It was coming up to my brother Xander’s 40th birthday and he said: “I don’t want you to do anything. I don’t like surprises and please don’t buy me any presents.”
“So the challenge is to have a birthday party that is not a birthday party.” I mused.
“You should have an unbirthday party,” said Adrien my boyfriend.
“What’s an unbirthday?”
Alice in Wonderland is Adrien’s favourite book. He explained to me, as pompously patiently as Humpty Dumpty explained it to Alice, that an unbirthday is much better than a birthday because you can celebrate it on 364 days instead of only one. This was Cheshire Cat, appearing-disappearing, ingenious. I would throw a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to celebrate everyone’s unbirthday, except, of course, Xander’s.
I wrote a little play for my nieces and nephew to act out, and ordered Humpty Dumpty, Alice and Dormouse costumes for them. I found a nylon play tunnel to make everyone go through to have a sense of falling down the rabbit hole. I devised a cocktail game with differently sized bottles, from a tiny 10ml medicine vial hung with a label that read POISON! (gin), to a magnum of Prosecco, DRINK ME FIRST!, for people to mix at their own peril. In front of the bottles there would be a row of eggs, from tiny speckled quail, to the giant egg of the ostrich. To give the queasy sense of growing bigger and growing smaller, the littlest dormouse Lily would be assigned the ostrich egg to crack and the tallest among us, 6ft 4in Xander, would be given the quail egg.
For tea I made strawberry jelly in a swirl shape and cucumber sandwiches with little green basil and yellow pepper gelatin insects perched on top. I made baby turtles out of bouillon moulded in a turtle ice cube mould and poured boiling water over them to make mock turtle soup. I made flamingo-shaped cookies and scones iced with clotted cream and jam. I made a pink and white striped cake bowl filled with jelly babies. I made two mini walnut bundt cakes and spelt out “EAT ME” in currants. I fried up a batch of chipolatas, because, well, it’s not a party without mini sausages. I made Adrien open three dozen oysters wearing a fake walrus moustache. I wanted everything to look like not quite what it was.
And most of all I wanted a rabbit to come out of a hat. Yeah, a real rabbit. Yeah, out of a chocolate cake in the shape of a hat. Step one: I located a rabbit in Dagenham and went to collect him during the monsoon on the day of the European Union referendum. He was black with a white nose and nervously friendly. I took him down to Cornwall and hid him in the basement labyrinth in a hutch with daily visits of veggies and nibbles.
Step two: The cake had to be big enough to fit the rabbit inside. I made ten chocolate cakes in three days, wrapped them in plastic and kept them in the fridge. I should probably mention at this point that although the whole operation was strictly secret, I did have a co-conspirator. Alessandro, Italian, friend and pasta virtuoso.
“How are you going to put the Minotaur—our code name for the rabbit—inside the cake?” He asked, sceptical. For several days we discussed the various architectural complications of using a container wrapped in cake.
In the end we found a plastic bucket for making sandcastles and the Minotaur fitted nicely inside and seemed quite happy there with his twitching nose pointing out over the top. I constructed the cake in layers, cutting larger and larger circles from the cakes to accommodate the shape of a bucket, adding chocolate buttercream in between each layer.
Then came the midnight crisis of how on earth to make an edible hat brim? I had imagined that I could (like they do on the crazy cake baking shows) mould it out of Rice Krispies and molten marshmallow. However, the sheet of marshmallow-Rice Krispies refused to harden into the shape of a curling brim. Alessandro shook his head at my folly as I scraped the mess into the bin.
“What about making it out of bread?” he suggested. I made a quick water and flour dough, rolled it out and formed it into the curve of a serving platter, propping up the curl of the brim with folded tin foil.
It worked. Alessandro went to bed and I set the hardened bread brim on top of my chocolate tower and covered the whole thing in another coat of chocolate icing.
The next day all we had to do was roll out the hand band from a packet of yellow royal icing and make a label: “In this style. Size 10/6.”
The Minotaur was quiet and still in his plastic bucket as I carried the cake into tea. At first there was an almighty shocked silence of total astonishment. And then:
“Wendy. What. Have. You. Done?”
“Is it a real bunny, mummy?”
“Oh my God it is a real rabbit—”
“Can I hold the bunny, mummy?”
“Seriously,” said Henry, aged 10, still in his Humpty Dumpty costume, “I mean who puts a rabbit in a cake. Who does that?”
The rabbit emerged only a little bit chocolaty (soon washed off) and unscathed. Everyone fell in love with it immediately. Lily called it Fluffy, Orla called it Sophia and Henry called it Mrs Hops. But the name that stuck was coined by Adrien.
Brexit is now happily ensconced in the garden in London. Brexit by name, Brexit by nature: an intelligent escapologist who likes to play hide-and-hide and is very fond of watercress. Now, whenever a friend begins to discuss Brexit, I am happy to think, not of politics, but of a happy bunny nibbling his timothy grass. Yes, we are all mad here.