“Going to be the next Bake Off star, eh Frank?” Thomas Blanky laughed. Francis pulled the phone from his ear and narrowed his eyes at the screen.
“It’s not Bake Off,” Francis grumbled, placing the phone on one of the few spaces on the counter that was relatively flour free. “It’s some knock off or other, hasn’t even had it’s first season yet.”
“It have a name yet?” In lieu of answering, Francis carefully tipped the contents of a mixing bowl into the prepared baking dish. Chiffon cakes were finicky, and one false move could spell disaster.
“Frank?” Blanky might be fifty miles away, but Francis could hear that bastard’s smug smirk straight through the wires and satellites and whatever other miracles of technology that were responsible for this call he was already regretting. “Frank, what’s the name of the show?” Francis mumbled the name quickly among the clatter of rearranging the baking pan, evening out the batter before delicately placing the cake inside the oven and slowly closing the door.
“Didn’t quite catch that, duck.” Francis ran a damp towel over the top of the mixer. The fine sheen of flour that covered the machine continued out in a starburst pattern around the outline of its base, evidence of the orange sponge he made earlier. One day, Francis would remember not to turn the machine up to five just after he added a fresh cup of flour. Today was simply not that day.
“It’s… it’s only a working title, you understand,” he began, tentatively.
“Aye, get on with it.”
“You alright? Sounds like you’re about to crack a tooth from all that smiling.”
“Nothing compared to what’s coming. What is it called, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier?”
“It’s called -” Francis huffed into the phone, commended his soul to a god he wasn’t quite sure he still believed in. “Right now, it’s called…” He sighed. “It’s called Barrow’s Baking Boys.”
Francis was tempted to fling the phone straight into the sink to escape the ensuing peals of laughter.
“Esther!” He heard Blanky cry once the laughter tapered off. Sounded like he was tramping through the halls of his rambling Yorkshire home. “Esther you have got to hear this -”
“I’m hanging up now!”
“Like fuck you are, not before you tell my wife exactly what you just told me -”
“I mean what else are they supposed to call it?” Francis ran a sudsy hand through his thinning hair. “There’s not a single woman - well, one of the judges I think, but the whole idea is -”
“Boys? Barrow’s baking BOYS though? Couldn’t be Barrow’s Bakers or something - anything - I mean, Christ Frank you’re fifty fucking years old!”
“I know I can always rely on you to improve my mood.”
“Don’t get your short pants in a twist - looks like the wife’s gone out, anyway.”
“To flee that braying laugh, I assume.”
“You adore my laugh,” Blanky was in his kitchen now, opening and closing drawers.
“What are you looking for?”
“Spoon to eat this damn yoghurt with - When’s it airing?”
“When is it airing? Your little baking boy blue show or whatever the fuck.”
“No fucking clue. Tapings start in a few weeks. Don’t even know if it will air.”
“Well let me know when you do. I’m going to record every episode.”
“I’m hanging up now -”
“Hire one of those youtubers from the internet, have them do a documentary - ‘The Irishman who beat the Brits-’” Francis clicked off the phone and basked in the sudden silence.
The name was fucking stupid.
A former Navy man, Francis Crozier now lives in London, with his dog Neptune. He began baking after leaving the service, as a way to reconnect with his Irish roots. He’s hoping to prove he’s just as good a baker as he ever was a sailor
Of course tapings couldn’t just start. There was an incredible amount of nonsense to deal with before he even set foot on set. It began with a stack of legal documents thick as the family bible his Nan kept on a special table near the telly when he was a boy. Each and every page required an initial or signature, and though he made a valiant effort to finally, for once, pay attention and read all the fine print, it was a futile effort. By page seventeen the tiny letters were swimming. By page thirty-seven F and C had ceased to be representations of his own name and had taken on the guise of esoteric shapes his hand was forced to make over and over again, and the legalese on each page might as well have been Czech for all he understood it.
His home was invaded by a small army that called themselves a production crew a week after he’d signed what he assumed was his soul away, headed by a fearsome general in the form of Thomas Jopson, one of the production assistants. Their assignment was to film a little filler about Francis’ life, and while Francis assumed this is where the friends and family members of other contestants would gush about their cooking and their talent, the only other living creature in Francis’ flat was a large Newfoundland by the name of Neptune, who tried to tackle the cameraman three times before being convinced to go lie down on his bed.
“Let’s get you put to rights then, sir,” Jopson said, and Francis wondered what on earth he meant by this until Jopson indicated his outfit. “I’m assigned as wardrobe as well, I’m afraid. Do you have something in blue, perhaps?”
“What’s wrong with this?” Francis asked, perhaps more defensively than he ought. He knew he should have gone with the blue jumper - only, well, it had been a gift from someone, their last Christmas together, when she was already thinking of leaving.
“Nothing sir, nothing at all! Only it would bring out your eyes more, might look a little better on camera.”
Francis thought about it. Thought about who might be watching. Then he went and changed.
The setup and filming were another series of indignities. They filmed him awkwardly kneading biscuit dough and grousing to Neptune about how what he was making was “absolutely not for dogs” in a stupid voice he felt embarassed by the moment the sounds were out of his mouth.
In the weeks after, Francis suffered through what seemed like a thousand phone calls between himself and that same PA who was seemingly coordinating the travel arrangements, accommodations, and wardrobe for the entire production all on his own. Francis would have been impressed if he wasn’t furiously stressed about forgetting something stupid in his packing. Contestants were free to bring their own ingredients (with certain limitations), and Francis had packed a veritable bushel of cherries from the farm up the road, as well as his favorite tea, and chocolate all in meticulously labeled containers with his name in big sharpied letters on the bottom.
Finally, the dreaded weekend itself couldn’t even kick off without Francis’ least favorite thing of all: forced social interaction in the form of a fucking meet and greet with all the judges, hosts, and bakers.
This was why he spent the better part of the morning scowling into the depths of his closet for something that was “complimentary,” as Thomas Jopson had called it. (“I’ve separated your wardrobe into what might look better on camera, and what might not. Feel free to mix and match, and if you’re unsure you can always bring a bunch and ask for some help on set!”) It had been said in a way that implied it would be better to just take things from the correct side of the rack (and it would be a cold day in hell before he solicited opinions on his clothing from strangers), so Francis couldn’t help but wear horribly mismatched socks, just out of spite.
The event was hosted inside the walls of the estate they had chosen as the production site, a dreary old thing in desperate need of care managed by a young married couple who seemed incapable of providing it. He didn’t know what he expected when he walked into the reception room, but a table piled high with store bought biscuits and cakes and a urn of stewed tea while a handful of contestants stood around and tried to make small talk probably wasn’t it, and the impression of this being nothing more than a cheap Bake Off knock off lorded over all like the proverbial conqueror worm. The other men all looked over to him as he entered, and he fought the urge to cower into his dark green cardigan with the frayed bit at the sleeve. Instead he straightened out his spine and stalked over to the table full of brightly colored name tags, found his quickly enough, and retreated to the teacakes to survey the room as if it were the site of an impending battle.
Well, he would have done that, if the moment he didn’t arrive at his post a tall fellow in a suit cut so well it should be illegal peeled himself away from the sparse group that had set up camp in the center of the room and walked over to him, stuck his hand out and introduced himself.
“James Fitzjames,” he said, in a deep voice with a winning smile set in a handsome face surrounded by impeccably coiffed hair. “Pleasure to meet you.” Francis shook the man’s warm, broad hand, trying to remember what words were. “Francis Crozier, I presume? Unless you’ve stolen your tag under false pretenses of course.” James laughed at his own joke and Francis wondered where in the world this guy had come from.
“No, it’s - er - me.”
“Excellent!” James replied, like owning his own name was an achievement. “Love the cardigan. Real wool, yes?” Yes. Real wool and a frayed sleeve upon a ridiculous looking man who looked even more so standing next to this - this -
“Yeah. The PA told me to wear it.” Francis muttered. What the fuck was going on. Was he one of the hosts? No, there was no way, Francis knew who the hosts were, and this wasn’t one of them. Was it a joke? Was this part of the show and there was a camera somewhere among the woefully inadequate baked goods, placed there specifically to capture his embarrassment in this moment? “I see wardrobe got to you already,” Francis said, idiotically, indicating James’ outfit. “Did he separate your whole closet into do’s and do not’s too?”
“Did he? I thought I was going to drive that boy - oh what’s his name, you know, the one with that very serious face?”
“Jopson?” “Yes! I thought he was going to stab me with my own cutlery if I spent one more minute debating the color of my jacket. He was out the door the moment that little bumper was filmed, didn’t even look in my closets.”
So it was just Francis who couldn’t be trusted with his own clothes. Francis opened his mouth to say something rather impolite, but before he could get a single word in one of the younger, almost equally handsome gentlemen called over to James.
“James? What were you saying about India? Graham here says he went a few years ago.”
“Ah,” James’ smile acquired a rueful countenance for a moment before reforming itself into something shining again. “Please excuse me.”
What the fuck was that all about?
Francis resumed his post, watched the rest of the contestants filtered in one by one. Most of them were on the younger side of middle aged men, although two of them looked young enough to still be in high school. Francis desperately hoped he wouldn’t be the oldest one there, but then, as so often throughout his life, Francis got his wish delivered in a tattered box with a bow as hideous as it was ironic.
“You have to be fucking kidding me.”
He didn’t mean to say it out loud. It was only that John Franklin, John Fucking Franklin, walked right through the door with that stupid smug grin on his face, saying hello to everyone and shaking hands and being his most aggrandizing, affable self -
Francis was frozen to the spot. How could anyone be this unlucky? What had he ever done to deserve -
“Francis!” Fuck. Franklin had noticed him, was waving him over - delighted, or at least giving the sincerest impression of it. “I don’t believe my eyes! Whatever are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’re one of the bakers as well?”
Francis forced his face into some semblance of a pained smile.
“Afraid so, John,” he managed, taking Franklin’s extended hand. The ensuing shake was rather less like a greeting of old acquaintances and more the grip of old business partners whose former venture had not ended well. They stood there for a moment, staring at each other.
“How is Sophia?” Francis blurted out, before he could stuff the mortifying words back into his mouth. Franklin’s face blanched at the name, then settled into something dangerously approaching condescension.
“She’s well,” Franklin said, though the smile no longer reached his eyes.
“That’s - that’s good.”
“Mmm. I’ll mention your name the next time I see her.” He would not.
“Appreciated.” He didn’t mean it. The shadow of Sophia, Franklin’s niece, Francis’ ex fiance, settled over them like a shroud, and they managed one more painful, drawn out nod of acknowledgement before Franklin wandered off to go find anyone else to talk to.
Francis spent the better part of the next twenty minutes standing alone and telling himself he was assessing the competition. The rest of them had sectioned off into groups - The two younger boys, David and Thomas, by their name tags, were having an animated discussion about their A levels that caused Francis to pass a hand over his face to feel every wrinkle carved into his skin.
James was entertaining the largest group with some story that had started out about India and wound its way to China, and would most like have come ‘round to Argentina before long if someone didn’t stop him. The little cluster of admirers around him showed no chance of doing so, and Francis swung back a sip of tepid tea the same way he used to throw back whiskey.
He pulled the cup away from his face when he felt a strange pricking at the back of his neck, like someone was watching him. There, at the threshold of the door, stood a short, rat faced man who must have just arrived, and Francis could have sworn the man grinned at him before turning away.
Before he could even begin to process that ominous tableau, a horrible clamour came from the double doors at the end of the room, and the hosts, James Ross and Henry LeVesconte tumbled into the room, all smiles and jokes.
“Our victims! They’re quite the handsome bunch, aren’t they James?”
“They’re our contestants, Dundy, not our victims, we’ve talked about this-”
“Oh of course! And our friends! We’ll be together for the next ten weeks-”
“Some of us, anyway -”
“Now don’t scare them off already -” They continued in this fashion until they reached the small podium that had been set up on the side of the room for just this purpose, feigned jockeying for position until LeVesconte quit the field and made a show of grumbling in a folded chair to the right.
“Welcome everyone,” Ross began. “Welcome to the first of hopefully many seasons of Barrow’s Baking Boys.” Almost on cue, a chorus of groans sprang up from the crowd and Ross waved his hands for silence.
“I know, I know, but it’s a working title, we’ll find something…”
“Better?” LeVesconte offered.
“We’ll find something, at any rate.” Grumbling laughter followed this declaration, and Ross propped an elbow up on the podium, the picture of casual camaraderie.
“Now, for everyone under the age of thirty, I’m James Ross, famous for straight to video films, being the guy in a guest appearance on telly that you just can’t place, and I hear tell that I’m an excellent late night talk show guest, especially in a pinch.” Ross, in Francis’ estimation, was selling himself short. Ross has been quite the hearthrob in some early 90s romantic comedies, before marrying one of his co-stars from some regency drama and gladly fading into relative obscurity. Francis thought he’d always been one of the better actors on the screen, though that wasn’t the highest praise considering the usual caliber of the rest of the cast.
(Francis would know. He’d seen all Ross’ movies.)
“I’ll be one of your very dedicated hosts, along with Mr. LeVesconte here -”
“Call me Dundy!” The former pop star was settling into middle age quite well, a spark in his eyes and a spring in his step. Francis was familiar with him only by sight. The kind of music Dundy made with his group had certainly not been what Francis was listening to as the 80s crawled into their grave and the 90s danced merrily atop it.
“We’ll be with you through all the laughter and the tears!”
“More laughter than tears, of course.” An uncomfortable chuckle, the sort you’d give your boss if he made a passable pun in the third hour of a meeting that could have been an email, swept through the room. Francis took some comfort in this, because it meant that everyone else was at least as nervous as he was despite the best efforts of their hosts.
“Dundy, I think they ought to meet their judges!”
“Agreed! Of course if you’ve read the materials already, you know who your judges are.”
“Or if we’ve heard that title!” Franklin shouted, and this was met with cringes and amused mutters in equal measure.
“Ah yes, well, let us introduce you to the man behind the production, Mr. John Barrow!” The double doors at the end of the room shuddered, and John Barrow walked in to smiles and cheers. When the crowd (such as it was) settled down, he took to the podium, vacated by James Ross with an appropriate flourish.
“Welcome, welcome!” he began. “You have no idea how delighted I am to see you all here in person! Now, I may not be as famous as some other well known bakers-” Francis fought mightily to keep his eyes from visibly rolling. John Barrow had published a veritable regiment of cookbooks, produced at least three television shows, and, most recently, been a contestant on a wretched American program called “Dancing With the Stars.” (He’d lost in the third episode, claimed a bad knee.) “-But I wanted to spend my twilight years working on a legacy that any chef should be proud of: fostering the next generation of quality bakers and chefs from our proud little island.”
“Islands,” Francis muttered under his breath.
“And now it is my pleasure to introduce the second judge of our little program. She’s been blowing up the international circuit for the last decade, established four successful businesses with many more on the way, and she’ll be the one making sure all of us men stay in line.” Francis cringed at the line, and it landed in the crowd with the void of silence that such a joke merited. “Ah well,” said Barrow, pressing on through the reaction to his outdated misogyny. “Here she is, Ms Silna Karetak.”
Silna Karetak burst through the double doors and walked into the room with the confidence of a five star general and the wry amusement of the underling who knew all his secrets.
“I can’t believe it!” murmured one of the men behind Francis, the one with the bright eyes and curly mop of black hair. “I had no idea she’d be the guest judge!”
“Would you like to say a few words?” Barrow asked as she approached, deaf to the whispers of admiration that swept around her. She shrugged, and took Barrow’s place at the podium.
“Do your best,” she said, leaning into the microphone, that small smile on her lips. “I’ll be watching.”
The evening wrapped up quickly after that, and after some perfunctory handshakes sprinkled among the others on his way out the door Francis was finally able to escape back to his car and speed to the hotel they’d all been booked in before anyone else could try and introduce themselves.
He entered the serviceable hotel room, threw his suitcase in the closet and himself on the bed. There were a few texts from Tom that had been waiting for him all afternoon, the notification lingering there in the top right of his phone like an anxious accusation.
Blanky: How’s our Best Baking Boy then?
Francis: He’s too terrible to be mad at that joke
Blanky: Lucky me
Blanky: what happened?
Francis: you won’t believe who’s here
Blanky: I don’t play guessing games, duck
Francis: fucking John Franklin
Blanky: Well fuck
Blanky: he’ll be out in two weeks time
Francis: i have fuck all to wear
Francis: if he’s here you know who’s going to be watching
Francis: god I can’t wear a jumper she’s bought for me she’ll see it and she’ll know
Blanky: I told you to burn them all
Blanky: still could. I’ll bring the torch over on Monday.
He put his phone aside and stared up at the pilled ceiling of his hotel room, aching for a drink. There was a bar downstairs, he could blow up his last two years of progress and all the work he had done to be ready for this show in one fell swoop.
He tried to find patterns in the ceiling until room service arrived.
James Fitzjames started baking in Uni while studying law. He loves to travel, and friends and coworkers alike are delighted by his bakes, which are inspired by flavors from his journeys all across the globe.
Immediately upon his arrival at his station the next morning for their first proper day of taping, Francis began a mental tally of all the ways that Bake Off could, would, and should sue the production for being such a blatant rip off. There they were in a tent on an estate, twelve baking stations, two hosts, two judges -
“Morning!” someone said from behind him, far too chipper for so early. James Fitzjames. Francis grumbled an appropriate sort of response over his shoulder and returned to reviewing his recipe for the trademark round for what must have been the thirty-seventh time since breakfast.
“Excited for the day?” Christ, was he going to keep talking the entire time? Maybe that was his gimmick, chatting up the bakers around him to distract them, keep them off their game. It was no matter. Francis would be a rock, an island -
“I’m not a bit nervous, myself,” James confessed, and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Been practicing this one all week.”
“Is that right?”
Well, it was better than having Franklin behind him, at any rate.
At least that’s what Francis thought, before the tent began filling up with the rest of the contestants and production crew and Francis learned that Fitzjames had a kind greeting or a witty quip for what seemed like every single one of them. By the time he’d thanked the sound guy for coming round to do testing and gotten caught up in a ten minute conversation during which Francis learned more about the man’s husband than he had ever wanted to know (“works on this production too, actually, he’s in charge of the editing, an artist he is, oh yes, five years now, met on the set of this awful melodrama that never made it past the pilot”) that Francis began grinding his teeth.
This continued throughout the first round, as Franics wound his way through his uncomplicated cupcake recipe (“Oh, almond flour!” James said to Gore. “Finicky thing that, why I remember once I tried to make -), his icing (“No, John of course they’re not illegal! And I couldn’t very well have poppy seeds in the batter without piping them on the top!”), and well into his decorations (“Not really worried at all, actually!” he said to the cameras on their fifth pass. “Everything is going rather well!”) Francis had a few uncharitable thoughts as he glanced at his own bake, which was looking more unremarkable by the moment compared to the rest, and when the cameras swung round to him he couldn’t think of anything more to say that “Not bad, I suppose,” before going red with embarrassment and pretending he had to add more vanilla extract to his second batch of royal icing.
Even the hosts could not escape James, not that they wanted to. His charisma (and his looks) were perfect fodder for audiences, and they kept coming back around to ask about what he was making, how it tasted, and to jokingly try and sneak samples from the scraps.
“Well these look divine!” Dundy said from James’ station, bent over the little flowers James had been piping out for the last few minutes and carefully placing into their shared freezer.
“Have one, if you like,” Fitzjames said. “Though I warn you, they’re mainly just -”
“Icing! It’s delicious,” Dundy said, through a mouthful of red frosting, and he happily trotted off to go assail Gore over what looked like a pile of macarons that had gone all wrong.
Francis' efforts to ignore him were frustrated by the fact that the tea he could have sworn he packed in along with the rest of his ingredients was nowhere to be found. How could he bury his rolled eyes and twisted lips into a mug of tea if there were no tea to be had? If he wasn’t fast enough then it was only a matter of time before -
“Chocolate with strawberry?” Too late. James nudged his chin in the direction of Francis’ cupcakes, tilted his head with the question.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, no of course not, it was one of my favorite combinations when I was younger.”
“Yes! They’re simpler, you know, not nearly as complicated as these.” He swept his hand across his lemon poppyseed confections, just waiting to be topped with the piped flowers that were currently chilling in the freezer. “But I think that makes them -”
“Not everyone needs to be so ostentatious,” Francis snapped. It wasn’t that he’d been feeling the extent of the simplicity of his own cupcakes since the moment everyone moved onto the decoration phase, watching several bakers craft cupcakes that made his own look like bake sale rejects. For fuck’s sake, was Stanley injecting jam into those gelatin cubes with a syringe?
He hadn’t thought it would be so… Competitive? That was stupid, it was a competition, after all, and he wasn’t about to admit as much to Fitzjames and his bake which was Practically Perfect in Every Way. Francis would make up for it in the next week - if he got there at all. He could be more extravagant - he just needed to get through this, and Fitzjames breathing down his neck certainly wasn’t helping. James, at last chastened by Francis’ snapping at him, refrained from speaking to him further, a fact which would have been bearable if instead he didn’t have to listen to the animated conversation between James and fucking Franklin (who should have been watching his chocolate wafers in the oven) go on behind him for the next twenty minutes.
Where the fuck was his tea? He could smell it, he knew he could, where was the damn tin -
“What are you drinking there?” Franklin asked James, as if on cue. “Smells divine!”
“Oh, you don’t have a tin?”
“Then I’m not quite sure! It ended up in my supplies, thought they gave it to everyone, really-”
He couldn’t even have his own tea.
Almost taken aback by his own ire, Francis spun around and saw, there, next to Fitzjames’ caster sugar, his very own tin of tea, the one he paid a king’s ransom for in a speciality shop down in Soho.
“Something wrong, Francis?” Fitzjames asked, warily.
“So you just thought they gave everyone a tin of tea, did you?”
“Oh - is this yours?” Francis snatched the tin out of his outstretched hand, turned it over to reveal his own name there on the bottom in black sharpie, and Fitzjames at least had the decency to look chagrined. “How foolish of me - I shouldn’t have assumed! Lovely blend there -”
“Irish breakfast, no doubt,” said Franklin with a chuckle. “Don’t mind Francis, you know he’s rather possessive over his drinks!” When this also brought a laugh forth from Fitzjames, any lingering warmth Francis had gotten from the compliment to his taste in tea vaporized like water in a boiling pot. He returned to icing his cupcakes with the sort of vicious precision one might give to a strongly worded note.
Despite the care he thought he had taken, Francis’ bake turned out in the middle of the pack, having been a “bit simple” in Silna’s estimation, but still having “decent texture and professional presentation,” according to Barrow. He took the critique as well as he could, promised himself that he would learn and adapt, like he always did, and was making a few alterations to the cake he had planned for the next day before the judges had finished with the next baker.
Irritatingly, James’ cupcakes were ohhed and ahhed over by Barrow, who pronounced their texture as “sublime” and their flavoring “exquisite.” Silna had more to say on their decoration, and seemed almost impressed by the delicacy of the piped poppy flowers. Other standouts were Ned Little’s mini chocolate blackout cakes, and Harry Goodsir’s matcha cupcakes with white chocolate frosting, which Silna proclaimed to be the “perfect balance of bitter and sweet.” Barrow mumbled that he didn’t care much for matcha, and would defer to Silna on the matter.
David Young, who had been struggling since the day began, had small a disaster when the raspberry filling that was supposed to stay inside his cupcakes leaked out all over the presentation board.
“Looks like blood,” Silna observed, as the red, viscous liquid dripped to the floor, and the boy flushed crimson in embarrassment.
“Don’t be so harsh!” Barrow exclaimed. “See, I’m sure they taste just fine.” Barrow’s face immediately after he took a bite told an entirely different story. Young hung his head down, as if that would hide the red creep of shame spreading across his boyish features.
“First cut is the deepest, bakers!” Ross said, all smiles when the judging had finished. “Now go run off to the house and get your lunch, we’ll see you back here for the proficient round!”
Lunch was a solitary affair for Francis, choosing as he did to eat inside while the rest of them set out to enjoy the lovely grounds, try to sneak a glance at the judges tent, or sit in conversation on the rickety plastic chairs out on the lawn.
Fitzjames was, for the first time since the day began, not talking. He was listening intently to Franklin, who was shaking his head and speaking of something in low murmurs. Francis’ stomach dropped out as he saw his own name pronounced on Franklin’s lips, and James’ eyes flashed towards him for a moment before falling back down to the sandwich on his plate.
David Young: I know I can do better than this. I just don’t want to look foolish in front of the others
James Fitzjames: I’m rather happy with their comments, yes
Harry Goodsir: Perfect! Silna Karetak called my cupcakes perfect! it doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
Francis Crozier: Perhaps it was too simple. Oh well. Onward.
Stephen Stanley: I found their judgement to be satisfactory.
John Franklin: Of course he liked them, don’t tell him but I got the idea out of his first cookbook. With any luck he’s forgotten all about that by now!
“Next up is the proficient round!” Ross greeted them as they shuffled into the tent after lunch. “Our judges have cooked up something very interesting for your first proficient, so good luck, and get baking!” Francis chuckled to himself as he traced the intricate curlicues on the title PROFICIENT atop the recipe before examining the ingredients that had been prepared from him beforehand. The cake was a blackberry baba with spiced cream, something Francis could have made in his fucking sleep, but before he could review the instructions, he felt that prickle again, the one on the back of his neck.
“What’s so funny?” Hickey, the rat faced man from the night before, asked from across the aisle.
“The trademark,” Francis replied, after a moment’s hesitation, naming the similar round from Bake Off. “The ‘proficient.’ A bit like they took all those rounds from Bake Off and ran them through a bloody thesaurus and settled on the fifth result, isn’t it?” Hickey smiled a smug little grin and shrugged, returning to his own work.
Francis did the same. He tuned out all the noises around him, concentrating on weighing (a frustrated sigh from behind him, perhaps Fitzjames was not so accomplished as he acted), combining his ingredients (a dismayed cry from the man at the back of the tent, Little, when he realized he’d put salt in the recipe instead of sugar and would have to start again), stuck the thing in the proofing drawer (in front of him Stanley was cleaning his station so rigorously it was making his own shake), and set about preparing the spiced cream.
Once the cream was setting he still had time, and Francis tapped his fingers on the countertop, wishing for the first time that he had his phone with him, to at least have something to occupy his time with while he waited for the damn cake to proof. Around him was a complicated dance of shrugs and bemused smiles.
“No idea how long to leave it in there,” Irving said to the camera in his face. “Doing a bit of guesswork, I suppose.” There were murmurs of assent around the room, and Francis wondered just how many of them were genuine, how many were feigned.
“I think that should just about do it,” James said, when the cameras came round to him, and he took his cake out of the proofing box with a wink. “Don’t want it to go flat!”
No chance of that, Francis thought to himself. No chance at all.
Taking their cue from James, several of the younger bakers (and John Franklin) also made the move from the proofing box to the oven. Francis tried very hard to keep a straight face as he predicted the shabby, oddly textured cakes they were sure to produce. He waited until the last possible moment, ignored the frayed looks from those around him, and completely refused to sit down on the floor and watch the cake bake as Ned Little was doing, so he drummed his fingers on the counter until the timer dinged.
When Francis turned his cake out onto the board, it felt like one of the only rewards for his own patience he’d ever gotten.
It looked perfect.
He hurried past James on his way to place the cake alongside the others at the front of the room, and when the man made some noise of admiration Francis stifled it with what he hoped was a withering look.
“Too complicated for you?” Francis asked, pointing his chin in the direction of James’ misshapen cake. James gave a helpless shrug.
“Never dreamed of putting yeast into a cake.”
“Odd attitude, for someone competing in a baking competition.” James clicked his mouth shut, and Francis took his chance in the ensuing silence to slip away from the conversation. He found a spot in the line of uncomfortable, high backed chairs with the rest of the bakers while Silna and Barrow arrived to make their judgements. This round was judged blind, and the judges would have no idea which cake belonged to which baker until the end. The bakers knew, though, and there was more than one hand passed over an anxious brow as the judges tasted cakes, made faces, laughed about the appearance of one and the texture of the next.
That Young boy seemed more stressed than most, having come in just above the other boy, Evans. Their overproofed cakes sat squat and flat, topped with watery icing they hadn’t given a chance to set. Francis took a bitter joy in James Fitzjames also placing in the bottom six, with his underproven texture. And as for Francis himself?
He came in first.
He tried not to look too smug about it on the way out of the tent.
Ned Little: Salt. How did I put in salt? Jesus fucking christ - oh my god did I just swear -
Henry Collins: Hrm? Oh. I did all right, I suppose. My gran used to make something like it, must have helped her a few times.
John Irving: -had no idea the timing so I just said a quick little prayer and hoped for the best!
Thomas Evans: Well, yeasted things aren’t my forte, I suppose. I better watch out for bread week then, eh?
The cars took those without their own transportation back to the hotel, but not everyone was staying the night. Franklin declared that his “wife wouldn’t hear of him sleeping not a twenty minute drive down the road” and bid farewell to anyone who would listen. Evans and Young were too inundated with schoolwork for their parents to trust them on a weekend away and were herded into station wagons by mothers who seemed excited and harried in equal measure. Stanley muttered something about the inadequate standards of the average hotel before slipping into a Corsa driven by a smiling, kind-faced, man who improbably greeted the dour Stanley with a kiss.
Francis ordered room service again, texted Blanky (“who’s this James fellow then to put such a bee in your little bonnet”) and went to stretch his legs around seven to stave off the feeling of being a wolf trapped in a terrible roadside zoo. But when Francis passed by the hotel bar on the way to his rooms afterwards he spotted a batch of the contestants crowded around a table, laughing over something happening in the football match on the television.
He hurried past, the twinge, that constant pressure he felt his whole life of being an outsider, would not pierce him too much. Not tonight. He had some planning to work on for tomorrow, shouldn’t be in the bar anyway. It had been two years in his recovery, and he was far enough along to recognize the danger of temptation when he felt it.
As if in both direct and horrible response to his thoughts at the moment, James Fitzjames strode towards him from the lobby just as he reached the lifts. Francis hunched his shoulders as he pressed the button, perhaps he could -
“Francis!” Damn. No such luck.
“James?” he began, turning around and trying not to concentrate on James’ charming smile, his perfectly pressed suit (did people actually use those hotel irons?), the curls that elegantly framed his face, and failed utterly on all counts.
“Just coming in?”
“Keeping tabs on me now, are you?”
“No, not at all, it’s -” James hummed, and his eyes flicked away. Where was that damn elevator? “I just thought maybe we’d got off on the wrong foot.”
“Oh? Whatever gave you that impression?
“The tea was an accident, really, but I shouldn’t have opened my mouth about your trademark bake the way I did-”
“Especially not after that proficient round, eh?” James nodded with a sheepish smile, and was that a hint of softness in his eyes?
“Indeed. Was wondering if maybe we could try our introductions again?” That smile widened, turned rakish, and Francis got his hackles up at once. No one smiled at Francis like that, not unless they wanted something. “Maybe I can buy you a drink?”
And there it was. All thoughts of the vulnerability in James’ eyes went right out the window. It was an act, it was all just a fucking act so he could have a laugh with the lads in the next room.
“Ah yes, offer the recovering alcoholic a drink, that’s very funny,” Francis snarled. “No one’s ever tried that one on me before.” James’ eyes went wide and a flush that might have been embarrassment in a man with more shame crept onto his cheeks, but Francis would not be fooled again.
“Francis I’m sorry, I didn’t -”
“You and Franklin have been thick as thieves all day,” Francis shot back, and James’ brows drew together. “The man can’t go six minutes in my presence without bringing up the tragic tale of how I had the audacity to try and join his family; there’s no way you spent six hours together with me three feet away and escaped it.” Francis again remembered lunch, the afternoon sun, his name on Franklin’s lips. James probably began plotting this whole set up right then and there. “Now if you don’t mind I’d like to get some sleep. Spend your night entertaining someone else.”
“Francis I swear I had no idea -”
“Save it,” Francis threw the words over his shoulder, and did not look back.
David Young lives in Kent, with his mother and grandmother. He’s been baking with them since before he could reach the table. Next year, David plans to attend university, where he will continue a lifelong interest in science and study microbiology.
“Rise and shine, bakers!” Dundy greeted the bedraggled lot of them as they stumbled into the tent the next morning, trailing mud and rainwater in along with them. “It’s a typical English Sunday but I’m sure we can brighten it up with some color on our cakes!” “And in them!” Ross added. “As you all know, your task today is to create a lovely battenburg with at least two flavors of cake, decorated to a stunning finish.”
“You may use any kind of layering pattern or flavors you like but there must be more than three layers.”
“Remember, it’s the Centerpiece Round, so your cakes should be the main event of any gathering of family and friends!”
“Get to baking!” The moment the words left Dundy’s mouth there was a great clamor of bowls placed on stations, scales being arranged, dry ingredient containers being wrestled open. Francis began on his cherries, before anything, because although the method he looked up the night before seemed simple, he had had no time to practice at all. He needed something to improve on his presentation from yesterday, and the night before he remembered one of the bakeries in Bainbridge from his childhood, the one he always ran into on his way to his Nan’s. There had always been cakes and tarts and pies in the window, and the bakery loved covering each and every one of them with -
“Frosted cherries!” James Ross appeared at his elbow out of nowhere, and Francis almost dropped the cherry he was painting with egg white. “I haven’t seen these since… Jesus it’s been ages!” Francis’ worries (it was too old fashioned, he looked like an old grandpa next to all these young men and their interesting piping methods) faded in light of Ross’ next words “I love frosted cherries!”
“Well,” Francis said, remembering Fitzjames and Dundy’s exchange from the day before and picking up one of the sugared ones with his free hand. “Have at one, if you like. They won’t be done yet but -” Ross had already plucked the fruit from Francis outstretched fingers.
“Divine!” he exclaimed, through a mouthful of fresh fruit. “It’s going to be delicious!” Francis’ heart soared in ways that had to do with just why he had seen all of Ross’ movies back in the 90s, and nothing could dampen his spirits as he finished up his cherries and began his cake batter - not even the curious little “harumphs” from the station behind him.
He couldn’t help but be distracted fifteen minutes later, when he had just bent down to put his chocolate cake in the oven only to hear a fantastic clatter and an abruptly choked back curse word from behind him. He turned to see Fitzjames, his apron and station covered in the flour he spilled out of his scale, a flush on his cheeks. Francis bit back the mumble of sympathy that threatened to escape his lips and went right back to worrying over the recipe for his mirror glaze, and sketching out the cake decoration for the third time that day.
At the beginning of the third hour, just as Francis was beginning to pipe along the edges of the mirror glaze on his cherry and almond cake, the first tears of the taping began.
It was David Young, an eventuality that could have been seen by anyone with a working set of eyes. After hours of stumbling over his cakes, remaking one of his sponges entire, watching one of his layers collapse under the other after stacking them, it had been too much for the boy, and though he wiped the tears away as fast as he could, no one could mistake the hitched sob in the tense atmosphere of the tent. Uncertainly, Francis raised his eyes from his piping. In front of him, Stanley turned around, sniffed once in displeasure, and returned to completing his pristine caramel decorations on his flawlessly iced cake. Fitzjames looked back at him once, with wide eyes, before something slammed shut behind them and his gaze fell back down to his station. Someone should do something, before Franklin told him to keep a stiff upper lip or some other such drivel and the lad ran out of the tent.
Just as Francis made a hesitant step towards the boy, Goodsir, from in the back of the room, headed down the aisle, wiping his hands on the front of his apron and affixing a genial smile to his face. His cake, a motley of pink and green, sat neatly at the edge of his table, the few remaining decorations he abandoned beside it.
“It’s alright,” he soothed, patting Young on the shoulder when he reached him, deftly blocking the sweep of the camera that had honed in on the drama. Young shook his head and screwed his eyes shut. “Let’s see if we can’t salvage something out of all this?”
“It’s ruined,” Young blubbered. “I can’t get it to - it’s not working like it worked at home.”
“It’s not ruined!” Dundy said, swiftly covering his left, where the camera had tried to sneak around. “If those scraps I stole earlier are anything to go on it’ll taste scrumptious!”
“Why don’t we try to thicken up this icing, hm?” Goodsir continued, indicating the powdered sugar. “That should give things a bit more structure, I think.”
With Goodsir’s gentle guidance, Young managed to assemble his four layers of cake and make an attempt at decoration. He finished the last of his piped roses just as time was called.
“Let’s see what you have for us then!” Barrow smiled, holding his arms wide. Beside him, Silna arched an eyebrow and said nothing.
Collins, Irving, Little, Stanley, and Gore got through their judgements with more praise than critique, and all but Stanley had small smiles as they brought their cakes back to their stations. (In Stanley’s defense, Francis didn’t think the man would smile at much of anything. He could be handed a check for a million pounds and just mutter “About time,” with that thin lipped grimace of his.) Evans suffered a blow when he was told that his icing was too gritty, and his cake tasted like hardly anything at all.
But then of course there was James, who made even a show of simply walking a few feet with his cake in hand and setting it down with a flourish.
“Ah, lovely decoration,” Barrow exclaimed.
“It’s very yellow and orange,” Silna said, her face wholly unreadable. “Reminds me of a seventies sunset.” James decided to take this as a compliment.
“Just wait till you see how it tastes!”
Francis’ hopes for a second salt-for-sugar debacle were dashed the moment the fork vanished into Barrow’s mouth and his eyes closed in what was clearly delight.
“There’s alcohol in there, but I’m not sure -”
“Grappa, yes?” Silna asked. “It was a good choice.”
“Oh yes,” James crooned. “I find the alcohol in the grappa really brings out the acidity in the passionfruit. Wouldn’t be the same without it.” Francis chewed on the inside of his cheek. Was that supposed to be directed at him? Another dig at his expense?
“Simply sublime,” Barrow proclaimed. “Thank you very much.”
Francis was next, and very pointedly did not look at James as they passed each other.
“I see we’ve gotten far more extravagant since yesterday,” Barrow said, surveying the cherries.
“Some might say a bit old fashioned,” Silna said, “But the presentation is elegant.”
“I’m a bit old fashioned myself,” Francis croaked out in his best approximation of a joke. He could feel the eye of the camera on him, and kept his gaze as straight and narrow as if he was a middie on duty while a lieutenant was having a fit in the next room.
“Let's see how it tastes!”
It wasn’t nearly as bad as he feared, all told (“the cherry is being lost in the almond,” “perhaps real cherries in the batter may have added more”) and he returned to his station with a weight lifted off his chest. The rest passed in a blur. David Young almost burst into tears again during his cake’s judgement. Barrow leveled a pointed “it looks a little unfinished” to Goodsir in regards to his cake, to which he smiled and shrugged and said nothing. Silna complimented him on his flavors and they sent him back to his bench. Franklin and Barrow blustered together like old shipmates over Franklin’s thoroughly predictable chocolate and vanilla battenburg, and Hickey was recognized for his bold use of interesting flavors. Then it was over, and they all looked at each other with manic smiles of relief.
“We’re off to make some decisions!” Ross declared, making a great deal out of herding the judges and Dundy out of the tent. “You boys have fun while we’re gone!”
It was quite obvious who would be going home and as Francis sipped his third tea of the day, he watched Evans try and comfort Young to limited success. Fitzjames chatted with Gore and Franklin, trading sponge techniques by the sound of it, even Little was engaging in conversation, if one could call apologizing profusely to the PA, Jopson, for the mess he’d made of his station a conversation. Francis shuffled from foot to foot, not nervous about his cake, which he was certain would be considered average in both presentation and flavour, but at the uneasy sense of being utterly alone in a room filled with people.
But before he had time to get too maudlin, the judges and hosts reentered the tent. They had been gone less than twenty minutes, a testament to how simple their decisions had been.
“It’s that time, for the first time!” Dundy proclaimed. “I’ve got the fun job of announcing our first Best Baker!” The room held its breath.
“I'm pleased to say that our very first Best Baker is…” he paused for effect. “James Fitzjames!”
A round of cheers went up, and Francis could scarcely see James for how the rest of them swarmed him to clap him on the shoulder or shake his hand.
“And I have the unfortunate lot of telling you all who will not be returning next week,” Ross said, when the tent had calmed down a bit. “I’m very sorry David.”
David Young: It hurts of course, no one wants to be the first one to go. But it was a wonderful opportunity and I won’t stop baking! Just need Gran to finally let me in on her secrets.
James Fitzjames: Oh it feels grand, yeah! Can’t let it go to my head though, there’s lots of weekends ahead and everyone is very talented.
Harry Goodsir: No, I think I made my cake as best I could. And if it was missing some decorations - well, there's more important things, aren’t there?
Francis, insistent on driving himself, was not obliged to stand in the gaggle of admirers surrounding James Fitzjames as they all waited for the cars that would bring them back to the station and thus escaped having to congratulate him out of politeness. Hickey strode past all of them with a sly nod of his head and got into a battered Land Rover that pulled up, driven by one of those skinny bearded types that were cluttering all the pubs.
“Thanks for the pickup, babe,” Hickey said as he opened the door. The man was unmoved by this sentiment, and rolled his eyes while waiting for Hickey to settle himself before driving off.
Francis did spare a moment for David Young, who stood forlornly off to the side of the crowd.
“It was just a bad day,” he told the boy. “Doesn’t mean you’re anything less.” David shrugged one of his shoulders, shook his head and said nothing.
That should have been the end of the weekend. And it would have been, if Francis didn’t make the mistake of glancing one more time at James as he pulled round the drive to leave.
It was his smile.
It was all wrong - nothing like Francis would have expected from someone who just won Best Baker in the first episode. It looked - strained, like it was cracking at the edges and any moment it might just snap. Then James shook his head and laughed, and whatever he saw there vanished. Francis went back to concentrating on how to navigate the narrow country lane before his stupid self wrapped his car around a tree.
He did not look back.
Join us next week, where our bakers will take on that most ubiquitous of treats, the humble biscuit.