The Catechism of Ms. O

The Catechism of Ms. O

The Catechism of Ms. O 1920 1280 Philippa East

They call me in on unofficial business. I know quite well what that means. So from Grosvenor Road, through a drizzle of rain, I take the steps to the underground levels. Beneath Vauxhall Bridge are the basement rooms, long grey walls and stains on the floor. Cavanaugh is there to usher me in. He shakes my hand, man-to-man, though decides he won’t stay. Not his thing, he explains, never was.

I loosen my tie and unroll my canvas bag along the workbench. I have my own set of tools these days, carefully selected in my style. One by one my implements appear: the pliers, the wrench, the bottle of disinfectant; the scissors, the suture thread, the clamp. I turn up my shirt sleeves and walk my fingers over the hooks and handles, weighing my options. Behind me, Alif is giving off muffled grunts.

‘Now now,’ I say.

In the spaces down here, old memories echo. Not much escapes these soundproofed walls. Meanwhile, Alif’s here because he has some things to tell me. I’m sure he wants to get it over with quickly. But as Ms O. always said: it’s good to wait.

I choose my first tool and pull up a chair.

< >

In these rooms I was apprenticed. Daily, at eight, Ms O. would be waiting, grey tweed skirt and violent blonde hair. We kept a copy of her statement to hand, for reference, laid out next to her kid-skin gloves. To begin with we used a dummy, a pale cast-off from some drab department store. But Ms O. was a devotee of first-hand learning. That had been her own schooling, after all. When the mannequin’s arm fell off a third time, I had to concede she had a point. I made a show of my indecision, pacing the basement while she tinkered with a pearly earring. In truth I was dissembling. I’d been waiting days for her to ask.

Week two, she put it to me: ‘In the end, they all talk. Why?’

‘Fear,’ I hazarded. At this point she had me backwards over a trestle-table.

‘Wrong.’ Ms O. adjusted her eye patch and plucked out a few more of my hairs. ‘Fear would hardly break anyone.’

< >

The chair legs screech and slide against the floor. I can’t see Alif’s eyes but I suspect they are rolling all over the place. ‘You’ve been sent to me specially,’ I say. ‘It’s best if you try to co-operate.’

Alif makes a clicking noise in his throat, like his tongue’s got stuck down there. Considerately, I get up and remove the gag. A gob of blood falls from his mouth and onto the floor, and I remove the mess with a few baby-wipes. Ms O. was always a stickler for a clean workspace.

‘You are Alif M.,’ I continue.

He shakes his head: a bad move. To deny what is blatantly true does no-one any favours.

I clear my own throat. This is a delicate moment. Very gently, I apply the pads to his left elbow. Alif roars like a maniac. And I’m only getting started.

I try to keep things simple. ‘You’ve put many lives at risk. Your own included. It would be better for everyone if you gave up what you know.’

Alif huffs blood and snot out of his nose. He’s angry more than anything, I think: this isn’t how he meant it to be. But Intelligence moves in mysterious ways, even he should know that by now. I give the voltage switch a nudge.

With a few notable exceptions, they do all crack in the end.

< >

Ms O.’s resistance to torture was legendary. She’d returned from Phnom Penh with mutilations even Forensics were at a loss to document. Her lover (so the rumours went) never made it out. They awarded her an epaulette star, and eventually she wrote her own statement of events, one finger at a time, on the typewriter in her Kensington apartments. When copies were distributed throughout HQ, only I read to the end. After that, Ms O. soon had me under her bedraggled wing. For four glorious months we laboured together. She taught me everything I know.

Week five she asked me again: ‘In the end they all talk. Why?’

‘Pain,’ I speculated, my face a bean-bag against the floor.

‘Wrong.’ She pulled down my shirt and tucked it back into my trousers. ‘Pain is little more than sensation.’

< >

For the next hour or so, I play marimba up and down Alif’s spine. He welds his teeth together to stop any wily words escaping and by the end he’s weeping like a baby, tears and grime all over the place. Not at all the impression he wanted to give. Patiently I remove the blindfold and re-tie a fresh, dry one.

We try again.

‘It was you they hired to set the bomb. Perhaps at the time you didn’t realise, a nice boy like you. But think now of all those women and children.’

Alif pretends not to care.

< >

Week eleven, we lunched in Mayfair. The dress she wore was a backless number, tight as a thumbscrew, red as a scream. A sight for sore eyes, undeniably. She ordered oysters, nothing but oysters, raw and unadorned. The little forks that came with them delighted us both. I must have eaten a dozen of the things.

That afternoon, she led me along her rows of instruments, instructing me on the merits of each. At the end was a single sewing needle, near invisible in its smallness. Juices shifted in my stomach as she held it up to the fluorescent lights.

‘Pin-pricks on fingers hurt so little,’ she said, ‘but the pupil is a hole running straight to the brain.’

My gullet swilled: an ominous feeling. She wiggled the needle and it glinted at me. That eye patch – I might have known. My veneration welled like seaweed; I clenched my jaw. She tipped her head, looking thoughtful. ‘Though an oyster fork could have worked just as well.’

Well, that was it. I staggered to the basement corner and disgorged the slippery pile. Admiring my contortions, she asked: ‘In the end they all talk. Why?’

I flailed, weak as a pre-term. ‘Humiliation?’ The oysters were almost all up by then.

‘I hardly think so,’ she said, kindly handing me a towel.

< >

I set the shock machine to thirty-minute intervals and leave it to run overnight. Before I head to bed I turn off all the lights, so Alif won’t be otherwise disturbed.

< >

Week thirteen, I received new instructions. Cavanaugh himself had countersigned the order.

‘She is planning to defect,’ he murmured, outlined against his tall office windows. ‘Knowing what she knows, how can we just stand by?’

His back was to me; he couldn’t see my face. It took everything I had to control myself. When he turned, the stars on his shoulders glinted. Three stars, of course, and it didn’t go higher than that. He asked me to sit down and he talked to me at length. When he’d said all that he needed, he eased a pistol across the wide desk towards me, thoughtfully wrapped in a pale blue handkerchief.

Eventually, she’d warned, they all talk, and alright, she’d never claimed to be anything different. I tried to remind myself of that.

Week fifteen and I’d been upside-down for twelve hours straight. She hadn’t laid a finger on me in all that time and the suspense was killing me. Come midnight, she undid the ropes and slid me gently to the floor. ‘Think now,’ she said. ‘Eventually, they all talk. Why?’

I crawled into her lap like a baby. ‘Loneliness. Exhaustion.’

Her arms wrapped around me. ‘Wrong,’ she lullabied. ‘Wrong.’

< >

In the morning Alif and I are both wide awake, although I’m probably more rested than he.

‘We’ve got men standing by to dismantle the circuits,’ I say. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’ The clichés! We are a thought experiment come true. Alif’s head lolls forwards, jerks up. He’s breathing like a punctured bull and hardly knows which way is up. We labour on, lines converging at the cracking point. He longs for release from the bind he’s in but the ways out are few and narrow, and Alif is stubborn as a mule.

I dress his wounds as best I can and suture his scalp with four crooked stitches. I disinfect my tools for the final ascent and line them up in order, right down to the tiny sewing needle.

He yawns, or is he trying to scream? I try to make it easy on him.

‘Come now,’ I say. ‘A little grid reference is all we need.’

< >

The day before I shot her, Ms O. gave me a lesson in pressure points.

‘Singe them in the right way,’ she said, ‘and the pain is excruciating.’

To demonstrate, she ran a crimson fingernail along the tendons of my arm. As it passed by, each of my hairs stood up on end. Then it was my turn. I drew a palm across the skin of her thigh, her flesh rippling in the passing wake.

That night I walked beside her along the bank of the Thames. The moon was rising, the tide was high, she paused under a lamppost to watch a tug-boat slide past. If things had been different, I might have gone up and kissed her, taken her hand, sent four months’ work and our whole country down the tubes. But by now I was starting to see. I levered my crutches and hobbled on.

In the morning, we returned to the basement where I pinned her upright against the wall. Five past eight, she’d found the gun, but I had got to it first. Her one eye watched me now like a hungry blackbird, her anticipation steady as a vice.

‘In the end,’ I accepted, ‘they all talk.’

The pain I felt then, there was nothing like it. With every care, I took aim at her temple.

< >

In the rough-and-tumble of the final assault, Alif falls from his chair. Little pieces of him come loose but I can’t stop to reattach them. He can’t let go, not quite, not yet. We’re both panting with the effort, striving for the moment when he can admit defeat. The climax of our endeavours is near, I can tell. We turn this way and that, straining for the summit, but with every direction he disagrees. I drag him on towards the peak but all he can say is, No, no, no. Still, by now he should know I won’t fail him. I wind the screws to the tops of their threads.

< >

Even with the gun at her head, Ms O. set out her catechism one last time.

‘In the end, they all talk. Why?’

After pain and fear, loneliness and despair, what remained? She must have seen by now that I knew. She’d led me to the very brink, made me feel every bone-aching inch of it, and even with so much at stake the urge to confess was torturous indeed. I twisted the gun against her skull. How easy it would be to declare those two pronouns, make a clean breast of it, and let her go free. But I saw now how the whole world was poised upon this and in the end Ms O. had taught me better than that. I swallowed the spare words like swallowing my heart and struck the unbreakable point within.

‘Love,’ I said releasing the safety catch, the trigger soft beneath my finger. ‘Love.’

Her smile broke forth like a sunbeam. ‘Correct!’ she cried as the hammer clicked. ‘Correct.’

< >

Something cracks. Something gives. Hallelujah. At last we are both agreed. Alif grinds his empty gums and wiggles broken fingers. One by one, the co-ordinates drop from his leathery tongue. I lift the telephone and put through the call. The men on stand-by are glad to hear from me. The clock sure was ticking, they say.

I step outside and light a cigarette. The Thames is oily in the sunlight. It was a clever test she set for me, with her old friend Cavanaugh. When she rose from the dead intact, unscathed, the whole edifice exploded and reformed around me. The bullet was a blank – all part of the plan – and I’d crossed the threshold, my own star waiting on the other side.

Sometimes, even now, she returns to see me, her old apprentice. Every so often, on days like these. At the peak of Vauxhall Bridge a dove-grey figure stands, three stars shining now on each shoulder. Her hair, though, is as unmistakable as ever. Across the water, she raises a white hand. I recall the mannequin, the oysters, her touch. Lungs full, almost, I flick my cigarette – an arc across the sky, a salutation:

To love and the catechism of the great Ms O.

Header photograph © Joel Clements.

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