It is so cold that lungs hurt, five mile run rapidly evolving into a marathon, but Ronni locks herself away, knowing the time she must complete the course within. Whitehall Gardens are covered with a light dusting of frost, February particularly bitter and twisted, winter refusing to release London from its obsessive grip. The flag on the Ministry of Defence is at half mast, latest casualties in Afghanistan still fresh in the memory. She considers their faces, staring back from the paper over breakfast, lives taken in a war that would never be successfully concluded. She is being distracted, and this is not the time for reflection.
Stop worrying about what might be and simply focus on what can.
She travels around the Central London park with music from the wedding in her ears: classic songs from a sheltered childhood, memories of life growing up in the suburbs. Moments surface recalling Grammar school boys in packs, staring at the duckling who never got to fit in. Itchy in her own skin, braces and spots: ignored as plain, focus on prettier girls further down the station platform. Too many days were spent despising what life had become; bitterness and anguish of teenage existence out of her hands, in other people’s control. Every day was a struggle, holding herself inside, never showing the hurt at being teased. Crying in the rain so that no-one knew the truth was simply easier for everybody.
She’d been a late bloomer in every respect, still having to push to catch up.
There’d be no-one to celebrate with if this secured Active Designation, distinct lack of friends or lover to share the excitement. It would just be the knowledge she was good enough, that MI6 would then believe Agent Ashby prepared for the special assignments required to finally finish the course. It’s odd that anyone would do this at all: pondering as the last circuit begins, understanding especially with MI6’s concerted push into equal opportunities and incentive rewards. Why would you want to be a spy any more when the only way anyone would learn of your achievements would be long after your demise?
That might be true for most ranks, but not the one she aspired to.
She can see her target, wrapped up against the cold February air, standing in a duffle coat and woollen hat, and is gripped with a burst of adrenaline, excitement that this is actually the home stretch and she’s smashed the personal best. Small arms and rifle scores were as close to perfect as it was possible to get. Ronni had aced every intelligence quandary they’d thrown at her across the last two days, and knows that the psych results won’t show anything other than a woman who has her mind firmly focussed on the task.
She’s at least twenty yards past Q when it occurs to stop running.
The young man in glasses walks up with a smile, understanding she’s done enough without having to ask, even though he can’t tell her anyway. A hand emerges from coat pocket, fingerless gloves showing a manicure Ronni bets cost more than a week’s worth of her beauty products combined. He shakes his congratulations with customary vigour before hiding extremities and stopwatch away.
‘That was very impressive, Ms Ashby. I think we can reasonably assume you’ve been working hard since the last time our department’s paths crossed.’
‘Thank you Q, I am beginning to understand how hard one has to work to illicit a compliment from anyone north of the river, especially you.’
‘Let me be honest, Ms Ashby: it is easy to admire but takes a certain skill to praise a performance without your recipient being suspicious of motive. You already know how well you have performed, that much is abundantly apparent. After all, if I wasn’t supremely confident of your chances of success, you wouldn’t even be here to begin with.’
Q’s Division was the closest most normal people in MI6 ever got to the big time. The license to kill no longer officially existed, of course: if anyone asked there was the polite yet firm assertion that secret agents were a hangover from the Cold War and that a firm grasp of electronic warfare was a far more efficient and sensible use of tax-payers’ money. That’s why the Government had changed the rules and allowed them to do all the assessments, that when someone from Division came and sat at your side during a break, you were being eyed for a very special brand of consideration. After all, there’s only so much to be achieved with a computer, regardless of this impossibly young man’s assertions to the contrary. However, electronic was the future, and putting the man-management into the Quartermaster’s hands had, so far, shown a marked improvement in both productivity and success.
When Q himself sent Veronica an e-mail asking her to lunch, she knew exactly what he’d want to discuss. Previous inability had been put aside, and again came an opportunity to impress her worth.
Ronni sits quietly fifteen minutes later, Earl Grey in Q’s own Scrabble mug, ten points of warmth as the sweat still cools on a body, shivering in the horribly draughty Barracks Command Centre. Normally they’d send her away after an assessment but this time she’s been asked to stay, and it is making her increasingly nervous. A lot of Ops remained in what had been the service’s emergency HQ after the explosion that destroyed part of Millbank the previous year, because the powers that be still considered having such a public façade as asking for trouble. If she wasn’t here Ronni would have been shoved on a commercial flight to India anyway, but they sent Greg Fisher instead, and the Cambridge Scholar and Army darling was not going to screw up anything. He applied and is also short-listed for Active Designation this time around.
Fisher would be a far better fit for a field agent than she could ever be.
Q finally re-appears from his office, looking distinctly warmer than he was earlier but still wrapped against the cold, holding a memory stick in his hand, and Ronni smiles. That’s why they made her wait: there is a courier task to complete. He hands the data across almost too deliberately, as if the information had particular importance.
‘I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but I have a new member of staff this morning who I wanted to ensure was orientated to the Mainframe as a matter of priority. I think perhaps I should be looking for some new technical staff this year, assuming the budget is capable of supporting anyone else.’
‘I had assumed I was being retained for a reason, as we’ve done everything on the schedule?’
‘Indeed. This contains your results, and needs to be delivered to M. Personally.‘
‘I’m sorry, to whom?’
His emphasis on the last word is a surprise: Ronni knows this too is a test, and the response comes without thinking. Q takes the empty mug from her hand and points to it, creating a deliberate moment of theatre.
‘I am Q, the Quartermaster. You need to deliver this to M, which stands for-‘
‘I’m sorry, but I have no idea who you’re talking about, because the last individual that used the codename ‘M’ passed away in the 1970’s. This department no longer has one senior individual – ‘
‘It’s alright Ashby, you’re off the record.’
Ronni has to remember to breathe as M interrupts, appearing in the Barracks doorway, immaculate in a three piece Saville Row suit. There is a moment of sadness, past illuminated, before only grasped in other people’s conversations. This was the first time she’d seen the new man, not expecting to even get this close. Ronni met his predecessor once, by accident in Whitehall with a liaison in tow, and wished she’d known that M far better before she died. After all, she’d been a woman in a man’s world for a very long time.
M takes the drive from Q’s hand, who leaves without ceremony, and then turns to Ronni, regarding her appearance with what she’s pretty sure is disdain. Even in the cold, the smell of effort is unmistakeable and clearly distasteful to her potential boss.
‘Feel free to take your time in the shower, I could do with a second pot of tea on a morning this cold. We will continue this when you’re more appropriately attired.’