Check out our episode here! The Agency by Monica McGurk
The job of a nanny is to handle all the tears and tantrums, smiles and adventures of the children, to help the children’s imaginations soar and to teach them lessons that all last them through life. It is not a job of a nanny to lose the children, and yet this is what has happened.
First Year, Orientation
Whilst sitting in the auditorium awaiting the convocation ceremony to begin, the first American to attend Norwood College has just met the first male to attend Norwood College. Briana Bellona Parrish, or Bree, is from Florence, Alabama, and Dashiell Haywood is an impoverished aristocrat. From the outset Dashiell declares they shall be unicorns together and firm friends.
Norwood College is the most preeminent educational establishment in the world to offer an undergraduate degree in child development, however, there are few exceptional pupils who can also achieve the coveted Norwood Diploma and, along with it, unimaginable career opportunities. Take Gul Avci who hails from Turkey, an exceptional example of Norwood excellence, don’t worry about her British pedigree though, she is British but was adopted as a small child. Whilst at Norwood, pupils will work and live within a strict study group and will conduct themselves to Norwood’s high standards. Pupils will attire themselves in the Norwood uniform which is beige and emblazoned with the Norwood crest, and wear only minimal makeup with their hair pinned back.
Bree is assigned to Group 12 along with Dashiell, S. Susie Hilvale (who is another impoverished aristocrat with dreams of marrying higher), and Ruby Fripp, the daughter of a nurse and entrepreneur who believes in hard work and applying oneself. While getting a dressing down by Head Girl Margaret Montoya-Craig for the audacity of being an American, Bree admits to being an orphan and there on a scholarship. To prove her worth, Montoya-Craig makes Bree sing a lullaby. Bree sings the well known children’s song, Mustang Sally. It isn’t until Dean Albourn steps in that the humiliation stops. Group 12, which as it turns out are all scholarship students, then head to their new home, Jaguar House, which is in need of some TLC.
Though Dashiell, Susie and Ruby are open about their backgrounds, Bree isn’t. She explains that she has lived her whole life at Thornton orphanage. The director, Rodney, never adopted her but he is the closest thing she has to a father and Miss Judy, the patron, is a fond relative. Irregularities with Bree’s paperwork meant she was never adopted after her parents died in a car wreck when she was a baby, and that’s it. After a whirlwind weekend of registration, uniform fittings, cleaning and grocery shopping, the foursome go on a rain soaked tour led by Montoya-Craig. They end the tour in the chapel where they are expected to attend service. Inside is a statue that brings to mind Mary Poppins, it is dedicated to the many, many, many nannies who are listed behind as being “Killed in Action.” Some of the photos and plaques to the fallen are missing, apparently vandalized. Curious.
Term proceeds at a pace, a whirlwind of classes to support their undergraduate degree as well as work towards being accepted on the diploma program. Though they work as a group, Susie isn’t pulling her weight but the peer grading wouldn’t tell you that. All for one and all that. One day there is an announcement of extra physical exercises to supplement their Physical Development class and will help toward the diploma selection. Bree is up for it and persuades the others to do it, too. The night before however, they go out to a local bar where Dashiell flashes his shareowner card to get a good table. The ale flows freely, and when Bree goes for the next round she bumps into Gul Avci who buys the round and shots. Ominously, Gul mentions The Trials, and before going back to her own group, asks if Bree is “prepared to do what it takes?” Again with the mystery.
Next day, Bree realizes how bad of an idea the drinks were as she is really hungover, however, the physical challenge calls. When they get there it is explained that the whole weekend is designed to be difficult and they are soon whisked on a train to London, tube to the Eurostar then across the Channel to Calais, France. They will spend the next 5 hours helping in refugee camp kitchen operations before heading straight back.
It’s hard work and disheartening seeing the suffering written all over the people Bree serves, and it’s made even worse when the children come in for their meal. Against the rules, Bree talks to one, a girl called Amina. She gets upset when Bree promises her parents will find her because her parents are dead and flees the tent. Bree follows and finds the girl being attacked. Fighting off the assailant and pinning him to the ground, Bree is able to free Amina when Montoya-Craig comes along with armed UN personnel. She tells Bree there is a child trafficking problem and the only people left to sort it out are “people like us.” A week later their scores are handed out. Unsurprisingly they suffered demerits for Susie taking a break and Bree abandoning her post but Bree’s act of bravery more than made up for it. This makes them contenders for the diploma program!
Bree is melancholy and homesick. The events of the refugee camp are still playing on her mind and her lack of money means she can’t return home to Thornton and Rodney for Christmas, which has greatly affected her. The offers extended to her by her friends for her to join them is kind, but she declines. In a contemplative mood one evening, Bree heads back to campus and, on route, walks past a homeless person who looks strangely familiar and she swears mutters “duty unceasingly” from the school’s alma mater. Strange. Bree reaches the chapel but finds she isn’t alone, Dashiell has followed feeling that she ought not be alone right now. They talk about her mysterious background, and how her parents, if they were her parents, died in a car wreck when she was still a baby and their identities are unknown, as is her date of birth. The car they were driving was rented under social security numbers belonging to dead infants and her name is only known because of the tag on the diaper bag found with her. Dashiell tells her it’s a good name, Briana means ‘strong and honorable’ in Celtic and Bellona, her middle name, is the name of the Roman goddess of war. He then reminds Bree that they are her family now, so she is not alone.
At the end of term assembly, Dean Albourn warns the first years about cheating on their final exams and also presents a new group challenge that will be worth 50% of their final mark and take up their weekend. They must plan, in excruciating detail, an entertainment curriculum for a two week vacation for a family with three children of very different ages. At the same time, they must look after an uncanny valley robot-baby, logging every bodily function in minute detail. Great.
The entertainment planning challenge was completed without too much stress, but the robo-baby was messy, especially after Susie fed it the wrong food and it reacted like a real child. Yuck. It would have been a complete failure if another group hadn’t accidentally killed their robo-baby. Everyone gives Ruby the side-eye at this announcement. The group had other challenges with mixed results, including an awkward recorded role playing session and a scavenger hunt in London, designed by Susie, went off superbly. Bree did feel personally attacked when one clue took them to the Foundling Hospital which is now a museum, but the others reassure her that they don’t think Susie meant anything by it.
After their grueling exams are finally finished, the foursome trudge back to Jaguar House only to find the door open and people inside. It’s nothing nefarious; rather Rodney and Miss Judy from Thornton have come for a visit and plan to take Bree to the Christmas market, on a special tour of the Baths, then out to dinner. It’s a wonderful night, the Christmas market is a feast for the senses and the Baths are magical until a statue falls and nearly crushes Bree calling an end to their evening. Strangely, all evening Miss Judy seemed to be looking about as if on alert and when the statue fell, she accused the curator of someone being up there. The next morning, aching from her dive to the cobblestone to avoid being squashed, Bree finds a summons on exceedingly nice stationary to the faculty lounge at 7:00 pm that evening. Ruby, Dashiell and Susie got one too. Curious.
Dressed in their required formal attire, Dashiell in his new male version which is akin to a Sherlock Holmes cosplay, they leave Jaguar House and into the clutches of the paparazzi. They’re only there for Dashiell, as ladies at Norwood aren’t interesting, but a Marquess turned Manny is. Once at the administrative building, they are ushered into the original Norwood building where 30 or so fellow first year classmates are also mingling about. Soon order is called and Dean Albourn takes to the podium. She informs the gathering that they have been selected for the certificate program which means they have been selected to enter the world of espionage. The elite Norwood Nanny is more than a caregiver, they are well placed spies working on behalf of MI6. Should they take advantage of this opportunity, their life will be devoted to intelligence gathering. If not, they will be given an experimental serum and made to forget everything they’ve experienced, and will then leave Norwood as an academical failure. Oh! And that injection that was just given as they sat listening to the Dean was a tracker, so they shouldn’t even think about escaping or telling anyone. They have 12 hours to make this incredibly important decision that will decide their future.
Understandably, the pupils are shocked. Bree escapes the room and flees to the chapel where she finds Miss Judy who, it turns out, was a Norwood graduate before she faked her death. She was also Bree’s mother’s handler, and she was also a Norwood Lady. Bree’s mother met her father while on duty. Her father was an MI5 agent with a child from his first marriage and was in need of a Nanny. Their marriage and Bree were not part of the plan. Miss Judy has made it her mission to fulfill Bree’s mother’s wish to look after her but now, will she follow in her mother’s footsteps? Will she help Miss Judy solve whatever is going wrong at Norwood?
Back at Jaguar House, Bree finds her cohort drinking around the dining table dejected and worried. If they had any indication Norwood would lead to this, they aren’t sure they would have enrolled. Giving up however isn’t an option, they have their pride, so it’s agreed that in the morning, as one, they will sign up to be spies. As they talk, Bree reveals that she thinks she knows the identity of the homeless woman she met not long ago. She’s convinced it’s Alice Clark, a Norwood Lady recently lost while in active duty, and a name the instructors and proctors always uses to motivate the class by saying, “do it for Alice.”
Spy training starts in earnest and there is no slacking off their undergraduate obligations either. The physical training quickly becomes Bree’s favorite because their teacher teaches them that Norwood women have always been underestimated because of their sex and overlooked because they fade into the background. The formless beige uniforms act as a disguise and as an armor. This is exemplified when Dashiell faces Susie in a training exercise and he has his arse handed to him.
One evening after a difficult exercise involving keeping the robo-babies alive in a kidnapping situation, Bree and Dashiell are heading back to Jaguar House when Dashiell tells her that he’s at Norwood to embarrass his father. His mother was the first wife, and the Nanny, a Norwood alumna, cleverly got her out of the picture then insinuated herself as wife number two, and he never saw his mother again. Now he’s older he sees how selfish his father was. Norwood is a way to get revenge as his father loves nothing more than his own self-image. As for his relationship with Susie, he had never met her before Norwood and it’s a little fun but he knows Susie has grander plans. Bree reveals her unhappy childhood, how when Rodney had to take extended absences as his wife was dying of cancer, his temporary assistant would chain her in the barn to an old horse lead and gag her because she didn’t want to deal with Bree’s nightmares about the car wreck. Her wrists are still scarred. Those terrible nightmares have come back, but in place of her mother screaming for help, it’s Alice Clark. Bree also tells Dashiell the identity of her parents and Miss Judy, but asks that he not share this information with anyone.
In a ghastly 6 am class, their geopolitics instructor explains at length and in detail how disappointed and dismayed she is by the class’s overall performance in the last assignment, all except Susie who seems to excel in this one. So as punishment or as makeup or both she and the Social Graces instructor have teamed up and arranged for a ball where they will be tested on the full gamut of curriculum content. It will also be judged on a bell curve and the results will define their summer placements. Great, just great.
With Dashiell’s ability to sweet talk a middle-aged cat lady, he and Bree are able to gain administrative access to Norwood’s system in order to try and discover who Bree’s mother was. Meanwhile, it’s time for the ball. Bree wears a simple black dress and flats she got from a thrift store, Ruby is in a Notting Hill Carnival costume repurposed for the evening and Susie in one of her mother’s Saris. Bree and Ruby are shocked to find out that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Susie is the daughter of a Bollywood star.
The evening goes well and Bree is able to converse on her geopolitical topic with Dean Albourn well, phew! When the dancing starts, it’s not the typical Waltz, rather the MI5 agents acting as their waiters take the group hostage. Thankfully Bree and Ruby noticed something was wrong and are able to grab Susie and Dashiell before all hell breaks loose. They think it’s a training exercise though can’t be completely sure, but regardless, they must fight back. They come up with a plan involving diversion and flanking but it’s Susie beating the snot and almost taking the eye of one of the agents with her stiletto shoe that truly impresses everyone. As they leave the ball, Susie tells them the S in S. Susie Hilvale stands for Susmita and that is how she wants to be known going forward. It comes as no surprise that their final marks are excellent, in fact they are top of the class and will bag an international posting during the summer. Gul Avci congratulates them and, when she asks if they are prepared to do whatever it takes, the foursome give a unanimous “yes.”
SUMMER FIELD SPY CRAFT
Bree is working with Agent Gul Avci to co-nanny the four children of Lieutenant Colonel Kemal Asker of the Turkish Land Forces’ Army in Istanbul and his wealthy wife Handan so she may have more time to be a hostess and help advance his military career. In reality, a secret faction within NATO is seeking to remove Turkey’s president. The faction has recruited Asker who is disillusioned with the current government, but unfortunately this information has been made known to the Army putting Asker and his family in danger. Bree and Gul are to protect the children and find out who is selling out Asker. The others of Jaguar House have been placed to assist with the mission: Dashiell is with the family of the German Defense Minister, Ruby is with the family of the NATO High Commander, and Susmita is at Norwood HQ monitoring the whole operation.
All is going well until the command to evacuate the children is made. Bree and Gul have prepared for this and plan to make a show of taking the children to school then divert to an airfield where NATO operations are being hosted where they will stow on a military flight to Germany. All is going well until their Air Force contact is found dead at the meeting point, leaving their only other option to travel with smuggled refugees to Calais.
Everyone disguises themselves as boys, which means the girls get haircuts. Gul now has a pretty cool Mohawk with her natural auburn showing at the roots. The bribe takes all their money, but a place has been secured in a container on board a ship to Spain. The journey will take 10 days, and there will be limited food, water, sanitation provisions and lights. Assuming all goes well, at the port in Spain, they will sneak out a hidden side door and be picked up by the traffickers' contact. Oh, and Bree will be doing this by herself as Gul has just now been ordered back to help Handan escape.
The journey is long and arduous. There wasn’t enough food, the “toilet” failed half way through, and the children were restless and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, when they reach port, Bree gets a text from Dashiell saying their container has been diverted to Brazil and to get out now! With makeshift sleeping bag ropes, they are able to get out, but Bree is hurt during a fall protecting one of the girls. They need to climb a ladder to get out of the ship's storage area and with her injuries, Bree falls behind. When she emerges, the children are nowhere to be seen, but a strangely accented voice tells Bree the children are no longer her problem before pistol whipping her. As she falls unconscious, she hears the man say that she looks just like her mother.
Bree wakes up in a hospital bed to the sound of Dashiell and Ruby chatting. They are talking about her, her past and Miss Judy. Dashiell is telling Ruby everything he swore to keep secret, and he has also told Susmita. Dashiell is unapologetic given the circumstances. They update her on the situation: the children are missing, Gul has been killed, Handan is missing and Asker has been placed on suicide watch. They figure Bree’s handler and Susmita were the best placed to be counteragents, but it could also be someone higher at Norwood, so they need to be careful. Bree tells them about the kidnapper saying she looks like her mother and they counsel her to say nothing.
After they leave, a chatty nurse comes in to perform her rounds and hands Bree one of the children's teddy bears she was carrying as they escaped. Once alone, Bree cuddles the toy and realizes that there is a nanny-cam hidden inside, a high end one that is motion activated with an SD card. Hiding the card in her arm cast, Bree has just enough time to act normal before Dean Albourn, Montoya-Craig and the physical exercise instructor come in requesting she tell them everything.
The interrogation lasts for five hours, and they go over the same topics again and again, bouncing around and testing for inconsistencies. When they ask why Bree and Gul separated, Bree tells them they were given orders and the message was sent to both phones. Montoya-Craig passes Bree her phone from an evidence bag to unlock it and check. There is no message, and though Bree knows Gul is dead, this gives her the opportunity to be officially told. There is no record anywhere of any such order and it wasn’t until Bree was extracted that they knew something had happened to Gul. Gul’s tracker appears to have been removed at her death. There is also suspicion around their Air Force contact. Bree remembers he was Asian and had a prominent American flag tattoo on his neck. This does not sit well with her interrogators.
A few days later back at Jaguar House, everyone is on tenterhooks, suspicious of each other. Bree is desperate to see what is on the SD card and takes the opportunity to sneak to a photoshop to download it, but is caught by Dashiell before she can even cross the road. Insisting she is only taking a walk to campus, Dashiell joins her and takes her to Norwood Library where he shows her an old class picture of Margaret McCarthy, her mother. Though Bree isn’t sure, Dashiell says they are the spitting doubles and now he has a name, he can focus his search.
As Dashiell is continuing his investigation for her, Bree decides to trust him with the SD card. Together they leave, skirting a classmate who is obviously keeping watch on them, to go to an internet café. Loading up the first video, they see Gul blinking in Morse code about the mission being compromised and something about the Chinese. Dashiell then shows Bree his own security footage, this time from Jaguar House, and it’s of Susmita having many, many sexy rendezvous with an Asian-looking man. They can’t trust anyone.
In the wee hours of the morning, Bree is finding it difficult to sleep. She keeps looking over at sleeping Ruby who she shares the room with and can’t bring herself not to trust her. Ruby has time and again proven her loyalty as a friend and, after the incident in Spain, she has helped Bree with her recovery and tries to be sensitive to the fact that she and Dashiell have been put back on active duty. Deciding to get up, Bree hobbles into the living room. The pain medication is wearing off but it’s a while before she can have more. As Bree sits down on the sofa, she hears voices outside the front door. Suspicious and weary, she gets Ruby’s gun. It’s a good thing too as Susmita comes in, looking disheveled but stunning.
Time for some bad guy monologuing! Susmita hates England, all it stands for and its colonial history, and she hates the stigma of her birth, and her parents' rejection. She wants to forge her own path. Her Nanny, though not a Norwood lady, nicknamed her Diti which in Hindi means ‘revenge.’ It was Susmita who arranged for the “accidents” Bree has had, and she waved the flag in Bree’s face during the scavenger hunt, sending her to the Foundling Hospital. It was Susmita who had been diverting the arms Asker had been siphoning to China and it was she who set Bree and Gul up. Susmita also tells her Judy knows more than she’s letting on and that Bree is far too trusting of her. In the end, Susmita pulls a gun on Bree, her hand steadier than Bree’s as the pain and earlier exertions around Bath with Dashiell catch up to her. Before Susmita pulls the trigger, she offers Bree a dying wish… she will tell her where the Asker children are or she will tell her about her parents. Before Bree can reply, Susmita’s head explodes, Miss Judy standing behind her with a literal smoking gun.
Bree is hailed a hero having taken credit for Susmita’s demise since Judy cannot. Judy tells Bree the extent to which she has looked after her. She made sure the awful assistant who tortured her as a child disappeared once she knew how strong Bree was, and she provided the paperwork necessary for her application was made by the school counsellor before disposing of her. Judy tells her she will always be there to protect Bree.
With only three weeks of the summer left, the official inquiries are completed. Seeking solace at the feet of Poppins in the chapel, Bree encounters Judy again. Judy still needs her help to ferret out the other counteragents at Norwood and find the Asker children. In the meantime as a reward, Judy is sending Bree back to Thornton to recuperate before beginning her second year, and Dashiell can go with her if she’d like. Before leaving, Judy gives Bree a thick manila envelope with the name Margaret McCarthy written in bold letters. A thank you? A peace offering? A bribe? Does it matter?