Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Singular Answer: Memories of an Interview with the Grey Men

A government code-breaker trained by her spymasters is an unlikely profession for a school-leaver – ask any careers mistress – so it was not until I had graduated in Maths and scored eight Firsts (and four Thirds) that my university woke up and took notice, with the faculty of Mathematical Modelling and Numerical Analysis remonstrating with me, declaring I ‘trifled only with those fields of enquiry’ that had fickle appeal, or were pursued merely as ‘distractions for a grasshopper mind’.
         My eight Firsts were all gained in the more esoteric, pure subjects (number theory, set theory, logic, etc.) which are considered by candidates to be the toughest there are. A brainworker with some mathematical ability, who puts her mind to the task, can generally shine in applied maths and statistics, but to truly excel in pure subjects requires genuine mathematical talent.
         So, when the call came from the faculty’s secret ‘recruiting sergeant’, you will not be surprised to learn that the wilful ‘grasshopper mind’ of their reproaches had been lured away to play (with a certain careless aplomb) a resolutely dissolute Rosalind in our am-dram staging of As You Like It . . . for, when you possess an eidetic memory, as I do, acting a lengthy part resembles nothing so much as lucid dreaming; in fact, I would find myself compulsively counting the one-hundred-and-forty-one ‘thou’s’ uttered before the play’s end as an anodyne to tedium (one-hundred-and-forty-one, incidentally, is a semiprime number and the ninth Blum integer).
         Vetting. It’s not for the faint-hearted,’ Professor Hush-Hush warned. ‘It’s a lengthy procedure requiring a tiresome degree of data-crunching. Are you quite prepared for that?’ (Vaguely puzzled, he peered at the flame-haired Rosalind who stood before him. The fluorescent glow of the chestnut-coloured mane that once sparkled in the footlights had not yet faded.)
         In all my years of study I had not exchanged a single word to any great purpose with our young, brilliant, yet aloof head of the Maths Faculty.
         Now I bridled.
         ‘I see no reason to believe otherwise,’ I replied with pained hauteur.
         ‘All the same,’ his eyes narrowed with sudden recognition, ‘I should think long and hard about it before applying. You have until Founder’s Day to reach your decision.’
         To indicate my dismissal, he closed my dossier marked Classified and secured it with a Tamper Evident seal.
         ‘Oh, and I shouldn’t tell anyone about this – anyone – because, quite evidently, it’s highly confidential and a closed rather than open process.’ He ventured a frosty smile. ‘The grey men prefer to keep it that way.’ 
         Not unnaturally, I was both flattered and intrigued.
         A codebreaker for the grey men! I decided to apply. For the heck of it.
         After writing a short letter enclosing my academic results I heard nothing from the grey men for several months until, eventually, the process started with the regulatory ‘Enhanced Positive Vetting’.
         This turned out to be a very long and irksome form-filling exercise giving details of family, friends, all their foreign travel and contact with non-British persons or nations over practically their entire lifetimes. The wretched screed was about thirty pages long.
         And. Yes. Rosalind was obliged to mention that five-minute-fling with her leading man, Orlando (the son of a peer), not forgetting that memorable overnighter with the Hon. Sec. of the Players Soc.  

I heard nothing more for several months and had started work at a private merchant bank as a junior investment analyst, applying my not insignificant grasp of stochastic differential equations to exotic derivatives, when out of the blue an old alumna from my undergraduate days telephoned me.

         Verity, a law student, I hazily remembered, had once lingered, timid and unremarked, at the fringes of our pub theatre crowd. Now she seemed only too keen to prattle on about her change of situation: her transfer to a ‘dream job’ at the Solicitor General’s Office.

         Despite living several hours drive away, she insisted on our reacquaintance, and during her perfunctory visit professed a keen interest in how my life was shaping, a probing cross-examination that included the colour of my ideological beliefs, and an attempt to determine to no small degree what my future held.

         ‘Do you remember your Orlando?’ Verity observed slyly. ‘He now has his very own pinker than pink think tank. A self-styled guru of revisionist public policy, would you believe?’
         ‘His very hair is of a dissembling colour,’ I quoted.
         ‘Something redder than Judas’s, I fear,’ Verity gibed knowingly.
         (You know, the other week, I read her late father’s obituary in the Times and discovered that prior to his career as a barrister and High Court judge he had served in British Intelligence in World War II. Soon after Verity’s visit I received a letter inviting me to attend an interview at a Ministry of Defence establishment located in an isolated, semi-mothballed military barracks remote from the jurisdiction, so far as I gleaned, of any of the camps in neighbouring Caterham. To this day Verity denies there was any connection between these two events.)
So on a warm, bright morning in late July, I drove to the old transit camp, which in those days was a ragged collection of wooden huts and prefabricated concrete admin blocks defended by a double row of barbed-wire perimeter fences. A watchtower loomed above the main gate.
         At the checkpoint, before I could proceed, my car was comprehensively searched by grim-faced uniformed guards, who in observance of counter-terrorist routines inspected the underside aided by wheeled mirrors.
         I was wearing a close-fitting matelot striped sleeveless dress, a favourite of mine, which mercifully presented no subject for frisking.
         ‘Pontins this ain’t,’ the burlier of the two guards grated, ‘nor Club Med neither.’
         He eased open my beach-bag as though it were a suitcase bomb and relieved me of my Leica camera, which was retained in the guardhouse to be collected on departure.
         I was directed to wear round my neck a garishly coloured visitor’s Identity Disc of intimidating proportions, clearly devised to be unmissable as target practice from some distance. There were sentry pickets at every turn.
         Visitors were not permitted to walk anywhere unaccompanied. The standing orders were for a guard to escort you the short distance to the next picket point. There you waited until the new guard marched you to the next point, and so on. Whilst undoubtedly a high security measure, this ponderous rigmarole turned a journey of several hundred metres into a thirty-minute exercise.
         By these means, and at this halting pace, I was at last ushered into a wooden hut to be greeted by my interviewers and by the strong, cloying odour of bitumen paper.
The hut was bereft of fittings but for a trestle table at the far end, at which sat my two scrutineers. The windows were bolted, and under the midday sun the fumes from the tar paper lining their makeshift quarters were an oppression to my mind.
         Both my interrogators were male and looked to be in their mid-forties. And, yes, one grey man did indeed wear a greyish pullover under his jacket.
         Their neck-ties I suspected moodily were more regimental than old school; their high foreheads and long earlobes seemed of preternatural growth.
         Neither of the grey men introduced himself. There was to be very little small-talk. After some basic questions to reconfirm my identification papers, they leapt with no ceremony straight into the maths.
         It was soon apparent that theirs was to be a classic good-cop, bad-cop routine, with Good Cop leading the conversation.
         There were no codes to crack. It was a problem-solving exercise, to decide how well and how promptly the candidate could solve a mixture of pure and applied maths brain-teasers.
         It started easily enough with a simple puzzle modelling the outcome of a vehicle (a snatch squad getaway?) following a circular path at ever increasing speed. The challenge was to derive a formula to determine whether it would skid off course or topple over first. This was pretty straightforward stuff, well within the grasp of a talented ‘A level’ student and clearly intended as a warm-up exercise.
         The problems grew progressively harder but I held my own and solved them all with pencil and paper on the table dividing us.
         Then the challenges progressed to more difficult tasks and I didn’t dare relax.
         One feature of pure mathematics is that very simple-looking problems can prove fiendishly difficult. Some seemingly innocuous problems may take hundreds of years to solve (such as Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Four-Colour Map Problem) or else they’re not yet solved at all. And, anyhow, only a small number of mathematicians have the supreme brain-power to follow the complex series of steps, and to understand the proofs and disproofs, necessary for arriving at solutions to daunting equations of this magnitude.
         We had now come to a simple-looking problem, to integrate x^x.  In mathematical notation:
         I solved it with the use of a simple substitution, u=ex
         All mathematicians are familiar with Taylor’s Expansion, which reduces the problem to a simple, if tedious, infinite sum.
         This was the hard part and I had done it.
          Then Bad-Cop-Greyish-Pullover spoke for the first time.
         ‘What about the singularity?’
         A singularity is a point at which a function is not defined, because it makes no sense. For example the formula x=a/b makes no sense when b is zero because you cannot divide by zero. So b=0 is described as a singularity.
         I was more than a little nervous. My mouth was dry. Greyish-Pullover was clearly impatient and not remotely helpful. It was obvious to me that there was a singularity at x=0 but this was so blindingly obvious I thought I must have missed something bigger.
         I stared at the sheet of paper, by now covered with scribbled algebraic and mathematical expansions, searching for inspiration. My mind was a blank.
         I felt a clammy weakness spread upwards from my knees.
         At the eleventh hour, was I to be blindsided by this hostile man with a conundrum of Jesuitical subtlety?
         Oh, do come on! It’s a simple enough question,’ he continued, clearly irritated.
         It must be so obvious yet I’d missed it, I thought. Perhaps he is looking for singularities in complex space, where all numbers include a multiple of the imaginary numberi used to represent the concept of the square root of -1?
         ‘WHERE IS THE SINGULARITY?’ he barked.
         It didn’t help.
         Good Cop gave a sympathetic half smile.
         I murmured, ‘Well I can see only one singularity at x=0.
         Bad Cop collapsed back into his seat.
         Of course it is! OF COURSE IT IS! X=0! What took you so long?
         I stared at the paper and whispered that I had been looking for something altogether more challenging. The singularity at x=0 was so obvious I had dismissed it.
         ‘I simply thought you were looking for something else,’ I protested.
         Bad Cop appraised me with a raking glance.
         ‘A deliberate non-concealment is superior to any subterfuge,’ he reasoned with the ghost of a smile. ‘The correct solution can often be found hidden in plain sight . . . in this kind of business, we learn to recognize the Incredibly Obvious Manoeuvre.’
         At which point in the grilling, Good Cop intervened and ran through my academic results, bestowing grudging praise in a desultory attempt to console me for the bruising encounter.
         Then the spooks were finished with me. 
         Again no small-talk.
         There was no ‘Have you any questions for us?’ nor ‘What happens next is ...’
         I was escorted back to my car by the same tedious process. A guard returned my camera and I drove home.
         Several weeks later I received a short, pro-forma rejection letter.
         It was over.

The Incredibly Obvious Manoeuvre:
$40,000 in stolen banknotes in plain sight, wrapped up in the
latest edition of the Los Angeles Tribune.
The Motel ‘Cabin Number One’ Scene from Psycho (1960).


Extract from a letter written six months after receipt of rejection slip.
My Darling Orlando, ‘Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things.’ As you predicted, a government code-breaker can guarantee altogether greater loyalty to her spymasters when rewarded lavishly by the gratitude of generous paymasters, whether their governments be China or Cuba. Regardless of the colour of national loyalties, that ‘flattering tongue of yours won me.’                                                                                                            Am not I still your Rosalind? x x x


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremisCompulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)  
and A Bad Case (2015)

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