“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.
Do I think that every chapter will be 9k? I don't. But I don't KNOW FOR SURE.
Come yell stuff at me here @soft-october-night and I'll see you all in Biscuit Week!
Last week we saw some wonderful feats of cakey confections, and a few that landed flat. This week the bakers take on biscuits, but this little treat is going to give them more than a little trouble.
Next Saturday morning, Francis began his long drive from London by fiddling with a fraying thread on the sleeve of his jacket and trying to find something on the radio that didn’t sound like absolute drivel. Perhaps Blanky had been right, and he should learn how to attach the bluetooth... thing from his phone to the car. Maybe he’d ask him about it the next time he visited, after the show was all over and done with, whatever form that took.
He was going back, of course. Neither John Franklin nor tall, irritating men in fine suits would be enough to keep him away from the prize of a few thousand and a trip to Hawaii. (“Of course you didn't lose the first week you great bloomin’ idiot!” Blanky had said on the phone when Francis called him earlier in the week. “I ate so much of that blueberry sponge nonsense you brought the last time I thought I was going to be sick and then I kept eating it. Esther was going to have to roll me out the door.”
“You’d get yourself out that door, and no mistake!” his wife had shouted in the background.)
That was another thing. Suppose he did win. What then? Who was he going to take along with him on a tropical vacation? Blanky? His dog? Would he go all by his lonesome?
Now that would be a laugh. He imagined a reel of himself, in white shorts and some hideous Hawaiian shirt, standing alone on the shore, looking out over the waves like a forlorn sea captain of old.
God, maybe he should be grateful if he lost before the final, then no one would learn just how pathetic and lonely his life was. But then that would be admitting defeat, wouldn’t it? Letting all those fine English boys run roughshod over him the same way they had done in his ten years in the Navy -
The third time he raised the ire of his fellow drivers by drifting into the right lane, he considered perhaps that he should worry about arriving at the taping before worrying about what he would do if he won.
John Irving works in an accounting office in Manchester where his coworkers have the privilege of enjoying his frequent bakes.
On the weekends John serves as a deacon in his local parish, and his pastries are the number one seller at every church bake sale.
He reached the estate without further incident (minus a text from Blanky that simply read Remember to smile you great big lug. Won’t kill you to crack a smile for the nice people that went unanswered ) and dropped off his supplies in the tent with a significant look and a mild threat if any of his things mysteriously went missing again. This wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular, and was delivered with the sort of grumbling-into-the-shelves-tone one might adopt when another customer keeps asking the clerk increasingly ridiculous questions when you’re already running late and just trying to get the fuck out of there.
After leaving the tent he made the short walk to the house (they had been mention of trailers and dressing rooms in the welcome packet, he remembered, but those seemed to have vanished along with a great many other little promises). He was waylaid almost instantly by Jopson, who appeared as if by magic the moment he opened the door with a bright “There you are, sir!.”
“Yes - er - is everything alright?” Francis fought the urge to step back.
“Of course! I noticed you didn’t respond to the emails I sent over the course of the week, so I took the liberty of compiling a folder for you.” He handed Francis the folder, red, bound with binder clips, and heavy enough to carry a sense of foreboding along with it.
“It’s only a few notes and observations from the production team, might make your time a little easier.” Francis must have been glaring, because Jopson’s smile only increased. “They’re suggestions, sir. Not requirements.”
He hadn’t seen Jopson’s emails, but in his defense he hadn’t read any emails, consumed as he was with practicing his trademark and centerpiece rounds all bloody week. His kitchen looked like someone had thrown a flour grenade through the window, he’d spent a King’s ransom on Irish cheddar, and Neptune must have gained at least a pound from all the jam that found its way to the floor in the last several days. But now it looked he was a cantankerous old man who didn’t know how technology worked, couldn’t even check his email -
“Thanks,” Francis said, for lack of anything nicer to say. He imagined his ears were already burning with embarrassment, and he vanished into one of the rooms set aside for the contestants to change. He set the folder down on the small vanity counter to flip through it, the increasing page numbers possessing a direct relationship with the slope of his frown.
It was as bad as he feared. Little “tips and tricks” on how to act when the judges came round, possible sentence starters for when he was judged, lightly worded suggestions of how to be more comfortable around the cameras.
The whole thing read like a condemnation of everything he was. If they didn’t like how he appeared on camera then why the fuck had they selected him? Did they think he was going to play nice, follow along with all the little reality show rules they had laid out just because they told him to? Francis snapped the folder shut, changed, and left the room. He brushed past John Irving in the hall, who tried to wish him luck and received barely a grunt of acknowledgement in reply.
Leave the smiles and the posturing to contestants like James and the rest, handsome young blokes who knew how to smile and charm. Francis had never known how to do any of those things, and he wasn’t about to start now for a chance at some audience sympathy whenever the damn thing aired. Let him play the villain role, for all he cared!
Francis stalked out of the house and tossed the folder into his car on the way back to the tent, slammed the door, and took a breath, trying his best to avoid his warped reflection in the glass of the window. Anyone who knew anything about the actual bakes would see the level of Francis’ skill, would see that although he wasn’t flashy or prone to wild leaps of creativity, he knew what he was doing when it came to the science of baking, the precision of it. It’s what drew him to the hobby in the first place, in the days after he’d been discharged from the service and looking for occupation in between the odd consulting job. It was peaceful, meditative, almost, to learn how the specificity of time and measurement could create something incredible. Sophia had always told him -
Well, best not think about how much she had enjoyed his baking, before his whiskey chocolate sponges became more whiskey than cake, before the silences punctuated by the scrape of forks on porcelain plates became excruciating, before she packed up and left and Francis vanished inside a bottle until -
“Good morning, Francis!” Francis shook his head, realized he was staring - no, scowling, if his face in the window was anything to go by - into the backseat of his car where he threw the red folder and James, who couldn’t take a fucking hint if it was pasted on an angry irishman’s red, freckled foreheard in letters six inches high, was behind him, his head tilted at a questioning angle. “Something wrong?”
“You’re staring at your car like you’re about to take it out back and shoot it. Has it done something terrible?” Francis bristled.
“This is just my face. We can’t all be as primped and preened as you, James,” he sneered. James’ eyes narrowed, and he bit the inside of his cheek before his lips curled into a smile that was as frayed at the edges as that damn thread on Francis’ sleeve.
“Ah, Francis, charming as ever! See you in the tent, then.” He turned sharply on his heel and marched off towards the tent, his head high, already waving at the next person he saw and not even thinking about the man staring after him. Francis shut his mouth in case someone saw him gaping like an idiot and headed into the tent himself.
The stations had been rearranged, slightly, and Francis found himself a little further towards the back, behind Collins, in front of Evans, and across from Little. He nodded politely when he was acknowledged in a greeting, but mostly kept his eyes on his own plans for the first round of the day.
“Good morning bakers!” Ross said, when they had all assembled at their stations and the judges arrived. “And welcome to Biscuit Week! Last week we saw some marvelous feats of composition and flavor, but today we're asking you to take one crucial element out of the equation for your trademark bake!”
“As an old band never said,” Dundy explained. “Don't pour some sugar on me.”
“Or on your bakes!”
“That's right, for your second trademark you will have an hour and a half to make twelve savory biscuits. They can be flavored however you like -”
“But we want to hear that snap!” Barrow interrupted.
“There were a great deal of interesting flavor combinations last week,” Silna added. “I expect to see more of the same.”
“Get to baking!”
Upon Ross’ proclamation the round began, and bakers bustled around their stations in a hive of activity. Francis started the round scrambling a bit more than he would have liked the camera that swept past his station to capture. All that practice at home on his savory cheddar biscuits and his time was always a little closer to the allotment than he was comfortable with, and with the way the oven in the tent acted with some of the other contestants last week he wasn't altogether fond of taking any chances. He was halfway through his measurements when Barrow and Silna appeared to do their little question and answer session about his bake, and he looked up at them like a deer caught in a pair of blinding headlights.
“What do you have for us today, Francis?” Barrow asked with that kindly old grandpa smile of his that Francis didn’t trust for a second.
Smile, you great big lug, Blanky’s text had read. Won’t kill you to crack a smile. It might, he thought, remembering the folder that sat in the back of his car like a skeleton rattling about in a closet, but out of respect to his friend he made his best attempt at raising one of the corners of his mouth at Silna.
“Irish cheddar biscuits,” he replied, measuring out the flour to give his stupid hands something to do. Barrow began poking through the bowls of ingredients on his station, and Francis tamped down the urge to smack his hand away.
“Is this all the cheese you’re using?” he asked.
“Yes…” Francis replied, his stomach already sinking at the tone.
“How much is that?”
“Is that…” He could feel his face heating up, knew he was about to go red with embarrassment on camera. “That’s how I’ve made it at home.”
“Ah. I’ll be interested to see how much flavor you can get with that ratio. Thanks so much.” Barrow and Silna moved on, heedless of the judge-sized crater they left in the middle of Francis’ baking station. Francis took a moment to stare into the depths of his as yet empty mixing bowl.
Should he change the recipe?
He had only made it with four ounces of cheddar before, and thought the taste was rather fine, but from the way Barrow said “one fifty” he began to second guess himself. Could he sneak a bit more cheddar in, and still have the same texture? Just a little, perhaps - what harm could it do?
He was about to reach for the grater when that stubborn streak of his slammed down the notion entirely. No. More cheddar would mean more moisture, he would have to compensate by altering the flour, then it would be a cascade of changes just because one old man had the gall to question his cheese.
Precision. He would stick to his own methods, his own measurements. This is what he told himself as he tasted the dough before he formed his biscuits. Were they blander than they'd been at home? Maybe some more paprika -
“And what do we have here?” Francis’ train of thought was suddenly derailed by a loud exclamation from Dundy at Irving’s station and there were no survivors. Dundy was clearly referring to what all the boxes of cornflakes were about and Francis wouldn’t mind elucidation on that topic himself. Irving said something in that soft voice of his and Dundy playfully gasped. “I’ll bet you’ll get quite a crisp snap with cornflakes in your oatcakes!”
“That sounds like a song, doesn’t it Dundy?” asked Ross, who had ceased trying to balance an egg on a spoon at Goodsir’s station and was coming over to join the fun.
“I’m sure I would know better than you!” The pair of them ran off, singing an off the cuff version of “oatcakes and cornflakes” to the tune of some opera standard to laughs from the contestants and crew. Even Francis found the ghost of a smile hovering about his face, which vanished completely when he turned back to look at the amount of paprika he was supposed to be putting into his biscuits.
No. He would not be altering things left and right. Baking was a science and he would stick to it, finish his dough the way he wanted to. He rolled the biscuits to half a centimeter thick (though he approximated them with his fingernail and didn’t measure with a ruler, like Stanley was doing) sliced them, arranged them on a baking tray and slid the whole mess into the oven.
Now he played the waiting game. He had nothing left to do but sip tea (which arrived at his station without further incident, thank you very much) and watch the other bakers work. Collins was having some trouble getting his bake into the oven, and was banging around his station as if loud noises might ward off a batch of anxiety. Little had resumed his post from last week: sitting on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees staring into the depths of the oven, and behind him Goodsir was carefully setting his station to rights.
James had been placed farther away from him this week, two stations ahead. Unfortunately, he was directly across the aisle from John Franklin, where they could tell each other tired, loud stories to impress the crew and hosts. Being crowned the first best baker had only encouraged James’ talkative nature, and a constant stream of words flowed from both their stations and rippled out through the rest of the contestants. James in particular was fond of dragging others into the conversation to varying degrees of success (Goodsir could be relied on for a warm smile or small addition, as could Irving or Little. Stanley was not to be distracted from his bake at all, and merely nodded in James’ direction when he was addressed.)
Francis made sure that his own eyes slid away from James each time he was on the hunt for another opinion like water off a wet rock.
When his timer went off, Francis smiled the moment he opened the oven. The bake smelled exactly right, and if they looked as good as they smelled -
They did. Twelve perfectly round biscuits with a sharp, pleasant smell. He topped them with some finely sliced toasted walnuts for an added crunch before they could cool too much, and slid them onto his presentation tray one by one. Only then did he allow himself to look at the offerings from the other bakers and placed himself (hopefully) somewhere in the top middle tier.
“Bakers, time is up!” Dundy called, and James finally ceased fiddling with the arrangement of his yellow biscuits on a shockingly red tray. The production team came round to rearrange everyone’s stations to be fit for judging.
Irving’s bake was first up on the docket, and while Barrow complimented his originality, (“Cornflakes in oatcakes! I never heard of such a thing!” Silna was unimpressed by the bland flavorings.
After Gore (“Sundried tomato! How interesting!), and Stanley (“an absolute marvel, all twelve exactly the same), it was James’ turn. His yellow biscuits were based on something he tried in Mexico, and when Silna complimented the balance of flavors he took the chance to launch into a story about an interaction in some cafe in Acapulco that would almost certainly have to be scrubbed for time. Soon enough it was Francis’ turn, and he tried to do the smile for the camera thing again as they approached.
“Francis! He of the Irish cheddar! Let’s see how yours came out!”
“I like the paprika,” Silna said. “I didn’t expect it, and I wish there was a little more of it.”
“I’m actually okay on the paprika,” Barrow hummed (no doubt there, as Francis believed Barrow was one of those typical older gentlemen for whom a dash of cumin might be too spicy) “but I just would have been happier with a little bit more cheddar.” Silna reached for another biscuit, braced it against two hands, and snapped it in half with a vicious crack.
“Nice snap,” she said, in what Francis hoped was a slightly amused tone, but she remained, as always difficult to read. She tried three more and each of them snapped with the stubbornness as the first, and Francis felt a fierce little jolt of pride each time. The judges thanked him and went off to go torture Evans (“no snap at all - the biscuit is far too moist”).
Alright. He knew Barrow was going to nail him for the flavor. But at least it had been crisp, and when the judging was complete (finishing with Franklin, who had baked a parmesan garlic biscuit passably well even if none of them looked the same) he slid the apron off his neck, threw it down at his station and turned to head to lunch along with everyone else. But there was a man at the entrance to the tent, a graying, kindly looking man with a production badge he didn’t remember seeing from the weekend before.
“Francis Crozier?” he asked, and Francis nodded. “John Bridgens, director of photography.”
“I don’t remember seeing you last week.”
“I was more behind the scenes last week, but going forward I’ll be playing a more direct role.”
“Ah.” Francis had the acute sense that he was waiting for a blow to come.
“That’s all! If you see Jopson I’ve written up a few notes I think might make the experience a little better for you.”
“Yes - er, he got them to me this morning.”
“Excellent! Any questions you have I’d be happy to help if I have a free moment -”
“John?” someone called from behind him.
“And there it is,” Bridgens smiled. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Francis marched towards the estate, wondering who else was going to receive a talking-to about their performance on camera.
Or maybe there was only room for one tight lipped, straight faced old man on this show, and, once again, Francis was the odd man out
John Irving: I got the idea from my mam, actually. She’s not - the family isn’t really into bold flavors. Growing up we had oatmeal and cornflakes more times than I’d care to count!
Thomas Evans: Eesh, yeah, I think I need to step up my game just a bit. Don’t want to be going home!
Graham Gore: Absolutely! I think it was a great success! I’m rather excited for the rest of the weekend - I’m feeling very confident.
“Ciao, panettieri!” Ross said as they filed into the tent after a lunch of thoroughly uninspiring sandwiches.
“Today for your proficient we have an Italian staple - you’ve heard of it, but I doubt many of you have tried to bake it before!” Barrow said.
“Our hint is this-” said Silna. “You’re not done when you think you are.”
“Good luck!” The judges filed out of the tent so that the round could be judged blind, and Dundy called the start time.
Francis pulled the cover off of his ingredients with something approaching a snarl of joy. Because if he was correct -
It was biscotti.
After his - well, after he finally got the help he needed, he took a long sabbatical from work and did a bit of traveling, the kind he always hoped he wouldn’t have to do alone. But at the time he was forty seven, and if he didn’t do it now, he might be waiting forever for someone to take trips with. So he pulled himself together, peeled himself away from his usual haunts, and took a several months long trip through the continent. He avoided all the touristy nonsense (which was rife with couples both in love and boiling mad at each other) and stuck to solitary walks through sprawling cities, coffee and a pastry in small shops where no one spoke a word of English. In Florence he'd found a restaurant hiding in a basement near the Ponte Vecchio, where he had the best steak he'd ever tasted. In Venice his room had been off a small campo where there was a tiny cafe only open until they sold out of their last pastry and they always closed before nine in the morning.
He'd even taken some informal cooking classes while he was at it, one of those little jobs where a local teaches hapless foreigners how to cook something they learned when they were five at their own grandmother’s knee. Francis, though frustrated with his own incapabilities at the time, enjoyed himself in the end. He learned how to make spaetzle from a lovely young woman in Munich, croissants from an excitable chap in Paris who hemmed and hawed over his pastry folds -
And biscotti from an ancient grandmother in Siena.
A quick read through of the recipe the contestants had been provided told him that his prior experience would prove quite fruitful, especially in regards to the actual baking portion of the thing.
The recipe, which was designed to be as sparse as possible to test the baker’s mettle, just said "bake." Nothing about the second bake, nothing about how thin the biscuits should be cut. Just that. Bake.
Chuckling to himself, Francis got to work, slicing and toasting the almonds until they smelled right. Irving had the same idea of tackling the almonds first while most of the other stations were blurred by motes of flour. Irving also forgot to set a timer, got distracted, and it wasn’t until Stanley snapped “What’s burning?” that he remembered with a frantic “Oh dear!”
Needless to say, Irving fell behind on his almonds.
Dundy came by, flashed a smile at him.
“It seems to me you might have made this before,” he said, wagging a finger in Francis’ direction.
“Once or twice,” Francis admitted, though it was rather more like a few dozen. He felt like he should say something else, here was an opening, after all, but he couldn’t think of anything to say, could only writhe under the scrutiny -
“That’s what we like about you, Francis,” Ross said, bounding over. “You don’t let a good conversation get in the way of your lovely bakes!” The small laugh from the surrounding bakers that punctuated this statement sucked a bit of the tension out of the room, even from Francis.
Hickey, like Franics, also knew exactly what to do, and hardly consulted the recipe as he chopped and rearranged the biscotti on the pan for their second bake. Collins, who thought he was done, looked bewildered at the actions of the others, and scrambled to follow suit.
Franklin was certainly taking his time about the whole thing, chatting with James and the cameras and acting as if he didn’t have a second bake he needed to be getting to. James, to his credit, seemed more focused, and Francis often caught him having a peek at the other bakers, a line of worry, or confusion, maybe, appearing between his brows.
Little, though -
Little had been one of the first to go into the oven, and now he stood, looking from his twelve biscotti to the timer and back again, as if the secrets to what everyone else was doing to occupy their time would suddenly appear in the space between them. He blinked slowly at Goodsir, who had already sliced his first bake and put it back in the oven. Francis shook his head, checked in on his own slices in the oven - they should be about ready to turn soon - when he heard -
“Perhaps you’d like to give it another bake, sir.”
At first, Francis was certain he must have heard incorrectly. But no, there was Jopson, bent low over Little’s station, as if checking for one of the infinitely small iotas of dust he was so good at finding and sweeping away before the cameras came round.
“Another?” Little asked him, in a choked voice. “Ow-” Little, in his effort to casually place his hand down as he consulted with Jopson, had placed an errant hand on the baking tray in front of him, and a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead as he desperately attempted to mask his pain.
“It was only a thought,” Jopson continued calmly, as if Little wasn’t ten seconds away from shoving his hand into the nearest ice bath. “And let’s take care of that burn, hrm?” When Jopson gently took Little’s hand to examine it Little’s face turned so red Francis thought the poor man was going to expire on the spot.
“I’ll fetch some silver nitrate, shall I?” After a moment, Little nodded in a slow, vaguely dazed way that he could have blamed on the heat, but he wouldn’t be fooling anyone. But before Francis could wonder at the scene any more he remembered the bake he was supposed to be watching.
The cameras came round again as he was turning out the bake onto the wooden board they had been provided for presentation (“Why did you bake it twice?” they asked him. “Because you’re supposed to,” he answered) and sat there with nothing else to do for the remaining five minutes while everyone else completed their bakes.
“No,” he heard Franklin saying to the camera, in response to some question he’d been asked. “No, I think it's fine after the first bake. Wouldn't want it to be too crunchy now, would we?” Francis’ pulse, steady throughout the entire round, turned into quite the savage little tattoo at the words.
“That’s time, everyone!” Dundy called from the front of the room. “Bakes down!” No one was still actually doing anything with their bakes except Collins, who ceased his ceaseless poking of the biscotti on his tray with a guilty sort of slunk. “Come and place your biscotti behind your picture!”
The queue to place their bakes at the front of the room was far more orderly than it had been the week before, and Francis was able to get a good look at the competition. Some were far too pale, others looked too crumbly. Like Goldilocks of old, he felt his was just right.
The judges agreed when they arrived, giving Francis’ offering a solemn nod before moving onto the next in the row, Evans’ bake, which was topped with unchopped, untoasted almonds, had such a crunch Barrow joked that he was grateful none of the teeth in his head were real. Franklin was next, and the reviews were decidedly not good.
“It doesn’t look like these were given a second bake at all,” Silna said, shaking her head. “They don’t crunch. They’re soft. And there’s something off about the almonds.” Silna shook her head and dropped the remainder of the biscuit to the board with a final sounding thunk.
“I think they were put into the batter raw,” Barrow replied. “Textbook mistake.” Franklin's smile was screwed onto his face, although Francis made it a point to look only once.
“Now these are lovely, aren’t they?” Barrow asked Silna, as they moved on to Goodsir’s.
Francis again finished in the top three of the proficient, behind Goodsir and Stanley. This triumph was not enough, however, to dampen his knowledge of the folder in the backseat of his car, which throbbed like a heart hidden under some floorboards all the way through his drive back to the hotel.
Harry Goodsir: Oh yes I’d say I have the most experience with biscuits, to be honest. You’re out on the floor for a twelve hour shift and so is everyone else, a bit tough to grab a sticky bun and go, you know?
John Franklin: Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have relied on my instincts so! Ah well, tomorrow is another day, eh?
Francis Crozier: No, no problem at all. I’m quite familiar.
James Fitzjames: -was flying by the seat of my trousers! Had no idea what I was doing, I just saw everyone else putting them in a second time - it was luck, that's all, pure luck -
Blanky: You better not be hiding up in that fucking hotel room sucking down room service again.
It was room service again, even though there were already reservations in the dining room for them and Francis has been strongly recommended to attend.
“Spend some time with your fellow contestants,” had been one of the suggestions Francis had barely read before throwing the folder back into the backseat in a fit of pique. “Audiences want to see camaraderie building between the bakers and a sense of togetherness.”
If audiences wanted to see that, well then this show had picked the wrong fucking man for the job. If they wanted to see a baker, baking things, on a baking show then -
Francis shook his head, trying to shoo away the cowebby thoughts in the attic of his brain, and flicked on the TV to find something to watch, settled on one of the less ridiculous episodes of Midsommar Murder.
He didn’t mean to spend the night lying fully dressed atop the duvet before the lull of sleep brought him under before ten pm. He wasn’t that old. He was going to go down and have a sit at the bar, maybe talk to someone else, even if it was only the bartender. It was just - he didn’t know, the stress of the day? The pressure? Maybe it was because there was one less baker in their midst, and therefore that much less room for error.
Whatever it was, he woke with a start at six am, the light streaming from the windows directly into his eyes, a crick in his neck from sleeping strangely, and the distant impression of a pleasant dream, whose shape was impossible to fathom.
He rolled over to check his phone, only to realize that he forgot to plug it into the charger and it was, subsequently, dead.
A colorful batch of epithets accompanied Francis as he prepared to go down to breakfast.
None of the other contestants were down at breakfast, at least not until Francis sat down at a table and Hickey plopped down next to him.
“Good morning,” he said, in a pleasant enough voice. “Have a good sleep?”
“Well enough,” Francis replied. He didn’t know what this man was after, but Francis knew it was something.
“You were missed at dinner last night.”
“Indeed. Several interested parties remarked on your whereabouts.” Francis was tempted to ask who, who on earth would care where he was, but that was a conversational hook Hickey was certain to reel him in on.
“Had a headache,” he said instead. “Went to bed early.” Hickey smiled, not daunted in the least at Francis’ evasive tactics.
“Eh I don’t blame you. Have a headache myself around all these types.”
“You and I - we’re both Irish, you know.” At this proclamation Hickey produced a small bottle of Tullamore Dew and tipped it into his teacup in a manner which indicated to Francis he had never done such a thing before. “It’s the two of us against the rest of them.”
“Is that right?” If Hickey was Irish then Francis was a handbasket. Was he going to produce a raw potato and start munching on it for added effect next? “Your accent could have fooled me.”
“I’ve had to hide it, as I’m sure you can understand.” He offered Francis the bottle. “To new friends?”
This man didn’t want to be friends. He wanted - something, to form some sort of alliance, to get close enough to Francis to stab him, something like that. And four years ago, Francis would have scraped his dignity out of a tumbler with a spoon and poured out a glass of whisky to drink with this rat in its place. It was funny, really. Last week when James had offered him a drink in some sort of jest he felt nothing but fury. But to look at Hickey across from him, eyes putting on their best sincerity for the occasion, he couldn’t feel much more than disdain.
“Good luck with your bake today, Mr. Hickey,” Francis said. He rose from the table without waiting for a reply.
An admirer of finer things, Graham Gore currently works as a curator at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
When he's not working or baking he can almost always be found outdoors, where he continues his lifelong love of camping and hiking.
“Good morning everyone!” Dundy greeted them when they were assembled in the tent for the Centerpiece round.
“We hope you all had a lovely restful night -” Ross joined in.
“But if not, you have a rush of sugar incoming to fill in the blanks that the morning tea missed!”
“That’s right! Today you will have four hours to bake, fill, and decorate a delectable platter of three different types of sandwich biscuits.”
“Remember you can use any combination of doughs or flavors you like, but they must flow together as a cohesive bunch!”
“AaaaaaaaaAAAAaaaaaaaand BAKE!” James Ross finished, with an elaborate flourish of his hands.
This bake was something Francis was something Francis had actually been looking forward to the entire week. He was making a Christmas themed centerpiece, with three different jams (including a homemade gingerbread spice jam he was particularly proud of), two colored biscuits (red and green, of course) and one he left pale gold as a bit of a buffer between the two. At home he made each batch twice, but he hadn’t put them all together in the alternating color arrangement he planned yet, though it was fully sketched out in his notes. (There were arrows pointing to where the colors should go. He didn’t have any colored pencils and wasn’t about to go buy an entire box of them just for this.)
Francis started off quite strong, finishing all of his doughs a little ahead of schedule and leaving himself more than enough time to cool them in the fridge before he shaped them. He just started reducing his first jam when Hickey, with an explosion of flour that Francis was sure would be remarkable if it had been caught on camera, declared his first attempt at one of his batches “absolutely ruined,” and had to go get more flour from the stores in the back. Harry Goodsir was chattering merrily to Barrow and Silna (mostly to Silna, Barrow’s eyes had a glazed look about them) about his bake, and, by the smells emanating from his station, Evans was doing something very interesting with cardamom.
All of this activity was not quite enough to mask the fact that Collins, working at the station ahead of him, had been humming something to himself since the round started, and it had steadily increased in volume and pitch until it was rattling between Francis’ ears like a goddamn jet engine. Francis was about to say something when from behind him -
“Fuck,” Evans muttered under his breath, and Francis jumped at the opportunity to think about anything else.
“Alright there?” he asked as Evans tossed a baking tray of roasted cardamom pods onto his table.
“Yeah,” he said, examining the spice for any char. “Yeah I think so.”
“Smells rather good,” Francis said. God what did people say? How did one make small talk to strangers anymore?
“I hope they’ll turn out okay,” said Evans with a shrug. “My mum and I went to go visit my dad once when he was working in Mumbai. We had these sweets from a bakery there, never forgot the way they tasted.” He smiled, ruefully. “I think they taste alright, but we’ll see what they think.”
“Always liked those flavors, myself,” Francis said, absently. “I’m sure they’ll be delicious.”
“Have you been?” came a voice from the front, and his heart sank when he realized who it was. James had turned partway round, was mixing up something in a bowl he held as he leaned against the counter.
“I asked if you’d ever been to India.”
“Oh - well, you should if you ever get a chance! Evans, where were you in Mumbai? When I was there back in -” Francis was grateful for the shriek of his timer going off. If he had to keep listening to this posh bastard - probably with rich parents - babble on and on about all the trips he’d taken - on Mummy and Daddy’s dime, no doubt - all while there were plenty of people about who didn’t have the luxury, who had to find gainful employment the moment they could -
“Francis! Are you even listening?” James’ tone was not seriously accusatory, and Francis wanted no part in whatever little playacting James was cooking up for the camera at his expense.
“I think everyone in the tent is listening, James, whether they want to or no.” James’ eyebrows shot up, and he bit the inside of his cheek before breaking into a grin that did not reach his eyes.
“Alright Francis.” His voice was clipped, and Francis could sense the cameras and boom moving in on them, sharks sensing blood in the water. “I’ll cease distracting you.”
“You couldn’t if you tried,” Francis muttered, before he quite knew what he was saying.
“That I will pretend I didn’t hear,” said James, but the smile was more genuine now, and whether Francis was happy about that or no he couldn’t quite determine. The camera in his face didn’t help matters, and he pretended to be very busy with reading the digital scale until he bored the man to death and he moved on to something more interesting.
Once the biscuits were baked and suitably cooled Francis piped jam onto sandwich bottoms until his fingers felt like arthritic claws, and he was obliged to stretch them out so his hands didn’t shake as he capped them with the tops. A little more than a quarter of his uncolored biscuit tops had ended up a bit too brown on one side, and he again blamed the unreliability of the tent ovens before trying to cover them up with more powdered sugar than the others. He allowed everything to set for a few minutes before moving it all about, and then arranged them in that alternating pattern of red, green, and pale gold he sketched out on Thursday, and was fairly pleased with the result. It probably helped that Francis looked at everyone else’s dishes significantly less than he had the week before: he was more sure in his flavors, more certain that although he might not have the flash of the younger bakers, he could make it through on taste and stubbornness alone. (Although the elaborate clothesline… thing onto which Collins was currently stringing his sandwich biscuits would be rather daunting to a lesser man.)
He felt quite confident when the round concluded and he brought his platter up for judging, and his confidence was borne out in spades.
“Why, these are lovely,” Barrow said. “I must say I’m quite surprised. Pleased, of course! And your presentation, the alternating colors, it is very eye-catching, very festive! Puts me in the mind of Christmas.”
“The biscuit has an excellent snap again,” Silna said. “And you’ve balanced the flavors of the jam and the dough well. Some of them are a little more done than others -” and here she took a bite of one of the more well done ones, those that he had tried to conceal with sugar “- but I don’t honestly notice much of a difference. Good work.”
“Well done, Francis!”
Feeling quite pleased with himself, Francis returned to his station, pointedly ignoring anyone who might be trying to catch his eye.
Franklin did a poor job on his batch, as the flavors “just didn’t work together,” and several of the biscuits were mis-sized and mismatched. Collins suffered some harsh criticism from the judges as well, as his were called too simple and uninspired.
But nothing compared to the thorough evisceration Graham Gore received at the hands of the judges. Barrow, really leaning into the kindly grandpa angle, told him that he, perhaps, had misjudged the amount of moisture he put into his starter dough.
Silna, who was not bound by such expectations, was far more direct.
“It’s like eating sand,” she said, once she recovered from coughing. “It’s terribly grainy, and if there are flavors in there, I’m afraid I can’t taste them at all.”
“I’m getting some salt!” Barrow said, swiftly, to temper the harshness of Silna’s blow.
“Yes,” Silna agreed. “There is salt.”
It was not a compliment.
Gore thanked the judges and returned to his station.
“It’s alright Graham,” James said softly from across the room.
“Yes! Buck up!” Franklin added. But although Gore smiled a bit to be polite, Francis could see hopelessness in the slope of his shoulders and the tilt of his head.
Stanley was up next, and his evaluation was about as different from Gore’s as panther from a fluffy lapdog. Francis lost track of the number of times the word “perfect” was uttered, and Stanley walked back to his station when it was over as if it hadn’t even been said once.
Little scraped by with more compliments than criticisms, and when the hosts and judges left the tent to discuss the results he sagged back into his chair, a man of a thousand worries.
“Are you alright, sir?” Jopson was back over at Little’s station, and lord knew the lad could use someone asking him that question, with his eyes wide and still breathing like he’d run a marathon.
“Yes - just -”
“May I?” Jopson asked, indicating the pile of macrons that still sat at Little’s station. Any minute now they would be taken away to shoot bumpers, and Little stared at them, shocked that they were still there.
“Oh - yes, of course.” Jopson plucked one from the bunch, closed his eyes, and took a bite.
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about sir,” he said, once his eyes opened to see the anxiety reflected in Little’s. “They’re quite good.”
“Er - thank you,” and if Francis wasn’t mistaken, Little was positively blushing.
“Alright bakers,” Ross announced as the hosts and judges filed back into the tent. “We hope you’ve enjoyed this veritable biscuit battalion, but we are coming to that part of the weekend that we all love and dread in equal measure”
“Our best baker this week is a man who never allows himself to get flustered and turns out bakes so precise they would pass any snap inspection. Stephen Stanley, congratulations!” Stanley’s mouth was set in a marginally less grim line than usual as he inclined his head towards the judges.
“And that means I have the unfortunate task of telling you all who will be going home this week.” Everyone avoided looking at each other, and the cameras did a full pan of everyone’s face in the dramatic pause Dundy left behind. “I’m afraid this week, that person is Graham Gore.” Gore looked down at his shoes, remained in his chair while everyone else sprang from their seats to offer their condolences to him or congratulations to Stanley. Even Francis managed to croak out a brief “terribly sorry” to Gore, who seemed truly distressed at his loss.
Graham Gore: Just - absolutely gutted. Oh, when she said the thing about the salt - it was like a - a shot right through me! No idea how I messed up with the flour but… no, no I’m going to keep baking, you know? It’ll take - I think there’s going to be some recovery time, certainly. But I’ll keep at it. Probably not biscuits for a while though.
Edward Little: Hrm? Sorry I was just - I mean yeah, I’m happy with how it came out, excited for next week, yeah, definitely.
Stephen Stanley: I’m pleased, yes. But not surprised.
The week ended much the same way as before, although Stanley did not have the same lingering crowd of well-wishers orbiting him as James had when he got Best Baker. Stanley suffered people to walk into his vicinity, congratulate him, be met with a polite nod, and then to scurry away for lack of anything more to day. Francis didn’t say a single word to the man, but did give him a polite nod when he caught his eye as they walked out towards the row of cars. His husband (Francis had caught him twisting the ring at lunch) was there again to collect him, and he was only able to catch a bright “Stephen! How did this week go?” before the door slammed shut.
A Land Rover which had seen better days - the same one Hickey had been picked up in the week before - careened around the corner, but unless the man who had been driving it prior suddenly adapted a fitness course that defied the laws of physics, there was no way this broad, bearded fellow was him. Hickey spotted Francis on his way to the car, waved at him as he got in, and if a wave could be insincere, that’s exactly how Francis would have described the gesture.
“‘Preciate it love,” Hickey said to the man driving.
“I’m sure you do,” the driver said, gruffly. The car left with the same haste with which it had arrived, and then Francis was alone in a dusty carpark.
He caught nothing on the radio but static and snippets of bad songs until he reached London.
Tune in next time when our bakers take on that most thoroughly English of desserts in Pudding Week!
Solomon Tozer drives like an asshole while listening to 80s hair metal. I am not taking crticism a this time.
OR MAYBE I AM, come on over and talk to me here @soft-october-night. SEE YOU IN PUDDING WEEK.
Chapter 3: Pudding Week
Only two weeks late GOOD FOR ME.
I still don't understand what a pudding is.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
While most of the bakers snapped to it in biscuit week, there were more than a few crumbs. This weekend will see the bakers tackle puddings in all their many, many definitions.
Francis surveyed the mess on the tray in the middle of the table.
It was supposed to be a layered dessert terrine, their assignment for the Centerpiece round this weekend. Supposed to be, but he couldn’t rightly say just what it resembled now. Viscera from some movie about killing aliens, maybe. The floor of a dodgy surgery. A pile of absolute fucking nonsense. The perfect reflection of his life up to now.
He should take a picture, send the photo off to one of those galleries Sophia always tried to drag him to and he never quite understood He imagined a little card off to the side: My Hopes and Dreams, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Mixed Media.
Something like that.
This week would be the death of him. He was alright with the trademark - crumbles. Hell, he’d been making apple crumbles since his nan plopped him down on the table when he was three and said if he was going to keep trying to steal apple slices he could very well learn what they were for. Crumbles were easy: slice the fruit - not too small, never too small or the texture would go off - mix in with a little cinnamon and sugar, make the crumble for the top, whip up a nice custard while the whole thing baked away in the oven, all of that made sense. And he was certain he could tackle anything the judges threw at them for the proficient round as well. (He’d been looking up esoteric pudding recipes from around the world for just that reason.)
But the centerpiece round, this… this absurd monstrosity made from layers of curd and jelly and jams and sponge, was going to leave him in pieces just as sure as the end of his last relationship had.
He pinned the blame firmly on the gelatin. (For this mess, at least.) At first he used powdered but couldn’t get the clearness he wanted. Then he switched to the sheets because he read they were better, but the measurements were all off. His first attempt he used too much and the damn thing almost bounced off the floor like a rubber ball and this attempt he (obviously) used too little. Francis scrubbed a hand over his face.
Only… Only it wasn’t really the gelatin. No, the real issue was that he didn’t have a single idea of how to make this - this thing into something he wouldn’t be ashamed of come Sunday. Each example he researched online looked like something created by one of those Martha Stewart types, all pink and white and covered in piped meringues, and Francis would rather pull out his own fingernails than offer up something so trite, so unlike anything he would bake for himself. Monday had been spent sketching out a few designs on a battered yellow legal pad and by ten at night he had a pile of wadded up paper balls on the floor, the remains of the cardboard backing in the trash, and not one single idea any better than when he began. The atrocity currently dripping off the platter had been his attempt at nothing more than simple, straight layers of sponge, jam, and jelly and he certainly failed at that too.
“Couldn’t have made more of a hash of it if I tried,” he said to Neptune, who had been staring at the uncoagulated blob for the last five minutes with rapt attention, hoping (as he often did) that this mistake meant he would be able to have an early treat before dinner. “Absolutely not,” Francis said to Neptune’s expression. “There’s only room for one fat old dog in this house, and it’s not you.” Neptune tilted his head to the side, aghast and betrayed. “You and I are both going for a walk. We need the exercise.”
Neptune cared not for why he would be going for a walk. The moment the “W” word crossed Francis’ lips Neptune wholly forgot about Francis’ treachery and skipped into a frenzy of barking and trotting back and forth to where his lead hung on a hook near the door.
“Alright, alright,” Francis grumbled as he took off his apron. “I’m coming.” With one last look at the disaster he would have to clean up later, he left the flat and stepped out into the sunshine with a dog who was very interested in every patch of garbage water he found.
The pair eventually found their way to the Battersea bridge, where Neptune romped and barked at the birds and Francis watched the mucky Thames, think about the water running towards the sea, the waves that would be upon the open ocean, and the sand beneath. He was moping and fast approaching brooding over days gone by when he thought again about the sand below, the water, and the waves on top.
Wait a fucking second.
He blinked furiously, the idea fusing in his mind like he was a prophet receiving a vision from a god that woke up late and was frantically trying to set their work to rights. He could almost see there before him exactly what the dessert would look like, with ingredients and methods and cooking timed slotting into place alongside.
“Neptune!” Francis called, and the dog bounded over to him, grateful for the rescue from an angry flock of gulls. “Come on, we’re heading home.”
Francis had an idea.
At three am, after five attempts at the right gelatin ratio, one thrown ceramic mixing bowl and a search for "ocean cake" on the internet that churned up some very surprising results, Francis beamed at the terrine in the middle of his kitchen table. The jelly had the right amount of give, the meringues set correctly, the blueberry curd possessed the viscosity he wanted, the yellow sponge held up and it looked just like -
Well, it looked like the sea. Not the green brown brackish water he was so used to in the waters around London, but the sea out there. That cool, deep, blue green ocean he had seen years ago. Maybe like the waters around Hawaii. Maybe with more ideas like this, he would win that trip and see for himself.
He continued to marvel at the thing, proud of himself in ways he couldn’t quite articulate. It was creative, possibly the most creative thing Francis had ever come up with. Perhaps it was a little too plain - could use more… fluff? Was that the word? - but he could make little - little shell shaped chocolates or something, craft mock sand out of extra yellow sponge and golden caster sugar for the whole thing to sit on.
Francis sat there, staring at the dessert for another full minute before he shook his head and wiped his face and decided that had been enough thoughts for one day, and he should probably go to bed.
John Franklin lives in a charming home in Sussex with his wife, Jane. When he’s not helping his wife with her impressive garden, he’s creating a bake for, as he says, “every birthday, holiday, and anniversary on the calendar” and, according to Jane, a few that he’s made up.
When Saturday arrived, Francis was certain they placed him next to Franklin on purpose.
Perhaps the production wanted the drama, or needed seventy five identical shots of Francis grinding his teeth against Franklin’s incessant babbling on about how this was his week, this was when he proved to all these “young bucks” what being a “good English baker” was all about.
It didn’t help that they were making the exact same fucking dish.
That was the bitch of the thing. If Francis were a more philosophical man, he would have remarked on the irony, how despite the gulf of their experience and the burned bridge between them, they had still reached for the same old favorite.
But he wasn’t philosophical. He was just annoyed.
“An English apple crumble!” Franklin said with cheer, when Barrow and Silna came over to discuss his dish with him. “A particular favorite of my wife’s!”
“Ah, a birthday speciality!” Dundy exclaimed.
“Birthdays, holidays, Sundays, whatever day she asks me,” Franklin said, his arms spread. “Happy wife, happy life, isn’t that the old saying?”
“What kind of custard are you using?” Silna asked, and Francis appreciated her quick brush past heteronormative opinions on marriage.
“Good, old-fashioned vanilla,” Franklin said with a smile. “Nothing sets off a good crumble like a good custard, and the best custard is vanilla, I should say!”
“That’s wonderful John,” Barrow said. “I for one look forward to it.” They moved on to James, who was doing something to the rhubarb he brought “from a lovely little open air market down the road from my flat” that Francis hadn’t seen in any recipe he’d ever read. (Grilling it? Was he grilling the rhubarb before he put it in his crumble?) He turned away before anyone could catch him watching, and soon became too consumed with chopping his apples into precisely identical slices to pay attention to the rest of the room until a shadow fell across his station. Barrow, Silna, Ross and Dundy standing there, smiling at him.
“That’s some excellent knifework,” Dundy commented.
“Indeed, Francis! I don’t think we’ve seen such precision all morning!” said Ross.
“Thank you,” Francis said, in a marginally less gruff manner than usual. “They all - it helps when they’re baking, to keep a similar texture throughout the bake.”
“Quite right!” Barrow said, and if he had been standing on the other side of Francis’ station he was sure the man would have clapped him on the shoulder. He only patted the wooden surface of the table.
“Francis and I seem to be of one mind this week,” Franklin chimed in from his own station. “Apple crumbles all the way!”
“With some differences,” Francis said, in a clipped tone.
“Oh?” Silna asked. “How so?”
“Different apples,” said Francis. “I’m using Permains. They’re sweeter so -” the camera in his face refocused, to zoom in, maybe, and he tried not to let the discomfort show on his face. “So I’m using a salted caramel custard.”
“To mitigate the sweetness,” Silna explained, presumably for the camera.
“Good thinking!” said Dundy.
“Thank you, Francis,” Barrow said, and sailed away with his entourage to harass Harry Goodsir, the last stop on the tour. Goodsir was huddled over his station, kneading crumble in a large bowl. He greeted the group when they arrived, although if he smiled at Silna any more, Francis thought his face might seize up. Francis went back to his own bake, got the whole thing in the oven and began cutting paper thin apple slices to brown for the decoration on the top, allowing the other noises and actions from the rest of the tent to flow past him. Dundy and Ross were off joking with John Irving about how his crumbles had oats in them (“Oats again, my good man!” “He’s our oatman!”), and Barrow had retreated to the front of the tent to disguise his need for a sit down as a fatherly survey of the contestants. Francis was not able to filter out Franklin’s pleased little chortles as his crumble and custard came together, no matter how hard he tried. But time passed as time must, and before long his own bake came out of the oven smelling like heaven, Ross called the time, and the judging began.
Ned Little had created a “rather uninspiring” (in Silna’s words) mess of blueberries that hadn’t quite come together the way they were supposed to, and Little looked mortified as the judges dug into the soggy mess with spoons instead of forks. Irving’s oat gamble had paid off again, and Collins was in the same league as Ned, having forgotten (somehow) to add butter to the breadcrumbs he topped the dish with.
“We saw you doing some grilling here earlier,” Silna said to James when they reached his station, who shrugged with a smile.
“I thought I’d try something a little different this week,” he replied, by way of explanation. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever had grilled rhubarb in a crumble before,” Barrow remarked, the height of his eyebrows reflecting the absurdity of such a concept. “But I have no doubt you’ll impress us.” Rather than preening over such a remark, as Francis would have expected, he could have sworn a drop of the light went out of James’ eyes, and Francis blinked, sure he must have been mistaken. Then Silna was tasting the dessert and making little “hmphs” of pleased wonder, and the moment passed.
Stanley’s blueberry and peach crumble was magnificent - his usual standard - and Evans, who had been struggling of late, had also pleased the judges with his combination of strawberries, walnuts, and bourbon.
“This is magnificent,” Silna said to him, and Evans’ grateful smile was almost enough to hide his embarrassed blush.
“Indeed!” said Barrow. “Some more of this in the future, eh?”
Hickey’s pineapple and coconut crumble with almond glaze also earned particular attention. (“I’m visualizing Hawaii!” Hickey said with a wink. Barrow thought it was charming, Silna smiled thinly and tried not to let too much disdain leak through). But the only real comparison that Francis cared about was between him and Franklin, the last two to be judged.
“Here we are, at our first apple crumble of the day!” Barrow declared as he approached Franklin’s bench.
“What sort of apples did you use, John?” Silna asked.
“Cox, of course!” Franklin scoffed, as if there were any doubt of which the correct Proper English Apple in a Proper English Crumb should be.
“Good choice,” Barrow said after he had taken a bite. “Lovely balance of sugar, and the vanilla custard really elevates your seasonings.”
“I knew vanilla was the way to go!” Franklin said to Barrow, who nodded, and said something about respecting the classics in a manner which suggested he was trying to present this pithy comment as something sagacious.
“Excellent job, John,” said Silna, and they moved on to Francis’ station next. Francis ran his tongue along the bottom row of his teeth in hopes the sensation could distract him from the creeping sensation of having every eye in the tent upon him.
“Lovely decoration, Francis,” Barrow began, remarking on the thin apple crisps that adorned the top of his crumble. “Perfectly crisp without being burned.”
“Thank you.” The two of them cut into the bake to taste, and the thick, cinnamon apple smell wafting up from the baking dish made Francis mouth water. It was right he had done it, he -
“The caramel should have been a little lighter,” Barrow said. “The crumble is perfect as is, but the caramel is overpowering the apples..”
“The texture is quite good,” Silna said, around her first bite. “And it’s not too sweet,” said Silna. “But I agree, if you had made a thinner custard, it would have brought the apples to the front, rather than leave them in the background.”
“Thank you, Francis.” Francis nodded at them, kept his eyes focused straight ahead as the tent broke for lunch.
He could hear John Franklin’s smug smile.
Thomas Evans: It’s my mum’s favorite! Oh - I’ve got to call her, she’ll be so pleased
James Fitzjames: You know, it's not traditional, but I couldn’t get that good caramelization anywhere else, so grilling it was!
Harry Goodsir: It wasn’t my first choice for a flavor combination, but she said she liked the spiced peaches, so-
Despite Francis’ best efforts, Franklin caught up to him on the lunch break.
“It was a good show, wouldn’t you say, Francis?” Franklin asked, and though Francis wanted to nod, walk away, take his excuse for a lunch and go eat somewhere on the grounds, he could detect no malice in Franklin’s words, and that’s what was so frustrating. He begrudgingly stuck out the hand that wasn’t clasped around a dish of questionable curry, and Franklin shook it.
“Vanilla won out in the end,” Franklin began, “but -”
“I think that round went pretty well for everyone, wouldn’t you say?” James asked, coming up behind them.
“Ah, James!” Franklin greeted him “Clever trick with the rhubarb, grilling.” James tossed his hair, like he had never before been told how clever he was in all his life.
“Thank you! And your apple crumbles - the judges couldn’t get enough of them. The caramel smelled divine!” Francis gave a quick nod in thanks, tried to come up with a way to say “I thought you were insane, grilling your ingredients, but I’m rather impressed” that didn’t sound so shitty and patronizing when Franklin elbowed him.
“Neck and neck, Francis!” Franklin said. “Though if you had stuck with vanilla you might have beat me! Though I rather think the judges liked mine -” James’ face blanched and suddenly Francis couldn’t take it anymore.
“Better, yes John. We know. We all heard you say it the first time. And the second.” There was a moment of silence so thorough Francis thought he could hear the cars out on the road far beyond the tree line.
“For god’s sake, Francis -” James sighed.
“No, no lad, let him have his say.” Franklin drew up his spine like a general preparing for battle, his shoulders losing their perpetual hunch. “Please, Francis, continue.”
“You’ve made your opinion on me very clear, John and -” Francis began. He could sense a whole tirade brewing, all the things he wanted to say three years ago swimming just beneath the surface, but James was standing right there, and Francis had no interest in throwing up the gross entirety of their shared history at his feet. “It’s fine. Good job, the both of you.” He nodded and hurried away before either of them could come up with a response.
He found himself back in the tent, at his station, eating alone while the production crew cleaned up around him. Francis prodded at various lumps in his curry, wondering what they were supposed to be, before binning the whole thing. Jopson found him before he started fucking around on his phone for the interminable minutes before he was kicked out so they could set up for the proficient round.
“Is everything alright, sir?” he asked. “We’ve been getting a few complaints about lunch.”
“I should say so,” Francis replied. “Where on earth did it come from?”
“Nowhere we will be employing again, I can assure you. Though if I might say so sir, you shouldn’t be in here by yourself.”
“Yeah, I’ll move along then -”
“I certainly don’t mean you can’t be in here, as long you stay clear of the rest of the crew. I’m only saying there’s plenty to do out on the grounds.”
“There’s also the rest of the contestants out on the grounds,” Francis grumbled. Jopson, undeterred, soldiered on.
“You might try talking to them a little more, sir. I’m sure there’s at least one you could get on with.”
“And what one would that be?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. But give them a chance. You might be surprised.”
“Jopson?” the editor - Bridgens - called over to him. “Is this time for the next round correct? It seems -” Jopson held up a hand.
“Sorry, sir, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to get a move on. Can’t give an unfair advantage to the others.” Francis nodded, and headed out to take a few laps around the lake.
“We have a delightful little surprise for you this week,” Barrow announced once they had all assembled. “It’s an absolute classic, but one I’m sure you’ve not made before. We’ve altered the recipe to make it timely, but I still advise you to take your time.”
“I didn’t have much of a hand in this one,” Silna said, with a smirk and a shrug that would surely be cut in post. “But all I have to say is good fucking luck.” A ripple of laughter passed over the crew and contestants and chased by frantic, wide eyed looks among the latter.
“Well!” Dundy faced the bakers as soon as Silna and Barrow were out of earshot. “That was rather ominous, wasn’t it?”
“It’s nothing our bakers can’t handle!” Ross said, smiling. “So let’s get to it!”
“Not a bit!” Dundy held up a paper. “Bakers, you have... Now this can’t be right -” He turned to Ross, who gave him nothing but a curious head shake, then to the retreating backs of Barrow and Silna. “Well I guess - Bakers, you have three hours!”
Three hours. That wasn’t a good sign. The previous proficient rounds had been short, the bakes had been manageable (for the most part.) Francis squared his shoulders, and prepared for whatever he was about to see when he whipped the covering off his ingredients and recipe. What on earth could they have to prepare that would take so long?
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The ingredients looked positively banal - butter, sugar, spices, some fruits in a little glass jar with a heavy alcoholic stench. The carrots were unusual, but nothing he hadn’t used in a recipe before. But his eyebrows drew together when he looked at the title of the dish (Plum fucking pudding, of course), and the lines on his face grew deeper as read through the unbelievably sparse steps.
The recipe read as follows
Make the spiced sponge base
Fold in fruits and vegetables
Transfer to pudding mold. Cover tightly with foil and tie with string
Steam until done
Meanwhile make the custard.
Serve pudding with the custard on the side.
Francis read the recipe. Then he read it again. (More fucking custard.) He read it a third time, and that's when he was certain that the pit in his stomach wasn’t indigestion from the questionable curry takeaway that had been served at lunch. He glanced up from the words, saw the rest of the bakers staring at each other with similar bewildered looks (though on Collins that could have just been the way his face was made) and Irving had turned the most remarkable shade of yellow. James was running his hands through his hair as Francis had caught him doing on several occasions (he wouldn’t be fooled by that 1000 watt smile for a moment, no sir) and Evans put his head face down on his station and was making noises which might have been hysterical little laughs. Hickey’s eyes flicked back and forth across the room, apparently waiting for someone else to make the first move, Goodsir was - well, it looked like he was doodling on his recipe, of all things - Ned Little opened one of his ingredients, and the sickly sweet aroma of fruit soaked in alcohol started to waft over the whole assembly. Little coughed and held the jar away from him as if it were a grenade that was bound to go off at any moment.
The one person, the only one of them who should not have been panicking was the same man who had been going on and on about how this was his week, this was where he was going to shine, this is where his old fashioned dedication to desserts was going to put him over the top. But Francis didn’t need to be an expert in human psychology to see the fine sheen of sweat beading at Franklin’s thinning hairline, or the way he kept coming back to the recipe again and again as he fruitlessly moved ingredients about his station. Fucking hell.
Franklin had no idea what he was going to do.
Stanley harrumphed once, and began working, and Francis realized if he wanted any hope of finishing this, he would have to do the same (minus the vocal cues). He was grateful for the obsessive research he had done in between failed gelatin settings, because he knew that this unsightly son of a bitch was going to need to steam for practically as much time as they had been allotted. Snapping out of his stupor, he quickly made the sponge base and mixed in the carrots and the fruit mess that smelled like it had been soaked in a bucket of cognac for the past week. The odor hung in his nose, and he couldn’t help the old familiar shake of his hands as he poured the disgusting mixture into the provided mold and prepared the double boiler for its extended steam bath.
“As long as I can, I think,” he answered when the cameras came around and asked him how long he was planning on leaving it on the boil. “Don’t think it’ll hold up, otherwise.”
“I don’t want to leave it in too long,” was Franklin’s answer, when they approached him next. “I’ve never made one myself but I’ve seen them made. Eaten several dozen over the years, certainly! I should think an hour, hour and a half?”
The next two hours and forty five minutes were the closest to agony Francis could recall sober. Once everyone had their puddings in they all just gawked at each other, or the crew, or started awkward little conversations that petered out as soon as someone went to check on their pudding and the entire room became riveted by the process.
At two hours and fifteen minutes, the room held its collective breath when Irving attempted to unmold his pudding and turn it out onto the presentation dish they had been provided with.
It held its coagulation for all of seven seconds before collapsing into something unmentionable, and though he tried to keep a stiff English upper lip, Irving’s face matched the mess on his tray.
“Oh dear.” Franklin croaked, and lowered the lid on his own pot, instantly reconsidering his decision to follow suit.
“It’s probably my own fault,” Irving said to the camera in his face. Ross and Dundy were already en route to head off any tears the camera might try to catch. “I probably should have - should have whipped the butter and sugar more, or something.”
“I’m sure it’ll taste just wonderful!” Dundy offered when the hosts reached him.
“No stealing from the plates yet,” Ross warned his co-host. “And besides,” he said, to Irving, “there’s so much cognac soaked into that fruit Barrow won’t even be able to tell one from the next by the time he’s had two bites, eh?”
One by one, the rest of the bakers made their own tentative attempts at unmolding their puddings, to various degrees of failure. Even Stanley, who had produced nothing but picture perfect proficient bakes for the last two weeks inhaled sharply through his nose at how much his pudding deflated on the plate.
At two hours and fifty-eight minutes, Francis and Hickey were the only holdouts, and Francis had the distinct sense that Hickey was waiting for him to make a move.
“Bakers, you have one minute!” Ross called.
“Francis and Cornelius, that means you!” said Dundy, but even this was not enough to provoke even a shred of a chuckle amidst the atmosphere of the tent, which suggested a platoon of men bracing for their orders to move out than a reality show about baking.
Finally Francis took his pudding off the boil, unwrapped the foil and flipped it over on the plate. He waited a moment, all the eyes on him prickling into his skin like those tiny needles they used for acupuncture, and then pulled the mold away.
In the end, while there were nine bakes that looked like something one might find at the bottom of a restaurant sink at the end of a Saturday night, there was one that had held its shape.
That one belonged to Francis.
John Irving: Let's just say I pray I never have to make one again.
Stephen Stanley: That was the most disgusting thing it has even been my misfortune to be asked to make.
Henry Collins: What kind of - what even was it supposed to look like?
Cornelius Hickey: Yes. I would say that’s the worst thing I’ve ever made. But now the only place to go now is up, yeah?
After accepting a bevy of handshakes, “good jobs,” and telling the cameras he knew what to do because he “researched it” (which was never going to make it to the final cut) Francis wanted nothing more than to change, escape to his car and then the four walls of his hotel room beyond that.
Because this was Francis Crozier’s life, however, he was cornered by John Franklin in the sorry little kitchen of the estate when he went to grab his stupid keys.
“Francis,” Franklin said as he entered the room, in a tone which anticipated an argument. The closed door behind him did the heart dropping down to Francis’ stomach no favors, and he steeled the set of his jaw. “Francis, this has gone on long enough. Now you ran away earlier when I was only trying to-”
“When you were trying to what, gloat an extra five minutes over your vanilla custard?” Francis sneered. “My mistake.”
“Now this is exactly what I’m talking about -”
“What are we talking about?”
“I wish you wouldn’t speak to me that way in front of the others,” Franklin said. “We were friends once, were we not?”
“Friends?” There was a cruel little chuckle that made it clear that they had never been friends, and Franklin winced.
“Colleagues, then.” Franklin frowned. “I should have addressed this earlier, that’s my fault, surely, but I thought we had put our little animosities behind us -”
“That’s rather easy for you to say,” Francis spat back.
“Francis, I understand you’re still upset with me -”
“Upset!” Francis exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you since you walked out of my flat carrying Sophia’s suitcases, and then you turn up here and you won’t shut up about my failings-”
“Clearly this is all about what happened all those years ago, so let’s have it out before -”
“It was barely three years ago, don’t act like it was ages -”
“But I stand by my decision. And Francis, if she was unhappy, which she was, then you have no one to blame but yourself.” Francis’ mouth clacked shut. He burned with simmering accusations, words that had been dripping through his heart like acid, but he found he could only stare fixedly at Franklin’s face as he continued to shake his head, like a frustrated professor at a particularly difficult student.
“What were we supposed to do, Francis? What would you have suggested, if the niece you raised thought about just - just throwing herself away on a man too busy crawling inside a bottle to make something of himself?”
“How dare you -”
“It’s not my fault you’re a hard man to love, Francis!” Franklin paused, and added, softer this time, “And those are her words, not mine.”
Whatever invective Francis had been about to throw back at him (it was going to be cutting, it was going to be biting, he just needed to come up with it) was stoppered by a frankly ridiculous ringtone emanating from Franklin’s coat pocket.
“That’’ll be Jane,” Franklin said, more to himself than anything. “If you’ll excuse me, Francis.” Franklin turned to answer the phone and Francis took the opportunity to run the hell out of that miserable little stifling kitchen -
And almost straight into James Fitzjames.
He stared at James.
James stared at him.
He knew by the look on his face that preening peacock had heard every word, every single damned syllable and any moment now his stupid pretty little mouth was going to twist into a pitying smile and he would be damned before he bore it. Without another word, he turned and walked away.
Cornelius Hickey lives in Devonshire. He was taught to bake by an old friend, and since stepping back from a very intense engineering career, he fills his days making bakes and meals for his many roommates.
Throughout his naval career, Francis had prided himself on his singular ability to shut out all of the little anxieties and fears and distractions that made themselves so loud when called upon to make serious decisions at sea. This talent had not been lost to his retirement, and although Franklin was, of course, babbling on to anyone who would listen about how he was making his terrine look like a Union Jack, and Collins was muttering to himself (“Fuck me, I should have practiced”) and not only did he have to share a fridge with James Fitzjames but the man had the audacity to wear a pair of tight fitting jeans while crafting the preliminary steps of what would become a dragonfruit pistachio terrine in that frustratingly flashy way of his, Francis managed to make it through the first hour and a half of their Centerpiece round without a single mistake or timing error.
In times past he would have - well, he would have reached for a glass or nine of whisky and thrown up into his stand mixer in times past - but no longer. He spent the previous night taking all the bullshit with Franklin and everything else and locking it away in the back of his brain where he lied to himself and said there would be time to unpack later. As long as he didn’t look around at all the other boxes that had been stacked into that space in his mind over the years along with similar promises, he could almost believe it. He even managed a smile when the hosts and judges came over to ask him about his terrine. And although he knew he couldn’t tell a charming tale about the inspiration, about the dog and the Thames and the sea, he could at least explain the layers and flavors in a clipped, neutral tone and that sure as shit should count for something.
“Well, it all sounds very ambitious,” Barrow said with a smile when Francis had finished.
“And creative,” added Silna, with a twist to her lip that belied the accusation.
“I can’t imagine why you sound so surprised,” Francis said.
“Dundy!” Ross cried. “Dundy I do believe our lovely Francis just told a joke!”
“He’ll be gunning for your job next!”
“My job -”
“I’m the pretty one, you’re the funny one, isn’t that how it goes?” Francis chuckled as the judges thanked him and the four of them moved on. Ross and Dundy still hammed up their squabble for the camera, and Francis was right back to mixing up a jelly.
By hour two the sponges were cooling - one would be shredded, later, to make it look like sand - the meringues that would resemble whitecaps in the water were in the oven, the blueberry jam was off the stove, and the only thing left to do was temper the chocolate, assemble the whole thing as soon as the jelly set, and then decorate it.
There was only one problem.
The jelly was taking fucking forever to set. Francis scowled at the temperature reading in the fridge for the tenth time in forty minutes, knew that no matter how fearsomely he glared it wouldn’t help, not with the way he and James kept opening it every five seconds to check. It was okay, it was alright, he was still well ahead of his time, he worked an extra forty five minutes into his plan -
But a thousand of his own reassurances didn’t stop anxiety from scratching at the back of his brain, didn’t make his face any arrange itself into a nicer expression each time James opened the door again and flashed an apologetic smile at him.
“You should leave it,” Francis muttered, the fourth time James walked over and went to grasp the handle.
“You -” he gritted his teeth. “We keep opening the fridge. The jelly needs time and every time we open the door it lets all the cold out.” James grinned sheepishly.
“I know that, on a rational level I suppose but,” he shrugged. “Something about the temptation to watch a pot about to boil. If the camera was around I would have come up with something very clever.”
“I’m sure you would have.” James almost smiled at that, then thought better of it and whirled around to examine his jelly, which of course wasn’t much more set than the last time he checked.
“Why is this taking so long?” James huffed, feeling the edge of the dish which contained his jelly. “I shouldn’t have put it in so hot but there’s no time to let it cool on the counter.”
“No,” Francis agreed. “There isn’t.” He could tell him to stick it in an ice bath next time, but how did the man not know? They were in a baking competition, after all, and one would expect their fellow bakers to know the basics! So if waiting for his own jelly to set was the price Francis had to pay to see James Fitzjames at a fraction of the fluster he caught Francis in the day before, then Francis would pay. James chewed the inside of his mouth, and then smiled.
“Lovely catching up, as always, Francis.”
It took another thirty minutes and five fridge checks for the both of them before that fucking jelly set, but Francis was very pleased for how it had come out. A clear, transparent blue green that looked like the waters off Pitcairn Island that he was almost sorry to cut into to make room for the blueberry jam. While that mess went back in to continue its cool down he had just enough time to make the chocolate shells.
“Suppose I should check on my - well, it’s not really a bake!” Franklin laughed into the camera a little while later. His unmolding. Francis looked up from his chocolate molds to watch. “That’s a proper little wobble, isn’t it?” Franklin asked the room, shaking the tin. “Let’s see how it turns out!”
He flipped the mold over in a surprising show of dexterity, placed it on the serving tray, hit the top of it until it made a hollow sound, and then pulled it away in what should have been a moment of triumph.
Only half the jelly went with it.
A hush fell over the room, broken only by the undignified drips of unset goop plopping to the floor. Franklin was staring at the cold, watery disaster with a small, confused smile, eyes wide, like he was wondering when this whole mess was going to become respectable, congeal together into something he could present to the judges.
“John -” James had abandoned his dragonfruit and melon baller and was beside Franklin in a moment. “Put it back in the fridge. We still have thirty minutes left. It still might set.” Francis wasn’t about to be the one to tell them both that it was too late. The raspberry custard oozed through the sides of the terrine where the walls of gelatin failed, soaking into the vanilla sponge and turning it into a vanilla slush. Unset fruit bobbed in a liquid of uncertain origins. A raspberry slid off the side of the tray and landed in a red ball of slime on the station top.
“Sure,” Franklin said, and he started nodding and seemed completely unable to stop. “Sure, I’ll... I’ll - put it in the freezer then - to cool down faster.” James helped him scoop the whole mess back into its mold and almost snarled at one of the cameramen when he came around to ask Franklin what had happened.
Jopson arrived promptly at Franklin’s station, cleaning the mess that had been left behind as best he could, though some of the raspberry curd soaked into the wood and dried there like a bloodstain. Francis, who knew he was falling behind on his own bake, finally tore his eyes away and tried to think about nothing but filling little shell molds with tempered chocolate.
The freezer was the wrong choice, and when Franklin unmolded his terrine with two minutes to go, the only thing that had set was the thin skin of ice that had formed on its surface.
“Bakers, that’s time!” Ross announced not a minute later.
The judging moved swiftly, to make up for the lengthy bake time. Evans stuck to a safe chocolate and blackberry combination that lacked much flavor. John Irving had gone for something made of cream and lavender and covered it in fondant for a result that was far too sweet, even if he had done some pretty design work on the outside that looked like watercolor flowers. Collins’ layers were falling apart, but Silna liked their orange and almond flavoring, and Harry Goodsir had again managed to impress, serving a chocolate matcha terrine with suspended pineapple. Barrow dismissed the flavor profile at first, but the tilt of his head grew more and more thoughtful when he actually tried the thing.
“This is kind of daring,” Silna said. “But you pulled it off. Good job.”
Airplanes could have been landed by the glow of Goodsir’s cheeks at the compliment.
Francis was next, and Barrow grinned in delight when Francis presented his bake. It had come out precisely as he had envisioned: with meringue and blueberry curd waves on top of blueberry flavored jelly that resembled the sea shot through with more blueberry curd, sitting atop a yellow almond sponge and dotted with tiny chocolate seashells. When Barrow cut into it, it held its shape without becoming rubbery, and after a few bites Silna set down her fork and told Francis that it tasted as wonderful as it looked.
“This is magnificent, Francis,” Barrow agreed. “Thank you very much.” Francis avoided the eyes of the other contestants or the camera as he made his way back to his station, but he was sure the cameras couldn’t help but catch the proud little tug at the corner of his mouth.
Stanley had made an extremely uncharacteristic error and added too much gelatin to the coffee layer of his tiramisu terrine, and although the other layers were his usual standard of perfection, the coffee was about as easy to slice as a rubber ball.
If Stanley had an opinion on this, he did not show it in the least.
Even Francis had to admit that James’ bake was beautiful, and although the acidity of the fruit had offset the gelatin (as Silna observed) it tasted magnificent, and the decoration was rather charming (according to Barrow). Hickey and little had both gone for a berries and cream theme, and were basically indistinguishable in their compliments and critiques.
Finally, John Franklin brought his bake up to be judged. There was a sympathetic hush as he carried the mess towards the judges table; each of his footfalls felt like something terrible and final.
“It looks like you’ve had a bit of an accident,” Barrow said, kindly.
“Yes - well, - ah -” Franklin stammered. “I have no idea how it happened, it never went like this in practice -”
“You’re gelatin never set,” Silna said, more bluntly. “You told us you had to add the sugar in after the gelatin because you forgot, but you can’t just add in sugar after you combine the gelatin and water. It changed the makeup of the solution. Then you put the custard into the middle when it was too warm. It kept everything else from cooling down in time.”
“It - it seemed to be alright when I took it out of the refrigerator…” Franklin stammered, and Francis couldn’t help it, but he felt for the old man then. Silna, for her part, flashed her eyes at him once, like she seriously considered explaining how cooling works to a sixty five year old baker, and then thought better of it.
“The custard is a little plain,” she said, instead. “Would have been alright with the chocolate sponge and the fruit, but…” There was nothing more to say. Barrow made a small compliment on the quality of the fruit that had survived the massacre, but it did little to reassemble the shattered expression on Franklin’s face.
In previous weeks, the judges and hosts had been gone for no longer than a few minutes while they made their deliberations. This week, however, as the time creeped past five minutes, past ten, past fifteen, the uncomfortable smiles faded to uncomfortable frowns. Eyes caught and darted away. Franklin sat subdued at his station, tracing his fingers into indiscernible patterns along the wood grain. Francis caught his gaze, and he felt that he should say something, anything, but Silna’s voice drifted all the way from the judges tent. It was loud - raised in incredulity or anger, and he couldn’t make out any of the words. By the time her voice crept back down, the moment had passed, and Franklin turned away.
They lined up for their final judgements like men standing before a firing squad. Not even Ross or Dundy managed to crack a grin when they entered, Silan and Barrow at their heels.
“We had some difficult decisions to make this week,” Barrow began. “I cannot emphasize enough how… intense the judging was.”
“Right then,” said Ross, clapping his hands together. “Our best baker is the only man who managed to make a proper proficient bake, and his ocean themed terrine was a cut above the rest. Francis, congratulations.” Francis blinked, startled, and there a dozen faces turning in his direction . He tried to smile back, to look happy, to show his appreciation but he knew what came next and -
“And this week,” said Dundy, with a much more somber tone, “the person who is going home is John Franklin. I’m sorry, John.”
An awful silence hung in the wake of this proclamation, followed immediately by an outpouring of sympathy. All of the bakers wished to shake Franklin’s hand, laud him for the job he had done, clap him on the shoulder, tell him it was just bad luck. Francis played his part, clasped hands in a brief and insincere show of condolences and congratulations, and where he had expected to find a prickle of satisfaction at having bested Franklin, he felt a growing emptiness.
John Franklin: Baffled. I’m just - baffled. I don’t know what happened. I was overeager, I suppose. Jane - my wife - I hope she isn’t too disappointed. She was the one who came up with the recipe. Don’t know what I’m going to tell her.
Francis Crozier: It was a rough go all around.
Ned Little: I feel like - it’s - I just want to sit down, honestly. Can I sit down over there?
In a haze, Francis changed out of his sticky clothes and apron, slipped into a comfortable pair of jeans and a turtleneck, as if protecting his throat might fend off the rest of the world. Why the fuck didn’t he feel better? Franklin lost, he had won, it should have been - wasn’t petty revenge supposed to be sweet?
It felt fucking awful.
No matter that he couldn’t get Franklin’s shocked face out of his head, that look in his eyes when he knew he was done for and still tried to soldier on through the round. Franklin would be going home to someone that would dote on him and tell him all his failures were some other person’s fault and fuss over him for a few days until he felt better.
And there was Francis Crozier, who was finally creative and skilled enough to earn himself a fancy title for the week and he had absolutely no one with whom to share the news - no one waiting at home for his call, no one to pick him up and ask in a breathless way how the week had gone. Best he had was a dog and a friend from his old navy days who had a family and lived three hours away.
With the sweetness of the day turned so sour, Francis hunched his shoulders as he walked through one of the innumerable sitting rooms, hoping no one would see him or say -
“Congratulations, Francis,” said James Fitzjames in a dismal tone, perched on one of the molding sofas and looking for all the world like a child who had just been told his dearest friend was moving away.
“Er - thanks,” Francis replied. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I wish..." He searched for the right words but, as happened so often, came up empty. "I wish it had been under... better circumstances."
“It was rough for all of us, especially him,” James said, shrugging one shoulder.
“He put up a fight, though,” Francis offered. James nodded.
“He was a real baker,” James mumbled, and Francis felt that familiar prickling sensation along the back of his neck, like a cat readying himself for a fight in a dirty alleyway over a chicken bone.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” James started, then closed his eyes in apparent exhaustion.
“That’s not what I - I mean he was a good baker, he knew what he was doing most of the time - he wasn’t - wasn’t getting by on luck and -”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean that not everyone deserves to be here, Francis! But he did, he-”
“I hardly think you’re the man to judge my worthiness.” The bitterness came through loud and clear and Francis didn’t care. Who knew what Franklin told James about Francis’ past, but he deserved to be there just as much as anyone! Hadn’t he worked hard, hadn’t he tried to get better -
“Jesus Christ Francis, not everything is about you!”
"Then who on earth are you talking about?" James twisted his lips.
"No one," he answered, after a moment. "Nobody at all. Have a good week, Francis." He rose from the sofa and headed towards the washroom, leaving Francis to wonder what the fuck that had all been about before he shook his head and left the room.
Be sure not to miss the bakers craft brilliant boules and tasty twists next time in Bread Week!
And that's pudding week and holy fuck am I glad its done. If I fucked up something about the bakes, which I KNOW I did (or you had a fun time and wanted to do a SCREM) leave a comment or me know over on tumblr at @soft-october-night
I also have THIS handy rebloggable link (im not on THE TWITTER, so this is all I got lol)
That's all for now, NEXT TIME IS BREAD WEEK AND BREAD IS SOMETHING I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY AND I AM THRILLED.
Chapter 4: Bread Week
I want to say that chapters 3 and 4 were my pack ice and the leads are open now but WHO KNOWS?
It's bread babeyyyy, hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Last week, the bakers waded through capricious crumbled and perilous puddings. This week, they try and master that most ubiquitous of bakes: bread.
Francis woke up a few days later to a crick in his neck, the sun in his eyes, and his phone buzzing away in his ear. He answered it without checking the screen. He hoped it was just another one of those fucking sales calls - he always looked forward to the rush of letting them say their little opening line and then hanging up.
He was rather surprised to hear the cheerful voice of Tom Blanky instead.
“So how’s our best baker doing this fine Thursday morning?” Blanky cackled at Francis’ mumbled “‘lo.”
Francis blinked his eyes against the daylight and grunted something incomprehensible into the phone. Blanky texted him on Monday asking how the week had gone and Francis looked at the text, intended to respond, and then wholly forgot about it until the previous evening. He wrote a short message (“It went okay. Franklin lost. I got best baker”) at one in the morning while waiting for his practice centerpiece bake to finish baking and now he was regretting even that.
“Awful,” Francis mumbled.
“Strong words from our fearless leader.”
“What fucking time is it?”
“It’s eleven, Frank,” Blanky said, with a warning in his voice that Francis knew quite well. “Late night?” The tone made it clear he was not asking if Francis had been up till all hours darning his socks.
“I was up late making bread, you bastard,” Francis grumbled. “No need to fish me out of the gutter or pour anything down the sink. I don’t even think I have cooking wine in this place.”
“Just making sure the only thing fermented in that house is your dough,” Blanky said, with an air of relief Francis could feel through the phone.
“Been thinking about my dough, you old pervert?” Blanky laughed at that, and the tense atmosphere cracked into tiny pieces and crumbled away into the ether.
“Not a chance, Frank, my wife’s dough has done me just fine these twenty years and that’s without ever even getting a fancy title from a knockoff reality show.”
“It’s for the best. Esther could crush every baker on that show in her sleep.”
“Don’t I know it,” Blanky sounded pleased as punch. “Speaking of which, you should come up to visit. Esther and the kids are tired of hearing about all this on set drama third-hand.”
“Mm, I don’t know about that,” Francis said. “Between work and practicing for the show -”
“Just think about it. I know you, and I know you’ve locked yourself in that sorry little flat for weeks. As your friend it’s my sworn duty to make sure you haven’t forgotten society.”
“Is that right?”
“Aye, you’re like a mean barn cat wanting socialization.”
“Neptune doesn’t seem to mind.” Neptune, who had been lying at the foot of the bed like he absolutely was not supposed to do, ever, perked his head up at the mention of his name.
“Neptune wouldn’t mind if someone broke into your house and stole everything in it, as long as he got a bite to eat.”
“That’s not true, is it boy?” Francis asked Neptune, who had commando crawled up the bed on the off chance that there might be imminent head scratches and was delighted to be proven correct.
“Maybe just take it easy? I don’t want you having - I don’t know, having some kind of bread breakdown.”
“I don’t think that’s likely. It’s not fucking pudding, is it?”
“You tell me, best baking boy.”
“Am I ever going to hear the end of this?”
“No.” Blanky laughed.
Francis continued their conversation as he rose and puttered about the house - feeding Neptune, cleaning up the fine sheen of flour that had gotten over everything in the kitchen the night before, checking in on the precious sourdough starter he had gotten out of the fridge and been feeding all week, feeding himself by shoving a half toasted piece of bread covered with a slab of jam into his mouth. By the time Francis learned about what every member of Blanky’s household had been up to over the past few weeks down to the very last skinned knee, the melancholy that had been haunting him the last few days seemed a distant, dull twinge rather than its usual persistent throb.
“You makin’ any friends?” Blanky asked during a lull, while Francis was trying to pull his shoes on and Neptune hovered. A smart dog, he knew that, very often, after shoes came walkies.
“Friends?” Francis asked, in a manner which implied the question was akin to asking if Francis had recently taken up underwater basket weaving.
“Isn’t that what they always say on these fuckin’ things?” Blanky went on, undeterred by Francis’ tone. “‘Oh I’m so sad to go but I’ve made lifelong friends here’ and all that crap?”
“Just people, fuck, I don’t know. Question still stands though.”
“No,” Francis replied. “Especially after last week. Getting best baker when John Franklin got booted. They liked him. I should be watching out for a knife in my back this weekend. You should have heard James -”
“Ah yes, James -”
“Nothing, go on,” Blanky replied, the very epitome of innocence. Francis eyed the phone suspiciously.
“Nevermind,” Francis said.
“Whatever you say, duck,” Blanky laughed. “You take care of yourself, yeah? Give me a call whenever.”
“Sure,” said Francis. He bid his friend goodbye, and reached for Neptune’s lead to an uproarious chorus of happy barks.
Thomas Evans lives in Ipswich with his mother Jane, father Michael, and sister Elizabeth and he’s been baking since he was old enough to hold a wooden spoon.
Saturday did not begin auspiciously.
Francis had prepared and packed all his supplies the night before, but then he slept through his first alarm, there was no hot water (again), the dogsitter arrived late, and by the time he realized he’d forgotten the garment bag with his Sunday clothes when he was already an hour’s drive out of the city it was too late to turn back. Fantastic. His two choices were now either wearing the same clothes for both days of shooting (intolerable), or running out somewhere after shooting and scrambling in a store to find something that didn’t make him look like an eighty year old pensioner (fat luck on that score). When the fucking radio gave one last deafening burst of static before fizzling out entirely and he had nothing to fill the silence except the anxieties inside his own head about the upcoming two days, he spent the rest of the drive working himself up into a furious lather, making up scenarios and winning arguments that were never going to happen. He swore to god if anyone bothered him or had something to say to him when he arrived -
"Good morning sir," Jopson greeted him when he arrived at the tent. "I hope you'll find your spot this week a bit more comfortable than last."
Maybe Jopson was alright.
"Morning," Francis said, as he found his station and sighed in relief. He was all the way in the back, behind Collins and next to Goodsir. James Fitzjames was all the way in the front, where he could toss his shiny hair and smile his ridiculous smile and tell his stories and Francis wouldn't have to be party to any of it.
He gave a sedate nod to Stanley (and received one in kind), and a half hearted smile he hoped looked encouraging to Evans, who looked as if the prospect of baking scones and whatever the proficient turned out to be was enough to terrify him into incoherence. Hickey slunk in and fussed over his recipes without looking at anyone, and the rest of them tumbled in all at once a few minutes later. Evidently there had been some issue with the trains, and loud apologies were exchanged all around.
“Bakers!” Barrow called once everything was finally ready for taping and someone had called for action. “I know last week was a bit of a struggle for some of you, but we hope this week will put you all on a more even keel!”
“It’s bread,” said Silna, with the same wry smile she had been wearing for weeks. “And I trust you all have at least some experience with that.” There was a soft roll of laughter through the room.
“Now, now, I believe we’re the ones who are supposed to be telling the jokes,” Dundy said, loftily. “Unless of course they would like us to do the judging,” Ross replied.
“Excellent!” Dundy exclaimed. “You’ll have to roll me out of this tent before the day is done.”
“Absolutely not, I took this job specifically because I was told there would be no heavy lifting.”
“Heavy lifting! Well I never!” Dundy looked appropriately aghast.
“Nothing for it, we will have to stick to jokes. Bakers! Your mettle will be tested on this, your first bread round.”
“Quickly quickly!” said Dundy, recovering from his mock outrage.
“Quickly indeed! It is quick breads, and the assignment for your trademark bake is to make a dozen perfect scones! They can be flavored however you like but there must be twelve of them and they must all look the same! You have forty five minutes! Bake!”
Francis was pouring flour into a mixing bowl before the syllable had left Ross’ lips. The time constraint on this bake had been giving Francis a bit of trouble at home, and he didn’t plan on looking like an idiot with no time management on camera. The recipe worked out simple enough, and he knew his flavors were good, but he had to get the scones into the oven in less than fifteen minutes. The ovens in the tent were often capricious, and he wanted to give himself a full ten minutes extra in case he needed it. The bakers around him were similarly afflicted - Francis and Stanley shared an aggrieved look when Collins started his strange humming a mere three minutes into the round, and there was a constant stream of whispered swearing coming from the direction of Little’s station. (Francis did not fail to notice that this ceased almost the moment Jopson wandered over to ask Little some innocuous question, and immediately tried to forget it.)
He was three minutes ahead of his carefully allocated time when the judges and hosts turned up to ask him about the bake.
"Francis!" said Ross when the four of them approached. "Congratulations again on best baker last week!"
"Indeed!" said Dundy. "What sort of whimsy have you dreamed up for your trademark bake this week?"
“I’ve - er- kept things on land, so to speak,” he mumbled. “Cheddar and chive scones.”
“Savory instead of sweet,” Silna said. “You’re in the minority there.”
“Cheddar again?” Barrow asked. “I hope you’ve improved your ratios since biscuit week.” Francis pressed the tip of his tongue into his top left canine to stop the words that wanted to follow and took a deep breath.
“I think so,” he said, as if it meant nothing at all. “These should be a bit more flavorful, I hope. Been popular at home.” (Neptune had liked them, anyway.)
“Wonderful!” Barrow grined. “I look forward to it.”
The judges made the rest of their rounds, and Francis tried his best to ignore them, although he couldn’t help but notice that, long after Ross and Dundy had gone on to make jokes with Evans (who was struggling to get his scones into the oven on time) and Barrow had removed to the front of the room, Silna remained at Goodsir’s station, chatting.
“Your father is who got you into cooking, then?” Goodsir asked, in response to something Silna said.
“Oh absolutely, my father used to make this dish with duck - I don’t honestly even know where he got half the ingredients from, food security wasn’t exactly a thing where I was growing up - but he would make up so much flavor from nothing. It was incredible.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “I find I miss his cooking more and more.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Goodsir said, “is your father -”
“Oh!” Silna chuckled. “No, no - oh wow, that sounded awful now that I think of it. No, he’s back at home - probably bitching into my voicemail about how I haven’t called him this week right now, actually.” Silna smiled fondly. “But I do miss it, his cooking.” She shook her head. “Ugh, I’m sorry, you’re supposed to be in the middle of your bake and I’ve been going on and on -”
“No, it’s quite alright!” Goodsir said, perhaps a bit too quickly. “I can understand you missing home, your family, the food. I mean I don’t want to be rude to my countrymen, but sometimes - well, not all of our food is as good as what we make here on the weekends.” Silna laughed again, and nodded her head in fervent agreement.
“Anyway, you get back to it. I’ll be watching.” Goodsir smiled at her and ducked his head, most likely to hide how red his cheeks had become.
Francis’ scones were being temperamental in the oven, but although he had to go to the last minute setting out the scones on their serving tray, he was happy with their overall appearance and tendency to crumb. From his station in the back of the room he would be one of the last to be judged, and had nothing to do in the meantime but sip his tea emphatically and listen to the rest.
James had made sweet scones with fresh blackberries and raspberries, and a lemon clotted cream to be served alongside. Silna seemed pleasantly surprised at the way the flavors came together.
“I thought it might be too tart,” she admitted. “But you’ve done a great job on the balance here.”
“Oh thank you!” James said. “Although I must say that the real accolades should go to the berries. There’s a farm near where I live and I called them up just the other day to ask which would be sweetest for what I had in mind -”
“You let the berries come through on their own, and the cream is just a little surprise at the end!” Silna interrupted kindly, before James could get any further entrenched into what was no doubt a very long, very detailed tale about the mundanity of berry picking. “Although I admit I expected something a bit less traditional from you.”
“I’m respecting the classics this week,” James said, probably beaming - Francis couldn’t quite see from so far back. “At least for this bake.” He winked at the camera for that one and it was all Francis could do not to roll his eyes.
Little, despite all his worries, also pleased the judges with his orange and ginger scones. Collins wasn’t so lucky, and Barrow tore him apart on the texture.
“More like a roll than a scone, I should think,” he said, poking a wrinkled finger into the interior of the bake. “Much too doughy. It should crumble more, be lighter.”
“And I’m not getting much lemon,” Silna said. “Lots of rosemary.” She made a face. “Like - a lot of rosemary.”
Evans also came up short on his flavorings, and his suffering was all the more acute since Stanley (who recovered quite well from his minor fumblings the week before) had somehow made almost the exact same scone, blackberry and lavender with white chocolate, but with his usual standard of perfection.
“Some improvement on your use of the cheddar here,” Barrow said, when they finally arrived at Franics. “But I still feel like it's missing something.” Francis nodded along with what he hoped was a polite, neutral expression as they went on about the texture of the bake (“Quite good, altogether!”) and tried to avoid stares from any of the other bakers.
The judging finished with Goodsir, who had done a middling job with making all his scones look the same (“I just forgot about the scale completely!” he admitted) but somehow made the flavor pairing of fennel, onion, and olive oil work.
“I have never had anything like this,” Silna said with a laugh. “At least not in the form of a scone.”
“That’s our Harry,” said Ross. “Finding flavor in the strangest places!”
With that, the set broke for lunch, and Francis headed towards the estate to pick up his portion of whatever fresh hell had been conjured up for lunch, feeling less at ease than he hoped he would after the first round.
Without Franklin dominating every interaction, he thought he might breathe a little more freely. But instead, he saw the shadow of the man everywhere, in every empty seat, under the shade of each ancient tree lining the grounds. Lunch in hand, he wondered where he should sit that would invite the least conversation. He was reminded uncomfortably of mess halls and school lunch rooms, and he should probably just go eat in the tent -
A firmer, angrier sort of emotion welled up inside him then. Who was Franklin to haunt him beyond his loss? Francis had won, he was still here, and fuck it, he could eat wherever he pleased! Determined, almost expecting to be challenged and daring anyone to do so, he sat down at the nearest empty table - just behind where Goodsir was attempting to comfort Collins over his scones. (“If he said they were more like rolls then it just means you’re better at bread! You’ll do better tomorrow, and who knows, maybe the proficient will be rolls!”)
Francis was soon joined by Evans, who tentatively asked if any of the seats near him were taken. Francis shrugged in response, indicating the void where no one was. Evans sat down and seemed inclined to do nothing but stare into the lunch they had been given and make no conversation at all. This suited Francis just fine.
Although Jopson said he would correct the catering when he spoke to the PA at lunch last week, Francis would describe the trajectory as more lateral than linear, if the chicken dish that sat in front of him was anything to go on. The chicken itself was as dry as a desert, but not to worry! It was simply slathered in a white cream sauce that drowned out every other thing on the plate. A vegetable - at least Francis believed it was a vegetable, but who knew - limply dangled from the side of the dish. He poked at it with his fork, but the odd shape had no answers for him.
“Where the fuck do they get this catering from?” said James Fitzjames, abruptly sitting down at the empty chair between him and Evans. The boy was so startled at the intrusion that he almost leapt up from his chair. Francis scowled.
“Not up to your standards, James?”
James shook his head and chuckled. “I know you have your opinions on my taste, Francis but this isn’t up to anyone’s standards, don’t be ridiculous.”
Francis paused for a moment, remembering their last conversation from the previous week. Not everything is about you.
“I suppose that’s true,” he replied, evenly.
“Excellent, now that we’ve established that, would you mind if I sit here and pick aimlessly at it until we’re called in for the proficient?”
“Seems you’ve already sat yourself down,” Francis said with a shrug, but he could feel his spine draw up.
“Indeed I have.” James occupied himself with pushing around various cream covered shapes on his plate for a few minutes, even tried to nibble at one, before making a face and shoving the whole thing away.
“Absolutely intolerable,” he proclaimed. “We should sue.”
“Should have smuggled some of those scones out of the tent,” Francis said, without thinking.
“We should have,” James agreed. “Did you get to eat any of yours? Jopson whisked mine away for those little promo shots before I could even snag a single crumb.”
“No, I didn’t even make the attempt.”
“Didn’t want to risk it?”
“I have the strangest sense that if I tried the lad would - would turn me to stone, or some nonsense like that.”
“He does have that look about him, doesn’t he?” Francis nodded and James paused, waiting for him to say something else. Evans looked between the two of them like a child waiting to see if dinner would end in one of his parents throwing the gravy tureen at the other’s head.
“Anyway, good job on bake number one,” James said, hopping subjects when it was clear Francis had nothing else to say. “Those cheddar scones sounded divine.”
“Oh - thanks.” Francis was fumbling, off balance, trying to find the light switch in a dark, unfamiliar room. “That recipe didn’t seem to be your usual.”
“Hrm? Would you believe it was John’s recipe actually - well, John’s wife’s, I think,” James said. “I was going to do this - I don’t know, probably this Mexican cuisine inspired thing - I took a trip there a few years ago, have you been? Fantastic food - but he told me to ‘carry on the classic tradition’ or something like that for him this week, and I thought it’d give it a go. With some modifications, of course.”
“Ah,” said Francis.
“Terrible centerpiece round last week, wasn’t it?” James winced. “Not for you, obviously, amazing job, but -”
“Here we go,” Francis muttered. James took a deep breath -
“I left something at the house!” Evans suddenly shouted, to no one in particular. In a blink he was gone, leaving only his sorry excuse for a lunch to say he had ever been there, and James and Francis were left alone. (Or as alone as they could be, with Collins and Goodsir having a friendly argument over how best to layer cranachan behind them.)
“Francis…” James looked away. “I’m certainly not glad about what happened to John’s bake last week, but I don’t blame you for winning. Your terrine was elegant, creative. It should have won.”
“And I apologise for my behavior. I was - it was hard to see him fail so thoroughly.” Francis waved his hand in a manner he hoped indicated he hadn’t thought about it at all over the course of the last week. (Although he had, he had.)
“What - what I suppose I truly don’t understand is the animosity between the two of you.”
“You mean he didn’t tell you the tragic tale of the man who proposed to his niece twice?” James shrugged.
“He did.” Francis could feel the defensive curl of his shoulders. Of course Franklin had told, why should he keep such an embarrassing story to himself?
“Couldn’t keep your nose out of it, could you?” Francis snapped.
“I didn’t ask!” James said “He offered.” A beat. “I suppose he shouldn’t have.”
“Well, now you know the whole sorry story.”
“I don’t know your side of it.” It was an opening, clear as day. But why should he tell James about any of it? So he could have a good laugh about it with the rest of them over dinner? Fuck that.
“It’s even more pathetic than Franklin made it out to be, rest assured.” He stood up. “I’ll see you in the tent.” He watched James bite the inside of his cheek before he nodded slowly, his face unreadable.
“See you then.”
Francis couldn’t quite help the vague feeling of shame that slid up his spine and lodged in the back of his brain as he walked away. Like a tick, it refused to be shaken off, even when the bakers were called into the tent to begin the proficient round and Ross and Dundy hopped up front to do their bit.
“We hope you had an excellent lunch -” There was a sparkle in Dundy’s eye as he said this which suggested he did not believe any of them did, at all, “and have safely arrived back at the tent for our proficient round!”
“Do our illustrious judges have any words of wisdom for you?” Ross asked.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” Silna said, stepping forward and eyeing all of them in turn. “Take your time and pay attention.”
“Bakers, you have two hours.” Dundy announced, once the judges had departed. “You may begin!”
Francis whipped the covering off his ingredients and almost smiled when he began to scan the recipe. The title read “Kulich - Russian Easter Bread” and it was just that - bread. No fancy steamed nonsense that took four hours on the boil and barely held together. No complicated, strange layering or weaving patterns. A bread he understood. A bread he could work with.
A bread that gained exactly no volume during its first rise.
“Alright there?” Ned Little asked from two stations up. Damn, had he said that out loud?
“Fine.” Francis said, harder than he meant to. Fantastic. Now the camera was on its way over to watch him sputter and fumble over this stupid Russian bread he apparently didn’t get at all.
“I’m not sure,” he said tightly when one of the operators asked him what was wrong. It had to be something - something about sugar ratios and the hotness of the water in which he bloomed the yeast, maybe. There wasn’t time to repair it without having any idea of what the actual problem was, anything he did might make it worse, might make it so that the loaf was hard as a rock before it was even done baking- The cameras showed no signs of leaving, so he dumped the whole dough into the baking dish and stuffed it into the proofing drawer to get them off his back. “I’ll just - hope for the best.”
Like so many times in the life of Francis Crozier, the best he hoped for didn’t come. The cake came out of the proofing drawer with practically no noticeable difference and Francis shoved it into the oven without even looking at it. He spent the bake making his icing three times because the first was runny and the second was too thick and it had to be perfect to make up for whatever was going to come out of that oven
He could scarcely mask his frustration when the timer went off and the damn thing hadn’t even crept up the sides of the baking tray like it was supposed to. Turned out on the board it was small and sad and pathetic and Francis iced it with the same flourish with which one might crush a crush a beetle underfoot.
When time was called and he brought the thing up to the front to be judged, he took little solace in the three other unproofed cakes, belonging to Evans, Hickey, and Little. The remainder looked ideal, and while Barrow and Silna would no doubt find issues with their flavor and texture, they were leagues ahead of Francis’ sorry showing.
“Oh dear -” said Barrow when he attempted to cut through Francis’ bread, exaggerating his difficulty for the camera. Francis knew his face had gone a blotchy, mortified red. “I believe something has gone a bit wrong here.”
“I think the dough hasn’t been worked enough,” Silna mused. “The gluten didn’t develop, and then it was baked too long, maybe to try and make up for the bad rise.”
“It’s a sh - it's unfortunate,” Barrow said, shaking his head and narrowly avoiding another Bake Off rip off. “Because the icing is absolutely perfect.”
“This one, however,” he indicated the next bread in the line, the one behind James’ picture, “this one looks just ideal, doesn't it?” James preened under the camera lights and Francis stared at a spot on the tent above the judges heads until the miserable moment had passed.
Cornelius Hickey: Wish someone had told me it was alright to get cosy with the judges, is all.
Stephen Stanley: No, I’m not very happy at all. I think that was a rather unacceptable showing from everyone.
Edward Little: F*********k me.
Thomas Evans: Awful. Just an awful awful day.
Francis escaped the estate without too much fuss and found a shop in town where he managed to find a set of clothes that wouldn't make him look like a confused old man who mistakenly wandered onto the set. Unfortunately, he took so long that by the time he got back the rest of the bakers staying at the hotel had already arrived and were standing around the lobby. He had no hope of removing to his room without having to -
“I’m not imagining things!” someone declared.
Ah, they were arguing around the lobby. Even better.
“There he is,” said Hickey, jabbing a finger in Francis’ direction as he walked towards them. “He saw the whole thing, same as I did.” Francis had no fucking clue what all the shouting was about, but he sure as shit knew he didn’t want to be on Hickey’s side of it.
“Did he now?” Francis asked with an arched brow. “What is it I’m supposed to have seen?”
“Harry trying to get in good with the female judge during the trademark round, of course,” Hickey replied. Francis felt his skin crawl at the particular way Hickey said female. “He has quite a way with the ladies, wouldn’t you say?”
“I didn’t see anything,” Francis said, at the exact same moment Collins asked just what the fuck Hickey thought he was talking about.
“Nothing, nothing at all, just wondering if we’re all allowed to make an attempt or do we have to go through Harry here if we want someone to put it in a good word -”
“Is that what you think is going on here, Mr. Hickey?” Goodsir asked.
“I mean I don’t want to be the one to say it but -”
“Oh, speak the words, Mr. Hickey,” said James, with a smile that promised no friendliness. Hickey was undaunted in the face of what should have been insurmountable opposition.
“It’s just - Well, it’s just a little obvious to everyone what it is you’re doing,” he said to Goodsir.
“And what is it that he’s doing?” asked Little.
“If we could all calm down a bit I’m sure -” Irving began, but was interrupted by a smirking Hickey.
“You saw the two of them, same as I did. If I knew you could get better marks just by flirting-”
“They were having a conversation, Mr. Hickey,” Francis snapped, louder than the general outrage around him. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept.”
“If it’s not appropriate -” Goodsir tried to cut in, but he was swiftly interrupted.
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” Francis said. “I heard the whole thing. There was nothing improper between the two of you.”
“I think you have enough going on in your own life, Mr. Hickey,” James drawled, “to be worrying about anyone else and their romantic entanglements.”
“I am looking out for everyone -”
“No, you’re looking out for one,” Francis said. “Yourself. And don’t you dare try and drag me into anything like this again.”
“Alright, alright,” Hickey held up his hands in surrender. He was a fighter, but he wasn’t stupid. “Just don’t come crying to me when he makes best baker tomorrow.”
“If he gets best baker tomorrow it’ll be because of his bakes,” said James. “Perhaps you should concentrate a bit more on yours.” With nothing but an insincere smirk and a narrowed gaze, Hickey made his way to the bank of lifts and the five of them watched him go in complete silence.
“He won’t let this go,” Francis said after the sliding doors barred Hickey from view.
“No,” agreed James.
“I - I’m sorry to be the cause of all this trouble,” Goodsir said.
“Stop that,” James chided. “No one here thinks you did anything wrong.”
“Someone ought to talk to her,” Collins said. “Must be a little lonely, yeah?” Goodsir shrugged, uncertain.
Francis felt the pricking of anxiety creeping up his spine. The quarrel was at an end, the danger passed, and now he should excuse himself, go back to his room -
“Francis, come have dinner with us,” James offered. “We were just deciding -”
“No,” Francis said, before the man could continue. “Thanks all the same, but I have - there are some calls I have to make.”
“Some calls?” James asked, with a dubious look that saw right through him, the bastard. “It’s Saturday evening, surely they can wait until tomorrow?” Franics waited a moment, certain that his brain would conjure a snappy comeback or better excuse. However, his store of witty retorts had all used up by lunch, and he was forced to say -
After all, how terrible could it be?
An hour later, Francis thought it was pretty fucking terrible, actually.
The curry place Collins chose was alright enough, and the conversation was pleasant, even if it referenced comments and questions posed in weeks prior that Francis couldn’t follow at all, evidence of a loosely woven camaraderie that had been established in just a few short weeks.
Well, it was too late for Francis to go back change things now.
He could - perhaps he could accept the invitation next time without a fuss, that is, provided he was invited next time.
But all thoughts of that nature went right out the window when they entered the James Fitzjames hour. The moment dinner arrived and everyone else’s mouths were too busy trying to consume the only decent food they’d been allowed to eat all day, James took it upon himself to launch into an exhaustive story about his experiences in India - the food, the people, the train ride he took from Mumbai to Chennai (“Was supposed to be only a day but between the delays and the breakdowns I was certain I was going to have to walk! Would have done me good, too - like the time the rental broke down outside of Istanbul and I had to walk twenty miles in the midday heat and -”) He hardly paused but for effect, and everyone else was somehow content to simply sit there and provide gasps or laughter at the precise moment they were supposed to.
Worst of all was how James’ hands never stopped moving. When they weren’t making sweeping gestures to articulate the man’s wildly hyperbolic stories, they were fiddling with a wine glass, or toying with a piece of silverware. Francis was so distracted that it took him longer than it should to realize when the table fell quiet, and Francis was struck by the sinking sensation that someone had posed a question to him.
“Sorry, what was that?” he asked, hoping no one had noticed where his attention had been directed.
“I asked who you were bringing to the finale,” James said (presumably again). His face showed nothing but curiosity, and Francis supposed he was safe in that regard.
“Oh right.The finale.” Fuck.
The finale, the tenth and final episode of the season. All the bakers who had left the show and their families and friends (up to ten, the email Jopson sent a few days ago said) were supposed to come back and have a lovely little picnic where they feasted on whatever the finalists had created for their last centerpiece round. Francis read that particular email, immediately grew very cross over it, went on to answer some follow up queries for work, and hadn’t thought about it since.
“I - er -” Francis blinked a few times. “My best mate - he lives up north, and his family. Wife and kids. I haven’t asked them yet but -”
“Lovely!” said James, with far more enthusiasm than Francis believed his answer merited. “What about you, Harry?”
“My brother and his family - same as you,” Goodsir replied. The conversation moved on from the finale to their nieces and nephews. Though Francis knew he had more than his fair share of the same, he hadn’t seen any of them in years, and felt a small stab of guilt as Harry and James lauded the virtues of their nieces and nephews and the endless quest to find the most interesting gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Later, with the bill paid and coffees empty, the six of them made their way back to the hotel. Plans were made among the younger set to continue the night in the hotel bar, and Francis was finally able to beg off on the excuse of needing sleep. They all bade each other a good evening in the lobby, and though James held back, he continued on into the bar a moment later without saying another word.
It had been alright, Francis admitted to himself later, grudgingly and halfway through some batshit episode of Midsommar Murders he wasn’t following in the least. Besides the agony of having to sit through an evening of James’ stories, all things considered, it had been alright.
Henry Goodsir - called Harry by his friends - lives in Glasgow, where he’s about to start his medical residency. His baked goods are in high demand among his colleagues, and Harry prefers to spend his limited spare time perfecting and sharing his recipes with his nieces and nephew.
Sunday began a far sight better than Saturday, evidenced by the fact that Francis was able to rise, eat breakfast, and drive to the estate with very little incident. However, when he finished getting ready at the house and stepped out of the door, he was promptly hailed by a vaguely familiar man jogging up the drive.
“Hello!” the man called, and Francis raised a hand in confused greeting. “You’re one of the bakers, right?” He indicated the apron Francis had thrown over his shoulder. “Have you seen my husband anywhere?”
“Yes - oh! Terribly sorry, I’ve been awfully rude.” He stopped in front of Francis and stuck out his hand. “Alexander MacDonald.”
“Francis Crozier,” said Francis, grasping the offered hand and giving it the required two shakes.
“Oh! Francis Crozier, I should have known. Stephen says you’re one of the ones to watch out for.” MacDonald winked, and Francis wondered just what the fuck that was supposed to mean before his brain caught up to his bitterness and he realized what the man had just said.
“Stephen? Stephen Stanley is your husband?” That’s where he knew the face from! This was the smiling man that picked Stanley up each Sunday and Saturday evening, who always greeted him with a smile and a “How did it go, love?” and didn’t seem daunted by Stanley’s dour responses in the least.
“Yes!” Christ, MacDonald’s face broke into a smile at the very mention of his name. “Have you seen him around?” So stunned was Francis by the stark differences between the two of them that it was a moment before he could respond.
“I didn’t see him in the house, he should be just down there -” Francis pointed in the direction of the tent.
“Perfect, thank you! He ran out of the house this morning - worried he’d be late, but of course he wasn’t, and he forgot one of his ingredients. Called me frantic on the drive over.”
“Stanley forgot something?” Stanley had the capacity to be frantic?
“Can you believe it? I think he’s getting a bit flustered with all this baking, but of course he says there’s nothing wrong.”
The idea of Stanley being flustered about anything was unbelievable, but so was everything else about the whole conversation, so he wrapped up this comment in some suspension of disbelief paper and placed it beside the others to be considered at a later time.
“It’s - er - It is a bit stressful,” Francis offered instead.
“Isn’t it just? I tell you I’ll be happy when the whole thing is over and done with, no matter how it shakes out. Thank you again!” MacDonald hurried off towards the tent and Francis followed at a more sedate pace, sparing them both the mortification of bidding someone goodbye and then having to head in the same direction.
The centerpiece bake was an intricately woven loaf that needed to feature at least five strands and a minimum of three different flavors. Beyond that, the bakers were free to exercise their creative freedom.
In direct opposition to the care he had taken the week prior, Francis came up with his bake, a round, six strand loaf in rosemary, garlic, and onion flavors, early Monday morning and practiced it only once. The result was satisfactory enough.
Francis could have done more, would have done more, only he already got best baker in the previous week. They wouldn’t give it to him twice in a row, so there was no real need to shoot for the moon a second time, was there? His middling effort was alright enough. At least that’s what he believed until that disastrous proficient.
But he had his sourdough starter to rely on for this bake. No strange sugary yeasted Russian cake breads to steer him astray. With a sharper focus than had been with him the day before, he methodically mixed each dough, prepared the onions on the stove, drained them of moisture in the oven before adding them to the batter. When the judges and hosts came over he provided answers he supposed were alright, and away they went again.
The braiding went alright, with a few imperfections here and there that would be covered up by the proof and the final bake. It was simple - nothing like what Harry Goodsir was constructing beside him - some intricate round weave with lengths of dough trailing off the sides. Like a spider, Francis thought, before turning back to his own work.
Three hours into the bake, while Francis’ loaf was proofing and he was going over the timing he laid out in a tired hand on Wednesday evening, he heard a small, unhappy squawk coming from Evans’ station. There was a mess of bread on his table, and a pair of shaking hands fluttering over it. An incoming disaster, then.
He looked around - Goodsir was hurrying along, a bit behind on his time and frantically weaving his doughs together in that bizarre pattern, Little was sitting in front of his oven staring at the blob of dough inside, James was talking with the hosts, Collins humming, Irving staring off into space in some sort of dissociative daydream - in short, everyone who could be relied upon to help the boy was occupied.
So Francis took a deep breath and then a few tentative steps over and asked if everything was alright.
“I don’t - I don’t really know -” Evans began, barely containing the sob in his voice. “I made it the way I did at home, I think?”
“Let’s see then.”
Evans stepped aside and with one look, Francis could tell where the lad had gone wrong. The boy’s overly ambitious nine strand braided loaf had all bulged together, and now resembled a thin bit of wrinkled fabric hastily and embarrassingly thrown over a pile of laundry in a corner. His caramelized onion dough, similar to the one Francis had made, contained far too much moisture - so much so that wet onion goo was leaking out around the base - and was never going to cook at the same rate as the others.
In short, the prognosis was not good.
“Listen, I’m going to put my bread in the oven, then why don’t we sop up some of this and see what we have to work with afterwards?” An almost tearful Evans nodded.
They got the dough cleaned up, and though it was far too late to do any of the usual fixes, Francis suggested that he get it in the oven as soon as possible and cover it with foil to prevent the top from browning while the rest of the loaf tried to cook. It was the best he could do, for so mangled a situation.
“Alright,” Francis said when it was done. “Call me over when the timer goes off and we can see if it’s ready to come out yet.”
“Okay,” Evans replied, in a dull voice that suggested he knew where he was heading at the end of this, regardless of what happened next. “Thank you.” Francis knew he should say something else, something witty or encouraging, but he wasn’t one of the other bakers - he wasn’t Goodsir or Fitzjames - and he could think of nothing that didn’t sound foolish and trite.
As quickly as he could, Francis moved from Evans’ station to his own, checked the bread in the oven and allowed himself a moment to be pleased that the top hadn’t split and all the layers seemed to have baked together shockingly well for the amount of effort he had put into practicing the bake. He kept one eye on Evans for the next hour while his own bread finished baking and had a pleasingly hollow tone when he knocked on the bottom of it.
“Oh no -” Evans groaned, staring into his oven with the scrap of foil in his hand. Francis felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he headed back over and peered in to see what had distressed him so.
One of the doughs in the bake had collapsed - overproofed, maybe - and was thinned and browning despite the foil. The onion dough still hadn’t finished cooking, and the whole thing look wrong, twisted, like two entirely different bakes that had been shoved together by someone who didn’t know any better.
In short? An unsalvageable mess.
“Can we - is there a way to fix it?” Evans asked, sounding so much younger than he was, and Francis wanted to tell him of course, it could be fixed, there was time, but he didn’t even know what was wrong and it was too late. Should have never even helped in the first place - he should have waited for Goodsir or Little or even fucking Fitzjames to notice and see if they could lend a hand. They would at least know what to say in this moment, when Francis had nothing.
“Just put it back in the oven with the foil on it,” he said, too harshly by the way the boy’s face caved in. “The middle might still cook.” Gentler, but Francis knew it was too late.
The bread Evans turned out on its serving board showed no improvements.
Francis’ own bread, while cooked properly, apparently contained little to none of the flavors he had intended it too.
“Rosemary should be used with a light touch,” Silna said, “but you’ve gone far too light on this.”
“And this one is supposed to be garlic, yes?” Barrow asked. “I’m sorry but I’m not really getting anything, and garlic is a very powerful flavor.”
“Ah,” said Francis. “Thanks.”
It wasn’t the worst to be judged. That particular merit belonged chiefly to poor Evans, who presented his loaf to the judges with tears already brimming in his eyes.
“You know what went wrong with this,” Silna said, poking at the twisted mess before her. “Too much moisture, and too many braids.”
“The onion is coming through,” Barrow said, sampling part of the underdone dough. “But you can see where it didn’t finish cooking here -” he pointed to a raw bit in the middle.
“Thank you Thomas,” Silna said, and Evans returned to his station with his shoulders shaking.
In stark contrast to both of them, Goodsir delighted the judges, especially Barrow, with his unusually shaped braid, which wasn’t a spider at all, but a -
“A CRAB!” Barrow practically shouted. “This is remarkably clever, Harry, how did you even think of it?”
“It was very spur of the moment when I was practicing for this round at home,” Goodsir began, enthusiasm causing his words to trip over each other. “I was working on just a regular rounded braid and I absolutely mucked it up, It was too stretched out and it had all these strands of dough everywhere and I thought - that looks exactly like a sort of crab and - well, here it is.”
“The tomato flavoring is excellent,” Silna said around a mouthful of bread. “And I like how you've complimented it with the squid ink bread. Very earthy, very much a match for what it looks like.” She pulled a piece of the crab’s back leg off. “What was this dough, again?”
“It was a sweet potato dough.”
“It doesn’t quite go with the other flavors,” Barrow remarked. “It’s very good, but perhaps something not as sweet would have been a better choice.”
“Thank you Harry.”
Goodsir returned to his bench, beaming.
The rest fell somewhere on a scale between Evans and Goodsir, with even Stanley coming in at a clear second. When the judges vanished from the tent to make their final deliberations there was an air of certainty about them, the rapidity with which they returned ensured that no one had even a spare second for a good breakdown.
“Everyone, it was a wonderful weekend filled with fantastic bread,” Ross began.
“I gained ten pounds,” Dundy confessed. “And I couldn’t be happier!”
“You better slow down or next week the judges will have nothing left to judge!” Ross laughed.
“A man can only dream,” Dundy replied. “Bakers! I have the absolute honor today of announcing who had claimed the title of best baker. Our best baker is someone who always puts his best effort forward in baking and in the tent, and his crab braid - a pair of words I thought I would never say - was absolutely out of this world. Congratulations, Harry!” Goodsir first looked shocked, then blushed a deep red and tried to hide his delighted smile behind his hand.
“Of course, that means I’m the one who has the awful job of telling you all who is going home,” Ross said, sadly. “And I’m afraid that this time, that person is Thomas. I’m so sorry.”
Francis didn’t expect to feel the boy’s loss as sharply as he did. He felt - he felt like he had been the one who failed, failed to help him as much as he ought to have. It wasn’t like his own bake was some prize, anyway. He was never going to be the one to get best baker two weeks in a row. It would be a miracle if he even made it past the sixth week of the taping! Francis waited until the circle of sympathizers around Evans had cleared away to go congratulate Goodsir before he put a comforting hand on Evans’ shoulder and said how sorry he was.
“Oh, it’s alright,” said Evans, shrugging. “It was getting a bit too difficult for me, I think. Thank you for trying to help.” Francis didn’t know what else to say, so he nodded and moved on to Goodsir, who was receiving handshakes from the rest of the contestants, except Hickey, who crossed his arms and raised a brow, looking around in vain for someone to nod at, no doubt certain that today’s results confirmed his suspicions of yesterday. Francis would not be that person.
James Fitzjames: Hrm? Oh - er - yes it went very well.
John Irving: Went right to the wire, didn’t I? Sometimes I think those ovens might be cursed.
Harry Goodsir: Yes, yes I’m so pleased! I was a bit worried there for a moment - shaping the dough was taking much longer than it had in practice.
Thomas Evans: You know I expected this week to be hard, and I knew it might - It was a fantastic experience though, wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Francis went to the estate, gathered up his things. A warm breeze blew through him on his walk to the carpark. Hickey’s ride this time was a younger, curly haired man in a blinding yellow mini cooper. The little car shot out of the parking lot in a cloud of dust and spray of pebbles like the devil was at its heels. Francis waited for the dust to clear, wondering how on Earth Hickey found the time.
“Francis!” someone called from behind him.
He turned to see James Fitzjames walking towards him on those long, long legs of his and was very displeased with his stupid heart for the way it jumped into his throat at the sight.
“Yes?” The misplaced anger in his voice was not lost on James, who took a step back.
“I -” James ran a hand through his hair. “I just wanted to say that it was good of you to try and help. With Tom Evans, I mean.”
“It would have been better if my help had actually helped him,” Francis replied.
“It was good of you all the same.” They stood there together in the dusty carpark and Francis again felt that sensation that he should be doing something other than what he was doing, that he was putting a foot wrong somewhere, only he didn’t even know what the steps were.
“Well, I’m heading home.” Best to just quit the floor completely.
“Back to London?” James asked.
“Oh, me too.”
An absurd idea came to him then - but no, the dinner had been bad enough! Imagine the interminable drive if he offered to take James back to London, two hours of nonstop stories and flying hands! If Francis wasn’t slapped in the face by James’ wild gesticulations he might expire from the oxygen loss. James wouldn’t accept anyway.
The whole idea was stupid.
“Until next week then,” Francis said.
“Until next week,” James repeated.
It was only when he got to the end of the drive that Francis remembered the radio was out, and he was facing a long drive in abject silence.
“Better than two hours of non-stop swanning,” he said to the steering column, and he almost believed it.
While the competition is heating up, so is the tent! Watch the bakers take on the heat as they try to temper chocolate, on our hottest episode yet, next week, Chocolate Week!
Chapter 5: Chocolate Week
Me before writing this chapter: This chapter is the saddest one, and therefore will be the shortest for sure.
Me now: This is literally the longest chapter of the entire fic what the fuck is happening.
WELCOME BACK TO BAKE OFF! Everyone in this chapter is hot, angry, horny, angry because they're hot, angry because they're horny, or the covetous ALL OF THE ABOVE. ENJOY.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Our bakers impressed yet again with some beautiful breads and scrumptious scones last week. But this week, they’ll be facing more than just the strain of the tent. With the temperature reaching unreasonably heights, who will be able to take the heat, and who should stay out of the kitchen?
“...And we’re afraid there will be no relief from the heat this coming weekend. We’re heading for some truly scorching temperatures, with highs reaching up to thirty degrees on Saturday and a punishing thirty three degrees on Sun-”
The television clicked off.
In the resounding silence which followed, Francis looked at the thin slab of chocolate on his countertop, where oblong shapes that had been sliced out by a dull paring knife sat staggered at odd intervals - a hieroglyphic testament to his failure to make more than two passable chocolate roses. Those mediocre attempts had already wilted in the heat, and it was very, very difficult for Francis to not derive some metaphor on his upcoming chances for the weekend based on the current state of his kitchen.
His crumbled yellow legal pad was now covered in doodles, chocolate fingerprints, a scratched out list of ingredients, and exactly zero plans for either his centerpiece or trademark bake. The sink overflowed with chocolate covered bowls, trays, and a springform pan that had the unfortunate fate of producing a chocolate torte that looked more like a chocolate tragedy. (Francis’ reaction to this failure ensured that the poor pan would forevermore neither spring, nor form.)
The clock on the stove proclaimed it was 02:55 in bright, vaguely accusatory green numbers, and outside, the earliest birds admonished him with their morning songs. Neptune lingered near the doorway, anxious and uncertain at Francis’ distress. Dried sweat covered every inch of Francis’ skin.
He was so fucked.
A lifelong resident of Edinburgh, Henry Collins has been baking since he, in his own words, “skipped out on Uni to try and find himself.” He now works as an electrician, and says all those years of burning himself on bakes have aided in keeping his hands quick and out of danger in his day to day.
By the time Francis made his Saturday morning journey to the estate, the legal pad had been replaced, and this fresh face bore the words “Trademark - strawberries?” along with a recipe he found on the internet and had only made once. He consoled himself with the notion that there was no sense in making definitive plans without any idea what it would be like inside the tent, how the heat might affect the bakes. What would he do if he planned a slew of fancy chocolate decorations that toppled over in the heat? Francis would - he would just have to make do, plan a bit more on the fly than he had been, put all those years of home baking experience to some use. He could do that.
And, somewhere back in a distant, treacherous region of his mind, lingered the sense that it didn’t - it didn’t really matter if he continued to phone it in, did it? There was no way he would be the worst in the tent this week, and he only had to be a little better than the worst to move on to easier bakes and (hopefully) cooler climes.
Yet there was something ominous in the quiet that the broken radio antenna left behind, and Francis could not think of a single way to fill it.
“Good morning, sir,” Jopson greeted him when he arrived at the tent and directed him towards his station. “Second from the front on the left, this week.” It looked like he would be across from Hickey, in front of Little, and just behind James Fitzjames. He made a face purely out of habit when he fully realized the latter, but the distaste that usually accompanied such an expression was nowhere to be found. He was so bewildered by its absence that it was a moment or two before he realized Jopson was still talking, explaining something about how the environment would be managed. “- almost unbearable, so we’re doing our best with fans and ice water. It’s unfortunate it should happen this week of all weeks, but it can’t be helped. Please let me or someone else on the production team know if there’s anything at all you need, and we will be consulting with the judges if there will be any changes in how the trademark or the proficients will be presented or timed.”
Changes in the presentation or timing? Perhaps it was for the best that he didn’t make any definitive plans. Jopson left him at his station, and he tried to blink the sweat from his eyes and the terrible sense of foreboding that had taken root somewhere deep in his gut. He began an anxious series of sketches of the bake he was supposed to be creating in the next hour and a half while the rest of the contestants staggered in.
Little and Collins were the next to arrive, looking appropriately affected by the heat. Goodsir was on their heels, carrying what looked like a week’s worth of water bottles. Stanley’s face had its familiar scowl, untempered at all by the blazing sun, and Hickey smiled through the sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“Reckon one of us should get used to this - used to basking in that hot Hawaiian sun!” he said as he gave a diminished wave to the others. This statement was met with the thinnest of thin lipped smiles from a small fraction of the bakers.
Last to swan his way in was James Fitzjames, looking for all the world like he was about to step onto some stage in the West End instead of baking in a tent that was, ironically, already baking its bakers. Though his individual greetings for everyone did seem a bit forced, perhaps, if one were actively reaching for perceived flaws.
“Tent mates again, I see,” James said to Franics when he reached his station. No - Francis hadn’t been reaching. James smiled, but up close Francis could see an unmistakable tightness around the lines in his face, especially about the eyes. Was he unhappy with the heat as the rest of them, despite appearances?
“I suppose we are,” Francis replied, and his eyes flicked back down to the doodle of what his finished bake might look like if he didn’t muck it up too badly. He wanted to - to say something, make some witty attempt at conversation - but what the fuck else was he supposed to say? Some inane comment about the weather or obvious remark about the difficulties ahead? Each possible phrase was discarded the moment it crossed his mind. The almost ease of their conversation from last week was as distant to him now as the nearest galaxy, the notion that he might have asked James if he would like a ride back to London only slightly less absurd than the idea the man would have accepted.
“Good luck then,” James said, when it was clear there would be no other small talk forthcoming. Francis at least succeeded in making a sound that could be taken as a wish for the same by an exceptionally hopeful listener. Either way, there was no time for James to engage him in conversation again before the judges and the hosts entered and the round began in earnest.
“Welcome to chocolate week!” Dundy began, smiling like sweat wasn’t already beading on his forehead despite the PA dabbing at his face mere moments before the camera started rolling. “We know it’s a bit warm -”
“As much as my last three direct to video films were a bit rubbish,” Ross joked.
(Well. They weren’t that rubbish.)
“But -” Dundy pressed on, “We know that you’ll churn out the most delectable of chocolate bakes regardless!” Barrow got up afterwards and spewed a whole bunch of nonsense about how this would be the week where their mettle would be sincerely tested, and Francis thought that was rather a lot to say for a man who kept pausing the taping to wipe down his face with a cold compress and would no doubt retreat to the air conditioned judges tent as soon as this little introduction was completed. Silna, for her part, didn’t say anything. She looked about as at home in the heat as an egg frying on the pavement under the August sun, and could scarcely tamp down on her frown the fifth time Barrow asked to reshoot his introduction.
“Alright Bakers,” Ross said, when Barrow was finally satisfied. In a testament to his acting talent, there was not even a hint of recrimination in his voice. “Let’s begin!”
A mere five minutes later, Francis knew that while he was experiencing a great many things, none of them could be called an auspicious beginning to a bake. The chocolate he was trying to chop grew mushy and soft almost the moment he took it out of the refrigerator, and he soon gave up on a fine chop and just cracked the whole thing in half before setting it into the double boiler with the butter. He felt the knot of anxiety in the pit of his stomach grow each time one of the cameras swept past him and he fell prey to imagining what his damp, red face might look like on someone’s television a few months later. By the time fifteen minutes had gone by, the desire to not expose himself further gave way to the need to roll his sleeves up past the elbow, baring his pale arms dusted with light hair to the rest of the tent, hoping the cameras would find something more interesting to capture that his pained mortification.
And because he was a rotten man who was going to be punished the rest of his life for his mistakes, the most unmanageable sense of all was the palpable aroma wafting over from Goodsir’s station every time the oscillating fan blew a weak breath of hot air in Francis’ direction.
It would be perfect on a hot day like this one, wouldn’t it? A fine cut crystal glass with a big round ice cube, two (or three, or four) fingers of whisky, the moisture condensing on the side of the glass and trickling down the sides -
“Alright there, sir?” Jopson appeared (as he often did) from out of nowhere and started him out of the dangerous, yet familiar path down which he had begun to tread.
“Yes - fine,” Francis muttered, hoping his longing for a drink didn’t show too much in his face. “Just the bloody heat.” Jopson nodded sympathetically.
“We’re doing all we can - I’ve sent a few of the crew to get more fans. And - here, let me get you some more water.” Francis waved a grateful hand in his direction, and the lad ran off. The water did help, a bit, and holding the cold glass against his forehead while the cameras were occupied with the judges rounds helped even more.
“What on earth are you making here?” Dundy exclaimed when the judges and hosts reached James’ station.
“I was only in New York for a few days,” James began, excitedly. “But that was more than enough time to be introduced to the wonders of a good New York cheesecake!” Francis was sure he was about to launch into a five minute long explanation about some fancy upscale restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge that featured gourmet cheesecakes and all their different flavors and how the New York skyline had looked offset against a sunset or some other pretentious nonsense, but James must have caught the look on Silna’s face - a look that promised no mercy should he drag out their time in this boiling hot tent any longer than necessary. “I - ah - well, it was a salted caramel cheesecake brownie, and I thought - why not incorporate those elements into the torte?”
“You’re certain the cheesecake filling will cook the same time as the chocolate?” Barrow asked. It was impossible to tell if he was actually curious or if he was just going through the motions of the day.
“Oh I’m sure,” said James. “I’ve done several practice rounds and made little modifications here and there!”
“I’m eager to see how it turns out then,” Barrow finished. They thanked James and moved on to Francis, who busied himself with carefully cleaning and drying strawberries to give his hands something to do.
“Chocolate and strawberry again?” Silna asked, when Francis explained his bake. “I seem to remember you using that combination before.”
“It’s - they’re a good compliment,” he replied, lamely. What was he supposed to say, that he slumped over his kitchen counter at midnight two nights before and wrote whatever had come to mind to have something to show for the long hours he had put into practicing? That would go over well alongside everyone else’s stories of family dinners and nights with friends and travel anecdotes.
“I’m sure it’ll be just wonderful,” Ross said, his eyes sparkling despite the heat, and Francis felt the side of his mouth quirk into his own approximation of a grateful smile.
“Let’s just hope there’s a good balance between the strawberry and chocolate this time, hrm?” Barrow said, almost as a warning.
“I’ll - I’ll do my best,” Francis said, and with that the four of them were off to bother Collins in a whirl of thank yous and good lucks.
Francis returned to his increasingly dubious bake. What was next? Right - the strawberries. Better get some more chocolate on the boil too. He took a deep sip of water, hoping in vain to feel refreshed. He did not.
So he wiped the sweat out of his eyes, and began the insane task of attempting to make chocolate covered strawberries in thirty degree weather. The first few went alright, although he should call the drying rack something else, because despite the fact that the strawberries had come out of the freezer, the chocolate was still dripping from the first three in great fat drops when he dropped the fourth. Fanfuckingtastic. A not-drying rack.
“How on earth are we supposed to function when -” Francis looked up to see James facing him, long body leaning against his station. James had stopped in the middle of his sentence to stare at Francis’ hands, apparently fascinated with the way Francis was dipping his fifth strawberry. There was a look of… of something on his face that Francis chose (very carefully) to attribute to indigestion and the heat of the tent.
“What?” he snapped, too harshly, when James still would not continue. James started, slipping from whatever reverie he’d found himself in, and said, idiotically, “You’ve rolled up your sleeves.”
“Its thirty degrees in here,” Francis shot back, defensive. “My apologies for offending your delicate sensibilities.”
“I didn’t -” James began, but then took a long, deep sigh and changed the subject. “Are you alright today?”
“I’m fine,” Francis said, in a manner familiar to liars.
“You don’t look fine,” James pressed.
“This is just my face,” Francis said, growing more sour by the second. “We can’t all look like we stepped off a magazine cover.” It was meant to make James get huffy and turn around, but the corner of his mouth picked up and spread a smile across his face instead.
“If that was meant to be an insult it wasn’t a very good one.”
“I’m off my game then,” Francis said. Why wouldn’t he turn around? What the hell was happening? “Don’t you have a bake to be getting back to?”
“Alas it seems I do,” James replied, turning around with a great show of how burdensome it was to do so.
The round ended with Francis glaring at the disastrous chocolate torte sitting at the end of his station and covered in half dipped chocolate strawberries. (The other half of the chocolate had sloughed off the berries entirely and sat in a tepid pool around each berry or seeped into the cake beneath it). It looked awful - probably tasted okay? He upped the strawberry in the cake itself, made sure that the density of the cake was correct, but it would take some luck to convince the judges that it wasn’t totally wrecked, and Francis had never been a lucky man, so why should this day be any different?
“I’m getting just enough of the strawberry to make it interesting,” Silna said around the first bite of the torte during the judging. “I think there could have been a third element, though. It tastes fine, it’s just too plain.”
“And the upset with your decorations is a testament to the weather,” Barrow laughed. “But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on our bakers today - they can’t control the temperature, after all.” Silna’s silent reaction told that she would be just as hard on the bakers as she pleased, and there was nothing that he or anyone else or even the weather could do about it.
It was dreadful, Francis knew, but at least it wasn’t the worst showing of the trademark. That honor belonged to Little, who had experienced an unfortunate collapse at the center of his cake that could not quite be concealed by the pool of overly salted caramel he decided to fill it with.
Hickey had done a rather impressive (according to Barrow) job of making a mint chocolate torte decorated with mint and chocolate imitation leaves. Hickey accepted the praise with a bow of his head and a small smirk.
James, Irving, and Collins made up the middle of the pack. Despite James’ protestations to the contrary, the cheesecake filling did not cook at the same rate as the chocolate batter, while Collins had added a touch too much sugar and spoiled the richness of his dark chocolate. Irving's white chocolate torte was simultaneouslty inoffensive yet uninspiring. Stanley (“Perfect balance of the orange and chocolate, the citrus bursts right at the end there-”) and Goodsir (“So much booze I’m not sure I would even know if the decorations had melted if I ate a whole slice”) seemed to be at the same level as Hickey. It wasn’t a deep hole to climb out of, Francis thought as they broke for lunch.
It wasn’t shallow, either.
John Barrow: This is where - you know - it’ll be a bit of separation between the men and the boys. Who can handle a bit of pressure, and who is going to allow the heat to get the better of them.
Henry Collins: I’m a fan of sweets, I don’t know -
Cornelius Hickey: Yeah, yeah, you could say I’ve really leaned into this week. Been working all week on this bake. Just me and my lonesome in the kitchen - a great deal of late nights I don’t mind telling you.
Edward Little: A pool of caramel? Jesus what was I thinking -
In case someone was planning to plop down beside him and start talking about whatever, Francis took his sorry excuse for a lunch and vanished behind the estate, where there was a small, overgrown garden within which Francis could feel marginally at home. It was well shaded by the shadow of the building and littered with a few stone benches that had not yet warmed to arse scorching levels like the plastic chairs out front undoubtedly had. He even managed to force down half of the - what was it, some sort of fruit salad? - before abandoning it in a nearby bin and closing his eyes against the sun for a few minutes.
Far too soon, he returned to the tent, and his foolish hope that perhaps it might be a mite cooler without all the ovens going was dashed the moment he stepped inside and the warm, moist air hit him like a physical blow. With only a minor consideration for how stupid it would look on camera, Francis ran a hand towel under the tap and draped it around his neck as soon as he reached his station. It wasn’t much, but it did allow his brain to have a respite, to think beyond the words “hot” and “humid” for at least five minutes.
“Welcome back from lunch, everyone,” Dundy began, with a weariness he could no longer hide. “That trademark was a bit of a frying pan -”
“And the proficient is the proverbial fire!” Ross continued. (He could feign interest in the face of imminent heat exhaustion.) Barrow made a noise that could have been a cough, and Ross’ smile grew strained at the edges. “Ah yes, I believe one of our esteemed judges has some words of advice for you.”
“Watch your layers,” Barrow said. (More fucking layers, Francis thought. Wonderful.) “And make sure to let the biscuits cool.” A few weeks ago, such a statement would have inspired at least a few polite smiles among the contestants. But it was too hot for jokes, too hot for the bakers to do anything but stare at each other with slightly haunted eyes. Let anything cool? How?
“Watch your icing,” Silna said, and it seemed like even that small utterance had taken all the effort she could muster. Then the judges were ushered out of the tent, and Ross called on them to begin.
Francis pulled the cloth off his ingredients and recipe, almost dreading what he would find underneath. (There was a bottle of something alcoholic - rum, he suspected - and he quickly stoppered the bottle and set it on the edge of his station, far out of reach.) He scanned the recipe in full first, as he always did, and found that while it wasn’t a recipe he recognized at all (Kalter Hund?) it was only an icebox cake made with layers of biscuit and chocolate. On any other day he would have laughed at the simplicity of it. He felt like laughing now, the kind of hysterical little trill Little or Collins were fond of. Maybe then he could stop the horrible curdling in his gut that started the moment he thought of arranging all that chocolate in the supplied metal tin with the temperature in the tent now well over what any proper Irishman would consider acceptable even in the worst of summer. Christ. Even his wrists were sweating.
There was the familiar clink of metal on wood ahead of him - James measuring out his flour and sugar. With a dumb, slow sort of look, Francis faced the wall of ingredients that stood, lined up like an opposing army in front of him.
Well, if he wanted to start climbing out of the hole he found himself in, he better get started.
The icing was a strange mix of chocolate, coconut oil, sugar, eggs, and rum and he had no desire to check the flavor. Some of it remained cooling on the stove while about a quarter went right into the metal tin lined with plastic. He would put that in the freezer right away, give him the best chance of the whole thing setting, although he was dubious any effort of his would produce ideal results in the current environment. With that done, he turned to the simple shortbread biscuit dough and got those in the oven as fast as he could.
Ordinarily, he would sit and sip a cup of tea, review the next few steps while a bake was in the oven. Today the thought of consuming any liquid one degree above ice water was intolerable, so he sat there and twiddled his thumbs and tried not to be annoyed by the fact that his arms kept sticking to the wooden countertop. Around him, the other bakers were frantically fanning their freshly baked biscuits with baking trays in an effort to cool them, although Hickey abandoned that notion and just stuck them in the oven with a shrug and a “Too hot to fan anything but my face,” for the cameras.
Somewhere behind Francis he heard what sounded like a head softly hitting a table and a loud groan of frustration (Little, no doubt), and Collins began his humming right on his heels. Stanley stood with his spine rigid and straight, proclaiming his utter indifference to the heat and the laughable impossibility of tempering chocolate in thirty degree weather. It was only his eyes - fixed on slicing the biscuit dough in front of him as if his life depended on it, even when Hickey dropped a pan that made a sound like a gunshot in the tense quiet of the tent (“So sorry, sweaty palms!”) - that Francis began to believe that he was not so indifferent at all.
James, who also gave up on fanning his biscuit dough, turned around, perhaps to ask a question (his face had that thoughtful look about it) but as soon as he noticed Francis’ station his eyebrows shot up and he shook his head, pointing to the chocolate icing on the stove.
“Oh no, what happened?” Francis followed the path of his long finger to something that almost made him gasp in horror.
While he hadn’t been looking, the chocolate filling had separated.
He blinked once, twice, hoping it might fix itself, or be a trick of the light. No such luck. Great globs of fat rose to the surface and chocolate grains spiraled away from them, like ants fleeing an oil slick.
“What -” he mumbled, and twirled the whisk a few times, hoping that would be enough to rejuvenate the emulsification.
“What if you put it in -” said James. There was pity in his eyes and Francis wouldn’t stand for it.
“In an ice bath, I know,” he snapped back. “This isn’t my first bake.” James pursed his lips and slowly exhaled.
“Alright,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “Good luck.”
The ice bath was enough to re-emulsify the chocolate, but not enough to prevent it from developing awful little grains throughout. It couldn’t be helped, he had neither the time nor the resources to try again. When he finally got up the courage to put a spoonful in his mouth it tasted - well, it tasted like chocolate and a bit of rum mixed with coconut oil and it left a strange coating on his tongue. Was it supposed to do that?
Francis allowed the knowledge that this wasn’t going very well at all to settle over him like a wet blanket.
With the time winding down, he assembled the strange, cake sized candy bar in its pan and chucked it into the refrigerator. Although they were supposed to take it out and turn it out for presentation within the time frame, Jopson suddenly arrived from wherever he vanished in order to announce that their bakes would be given an extra twenty minutes to cool after time was called before they needed to be turned out. Francis gave a long, low exhale. He was so fucked at this point that everyone else’s bakes collapsing into a pile of chocolate and biscuit mush tentatively held together by a dream and a prayer was the only way he wouldn’t come in dead last, and that certainly wasn’t going to happen now.
The judging came through in a flurry of words and expressions - he was not the only one who had suffered separated icing, and at least his came out of the tin in one piece. All the comments were very much the same, not set enough, grainy chocolate - the only variation seemed to have been if the biscuits were too thick or too thin. It was a thoroughly demoralized batch of bakers that stumbled out of the tent and towards the estate. Francis actually found himself considering taking the van back to the hotel so he could rest his head against the window and close his eyes for five minutes. The idea was discarded almost as soon as it was considered - but it had been considered, and Francis considered his considering all the way back to the hotel, where he was accosted in the lobby by that same group of Fitzjames, Collins, Little, Irving, and Goodsir he had accompanied out the week before.
“Ah,” said James, as Francis approached. “We were just figuring out dinner, did you want to -”
“No - er - no thank you,” he corrected, even as he brushed past the group as quickly as his stout legs would carry him. “Thanks all the same.” He almost missed the flash of something across James’ face, a flicker of annoyance, a set of teeth against the inside of his cheek, but he didn’t and it didn’t matter.
“Lots of important business calls to make, then?” James called after him, and Francis could hear the sneer in his voice, though he couldn’t see it. He could turn around, say something horribly invective like at least it’s better than spending an entire evening listening to your damn stories but that would require opening his mouth again and the last thing he wanted was to talk to anyone, especially not posh and perfect and somehow-still-put-together-after-spending-a-day-baking-on-the -surface-of-the-sun James Fitzjames. He wanted to go upstairs to his hotel room, take a numbingly cold shower and pick at a middling salad or something from room service while watching bad telly until sleep dragged him under.
Francis’ plans, such as they were, were derailed by the lack of available cold water (he stood under the warm spray of the shower for three minutes before washing himself and toweling off) and a phone call from Blanky that he briefly considered not picking up at all. Who the hell would want to put themselves through talking to Francis after the day he had? As the phone rang one last time, Francis suddenly sprang across the bed and answered the call.
“What is it?” he said, bringing the phone to his ear.
“Oh, and a good evening to you as well, Captain Arsehole,” said Blanky with a laugh. “How did it go today? Miserable heat up here.”
“Sure as shit wasn’t any good for baking outside in a tent,” Francis replied.
“Imagine so,” said Blanky.
“I fucked up the first two rounds,” Francis admitted. “Got the centerpiece tomorrow but - eh, I don’t know.”
“Something big planned for it?”
“Nothing planned for it, really.” There was a pause at the other end of the line.
“Nothing at all?”
“Who can plan anything in the week we’ve had? I swear I thought my brain was melting out of my ears.”
“At least it would be nice to know you had one to begin with,” Blanky said, in a tone that was almost joking. “Enough about tomorrow. What are you up to tonight? Carousing with the boys? Turning out on the town -”
“No.” Now Francis regretted picking up at all - he could feel his friend’s reproach through the phone, seeping into his brain through the same waves that carried his voice.
“Ah.” The word hit the ground with a weighty thud. “All by your lonesome again?” “Yes.” Francis knew, from a lifetime of conversations with his oldest friend, precisely what would come next.
“Look,” There it was. That heavy goddamn sigh that promised a lecture. He remembered that sigh well, from late nights in shitty pubs and later nights in the alley outside shitty pubs and on one fateful night from a hospital bed with Francis beside him, blubbering through a drunken haze that he was sorry, he was so sorry, he would make this right. “I’m not sure what’s going on over there -”
“It’s not me!” Francis interrupted, before Blanky could begin in earnest. “It was the heat - made everyone act miserable or odd.”
“Odd? Odd how? And what does this have to do with you stuck inside while they all go out without you? I thought you had an alright time last week.”
“I don’t know, just - strange. At one point James turned around and said -”
“James? James you haven’t stopped talking about for four weeks James? What very strange thing did he say to you?”
“Oh please, I haven’t gone on that much about him-”
“Of course you have! You’ve gone on about him so much my wife keeps asking me when we can expect the wedding invitation.”
“Dueling invitation, more like.”
“Is he going on about Fitzjames again?” Esther’s voice popped into the background. Something clattered on the other end of the phone, and then Blanky’s wife was in his ear.
“Fight him or fuck him, love,” she said. “But get it out of your system, yeah?” Francis sputtered in indignation, but this only made Esther chuckle. “And get your arse on up here and bake me some scones while you’re at it. I have to hear about all these wonderful dishes from my husband every week and nothing from you, it's cruel is what it is -” Some more muffled fumbling, a yelp which implied someone’s bottom had been pinched in a mock scuffle. Esther laughed, mumbled something about getting her own revenge later and the awful, bitter envy of the disparity of their situations hit Francis like a brick through a shop window: sudden, and with terrible shattering and scattering of slivers like broken glass.
“So you see Frank, we’ve decided -”
“Oh I see, alright.” Francis fought to keep the bile out of his voice. “Look, it’s late and I have another big stupid day tomorrow.”
“Alright,” said Blanky, quite unconvinced at Francis’ sudden change in demeanor. “But I got to say duck, it doesn’t sound like you’re having much fun.”
“I’m not, who would under these circumstances -”
“Then quit! Call ‘em up and tell them you’re all done, you won’t stand for it any longer, and you’re not coming back.”
“I can’t do that, then they’ll have won-”
“Who would have won?”
“I don’t know - them.”
“You’re not making much sense.”
“I don’t have to! You have no idea what its been like-”
“It sounds -” Blanky interrupted, stretching out the vowels, heightening his accent. “It sounds to me like you’re trying your damnedest to lose this thing.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Francis. “Why would I be trying to lose-”
“Because I don’t rightly think you would know what to do with yourself if you won. There, I’ve said it.” The words came out in a burst, so quickly that it was a few seconds before Francis could fully parse what he said, a few seconds before he was seeing red.
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means that I’m tired of watching you be miserable for the sake of being miserable!”
“The fuck you are! She’s been gone for years, Frank, years! Whatever penance you think you need to fulfill is over -”
“Peanance?” Francis shouted into the phone.
“You have a better explanation for why the hell you’re shut up in that damn flat by yourself? Never going out, never letting yourself have a minute of human connection or god forbid a second of happiness! I’ve been asking you to come up for ages and every time you make up some bullshit excuse -”
“I’m busy we don’t all have the luxury of -”
“Oh aye busy. Forgive me for trying to disrupt your packed schedule of eating your sorry little meals for one and taking long lonely walks.”
“Fuck you -”
“Nah, go fuck yourself. Or better yet, find someone who will.” Francis yanked the phone away from his ear, hung up and wished it was a landline so he could slam the receiver down.
Fucking Blanky. He paced up and down the room like an animal in an undersized cage at a dodgy roadside attraction. Fucking Esther. This wasn’t helping. He pulled his shoes back on, tore out of his room and slammed the door behind him. Fucking perfect little marriage and perfect little children and perfect little house in the country.
The first lap around the hotel did nothing. He was furious and still hot and there was too much of him - like his skin was stretched to thin over his bones. Things had improved by the second (at least with each step he put in front of the other he grew less and less tempted to go to the hotel bar and drown himself inside a bottle). The third lanced his rage like a boil and left nothing but hollow, empty, aching regret in its place.
He found a scattering of tables on the side of the hotel, practically hidden by an overgrowth of shrubbery, which looked like they hadn’t seen use in a decade. Perfect. Francis sat there for a few minutes trying to collect his thoughts, put them into some semblance of order, but they kept scattering like a stack of papers in a strong wind, and he went back inside to toss and turn in scratchy hotel sheets.
Maybe everything would look better in the morning.
Edward Little - known as Ned to his friends - hails from Portsmouth, where he works as a website developer. He started baking as a hobby all the way back in primary school, and now his cakes and biscuits are the pride of every company meeting and picnic.
Nothing looked better in the morning.
He felt exhausted in ways he hadn’t felt in years and he would have killed for a drink - he almost considered calling Blanky again right then and there but - no, not the way things were left the night before. Francis climbed into a lukewarm shower with the vague promise to call someone if it got too bad (though who that someone would be, frankly, was anyone’s guess) and ate a few bites of toast for breakfast.
In fact, as Francis soon learned, everything went exactly the same as yesterday, only worse.
When he stepped into the tent an hour later, the heat almost knocked the breath out of him. How could heat have weight? It was sticky, viscous, like someone had dunked him in a pot of warm honey and wrapped him in damp velvet afterwards.
The rest of the bakers had similar reactions to stepping inside. Even James, who the day before had appeared ambivalent to the climate, took one step in, made a face, and vanished for the next ten minutes. When he reappeared he had changed both his shirt and pulled his hair back, and were it any cooler Francis would have developed an scathing thesis on the idea of bringing an entirely separate outfit to match one’s hairstyle. Fried grey matter had replaced his brain, however, and he couldn’t get much beyond the fact that he would have to stare at the back of James' bare neck all day.
Even Ross and Dundy, stalwart warriors against melancholy in the tent, seemed atrophied by the heat as they explained the round in voices that strained to reach for liveliness. (“Good morning bakers! Today you’ll be making a celebratory chocolate cake. It needs to have at least three layers, one mousse and one ganache. The rest is up to you!”) Ross’ charming smile seemed more caricature than genuine, like a porcelain doll beginning to crack at the edges. Dundy, fond of stuffing his face with little scraps from each station as he went around the tent, scarfed down fewer than three chocolate morsels in the first twenty minutes. Too hot to eat, too hot to bake, too hot to do anything but sit very still in the shade and sip a cool drink.
No one should be sweating like an animal over a stand mixer with a coating of flour sticking to their coating of sweat, like Francis was doing at this very moment. He had decided on raspberry mousse and a dark chocolate ganache because fuck it, he knew how to make all of those things and it would probably taste okay. The bulleted list he created that morning was a sad mockery of those which had come before. There were no times listed, no breakdown of steps. Make the mousse, make the cake, make the ganache. Cool everything. He would have added “pray” to the bottom of the page in large block letters if he seriously thought anyone was listening.
But it was fairly clear that absolutely no one was, because a lock of hair had escaped James’ ponytail.
The rest of James’ hair was bound up in some brightly colored tie that (of course) complemented his ostentatious outfit. But one lock of hair, just one, he missed, or it escaped somehow, and it brushed his neck with every movement he took. Still annoyed that Francis wouldn’t come out with them the night before, no doubt, he did not turn around as he had yesterday - he barely spared a glance at Francis before arranging his own station. That was - well, that was for the best. Now Francis would concentrate on his bake, or could, if that damn wisp of hair didn’t insist on flailing every which way.
“What do you have for us today Francis?” Barrow asked, and Francis gaped at him like a deep sea fish brought up from the depths right before depressurization. The hosts and judges were there, right in front of him (when had they arrived??), looking at him expectantly.
“Chocolate ganache,” Francis said. “Raspberry mousse.”
“Simple flavors again, I see,” said Silna. “After everything that happened yesterday I would think you’d be a bit riskier.”
“Foolish to be risky with chocolate in this heat,” he mumbled. Silna made a noise that could have been any number of things - derision, assent, understanding - but Francis was too hot to try and puzzle it out.
“It’s going to be a difficult day for everyone, I’m afraid,” Barrow said, shaking his head. “Thank you very much!”
Two hours later, and the situation had become substantially more severe. Collins hadn't stopped humming since hour one, Little crouched on the floor with his head pressed against the table because the chocolate collar he tried to put around his cake never came off the plastic, there was sweat poured from Stanley's face as he struggled to wrangle his cake into perfectly flat and even layers, Irving was mumbling something over and over again that sounded suspiciously like a prayer, James had dunked a hand towel in ice water and draped it over his neck and now the water went drip drip dripping down his back and -
It was the heat it - it was getting to everyone but sweat kept falling into Francis’ eyes and it stung every time he blinked and his big stupid hands kept smudging the chocolate roses he was trying to make and none of it was ever going to set. What did it matter, anyway?
“Bakers, you have a half an hour,” Ross called, and how, how did he only have thirty minutes left to put this awful mess to rights on his own? His breath hitched - he was not going to groan, or lay his head on the counter, or sit on the floor in defeat, or do any number of things his body was screaming for, he was not going to be a joke for the cameras, a silly old man who couldn’t handle the heat of the tent, someone for softhearted viewers to coo over (“He was doing so well and then he just fell apart!” “I felt so bad for him!” “What a sad situation!”), he would not be remembered for all time as the man who -
“Francis?” James turned around, for the very first time the whole day and Francis wanted to cover his face with a cold dish rag, to hide his red face and his shaking hands and the dampness dripping out of every pore in his skin -
“Francis let me help-” James reached for the chocolate rose that slipped out of Francis’ hand and Francis snatched it away from him like a dog guarding his first meal in a week.
“I don’t need your help, James,” Francis hissed. James opened his mouth of object, but Francis was having none of it. Pity swam in those brown eyes and it stuck in Francis’ chest as sure as any knife would have. He didn’t need his help, or his mercy, or his incessant invitations to dinner out of a misplaced sense of charity (or whatever it was that motivated Fitzjames to keep trying). Best to just rip the band-aid off, crater the whole thing, that’s what Francis was good at - “Fat lot of good your help did for John Franklin.”
James’ eyes widened, and the moment stretched out between them, the words leaping along a gulf so deep and wide and expanding by the second and Francis knew he could never call them back again.
“Well fuck you too, Francis,” James said, in a tone Francis had never heard from him before. Francis stared him down until James’ spine drew up, his shoulders squared and for a moment Francis thought James was going to reach across the wooden countertop and punch him right in the face.
Instead, he turned his back to Francis, and did not look at him again.
It was an omen of how the rest of the round would play out. Francis stepped back from his - his textbook definition of a baking atrocity the moment that Ross called time. The chocolate roses hung sad and limp and melting into the thin layer of ganache which never set. Raspberry mousse oozed out the sides. He couldn’t even look at the thing because every time it did he heard a slimy little voice that sounded like raspberry ooze saying nothing you can do now. Heading home at the halfway point and nothing to show for it.
Production gave them a break before the judging, a chance to clean themselves up a bit for the cameras. Francis ran a cool, damp cloth over his face and pushed his hair back and hoped he could retire from the field with some measure of dignity. Christ, did the cameras catch the spat between him and Fitzjames? It would be a perfect little arc, wouldn’t it? The ugly Irishman as the villain of the series, with Fitzjames, the pride and joy of glorious England as its shining star. His own exit would be fitting mid-season defeat, a fine dragon for James to slay on his way to the ultimate victory. He was certain now that James would triumph, would win the money and the trip and have another exhausting story to tell a captive audience.
His thoughts were confirmed by the flowery praise Barrow gave to James’ cake, the first to be judged. (“I don’t think I’ve ever had a coffee mousse quite like this! It’s extraordinary! And it pairs so well with the white chocolate ganache!”)
Goodsir was next, and Francis hoped that the thrashing the poor man’s cake received from Silna was enough to tamper down Hickey’s suspicions from the week before.
“There is far too much lemon in the mousse,” she said, making a face after her first sample. “And I can barely taste the mint.”
“I’ve got a bit of mint in this piece, but it’s very faint,” Barrow said.
“The appearance is…” Silna paused, maybe searching for the words, “it’s not good. Pale green and yellow does not put me in the mind of a chocolate cake.”
“Puts me in the mind of daffodils, or chamomile,” Barrow said. Goodsir just smiled, a bit chagrined, and thanked them both before returning to his seat.
Hickey made some sort of lemon and lime chocolate margarita mish-mash that Silna thought was intolerable but Barrow delighted in, while Stanley’s vanilla mousse and Earl Grey ganache was elegant and (shockingly) devoid of flavor.
“Tea is difficult to work with,” Barrow said, solemnly. “You never quite know how it will turn out, even if you’ve practiced.” Stanley absorbed the gentle critique with the decorum of a defiant revolutionary before a firing squad, and merely nodded his head.
Little, who almost had a breakdown after his chocolate collar had to be abandoned, was given the highest praise of all with his white chocolate ganache and hazelnut mousse cake, even though the hazelnut spikes had wilted a bit in the heat.
“You know, I rather expected the mousse to have a grainy texture,” Barrow admitted after he had his first taste. “I must say - its delightful, very smooth.”
“Airy, almost,” Silna agreed. “Like it just dissolves. It’s excellent. And I saw how you’ve tried to pipe the chocolate onto the sides when the collar didn’t work out. That was good thinking under pressure.”
Little looked like he might collapse if someone said one more kind thing to him, and when he swayed on his feet a bit instead of thanking the judges or heading back to his seat he was hustled away by Jopson to the back of the tent. There he handed Little a glass of water, and Francis would have to be both blind and stupid to miss how their hands brushed together over the cool cyrstal, how their eyes met above the shining rim.
“Francis,” Silna commanded from the front of the tent, and he jumped. “Please bring up your cake.”
Here it was. Francis lifted the sorry thing from its place at the end of his counter, and walked up towards the front of the room. He kept his eyes focused straight ahead, heedless of the sympathetic stares he was sure would be etched into every face in the tent.
“Oh dear,” Barrow said, when Francis presented the thing he had created. “It looks like the heat got to this one, doesn’t it.”
“The ganache didn’t set,” Silna began, cataloguing the bake’s deficiencies with a brusqueness she rarely displayed. “The mousse didn’t either. The cake is alright, a bit less crumbly than I would have liked. And the flavors are boring, though I told you that earlier.”
“It was a nice attempt at decoration,” Barrow added, with a sidelong glance to Silna. “I’m sorry the weather didn’t abide the roses.” Francis only shrugged, and said his thanks, and took his sad little bake and sat it right back down at his station without somehow letting the gnawing ache inside him chew its way through his ribcage and show everyone what a fucking joke he was.
Collins, with his poorly formed ganache and lopsided cake, also drew the judges ire, but Francis knew it wouldn’t be enough to save his own skin.
“We’ll be back in just a few minutes!” Barrow said, far too cheerfully for Francis’ liking once Collins had been sent back to his station with his tail between his legs. The hosts and judges exited the tent and just as they vanished through the doorway James rounded on Francis and his face twisted into a smile with no mirth at all.
“Sounds like you’ll be going the way of Franklin even without my help,” James sneered.
“What?” “You heard me,” James said, and his mouth was an angry slash across his face as he lifted his apron over his head, left it on the counter, and walked away. Francis blinked and that ache in his chest blossomed into a white hot rage that had Francis following him out of the tent straightaway, blood pounding in his ears. He saw the other contestants out of the corner of his eye - and he didn’t care. The cameras were probably swarming behind him like an all-seeing, all-knowing wake, and he didn’t care.
“Hey!” Francis called, as James stalked up the path towards the house. “Hey - I’m talking to you!” What he was going to say when James turned around was anyone’s guess but he couldn’t leave it like that, couldn’t let it go, kept probing at it like a sore tooth until -
“Leave me alone, Francis!” James whirled around, exasperation clear on his face.
“Like hell I will after what you said -”
“After what I said?” James exclaimed. “How about what you -”
“I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true -”
“God I never should have bothered, I don’t know why I even -”
“It’s because you’re a boastful, arrogant, insufferable man who can’t -”
“Because I’m fucking stupid, that’s why!” James shouted suddenly, throwing his hands in the air. “Because I thought that behind that asshole exterior was something else - a heart, maybe. At the very least I thought I would find someone interesting. But obviously I was wrong. You’ve proved that well enough, Congratulations again on being right.” With a haughty toss of his stupid hair, James turned on his heel and started walking away, back towards the house.
“You wait one damn minute -” Francis shouted, taking a few steps in pursuit. James rounded on him instantly, eyes narrowed, his lips set in a determined line.
“For what, Francis?” James, exasperated. “What do you want?”
“I want -” He stopped.
What did Francis want?
He wanted to punch James, that was certain. He wanted to drink an entire glass of whiskey in one swallow and throw the dregs into James’ face. He wanted to grab that trail of hair that had been grazing James’ neck all day and yank on it before clasping the back of his stupid, handsome rectangle head and smashing their lips together and kissing him until he couldn’t remember why he was so fucking angry.
He took three breaths.
He did none of those things.
“Nothing,” he said, his hands hanging down limp at his sides. “I don’t want a goddamned thing you could give me.” James took a step back.
“Great. Have a fantastic time getting kicked off the show in a few minutes. See how many of us give you our condolences.” With that, James walked away, back to the estate, leaving a furious, red faced Francis on the path alone. He waited a few moments, took a few more breaths, then walked back into the tent.
No one asked him where he had been, or about anything they heard - and they must have heard, with the way he and James had been shouting at one another. But no one said a word, and the judging took far longer than Francis anticipated. How hard could it be to see he had done a wretched job from one end of the weekend to the next and give him the boot? It was another fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes of agonizing little pinpricks of doubt and regret stabbing at his awful, shriveled up little heart, fifteen minutes of debating what he would say to the cameras when they asked him how he felt about being sent home. James returned from his trip up to the estate, with a refreshed glow to his face and all of his hair collected firmly in a knot at the back of his head. He pointedly did not look in Francis’ direction, even when they were called to the chairs in the center of the room and forced to sit beside one another.
The judges and hosts filed in with apologies for the delay and little smiles that Francis didn’t care for in the least.
“This was a hard week for just about everyone,” Dundy began. “It was hot, tensions were high, and I think everyone in this tent suffered some kind of meltdown or other.”
“Including me!” Ross added.
“But our best baker was able to rise above the incredible strain of the heat and some missteps the day before and create something truly outstanding and delicious. Edward Little, congratulations.” Little sat there, looking shell shocked - hardly responding to the cheers and attempts at congratulations - until someone - Collins - grabbed him by the shoulder and gently shook him.
“You’ve done it,” Collins said.
“I have?” Little asked, still bewildered, and looked at the hands waiting to be shaken around him as if he didn’t quite know what they were for.
“And now,” Ross interrupted, to spare Little any further embarrassment, “for the hard part.” For a man about to deliver Francis’ death sentence, he seemed rather cheerful. (And, well, if he had to hear the news from anyone, he would have preferred to hear it from Ross, no matter how happy the man seemed about it.) “The person that will be going home is…” Ross paused, and smirked for the camera. “No one! No one is going home because sending someone home for not being able to make chocolate bakes on the surface of the sun is just absurd!”
“Of course, this means two of you might be going home at any week after this!” Dundy added. “But for now, go drink some water, have a nap, and be ready bright and early next Saturday for our wonderful Carnivale week!”
Edward Little: What? No I’m sorry I’m still - did I really win best baker? Jesus, I don’t -
Stephen Stanley: I will certainly take his critiques into consideration next week. Next week will be quite different, I think.
Harry Goodsir: Oh of course I don’t disagree! She’s a professional, and I take her words very much to heart. I have some work ahead of me, I think that much is clear.
Francis Crozier: I feel like... I feel like I’ve had a stay of execution, I think. I wasn’t expecting…
Francis was not going home.
No one was going home.
What had he done to earn such a reprieve? He shook Little’s hand and congratulated him, by no means aware of the exact words he spoke. The only thing Francis could think about was packing his things and getting out of that bloody tent as soon as possible, sparing not even a nod for anyone else before he was slipping out through the back while all of the cameras were focused on the celebration, on the joy of such an arduous week finally coming to its surprising conclusion. The sun was directly ahead of him, and he could feel its baneful little tendrils burning his face the moment he raised his hand against the shine. The shade - the other side of the tent - he could get there, he just had to walk around -
And he almost ran straight into Silna.
A cigarette dangled from one hand, and her brows drew together as she tilted her head and looked at him as if he were a particularly bland entry in a cabinet of curiosities.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked. Francis shrugged. She smoked? He never saw her - “You going to tell me I shouldn’t be smoking too?” Her eyes narrowed - she caught him staring at the cigarette.
“You’re a grown woman and I’m not your father,” he said, a bit gruffly. Silna made a derisive sort of noise in the back of her throat and took another drag.
“It’s a terrible habit. But whatever. I worked the line in a kitchen for ten years. If you can’t survive on coffee and cigarettes you’re in the wrong business.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“You don’t know anything about much, do you?”
“Excuse me?” Silna took a deep breath, of a sort that told of a lifetime of dealing with men throwing temper tantrums in her general orbit.
“Why do you want to lose?” she asked him, so simply he was sure he misheard her at first.
“Why. Do. You. Want. To. Lose? Was that clear enough? I can sign for you it if you want.”
“You do. I’ve had to watch you act like a fucking idiot for two weeks now and its getting old. You came in the first few weeks, you were prepared, you planned, you were confident in your bakes, you honestly surprised me. But ever since grandpa went home you’ve been shitty and sloppy with every round.”
“I cannot emphasize enough how much I don’t want to hear any kind of excuse from you right now. You want to lean into the whole “woe is me” thing, fine. You don’t want to talk to anyone or make any friends or have any kind of screen presence, fine. But you’re going to lose. You’re lucky it's too hot to even consider kicking someone off today, or you would have been gone.” She took another drag from her cigarette, made a face at it, and threw it in the dirt. “Hell, I still would have booted you, but that PA - Jopson - he got in Barrow’s ear about increasing drama and production value and the old man bought the whole thing.”
Francis looked at the ground, where she was grinding the cigarette butt into the dust under her heel.
And it had been a long day, and he was very tired, and more than a little sad.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he mumbled after a minute. He felt like a student being chastised, a little idiot boy pulling on a girl’s pigtails and acting out in class.
“I don’t want you to say anything.” Silna poked a finger into his face. “I want you to take this seriously or get the fuck off the show.” Silna held his gaze for a moment longer before shaking her head and stalking away towards the judges tent.
In a daze that had less to do with the heat than Francis would have preferred, he collected his things from the house and headed to the carpark, where he threw his bags and boxes into the backseat with hardly a care for how they landed, slid into the driver’s seat, bent his head over the steering wheel, and closed his eyes. The long, lonely drive home waited for him. Ahead of it, the grey stretch of days locked alone in his flat with his dog and his work for company. Then, the limited number of weeks ahead until his inevitable loss to the affable Harry Goodsir, or indomitable Stanley, or rat-faced Hickey.
Or the handsome, shining-haired James Fitzjames.
You’re trying your damnedest to lose this thing.
What do you want?
Why do you want to lose?
Damn. Blanky was right. Silna and James said the same thing, in their own way. Not as gentle, but Francis didn’t think he deserved much gentleness. But Blanky was right. The excuses, the complaints, they were all just covering for the obvious.
If Francis lost, it would reinforce all the stories he told about himself for the last several decades. He hadn’t spoiled his career by having no ability to play politics, the world was against him. He hadn't ruined his relationship with Sophia through his drinking, the stress of her family’s objections caused all the problems.
He didn’t lose the baking show because he couldn’t keep up. They just didn’t like him.
Francis sighed, and pressed his forehead into the smooth curve of the steering wheel.
It had to stop. He was no child, to sit in the middle of a mess he made and try and blame a sister, or a teenager to bitch and moan about how much he hated the world and slamming the door to his room behind him. He was a grown man, and a damn good baker to boot.
And it was about fucking time he started acting like it.
Francis meant to drive home before putting his plan in action. But instead he pulled over outside the first Tesco he found and rang a number he hoped would be answered.
It rang twice.
“Yup,” Blanky answered.
“Tom I -” Francis began. Where did one go from here? Better start with the obvious. “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot.” Christ his voice was cracking. Tom was going to hang up on him any second and it would be more than he deserved but -
There was a soft chuckle from the other end of the line.
“I know that, but just to clarify, to what specific capacity of your idiocy are you referring?” Francis pressed a hand against his eyes and let out a long, low exhale.
“I don’t know. All of it, I think?”
“Oh. It’s one of those, eh?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I think it is.”
“Alright. Listen, Esther is taking the kids to see her sister down in Liverpool for the week. Why don’t you turn that piece of shit car of yours around and spend a few days up here?”
“I - I can’t ask you to do that,” Francis said. How was it so easy for Blanky to just - just shrug and act like what Francis had done was no big deal? To welcome him back and invite him up again when all Francis had earned was another long week in his solitary flat? “I’m supposed to be practicing for this stupid event week next week and-”
“Oh how terrible, I’ll have to eat all seventeen versions of whatever frou frou fucking thing you’re baking that will taste incredible, however shall I cope?” Blanky laughed, and then Francis laughed, and he felt like a weight that had been pressing down on him for the last month finally lift and he could breathe again.
“Alright. I’ll - I’ll call the woman who’s been watching Neptune and tell her it’ll be a few more days.”
“That’s more like it. If you’re not here in an hour and a half I’m going to call you up and tell you dirty jokes until that ugly mug of yours shows.”
“I - I will. I’ll be there. I’m at -” Francis looked around, perplexed. “I don’t know where I am now but I’ll be there.”
“See you in a few, then.”
“Alright. Hey Tom?”
“Come off it you big baby. Make it up to me and bake me one of those bun things when you get here.”
Francis called the woman watching Neptune and told her a family emergency had come up, then he got in his car and drove north. He drove until the sun was setting, until he arrived at an unassuming house and Tom Blanky greeted him at the door in an all consuming bear hug that almost had Francis in tears again.
“It’s good to see you,” Blanky said with a smile when they broke apart. “Now get the fuck in the house before you start bawling all over the garden.”
Join us next week for Carnivale Week, where the bakers will be pulling out all the stops in our most explosive celebration round yet!
AS PREVIOUSLY STATED this is the angstiest chapter and we will return to your regularly scheduled romantic comedy ONLY THE RATIO OF ROMANCE TO COMEDY IS FINALLY GOING TO TIP IN ROMANCE'S FAVOR BABEEEYYYYYYYY