Miss Andrew was the worst nanny in the world. She yelled and fussed, and beat little Georgie with switches for looking at her wrong. She was bent and crooked like an old witch, with one green globe of a glass eye, and a warty nose, and jaggedy teeth that were black. All right, she was none of those things, but she was very cross, and hardly let Georgie have any fun at all.
In the mornings, she woke him up with a clang of a spoon against a pan hung on a hook for this very purpose, and told him to dress himself quickly and straighten his bed and wipe his face and comb his hair. Then she would shush him down to breakfast and make him eat his mush.
Georgie hated mush, and hated the medicine Miss Andrew made him take with it.
"I won't!" he said.
"You will!" she replied.
And every morning, he did, would he or no, and if he wouldn't, he did with a smarting bottom.
After breakfast, there were lessons. "How many are six fours?"
"Six fours are four and twenty."
"What is the capital of Russia?"
Sharp questions, quick answers, or it was the switch on poor Georgie's fingers. Jography, maths, science, art, religion, Georgie better had know it all.
"And stand up straight!"
Of course he rebelled. Any child would. During his rare treat times free of her eye, he chased down frogs, brought them home in his pockets, and dunked them in her tea. He bought itching powder for a penny and put it in her wardrobe so all her dresses made her jump and itch. He made rude noises when her back was turned and stuck out his tongue when she couldn't see. He hadn't been the one to put all that salt in her mush, though. That was Cook.
Thwap! Thwap! Thwap! went the switch, and Georgie plotted vengeance every day with his "Yes, ma'am"s and "No, ma'am"s.
If Father ever took notice of the war between Georgie and Miss Andrew, he never once spoke of it or took sides. Georgie's father was a large boulder of a man with muttonchops and a great stomach that threatened to burst out the buttons on his white shirts. Georgie saw a balloon, just once, bobbing on a stick, and when he saw his father walking down the staircase -- bounce, bounce, bounce went his stomach -- Georgie thought of the balloon. Father ate his breakfast with Georgie, not mush for him, but eggs and great rashers of bacon and strong tea and toast. Georgie wasn't allowed any of his father's breakfast, not even on the rare mornings when Father didn't eat it all, and Cook had to take the rest away again.
"Be a good boy," Father said to him every morning, and gave him a pat on his head, never commenting on the red lines across his hands or the imprint of Miss Andrew's hand over his face after Georgie said a naughty word.
Father went to work, and that was the last Georgie saw of him every day. Lessons, and dinner, and an hour of play, and tea, and a scalding hot bath, and Georgie's day was over, to end in the nursery with Miss Andrew reading him Bible verses until he fell asleep.
When he slept, when he dreamt, Georgie remembered his Mummy, who read him poems that rhymed, and who smelled of flowers, and who kissed him when he went to sleep. In the morning when he woke to the clanging pan, Georgie didn't remember Mummy, may as well never have had a Mummy. All he had was Miss Andrew, and Father hiding behind his giant pile of toast.
One day, the wind changed.
"Blustery nor'easter," Father said to Cook. "It'll be a brisk'un today."
Cook nodded. The last Cook once disagreed with Father about the weather and was sacked. This Cook never commented on anything if she could help it. She was thin as a rail, a terrible thing in a cook, but she baked what smelled like delicious pies, and her soups were both nourishing and rich. On Georgie's birthday, when Miss Andrew wasn't looking, Cook always dolloped a bit of honey in his mush, and slipped him a razor-thin slice of cake. This act of rebellion was however too much for her the rest of the year, and she stood thin-lipped and silent when Miss Andrew chastised Georgie for lingering too long over his dinner, and promised him the switch.
"It is time for our constitutional," said Miss Andrew, after lessons. She led him every day for a brisk walk, no matter how wet or bitter it was outside, telling him this would be good for his health. Any runny noses or coughs were treated with the morning medicine, even when he didn't have them.
Georgie secretly enjoyed the constitutionals, at least in good weather. Sometimes he could dash away ahead of Miss Andrew and enjoy precious minutes of freedom, smelling the air, even spying other children from time to time. On very special days, their walk took them to a park, where he could -- luxury of luxuries -- play with the other boys for sometimes up to an hour!
Today's walk was filled with wind. A nor'easter, Father had said, and Georgie rolled the word on his tongue, practicing it. They had to lean into it to walk, pushing forward against air that pushed them back like a hand. Miss Andrew huffed and puffed, straining herself into the gale, determined not to let the weather deprive her of her daily exercise. Georgie lost his footing, and fell, scraping his knee.
"Get up!" shouted Miss Andrew. "There will be no slacking off during our constitutional, young man."
Georgie climbed to his feet, the gash in his knee throbbing and the wind crying around them.
"Mummy would kiss it better," he said, out of a place inside him he'd mostly forgotten.
"I am not your Mummy, you ungrateful child."
Those were the very last words Georgie ever heard Miss Andrew say, because just then, a great blast of wind whooshed up her skirts and blew her away like a kite.
Georgie stared, mouth agape, as Miss Andrew screamed and squealed, barely heard in the whine of the wind, until she was a little speck in the sky, and then she was gone. He stood there, ignored by the people around him, all huddled against the wind themselves, his knee dripping blood, no nanny at all.
He walked home alone. The pleasure of playing in the park was overwhelmed by the fear of being punished for losing his nanny. When Cook saw his knee, and didn't see Miss Andrew, she took Georgie into the kitchen and gave him a boiled sweet while she washed his knee and bandaged it. He played in his room for the rest of the day, drawing a picture of a pretty lady he thought looked like his Mummy, with brown hair and laughing eyes.
Cook fed him his dinner and his tea, but no one gave him his bath or put him to bed. When Father came home, Georgie was still awake, and crept to the stair to listen as Cook explained.
"Blown away!" exclaimed Father. "I never heard of such a thing!"
"There's always someone," said Maid. "My cousin's girl was blown away in a wind like this. Her skirts just up and took her off halfway down the street."
"Down the street is one thing. Nannies don't go flying into the sky. She's run off, that's it. That greengrocer was always eyeing her. She's run off to get married and left me with no one to look after George."
Maid and Cook looked doubtful, and Georgie couldn't imagine anyone marrying Miss Andrew. Cook looked wistful, too. The greengrocer never did eye Miss Andrew, but Georgie saw him linger to chat with Cook on many days.
"Take out an ad," Father ordered Maid. "In the meantime, he's your duty."
Maid did not like Georgie much, but she didn't feed him the medicine in the morning, and she left him to study his own books for lessons, and play during the afternoon. Georgie finished his picture of his Mummy. "I wish, I wish," he said, but didn't even hear himself saying it. At bathtime, Maid was too busy to bathe him, instead dusting him off with her great pink featherduster, which made him sneeze. Achoo!
"Clean enough, anyway!" Maid said, and sent him to bed.
When Father arrived home, he sat down to his great tea, but was disturbed by the bell. "Oh, bless my gizzard!" he shouted. "Who is it?"
Georgie crept to the top of the stairs again. A beautiful lady with chestnut brown hair and laughing eyes waited at the door. "My name is Mary Poppins," she said, in the nicest voice Georgie had ever heard. "I came about the opening for a nanny."
"Yes, yes," said Father. "You saw the advertisement. You know the wages. Did you bring references?"
"Only the finest, from the King of Persia himself," said Mary Poppins, "and the Emperor of Japan wishes I could have stayed longer." She presented papers to Father, who looked them over.
"What is this claptrap?" he demanded.
"No claptrap at all." She walked in past him, surveying the house with a frown and a sharp nod. "Yes, yes this will do nicely. I'll begin immediately. Young George will need to be put to bed."
"He's already been put to bed!"
Mary Poppins snapped her fingers, and Georgie felt large hands, like the wind had been but gentler, pick him up and carry him, floating, down the stairs.
Father shouted, "Young man, what are you doing out of bed and flying down the stairs at this time?"
"I don't know, Father. Sorry, Father."
"I'll put the lad to bed and then get myself settled, Mr. Banks. Breakfast is at seven-thirty, so I'll wake him at seven. Good night!"
And with that, Mary Poppins picked up her carpet bag in one hand and took Georgie's small hand in the other, and walked up the stairs straight to his room.
"Now you need to get to bed. We're having an early start tomorrow," she said, shooing him into the bed and under the covers. "I can't stay for long, you see, and we've so much to do."
"But who are you?" Georgie's curiosity was killing him, and he was far too awake ever to sleep.
"As I said, my name is Mary Poppins. Your name is George Banks. And that is quite enough to know about one another tonight." She touched his head to push it against the pillow.
Georgie sat up again. "Miss Andrew always read to me."
Mary Poppins seemed to have an argument with herself. Then she pulled a book from Georgie's shelf. On the cover, it said, "The Holy Bible," and Georgie settled down to hear one of the familiar, boring tales.
"Once," Mary Poppins read, "there was a fierce pirate named Blackbeard … "
Georgie's mouth gaped, and he listened, spellbound, as Mary Poppins read a bone-chilling tale of pirates and treasure and adventure, turning the pages and doing the voices of all the pirates. He snuck out of bed once to peek over her shoulder at the book. He saw Psalms. No pirates.
"Back to bed, you," said Mary Poppins, and she finished the story. "And now, good night." She didn't kiss him, but she did place a soft hand on his forehead, and she smelled of flowers.
"Good night," Georgie said, his mind full of strangeness.
In the morning, his mush bowl mysteriously broke. He ate bacon on a piece of his father's toast.
For lessons, they went outside. All the birds in the trees came down one by one, singing their names to Mary Poppins. Then they walked to the park and counted penguins for maths. Mary Poppins thought Georgie ought to learn astronomy as part of his lessons, so they walked down a different alley where the sky was always night, and she taught him the names of the constellations. She even told him a story about a star named Maia.
After tea, Mary Poppins gave Georgie his bath, but she decided the bathtub was too small, so she poured in soap and made loads of bubbles, and when she blew them away, Georgie was bathing in a warm, blue-green lagoon full of fish that tickled his toes. Mary Poppins sat primly on the beach, removing her black laced boots to dip her toes in the warm water while Georgie splashed and played with the dolphins. Father came in at last to see what the noise was and ask why Georgie was not yet in bed. He ended up splashing around, still dressed in his great white buttoned shirt, with two friendly porpoises. "What is this?" he asked, laughing and breathing hard when he finally came onto the sand with Mary Poppins.
"What is what?"
"There's a lagoon in the bathroom."
"I really don't know what you mean, Mr. Banks," Mary Poppins said, a fussy tone in her voice.
At bedtime, the Bible in her hands told Georgie the story of the third son of a poor farmer who went out to find his fortune, and who slew a dragon and married a princess.
Georgie went to Africa, and China, and learned the twenty ways to whistle for dogs to understand you, and Father's balloon body shook every time he laughed. The only sadness was Cook, who left in the night, but Cook did not seem sad about that in the slightest.
The wind changed a week later.
"You can't go, Mary Poppins!" said Georgie, tears falling down his face as they'd never fallen before. "You are the best nanny in the world!"
"Yes, I am," said Mary Poppins. "But it would be terribly selfish for you to keep me all to myself. There are many other children in the world, George, and they need nannies."
"But won't you come back!" The sobs were shaking his chest apart.
She sighed, and then she drew him against her bosom. Flower-scents overtook him, and his eyes fixed on a single chestnut curl free from her bun. "I promise you will see me again someday, George Banks."
Then she kissed his head.
Something funny happened to Georgie. He remembered everything about the past week, the book that could be anything, the trips Mary Poppins swore never happened, the … The. He blinked.
There was a woman walking away from him with a carpet bag in one hand, and an umbrella in the other. She turned over her shoulder and gave him a sad smile that made Georgie think of his Mummy, and made him think he ought to run up to Father and give him a hug around his great belly.
The woman looked so familiar.
But for the life of him, Georgie couldn't think why.