Flash fiction

Death or the classroom. Mohammed had planned to sit in the corner at the back of the classroom. No-one would notice him, and he could contemplate the appropriate method of suicide for a failed intelligence officer. But even this simple plan of hiding had failed. The tables had been arranged in a horseshoe facing the trainer’s desk.

Through the window Mohammed could see a line of tourists heading into the flamboyant structure of the museum. The continual flow of people was a useful cover for the intelligence training school.

He looked at his fellow students. They seemed so young, fresh from university. Their faces had the pose he associated with intelligence analysts. They had even adopted the slight tilt of their heads to show deference to the tutor. Is that what I have to become?

‘We’re going to start with introductions,’ the trainer announced. He had a beard trimmed like a smile. ‘Why are you here?’

Mohammad planned his lie. He had no intention of giving the truth: a family tortured and executed because of his mistakes, his face plastered across news channels, a hurried retreat back home, and a career shattered.

‘It’s a mid-life decision,’ Mohammed announced. ‘I’ve decided to do what I enjoy most in this profession.’ It was not his decision. It had been his wife’s. She had used her position in the service’s admin section to give him this last opportunity. He knew the words she had used: ‘Mohammed is a suicide risk.’ The words were never said to him, like she never mentioned intelligence failures.

The neutral expressions did not falter but their gaze flickered. They had recognised him.

‘I’m going to start with the subject of trust,’ the trainer announced.

It was almost the same words Mohammed had used when he courted his assets, and helped them live with their fears, and supported their distorted reasons for spying.

The last time he had seen Faraz alive, Faraz had been playing with his wife and children. The ball had been tomato red with swirling white lines. The red on their bodies had gone black when he found them. He had photographed them, as was his training, and captured the evidence of torture and wanton violence. And then he had run, as was his instinct. The shaking had occurred much later, and the vomiting.

The trainer paused for coffee and tea. Away from the classroom, the intelligence analysts dropped their posed expressions and became more animated. But no-one spoke to Mohammed.

‘Don’t think for a moment that this job is a bed of roses,’ the trainer restarted. ‘You’ve all discovered our secrecy is obsessive and that every day brings a new harvest of acronyms. You see more horrors in a month than most people do in a lifetime. You will see botched intelligence decisions.’ The trainer was now looking at everyone other than him. ‘But what’s most difficult of all, you’ll encounter the spiralling complexity of our research systems.’

It was the first good thing Mohammed had heard. Complexity meant concentration, and concentration meant forgetting. He yearned for the long days of work. But the memories would return in the evening, and at the weekends. Those were the times when he was with his wife.

‘System and neutrality are the corner planks of your chosen career,’ the trainer continued. ‘You will have opinions. Keep them to yourself. Your job is to provide understanding to explore options. But your thoughts belong to your alone. Why?’ He had been ignoring Mohammed until that point. Now he stared straight at him, forcing a response.

‘Because with facts you can make a difference to people’s lives. You want to undo the mistakes of your past? You can’t. But you have an opportunity to help other people make even worse mistakes.’

Mohammed stared at the table, contemplating his future.