Her mother has been planning this party for six months, moving into top gear over the last week, spending the morning festooning the hall with decorations, hanging it with balloons, piling tables with food. And now Charlotte has climbed into her arms, hanging on like a limpet.
Her mother, Mrs Fiona Bowring, is the wife of a high-risk insurer. This wasn't a risk they had insured against. She explains that the sense of expectation has been mounting for weeks. "Every day she has been asking, 'Is the party today?'.'' Yes, and now she wants out. Help.
Help is at hand in the form of the entertainers, who are setting up Goldilocks and the Three Bears. "Hello, Charlotte. Teddy Bear wants to talk to you." Charlotte swings round. "Teddy Bear?"
Children's parties can be a lot of grief - but they don't faze Fiona Bowring, who is one of the locality's great party-givers. Children's party- givers, that is, for Mrs Bowring has raised this type of entertaining to something of an art form. She trained in textiles (at Courtaulds she designed Marks & Spencer's very first luxury bras), but since becoming a mother she has indulged her passion for giving parties through her young children: George, 7, Freddie, 5, and now Charlotte, 3.
Fiona Bowring's love of parties stems from her own idyllic childhood in Leicester, as one of four children. Her mother was an artist who had trained at the Slade, her father a dealer in antique firearms. For birthdays, her mother would fashion witches with brooms to decorate the windows of a bungalow at the bottom of their garden; her father would fire off miniature cannon and throw things into the bonfire which would explode. So Fiona Bowring's strategy for partying is a mixture of these memories, enlarged by her own practical experience:
Rule One. The choice of a good children's entertainer is the sole essential ingredient for the party's success.
Rule Two. The presence of the young guests' parents is a sure path to failure. There's no place for them at the party and they can disrupt it, waiting like cuckoos to be spoonfed with tea, cakes and conversation.
Rule Three. Make sure you send the children home with a party bag with plenty of presents their own parents would never dream of giving them: exploding devil bangers, water pistols or noisy musical instruments. This is not quite as subversive as it sounds, since the toys are five-minute wonders which usually fall apart.
Rule Four. Food is of minor importance (to the children) since, in the excitement of the occasion, very little of it will be eaten.
Just a minute. The food doesn't matter? Then why, exactly, does she spend weeks planning, shopping, preparing and cooking food? Why indeed. "Well, I do because I like making cakes and decorating food, but I know that it won't be eaten."
By way of proof, she pulls out from a pine dresser a huge, uneaten iced fruit cake that's piped with the message: "Easter 1995". Fiona insists that it will, eventually, get eaten. "We'll take it with us when we go sailing this summer," she says.
The children's young lives have been punctuated with artistically conceived cakes which generally remained unconsumed at birthday parties (though she does usually cut them up and offer them round). There have been pirate ship cakes and treasure island cakes; cakes fashioned in the shape of a dinosaur, a teddy bear wearing a ballet skirt and a red Porsche. An inky black Batmobile cake had no takers at all. Ugh, black icing.
The day I am there, Fiona is making the cake for Charlotte's party. She will be three, so the cake is in the form of a doll dressed in a pink ball gown. Mrs Bowring has created a bell shape, the base of the gown, by baking a Madeira cake mixture in several sections (some in a basin, the rest in a sponge tin) then cutting them according to requirements, layering them and fastening them with a glue of butter cream. Into this she has stuck a plastic dolly. She rolls out a packet of Sainsbury's Easy Ice to fashion the skirt, and from her cake-making box she produces a device for making a wavy crepe pattern to fasten on. It's known as a garret frill. Phew. So the food doesn't matter?
Fiona Bowring has asked 24 children to Charlotte's party, 18 of them three-year-olds. She booked the venue months ago, a special party hut at the Hurly, as the Hurlingham Club is known (pounds 30 to children of members, but more to non-members). She also booked the children's entertainer six months in advance. For the older children she has called upon Mr Ali Do Lali, who does magic, eats fire, swallows swords. Mrs Bowring likes him because he doesn't talk down to the children, though that must be difficult since he is at least 6ft 5in tall.
For the younger children she has booked Carolyn James and Cindy, who do puppets and face-painting. (Entertainers don't come cheap; in London you must expect to pay pounds 150-pounds l75 for a class act). It is difficult to economise on the entertainment, Mrs Bowring says. "The level of expectation among London children is very sophisticated," she observes - and parties come round at a dramatic turn of speed. "Freddie wakes up some mornings and says, 'Whose party are we going to today?'.''
After the entertainer, next in order of importance is the selection of items to put into the party bags. You must make a careful choice of appropriate knick-knacks: bright plastic necklaces and earrings for the girls; water pistols and plastic toy knives for the boys (talk about gender stereotyping).
And, finally, the menu and the food the children aren't going to eat; though, actually, the one certain hit is home-made miniature pizzas (with a simple topping of tomato puree and grated red Leicester cheese). Then cocktail sausages, specially made by her local butcher. Some chicken nuggets or goujons. Little cubes of cheese. Flavoured crisps. Miniature bags of Hula Hoops. Home-made popcorn. Miniature Jaffa Cakes. Home-made biscuits. Oranges.
And Jelly. "I used to make serious fruit jellies with natural flavours," Fiona explains, "but no one liked them. Now I buy a jelly full of artificial colourings and additives, and they love it."
There are no sandwiches, because they never get eaten - and preferably no chocolate. "The beautiful smocked dresses of the girls get stained," Fiona warns, "but I might make crunchies with marshmallow or chocolate and rice crispies. And I'll do strawberries dipped in bitter chocolate, left to harden." To drink, there will be apple juice and blackcurrant juice.
Six months before the party: Book the entertainers (you may have to build the date of the party around them). Book the party venue (the Hurly, for example, provides all the small tables and chairs).
Two months before: Order the invitation cards.
One month before: Send out invitations. This may seem a bit early, but your children's friends might have other parties lined up; it's best to get in first if you've gone to the trouble of booking an expensive venue and entertainers.
Three weeks before: Buy colourful paper plates, table cloths, party bags, toys and sweets to fill them. Order helium-filled balloons.
One week before: Order sausages and other basic foodstuffs.
Three days before: Bake, cut and assemble the Madeira-type birthday cake.
Two days before: Ice and decorate the cake.
One day before: Make the jelly. Write out the names of all the children on stickers, so the entertainer knows who is who.
Party day: Morning - take everything to the party hall and decorate it. Afternoon - cook the sausages, bake the mini pizzas. Get to the party at 3pm for the 3.30pm kick off. Send the other parents packing. ("You can, of course, stay if you want, but you're entirely on your own.") Enjoy yourself.
(Footnote: The children did eat the food, every mini pizza, all but six sausages, all the Hula Hoops, the oranges, all the strawberries dipped in chocolate, even some of the cake.)
Young children find this scone mixture sweeter and softer than regular pizza dough.
Makes several dozen
500g/1lb plain flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (or replace above three items with 500g/1lb self-raising flour)
pinch of salt
8 tablespoons milk
8 tablespoons water
1 tube of tomato puree
250g/8oz grated red Leicester cheese
Mix the ingredients to a dough in the bowl. Roll out on a floured board to 12-1cm/14-12in thick. Use a small glass, egg cup or pastry cutter to cut mouthful-sized miniature pizza shapes.
Sprinkle with cheese, top with a pea-sized blob of tomato puree. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes in a preheated oven at 425F/220C/Gas 7. Serve warm if possible.
MADEIRA-TYPE BIRTHDAY CAKE
This cake is made with vanilla essence rather than the traditional lemon flavour.
Makes a 1kg/2lb cake
180g/6oz caster sugar
4 eggs, lightly stirred
90g/3oz self-raising flour
a few drops vanilla essence
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, adding a little flour to help it mix. Add the vanilla essence, then the rest of the flour. Bake in a buttered sponge tin for one hour in preheated oven at 310F/160C/ Gas 3, turning down the heat if it is cooking too fast. Let it cool before turning out.
Ice it and decorate the cake the next day.
EASY DROP BISCUITS
Beat the butter and sugar to a cream, then beat in the egg, and finally the flour. Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Drop the mixture in teaspoon- sized blobs on to a non-stick oven sheet, well separated, and bake for up to 10 minutes, until they turn light golden brown. !Reuse content