Itching to impress

Kevin Fong decides to not make a meal of a life-threatening situation

March 3, 2011

It’s easy to get distracted when you’re at the British Ambassador’s residence in Moscow. This, after all, is Ferrero Rocher country; a place of loveliness and officialdom. Every piece of artwork, every statuette, is part of our great country’s history. So there I am, surrounded by priceless artefacts, trying to suppress my Mr Bean gene. And as I juggle my glass of red wine and a canape, it occurs to me that the rug beneath my feet probably isn’t one of those £30-from-Ikea jobs either.

This is Moscow in February. I’m in town, with space scientist colleague Alan, to help pull together a research treaty with the Institute of Biomedical Problems, Russia’s formidable space life and medical sciences facility. The embassy is smoothing the way in stellar fashion, as it has no doubt done, incredibly successfully, for countless previous UK delegations across time.

Frankly I’m completely rubbish when it comes to these networking gigs. It’s bad enough that I don’t speak a word of Russian, but today I’m also doing a good impression of someone who has only recently mastered the English language. I’ve been trying all night to flick my personality control dial over to Engaging/Charming mode. Instead it is stuck in the Super Awkward/Crap at Talking to People setting. As brilliant as our host is at making us all feel at home and welcome, I am relieved when the time comes for us to sit down to dinner.

And there I am, finally beginning to warm up a little, talking to the First Secretary for Something or Other, getting into gear, cracking the occasional gag. The starter arrives and I remember to wait for everyone else to start. I even select the correct spoon. Fab. At last I’m on a roll.

I even remember to not get carried away with my anecdotes, leaving space for my colleagues around the table to talk. I pause to start scooping down the lovely starter. I talk some more, remembering to do so only between mouthfuls. By Jove, I think I’ve got it; this social networking malarkey really can be done without the need for a computer-based application. Who knew?

And then a thought occurs to me. It’s about the lovely starter that I’m two-and-a-half spoonfuls into. “It’s lobster, isn’t it,” I blurt.

“Yes,” says the First Secretary to Being Good Fun at Parties. “Do you like it?”

“Mmmmm hmmmmm,” I say with a nod and a smile. Which translates to: “Oh bugger, I’m really quite stupendously allergic to lobster.”

Rewind to 16-year-old me with hives on my arms and legs after some lobster in a Chinese restaurant in America. Fast forward a bit to the second-year medical school Christmas Ball and a chance encounter with some baby lobster in the salad that left me covered head to toe and itching for England - and the Commonwealth. And fast forward again to the present day, there in the ambassador’s residence in Moscow, a couple of spoonfuls of lobster on board, in what might yet turn out to be the tragicomic final act in my movie.

This could be bad. If my immune system decides to go nuclear, I’ll shortly be bright red, rasping for breath and swollen up like a Michelin man. If it gets really bad, someone might need to do an emergency tracheotomy.

I scan the table for people who I might trust to take a knife to my neck. Alan perhaps? No, he does satellites and engineering; he’ll just work out a contingency plan so that the mission can continue even though a vital component has failed. First Secretary Person? She’s got a scientific background, which is a plus I guess, but then I remember it’s in climate science; can’t see that giving her much of an edge when it comes to emergency surgery at the dinner table. And then I realise that they’re all astrophysicists and climate scientists at my end of the room. I could be in trouble.

My left shoulder is beginning to itch now. I look down the long table desperately searching for a more suitable candidate. After some deliberation, I decide that the ambassador looks like my best bet. This is her second Moscow posting, so she’s clearly a capable individual. And who knows what the Foreign Office teaches these guys, but I’m half willing to bet that she’s been on some super-duper MacGyver course where she learned to subsist in the forest and fight off bears with no more than a couple of pine cones. Yep, she’s the one. And currently I’m still well enough to draw a line on my neck where the incision should be. That’ll help her.

Should things get worse, we’ll need to act fast. I rehearse the conversation in my head along with the awkwardness of getting up and wandering down to where she’s sitting. It’ll go something like this: “I say, ambassador, I’m frightfully sorry but I seem to have got myself into a spot of bother with some of your lobster - which incidentally was delicious - and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind … well, you can see where I’ve drawn on my neck with pen here…”.

I stop. It won’t work. I’ve no doubt that the ambassador would be up to the job, but it’d just be excruciatingly awkward to have to get up and ask her. I continue my conversation with First Secretary for Being Brilliant at Putting People at Ease, feeling a little itchy. I decide to tough it out. There are, I decide, worse things than dying.

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