Five minutes earlier, the puff pastry was still black rather than golden. Sighing, Jason went back in time one more minute. He arrived in the past full of hopeful anticipation, which was dashed from him when he peeked inside the oven. Still burnt.
“Goddammit,” Jason said.
One more minute. And another. And another. Jason was getting exhausted – time travel wasn’t an easy task. It took huge amounts of energy, concentration and willpower.
Arriving back in the kitchen with eight minutes to go on the timer, Jason opened the oven and frowned. The pastry was now not cooked enough! He rolled his eyes and stood up, deciding to wait it out and stay awake until the Beef Wellington was properly cooked.
But as he stood up and looked over the counter, Jason realized that the burnt dish was the least of his worries: the room was empty! The contestants and presenters had all disappeared into thin air. Pots bubbled over on hubs and timers went off with no one to see to them. Jason’s heart rate quickened in terror. What on earth had he done?!
Being in such a state already, it was no surprise that when something tugged at the bottom of his trouser leg, Jason screamed and leapt two feet into the air.
“Ga,” the trouser-tugger said.
Jason looked down cautiously and saw at his feet not a monster, not an alien, not a deadly creature, but a baby.
“Ga,” it said, and began sucking on a spatula.
Jason stood rooted to the spot. Very, very slowly he managed to turn his head enough to face the production crew. Seeing no one at eye height, he lowered his gaze.
“Fffffffffffffffffffffffffff…!” Jason screamed. Babies! Babies everywhere! Two bouncing on the directors’ chairs. One climbing the camera. Two sucking on the boom. Three screaming blue murder in a corner.
Jason ran around the room in a frenzy. Weston and Miles were babies. Sylvia was a baby. Angela was a weird-looking baby. All the other contestants were babies.
“Think fast, think fast!” Jason muttered to himself, “What have I done?!”
The only solution that occurred to him was to go about 30 years into the future and turn everyone into an adult again, so he did just that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the perfect solution Jason had thought it would be.
In reality, the ages of the MustardChef cast and crew varied hugely, from Tia, the 16-year-old work experience girl, to Stephen, the 67-year-old contestant who liked to moan about how the present wasn’t ‘like the good old days’. Turning everyone into a 30-year-old would prevent the screaming and nappy-soiling Jason was currently facing, but leaping so far into the future proved to be a very bad idea.
On arrival, the first thing that hit was the stench. In fact, it was so bad that Jason didn’t actually want to open his eyes to see his surroundings, but he did.
And then he screamed louder than he had when the baby touched his leg.
The kitchen was unrecognisable. With the passing of 30 years, all the bulbs had broken and so the room was eerily dark. The only light came in through the dirty, shattered skylights, which had let a lot of rain in. Moss grew on the floor and up the walls. Everywhere Jason looked, once he plucked up the courage to explore, was crumbling and slimy.
All the food had gone rancid and the pots of herbs and bowls of fruit were unrecognizable. Jason held his breath. He came across an oven with the door hinges snapped and peered into it. He recognized his baby blue casserole dish immediately; it took much longer for him to realise that the thing inside it was his Beef Wellington.
“It’s hell on earth here, mate.” A voice behind him said quietly. Jason gulped and turned. “How did you even get here?”
“I…” Jason feebly pointed towards the door. Then he turned to face it and saw it had been boarded up with rotting wood. He approached the man, who was wearing a grey, shredded MustardChef apron and little else. Curled up next to the man was a skinny woman in a similar apron. She had her eyes closed and she looked in pain.
“Who are you?” Jason asked them.
The man laughed. “I should be asking you that! I’m Stephen, and this is Tia. We took our names from the aprons we arrived in.”
“When did you ‘arrive’?”
Tia burst out laughing. Quickly the laugh turned into a hacking cough. Stephen pulled her closer and stroked her long, tangled hair.
“We’ve been here all our lives. Born in the kitchen as babies and still here, locked in, watching it crumble around us. Occasionally we send someone out for supplies. They rarely come back.”
“It’s scary out there…” Tia whispered.
“It’s scary in here, too!” Jason pointed out.
Stephen shrugged. “You get used to it. This is home for us. Some of us haven’t survived. We’re all 30 now and to tell you the truth, I don’t think Tia’s going to make it much longer. And when she dies… Oh, I don’t know. She’s my rock. The only thing that’s ever kept me going.”
Tia offered a weak smile.
“When people die…” Jason trailed off.
“We bury them under the floorboards,” Stephen pre-empted.
Jason clapped his hand to his mouth, desperate not to throw up. The smell was already disgusting – knowing it came from dead bodies was horrifying.
“I will get you out of here, I promise!” Jason told them firmly, and clamped his eyes shut. He had no clear destination in mind, which made time-travelling a risky business, but he reasoned that wherever he ended up would be better than where he was, in ‘hell on earth’ as a 30-year-old Stephen had put it.
Ooh… Things get better (and worse) in the next part!