“Contestants, you have 90 minutes. Let’s cook.”
An angry hiss seared the air as the onions hit the pan.
She galvanised into action, snatched the pan from the heat, and shuffled the contents about.
School girl error, she chided herself as the hiss soothed to a sibilant sulk. Just stay focused. You know what you're doing. There's no cause for panic - oh crap, the bald one's coming over.
She jumped slightly as the voice boomed in her ear, louder and closer than expected.
"Oy, oy. You're a live wire, entcha?"
She tried to ignore the glare of the camera lights bouncing off his scalp and forced a timid smile. His eyes wandered off around the room.
No. This wouldn't do. This was make or break time—the audience would decide in the next few seconds if they loved or loathed her. It had to be one or the other or the chances were she wouldn't stay long. She notched her smile up a few degrees. He gurned at her approvingly.
"So, Jillian. Jill. Wotcha making for us, gel?"
"My calling card is the Foragers Feast: quails egg, bacon and field mushroom quiche, served on a bed of saùted nettles and samphire with homemade truffle oil and Parmesan shavings." Gotta have a gimmick, she sighed internally.
"Obviously, I haven't foraged the bacon or Parmesan, but give me time," she grinned.
That's it. Play the game.
"So, foraging is something that's important to you?"
"Oh yes," she beamed.
Oh no, she glowered inwardly. Why would you when Waitrose and M&S have everything conveniently washed and packaged? But Matt was keen, so she went along with him. Until now, at least.
Dammit. Baldy was still talking and she'd missed what he said. She shook herself back to the present.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"I said, you sure you know what you're doing with those mushrooms. Me and my antipodean mate over there don't fancy a stay in hospital if you've picked the wrong ones."
"Oh, my husband ALWAYS checks all my ingredients before I use them," she simpered.
"And HE knows what he's doing, does he?"
"He should know. He's a pharmacist."
Baldy relaxed visibly and sauntered away.
She risked a glance at her "competition."
Tan & Tats bloke was doing "real" pub grub. Mousey Housey was making her family favourite. The Metrosexual and the Hipster Dude were both doing something with seafood. Oh, and there was the mandatory Tits & Teeth, currently batting her eyelids at the Wide Boy and leaning forward to show him her wares—she hadn't even tied her hair back. That was just unsanitary!
And then there was her, of course. The one who could actually cook. She smiled to herself and turned her attention back to the quiche.
She was glad she had mentioned Matt checking the ingredients. Everyone who knew them would vouch for how fastidious he was.
Right. Time to make good telly.
She retrieved the bowl of iced water from the chiller, catching the eye of a passing cameraman en route.
"My granny always said perfect pastry needs cold hands," she declared to the room at large. Sure enough, Wideboy hot-stepped over in time to watch her plunge her hands into the frigid water.
"Blimey, Jill gel. You are hardcore."
"What can I say? In order to succeed, sacrifices must be made, darling."
She glanced back to catch the daggers from Boob Job. She risked blowing a kiss in her direction. The cameras were firmly with her now. She knew she was good. She had it all to play for and nothing would stop her now.
They retired to the green room to await the verdict and breathed sighs of relief into a cloud of insincere camaraderie.
She smirked. The only thing better than the judges' raptures as they took bite after bite was the sick look on Boob Job’s face when the cameras forced her to congratulate Jill on the feedback.
She sank into a tub chair and reached for her phone. Time to text Matt.
"Hi babe. Went well. Thnx 4 checking the mushrooms and being my Guinea pig 2day. Love u xxx"
Not that he'd see it—he didn’t know he hadn't checked every mushroom, after all—but it would add an air of tragedy to the situation. She would be devastated, of course, but would soldier on. She would easily gain the sympathy vote and then what? Cookbook? TV show? Perhaps even a celebrity affair? Of the two on offer at the moment, she'd rather the Aussie, but she could grin and bear it with the other one if needs be...
She sat back and closed her eyes. Poor Matt. But, in order to succeed, sacrifices must be made. She blew air between her teeth. They were taking their time calling them back.
A thundering of feet drew her attention as someone ran past the door in the corridor outside.
The shrill chirp of her phone interrupted her thoughts.
"Proud of u babe. Quiche was amazing. Knock em dead xxx"
Frantic shouts filled the studio beyond the door.
She stared, dumbfounded.
He always ate at 12 on the dot. There was no way he could reply.
She stood up slowly, turning her head towards the door. Her heart dropped as reality crashed down on her.
There was still time. If she told them now, they could be helped.
She shifted her weight to take a step towards the door when her mind caught up with her. Matt checked EVERYTHING she foraged. Everyone knew that. No one would blame HER. In fact, they would feel sorry for her. And then what? Book deal? TV show? After all, in order to succeed, sacrifices must be made.