“So, if no one else has any important notices,” Zach looked at the motley bunch of would-be writers gathered round the long table, “we’ll move onto the anonymous manuscripts. Would anyone like to give a brief summary of ...” He consulted his notes. “... of ‘Don’t Go Baking My Heart’?”
An awkward silence ensued as everyone stared at the table.
“Okaaay. I guess that’s up to me then,” Zack said eventually, trying to keep the despair out of his voice. DGBMH was one of the worst stories he had ever read, but someone sitting at this table now had poured her heart and soul into this piece and he hated the idea of telling her it wasn’t very good. (Was it a her? He couldn’t see any of the guys writing something like this: Steve produced copious instalments of a lengthy historical drama set in World War 2 – he’d read part of Chapter 537 at the last meeting; Michael was a sci-fi enthusiast with offerings set in alien worlds; and Jared was writing the fourth volume in a fantasy series with a body count higher than all of the ‘Terminator’ films put together.)
“So,” he began nervously, quickly scanning his tablet to remind himself of the characters’ names, “this story’s about a girl called Victoria – her friends call her ‘Victoria Sponge’ because she’s always baking cakes – who ends up being a contestant on The Great British Bake-Off and falls for one of her rivals.” So far, so good. Now, what was the name of the love interest? “Vicky – sorry, Victoria – is basically a sweet and lovely girl who’s never had a boyfriend before, and ...” Where was his name? Got it! “... and Jake is totally wrong for her – mean, moody, misogynistic: you know the tropes. To begin with, she can’t stand him because he’s so big-headed – thinks he’s God’s gift to women; chats up all the other contestants but ignores her – and then they have a technical challenge in Week 3 when her cakes –“
“Meringues,” someone muttered.
“ – are better than anyone else’s and he actually congratulates her – and that’s when they share a meaningful look across the worktops and the reader knows she’s starting to melt.”
He paused for breath, hoping that he could remember the rest of the plot.
“Anyway, she realises at the end of that day that she’s left her favourite wooden spoon at her workstation, so she goes back to look for it and Jake’s there, rewriting his recipe for the next day’s showstopper, and they end up getting raunchy with each other.”
That was probably the politest way to put it – in actual fact, that scene had probably been inspired by ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ as the two of them did unspeakable things to each other with a lot of whipped cream and an egg whisk. He also wasn’t sure that the worktop would meet Health and Safety standards of hygiene after the shenanigans on its surface.
“So, they ... um ... they have sex and it’s the most wonderful experience of her life, and they keep on bonking as the show progresses, only he asks her to keep it a secret from the rest of the contestants and the judges – and then they both end up in the Final and the night before the Showstopper, he asks her to do badly on purpose so he can win – he spins her a tale about how his mum’s dying of cancer and it would mean so much to her if her son was crowned Bake-Off winner. Victoria falls for it and lets him win – and then he dumps her straightaway and it turns out he’s also been at it with three of the other contestants.” He stopped abruptly. “Er, any comments from anyone else?”
Tim’s hand shot up straight away. Zach groaned inwardly. He liked the guy, but Tim had a tendency to focus on the most irrelevant parts of the story and read far too much into them.
“Yes,” he began earnestly. “I was just wondering whether Victoria still used the egg whisk after it had ... erm, been where it had, or did she buy a new one?”
Tim’s question had surprisingly triggered a whole flood of comments and queries so that Zach was now struggling to keep up with noting them down. Perhaps he shouldn’t bother: no one could think of anything positive to say about the story and the general consensus seemed to be that it was badly written with unconvincing characters and completely unbelievable dialogue.
“Take this bit, for instance,” Hilary protested. “His heated rod throbbed in her hand ...” She looked up sharply. “It sounds like he’s a hairdresser about to give her a makeover. And what about that dreadful bit at the end when Victoria compares Jake to a gingerbread man running away from her? It’s so bad, it’s painful.”
Other members added equally scathing comments. “Jake just doesn’t ring true,” Rebecca declared. “For a start, the physical description of him’s awful – ‘His cheekbones were sharper than any of the knives in her butcher’s block ... His firm, tight buttocks were like two beautiful eggs, except they were encased in tight black leather’ and the bit about Victoria starting to feel attracted to him’s even worse – ‘Gazing into his eyes, she felt herself falling into a swimming pool of desire without a lifebelt.’ That’s got to be one of the corniest lines ever written!”
Barbara disagreed. “I think the last sex scene’s the worst,” she said thoughtfully. “I mean, I can see what the author’s trying to do with all the baking metaphors, but it just reads as if they’re trying too hard.” Her finger moved down her printout as she searched for the evidence she needed. “Her hair sprinkled the floor like icing sugar as he pushed her onto the canvas groundsheet. The grass beneath gave their lovemaking a springy texture, almost as if they were lying on the surface of a cake. Wordlessly, she gazed into eyes that were the colour of chocolate ganache. As he began to nibble softly at her earlobe, she imagined that she was made of barley sugar. How long would it take for him to devour her completely? she thought dreamily, shuddering with delight as his tongue tasted the sweetness of her neck. His fingers began kneading her breasts, almost as if he were making dough. That was definitely one Technical Challenge he was very good at! she mused, smiling at her own joke.”
By now, several people were openly tittering and even more were trying unsuccessfully to hide smiles. Zach felt a tug of sympathy for the unknown author. “Okay, so maybe this story’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he offered, “but isn’t that down to genre preferences? I mean, not many of us actually write romances, do we?”
“You can’t call that a romance!” Jean scoffed. “At best it’s a sado-masochistic male fantasy! If you ask me, it was written by a man who’s just like Jake and goes through life using women as sex-toys and then throwing them away afterwards.”
“Admittedly, it’s not like your own feminist fairy tales,” Zach agreed, “but that doesn’t mean to say this story has no merits of its own.” The lack of agreement meant it probably didn’t. “Anyway,” he went on, changing the subject, “time’s pressing on, so I suggest we move onto manuscript number two. Would anyone like to tell us what ‘No Lollipops For Boris’ is about?”
As eight o’clock approached, Zach found himself sweating slightly. Although the writers of the anonymous manuscripts were under no obligation to divulge their identity at the end of the evening, most people did. However, he was pretty sure that if he’d had a set of comments like the ones for ‘Don’t Go Baking My Heart’, he would have kept his head down and said nothing.
“So,” he began jovially, “we’ve just got time to reveal the mystery writers – if they want people to know who they are. No pressure.” Why had he said that? What if people thought he was telling the author of DGBMH to keep quiet because it was embarrassingly bad? “So, ‘No Lollipops For Boris’?” Ludmilla raised her hand – which wasn’t unusual since most of her tales had a political theme. “And ‘Murder in Moseley’?” No surprises there, either: Dan liked writing about violent, local crimes. “And last but not least, the extract from ‘A Song of Swords and Sorcery – Book Four: Dragons and Dungeons’ is ...” No one was shocked when Jared claimed authorship. “So, see you all next week, then. Most of us pop along to the pub and carry on talking there until we get chucked out ...”
“You forgot my Bake-Off story.”
Zach stared in surprise at Alan, who usually produced comedic short stories
“I’m entering a competition to write the worst Bad Romance,” Alan continued, “and with comments like these, I think I might be in with a chance ...”