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Authors: Susan Willis

The Bake Off

BOOK: The Bake Off
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© Susan Willis 2013

Susan Willis has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

First published in 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

 

This
novella is dedicated to my oldest brother, John William Willis, who died suddenly on 28 May 2013. Although John was not a great reader he did enjoy cooking, especially Sunday lunch for the family. His steely determination and pride in a job well done will always carry me through – you are sorely missed, John.

 

 

Qualifying for The Bake Off

 

Nicola Simpson’s hands were trembling. She pushed them under her legs hoping no one would notice as she perched on a tall stool. She was sitting in a semicircle with the other nine contestants, waiting for the host of the baking competition to arrive. The TV crew were busy setting up their equipment and lights around the eight benches in the kitchen where in one hour’s time they would take their places to start baking. Up until now Nicola hadn’t felt particularly anxious. But this would be the first time they had to bake under the glare of TV lights and now it suddenly seemed very real and scary.

An
excited buzz ran through the room while everyone waited with baited breath for the TV presenter, David Chambers, to arrive. She’d read in the programme leaflet that previously as a head chef he’d run his own London restaurant but now hosted most of the local television and radio food shows. Not only was he comparing the competition but he was also the main judge in the bake off, and she knew he would be the man to impress if she was to make it through to the next round.

They’d
all gathered to start the competition at ten o’clock and she wished now she hadn’t eaten the full English breakfast her son, Jay, had cooked – the fried bread was regurgitating in her churning stomach. Her eyes darted towards the man sitting on the next stool, and she licked her dry lips.

He
smiled reassuringly. He’d introduced himself earlier – his name was Simon Jones, a forty-nine-year-old widower and self-taught baking addict. He sat with his long legs in brown corduroy trousers spread wide on the stool, his hands calmly resting in his lap. He looked cool as a cucumber, she thought, and felt beads of sweat form on her top lip. She remembered the fantastic Yorkshire curd tart he’d made in the qualifier and decided out of all of them he was bound to make it through to the next round.

‘It’s
a bit different to last week when we cooked on our own and handed in our finished bakes,’ he said smiling. ‘I think it’s going to be nerve-wracking baking under these lights knowing everyone in the North East is watching us.’

She
gulped and tapped her foot repeatedly on the stool leg. Maybe he wasn’t as cool as he looked and was one of those people who could easily hide their feelings. Knowing she was the total opposite, she said: ‘I know. My hands are shaking already. And when David Chambers gets here to watch us and make comments it’ll be even worse…’

He
put his hand on her arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. ‘You’ll be fine once you start baking,’ he said. ‘I think it’s best to get your mind onto your recipe to concentrate on what you’re doing. I’m going to try and ignore the lights and everything else that is going on around me.’

‘Oh,
right,’ she mumbled. ‘Thanks for the tip.’

With
the noise of the door opening she jerked her head back to the front of the room and heard the TV crew start to clap as David swaggered into the room.

Nicola
had, of course, watched him on TV programmes and thought him a handsome and charismatic guy. But nothing could have prepared her for his appearance in person – he was, she decided, drop-dead gorgeous. At forty-one he was tall and slim with broad shoulders. His fair hair was thinning slightly but this did nothing to hinder his smooth-skinned face and sparkly bright blue eyes. Nicola’s knees felt weak and her insides did a treble somersault.

‘Good
morning, everyone,’ he said in a loud voice. He held his hands loosely behind his back as he strode towards the long serving table at the front of the room. ‘Welcome to our first, and hopefully not our last, British Bake Off here in sunny Newcastle.’

Two
chairs had been strategically placed in front of the table and he ran a self-assured hand along the back of one of them while everyone smiled at each other in anticipation. A young man hurried to David with a microphone which he easily clipped around his ear as he adjusted the mouthpiece. ‘I’m just going to run through some details before we record the episode and start the competition.’

She
glanced at Simon, who was obviously hanging upon every word David said, and forced herself to concentrate.

David,
dressed in slim-fitting black jeans and a grey shirt, began to step lightly around the table while he spoke. ‘I was amazed at the standard of entries into the bake off - Ididn’t know we had so many skilled and proficient bakers living amongst us. So, I think,’ he said playfully, smiling along the line of ten contestants, ‘you should all start by giving yourselves a round of applause for getting into the final ten.’

The
group looked at one another and began to clap, smile and relax in each other’s company. David then left the table and walked towards them. ‘When I came last week to judge your bakes, I remember distinctly a fantastic three-layered berry sponge which was so light it was simply delicious. Who made that?’

Her
heart soared with happiness and pride when she realised he was talking about her sponge, and tentatively she raised her hand. ‘I-I did,’ she croaked. Simon grinned at her and the group began to clap again.

‘Fabulous,’
David drawled standing in front of her with the camera at his side. His blue eyes danced with mischief as he stared at her. ‘I couldn’t have done better myself. And you are?’

She
could see her face in the lens of the camera and shuffled on her stool, frantically wracking her brain to try and remember her own name. Her mouth was dry but she moistened her lips and managed to give him her name.

With
a smile playing around his mouth he looked her up and down, and then asked, ‘And is Nicola a cook?’

‘Oh
no,’ she gasped, wanting to giggle at the idea of being a cook. ‘I’m a librarian but I only work three days a week now.’ She looked shyly into his eyes. Her shoulders slumped and she sighed with pleasure at such a devastatingly attractive man giving her his undivided attention.

‘There
now!’ he exclaimed loudly and swaggered back towards the table. ‘Isn’t this what the competition is all about? Here we have a librarian who can bake a sponge with the same amount of expertise as a professional cook – it’s amazing…’

Nicola
took a deep breath of relief when the camera was wheeled away following him, and the director stopped filming her.

David explained the cameras and lights to everyone and how he would walk around while they baked to chat about their cooking experience and their reasons for entering. He told them to remain as calm and natural as they could and stressed that they weren’t to worry about any mishaps, spillages or disasters because the director would edit the sessions and what wasn’t needed would end up on the cutting room floor.

‘Okay,’
he shouted enthusiastically. ‘Are we all ready?’

Nodding
and answering in agreement they all stood up and hurried to their benches. Nicola was pleased to see Simon edge his way to the bench next to hers in the middle section of the room, calmed by his friendly face. The lights shone brightly and the camera was placed once more in front of David while the director called, ‘And action.’ David smiled into the lens and began his introductory speech, thanking Northumbria University for the use of the facilities and describing the next three weeks programmes. Nicola stared at him completely entranced – he was the most exciting man she’d ever met.

That
morning she’d not given a second thought to her choice of clothes and had dragged on her jeans and a black T-shirt, but now as she tied a long white apron around her waist she felt shabby and drab. Why, oh why, she cursed, hadn’t she at least found time to style her mousey brown curls and pay more attention to her make-up? She’d read somewhere that the lens of a camera could age people and she prayed it wouldn’t make her look older than her thirty-nine years. It might, she thought, make the few wrinkles around her eyes stand out more, and then remembered how her mum had always called them laughter lines because even as a child she’d been known for her bubbly personality. She fiddled with the utensils on the bench and decided that although it was too late now to change her appearance she’d just have to smile as much as she could to make up for it.

David
was explaining to the viewers, how in his opinion, Britain was the home of honest baking and left the rest of the world standing when it came to simple, great bakes which offered pure pleasure. ‘Who needs the hassle of French crêpes, or American whoopie pie,’ he declared smiling into the camera. ‘When you can enjoy a seriously sticky Chelsea bun or a homemade fruit cake…’

‘And
cut,’ the director shouted, which made Nicola jump back to reality. The crew came around the benches and showed everyone where the gaffer-taped spots were on the floor and explained how they were to stand on the exact place if David was being filmed while talking to them.

Simon
leaned across to her and whispered, ‘Your sponge last week was fantastic and well worth his praise. Where did you learn to bake like that – surely not from reading cook books in the library?’

‘No,
of course, not,’ she giggled. ‘My mum taught me to bake when I was little and although I’ve never had a daughter I have taught my son. He’s just started at Durham University and is the only one in his digs who can cook.’

Simon
smiled and nodded. ‘Ah, he’ll certainly be popular with his mates.’

While
the director and crew were deep in discussion David wandered across to the two front benches and Nicola thought he was making a beeline for her but then sighed in disappointment when he stopped in front of a young girl called Gemma.

Nicola
could hear their conversation and instantly felt jealous – she knew how it felt to have his attention and didn’t want anyone else to benefit from it, which, she chided herself, was quite ridiculous.

Simon
whispered to her, ‘He certainly knows how to charm everyone, doesn’t he?’

Nicola
smiled. ‘Oh, yeah, he’s lovely,’ she mumbled to herself, staring at the back of Gemma’s pretty head.

Gemma
was twenty-four, tall and very slim – probably a size ten, Nicola thought grudgingly. She had long, blonde, wispy hair which she wore in a single plait down her back, and baby-blue sultry eyes with a flawless complexion.

Hmm,
Nicola mused, she was the same age as the PA her husband had run off with two years ago. What was it with these middle-aged men? Did they get to their forties and decide they had to work backwards in age? It was a question she’d thrown at her husband before he headed out of the door. His response had been to sadly shake his head and tell her it hadn’t been intentional – he’d simply fallen in love. And what about our love, she’d wanted to scream at him, and the love for your son? But she’d lifted her chin with pride and respectfully let him leave.

She
listened to Gemma telling David that she taught food technology in a secondary school while he stared longingly at her full breasts peeking out of her tight-fitting shirt. Really, Nicola groaned, was there any need to open all three top buttons? She glanced down at her own small chest hidden in the T-shirt and knew she couldn’t compete with Gemma. But, she thought optimistically, maybe she could win him over with her sparkling personality and fabulous baking.

The
room was warm with all the ovens heating up, and the overhead strip lighting alongside the TV lights was dazzling. It was, however, spotlessly clean, and their work stations were immaculate with a good-sized food mixer and square gas hob in the corner. Two big fridges and freezers stood against the longest wall and various pieces of catering equipment were dotted around the room.

She
watched Simon looking in cupboards and drawers under his bench to assess what implements they had to work with and was impressed with his forethought. ‘That’s a good idea,’ she said. ‘I suppose we should familiarise ourselves with what equipment we’ve got to do the challenge. I do hope it’s something I’ve baked before, don’t you?’

While
he knelt in front of an open cupboard, he looked up at her. ‘Hmm, it would be an advantage but I tend to know only the recipes that I can bake, and the ones which my late wife taught me. So if it’s an obscure French recipe I’ll be lost…’

She
frowned. ‘But surely it won’t be as complicated as the recipes on the BBC programme?’ she asked, biting her bottom lip. ‘I mean, it is just a local competition.’

He
stood up, straightening his trousers, and then tucked his cream checked shirt into the waistband. ‘From what David was saying earlier he seems to think we’re all such great bakers he might give us a tougher challenge.’

‘Oh,
dear,’ she muttered, and rubbed the back of her neck. She was beginning to wish she hadn’t listened to her friend Susan’s encouragement to enter the competition and had stayed home instead. But then, she decided, drooling across at David and licking her lips, she wouldn’t have met
him
. The director shouted about sound issues and told them all to go back into the hospitality room for a coffee, so she filed out of the room behind Gemma and Simon.

***

The small hospitality room adjacent to the kitchens had three comfortable sofas and a coffee vending machine. She sat down towards the end of a sofa and Gemma settled herself next to her while Simon went to the machine to get them coffees.

BOOK: The Bake Off
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