Maurice kept the kebabs flowing. Velvette had not only made pizza for the rather finicky children, but a pot of hearty fish and tomato stew that everyone had with chunks of sliced warm baguettes baked by Mae, who also made risotto with prawns and asparagus. Mildred contributed a bit of spaghetti bolognaise that she had made for dinner the night before, which Esme dug into with relish.
The Brambles took charge of dessert, which everyone made sure they had room in their bellies for.
When the dishes and cutlery were cleared, and the birthday cake brought out, there was a collective gasp of pleasure.
‘Strawberry chantilly cream cake!’ squealed Matthew. ‘My favorite!’ It was Mortimer’s specialty.
‘Gather around, everyone!’ said Eleanor.
The birthday song was sung. Matthew made a wish and blew out the candles on the cake, and Eleanor made sure that everybody had a thick slice.
‘Sooooo yummy,’ said Matthew. ‘I love you, Dad!’
‘So do we!’ chimed George and Mildred.
It was a little after three in the afternoon when the neighbors said their goodbyes and ambled home, already dreaming about siesta in their warm cosy beds. They had helped with the washing up and all there was to do was to take down the party decorations.
Eleanor helped carry the presents up to Matthew’s bedroom.
‘Have fun opening them!’ she said.
Matthew started with the Slydales’ gift. It was a book bag.
‘Perfect!’ said Eleanor. ‘You needed a new one.’
From Elma, Mae, Ike and Candy, Matthew got a pair of white sneakers.
‘Nice,’ said Matthew. He turned to the pink package and gently unwrapped it. The Mulberry grandparents were famous for their unconventional gifts. Matthew tried not to expect too much. He imagined lime green pyjamas with watermelon prints.
‘It’s a … keyboard!’ Matthew exclaimed. ‘It’s so cool!’
‘That must’ve come from Uncle Edward’s shop,’ said Eleanor. Edward Mulberry, George and Mildred’s son, was a brilliant toymaker. ‘This must be one of his latest products. You’re a very lucky boy, Mattie.’
Matthew saved Esme’s present for last. She had told him that it was something he would really, really like, and over brunch he had spent every fifth or sixth mouthful of food guessing what it was, and being told he was wrong. Now he would finally know.
‘Hmm, looks like a book,’ he said as he opened the top of the gift box.
‘Oh, a book about camping! And Esme wrote it!’
Esme loved camping and was the best person to ask about the best equipment and camping spots around the country. She got Matthew interested after she showed him pictures of her many camping trips. Matthew’s birthday present was a handmade guide to camping, a thick notebook filled with handwritten notes, pictures and maps pasted on the pages.
‘I’m going to read it rightaway!’ declared Matthew, climbing onto his bunk bed.
‘Not so fast, young man,’ said Eleanor. ‘Straighten up your room first. I don’t want all this wrapping paper lying around. Birthday boys still need to pick up after themselves, you know.’
‘Okay,’ said Matthew. ‘I love you, Mom!’
‘I love you too,’ said Eleanor, ‘but you still have to clean up. I’m going to sit with your dad and watch a bit of TV.’