May 22, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich
The Impact awards: A short story for the Circling the square conference
The Impact Awards
By KATE ROACH
“And here she is folks, the one and only Professor Madeleine Davies.” Vic Baker broadcast to the whole table as I approached.
My heart sank and I smiled slightly too enthusiastically.
Vic continued “How canny were you Madeleine? Insect proteins have hit the big time. I ate one of your new steaks at the Slim Duck last week. It was stupendous, the ultimate. Rumour has it that you guys are about to swallow your rivals, the termite people – any truth?”
Vic was a favoured journalist at the communications giant, Global News. Over the time I’d known him he had become inseparable from the corporate and political powers that owned him. No-one upset Vic unless they wanted out. I managed a weak smile, which actually meant ‘back off, you smarmy git’ and attempted my best professorial voice.
“Well, when you say ‘you guys’ Vic, I presume you refer to my corporate funders. I have no knowledge of their business dealings. Of course, the termite people were pioneers of the early insect work so we all stand on their shoulders.”
“Maybe girl, but the termite lot don’t have your flair for impact. Not many of your kind get the red carpet treatment, like this any more”
He wafted one hand toward the decadent dining hall and made to give me a conspiratorial nudge with the other. I was in no mood for him.
We were saved from an awkward moment by a strangely incongruent fanfare that suddenly burst forth, as a dozen or so gleaming white chefs glided into the hall, followed by a flourish of beautiful boys who wheeled flaming barbeques behind them.
A sing-song voice gushed in excitement.
“Ladies and Gentleman. Here is the long awaited and much vaunted steak. The first Opteron Fillet. Please inform your personal waiters how you would like it cooked.”
The voice belonged to an eager young woman who almost shivered with the anticipation and joy of what was to come.. We were seated on opposite sides of an elegantly wrought slate square, an impressive table indeed, though it was far too wide for chatting. Anyway, she was probably more interested in her own voice than in mine.
Her crystal timbre cut across the general hubbub of shuffling chairs and steak ordering while the intermittent hissing of fat hitting fire harmonised with her tone.
“The Opteron Fillet that you are about to experience has been extraordinarily complex to execute. It is the product of an exquisitely talented technical team.”
She cast her eyes briefly in my direction.
“Opteron are delighted to put affordable steak back on the menu.”
Affordable. My foot.
“We, at Opteron, have tinkered with taste, with fat and protein ratios and with texture. To do so we have funded fifteen years of fundamental research and along the way we have launched successful mincemeats, sausages, burgers and casserole meats, and at last, we have the ultimate juicy, red-blooded steak. Enjoy, everyone.”
A cacophony of applause and cheering ensued as the effusive woman raised her plate high in triumph.
A designed dining experience materialised at that moment in front of me. A steaming piece of meat, piled with airy circles of onion was linked by a trail of jus to a few sparsely placed cubes of potato, beet and cucurbit. The display sat central on a square tile that contrasted all too perfectly with the stone of the tabletop.
Despite the sculpted beauty and the irresistible aroma tailored to trigger appetite, my stomach rebelled.
Fundamental research? What was she on about? What was fundamental about splicing insect genes to bovine extra cellular matrix? The bare bones of the process was worked out over a hundred years ago.
Worse – affordable? Yeah. Only to the people currently devouring a dinner that took me and a whole team of others years to create.
“Oh my God. Awesome. This is the best. Wow, Prof.” Vic looked a little crazed as he spoke and red juice dribbled down his chin on to his pale cream faux suede shirt.
I managed a vague “oh good”
“You have done us proud, Madeleine. You know you will beat all your past bests for impact with this one. Look at them all downing your divine offering.”
He sang the last few words upwards as if he really was praising a Divinity and then wiped his chin with gusto.
“You know what” I ventured “I really want to work on something different. Something new, something unknown. Science has got itself all twisted up Vic. We don’t push the limits of knowledge anymore.”
Vic’s face dropped. I was on dangerous ground, but I continued
“I want the impact of my work to be social good, Vic. Creative too”
I stared at Vic’s decimated dinner. Just a pool of ruddy coloured juice and half a melting onion ring remained. All my hard work.
“Bloody hell Madeleine. You can’t be having doubts now? You have achieved one of greatest feats in food for decades. Delicious, high in protein and low in bad fats… perfectly designed to keep us fit. Isn’t that social good? Now, I tell you where the challenge is. You do something similar with termite flavour and you will go down in history”
I picked at a few pieces of onion ring while he talked.
I knew the routine.
The batter was light, dry and slightly salty. It sublimated on my tongue releasing a wave of intensely sweet, caramelised onion that itself melted in a moment.
“Termites…” I began, but I was transported to my childhood in Gabon and a cone of hot, deep-fried chilli termites shared with my mother. For a moment, I was with her, sitting on a rickety wooden table, swinging my legs so that it rocked, my bare thighs glued to the plastic chequered tablecloth. I would stuff one savoury treat after another while she nattered and enjoyed the colour of the market, the air heavy with frying and underlined as always by the smell of sweet, slightly fermented fruit.
“You alright Madeleine?”
Vic’s voice cut through.
“You have hardly eaten, have you finished?”
“Sorry, miles away.” I said “ Yes, not hungry. Thinking of termites actually, I was just reminded of my first taste of them.”
“Well you know, in my view, you’ll be on solid ground if you move on to termites. You’ll be in the money…”
Vic trailed off. Like a pig after truffles, he’d sniffled out some gossip in a conversation the other side of him.
The gushing woman across the way was almost physically attached to the ear of Sir Ben Comely, Head of the Department for Food and Agriculture who was here to present the awards.
Puddings were heading our way.
Barbeques had vanished and the meaty smells were giving way to wafts of fresh fruit – mango and minted pineapple.
I wished they were real.
My mind turned to the one alternative I had on offer. Though I had dodged making a decision for months, I hadn’t ever turned it down. It could be life changing. I would be turning my back on the establishment forever, but Frank was an old friend of my mother’s who had family money. He’d gone that way years ago himself after making minute adjustments to costly surgical robotics that were of use only to costly patients.
Puddings came and I excused myself. I needed a break. Puddings went. On my return the MC was in position centre stage.
“Your time is a-coming Ms Madeleine” Vic drawled like an idiot as I sat next to him.
There were four awards before mine. We dutifully, smiled, applauded and looked delighted.
The Award for Best Newcomer… the Award for Financial Impact… the Award for Highest Impact Factor,… the Award for Creative Impact…. and then me, the Award for Lifetime Impact…
“…goes to Professor Madeleine Davies. Professor please accept the award for Lifetime Impact for your unstinting work and creativity in making Opteron Fillets a reality – the most deliciously impactful research of the evening… Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Professor Madeleine Davies..”
Applause filled the room. It got louder as I stood. The stage was in the centre of the hall. It looked like a modified table. I headed toward it. I marched through a wall of sound and a sea of faces. Then I turned toward the door and walked straight out.
I could hear the speaker’s voice fading.
“Professor Davies, Professor Davies, is something wrong…? professor?”
I grabbed my things and left. I took a cab up to Hampstead. I called ahead, so that Frank could buzz me in at the gates when I arrived.
He met me with open arms.
“Delighted to see you my dear. There isn’t time to talk just now, but you’ll join my little party first I hope? One of my own particular researches – we are about to attempt a séance.“
I was a little fazed. I didn’t know Frank was a spiritualist. Perhaps he wasn’t. He could be a conjurer. That would be rather cool. Or perhaps he was interested in the psychology of it. Also cool, and in that case, I was on board.
I followed him in silence to a cosy room with deep red walls that clashed just a little with the wine coloured drapery. A set of higgledy-piggledy antique chairs and a round table were offset in candlelight.
Six or seven people stood around in relaxed, animated conversation.
My mind was racing. Frank grinned and I relaxed. He handed me a deep purple cocktail and announced.
“Please allow me to introduce Madeleine Davies who is, or was…”
He gave me a quizzical look.
“..a Professor of Food Technology. I hope I have persuaded her to join our little blue skies team. I think I would be right in saying that her broad interest lies in the life sciences.”
“Now we are a little short of time for proper introductions. So can we continue with our evening as planned and chat later? Everyone ok with that?”
There was a generalised nodding and smiling.
The cocktail was divine – damson gin in sparkles. I almost downed it in one.
“Imaging on? Ready to go? Ok everyone take a seat, breath, relax and when the lights go out, join hands. And we’ll wait to see what happens…”
I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I did believe in research that pushed the limits of knowledge and I was sure that no-one could know in advance where that knowledge would come from and what it might be useful for.
I was excited by the wonder of the unknown.
The lights flickered and went out. I felt a thrill of apprehension. I took the leap.
I sat down, took a hand on each side of me and I closed the circle.
Image credit: Higgs boson simulation, Cern (Mette Høst)