give me the opportunity that I crave.
‘I couldn’t possibly comment, Ms Ashby, suffice it to say I’d personally need to believe you’d considered all the options available to you before we process your application further.’
‘Theoretically, how long would I have to come to a decision to ensure I’ll be included in this cycle?’
M’s face finally breaks, slightest hint of a smile on thin lips. He must know she would be an absolute boon to the Service at 00, but still Ronni sees it: he cannot believe she’d give up her life to do so. They needed women without commitments or the desire to begin families. He didn’t like to be the sexist, but someone had to do it, something his predecessor had taught him was an inconvenient truth in the modern world. If Ronni voluntarily accepted this life, he’d be amazed. She’d make that an emotion he’d not only feel, but regret he ever considered to begin with.
‘I’d need to be told personally within forty-eight hours. In my office, in Millbank. I want proof that you’re genuinely serious. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how that is delivered.’
The man rises suddenly, and Ronni can’t be sure but thinks that maybe he’s been rattled, just a touch, by her intentions. As he leaves, she can’t help the smile she knows Q will be watching on a screen somewhere, as he always does.
The boss refuses to believe I’ll do this. We’ll have to fix that as a matter of priority.