Patsy Mount doesn’t often cave to peer pressure. Other than a brief stint as a blonde during her teenage years, and one very ill-advised evening of tequila shots, she is rather impervious to the whims of others. As she steps off the bus into the great white tent, however, she can’t help but feel a bit bullied into this predicament.
It’s not that she doesn’t like baking. In fact, crafting masterpieces from flour, eggs, sugar, and butter, has given her a semblance of control and steadiness when life has been anything but artful or structured. Her mother’s cookbooks had gotten her through the darkest periods of her grief, and since then, a new skill has accompanied each trial and tribulation. Biscuits for broken hearts; cake for long nights on-call; pastry for panic attacks that grip her around certain times of the year.
Sometimes, gluten is the only thing that can hold the world together.
It seems her fatal mistake was in sharing the products of her compulsion with her colleagues. Patsy can socialise perfectly competently, but she’s never been able to answer personal questions with the ease so many people seem to possess. Instead, she had wormed her way into the hearts of her coworkers with brownies and tarts and pies and cakes and as a result, they had encouraged her to apply for The Gigantic British Baking Fete. Honestly, after seeing the length of the process she had had half a mind to give up the whole thing and lie that she hadn’t made the cut, but Patsy prides herself on being a woman of her word, no matter how silly her promises may be.
So, after four months of interviews, and practice bakes, and camera tests, she has finally arrived at the pinnacle of amateur baking and British television.
She feels a bit like she’s going to vomit.
There’s always a good bit of awkwardness in these sorts of things, a group of people thrust together for a common purpose twiddling their thumbs as they wait for the action to begin. The crew are entirely nonplussed with the whole operation, as the contestants begin to get set up and introduce themselves to one another. Patsy can’t help but eye everyone from a competitive angle, no matter how friendly the tone of the show is.
The elder women obviously pose the largest threat of sheer experience. There’s Louise, from Aden, a quiet, calm psychotherapist who loves to bake for her grandchildren. Enid is a stern headmistress who is as opinionated and disciplined with her doughs and batters as she is with her students. Phyllis is a jovial gardner, who smiles kindly at the “young girls,” as she calls them, and let’s everyone know that while she is excited to sample their efforts, as a devout vegetarian, she shan’t be partaking of any meat pies.
Timothy is the youngest of this year, at 16, an aspiring biochemist who delights in making edible reactions. Fred is a brash Londoner who rather looks like he stumbled into the tent by accident, though he claims that he’s been baking all his life, and judging by his belly, his bakes are more than edible. Peter is a police constable, who quietly admits that he only started baking because his wife is such a fire hazard in the kitchen, but he’s grown to love testing his skills and doting on their son Freddie with elaborate birthday surprises. Tom rounds out the men. The curate from Bristol prides himself on sharing bakes with his parishioners, though he does seem a little too vain for a man of the cloth, truth be told.
Younger women make up the plurality of the dozen, though at 27, Patsy reckons she’s toeing that line a bit. Winifred is a schoolteacher, whose primary colors and neat, solid lines suggest a kindred spirit with her students. Jenny is a pianist from Hampden who seems prone to pontificating on the emotional implications of baking, if her verbose chatter during introductions is anything to go by. Shelagh, a choir director from Aberdeen, can’t stop grinning about how “thrilled she is to be here!” Her enthusiasm is adorable, and infectious.
And then there’s Delia. Her bright laughter and Welsh lilt immediately catch Patsy’s ear, and quickly her eye, as well. Her blue eyes sparkle with mischief, and she looks incredibly relaxed in her trainers, rocking on her heels as if preparing for a boxing bout. (She’s certainly got the muscles to be a fighter, if the tautness of her shoulders underneath her v-neck is anything to go by.)
Patsy feels a familiar flutter in her stomach when the brunette catches her eye and walks over to introduce herself.
(Why in the world did she think wearing a cardigan today was a good idea? She looks like a suburban housewife. From 1963.)
“Delia,” she smiles, extending a hand for a firm shake.
“Patsy,” the redhead replies, hoping that her voice doesn’t crack too terribly much.
“Are you a Patricia or a Patience?”
“The latter, much to my chagrin.”
“Well I’m sure your Patience is rewarded during proving.”
Delia laughs at her own corniness.
“Just for that, I’m going to make the banal Delia Smith joke.”
“You know, normally that would drive me batty, but as long as you’re talking to me I don’t think I mind hackneyed humour.”
She honest-to-god winks and Patsy is saved from the indignity of trying to respond only by the chipper tone of presenters Trixie and Barbara.
“Good morning, Bakers,” Trixie begins, “we are so excited to meet you sweeties and taste your sweets! This year is looking to be the best yet.”
Barbara chimes in ,”Patrick and Antonia will be joining us shortly, but they want you to begin our fete with your signature three-tiered cake. Wedding cake, birthday cake, funeral cake, you know that Antonia will gladly devour whatever you decide to craft for us.”
“With no further ado, hop to it!” Trixie gesticulates dramatically, and the contestants find their predetermined stations. Patsy is in the very back of the tent, and fortunately her closest neighbor is Fred, who will not at all serve the same kind of distraction that Delia might. She quickly gets to work on her lavender chai batter, the ritual of measuring and mixing tuning out the hustle and bustle of the others. As the judges and the hosts make their rounds, she hears snippets of others’ sound bytes, and when the time comes, gives her own background.
“I lived many different places as a child, and my mother always loved the scent of lavender and chai. I think this cake might smell better than it tastes!”
Patrick looks thoughtful.
“You’ll want to be very precise with your measurements- too much Lavender can lead to a soapy taste with the slightest provocation.”
Antonia provides her own sage wisdom.
“I enjoy cake much more than I do soap.”
She nods solemnly before wrinkling her brow in confusion.
“If the tea is inside the cake, what shall we drink?”
“Don’t worry, Antonia,” Trixie quips, “I’ve got a brand new bottle of Bailey’s to go round.”
They leave her to her baking, and Patsy puts her pans into the oven.
Fortunately, the task of making icing and decoration leaves no time for idle sitting around- she’s sure she would have driven herself nutty if her mind had had minutes to dawdle on the very first morning. First impressions are everything, and she really must knock this out of the park.
Her layers bake beautifully, and Patsy exhales a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as the cameraman pans on her pulling them out of the oven.
Tom, it seems, hasn’t been so lucky, as his (painful) attempts at chatting up Trix and Babs have left his sponges dry and burnt.
“You poor thing,” Trixie deadpans. “You know, I have been told a time or too that I’m too hot to handle.”
“I can’t say that I have,” Barbara retorts, “but Trixie, I must commend you on that burn.”
(Their high-five is truly a thing of magnificence.)
Antonia devours Patsy’s cake, as well as Delia’s rustic walnut offering. Patrick commends Timothy on his meticulous balance of flavours, and Winifred’s presentation is exceptionally lovely, with a brilliant pink frosting to match her raspberry jam.
Tom is clearly the bottom of the bunch, though Jenny has been a bit heavy-handed in her use of strawberry to the point that her sponge is washed out and soggy.
Louise is clearly the winner of the morning, with her elegant decoration and clean lemon accents. She’d modeled the cake on her own wedding, and Patsy can’t help but feel a little sentimental for her.
They break for lunch, and after having baked next to one another for hours, the tension among contestants has dissipated, leaving an easy camaraderie.
“Baking that cake made me feel just like a young girl again,” Louise muses, thinking back to her wedding day.
“Surely you’ve only been married for a couple years, five at the absolute most,” Delia jokes, and the group erupts in cheerful laughter.
Patsy is frankly awed by her capacity to flirt easily with any and everyone.
(Even Antonia had picked up on her charms through the mist of her eccentricity.)
Patsy is sat next to Phyllis as they munch on sandwiches.
“Your flavors are quite interesting, where did you learn to bake?”
It’s small talk, innocuous, but Patsy feels her palms become clammy and her heart start to race. She’s bound to be asked this question countless times over the coming weeks, though, so it’s best to head it off before she’s a wreck.
“When my mother passed away, she left behind cookbooks, and it was a way for me to feel close to her memory… I guess I took to it, and kept at it even after I’d exhausted her recipes.”
Phyllis nods quietly, sensing not to pry further.
“I imagine she would be very proud of how accomplished you’ve become.”
Phyllis gives her shoulders a quick squeeze.
Of all the things she expected of this weekend, kindness wasn’t really one of them.
The afternoon’s technical is financiers, which gives Trixie and Barbara ample opportunity to joke about how much money they make per episode, while Antonia condemns the pursuit of wealth over flavour.
Patsy gives a silent prayer of thanks for her holidays in Paris as she sets out making her beurre noisette.
“Does that mean noisy butter...”
Fred ponders, scratching his head.
“Should I yell into it?”
Delia doesn’t look to be faring much better, truth be told.
“Instinct, instinct, instinct,” she mutters, seemingly divining her next step from the baking gods.
Patsy resists the urge to assist her, even if it ensures that they’ll both be around next weekend to get to know one another better. Instead, she preheats her oven in order to achieve the perfect crisp exterior on her cakes.
While the signatures were fairly consistent (with the exception of Tom’s bricks), the results of the technical challenge run the gamut. Barbara quips that some of them are “very poor indeed,” and Trixie hopes that they’ve “met the gold standard today.”
Fred’s hopeless lumps are in the bottom, followed by Winifred’s own soggy attempt. Delia manages to bluff her way to the middle of the pack, and Shelagh and Patsy are the last two remaining as Patrick and Antonia reach the end of their judgment.
“Both cakes were delectable,” Antonia begins, wiping crumbs from the corner of her mouth.
“But these,” Patrick steps in front of Shelagh’s, “had a delicacy and beauty that just edged them out. Well done.”
Shelagh meekly raises a hand, cheeks blushing from Patrick’s praise. He shakes her hand, and somehow, Shelagh turns even redder.
The first day traditionally ends with a group meal, and the sixteen of them clamber around a giant row of tables in the back room of a restaurant that’s been reserved for that express purpose.
“Goodness, I haven’t had such a long day since my hallucinogen days,” Phyllis barks, earning more than one skeptical glance and a guffaw from Trixie.
“I knew there was a reason I liked you, old girl.”
Delia plops down next to Patsy like they’ve been swapping notes and whispering secrets to one another for years.
“You were amazing today.”
Patsy is grateful for the dim lighting of the dining room, given how crimson her cheeks are at the moment.
“Cakes are my forte- I’ll be lucky to make it through bread weak alive.”
“You do seem a bit posh for a rustic loaf,” Delia jokes.
Patsy’s heard the comments about her speech and carriage all her life, but coming from Delia, it doesn’t sting. Even in her ribbing, she exudes a warmth and gentleness that Patsy can feel in her bones.
“Ugh, I can’t believe we have to wear the same clothes tomorrow. I smell absolutely dreadful.”
Delia mimes sniffing her armpits before recoiling with a look of disgust on her face.
Before she can stop herself, Patsy blurts out “you smell absolutely lovely.”
Delia grins, cat-who-caught-the-canary.
“You brought an exact-matching outfit to change into, didn’t you?”
As short a while as they’ve known one another, dinner does feel a bit like a family reunion of sorts. Enid scoffs at Fred’s table manners but takes a genuine interest when he tells her about his wife. Louise and Winifred bond over their work with children, and Jenny and Shelagh debate the merits of solo or choral performance. Trixie and Barbara are naturals at making everyone feel comfortable, and they lavish attention on Timothy, who grins sheepishly in response. Tom fumes a little at his failure, but he and Peter get going on Top Gear and thoughts of burnt sponge are obliterated in a cloud of testosterone.
It has, though, been an exceptionally long day, and the short drive back to the hotel is filled with silence and an errant snore. Not long after she’s changed into pajamas, Patsy hears a knock on her door, and opens it cautiously.
“Perhaps it’s a little forward of me, but I really do think today deserves a shot of whisky, and you were the first person I could think of to celebrate with me.”
Delia extends the bottle of Johnnie Walker in lieu of greeting.
“I suppose a little booze might help me fall asleep, at least. But let’s sit in the hall- I don’t know that we’ve reached the point in our relationship to be drinking private quarters yet,” Patsy admonishes, prim and proper.
Delia giggles when she realizes she hasn’t got a glass, and opts instead to swig straight from the bottle.
She has a beautiful neck.
Patsy’s ripped from her hypnosis by the joyful clambering of Trixie and Barbara down the hall, singing some old sea shanty.
(They’ve apparently got quite the head start on Patsy and Delia.)
“Girls after our own hearts,” Trixie exclaims, slumping down next to Patsy on the carpet.
(She tries not to think about what feet have walked these halls. It seems like a nice hotel, but germs live everywhere. )
“Oh, I don’t even remember you two’s names right now, but I promise it’s because I’m lovely, not because you aren’t drunk,” Barbara stumbles, reaching for the bottle.
“No, sweetie,” Trixie hands it back to Delia.
“Babs only likes drinks that taste like lollies. And she’s a bit of a lightweight to boot. Would you believe she’s only had the one glass of wine tonight?”
“I’m dreadfully sorry, Barbara. We’ll find something more your style next time.”
Barbara is apparently incredibly moved by Delia’s offer, and she begins to well up a bit.
“You are so kind. Oh my goodness, Trixie, I love this year’s contestants more than all the rest combined all ready. Please don’t make me send someone home tomorrow.”
Trixie rolls her eyes exasperatedly.
“I think that’s our cue to head to bed. See you ladies in the morning- I thoroughly enjoyed your cakes today, though I’m sure my trousers won’t appreciate the additional pressure in the morning.”
Patsy and Delia wave her off before turning to one another expectantly.
“Did I hear right that you’re a nurse?”
Delia’s thigh knocks against her own as she turns to hear Patsy’s response to her question.
“Oh! I love babies. Have you got children?”
“I get plenty of baby time at work. I’m afraid I’m a lonely old cat lady, no kids, no husband, or wife for that matter.”
Delia takes another swig before handing the bottle back to Patsy. Her fingers only burn a little when their hands touch.
She may get a handle on this crush yet.
“I’m a paramedic. My mam probably meant for me to snag a husband with her baking lessons but instead I just feed ingrateful ambulance drivers who wouldn’t know a battenberg cake if it beat them upside the head.”
Patsy smiles at Delia’s animation, all waving arms and funny faces.
“I’m sure you have loads of stories, and I do want to hear them, but I’m afraid you’ve already kept me up far past my bedtime.”
“Unless you set the tent on fire, there’s no way you go home tomorrow. You should be worried for me. ”
Patsy extends a hand to help the smaller woman stand.
“Well, Delia, some of us care about the kind of impression we make on others.”
Delia squints, as if to retort, but chooses instead to nod slowly before turning on her heels.
“Sweet dreams, Pats!”
No one calls her ‘Pats.’ No. One. Under strict penalty of death, dismemberment, or an incredibly chilly glare.
She doesn’t mind.