“You children baking? In my kitchen?” Cook’s voice rose in horror.
“Not all of them! Just Susan and Peggy,” Mrs Blackett, who had come with the two girls to support them, said quickly.
“I’ve always helped Mother bake my birthday cake,” Susan explained, “and this year Peggy and I want to try and do it ourselves.”
“And since they’ll be coming over to celebrate Susan’s birthday here anyway, I thought it would be best if they did their baking here too,” Mrs Blackett added.
“Oh, if it’s just you two I don’t mind,” Cook answered, her frown vanishing. “You’ve both got sense when it comes to cooking.”
“I’ll be there too, of course, to keep an eye on them,” Mrs Blackett said, and ignored the way that made Cook look if anything less at ease.
“The others will want to scrape the bowl, but we’ve told them we’re not having too many cooks spoiling the broth - or the batter, rather!” Peggy added.
“So long as Miss Nancy doesn’t try to help,” Cook said firmly. “You remember what happened last time!”
Peggy giggled, and Mrs Blackett winced. She most certainly did… How her elder daughter had managed, in the five minutes she had left the girls alone to answer the telephone, to cover the kitchen, herself, and her sister quite so comprehensively in icing and icing sugar, was still a mystery to her.
“It will be just Susan and Peggy,” she repeated.
“Very well, then, you can come and welcome. I’ll sort out what you’ll need and leave it for you.” She smiled at the girls’ enthusiastic thanks, then flapped her tea-towel. “Now, away with you! I’ve got tea to be getting ready.”
New Year’s Day dawned with flurrying snow that made Mrs Blackett fear their plans would go to waste. There could be no thought of her daughters rowing across to fetch the Walkers while the snow lasted, and the trek from Holly Howe would be equally impossible. Nancy’s desperate suggestion that they try to drive there in Rattletrap she squashed.
“It’s impossible to see a yard ahead, it would be far too dangerous… and you know I don’t like driving on snow at the best of times.”
Nancy, remembering a couple of hair-raising journeys, hastily agreed, and returned to glaring at the weather and urging it to improve.
It wasn’t until after dinner that the snow ceased - though the sky remained overcast - and the Amazons seized their chance. The Beckfoot rowing boat had rarely shot across the Lake as fast as it did then, with Nancy and Peggy taking a pair of oars each and both rowing as hard as they could. Fortunately, the Swallows had guessed what their allies would do, so no time was wasted embarking at Holly Howe. With John and Susan to row too, the return trip was even quicker than the outgoing journey had been, and soon Mrs Blackett was welcoming them all. As Susan and Peggy waited with thinly-veiled impatience for the greetings to be over so they could begin baking, Mrs Blackett turned to the rest.
“And what are you people going to do with yourselves?”
“We could make a dash for the igloo - ” Nancy began, but John, who could see the window behind her, shook his head.
“No good, it’s starting to snow again already.”
“In that case you’ll stay here,” Mrs Blackett said firmly, overriding Nancy’s hopeful ‘it’s only snowing a little’. “It looks as if it’s going to come down heavily, and I can’t have you stranded at the igloo.”
“Besides, you won’t get any scrapings of the cake bowl if you go off now,” Mrs Walker added.
“We’d better stay, then,” said Roger at once - and although they laughed, the others looked as if they fully agreed with the sentiment.
“Could we decorate the dining room for the birthday tea?” Titty asked.
“Good idea,” Mrs Blackett agreed, relieved that they would be relatively quietly occupied while they were stuck indoors. “Just be careful with the Christmas things.”
“A Christmas tree isn’t very birthday-ish,” Nancy said dubitatively.
Her mother groaned. “Nancy, you wretched creature, what did I just say? You can’t mean to take it down for good yet, and you can’t possibly move it!”
Laughing, Susan stepped in to settle the argument. “Christmas trees are birthday-ish to me, there’s always been one up on my birthday. And this is a lovely tree!”
“Very well, we’ll leave it,” Nancy agreed. “There’s still plenty of space for us to decorate.”
The way she looked around the room as she said that gave Mrs Blackett a sudden moment of doubt as to who who she should actually be supervising. Susan and Peggy would be fine on their own, surely, or with just Mary Walker to keep an eye on them… Then she met her friend’s eyes and laughed, guessing from her expression that she was thinking along much the same lines as Molly herself.
“We’ll be off to start the cake and let you get on with it, then,” she said, putting her fears to one side. They couldn’t do that much harm, and it would only spoil their fun to have someone watching over them.
With bated breath, Susan carefully lifted away the cake tin - and there it was, a perfectly baked sponge. As soon as it was safely out, Peggy let out a whoop.
“Three cheers for the cake!”
Laughing, the others joined in the cheers. After a final examination of the cake, Mrs Blackett shooed the two girls out. It had been impossible to get them to leave the kitchen while it was baking, but now there really was nothing to do but wait.
“It has to cool before you can do anything more with it, so you may as well see what the others are doing,” she instructed. “We’ll keep an eye on it.”
Even from the kitchen, the chorus of “don’t come in!” that greeted Susan when she knocked on the dining room’s door could be clearly heard. The others came out instead, and before long gleeful shrieks and merry laughter sounded from the lawn, where a snowball fight had been quickly arranged to make the last of the fading daylight. Meanwhile, the mothers sat down for a cup of tea.
The baking had gone off smoothly, and they had contented themselves with watching while the mates worked. Peggy and Susan had been very keen to do it all themselves, reading the recipe with great care and double-checking each measurement. And - apart from one moment when Mrs Walker had just caught the sugar jar Susan, not realising Peggy had moved it, knocked with her elbow - they had indeed done everything on their own.
The others had been too busy with their decorating to come around to the kitchen, except when they were called to scrape the bowl. Occasionally the cooks would hear mysterious sounds, or calls suddenly broken off as whoever was speaking was shushed by the rest, but only one particularly loud thump had given them pause. Nancy’s cheerful shout of “it’s all right, it was only Roger” hadn’t been particularly reassuring either, nor was Titty’s sharp call of “don’t let Susan come!”. Mrs Walker hurried to check, and soon returned with the news that Roger had simply overbalanced and fallen off a chair, but no harm was done. She refused to tell them anything else, though, explaining she’d been solemnly sworn to secrecy.
Now, Mrs Blackett grinned at Mrs Walker. “Well, you’ve seen the top secret decorations. I won’t ask for details, but do tell me - Has Nancy left me any of the dining room standing?”
Mrs Walker laughed. “They’ve been very enthusiastic, but everything still seems to be in one piece, including Roger! It all looks rather splendid. But I mustn’t tell you any more, or Titty will never forgive me.”
Susan enjoyed the snowball fight just as much as everyone else; but once the darkness had fully fallen, she and Peggy hurried back to the kitchen to decorate the cake. They had discussed many ideas for this, some of them highly elaborate. In the end, though, they had decided it would be better to do something simple but do it well, covering the cake with buttercream and piping rosettes round the border.
The rest of the children had gone back to the dining room, much to Mrs Walker’s surprise - she had thought they could have little more left to do when she’d gone to see what Roger had done to himself, and that had been just after the cake had gone into the oven. Halfway through the spreading of the buttercream, though, Nancy appeared in the kitchen door, beckoning mysteriously to Peggy and refusing to explain why she wanted her, until Peggy gave in and stepped out. Even through the closed door, the muffled sounds of a squabble could be heard at first, but soon stopped as they moved away.
Susan, spreading knife in hand, hesitated. Should she keep going, or wait for Peggy’s return?
“I’ll go and see what they’re doing,” Mrs Blackett said, interpreting Susan’s doubtful look correctly. “We can’t have the cooks being stolen away!”
But she didn’t go far; even as she opened the door, Peggy reappeared, running along the corridor.
“Sorry about that!” she said, hurrying in. “But everything’s sorted now - no, Mother, don’t worry, nothing’s wrong and nothing’s broken! Nancy just needed me a minute. Come on, Susan.”
Picking up her own knife, she returned to the decorating, and Susan followed suit. Soon, the cake was evenly covered, and the border done. Finally, Peggy, who had the neatest writing, carefully piped Susan’s name onto the middle in chocolate.
Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett admired the finished result, then sent them firmly out, declaring it was their turn now to be cooks and get the tea ready. The girls went along to the dining room, whose door was still shut.
“They must be done by now,” Susan said - but, rather than walking in, she knocked on the door. “Can I come in?” she called.
A few muffled giggles sounded on the other side, then Nancy said, “yes, come in!”
A loud chorus of “Happy Birthday” greeted her as soon as she entered, and Bridget rushed over to hug her and demand her opinion of the decorations. The others crowded round too, while Susan looked around in delight. They had certainly been enthusiastic! A huge banner (made from an old sheet Nancy had repurposed), strung across the windows from the curtain rail as the only place it could fit, proclaimed ‘Happy Birthday Mate Susan!’ in brightly coloured letters. Two large sheets of paper had been turned into the two flags and pinned to the wall, so that a swallow flew out of the Christmas tree on one side while a skull grinned from the other; and paper garlands seemed to have been hung everywhere it was possible for one to go. Even the holly wreath on the door now had a band reading ‘Happy Birthday’ on it.
There were newly-made birthday cards to admire too, requiring careful handling as the paint was still drying in places. Bridget insisted hers be first, and proudly explained that she had made it all by herself. Then there was Titty’s with a rather good rendering of their campfire on Wild Cat, John’s neatly printed and decorated with a full-rigged ship, Roger’s with some startling colour contrasts, and Nancy’s with rather more skulls and crossbones than one usually found on birthday cards. It had been signed by Peggy, too, who now explained that was what Nancy had wanted when she came to call her.
After everything had been thoroughly admired, they settled down in the transformed room to play games until tea was ready - and a splendid tea it was, with everything a birthday tea should have. Cook had left some things ready prepared before leaving to spend New Year with her own family, and Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett had excelled themselves adding to it. Even Roger, though, didn’t need warning to save room for the cake which came at the end, carefully carried in by Susan with Peggy hovering by her side.
The candles were lit and the lights dimmed for everyone to sing Happy Birthday, while Susan looked around with sparkling eyes. And to think the day had started with the fear they wouldn’t be able to have a party at all! Taking a deep breath, she blew out the candles, wishing for every birthday to be as good as this one.